Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Christmas gifts

My goal is to be done with gifts this year (including wrapping and shipping items we are sending) before December 1st. There is enough going on in December that I don't want to be running around or spending time online trying to finalize our gifts. I am well on my way because shopping is almost done! I need to make a quick trip to the bike shop and make one gift for E, but otherwise everything has been ordered or found.

It is easy for us to keep gifts minimal since our kids are still so young and they have no expectation of receiving pile after pile of presents. But I also strongly feel that we are laying the foundation of what they can expect for future years as well: a few thoughtful gifts and lots of time spent together as a family creating memories (here's more on some of our holiday traditions).

We have been minimizing our toys extensively and we've always liked to keep it simple, so whenever I would think of a gift idea for one of them I asked myself: "Will I want to donate this in a few months?" If the answer was yes, then I crossed it off the list. Here's what we've decided on for the kids this year:

HP (will be 3.5):
  • Two wooden alphabet puzzles--one uppercase, one lowercase. He has been showing an interest in letters and likes to make them out of blocks and attempt to draw them on paper. I know he'll use the letters to stack, build, and make other creations in addition to actually working the puzzles.
  • A thick board with nails started in it wrapped with a hammer so he can pound away (supervised, obviously). He enjoys helping Neil whenever he is working on a project around the house and is fascinated by tools. He will be able to pound to his heart's content!

HP's Stocking:
  • A roll of painters' tape--he loves the stuff! He likes to wrap up toys around the house and say they are for someone's birthday and fix things that are "broken." He will love having his very own tape instead of having to ask us for it constantly. No damage to the house and hours of entertainment.
  • Toddler scissors--he likes to cut things and usually uses our scissors, but it would be safer and easier for him to have a pair his own. 
  • Dried mangoes (and maybe dates?)--a sweet treat we rarely have.
  • Toothbrush. Because he needs a new one.

E (will be 14.5 months)
  • A walker wagon we found used. She has taken a handful of steps, but is still mostly crawling. I have no doubt she'll love to put things in and out of the wagon and wheel it around the house. Bonus: HP will think it's fun, too.
  • E is big into putting things into containers and taking them back out so I am going to make her a little box like I did for HP (we have since recycled his) so she can slide dominoes into the slot. Easy, free, and fun.

E's Stocking:
  • Two snack packs and a set of metal containers. We already have one of each of these but we need more since we never have enough when it is time to pack snacks. Most of our containers are glass, which aren't ideal for toddlers at the park. Enter snack packs and metal containers--problem solved.
  • Some sort of food treat. Maybe crackers since she loves them and we don't keep them around the house?

The kids will also get a few things from aunts, uncles, and grandparents. Our family is great about giving thoughtful gifts that the kids love without going overboard. I feel so thankful for their approach--I know that presents (how many, what kind, etc.) can be a source of stress for many families and that is not the case for us.

Gift-giving among the extended family adults has become more laid back over the years. We all buy for the nieces and nephews, but not for siblings. I would write more about our plans there, but don't want to spoil the surprise before the holiday since some family members read here.

Neil and I don't generally exchange gifts. I am getting him a couple of small, useful things for his stocking, but no big present. Gift-giving isn't our love language and we are fine with it. We have been contemplating a big purchase for the family (a Vitamix!), but haven't pulled the trigger yet.

It feels so good to be nearly done with presents in November!

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Why we left Austin

Fall. Not something we had in ATX.
Austin was a wonderful first home for our family. Our situation there was good--no, great. Neil had a job doing meaningful, challenging work that made the world a better place. He liked his coworkers and his boss. He had an amazingly flexible schedule and six weeks paid parental leave! I had a great community of friends--other moms, people involved in the local food movement, a book club, neighbors. Through my work on the board of Yard to Market Cooperative and at the farmstand I was able to continue to pursue my pre-kid interests. We were finally feeling settled.

So, that begs the question: why did we leave?

I believe that I can be happy anywhere. I think there are places that are easier to be happier than others, but I do not think my location determines my happiness. I was happy in Austin. Very happy, in fact. But when Neil and I discussed where we wanted to be in five or ten years, it wasn't Austin.

Austin felt too big, too expensive, and too hot. Even so, I was willing to consider staying in Austin long term. It takes a long time and a lot of effort to find your "people" in any given place. Once I had found mine, I was loathe to give it up on the chance that we might prefer aspects of other locations better than Austin. But then Neil said, "Every day I bike home over the South Congress bridge and I think: What are we doing raising our children here?" The size, congestion, and pollution all come into sharp relief during rush hour as thousands of cars crawl along I-35.

Now, to all the lovely, wonderful Austinites out there, please do not take offense. It's not Austin, it's us. Really.

I knew Neil didn't want to stay in Austin forever, but sometimes I would joke with him that we were never going to leave. The longer you are in a place, the harder it is to uproot; it was easy to imagine a future as permanent Austin residents. I was coming around, but Neil bristled at the idea. He said he didn't want to wake up in the future wondering why we were still there. If we didn't want to be in Austin in five or ten years, then we needed to do something about it now.

Once we made the decision, we started looking for opportunities elsewhere. If Austin wasn't our forever place, I wanted to find that place and put down roots while the kids were still young. Leaving good people and making new friends as an adult is not easy. I had a "rip off the bandaid approach" and figured it was going to be hard no matter when it happened, so we should just get on with it.

I grew up in a college town and have always been partial to the idea of raising my family in one. They are generally progressive for cities of their size and offer many of the amenities of a larger city in a smaller package. When a job opportunity came available in Bloomington, I was hopeful that it could be our forever place. It had so many of the things we were looking for: smaller, bike-friendly, great schools, beautiful nature, and lower cost of living. In a word: perfect.

And I have to say, so far, Bloomington has not disappointed. Almost every day I let go a deep sigh of relief and think: We made the right choice. Beautiful parks, bike trails, a thriving farmers' market, a wonderful library... I could go on and on. Every day it feels more like "home."

I am apprehensive about facing our first real winter in years, but over the moon excited about experiencing Autumn. Sweaters! Fall colors! Chilly mornings! Bring it on.

We could have stayed in Austin and been perfectly happy. We were perfectly happy. But I am glad we decided to find a place that is a better fit for our family.

Austin, you were good to us. Thank you for a memorable four years. Bloomington, we look forward to getting to know you better.

Thursday, September 17, 2015


HP started preschool last month. I have had in my head that it would be great for him to start in a part time program the fall after he turned three. In Austin I kept putting it off finding a program for him because it was so hard to find a place that met our criteria:
  1. Within two miles of our house
  2. Had a part-time option
  3. Was reasonably priced
  4. Did not radically go against our parenting ethos (read: we wanted a place with lots of free play and outdoor time and little to no emphasis on academics)
There were places that were close, but they only offered full-time slots. There were places that emphasized free play, but they cost more than our mortgage--for part time. There were places in our budget that did part-time, but they were five miles away. So. I crossed my fingers and hoped that our plans to move would work out and that there would be better options in the new location.

Luckily for us, that's exactly what happened! We found a place that only does part-time (perfect! all the kids are in the same boat!), is amazingly affordable, and emphasizes play.

HP is doing so well. There were no tears or clinging on the first day or any day thereafter. He just found something to play with and off he went. He is one of the quieter kids in the class, which is not surprising to me since he has always been more of an observer in group situations. The teachers have told me that he is "easy," "calm," "so zen," and "composed in the midst of chaos."

Preschool came at just the right time for us. Since moving here, HP's been spending most of his time with me and E since we are still in the process of meeting other families. Back in Austin, we saw friends most every weekday. HP was missing playing with kids his age, and preschool is the perfect opportunity to meet a whole slew of new friends (for him and for me!).

Another benefit: On preschool mornings I get some time to myself while E naps. The first morning I came home, I put E down, made myself a cup of coffee, and read a book in the quiet. Bliss.

It's been interesting for me to have him in an environment where I don't know exactly what goes on. Not bad, just different than what it has been up until this point. Usually he is either with me, Neil, or a relative. Preschool gives him the opportunity to regularly interact with unrelated adults and negotiate a different sets of rules and expectations. I also love that through preschool he has something that is just his, not just something he does with our family. It made me think of this post by Jennifer Dary, specifically this passage:
It reminded me of the feeling I had when my brother went to Kindergarten. I distinctly remember him talking about some of the things they did on his first day of school and realizing that my brother was going to know people and do things that I knew nothing about. Up until that point I had known his whole world... now he was going to have parts of it that were private. He was beginning to write his own story and that's how I feel when I think of Noah spending some of his days at a daycare too.
It's good for HP. It's good for me. It's good for our family. Preschool, it is so nice to have you in our lives!

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Box bike or bucket bike?

Back in the spring, we decided to buy a longtail cargo bicycle to accommodate our family of four. We have been happy with the Yuba Mundo, but since moving to Bloomington we've realized that we need to find a biking situation for the kids that will work in the colder weather. Riding a bike in the cold is okay for the rider, as you warm up quickly when you pedal. For passengers, it is a different story. Especially for passengers that are too young to know what is good for them and proceed to pull of mittens. Solution: a cargo bike with a rain cover, either a Madsen (bucket in the back) or a bakfiets (box in the front).

Image courtesy of Madsen Cycles

WorkCycles Kr8: ready-steady-cargo!
Image courtesy of WorkCycles

We were almost ready to pull the trigger on the Madsen last week, but I have been waffling. It is a major purchase and I want to make sure we are making the right choice.

Pros of the Madsen:
  • It can comfortably holds four children so we could pick up friends and bike-pool as the kids get older (most bakfiets only hold two or three).
  • Cheaper than most bakfiets.
  • It would be easier to handle the bike from the get-go. I am sure I would adjust to the handling of a bakfiets, but the steering and balance is different than a traditional bike. The Madsen would feel more familiar right away.
  • It would last longer as a child-carrying device since the kids would outgrow the bakfiets before they would outgrow the Madsen.
  • The bucket is larger than the box on the bakfiets and rated for heavier loads. It's larger cargo capacity would make it useful long after the kids were done riding in it.
Pros of the bakfiets:
  • The kids ride up front. It is easier to carry on a conversation and more fun to bike with kids in the front.
Looking at these lists it seems clear that the Madsen is the better choice: cheaper, holds more cargo, and easier to ride from the start. But the one pro of the bakfiets is the reason I haven't been able to make a decision. I really love the idea of the kids in the front.

Decisions. If anyone has any advice or opinions, I would love to hear them!

Thursday, August 27, 2015

Selling our home

All photos courtesy of Twist Tours

Neil and I just finished signing the closing documents on our house. By the time this post is live, the money will be in our account and we will no longer be homeowners. *Insert celebratory cheers!* All things considered, the sale of our house went smoothly, and we couldn't be more thankful for how things turned out.

This house was the first home we owned. It was where HP was born, learned to walk, and said his first words. We have so many good memories from our time there: walks through the neighborhood while wearing HP, exploring the creek and trail in the parkland behind our house, baths for HP in the kitchen sink before bedtime, conversations with neighbors, and snacking on our harvest from the front yard, to name a few. It was a good home to us.

We moved out of the house last summer to be in a more walkable location. This spring we decided that we would sell when our tenants' lease was up at the end of June, regardless of whether or not we were leaving Austin. Things moved faster with Neil's job search than we anticipated and we ended up with a very small window to get the house ready to sell after our tenants moved out and before we left town. We managed to list it the day after we moved to Bloomington.

The first weekend we received six offers--five above asking price. I thought it would be smooth sailing from there, but we went under contract three times before it finally sold. It all worked out for the best, as the final contract was actually the best offer we had received throughout the whole process. We were incredibly lucky with our timing for both buying and selling--we bought before the market took off in Austin and sold in a strong sellers' market.

We bought the house in the spring of 2012 and moved in just a few weeks before HP was born. To anyone considering buying a house while pregnant, I recommend not buying a fixer-upper. I am sure that is obvious to most everyone in the world, but apparently not to us. Here's the list of work we've done on the house since buying it (items in bold done by us, and by us I mostly mean Neil):

  • Removed ceilings and abated the asbestos (asbestos was in the popcorn on the ceilings and was cracking/peeling)
  • Installed new ceilings
  • Patched, cleaned, and stained concrete floors
  • Put in radiant barrier in the attic to improve energy efficiency
  • Installed new insulation in the attic
  • Installed a ridge vent on the roof
  • Installed a whole-house fan
  • Refinished the pantry with all new wood
  • Put in a garden and built compost bins 
  • Replaced a rotting window in the enclosed garage with French doors 
  • Installed a solar tube in living area
  • Remodeled the kitchen
  • Remodeled the bathroom
  • Installed new energy-efficient windows
  • Repaired the foundation
  • Replaced the back half of the roof (the front had been replaced a few years before we moved in)
  • Installed a new bamboo privacy fence
  • Refinished the bathtub
  • Repaired drywall cracks
  • New paint everywhere (ceilings, cabinets, trim, and walls)
On the one hand, I am so glad we put the work into the house. We were able to sell the house for a profit. Most of the price increase was due to appreciation (the market in Austin is bananas), but a big chunk was from the work we did. I feel fortunate that Neil is able to fix/remodel/install things for a fraction of the cost a contractor would have charged. That said, many weekends during the first two years of HP's life were spent on house projects. In retrospect, I wish we had bought something more move-in ready. I console myself with the knowledge that we made the best decision we could with the information we had at the time.

I have many thoughts about what we will look for in our next (hopefully forever) home. But for now, we are going to enjoy a few months of just being renters.