Teaching My Monster to Read

We’ve read to the boys since they were tiny, since before they had any idea what we were doing, back when we felt silly to be doing it — we did it anyway.  Story time has been a part of our evening routine since before the boys could walk.  They love it, they look forward to it.  “Brush your teeth or we won’t have story time” has been an incredibly effective evening motivator.  But though they love to be read TO, and both boys have memorized, and love to recite, parts or all of some favorite books, we’d made almost no progress in getting them to actually read themselves.  B could read his name, Liam’s name, “red”, and “toy” before school started this year.  That was it.

I was a little worried.  I know he’s only 6, and he’s been spending a lot of his mental energy over the past few years learning a new language (and probably teaching himself differential equations in his sleep), but still, I felt like maybe he ought to really be reading.  After all, reading IS fundamental.  All of the kids of my friends at home have learned to read in kindergarten (or earlier), and they don’t really do that here (the focus was on correct speech, rather than reading, which helped immensely with his conversational German, but not so much with reading English) so I was a bit concerned.  Plus, I had no idea how to get it to happen.

When B started school this year, among many other things, I was worried he’d be the only kid in his class not reading.  I shouldn’t have been.  Very nearly half the class had a similar reading level to B, so he was certainly not the only non-reader.  (Of course, there are also kids in his class who could read and write in more than one language — in more than one ALPHABET — so there was quite a spread of skill levels.)

Early on in the school year, we weren’t making much progress, and I was strongly resisting my urge to push, knowing that me adding pressure to the situation wasn’t going to help.  I attended a morning training seminar at B’s school, geared at helping parents help their kids with reading . . . which did help a lot, and which strongly reinforced the fact that I shouldn’t be pressuring him.  Around the same time, B came home with a website recommendation from his teacher.  They’d been using “Teach Your Monster to Read” at school, and apparently, B loved it.

Over that weekend, we got B set up with it on the computer, and the results were amazing.  Not only was he able to run the game almost entirely on his own, but he was READING.  It started off with associating letters and sounds in a variety of short games where B could collect items to decorate his “monster” with whom he was playing the game.  Over the course of the next few weeks, he moved through the levels and had a whole set of letter/sound combinations that he knew well.  The game then began connecting the sounds into short words, and before I knew it, he was really reading and sounding out short sentences.  Seriously, watching him actually read something on his own has to be one of the coolest things I’ve ever seen.  (The website is free.  I totally recommend it.)

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We’re 3+ months into the school year, and B’s progress has been AMAZING.  He’s moved on to reading longer stories, to conquering more complex words, adding new punctuation and concepts (contractions have been a challenge).  He finished the monster game a good while ago, and there’s no doubt in my mind that it was a useful tool for him (and remarkable for me because it was the first time I really witnessed him reading), but I also know that the real magic came from the work that he and his teacher put in together.  It’s been an amazing transformation, and I can’t believe it was only 3 months ago that I was fretting about whether or not he could read.  He’s reading real books now. It is just the most amazing thing to see.  He’s still working very hard, and learning more all the time, but he is definitely reading!

Circus

497We’d been planning to go for years.  Each fall, when the signs and posters went up, we’d say, “We should go!” but we never did.  Last year, we decided we would go, and Dan was going to get tickets, but by the time he got around to it, they were sold out.  This year, I was determined.  The circus was coming to town, and we were going to go!

I didn’t really know what to expect from a European circus.  Would it be more “Barnum & Bailey”, or more “Cirque du Soleil”?  The tickets were pricey (which favored art, rather than tigers) but with a location only 5 minutes from our front door, we figured it was worth a try at least once.

502On the big night, we walked over and had dinner from the vendors set up in front of the circus tents at the Rathaus.  We didn’t realize that the seating (in our section, at least) was general admission, so we were late to line up and late to try to get to our seats.  I was worried, but it turned out that this worked to our advantage in two ways.  First, Benjamin got his sweatshirt hood filled up with candy by a passing clown on his way into the tent.  Second, we were so much the last arrivals that the ushers (who, as it turned out later, were also performers in the show) couldn’t find 4 seats together, and after a few stressful moments when I feared we might not get to sit together, we instead were shown to a box!  Good luck!

508As the show got underway, it became clear that this was more towards the “Cirque du Soleil” end of the spectrum, with a live band, many acrobats, very skillful and impressive clowns and not a tiger in sight (probably for the best, considering the otherwise slim but real possibility of lions or elephants escaping and roaming around downtown Vienna).  There were acrobats (whose mohawk hairdos were “splendid” according to B), roller skaters, horses, trapeze artists, a hula hoop girl and (my favorite) a guy who balanced a dozen or so long sticks together into a moving, yet perfectly balanced sculpture which he then disassembled by removing a single feather (it was cooler than it sounds).  And the evening was finished perfectly by the cast inviting members of the audience up for a goodnight waltz.

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A good time was had by all.  It was a great first circus experience for the kids — though it did get a bit long and late for them, I was impressed at how they hung in there through the “artsier” bits.  (If we go again next year, we’d probably opt for a matinée to make it easier on the boys.)  It seemed perfect for a circus evening in Vienna, and I’m so glad we finally made it happen.

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Celebrating Liam’s 4th birthday

223I love birthdays.  I love celebrating the fact that someone I love exists on this planet and that I get to know them.  My kids’ birthdays are my favorites — I get to reflect on how my little guys are growing, ponder the speed with which time passes, and spend a whole day celebrating their existence.  We’ve developed a great set of birthday traditions in our family — Dan stays home from work, both boys stay home from school (for as long as Liam prefers to be home instead of at school for his birthdays — B, with a summer birthday, doesn’t really have to choose), the birthday boy gets to choose any birthday activity that he likes and he gets to select the meals for the day (and, of course, the cake and ice cream).  I just love seeing how each of my guys chooses to celebrate their big day.

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This year, Liam wanted to go to the pool.  He was absolutely sure that he wanted to go to the pool and that he didn’t want a party — just family, and a day at the pool.  Great!  (The day before, he changed his mind and said that he DID want a party, but then he changed it back.)  But, when he woke up on the morning of his birthday, after opening all his gifts, he suddenly changed his mind and decided he wanted to go to the zoo, instead.  The zoo is one of my favorite outings in Vienna, and it’s absolutely fantastic in the early fall, and even better (and less crowded) on the weekdays.  So, that was also great!

245And so, to celebrate Liam, we went to the zoo.  We saw pandas and polar bears and penguins.  We saw the big cats eating their dinners (yikes!). We stopped for hot chocolate and chocolate pretzels and ice cream.  The boys climbed and slid and spun all around the playground and we all rode on the zoo train.  We had a great day.  Most importantly, Liam had a great day.

And then, at the end, my very grown up 4 year old boy informed us all that it was time to go home, and we did, and when we arrived there, he very shortly passed out on the floor for an impromptu birthday nap.  We finished the day with strawberry dinosaur cupcakes (by request).  (I made, for the first time ever, strawberry frosting from scratch for the cupcakes.  It was GREAT.  The kids hated it.  But the cake and the toy dinosaurs were a hit.)

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My little guy turned 4 years old.  We celebrated his birthday the whole day long, exactly the way that he wanted to.  A good time was had by all.  It was a very good birthday celebration.  Yay for Liam and for turning 4!

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Suddenly a soccer mom

I always swore that we wouldn’t get sucked into it.  I really thought that we wouldn’t end up revolving our lives around a massive list of sports and after school activities for the kids.  I’ve always believed that kids (well, at least my kids, at least) really need, and benefit from, unplanned, unstructured, downtime for them to unwind, rest, or play creatively, so we’ve always tried to make that a priority.  Benjamin had a daily nap until he was almost 6, too, and it was great for him.  I expected Liam to most likely do the same.

743But now, suddenly, I’m a “soccer mom”.  B is enrolled in three different after school activities, plus swimming lessons on Saturdays.  Each day’s plans for the whole family are worked around these activities, including meals, naps (or lack thereof) for Liam, and even Dan’s work schedule.  Regular followers of this blog might have noticed an unusually long hiatus over the past 4 weeks — we haven’t been sick, I’ve just been too busy to write at all.  (My post from late September for Liam’s birthday was written back before his birthday … but it took me a week to get it posted, and this is the first one I’ve written since then.)

Our days are a whirlwind.  Every moment from the time my alarm goes off until the boys are in bed is specifically planned.  Each minute has a purpose, and our schedule has very little flexibility.  If not for my bus and train trips, and the luxury of (sometimes) joining the family for meals, most days I would not sit down from 6:30 a.m. until at least 8:30 at night.

This whole thing kind of took me by surprise.  It happened kind of by accident.  I didn’t mean to sign us up for so much.  I didn’t expect B to get into so many of the activities he was interested in, and I wasn’t sure he’d enjoy them all as much as he is.  But, as it turns out, he’s having a great time, learning new stuff, and making new friends.  Liam, who can sometimes be inflexible and intractable in his own right, seems, surprisingly, to enjoy our daily trips to pick up B, and he is handling the loss of some of his naps much better than I expected.  For Dan & I, this new schedule means keeping a tighter rein on our own activities — meals have gotten less complex, we’re getting to bed earlier, and our regular TV times have entirely disappeared.  We’ve kind of gone from 0-60 on this whole school thing.

But, though it was unintentional and it is a bit overwhelming, in a way I’m kind of enjoying it.  It’s exhausting, both physically and mentally, to balance this many items on our schedule, but there’s a great deal of satisfaction in seeing B learn and enjoy so many things.  (Though I do have a tendency to look for the upside to any situation, so maybe I’m just finding the positives because I’m looking for them.)  Also, this is temporary — it’s for a semester, not forever.  B has already expressed a desire to drop swim lessons after he can swim across the pool unassisted (my own standard for him being “done” learning to swim), and we’ll see how many of the activities he may choose to continue with (and which he’ll be able to get into) next semester.  I’m still not sure that this packed-full schedule is really “us”, but it’s certainly another kind of adventure.

For now, we’re getting through it, enjoying it, and gaining a whole new appreciation for our precious few moments of free time.  I also have a newfound respect, and a bit of awe, for the families who keep up this kind of schedule for years and years.  Also, I have a huge backlog of planned and partially written blog posts, and I’ll get around to those eventually … but for now, this soccer mom will probably be commuting more and composing less.

Liam

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Oh, my wonderful baby.  You’re 4!  That is amazing and incredible and awesome to me.  How big you are now!  I am shocked at the speed with which time passes, but so overjoyed at seeing you grow.  You are an amazing kid.  I feel so lucky to get to watch you grow up, and to see you every day becoming more and more YOU.

You are so big and strong, clever and funny, sweet and thoughtful, and so, so loving.  You are also stubborn, and willful, and opinionated . . . and I love it all.  I love all of you.  I love every bit of my wonderful Liam.

I love your stories and your jokes.  I love the way you count on your fingers.  I love your animated expressions and your silly faces.  I am so proud of the way that you have completely taken over caring for your lip injury from earlier this year — you want to do it all yourself, so you do, and you do a careful and thorough job.  I love the way you stick up your index finger and say, “Remind me …” when you want us to particularly take note of something.  I love how you know EXACTLY what you want, and how you don’t change your opinion to suit anyone else.  I love it when you’re quiet and cuddly, and I love it when you’re wild, too.

I love to see you build things!  You have amazing vision and creativity, and you do a great job seeing your projects through.  I love to see you with your stuffed animals.  You make families and friends from them, and you love to care for them and nurture them.  You’ve recently started singing to them, as well.  You are so sweet.

This past summer, we went “summer sledding” for the first time.  You loved it, so did I.  But my favorite part was that you chose, each time, to ride with me, even though your dad was undoubtedly the more exciting option.  We rode together, each time down the mountain.  We had a blast, and I enjoyed your company so much.  You are such a great little guy.  I love you with my whole heart, my littlest one.

You often ask me to hold you like a baby, and recently, you’ve started asking me to wrap you up in a baby blanket sometimes, too.  I think that you are starting to feel that the days of truly being a baby are behind you.  I will miss that, too, but you will always be MY baby, I will always be your mommy, and I will always love you more than I could ever say.

Even when I’m feeling frustrated — when you hit your brother, when you aren’t listening, or when you’re getting Bailey to chase you (again!) —  I am still grateful for the more challenging parts of who you are.  I think those characteristics will serve you well in life.  I love that you stay true to what you want and to who you are, and I love that your desire to take care of yourself is stronger than your desire to please anyone else.  I love that you won’t let anyone push you around.  You are a tough cookie … but you are also sweet, kind and loving.  You care about everyone, and you want to help comfort and care for all of us.  Benjamin, in particular, is very important to you.  You love him so much, and always want to catch up to what he’s doing or learning.

I love you, my exuberant, enthusiastic, creative, sweet 4 year old guy.  You are a whirlwind and a force of nature.  You are so wonderful.  You are not always easy to parent, but you are so easy to love.  I love you so very much, my sweet baby.  Happy birthday.

Golf

Benjamin’s school, being generally wonderful, has a full complement of after-school sports and activities for the kids to participate in.  They have about 50 different things that the kids can do after school — everything from Cub Scouts to soccer to rugby to crafts to the math club.  Lots of choices.  And the activities are, apparently, wildly popular — there is an online registration setup which is one of those things where you lurk on the website until the moment the page opens, sign up the instant that you can and hope you get a spot.  Since it wasn’t the kind of thing that allows for indecision, I set aside the time at noon the day of the sign up to be at my computer to pounce on the sign-ups, and sat down with B the night before to talk through the options and discuss his preferences.

As we were going through, at first he wasn’t sure he wanted to do anything.  He said that school is busy enough, and maybe he didn’t want to stay after school even once a week.  And I was totally cool with that.  But, I wanted to be sure, and as we went through the list, he latched on to both gymnastics and soccer as the things he most wanted to do, which didn’t surprise me — those were the two I most expected him to pick.  But then, we got to golf.  And he said, “No, that’s it. I want to do golf.  I want to learn how to be even better than Uncle Peter and Uncle Adam.”

He’s never golfed before, so it was a total surprise that he was so intensely interested in it.  I have no idea if he’ll enjoy it (and neither does he), but I love the enthusiasm and confidence in his choice.  And I just keep smiling over the idea of my little guy bonding with his uncles, an ocean away, over this game that they love and which hopefully he will be able to share with them when we are all together.

Because of the way the sign ups were done, I went ahead and signed him up for all 3 of his favorites — golf, gymnastics AND soccer — because I wasn’t sure whether we’d get a spot in any of them.  As it turns out, we got a spot in each, and now B is into the idea of all 3, so we’ve gone from maybe not wanting to do any to committing to 3 days per week for the semester.  In truth, I think he’s going to love them all, and I’m excited to see which (if any) kindle a true passion in him.  But, in particular, the idea of him out golfing with my brothers one day is pretty special.  I might be hoping, just a little, that he loves golf most of all.

Broken tooth

Ask any American expat to name the experiences they most dread having abroad, and I think “dealing with urgent dental problems” would make almost every list.  For starters, dental care in the US is absolutely fantastic.  Americans take good care of their teeth, in general, and our cultural emphasis on perfection in appearance means that we want our teeth to look great, which means they need to function well and last a long time.  Dentists tend to be very good at what they do, and very well trained.  Secondly, there’s always something vaguely intimidating about the dentist, and that’s even when you both speak the same language.  Plus, while most of us will accept that we’ll need some kind of routine medical and dental care while living abroad (everyone gets sick sometimes, plus we need annual flu shots, locally specific vaccines, and yearly check ups) I think most of us hope we can put off or postpone anything more significant until we return home to our regular, well known, English speaking doctors and dentists.

But, it doesn’t always go that way.

Last spring, I got a sudden stabbing pain in my mouth when I bit down on something (I think it was a pumpkin seed).  It hurt a lot, but went away immediately and didn’t come back, so I didn’t think much about it.  But then, about a week later it happened again.  And then again.  Every so often, it would happen — I’d bite down on something in just the wrong way and have some brief, but undeniable, pain.  My teeth are generally well behaved, so I knew something was wrong.  By the time I decided I needed to have it looked at, I was about 2 weeks out from my bi-annual dental cleaning and checkup, so I talked to my dentist here about it.  (I also emailed my dentist at home, to get a remote second opinion.)

Both agreed — I probably had a cracked tooth.  I was horrified.  A lot of people who know me know that I take particularly good care of my teeth.  I’m fastidious about oral hygiene, and I look after my teeth really carefully.  I was pretty upset that something might be wrong with one of them — especially something that might necessitate something as drastic as a crown, or worse.  My dentist here suggested a wait-and-see strategy, while my dentist at home advised that I treat it immediately, before it could get worse.  I waffled.  I didn’t want to do anything drastic, but I didn’t want to be chicken about it and cause myself more trouble down the road.

I decided that I’d wait until Christmas, when I’d be home in the US.  I’d go see my dentist from home, and get his actual, in person opinion, and then decide how to proceed.

Which was a fine plan, except that last Wednesday, my tooth broke.  A piece (I’m sure it was small, but it felt huge) broke off of one of my molars.  It was kind of traumatic.  (I’m very attached to my teeth.)  It didn’t hurt at all, but it forced me to stop procrastinating and get it fixed.  It turns out, too, that the pain wasn’t coming from the tooth that I thought it was, either (so in that way, I suppose it was good that I didn’t do anything drastic to a different, healthy tooth).

I couldn’t get in to see my dentist until yesterday.  I spent much of the weekend quietly agonizing about the trauma that I imagined awaited me in terms of getting it fixed.  As it turns out, it really was a small piece, and he just covered up the spot with the same stuff as for a dental filling, to prevent decay.  It took less than 20 minutes and didn’t hurt at all.  All my worry was for nothing.  And, best of all, the intermittent pain from last spring and summer seems to be entirely gone, which is wonderful.

So, much as I never would have volunteered to have something go wrong with my teeth EVER, much less while living abroad, it was no problem at all.  (And though I don’t know what the same procedure would have cost in the US, I imagine it would have been more than the €130 I paid here — and that’s before insurance reimburses us for most of it.)

Classroom helper

I was impressed by teachers before, but after spending part of a morning helping out in B’s class, I’m even more so.  I had a great time.  I was worried, beforehand, that I wouldn’t be able to handle it.  I’ve always wanted to be able to help out in my kids’ classes, but I was concerned that either my inner control freak or my outer introvert would be overwhelmed by facing 22 first graders.  But it was nothing like how I thought it was going to be.

I was in charge of an arts & crafts/reading project that involved glue and scissors, as well as having the kids read some labels and attach them to their pictures.  It was a bit of a challenge to keep on top of where in the project each child was, but it was a lot of fun.  And the kids are AMAZING!  I was so impressed to see how each one did — some were great with the scissors and neat with the glue, some made an enthusiastic mess; some were lightning fast readers, others struggled but kept consistently working at it; some were patient, some demanded consistent attention.  But they all worked diligently at the project.  They shared, they cooperated, they were kind to each other.  They were awesome.

I, on the other hand, was a bit of a mess.  I’m the exact opposite of a good arts & crafts mom — my concern about messes and injuries majorly interferes with my kids’ enjoyment of the process.  I do ok with projects involving stickers, crayons or chalk.  Scissors and glue … not so much.  But I was able to keep my obsessiveness at bay enough for the kids to get on with their work.  And besides, it wouldn’t have mattered if I had tried to be obsessive — I don’t think it’s possible to micro-manage 5-6 kids at a time (or, at least, I don’t know how).  I kept misplacing supplies, and I was so slow at getting everyone started (and at keeping them going) that my station was a bit of a bottleneck (I think I had 10 or 11 kids at one point).  But it was great.  I had so much fun, and I was so impressed by the kids.

At the end of our projects, the teacher put on the “Happy” song, and the kids danced around the room tidying up, without complaint.  They put away all the scissors, glue, paper, yarn and pencils we’d been using.  I had trouble keeping up!  Then the teacher had them collect their snacks, which they did, and then they each took a spot and had their snack.  One boy cried because a girl sat in “his” spot (they don’t actually have assigned spots), and though the teacher was in the process of encouraging him to find another spot, the girl moved so he could sit where he wanted.  (It was like being in a whole classroom full of Benjamins!)

After snack time, it was time for their first recess of the day, so the kids changed their shoes and lined up to go outside.  I said goodbye to B and they all went out while I stayed in the classroom to help the teacher make a collage of pictures from a field trip they’d taken earlier in the week.  She and I got a chance to chat some more, which was lovely.  (Not only do I think she’s a pretty perfect teacher for B, but I think she’s someone I’d be friends with.)

It was a great day.  I had the best time.  I am so grateful for being able to come in and help (I hope I really did help!) and really glad that B was glad to have me there.  It was even more fun than I’d anticipated, and the time really flew by.  I can’t wait to go back next week!

How do you do it?

Here we are, at the end of our first full week of double drop offs and double pick ups.  We all survived, we were on time almost every day, and no one got dropped off at the wrong school.  I count this week as a major success.

It’s a lot of work, though.  Dropping the boys off in the morning is a nearly 2 hour procedure, picking Liam up takes about an hour and a half, and picking up B takes about an hour (and that’s only because he takes the expensive school bus almost all the way home).  If you do the math, you’ll find that it takes about 4 1/2 hours every day just to get the kids to and from school every day — and we’re talking actual travel time, not including getting dressed, last minute potty breaks, trains breaking down, etc.

(Now, because tone is hard to read on a computer screen, and because, whether online or in person, my tone is constantly misunderstood, I will point out that I’m not complaining.  Not one little bit.  We’ve got things really, really good, and I am fully aware of that.  The kids are going to great schools, Dan has a great job, we live in a fantastic city.  And I love it.  I would say that all of my problems are First World problems, but none of this is actually a “problem”, so I can’t even say that.  But that doesn’t mean it isn’t a lot of work.  It’s just that WORK doesn’t equal BAD, though I often find that anytime I write about anything being “work”, many people automatically assume that I’m saying it’s a “problem”.  It’s not a problem.  It is a lot of work.  It’s my job, and JOB usually does equal WORK.  But, I digress . . . )

We’re still sorting out how best to manage this and still ensure everyone gets to eat and bathe at regular intervals.  It’s a bit of a challenge, and we’ve tried out a few different options this week (and will experiment with more next week, for sure).

So far, our favorite option looks like this:
5:30 Dan up, goes for a run, walks Bailey
6:15 Em & boys up, breakfast, Dan showers
7:00 teeth brushed, dressed for the day
7:15 Dan & boys out the door
7:50 Liam dropped off
8:20 B dropped off
8:50 Dan gets to work
During this time, I run errands, shower, go for a run, go to the grocery store, prep stuff for lunch and dinner, and attempt to clean the house a bit.
11:15 I leave to get Liam
12:00 Liam picked up
12:50 Liam & I arrive home, have lunch, walk Bailey
2:00 Nap for Liam, more cleaning/to-dos/laundry for me (at this point, we are behind schedule most days)
3:25 Leave to meet B
3:55 Meet B (at this point, we have to be back on schedule)
4:30 Get home, have a snack, Skype (some days)
5:30 Start making dinner
6:15 Dan comes home, we all eat dinner (we’re usually behind schedule by this point, too)
7:00 Clean up time
7:15 Baths, teeth brushed, stories
8:30 Bed (kids)
10:30 Bed (grown ups)

So, it’s a busy day.  Not a bad day, and we even manage a few quiet moments each day.  Most days so far, we’ve been ending our day about an hour later than this (both kids and both parents) because we just can’t quite keep our evening on track, but I think we’ll gradually be able to adjust to the new schedule, and get closer to getting everyone a good amount of sleep.

I know we’re very lucky.  I’m not working and Dan has a (fairly) flexible work schedule.  Even so, there are days when even this schedule seems daunting.  So, here’s my sincere question — what do other people’s days look like?  (Not just those of you with kids — anyone!)  What kinds of hoops are other families jumping through to make things work?  For us, right now, the kids’ commutes are a big factor in our family schedule — what are yours?  What kinds of things have you done to/cut out of/added to your daily schedule to make things work?  I’d love to hear ideas, inspiration, thoughts from other families.  We’re all doing some version of this kind of craziness, but I feel like, so often, we really have no idea what anyone else’s day really looks like, except where it intersects our own.

This is how we’re making it work.  Our assets are a flexible schedule, good schools, great public transport, and enough affluence for me to be able to stay home.  Our challenges are long-ish commutes and being fully self-reliant (no ability to call on friends or family for a hand, no carpools).  How do YOU make it work?  I really am curious.