Vacation - the sequel

Our dock on lake Tahoe
After driving home from Tucson, I was understandably very tired and not really looking forward to the Tahoe vacation I had planned with the girls for the week after we got home.  They wanted to drive out at 9 pm Tuesday night, which would mean a 1 am arrival in Tahoe, and just the thought of it made my head ache.  I guess I'm getting old.  But, since I had agreed to this trip months ago, I decided to "take one for the team" and follow their plans.  I'm glad I did, because it wound up being a very relaxing and fun getaway.

In all my 25 years of living in California, I had never really been to Tahoe before.  Sure, I'd gone up for a day-trip to a ski resort, and visited briefly for my mom's wedding, but on those trips I had not actually seen Lake Tahoe, nor had I gotten a good feel for what Tahoe was like.  That all changed after this mini-break.  The plan was for us to stay at a lake house being rented by Jaime's step-dad, Bob.  We all pictured a rustic dwelling and planned accordingly.  I brought pillows and even a roll of eco-friendly toilet paper.  As we got closer to the property, it began to look as if the house wouldn't be as rustic as we had assumed.  We pulled into the driveway of a modest, wooden dwelling in front of which Bob was waiting for us.  It was dark, so I couldn't see much of the house, but it looked serviceable enough.  And I could rough it for a few days, no big deal. 

It turned out that the dwelling I was looking at was actually just the garage.  As we walked into the house, it quickly became apparent that the eco-friendly toilet paper I brought would not be needed.  Simply put, the house was HUGE.  The kitchen itself was as big as my entire living room and the back wall was made up entirely of windows overlooking the lake.  The main living room was dominated by a stone fireplace two-stories high and it was off of this room that my bedroom was located.  I got my own private room, complete with a sitting area and bathroom.  James got her own room with bathroom and deck overlooking the lake, and Mel and Am shared a room downstairs which had their own private living room, bathroom and pool table.  We all looked around the place in slack-jawed amazement.  Once Bob left us alone, Jaime and I squealed like little girls, jumping up and down in excitement over our rooms.  Mel and Am kept saying how this was insane, and the four of us decided that we could easily just spend our entire break holed up in the house.  
The view of our house from the dock
 But of course, that was not what we came to Tahoe for, so we compromised.  Our mornings were spent lazing around the house, having breakfast at one of the tables located on the property and looking out at the lake.  During the afternoon, we would do an activity exploring Tahoe.  The first day, it was a hike to Vikingsholm, a Scandanavian-inspired property on Emerald Bay.  The trail seemed easy enough, but the views of the beach soon lured us off the trail and down to the shore.  We had lunch near a group of rocks and were befriended by a very bold chipmunk who actually caught in his hands a squishy grape that James threw away.  This chipmunk was skilled.  After lunch, we attempted to find our way back to the trail, without success - we were lost.  Fortunately, we could follow the shoreline all the way to Vikingsholm.  Unfortunately, the shoreline was littered with fallen trees that we had to clamber over, and a plant rehabilitation area which we unknowingly stomped through.   Felling like very bad humans, we eventually make it to our destination, enjoyed the beauty of the area, and then correctly followed the trail back to our car.  That night we were a bit exhausted from the exertions of the day, so we had dinner in and watched "Footloose' on the big-screen TV before heading to bed.

James, Mel, Am and I with our bikes
On our second day in Tahoe we rented bikes and rode around the lake.  It was beautiful and on bike we were able to explore areas we could not get to by car.  That night we headed to a casino where we watched "Artie" (Party with Artie) perform dance hits to a group of drunken girls at a bachelorette party.  There was also this Swedish girl who kept walking around the dance floor with one arm raised high (as if she were saluting the casino) and the other hand holding a glass of wine.  It was very strange and Artie seemed to be enjoying the show on the dance floor as much as we were. 

The next day, Friday, was our last day in Tahoe.  After a morning breakfast, enjoying the view of our dock and the blue waters beyond, we packed up and headed into town to see "Eat, Pray, Love" (which I didn't really like, BTW.   Despite her year-long search for enlightenment, it seemed to me that Liz learned NOTHING and was was as self-absorbed in the end as she was at the beginning of the story.  I didn't read the book though, so maybe I missed something).  The movie was followed by an excellent dinner - we had nothing but great food in Tahoe - and the long drive home.  Even though I wasn't looking forward to this trip so close on the heels of our Tucson vacation, I'm glad I went.  It was a great time out with the girls and gave us all the chance to relax and explore without the normal distractions of a vacation with the kids.  I definitely plan to go back, next time with Jeff and the kids, to share some of the adventures I had with the girls.  I suppose our lodging will be a bit more rustic the next time around though.  :)
Me, James and Mel on our deck

Vacation, Part I

I'm back.  Did you miss me?  I've been gone for much of the month, and it feels nice to be home, settled back into our normal routines.  I did have a couple of great vacations though, the first of which was a road trip to Arizona with the family.

We left early on July 30th and drove all day to Tucson, Arizona - my home town.  It was a 13-hour drive, but the kids did great.  It's amazing how much a portable DVD player can reduce the "are we there yet?" nonsense.  We arrived in Tucson around 8pm, and met up with my mom and Ed at their time-share resort in the foothills.  It is a beautiful place, and if you can ignore the solpugids that wander into your room, it's quite relaxing.

Gila Woodpecker on an ocotillo
We spent many of our mornings sitting on the porch, watching the local wildlife, which was made up mostly of birds.  We were fortunate in that the first few days were cooler due to recent monsoon storms, and there were plenty of birds out.  A covey of quail visited our porch daily, a mother cardinal fed her baby in a nearby Palo Verde, and Morning Doves, cactus wrens and Gila Woodpeckers perched on the ocotillo and saguaros out back.  There were also occasional cottontails, trying to blend in with the desert sand, numerous lizards, and during the nighttime, a herd of javelinas that visited the grounds around our room.  Vika and Eamon had a great time exploring the Sonoran Desert and trying to lure in animals for a pet or two.

Family at Midway Molina's
While watching desert wildlife was a huge part of our trip, the reason we went down to Tucson was family.  Our second night in town we had dinner with the cousins at Midway Molina's - a truly great Mexican restaurant with the best cheese crisps in the world.  We caught up on each others' lives, met new family members and remembered my great aunt Mary, who passed away in June.  This was the first time that Vika and Eamon had met many of the family members, and fortunately, they made a good impression.  It is a bit sad to see how the Arizona family has changed though.  It seems that all we have left now are cousins because the older generation has all passed on, and others (including us) have moved away.  The family I grew up with simply no longer exists.  But the new family that is evolving in its place is pretty cool too, and hopefully Vika and Eamon will grow up with fond memories of them.

Old friends catching up
In Tucson, I also had the opportunity to visit my oldest friend, Kathy.  She and I have been friends since the age of 5, and much of my childhood was spent at her house.  Through Facebook, I have reconnected with other childhood friends as well, one of whom was Howard, a boy I played soccer with and who was a good friend to both me and my brother Joe.  Howard goes by Jason now (I think Howard was his middle name), but despite the name change and goatee, he looks exactly the same!  It was strange and cool to see him after 25 years.  He, Kathy and I met up at a local park and chatted about our lives now and old times while Jeff and the kids played.  Vika and Eamon loved Kathy's dog, Dookie, even though her enthusiasm sometimes resulted in them being dragged around the park.  They also liked meeting these friends from my past, and we all had a fun afternoon together.

Me, my sisters, mom and Eamon
The highlight of the trip was having dinner with my sisters and their families.  What?  You didn't know I had sisters?  Well, neither did my kids.  Basically, I have three half-sisters from my dad's first marriage.  I didn't really meet them until after my mom and dad split up, but once they got divorced, my sisters were over all the time.  In fact, they kind of adopted my mom as a member of their family.  Sadly, after my mom married her second husband and we moved to California, we didn't see the girls as often and drifted further apart.  In fact, it has been 6 years since I saw them last, and they had not yet met Vika and Eamon, so this reunion was one we were all looking forward too.  And it was a great time!  We met up with two of my sisters, Kelly and Traci, at Kelly's house out in Marana.  She lives on 5 acres, seemingly in the middle of nowhere, and has a bunch of dogs and two horses.  When Vika saw them, her eyes grew wide and she could hardly contain her joy.  She loves horses, but has never before been near a real one.  Eamon was very excited too, and before you knew it, Kelly and her husband Jake had the kids mounted up on horseback and were leading them around the property.  Both kids were in heaven, and I took about a thousand pictures during their 45-minute ride.  During this time, my nephew Andy (who is in his 20's and a firefighter) taught Jeff how to use a lasso, and he later gave Eamon some lessons as well.  After the ride, the kids fed the horses and we all went inside.

Vika pretending to go for a ride
All of us except Eamon and Jake, that is.  Jake has a golf cart which he drives around his property, and after taking Eamon for a spin in the vehicle, he got out from behind the wheel and said, "You want to try driving this thing?"  Naturally, Eamon shrilled an excited "YES!" and the driving lessons began.  I was too nervous to watch, so I went inside, crossed my fingers and hoped for the best.  Eamon came back a while later, safe and sound, and bubbling over with the thrill of driving his first car.  Vika was slightly jealous, but was soon distracted by the many Chihuahuas around the property.  Kelly does Chihuahua rescue and Vika connected to one dog in particular, a blue teacup named Willie.  I actually fell for this dog too and wanted to smuggle him home in my purse, but Kelly kept too sharp an eye on him.  Dang it.

The best thing about this night with my sisters, and the whole trip to Tucson really, was the relaxed feeling of not needing to be anything other than who you are.  My kids were able to play around and be noisy children, and I didn't need to worry about them getting in the way or offending anybody.  Things are a bit slower down there then they are in the Bay Area, and since were were on vacation, we had no major schedule to stick too.  It was as if I could truly take a deep breath and relax.  What a wonderful feeling.  The day-trips to Mission San Xavier and Mt. Lemmon, an evening at Trail Dust Town (complete with Western stunt show and dinner at my favorite restaurant, Pinnacle Peak), and the discovery of Ethiopian food (who knew they had such a great African restaurant in Tucson?), all made the trip a memorable one.

Family at Pinnacle Peak for dinner

In front of Mission San Xavier del Bac

Excellent Feedback

Thank you all for the great comments on my last post.  Some of you e-mailed me privately as well, which was very helpful.  Seriously readers, you RULE.

So far, the Midwest seems to have garnered the most positive comments.  There are many aspects of the Midwest that I find appealing, such as the sense of community, nice outdoor recreation areas, and four actual seasons.  Plus, I would be closer to my Uncle Tony and his family (who live near Chicago).  The Midwest winters do concern me a bit though.  I'm an Arizona girl who has lived most of her life in California - hence, my blood is pretty thin.  Put me in 95 degree weather, and I'm fine.  But 10 degrees?  Or a temperature somewhere in the negative range?  Well, it just makes me wonder how one goes about without their eyeballs freezing over (that can't really happen, can it?).  However, I did survive winter in the northernmost city of Russia, and I actually even enjoyed it.  So maybe the winters would be tolerable, especially when weighed against the benefits of living in the Midwest.

I've also received some positive comments about Texas, Massachusetts, New York and New Jersey.  I must admit that the idea of living within an hour of New York City is a huge lure for me.  I've wanted to live in or near NYC since I was about 10 years old.  I love the energy of the city and the tremendous pride it's citizens take in being New Yorkers.  But I'm not sure if the East Coast would be more of the same over-scheduled, stressed out families that we have here.

I'm also not sure if it would be too hard to move away from the family and friends I have living in the Bay Area.  It is great having my mom and brother so close by and being able to get together for family functions.  If only we could all live near each other in a more community-oriented town with better schools.  *sigh*  There is definitely a lot to think about.   Hopefully we'll get everything figured out by the time we are ready to sell our house. 

Feeling Restless

I've always had a bit of a wandering spirit, but lately, my need to be somewhere else has become nearly all-consuming.  We've lived in our current house for 11 years now.  It was supposed to be our "starter home" where we would live for 5 years or so and then upgrade to a larger house.  That was the plan, but life kind of got in the way.  With the expenses related to adopting and career changes for both Jeff and myself, it seems that we've been in "survival mode" for the last 5 years.  I'm ready to move on.

Our hometown is not what it was when I moved here nearly 25 years ago.  The population has changed so much, and many of the people I went to school with have moved away.  Our neighborhood has become increasingly transient, with families moving to the area so their kids can attend the elementary school (a California Distinguished School), and then moving away when their kids hit 6th grade.  At that time, they relocate to the area where my high school is.  While it was a decent school when I attended in the early 90's, it is now one of the top 50 high schools in the nation, and families flock to the homes surrounding it, even if they cost $900K for a 4 bedroom fixer-upper.

The result of all this moving around and total focus on academics is a community that is highly fractured.  The students at Vika and Eamon's school aren't really the type to hang out and play after school.  So many of them do homework (and extra homework provided by their parents) before attending piano lessons or badminton practice.  They are over-scheduled and in many cases secluded from simple childhood pleasures.  One day after Spring Break Vika told me how she mentioned to a friend that she and Eamon had climbed trees and gone puddle jumping during their vacation, and her friend had no idea what she was talking about.  She was not allowed to climb trees or jump in puddles, and had never even been on a picnic!  Eamon said no one else in his class had ever climbed a tree either.  It made me kind of sad.  When I asked what their friends did for fun, both Vika and Eamon said they played video games in their room. 

It's also quite depressing in our neighborhood during the holidays.  On Halloween, we drive to my mom's neighborhood, the next town over, so that Vika and Eamon can experience Trick-or-Treating.  When we used to stay here, all the neighbors' lights were out and only one or two groups of teenagers would stop by for candy.  During Christmas, only 2 or 3 houses on our street are decorated with lights.  I realize a lot of this is due to the fact that many of our neighbors are recent immigrants from Asia and the Middle East.  They don't celebrate the same holidays that we do.  Unfortunately, since most of the families plan on moving away when their kids enter Jr. High, they don't really invest any time in the community either. 

Adding to this lack of neighborly feeling is the daily irritation provided by our next-door-neighbors.  To the right we have the incessant-honking-car-alarm-family, who nearly burned their house down but refused to call the fire department for help.  To the left we have Pat, one of the few neighbors who has been here longer than us.  She lives with her daughter, Andrea, and Andrea's kids Alyssa and Evan.  Andrea had Alyssa when she was 15 and has been in jail numerous times for drug and theft convictions.  In fact, Evan was born during her last stay in jail - he's now 5 years old.  Despite all this, Pat and Andrea are actually nice people, and I know that they would help out our family if ever we needed it.  About 6 years ago, when Andrea was still on drugs and had all kinds of strange people hanging around the house, I heard her tell this rough looking guy who was staring me down to "Stop it.  They're good to Alyssa.  They're alright."  And we've never had a problem with any of her friends.  However, now Alyssa is 17 and beginning to repeat her mother's mistakes.  She has all kinds of sketchy-looking people hanging out in the garage at all hours of the day and night, smoking pot and drinking beer.  Among other things, I'm sure.  Every night between midnight and 3:30 am, there is yelling in front of the house, and the front door slams constantly.  We've talked to Pat and Andrea about it, and the homeowner's association has received other complaints as well.  But nothing really changes.  So we need to change.  It's time to really make moving someplace new a priority.

California is kind of in the toilet, unfortunately.  And honestly, even though I've lived here for 25 years, I've never really felt that this is my home.  The fact that my teaching job is cut every year and the public school situation is so unstable makes California even less desirable.  So Jeff and I are looking to possibly move out of the state, hopefully in the next couple of years.  Someplace where the education system is good and housing prices are more reasonable.  We are still considering international teaching, but since I don't have a job for next year, I'm not sure if I will be as marketable a candidate for any open positions.  We are also seriously looking at the East Coast and parts of the Midwest.  It would be a huge change from California, and we would miss our family and friends, but it could be just the kind of change we need. 

Does anyone have any suggestions for areas that are family-friendly, with good schools and a nice sense of community?  Places where you can see fireworks and maybe even a parade on the 4th of July? Communities where people know their neighbors and occasionally even lend them a cup of sugar?  Please, any input is welcome!

Happy Birthday Dear Vika

Dear Vika,

Today you turn nine years old.  This birthday officially marks your entry into tweenhood (God help us).  But those of us who know you personally know that you've been a pre-teen since the age of 4!  Don’t worry.  We all think your mature attitude is part of your charm.  When it’s not driving us crazy.  

Anyway, I know you wanted a pair of high-heels for your birthday, and I almost bought them for you.   Really, I did.  But then I thought about how fast you’re growing up, and how you used your allowance to buy that extremely bright red lipstick and pale blue eye-shadow, and I decided against it.  I just wanted to put off your years of dressing inappropriately a little while longer.  I’m sure you’ll make me pay for this when you’re a teenager, but for now I am relishing the fact that you still defer to my judgment on the matter of clothing and shoes.  However for you, I may wear my new pair of stilettos and dress like a girl for your birthday dinner outing.  You’ll just need to give me a few more lessons on how to walk properly in heels first.  It must be that Russian glamour gene, because you’ve been an expert at walking in high heels since toddler-hood.  You’d even give Suri Cruise a run for her money!

It’s been fun watching you grow from preschool age to preteen.  You’ve changed in so many ways, but some parts of you are still quintessentially Vika.  The way you purse your bottom lip when you are displeased about something.  The graceful way you move your hands when talking (not at all in the frantic Italian way of my family), and the superior look you lay on us when making a point you just know you are right about.  You can be stubborn as a mule, and your selective-hearing is maddening.  But you also have a generous heart and are the first one to think of making a card for someone to brighten their day.  You’re a born nurturer, taking care of your toddler cousin with patience and gentleness, even when he’s cranky.  Yet if your brother so much as looks at you, your hackles go up and you loudly tell him to “STOP!”  A study in contradictions - that’s our girl. 

Despite the tiny hole left in your heart by the loss of your Russian family, you are filled with love and embrace your relationships with family and friends.  It’s been a bit of a rough ride, and I know that sometimes you still feel insecure about your place in the world.  But these moments of sadness pass quickly and you pick yourself up, ready to face the next challenge.  You truly enjoy experiencing new things in life.  Your earlier trouble with reading is all but forgotten as you speed through books written for kids older than you.  It amuses me to see you reading encyclopedias as well – this is something I did as a child, and Babushka often teased me for it.  Perhaps you could bring an encyclopedia to her house to read next time you’re over there?  It would be nice for her to see that I’ve “passed the torch,” so to speak.    

Even though you think you’re really cool, we see evidence of your dorkiness on a daily basis.  When you look at us with those big brown eyes, mouth clamped shut and eyebrows raised to your hairline, dancing some crazy jig, the illusion of coolness flies right out the window.  But actually, the way you relish your dorkiness almost makes you cooler.  You probably won’t believe me about this until you’re 25, but it’s true.  I hope you always stay comfortable in your own skin.

You’ve got years head of you to figure that all out though.  For now, I am going to enjoy this time when you still think Mama and Papa are the holders of infinite wisdom and that time with us is the ultimate reward.   Because time with you is pretty rewarding for us too. 

Happy birthday, kiddo.  Here’s to your best year yet.

Shaggy Do

The boy won't let me cut his hair.  Every time I say, "Eamon, how about we give you a little trim?" he replies, "No thanks.  I kinda like my hair like this."

He thinks it makes him look like a Jedi. 

I think perhaps I should catch him during one of his sleepwalking episodes and cut his hair then.   What do you think?

School's Out For Summer!

School's been out for a week now, and today is the first day I've been able to really relax.  For some asinine reason, I thought it would be a good idea to schedule 3 dental and one doctor's appointment during my first week off of school.  What was I thinking?  Well, one cavity, 2 extractions and one vaccination later, I'm finally able to have a bit of time to myself.  And it is desperately needed.

The last week of kindergarten was frantic, to say the least.  There was no wind-down.  Instead, we had an event every. single. day.  The kids seemed to enjoy it, but the parents were just as exhausted as I was!  My partner and I took our 50 kindergartners to the Monterey Bay Aquarium for a field trip to wrap up our "By the Sea" unit of study.  It was a LONG day, but a fun one.  Most of the kids' parents went along, but a few didn't.  I spent the day with my little Spanish-speaking student, Rosa.  This child spoke no English at the beginning of the year, but during the field trip, she prattled on endlessly about what she liked and what she wanted to see more of.  I was so proud of her!  She also rolled her eyes at me when I wanted to visit the Sea Dragons again (see the picture of the weedy sea dragon below- these things were COOL). It's amazing how much this child has grown in one year.  That, more than anything else, made me feel that I made a difference in kindergarten.  It was hard to say goodbye to all the kidlets, but hopefully I'll see them around in years to come as I substitute teach (or, maybe even return to my school full-time!).

Photo credit:

Which brings me to my job situation.  Unfortunately, for now, things look bleak.  I've been told by both the school district and the union that if we're lucky, they may be able to bring back up to number 25 on the re-hire list.  I am number 55.  *sigh*  It's frustrating that how well you teach and work with students and colleagues is completely irrelevant in the re-hire process.  It is all about your number on the list.  It is what it is, I guess, but I'm still annoyed by the situation.  In the meantime, I've sent my resume to a few places and am hoping to hear back from them in the coming weeks. Fingers crossed, I will get a job that still allows me to be home with the kids during school breaks.

On the home-front, things are going better now that school is out.  May and much of June were not fun, but I don't know if it's fair to blame that on the transition of school ending, or if other factors were at play.  I do know that I am partly at fault for the break-down in communication with Vika and Eamon.  I have become too comfortable using the word "no."  Sometimes I don't even really need to deny the kids whatever it is they're asking for, but because I am tired/frustrated/angry, I do.  Actually, it was another blogger, Susan, who made me aware of this (although she doesn't know it).  Oh her Facebook, she posted a picture of a sign that said "YES" with stars and happy faces all around it.  Apparently, in her house they had declared a "Day of Yes" to improve communication and cooperation.  One commenter said that when they have done similar experiments in their house, people seem to interact much more positively.  So I decided to become a "Yes Man."  When Vika asked if she could watch TV, I replied, "Sure you can!  Come down as soon as your done cleaning your room."  Eamon asked if he could eat one of his popsicles for lunch and I replied, "Yes, you can eat one after you're done with your sandwich."  It's all about giving control to the kids in a controlled way (if that makes sense).  The experiment yesterday seemed to produce far fewer arguments, so I'm going to keep trying it to see if I can train myself to take the same positive approach at home that I use with my students at school.  I may let my kids in on the experiment too, to have them become "Yes Men."  We'll see.  I'm afraid that could backfire, but maybe I'll be pleasantly surprised.

Now I'm off to watch England play Germany in the World Cup (now that the USA is out I'm not sure who too root for.  Why couldn't they put something together ion the FIRST half of the game???).