It feels like today was the real beginning of this whole blogging endeavor. Shortly after the school year ended, the kids and I left town to go stay with my parents in the Midwest. For three weeks, they cared for us and lovingly spoiled us, feeding us well, enrolling the kids in camps, treating us in every way they could to a wonderful visit in their comfortable home. I am not sure if I ever would have gotten the blog up and running if I had not had those weeks of relief from the usual obligations of my daily life. Now, as of yesterday evening, we are back home in California and if punkadotamus.com is ever going to amount to anything, I need to find a way to carve out some time to write, without completely abandoning sleep.
For the final week of Wyatt and Duncan’s summer vacation, we will be at a reunion with my mom’s side of the family; Aaron will take the time off so our nuclear family can attend together. Between now and then, we have nothing—I mean nothing—planned. Aaron’s got a lot of work to get done before the academic year begins and I will be home with the kids and puppy for three weeks with no camps, no classes, no activities, no babysitters, no childcare, no household help of any sort, and a very limited budget for anything extraneous. Duncan adequately summed up our current financial predicament a few weeks ago:
“What we are in, is a money drought,” he said (California kids are well acquainted with the concept of drought).
“Duncan, that is exactly right!” I said, pleased that he was able to put to words what I had been explaining less succinctly to friends and family for months.
We have been in a decent financial position in the past, and we expect to be back there some time in the not too distant future, but at present, our cash flow is about as dried up as the creek beds hereabouts; we are waiting to recover financially just like the State of California is waiting for rains to fall again.
We are not impoverished. We live in a solid old house and drive a nice family car; the kids have shoes on their feet and food in their bellies, we have a bed and a bicycle for each of them, and they are deluged with attention and affection from our large close-knit extended family. At age 8, Wyatt has never gone even a year of life without at least one trip by airplane; last year we were able to take our whole family to Ireland for my sister’s wedding. Of course there are things to complain about in any life, but in my case, I find it helpful to keep in mind that compared to the vast majority of the people in the world, we have it really, really good.
However, we are still struggling.
With Aaron pursuing an academic career and me staying home with the kids, we knew from the get go that we would never be rolling in dough. Our choice to have three kids and to raise them in one of the most expensive areas in the country makes the dream of a comfortable lifestyle even less attainable. Personally, I have no need of excessive wealth— I don’t have expensive tastes or many material desires; I am content to still be wearing the same purple fleece bathrobe my parents gave me when I went off to college in 1996—but I do hope we will one day be able to pay off our debts, save for our kids’ college tuition, and have enough wiggle room to cover certain luxuries, such as gifts for friends and family, date nights for Aaron and me, extracurricular activities for the kids, occasional family vacations, and frivolous grocery shopping at Whole Foods (ahhh, Whole Foods…).
Although we knew it would set us back a lot, this past November we leapt at the opportunity to buy a home of our own in one of the better school districts in the area. It was a calculated risk. In recent years, we have dragged our kids around, moving several times, putting them in new schools only to have to pull them out again. As renters, we have lived through rat infestations, lead paint exposure, lack of personal space, lack of autonomy, and difficult landlords, all the while paying twice as much for one third the living space of the home we owned back when we lived in Central Pennsylvania.
Our new house is not a perfect fit for us—we are on the corner of a busy street with cars flying down it night and day; we have a tiny yard, not big enough to kick a soccer ball or play catch in; there’s only one full bathroom (I can wait to see how it is to share that with three teenaged sons)— and it needed and still needs more work done than we really wanted to commit to. However, it is an undeniably nice house, a hundred years old, built with a grand character; the rooms, although few, are spacious and high-ceilinged; the kitchen, bathroom, and master bedroom were all recently renovated by the previous owners. Given enough time and attention, it will make a truly lovely home. We were lucky to be able to buy it below asking price at a time when the real estate market is exploding. It is our one great chance to stay put, build equity, live in this part of the country we love so much, and give our kids the privilege and security of being educated in the excellent local public schools.
We jumped into the house purchase with both feet and now we are kicking like mad to stay afloat. In the past half a year, Aaron and I have both had to borrow from our parents to keep our heads above water (which was not a part of our plan) and we have had to curtail our spending to an absolute minimum (which was expected, although not quite to this level) but if we can stick it out, if we can manage to pay our parents back and get through the coming years without borrowing any more or losing our home— and if we are able to live happily and healthily and maintain a decently high quality of life during that time— well then, we are going to feel pretty smart. Thirteen years of exceptional education for each of our three kids and the asset of a house that is unlikely to depreciate in value: in my opinion, that’s more than worth a little struggle.
This brings me back to the next three yawningly open weeks. If we were not in this “money drought”, I might sign the kids up for camps and activities, hire housekeeping help, eat meals out, and pour my energy into writing while the kids were occupied. This is not to be. Instead, I have come up with a new plan: I will attempt to make excellent and creative use of these remaining weeks of summer break by living it up on a shoestring budget and then blogging about it.
My primary goals are: Have fun, Keep my temper, and Spend little.
My secondary goals are: Read, Write, and Run everyday.
My tertiary (sappy, idealized, but still honest and sincere) goals are: Make the kids laugh, Take them new places, Create something, Learn something, Lead by example, Give them space to explore, Embrace summer boredom, Don’t overschedule, Go the beach, Go to the city, Take a hike, See friends, Tackle a household project, Get Duncan ready for kindergarten, Ride public trans, Give everyone haircuts, Teach Floyd some tricks, Get Milo fully potty-trained, Improve Wyatt’s spelling, Find a public pool with a diving board, Ride a cable car, Visit museums, Get the kids to bed early enough for Aaron and me to have time together in the evenings, Be better about cleaning up as I go, Figure out the source of the mildew smell in the bathroom, Fix our oven, Improve our backyard, Plant some vegetables, Meet our neighbors, Visit all the parks in our area, See if Milo is ready to learn to ride a bike, Have good conversations, Really listen when they talk to me, Keep Wyatt’s math skills from atrophying, Hang some stuff on our bare walls, Take some photos but not so many that it takes away from the experience of the moment, Be polite to the kids so that they learn to be polite to others, Adopt a “why drive when you can walk?” mentality, Try making my own shampoo/conditioner and cleaning supplies, Find some wacky Groupons to try stuff I never thought of doing.
Day 1, Thurs, July 17
Money Spent: $0
Gas Used: 0 gallons
Quantity/Quality of Exercise: middling
Toll on House/Yard: Medium
Screen Time: None for Wyatt and Duncan; 30 minutes of Starfall (educational online preschool program) for Milo
Scheduled, over-, under-, or just right?: Under-scheduled. Kids started bouncing off the walls in the late afternoon and by then there was only enough time for an hour outdoors before dinner.
Activities/Outings: Nothing special.
Today was a very lazy day. I figured that after being gone for three weeks and traveling yesterday, I would let the kids have a throwaway day if they wanted to. Nobody got dressed until lunchtime. In the morning, I cleaned the fish tank, Milo and Duncan played with Floyd, and Wyatt worked on taking apart an old defunct laptop given to him by his Great-Uncle Tom. There was some excitement when Duncan locked the bathroom door handle and then shut the door from the outside. I gave Wyatt the task of picking the lock with a wire hanger mostly just to keep everyone occupied while I finished with the fish tank, however he surprised me by being successful in short order.
Mid-morning, we threw a Popcorn Book Party. This is how to do it: pop a bunch of popcorn, send the kids scurrying through the house to pick out a pile of books to read, and then sit around eating popcorn and reading books. I made a carafe of coffee for myself as well.
Afternoon: I got everyone dressed and was trying to motivate them to go for a bike ride, but nobody was interested. I soon gave up and left them to their own devices while I sat down to read my email and do some writing with the plan to see how far I could get before someone started screaming. After a long while, hearing nothing amiss, I decided I better investigate what was keeping them so quietly entertained. I came into Wyatt’s room to find all of them completely naked, wearing their underpants on their heads, and playing with LEGOs.
“What happened in here?” I asked.
“What do you mean?” asked Wyatt.
“You’re all naked!”
“No, we have undies on.”
“On your head, you mean.”
It turns out that Wyatt had put on some music and they all thought it was hilarious to take off their clothing and dance around in the nude with their underwear on their heads.
“Then we got kind of distracted by LEGOs,” Wyatt concluded.
“Too distracted to get dressed again?” I said.
In the late afternoon, just an hour before dinner, we set out to walk Floyd. The kids all rode their bikes. After the weeks away from his little pedal-less run bike, Milo was nervous about getting on it. I held it still for him while he climbed on, promising not to let go until he was ready. As soon as his bottom hit the seat, he said, “Oh! Wait a minute, my ‘member now!” It turns out that riding a bike is just like… riding a bike.
Dinner: Aaron made a simple vegetarian dinner of pasta with Boca crumble and marinara, carrots sticks, and wine (for us) and milk (for the kids). It was waiting for us on the table when we got home.
Bedtime: everyone to bed at a decent hour except me (because I’m finishing this).