Monday, November 30, 2009

Reading Judy Blume's Blubber 25 years later

I didn’t expect to be writing two blog entries about Judy Blume within two months’ time, but my 7-year-old daughter is on something of a Judy Blume tear, and reading the early chapter books with her has brought up a lot of interesting issues. In my last Judy Blume-related post, I wrote about my surprise in finding out that certain details had been updated in recent printings of the books: kids listen to CDs rather than records and they film with video cameras despite the fact that the book in question was written in the 1970s.

This time it’s the subject matter itself that is inspiring our contemplation. Holly and I have been reading Blubber, a novel published in 1974 for middle readers about what happens when scapegoating in a fifth grade classroom runs amok. At 7, Holly is probably a little younger than the target audience for this book, but I have no objections to her reading it. The characters are pre-pubescent; more importantly, the subject matter is timeless.

Or so I thought. Scapegoating and bullying continue to be hot topics in my children’s classrooms, but I’m finding the theme to be not quite as timeless as I would have expected. What has changed is not the way kids can treat each other – meanly, ganging up, siding with the stronger against the weaker – but the likely results. Over the weekend, we read a chapter in which the “mean girls” ambush and partially strip the scapegoat character, Linda Fischer, whom they dub “Blubber,” in the restroom, and then another chapter in which they destroy her lunch while calling her names. By the end of that chapter, the ringleader is threatening physical abuse, and in the words of the frustratingly passive narrator, Jill, “You could see she wasn’t fooling around anymore.”

I’ve stopped several times while reading to ask Holly for her perceptions on what’s going on. She understands what it means for kids to gang up on each other; she knows about ideas like being left out and being called names, not because it’s happened to her but because unlike in “Blubber”’s era, adults talk about this at her school openly and frequently. While bullying may be a timeless theme, the Judy Blume who wrote the book back in 1974 probably could not have imagined how much adults’ response to it would change. Although in Blubber, it’s apparent that telling a teacher or other adult about the abuse would be futile, Holly knows that at her school any form of meanness is taken seriously by the adults in charge – and unlike in Blubber’s world, the kids talk often about how to avoid behaviors like name-calling and teasing. The idea of pulling down another child’s pants in the restroom is unheard of to them: keeping your hands to yourself is of paramount priority at their school, and what the girls in this book do would be considered sexual harassment by today’s standards.

It’s a relief to think that the previously cloistered world of pre-teen bullying has been rendered generally unacceptable, although it’s hard for me to articulate to Holly the reasons. It’s easier for me to keep repeating “They wouldn’t be allowed to do that today because a teacher would find out and help Linda” than “The administration would intervene not only to protect poor Linda but out of fear that Linda might return to campus with a loaded semi-automatic.” Bullying is simply a dirty word on today’s elementary school campus, for reasons good and not-so-good: because bullying is mean, and because fear has developed around the bullied. Dave Cullen, author of Columbine, argues convincingly that it’s actually a misnomer to refer to the anti-bullying movement as a Columbine issue since in fact his extensive investigative reporting revealed that bullying wasn’t a problem for the Columbine murderers, but even if that was a misrepresentation by the media, it still helped all of us to open up this issue for general discussion in the classroom arena.

And no matter how much anti-bullying instruction we give our kids, there are some ways in which they’ll never get all of it right. My son, who is in fifth grade just like the characters in Blubber, told me proudly that he and his recess buddies have started making an effort to be much nicer to a boy who was often left out because he was clumsy and inept in their playground football games. “Now we pass to him all the time, and when he throws it, we make sure we don’t intercept it so he gets the play and feels like he’s doing really well,” Tim reported. "And we cheer for him." This is great news…sort of. Tim and his friends are doing what they sincerely believe to be a nice thing, and it’s hard for me to point out to him that the boy in question might eventually start to feel patronized.

I wish I knew what happened to Linda “Blubber” Fischer after fifth grade. Maybe she lost weight, became pretty, and no longer had a problem with mean girls. Maybe she stayed fat and pathetic, and the teasing and bullying continued right through high school, in which case I imagine her becoming a woman with low self-esteem and a sad adulthood, possibly subjected to domestic abuse. Or maybe she endured middle school and then went to a progressive private high school like the one I attended, where middle school’s outcasts were celebrated for their differentness.

Aside from the bullying, there’s a minor plot point in Blubber that is also alien to Holly: the protagonist’s mother is shown smoking a cigarette at the kitchen table in one scene, and talks about trying to quit smoking in another. “Back when this was written, it wasn’t all that strange for parents to smoke,” I told Holly. “People knew it was unhealthy, but it wasn’t as unusual as it is now.”

“I saw a man smoking when we were in Boston yesterday,” Holly contested.

“I know, but he was by himself outside. Wouldn’t it seem weird if you were at a friend’s house and the mom was sitting at the table smoking?”

Until we had that discussion, I hadn’t given much thought to how much the idea of smoking in a typical suburban household has changed, but it was interesting to contemplate – and much simpler than the question of how bullying has changed. My kids’ school demonstrates a zero tolerance policy toward pretty much every kind of behavior exhibited in Blubber, and for that I’m grateful. Now it’s just a matter of eradicating the intent behind it, and the way girls still find it possible to gang up, scapegoat, or generally make each other unhappy for no good reason other than that they can.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Spending (or not-spending) Black Friday at the library

The kids and I are spending Black Friday at the library. Or this part of it, anyway.

This is for a few reasons. One is that I still like to observe Buy-Nothing Day, a tradition started by a Vancouver artist in the early 1990s and promoted by Adbusters magazine as part of their grassroots effort to de-commercialize Christmas. I used to be a lot more self-righteous about it. I used to in fact get very much on a soapbox about it, proclaiming the general hideousness of crowds flocking to the malls on the day after Thanksgiving to kick of the Christmas season with a buy-buy-buy mentality.

Whether it's an effect of the Recession of part of the natural mellowing that occurs in most of us with age, I'm not up on a soapbox about Buy-Nothing Day anymore. Now, rather than self-righteously condeming Christmas shoppers, I recognize how many people's livelihoods depend on commercial consumption of this kind: not only the retailers, manufacturers and shippers, but also the coffee shop and restaurant employees who benefit when more people are out for the day shopping. In these Recessionary times, the sight of other people out shopping makes me feel happy for those whose livelihoods are being supported as a result, rather than critical of the consumerism it represents.

Besides, some people find it fun, and -- again, the mellowing-with-age factor -- I'm no longer so inclined as I once was to look down on the way other people choose to have fun. My sister-in-law adores Black Friday shopping; she's one of the many who sets her alarm at 4 AM to get in line. ("Could you give me Holly's Christmas wish list?" she asked me yesterday as we were cleaning up from Thanksgiving dinner. "Sure, I'll send it to you," I answered casually. "Could I have it right now?" she pressed. "I start shopping in less than twelve hours.") My sister-in-law has a full-time job more grueling than anything I've ever done: she runs a residential center for emotionally unstable teenagers. It's enormously stressful work, both physically and emotionally, yet I've never heard her complain about it. If she finds it fun to spend the day after Thanksgiving shopping, I'm hardly in a position to question her choice. I'm glad she has found things she enjoys doing so much when she's away from work. She's earned that time off.

But as for me, it's a long-time habit to cocoon on the day after Thanksgiving. I'd be happy to stay home all day, sorting through Thanksgiving leftovers and planning my December baking regime. But it seemed to me to be important to get the kids out of the house today, and with Day 3 of our refrigerator repair under way at home, Rick needed to stay put, so the kids and I headed for our favorite destination, one that's not at all like Black Friday shopping: our local library.

We love our library. The kids just have fun browsing through books and playing computer games, but to me it's a nearly hallowed place because I never get over my amazement at how many resources it contains. It's not a very big library by most communities' standards, but the selection of new books is terrific. Plus there's a wide range of magazines and newspapers for browsing, and free Internet access for still more browsing and reading. In the first few months after Holly was born, the library was my great escape. I'd be home taking care of her all day, and then after dinner I'd sometimes sneak out for an hour or two at the library. I could have gone elsewhere but I couldn't think of a better destination: the library just has so many more choices than any other single stop.

Today at the library it seems that all around me are reminders of other things I should be doing. The book exhibit right next to the carrel where I'm writing features the theme of desserts, reminding me I could be home starting my holiday baking; nearby magazines proclaim Christmas craft ideas I could peruse for ideas for the kids; front pages of the New York Times and two local papers remind me that I could be boning up on current events. The whole bank of computers is unoccupied right now, reminding me I could even be working.

Instead, I'm just soaking in the library ambience. Other people are standing in line or locating gifts or driving from store to store. I do hope they're enjoying themselves, and I know there are things I could be seeing to at home right now (though the dishes are done, I'm not completely cleaned up yet from our Thanksgiving dinner, and I really do need to start reusing those leftovers before it's too late).

But the kids are happily browsing and I'm happily writing, so for this particular hour of this particular Black Friday, this is all we want.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Giving thanks, recipes, ingredients, flavors, textures, tastes

With one day left until Thanksgiving, I’m starting my holiday cooking and baking in earnest – and feeling a lot of gratitude for food and recipes and ingredients and results. Simply having enough food to feed my family is one of those categories I’ve termed the massive blessings, but food to have fun with falls into the category I’ve been ticking off during this pre-Thanksgiving countdown: non-esssential but tremendously appreciated blessings for which to give thanks.

I feel so fortunate for the delicious and wonderful food all around me, both the food created in my kitchen and the food that comes into it. Even with an increasing societal priority on locavore shopping, I can’t resist celebrating the variety of delicious things we have access to both locally and beyond. Apples, oranges, peaches, bananas, avocadoes. Arugula and romaine. Garlic, grapefruit, plums. Amazing varieties of cheese, from the creamy to the pungent to the savory. Salsa seasoned with plenty of cilantro; guacamole with lime juice and salt. Chewy whole wheat bagels studded with seeds and sprouts. Artisan breads, better than those I bake myself no matter how many different ways I try. Milk chocolate, dark chocolate, white chocolate, for baking and eating. Edamame, barley, adobo sauce, for dressing up soups and chili. Coffee beans, dark and slippery with oils, to be transformed in the morning into hot rich coffee.

In the summer, fresh creamy ice cream from the popular stand down the street and seafood from the docks in Maine. Black bean burgers and swordfish steaks off the grill. Blueberries and blackberries from the bushes right here on the farm. In the winter, grilled cheese sandwiches with caramelized onions, big pans of homemade macaroni and cheese, hot chocolate chip cookies. On vacations, regional foods to sample and new tastes to explore. Dishes I haven’t mastered myself but can buy wonderful samples of right near home: curries, sushi, scallion pancakes, Thai noodle dishes. Take-out choices the kids love to eat on Saturday nights: hot pizza with cheese sizzling across the top; greasy tasty Chinese appetizers; subs bursting with the varied textures and fresh flavors of cheese, tomatoes, pickles, mayonnaise. Celebratory desserts: birthday cakes, cupcakes, ice cream sundaes. Fattening-but-fun snack food for Superbowl parties and poker nights: homemade chili con queso, hot artichoke spread, layered taco dips.

But back to today, the day before Thanksgiving, a holiday whose traditional dishes are not among my favorites overall but still fun to make once a year. Today I’ll prep the stuffing and cranberry sauce and make pumpkin pie, fruit crisp and the kids’ favorite chocolate mousse pie (essentially whipped cream flavored with chocolate swirled in a graham cracker crust. I myself wouldn’t mind if I never saw another one as long as I lived, but it’s their favorite holiday dessert, and I do like having special culinary traditions just for them). Earlier in the week I made several logs of Cheddar cheese wafer dough, which I can quickly slice and bake tomorrow. At some point between now and then I have to home in on a plan for roasting brussel sprouts (confirming how to spell brussel sprouts wouldn’t be a bad idea either). Other family members will bring traditional mashed potatoes and Rick’s favorite Thanksgiving vegetable of mashed carrots and turnips (as I say every year, I’m fine with having that on the table as long as I don’t have to prepare it or touch it).

We certainly don’t need all this food. We’re lucky to have enough of anything at all to eat. But what a bonus blessing that so many magnificent tastes and textures exist. In this well-known picture book Bread and Jam for Frances by Russell Hoban, Frances ends a brief phase of eating only bread and jam with a multi-course picnic lunch. After she reels off the many items on her menu to her friend Albert, he says, “I think it’s nice that there are all different kinds of lunches and breakfasts and dinners and snacks. I think eating is nice.”

“So do I,” responds Frances.

I couldn’t put it better myself.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Giving thanks for...the kids' clutter (really!)

Having planned in the week leading up to Thanksgiving to count down the days in my blog by giving thanks for the various non-essential delights that grace my life, you’d think I’d be extra attuned this week to anything that might meet the criteria. The general idea is to go beyond what I call the massive things – the presence of family and friends; physical and mental health; food; shelter; freedom – and acknowledge the many other beloved everyday things that might not make it into a Thanksgiving toast.

But after I mentioned in another communication that due to an inexplicable failure of wireless connectivity in my home office I’ve been working today in my son’s room, at his little wooden desk, surrounded by his sports pennants and baseball cards, Twitter correspondent Jack Ferriter pointed out to me that there’s another item for my list of non-essential but wonderful things worthy of Thanksgiving week thanks: the clutter of toys and other paraphernalia that reflect my kids’ presence in the house.

Of course, when it comes time to pick up all their stuff, thankful is often the last thing I’m feeling (unless my inspiration for picking everything up off the floor is the imminent monthly arrival of the housecleaner, for which I always give thanks). But it’s true: our children’s beloved chotchkes remind us of their unique qualities, their hobbies, their passions, their idiosyncrasies. In Lionel Shriver’s mesmerizingly horrifying novel We Need to Talk About Kevin, one way Shriver conveys the character’s psychopathic tendencies is by describing the sterile tidiness of his childhood room, in which not a toy or game or stuffed animal or book mars the surface of the furniture or floor. This detail has stuck with me for years in its ability to imply a child’s chillingly un-childlike personality.

So when I view the clutter that follows my kids around like Pigpen’s dust cloud in Peanuts, I remind myself to feel grateful.

Along with the sports pennants on the wall and the baseball cards scattered across his desk, Tim’s most prized objects include his 10-year-old stuffed frog, Ba, and his newer but somewhat shabby gray elephant, Vicon. Both animals can usually be found draped across whatever chair or tabletop is nearest to Tim if he’s in the house; when he’s at school he leaves them on the mudroom bench so that he’ll see them as soon as he gets home. Tim also treasures the race numbers he collected at a series of road races he ran over the past two years as well as myriad baseball trophies and ribbons, and the coin collection his grandfather gave him, and a pile of baseball hats from every team he’s ever played on.

Holly’s clutter is a little less resonant with significance than Tim’s. Whereas Tim’s clutch of special belongings comprises things he’s had for a long time that are infused with special meaning to him, Holly just plain collects odds and ends, most of which she eventually uses in crafts projects (or plans to, anyway. Or so she says). Strewn across the rug in Holly’s room are beads of all sizes, straws, pipe cleaners, barrettes, recipe cards, paper clips, post-it notes. “Can I have that?!!” she pleads when I remove the disposable packaging from almost any grocery, whether it’s the cardboard carton that strawberries are packed in or the Styrofoam tray from a package of drumsticks. Kleenex boxes, cereal boxes, egg cartons: they all end up in Holly’s room. Last month I made pumpkin cupcakes for Halloween; now the unused cupcake papers are on her bookshelf. She loves to collect little odds and ends of all kinds. What isn’t to be used in a crafts project instead becomes a stand-in for a character in one of her imaginary play scenarios. One day she was engrossed in a game of imaginary school in the kitchen while I prepared dinner. I plucked a piece of dried macaroni that somehow hadn’t made it into the pot of boiling water with the others off the floor and threw it away. “Mom!” she gasped, horrified, “that’s the principal!”

So Jack Ferriter is right: their possessions, permanent and temporary, valuable and disposable, are all items to be thankful for, because these trinkets and chotchkes represent their personalities, for which I am always grateful. And if it sometimes seems that I spend a lot of time picking tiny beads out of the soles of my feet or dusting baseball trophies, I suppose it’s a small price to pay compared to the gratitude I feel for my unique and wonderful children.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Giving thanks for...running!

Continuing my Thanksgiving countdown with gratitude for the less-than-massive things that enhance my life, I suppose it’s no surprise that eventually I would get to the topic of running.

Being grateful for good health and physical (as well as mental) well-being falls into the category of massive things to be grateful for, but the simple act of running takes a more granular view. I’m grateful that my physiological profile includes the strength, mobility and stamina to run, but I’m also just grateful that running exists. As I’ve been reminded hundreds of times throughout my adult life, running isn’t for everyone. There are some people, even physically able people, who are injury-prone and clearly just not destined to be runners; there are others who could do it but just dislike it. Running tends to be something you either love or hate. I’m really grateful to fall into the former category. I love running and have ever since I was eighteen years old and took up running during my first summer vacation from college.

I’ve run regularly everywhere I’ve ever lived, though that isn’t that many places: the Fenway and Kenmore neighborhoods in Boston surround my college campus when I first started, Boston’s Back Bay neighborhood where I lived just after college, the areas around our first apartment in Framingham and then our first home on the other side of the same town, and now the various running routes I’ve established from our Carlisle home.

I haven’t lived many places, but I’ve traveled a lot, and run everywhere I’ve visited. Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, New York, Pennsylvania, Washington, California, Colorado, Florida, Wyoming (one of the most memorable runs I’ve taken was outside of Cody, Wyoming. I picked out a single tree on the horizon and started running down the horizon toward it. Twenty-five minutes, which is to say about 2.5 miles, later I reached that tree, turned around and ran back. It’s the only place I’ve ever run where I could see my halfway point from my starting line.). Also England, France, Switzerland, Germany, Italy, Scotland, Ireland, the Netherlands, Venezuela, Aruba, Bermuda (which from a traffic perspective was the most dangerous place I’ve run. From the perspective of sheer bad judgment, I’d vote for Venezuela. Suffice to say endorphins can be a dangerous drug. But on the subject of judgment, the one place I didn’t run was in Kenya, because the safari guides bluntly forbid it). I ran on the open-air track on the top deck of a cruise ship plying the waters of the eastern Caribbean. I’ve run with my sisters, my brothers-in-law, a cousin, my nieces, friends and co-workers, but mostly over the years I’ve run alone, other than the two years during which my son Tim and I ran together nearly every day. I’ve had two different dogs as regular running partners over the years. I’ve listened to good music, bad music, restaurant review shows, football games and tens of thousands of hours of NPR while running.

So when people look at my running record and call me committed, I say no, just lucky. During the two-year daily running streak that my son Tim and I did together, I was always a little sheepish when people said they were impressed; to me it was astoundingly good fortune that neither of us was sick, injured or otherwise unable to run during those 732 days. Now that I’m continuing with the daily running streak alone – and on day 835 as of this afternoon – I continue to feel remarkably lucky. An H1N1 fever or broken bone could be all it would take to compel me to take a day off, and so far that hasn’t happened.

So mostly, during this week of Thanksgiving, I feel grateful for good health in big ways: the absence of serious illness or disability. But I also feel thankful for the sheer joy that daily running brings me, and has for seemingly as long now as I can remember. It could end any time (as could everything I’m thankful for). But I’m so glad for it right now, on this day, with the hope that I’ll be out running again tomorrow.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Giving thanks for...household appliances

On my second day of giving thanks for things less important than health, peace, food, shelter, love and safety but still worthy of a Thanksgiving nod, I’m feeling especially grateful for household appliances.

Perhaps I’m channeling my Russian peasant ancestors (assuming I had Russian peasant ancestors; I’m not entirely sure), but it still amazes me to look at all the conveniences at my fingertips and how effortlessly they all seem to function. They are like our household servants, except with no attitude (the very mention of which might suggest I’ve read too many Victorian novels). Not only do they ask so little in return; they don’t, as far as I know, talk about us behind our backs or even harbor their own opinions about us. (Though it’s amusing to imagine what the washing machine might mutter to the dryer when everyone is asleep: “If I have to deal with pee one more time…why they can’t just insist the kid keep wearing nighttime diapers is utterly beyond me. So she’s seven years old, so what? How would you like to have someone throw pee-soaked sheets into your midsection day after day?” And then the dryer might respond with something along the lines of “At least you don’t feel used. I’m loved only for my inner warmth. I know that boy claims his shirts are still damp even after I’ve done a comprehensive job of drying them just so he has an excuse to put them back in and get them nice and toasty right before he leaves for school.”

Well, whether they gossip about us or not, I love those appliances. I try to follow good energy practices as far as how and when and how often to run them all, but even taking that into account, it gives me such a feeling of good fortune to stack the last plate in the dishwasher, throw one more sock into the washing machine, adjust the thermostat down a degree or two and start the oven preheating and know that all of those appliances will do just what I’ve asked. Ice chunking down in the freezer; cookies baking; wrinkles in shirts placidly disappearing until the firm flat weight of the iron. I’m grateful to the Cuisinart for the way it minces onions and shreds cheese; I appreciate the toaster for transforming bagels from good to delicious. Meanwhile the phone brings me the voice of one friend and my computer the words of another. When I get back from a run, a warm shower removes every trace of sticky sweat.

Once or twice every winter we lose electricity for a few hours, sometimes longer. As an adult, I don’t find that situation cozy and romantic the way I did when I was a kid; I get frustrated at the things I can’t do, but I look forward to the elation that comes when everything suddenly hums back into action. At the same time, I feel a touch of that every day, even days without power outages, when the things I need to use seem to so effortlessly function. Or, in the rare times that they’re not – such as our refrigerator, which mysteriously refused to drop below a tepid 57 degrees earlier this week – that there are people available to fix them and capable of doing so.

Living off the grid is a very interesting concept, and one that we will probably all be learning more about in the next few years. I might be wise to try to become less dependent on my plugged-in things. But I don’t think it’s so much a matter of dependency as a matter of keen appreciation. I could wash my clothes by hand, sweep instead of vacuum, write letters instead of e-mail. But I appreciate the fact that I don’t have to. I appreciate all the little humming engines, motors and power sources that make my life so much easier than it might otherwise be.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Giving thanks interesting work life

With exactly a week left until Thanksgiving, I’ve decided to devote the next seven days to blogging about things for which I’m thankful. Not the massive things like food, shelter, the health of my family and friends, my children’s happiness, the relative peace and safety in our immediate environment, but the quirkier things…the ones that don’t necessarily merit mention at a church service or a Thanksgiving dinner but which nonetheless grace my every day with their welcome presence.

Today, for example, I’m feeling grateful for my work life. When I lost my full-time job seventeen months ago, I believed the situation was disastrous. And quite honestly, there was no shortage of people agreeing with me on that count. My job provided my family’s regular source of income and our health insurance.

Nearly a year and a half later, I’m still self-employed. I haven’t given up on the possibility of finding full-time salaried work, but at this time of focusing on giving thanks for what I have rather than apologizing for what I don’t, I’m feeling so thankful for the way my workday has evolved ever since I lost my job. I now have six clients for whom I work with varying regularity, and they are all different. This week I’m feeling especially attuned to the variety since I have deadlines for all six.

One is a major city newspaper, which gives my writing a high profile, a widespread audience and an affiliation with an age-old Boston tradition. I’m honored to have occasional assignments with the paper, and I love tracking down stories. On the mornings that I have a section cover story coming out, I’m a little like a child on Christmas, bounding down the stairs to see what’s on the doorstep. And the funny thing is I’m not even the person in the story; I’m just the byline at the top. Which plenty of readers skip right over. But it still gives me a sense of delight to write for the Boston Globe.

Another client is our local community newspaper, for which I’ve written off and on since I was in college. In fact, my first paying job, when I was sixteen, was as a proofreader for that same paper. Now I write feature stories and monthly columns for them. While it doesn’t have the prestige of the Boston Globe, everyone in town reads the Mosquito and sees my work in it. There’s no great honor in being on the Mosquito staff, but there’s the pride any writer can take in a job well done, regardless of the newspaper’s standards. And I always try for a job well done.

One of my corporate clients is a medical website. It’s challenging work, writing SEO-driven content on topics I know very little about. It’s not always fun, but it’s a good workout for my project management skills, reminding me to focus on what I’m doing and fact-check carefully.

I also write for the Concord Academy alumni magazine. For that job, I interview alumni with interesting careers or accomplishments. They’re always happy to hear from me. Some say “I can’t believe you want to write about me!” and others say “I was wondering when you’d call.” But no one ever turns me down, and it’s always a pleasure for me to hear people talk about their passions.

Another corporate client is a municipal management firm. Although it’s something of a joke between the principal consultant and me that I know so little about the arcane details of municipal management, it’s a little like having an administrative role in a medical practice: that is, even if it’s not what you spent years studying, we all have medical needs so it doesn’t hurt to learn more about them from a professional standpoint. Not only did I not care what my community’s Town Administrator did before I had this job, I’m not even sure I knew we had a Town Administrator. Even if I haven’t exactly caught on fire with it professionally, I now know the difference between the Planning Board and the Zoning Board, and I know how to avoid violating the Open Meeting Law. Also the people we work with on things like town master plans are usually volunteers with a special orientation toward civic involvement, and as such they tend to be kind, smart, generous people. Even if drafting a study on how public versus private well water can meet the economic development goals of town X isn’t as much fun as some of my assignments for other clients, I’m glad I have this one too.

And the sixth one is a placement agency that occasionally sends me to random offices to do a day’s worth of editing, proofreading or copy editing in place of a sick or vacationing staff member. I like the anonymity of temping. Because you’re only there for the day, no one feels obligated to forge a relationship with you. They hand you work and generally ignore you. I wouldn’t want to spend forty hours a week in that situation, but it’s fascinating to be nearly invisible in someone else’s office for the day. And besides, when you’re temping you get to experience the exuberance of leaving an office for the last time, every single day.

So that’s what I’m especially thankful for today: the patchwork that makes up my workday, and the serendipitous fact that only by losing a job I never wanted to lose did I get to experience this. Not only that, but being self-employed gives me time to enjoy my own household, attend school events, walk the dog or go running midmorning, and generally live the kind of stress-free daily life that mothers who work full-time out of the house miss out on experiencing. I’m thankful for much bigger and more important things than interesting clients, but today, in the interest of being thankful for the smaller things, I’ll give thanks for them as well.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Brownies diplomacy

My family got into a little fight on Sunday morning. I could try to come up with a more elegant word – a moment of dissension; a disagreement – but I prefer to just call it a little fight.

It began when my 11-year-old, Tim, finished breakfast and went upstairs to play a computer game. No computer games this morning, my husband Rick told him. Tim had been playing computer games almost all weekend. Rick was right: his eyes and his brain needed a change of pace.

Tim was not happy, and while he was protesting, Holly put on a DVD. Let’s take a break from all screen time, Rick decided. No computer; no video games; no DVDs; no TV. It’s Sunday morning, after all.

But Tim was still angry about it, so Rick tried to explain his viewpoint. You spend too much time at your computer, he said to Tim. You should play today. Spend some time outside.

The problem as I saw it was that Rick is not a good model of this behavior. I, on the other hand, am. I spend tons of time outside. In fact, to my mind it’s one of the best things about being self-employed, right up there with always being available when the school nurse calls. I go running; I go for walks; I take care of the barnyard animals; on a warm day I’ll even take my laptop out to the porch to work. Time outdoors is peppered throughout my working day.

Rick is not like that. He works at his desk all day. When he exercises, he uses the treadmill. During baseball and swimming season he spends plenty of time outdoors; at other times of year it’s not so much of a priority.

So even though I supported his Sunday-morning ban on computer and video time, I found it a little hypocritical. Instead, Rick talked to Tim about all the things he did outdoors as a boy: fishing, running through the woods; tag football and wiffle ball with his friends. “After church, we can go for a walk in the woods,” I suggested to Tim. But Rick argued that this was not the point. “It’s not about you organizing something for him to do,” Rick said. “The point is that he should find his own things to do. He shouldn’t rely on you to plan his recreational time any more than he should rely on his computer or his Xbox. Don’t organize a hike; let him find something to do himself.”

Holly, though initially disappointed when told she couldn’t watch a DVD, was already busy with something else. She doesn’t have the reliance Tim does on electronic entertainment. She likes DVDs and even kid-oriented computer games occasionally, but she’s just as happy to draw on her whiteboard or play school, which is what she was doing as Rick and I continued the debate with Tim.

To my surprise, the morning ended with Tim deciding to go to church with me – something he’s done maybe once or twice all fall – and Holly deciding to stay home and play, which is the opposite of what usually happens on Sunday mornings. At church, I had plenty of time for silent reflection. Though it wasn’t on the level of prayer, I silently reflected on my hope that my family could all just calm down a little as the day wore on and find some ground for harmony.

Inexplicably, that’s just what happened. We didn’t discuss it further or negotiate terms: who can use computers and video games and for how long; who has to engage in what outdoor activities; what rules cover children but not parents; what rules we can all agree to. No treaties were drafted, no pacts created. We just stopped talking about it.

And as the day wore on, everyone had fun. Holly invited a friend over; Tim went next door to visit his grandparents. But the best part of the day was in the late afternoon. I wanted to go for a run and told the kids I’d go up to the track rather than doing my usual neighborhood route if they wanted to bring their bikes up or play on the playground next to the track. Holly decided to come with me and do some biking; Tim then decided he’d come too. So while I ran, they took turns riding Holly’s bike and running behind it, and they goofed around together on the playground, and they played with the dog. We stayed for a half-hour and got some good outdoor time and some exercise. Everyone had fun.

So the day started with a little fight but ended with everyone happy. What I take from the experience is not only how well it all worked out but also how no big discussions or negotiations needed to take place. When Tim and I left for church, everyone was cross; when we returned, it had blown over.

It’s what I call brownies diplomacy, not to be confused with Amelia Bedelia diplomacy, named after the children’s book heroine who always resolves problems with her employers by baking them a tasty treat which reminds them how indispensable she is. When you bake a pan of brownies, the most important thing to do after you take them out of the oven is set them aside. If you try to cut them right away, they will crumble into a gooey mess. Put them aside for thirty minutes and they’ll slice up beautifully, chewy but not messy, warm but not too hot to eat.

And so with the family disagreement. Just set it aside to cool and all will be well. It worked this weekend. Some disagreements surely need to be resolved with words, with contracts and negotiations. Others just need to be left to cool. This was definitely one of the latter times, and we were all the better for recognizing it as such.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

What's an essayist to do when a family member puts her foot down?

My 7-year-old and I were heading out to meet the school bus this morning when a question floated out in her sweet, musical, little-girl voice. So innocuous was its tone that not until I was sitting alone at my desk later in the day did its import begin to seep through to me.

“Mommy, you know that Christmas card you send people every year? With the picture of us on it?’

“Yes!” I said, hoping she might have a clever idea for how we should arrange our family photo this year.

“Well, you know the thing you write that goes with it? The poem?”

Again I said yes. It’s a tradition I began the year Rick and I got married, writing a multi-stanza poem in rhyming iambic pentameter to sum up the year’s events, with a heavy dosage of satire poured over the corny word plays. Although the holiday newsletters that triumph every family accomplishment seem like they’ve been mocked enough over the past ten years to be relegated to anachronism, we actually still receive plenty: two-page, single-spaced accounts of what every family member has won awards for, who is solving world hunger and who is saving the whales. (The habit I find most irksome, and I know of at least two holiday newsletter writers who commit this affront yearly, is to include a child’s boyfriend or girlfriend in the account of Who Has Done Which Great Things. Spouses, okay; but college girlfriends? Gosh, doesn’t she have her own mom to write about her accomplishments?)

So I parody our lives and I do it in rhyme. It means I still get to update everyone on our list about what’s new without making it seem like I take any of this too seriously.

Holly went on. “Yes, the poem. Could you not write about me playing, this year?”

Holly’s universe of imaginary friends has figured into the holiday poem for the last two years. In 2007, Holly had a pretend husband and children; in 2008 she’d ditched the family but ran a pretend school. Other 7-year-olds go to dance class or soccer practice after school; Holly hurries upstairs to teach her imaginary class.

I thought for a moment and then answered carefully. “I won’t write about that if you don’t want me to.”

“I don’t,” she confirmed.

“I can write about other things you do instead, like how you learned to swim and ride a bike this year,” I said quickly, hoping to assure her that her accomplishments mattered to me just as much as the entertainment factor of her fantasy life.

“No, don’t write about that either.”

“How about if I check with you when I’m actually working on the card?” I asked her. She seemed to think that would be okay, and then her bus arrived, ending the conversation.

But I was left with the ominous feeling that what people have long warned me about was finally happening: I, an essayist and chronicler of family life, finally had a family member who was going to put her foot down.

And there was something particularly poignant about the timing of Holly’s question. It’s mid-November; we haven’t engaged in any holiday preparations yet, nor have we discussed a Christmas card for this year. For her to bring it up, it had to be something that was on her mind irrespective of external clues. So I know she was serious about it.

People ask me all the time how my children feel about appearing in my essays, and until now, neither child has ever expressed any concern, but this was a moment that nearly every essayist must face at some point. If anything, I was often surprised that I’d gotten a free ride as long as I had – not so much from Holly but from my 11-year-old son Tim. True, the essay about toilet-training and the one about his love of his stuffed frog were published when he was too young to read, but he was in fourth grade by the time I wrote about his fascination with his new protective athletic cup and his refusal to consider wearing anything but a red t-shirt emblazoned with an image of a ketchup bottle. He always seemed to just take it for granted that he would feature prominently in my essays about family life. And I’m lucky he was so accepting of the situation, since in time I would go on to write a full-length memoir about a year in his life, as he and I took on the challenge of a daily run together.

No doubt innumerable essayists, especially those who are mothers, have contemplated the subject of their family members’ reactions to being represented in print. I know of one nationally syndicated columnist who struck a deal with her teenagers that they had power of veto over anything she wanted to write about them. Another essayist whose work I followed for years wrote frequently about one of her two adult daughters and almost never about the other. Though some readers might have inferred favoritism, I suspected that one daughter had issued an edict against depicting her in print. And another writer I know once told me, though this is strictly hearsay, that when author Joyce Maynard was writing her “Domestic Affairs” column, her husband insisted he not be included. That precaution not withstanding, they’re no longer married.

I have no illusions that Holly will change her mind. This may be the beginning for her of a lifetime of not wanting me to turn her into fodder for my writing, and if so, I’ll do all I can to respect that. But I’m hoping she changes her mind for the Christmas card. Because although she didn’t save any whales or feed any hungry this year, I’d love to brag about how she learned to ride a bike.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Enough about the parties - please just bag my groceries

My cyber-friend Michele, who writes the Integrated Mother blog, noted recently how annoyed she is by people who talk loudly on cell phones in doctors’ waiting rooms. She suspects there’s a touch of exhibitionism behind the impulse. When a man much too close to her for audible comfort bragged into his phone, “Well, I’m a business owner –“ she wanted to interrupted him and say “Yea, dork, so am I, just veiled in mom gear.”

I always thought people who invaded bystanders’ space with the noise of their phone calls did so out of oblivion, not hubris, but I understand how Michele felt when she suspected the caller was simply showing off for her benefit (or the benefit of the entire waiting room cohort). This is how I usually feel in the supermarket line. As the teenager cashier and bagger gab overly loudly about parties or “senior skip days,” I feel certain that they’re talking directly at me, assuming that this turtleneck-clad frumpy middle-aged mom with two small children in tow wants to live vicariously through them. “Just concentrate on my groceries. I don’t care about what time the cops broke up the party,” I want to implore. “I was a teenager once too; it was great; but I don’t miss it and I don’t feel the need to relive it through you.”

But of course, that sounds a little like protesting too much, doesn’t it? Such a soliloquy would surely confirm my identity in their eyes as The Soccer Mom Who Wants to Be Young Again.

Once recently, a friend unknowingly saved me from my interior venting when she spotted me from three checkout lanes away. “Hi!” she called out, loud enough that the bagger and cashier momentarily suspended their banter. “Great story in yesterday’s Globe! We love seeing your work on the front page!”

I thanked her and smiled smugly at the teens. Hear that? You think I’m a frumpy middle-aged homemaker? I’m a journalist! I had a story on the section cover of yesterday’s Boston Globe! (I certainly wasn’t going to correct her that it wasn’t actually the front page of the whole paper but just the front of an inside section.)

But the glee was shortlived as I realized the two teens probably didn’t know what the Boston Globe was. In fact, they probably didn’t know what a front page was. Home page, maybe. Or splash page, or landing page. But not newspaper page.
So maybe now they think I’m not just a frumpy middle-aged mom but also a frumpy middle-aged journalist. Whatever that is.

Yesterday something happened that broke this pattern, though. I was at Whole Foods, whose employees tend to be slightly older than those at the regular supermarket: twentysomethings rather than high school kids. But they still spend a lot of time gabbing with each other. On this particular day, apparently the cashier had just urged the bagger to sample something new and unusual, and they were enthusing over how much they both liked it. “I have a piece stuck between my teeth, but it tastes so good I’m not even going to try to get it out!” exclaimed the bagger.

“Have a wonderful afternoon,” said the cashier absently, handing me my receipt.

“With an image like that left in my mind, how could I not?” I asked him.

To my surprise, they both burst out laughing. I felt like I’d made a live mannequin in Covent Garden blink: crossed that seemingly impenetrable boundary. I was still grossed out by the teeth comment, but it was worth it to know that I’d had a moment of actual dialogue with the checkout team. For a second or two, I existed; I mattered: I registered, in their view.

And then they were back to their conversation and I was heading to my car. They, no doubt, had parties and raves to get to. And I had groceries to unpack. But it was a great split second there, when we were both part of each other’s consciousness.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Salad days (and nights)

I’ve been cyber-acquainted with Nicole of the MangiaVita blog for only a few weeks, but she was in my appreciative thoughts this week as I enjoyed a wonderful dinner.

It wasn’t any of her articles about new food trends or her recipes that made the difference: it was a photograph. A photograph of a salad. A photograph that reminded me how much I too love a good salad – and how negligent I’ve been lately by failing to make myself one.

The simple reason is that it’s a time-consuming act that wouldn’t benefit anyone in my family except for me. Although my husband and son would say they love salad, their idea of a good one is a heap of romaine or butter lettuce doused with a potent vinegar (which my 11-year-old will happily finish off with a spoon when the lettuce is gone from his bowl). It’s easy, so that’s what I tend to make for a salad course. I’m the only one in my family who appreciates chunks of grape tomato, chevre crumbles, avocado slices, little pea sprouts, peppery leaves of arugula, laced with a creamy well-spiced dressing. And each of those ingredients takes time to prepare, so I almost never do it. Instead I focus on the nutritious parts of the meal that everyone else likes: lean protein, steamed vegetables, whole wheat rolls.

But after seeing Nicole’s salad photo, I felt deprived. And it wasn’t just that I wanted a good salad. As always, food is metaphor: realizing how long it had been since I’d taken the time to make myself a great salad convinced me that I was focusing too hard on the needs of my family and not enough on my own. This wasn’t exactly a “secure your own oxygen mask before assisting others” situation; it wasn’t like I hadn’t been eating at all. I just hadn’t been eating what I most wanted at dinnertime. I’d been eating what everyone else wanted.

And it happened I was due for a visit to Whole Foods anyway. So I took my time and bought all those salad ingredients I wanted. I even bought dried cranberries and whole pecans. When I got home, I roasted garlic cloves, let them cool, and blended a dressing of roasted garlic, honey, Dijon, apple vinegar and olive oil. I tossed the pecans with a very small amount of garlic oil left from the garlic-roasting dish plus sea salt crystals, black pepper and sugar crystals (the kind bakers dust muffins with), and then I toasted the pecans for ten minutes. I crumbled the chevre and put it in the oven to soften. I washed and spun the arugula.

In the end, I had my salad – and my hard-won sense of self-indulgence. And the best part was that there was still enough of each ingredient to make myself the same thing the next night. And the next.

So this week I’m on a salad kick. The rest of my family is happy with their lean proteins and cooked vegetables, and I’m feeling grateful for my new cyber-friend Nicole with her wonderful food blog. From what I can tell, there is quite a lot that Nicole and I do not have in common. She is a newlywed living in an apartment in ultra-hip Brooklyn. She works full-time in an office and goes to very cool New York restaurants and bars at night. I’m a soccer mom living on a farm in a Boston suburb, writing from home while my two children go to school. But despite all we don’t have in common, this week I’m focused on one thing we do: a fondness for beautifully prepared salads. Sometimes we just need someone to remind us that we deserve a little self-indulgence.

Here's my creation/indulgence:

The on-line shopping dilemma

Amy Suardi at Frugal Mama has been blogging this week about online shopping. Her first post on the subject describes the ways it can save shoppers money; her second post addresses techniques for maximizing the efficiency, affordability and cybersafety of online shopping. The final post in this three-part series will recommend specific online retailers, which will be useful to me since I do very little online shopping.

My feelings about this approach are mixed. In general, I use online shopping only for the most basic and obvious websites and items, such as (of which I’m a big fan) and L.L. Bean. I’m very late to the idea of shopping for everyday goods like groceries, personal care items and office supplies online, though the first post in the Frugal Mama series convinced me that it can be a sensible way to shop.

Reading Amy’s posts, I realized it’s surprising I don’t do more online shopping, given how much I dislike driving. I live in a semi-rural suburb where the nearest supermarket is fifteen minutes away and the nearest discount superstore at least a 25-minute drive. I’m always looking for ways to spend less time in the car, so online shopping seems like a natural fit for me. Although I’ve always associated it with a wasteful and impetuous shopping style – think of the stereotype of the insomniac woman buying expensive shoes and jewelry from her computer in the wee hours of the night – Amy points out the many ways it can actually save money, such as by reducing on-the-spot impulse buys and resisting the entreaties children make for purchases on shopping excursions.

So now I’m thinking: could I reduce my weekly-at-a-minimum trips to the supermarket, gourmet store, drugstore as well as my monthly-or-more stops at the discount clothing store and hardware store by paying more attention to online shopping? More importantly, do I want to?

I’m still not sure. It’s true that I try to minimize driving-around time, but my aversion to errands has made me a more efficient shopper, and has in itself helped me to save money. I wait until I have an accumulation of errands to do, and when I need only a few items from the supermarket, I try to stretch what I have rather than automatically buying more, which has made me a more creative cook as well as a thriftier one.

On the other hand, I do love the sense of efficiency that seeing items delivered to my door would give me. To think, I was writing or editing or housecleaning or reading with my children while someone else was doing my shopping: what’s a better application of multitasking than that? Why spend my time at the supermarket when paid staffers are willing to do it for me?

And yet I really don’t think I’m ready to give up the shopping experience at this point. While it’s true that I don’t like frequent errands, saving up my errands for a week and then hitting five necessary stops at once (last week it was the bagel store, the supermarket, the office supply store, the post office and the dry cleaner in one fell swoop) gives me a great feeling of accomplishment. And even though sometimes it’s onerous, I do think shopping can be a good experience for children. Recently my kids have become fond of supermarket “scavenger hunts,” in which I deploy the two of them as a team to locate specific items from the list and bring them back to me. (My son is 11, old enough to take responsibility for the two of them in the store.) It’s fun for them, it’s useful to me and I think on some level it’s educational, too, testing their navigational and reading skills as they make their way first to the right aisle and then back to the cart.

It seems to me, though, that the biggest issue in considering online shopping is making the decision to buck the “buy local” campaign, which is a significant trend in our region though perhaps less so in New York City, where Amy is blogging from. My parents are as supportive of small local businesses as anyone I know; they’ll do things like buy a toaster at a small family-owned hardware store or a children’s gift at a local toy boutique just to support local shop owners. I’m not quite as willing to make the small financial sacrifices they are; I buy my toasters at Target rather than Vanderhoof’s Hardware, but even that is a step closer to home than buying from an online retailer.

And sometimes it’s hard to know where to draw the line. While in theory I value the presence of independent booksellers over big box bookstores, in no small part because they are more likely to give small-time writers like me visibility, the Barnes and Noble two towns away employs locals as well, and just as many flesh-and-blood people work at our nearby Starbucks as at the family-owned bakery down the street. I don’t feel able to judge which employees deserve their jobs more. For that matter, online retailers have employees of their own, and so does UPS, which employs the drivers who bring us the goods we’ve ordered.

Although I'm not a big holiday shopper, I’ll be shopping more in the next six weeks or so than I do at other times of year, so this is a good time to consider how I want to go about it and what kinds of stores I want to support. By the end of the holiday season, I’ll have probably ended up drawing on a combination of independent stores, big-box stores and online retailers. My seven-year-old daughter was writing a story earlier this week in which her main character went Christmas shopping. Holly wrote this: “Louise loved the mall. She loved all the fancy things. She loved all the people walking around. She loved all the shops and stores. But best of all, she loved to shop.” I’m assuming that’s a reflection of how Holly herself feels at this point, and it sounds pretty good to me. I don’t especially want a shopaholic daughter, but I like the fact that she appreciates the visual stimulation and the sociability of the mall.

So we’ll probably do as much live shopping as we can bear this holiday season, though ideally at small local shops and not the mall, and when we’ve burned out on it – which I can assure you I will quite early in the process – we’ll go home, make a pot of coffee, and do some online ordering from the comfort of our own beloved home.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Veterans Day

It’s Veterans Day and the kids are home from school. I’m ruminating on the question of how much they – or I – understand about Veterans Day and how much they – or I – are appropriately observing it.

Veterans Day is so different now from when I was their age. Back then, veterans seemed like very old or very remote people, and wars were historical events. Growing up, I thought American involvement in wars had been relegated to history. I never imagined wars going on during my lifetime – or a Veterans Day that meant honoring your neighbors, peers and acquaintances rather than elderly men who did something a long time ago.

But much has changed, and I was probably wrong in my perceptions back then even without those unexpected changes. Now, Veterans Day finds us acquainted with soldiers at all level of involvement. Rick’s grandfather is 90 years old and survived the Normandy invasion. Men we know at church served in Vietnam and Korea. Men and women far younger than me – and not much older than Tim, it often seems – are returning from combat or just now being sent out. Though the kids aren’t close to any military troops enough to hear their stories of war, Tim could easily name a dozen adults he knows who are or have been enlisted.

As with some other holidays, like Martin Luther King Day, the challenge is to make this a day of observance and remembrance rather than just a day off from school. The kids’ school has a nice Veterans Day tradition that takes place on the day before the holiday. They invite local vets to join some of the grades for a singalong and reception. I asked Tim last year how many of the vets he recognized, and he could name a few – some from church, some the elder family members of our friends. He didn’t name any younger veterans, which I think is partly because there aren’t that many young people living in our town and Tim doesn’t know a lot of people in that age group anyway. I think this event at least gives the kids a visual snapshot of who veterans are – some of them, anyway – even if they don’t absorb in depth what these people have done.

Rick just noted an online message board where several people had written “Happy Veterans Day.” He commented, “Veterans Day is not supposed to be happy; it’s supposed to be somber.” But I disagree with him. My feeling is it’s not supposed to be happy or somber; it’s supposed to be a day of gratitude, a day for recognizing and appreciating those men and women who have done something I cannot imagine having the courage to do.

I don’t think my children fully appreciate this – for that matter, I don’t think I appreciate it as extensively as I should – but I’m doing my best to explain it to them and to give them access to the information that will eventually help them understand just what Veterans Day means. As with so many things parents try to impart to children – from the importance of education to religious beliefs to the value of a good book to the worth of making nutritious food choices – sometimes the best we can do is provide them with useful information and let them absorb it in their own way.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Walk this way (or that way, or any way at all)

Yesterday, my mother and I took a 30-minute walk in the late afternoon. On Sunday after lunch, a friend and I took our daughters for a walk in the woods. On Saturday morning, I walked with my dog to the post office.

I absolutely love walking. Even though I ride my stationary bike for 45 minutes every morning and run at least two miles every day, I’ll take any chance I can get for a good stroll. Not for the exercise – unlike biking or running, when I’m walking I don’t worry about target heart rate. I don’t even particularly worry about continuity: I’m fine with stopping along the way to talk with a neighbor, inspect an unusual leaf that falls in my path or watch a deer cross a meadow, all of which are frequent occurrences while I’m out walking. If I’m alone, my mind wanders; if I’m walking with someone else, which is equally enjoyable, so does the conversation. It’s different for me from running. When I’m running, although the scenery and climate nearly always register, my primary focus is on the physical aspects of what I’m doing: my own footfalls and heartbeat.

When our town constructed footpaths a couple of years ago alongside the major roads, some residents were skeptical, claiming it wasn’t the lack of safe access that prevented more people from strolling around town; it was that people were busy doing other things. Those who want to walk, these skeptics claimed, take advantage of the miles of conservation trails that run through our town’s fields and forests.

I’m not sure if they’ve noticed what I have, but it seems to me that having footpaths in our town has not only changed people’s recreational practices but has in some ways changed the social fabric of the town. I run into neighbors, acquaintances and strangers all the time now when I’m out walking. The footpaths aren’t all that long; my suspicion is that people who wouldn’t bother with what they see as a real hike on one of the conservation trails still enjoy parking their car at the library and strolling a mile down Bedford Road and back. The footpaths cover some beautiful scenery in just a short distance, winding amidst stone walls, past ancient trees, near centuries-old houses and farms, through the quaint Town Center.

When I lived in the city I walked a lot too, although then it was out of necessity as well as preference; I didn’t have a car. I wasn’t surprised to see on the news this morning that Boston was just ranked second-highest for safe pedestrian access in a survey of 52 metropolitan areas nationwide done by the Transportation for America lobby group. Boston has sidewalks everywhere, usually fairly well-maintained, and a fabulous biking/walking path alongside the Charles River.

Derrick Z. Jackson writes in his Boston Globe column today about being in suburban Tampa and having to drive somewhere just to be able to take a walk safely. Even though the walking trail, when he finally reached it, was inviting, he disliked having to drive to it, and I understand that. Non-pedestrian-friendly regions go beyond feeling physically unsafe for walkers; they seem to convey a certain hostility, or at least coldness, as if walking, and its attendant meditative and/or social aspects, simply aren’t a priority there. (Or, as Jackson illustriously writes, “It is as if planners [in Tampa] viewed walking as a communicable disease and jogging as cancer.”)

During the two years that I was working in another suburb about a half-hour from here, I would go out at lunchtime and walk in a neighborhood not far from the office park where my company was located. It wasn’t a very attractive neighborhood – split-level homes on small lots – and it didn’t have sidewalks, but it also didn’t have much traffic. I found it uninspiring, but I was relieved just to get out of the office and walk.

Even though losing that job was nothing to celebrate, I can’t help feeling that my current situation – being self-employed and working from home – is in many ways far more congruent with my values, one of which is being able to take advantage of my natural surroundings. I feel so lucky that I can go running midmorning, walking with my mom in the afternoon, off for a short hike with the kids when they get home from school. (Holly was so enthusiastic about Sunday’s hike to Castle Rock that she insists she wants to do it soon again, although by yesterday the urge seemed to have already faded.)

On Twitter this morning I saw this quote from Lao Tzu: “If you want to stop being confused, join your body, mind, and spirit in all you do.” When I walk, that’s how I feel: that my body, mind and spirit have intertwined, at least for the duration of the walk. Making that happen in “all I do” might be a bit more of a challenge, but that’s a start.

Monday, November 9, 2009

My son had a sleepover - and I got a good night's sleep

I’m starting the work week well-rested and cheerful. The house is neat, the bathrooms are clean, the refrigerator is stocked, my patience is untried.

This is notable only because my 11-year-old son invited three friends to a sleepover this weekend. It was an event I approached somewhat grudgingly, knowing that two months after his birthday we owed him some kind of celebration but still not genuinely enthusiastic about the plan to fill up his room with fifth grade boys for the night.

I worried that they’d be loud and messy and rude – not because any of these particular boys has ever shown any of these qualities to me, but because I had an innate wariness about combining that many male tweens and being responsible for them for eighteen hours.

But I needn’t have worried. Beyond not being any trouble, it was a delight to spend time with the four of them together. They played football in the driveway. My husband took them bowling and out for pizza. They played pool in our attic, raved about the ice cream pie I served after dinner, were kind (or at least exhibited an absence of unkindness) to Holly, played Wii into the wee hours, went to bed at the agreed-upon time (11, so not a huge sacrifice, but still), slept until 7, woke cheerful, raved about the pancakes and bacon I made for breakfast, trooped out to the barnyard to help me feed the cows and let out the sheep, worked on making a poster together, and packed their stuff up when it was time to leave.

They are great boys, and my son is so lucky to have such kind friends. Holly has wonderful friends too, and I feel fortunate on both of their behalves. So much rides upon the question of who your child makes friends with – and there’s so little a parent can do about it. Worst-case scenarios can have unthinkably awful consequences, but even middling scenarios can keep a parent awake at night, stressing out over a child’s dangerous liaisons. My children have both been lucky enough to find peers who are thoughtful, self-disciplined and generous.

That’s not to say we won’t face any friendship problems going forward. Tim already seems to be quite effective at deciding whom he wants to hang out with and whom he wants to stay away from, but Holly is immersed in more of a typical girlhood, and no doubt there will be drama along the way. In fact, I fully admit it’s likely she’ll be the one causing the drama sometimes. I try to teach her to be a good friend, but as Rosalind Wiseman writes about in Queen Bees and Wannabes, girls find their way into a quagmire of social issues despite our best intentions.

Be that as it may, right now I’m still ensconced in a cheerful glow from our wonderful weekend with Tim’s friends. They played outside; they left the bathroom neat; they didn’t keep anyone else awake at night. They complimented my cooking. (Ice cream pie and pancakes: you could argue that those are two can’t-misses, but still. They could have eaten and kept silent rather than complimenting.) Almost every day I feel grateful for my own kids. Today I feel additionally grateful for the terrific kids with whom my children surround themselves.

Friday, November 6, 2009

Tim telecommunicates

You know those times when a name pops up in the “from” column of your e-mail directory that makes you do a double-take? That happened to me yesterday. It wasn’t the name of a high school nemesis or a long-forgotten co-worker. It was my son Tim.

An e-mail from Tim? I thought to myself. It didn’t quite compute. I was at my desk beginning the last hour of my workday, and Tim was at school. Sure, I knew he had the capability of sending me e-mail; I was the one who had set up his account, just last weekend. I wasn’t really thinking at the time about how he would use it: mostly to send notes to his close friend who goes to a different school, I figured.

It didn’t occur to me that he might write to me. But when I opened the e-mail, I realized he had just gotten out of school for the day and was writing to me from the public library, his usual afterschool destination, to confirm with me what time I would pick him up there. How convenient, I thought. In the past, we’ve always had to finalize a pickup plan before he leaves for the bus at 7:30 in the morning. Now I was free to alter the plan just thirty minutes out, because Tim happened to be on e-mail and happened to have written to me.

We’re behind most families we know in terms of telecommunications and children. Most of Tim’s classmates have not only e-mail accounts but also cell phones, text-messaging capability and Facebook status. Last week when there were no computers available at the library for afterschool research, he and a friend pulled up Wikipedia on his friend’s iTouch. They’re all light years ahead of us. I’m still accustomed to making plans with Tim the old-fashioned way: deciding first thing in the morning when and where I’ll pick him up, and making it clear that he’d better be there.

But now he has e-mail, and in the very near future he’s likely to get his first cell phone, only because my husband needs an upgrade so probably each one of us will move one step up (I’ll get Rick’s outgrown one, which has advantages over mine in that it’s a flip phone and takes pictures, and Tim will get mine). This won’t exactly open up a world of technology to him: I have what I call the old-fashioned kind of cell phone, meaning all it does is make calls, and even those we pay 25 cents a minute for. Texting, not to mention the newer variations thereupon, won’t be an issue with my clunky old circa 2002 Nokia.

Objectively, it makes sense to me for Tim to have his own phone at this point. Like a lot of kids in our town, he likes to go to the library after school dismissal: he does his homework (that’s the rule if he’s not going to come straight home), then plays computer games for a little while and, as of yesterday, apparently checks his e-mail. I generally swing by to pick him up at the library an hour or so after school dismissal. It’s a casual plan that has worked well for the first two months of school.

Still, it will be a little easier once we can reach each other by phone to change or confirm pickup times. But I worry a little bit, with the phone and even the e-mail, that once I have the capability to track him down electronically, it will just become a problem for me when I can’t. If I rely on him to check his e-mail after school for changes in the pick-up plan, what if one day he doesn’t happen to want to check e-mail? As for the phone, I’ve reminded him several times that ringing cell phones are forbidden at both the library and at school, which means he’ll never embarrass himself by having it go off when it’s not supposed to, but it also means he’ll end up using it only when he wishes to turn it on. I can leave him a voicemail…but will he remember, or care, to check voicemail?

There’s no question that enhanced means of communication with Tim will be both an advantage and a disadvantage. During mild weather, he rides his bike to school and home. That’s definitely a situation in which I’ll feel a little better if he has a phone. But I can’t help thinking that providing ourselves with more agents of communication means simultaneously opening up the possibility of less communication, or at least proportionately less given the possibilities that will exist. What if I e-mail him, call him, and voicemail him – and he doesn’t respond? Won’t that leave me a lot more worried than if I didn’t have any way to get in touch in the first place?

We’ll get used to it, I’m sure. We’ll figure it out. Every other family does. But it’s still new to us, and I have no doubt it will take us some time to work out the details.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Tim and me - Live on NPR!

Admitting this may irredeemably brand me as a nerd, but I have to confess it nonetheless: being interviewed by an NPR personality was a truly thrilling experience for me. The broadcast aired today, and I’m pleased to say I’ve listened to it from start to finish only once. It’s not the sound of my own voice that brings me such delight; it was the interview process itself. Today I get to have my fifteen minutes of micro-fame – after all, this is NPR, not Oprah – but it was the taping two weeks ago that really caused my heart to sing.

This is for two reasons. The first is the same reason that probably most NPR interview subjects are happy to be on the air, especially those in feature stories like this one. It’s just really gratifying to have someone take an interest in something we’ve done. Tim and I embarked on a daily running challenge in August 2007; for the next two years, we both ran a mile or more every single day, usually together though sometimes separately. When Tim gave up the streak after exactly two years, we had logged a total of 732 consecutive days of daily miles. During that time, we struggled through snow, ice, heat waves, thunderstorms, arguments, and chest colds, but I never imagined that someday an NPR personality whom I listened to daily during the four years he was broadcasting from Boston would be asking me about it.

And Tim, though he’s not the NPR fanatic I am, knew this was something special too. After all, he got to leave school two hours early for our taping session at the WGBH studios in Boston last month, and when I gave the reason as “media appearance,” his teachers asked him about it. He doesn’t have the same reverence for NPR figures that I do, but he still felt honored – as anyone would -- that someone was asking him about himself.

But for me, the second reason this was such a thrill is more specific to my situation. I’m a journalist myself, and the bulk of my portfolio comprises stories like these: human interest stories about interesting people doing unusual things. But I’m always, always, the one asking the questions. Until now. I make a living taking an interest in asking other people questions about their lives, and I genuinely enjoy it. I wouldn’t be in the field otherwise.

At the same time, there’s always a tiny part of me that feels like no one ever asks about me. I like to imagine an apocryphal New Yorker cartoon featuring my professional role model, Terry Gross, attending a cocktail party at which someone innocently says to her “I want to tell you about this great project I’m involved in” and Terry snaps, “Oh no, tonight it’s all about ME!”

I’ve heard that Terry Gross actually doesn’t like to be interviewed at all, and submits to interviews reluctantly only when she’s promoting one of her own books. I’d like to think I’m equally modest, far more interested in hearing about other people than talking about myself. But in this case, first when we were interviewed two weeks ago and then hearing the broadcast today (okay, and admittedly, then sending out the podcast link to the 200 people at the top of my personal contacts e-mail list), it’s only fair to confess that I really loved the switcheroo, the chance to be the one graciously thanking the interviewer as I attempted to answer questions with clever sound bites and evocative descriptions.

Tomorrow it’s back to being the one asking the questions. I have four interview stories to conduct over the next week. One is with a shop owner, one a champion in the sport of orienteering, one an opera librettist and I’ve already forgotten what the fourth is. Oh, right, a woman who started a public service organization in Rwanda. Which is way cooler and more important than going running every day for a year. But today I got to sit on the other side of the counter for a change, and let me just admit it outright one last time: What a thrill.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Reading aloud

The Frugal Mama blog devotes today’s post to a useful reminder about the importance of reading to children. As Amy writes, it’s free, it’s fun, and it’s really the best investment of recreational time you can possibly make with your kids.

Amy’s post outlines a recent talk she attended by a childhood literacy expert who not only talked about reading but also offered numerous variations on the theme: that is, literacy-related activities, such as making up rhymes or writing letters, that go beyond the traditional reading-a-story-together scenario.

My children, at ages 7 and 11, are both able to read to themselves, so it’s interesting to see how reading aloud fits into their development at this point. Like plenty of kids his age, Tim, in fifth grade, has essentially the habits of an adult reader: he chooses his own books at the library or bookstore and reads them to himself. But when I’m reading to Holly, I’m often amused to see him sidling into the room to listen. When we were reading the Little House on the Prairie series last year, he seemed to show up frequently during reading time, and sometimes he’d ask me questions about the books. It’s not a series he would have chosen to read on his own – too girlie and too young for me, he would have said – but the allure of hearing me read the stories proved irresistible much of the time.

For Holly, being read to is still an nonnegotiable part of her evening routine. Now that she chooses chapter books, sometimes she’ll continue on her own after I tell her it’s time to go to bed – she’s generally allowed to keep the light on to read for another 15 minutes or so – and then she takes great pains the next night to update me on any plot development that I missed, but she also usually then decides to backtrack and have me read aloud the same chapters she read. It’s important to remember that kids love to hear their parents read even after they can read on their own, and it’s not uncommon for children to resist learning to read – or at least to resist admitting that they’ve learned – because they fear it will mean subsequently losing the ritual of having their parents read to them.

Recently Holly’s love of reading has transitioned rapidly into a fascination with writing. Now, beyond the school writing assignments she’s had ever since kindergarten, she’s been spending a lot of time at home writing stories. For a while she was writing on small squares of paper and stapling them together into little books; then I came up with the idea of starting her own blog on which she could post her stories. This gave her the thrill of seeing her work in what looked like published form, and also made it easy for her to brag about – I mean share – her stories with her grandparents, teachers, aunts and other interested in parties. (Re. security, I set the blog settings to private and non-searchable, so it’s very unlikely that a stranger will happen across her work.)

Then last month she undertook a more complicated task. She decided to write a chapter book. More specifically, she decided to dictate to me a chapter book. Where once we would spend 30 minutes or so reading together before bed, the new ritual is that she lies on the floor under my desk, gazing up at me and spinning the adventures of Louise the Writer out of her imagination. It’s not bad stuff, though I don’t think she’s any Mozart of the written word. Though derivative in parts – some aspects of Louise’s life, including the protagonist’s name, correlate undeniably to the fact that we recently started reading Harriet the Spy by Louise Fitzhugh – there are some very clever and original aspects as well. In the chapter Holly wrote last night, Louise’s father gets fired from his job as a kennel manager and confesses to the family that what he really wants is to try his hand at being a plumber.

I was a little concerned when it came time for Holly to fill out her weekly reading log for school last night. I hadn’t realized that our work on “Louise the Writer” had detracted significantly from the time we normally spend reading. When Holly saw the gaps in her reading log, she filled in the name of her own book, listing herself as author, so that it wouldn’t look to her teacher like she’d been sitting idle.

I’m hoping we manage soon to re-integrate nightly reading into our schedule, since I don’t think writing her own book should be a substitute for Holly’s reading habits. Good writers do both: write a lot but also read a lot. Otherwise we writers would be boring. As Amy points out in her blog post, reading aloud is the best way to start a lifelong appreciation for books, words, reading, speaking, and writing. And it’s good for all of us to find more time to do it.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

End of daylight saving time

The end of daylight saving time receives a mixed welcome in our household.

My husband Rick considers the day in April when we turn the clocks ahead to be the best day of the year. He loves the extra daylight after dinner. For him, it means the start of warm sunlit evenings at the baseball field, even though we often have chilly weather and plenty of rain right into early May and beyond. So he scowls every year when I remind him about turning the clocks back. He sees no advantage to early nightfall.

Tim doesn’t like the end of daylight saving time either, although he won’t (or can’t) articulate it the way Rick does. For years, Rick and I have suspected that Tim suffers from a mild form of Seasonal Affective Disorder. His reaction to the diminishing daylight is that strong. Every year, as the dusky late afternoons arrive, he seems to melt into the arm of the playroom couch as if becoming invisible, pale as the couch’s grayish-white upholstery. The onset of winter incites crankiness and a morose bearing in Tim. One reason I coaxed him to try running daily with me three years ago was to see if we could offset the response he had annually to the dwindling sunlight. It didn’t help much in that regard, though. It’s still early this year to judge his response to turning the clocks back, but so far I don’t notice as much of a setback as usual. Maybe he’s starting to outgrow his sunlight-dependent mood swings.

I fall toward, though not all the way at, the other end of the spectrum from Rick and Tim when it comes to the end of daylight saving time. True, the late-autumn and early-winter nights can seem very dark around here. But I also find something helpful in the early darkness: it seems to cue us into early-evening mode a little earlier and a little more naturally. When the daylight lasts well into the evening, it’s always harder to ramp down at the end of the day: hard to make fast rules about bedtime or quiet time when the sun is still high in the sky at eight o’clock.

In the fall, we have the opposite effect. Seeing the daylight start to fade at 4:30
reminds me that it’s time for homework and dinner preparation. Yesterday, though Tim complained briefly about the early sunset, it worked out well for us; from about 4:30until dinner, Holly played school and Tim did his homework while I thought about what to make for dinner. At other times of year, although Holly would probably still be playing school at that hour (other kids come home from second grade and tell their parents about their day; Holly reenacts the whole thing in a fictional version, and in real time), Tim would likely be at a baseball practice and I’d be having trouble focusing on end-of-day responsibilities as well.

The extra daylight in the early morning helps me, too, though I know it won’t last long. For weeks, I’d been getting up in total darkness at 5:45 AM, turning on the outside lights to let the dog out, turning on Tim’s bedside lamp at 7 to wake him up for school. Now it’s already starting to brighten outside when I get up before 6, and the kids don’t need extra cues to know it’s time to get up when I go to wake them; they can see the broad daylight.

Of course, the best part of the end of daylight saving time is the extra hour. I treasure that, and this year more than ever before because it was found-time in its purest form this time around. All day Saturday, with the excitement of Halloween, I forgot about turning the clocks back. Not until I crawled under the covers at 11 PM on Saturday night did I remember about resetting the clocks. And by then it was too late to get out of bed. If I’d remembered a half-hour earlier, at 10:30, I would have said “Oh good, it’s only nine-thirty” and squandered the extra hour on Twitter or folding laundry, not using it for extra sleep at all, which was what I most needed this weekend. Because I forgot about it until I was in bed, sleep was the only way to use it.

So I started the post-daylight saving season this year with an extra hour of much-needed sleep. Rick is dealing with it, and Tim hasn’t gone into too much of a seasonal slump yet. Holly doesn’t notice daylight saving time either way; she carries her sunshine internally and doesn’t seem to have much of a relationship with the natural world. So come five o’clock, we’ll turn on the lights, start making dinner and hunker down together like hibernating bears, ready for cold weather and the approaching winter with its long, dark nights, and us cozy and warm in our well-lit home.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Keeping the Sabbath

Recently our minister gave a sermon on the topic of keeping the Sabbath, a tradition that dates back to the opening pages of the Old Testament. Our minister rather humorously described the evolution over the past four generations from “the Holy Sabbath” to “the Sabbath” to “Sunday” to “the second half of the weekend.”

I think often about how best to organize my time. For me right now, the challenge is not getting necessary tasks done but fitting in downtime, specifically downtime for reading. I have mentioned often that for me, the symbol of luxury where time management is concerned is reading the Sunday New York Times. If I get through the Times before the next Sunday’s edition arrives, I feel that I’ve been generous with myself, and fit a little decadence into my week. Most weeks, this doesn’t happen. I fit in everything else – housekeeping, cooking, time for my children and my husband, writing and other forms of work, exercise, community involvement, visits with friends – but the one item I never seem to get to is whatever I would do if I didn’t have to be doing anything else.

So over the past several years, I’ve given some thought to how I can create a Sabbath for myself. I’m not looking for a full day of rest; I’m trying to figure out the best way to ritualize a small pocket of time every week when I’m not writing, exercising, housekeeping or focusing on anyone else’s agenda. That’s not to say I need to be alone; I love the idea of a family reading hour, or – as happens frequently during the summer – finding my time while watching the kids swim or play on the playground. The point is just to find time that’s free of all my usual daily list items.

In the past, Sunday afternoons have seemed like a good time to try to do this, and so have Sunday evenings. But the more I think about it, the more I feel like I need to be fluid in my definition of Sabbath. Maybe it isn’t even Sunday. But beyond than that, maybe it’s not a singular event. Maybe Sabbath – time of rest – can be best defined not by what I'm doing but what I’m taking time off from doing.

For example, I always try to be done with housework by dinnertime on Sunday; it just seems too much like drudgery to be scrubbing countertops and vacuuming in the final hours of the weekend. But that’s often when I sit down to the deskwork I didn’t do the previous work week.

Moreover, I’ve often acknowledged to myself that I could have more downtime on weekends if I did some of the housework during the week – but I feel strongly about preserving my weekdays, when the kids are off at school for seven hours at a stretch, for writing and other tasks related to my professional life. If I am to consider myself a nearly full-time freelancer, as I do, I have to use weekdays for work, not for housecleaning.

As far as errands, in general I fit those in after the kids get home from school, because then I don’t feel like the driving-around part of the day is eating into my writing time. My daughter usually opts to come with me, so it’s a chance for us to be together for us as well. I used to be opposed to highly opposed to shopping on Sundays: again, to me that was an important part of the traditional Sabbath model. But recently, to my surprise, I’ve found myself in something of a shopping mood on Sunday afternoons. It’s not like we’re hitting the mall or the big box stores (though I don’t know why I say that judgmentally, as if my kind of shopping somehow has more integrity that that); it’s that Sunday afternoons recently have found me happy to take a leisurely stroll through Whole Foods or an unhurried trip to the drugstore. Yesterday, my daughter and I had fun together perusing the post-Halloween shelf for items to send in a care package to my niece, who unfortunately was sick and couldn’t go out on Halloween this year. CVS on a Sunday – by choice and not necessity? By a traditional Sabbath model, or even by my previous standards, that would sound heretical. Yet I liked the mellow pace of it, knowing we were in the middle of a free afternoon and could take our time as we examined the witch candles and plush black cats.

So now I’m starting to think Sabbath might, at least for now, mean more a state of mind for me than an hour of the week. It’s reading the newspaper during Sunday afternoon football; it’s focusing on writing while ignoring the laundry on a Tuesday morning; it’s shutting down my computer on a Saturday morning so that I can throw myself into housework without the temptation of checking my e-mail. Keeping the Sabbath is a good idea, and I do suspect for me it will continue to be an evolving model. Someday I might devote entire Sundays to reading or spending recreational time with my children and be somewhat appalled to think I ever used to buy socks on Sunday afternoons. But for now, this works.