Saving Sweet Briar

It’s been a rough week.  Last Tuesday, within a single hour, I said goodbye to my wonderful canine friend (which I’m not quite ready to write about yet) and got some shocking and heartbreaking news — my alma mater, Sweet Briar College, would be closing this summer.

“Shocking and heartbreaking” might seem like a bit of an overstatement when describing the closing of a school, especially one I haven’t attended in nearly 20 years and haven’t visited in almost 7.  But Sweet Briar is not merely an educational institution, and its closing is not just the routine or inevitable result of gradual shifts in educational trends.  It is my second home (or, perhaps, now that I live in Vienna, my third).  Dan & I met and were married there.  Dan’s father taught there for many years.  I made many dear friends while I was there.  I learned more about the world and about myself there than I had any idea I needed to learn.  And I received one hell of an academic education, too.

Sweet Briar is a special place.  It is one of a dwindling number of women’s colleges.  Besides being a single-sex college, it is southern, rural and extremely small.  It carries with it an old reputation of debutantes and snobbery — once probably valid but long since left behind.  Those with only a passing notion of Sweet Briar may dismiss it as a “finishing school”, but in doing so only reveal how outdated their information is.


Sweet Briar is so much more than those labels.  Like so many of my fellow alumnae, I never thought that I would end up at Sweet Briar, or at any women’s college.  I wasn’t “girly”.  I liked boys.  I was a liberal and distanced myself from anything with the label of “southern”.  I was a bright, hardworking kid, and I wanted to put an impressive (possibly Ivy League) name on my CV.  I also didn’t have a lot to spend on college.  When I first heard of Sweet Briar, I dismissed it completely, even though my best friend had fallen in love with it.  I was not interested.  It was not what I wanted.

And yet … the more I learned, the more it was.  The photos of the campus in the brochures were stunning.  There was a thriving equestrian program where I would be able to get actual college credit for my passion.  The class sizes were small.  And, they really seemed to want me there.  From there, more than anywhere else, I was contacted — by alumnae, current students, admissions staff.  I was courted.  I went to visit, and (like so many of my fellow alumnae) THAT was the moment when everything changed.  The campus was stunning — like something from a movie.  The students were friendly — not just to me, but to each other.  The students and the staff chatted together like friends in the cafeteria.  The classes were small … and intimidating, but for all of the right reasons.  The professors asked questions AND THERE WAS NOWHERE TO HIDE.  I saw girls — women — step up and speak out in a way I had never seen before, confidently, respectfully and passionately.  I was impressed and a little awed.  And, suddenly, I was seriously considering a women’s college.

I applied to Sweet Briar, but I was never one for half-measures — I also applied (and was accepted to) 10 other schools.  To most, I got significant scholarships.  There was at least one school on that list that I was sure I was going to attend.  It had everything I wanted.  But then I went to visit, and no matter what my head told me, my heart compared every bit of it to Sweet Briar, and it came up lacking in every way except for its name recognition.  As for Sweet Briar, the financial aid and scholarships they offered were impressive, but not enough.  I was surprised to feel so sad when I called my admissions counsellor to tell her that I couldn’t even consider coming because of finances.  And I was beyond amazed when she called me back with a better offer.   In the end, I narrowed my choices down to 2 — both women’s colleges — and no one was more surprised than I was.  I let my heart decide, and it chose Sweet Briar.  It was one of the best choices I ever made.

It’s not that every moment was perfection.  I had times when I questioned my decision (including a big part of my sophomore year when I seriously considered transferring elsewhere), but the good parts were so worth the struggles.  The students really were kind and welcoming.  The classes really were tiny and rigorous.  The professors really did get to know you — I saw them in the cafeteria, out on walks around campus, and went to dinner at their homes (and if you missed a class they’d call to see how you were doing).  The campus really was picture-postcard perfect all the time.  I really did get to ride for course credit.  The traditions, which seemed odd and a bit antiquated at first, became precious to me, and included me in a long line of brave, intelligent women who had come before me.  I made some amazing friends, and I became one of those thoughtful, confident, educated women who didn’t hesitate to open her mouth and speak her mind.  I loved my college years and I value my Sweet Briar education tremendously.  I have no doubt that I made the right choice, and given the opportunity, I would go back and do it all over again.

But that was almost 20 years ago.

Last Tuesday, seemingly out of the blue, the President of the college announced that the Board of Directors had voted unanimously to close the school, effective late August of this year.  Just like that, this place I hold so dear was dying.  I’d had no clue this was even up for consideration.  The powerful and passionate alumnae network had not been told that there were dire straits.  We were all taken completely by surprise by the announcement, which was put to us as a done deal.  Apparently the college’s enrollment and financials had been on a downward trajectory for years, and, according to the president (sorry — interim president, who has been on the job only 6 months), there was no way to recover.  The school was doomed and the decision had been made to bow out gracefully while the going was still good, leaving students to find another place to finish their education (or even to start it, as acceptance letters for next fall had already gone out), and leaving faculty and staff facing impending unemployment (and in some cases with losing their homes).  I felt as if I were losing a close friend, someone I didn’t even know was ailing.  It was like a bomb went off in my brain.  I was devastated, shocked, confused and angry.

But, here’s the thing.  Remember those confident, intelligent, outspoken women who knocked my socks off when I came to visit the school?  Sweet Briar has been turning us out for DECADES.  And within a day, the shock and tears had made way for outrage and determination.  We’re not ready to say goodbye.  There are thousands of strong, capable women out there who love Sweet Briar, and we’re willing to fight to keep her alive.  There is work to be done, there are questions to be asked, and there are sisters to be helped.  This is what we DO.  This is who Sweet Briar trained us to BE.  This is not where this story ends.


Feature creep

In my life before parenting, I wore many different hats.  I was, at different times, a dance instructor, a software engineer, a horseback riding teacher and a waitress.  I’ve often noticed how each of these professions prepared me for parenting, but, of all of them, I thought software engineering was perhaps less applicable to my current life than the others.  Until I had an epiphany today:  building a train with my 3 year old is EXACTLY like working with any of several difficult managers I encountered in my engineering days.

It goes like this:
Manager/3 year old:  “Let’s take on this project!  I’m very excited!  But I’m relying on you to do most of the actual work.”
Me:  “Great!  I’m excited too!  I really enjoy this kind of work and I’ve thought of a clean, sophisticated, elegant way to do it.”

Manager/3 year old:  (some time later) “What’s that part for?”
Me:  “That’s how we’re going to make the whole thing connect up at the end.”
Manager/3 year old:  “No.  It doesn’t go like that.  Turn it around the other way.”
Me:  “But … ”
Manager/3 year old:  “No!  Other way!”
Me:  (trying to avoid a tantrum while rethinking the entire plan) “Ok, ok!”

Manager/3 year old:  (now much later, almost at the end) “I have an idea!  I want it to do THIS!”
Me:  (taking patient, diplomatic tone) “Yes, we could do that.  But we can’t do that AND this original idea at the same time.”
Manager/3 year old:  “But you SAID it could do that!  You promised!!'”
Me: “Yes, I did.  But it can’t do both of those things at the same time.  I don’t have enough to do both.”
Manager/3 year old:  “No, see?  You can just make it work like THIS.”
Me:  “Well, I COULD, but not using only the pieces I have AND meeting all of your other requirements at the same time.”
Manager/3 year old:  “Waaaah!”

20140325-142927.jpgThe project is finally complete when I make something work that meets the criteria (but which doesn’t bear any resemblance to an elegant solution) all while telling them they’re getting what they ask for as I quietly hedge and stick in as many not-desired but essential features without drawing attention to what I’m doing.  (Distracting them with bells, whistles and flashing lights can be very useful at this stage.)

At the end, success is counted by not having them destroy the entire project before it’s even operational out of frustration at your inability to bend the laws of physics.    And then I get this:

Manager/3 year old: “Look what I built!”

And I thought parenting and engineering had nothing in common.

Because love is fantastic and life is hard

I have two boys, who I love more than anything in the entire world.  I was made to be their mama, and I am profoundly grateful that I have that honor.  They light up my days with love and joy.  Watching them learn and grow and become more of who they are each day is an amazing blessing.  I am so lucky.

It is my most desperate hope that one day, they grow up to be kind, strong, intelligent, happy, peaceful, loving men.  I hope they have lives that fill them with joy.  I hope they live such wonderful, exuberant, amazing lives bursting with passion that they don’t think to call me every day.  And I hope they are loved.  I hope they find someone who sees the fantastically wonderful people that they are and who feel as lucky to be in their lives as I do.

Because, love is fantastic.  And because life is hard.  Stuff happens.  Things get tough, hearts get broken, people suffer and struggle.  And we are all saved by the people who carry us through that.  We ALL need each other.  Each of us gets to, if we’re lucky enough to find them, choose that one other person we need beside us on those darkest days — and the one we want to share the gorgeous, transcendent, bliss-filled moments with, too.  We ALL get to choose.  And that choice, once made, should be equal, in the eyes of the law, whoever is making it and whoever they choose.

Equal.  The SAME.  Not “equivalent”.

Because, people, life is hard and we need each other.  Nobody should have to do it alone and nobody gets an asterisk for “almost but not quite”.  Whatever the future holds for my boys, my friends, my friends’ children, their friends and millions of others that I’ll never know, I want them to get to share their love, and their life, with the person they choose.

Frankly, I hope my kids grow up to read this and fail to understand the need to talk about marriage equality.  I hope they think that this discussion is ludicrous, because, in the world they inhabit, it will hopefully make no sense to them.  I hope that my children will inherit a world where this argument is antiquated, embarrassing and recognized as being fed only by hate and unfounded fear.

I’m an American, and I believe in freedom of religion.  I believe this also grants us freedom from religion.  The separation of Church and State ought to guarantee that the outdated morality of much of our citizenry cannot dictate the law of our nation.  Marriage, as defined by the Church, is the business of the Church (although hate and exclusion have no place there, either).  But marriage, as defined by the State, belongs to all of us.  Equally.

A funny thing happened on the way to the Vatican

One of the places I was most excited to go in Rome actually isn’t in Rome at all. I was really looking forward to visiting Vatican City, seeing the Sistine Chapel and walking in St. Peter’s square. I think part of my fascination has to do with the historical significance, part has to do with my own family history of Catholicism, and it’s all heightened by being there during the final days of Pope Benedict’s papacy — something we couldn’t have planned for or anticipated when we were organizing our trip.

I’m a planner, and since I’d heard that the lines for entry into the Vatican Museum (which culminates in the Sistine Chapel) can be long and frustrating, I decided to splurge for the extra €4/adult to reserve an entry time. Our appointment was at 9:00. I knew it might be tough to make that, with 6 people to get up, fed and ready, but I wanted to get through the museum (and all the way to the Sistine Chapel) before the kids couldn’t take any more.

This morning, we were on our way, but we were running a bit late. I had planned a bit of extra time in to our schedule, but we had pretty much eaten all of that up with breakfast and getting out the door. I was a little stressed. We had to catch a cab, get to the museum, and find where we needed to be, with just over 20 minutes to go. I didn’t know if the ticket times were strict, so I wanted to be on time, or even a little early. Luckily, we hailed a cab quickly, and got to the gate of the Vatican museum in 10 minutes. We pulled up, got out, and got the stroller set up while Amanda was paying the cab driver, and I glanced at the time — about 10 minutes to go. Perfect! Whew!

And then Amanda realized that she didn’t have her phone, and the cab had already pulled away.

Minor panic ensued. She wasn’t entirely sure that she’d had it when we left the hotel. We started by flagging down the next cab from the same company that came by. We were hoping that maybe they had some way to call each other between cabs. No luck.

We called our hotel. We asked them to call the cab company. Then we called back and asked them to check our room. (It wasn’t there.) Then we called back and tried to get their help finding the U.S. customer service number for AT&T Wireless. We were having a really hard time making any progress. Amanda was pretty despondent and getting progressively more worried. (She didn’t want someone to find the phone and make expensive calls.)

She was pretty sure she wouldn’t get her phone back. I was thinking that if we had found it, we would have worked hard to return it, so I didn’t want to give up hope.

We waited right at the same spot where the cab dropped us off, just in case. Our hotel hadn’t had any luck — since we’d hailed our cab, instead of calling, the company didn’t have a record of the trip. And, the hotel couldn’t find the right number for the phone company. So, we went to try and find some Wi-Fi so we could try to shut the phone off ourselves.

We found some, looked up the number of the phone company, and started through the automatic phone universe of AT&T. As we stood there, pressing 1, or 2, or 7, as appropriate, we thought we saw the cab drive by — the one that dropped us off.

We hopped out the cafe door and started running (up hill, of course). We didn’t know if he was stopping, if he was picking someone up or dropping them off, or if he just happened to be driving up the street.

Yay!!! He was there! He had come back, just to bring the phone. The hotel had called the cab company back, and they had tracked down the right cab. The driver, of his own accord, on the chance that we’d still be there, even though 40 minutes had passed, drove back to the Vatican. And there we were. And we had the phone back.

We were so excited and so happy. Amanda was crying. I gave the cab driver €20 (he tried to say no, but I insisted). A newspaper seller on the corner saw the whole exchange happen, and said, “This is Italia! You don’t need to cry — everything is good here!”

And even though we were almost 45 minutes late for our appointment, we had no problem getting in to the museum. All was well.

Viva Italia! Viva Rome! We love it here.


Let’s go up the hill!

Today was a huge improvement over yesterday’s torturous adventure. (We’re learning already!) We started out by searching for a place to ski somewhere between totally boring and suicidal. We found a spot, right in town. It had a little “button” ski lift (a type of drag lift with a seat) and a not too imposing hill.

We actually began by trying to interest the boys in a little sledding. Although they were interested in BRINGING their sleds, we couldn’t actually manage any sledding. I think that until you know how much fun sledding can be, the whole thing is just too much work to feel worth it (kind of like skiing, actually).

We knew we wouldn’t be up to a lot of skiing today — especially Jo and I, because we were sore and tired from our lesson yesterday. So, we shared a lift ticket and took turns. Dan went on his own (just to remind himself how to ski — it’s been 10 years and he didn’t ski yesterday) but then he took a very excited B up with him and they skied together.

20130120-003250.jpgIt was wonderful to see. B was so thrilled to be out there, and so brave. He kept insisting that he could go on his own (but we insisted otherwise). He loved it. He did a great job. He’s really a skier now! The smile on his face each time he reached the bottom made every bit of carrying, dragging and aching completely worth it.

Then I took a turn. I was really freaked out. It’s been 10 years for me, too, but I’ve only skied twice and I was never any good. Parts of what I worked on yesterday were a challenge, and that was elementary. Just getting on the lift was difficult, and my legs were shaking from tension, fear and exertion before I even got to the top. I got off the lift, got turned around, and suddenly realized I was up very high. But, my 4 year old had just done it a few times, and I knew I’d regret it if I didn’t try, so off I went. I went very fast and suddenly couldn’t remember anything my instructor had taught me. I managed to slow down enough to gain some control. I managed a few turns, but my legs were shaking and I was going too fast. I fell. It wasn’t too bad. The snow wasn’t icy, and I didn’t fall particularly hard. But I was then faced with the always challenging task of getting up again. My first attempt nearly sent me backwards down the hill, but I finally got it together and got up again . . . and it wasn’t too bad. I had time to take a few breaths and clear my head, and then, as I started down again, I was able to remember my instructor’s advice and actually have a pretty decent time. I was still working very hard, though, and my legs were shaking so hard by the time I got to the bottom that Jo had to get me out of my skis. But, I did it! I skied in the Alps!

Dan & B went a few more times, and then Jo tried, and after I’d rested, I went again. I was worried I was maybe doing too much — that maybe I should end on my first successful run and leave on a positive note. I’m so glad I didn’t. With the confidence that came from a reasonable first run, the second was even better. I was relaxed, thinking clearly, and comfortable enough to even enjoy my surroundings a bit. It was so beautiful up there. I had a view of all the surrounding, snow-covered mountains, some in sunlight, some in shadow, and of the cute little town below me. It was amazing, and beautiful and as peaceful as it can be when you’re gradually accelerating down a mountain in a standing position. I think I got a small glimpse into what people love about skiing. My second run was great. No falls, even!

20130120-003315.jpgAfter that, B decided he was done, and Dan took a few final runs. We had been worried that Liam would not handle a day out in the snow well (since he didn’t yesterday), but he did great. He played, ate snow and ran around. He was a happy little guy. (Maybe skiing next time.) The whole area where we skied today was perfect for kids. In fact, we saw quite a few other families in the same situation as us — a preschooler on skis and a toddler with a sled, with both parents trying to keep everyone safe & happy. It was great to see that we weren’t the only ones.

After skiing, we had lunch, returned our skis (which might have actually been my favorite moment of the weekend) and went back for a rest in our hotel.

This evening, though, we ventured out again for a walk, and the boys optimistically brought their sleds along. B chose our direction, and just a short ways from our hotel we were lucky to find a hiking trail, very snow covered and perfect for sledding. After a few tries, he figured it out and had a great time. Liam didn’t want to try, though, so after a bit, we let Liam choose what to do next. He wanted to keep walking. And when we asked where he wanted to go, he said, “Let’s go up the hill!”, so we continued on, up the hiking trail, into the dark.

This is just how Liam is. He likes to walk, he likes to hike, he likes to climb. Mountains make him happy. We thought he’d be really into skiing (maybe one day). But, he likes to go UP, not down.

20130120-003451.jpgWe walked up a short distance, beyond the buildings of the town and into a clearing. And we were treated to the most beautiful view I’ve had in Austria. We were up, a bit above the town. There was snow everywhere, a deep cushion over the field where we were standing and on all the roofs below us. Alongside the packed down path where we were walking, right next to us, there was a stream gurgling under the snow. Below us, the village of Alpbach was illuminated — the church, the Alpine houses still decked out in Christmas lights — and we could see the little dots of light on the mountain facing us, all the little buildings and outposts of the ski resorts. Our clearing was lit by the moon and the stars (some of which actually appeared lower in the sky than some of the lights on the mountains) and behind us, further up the hill, closer to the foot of the mountain cliffs behind them, were the houses of the next village, with Christmas trees decorated all around. Other than the sounds of the stream, everything was quiet, and we all stood and soaked up the magic of the moment.

We had such a remarkable day. The challenge of yesterday has been completely overshadowed by the delights of today. I loved seeing the joy B got from learning to ski and the drive Liam has to explore. Seeing B come down the mountain, the view I had at the top, the breathtaking moment of seeing an Alpine postcard fantasy in real life, the feeling of my little ones’ hands in mine while we walked through the snow — I hope I can hold on to all of these memories. I had some truly special moments today.

The magic of the wolf hat

Benjamin has a wolf hat.  We got it last year when we visited Innsbruck.  He saw it and he instantly wanted it.  But, he does that with A LOT of things, so my initial instinct was to say no.  But then, I thought about it, and really, it was cute, reasonably well constructed, actually fit him, and it would be a functional souvenir from our trip, so I changed my mind and got it for him.

To be clear, it isn’t made out of real wolf fur or anything.  It just LOOKS like a wolf.  There is a big wolf-looking head that sits on top of B’s head, with yellow-ish eyes and a snout with a red tongue sticking out, and it has two front “paws” that hang down over his ears and down the front of his chest.  I’ve seen other animal hats in a similar style, but I’ve never seen one so cool.  B loves it, and he wears it a lot (most days, now that it’s cold again).

Austrians, in general, aren’t as overtly friendly as we Americans are.  They don’t chat with strangers in the grocery line or on the train.  They aren’t really big on “small talk” at all.  They make eye contact, but they don’t smile.  People don’t stop you on the street and ask where you got your coat or your boots or your bag.  They just don’t.  It’s different than home.  You chat with your neighbors (if you know them) when you see them, but you just don’t talk to complete strangers.

But, the wolf hat changes everything.  Every time B wears it when we go out, people smile.  Sometimes they laugh with surprise.  They shriek in mock fear.  Complete strangers pat him on the head as we walk by.  They say hello.  When they realize he’s not much of a German speaker, they say hello in English.  I’ve had people stop me on the street and ask where we got it.  All of this is kind of astonishing and unheard of here.  But the wolf hat makes it happen, every single time.  Must be magic.

Accidentally, Catholic school

Yesterday, I dropped Benjamin off at school, and was delighted to see that part of his classroom had been decorated for the holidays.  The corner of the room usually decorated as a grocery store was decked out, instead, as a Christmas market.  There were evergreen boughs, ornaments and other festive decorations.

It was very cute, and B took me over to check it out.  I looked it over appreciatively, gave him a hug and a kiss, and went to leave.  Standing by the door, slipping my shoes back on, I overheard the teacher correcting the students who had mistaken the hat she was holding as the Pope’s, when, it was, in fact, apparently St. Nicholas’.

Wait . . . what?

It wasn’t until that moment that I realized I hadn’t been looking at “holiday” decorations, I’d been looking at Christmas decorations.  And, coming on the heels of B telling my mother on Skype last week that baby Jesus died, “but not when he was a baby”, I had the startling revelation that my child has effectively been attending a Catholic school for over a year.

And I hadn’t noticed.

Austria is a very Catholic country, and they don’t have separation of church and state.  So, this shouldn’t have been surprising to me, and it certainly shouldn’t have taken me so long to realize it — I’ve been learning about, and celebrating, St. Nicholas and St. Martin, right along with B, all this time.

It doesn’t bother me at all.  In fact, it seems pretty apropos of living in Vienna.  I grew up Catholic, and although I don’t consider myself as part of any particular religion these days, my spiritual beliefs are pretty compatible with the kinder aspects of Christianity.  Besides, he so far seems to have been exposed to some pretty good information — principally about St. Martin, St. Nicholas and Christmas.  Sounds good to me.

But, coming from the US, where separation of church and state is held nearly as sacred (ha ha), the teaching of anything religious would simply NOT happen in a state-run preschool (or, if it did, all hell would break loose — ha ha again).

It’s another one of those things — and we’ve encountered many of them — that we just didn’t see coming because it’s so far outside of our idea about the way things work.  Living abroad is an endless lesson in breaking down assumptions and revealing different possibilities.  This one just caught me completely by surprise — and it took nearly 15 months for me to even see it.

Milk with snow

20121015-230522.jpgToday dawned chilly and rainy, and, looking out the window, it appeared that someone had stolen all of the neighboring mountain peaks during the night — only the ridge opposite us, the closest one, was still fully visible through the mist.

Hiking didn’t seem like the right choice for today, given the weather, so we climbed into the car instead for some “car hiking” on and around the mountains near where we’re staying.

20121015-230558.jpgWe first started choosing turns at random, and found ourselves on the Trattberg mountain, climbing up a winding, switchback filled road. We would have been treated to some great views as we climbed up to about 5000 feet of elevation, but as it was, the vistas in front of us were just mountain, edge, and then gray, mist-filled nothingness. When it started to snow, we turned around and headed back down the hill. It wasn’t much snow, but at nearly 1 mile up, in a rented car without winter tires, it was enough to send us back down to the valleys.

We journeyed back, past our hotel, and down into the valley in search of something to eat. We found a snack and fixed a blown fuse in the car, all in the town where Silent Night was written — pretty cool. And then we continued exploring.

We investigated Gasteig, a teeny town pressed right up against the sheer mountain face. And, long after we ran out of roads recognized by our GPS, we found ourselves staring up at some massive mountains only about 2 miles from the German border (but a significant portion of that straight up).

20121015-230652.jpgWe wandered further down the valley to cute Golling, and back through the winding streets beyond, lured by signs for a waterfall. When we finally arrived, B had fallen asleep, so Liam and I hiked through the woods to see the beautiful waterfall. The path was steep, rocky and slippery in the rain, but we didn’t have any trouble until it was time to head back. Liam didn’t want to go back — he kept trying to clamber further up the hill, and attempted to convince me several times to go “That way!” even though “that way” was up the mountain or across a swift river. We made it back to the car, wet and tired but happy, and then drove home to dry off and enjoy a relaxing amend to the afternoon.

Dan went out later to pick up pizza for dinner, and came back with a report of falling snow. We’d seen little bits of spitting snow earlier, and that was what I imagined . . . until the thunder started. We looked out across the balcony to see lightning crackling and heavy, wet snowflakes pouring down. The thunder rolled and echoed for long moments across the mountain ridges.

When Dan went to ask our hostess for some fresh milk for morning, she hiked out to the barn and brought us “milk with snow” (her words — extra impressive because she doesn’t really speak much English). (We didn’t realize we were sending her out into the snow to get it!)

20121015-231134.jpgThe snow fell for a few hours. The two boys who live here (6 and 10) played enthusiastically in it as it fell. We went outside later to find roads, grass and cars lightly coated in wet slushy snow (B made some serious snowballs from the stuff). Our host poked his head out to tell say, “It’s wonderful!” as we played in the falling snow. We came back in to find the skylight in Liam’s room completely coated. (We’re not sure yet, but if this keeps up, we may have to rethink some of our travel plans for tomorrow.)

We could not have asked for a better day or a more wonderful experience here. I was so pleasantly surprised to see everyone here celebrate and enjoy the first snow of the season — here, where snow is so common that you might expect it to seem tedious or mundane. It was really special for us, too.

A(nother) day in the Alps

One of the (many) great things about living in Vienna is that when it’s really hot out and it seems like the best solution is a day in the mountains, you go to the Alps.  We hadn’t been in the mountains for a while, and I thought it would be fun to try something new, so today, we went up the Schneeberg.

It took us forever to get out of the house, and even longer to sort out some train confusion, but we eventually arrived at Puchberg to begin the final leg of journey.  You know it’s going to be an interesting ride when the track your train will run on has little teeth running down the middle . . . like the ones they have on roller coaster tracks.  The train that brought us up the mountain ascends 4000 feet and took us nearly to the summit (to 5900 feet of the 6800 foot mountain — not bad for less than an hour’s ride).

We admired the amazing view, ate a very Austrian lunch and played at the playground.  The playground had a zip line, which B bravely climbed on, and rode over and over again, taking breaks only because there were eventually other kids who wanted to play, too.  He loved it.  He was completely fearless about it.

Liam, on the other hand, didn’t care about the playground AT ALL.  All he wanted to do was hike, and he didn’t want any help.  At the first opportunity, he took off on the trail to the summit, with me scrambling behind.  He didn’t want to be carried, and he didn’t want to hold my hand.  I kept thinking he’d get tired and want to turn back, but he didn’t.  I eventually had to drag him, kicking and screaming (literally) back down to find Dan and Benjamin who were looking for us (and were never going to find us — because who takes a not-yet-two-year-old on a hike like that?) only to turn right around and hike back up, all together.  We went for an hour and a half, with Liam wanting to do it on his own the whole way.  On the way back, he kept pointing out new trails and crying and flailing when we said no.  That kid likes to hike.

The hiking was my favorite part of the day, too.  We were up above the treeline, where only the scrubby little pine bushes grow, and the views, in every direction, were in turns beautiful, impressive and forbidding.  There’s a lot of wilderness up there, and some truly amazing scenery.  We saw gliders, parachuters (I don’t think they came from a plane, I think they jumped off the mountain) and, as we came over the ridge of our own personal summit (higher than the visitors center, but not nearly all the way to the top) we suddenly found ourselves looking at what I think was a couple of small glaciers and a herd of free range cattle, completely unfenced, and each wearing a cowbell.

I can honestly say I’ve never seen anything like it before in my entire life.  It was fantastic.

On our way back, we capped our day by being startled by the volume of the sound of a bird’s wings in flight as it passed by us.  What a great day.

It was a really long day too, though.  We expected to be out of the house for 6-7 hours.  We were away for over 12.  We are all completely exhausted and spent way too much time on trains today.  It was a great day, though.  Always fun in the Alps.

Being the person I’d like my kids to be able to grow up to be

My children are going to learn what I teach them.  They are going to be shaped most profoundly by the examples that I provide.  I can say whatever I like, but it’s what I DO that they are going to see, and what they are most likely to emulate when faced with a similar situation.

Early this morning, after bottles for the kids but before getting in the shower, I checked my email and saw a message saying that a blog post of mine was being included in Huffington Post’s “best of the parenting blogosphere” roundup for this week.

Wow.  Ok, that’s pretty cool, and I couldn’t help but bet a little excited about it.  It’s validating that someone who knows about blogging chose my post, but also really scary because now people are actually going to read my blog — and they aren’t people who already know and generally like me.

After getting over the initial shock and frantic scrambling to check out my site for any glaring grammatical errors, my next instinct was to totally downplay this and try to convince myself that it’s not a big deal.  My natural reaction was to make sure not to make too big of a deal out of it, not to get overly excited and not to act in a way that’s going to bother anyone.  My fear of seeming egotistical made it hard for me to feel appropriately excited about it.  It made me really uncomfortable, and at first, I didn’t want to share the news with anyone, for fear of coming across as boastful.  (In short, I really don’t know how to navigate the very wide waters beyond “pretend nothing out of the ordinary has happened” for fear of drifting out into the region of “obnoxiously prideful and egotistical” even though I know there’s a lot of space between the two.)

But, then, I had a thought that comes to me a lot lately.  If this happened for Benjamin, or Liam, how would I want to see them experience it?  Would I want them to hide it for fear of looking arrogant?  Or would I want them to enjoy the moment, celebrate it and share the good news with their friends and family?

So, I went ahead and got excited, posted to Facebook, emailed my family, went out for an unscheduled Starbucks break . . . and then got back to life as usual because these bags for our trip to the States aren’t going to pack themselves.

And, it was great.

I find it so much easier to judge whether or not a reaction is appropriate by imagining my children doing the same thing as adults one day, than it is for me to evaluate myself.  When I was trying to determine what the “right” reaction was, I couldn’t get over my fear that I would make someone uncomfortable by enjoying the moment too much.  When I imagined it as Benjamin experiencing it, I didn’t care if his happiness bothered someone (that would clearly be their problem) and I would be so disappointed if he let fear or self-consciousness get in the way of his joy.

And since I know that how my children see me react to my own successes is going to teach them how to react to theirs, I had to get over my own hangups and just enjoy it.

Nothing has ever motivated me more to work on myself.  (I’ve got plenty of material, so there’s lots of room for improvement.)  My kids are more likely to follow my example than to be shaped by my words, or by the words or actions of others.  That’s true of how I react to success, failure, frustration, exhaustion, anger, sadness and absolutely everything else I experience.  They will see it, they will learn it, and when faced with a similar situation, it is most likely going to be their first natural reaction.

So, what kind of example am I setting?

When faced with a situation that I don’t know how to handle — or when I know my way of “handling” it is less than functional — I find myself thinking, “What would I want my kids to do?”  Would I want them to feel ok with celebrating something good?  Would I want them to apologize if they did the wrong thing, or hurt someone’s feelings?  Would I want them to feel liberated enough to express themselves, even if it bothered someone else?  Would I want them to take care of themselves, even at the expense of manners or propriety?  Would I want them to make healthy choices for their minds and bodies?

I can see those things SO CLEARLY for them.  I want them to take good care of themselves.  I want them to celebrate with joy and make amends with honesty.  I want them to feel sadness without embarrassment.  And they are more likely to do ALL of those things if I do them, too.

I am learning to do all of these things for their sake, but at tremendous benefit to myself.  I am able to be kind to myself because I want that for them.  I am able to be patient and flexible when life happens because I want them to be able to take things as they come.  I am able to let go of the details and of a goal of perfection because I want them to be free from the torment of anxiety and perfectionism.  I remember to find the joy in the moment because that is the best thing I can show them how to do.  I focus on what is really important because they will only see themselves as important if I show them that they are.

It’s not enough for me to feel these things.  I have to DO them.  I have to be their example.  They will be who I am, not what I say.  It’s really scary, but it’s certainly excellent motivation for self-improvement.