Mile Zero, Smile Eight Million

I’m determined to write a post about Alex and my trip to Key West (Mile 0 of US Highway 1, as every trinket for sale in the area points out), even as day after day passes and our vacation gets further away. We went there to celebrate our 15th anniversary, even though said anniversary was at the end of May, otherwise known as the Moving Freakout Era.

My mom came into town to watch our kids for us. I suggested that she take notes on how her week with the munchkins went so I could make it a post, but she didn’t do that so instead of a hilarious post about what it’s like to take care of Team Stimey Junior, this post about enjoying five days away from Team Stimey Junior will have to do.

If you are on Facebook and you are so inclined, you can see my annotated photo album of pictures from our trip on my Stimeyland page. Please don’t judge me if you see repeats of jokes from this post over there. I only have so much humor in me.

Alex and I flew into Ft. Lauderdale on a Monday morning. We had a long day driving south from there and all the way out to the keys, a drive made longer by a traffic jam caused by a car accident on literally the only road in or out of the area. We didn’t get to our hotel and settled in until nearly dinnertime, so we eagerly jumped in a hotel shuttle to the downtown area to find a restaurant.

Before dinner, however, there was something I had to do. I needed to try to fit in with all the other tourist ladies by immediately purchasing a large sun hat.

Photo of me wearing large sunglasses and a big green sunhat.

It seemed the thing to do.

I was pretty sure I was supposed to buy a hat, but I was worried that I would buy the wrong hat. I told Alex that I shouldn’t just buy the first hat I saw. But then I saw this hat and I like that color green and it cost a mere twelve dollars and I was all, “How can you go wrong with a twelve-dollar hat?”

It turns out that twelve-dollar hats will rapidly start to disintegrate and shed parts and you really can go wrong with a twelve-dollar hat, but it served its purpose in that it kept the sun off of my face and I was able to talk to Alex ad nauseum about my hat, so I guess in the final tally, I didn’t really go wrong.

Our trip rapidly turned into punctuating our long, leisurely meals with sightseeing and wandering up and down Duval Street. We set the tone with our first night dinner at nine one 5, a very delicious and fun restaurant that we sort of randomly picked. Alex ordered some sort of snapper dish and the waiter told him that the snappers were small that day, so he’d get two instead of just one. We, naturally, imagined two small fish on a plate.

Oh. Not so.

Photo of two giant fish on a plate along with Chester, my stuffed mouse.

Chester is there for scale.

The best thing though is that not only did I laugh uproariously when Alex’s giant dinner arrived, but an adjacent table of four men also laughed hysterically at Alex, causing Alex to protest that, “No! I swear! I didn’t order two giant fish! The waiter brought them! It wasn’t me!”

Maybe you had to be there, but when strangers join you in mercilessly mocking your husband, it totally makes your night. At least it made mine. It was great.

It was even better when Chester got drunk and wore one of the fishes as a hat.

Chester with one of the fish heads resting on top of his head.

Chester is so embarrassing.

We then boarded the shuttle back to the hotel just as the young people were arriving in town to party for the night. Alex and I both slept eleven hours that night. I don’t think that has happened for…ever.

Tuesday was our heavy sightseeing day. We started by going to the Hemingway House, where Ernest Hemingway lived in the 1930s. Obviously we went because Hemingway was an amazing writer and it was very cool to visit his home, learn about him, and see where he wrote his most famous books.

Two photos: one is me standing in front of a small building surrounded by people; the second is the interior of the building. A room with a table, chairs, and typewriter at the center. There is a taxidermied gazelle head mounted on the wall and various other decorations.

Here is me standing in front of Hemingway’s writing studio, followed by a photo of the studio itself. That must be why I haven’t written the great American novel yet—not enough dead animals on my walls.

Let’s be honest here though. The real reason we went to the Hemingway House is because of the cats. Evidently Hemingway was big into cats, specifically polydactyl (more toes than normal) cats. He kept a bunch of them in the ’30s and they still have a whole lot of them (48!) there now.

There were cats everywhere. There was a cat on Hemingway’s bed. There was a cat in Hemingway’s studio. There was even a cat hanging out in the ladies bathroom, which I presume was never Hemingway’s.

A brown, orange, and white cat sitting on a brick pathway surrounded by greenery.

Cats like this one. Hello, cat.

Fortunately, I do have a lot of cats, so maybe that great book is in me somewhere. We made a point of telling our tour guide that we used to have a polydactyl cat, as did every other person on the property who had ever owned, petted, or heard of a many-toed feline.

The tour guide was unimpressed with our cat story.

We wandered around some more and did more touristy things. We saw a lighthouse, so naturally we paid $10 each to climb to the top. Because why wouldn’t we pay good American money to climb 88 tiny, metal, spiral steps in billion-degree heat and humidity? At least the view was pretty.

We rewarded ourselves with more food, drinks, and Chester shenanigans.

Four photos: Chester sitting on a drink served in a pineapple, with paper umbreallas and chunks of pineapples sticking out of it; Chester sitting with a shrimp tail on each hand; Chester drinking a margarita out of a straw, Chester on his back near a margarita.

There is nothing more absurd than Chester on a bender.

We had such a lovely day. Probably every half hour or so, Alex or I would say, “Wow! We could never do this if our kids were here!” We missed the hell out of our munchkins, but seriously, we would have walked five feet in the heat and Quinn would have fallen to the ground in agony, Jack would have taken off after one of the wild chickens, and Sam would have tried to micromanage his brothers until a fist fight broke out in the streets.

We could have had a great trip with our kids, but, damn, it would have been different. We never get to just walk around and wander in and out of shops and attractions. We left the hotel that morning with no set plan. I cannot remember the last time we did that. It was so fun.

We ended our evening at a restaurant called Better Than Sex that only featured dessert, each dish served with a double entendre. It was hilarious and fun for us, especially when a mom, dad, and their two kids came in and read the menu. “Look, white and sticky,” the mom read off the drinks menu as the dad shot her a look. Alex and I ate our Jungle Fever and Cookie Nookie and giggled.

Alex and I had spent a lot of time on Tuesday debating whether we should go on a snorkeling boat trip. Our pros list included items such as, I bet it would be fun! and Fish are cool! and We might feel like bad tourists if we don’t at least touch the water! Our cons list mostly included one item: Goddamn, going snorkeling sure does seem like a lot of work.

It turns out that going snorkeling mostly involved putting on a swimsuit and paying $39 each to get a boat ticket, so that is what we did on Wednesday.

First though, we had to eat a lot of food, wander through a bunch of shops, and visit the Key West aquarium where I took this awesome photo.

Photo of Alex looking into an iguana enclosure with his hands hooked into the wires. There is an iguana to his left looking out of the enclosure with his feet hooked into the wire. Their poses mirror each other.

The greatest thing is that even though Alex is totally mirroring the iguana to his left, he didn’t even see that guy until I pointed him out.

We were going on an afternoon snorkel trip, so we headed out at about 3:30 on a boat headed to a reef.

Selfie of Alex and me. I'm wearing my hat.

Who is that rocking the awesome sun hat?

In case you haven’t figured this out about me yet, I like to take photos. So, after we had checked in for our boat ride, I took a special interest in the disposable waterproof cameras at the shop next door. The only problem was that they used, ugh, you know, actual film, which involves something like thirty steps to actually develop, look at, and share, leading me to believe that I would never actually successfully utilize those photos. Thinking this way led me to shift my gaze six inches to the left where the shop was selling $20 waterproof cases for iPhones.

What could be the harm in putting an extremely expensive piece of electronic equipment in an untested plastic bag and tossing it into the ocean?

No harm! I decided.

Happily, not only did the case work perfectly, but it helped me capture such important and flattering memories such as this one:

Selfie of Alex and I wearing our snorkel masks and breathing thingies. Alex's eyes are closed and my forehead is wrinkled and I look extremely concerned.

YOU try to take a selfie while floating in the ocean with a tube in your mouth and a sheet of plastic over your face, why don’t you?

Happily, my very first test shot captured something better. I don’t even think I was aiming the camera when I took this one.

Photo of the boat silhouetted against the sky. The sun is centered exactly behind the mast of the boat.

It almost looks intentionally framed.

We spent about 45 minutes in the water looking at fish and swimming around the reef. I saw some sort of ray (stingray? manta ray? bat ray? who knows?), which was very cool. Alex swallowed some seawater, making him barf a little, and then he got to watch all the little yellow fish who came swarming up to eat it.

What? We are Team Stimey. Do you think no one threw up on this trip?

Our boat ride back coincided with both the sunset and a storm rolling in. Even the boat crew was impressed by the sky.

Photo of the sunset behind boats floating on the water. The setting sun is at the left of the photo with a big cloud bank piling up on the right.

If I actually knew how to take sunset photos, this one would have been amazing.

On Thursday, we were driving north out of the keys so we could visit the Everglades on Friday before we got on our plane home, but before we drove off-island, we tooled around a part of Key West we hadn’t explored before, including the southernmost point on the continental United States.

Alex and I standing on opposite sides of a large marker declaring us at the southernmost point in the continental United States. The ocean is behind us. Cuba is 90 miles away.

We also went to the southernmost gift shop. Where I bought a toothpick holder.

We visited a wildlife refuge, waded in the water a little bit, walked through the Key West AIDS Memorial, and checked out a botanical garden housed in an old Civil War fort.

We found the wildlife refuge because I was attracted by a cluster of wild chickens in a parking lot. Did I mention the wild chickens? There are wild chickens walking all over Key West. It is charming as hell. I kind of wish there were chickens everywhere. Although the cluster of chickens in the wildlife refuge parking lot were actually gathered around the corpse of one of their own. That is, I suppose, the downside of wild chicken herds.

Also seen at the wildlife refuge:

A bird stands outside an open door. There is a chalkboard on the door  that says, "Please knock. If you need help call xxx-xxx-xxxx."

Seems like kind of a dick move to ask the bird to call for help when he doesn’t even have a dialing finger.

It rained on and off Thursday morning, which was good timing for us. Not only were we not doing anything that required clear skies, but the rain turned the ocean all kinds of amazing colors.

Photo of a palm tree in front of the ocean, striped with different colors of blues, browns, and greens.

We won’t discuss the smell of the ocean and sea grass and what not.

On our way out of the keys, we stopped at a state park to eat the Cuban sandwiches we’d bought for lunch. Because we were there, we decided to take a swim in water that turned out to be SO nice and SO warm that we never wanted to leave.

Another selfie of Alex and Jean, this time in the ocean.

This is a photo of happy.

Friday morning we were scheduled for a trip to the Everglades before heading back to Ft. Lauderdale to catch our flight home. I had been to the Everglades briefly in 1998 and had always wanted to go back. We took a fan boat tour, learned a little bit about alligators, and saw some local wildlife (turtles! fish! alligators! dragonflies!). I still want to go back and see some more.

Photo of the Everglades. There is water with the sky mirrored in it separated by grass and a hummock with trees on it.

If you wonder why I still want to go back, just look at this photo.

There is something about the Everglades that I just really think is super appealing. Also, I got to hold a baby alligator named Snappy, and that was pretty cool.

Me holding a small alligator in my hands.

I was expressly instructed not to kiss the alligator, which was fortunate, as once he was in my hands, all I wanted to do was kiss him and snuggle him.

In the van on the way to our tour, we saw an alligator in a canal by the side of the road. It was upside down and kind of puffy looking. “It’s sunning itself!” said our tour guide.

I don’t think it was sunning itself.

We had woken up at the ungodly hour of seven-something (Can you imagine? Before 8? Waking up with an alarm clock?) to go on our Everglades tour, so naturally we requested a late checkout and took a nap before we checked out of our hotel and went the airport.

We had such a wonderful time. I think my mom is lucky we came home at all. Although, frankly, we did miss our kids. Our trip was the perfect amount and type of time away.

When Alex had originally suggested this trip, I did what I always do when someone suggests I leave my house, be it for an evening out or an extended trip away from home and responsibility: I internally panicked and then started listing reasons why it would be impossible to make it happen.

I’m so glad that this time I listened to Alex and to other people who were encouraging about my going. When we originally made the plans, we weren’t planning on buying a house. When we got on the plane, we had moved and were mere days away from putting our old house on the market. If ever there were a vacation where my lists of reasons I couldn’t leave home were valid, it was this one.

But we went. And it was so necessary. Having five days with no responsibilities was exactly what both Alex and I needed after all the stress we’d endured for the prior two months. Thanks to my mom for watching my kids in such a spectacular fashion and thanks to Alex for forcing me out of my comfort zone into a wonderful week that was sorely needed.

I’m a lucky girl.

Photo of Alex and Jean on their snorkel boat in front of the sunset.

Happy 15th anniversary, Alex! I love you!

Coming Home and the Presentation of Souvenirs

It’s funny, because usually when I’m on vacation, I find time to post here. I think that’s because I am always back in a hotel room by 8:30 to put my kiddos to bed and then I have to sit in the dark with nothing but my computer to entertain me as they go to sleep. It turns out that if you go on vacation without your kids, you can do things like stay out until midnight and then go to bed as soon as you get back to the hotel.

In related news, did you know that there is still a midnight?

In more related news, yes, I am aware of how lame I am for being impressed that I was out and about with the living people after eleven in the pm.

Also related, Jesus Christ, I am so glad I don’t go to bars late at night. Just walking past them was enough for me.

Anywho, Alex and I have returned from our five-day trip to Key West. In case you want a reminder of exactly how pathetic we are, that was our first trip without our kids since before Sam was born. In other words, about 13 years.

Don’t worry though. Much as we may have considered it, we didn’t just abandon Team Stimey Junior to Minecraft and their own devices. My mother came into town to take care of them. She didn’t let on, but she was suitably apprehensive. After all, as an old friend of hers said, “DON’T YOU READ HER BLOG?!”

She shouldn’t have worried. They got along swimmingly.

Photo of my three kids sitting on the couch with my mom. Jack is slightly blurry. All are smiling and look very happy.

I’m not sure that Jack ever stops moving long enough to be completely not blurry.

Although let’s be honest. I think we all know that my kids didn’t sit around compliantly all week. My mom definitely worked hard.

A photo of my kids and mom in the same spot as before, but this time their limbs are thrown about and they are laughing and wild.

Yes. That looks right.

I can’t wait to tell you guys about our trip because it was awesome. We had so much fun. I took seven million great photos. We laughed and snorkeled and drank out of pineapples.

But tonight I am preparing to go back to work tomorrow and it is also Jack’s first day of camp and my mom left this afternoon, so I am going to hold off on telling you about all of that and instead, I will sit here by my cat and regale you with stories about our alcohol-fueled metal sculpture souvenir-buying extravaganza.

I think my mom was nervous when I called her to get her mailing address because it wasn’t in my phone and then texted her a photo of the souvenir I’d purchased for myself.

Photo of a metal, multi-colored rat. He is about a foot tall and oh so very garish.

I call him Hemingway. He is so fucking awesome. And, yes, I was also baffled that no one else had already bought him. Weirdly, the shopkeeper seemed thrilled to sell him, offering us a deep discount.

“Yours is more dignified,” I told my mom via text.

Also, it was a pelican.

Photo of a metal pelican standing on a metal post. He's probably three feet tall and a rusty bronze color.

I would name him Rusty, but who knows what my mom will call him.

I’m pretty sure she’s going to place him right inside her front door so it’s the first thing visitors to her home see. She used an appropriate amount of enthusiasm when I eventually showed her a photo, so I think she likes it.

In other news, I have a metal sculpture-buying tip for you: As you put more and more giant metal statuary on the shop counter, discounts will get increasingly larger and the salesperson’s face will get increasingly happier. You might then choose to buy one sculpture for each of your children instead of one for the three of them to share.

Whereas for my mom, we were looking for something a reasonable adult would put in a home, we had no such criterion for our children.

Photo of a round-bodied monster on tall, thin legs. Its predominant features are it's buggy eyes and giant teeth. He's also carrying a hockey stick.

That’s why we got this hockey-playing monster who tried to eat Chester for Jack.

Jack’s most excellent response upon seeing this guy was, “LOL. He’s like me.”

He then took him to his room to find a spot for him. Jack reported back that “he’s trying to eat my bedroom.”

Photo of the monster with several of Jack's toys in its mouth.

Jack. That kid totally gets Alex and me.

Sam got the cat version of my rat. Said cat is pretty hilarious.

Photo of a multi-colored metal cat.

Honestly, his was probably the most dignified non-pelican that we purchased.

You’ve probably already guessed that we got Quinn a cat as well, but you may not have guessed that we got him a Slinky Cat. He’s hilarious.

Photo of a metal cat. His body is a long metal spring.

Slinky Cat has the benefit of being poseable. He can sit or stand. (He chooses to stand.)

Clearly, Alex and I are pretty delighted with our souvenir purchases. Fortunately, our recipients seem to be equally enamored.

I hope you all enjoy them as well. Thank you for indulging me. You may now carry on with the non-metal sculpture related parts of your life.

This Is Likely to End With the Adoption of 800 New Stimey Cats

In the county in which my kids go to school, each child must perform 75 SSL (student service learning) hours before they graduate from high school. Students start earning their hours once they enter middle school, so Sam started this past year and Jack will begin this coming year.

Because of this, I am always looking for fun and approved volunteer jobs for my kiddos. Up until now, these jobs have been mostly one-shot events that I’ve run across. For example, Sam has helped with a school event or we picked up trash for a local organization. However, I’ve been looking for recurring jobs because that just seems easier than always keeping my eyes open for something my kiddos can help with.

Recently, we found a Saturday chess camp at which Sam can volunteer, which is great, but the real coup, the be-all-end-all of SSL volunteer opportunities came when a friend of ours recommended my family for a weekly job, starting this month.

The timing was terrible. We trained right during our move and our first week was this week, when my mom was in town and we had 7000 other things to do. It was one more thing that my family could barely handle, but we did it.

Do you wanna know why?

Do you wanna know what our four-hours-a-week-Wednesday-afternoon volunteer job is?

Here’s a hint:

Close up photo of a young black cat behind the bars of a cage.

It’s blurry because it was one of seven million photos that my kids took in rapid succession.

Yes. It is cat related.

Yes. It is a job that was practically tailor made for Team Stimey.

We are working for a local cat rescue organization that put cats up for adoption at a pet store. My kids are in heaven.

We clean the cages and keep everything in our little room all ship shape and…wait for it…we play with the cats. Sam and Jack get to earn their SSL hours by playing with cats. It’s the greatest gig ever. Especially considering that I help them clean the cages.

Photo of Sam snuggling with a very small, 9-week-old black and white kitten.

Can you tell how hard he’s working?

I actually think I got the rawest end of the deal. I’m hoping to take only two of my kids at a time, so as not to overwhelm the cats, so this week I just took Sam and Jack. One of them would help me clean a cage and the other would play with the cat who occupied that cage. Then they would trade for the next cage.

Sadly, I never got to rotate out to the cat-playing position to watch them clean a cage together.

Fortunately, after we cleaned the cages, I got to snuggle some cats too. But still. Kinda unfair, right? I’m hoping to train them well enough so that eventually I’ll just sit and pet cats as I watch my kids scrub litter boxes.

I figure we’ll get to that point in five, maybe six…years.

Still, even though I did a bunch of the work, both Sam and Jack did great. After about an hour, Jack asked for a break, so I let him play iPad for a while. He still earned his hours though because he was simultaneously working hard taking care of the cats.

Jack sitting in a folding chair, playing an iPad with one hand. The other hand is petting a cat who is sitting in the chair next to him.

Did I mention that this is the best gig ever?

The hazard to this job, however, is that my kids want to adopt every cat in the place. They filled up my phone with photos and videos of the cats that were there this week and I have already gotten my fair share of, “Please mom! I really want to adopt him!”

Team Stimey Junior doesn’t seem to understand, “But we have a really good cat ecosystem right now and we don’t want to upset the balance,” so I’ve had to resort to shouting, “No! NO! I said we’re not adopting any more cats! NOOOOOO!”

So far no one has cried. Not even me.

We all feel pretty happy about the whole deal. But, for the love of god, let’s stop throwing these perfect opportunities my way, okay? My calendar is filling up.

Let’s Talk About the Avalon Bay Portable Ice Maker (AB-ICE26)

Sharp left turn: Now it’s time for a product review! Fine print: I was given a free Avalon ice maker for review purposes. My thoughts here are my own.

The last time Alex and I lived without an ice maker built into our refrigerator, it almost ended in divorce, what with all the finger pointing and the blaming and the recriminations about who used all the ice and who left the ice cube tray empty and HOW DAMN HARD IS IT TO PUT WATER IN A SERIES OF LITTLE PLASTIC SQUARES ANYWAY?!

Because I’m still reliving the trauma of that situation, I was worried when I discovered that the house we were moving into had no ice maker in the fridge.

I know. The horror.

But then, out of nowhere, I got an email from the good people at Avalon Bay. They had a product called the Avalon Bay Portable Ice Maker (SKU=AB-ICE26) and they wanted to offer one to me for review. Weird, right? I mean, how did they know?

Photo of a red ice maker.

It comes in other colors, but I like the red.

Now, you don’t see me doing a lot of reviews around here because it’s not really my thing. But every once in a while, something comes along that I am really curious about and would like to try out. This was one of them. I signed right up and shortly thereafter, my brand new ice maker showed up at my door.

HOW IT WORKS:

You don’t need a water line connected to the ice maker. All you have to do is plug it in and fill it with a couple liters of clean water. The machine swings into action and produces ice cubes in less than 13 minutes. It continues to make and collect ice cubes in a little ice tray at the top of the machine until said ice tray is full. Because it isn’t refrigerated, the unused ice melts back into the water reservoir and is remade into new ice so there is always fresh ice in the ice tray.

THE GOOD:

It makes ice without my having to fill little plastic trays with water.

It’s fast. It really does make ice in just a matter of minutes. The ice cubes are hollow, which is how it gets made so fast. Also, I think there is some sort of magic going on down there in the machine. It doesn’t make a lot of ice, even when the ice tray is full, but it makes it fast enough that that doesn’t really matter. My family has been using it for three or more weeks now and we’ve never run out of ice.

You just saved so much space in your freezer! No more ice cube trays!

You can choose between two sizes of ice so if you want to fit the ice in a water bottle or something, it will fit.

Photo of two ice cubes in a hand. They are both hollow and sort of bullet shaped. One is larger than the other.

My family has mostly used the large cubes.

The ice is fun to eat because of its texture and hollowness. It’s good. And it crunches in a fun way.

THE BAD:

The ice maker is kinda pricey. It costs $149.95. If I’d had to pay for it, I would have had to think long and hard about it. That said, it’s cheaper than buying a fridge specifically because of its ice making abilities.

It’s also big. If your counter space is at a premium, it might be tough to find a place for the ice maker. I have it tucked into a corner in my kitchen and it doesn’t feel obtrusive, but it could be.

Photo of the ice maker next to a pineapple.

Pineapple for scale.

It is loud. I would say this is the ice maker’s biggest drawback. Because the ice melts and reforms, it runs almost all the time. It doesn’t run when the ice tray is full, but it runs a lot. I’m not sure what to compare it to, but I would say that maybe it sounds like a coffee maker that is running most of the time. It’s white noise, but if running appliances bother you, this one might.

FINAL OPINION:

We complain about how loud it is, but we use the thing all the time. I like not having to worry about refilling ice trays. I don’t even have to fill the water reservoir very often. It had never even occurred to me to get a portable ice maker, but I am very happy that I have one now.

Also, still no ice tray-related divorce.

Where’s Chester?

Here’s Chester!

Photo of a metal monkey with Chester, my small brown stuffed mouse, sitting on top of him as if riding him like a horse.

This monkey is prominently placed in front of our new home. It’s like a sign post that says, “We’re whimsical!” or “These people are ridiculous; avoid them!”

We’re settling into our new house and loving it so very much. I mean, it’s not awesome that the air conditioner broke a week after we moved in and even though it is covered by our home warranty, that still doesn’t make the part get ordered any faster and it’s 80 million degrees in my bedroom right now and has been for the past five days, because OF COURSE THAT HAPPENED A WEEK AFTER WE MOVED IN.

But anywho.

I’m still unpacking, but I’ve prepared the house enough to introduce you all to the new location of Stimeyland. Naturally, it is way more fun to introduce you with a game involving Chester, the toy mouse.

Remember Waldo? Just as you used to try to find a drawing of Waldo in a much larger scene, you will try to find Chester in larger photos of some of the rooms in my new house. Unfortunately, it was not until this very moment that it occurred to me that I should have dressed him in a red and white striped shirt and hat.

Dammit. Opportunity missed.

We’ll start with an easy one. Here is the front of my house. Where’s Chester?

Photo of my front door taken from down some of the steps leading to the door. Chester is sitting on the brick ledge in front of the door.

As with all the photos in this post, you can click to embiggen for easier searching.

Oh, look! There he is!

Close up of Chester on the brick ledge.

I made a mistake and didn’t take this photo from the same vantage point as the bigger one. I’m sorry. I did better with the others.

That one was too easy, but you get the point, right? Okay, let’s play!

Here is the back yard of my house. We brought our bedraggled hammock all the way from our old house. Because we are klassy that way.

Photo of a hammock in a back yard. You can see the back of a house with grass and trees in front of it.

Where’s Chester?

Here’s Chester!

Close up of Chester on the hammock with his head on the hammock pillow.

The thing that makes this hammock even classier is that the hammock pillow there? It’s actually a seat cushion I tied to the hammock. Put that shit on Pinterest.

One fun thing about our new house is that it comes with its very own train. Beyond our back fence is a ravine with tracks at the bottom. Alex has had one question for anyone who will listen: “What’s the hobo situation?”

Photo of trees at the edge of a ravine, at the bottom of which you can see some train tracks.

I can see one tiny hobo in the photo. Can you?

Also, again I’m disappointed in myself for not making him a little stick with a kercheif packet at the end of it.

Close up of Chester on a tree trunk

Wouldn’t he look jauntier if he had a bindle?

In addition to a gate that gives us access to the tracks (and hobos), we have a Chester-sized hole so he has easy access as well. It’s like this house was built for us.

IMG_5567

Hopefully he won’t take off as soon as he finds the right sized stick.

I love our new living room. Please ignore the toys strewn all over the floor.

Photo of a living room with wood-looking floors, chairs, and couches. There is a blanket on the couch and some bookshelves.

Please, however, don’t ignore the awesome piggy bank, which is one of my favorite things in my house.

Ever since we moved, I haven’t had a good chance to nap, which is one of my favorite activities.

Close up of Chester with his head on a couch pillow and covered by a blue tardis blanket.

Chester, however, has not had a similar problem.

We haven’t had a formal dining room…ever, so we don’t have a lot of stuff to put in that room.

Photo of a dining room with a table in the middle of it and not much else. There is a vase of flowers on the table and a cat investigating said flowers.

That’s Ruby enjoying the flowers a wonderful friend brought to me.

Chester was pretty easy to spot, wasn’t he?

Close up of Chester sitting on the table near the vase and a piece of paper written on in crayon. There is a cat sitting over him sniffing the flowers.

There he is, sitting under the cat, reading a note my friend Kate‘s daughter left at our house.

Every house needs a kitchen, or so I hear.

Photo of a kitchen. It's shaped like the letter "u" and has some stuff on the counters.

We mostly use it as a repository for snacks and a place to cut fruit.

If you need a hint about where Chester is, just remember that our AC is broken and it was 99 degrees today.

Photo of a red portable ice maker with Chester's head sticking out of the top.

He’s in our new portable ice maker. (I’m reviewing the ice maker. Stay tuned for that this week.) I wish *I* could fit in an ice maker.

Maybe my favorite room in the whole house is our family room. We splurged on a new couch for this room. I love it so much. So do my kids, who have enjoyed the time I’ve spent unpacking because that means I let them play Xbox all day.

Photo of a room with a fireplace and a big brown couch. There are a couple of kids on the couch.

If you look closely, you can see a couple of the munchkins gorging on screen time in the couch.

You can also see someone else gorging on screentime.

Close up of Chester on the couch, sitting next to an Xbox controller.

He’s a big fan of Plants vs. Zombies Garden Warfare.

“But where are the gerbils, Stimey?” you ask.

That was a tough one. I wanted them somewhere that they would be near people a lot, but Alex didn’t want them in our family room because when they chew their cardboard, they’re pretty loud and make it hard to hear the TV.

Therefore, they went to live in the office.

Photo of my desk near a sun-filled window. Behind the chair are both gerbil tanks.

I cannot even tell you how nice it is to have my chair right next to that big ol’ window. The gerbils are nice too.

I like that the gerbils are so low so visiting children, cats, and other friends can stop by and say hi.

Close up of Chester on top of a gerbil tank. One of the gerbils is stretched up to sniff at him.

Chester and Jefferie took some time during our photo session to get acquainted.

Chester’s not in the next photo, but Starfire made a pretty good case for being a new Stimeyland cover photo with this next pose:

Photo of Starfire behind a sign that says "STIMEYLAND" in fancy lettering. There is a bamboo plant next to her.

She is also making a good case for why we don’t have live plants. That bamboo plant used to have shoots coming out the top before Starfy and her buddies waged war on it.

The biggest reason we moved to a new house was so all of our kids could have their own rooms. This one belongs to Quinn:

Photo of a room with a twin bed, green rug, hanging blue striped chair, and white shelves.

Quinn is so delighted with this room. It took close to a week before he let either of his brothers cross the threshold.

Chester on the other hand, well, he can come and go as he pleases.

Close up of Chester in the blue striped chair.

Chester can use some therapy swinging, just like Q-ball.

When we bought the house, Jack’s room was painted in bright yellow and pink vertical stripes. Take a moment to visualize that. Then look at how beautiful it is now.

Photo of a room with blue walls, a twin bed, a gray rug, a LEGO table, and a dresser with some stuff on it.

Some day we’ll put blinds on that window, but today is not that day.

I haven’t unpacked all of Jack’s things yet, but even so, he has managed to create delightful little scenes all over his shelves.

Close up of  a stack, from bottom to top: a Minecraft chest, Minecraft dirt block, Minecraft TNT, Minecraft grass block, Minecraft Steve, and then Chester on top.

He’s a daredevil, that Chester.

We haven’t put anything on any of the walls, with the exception of where there are already nails. Sam was lucky enough to have one of those spots in his room.

Photo of a room with a double bed, a colorful rug, a window with curtains, and a dreamcatcher and little yarn purse hanging on a nail over the bed.

That window treatment was there when we moved in. Sam loves it. Awesome. One less thing to buy.

I’m not sure how Sam can make a mess of his room when we haven’t unpacked everything and he has, like, three belongings in there. It’s almost like someone else has been sneaking in and using the room in his absence.

Photo of Chester under the covers with a small stuffed blue bear.

Gasp! Scandal!

Alex and my room hasn’t been fully unpacked yet. The movers put a lot of boxes up there that don’t belong up there, so I’m currently sorting through them to figure out where they actually go.

Chester is tough to find in this photo, but see if you can spot all three cats.

Photo of part of a master bedroom littered with boxes—and three cats.

This room is huge. That is the corner of our bed in the bottom left. I love it so much. You can’t really tell in this photo, but it is really bright up there.

Oh, right. The cats. Ruby is up in the left window. Starfire is on the floor to the left of one of the boxes and Oreo is walking into the room from the right.

Chester is in the box of packing paper.

Close up of Oreo partially buried in a cardboard box full of packing paper.

Wait. That’s not Chester.

There’s Chester in the box of packing paper!

Close up of Chester in a cardboard box of packing paper.

Whereas Oreo hopped in the box herself and settled in for the duration, I think Chester was more concerned about being recycled.

Also, this photo of Ruby is super pretty, so I’m posting it as well.

Photo of Ruby sitting in a window. She is looking out at the trees beyond.

This house has lots of window sills for the cats. I think they like it here.

We also have a basement. I haven’t unpacked a damn thing down there. We have, however, made use of the Foosball table the previous owners left for us.

Photo of a basement room full of boxes and empty shelves. In the foreground is a wooden Foosball table.

It is apparently a “left handed Foosball table.” I have no idea what that means.

In the spirit of the World Cup, here is a closeup of the table—and its friendly and vigilant goalkeeper.

Close up of Chester standing in the Foosball table, directly in front of the goal.

I don’t think he knows how close he is to being knocked down into the bowels of the Foosball table. One fast moving ball is all it would take.

So there it is—a tour of much of my new house. I hoped you enjoyed it as much as Chester did. I love this house so much. I mean, once you get past that it is hot as hell inside. It is so beautiful and spacious and I feel so lucky to live in it.

One of these days—I’m guessing 2017 or so—I will be all done unpacking and I’ll get to actually relax in the house. That’s going to be a good year.

Until then, I will just keep enjoying the fiasco that is a partially unpacked house and the chaos that comes with it. Although actually, I might be sad when I’m done unpacking because the cats are enjoying the process so much and I am truly enjoying watching them enjoy it.

Another photo of Oreo in the cardbord box of packing paper.

Like this. I mean, really. Can you beat this?

Superstars

I don’t even know what to say about what has occurred over the past two days. My last post seems to have hit a nerve.

I want to thank you for your support. Knowing that Jack and I have you in my corner makes me feel so very good. Thank you for commenting on that last post and sharing it and reminding me that it is important to tell these stories so more people hopefully hear, really hear, how important it is to include all students.

The thing that kills me is that, as a result of that post, I have been hearing story after story of similar exclusions happening to special education students all over the country. Every time someone sent a mean comment or told me that what happened wasn’t a big deal, someone else sent me a story of a brokenhearted kid who had been left out of something as simple but important to them as a photo.

There were the kids who were left out of their school yearbooks. There were the kids whose school forgot to read their names at their elementary school graduation.There were the kids who didn’t get included in the second grade end-of-year activities. There was the kiddo who was excluded from his first grade class photo. There were more stories, but you get the idea.

I sent Jack’s principal an email on Friday morning. It seemed like the right thing to do. In the email, I told her why I wrote the post, my intention being to highlight how much it matters to include every student in all aspects of student life. I told her how, in her position at a school that houses an autism program, she had a very powerful opportunity to not just make sure that all students are included, but to make sure that the typical students know that all students are valued and counted as well.

She responded to my email with a phone call and we talked, not just about the bulletin board, but about the atmosphere of inclusion and whether or not special education students and parents feel it at Sligo Creek. I can’t speak for everyone. I’m sure some do. I can speak for some. Even though they love the Asperger’s program, they don’t feel like a part of the school community.

The principal disputes the timeline as I laid it out in my post. She says the the photos were up before my friend posted the photo she took. My friend remains adamant that the photos were not up at that time. I know my friend and I know she was looking for her daughter’s photo. I believe my friend. Her daughter stood with her as she posted the photo. I imagine that if her photo were already up, that bright, strong-minded fifth grader would have mentioned it to her mom. Some of you will believe the principal. That’s fine. There’s some fuzzy blame about not getting messages and front office staff. I can’t know for sure what happened, but my friend is not a person who just makes things up. I trust her account.

The principal told me how our kids were left out in the first place. The photos were taken at lunchtime in the cafeteria, a time when my son and his classmates are in their classroom. Their photos weren’t taken because they weren’t there. Innocent oversight, sure.

But, I would posit that when you forget a classroom of kids just because they are not in the room, you are not fostering that atmosphere of inclusion.

To her credit, the principal sounded horrified about the whole situation. Part of that horror could be that everyone from the superintendent on down has evidently been in contact with her about this. To her credit, she apologized to me. Not to her credit, as of Friday night, she had not contacted my friend to apologize.

The principal told me stories of helping and standing up for the students in the autism program individually that I hope are accurate, because they are lovely. They are also the right thing to do and in most cases, legally required of a principal. She told me about her own disabled daughter and how it hurts her that people would think she doesn’t support students with disabilities. I didn’t mention this on the phone, but I have written here about some of the wonderful school-wide inclusion that I have seen at Sligo Creek.

She was very nice on the phone. She sounded very genuine. I don’t think she’s a bad person. Being a principal must be a very difficult job and I’m sure it’s frustrating to be called out so publicly for one thing. I understood her position. But then I thought about how I had felt at the school for the past two years.

I really do love Jack’s program. I feel very at home and welcomed by the Asperger’s program staff and the school paraeducators and one of the general education teachers. But I haven’t felt like a full, participating member of the school community

I needed to tell her that.

I hate phones. I hate confrontation. I was shaking as I spoke to the her. But I knew that I had to speak up. I am so glad that you are doing these things, I told her. (I am.) I hope that the students in the Asperger’s program don’t feel the lack of inclusion that some of the parents feel, because that is what matters, I told her. But, I said, I am not the only parent who feels this way. There are a bunch of us who feel as if we don’t quite belong and aren’t welcomed the way the rest of the school families are.

I reminded her about how last year a general education parent and I had tried for months to get a meeting with her to discuss doing some autism education for the general education kids who go to school alongside our autistic kiddos. I reminded her that the other parent works in autism research and that I have done autism education with kids—and have Asperger’s myself. I reminded her that we emailed over and over and when that didn’t work, when a meeting had been scheduled and then canceled just an hour beforehand, we submitted a written proposal that she never commented on. I told her how we eventually just gave up.

I told her about how my family had tried to attend the end-of-the-year social just last week, which was completely unstructured and held in a parking lot. I told her that my son couldn’t participate without a common activity, even playground equipment, to start an interaction. I told her how my son, who has been at the school for two years, ended up just walking in circles. I didn’t see a single student come up to him to say hi. No one was mean. No one objected to his presence. But no one welcomed him either.

There are more examples. I gave some to the principal. Some I did not. I don’t need to go into them now. Probably any parent of a child with a disability has similar experiences. Probably any person with a disability has similar examples.

I am school volunteer person. This year I co-chaired large events at each of my other sons’ schools. At my youngest son’s elementary school, people used to ask if I worked there because I was there so often. I served on the PTA board there for the past three years and for the past two, have had weekly or near weekly volunteer jobs there. I volunteered last year at Jack’s school for a couple of class parties and with some wall decorations for a big 4th grade project. The parents were nice. But I could never quite shake the feeling of “other.” I know that’s not all the school’s fault. Part of it is my own baggage. But there are definitely ways to be more inclusive of our families, many of whom come in to the school in 3rd or 4th or 5th grade, after most of the families have been together since kindergarten.

It sounds like the principal will be making an effort at more inclusion. She contacted a family who had had some inclusion concerns of their own and suggested that they meet over the summer to discuss how to make the school more inclusive. She has told me that she’d like to schedule a meeting with me and the other mom who wanted to speak to her about autism education. I’m thrilled to hear these things. I hope they really do come to fruition. I am sad that it took a firestorm of controversy to make it happen.

At the end of the day, however, we have to remember that our kids weren’t included because they weren’t in the room when the camera showed up. We have to remember that my friend went to the office multiple times and was put off, fuzzy blame about who knew what and who was told when be damned. My friend followed the chain of command in informing the secretary and had extremely valid reasons for not contacting the principal about this particular issue (those reasons being not mine to share). The school was informed of their mistake and it took them weeks to fix it. That matters to the kids who walked by the bulletin board every day.

You should know that my friend works so hard at that school. The reason she knows the photo situation was going on for so long was because she was at the school regularly. She’s a squeaky wheel, my friend, always speaking up for our kids. Part of speaking up as a parent of a special education child includes fear of reprisals—not for us, but for our kids. That is the culture of special education in this county, in this country. I panicked a little when this post started making the rounds, for that very reason. My friend is extremely brave to speak her mind the way she does and I am so glad that I could amplify her voice this one time.

I have hope that maybe this will start a conversation at Sligo Creek. I hope that the principal can put aside feeling hurt and listen to the kids and parents who are at the school now and in the future. I hope that the angry parents who responded on my last post telling me this was no big deal can look past their anger and understand that this isn’t about parent egos—it’s about young kids and their self esteem. I hope that all the parents at the school can continue to help their kids grow into people who include all people every time. I hope that I can put aside my own hurt and anger and meaningfully contribute my voice to the conversation.

I hope that this fundamental message can spread: Every person has intrinsic value and deserves to be included as a human right. Remember what my son wrote in his essay: “I would not be forgotten.” No child should have to feel that they could be forgotten at their school.

To each of your kids who has had this happen to them, tell them that that they are important. Tell them that they are valued. Tell them that they are not less than or an afterthought. Tell them that they should be included because they are worth including, not just because it’s the right thing to do. Tell them that we love them and that we SEE them. 

Tell them that they are superstars.

Literally Every 5th Grader

I don’t know exactly when the bulletin board went up, but it was probably in January or February. I didn’t have a chance to go in to Jack’s school very often, so I wasn’t aware of it at all until a friend of mine—the mom of one of Jack’s classmates—posted about it on Facebook in March.

See, this was a bulletin board about the “Superstars” of Jack’s school—the class of 2014.

Photo of a bulletin board covered in yellow paper with a border of paper flowers. Letters spelling out "Our Superstars" and "Class of 2014" are stapled to the board along with photos of the school's fifth graders. I've blurred out the photos for privacy reasons.

I took this photo last Friday, months after it was originally put up.

Jack is part of the class of 2014, so I imagine he was excited to be called a superstar. Except…well, except for the fact that this bulletin board—which was posted within 30 feet of his classroom, insuring that he saw it every single day—included photos of all the fifth graders except for the three fifth graders in Jack’s Asperger’s classroom.

Evidently if you are in an autism classroom, you aren’t a superstar at Sligo Creek Elementary School.

My friend, who is the hero of this story, wrote on Facebook about how she saw this bulletin board often, as she visited the class regularly.

“Each visit is the same: I approach the poster with a mixture of dread and anger at what I know I will see, yet again. And then I turn around, go to the office, and politely inform the secretary that the poster that my daughter and her classmates walk past every day *still* does not include them, and maybe this whole thing started out as just an oversight but it’s been weeks now and could someone *please* add our children’s pictures to the poster so they don’t have to be reminded every single day, as they walk to their special education classroom, that their school’s administration has overlooked them and their achievements?”

She did this for weeks. She would see that the poster didn’t include our kids and she would tell the secretary and she would be ignored. When she finally told the secretary that she was going to fix the poster herself by adding a photo of our kids, she was told that she couldn’t do that because it would be defacing school property.

As you might imagine, that didn’t go over well with my friend. She made it clear in no uncertain terms that if the kids from the autism program weren’t added to the poster by the administration, she would do it herself, and if someone had a problem with that, well, that problem would become public fast.

It was early March when my friend’s daughter reported that the principal had come to the classroom to take photos of the three fifth grade students in Jack’s class.

Except…

Except again.

The photos still didn’t go up. It was mid-March when those three fifth grade students attended a birthday party together. My friend put our kids together and took a photo. On March 18th [date corrected from earlier version], she took that photo and four thumbtacks to the school and she DEFACED THAT BULLETIN BOARD.

Photo of Jack and his two 5th-grade classmatess. I've put bright colored circles over their faces, with smiley faces drawn on them because they're not my kids and I don't want to post their photos here.

Their real faces are even cuter.

*standing ovation*

This was nine weeks after she first mentioned this to the secretary. NINE WEEKS.

At some point the school went ahead and posted individual photos of each of the three fifth graders in the autism classroom, but it wasn’t done until my friend had spoken up multiple times over the course of weeks and then posted her own photo.

Photo of Jack stapled to the yellow bulletin board next to a white paper star.

I think this photo adds a lot to the superstar collage.

As far as I know, my friend and her daughter haven’t gotten an apology from the principal. I know that Jack and I sure haven’t.

I really like Jack’s program. He has done really well there. He has gone from being miserable about school and himself to being happy and full of self esteem. He has a safe place to be when school gets too overwhelming, but he spends much of his day in inclusion classes. His teachers are wonderful. His paras have been good to him. His IEP team is delightful. The other kids in his class are phenomenal. I’m very happy that he is in this program. He is very happy that he is in this program.

But damn.

I wish that my school district was able to serve my kid in his home school in an inclusion classroom. But they couldn’t. They couldn’t or wouldn’t give him the support he needed, so we found another option, one that seemed to work. The thing is, segregation of students has limitations. Even though my kid has been well served in his program, he is obviously seen as less than in the eyes of the administration. These kids do not seem to be the principal’s priority.

If you read here, I’m sure you know why it matters that all kids are included in all parts of school life. It seems so obvious to me, yet it is clearly not obvious to the people who kept moving “post photos from the Asperger’s class” to the bottom of their to-do list.

Every child has an intrinsic worth. Every child has a right to belong. Every child has a right to be treated with respect. Every child has a right to be included, not just by peers and teachers, but by the people who lead the school and set the tone for everyone in the building.

I was furious when I heard about this bulletin board from my friend. I am still furious as I write this. It breaks my heart that people who work with students with disabilities day in and day out still forget that they matter and that they have thoughts and feelings and desires and complex inner lives.

If you doubt that, check out this essay that Jack brought home last week about 5th grade photo day. The 5th grade all wore their special “class of 2014″ shirts on the same day and sat for a photo of the whole grade. Jack remembered all by himself what day he was to wear the shirt and excitedly sat for the photo.

Photo of a small section of Jack's essay titled "2014 School Picture." The full text is below.

Jack wrote about the day. Full text is below.

“2014 School Picture: On June 3rd, I was so excited for the 5th grade picture. I couldn’t wait for it. All the 5th grade, LITERALLY ALL OF THEM, were in the picture. It was so awesome, I could not wait for it. I was in the 3rd row closest to the camera, very close to the flash, so it could get a good angle of me. I couldn’t be forgotten in Sligo Creek Elementary pictures with me in one, especially this one and the graduating class of 2014. [Classmate one] and [classmate two] were close to me, and they were good friends. Lots of people I knew were there, some were close to me and some weren’t. Everyone else seemed to be prepared, as I was thoroughly prepared. That was the best day of my life!”

Read that and tell me that it doesn’t matter if Jack’s photo wasn’t on the superstar board. Read that and tell me that putting my kid’s photo up was “defacing” the bulletin board. Read that and tell me that the principal was doing her best by my kid and those in his class. Read that and tell me that Jack doesn’t understand inclusion.

“I couldn’t be forgotten.”

“All the 5th grade, LITERALLY ALL OF THEM, were in the picture.”

“That was the best day of my life!”

In terms of injustice toward disabled people, this is probably not that big a deal. But to my kid and to the kids in his class, it is a huge deal. Remember that. Even the little things matter.