Wednesday, September 18, 2013

What's next

I am very happy to say that Tim now has orders and we now know where the next chapter of our story will take place:  about 400 miles south of here in Parris Island, SC.  The waiting game is over.  It never even really happened.  Up until a few days ago, here's where things stood:  Tim has a course called Command and Staff that he has to finish one way or another:  online, seminar, and residence are the choices he has.  For the last couple of years he's been doing the online option, but there was still a good chance he could be selected to attend a residence course in one of a few places around the country.  That would mean that we move somewhere and stay there a year.  You can tell the Marine Corps what your preference is, but in the end it's their decision.  We liked the idea of a year in Newport, RI to be in New England again, but we could have just as easily gotten Ft. Leavenworth, KS.  Blech.  But if Tim wanted to wait and see about getting school, that was fine with me.  But what I really was hoping for was a B billet (a secondary short term duty assignment) for three years so that we could settle down again.  He knew that.

Tim does not like the scholarly aspect of being an officer.  He never has.  Studying, sitting in class and writing papers are things he dreads even though he always does well.  He still has to do the online course, but it's more spread out and he can chip away at it little by little.  Waiting to see what the Marine Corps decides is another thing he dreads, and I right along with him.  First, later this fall, we would hear that a board selected him for school (or not, but it seemed likely he would be selected).  The next step would be months later, maybe sometime in the spring, we would find out where the school is.  Then we'd have just a couple months to research housing, schools, etc.  Then we'd move this summer, spend a year at school, then move the next summer somewhere else to be determined.  Neither of us looked forward to moving our family that includes school-age kids, two years in a row.

A few days ago Tim sent me a list of places with openings for a recruiting billet (that is one kind of B billet, by the way).  Tim did recruiting before in Boston as an OSO -- officer selection officer -- and liked it.  He was also very successful.  His office was number 1 in the nation one year.  He's always said he would like to do recruiting again in some other capacity.  The particular billet he was going to try to get would be supervising several OSOs.  He talked about it with me to make sure I was OK with the idea, and then started sending emails.  The list of possible places was short, and only got shorter the more he found out.  We'd talk about this place, that place or the other, and then the next day he'd tell me what the monitor had said, or what some guy currently in that job had said about another.  Harrisburg, PA was off the table.  Then Ft. Worth, TX was too.  Finally it boiled down to two choices:  Garden City, NY (Long Island) or Parris Island, SC.

We did a lot of discussing and soul-searching one night about what life in New York City could be like for our family.  There would be a lot of people and traffic.  There would be a lot of things to do and see.  Tim imagined being able to take Delaney into the city.  We would be only a four-and-a-half hour drive from his family in Massachusetts, and we would probably have more visits with all of them, being so close by.  We're always wishing for the kids to be able to see more of their relatives on either side of the family, and that alone might make it worthwhile.  A quick search of homes for rent on Long Island turned up.. nothing.  But that's OK, we'd have several months to figure that out.  We went to bed that night convinced that Garden City was our decision.  It seemed like a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for us and the kids, and it would get us out of our "comfort zone."  Right before calling it a night I posted a question on a Facebook group for Marine officer spouses asking for any and all information and advice anyone has to offer about Garden City -- schools, day-to-day life, best places to live -- literally anything and everything.  I did it with a shrug, thinking not many of them had been there, and I would probably not be getting much feedback.

But holy cow, when I opened up my Gmail the next morning, did I get a surprise.  It turns out that way more Marine families than I ever would have guessed had been or are currently living in Garden City.  They had all kinds of things to say about it.  I started sending snippets to Tim at work.  "People are kind of mean and grumpy," "houses are old and small," "traffic is ridiculous", "cost of living is super high."  But not everything they had to share was so negative.  They shared a lot of positive and helpful things too.  I learned about a community of mostly military families that was in walking or running distance to work, and to a whole lot of things we would like to have around (grocery store, gym, places for the kids to do sports).  I was told the food is awesome and there are so many nice restaurants -- no surprise there.  I was told which school districts to avoid and which were good.  I was advised not to buy because property taxes are through the roof.  What was really eye-opening to both of us was how even the people who ended up enjoying their time there had had to adjust their expectations pretty drastically in order to do so.  A smaller house, cranky people and lots of traffic were things that had to get used to really quick.  After that they sought out friends and things to do that made them happy.  They adapted and thrived.  One mom told me about a MOPS (Mothers of Preschoolers) group she loved, and how she bonded a lot with the folks in the military neighborhood I mentioned before.  They went to the city sometimes and had fun.  They made a lot of good memories, but they were relieved when it came time to move on.

Parris Island started to look better and better to us, which was funny since we hadn't even included it in the previous night's discussion.  That's because we already had a pretty good idea of what we'd be getting into there -- another small southern town, close to the water, a heavily military community...  That's basically what we have here.  It's in our comfort zone.  And what's wrong with that?  We're happy here, are we not?  I love not having to deal with traffic.  I like seeing  friendly people everywhere I go except for the DMV because, let's face it, there's no such thing as a friendly DMV.  I love being close to the beach.  I love not having very cold or long winters.  I love being able to afford a house with lots of space inside and out.  Tim mentioned to me that for him, it doesn't matter as much which place we live.  In either place he'll have to work and travel a lot.  It's almost like the decision is mine to make since I'm the one who has to be happy.  If Mama's not happy, nobody's happy.  And we both know that I am not cut out for life in the fast lane.  I have no idea how I would deal with NYC.  I would be too scared to leave my bubble of things that are in walking distance, which is great in terms of fuel savings but probably not to good for me mentally.  I like the feeling of freedom and space.  Tim does too, although if I was all for New York he would want to go for it.  He is very adaptable and could become a New Yorker in no time.  He might have some trouble being surrounded by Yankees fans, though.

I called my mom later that day and filled her in and asked her to pray for us to make the right choice.  She said, "It sounds like you've already made up your mind."  She thought that Parris Island sounded like the right call.  Tim's dad had something similar to say, Tim told me.  He said, "You guys are southern people and you like that way of life."  Or something like that.  I think he also told Tim to get a house with a boat dock.

As far as distance to family, things will remain pretty much the same.  It's about three hours more to get from central Massachusetts to Parris Island than it is to get from central Massachusetts to New Bern, NC, a quick Internet search tells me.  Surprisingly, the drive from Cincinnati, OH to Parris Island is nearly the same as the drive to New Bern, NC.  Like within 15 miles.  It's because it takes forever to drive across NC.  I'm not sure why I bother with all the calculations.  We're still too far from anybody.  I am disappointed this next move won't get us anywhere closer to either of our families.  I had gotten my hopes up about Harrisburg, PA and Tim had been like, 'meh.'  But I would have been thrilled to be mid-way between them and a short day's drive to either.  I define short as 8 hours or less.  You wouldn't believe how many miles I've learned to consider a day's worth -- more than anyone ought to do in a day, I'm quite sure.  Know this, husband:  I will not be trekking all the way up the east coast to visit the family without a stop somewhere in the middle.  It is already way too far!  We don't really look at flying as an option because there are way too many of us to afford to fly.

By the end of that next day we had decided on Parris Island and Tim told the monitor at his earliest opportunity.  It's done, he has orders, and his name has been taken off the list for school.  So unless something crazy happens (and crazy things have been known to happen), we can count on that being what's in our future.  Oh, and another thing -- you can't be deployed while you're in a B billet.  Three years of relative stability to look forward to.  We've earned it.

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Annie at Pre-K

Annie is very happy to be back at school.  She's had to wait a long time after Delaney's first day -- 9 days.  She kept asking about when she would get to go to school, and today was finally the day.

We went to the school's open house this past Friday.  We were the first to arrive.  Annie was very bashful when her teachers greeted her.  This year she has Mrs. Ann who was Delaney's pre-k teacher too, and Ms. Titi whose real name is Kristy but the kids named her Titi.  The teachers invited her to look at any one of several stations -- blocks, play kitchen, doll house, books, coloring, or a few others.  At first she just stood there uncertainly, but finally she sat down with Titi at the bead table.  While they sat there stringing beads, Ms. Titi asked her a few questions now and then but was mostly quiet.  I think that helped put Annie at ease.  When grownups are super chatty with her she just shuts down.   Before we left, Titi asked her for a hug and she gave her one.
The emphasis is still on playing, even as they prepare her for kindergarten.  I think that's a good thing.  I believe in the saying that a kid's play is their work.  Soon enough they'll be spending all day at school and then having 45 minutes of homework at night (Delaney!).  
12 kids in the class and only 3 are girls.
This morning was her first day of school.  At breakfast she was excited about going on the swings and not needing any of the teachers to push her.  She is so proud of herself for that.  It tickles me.  She loves that she can do something her big sister can't.  I snapped some pictures of her at our house with my lovely homemade sign I did all by myself at the last minute.  The fact that I had the markers and paper out at 8 in the morning is probably why I forgot to bring the snack that it was our turn to provide for the class.  I had to go back and get it, and that meant I could not go running today.  (Alright, it was an excuse.  I COULD have gone running, but the house was a mess and there were other things that needed to be done in the remaining hour-and-a-half before I needed to go back to get Annie.  Better luck getting it together on Friday!)
I took one more before we walked into the building.
Here she is on her first day last year.  She looks so small and unsure of herself.
And here she is being walked to the car three hours later by Ms. Titi.  (Calling a teacher "Titi" -- that's going to take getting used to.)
Here's how our conversation went after I picked her up:
Me:  Did you have fun at school?
Annie: Yes.
Me:  What did you do?
Annie:  I played on the playground and swinged on the swings.
(Later at home)
Me:  What was the first thing you did when you got to school?
Annie:  Someone painted my hands red and blue.
Me:  And then what did you do?  Did you make hand prints all over the classroom?
Annie:  No.  Then I washed it off.
Me:  Did you play at any of the stations?
Annie:  I played with the dollhouse.
Me:  Who did you play with?
Annie:  Abigail -- I played with Abigail with the dollhouse.

Later she retrieved the self-portrait she'd made that day, from the car:
She goes on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays for three hours.  I think she's going to have a great year.

Monday, September 2, 2013

Dinner planning

Over the past six years of being a stay-at-home mom I have found that there are housekeeping duties that have come easily to me, and others that have been a real struggle.

Take laundry, for instance.  Whenever I hear people complain about laundry, I act like I'm commiserating and hating the thought of all the piles of clothes waiting for me.  But in reality, if they could look in my house at any given moment, they will almost never find a pile of laundry anywhere, clean or dirty.  My laundry is always in small, manageable loads.  It's neatly contained in hampers.  Then it's in the washer and dryer.  I try to take it out right away but sometimes it sits for a little too long and the wrinkle monster gets it.  I fold it right after taking it out.  It might sit on our bed for an hour or two before it gets hung in closets and put away in drawers.  Tim has a whole drawer of green t-shirts in nice little rectangles stacked on on top of the other with the sleeves on alternating sides.  Did you just throw up in your mouth a little?  Sorry.  My mom's the same way -- she's always preferred to do smaller loads of laundry frequently, just about every day.  Even with seven of us at home, the laundry never piled up.  I guess I learned from her.

Now, I'll talk about something that I've always been bad at.  Meal planning and cooking.  When we first started out, we soon discovered that I needed to make menus and use recipes.  I am a terrible cook.  I can't just throw together a bunch of things that I have and make it into a passable meal.  I wish so badly that I could, and that it didn't have to be this much work for my family to eat well.  It's not even just figuring out what to make that's hard.  It's how I make it.  I stop to wash my hands about 10 times while handling raw meat.  It takes 10 minutes to chop on vegetable because I'm scared of cutting myself.  I read the same directions again and again, and if I have more than two burners going, it's chaos.  I was that way even before I had all those little hands tugging at me.  Any gains that I've made in meal planning and cooking have been hard-won, and have required a lot of effort that I haven't always been willing to make.

Our early menus consisted of things like baked chicken breast with a side of penne and white sauce or pesto that came from a packet of powder.  And usually nothing else.  Maybe a can of corn or a can of mixed veggies that I usually wouldn't touch.  This was only about four years ago!  Other items were grilled cheese and soup.  Maybe spaghetti and meatballs, meatloaf, those things are easy and they make leftovers.  Fridays have always been pizza and Thursdays were breakfast for dinner.  But my menus were very boring, unimaginative, and contained very few veggies.  Making the weekly menu was always something I dreaded, but some weeks I was better at it than others.  We ate and we survived.  Tim helped out plenty on the weekends and he's a really good cook, so we've always eaten well on Saturdays and Sundays.

The past couple years I've come a long way.  Little changes here and there have gotten me to a place that I can be somewhat proud of.  I slacked off while Tim was away because I wasn't about to do all that work for just myself.  The kids hardly eat anything I make.  After after he came back I had to kick-start menu planning again so he can come home around 6 and we can all sit down to a decent dinner.  It was so hard to get organized again after so many months of just winging it.  But I had to admit that all that my laziness was showing in the quality of the dinners.  I wasn't even happy with the things I was scrounging up.  It was time go back to the ways that worked.

Here is the system that works for us right now.  I make a monthly menu and post it on the fridge.  There are all kinds of printable menus -- monthly, four-week, two-week, and weekly -- at moneysavingmom.com, and that's where I found mine.  To minimize the time I have to spend thinking about it, we assign certain kinds of dinners to certain days. Thursdays are always breakfast for dinner, whatever kind we're in the mood for.  Fridays are always pizza with a garden salad or caprese salad.  Saturdays are a question mark because we feed the kids something, and then later have our own "date night in" dinner.  As of the last couple months, I've established Wednesdays as something Italian-inspired and Mondays are usually Mexican-inspired.  Today was the exception because it was a holiday.  You'll notice that all the weeknight meals are something simple because I need things I can do without any help, and with lots of distractions.  Sunday dinners are not usually elaborate either.  Saturday dinners are fancy and I have nothing to do with them.  That is, nothing to do with the planning and preparation.  I do enjoy eating them.  I should make another post about Saturday dinners.
Everything is subject to change.  Last month I made a lot of changes as I went along.  But it is so much easier once I make that menu and have a plan for the whole month.  I know what to put on the weekly shopping list, I know when to pull meat out of the freezer, and I know what fresh ingredients I need to buy at the store on any given morning.  In this season of life, last-minute trips to the store are an impossibility.  If it's 4:30 and I don't have it, I'm just going to have to press on without it.  As someone who has no natural aptitude in the kitchen and a strong desire to eat well, I can't stress enough the importance of planning ahead.  It has made a huge difference, at least to Tim and me.  The kids don't care, and I know they'd prefer not to have a real dinner.  It makes me sad that they eat nothing but pasta and cheese, but at the same time I am scared at the thought of what it will be like when they eat like adults.  Tim and I already eat so much and our pots and pans are only so big.
I keep my recipes in this big green binder.  Most of them come from the Internet, and others I've cut from magazines.  Most are old favorites but I'm trying to introduce at least one or two new things each month.  The beef stir fry at the end of the month is new, highly recommended on a blog I read often that seems like a reliable source.  The binder isn't well organized, and there are a lot of loose papers floating in there, but I don't have any problems finding what I need.

I know I still have lots of room to improve.  I need to be serving more leafy greens besides salads.  I still think we could use more diversity as far as what kinds of meats we're using, and I've fallen in a rut there, just wanting to use what I'm comfortable with.  Sauce from a packet of powder has long been a thing of the past, but I'm sure we could cut more processed stuff out of our diet.  I'm always evolving.  Tilapia was a new addition to last months's menu and we loved it.

What I would really like as we get into fall would be a couple of super-easy but also healthy weeknight dinners that would allow me to not have to be in the kitchen for so long.  Tim got rid of our crock pot a few years ago after everything we cooked in it had a terrible aftertaste.  (It was a new crock pot too, so I still wonder what was wrong with it.)  I'd love to be able to make a crock pot dinner once or twice a week to free me up to take Timmy down the street to play at the neighbors' (or even just to take him outside -- he loves playing outside, but since he needs direct supervision at all times he has to stay in), or to not have to worry about what's for dinner after soccer practice.  It can be really difficult to have to spend all afternoon on meal preparation when the kids want my attention for so many different things.  Another option besides the crock pot would be a make-ahead meal that I could keep in the freezer.  It would take even more planning and organization, but that could work.  Tim gives me a hard time for it but yes, I'm always looking for shortcuts.  Guilty as charged.