Summering in Texas

We are in full-on summering mode -- yesterday we worked out, went to the water park (AGAIN), ate barbecue for a late lunch, and came home for a delicious nap in the dark, coolness of shuttered bedrooms. When I woke up, I was STARVING (guys, I didn't even eat the barbecue sauce since I'm no-sugaring). So I set off to HEB (our local grocery store) for supplies to make Pioneer Woman's Coconut Curry Shrimp for dinner.

Now, everyone knows it's hot in Texas in the summer. In Houston, we have the added bonus of wicked humidity. It's a sweaty place for sure. But there's this moment, when you leave the cold air of your car and walk into the Texas sunshine that feels delicious. The heat brushes your body and then settles deep. The air smells like summer. There is a gigantic flat of watermelons just before the automatic doors of the grocery store. And flowers. And herbs. You feel like you should pull on your straw hat and plant something. Or go fishing. Or lay on an inflatable raft in your backyard pool for hours, until your fingers get all shrivel-y.

But mostly, I just wander inside and buy organic vegetables and pretend.

Also, I preach.

When I got home I told Becca that Texas is a lovely place in the summer.

She stared blankly. 

I enumerated the reasons. My Summer Positive List:

1. It's hot, but Houston has the best air conditioning ever. We like our air icy cold. I have to remember to bring a sweater to church.
2. We have lots of pools. Most afternoons Parker hops from one pool to another all down our street. Hey, we are working with what we do have -- water and gunite.
3. People are so darn friendly. There's a lady who works at Target who calls me 'baby' and 'honey' when I check out. Makes me want to get my blanket and sit down for story time.
4. Houston has great food, particularly in the summer. Now that farm-to-table is the 'thing,' it's all fancy beets and leeks and local grass-fed beef. And watermelon.
5. We have Blue Bell ice cream. Amen. (But not me for July.)

My point is that, often, positivity does not come naturally to the teenage animal. So, pull out your summer soapbox and get to testifyin'.

Special time (or, why I went to a water park)

[Note on the sugar challenge: I've gone two days without Diet Coke. I feel like I should get a trophy.]

Day one. Friends over to swim.

Day one. Friends over to swim.

The first month of summer for us has been demarcated by comings and goings. There have been camps and weekends away and some traveling, all of which has continuously changed up the roster of who is at home. Last week it was just me, Sterling and  Becca. This week it's just me, Sterling and Parker. The kids have taken to calling these moments without their siblings as "my special time." As in, "What are we going to do today? Remember, it's my 'special time.'"

The funny thing is that I have never instituted, nor have we ever discussed "special time." But in the interest of my people feeling special, I somehow feel compelled to produce some "special-ness." I really do hate to disappoint.

Last week, for Becca's "special time," she wanted to go out to lunch (every day). This is bad for my waistline. I tried to interest her in food at home, food sitting ready in our refrigerator -- but for some reason that food wasn't "special." And the bummer about knowing that you have precious little time before your child flies off into adulthood is that you are more cognizant and respectful of "special time." So, I ignored my waistline and took that girl out to lunch. Also, she deemed shopping part of "special time." I may need a loan.

I'll just go ahead and admit that Parker's "special time" is easier. He's pretty darn happy with a friend sleeping over and a trip for donuts in the morning. However, yesterday found me at the water park for "special time." Guys, I could do an entire blog post about why I detest water parks. There is nakedness, including my own. There are people. And it's hot. But in the interest of "special time," I, Sarah Brenner Jones, am the proud owner of a season pass.

Somebody hold me.

Mom for a day

Looking for summer activities for big kids? Try letting them be parent for a day.  

Last week, when I was contemplating the need to spend the day at the library, I was also ruminating on what to do with Parker. He's plenty old enough (and responsible enough) to stay home by himself for the day, but my schedule was flexible, so I opted to choose a day when the girls weren't working.  

I knew once I announced that I'd be gone for the day there would be some unhappiness (enacted by complaining). Everyone sure likes it when I'm home to facilitate their meals and entertainment and to drive them places. I considered just laying down the law (a favorite parenting technique of mine), in which I would gruffly explain that work is necessary, and disappointment is part of life. The end.

But in the end I opted for the Tom Sawyer/positive approach, which meant talking about how much FUN they could have, and how Maddie could be MOM FOR A DAY, and how I would leave money for an outing, and they could take pictures. YIPPEE!!!  

They were totally fine with the fun option, and I was interested to see what they would make of their day.

The report goes that they met in Becca's room to formulate a plan. They easily agreed they'd spend their outing money on lunch and settled on Pei Wei. Apparently, some difficulty ensued when Maddie tried to locate her wallet just previous to walking out the door. After a good deal of seaching and hand-wringing and calling about, Maddie realized she'd left her wallet on top of the gas pump the evening before. And lucky for her, a good Samaritan had turned the wallet in -- money and all.

See? It was just like my real day as a real mom.  

All photos by Maddie.

All photos by Maddie.

After lunch, they decided to pick up a movie at Red Box and get junky snacks (since I wasn't home and they still had money left). They grabbed up Hotel Transylvania and a giant bag of peanut M&Ms.  


Reportedly, everything went swimmingly until after the movie, when Becca and Parker started rough-housing and being loud. Maddie's take-away was that while everyone was occupied there was peace and harmony, but once the activity was over . . . the situation went quickly downhill and became (in her words) ANNOYING. 

To which I say -- I'VE BEEN THERE.

Many thanks to Madison for her sterling cooperation. 




On giving up

Summer 2011.

Summer 2011.

Guys, I have been exercising like a crazy woman lately. (I've also been eating like a crazy woman, but that's another story.) I'm doing this boot camp. And I'm running. And, did I mention the boot camp? Because my arms feel like dead weights just flopping around my torso.

So, Saturday I attended boot camp at 7 AM. I know it's not THAT early, but it's early enough that my body screamed at me in a really high-pitched, angry scream when I drug it out of bed at 6:30. I ignored my body and hauled its lifeless self to the field where I tortured it for a good 50 minutes. And when I came home I was all proud and boastful-like. I said, "Sterling! Aren't you so proud of me for going to bootcamp at 7 AM?"

And he gave me a funny look and said, "Sure." Which was totally not what I was going for. So I said, "Look. You should be plenty happy I haven't completely given up." He laughed and praised me (half-heartedly) and went about his merry way.

I was left to think about "giving up." 

Sometimes I wonder if I've "given up" on some of the important stuff with my younger two kids. For instance, when Jordan was in sixth grade, I was still in full-on kid mode. I instituted programs and made sticker charts and fashioned schoolbus cakes from the Family Fun magazine. We were DOING THINGS, and MAKING THINGS, and ACCOMPLISHING THINGS. And now? I kind of just want to MAKE IT THROUGH. 

Is this laziness?

Or wisdom?

Probably some of both.

But in the spirit of enduring to the end, I'm instituting a summer reading "program" over here. My oldest two love to read. And while the two youngers are strong students, neither has yet accepted reading into their heart as the best thing about the entire universe. And this pains me. So I'm not giving up.

We are going to read the Harry Potter series. I think both kids have read the first book. Not reading the other six books, it seems to me, is a travesty and renders their childhoods essentially incomplete. And I'm NOT giving up. Not me.

Here's my initial plan, subject to modifications:

  1. Start by reading the first book out loud. Together. The sheer time commitment of this task seems a little daunting, but considering the amount of time I dedicated to watching seven seasons of The West Wing, I think I can make it through a read-along of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone.
  2. Set aside some dedicated quiet reading time. This is for me as well. I've got some dissertation reading to slug through. I'm thinking we will do this in the mornings while our brains are fresh and before the children have departed to the four winds.
  3. Engage in a bit of Harry Potter mania -- try out some trivia games, make some Butter Beer, maybe even (gasp!) watch a movie. You know, teach them about finding a passion and completely obsessing over it. Or, alternately, have a bit of enforced fun.
  4. Set some goals. Also known as bribery. There will be a mighty fine prize should they complete all seven books.
  5. Work on journals. I actually did this with Parker last summer, and it was fairly successful. This is just 15 minutes of writing a day in a notebook all jazzed up with "SUMMER 2013" on the cover. It takes some work to be a good writer. Write a little everyday. 

Any other summer suggestions for the betterment of our youth? I'm all ears. . .

Summer traditions

campshorts web.jpg

Last night was our annual short-making session up at the church. Every year we make camp shorts -- moms, leaders and girls all come together in one seething mass of fabric, scissors, and ironing, which, somewhat surprisingly, turns into into 25 pairs of shorts, and a parade of women carrying their sewing machines into the night.

Let me explain: Each year the girls in our church (ages 12-18) attend a summer camp. This year the locale is very woodsy AND un-airconditioned. The girls will need to wear their most camp-y clothing. In addition, each year, the girls are asked to wear knee-length shorts, which is no small request in this day and age of less fabric = greater cool factor. There just aren't a ton of long shorts to buy, and most of us aren't willing to drop a hunk of cash on shorts for the woods. And thus, the homemade tradition. 

The cool thing about camp shorts is that anything goes fabric-wise. In fact, the louder the fabric the better. Camp shorts demand full reign of the fabric store. Nothing is off limits -- no fabric is too colorful or silly or kitschy. I still remember two pairs of camp shorts my mother made for me in about my 13th year. One pair was baby blue squares, each square featuring a different muppet baby -- baby Kermit, baby Miss Piggy, baby Gonzo, you get the idea. The other was made of red bandana fabric -- long, deep red, quintessentially Texan. I wore them to camp for sure, but I also wore those un-cool shorts around the house, to sleep in, to the grocery store for years and years to come. Even now, the muppet baby shorts live on in my memory as emblematic of my childhood -- a sixteen year old struggling for independence, yet stubbornly refusing to give up her threadbare muppet babies. In many ways, I wish I still had them now. I think they would give me comfort.

This year I coordinated the short-making effort for our band of girls. I bought the fabric (45 yards!) and patterns and elastic. I sent out e-mails asking for sewers and cutters. I lugged everything to the church, set up some tables, rolled out the bolts of fabric, and set to cutting. The miraculous part was the way the other women flowed steadily into the room. They set up additional tables when needed. They told the girls when to iron and when to shove elastic through the skinny waistband. For the first 45 minutes I had my head down and was cutting out size smalls as fast as I could pin and cut. 

Pin. Cut. Unpin. Slide the pattern down. And when I looked up, there were girls dancing about in fully completed shorts. Some were rushing pieces back and forth from sewing machine to iron. Some were stubbornly trying to sew their own, the sewing machine owner patiently standing behind, offering instruction. It was a microcosm of productivity. Not perfect productivity mind you, but efficient. And selfless. And kind. 

I hope my girls remember the kind women of the camp shorts. The ones who give up their evening and ask for nothing in exchange for their service, who seek out what needs to be done without asking, who put their shoulder to the wheel and push, even when they don't have to. I hope they remember the making. The ingenuity. The strength in numbers. The loud fabric. The chatter.

The hot summer nights and singing crickets.

When I was younger I spurned the sewing church ladies. I didn't want any part of such feminine bungling. I wanted to fly. I wanted to do something important. I wanted to cast aside the traditions of my youth and move on to better things, to greater heights, to significance. 

I never thought I'd find such greatness and significance in camp shorts. But it's there in spades. I think George Eliot would have approved of camp shorts: "For the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs."

What about you? What unhistoric acts have changed your perspective on the world?

It's getting hot down here. . .

I think this May just might rank as the craziest month of my entire life. There is family arriving, multiple celebrations, and umpteen preparations. In fact, I have so many irons in the fire at the moment, I'm sure to blow something up. I'm just waiting. Somewhere I'm forgetting something VERY IMPORTANT.

Last night we had a crawfish boil at my Mom's in honor of my very sweet Aunt Rebecca, who is visiting from Utah. Unlike our Cajun neighbors, we are relatively new to the crawfish boil. For myself, I prefer the baguettes, corn-on-the-cob, and new potato parts of the meal -- partly because I don't like getting my hands messy with the crawfish and partly because I don't like dismembering the crawfish. I'm a delicate little flower; it's true.

Sterling and Jordan. Trying to soak up every last moment before she heads to France.

Sterling and Jordan. Trying to soak up every last moment before she heads to France.

My contribution to the party? Our family's favorite homemade ice cream -- affectionately known as the orange ice cream (cuz it's orange). I could also mention at this point that when I was very young we had three horses: Whitey, Blacky, and Browny. Our family seems to lack a certain amount of naming panache. We're working on that. But this ice cream? This ice cream is orange-y, and fizzy, with more than a hint of sweetened condensed milk. And, it takes about five minutes to throw together. Yep, it's the dessert trifecta: quick, tasty, uses sweetened condensed milk. I can barely contain myself even writing about it.

I've often wanted to share this beloved ice cream recipe on the blog, except I've been waiting for a whiz-bang Orange Ice Cream photo shoot. That, it seems, might be slow in the making. I don't want summer to get away from me . . . so I'm posting it here with just a little old iphone pic. My apologies.


The recipe: [Note: This recipe is for the old fashioned, ice-with-rock-salt, ice cream maker. So put away your new-fangled, sophisticated Kitchen Aid and go old school with me.]

2 2-liter bottles orange soda 
2 cans sweetened condensed milk
1 large can crushed pineapple, drained

Directions: Mix pineapple and sweetened condensed milk in ice cream maker. Add orange soda to the fill line. Layer ice and rock salt. Plug in the ice cream maker and let it go. I like to chill the soda first just to shorten the freezing process.

And that's it folks. Sometimes, in the fiery depths of summer heat, I've been known to mix up a batch, serve it to the kids in the pool, and call it dinner.

Desperate times call for desperate measures.

A note on summer

Photo credit:  Emily Brenner

Photo credit: Emily Brenner

My first summer job was at a card shop in the mall. My mom loaded my older brother and I up in the car, dropped us at the mall, and told us to fill out some applications. When the card shop called me back I was thrilled. Cards didn't involve food prep, grease, or bathroom cleaning, so I figured I was on easy street. And it was a decent enough job. They let me arrange the pewter trinkets and glass paper weights and Precious Moments figurines to my heart's content.

I also worked at a kite shop, taught aerobics, made pizzas, dressed up as the Foley's Easter Bunny, and had a pretty decent stint as a grocery checker (that job is heck on the fingernails). One summer, for two weeks, my brother and I even agreed to take on a friend's mammoth paper route delivering the Houston Chronicle. We borrowed an old van, and I folded about eight million newspapers while my brother drove (in a lurching fashion) through an endless tangle of streets. Occasionally, I would throw up in the back because the smell of the newsprint at 4 AM made me nauseous. Yep, I'm a trooper.

All of this to say, I worked during high school. A lot.

With summer approaching there's been a lot of talk around here about the girls finding jobs. In the past I've been a bit on the fence when it comes to my kids working. The rational part of me knows that having a job teaches responsibility, commitment, and the value of a dollar. But the philosophical (and let's face it, hippy) side of me says, "RUN FREE YOUNG ONE. BASK IN THE SUMMER SUN. REVEL IN THE LANGUISHING DAYS OF YOUR YOUTH," which, roughly translated, might just mean: sleep half the day, watch a whole bunch of Netflix, and hit your mother up for cash to hang with your homies.

This summer, Sterling and I are encouraging a solid 20 hour a week job. For us, right now, I think the kids need the structure as well as a goal to work towards We will be having a conversation with the older girls about what financial obligations we expect them to meet next year -- like . . . nail polish, doughnuts, and Chipotle burritos are all on them.

What do you think about summer jobs and teens? Did you work in high school?

There was an interesting article in Time last summer discussing teens and summer jobs. You can read it here.