Friday, October 30, 2009

Friday dinner with my parents

My parents have just returned from a 3-week trip and are coming to dinner at our house, which is something we look forward to. It’s a mini-tradition of sorts that they come over for dinner soon after returning from a trip; it gives us a chance to hear about their travels and it gives them a chance to catch up on our home life. (And on the rare occasions when we go on a trip, we do the whole thing in reverse. But they are retired and travel more than we do.)

I’m making chicken pot pie, a favorite of Rick, the kids and my father. At some point in the next two hours I’ll come up with a vegetable-based idea that my mother and I will like. Yesterday Mom gave me a ripe honeydew melon, and Holly has a brand-new melon baller that she loves using, so she’ll prepare it for dessert: a cascade of tiny melon balls in which she’ll take endless pride.

While their dinner visits are not exactly a carved-in-stone tradition, it is something we try to do often, to take advantage of living so close to them. Some things about the visits never change. My father always keeps his jacket on the whole time even though one (lesser) reason Rick and I look forward to their visits is that it gives us an excuse to turn the heat up over our usual 60-degree norm. My mother always forgets which cabinet we keep our wine glasses in (as well as our forks, napkins, and trash can). But I can’t blame her; we have a lot of cabinets, and they all look alike. The kids always get very excited to have my parents here and do various amounts of showing off. Tim usually drags my father upstairs to see him play some form of video game and then challenges him to a boxing match (real, not virtual), and Holly usually trots out some new stickers for group admiration. I’m hoping that tonight, Holly will do a reading of the chapter book (she calls it a “chackter book”) she’s been working on so diligently; the chapter she wrote last night had both Rick and me howling in laughter. In truth, I suspect someone with more knowledge of the second-grade library might find many parts of it somewhat derivative, but Holly loves the writing process, so I’ll do whatever I can to encourage her to continue with it.

Like all parent-and-children combinations, we all have our differences, but one of the advantages of being neighbors is that there isn’t a lot riding on any one visit. As host as well as daughter, I’ll hope that everyone has fun tonight, but either way, we’ll all see each other again tomorrow. It’s not like traveling halfway across the country for a holiday visit with family and feeling that it will either be boom or bust. We spend so much time with my parents – sometimes for scheduled events like this dinner and just as often for drop-in visits, farmyard tasks or walks – that there are always more opportunities to catch up with each other.

Still, I’m looking forward to it. I’m even looking forward to making the chicken pot pie. And something with butternut squash, if I can pull up a recipe. And an apple crisp, if I can get it started in time. I’d better get to work.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Household flame-jumper

This morning I felt like a domestic flame-jumper. All around me were little metaphorical household fires to be put out: I moved from one to the other, quenching them methodically, as the kids watched and my husband slept late, having been up late last night studying for an exam.

I overslept by five luxurious minutes, then sat down at my computer to write my prescribed 1,000 daily words for the practice Julia Cameron calls Morning Pages. Done with that, I moved last night’s clean laundry into the dryer, because the previous morning both the kids had had wardrobe crises, not able to find anything they wanted to wear, so I wanted to be sure they had an array of clean clothes to choose from today. Then I let the dog out, retrieved the newspaper, and hopped onto the stationary bike for 45 minutes of aerobic exercise. Food for the guinea pig’s bowl, then off to wake up both kids (I’ve learned that the trick with Tim is to turn his bedside lamp on when I wake him; that keeps him from going back to sleep) and down to toast bagels for them.

They were bringing soup for their school lunches, so I fetched the pot of corn chowder I made last night from the fridge and put it on the burner to heat before I poured it into their Thermoses. Out with the dog again, and since she has a vet appointment this afternoon, I needed to follow her with a plastic bag (the one from the morning newspaper) to fetch a sample. Back inside and washing my hands ferociously, I called the kids to breakfast for a second time, then checked the dryer. The clothes weren’t dry, and Tim needed to be out the door in fifteen minutes, so I removed all the laundry except his sweat pants and shirt and put just those two items in for a quick five-minute drying cycle. (Apologies for the energy inefficiency.) Back downstairs, both kids were finishing their breakfasts. Tim, who leaves first, finished up and collected his things: backpack, lunch, water bottle, trumpet, music folder.

Holly, still chewing on her bagel, suddenly let out a little squeal, clambered down from her stool and went racing upstairs. With the kind of split-second action that makes me marvel at how brain synapses work, I recognized what had happened: eating her bagel, she had remembered that she lost a tooth yesterday at school, an event made particularly notable by the fact that while showing me the tooth in the car on the way home, she dropped it into the dark recesses between the console and the passenger’s seat. Once we got home, I found a flashlight for her and she spent a half-hour searching for it, but it was just like the scene in Robert McCloskey’s One Morning in Maine, except that instead of a tooth looking like a grain of sand on the beach and vice versa, Holly was hampered by the fact that she was searching for a tiny tooth in the accumulation of lint, driveway grit and crushed popcorn on the floor of the car – everything looked like a tooth, but nothing was.

I had assured her the tooth fairy would come anyway, and it was that recollection that had caused her to drop her bagel and race up the stairs. But I was at a meeting last night that lasted until 9:30, and got home exhausted. Only when Holly raced up the stairs did I realize the tooth fairy had not in fact come as promised.

Holly reappeared, looking crestfallen. “I knew I should have written a note,” she said. Then her face cleared. “Unless maybe…the tooth fairy left something for me in the car? Since that’s where the tooth is?”

“Maybe!” I exclaimed. “Put on your shoes and you can go out to the garage and check!”

Fortunately, my shoes were already on. While Holly searched for hers in the coat closet, I furtively grabbed a dollar bill from my purse and dashed out to the car and made it back into the house just as Holly was ready to head out.

She returned in moments, dollar bill in hand, beaming. “Good thinking, Holly!” I cheered. “Good hustle, Mom!” Tim whispered with an all-knowing smirk.

Score another point for the flame jumper. Tim was ready to head out to the bus; I kissed him goodbye and put on my barn coveralls to go feed the cows and let out the sheep. No problems there at all; they were happy to see me and waited patiently for their hay bales. The dog ran cheerfully by my side. All was peaceful in the barnyard.

After that, the morning was easy: run Holly’s bath, help her find clean dry clothes to wear, send her on out to the bus with backpack, lunch, and form saying what we can contribute to the class holiday toy drive.

All fires out, everyone organized and packed off, it was time to make myself a mug of coffee, sweep the sesame seeds off the kitchen floor, and get to work. “Work” meaning sitting at my desk writing and editing. Which after that kind of morning really doesn’t seem like work at all; it seems like rest.

Still, nothing that I’d done that morning, not even collecting the sample to bring to the vet, felt onerous. I’ve read that Quakers consider housework a form of prayer; they see cleaning and tidying as a spiritual as well as a practical act. Similarly, doing all the tasks that comprised my jigsaw-puzzle morning felt like I was putting into practice the things I’m grateful for: healthy children heading off happily to school, a dog whose presence improves our quality of life, good food for breakfast and lunch, animals whose needs are so easily met.

And as for the tooth fairy. Yes, that too is something I feel gratitude for: the trusting and confident fantasy life of children, and how much fun it is to be an agent of fairy tales for these few short years that they matter.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Notes on a passing, five months later

I’d been procrastinating for weeks but finally made myself do it today: phone the office of the doctor a friend had recommended to ask if the practice was accepting new patients. The answer was yes, and I was able to schedule an appointment for a couple of months from now, which is just what I wanted.

But it’s still upsetting, because I’ve gone to the same doctor for yearly physicals for the past 11 years, and his death last May came as a shock to me. It’s not even like I knew him well. But just as every relationship we have is different, death in any relationship affects us differently. Reading about my doctor’s passing in the newspaper last May was sad in itself; scheduling a yearly physical with a new physician made it real to me.

Other than the two pregnancies during which I saw him monthly, I saw him exactly once a year. And given the circumstances, that seemed like enough. For twenty minutes or so we'd talk -- first seriously, about any health issues I was having (mercifully, there were virtually none) -- and then briefly but jovially about his three passions: baseball, fishing on Martha's Vineyard, and his family. Tributes to each of those interests decorated his office; he was easy to get to know that way, so I had no trouble finding things to talk about with him over the decade I knew him.

Pregnancy books give detailed lists on how to select your obstetrician based on shared values and principles related to childbearing. I read those lists carefully and then chose Dr. Hendelman based on the fact that I knew how to get to his office, he was affiliated with the hospital where I wanted to deliver, and I liked his first name, Jay. But I knew I'd made a good choice the first time I visited his practice. After an exam, he told me to dress and then meet him in his office. When I entered, he was reading the sports section of the daily paper. Not off examining another patient; not returning phone calls. Just waiting for me to come in and talk to him. I loved that about his practice.

He was a voracious sports fan. My first child was born during a Red Sox game; I specifically remember the labor nurse rather sternly asking Dr. Hendelman to please stop ducking out of the delivery room to check the score because he was slowing down the process. My second child was also born during baseball season and I remember noting with some relief as we drove to the hospital for her delivery that the Red Sox weren't playing that night. My husband was wiser. "So what game are you watching?" he asked Dr. Hendelman as my labor progressed. The doctor sheepishly admitted he had the Boston College game on in the physicians' lounge.

My last visit was just three months before he died, and I said it like I always do: “Good to see you, hope not to see you for another year.” Usually when I said that, luck was on my side; I enjoyed good health and didn’t see him for another year. Now, I look back knowing that the luck was his as well as mine each year, but his ran out. He is gone now.

There are probably hundreds of people for whom his presence was frequent rather than yearly. There are his daughters and wife, familiar to me only from the framed photos in his office. There are presumably relatives and friends and colleagues and neighbors and fellow temple members and childhood pals and former med school classmates. They will feel the loss far more keenly than I will.

But I’ll miss him too. Because he was part of my life: a big part of it in the months leading up to my two children’s births, a huge part of it for the few hours on two different summer nights that I spent in labor. He was the first person to set human hands on either of my children.

And he was someone I looked forward to seeing once a year, every year. Until now. And so I, too, feel the loss. Dr. Jay Hendelman, MD, OB/GYN. Rest in peace.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

On writing endings

One of the best pieces of advice I’ve received on writing came from my father, on whom I often rely to critique my work. As a journalist, I’m frequently under a tight deadline, and as a freelancer, I can’t expect a lot of feedback from editors; typically their response is either thumbs-up or thumbs-down, without explanation either way. So I often ask my father to read through my work and let me know of any disjuncture in logic or any annoying word repetition (or, my biggest bugaboo, superfluous use of adverbs).

But he was referring to none of the above when he gave me this most useful piece of advice, in response to a question from me about whether the end of an essay resolved the topic effectively enough. “You worry too much about endings,” he said. “When your readers get to the end of a piece, they’re just glad it’s over.”

These words always make me smile for their bluntness, but I took his suggestion to heart. I still try to come to a reasonably satisfying conclusion in my writing, but I don’t labor too much over the final paragraph. And quite often, when I’m struggling with an ending, I finish it only to decide to lop it off and close with what was previously the pen-ultimate paragraph – proving, I suppose, that I’ve tried too hard to sum up, and was in fact done a little bit before I realized I was done.

Moreover, being both a reporter and an essayist, I’ve learned that sometimes it’s just not an effective use of time to worry too much about endings. For essays, good endings do matter: the right conclusion can give the entire topic lasting merit and resonance. But reporters know that an editor can choose to lop off a story at any point based on available space, and laboring over a final sentence would be a waste of time since you don’t know for sure that the final sentence – or paragraph – you worked on so hard will even make it into the final version.

There’s a place for beautifully styled endings – speeches, essays, works of fiction short or long – but there are also times when lack of defined ending holds artistic weight. Last winter, I had the opportunity to see the magnificently crafted play “August: Osage County” by Tracy Letts at the Music Box Theatre in New York. It was a mesmerizing performance about a fabulously dysfunctional family – and every time you think things can’t possibly get uglier or more contentious, they do. Each confrontation that seems like it surely must be the end for this tortured family only leads to yet another dreadful confrontation. It’s like getting lost in a cave; you watch it with the sense that you might just keep going deeper and deeper into subterranean regions without ever emerging into the light.

I was thinking about the challenge of endings earlier this week when I drafted a book review for a fiction blog, Everyday I Write the Book. Editor Gayle Weiswasser wrote back and asked if the file I sent her might be missing the last paragraph, as the review seemed to end more abruptly than mine usually do.

Book reviews are especially challenging to conclude; it’s so difficult to avoid that favorite line from elementary school book reports: “If you want to know what happens, read the book!” or its variation (and my father’s favorite from his years of teaching middle school): “I recommend this book to anyone who likes horses” (or baseball, or political biography, or family dysfunction). I wrote back to Gayle to tell her that in general recently I’ve been trying to write shorter, and wrapping things up more quickly is one way to do this. Staying within prescribed word count has often been a hurdle for me, and blogs are almost too tempting in that unlike printed pages, they don’t compel you to stay within certain limits. But I told Gayle I could work on the ending more if she thought I should.

She didn’t, though; she ran it as it was. And when it appeared in her blog, it looked fine to me. Though I hadn’t wrapped up my thoughts or formulated conclusions in as verbose a form as I usually do, it felt complete as it was.

So I’m trying to take Dad’s advice to heart more often when it comes time to end a piece. People don’t care how you conclude; they’re just glad it’s over. Or, as the composers of Broadway musicals allegedly used to say, make sure people leave the theater humming the final tune. Unrealistic with a book review, perhaps. I’ll be content if they leave my work – whether it’s a review, a blog entry, an article or an essay -- simply thinking they’d be willing to read another one by me.

Monday, October 26, 2009

October air

Yesterday, Holly arranged our modest (and motley) collection of Halloween decorations around the house: paper-bag pumpkins on the front table, ceramic witch’s hat by the front door, plastic ghost reflector hanging from the upstairs banister. I made pumpkin cupcakes for our company dessert last night, and this afternoon we’re planning to buy pumpkins at McGrath’s farmstand; we’ll carve them in another few days and roast the seeds. Earlier today a friend invited us to her yearly pre-trick-or-treating party . Halloween is unmistakably close by.

There is something so distinctive to me about the cold, clear autumn air at this time of year. Nothing smells to me quite like home, or childhood memories, like the cold nights of mid-autumn in Carlisle. I can smell leaves, and hay, and frost. Even moonlight, though I know moonlight doesn’t really have a smell. But there’s no other time of year whose aroma says “home” to me the way October does. And even though I know it’s not specific to Carlisle city limits, I so strongly associate the cold nighttime smell with this town; when we lived in Framingham, I would sometimes find myself saying at this time of year, “It smells like Carlisle on Halloween, doesn’t it?”

Hometowns do have specific scents. There’s the cold autumn night smell here, and the dank, humid, late-August afternoon smell that reminds me of getting home from summer vacation and thinking about the onset of a new school year. And there’s an early spring smell, when the snow starts melting. And a first-snowfall scent.

I’ve never lived far from here, but even living somewhere else close by, I’ve had the experience of a smell in the air that reminded me of home. And now, living right where I grew up, I can still detect it: a flavor in the air that tells me exactly where I am, and reminds me that this is where I’ve been for a very long time.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Dogs, deer, and mysteries of the natural world

Leaves are falling fast and piling on the ground. We wake to frost many mornings. And like last year, the deer are making their way out of the thick forests and groves to find more food.

For months, the dog and I have not chanced across a deer while out on our daily run, and I’ve been letting her off-leash for long stretches on our dirt road. Yesterday, just as we approached the first bend in the road, near the brook, we both heard a rustle and Belle took off, tearing through the woods, trying simultaneously to propel herself forward for speed and to leap higher for a better view of whatever she was chasing.

I continued to the end, which is about three-tenths of a mile long, hoping she would catch up with me by the time I reached the main road. That’s what usually happens when she sprints into the woods after a squirrel, chipmunk or bird; she realizes quickly the futility of the chase (oh that’s right, I can’t climb trees! I always forget that!) and she remembers that she doesn’t want to miss out on a run with me, so after a few seconds she’s back by my side.

But yesterday I reached the end of our road and she hadn’t yet appeared, so I doubled back. Still, no dog, so I turned and ran again out to the main road. And back. I had hoped to run two miles, and my Nike Plus mileage chip was keeping track of the distance for me, so I knew I could still get in my two miles even if I just kept running back and forth over the same stretch of dirt road. But that didn’t solve the problem of where my dog was.

Ever since we adopted her exactly a year ago, I’ve worried that someday this would happen. My concern is twofold: first of all, I didn’t want her to get lost while chasing a deer – which I was beginning to suspect was now the case – but second, I didn’t want her to be responsible for the demise of a deer. The presence of these large mammals is generally considered something of a mixed blessing in our area – though they are beautiful, they are also responsible for the prevalence of Lyme disease in our community – but I still don’t feel that it’s my place to release a non-native predator on their habitat. Moreover, and somewhat more selfishly, I don’t want to have to deal with the logistics of a dead deer: how to handle the event with children or other kids who happen by, what to do with the carcass left behind.

Up and down the driveway I ran again. Still no dog. But this time as I rounded the bend I saw something else: the white flash of a tail. I watched as a deer loped across the road in front of me. Puzzling. This deer was not moving with the speed or the frenzy of an animal being chased; it was just kind of making its way into the woods. If a dog were after it, wouldn’t it be moving a lot faster? And if a dog had just taken down one of its cohort, wouldn’t it flee the area? Though I don’t know a lot about deer behavior, I don’t think of them as altruistic (to use the actual term animal behaviorists use) animals. I tend to imagine that when one is attacked, the others take off, not hang around.

Down to the end of the road again, and by this time, my Nike Plus mileage counter said that I’d gone 2.1 miles, so I took it down to a walk and tried to listen very carefully as I peered into the woods. Still no dog. I decided I’d go home, let the town officials and neighbors know to keep an eye out for her, and just hope she turned up soon.

And this time when I reached the thickly wooded bend where Belle had first disappeared, three deer. Not running. Not even loping. Sauntering. They crossed in front of me and picked their way slowly among the trees.

It was as if the Greased Lightning gang from Grease had taken over the forest. “We’re here, we’re deer, get used to it. And we ain’t afraid of no dogs,” they seemed to be saying to me. Was it possible that Belle had indeed encountered the deer – and the deer had won?

But in any case, where was she?

My husband was driving out of the driveway as I approached the house. Knowing he had to get to work, I didn’t want to slow him down any with lost-dog tales, so I hadn’t planned to say anything. But he rolled down the window. “What’s wrong with Belle?” he asked me.

“Where is Belle?” I responded.

He briefly told me the story. As he was getting ready to leave the house, he spotted Belle, standing at the door, looking frantic to be let in. She was so quavery he thought she might have run into a swarm of bees. She repeatedly looked behind her as he headed to the door to open it for her. Once he did, she dashed upstairs and hunkered down between our bed and the wall, which was where he had last seen her.

We still don’t really know what happened. Within a few minutes after I got home, she seemed like herself again: not quavery or fearful, and not in any pain, so I don’t think Rick’s theory about bees was correct. It’s possible that whatever happened during the twenty minutes I searched for Belle had nothing to do with deer. Maybe she was quavery and fearful upon returning home only because it was the first time she’s ever run away from me and thought she’d be in trouble.

It’s a mystery that we can’t solve. Unlike my daughter, who sometimes refrains from telling me what happened with her friends at school but then enacts the whole scene while playing an imaginary game several days later, I doubt there’s any way Belle will ever express her adventure to me.

But there was one other event that seemed like it might be related. Hours later, something caught my eye through the living room window: an animal loping across the field past our house. At first I thought one of the neighbors’ horses was loose. But as it passed our house, I could see that it was a buck with a full set of antlers: four-point, I think, though I couldn’t tell for sure.

Even though we see deer frequently at certain times of year, they are usually either running through the woods or hovering at the edge of the lawn. And it’s usually female adults and babies. This was different. This was a large male running down the driveway the way a horse would. I went to get my camera, but when I came back he was no longer visible, though I could hear him crashing through the woods.

So my theory is that we have some really tough deer hanging around this fall. And it’s possible that my worries about Belle wreaking carnage can now end: either she’s no match for them or, better yet, she’s sufficiently traumatized that she’ll stay away from them now. (While animals acting uncharacteristically bold or aggressive is often a sign of rabies, I don’t think deer are considered a rabies threat as they don’t bite.) I just really wish there were a way for her to tell me her side of the story.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Do anachronisms matter? The question led me straight to Judy Blume

Although my daughter is 7 and a strong reader, she still loves the nightly ritual of settling down together to hear me read chapter books to her. Recently, she brought home two Judy Blume classics: Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing and Otherwise Known As Sheila the Great.

“I read these when I was your age!” I exclaimed. The books had new covers with hipper-looking drawings, I noticed, but I was looking forward to re-familiarizing myself with characters of my era, grade-schoolers from the 1970s, just like me.

Therefore, I was puzzled when we reached a scene in which Sheila’s sister plays a CD. I was sure CD players came out when I was in college in the mid-1980s. Later in the same book, a boy at camp uses a video camera. Who messed with my 1970s Judy Blume? I wondered.

And it came up again later, as we moved from Sheila onto Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing and the subsequent books in that series. Making up a Christmas list, Peter Hatcher notes that he wants an MP3 player. Another time in the book, he text-messages a friend.

I read Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing when I was in fourth grade, which would have been about 1975. There’s no question that Judy Blume is considered a visionary when it comes to children’s literature, and rightfully so; her uber-realistic novels have enticed millions of children into the practice of reading, and her frank descriptions of family life and rituals related to growing up have provided reassurance about “normalcy” for just as many. But was she actually a technology visionary as well, anticipating MP3 players thirty years before the debut of the iPod?

I asked a couple of children’s librarians if they knew how these changes had come to be, but they weren’t aware of the situation. So I pulled up Judy Blume’s website and wrote to the e-mail address there, hoping that eventually I might receive something along the lines of a stock response from a publicist’s assistant.

To my surprise, and to Judy Blume’s credit, it was the author herself who wrote back to me, with eloquence and detail. Because I don’t have her permission to quote here from our correspondence, I will try to paraphrase it accurately.

As I understood it, her books (with two notable exceptions, neither of which Holly and I have read) are not meant to be read as historical chronicles, like the Little House books; they are supposed to feel contemporary whenever you read them. Therefore, when they go into re-printing, which books as spectacularly popular as hers do frequently, it only makes sense to make updates when appropriate. Moreover, she pointed out that although the first in the “Fudge” series, Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing, was published in 1972, the subsequent three books in the series were published over the course of the next three decades. The characters age only three years, but the last book was published in 2002. It wouldn’t make sense to implement outdated items like record players or mimeograph machines in books written in the 1990s or 2000s, so instead, the older books get updated to match the newer ones.

Judy Blume also told me about another update she has made. The personal hygiene items Margaret describes in Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret, first published in 1970, have been changed. Girls reading it today simply wouldn’t have any clue about the belts and pins Margaret locates when she gets her first period.

It’s this last example that resonates the most with me. Two generations of young women have now gotten information about personal events such as menstruation from Judy Blume’s books. If this is to be their most valuable source of information – and in some cases, unfortunate as this may be, it probably is – accuracy matters, and it just makes sense to describe a situation similar to one the girls will actually experience, rather than describing items their grandmothers might have used.

All of these are good explanations, but I’m still a little dubious. My kids have never actually used a cassette player or a telephone with a cord, but they certainly know these things exist, and even if they didn’t, they’re intelligent enough to realize that technology evolves over the years. One of their favorite Sesame Street CDs has a line about “What is round? A cookie! The moon! This record!” My kids never said to me, “This record? What on earth is a record?” So I was put off by the idea that they needed things like CDs and video cameras translated for them.

Furthermore, it seems to me that the whole idea of trying to make editorial changes based on the era of your audience is a bit of a slippery slope. Sure, it makes sense for Margaret to use disposable pads rather than a plastic belt, but aren’t some of the events themselves in Blume’s books sort of outdated? As a parent of an 11-year-old, I would dearly love to be wrong about this, but I’m not so sure than any 12-year-old still gets flustered over the idea of being kissed in the storeroom at a school dance. Moreover, what do we make of Tony Miglione, adolescent hero of Then Again, Maybe I Won’t, who uses binoculars to watch his 16-year-old female neighbor try on sweaters? With Internet porn a click away, what young male is going to care about sweater profiles?

Not to mention the fact that the impossibly disruptive little brother Fudge in Tales of Fourth Grade Nothing would surely be on Ritalin in today’s day and age, and therefore much less likely to carry out the hijinks that follow wherever he goes.

Judy Blume was tremendously gracious in taking the time to respond to me, and it is with appropriate trepidation that I question the editorial decisions of someone who singlehandedly changed the course of teen-and-tween literature. Make no mistake: Judy Blume is adored the world over, and for good reason. It’s still an interesting question, though. Just how much do kids need to relate to a character on a literal level in order to identify with him or her?

My guess is, not very much. Not long ago I heard Lizzie Skurnick interviewed on NPR about her new book, Shelf Discovery: The Teen Classics We Never Stopped Reading. She described being at a school in West Africa when the female students asked her the title of the book she was holding. It was none other than Judy Blume’s Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret. The speaker had a moment of panic, worrying that the students would ask her what the book was about and she would have to describe this tale of suburban New Jersey pre-teen 1970s angst to a group of girls raised in the African bush.

She need not have feared. “I love that book!”came the unanimous cry from the audience. They’d already read it. They understood it. And they loved it.

No translations or updates necessary, apparently.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Letting plans change

We’re having an unseasonably warm fall day, dropped arbitrarily into the middle of an increasingly chilly month. The kids are scuffing through the fallen leaves in their summer shorts and t-shirts. It’s not hot, just warm; but they’re happy to have one last visit with summer, especially now that we’ve already had our first frost and a taste of the cold weather that will prevail for the next several months.

Because I was at an afternoon appointment with Tim, Rick brought Holly to the ball field for his and Tim’s early-evening baseball practice; my plan was to meet them there, drop off Tim, retrieve Holly and head straight home. But Holly took one look at the jungle gym and squealed, “Can we stay and play?”

“No, we need to get home,” I automatically responded, thinking of the load of laundry that needed to be transferred from the washer into the dryer and the fact that I hadn’t checked my e-mail in four hours.

“Just for a few minutes?” Holly asked, and when I acquiesced, she was already running toward the playground. Watching her little legs churn across the grass, I reminded myself that this is important too: not just having fun but taking advantage of another chance to play outdoors. My kids are not great about getting exercise once cold weather hits; in a few more weeks I’ll be hungry for the sight of her legs sprinting across the grass. So it only makes sense to let it happen now while she’s willing.

And that reminds me again that it’s important not to rush when you don’t have to: to stop and enjoy the playground when time and weather permit. No one will need any of the items in the washing machine before tomorrow morning. And anyone who urgently needed anything from me or had any really important news would call my cell phone, not wait for me to check e-mail. We might not get back to this playground for another six months; why not take Holly’s lead and just have some fun while we can?

Besides, it’s not like I couldn’t use the time productively. In the car were my laptop, a library book, and four weeks’ worth of Sunday newspapers. At the age of 7, Holly doesn’t expect me to follow her around the playground or push her on the swings. When the kids were much smaller, I wouldn’t sit and write at a playground; I’d help and play and stay focused on them. But that’s the beauty of a 7-year old: she can slide, pump, climb on her own. And although sometimes it’s worthwhile for me to be part of the playing, other times it’s nice to just enjoy the fact that I don’t have to.

So we stayed. Holly played and ran around; I got some writing done. Soon enough, the weather will turn consistently chilly and we’ll miss the playground. It’s so easy to answer reflexively: “No, we can’t take extra time; we have lots to do; let’s go home.” But it’s important to override that urge once in a while. I’m glad that on this particular afternoon, I was able to let fun prevail over duty.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

My messy messy car

My car is a mess again.

I always feel a small sense of defeat when my car gets messy. I know a few people – my parents being the number one example, but now my husband has recently started doing it too – who keep the interiors of their cars in showroom condition 365 days a year: not a tissue or a scrap of paper to be found. Getting into their car is like getting into a rental the moment you’ve been handed the keys: empty and anonymous.

But anonymous in a good way. A clean, well-organized way. A living-lightly-with-little-impact kind of way. Te be able to step out of the car without leaving a trace behind: that, to me, is organized.

What I am right now is disorganized, and my car belies my attempts to be otherwise. On the passenger side floor, my daughter's drawings from last week’s Sunday school session are piled with the reference book for my son’s math curriculum (they gave each parent a copy at Back-to-School Night, so that we could look up any questions we might have while our kids were doing their homework. The only question I have is why he can’t do his own homework by himself.), a copy of Bon Appetit that I’m hoping will inspire me to make some new weekday meals, the warrant from last month’s town meeting, a book that just came in to the library on reserve and that I really hope to start before my time with it expires, and, most discouragingly, six weeks’ worth of New York Times Style sections, New York Times Book Reviews and New York Times Magazines.

It’s the New York Times canon that particularly discourages me, because it reminds me how behind I am on any kind of intellectual growth. In the summer, when the kids do a lot of swimming and playing at the playground, I sit outdoors watching them and reading the New York Times. In the fall, I let it slip, and am surely a less enlightened person for it.

In the very back of the car is my secret pile. As I confessed in a newspaper column several years ago (and quite frankly got taken to task by several preschool teachers in my readership), I transfer a lot of my daughter's art projects from backpack to recycling, never to grace the interior of our house. It’s not that I don’t love her work; it’s just that there’s so much of it. Drawing upon painting upon collage. And almost always, she forgets about them the minute she deposits them into my hands: the joy for her is in the creating, not the creation, a trait which I admire from an Zen perspective even as I take advantage of it mercilessly by disposing of her artwork left and right.

Every now and then, though, she inadvertently calls my bluff. “Mommy, where’s that leaf college I did on the second day of school?” she’ll ask. So I’ve learned to use the back of the car as sort of a holding tank. I pile her work there and hope she doesn’t ask for it; after a month or so, I feel safe putting it in the recycling. And I never have to find a place for it inside the house.

Still, things are getting messy. Once when my son was about six, one of his friends climbed into our car, looked around, and said quite ingenuously and without a trace of sarcasm, “You know, you can clean the inside of your car!” It was as if he was assuring me that the technology existed and I need only avail myself of it, the way you might say to an elderly person, “You know, you can record TV shows that you won’t be home on time to watch!”

He was right, and I’m a slob when it comes to my car, and it’s a subject of ongoing guilt for me. So I’ll try to sort and empty and vacuum the interior sometime this week and make a clean start of it, see how long I can maintain a clutter-free car.

And then maybe after that I’ll wash the outside. At least I can rely on professionals for that. Or, at the very least, the Bedford High School cheerleading squad – they have car washes all the time. And surely they won’t judge me if they glimpse the interior clutter. It soothes me to think maybe their cars are just as bad.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Old friends, new friends, happy weekend

I’m feeling awash in friendship after this past weekend, suffused with a warm glow of having spent Saturday morning with new friends, Sunday evening with old(ish) friends, and time in between with church friends.

On Saturday morning, we invited a family new to town over for brunch. Sometimes those invitations work out really well and other times you end up feeling like at least you did the right thing by making an effort. This was an example of the former. The new family has a daughter in Holly’s class (which is how we met them) as well as two younger children, and all five were lovely guests. They appreciated our cooking and hosting; all the kids got along well together; they asked politely inquisitive questions of us and shared interesting information about themselves. (And, okay, they’d read my blog before coming over. So maybe that’s the real reason I liked them so much right away. But the two hours that followed their arrival didn’t disappoint either.)

On Sunday evening, a family in town well-known for their generosity in hosting huge crowds and letting enormous hordes of children run through their house invited lots of people over. It was all local families, and as is so often the case at big local get-togethers, I was struck by the extent to which everyone brought something to the table. Not literally: the hosts did all the work (“Well, it’s not as if I entertain the way you do!” my friend said on the phone that morning when I called to ask what I could bring. “This will be spaghetti with Ragu and maybe some garlic bread.” Well, yeah, but there was chocolate fondue for dessert, with not only fruit but also pretzels and marshmallows for dipping.).

But everyone who was there had something interesting to say; conversations mushroomed all over the house that were well worth listening in on. One couple had just returned from a cold, rainy Head of the Charles regatta, where they saw a rower treated for hypothermia. Another told me about how fortunate she and her husband felt about the success of their year-old start-up. A man who gives generously of his time to committees all over town updated me on the school building project. A man I hadn’t met before – the only family at the party I didn’t already know – explained to me the finer points of the town’s wastewater treatment plant. A mom discussed her 17-year-old daughter’s college search to date. A couple of parents weighed in on the school instrument program and whether my son should try out for symphonic band. Two football games played on the TV: we had Jets fans, Buffalo fans and Patriots fans all cheering their teams on. The kids played on their own all evening, needing nothing from us adults once dinner was over, and I felt so fortunate to be in the company of interesting people whom I’ve known for so long, many of them since Tim started kindergarten five years ago, a few even longer.

When people new to town comment to me on how friendly everyone is, I always offer the same explanation. “In a town without restaurants, movie theaters, bowling alleys, nightclubs or any commercial diversions whatsoever, all we have is each other,” I always say. “If we don’t reach out and get together, we’d all be bored silly.” Last night was a good example. By 5 PM, the cold rain that had fallen all afternoon had turned into a wet snow. No one felt like driving farther than across town, but we didn’t need to. Within town lay a house brimming with fun for the kids, enlightenment and good conversation for the adults, and pasta (plus chocolate) all around.

Whether my theory about socializing in Carlisle is correct or not, I’m so lucky to live in a small town where it’s easy to make friends, and it’s so rewarding to be starting the work week on a wave of goodwill inspired by the good times we had with friends old and new over the weekend.

Friday, October 16, 2009

School volunteers: what if one day no one raises their hand?

The Boston Globe ran a story earlier this week about parents who feel burned out with volunteer requests from their kids’ schools. I don’t personally feel burned out; I feel pretty well-balanced, but that’s because I’ve figured out (with five years of experience in the public school already behind me) exactly what the right amount of volunteer work is for me to take on.

I do sometimes feel like the system is a house of cards, though. And it makes me a little nervous, because I worry that if some of the parents who do far more than I do become overwhelmed, major systems could fail. I so appreciate their work, and I so understand the need for it – in many cases, they are taking on work as volunteers that the school can’t currently pay for, and I certainly can’t afford to see my taxes go up – but I worry sometimes that too much is resting on the shoulders of the volunteer network. What happens when people stop stepping to the plate in such high numbers? Many parents in Carlisle are either self-employed or stay-at-home moms and dads, but some have been laid off from full-time jobs. If unemployment gradually subsides in this region and more people go back to work, will there be fewer volunteers available for daytime needs?

Sometimes when I look at the list of names managing any one volunteer project at our school, I’m a little bit astonished at the acumen we’ve managed to gather. On the one hand, I’m impressed and grateful that the president of our PTA is a Princeton graduate with a master’s degree in teaching, the head of the School Building Committee is a highly credentialed civil engineer, a handful of parents who majored in drama in college are willing to direct and produce the seventh grade play, the head of the technology committee has successfully run several of his own start-ups, and we have at least three MBAs from top universities on our fundraising committee. On the other hand, it makes me feel both worried and guilty for those towns that don’t have this kind of brainpower or professional expertise among their parent body. The head of the School Building Committee, for example, might as well be doing a full-time job for the school for all the work he puts in – yet after he meets with the architects, designers, engineers and school administration almost daily, he goes off to his real job. What happens in towns that don’t have people with his professional talents, his flexibility in the workday, and his willingness to serve in this capacity?

What about the group I worked with last year on the fundraising auction, many of whom spent three months on tasks ranging from soliciting donations for auction items to selecting a venue for the semi-formal event to drafting the auction booklet to managing the software with which we run the financial side of the auction? Well, we were in luck, in the latter case: a new mother in town happens to have worked for several years for the public TV station that runs one of the biggest fundraising auctions in the country. She doesn’t even have a child at our school yet; her daughter was only three at the time, but she was still willing to help out. I sat next to her for most of the event as she ran spreadsheets and generated reports, and having seen it up close, I certainly can’t imagine running an event like that without her.

For myself, I’ve found a comfortable balance at the school. I sign up every year to be a room parent in one of my children’s classes, a job that become easier by about tenfold once the school eliminated refreshments from classroom celebrations. Mostly, as room parent, I send out e-mails from the PTA, and occasionally recruit chaperones for field trips or supply Popsicles for games day in June. Along with a friend, I also coordinate the school library volunteer program. Luckily for us, there are many parents who enjoy doing a weekly or bi-weekly library shift, so we’ve managed to cover the gap left when the library assistant position was eliminated by budget cuts two years ago. Once a month I cover recess/lunch duty for my daughter’s grade; I know I should sign up to do it more often, since coverage at recess is often insufficient and parts of the playground sometimes have to be closed to the children due to inadequate supervision.

I’m happy with what I do, but I’m intimidated by the thought that many parents do far more, and without them, major events would fail to happen. But I’m also frequently reminded of what a privilege it is to be welcomed at the school and to be included so warmly in the school community. Last week, I went up to do my weekly hour at the library. A little boy was arriving to school late, and his teacher, who knows me, asked me to bring him to the main office so that she could walk her students over to music class. It was heartwarming to feel so trusted. The office staff greeted the child kindly and showed him where to sign in as a late arrival. I signed myself in and then headed down the hall of the middle school to get to the library. It was between classes; kids were calling to each other, laughing, flirting, and generally knocking along the way middle schoolers do. I spotted my sister’s eighth grade math teacher, still in the same eighth grade room, still looking as enthusiastic about math as he did nearly 30 years ago. I waved to Tim’s teacher from last fall, back from maternity leave and surrounded once again by fourth graders.

It’s true that I don’t know how the school would manage without us volunteers, but it’s also a joy to be part of that system.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

The end of browsing

Charles Rosen blogged earlier this week for the New York Review of Books on the lost pleasure of browsing, likening the experience of buying a book online -- and therefore unseen and untouched -- to purchasing a mail-order bride. Carolyn Kellogg then explored Rosen’s discussion with her own blog entry in the Los Angeles Times.

This is something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately too. Like Rosen, I used to choose books by physically finding them at bookstores, libraries or other people’s houses. (I once attended an open house for prospective home-buyers and spent the whole time I was there in the master bedroom copying titles from what was evidently the wife’s bookshelf. The house didn’t interest me much, but what great taste she had in reading!) These days, I’m much more likely to choose what I want to read based on a book review, a book blog, an interview on NPR or a personal recommendation, and order the book online from a bookstore or library. What this means is no more trawling the shelves and no more “stumbles” – no more chancing across books whose covers or titles catch my attention before I know anything else about them.

But it’s not only with books that I find a reduction in my browsing habits. As most of my friends would attest to, I’m an NPR fanatic. I used to listen to hours of NPR: when cooking or doing housework, when driving, and when out running. Then I acquired an iPod and discovered podcasts. Suddenly every single one of my favorite NPR shows was available to me as a download 24 hours a day. Telling other people about what this discovery has meant to me, I echo the famous credit card commercial: “Never again being stuck on a 7-mile run listening to Car Talk: priceless!” (Car Talk is one of the most popular NPR shows ever, and I don’t mean to knock it, but trust me when I tell you it’s one of the few forms of entertainment that can actually make a long run feel longer.)

Nonetheless, back when I used to be stuck with whatever NPR show hit the airwaves at the particular time I was out running or driving, I occasionally found myself listening with interest to something that I was initially certain I wouldn’t like. Not being a sports fan, I tried to avoid “Only a Game,” and yet dozens of times I would be stuck listening to it anyway and discover a story about a high school team facing an unusual challenge or a new book about female basketball players and find myself really intrigued. Now that I can choose only those broadcasts I most want to hear rather than “browsing” the radio, I never have to listen to anything boring, but I also never find myself surprised by things I thought would be boring (sports stories, technology stories, BBC features) but aren’t.

This is one reason I’ve refused to give up my newspaper subscription even though I know the same content in available on line. Once I can click directly on the articles I know I want to read, I’ll lose the benefit of random headlines: my eye first skimming over a headline, then going back for a closer look, then reading the entire article. I’d spend a lot less time reading an on-line newspaper, knowing precisely which topics and sections matter most to me. But I’d skip a lot too, the same things that now I sometimes plan to skip and find myself reading anyway.

Being able to home in directly on what it is that you want to read or listen to definitely saves time. Back when I used to browse the library or bookstore shelves, there were a lot of misses. Fifty pages into a book (I always make myself stick with the first 50 pages), I’d often decide I wasn’t sufficiently engrossed to continue. Now that I read pre-selected books, that doesn’t happen much anymore; I almost never waste time on a book I don’t end up finishing.

But I also miss a lot. A few weeks ago, I found myself in the unusual position of having nothing left in my “to be read” stack and nothing in yet at the library from my reserve list. So I headed to the bookstore to browse, just to see what might look interesting that I hadn’t already decided I wanted to read. And I re-discovered how satisfying it was to gaze at all the possibilities, the hundreds of books I could choose to read or not read, all the volumes to pick up, glance through, put back or keep. It may not be the most efficient use of time, but on that particular afternoon it felt great to be browsing again.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Giving kids the (library) privacy they deserve

I am about to send out an e-mail that won’t do anything to boost my popularity rating. It goes back to the conflict most of us experience for the first time no later than second grade: being popular versus being ethical. The stakes are low this time, but what I have to say won’t win me any friends and will probably brand me as the library prig. Still, I maintain it’s the right thing to do.

The story is this: I am the library volunteer coordinator for my children's school, which is grades K-8. Recently I found out – not from my own kids but from a comment dropped casually by one of their friends, and another time from my own observation – that a few volunteers at the circulation desk like to comment on the kids’ choices as they check out their books. And that raises a red flag for me. Even if the intent is harmless enough – and there’s no question here that the intent is one hundred percent harmless – I maintain that it’s poor library protocol, and therefore my responsibility as the volunteer coordinator to say something.

One reason I’m so attuned to this issue is that the staff members at our local public library are unfailingly scrupulous about never commenting on a patron’s choices. At times it feels almost as if they’ve taken a vow of silence, though I realize what they are actually doing is adhering to a prescribed professional standard. They exchange pleasantries with patrons, but they don’t comment on books. On occasion I’ve checked out a book I was really eager to read and then asked the librarian scanning my card whether she had read it. “Just last week, and I absolutely loved it,” the librarian might answer, her familiarity with and affection for the book, suppressed until I ask, underscoring in my mind how seriously they take their commitment to never offer an unsolicited comment.

I know some of the school volunteers disagree with me; they think they’re just being friendly and encouraging children to read by commenting “My son loved that book!” or “Oh, did you read the newest one by this author?” They’re right; that is friendly, and I’m all for making adults accessible to kids in our roles at the school. But kids need to feel that they can read whatever they want without oversight or editorializing from their friends’ parents.

Though I’m not well-versed in our school library’s collection, I’m sure we can all think of examples where a kid might want to read about something without a random adult observing: physical development, for example. But that’s only the most obvious possibility. Wouldn’t you as a parent want your kids to know they could check out “What it’s like when your parents divorce” (all of these are hypothetical examples) or “How to make friends after you move to a new town” without another parent in the class remarking on it? Maybe those are too obvious as well; no library volunteer would make a tactless remark about any of those topics. But suppose you are a kid who knows your parents always boast about what an advanced reader or insightful scholar you are…and on this particular day you just really feel like indulging in a little Captain Underpants. That child should likewise have the confidence that the choice will be politely ignored by the adult at circulation.

Ultimately, it just makes sense to give the kids a sense of autonomy when they choose their reading material. Many people feel that libraries are the last bastion of privacy in our society, given the stand they took nationally against computer searches and other aspects of the Patriot Act. Not only do we owe the kids the same privacy, but we also might as well take this earliest opportunity to start implanting the message that libraries are a place where confidentiality is always respected, in any situation, for every library user.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Brushing Holly's hair

Holly, at the age of 7, does not particularly like to have her hair styled. Nor does she want to do it herself. What she will consent to do most mornings when I tell her to “go-brush-teeth-‘n’-hair” – it seems to be a one-word command in our household – is scrabble at her scalp for a couple of seconds with a brush and then scoop her hair into a pony tail, or use her fingers to separate it into two pieces and call it pigtails, despite a part in the back that looks like a cartoon lightning bolt.

Other times, she isn’t even willing to do that much, just sticks in a barrette or a headband and goes through the day with a partial rolled-out-of-bed look.

Fortunately, her shoulder-length hair is almost straight and smooth enough that she can get away with it. But as her mother, I prefer to see it meticulously combed and pulled off her face to show her sweet little features. All mothers feel that way about their children’s hair and faces, I imagine.

This morning, Holly was in a more compliant mood than usual. While she stood on the bathroom stool brushing her teeth, I picked up her brush and started very gently brushing her hair out with slow, careful strokes, and to my surprise she didn’t object. I love brushing Holly’s hair. It gives me a sense of order and a sense of control, and it’s just so satisfying to see how easy it can be to make a transformation: from a flyaway mass of assorted pieces going in different direction to a soft, shiny cascade, brown with dark red highlights shimmering through. When she lets me brush her hair in the morning, I feel as if I’m sending her off to school prepared for the day: neat, shiny, organized. As if by being groomed, she’s any better equipped to face the world than she is with messy hair.

She really isn’t, I know that. But it gives me the sense that I’ve effected some small change, made some small gesture to make the path ahead of her a little easier to negotiate.

And so with a few extra minutes before we head out for the school bus, I brush Holly’s hair slowly, rhythmically, gently tugging out the tangles at the ends, almost hoping she doesn’t realize I’m doing it or she’ll protest, and then I kiss the top of her head and wish her a good day. I can’t ensure that everything will go smoothly for her once she leaves the house, so instead I do what I can: make sure her hair is tidy and neat, falling around her shoulders like satin, a reflection of the extra time we had together this morning, calm and quiet and harmonious as I brushed and she stood willingly, smiling at me in the mirror.

Monday, October 12, 2009

My hiking wish came true

It’s true that I’ve been a big believer in the “Write it down, make it happen” principle ever since reading the book by the same name by Henriette Anne Klauser. But I didn’t really believe that getting my kids out in the woods this weekend would be that easy, or that the same technique I apply to tasks such as filing my community briefs for the paper or sewing a Girl Scout badge on Holly’s smock would work for implementing a new attitude in them.

But somehow it did. Last week I blogged about how important it was to me to do some kind of woods walking with both kids this weekend, no matter how easy, no matter how brief, no matter how close to home. Just to make it happen.

And it did happen! They didn’t read my blog entry; their only way of knowing how important it was to me was hearing me say at dinner on Thursday, “This is something I really really want to do.” But either I talk a good game and made them want to do it too – let’s not forget that for eight years, my full-time job was to write copy that would compel people to spend thousands of dollars on overseas vacations – or else they intuited how much it mattered to me. On Saturday I reminded them in the morning, “After lunch we’re going walking around Walden Pond,” and after lunch I said “We can leave just as soon as I brush my teeth,” and both were ready to go. No demurring, no conversation about why they did or didn’t want to do it. They just showed up at the appointed time and place, and that in itself amazed me.

The three of us plus the dog drove twenty minutes to Walden Pond, but when we arrived, the parking lot attendant told us that dogs are not allowed at the pond, at least not this weekend. (Or am I forgetting that Thoreau actually said “I went to the woods because I wanted to live caninelessly”?) I felt momentarily sorry for Belle but shrugged it off quickly; more important to get our walk in than to worry about her needs, so I said to the attendant, “Oh well, she can just stay in the car then.” But he explained dogs aren’t even allowed in cars at Walden Pond, a detail that mystified the kids and generated several more minutes of discussion as I turned the car around. “Why does it matter to the park rangers if your dog pees in your car?” they wondered. It’s a fair question, but happily for us, the parking lot attendant had a suggestion for a place we could walk with the dog just five minutes away, so we headed onward to Brister Hill.

And again, what amused me was just the no-questions-asked aspect of it on the kids’ part. I realize there’s nothing so complicated about walking on a trail in the woods, even if you haven’t done it much before, but they just piled out of the car and hit the trail without asking me where we were headed or how long we’d be out or anything. And even though I’m happy to walk for hours in the woods, especially on what was a sunny, mild fall day with the foliage shimmering beautifully, I didn’t mind at all if we didn’t get far. It was about getting out, not getting far.

We hadn’t traveled more than twenty feet from the parking lot, dog on leash, when the kids found the first item of fascination (well, the second, given that the first was really Walden Pond’s policy about dogs in cars): in a shallow marshy spot lay a log that rocked slightly back and forth when they stood on it. Shrieking with glee, they stood together on the log, seeing how long they could rock before one of them lost balance. That took up the first ten minutes of the walk; then we headed farther into the woods, where we found a trail that circled a pond, and started making our way around it.

In all, we were in the woods for an hour. At the end of the hour I felt like neither the dog nor I had gotten any exercise to speak of because the kids’ hiking style is so strange. Rather than proceeding along the path, they divert constantly: first to find walking sticks for themselves, then to test the water temperature in the pond, then to walk the length of a fallen tree, using it like a balance beam. Part of the trail ran alongside a very steep esker: while Belle and I waited below, the two of them scampered up the esker and slid down half a dozen times or so, then found another fallen tree to use like a balance beam, then up a different steep hillside to see how far they could walk parallel to the trail, keeping sight of me from high above. I don’t know that we covered so much as a mile of linear terrain, but it didn’t matter because they were so happy: Tim because of all the adventuresome things he was finding to do and Holly because Tim was pulling her along with him on all the feats to be attempted.

And I was happy that we were out walking in the woods, just like I’d hoped for. I was happy that my Columbus Day wish came true.

Friday, October 9, 2009

What I really want to know about "Little House"

While I was running this morning, I listened to the last segment from the “Book That Changed Your Life” episode of This American Life on podcast. To my surprise, it was about the Little House on the Prairie series, specifically about LA Times writer Meghan Daum’s pilgrimage to DeSmet, South Dakota, where she visited the Ingalls homestead and attended the annual Little House pageant.

Hearing the segment reminded me that a year ago, I was in the thick of my fascination with the Little House series, as my daughter Holly and I made our slow way through all nine books. Holly enjoyed the series a lot, but I was the one who became really entrenched in the details. The narration was wonderful and the descriptions rich, but in my mind, so many questions were left unanswered.

To start out in understanding Laura Ingalls Wilder, I had to separate the three different narrative strands in my mind. First, there was the series itself, which I read out loud to Holly for the better part of a year. Then there was the necessity of scrubbing out any confusion between the books and the TV show, in its heyday when I was in middle school, which was such a sensationalized version of events as to be irrelevant to any understanding of the Ingalls family and their circle of acquaintances. With its fires, rapes, ghosts, heroics and absurd habit of adding more children to the family via adoption whenever the current cast members began to lose their childlike charm, the TV series was in my mind more satire than genuine entertainment. (Even now, when I recount the details, my two children snicker as they ask me, “So Mary had a husband who was blind, and he got clubbed by an iron pipe during a mugging in a train station and that caused him to regain his sight? Really?”)

And then the third strand is the actual life of Laura Ingalls Wilder. At my sister’s recommendation, I read one of the scholarly biographies about her. There are a few: I chose the seminal work by a history professor at the University of Missouri. I believe a couple of others have come out more recently that I wasn’t able to find, so it’s possible some of my questions have been further pursued by those authors.

In examining which aspects of Laura’s life were accurately depicted in the books and which ones she fictionalized, the biography I read inspires interesting questions about the tools of memoir. For example, in the books, the Ingalls family moves in a steady progression from Wisconsin westward through Illinois and Minnesota and eventually into Dakota Territory. In reality, there was more zigzagging; during one year they moved west, then east, then back west, then south, then onward to the west, all within a matter of months. As a writer, I understand the reasons for glossing this part over; it would have been confusing to follow, and the narrative ran a lot more smoothly without it. However, during that same time, an infant boy was born to the Ingalls family and died soon after birth; that detail too was omitted from the book version (though, interestingly, not from the TV series. Infant mortality was just the kind of sensational crisis that won high ratings). Did Wilder leave out the death of her sibling because she thought it would be too distressful for young readers, or because it was too traumatic for her to write about? And how, then, do we interpret the fact that she went ahead and wrote about the death of her own second child?

Leaving out the death of an infant during her childhood may be one way that Wilder attempted to make her story more palatable to young readers. As a parent reading aloud to a 6-year-old, I spotted a number of other anecdotes that seemed, for good reason, to have been watered down. The home invasions by the Native Americans must have been terrifying in real life, both to the young girls cowering in the shadows and even more so to their mother, home alone with three little girls and no weaponry, her husband out hunting for the day. The near-starvation in The Long Winter was harrowing to imagine as a parent. Wilder spun the girls’ acceptance of their situation as trusting complacency and fortitude, but clearly we can read between the lines that malnutrition was dulling their brain capacity somewhat.

Children reading the series tend to focus on the protagonist, Laura, and picture themselves living her life, so perhaps it makes sense that as a mother reading this to my child, I focused more on the mother, Caroline, and wondered about her. She grew up surrounded by family in what I believe was a reasonably populated area, and she taught school as a young woman; yet for much of her child-raising years, the family lived in isolation after leaving their relatives in the big woods of Wisconsin. Not until they moved to DeSmet did they have regular company in the form of neighbors and other society. How did Caroline adjust to the isolation, raising four daughters without seeing a friend or family member more than a few times a year?

I wondered too about Mary. In the books, Laura loves her sister and works hard to take care of her after Mary’s blindness sets in: first by helping her with the practical details of getting through her day and then by earning the money to send Mary off to college. The biography, too, makes it clear that Laura adored her sister. But I still feel like history has given short shrift to Mary Ingalls’ astounding courage. As a young woman who had recently lost her sight, she set off for college in another state, having probably never spent a night away from home before, believing she would not see her family again for seven years. (By earning a little more income than anticipated in the following years, they were actually able to bring Mary home for yearly visits, but they didn’t expect that when she left.) Yes, Laura describes her as smart and a good student in their early years, but how iron-willed must her determination to get an education have been to do something that to me is almost unimaginably brave?

And then I wonder about the converse, as far as what follows for Mary: after getting a formal education and learning how to negotiate the world fairly well as a blind person, Mary returns to DeSmet and spends the rest of her life living in the village. How frustrating must it have been for her to be out in the world only to return to her parents’ small sheltered home? Sensationalized as it may have been, I have to give the TV series credit for coming up with a much more satisfying adulthood for Mary: giving her a teaching position at the same school from which she graduated.

My daughter and I hope someday to travel to some of the Little House historical sites in South Dakota and Missouri, but I don’t expect that too many of my questions will be answered. From what I understand, the documentation simply doesn’t exist. Rose Wilder Lane, the only daughter of Laura and Almanzo, donated many of her family’s artifacts to historical collections, but she wasn’t left with a whole lot. It appears that no family member other than Laura left written accounts. And what’s somewhat staggering to realize is that Rose was the only descendant of the Ingalls family, Caroline and Charles’ only surviving grandchild, and she had no children of her own. After the death of their infant son, Laura and Almanzo had no more children, probably because of severe illness that likely rendered one or both of them infertile. But none of Laura’s sisters had children either. Mary never married, which might be realistic for a disabled person at that time in that particular community, but Carrie and Grace, though both were married, died childless as well. We tend to think of large families as the norm in the 19th century and infertility as a very contemporary issue, but this suggests that it was a problem back then as well; as a result, there were very few people with firsthand knowledge of the Ingalls family left to write any other aspects of their story beyond what Laura wrote.

So I wonder, and I marvel at the mysteries this family poses. In some ways, they were one of the most well-documented pioneer families of their time, thanks to the persistence of Laura, who took the time to write her memoirs in her retirement years, and her daughter Rose, a publishing insider, whose professional oversight of her mother’s work is well documented. But in other ways, there’s still so much we will probably never know.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Hoping to turn my kids into hikers!

The weather is beautiful today, a quintessential New England mid-autumn day. Blue skies, the foliage a mix of green, yellow, peach, chartreuse, crimson. (It’s probably not quite yet peak, but we forget at peak that the emerald can be a really lovely contrast with the brighter colors, before all the leaves have turned.) Belle and I ran 2.3 miles midmorning, up through the Center, looping around at the Highland Building and back past the school: Running Streak Day 789.

We’re coming up to a 3-day weekend, Columbus Day, and I’m fervently hoping I can get my family outdoors for some kind of organized, dare I say, hike? Hiking is probably way too strong a word for my family’s abilities. I doubt we’ll be tackling Mt. Monadnock any time soon. But I’d settle for a walk on one of the town’s many conservation trails, or even the loop around Walden Pond. Before I had children, I went trail-walking all the time, and I just naturally pictured I’d have kids who bounded through the woods with me. But so far, that hasn’t been the case. When Tim and I were running every day, one of the benefits was simply getting Tim outdoors more often, even if it was for only fifteen or twenty minutes a day. Now, between biking to and from school, playing baseball twice a week, and daily recess time during the week, he still gets a reasonable amount of time outdoors, but it’s a bit vexing to me that neither of the kids likes the idea of just walking in the woods or fields all around us and all throughout this region. Rick has never taken much of an interest – his famous quote about this from long before we were married was that if a recreational sport doesn’t involve fights, finish lines or scores, he’s not interested – so I don’t even expect him to join me, but I no longer have the excuse on the kids’ behalf that they’re too young or too little. They could be fine hikers if they wanted to. The problem is that they don’t want to.

With the forecast fine for this weekend and it being such a beautiful time of year, though, I think I’m going to dig my heels in. They don’t have to conquer any mountain ranges, but surely we can walk the perimeter of our local conservation land or do a mile on the nearest public trail, can’t we? As I always say, writing a goal down takes you at least 60% of the way to making it happen. I sometimes invoke the acronym WIDMIH: Write it down [to] make it happen. I hereby write down that I will get my kids outdoors for an off-road walk lasting at least 20 minutes (hey, might as well start with really really low expectations) this weekend, once during the three days we have off. We’ll see how that resolution plays out.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

What I learned running in the rain today

Rain was falling when I woke up just before 6 this morning. At about 11, the clouds parted and the sun was shining, so I headed out for a run. And for the second time in five days, the weather changed dramatically about five minutes into my run. On Saturday it was a downpour; today it was steady rain and rapidly increasing wind gusts.

Though I had planned to do my usual weekday 2-miler, I turned back a little early and ended up running 1.5 miles, which is fine as far as my streak is concerned – the USRSA officially allows a minimum of a mile a day for maintaining a streak – but it was disappointing as far as wanting to build my mileage for the week.

As I ran home, I thought about how I usually say I’m fine with running in the rain, especially when temperatures are as mild as they are today. (Many times, I’ve paraphrased Amby Burfoot’s quote about how the only kind of weather not great for running is 34 degrees and raining, and I’ve run in 34-and-raining dozens of times over the past two years.) This was a steady but not soaking rain, and I realized what was bothering me wasn’t the water falling on me but the fear of what might happen.

That’ so often what slows us down, whether running or doing anything else: the fear of things getting worse. I didn’t mind the rain, and I didn’t mind the wind either, which was sending yellow leaves soaring through the air almost in formation. It was the fear that lightning would develop or that a tree would fall on me. Wind has never scared me until last year, when a summer weather patterns brought twisters to our region.

If I only knew that nothing worse than wind and rain would happen, I’d be fine with this weather, I kept thinking. But that’s always the real problem, isn’t it: not fear of what is happening but fear of what could happen?

And this transpires in other ways too, not just with fear. When I was in my twenties, I did so much writing and tried so hard to get published and it just never worked. I remember once thinking, “If I knew this was necessary practice, laying the groundwork for a future career, I’d be fine with all the rejections. What bothers me is worrying that it’s not going to get any better for me.” Of course, in retrospect, that’s exactly what it was: learning the ropes for a career that took a turn in the following decade, when I started getting plenty of work published, based on the lessons I absorbed during all those rejection years.

Now, as I try to pursue increasingly bigger projects, I often have the same thought: rejection is fine if it’s a steppingstone to learning something and consequently improving, but what if rejection is all I’ll see?

And so, the lesson seems to be to remember how much we hamper ourselves with anxiety about what’s ahead. Is this just a windy day to be out running, or is a twister about to touch down? I’m fine running in a steady rain, but am I about to be struck by lightning? Oh well, you can’t expect every piece of writing to get published the first time you send it out, but what if this rejection means it’s unpublishable?

Once again, the operative concept is mindful living. Just as it’s a mistake to spend too much of the present looking forward to good things yet to come – which I think we tend to do when we’re younger, looking forward to college, or graduation, or working, or being married – it’s just as big a mistake to spend too much of the present worrying about what might happen. I ran and got wet; I did not stumble into a tornado, and no trees fell on me. It was just a wet run in a steady rain. And next time I’ll try to enjoy it a little more.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

The annual Spaghetti Supper

The kids and I attended the Spaghetti Supper this evening, which is a school fundraiser that has taken place annually since I was Tim’s age. It’s such a great small-town tradition. So many people go: nearly every family with a child at the school – and since it’s a K-8 school, that’s a significant number of families – but also school faculty and staff, local retirees, families with very young children, even our minister and student minister were there. Much of the charm is that it lacks traditional charm. It doesn’t have the ambiance of, say, a school play or concert, and it’s not holiday-related or sports-related or like any of the other traditional schoolwide or townwide events. It’s just a spaghetti dinner to raise money for the middle school (though it’s put on by the sixth grade, it generates funds that help sustain their activities right through eighth grade graduation).

Since many adults in town know that I grew up here and attended the same school, I’m invariably asked at the Spaghetti Supper whether we did the same event when I was a student, and the answer is that we did, but it looked a lot different. As I remember it, all of the kids took part and were supervised by a small team of parents – maybe a dozen or so at the most. These days, the kids act as servers, but hordes of parents make up the bulk of the event staff. Parents do the cooking, the seating, the raffle tickets, the plating. This change has nothing to do with helicopter parenting or indulging the kids; it’s a generational change in Board of Health standards, safety standards and, as I understand it, labor laws. Sixth graders simply aren’t allowed from a bureaucratic standpoint to do the same tasks we did for the Spaghetti Supper back in the late 1970’s.

This is the sixth or seventh consecutive year we’ve gone since moving back to town. While the event has changed a great deal since I was in sixth grade, it’s also changed throughout just the past few years. Each class approaches it differently. Two years ago, one of the parents in charge was an avid and talented cook, and he toiled over crafting the perfect tomato sauce far more than is typical for this ordinarily rather institutional meal. Another year, there were apparently a lot of high-tech parents on the committee, as the numerous raffle winners were not displayed in the usual way with names written in marker on flip-chart paper but rather with a continuously scrolling computer display. This year, the emphasis seemed to be on the d├ęcor, with tablecloths, centerpieces, candles (their flames invisible under the fluorescent cafeteria lighting) and raffia strips encircling the plastic cutlery. There was even a strolling violinist serenading people as they waited to be seated.

The best part of the Spaghetti Supper, which is another thing that makes it better than any concert or Christmas tree lighting event, is that the line to get in is usually about a half-hour long, and the kids, knowing this, come ready to play, with footballs, scooters and layered clothing. Tim immediately found his way into the midst of a fifth-grade football game; Holly and her friends ran around looking for people they recognized in line. It’s a fairly amazing sight to see dozens of school-aged kids all out playing at once like that; it’s like the whole school is at recess at one time, and they all manage to have fun.

Small towns have rich traditions. Though some of ours are more postcard-perfect, like the Old Home Day Parade or Santa’s arrival by fire truck, the Spaghetti Supper is one of our best because of its lack of pretention. Even the food, in this day and age, seems a little outdated. But it’s so much fun to run in to everyone there, to see the kids playing together outside beforehand, and then to sit down at a long cafeteria table with a dozen friends, neighbors and acquaintances for a really messy, really simple, adequately tasty and very filling meal.

Monday, October 5, 2009

In the zone

It was a good morning of work. I was crossing To Do items off my list left and right; I was coming up with story leads and tracking them down; I was getting answers from editors. A conference call for which I’d blocked off an hour wrapped up in 15 minutes, with everyone on it agreeing to take on an apparently equal amount of follow-up work. I finished one article, started another, pitched two more. (That’s not being manic; it’s how freelance journalists need to work to maintain a steady flow of revenue.) I called my doctor’s office to ask about scheduling a flu shot, and that wasn’t even something I’d remembered to put on my To Do list. In fact, after I did it, I added it to my To Do list just for the fun of checking it off.

When I looked at the clock on the lower right corner of my computer screen, I discovered I’d been sitting at my desk for less than two hours; it was barely 11:00. With the dog’s deep brown eyes fixed soulfully on me, I promised her we’d get out for a run before noon.

I’m in the zone today with my work, I thought to myself as I headed out.

Being in the zone when working isn’t necessarily about maximum productivity. The times I’ve probably gotten the most work done, in any meaningful way of measuring, is on nights when I’ve stayed up until midnight to meet a deadline and written a couple of thousand-word articles within the space of three or four hours. This wasn’t about getting a huge amount of work done. Being in the zone felt more like equilibrium than voracious speed. I was in balance. I was writing, but I was also networking, responding, liaising, and even taking care of personal and family tasks like scheduling flu shots and starting a load of laundry.

I know this feeling, I thought. It’s like running. It’s like running in the zone, when you’re out on a three-miler or a six-miler or any distance at all and everything feels right. And just as working in the zone isn’t about voracious productivity, running in the zone isn’t necessarily about speed. I’ve had faster runs, especially in road races or when Tim is impatiently urging me along, that didn’t feel nearly as good as some in which everything was simply in balance. When running, being in the zone means I’m dressed right for the temperature, I’m neither hungry nor full, I’m listening to something engaging on my iPod. It means I pass a neighbor or two to wave to along the way, and there’s plenty of daylight left, and I’m not in any rush to get back. Running in the zone happens when my legs feel strong and my breathing is steady and all of it – inside and out, the universe and my biorhythms – all feel as perfectly balanced as a newly inspected postal scale.

The zone is a great place to be, whether you’re working in it, running in it, parenting in it (you know, those days when everyone is happy and getting along, and you manage to make a nutritious lunch that everyone likes). Cooking. Visiting. Hiking. Partying. Meditating. No matter what the activity, there are times when the karma is right and everything feels in tune.

That’s the zone. It’s hard to seek out, harder to attain when you actively seek it. But on days like today, it’s just there waiting for you, open-armed and welcoming.

Friday, October 2, 2009

Can't walk away from work -- and wouldn't want to

I’m finding it increasingly difficult these days to separate work time from non-work time. When I was employed by a big company and went to an office for eight hours a day, it was easy. At 5 PM, or 5:20 PM, or sometimes even 6 or later – but in any case, at a particular time – I clicked on the “log out” icon, snapped off my monitor, picked up my briefcase and went home, and work was over for the day. Sure, sometimes I had more work to do at night or over the weekend. But even then, it had distinct parameters. I knew what tasks or projects I needed to finish – one article to revise for the company newsletter; one memo from the CEO to proofread – and once I was done with that task, I could again walk away from my work.

Now, it’s different. I’m self-employed, but this is more about deadlines than money. I always have so many different projects open at once, just as I always have so many windows on my computer open at once. And a lot of times, it’s the communication with other players on the project that keeps me from disconnecting. If I have two hours of work on an article to do, I can sit down and do it and be done, but so often I’m waiting for an answer from an editor, or waiting for a story subject to get back to me about a photo opportunity.

Right now it’s Friday night, but I don’t feel done for the week at all. I’m writing a newspaper piece about a non-profit that just produced a cookbook, and I’m waiting for quotes from two of the volunteers who helped with the project. I’m also working on a story about a group of dads who formed an offshoot of the PTA in their town, and I’m waiting for the dads to agree on a time and place to have the photographer take their picture. Meanwhile, the municipal management consultant I work for needs revisions on a survey that is supposed to be distributed early next week, and I still have to finish drafting minutes from the September meeting for the volunteer board for which I serve as clerk.

But let me clarify that I realize I’m no busier than anyone else with a normal freelance workload, and I’m a lot less busy than plenty of people. And actually, I like the steady continuous flow of my work life. When I worked 9 to 5 and snapped my briefcase shut at the end of the day, it was work I disliked and had no interest in thinking about off hours. These days, I'm so engaged with my work that I wouldn’t want to walk away from it on the weekends if I could. For example, I’ve made a personal commitment to try to blog five days a week and take weekends off, but last Saturday I enjoyed my run so much and had so many thoughts about it that I did a Saturday blog entry anyway. And rather than thinking “I can never get away from writing,” I felt lucky that I love writing so much and that I have so many opportunities to do it.

And the same is true this weekend. I look forward to continuing the cookbook story and getting started on the dads’ PTA article. It will feel good to get the meeting minutes completed, and I’ll be relieved to send off the municipal management survey. And while I’m doing all of those things, I’ll be generating new ideas and pursuing new assignments. Writing is not a 9-to-5 job; it’s something I’m thinking about all the time. I know a lot of other professions are like that as well. But I just feel so fortunate that my work life and leisure time don’t really need to be separated out in my mind, that they blur together as inextricable components of the life I’m happy to be leading.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Farewell, September

It’s already the first of October, and the weather feels like fall: cool dry gusty air, trees aflame with yellow and red foliage, ground turning hard and rutted where in the spring it was muddy and in the summer, dusty. I caught the cows eating out of the hay barn today, standing at the gate and chomping on whatever they could reach, which means they’re finding the grass less lush for grazing. Last year we didn’t start feeding them hay bales until November 1, but I think we’ll start sooner this year, unless there’s a resurgence of thick green grass, which would take warmer temperatures and a lot of rain.

Mid-fall is beautiful, but I would have been happy to stay stuck in September, with its mild sunny days and sense of boundless enthusiasm.. At the beginning of the month we went to such a great Labor Day cookout at Anjali and John’s house (for which I still owe a thankyou note); then there was the triumph of Holly learning to ride her bike, and in the middle of the month Tim’s eleventh birthday (for which he still owes some thankyou notes). Now, the new school year is well under way. So far, the fun parts are still a novelty: the bike rides to and from school for Tim; the walks with me out to the bus stop for Holly. And the kids tend to stay fairly enthusiastic about school all year long. But it’s so much fun when everything still seems new: not only the teachers and class configurations but the schedule and activities. Soon the weather will turn a lot colder and the routine will seem more, well, routine.

September is always a time of beginnings when you’re on the school calendar, and my theory is that even if you’re an adult without children, some part of your consciousness always retains that sense of a new start in the fall, but this September seemed more exciting. It felt like there were more hopeful possibilities in the air and fewer onerous duties, which may be because neither of the kids is playing soccer this year. (Just kidding, soccer fans!) I’m really excited about the directions my writing is going in: new article assignments, long-time jobs starting to wrap up (such as the Stow municipal master plan), and yes, even this blog is giving me fresh motivation for writing. After a somewhat uninspiring though not unhappy summer, September brought with it fresh air, new opportunities and high spirits.

Now it’s October 1, and although ruing the passage of time is a pointless conceit, I have to admit I’m sorry to see September end.