Out with the Old

The day began as all Saturdays do: a conversation with Babcia via Skype. The Boy took to showing Babcia several cars, explaining their significance in halting Polish. Babcia speaks no English, and the Boy speaks no Russian, so he has to use Polish if he’s going to speak with Babcia, which he is really motivated to do. It’s a good way, then, to get him using the language.

I spent the morning working on class materials. I’ve decided to use Quizet to hit vocabulary really hard in the second semester to make up for negligence in the first quarter. I’ve always struggled teaching vocabulary, but I’ve discovered a few online tools sure to make my students’ life more interesting.

In the afternoon, we finally got to work on the new trampoline. The first step was to take the old one down. The plan was originally to try to pass it on to someone else via Craigslist: “Free trampoline! All you have to do is come and disassemble it and get it out of your yard!” But I saw how that would end up: it would sit there forever, looking stupid — two trampolines in the backyard = a decidedly redneck feel. So I borrowed our neighbors’ truck, and the Boy and I ripped the thing apart and hauled it to the dump. He was terribly excited at the prospect of throwing so many pieces of metal into the huge dumpsters at the local dump station, and he was just as frustrated to realize that we wouldn’t be tossing them down into the dumpster below us but up into the dumpster. Still, he tossed a few pieces out of the truck with loud clattering, attention-grabbing style.

Once it was gone, the backyard looked so huge. The fence we had installed for Clover closed everything in quite a bit, and there was a moment when I thought about the time years from now when we’ll finally get rid of the trampoline because the kids are too big for it or not interested in it or — gulp — gone, and I smiled at the thought, but only briefly. Who wants to wish away one’s life for such a silly thing?

The kids came down to help out with the assembly of the new trampoline, which took a lot longer than I really anticipated. We all pulled together, though, and got it done more or less as a family. K was in the house, cleaning and cooking most of the the time, but she came down from time to time to check on our progress, help us out with getting the net up, and take some pictures.

And play with the dog a bit. Which, truth be told, was its own form of help: Clover can be really needy when we’re outside but not playing with her. She wants attention. She craves attention. And when the Girl and I were fighting with the springs and canvas, figuring out how exactly the next support system worked, and keeping the Boy from wondering off with pieces and parts, a worrisome dog was just that.

We finaly got it all together and the expected happened: it began raining.

Still, a great day overall.

First Day Out

It’s been cold here lately — ridiculously cold for South Carolina. The majority of the nights over the last ten days have been below freezing, which is something here; a substantial number (a majority of that majority?) have been below 20 degrees. In Poland, nothing out of the ordinary; K and I are used to such things. Here? It’s ridiculously cold.

Add to it the tragic fact that we’ve all taken turns getting sick over that same period of time and it’s obvious why no one has done much of anything outside these last few days. The dog is the only exception: she doesn’t really care. The rest of us have done our best to stay warm.

So when we all were home and it was 59 degrees this afternoon, there was only one thing to do.

The Boy and the Girl were happy to jump on the trampoline again. The new trampoline, which should actually have some bounce to it, is still in parts on the basement floor.

“Let’s wait until it warms up,” K encouraged. That was Christmas. It’s still on the floor.

“Daddy! Today it’s warmed up! Can you work on the trampoline?” was the refrain from both the kids, but I was too busy laughing with K as she jumped out of the swing like a teenager.

The dog was thrilled to have someone to play with her again. She’s really such a gregarious dog. She’ll play outside by herself for a while, but she’s always happy to have a companion. And don’t even think about doing something outside the newly fenced area: she’ll stand at the fence and whimper like she’s being abused.

Counting Costs

How much does it cost to have a puppy? There are the upfront costs — the puppy itself, shots, sterilization, etc. There are the hidden costs — a new fence, multiple harnesses to find the right one, etc. Then there are the destructive costs — shoes chewed, furniture chewed, etc. We’ve been lucky in the latter, perhaps because we’ve been unlucky in the former two. We’ve managed to keep Clover from destroying much of anything of value. She’s learned more or less to ignore shoes. More or less. She went through a gnawing on furniture legs phase, but that seems to have passed as well. However, there’s a chair in the living room that she enjoys chewing the bottom of, which probably won’t make it through her puppyhood.

So I guess we should be thankful…

(A random thought to keep my post-every-day-for-a-month goal going even though I’m not 100% and slept most of the day…)

Playing in the Leaves

It was a job the Boy wanted to do from yesterday morning.

“Now can we rake leaves?” he kept asking.

“No, first we’re putting up Christmas lights.”

He wandered off to play with a neighbor, to have a break inside, to ride his bike, but he came back occasionally to help out.

“Now are we going to rake leaves?” he asked after I finished with the last lights.

“No, now I have to mow.”


Indeed. It’s December. Why should I be mowing now? That’s the reality of living in the south. I’ll likely mow again before Christmas. The primary motivation was to take care of the leaves, but the grass was looking a bit unkept as well.

“Now are we going to rake leaves?”

“No, now we’re going to Nana’s and Papa’s to help with their Christmas decorations and to have dinner.”

So when we got back from Mass just after noon today, we started raking and blowing the leaves. After Scouts today, we finished up.

The Girl joined us, because what was the end goal of it all? Simple: a pile of leaves to play in.


The tomatoes are really starting to take off just before we do. Blossoms everywhere. Pin-size to golf-ball-size green tomatoes here and there. This year, I’m doing the opposite of last year when I simply let them be. This year, I’m pruning, pruning, pruning. The manager of a local university’s sustainable organic gardening program told me I could do two things to get bigger, juicer tomatoes: snip the suckers mercilessly (which I’ve not been as successful with as I would like), and snip the stems so that they only have the first to leaves remaining. The former I’d heard of; the latter was new to me. He explained it this way: “Either you can have your vine spending substantial energy and nutrition growing stems and leaves, or you can have the putting that into the fruit.” He assured me that each stem only needs two, maybe three leaves. And so our vines look a little different this year.

Especially when the late sun hits them just right. (And of course Lightroom hits them just right.)

Two Concerts

The Girl sang in her school’s talent show this morning. She sang “Dziś idę walczyć, Mamo!” which is a song about the Warsaw Uprising. She’s been practicing it for weeks. I’ve found myself humming it as I walk down the corridor at school. E sings snippets of it every now and then. K sings it as she’s working around the house. It’s infected our whole family, but what a wonderful infection.

After dinner, we got another concert, a performance of a music that’s thousands and thousands of years old, a music that both calms and excites.

The owls have nested in our neighbors’ backyard, and they came down for a visit today. The would sing and hoot, caterwaul and even almost purr. It was hypnotic.


Saturday of Work

In a lot of ways, today seemed like a typical May Saturday. Coffee, eggs, a chat with Babcia. The morning sun made the backyard glow. It all appeared typical.

But the weather — it’s Polish summer here. Today I don’t know that we ever broke into the sixties, and if we did, it was just barely. Add to it the chance of afternoon rain, and given one of my major chores of the day, the day scheduled itself. Morning work had to be the mowing.


As I was cutting the edges before transitioning to the long, almost hypnotic straight lines, a bit of motion in the deep grass caught my eye: a fledgling was hunkered down in a patch of tall grass. I cycled back and forth, nearing the bird, and I noticed that mother was near, flying in when I was away, taking off again as I approached. I knew I’d have to move the bird, and I worried a bit about how that might impact the situation. Since I always wear gloves when mowing, thanks to eczema, I didn’t fear the old thought of transferring my scent to the bird and somehow making its mother reject it. I’m not even sure if that happens. I was just wondering whether the mother would find it if I moved it too far.

First I it near one of the round planters in the yard, but I knew I’d have to move it again when I neared the end of mowing. The second time, I moved it over to the corner of the house, to a patch of grass that I never manage to cut because I don’t have a working weed wacker. Each time, mother bird had no problem finding the baby.

Yet I knew it was doomed. The second time I relocated the baby, it fluttered out of my glove and plopped straight down: no chance of it flying back to its nest. And with two cats in the yard, I knew it was only a matter of time before one of them made a natural discovery. “Wouldn’t it just be better to put it out of it’s future misery?” I wondered. Yet how could I do it? I could think of no quick and painless, and besides, who was I to say that it didn’t stand a chance of survival.

Thankfully, the Girl was away at an amusement park with her school chorus. Had she been there, I would have had to fend her off and deal with her eventual frustrated sadness when I would have tried to convince her that, no, we couldn’t take it into the house and try to raise it ourselves. That would be a sure death sentence.

When I walked back to empty the grass catcher, though, I saw that the chick had disappeared. Where it had gone remained a mystery for the rest of the day. Mother bird still fluttered around here and there, but I couldn’t figure out where the bird was.

And as I type this, I find myself wondering if mother bird has nestled up to the chick for the night to protect it and comfort it. And I’m glad I’m not a bird parent facing that impossible situation.

Working Saturday

So much to do on a Saturday. Backyard to mow, soil to “till” by hand with a shovel and rake,

grass to plant, floors to clean, lunch to prepare, flowers to plant,

wood to cut, shopping to complete, wings to season, cabbage to prepare,

fires to build, dinner to cook, children to clean, movie to watch, wine to drink,

photos to process, and post to write.

Back to School

I’ve had enough experience teaching now to realize that my worries about returning to school after spring break — potential laziness, potential mutiny, potential problems of every sort — are almost always unfounded. The first week back is almost always painless. But it’s busy, getting used to the schedule again.

This week was the last week before testing. Our school has decided to do the state-mandated testing a little differently this year, and I applaud the decision. Instead of having a week of eighth-grade testing, where we test day after day after day (math, then English, then science, then social studies), followed by a week of seventh-grade testing and a third week of sixth-grade testing (divided by grade because we still don’t have enough Chromebooks for the whole school to test at the same time), we’re testing one day a week for four weeks. Next week we begin, and once those four weeks of testing are over, the school year is almost over. Perhaps that’s what makes the transition from spring break always a bit easier: we all know we have that final push until the big break.

After talking to Babcia

It’s also the time of year that students who are at risk of failing a given class — students who throughout the whole year have usually done very little other than disrupt class — decide they might want to try to do something to save themselves. There’s always one or two who don’t, and they usually move on the ninth grade anyway through this or that administrative and summer school magic. I’m not putting down our school: it’s a phenomenon that occurs throughout the country, I suspect. But I do have mixed feelings about it.

Morning snack

On the one hand, what will keeping these students back accomplish? It’s not like they’re going to behave any differently if they repeat. Because our district — perhaps state? never cared enough to check into it — has a policy that a child cannot fail two years, they’re just going to get pushed on, and if they have already been held back, they know they can’t be held back again, which probably prompts a lot of the apathetic behavior. (Students have told me, “I’ve already failed one grade: you can’t hold me back again.”)

Getting things in the ground

On the other hand, isn’t this just teaching them a wonderful lesson for the future? “I can do nothing and still succeed!” What happens to them when they get to high school and the rules change? I’ve told several students over the years, “When you get to high school and fail freshman English, they don’t say, ‘Well, he was close. Let’s give it to him.’ They say, ‘Try again.’ And if it looks like you’re going to fail a second time, they don’t say, ‘Well, he’s already failed once. Let’s move him on.’ They say, ‘Nope. Try a third time.'” And by then, they’re old enough to drop out, and they do. What happens to them when they try to keep a job with that kind of thinking? In short, they don’t. They can’t.

Proof that it’s shaping up to be a good day

So this is the time of year all of this swirls through my head, and I find myself thinking about my own responsibilities. It’s much easier for me, regarding paperwork and the like, just to move the kid on as well. It’s much easier for me to make my class almost impossible to fail. I think to myself, “They’re still kids: they’ll grow out of it.” But I look around at some millennial young adults and find myself thinking, “Well, maybe not.”

It’s also the time when thoughts and plans for summer are solidifying. This time last year I was getting a little nervous about the huge project that was looming on the horizon. I didn’t know what all was behind the walls, what all awaited us. And now I know what’s behind the walls because I put it there, and the only thing that awaits us in the kitchen is a bright, open space now.

But plans are just that, and now it’s time to get planting, get mowing, get weeding — all the joys of spring that just leave you exhausted but strangely satisfied.

And time to play guitar with your neighbor.

Spring Saturday

Spring Saturdays have their own rhythm for years now. Almost all Saturdays begin with an eight o’clock Skype chat with Babcia. They talk about family, friends, recent events, changes in our life, changes in her life — the little changes that can accumulate in a week or that pile up unmentioned for weeks. The only thing that’s changed is the instrument. At first, it was downstairs on the main computer. After a few years of that, it shifted upstairs to the laptop in the kitchen. These days it’s via K’s cell phone.

The Boy and I head out after breakfast. We’re building a small fence to hide a now-visible, now-empty area that was once held our buggy gas pack air system hidden by Leyland cypresses. Like always, the Boy wants to help, and like always, it’s less help than one might really want in order to call it help. Instead, I think of it as helping him — helping him grow, helping him learn the value of work, helping he learn how to use tools properly. I show him how to use the square and he’s off, scoring lines all over the four-by-four that will eventually be the final two posts of our fence.

Next, it’s time to dig the holes for the posts. Here, patience is the key. I take a shovelful of dirt out, and he follows suit with his little blue shovel. But here’s the thing: he has to have a shovelful that suits him. A dab of dirt at the tip is not acceptable, so he tries again and again, frustrated as the dirt slides off the end as he tries to pull the shovel out of the growing hole. Or later, he starts kicking dirt back into the hole.

But shortly after, he’s genuinely helpful: he holds the post for me to get some measurements and check alignment. He helps shovel the concrete around the posts and smooths it once it’s in. Of course, in between, there’s time to play.

And once it’s done and the other chores are behind us, we head down to the swing and hammock for some early-evening silliness.

It’s like so many other spring Saturdays. And ritual is always comforting.

Spring Saturday

Spring Saturday

Saturday Ritual

Falling Down

There are two trees in the back corner of our lot that worry me. One worries me as a cause of a potential problem; the other is the potential problem. They’re both tulip poplars, with one having a diameter of at least five feet. The smaller of the two has succumbed to some kind of disease or infestation or both. It’s been dying for a couple of years. The bark has just about completely fallen off, and the base of it is beginning to rot. It will fall of its own accord within another year or so, but I’m worried that the enormous tulip poplar next to it — the biggest tree by far that we have in our hard — will develop the same problem. If the sick tree falls, it won’t be a big problem, especially now that the top third of it fell this week, leading to a change of Saturday plans and extensive use of the chain saw. Falling of its own accord is not always an option, though: the large tree if it were to fall, would cause some major damage. It might take out a power line that runs behind the house, and it’s tall enough that it could even damage a house behind us.

Besides the fact that I’m not really what the financial ramifications might be for a tree falling on someone else’s property (from my rough research, we might be held responsible if it was a question of negligence, which would be more of what we’re doing about it now: nothing), there’s the simple fact that I love that tree. It must be at least two hundred years old, possible older, and so it’s a history lesson right in our own backyard. It was around when Lee surrendered at the Appomattox Court House. It was a large tree when Somme Offensive became the largest killing field in history to that point. In a country of new things, I value the old.

But falling down is a part of life.

As a Catholic, falling down has a spiritual, metaphysical sense to it: it requires a visit to the confessional. Like with the tree, there can be collateral damage when I fall down. A lie might tell someone could have far-reaching repercussions. The angry word spoken in spite might damage more than the moment. That’s what this Lenten season is all about — thinking about that collateral damage that accompanies sin no matter how we try to compartmentalize it. Our parish priest began a Lenten homily series on the nature of sin, and the communal nature of sin is a key Catholic teaching. We are responsible for our own actions, of course, but we always seem to rise and fall together.

As a parent, falling down is something my kids just have to do. They have to learn how to fall, how to absorb the impact without breaking bones or, later, hearts. More importantly, they have to learn how to get back up. That’s a lesson many of us never learn, I’m afraid. L has learned how to take a tumble and hop back up, or perhaps even laugh about it.

The Boy is slowly learning the same. Sometimes he’ll fall with a thump and hesitate for a moment before hopping up and proclaiming, “I’m okay!”

With L finishing up fourth grade, though, K and I have begun thinking about the simple fact that we’ll soon have to start thinking about considering middle school. (We’re masters of procrastinating at times.) That will begin a whole new cycle of learning: the broken heart. I don’t necessarily mean crushes that turn sour, though that too is in the back of the mind. I simply mean the cruelty with which teenagers can treat each other: the cutting comments, the fair-weather friends, the peer pressure, and all the sundry stresses of teen life.

But for now, sometimes it’s probably best not to fall down but just let yourself down, gently, and enjoy a lazy Sunday afternoon. Those worries will wait. For a while.