Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Oh, the empowerment: serving as my own helpdesk

Being able to ask for help when you need it is a vital life skill in itself, but being able to manage on your own sometimes feels great too, as I discovered this week.

I am not a technical person. I rely on my husband to set up and maintain my computer system, my printer, my e-mail. When there’s a problem, I plead for help, but sometimes I’m like the shoemaker’s child who goes barefoot. Sometimes my husband is just too busy with the two factions whose tech support problems receive higher priority than mine – his clients and my parents – to help me in a timely fashion.

As this week began, I had reached the end of my rope with two ongoing technical problems: one with my iPod Nano and one with my Microsoft Outlook. Refreshed after a nearly work-free weekend, I launched into the new week resolved to solve these two glitches.

I attacked the iPod issue first. The problem was that I like to listen to podcasts while running. Every week I download about a dozen new podcasts from NPR, the New York Times, and the New Yorker. But I couldn’t get them to play sequentially. I’d set one podcast to play as I started my run, and when that one ended, a new one wouldn’t start without me manually selecting and clicking on it. The reason selecting and clicking was undesirable was that any buttons I press on my iPod while I’m running will interfere with the function of my NikePlus, which measures my distance, mileage and speed.

Yes, it’s complicated, arcane and frivolous as complaints go, but runners get set in their ways, and I want both: a complete mileage readout and the ability to listen to more than one podcast if the first one happened to end while I was still out running. I knew the answer was to put the podcasts in a playlist, and I’d gotten that far, but the playlist wouldn’t copy from my iTunes library into my iPod.

I tried to think outside the box. (Thinking outside the box is always preferable to being on hold with tech support.) Was I doing something wrong in making my playlist, or was the problem putting podcasts on a playlist? As a control, I realized, I had to try to make a playlist without podcasts, a conventional playlist of music.

I don’t keep any music at all on my iPod; I use it only for podcasts, but my daughter had downloaded all her favorite American Idol tunes onto my computer, so I randomly chose three songs to put in my playlist and synched. It worked – the playlist copied. Then I tried adding podcasts into the playlist and synched. Again, success. I took the three songs out and left the podcasts in. Synched. Nothing. The playlist was gone from my iPod. I put one song back in with the six podcasta and synched. It returned, a fully functioning playlist.

So – there was my answer. It takes a village to raise a child; it takes a song to make a playlist. I don’t know why, but with as little as one song, a playlist can include any number of podcasts; with no songs, a playlist won’t work. So all I had to do was be willing to include one American Idol tune in my cerebral mix, which is why my playlist now comprises Terry Gross interviewing an economist from the Bush administration, Susan Orlean discussing her latest New Yorker article, the podcast of the New York Times book review and Adam Lambert covering Steppenwolf’s Born to be Wild. The combination made for a seamless half-hour of running this afternoon. I was thrilled with my proactivity in finally taking the time to think through the problem, figure out a solution, and test the results.

Which left the second problem I was determined to solve: my Microsoft Outlook. For some reason, for the past week I’ve been able to receive mail through Outlook but not send it. On the one hand, this seemed symbolic: it was like a cosmic message that I needed to listen more and talk less. But there were some messages I really did need to send, and they kept getting stuck in my outbox. If I wanted to send e-mails, I had to go through the website version of my email each time, which within the incredibly cosseted world of e-mail seemed like a big extra hassle, though I kept reminding myself that fifteen years ago, when I was still using a dial-up connection that generally reached a busy signal, it wouldn’t have seemed so difficult.

For the first two days of the week, I exchanged emails with our domain provider. Their tech support staff was helpful, but in the end they couldn’t solve it; they said it was a problem on our internet service provider’s end. I took it up this morning with our ISP. I started with their website: found the internet section, found the e-mail section, and to my surprise, found myself staring at a link that stated my problem exactly: can’t send mail through Outlook. I clicked and discovered a whole page of text dedicated to my problem. It turned out this wasn’t mysterious at all: my ISP knew it was happening and knew why it was happening. More important, they knew how to fix it – and how to explain the fix to someone as nontechnical as me. One step at a time, I followed the directions, repaired my Outlook, and could once again send e-mail.

So with the week only halfway done, I had reached two goals, solved two frustrating problems, and done it myself, which hardly ever happens with technical concerns. I hadn’t done any significant writing or published any articles this week, but I’d gone to bat for myself as my own tech support, and I was psyched. Problem solved. Empowerment achieved. What a great feeling.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Social media and me, Part II: What I've learned so far about Twitter

Earlier this month, I wrote about why I was feeling so positive about my first brushes with Twitter. It was new to me, and I was just beginning to learn the ropes. At around the same time I wrote that, my 7-year-old learned to ride a two-wheeler, and I feel a little bit like she looked that day she finally stopped wobbling and soared down the lane. I have that “Okay, I get this now, I understand how to do it and I’m soaring!” feeling.

I joined Twitter a little uncertainly, not so sure I’d be welcome at the social media party. After all, I’m one of the last Facebook holdouts in my generation. In my mind, prior to late summer, Twitter was in the same category. I joined it because my agent suggested that I do so, but at first I didn’t feel like I was gaining much traction. I found lots of people whom I wanted to follow; I just wasn’t finding many followers of my own. “My friends aren’t really using Twitter,” I said, making excuses for my low numbers. “It’s not a soccer-mom trend yet.” But as my agent, who served as my Twitter guru in those early days, pointed out, it wasn’t my friends I wanted as followers; it was people I didn’t already know.

And gradually, with her help, I caught on as to how to find them. When people I was already following mentioned names in their Tweets, I looked up those names and usually clicked on “Follow.” Those names led to more names, and so on. Then I figured out how to search profiles for keywords. I thought about the topics that most interested me: parenting, writing, running. But that’s going to bring up like a million people, if I search on those three terms, I worried. I came up with an idea: search on writer plus runner plus the name of one state at a time. Find a writer/runner in Massachusetts, in Maine, in South Carolina, in Kansas, in Montana. I tried that, and it worked really well. In most cases, only a single page of names of people who identified themselves as both writers and runners came up for each state. And by not including “parent” in my search terms, even though that’s one of the topics I like to read about, I found a wider scope of people: an Episcopal minister in Massachusetts, a sorority girl in South Carolina, a grandmother out west, a middle-aged male CEO in the mid-Atlantic region.

Soon I was reading a lot about writing and a lot about running, which continue to be two topics of great interest to me. But I like knowing that these are only two of the hundreds or thousands of topical subgroups available to me. One day I searched on Unitarianism, my religion. Another day I searched on “mindful living,” a life practice important to me. But I could also choose words not connected to me, like “surfing” or “beekeeping,” and read about people I don’t necessarily have much in common with at all, and it would probably be just as interesting. I like finding out what other people are doing, just as the cornerstone Twitter question asks, but also what they are cooking for dinner, where they go running, what they are reading, how the weather is wherever they are. No one can be boring in just 140 characters.

And it’s not just chitchat; Twitterers use posts to point out valuable information, how-to articles, interesting blogs. Some of it is like small talk around the water cooler, but the links make all the difference. A co-worker from another part of the building might tell you about the soup she made for dinner, but seldom does she hand you a just-published article about the craft of fiction, say, or how to train for a half-marathon.

Moreover, this week I used Twitter to find an old friend I hadn’t spoken with in 15 years. She has her own website; I could have just as easily found her through Google earlier. But somehow the rapid-fire nature of Tweets made it easier to reach out. I didn’t have to cover the last 15 years; no one would expect that in 140 characters. I just had to say “Hi, how are you, glad I found you here, let’s get back in touch!” Ultimately, I do want to know more about what’s happened to her over the past decade and a half than she’ll be able to fit into 140-character bursts, but it helped me break the ice, knowing there was no pressure to write a long explanatory letter. Through Twitter, just a quick hello is all the eloquence you need.

So it’s really good to be here, and to keep learning. I’m glad my agent encouraged me, and I’m grateful to everyone I’ve connected with so far. It’s not like riding a bike in most ways. It’s not good exercise, for example. But as with my daughter learning to ride her bike earlier this month, it’s a skill that I’m excited to have mastered, and am eager to work on further. I’m soaring.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Gratitude for a great day

What a great day. There are days when something huge happens, like your wedding, and days when something amazing happens, like you get into your first-choice college, and all kinds of really special days when significant and unforgettable things occur. But days like today are more like a string of smooth iridescent beads on a necklace: not the valuable jewels of a family heirloom, not showy enough for a celebrity to wear to the Oscars, maybe not even quite elegant enough to wear to a job interview, but just somehow beautiful, with a simple perfection worth celebrating.

First of all, we weren’t rushed this morning. Since Tim started school five years ago, get-out-the-door morning chaos has been my nemesis. Whether we biked or drove or caught the bus, mornings were always stressful and rushed. But this fall has been easier. The kids get up earlier and finish breakfast before they have to, and Tim is ready to leave in plenty of time. That’s what happened today. He ate, brushed his teeth, collected his things for school, and I drove him to the bus stop, all a few minutes ahead of schedule.

Holly dressed herself without complaint and, given the choice of driving or walking to the bus stop (it’s about a third of a mile), surprised me by agreeing to walk. The sun was shining; the foliage felt thick and lush from yesterday’s rain. Some of the leaves are still bright green, others gold, some pale yellow, and a few already crimson or chartreuse. But all so abundant. Walking down the long driveway was like moving through the inside of a kaleidoscope.

I dug into the day’s foremost work priority, writing copy for a medical website: a task more intimidating than tedious. By 11, the dog was pestering me for a run, so we headed out. At first I was surprised by a tinge of fall briskness in the air, but as we headed toward the town center I realized it was warm in the sun, and we were both so happy to be out. The high school kids had the day off for Yom Kippur, and all along the mile to the center we passed small groups of teenagers. Charlie Fitzpatrick was doing yardwork, and a boy from church was pushing his bike along the path as he chatted with two girls I didn’t recognize. More kids were walking along closer to the Center. What a glowing picture they painted of teenagers on a day off from school.

When we got back, the run had rejuvenated my energy enough that I finished the medical copywriting, which was a big relief, and I made a delicious lunch: meatless soy “ground beef” and black beans heated with black olives, sliced tomatoes, grated cheddar cheese and avocado chunks, plus some tortilla chips crumbled on top. For dessert, a big (unnecessarily big, but I savored every bite) slice of the chocolate zucchini cake I made over the weekend.

A little more writing in the afternoon and then time with the kids when they got home from school. Tim and I played two games of ping pong: first he crushed me, 21-9 or something like that, and then I beat him 21-13. When we were done playing, the spanikopita I’d made earlier was ready to come out of the oven: buttery, savory, almost as good as the one I made for the teachers’ luncheon last week. (It wasn’t possible for this one to quite match up, because the one from last week was the one we couldn’t eat, so of course it looked just a little bit better!)

Now it’s softly raining, which is a sound I love at bedtime. So: great day from beginning to end. And yet…while someone, me, is having a great day, it’s someone else’s worst day. Soldiers are dying, children are starving, and my parents have a friend who is the subject of a police search because he has been missing for over a week. Sometimes it’s hard to reconcile having such a happy day while knowing other people are miserable. But I don’t think it makes sense to ignore the good things on that basis, either. So, we notice and celebrate the small good everyday moments, knowing that there will always be someone suffering while we are rejoicing, and knowing too that the opposite might come as well, in time. But believing that appreciating what is good in everyday life is still the right thing to do.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Five miles at the start of a sunny Saturday

I don’t usually run in the morning. This is because I like to ride my stationary bike right after I get up and read the newspaper at the same time, and also because usually I don’t want to leave the family at the beginning of the day. However, Holly asked for cottage cheese pancakes for breakfast, which I normally try not to indulge in, but today I really wanted some, so I had a plateful and then convinced myself that the high-protein breakfast was motivating me to head out for a run, and I surely wouldn’t feel nearly so energetic toward the end of a busy Saturday.

So I did my favorite 5-mile route, and what a great morning to be out. I left about 9:30; it was about 62 degrees, sunny, breezy. Lots of bicyclists passed me and a couple of runners, both of whom I recognized. On Russell Street there was a very merry outdoor neighborhood brunch under way, and then a little farther up the hill, Tim’s classmates Claire and Whitney were helping newborn snapping turtles to cross the street safely. This was no big surprise: Claire, at the age of 11, is acknowledged townwide as the patron saint of snapping turtles. Small-town life.

This afternoon, we took Holly and Samantha over to the Nowell Farme neighborhood for their first time biking on real streets. The roads there are quiet, wide, flat and nearly car-free, so they got lots of practice. I forgot to bring my bike but rode Tim’s instead, which was amusing; I felt like a circus clown, but it was still good exercise and a lot of fun. As we rode I told Nancy C. about my e-mail dialog with Judy Blume regarding use of updated anachronisms, a discussion I will replicate in this blog once I get permission from Judy Blume. And having spent an hour biking, even slowly, I’m even more glad my daily run happened early!

The right thing to do now would be take Tim sweatshirt shopping, but neither of us actually wants to go. Holly is away for a couple of hours, and I think I’ll maximize my Holly-free time by writing up the interview with the new children’s librarian instead. Then if I finish soon, read today’s paper, which normally I would have read by this hour but since I didn’t ride the exercycle, I haven’t yet touched.

Friday, September 25, 2009

When running after dark, metaphors and symbolism abound

Because of a midmorning meeting in Cambridge, lunch with a friend, a phone conference in the early afternoon, and the necessity of grocery shopping later in the day, I put off my run until after dinner. By the time I headed out, there was a half-moon high in the sky, but our long dirt driveway was still very dark, with heavy tree branches blocking out any moonlight. I wore Tim’s headlamp, which casts a circle of light straight ahead but does nothing to illuminate the surrounding woods. I brought the dog, but she seemed uneasy. She kept twisting her head around to look behind us. I don’t necessarily think she heard anything that alarmed her; I think she’s actually a little bit afraid of the dark, which seems odd for a dog, but I’ve observed this a few different times now, and who says dogs should be fearless?

For the first three-tenths of a mile, I was on the dirt road, which was shrouded in darkness and a little eerie. Then I got out to the footpath, which runs alongside the main road. Its pale gray crushed gravel reflected the headlamp and the moonlight beautifully. So even though darkness still surrounded me, I could see the path ahead of me with no trouble. At first I still felt a little jumpy but then told myself, “The path is well illuminated, and you have the dog with you, which will prevent the extremely unlikely possibility of any person or animal with harmful intent approaching, so stop being scared and just enjoy the run.”

Yes, the metaphor seems a little heavy-handed, but there it is nonetheless: when the path is well-lit and you have company, just enjoy the run and don’t be scared of the surrounding darkness.

It reminded me of an interview I heard earlier this week on NPR. Author John Geiger was discussing his new book, The Third Man Factor, which explores the experience shared by, among others, Everest climber Ernest Shackleton, NASA astronaut Jerry Linenger, and World Trade Center rescuer Ron diFrancesco. The Third Man Factor, whose name comes from T.S. Eliot, is a concept in which at moments of extreme physical crisis, people experience the presence of another being. As Geiger explains it, believing in this doesn’t depend on any particular religious inclinations, because you can envision the Third Man as a spiritual presence or a psychological one; the point is just that a perception occurs that wards off a paralyzing sense of aloneness.

This wasn’t an issue while I was out running tonight – I wasn’t that scared; I wasn’t in any kind of danger or crisis at all as far as I know; and being alone wasn’t a problem since I was no more than a mile from home – but the combination of dog, moonlight, path and headlamp made me feel that I was both safe and accompanied, literally and metaphorically. And to believe both of those things is a very sustaining feeling, I imagine, whether you’re out running at night or climbing Mt. Everest.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Back-to-School Night

I joked earlier today that Back-to-School Night is the official start of the fall social season in my circles, the same way a big charity ball in early January is the start of the gala season in Palm Beach. Geeky as it sounds to confess, I love back-to-school night. I’ve loved it ever since Tim was in kindergarten. Partly I like visiting the school and finding out what’s planned for my kids for the upcoming year, but I also like running into all the other Carlisle parents we know. Wandering across the school plaza after dark, waving and greeting and calling out, it always feels to me like a sort of Halloween night for adults, just a great night to be out after dark running into everyone we know.

We’re usually invited half a dozen or so times during the school year to various classroom events, and of course it’s fun to be there when the kids are, to hear them read or perform or whatever the event of the day is. But it feels special, in an almost furtive way, to be there on parents’ night without them. It feels a little like we're spying on them, even though they’ve been preparing all week for our visits with special notes, bulletin board displays, folders of deskwork for us to examine. Or maybe for me it’s the adult equivalent of playing house. Without the actual occupants of the second grade room there, I can pretend I’m a second-grader myself, and all these books and art supplies and other resources are for me.

The school is like a club, a membership club to which we’ll belong for only those years until our two children reach high school. Maybe it’s because our tenure is so tightly defined that it feels so special to me. People who don’t have school-aged kids are still welcome to plenty of the events: concerts, plays, fundraisers. But only while the kids are in grades K through 8 are we really part of the fabric of the school. Even before I had children, I suspected I would like the grade-school years best as a parent; now that we’re in the thick of them, I can’t imagine that I’ll be any happier when my kids are older. I love having them be part of the school community. I’m delighted with the teachers, the policies, the procedures, the general ambiance. I like the winter holiday concert and the Spaghetti Supper, the kindergarten rainforest play and the seventh grade musical, the first day of school and Field Day, the Chinese New Year celebration and Move-Up Day. With three years between the kids’ grade levels, the elapsed time between Tim’s first day of kindergarten and Holly’s eighth grade graduation is 11 years and 9 months. We’ve got about 6 years and 9 months left to go.

Rick and I get a lot of support as parents. My list of people in addition to Rick whose presence serves to fortify my efforts goes on and on, from the other moms in Holly’s preschool playgroup to our pediatrician, plus lots of friends, neighbors, community members and, more than anything else, family members. But also playing a major role in my kids’ upbringing is their school. And I so happily welcome the evening every fall when we get to go and re-establish contact with the institution, its staff, and all the other members of our not-so-secret society.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

All creatures great and small (shouldn't be my responsibility)

Like a lot of women my age, I spend too much time feeling like World Hostess: it’s my responsibility to make sure everyone – everyone! – is happy, warm enough, cool enough, well-fed, comfortable, safe and entertained. For some of us it’s just in our nature, I’m afraid: feel like the world is your front parlor and it’s always your responsibility to ensure everyone’s comfort level.

And I’m okay with that, having lived with it for four decades. I’m used to taking responsibility for everyone who steps into my home: my children, their friends, my husband, his friends, our parents, our kids’ friends’ parents, our parents’ friends’ kids. Plus the neighbors, census takers, carpet cleaners and the UPS man. If they cross our threshold – no, our property line – I want to be sure they know they’re in good hands.

But recently I’ve been struggling with the question of where to draw the line when the animal kingdom is concerned. I’ve started taking responsibility for the personal safety of every creature on our acreage, and since we live on a farm surrounded by forests, that’s a very large number of beating hearts.

Almost a year ago, following an article I wrote on the pet-matching website, we adopted a stray dog from a shelter. She’s a terrific pet but she occasionally chases the five sheep who live here. Occasionally is the key word. She’ll saunter past them for months, uninterested, and then one day she’ll bolt straight toward them. I honestly believe she just wants to have some fun and experience the thrill of the chase. But I can’t expect the sheep to know that; they seem terrified when she bolts toward them, and they ignore my plaintive instructions: “Just don’t run, and she won’t chase you.” They bleat, disperse, and tear haphazardly across the fields. She never catches them; that’s not the point for her. She just wants to have some fun. But they don’t know that, and I consider it my responsibility to protect them from the experience of being sporadically terrorized.

Fortunately, the cows are large enough that they intimidate the dog, but whenever a calf is born, I stay vigilant until it becomes steady on its feet. The dog sometimes sniffs around them, curious, and usually a bellow from the mother cow is enough to warn her off, but when they’re first born the calves have such spindly little legs, and I want to make sure they never have to use those legs prematurely to run away.

And then there are the chickens. Unlike the sheep and cows, they’re not ours; they belong to the next-door neighbors. But chickens don’t know from property lines; they free-range their way onto our lawn on an almost daily basis. And I have no problem with this, except that if I see them I won’t let the dog out because, despite my hopeful question to my neighbor about whether chickens perhaps can fly, it turns out they can’t. Not even under extreme duress. So I check for chickens before letting the dog out, but every now and then there’s one or two in the corner of the yard that I don’t spot, and wild chasing ensues. Fortunately, the dog hasn’t yet caught a chicken, but I find it a little tiring to worry about them so much.

Deer populate the woods surrounding the farm, and venture often into the fields and across the driveway. In the morning, my son and I ride our bikes together the nearly half-mile down our dirt road out to the main road, where he either catches the bus or continues by bike to school. It’s not uncommon to see deer leaping across the driveway. The dog has given chase a couple of times and not yet caught one, but again, it’s not something I want to see happen, not in general and especially not with the kids around. So as my son and I ride down the driveway in the morning, I try to make train whistle noises to scare them away, which embarrasses him to no end. “Do you really think the deer know what a train sounds like?” he asked me this morning. “I don’t care if they know what a train sounds like; I just want to sound like something they wouldn’t want to be near,” I told him.

Today I drew a line in the sand, though. I opened the door, saw a flicker and a scurry, and the dog was off in a blur chasing a chipmunk that had bee foraging in the corner of the garage. As she dashed to the edge of the yard near a grove of tall oak trees, I shrugged. “Chipmunks and squirrels are officially on their own,” I announced to no one.

I can be a good host, but not to everything. Let’s say mammals over five pounds are my responsibility, plus domestic fowl. I’m happy to serve food and beverages to our human visitors and make sure the dog stays away from the non-human ones as much as I am able, but every host deserves a break once in a while. From now on, I’m turning over the care of birds (other than chickens), reptiles and small woodland creatures to a higher power.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Running at the start of the evening on the first day of fall

Running with Tim over the course of two years was such an enriching experience, but on days like today I can’t help but acknowledge how great running alone can be. Once again, I didn’t get out until after dinner because of everyone’s schedules, but we had an early dinner so I was out the door at 6:45, when there was still plenty of light, albeit grayish, in the sky. The temperature was mild; it was ninety minutes past the official start of autumn. Belle and I ran for 30 minutes, looping through the Center and then up to the soccer fields and back.

Two nights ago I was frustrated not to get out until evening, but today it seemed like the ideal time. The kids had a half-day at school and my workday was shortened even further by a volunteer stint at the school library and the need to bring a casserole up to the teachers’ luncheon before dismissal time, so I didn’t want to cut into my work time for a run. And then the kids and I spent the whole afternoon together with what could best be described as a mercurial ambience. Holly had a friend over for a while and they played together very happily – they sang and did art projects – but the friend ended up in tears when it was time to leave. Tim woke up this morning seeming utterly exhausted and didn’t shake off his air of melancholy weariness all day – I know this because I saw him during my volunteer time midmorning – then at 2 PM fell into a sound sleep from which I had to wake him for his 3:00 trumpet lesson.

Later in the afternoon, I suggested both of them do their homework in the kitchen while I start preparing dinner, which sounded like a cozy plan and for a while it was, but then at some point Holly flogged Tim with her blanket, which infuriates him, and then he teased her for counting window panes instead of windows when the assignment asked how many windows our house had, and then Holly dissolved in tears when I told her that since the assignment said “Use a lot of colors in your drawing of your house,” she had to use some colors, and also that if she didn’t know today’s date she had to research it rather than put a question mark on the date line at the top of the paper. As I said, mercurial.

All of which is why I was guiltily delighted to take off right after dinner for a run, and it was such a good run, too. Not just because of the solitude but even physically it was great; my breathing was very steady, for some reason, and my pace felt just right. I listened to a “Fresh Air” podcast, first an interview with Lebron James and then a story about a Palestinian filmmaker. Terry Gross is such an inspiration to me; I learn so much from listening to her interview people, especially those with whom she seems to have so little in common like Lebron James. Her interview over the summer with comic Artie Lange was one of the most interesting segments of radio I’ve ever heard.

Belle and I didn’t pass any other runners or even any drivers we recognized; we just sailed along through the gathering dusk, happy to be out alone in the cooling air as the day, and in fact the summer of 2009, drew to an end. Running in the midmorning has been great lately, but sometimes the end of the day is best: for the peace, the solitude, the closure it brings on whatever has happened during the course of the day.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Fall decluttering and clean-up time

We spent a lot of time this weekend tidying the house. What a sense of relief it brings. We do this every few months, and each time I wonder why it’s so hard to just keep it this way. We wouldn’t have to go into such a frenzy every few months if we could just maintain.

And yet it’s so hard to do. I know we’re not the only household struggling with clutter. In fact, ours is minimal compared to some – but that’s all the more reason we ought to be able to stay on top of it. This weekend we tackled every single upstairs room plus the dreaded paperwork basket in the kitchen. Now every surface is clear, every book and toy and game put away in its place, every piece of clothing folded or hung. For now.

Each of us has our own particular tidiness pitfall, I’ve noticed. Holly is the worst, but as Rick and I both acknowledge, it really is the flip side of her endearing creativity. Holly is always up to her elbows in projects and imaginary games, each of which requires a complicated inventory of props. The pile of shredded paper on the floor? That’s the money from when she was playing Farmers Market. The array of books on the treadmill? She was a teacher hosting a visit from a famous author who came to talk to her class of (imaginary) first graders. The jumble of barrettes and jewelry on the rug? The remnants of last weekend’s spa game, when she and Samantha bathed and groomed their stuffed animals. Yes, she makes a mess wherever she goes – but it’s so hard for me to discourage her from any of her pretending or games. And as for making clean-up part of the process as she plays…it makes sense, but it’s just so hard to enforce.

Tim doesn’t play imaginary games or anything much at all; he’s usually either reading or using his computer during his leisure time. So there’s no clutter of toys trailing in his wake. With him, it’s clothes. He sheds clothes and leaves them in piles on the floor, and his bureau drawers are always mysteriously stuffed to the gills, making it difficult to put things away quickly. It’s not like he wears such a wide variety of clothes; his drawers just fill up with an accumulation of baseball pants, t-shirts, sweatshirts, until there’s no room for anything. And once he’s done his homework, practiced his trumpet and taken a shower, I often don’t have the heart to insist that he wrestle his clean clothes back into his bureau drawers. But I know I should.

For me, it’s paperwork. Clippings to file in my portfolio, invitations awaiting an RSVP, receipts to enter into our electronic checkbook, catalogs to peruse, letters and forms from the kids’ school, notices from church. I’ve read so many books on how to stay on top of clutter, and almost all of them have a chapter devoted to paperwork, but so far none of the techniques have stuck. I sort and pile, sort and pile, and the papers never seem to go anywhere.

Rick is the most well-rounded member of the family regarding mess. He leaves socks around, but not other articles of clothing. He leaves drinking glasses near his computer and bowls of sunflower seeds by the TV. He reads the newspaper and never remembers to bring it out to the recycling. No single category: a little of this, a little of that.

And then every few months, both of us throw ourselves into clearing it all up.
I always feel so relieved and so rejuvenated when we’re done. Right now, I look around the house – my office, the kids’ rooms, the mudroom – and see tidily arranged items and clean surfaces. It brings me such peace of mind that I cannot explain why I then let it lapse. Over the summer, I interviewed a feng shui expert for an article I was writing. “The first step in feng shui is to declutter,” she said, and then went on to describe all the subsequent steps: the ones for welcoming in positive energy, repelling negativity, and so forth. I couldn’t help thinking that for me, step one would be enough: just give me the decluttering and all the rest, the positive energy, the absence of stress, the peace of mind, will follow.

So for the next few days, I have just that: serenity and mental peace. My house is neat, and tomorrow our house cleaner comes to do the cleaning part of it. I will celebrate the serenity and remind myself every evening to maintain the tidiness. I’ll start with trying to keep the floors clear of clutter, and work my way up vertically. And maybe I’ll reform this family yet.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

One silly little mile to keep from breaking the streak

I spent the morning at church, and the midday cleaning the house, and then Rick and Tim left for an away baseball game. Holly and I hadn’t made plans to get together with anyone else and my parents were out for the day and therefore unavailable to look after Holly, so I had to wait for Rick and Tim to get home before I could go running.

But when they got home it was 6:30 and everyone wanted dinner – and dinner was exactly ready to come out of the oven, so I chose in favor of a family sit-down dinner rather than a “You guys eat while I go running” event. It didn’t actually turn out to be a family sit-down dinner because Tim teased Holly, Holly flogged Tim with her blanket, I scolded her, and she ran upstairs and slammed her door. So it was only a three-quarters family dinner. I didn’t go after Holly because, as Rick pointed out, she did something she’s not allowed to do – she tries to tell us that hitting Tim with a blanket isn’t the same as hitting, but we’ve argued that yes, in fact, it is – but then effectively sent herself to her room, so there was no point in urging her to come out when she was where we would have put her anyway.

So the three of us had dinner, and it was getting a little dusky as we finished so I said to Rick that I was going to hurry out before dark. Just then Holly reappeared in the kitchen, calm, contrite and hungry, so I reheated her enchilada and told her she could eat while Rick washed dishes and I went running.

But then Rick finished washing the dishes and Holly accidentally knocked her plate on the floor, where it shattered. So I halted what I was doing – lacing my running shoes – and came back to clean up the mess and heat up another enchilada for Holly. Given the porcelain shards, saving the clean-up for later didn’t seem like a safe option. By the time I was done cleaning up and Holly had a newly warmed dinner, it was fully dark.

“Guess it’ll be just a mile,” I sighed to myself and the dog, and out we went for our skinny little 11-minute run, one mile exactly, down the footpath and back, in the dark, headlamp on. I was frustrated because I feel like weekends are supposed to be my time for longer-distance running, and today it just hadn’t worked at all: I was logging one silly mile, the bare-minimum distance allowed by the USRSA for streak runners to maintain their status.

But then I reminded myself that I should be proud to have gotten out at all. This was, after all, the kind of day that at an earlier time would have dissuaded me from trying to do a running streak. I would have said, “But sometimes I just can’t get out before dark, like if Rick isn’t home and I don’t have anyone else to look after Holly. It wouldn’t be practical to try to run every single day.” Yes, I did only a mile today, but the goal is to get out for at least a mile every day, and I upheld that goal. Maybe I can find a day during the upcoming week to do some extra distance, replacing today’s run. I’m not starting the week with a big pile-up of assignments and the weather is predicted to be beautiful for the next several days, so I’ll just break with routine and do a longer run early this week.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Slumber parties, sleepovers and other rites of passage

Holly invited her friend Samantha for a sleepover. As the hosting mom, I got off easy: we were all at the same multi-family dinner party earlier and didn’t get back until 9, so I didn’t have to plan dinner for them or any early-evening activities. Now it’s late-ish and they should be in bed, but I’m having so much fun listening to them chatter and play that I can’t bring myself to enforce any sensible rules just yet. They set up a spa of sorts (proving, I suppose, that the spa concept is archetypal, since I don’t think either of them necessarily knows what a real spa is) for stuffed animals. They laid out a bath towel on the hall carpet and arranged some jewelry, hair accessories and art supplies on it; now they’re giving each stuffed animal a bath in the bathroom sink. “You can rent towels, soap and Q-tips,” Holly told Samantha. “It’s $100; that’s all.” “That’s ALL?” Samantha gasped, certain that $100 was unreasonable for some soap, Q-tips and a crayon or two, even at an upscale spa. “Well, it’s only pretend money,” Holly said, showing Samantha a sheaf of bills that she’d removed earlier from the Monopoly game.

I know they should go to bed soon, but they’re having so much fun and it reminds me that for all the activities our kids do that I could not even imagine when I was their age – the Wii games, the movies-on-demand on TV and DVD, the Build-a-Bear workshops and pottery painting parties – there are simple pleasures that need no frills, and a sleepover is one of them. Girls are happy just to have the novelty of spending the night at each other’s houses.

I have wonderful, cozy memories of sleepovers from when I was growing up. I remember the homey security of my friend Carol’s house, where we’d play with her guinea pigs and be teased – in an altogether welcome way – by her brother. I remember my friend Jennifer’s yearly slumber parties, at which we’d eat mini Milky Ways from the freezer all night long and play Truth or Dare out on the lawn. (The other girls always chose Truth, because they had spicier tales to tell. I chose dare, because I didn’t, and usually ended up running down to the riverbank and back in my bare feet.) I remember sleepovers with my friend Julie in high school when we’d stay up so late and get so tired that we’d start hallucinating while we were talking, and other times when we’d get the notion to go walking in the woods behind my house in the wee hours, scaring ourselves with the strange shapes of tree stumps and branches. (Wandering around outside was not uncommon at sleepovers when I was growing up. That’s the one thing I did that I can’t imagine letting my kids and their friends do, but at the time, we’d never heard scary stories about kids getting hurt in the woods.) I remember the party when my friend Hope turned twelve: her mother brought us to the movie “Grease,” and then we stayed up all night watching Saturday Night Live and reading Seventeen Magazine and I was as happy as I could possibly imagine being.

So if Samantha and Holly end up with cozy memories, friendship memories, from tonight, it’s fine with me if they stay up a little later than they should. They can sleep late tomorrow. They’re still so young and may have a very long friendship ahead of them; if this is one of the steps along the way, I’m happy to be a part of it.


Running Streak Day 769: I spent the whole day writing and finally fit in 1.4 miles, up to the soccer fields and back, at 5:45. Hoping for longer runs this weekend.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

A writer minds her adverbs

My agent sent me six pages of editorial suggestions earlier this week, and today I cleared my schedule to spend the entire work day contemplating her edits and revising my manuscript.

What a luxury: to be able to spend the day working on my own writing. Well, it wasn’t actually the whole day. I sat down to my desk just before 9 AM, with the contentment that comes from knowing the kids are at school, the livestock is grazing, the dog has had enough early-morning activity that she’ll doze for a few hours, the dishwasher is running and the kitchen floor is swept. A swept floor is, for me, the mint on the pillow, the symbol that I’ve made it through my morning clean-up list and am done with that part of the day. Even my husband was out at a series of work-related appointments. I was alone in the house with my manuscript and my revisions.

But first I had to do a couple of hours of consulting. Billable hours, you know -- never a good idea to neglect those. The municipal management consultant I work for has a community development plan due in just a few weeks, and I owed her a significant rewrite on the public water and sewer section. So I did that, and when I was done, the dog was staring at me anxiously. “I get paid to write, not to go running with you,” I told her. She stared some more. “We’ll go by noon,” I promised. At 11:45, dog-owner guilt won out over billable hours. Dogs can’t even tell time, I grumbled as I changed into my running clothes, but it’s the dog owner’s code of honor that when you tell your pup you’ll do something by noon, you stick to it.

After a short run, I pulled up my agent’s list of suggestions and opened my manuscript file. And as I read through the pages, I kept thinking, “Wow, do I use a lot of words. Words after words. Words piled on words. Words entangled with words.”

I don’t even use that many different words. My vocabulary is an embarrassment to me. It’s not that I misuse words – it’s that for a journalist, I don’t know very many. On various writing projects this week, I’ve found myself struggling for synonyms for the simplest words: “appealing.” “Wonderful.” “Thrill.” “Delighted.” All positive words, I now notice. Interesting that I seem to have plenty of ways to express negative reactions, but get stuck using the same words over and over again for the good stuff.

As a writer, I believe my greatest editorial flaw is using adverbs. Only recently did I start making myself methodically cross out adverbs. Oops, there’s another one. As I combed through my manuscript today, I was alarmed to note how many adverbs modified every verb and adjective. A business decision was described as “extremely problematic.” A plan was “perfectly reasonable.” A challenge was “enormously frustrating.” Modifiers modifying modifiers.

Finally I stopped deleting and took a moment to think about what the role of adverbs is. To further elucidate, I decided. To clarify the way in which something was done, or was perceived.

And sometimes that’s useful; but more often, it’s superfluous. My husband has a famous expression. Famous within our family, anyway. Once he grew exasperated listening to me give him information and said, “Stop explaining things!” “That’s our problem, isn’t it?” my father later commented. “We’re all such explainers.”

Adverbs explain things, and as Rick suggested, a lot of times those things don’t require further explanation. Familiar as I am with the “show don’t tell” max im, it’s true that I still feel the need to qualify, to use adverbs to further delineate the degree to which a certain description pertains. “extremely.” “Particularly.” “Severely.” “Barely.” “Somewhat.” “Very.””Absurdly.”

Just tell the story, I reminded myself. Show don’t tell. Or, as Strunk and White succinctly say – I mean, as Strunk and White say – “Use nouns and verbs.” Let the things and the actions carry the story along without trying to direct the reader’s interpretation.

If I could do that, and build my vocabulary with some new adjectives, I think I’d find myself to be a much more skilled writer in very little time. I mean, in little time.

So, a writer’s rsolution for today: fewer adverbs. Use nouns and verbs. Ultimately, Rick was right. Oops, I mean, Rick was right. It’s simply a matter of being straightforward. Oops again. It’s a matter of being straightforward. Stop explaining things.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Biking to school

Two weeks into the school year, Tim has fallen into a very satisfying routine of riding his bike to school. Fifth grade is the first year the kids are, as I like to say, “released on their own recognizance.” In the earlier grades they have to be either on a bus or met by an adult at the end of the day; starting in fifth grade they simply walk out the door once class is dismissed. Tim likes to ride his bike the short distance into the town center, pick up a snack at Ferns Country Store using his new Ferns charge card -- which he has to earn the money to refill -- and then settle in at the library to start his homework and, though I might wish it otherwise, play a computer game or two.

I love this routine because it gives him such a sense of independence, and that’s one thing about Carlisle that has not changed since I was his age thirty years ago. In such a small town, there are so few ways for kids to develop their independence in the way city kids do, by going places on their own or making any plans at all that don’t involve adults. Back in the 1970s, when I was in fifth grade, the middle schoolers queueing up after school at the country store – which had a different name then, and no charge cards – was a daily tradition, and it still is. Tim tells me in the morning what time he’ll be home, and he’s on his honor to leave the library at the right time to make that happen. He doesn’t have a cell phone; he just has to use good judgment and keep track of the clock, like I did back in the 1970s. (And I actually think he has better judgment about snack choices than I ever did at his age.) When he gets home, he’s buoyed by the independence and invigorated by the biking, and he has also usually finished most of his homework.

My pleasure in seeing Tim ride his bike reminds me of something that came up in an article I wrote three years ago about a family who categorically decided to give up use of their car. They live in a community near Cambridge that is much more mixed-use than ours; halfway between the suburbs and the city geographically as well as infrastructurally, it has sidewalks, neighborhood schools, and public buses. So they decided that they would rely on walking, biking or public transportation, even though their two children were under the age of ten at the time.

What interested me most in the interview was when the mom, Sarah, talked about how the family dynamic had changed somewhat once they gave up the car and rode their bikes to school, lessons and playdates instead. And it wasn’t exactly a matter of physical independence: at the age of about 8, her elder child still wasn’t old enough to pedal around town by himself. She still accompanied him, on her own bike, to his various activities. But dropping him off by bike was different. Merely by giving up the role of mom-as-chauffeur, she found that things had changed. Her children didn’t seem to have quite the same perspective on her as their means of conveyance. Even when she went with them, if they were on their own bikes doing their own pedaling, it lent a sort of egalitarianism to the relationship.

I found that insight so interesting, and that, more than environmental or financial reasons, has influenced me to try to cut back on driving the kids around. Even if I’m still with them when they bike or walk – as in Holly’s case I always am – I want them to see that kids don’t need to rely on grown-ups to orchestrate every activity and plan. As the children in the article about going car-free learned very early, kids do have the power to get where they want to go. Literally, and in some ways figuratively too.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Tim is 11 years old today!

Today is Tim’s 11th birthday. He will have to forgive me someday when he realizes that I abandoned the yearly habit of writing him a long letter on his birthday sometime around year 5 or 6. (And I abandoned the monthly habit of writing him a medium-sized letter somewhere around six months!) Best intentions, and all that.

Well, I wrote a book about him, along with dozens of essays that have been published in various newspapers – he’ll just have to be content with that. (Or, as some of my readers who are also parents have pointed out to me, I should consider myself lucky if “content” is how he’d describe his feelings about some of my essays. Come on, doesn’t every mom at some point write an essay about her son’s fascination with his athletic protective gear?)

I love celebrating Tim’s birthday. I love the memories it brings back and the sense of accomplishment it engenders. Eleven years of Tim – tell me that’s not an accomplishment. A blessing, to be sure, but an accomplishment as well. I love him, but I certainly do not always understand him. Last June, while I was at the Aspen Summer Words writers’ conference, I had such an interesting discussion with author/writing instructor Bill Loizeaux. We discovered we’d both had the inexplicable experience of meeting our daughters at the moment of their birth and knowing certain things about their personalities at that instant that turned out, years later, to be absolutely accurate. I actually wrote in my journal, still in the hospital, when Holly was one day old, about the kind of person I already knew her to be: generous, kind and good-natured as long as you don’t step on her toes, in which case she’ll be uncompromising about defining her space and making sure you stay out of it.

I laughed as I wrote, knowing I couldn’t possibly have any idea what her personality would be: I was either purely imagining or else projecting, describing the daughter I subconsciously wanted to have. And yet seven years later I know that the description really was Holly. Something about her newborn squawks and sighs, her scrunchy pink face, her curious dark blue eyes – I knew. I knew her character in those minutes after birth. And Bill had the same experience with his daughters.

After he and I discussed it, I thought about the conversation again and realized something I’d left out: But it wasn’t like that with Tim. I don’t remember inferring his personality on the day he was born, or the days when he was an infant. I remember – and I’ve written about – gazing into his eyes, and him gazing back into mine, as we both wondered what it would be like getting to know each other and spending our lives together. But I didn’t know his soul the way I did with Holly. And, I realized as I thought about it that day in Aspen, the amazing thing is I still don’t. Tim is still a mystery to me. I know his preferences – fantasy fiction, baseball, crisp lettuce doused in vinegar, sleeping late on weekends – but I don’t absolutely know what makes him tick. I don’t know how he thinks or who he will someday be. I didn’t eleven years ago, and I don’t now.

But it’s always such a pleasure on his birthday to think about all the celebrations we’ve had for him since his birth and all the ways in which he’s changed. His one-year-old party, on a sunny day in our pretty little yard in Framingham, when we invited all our friends – because he didn’t have his own friends yet – and celebrated the fact that we’d made it through the first year. His four-year-old birthday, when he and his preschool classmates were hoisted into a Peter Pan sling at One Stop Fun to sail through the air. His seven-year-old birthday, ten friends at the Spinners game, the sky clearing after a day of gusts and rain which we did not fully realize then were the outermost edges of Hurricane Katrina. (We held his party two weeks early that year because the Spinners, a minor league team, end their season on Labor Day.) His nine-year-old party, just his friend Austin with us in Maine, when Rick prepared a lobster- and clambake.

This year he wants to do laser tag; for various reasons we’re postponing it until next month, but he doesn’t mind. Tonight my parents took us out to dinner at Tim’s favorite restaurant. He ate all the crab Rangoon he could hold; I ate masaman curry and thought about how much tastier it was than the turkey sandwich a nurse offered me on Tim’s original birth day (since I’m a vegetarian, it turned into a lettuce sandwich for me. Not terribly satisfying after giving birth.). Then we all went back to the house for his favorite dessert, chocolate mousse pie, which I had made earlier in the day. He’s a happy 11-year-old; I’m a happy mom. I may not understand him really well, but I certainly do love having him as a son.

Monday, September 14, 2009

10-10-10, as applied to a seven-year-old

Late last month we stopped at the library on our way to the beach. On impulse, I grabbed Suzy Welch’s book on decision-making, 10-10-10, and read it that afternoon while the kids swam. I admit that I didn’t study it too thoroughly. With how-to books, I often give them what I call the NPR treatment – I skim them and learn about the same amount that an hour-long interview with the author on “On Point,” “Talk of the Nation” or “Fresh Air,” to name three of my favorite NPR shows, would cover. I realize there’s more to it than what I gleaned, but two hours of skimming was enough for me to pick up the general idea of how 10-10-10 works as a decision-making tool.

And then just a couple of days later, I found the opportunity to put it into practice. 10-10-10 posits the utility of making decisions based on viewing them from three perspectives: how the outcome will play out in ten minutes, in ten months, and in ten years. It can be applied to countless situations: at work, in the household, with friends, when making big decisions about career changes, housing or other lifestyle issues.

But it also works pretty well with parenting. What happened on that particular day was that Holly and I were driving home from somewhere and she started chattering away about the birthday party she was going to throw for a particular stuffed animal when she got home. At the age of seven, Holly still has a remarkably multi-layered imaginary life, so it didn’t surprise me that she went through the whole scheme: which other stuffed animals would be invited, what the food and activities at the party would consist of, what kind of gifts the birthday girl (or birthday pig or whatever it was) was going to receive.

But when she named the guest of honor, it was a new one to me. She wasn’t talking about any of her half-dozen usual favorites. And when I asked her who “Buttercup” was, she said “You know, that one I got for Christmas a long time ago.” I didn’t know, but didn’t think it was a problem, until I asked her if Buttercup was in the big basket of stuffed animals in her room. “No,” she said nonchalantly, “I think she’s in the box in the attic.”

Oh, that box in the attic. The one I brought to the swap shed at the transfer station last month.

When we got home, Holly hurried upstairs to start setting up the party. I made a silent wish that I might be wrong about Buttercup’s locale, but it wasn’t long before I realized I’d have no such luck. “Mommy, I can’t find that box anywhere!” Holly wailed. I followed her voice to the attic. As I’d assumed, she was standing at the exact spot that – unbeknownst to the kids – I consider the “wait-and-see zone.” When they haven’t played with something for a while, I put it in that corner of the attic and then “wait-and-see” if they ask for it. If six months or so go by and they don’t, I truck it to the town’s swap shed. The space was cleared; I’d done a big transfer station run on a recent Saturday morning when they were both out of the house, taking advantage of their absence to fill the back of the truck with outgrown toys.

“Oh noooo!” Holly wailed. “How can I have Buttercup’s party if I can’t find Buttercup?”

I considered my options. If I faked a search for Buttercup, she’d be pacified for a little while, and maybe I could somehow smooth things over or distract her while we were searching, but maybe the search would just be endlessly drawn out. If I told Holly the truth, I’d have to endure a raging meltdown, but at least the discussion would be over.

And then I remembered Suzy Welch and the 10-10-10 rule. If Holly found out I’d tossed Buttercup (who I’m quite certain I never saw her play with and never heard referred to as “Buttercup” or anything else), she’d still be furious in ten minutes. It was possible, though not too likely, that she’d still resent me for what I’d done in ten months. But it was nearly impossible to believe that she’d care about this in ten years. It wasn’t like I’d thrown out her beloved blanket or a favorite stuffed animal – just one that for some reason popped into her mind on this particular day for the first time in more than half a year.

On the other hand, if I faked a search, I’d still be at it in ten minutes and wouldn’t have gotten to any of the tasks I needed to try to get done. It was even remotely possible, were we not to resolve the situation, that she’d still be looking in ten months. And ten years? Same as the previous scenario: I couldn’t imagine she’d still remember it.

There was another alternative too, I then realized: the one I genuinely wanted to pursue. The path of complete evasion. “Holly, I have to get dinner started,” I said. “I’m sorry I don’t have time to help you.” Again, I was thinking 10-10-10. In ten minutes, she might still be storming over the disappearance of Buttercup, but I’d be halfway through the dinner preparations. Ten months? Probably would have blown over. Ten years? Not an issue.

So I did what might seem unethical but was definitely expedient: ducked out. Went downstairs to start making dinner, figuring I’d go check on her in 15 minutes or so. But not even ten minutes had gone by when Holly came clomping into the kitchen, cheerfully humming the happy birthday song. “So what happened?” I asked. “Oh, I decided it would be a different animal’s birthday instead,” she said pleasantly. “The guests are all lined up on my bed waiting for cake. Want to come see?”

So the party was in full swing, Buttercup having been replaced as guest of honor. I’d done what I needed to do, and Holly was happy. I still don’t know the process by which she worked the whole thing out in her mind, but it reminded me of one of her best qualities: resilience. And it made me determined to try to use this 10-10-10 thing again next time.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Zen-like running on a cool and drizzly afternoon

I headed out to run in a cool drizzle around 5 PM and could tell ten steps in that it was going to be a good one…and in fact it was great. Just great. It was the kind of run I’m always searching for these days and so often don’t find, because it’s hot or I’m hungry or the dog keeps stopping to sniff the underbrush or I’m in a hurry to get back to my desk and finish an article.

So often in the past two years I’ve asked, “Why doesn’t running feel the way it used to? Am I getting old? Am I just turning into a really bad runner?” I still can’t answer that, but today I re-discovered running at its best, and it made me so happy. I had that perfect Zen feeling of no goal, no endpoint, just running for the sake of running: no finish line, the only concrete marker the feel of the road unspooling under my feet. I did the Stearns Street loop – without the dog, and with This American Life on the iPod -- but was feeling so good that I added on, not only with Woodridge Road like I often do but running all the way down to the end of Baldwin before looping back up. My feet just kept pounding on; cool light drops fell over my hair and face; thick green leaves rustled overhead in the breeze. I ran for 50 minutes in all, 4.3 miles, which of course is not a long run by most runners’ standards and not even usually by mine. It wasn’t the length, it was the comfort level and the sense of commitment I felt to the run.

But also, not only physically but mentally, it was the kind of run I use to do. I wasn’t just trying to fit it in to an overscheduled day or hurrying back to do more work; I wasn’t in any particular hurry at all. And I was very aware of how good it would feel to release a healthy dose of endorphins before tonight’s party, which I’m absolutely looking forward to but which can also be a little anxiety-producing in that there are just so many people – hundreds, it often seems – to seek out and visit with and get reacquainted with. Much as I love get-togethers, that kind of social pressure makes me a little nervous, and there’s nothing like a good workout to dispel those nerves.

When I got home, the animals happened to be all grazing in a line alongside the driveway like they sometimes do, and they all seemed to be standing in the same pose staring at me as I ran by, as if saying, “Where have you been for so long?” I finished the run when I reached them; they were very wet but in friendly moods. One of the wethers let me pet him, and of course Daisy, the friendliest cow, wanted her head scratched. They all seemed puzzled that I was out in the rain, but somehow welcoming as I returned.

Now I’m back home, after a hot shower, with the pleasantly achy feeling of a good workout, and it’s just so reassuring to know it can still be like this. Not just a mile rushed in here or there but a long, deliberate, meditative run on a cool, drizzly mid-September afternoon.

Friday, September 11, 2009


I wish I could turn off the frazzle button: not disconnect from the things that make me frazzled but deactivate my own tendency to go into a tizzy, even if the tizzy usually takes place only within my own head. I so easily get just slightly overwhelmed. And what I mean by “just slightly” is that it’s with an awareness of what kinds of issues I manage to avoid that could be truly overwhelming. I’m not trying to make life-or-death decisions for a terminally ill family member. Or lobbying for special educational services for a child. Or unable to pay my rent. So I know that I don’t count as truly frazzled.

Instead, it’s the mundane issues. The sink full of dishes; the newspapers piling up because no one but me ever takes them out to the recycling bin; the dog’s never-ending quest for more attention and more exercise; the hope of receiving one more article assignment before the week ends, spend one more billable hour on that municipal planning communications task, and figure out the schedule for school library volunteers for the next month. Easy things. Routine things.

But it’s not the fact that they’re essentially trivial that makes me feel guilty on top of frazzled; it’s that all these little pieces comprise exactly the life I want. If you had asked me when I was in my late 20’s what I wanted my life to look like 15 years hence, every single detail of today probably would have been included in my description. Living in the country. Working from home as a writer. Having two happy, healthy, well-adjusted, school-aged children and an equally healthy, if not always quite as happy or well-adjusted, husband. (And who knew he’d be 40 pounds lighter now than back when I might have dreamed up this scenario!) My dreams would doubtlessly include a big comfortable house where the kids would bring friends home from school, and those same dreams would feature celebrations, and volunteer work, and friends of my own.

And that was my day today but it’s all frazzling me, which is something I wish I could change. Drinking might help, of course; but I’ve just never really liked alcohol very much. I don’t mean I’m cranky or miserable, just that I wish I could enjoy the details more. I pitched an article that could be a lot of fun to work on, I billed for some editing hours, I went for a run that felt great but too short because I was anxious about getting back so that I could finish more work before the kids got home from school. I was out in the barnyard at 7:30 this morning letting the sheep out to graze. It’s all the way I dreamed it would be. Now it’s just a matter of finding the de-frazzle button: learning to say “Forget the dirty dishes, forget the 12 relatives coming over for a cookout tomorrow, forget the article that didn’t get written today. Instead, celebrate having the life you want.”

And, of course, there’s no more appropriate day than 9/11 to celebrate the joys of everyday life. Back in the fall of 2001, what I missed most was normal life. And by that I meant not feeling afraid. Not following endless news feeds. Not thinking constantly in terms of trauma. Just regular life. Dishes and dogs and running and deskwork. Exactly what I have now.

Running Streak Day 762. Ran 2.5 miles, through the Center and up to the soccer fields and home, just after noon. Cool, invigorating air.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Social media and me, Part I: Why I really like Twitter

I think of my cousin Buck as what technology watchers call an early adapter. On the younger end of the baby boomer demographic, he has always been quick to use and acquire what’s new, from cell phones in the early 1990s to web-enabled wristwatches in the early 2000s. My son still remembers using Buck’s watch to look up the temperature during a Rockies game in July of 2005 (he discovered it was 106 degrees).

So when my literary agent urged me to sign up for Twitter, I figured Buck would be one of the few personal contacts I’d find already there. Most of my friends love Facebook, a technology I’ve diligently avoided. (“Once I find time to read the New York Times cover to cover every day, I’ll consider Facebook,” I always say when asked. Could still happen.) But so far, my social cohort hasn't been drawn in by Twitter, which resulted in a somewhat inscrutable exchange with my mother-in-law in which I said, “Not everyone is using Twitter. My friends don’t use Twitter.” She replied, “Well, your friends aren’t everyone!” “No,” I said, a little bit puzzled, “but they’re someone. So if they’re not using it, everyone can’t be.” These who’s-on-first exchanges are not altogether uncommon in our family.)

But Buck wasn't there. At least I couldn't find him. So I e-mailed him directly to ask him why he wasn’t on Twitter, and he admitted he didn’t quite understand how to use it. Or why.

This is how I felt a month ago, but in the past three weeks I’ve become something of a convert. For a writer, Twitter, with its severely abstemious limit of 140 characters including punctuation marks and spaces, is a terrific challenge in editorial self-discipline. I have trouble keeping my personal-essay columns to 800 words and my feature stories under 1,000 words: expressing a thought, even just one singular thought, cogently in 140 characters gives my editing skills a workout and has succeeded to do what no other medium could: taught me to eliminate adverbs. Can I really tell an anecdote about the kids, narrate a weekend excursion or describe a run in 140 characters? Why, what do you know: it turns out I can, when I absolutely have to.

I also like the quick-update format of Twitter. So often, events catch my attention but don’t seem to merit an actual letter or e-mail to anyone. It’s not that I’m too lazy to write it out; it’s that I’m not sure the event is worthy of taking up my reader’s time. E-mailing a friend or relative directly about, say, Holly learning to ride a bike or my first experience baking no-knead bread presupposes their interest in the topic. Posting a one-sentence “Tweet” informing them that Holly has mastered her two-wheeler or that the bread was a success doesn’t seem nearly as presumptuous. Conversely, I would love to get frequent brief updates from my friends and family members about those events they don’t bother to write to me about. For example, when I reached my cousin Buck by e-mail, he told me about bringing his eldest son to college last month. Had I not initiated the contact, he wouldn’t have bothered to write to me about that, and yet I was definitely interested. And probably so would everyone else who would choose to follow him on Twitter.

Moreover, despite the misconceptions of many non-users, Twitter isn’t just for letting your friends know when you’re about to eat a sandwich or have a new favorite song. It’s ideal for passing along articles and information pertinent to a particular topic. For example, I’m on the mailing list of an acquaintance who is deeply involved in the health care debate and frequently sends all his contacts links to articles about legislative actions and related news. Because you can use Twitter to forward links to items published elsewhere on line, he’d be well-advised to use this method to keep his friends informed, and he’d probably find it easy to build his mailing list as more people interested in the topic found their way to his posts.

And that brings me to another advantage of Twitter: I don’t have to decide who will be interested in what I have to say, because it’s opt-in on the reader’s part. Followers choose to subscribe to the Twitterer’s feed. Normally, whenever any of my essays or articles are published, I send the link to dozens of friends, colleagues and relatives, knowing it’s self-promotional of me but figuring they have the prerogative to ignore it. If they were all Twitter users, it would be their choice to “follow” me, thereby finding out via Twitter when I’ve just published something. And it’s also their prerogative not to follow me, so I’d no longer have to wonder whether to include them in my self-promotions or not.

Nonetheless, at this point most of my friends are still not Twitterers, though a small number have obligingly joined since I did. Naturaly, I still love long talks and good face-to-face visits, but I also like 140-character nuggets of information. If you haven't tried it yet and want to take a look, just go to my Twitter feed at, and then let me know what you think!

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

My day as an office temp (a one-day stand)

Quite unexpectedly today, I received a phone call from an editorial placement agency I’ve been listed with for months that has never yet found me any work. They asked if I could do two days of proofreading – starting this afternoon. With a little childcare assistance from my parents, who kindly said they were available to meet the bus and take the kids home both days, I realized the timing was actually pretty good; I didn’t have any major writing assignments pending and it was the perfect time to accept a two-day office gig.

This was the first time I’d ever taken a traditional temp assignment. When I started at my last full-time job, it was temp-to-perm, so I went in as a temp but with the fervent hope that it would turn into a permanent position. And it did, inasmuch as you can call two years permanent. Back then, I wrote an essay about how working as a contractor when you want to be a regular employee is like living together when you want to get married: you keep wondering why the company would buy the cow – and give the cow health insurance and IRA contributions – when it can get the milk for free.

If that temp-to-perm role was like living together, then today’s situation was like a one-night stand, or really a two-day stand, since I’m expected back tomorrow. All I needed to do was perform the work effectively. I didn’t need to remember names, learn the office culture, develop an interest in the company’s mission, or get to know people. Just come in, do the job for the prescribed time period, and you’re done. It’s so different from the long-term jobs I’ve held in the past, but it’s also kind of a thrill to feel so utterly unfettered.

Usually the first day of work is not only exhausting and stressful but so daunting: you mean I have to do this over and over again every day for the rest of my life? Or at least the foreseeable future? Today was exhausting and stressful in that I kept worrying about the working-mom issues that I’ve been mercifully free of for the past year – how will I have time between dinner and bedtime tonight to pack lunches and oversee homework and prep tomorrow night’s dinner and help with baths and make sure everyone has their permission slips and library books – but it wasn’t daunting, because there’s no serious commitment involved. I’d love to get more work like this – though realistically, I’d be even better off with another full-time salaried position – but it was just so delightfully carefree to experience a different side of work life.

It was also simply amusing to be in this office. Following proper temp protocol, I dressed conventionally in a suit with nylons and pumps, but the assignment was at an advertising agency with genuine exposed brick walls, and all the employees were dressed quite casually. Not even ad-agency hip or casual chic, just extremely relaxed wardrobes. There was a big shaggy dog lying in the middle of the wide-open work space near my desk, and at one point the account rep came out of her office and lay down on the floor to cuddle him. Fun to watch the goings-on; even more fun to know it’s not my employer and I don’t have to learn to be one of them. I just have to help them out with a couple of days of editing to fill in for a sick proofreader, which led me to the realization that swine flu could be quite a boon for the temp placement industry.

Meanwhile, it's Day 760 of my running streak, and I squeezed in a 1.4 mile run up to the soccer fields and back before changing clothes and heading in to work. Tomorrow I'll try to go at dawn instead, which I haven't done in months, but that's the reality of a 9-to-5 workday, even if it's for just one day.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Holly learns to ride a bike!

As of today, Holly can ride a two-wheeler! After a few sessions earlier in the summer that yielded mixed results, we took her up to the paved track on Saturday, at which time she picked up the ability to stay balanced and ride in a straight line -- she just couldn't start or stop very well. Yesterday, she and I went back to the track along with Holly's friend Samantha, who is almost exactly her age and very similar to her in terms of developmental skills, and they both practiced until they were both riding nearly flawlessly.

It was such a pleasure to watch both Holly and Samantha develop these abilities literally before our eyes. On the one hand, Samantha's mom -- my friend Nancy (coincidentally, I have lots of friends named Nancy) -- and I were so proud of their intensity and their courage in persisting until they could do what they set out to do, and we're both excited at the thought of future bike rides sans the tagalong attachment we've both lugged along behind us for the past half-decade or more. But we also commented on the vicarious thrill of imagining what it must feel like to develop such a remarkable ability as riding a bike. So soon after acquiring the skill, we take it for granted. Even Tim has commented on the curious fact that he doesn't need to think about balancing on a bike; as soon as you learn, it just happens effortlessly. But remember that initial feeling, a combination of balancing and soaring? The sense of "I can't believe this is possible...and I can't believe I'm the one doing it?"

"It would be like if we suddenly developed the ability to fly," I commented to Nancy. "Doesn't it seem like it would be that same kind of thrill, that sense of liberation from the usual constraints of gravity?"

I'm so happy for Holly, but I also learned something from my part of the equation. Rick did the heavy lifting, the early biking lessons when he had to hold her up, dash behind her and catch her as she fell. I didn't get involved until she could balance on her own and really just needed help with lift-off. But what I learned during the two days I spent helping her learn to start and stop was eye-opening in its own way. I kept offering her advice: "Make sure your front tire is facing forward. Pedal fast so you pick up some momentum. Get your pedal in ready position before you start." And she kept shrieking at me, "Stop telling me what to do! Let me just do it my way!" At first I attributed this to anxiety; she was frustrated wtih how long it was taking so she needed to vent the frustration by lashing out at me. But then I started to see it as something else. Maybe she was right. Maybe she really didn't need my advice at all. Maybe my advice wasn't actually going to help her learn any faster than if she just figured it out for herself.

After all, it wouldn't take too many launches with the front tire turned at a sharp angle before you realized that the process worked better with the tire straight, and it probably wouldn't take too much trial and error before you realized that pedaling fast made balancing easier. So maybe it wasn't just the need to yell at someone; maybe Holly really wasn't benefiting from my suggestions. Maybe this was something her own body needed to figure out on its own, physically, viscerally, not through my explaining it to her. And that may be a lesson that carries through at other times too, times that I want to explain things to her and she wants to just live through them and figure it out through trial and error.

Years ago, when my niece Phoebe was five or six, I remember accompanying her and her father, my brother-in-law Bob, to the cul-de-sac behind our house so that she could try out her new in-line skates. At first, her attempts appeared to me to be disastrous. Not only was she slipping and crashing and tottering and tumbling; she yelled at her father at every possible opportunity. "This doesn't seem like it's working very well," I commented mildly to Bob, but he was wiser. "Just wait," he said. "This is exactly how Phoebe picks up every new skill. She attacks it, you think it's never going to come together for her, and she takes out her frustration by yelling at me. Then all of the sudden...." And as he said those words, we both saw Phoebe gliding toward us, then accelerating, turning, and coming to a picture-perfect stop. "Like that," Bob finished.

I'm not sure I want to always be the sacrificial lamb in this scenario. I'm not sure I'm willing to be shrieked at by Holly every time she needs to learn a new skill. But I'm still delighted that she's biking now, and I'm wiser to the fact that my long-winded explanations of what she should do were useless to her. I gave her the opportunity to try -- I pumped up her tires, strapped on her knee guards and elbow pads and brought her up to the track -- and then she ultimately figured it out on her own.

Monday, September 7, 2009

Running Streak Day 758: Why bother with just a mile?

After spending much of the day at a cookout with old friends of ours and new friends of theirs and having a wonderful time, Holly and I arrived home at 6 PM while Rick and Tim headed to a baseball practice. Leaving Holly next door with my parents, I took the dog and did just a one-mile run, possessing neither the time nor the inclination to do anything more than that.

It's days like this -- along with many, many other kinds of days -- that seem to prompt the question of why I bother to maintain my running streak. Other than the fact that one mile is the minimum distance permissible by the United States Running Streak Association (USRSA) to count toward a streak, what do I possibly gain from running one little mile? Even at my slow pace, I'm done in 11 minutes, and that's not enough to have any kind of value from a fitness perspective. Nor is it enough to reach any kind of runner's mental state: no meditation, no mind-clearing, just out for ten minutes or so to get it over with. Because that's really the mentality on a day like this: Just get the run done.

When I was running daily with Tim, I didn't need to justify it to myself because it was our little experiment: I did it because that was the plan, for the two of us to run a mile together every day and see what it was like.

But now that it's just me, I have to acknowledge the quasi-absurdity of it. To my mind, the running I did earlier this weekend has intrinsic worth for a variety of reasons. Both Saturday and Sunday I ran more than 3 miles, was out more than 30 minutes. I ran through a neighborhood not my own, saw a variety of scenery, pushed my body to exert itself slightly beyond what is comfortable (not that 30 minutes of running should be such a push, but somehow it still is), and in various ways reached a different level of thinking while I ran. Admittedly, on Saturday that level of thinking could be characterized mostly by the phrase "I wish this run were over," but nonetheless, my mind went beyond the quotidian details of my day and onto a different plane. Yesterday was a better run: I felt good about what I was doing, good about the exertion and the fresh air and the effort.

With a one-mile run, none of that really happens. It's just about getting out there because I said I'd get out there, so it's fair to ask myself why I bother. The flippant answer I've been giving when people ask if I'll continue the streak now that Tim has stopped is that I've paid my USRSA dues for the year and might as well get my $20 worth by continuing the streak until I owe another yearly payment. But beyond that, I just get a certain satisfaction out of knowing that I said I'd do something and I'm doing it. I said that no matter what happened, I would make it a priority to get out for a run of at least a mile every day. And it's true that there's no particular honor in doing so; nor is there any great fitness benefit, which is why I still ride my stationary bike for 45 minutes every morning and fit in as much walking and outdoor biking as I can in addition to that. And, of course, it's why I try to run 30 minutes or more at least three or four times a week.

The single-mile run, on a day like today when I'm doing it only for the sake of maintaining the streak, doesn't do anything for me physically or meditatively. But it reminds me that I'm upholding a contract to myself, doing what I said I'd try to do. And for someone as generally poor at time management as I am, it's also a good exercise in manipulating time: reminding myself that I can always find those 11 minutes to fit in my mile, which is what I've often said might be the biggest advantage Tim gained during his two years of streak running: time management.

But even more than that, it's my daily benchmark. It's something I do within every 24-hour period, and therefore it's a little like writing "I was here" in wet cement. It reminds me that on this particular day, I celebrated the blessing of existence by taking ten minutes to do something that I take ten minutes or more for every single day. Does that make sense? Probably not. But it justifies in my mind why this is still a worthwhile thing to do.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Playground reading

My favorite measure of a really good day is one in which at some point during a 12-hour period, I have the chance to sit and read the New York Times in the sunlight while the kids play happily together. Today was just such a day. After walking to the town center where they each bought a snack and I talked for a while with a couple from our church who were out for a stroll, we continued on to the school playground. Even though, now that school is back in session, they have the opportunity to play there for at least 20 minutes every weekday during recess, they still had a great time there; clearly novelty isn't important for them to have fun. Or maybe it was the novelty of being there with each other rather than their classmates, at least for Holly.

I sat on a bench, not really watching, just letting them have fun on their own. I did see them clamber up and down the slide a few times, and play hide-and-seek amidst the climbing structure, but mostly I read last Sunday's New York Times, which is a luxury I savor. I do most of my "real" reading, the daily Boston Globe and whatever novel or memoir I'm in the midst of, while I ride my stationary bike in the morning. Getting to the Times, much as I love it, is an extra for me, something I get to do only if there are no other obligations I can or should meet at the moment.

This past summer, that happened a lot, and I felt lucky each time. We'd go to the pond in an adjacent town where we buy a membership every summer, and the kids would play together in the water and I'd sit on the beach and read the New York Times, usually the Style section, book review and NYT magazine from the previous Sunday, sometimes the This Week in Review section as well. Every summer I hear so much about "beach reading," but for a long time, it seemed like a luxury that was out of my grasp. I didn't used to get to the beach that much, and when I did, I had to keep my eyes glued to my children, not to a book. This year, I did a lot of reading at the beach, and it was wonderful.

Later in the afternoon I ran the Stearns Street Loop: 3.2 miles for my 757th day of streak running. Though not as sluggish as yesterday, it wasn't the best. I still felt kind of tired and unmotivated, which I'm afraid is often the case these days, right at times that I should be enjoying running the most: a beautiful, cool, sunny afternoon when I'm not in any big hurry to get back for anything. My knees are fine, my back is fine: orthopedically I haven't changed a bit, and yet it feels like in terms of spirit, I'm just not the runner I used to be. I still want to do it, but it doesn't often bring the sense of elation it once did.

Sometimes it still does. Like last week, the two days I went in the late morning while the kids were at school. So maybe for whatever reason, physiologically late mornings are better than late afternoons.

Friday, September 4, 2009

Summer again for a little while

As so often happens in September, hot late-summer air and a tinge of humidity have returned, and I'm finding the weather very comforting. When I was a kid, I remember that the weather would often turn summer-like just after school began, and back then it bothered me. I wanted crisp, dry, fall air evocative of chilly afternoons and calling for cable knit sweaters with jeans, not more of the summer I was already tired of lingering on.

But today I welcome the hot sunshine after several days of fall-like briskness. It reminds me that summer is still hanging on a little longer, and we don't quite have to give up on the season yet. There's still time for more swimming, for running in a tank top and shorts rather than layers of fleece, for more ice cream that melts faster than we can eat it. It reminds me that so many things in life ebb and flow more than start and stop. With obvious exceptions, like life itself, many things do not have a full-stop ending: they build, diminish, but then sometimes return. Good things like old friendships (I'm off to visit a high school friend on Sunday with whom my almost 30-year relationship has definitely ebbed and flowed, rather than started and stopped), my love of biking (I did so much of it in my 20's, and so little when the kids were very young, and now we're gradually turning into a family that can bike together), my sense of security in many aspects of my life. Bad things both large and small like ongoing disagreements that build, then recede, then begin again; and bad habits, like disorganization or poor punctuality, that I conquer only to deal with all over again. And maintaining sensible eating habits, and dealing with seasonal allergies.

As much as there are some things I wish could just end and be done with, mostly I take comfort in knowing how many elements in my life are like the tide and the seasons: building, receding, cycling around again. And so too the hot weather: undeniably here throughout August, absent for the first few days of September, now back. With some obvious exceptions, life mostly makes circles rather than straight lines, and there's comfort to be found in knowing that this too -- whatever "this" may be -- will pass, but return, only to recede again, and then recur again.

Running Streak Day 755 - 1.7 miles in the afternoon, down to Clark Farm and then up to pick up Holly at school.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Old traditions, new routines

On the one hand, we really like traditions and rituals at this time of year, at least I do. I bring each of the kids on a special shopping excursion for school supplies, new clothes, and dinner out during the last week of vacation. In years past, the whole family always walked to school together on the first day. And we always have chicken pot pie for dinner that same night.

On the other hand, back-to-school time is a good time to start new routines. As the kids advance through the grades, school is different every year, and therefore it makes sense to reevaluate established routines as the new year begins. This year for the first time, the kids are on different schedules; Tim starts school an hour earlier than Holly does, so we couldn't all walk to school together yesterday (in fact, I was pleasantly surprised that Holly even managed to be dressed and groomed in time for me to take the annual back-to-school photo). Instead, everyone (except for Rick) biked, but at different times: first I rode up with Tim on regular bikes, then I ferried Holly up on the tag-along bike. This morning, both kids took the bus, which they've never before done in the morning, but I've decided driving to school is wasteful and I certainly can't do it for two different shifts now that they're on separate schedules, so their new choice in the morning is bus or bike. Tim couldn't bike today because he had to bring his trumpet in; Holly just didn't want to. So they both took the bus for the first time.

The new school year has brought an unanticipated change in routine for me as well. Last year I worked from home but never thought about going running during the day because I wanted to wait for Tim. Now that he's no longer running with me, I realized yesterday I could go any time -- so I went in the middle of the day, right around the time the dog started acting restless. and I did the same thing today, which was Running Streak Day 754 for me.

This proved to have myriad advantages. First of all, it tires out the dog for several hours and then she's not fidgety while I'm trying to work. Second, as the weather turns colder, it will allow me to run during the warmest part of the day. Third, it eliminates a lot of end-of-day rush for us. When I used to wait for Tim to get home before going running, we were usually squishing it in before dinner, or right after dinner when he should have been doing homework. Running with him was wonderful, but having the freedom to go at any time of day is a great benefit to not running with him.

Also there's something really novel about exploring the town by foot at that hour. I know it so much better at other times of day; I usually don't go out in the late morning. Yesterday and today, I ran just before noon, and the town had a very different feel from what it has at rush hour or just before dusk. Rather than commuters passing through town, I see locals, and outdoor laborers, and preschoolers on their way home from morning sessions. I see seniors from the elderly housing complex out for a walk. There are toddlers using the playground, and babies being pushed along in carriages.

So traditions and rituals are good, but I think I've put too much importance in them in the past, believing that making something a tradition gave it intrinsic worth. Changes in routine can be positive as well. Right now, I feel like a new schedule has infused us with fresh energy for the new year that lies ahead, waiting to be experienced one unfolding day at a time.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

First day of school

The first day of school was wonderfully satisfying for all of us. I wish I could replay every day this year the scene in which Tim told me all his news. He was exuberant, which is so unlike him. He was gasping and his tongue was tripping over the words as he tried to tell me all the highlights of fifth grade so far -- most of which simply seem to involve the kids having an increase in autonomy and responsibility.

I wish the enthusiasm and sense of novelty he was experiencing today could never wear off -- he is just so thrilled about being a fifth grader, which in Carlisle means more variety in teachers, classrooms and classmates than the elementary grades have, as well as the option of "homework club" after school and the freedom to leave campus at the end of the day under their own steam. As far as Tim is concerned, the most exciting part of the whole curriculum is the daily planner each student received, in which there are spaces for them to record their homework assignments, due dates, completed dates, etc. To see him brimming with excitement, his pale face beaming and his dark eyes flashing, just delights me to no end. Over a daily planner, no less. As Rick said, "Imagine when he gets his first PDA!"

Meanwhile, Holly kept interrupting him to interject tales of her first day of second grade, most of which involved how much she adores her new teacher and how happy she was to see her two first grade teachers during the day. I feel so fortunate that they are both happy in school. Yesterday I was replete with anxieties all day, anxieties about a new school year, ranging in magnitude from whether Holly's new book bag would be too heavy for her (it's not) to the potential for violence on campus to the likelihood that I would forget to pack a snack or lunch money to the daily challenge of getting out the door on time. Everything was worrying me yesterday. Tonight I know they are both happy to be back at school, and it is enormously reassuring. My children see school as a place they are cared for, nourished intellectually and emotionally, and granted a degree of importance, and that makes them see it as their home. I so hope that there are children everywhere who are just as lucky as they start school this fall.

Running Streak Day 753 - I did 2.5 miles in the bright sunshine of late morning.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Last day of summer vacation

What a sense of relief rushes in on the last day of summer vacation. We made it. We stayed healthy and uninjured; we kept ourselves busy and had fun. The kids bickered, but not unbearably -- though honestly, to me almost any amount is hard to bear. I remember when I was their age my mother using that same word, "bicker," to describe what my sisters and I did, and what's funny is I never really understood back then why it bothered her. "We're not bickering with you," I wanted to say, "so why does it bother you?" My perspective back then was that if you're not the one being argued with -- or criticized, or spoken to rudely -- why do you care that someone else is?

But it's different when you're the mom...although I still can't explain why. Hearing my children bicker with each other grates on my nerves in a primal way that is impossible for me to explain, even as I tell myself that there's nothing so terribly wrong or harmful, and in fact there's probably something quite developmentally appropriate, about their needing to express their differences and assert their emotional territory.

So there was a certain amount of bickering this summer, more than usual for them, but we also had a lot of fun. We took a few daytrips to the beach, went into Boston once for a ferry trip to the harbor islands, spent the July 4th weekend in Maine, ran a 5-mile road race, attended several pool parties, and went out of town for a week -- the kids and Rick to Cooperstown, New York, for a baseball tournament; me to a writers' conference in Colorado -- but mostly we just found ways to have fun around home. We picked blackberries on the driveway and blueberries around the pond; we swam at NARA Beach; we biked to the library; we walked to Ferns for snacks. We consumed our weight (at least Holly's weight) in Kimballs ice cream, but on the plus side, we almost always walked or biked there. Tim played a lot of baseball games; sometimes Holly and I watched. We went to the playground a couple of times and set up the sprinkler in the backyard. Cousins visited. We attended a professional baseball game. Tim had a couple of sleepovers; Holly hosted a birthday party and attended Girl Scout camp.

We had a good old-fashioned summer full of good old-fashioned fun. And bickering. But that's normal. And in 14 hours a new school year begins.