Thursday, December 31, 2009

New Year's Eve Day: looking back

I seem to always look back on the year gone by on December 31 and look forward to the year ahead on January 1 – even knowing the artificiality of these arbitrarily designated days. Does it really mean anything to say that one year has ended and a new one is beginning, when were it not for the calendar we’d probably see no difference upon waking tomorrow morning compared with waking today?

But in a way, I do sense a palpable ending/beginning rhythm to the year. Christmas vacation involves such a build-up of activity; now we clean up the mess, enjoy a couple more days of sleeping late, rally to complete those household tasks put off for the past ten days (my kids really need to find time to clean out their school backpacks and put away their Christmas presents between now and bedtime Sunday), and look toward the coldest, bleakest part of the winter – a perfect time for hunkering down and regrouping on projects, resolutions, plans, goals and hopes.

Today, though, I’m still thinking about 2009. Every year at this time, I’m a little bit amazed to look back at the variety that the past year contained. This might not be apparent from an outside view of my life. I continue living in the same house with the same people, writing for many of the same publications, involved in many of the same activities and groups. But to me, it still feels like the past twelve months encompassed a lot of different elements. I didn’t expect to have such a wonderful time in New York last February; the 48 hours of fabulous dining, sightseeing and Broadway exceeded my expectations in every way. And I never imagined when 2009 began that I’d spend a week at the Aspen Summer Words conference, nor that the experience would prove to be so rewarding: during my six days there I made new friends, read a lot of interesting work, networked with other writers, and learned a lot about the craft. Also influencing major shifts in my work during 2009 was my new agent, who prodded me to get with the social media program, so now I blog and Twitter as well as just writing.

The year included many interesting article assignments for the various publications I write for, and I have a new editor at the Globe who’s terrific to work with. I picked up a few new corporate clients and made a few new friends. Our community suffered some significant losses but my closest circles, mercifully, did not. We hosted some fine events and attended others. The kids learned, played and thrived. Rick started a new job; Holly learned to ride a bike. I ran at least a mile all 365 days. I neither gained nor lost weight (though I did lose some night vision. It happens). I attended my twenty-fifth high school reunion, which while not the peak experience it might have been was still a convivial way to spend a Saturday. I read some magnificent books and articles, and put my own manuscript through several revisions before offering it to a few friends to read and critique. I didn’t give enough to charity, but I tried to help out when and where I could.

It was a good year, a fortunate year, a blessed year. I’m looking forward to the next one. And I’m realizing that just like a year ago, I simply have no idea what the upcoming 12 months will turn out to hold for us.

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Does self-publishing my 7-year-old's book make me the Biggest Helicopter Parent ever?

In my experience, children learn very young that it can be more fun to give than to receive, even around Christmas time. Children love to make projects and present them to adults, buoyed with pride at their artistic accomplishments as well as the excitement of surprising a parent or grandparent with something special.

Even knowing that, I admit that what we did this holiday season was a little bit extreme. After Holly spent several weeks this fall dictating a chapter book of her own invention to me, I was faced with the decision about what to do with the final, 11,000-word, 72-page, 19-chapter opus. I decided to self-publish it on Giving copies of her newly published – and absolutely professional-looking – novel to librarians, teachers, friends and family this month was surely a thrilling experience for Holly, and I admit that I looked on with plenty of pride of my own. But I also have to admit that in some ways, I feel like this makes me the biggest helicopter parent ever. Holly made up some stories, like lots of kids do. But I paid money to have her stories cooked into a professionally produced book, and in all honesty it does feel a little weird.

Primarily, I wonder if it gives her the wrong idea about what it means to write a book. I’ve been writing stories since I was her age and have been a professional journalist and copywriter for nearly twenty years – and I still don’t have a published book to my credit, though I’m working hard at it and so’s my agent. But in a way, that’s why it feels all the more duplicitous. I spent two years writing and revising a book, signed with a terrific literary agent, and am still seeking a publisher – whereas Holly wrote a book and two weeks after finishing it had a box of ten beautifully styled copies arrive in the mail. We cheated, I sometimes feel like telling her. It’s not really that easy.

And I can’t help but wonder if some of the other kids who have seen her book – or their parents – wonder at our ethics. In an informal discussion recently about the popular second-grade trend of eraser trading, her teacher referred to the “haves and the have-nots,” and I have to admit those words are echoing in my head as Holly proudly wraps and distributes copies of her new book. The cost really wasn’t much – with shipping, it comes out to about $8 per copy – but the fact remains that this was something we were able to pay for; we paid for the opportunity to have our child feel like a published author, where other parents possibly couldn’t spend money on that particular luxury.

In the end, my defense is that I’m rewarding not Holly’s talent but her effort and her commitment to this project. Lots of kids write stories – in my experience, just about all kids her age like to write stories – but not many are able to stick with one (albeit loosely formed) plot and one set of (albeit highly derivate) characters for two months as the nineteen chapters unfolded. And true, not every seven-year-old has a mom willing to sit at her desk night after night taking dictation, but the whole process was so delightful for me – I have a glass desk, and Holly lay on her back under it, staring up at me and letting the narrative bubble forth so that I had to type my fastest to keep up with her dialogue and plot turns – that I know I’ll remember those evenings for a long, long time.

Yes, it’s a charming but not brilliantly crafted book. As my twelve-year-old niece, a budding book critic in her own right, pointed out, the main character wishes she had a dog on the first page, doesn’t say a word about dogs for the next 71 pages, and then gets a dog on the last page. And those familiar with children’s literature will probably be able to guess with a significant degree of accuracy what three books Holly read most recently before she started writing “Louise and Mindy” (Did I already say ‘highly derivative’?).

But I think in the end, it’s okay. Holly has started her next book, but not with the same passion; we work on it a couple of times a week, not every night, and I doubt we’ll turn it into a published masterpiece when we’re done. In fact, we might never self-publish another work of hers. But this time it was worth it. For one thing, I’ve been casually investigating the idea of writing a commemorative volume for a corporate client, and it was useful for me to learn how to work with Holly has a keepsake to remind her of fall of the year she was seven, and so do ten of her closest relatives, friends, teachers and librarians. Self-publishing is controversial in the literary world for these very reasons: in some respects it bestows professional status on a work that hasn’t earned that status, although in many contexts it certainly has an appropriate role. But for Holly, I’d like to think it’s a taste of things to come. Someday maybe she’ll get published for real, and if that happens, my hope is that she’ll look back and see this as at least part of her motivation for reaching that milestone.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Another annual tradition: Thankyou notes at Starbucks

Three years ago, in an office gift swap, I received a $10 Starbucks card, and so was born one of my favorite Christmas traditions. Actually, it’s a post-Christmas, pre-New Year’s tradition: sort of a Boxing Day tradition, or a Gap Week tradition, one that falls sometime in the lazy, unstructured days between Christmas and New Year’s. We used the gift card that first year and have done it on our own dime ever since, but it’s well worth the money I spend. For a couple of hours one afternoon in the days following Christmas, the kids and I head to our local Starbucks with stationery and pens in hand, buy ourselves cups of hot chocolate topped with whipped cream, and settle in at a table to write our thankyou notes.

For Christmas season of 2009, yesterday was official Thankyou Notes at Starbucks Day, and I was amazed by our productivity. Accessories always help: this year Santa had brought each of the kids personalized memo pads. Tim’s notes were yellow and blue, with a catcher’s mitt and baseball next to his name at the top of each sheet; Holly’s depict a slightly hallucinogenic garden scene, with oversized butterflies and ladybugs wending amidst Technicolor flowers and her full three-part name, just the way she likes it, printed across the top. I had my list of whom to thank for what faithfully recorded on my Palm, which I put in the center of the table for all to consult, and we got to work.

The kids write very simple thankyou notes, but I can’t blame them much. They were lucky to have received presents from a lot of different people, and it was more important to me that they get a lot of notes written than that each one be a gem of creative self-expression. As long as they get one or two sentences past “Thank you for the blank,” I consider it a job reasonably well done. Halfway through the ten or so notes they each needed to write (Holly had one more than Tim because her teacher had given her a gift), they finished their hot chocolate, but I was so impressed with their dedication to the project that I let them each return to the counter for a pastry. A cup of cocoa and an apple fritter versus not having to nag about thankyou notes for the rest of the season? No contest, in my mind.

I like to think that this yearly exercise imparts to them not only that thankyou notes are important but that they are an inevitable part of celebrating Christmas and receiving gifts. We don’t spend a lot of time discussing it; we just go do it. But I also like the thought that the hot chocolate and pastries makes it more fun than tedious. And I like the idea that maybe they’re absorbing some of the pleasure of sitting at a Starbucks to read or write, one of my most treasured but least often experienced indulgences. I dream that someday they’ll ask to come back to Starbucks to sit quietly and read or write even when it’s not Christmas gap week.

Instilling the idea that there’s far more to Christmas than Christmas presents is something a lot of parents struggle with, and I always say the best way to do it is not to downplay the gifts but to “up-play” the many other traditions of the Christmas season. For us, Starbucks Afternoon is one such tradition. Today, I’ll address the envelopes and mail off all their notes, plus the few that I wrote, having not taken in the haul my kids did. I have no illusions that the recipients of the notes will be bowled over with the kids’ writing talent nor even necessarily with their sincerity; these are very rudimentary expressions of gratitude. But I do think the kids are learning about an important part of basic etiquette, and I hope they’re learning that the basics, like thankyou notes, can even be fun.

Monday, December 28, 2009

One great run

On Saturday, I finally broke out of my one-mile running rut. Each winter, as soon as we get measurable snowfall, my running routes become more restricted because the footpaths don’t get cleared, and although running in the roadway isn’t out of the question, it doesn’t work with the dog on leash, and it’s feasible really only in broad daylight and not during rush hour. So the recent snowstorms have kept me running up and down our (fortunately long) common driveway and logging barely over a mile per run. Before starting the running streak, I didn’t even bother to run in the winter once the snow fell; now I often do only the minimum one mile necessary to maintain the official streak.

On Saturday, though, enough melting had taken place that the roads were down to bare asphalt, and I guessed there would be little traffic, so I took the dog and headed to a nearby neighborhood, and it felt so great to be out running a normal distance again. It was a gray, raw afternoon. No precipitation was falling but the air was damp, the temperature in the high 30’s, and although I always claim my favorite weather for running is the end of a hot summer day, in the past couple of years I’ve come to realize that physically, there’s actually nothing more invigorating than a day like Saturday; there’s something about the cool damp air that feels so good to inhale. After all the time indoors on Christmas Day, all the rich food, all the sitting around (at parties, in the car, at home afterwards when we were worn out from celebrating), it was the most wonderful feeling to be out running in the cool air.

I was listening to a podcast of “Science Friday” in which Dr. Julie Holland (“no one but my mother actually calls me Dr. Holland”) talked with Ira Flatow about her memoir depicting her years as director of emergency room care at Bellevue Hospital. Again and again, she returned to the theme of spending time outdoors as an essential factor in mental wellness – she actually thinks she might see more mental illness working in New York City simply because it can be harder for people to spend time outside – and her words dovetailed so beautifully with how I was feeling on that afternoon as I ran.

Bill McKibben wrote in Hundred Dollar Holiday: The Case for a More Joyful Christmas that what most people crave over the holidays is more quiet time and more time in nature, and as much as it makes sense that those should be elements of the holiday, it can be so hard to fit in solitude, quiet, and walks in the snow amidst the parties, baking, wrapping and errands. Saturday’s run, at 3.1 miles, restored my spirits more than anything else could have. The time alone, the time in the fresh cool air, the exertion, and the fact that it was the first time in a week that I’d run for more than 15 minutes at once got the week after Christmas off to a healthy, rejuvenated start for me, and I was so grateful for that half-hour of running.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

A goal reached: No work over Christmas week!

Late last week, I looked at my roster of work in progress and upcoming assignments and realized something tantalizing: it would be possible for me to wrap up all open assignments before Christmas and not have any new ones before New Year’s. And thus I set the goal of doing just that: turning around every undone work-related task within the next several days and seeing nothing on my work-to-do list by the time the kids’ school vacation began, which is a little bit after noon today.

And I did it. What’s remarkable about this to me isn’t that I managed to get through my list but that I was even able to acknowledge that as a goal. As a freelance contractor, my work life is generally devoted to the pursuit of accruing ever more assignments. Because my freelance salary will never match what I made as a full-time corporate employee, it never seems like I’m doing enough. And I never turn work down. As a result, I never quite reach the bottom of the pile.

Until now. There’s one corporate assignment I’m still in the middle of, but I turned copy over to the project editor and I don’t expect her to review it before Christmas, so even though revisions might be waiting for me by next week, there’s nothing more I need to do on it right now. I have one story under way for the newspaper, but it involves a school that is on break until after New Year’s, so there’s nothing much I can do on that one either.

In general, I like to keep busy professionally. A freelancer must by nature be greedy about work and feel that enough is never enough. Unlike when I was a corporate employee and was all too happy to snap my laptop shut on Friday at 5 and walk out the door, I like knowing there’s always a bit of a backlog waiting for me; with this kind of work, it’s not a desirable thing to see the well run dry.

But the past two months have been robust for me in terms of work, and it will be okay to have a week or two with no new assignments. I’m excited to have the same vacation schedule as my children. Normally when they are home from school during vacations or professional days, we have a good schedule worked out: I work during the morning and then devote the afternoon to them. But this week and next, I won’t even need those mornings. They neither need nor expect my undivided attention every minute of the day – they are old enough and independent enough that they both have things they like to do on their own, or with friends – but what a luxury it will be to make myself available to them without the stipulations of needing just an hour to get this article done or just a little time this morning to conduct phone interviews.

Psychologically, the situation of being deadline-free just puts me in a different frame of mind than usual. Even the projects that are awaiting information from other people – like my manuscript, in search of a publisher – isn’t on my mind this week, since it’s easier to just assume that everyone else is taking the week off as well and won’t have any news for me until after New Year’s. In the past, time away from work tended to involve thinking about more work: drafting new pieces or seeking out article ideas. But for now, I’m sated. I’m simply not going to think about work this week, or partway into next if possible. I’m even going to take the next two days off from daily blogging.

Instead, along with having time with my children, I’m looking forward to some household projects, visits with friends, maybe snowshoeing. (Getting the kids out on snowshoes would be an astounding feat, but a mom can dream.) Maybe in a few days I’ll have recovered from the mad dash of holiday baking and cooking enough that I’ll want to do some more cooking. Probably the kids and I will observe our annual tradition of going to Starbucks to drink hot chocolate and write thankyou notes one of the days following Christmas.

At the moment, I have three more hours while they are still at school, so I think I’ll use the time wisely by wrapping their presents. They can help me with other wrapping when they get home. And maybe, as I resolved in this blog yesterday, I’ll try to do some housecleaning.

It’s wonderful to be on vacation. I feel like a college student done with finals. I’m really grateful for all the work I’ve had lately. And I’m equally grateful to be taking a short break from all of it.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Housecleaning for the holidays

Last fall, while writing an article for NorthBridge Magazine about holidays, I interviewed a recent immigrant from India about the traditions behind Diwali. One detail she shared with me keeps ringing in my head like an insistent wind chime now that Christmas is just three days away: for Diwali, at least in her family, the first step of the preparations is a thorough house-cleaning. Because that’s how you make the house ready to honor the gods of Diwali: by being clean and orderly.

I love this detail. I love the notion of starting the holiday with, first and foremost, a clean house. Rudimentary research has led me to believe that housecleaning is a typical preparation for the Chinese New Year as well, but I’ve never heard of housecleaning as directly associated with any Christian holiday. To be sure, lots of people including me clean their house before Thanksgiving or Christmas if they are hosting houseguests or having a party, but I don’t think the practice of cleaning the house simply for its own sake typically figures into any Western holiday rituals.

But this year, I’m finding myself drawn to the idea of cleaning my house before Christmas. For one thing, I have time this year. For the past several years we’ve had guests – some staying with us and some staying at my parents’ house next door but spending plenty of time over here – during Christmas, and my preparations have centered more around making up beds and stocking the fridge than dusting or mopping.

But this year it’s just the four of us on the farm, and I managed to plan out my work this month so that I hit all necessary deadlines by yesterday and am essentially deadline-free from now through New Year’s, which gives me some time to tidy and clean. But mostly, I just like the idea of greeting the holiday with the serenity of a clean, neat house. It’s so different from the bustle-bordering-on-chaos that frequently marks the holidays for us. When Rick and I were in our twenties, we would often be in such a last-minute rush of shopping, cooking, and wrapping presents before traveling to wherever we were going over Christmas (which often involved day trips to three different households) that we’d leave our own home an absolute mess. I’d rationalize that once all the presents we were giving people were out of the way, it would be easy to pick up, and after Christmas was over we’d have more time for it too. In recent years I grew less accepting of leaving a messy house behind when we walked out the door, but we still tended to leave a small whirlwind of shopping bags, unwashed cooking implements and half-opened mail in our wake as we embarked on our Christmas festivities.

This year I have the urge to make things really tidy before Christmas day arrives. I’m running the washing machine right now and trying to wrap up my holiday baking tonight so that I can clean the kitchen thoroughly. I’m hoping to vacuum and clean the bathrooms even though with no guests this year, there will be no one but the four of us to notice (which, let’s face it, really means just the one of us – me – to notice, since no one else actually cares if the sinks are scrubbed or the rugs lint-free). I’m planning to wrap presents tomorrow so that I can get all the paper and tape picked up right away. Maybe it’s just that I’m getting older, but I no longer have the same merry tolerance for cheerful holiday mess that I once did. Furthermore, a decade of parenthood stands behind me to remind me that once the kids have opened all their Christmas presents, there’s more mess, not less, to deal with.

In a way, this pre-Christmas clean-up has a certain intrinsic symmetry. I’ve long appreciated the European observance of Boxing Day because of the purging effect of getting rid of any excess – clothes, toys – when Christmas is over. It seems therefore to make sense to want to start the holiday as well as end it with a level of emptiness, of clean surfaces and an absence of clutter.

Of course, intending to clean the house is a lot different from doing it. But I still have two days, and having just returned from yet another fairly dreadful shopping excursion, I have no desire to take to the roads again between now and Christmas. So maybe over the next two days I’ll do the scrubbing, dusting, sweeping and vacuuming that I’m dreaming of. If not, I’ll continue to make it a goal for future Christmas celebrations. And if not Christmas, there’s always New Year’s. I like the idea of starting the New Year with a neat and well-scrubbed house.

In the Diwali tradition, as I understand it, it’s to welcome godliness into the home for the holidays. Whether as a spiritual practice or just a way of making the household feel more serene at a generally less-than-serene time, I like the idea, and I’m going to do my best to honor it.

Monday, December 21, 2009

The shortest day, the longest night

"On this longest night of the year, before the light overcomes the dark, sit in the dark (alone or with others) and think about the importance of darkness. ...Be grateful for the darkness that soothes us to sleep, the darkness that animals require for hibernation. Give thanks for sheltering dark places: the rich earth where seeds germinate, the caves that harbored our ancient ancestors (and where some of our sun gods were born), the cellars that keep us safe from tornadoes, the wombs that provide our first nourishment. Acknowledge the darkness of suffering, which can deepen our appreciation of life and strengthen our connection to one another."
In Nature’s Honor: Myths and Rituals Celebrating the Earth, copyright 2005 by Patricia Montley

My friend Sue sent me the above meditation on the Winter Solstice this morning. Also this morning, the comic strip Arlo and Janis by Jimmy Johnson depicted a sequence in which Arlo is frantically shaking a sleeping Janis awake, imploring her to hurry. Did we oversleep? she asks, alarmed. No, he answers. It’s the shortest day of the year.

The latter perspective makes me laugh, reminding me of my attempts over the years to explain “shortest day of the year” to my children, and long before that my effort to understand it myself. I still remember being frightened at my sister’s explanation, when she as an all-knowing 8-year-old took the reverse perspective and told me it would be not the shortest day but the longest night of the year. I feared lying in the dark for hours and hours and hours, listening to every knock and creak as the long night wore on and on.

But Patricia Montley’s meditation resonates more with how I really feel about the Solstice these days. I’ve learned to welcome deep winter as a time more conducive to internal growth, introspection. In the summer we spend so much time outside and active, biking or swimming; in the fall it’s all about activities, from school starting up to fall sports to get-togethers with friends we didn’t see during the summer. And then in late October begins the steady series of holiday festivities.

Winter, after Christmas, lends itself to quieter pursuits: more reading, more writing, even more cooking and housecleaning. Quiet indoor activities, more meditative in nature than those we pursue during warmer weather and sunnier days.

At the time of year, with the nights so long and quiet, I stand outside in the dark, thinking about the frozen earth drawing inward into itself, and I think about the Pagan roots of Yule, the craving for warmth and light and abundance that led ancient celebrants to light fires and commence with revelry just around the date of the longest night of the year. Although my family is fortunate in that light, heat and food are available to us throughout the winter in abundance, those same urges resonate with me. As the long dark cold nights settle in, I find it uplifting to think about the ancient Pagan rites of staving off winter with burning logs and loud singing.

And I wonder if those ancient people always knew that the shortest day of the year would come and go and the days would grow longer again. Were there some who didn’t trust that it was cyclical, who worried that the days might just keep growing shorter, the nights longer and colder?

The ebb and flow of daylight give us reason for optimism. Although the long nights of darkness don’t especially bother me and are in some ways a comfort, my 11-year-old has a harder time in the winter months; he tends to grow a little dispirited as the days shorten. So as we face the Solstice, I look forward myself to another month or two of hunkering down in the darkness with soup recipes and good books. But I also look forward to spring, when Tim will get out his baseball glove and his disposition will start to brighten again.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Bad Idea #1: Venturing out to do errands at rush hour in December

I started the holiday season with the best of intentions where local commerce is concerned. When Amy Suardi wrote here on her Frugal Mama blog about the beauty of Internet shopping, I was quick to jump in here with a word of defense for the “Buy Local” message so popular in the suburbs around my home. I even wrote an article (to be published this coming Sunday in the Boston Globe) about three new independent businesses that are flourishing in the town next to ours.

But a seemingly simple excursion yesterday afternoon effectively quashed any commitment I might have still felt this season in brick-and-mortar shopping. It was the Murphy’s Law of shopping trips. Not that everything that could go wrong did – there were no car accidents, mechanical failures, natural disasters, incidents of crime or personal injury – but at each of the three stops I needed to make, systemic failures befell me. At least that’s how it felt to me.

I knew I wasn’t picking the best time of day to leave – 4:00 PM – but I wanted to wait until my husband Rick was home from work so that the kids could stay home. I told them I’d be back at 5:30 and would get dinner started then. My destination was only fifteen minutes away; it seemed like a reasonable timeframe.

My first stop was CVS, where I needed to pick up a prescription for Rick which he had submitted on line for auto-fill. I had also told him I’d pick up a $10 iTunes gift card for the gift swap at his office party to be held today. After I stood in line at the pharmacy counter for 15 minutes, the pharmacist didn’t have his prescription, and the store didn’t have an iTunes card in a smaller increment than $15. Arguing about a prescription refill with the pharmacy staff is futile, I’ve learned – they do what they can, and when a prescription isn’t filled the error is always either with the doctor or the patient – so I called Rick and told him to call the pharmacy himself to try to work it out and I’d stop by again on my way home, since I had to continue down the road to Staples to get our holiday poem photocopied. Staples has gift cards too; I figured I could look for the iTunes card there.

At the self-service Staples copy center, the two black-and-white copiers were in use, one by a woman about my age with three children running around pestering her – she appeared to be photocopying an entire supply catalog – and the other by an irritable teenager who kept rebuffing his father’s attempts to help him put together a project. For that line, 20 minutes. When I finally had use of a copier, I made one practice copy which came out on three-hole punch paper. I reset the tray and tried another practice copy, only to discover that the machine was printing a gray horizontal line across the center of each page. I tried again, then told the counter clerk, who called a technician over, who kindly refunded me the 24 cents for the three bad copies I’d made and started fixing the machine while I moved on to the second copier. After making my one hundred copies, I asked the counter clerk if she would run them through the tri-folder. “Of course!” she said cheerfully, which I found very pleasant. But she neglected to tell me that she didn’t know how to operate the tri-folder. She called over the same technician who had just finished fixing the toner problem on the copier. He didn’t know how to use the tri-folder either (which makes you wonder who does), but together they figured it out. After 20 more minutes.

My copying and folding done, I stopped at the gift card rack, but at Staples the smallest iTunes increment was $25. I thought about it. I had to return to CVS anyway; I could pick up the $15 one, but Rick is new at this workplace and I worried that bringing a $15 gift card to a gift swap for which the invitation specified a $10 maximum might reflect poorly on him. I decided to swing by Dunkin Donuts, right across the street, and buy a gift card from them instead, knowing they could give me exactly the increment I wanted. I pulled up to the drive-through and asked for a $10 gift card. “Absolutely!” the voice on the intercom said cheerfully, which I again found pleasant and encouraging. I pulled up to the window and handed the cashier my $10. “And here’s your five-dollar card,” he said. “I wanted ten dollars,” I said. He looked concerned. “Wait, I’ll give you another five-dollar one.” So: two $5 cards instead of one $10 card. Not ideal, for the new guy at the company gift swap, but not awful.

On to CVS, where I pulled up to the prescription drive-through. Five minutes later I was heading home. I arrived at 6:30, an hour later than I’d planned, washed my hands and threw together dinner: shredded cooked chicken mixed with peas, carrots and leftover gravy, then tucked into slabs of premade pie crust for chicken turnovers. We ate by 7.

It was a big hassle, but as I kept reminding myself, nothing bad happened. No car accidents, no injuries, no crime. No loss of wallet or credit cards.

But still. “I’m not leaving the house again until January,” I announced to Rick as we sat down to dinner. “And if there’s a Starbucks card in the office gift swap, please make sure you get it and please give it to me.”

I’m all for local commerce and supporting brick-and-mortar businesses, but I’m spending the rest of my holiday budget on line, from the comfort of my home office.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Holiday cards: Who doesn't like photos of their friends' kids?

Christopher Muther wrote this essay in today’s Boston Globe stating an opinion that was new to me: how he emphatically does not enjoy seeing photos of his friends’ children (or his friends themselves) on their Christmas cards. I understand that holiday cards in general have their detractors. There are the proponents of the voluntary simplicity movement who take the stance that composing, addressing and sending cards is one task a frazzled merrymaker could easily bypass; more importantly, there is the undeniable reality that the Christmas card tradition generates massive amounts of paper, ink, dye and other environmentally problematic substances.

Nonetheless, if you’ve make the personal choice that cards will be part of your holiday traditions, I can’t imagine anything I’d rather see than a photo of the sender’s children.

Among my cohort of parents, I find the bigger question is whether to include ourselves in the photos. My vote is yes. We have too many acquaintances whom we don’t get together with nearly enough, and I like to see how my friends are changing and aging just as much as I like to see what their kids look like from year to year (though my reason for wanting to see this might be different). On the other hand, it’s been ages since I practiced what I preached. The last time my husband and I appeared in our own Christmas card picture was the year before our second child was born. Back then it seemed to make sense for reasons of visual (and perhaps also symbolic) balance to have the photo include one mom, one dad, one child and one dog. Since my daughter’s birth, the card has featured the two kids. After passing 40, I found I generally wasn’t feeling all that photogenic anymore.

Not only am I different from Christopher Muther in that I love seeing photos of my friends’ kids but I also relish the variety in tastes that people display as far as what kind of photo they use. How are the kids dressed? How are they posed? What’s the setting? Was it an arranged photo shoot specifically for the purposes of this card, or did the parents just go back through their year of photos and pick out their favorite candid from a family vacation or weekend excursion? What’s their attitude toward seasonality: should a Christmas card have snow and evergreen boughs in the background, or is a shot of the kids at the beach or wearing Halloween costumes just as acceptable?

As for my family, our approach has been to set up a quick informal photo shoot a few weeks before Christmas. When possible, I wait for the first snow, because I like outdoor scenes but early December without snow on the ground is not a particularly beautiful time here; the scenery tends to have a lot of mud-brown and grayish overtones even on a sunny day. Since we live on a farm, for the past two years our picture has included a cow or two, which is a goofy but fun way of distinguishing our photo from the dozens of others like it that each of our friends probably receives. In fact, I think we’re the only people we know who usually include cows in our Christmas card photo. Our results are adequate from an aesthetic standpoint: not as picture-perfect as our friends who go in for professional photo shoots, but better than the year that we ran out of time and simply dropped ourselves into a quick photo-ready pose before leaving the house to attend a Christmas party. (Unfortunately, we neglected to give much thought to background. “Nice picture of your humidifier!” my father commented that year. That might be why now I always go for outdoor shots.)

Actually, the most inspiring idea I’ve had about Christmas cards is what to do with them after Christmas. Each year I buy a mini photo album, the kind that holds just one 4x6 per page, and use it exclusively for holiday card photos that people send us. When the kids were little, they had a great time flipping through the albums to see whom they recognized, and they still enjoy glancing through the albums to find long-outdated photos of their friends.

And as for our friends and relatives who prefer etchings of winter scenes or religious imagery on their Christmas cards, we understand that choice as well. Any card is a good card, from my perspective. Even electronic cards are fine. It’s December, and one of my favorite parts of the holiday season is hearing from friends: via photo, newsletter, or simply a word or two of greeting above their signature.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Doing errands, having fun

It was one of those days that I think of as invisible milestones. Nothing that would show up on a pediatrician’s growth chart, or even a developmental psychologist’s index. It was just one of those times when I felt like something had changed. Holly and I were spending the afternoon doing holiday-related errands together, and I realized as we set out that I was going to have more fun with her along than I would have had by myself.

It’s not that I never think doing things with my children is better than being alone; it’s just that errands aren’t usually an example. Given the choice, I’d rather hurry around town on my own when I have a lot to do than with either of them in tow. I’m not generally fond of errands, especially those that involve a lot of different stops and driving from one parking lot to the next, and it just always seems more efficient to do them alone.

But today was different. It was a professional day at the kids’ school, and Tim was invited to a birthday party. Ever since Tim entered kindergarten, it has seemed to me that his cohort has a disproportionate number of youngest children. When he was in kindergarten, I noticed this because the other parents would arrive at class plays and other kindergarten events free and empty-handed, whereas I was always toting 2-year-old Holly along.

And back then, this reality sometimes made me a little bit wistful. Much as I loved spending time with my toddler, I sometimes felt envious of how easy it was for those parents to study the classroom exhibits or sit calmly through the rainforest play while I was struggling to keep Holly quiet and contained. I envied too the way when the classroom event was over, they headed off to home or work autonomously, while I lugged Holly along to wherever I was going next. Being a parent is wonderful most of the time, but there’s a certain amount of day-to-day drudgery with small children, and the fact that I was frequently surrounded by parents whose last child had just entered school sometimes gave me a twinge of envy.

Dropping off Tim at the party today, I was reminded again of this statistical blip. Of the nine kids there, other than Tim, each one was either a youngest sibling or an only child. Each parent left their son at the party and headed back to their car alone.

But this time, I felt like I was the one getting the best deal.

First, Holly and I went to the pottery-painting studio to make some gifts. Holly picked out her items and her paints and set to work, her brow furrowed in concentration as she dabbed paint and mixed colors. Then we stopped at the pet store to buy our dog her Christmas present, a winter coat. Next was a children’s apparel store to choose slippers for my niece; Holly advised me on which style and pattern she liked best (“I like slip-on slippers much better than pull-ons, so we should definitely get slip-ons, and I don’t really like that pink swirly design but I think Hannah probably will.”) Then we hurried home to finish making a gift for Rick. All in all, we had a great afternoon together: fun and relaxed and productive. Even the sometimes onerous task of Christmas shopping was more fun with her along, and I never would have done pottery-painting on my own. She’s the artist in the family.

So it was an invisible milestone. Not like the bigger benchmarks she’s reached in the past year or two, learning to read and swim and ride a bike. It’s almost always fun to hang around with your kids when you’re just playing, but this time it was enjoyable doing something I don’t ordinarily think of as appealing: driving around taking care of errands. And I don’t blame the other moms a bit for watching us leave the party with a little bit of envy. Many years after those kindergarten mornings, this time I agreed that I was the one having all the fun.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Through sleet or snow for my daily mile

One of the best things about making a commitment to run every day is the close connection it’s required me to forge with the natural world.

And one of the worst things about making a commitment to run every day is the close connection it’s required me to forge with the natural world.

What’s good about it is that I never find myself oblivious to the weather the way I once did. Especially for people who work in offices full-time and commute by car, it’s so easy to go from home to car to office and eight hours later do the whole thing in reverse without spending any time outdoors. For people like me who live in houses with attached garages or work in buildings with garages, it can be even more extreme. Living in the city and walking to work or to the subway, as I did when I was in my twenties, I often complained about the freezing cold or rainy or slippery conditions, but at least I couldn’t overlook them. When I returned to full-time office work in May of 2006 after four years at home with children, I remember the first few days on the job I would leave the building at 5 PM and want to cry for the fact that I hadn’t drawn a breath of fresh air or felt a ray of natural light on my face in more than eight hours. And when I lost my full-time job, one of the very first things I felt cheerful about regarding my unwanted change of circumstamces was the opportunity to be part of the outdoors again throughout my regular day.

Still, even when the opportunities present themselves, it’s easy these days to avoid the natural world when the weather is less than ideal. We can still drive the kids to the bus stop, spend the day in the house, even exercise on the stationary bike or treadmill or at the gym and avoid exposure to the natural world when it gets really hot, or really cold, or rainy.

When I joined the United States Running Streak Association two years ago and made a commitment to run every day, I promised myself that even though the official USRSA guidelines allow treadmill running to count toward the daily minimum mile, I wouldn’t go that route. Like a lot of the other men and women on the USRSA registry, I resolved that for me, running meant running outdoors.

So for the past 856 days, regardless of the weather, I’ve spent at least ten minutes outside doing my daily mile.

I think about it a lot at this time of year because this is when it gets most difficult. Cold temperatures; ice on the ground; and such an early nightfall. Yesterday I had an all-day on-site contract position which would keep me away from home from 8:30 AM to 6 PM, so I did my run first thing in the morning. It was still pitch black out, and even though the freezing temperatures of the weekend had abated somewhat, the result was melting ice and slushy puddles all over the roadway. In the dark, I slipped and slid and stepped in frigid puddles that my headlamp failed to pick out ahead of me.

Still, I believe ultimately it’s a positive thing to stay in close touch with the natural environment. There are plenty of days in the winter I don’t feel like going out for a run. During our first year of daily running together, my son Tim and I almost always had to run in the dark on weekdays because of my work schedule. Coping with icy winds, slippery roads, patches of snow and sleety rainfall was part of the foundation of the tight bond we forged during that first year of running together. Together we discovered that there’s almost no temperature so low – at least in Massachusetts – that three layers of fleece can’t make it bearable for ten minutes. We learned to wear face masks and scarves as well as hats and gloves. We bought Yak Traks, the nylon webbing that stretches over the soles of shoes to give runners traction. We endured.

Now it’s winter again, and I’m already dealing with snow (not a lot, but enough to make the footpaths treacherous), ice, and short daylight hours again. But having to cope with those conditions, even by choice, even for just ten or twelve minutes a day, reminds me of the cyclical nature of seasons. We’re only a week from Winter Solstice. The daylight will soon last longer; the ice will melt. Springtime running will be back before I know it.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Kids and technotainment: I deserve a B- (or maybe a C+)

Amy Suardi wrote earlier this month on her Frugal Mama blog about the viability of keeping small children from technology, and the post inspired a lot of interesting comments. Most supported Amy; one (who appears to be a friend of hers) wrote tongue-in-cheek about this: “As the proud owner of a Wii, I enjoy spending time with my kids using “gasp”, technology to bond and have fun with them. I would never feel that it can replace fresh air and sunshine, but it isn’t the devil, either.”

Now that my children are 11 and 7, I think we're far enough into parenting that I can begin assessing how well I succeeded at meeting the ideals I held early in my parenting days about keeping technology at bay. Overall, I think I'd give myself a B-, and that might be a little bit generous. A C+ might be more honest.

Neither of my children was a TV-watcher early on; at about the age of three we started allowing occasional DVDs. A year or two after that, Tim was introduced (I forget exactly how) to children's video games, and after that he acquired a GameBoy. More recently -- in the past year or two -- he developed an interest in specific TV shows like Survivor and American Idol. My daughter, like most younger siblings, experienced all of these things a bit earlier due to her older brother's influence.

Although I still admire the ideal of keeping kids away from screens altogether -- wrapping network programming, DVDs, video games and computer games into one all-encompassing category -- I have to admit I wasn't altogether successful at it. I did manage to avoid regular TV shows until my kids were in grade school, which was a small accomplishment that carried the added benefit of keeping them away from commercials, but Tim adored video games when he was young, and both now enjoy watching the aforementioned TV shows together.

So maybe I'm just rationalizing my own semi-failures, but all in all, I think their exposure as it developed was reasonable and not particularly harmful to them. While I'm no fan of video games, Tim has always played the sports kind and not the violent kind; and while I could surely live without American Idol, I don't find it particularly offensive. The show also gives my two children an interest in common, which being different genders and four years apart in age they haven't always easily found. And in fact, the very first reality show they followed was a teen version of Survivor called Endurance which airs on the Discovery Kids network. We found out about Endurance when I interviewed one of the cast members for a Boston Globe story, so in a way it carried a favorable connection between my writing career and TV. The fact that they eventually got to meet the subject of my story after watching him on TV for two months was particularly satisfying.

I wasn't happy at all about Tim's GameBoy fixation when he was 6, but unrelated to all the restrictions that I tried to place on his usage of it, in time he lost interest in it himself. The valuable lesson I learned from that was that sometimes with kids, their good judgment ultimately prevails even where your own attempts to mold their thinking fail. In retrospect, it definitely wasn't worth my expending so much energy trying to put restrictions on his GameBoy use when his interest in it burned out so fast.

Last December we bought the kids a Wii setup. As the commenter on Frugal Mama says, it's a cooperative activity they can enjoy together, with cousins or with friends. Like American Idol, it's one of the few interests they have in common. Moreover, they don't overdo it. They play it like a board game, taking it out every few weeks on a lazy weekend. They never try to stay up late playing Wii or get a game started when they should be doing homework.

I think the most important thing I've learned in regard to parenting and kids' technology is that it's not an either/or situation. When Tim was first born and I was full of new-parent ideals, I believed that letting a child watch DVDs or play video games meant he or she would never develop an interest in books; that giving them access to American Idol meant they'd never learn to play an instrument. But I was wrong. My kids do both. On a wide-open Saturday, Tim will play computer games part of the day and read at other times of day. With an extra half-hour in the morning before she has to leave for school, Holly might ask to watch the previous night's episode of Endurance or she might play school with imaginary students. They do technology and they have imagination. Even though she could have asked to watch a DVD, Holly spent hours earlier this fall dictating her first novel to me, a 11,000-word opus more comprehensive than anything I wrote at her age.

I do realize most of this is rationalizing. My teenage nieces are two of the most intelligent, well-rounded and capable girls I have ever known, and their lives were TV-free until they were about 10. It's hard to look at them and not argue that this is the right way to go. On the other hand, I see some parents work too hard to keep their kids away from technology. I think it's Judith Warner in Perfect Madness who writes about parents of young children who end up acting like TV sets themselves in their efforts to entertain their children, with a constant stream of story-telling, hypothetical problem-posing, fantasy, invention and other means toward the end of forcing their children's imaginations to stay active.

From the time Tim was eight months old until he was about two, I used to take him out in the jog stroller, and what was most notable for me about those forays was the silence. Before he was born, I was accustomed to running alone, and once he was old enough for the jog stroller, I was delighted to take him with me but had no desire to turn my time of solitude into a period of one-sided chatter. So he and I would cruise the streets of our neighborhood for 30 minutes or more in companionable silence. He never fussed and I never initiated conversation. He just looked around, absorbing the scenery and absorbing the quiet.

He's still someone who likes quiet. Along with video games, computer games and novels.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Crazy Hair Day versus the Nobel Peace Prize

The timing struck me as particularly amusing. I had just finished listening to a re-broadcast of President Obama accepting the Nobel Peace Prize when the e-mail arrived from Holly's second grade teacher. "Because the children have done so many good deeds and acts of kindness recently, tomorrow is going to be Crazy Hair Day," she wrote. I submitted to the impulse to reply immediately. "Crazy hair day? And all President Obama got for his good deeds and acts of kindness was the Nobel Prize!" Of course, his deeds are still a little incomplete. Maybe crazy hair day at the White House is yet to come.

I have every confidence that the teachers at my kids' school know far more about children than I do, but I'm frequently surprised by how they reward large-scale good behavior. I think one reason this has become such a prominent issue recently is that a couple of years ago, our school made significant advances toward becoming a snack-free classroom zone. With the start of a new school year, it became widespread policy that classroom celebrations -- ranging from individual kids' birthdays to Halloween and Valentine's parties to classroom plays -- bypassed any kind of refreshments. As a result, the teachers now seem to strive harder to find ways to mark celebrations that once would have simply required cupcakes or mini chocolate bars.

It seems that every few months both of my kids' classes earn a special celebration for good behavior. Holly's classroom uses the term "compliment chain," which means that a paper link is added to a chain whenever a child earns a compliment. (I think it would be kind of fun to do the reverse as well -- ruthlessly rip paper links off the chain when a child deserved an insult -- but as far as I know, that is not considered an effective classroom discipline method.) Little did I know, when I wrote to Holly's teacher after having indoor recess duty one day last month to say how impressed I was with the kids' resourcefulness and lack of rowdiness during the half-hour I supervised, that they would earn four compliments as a result. I'm not sure exactly how my words were parsed out into four compliments (though knowing me, it's altogether likely that I used four complimentary adjectives, and probably at least that many adverbs), but I was happy to be an agent of their success as they worked toward the next big event.

And now they've reached their big reward: Crazy Hair Day. This is the first crazy hair day they've had this year; other analogous rewards in both kids' classes over the years have included pajama day, stuffed animal day and movie hour. Pajama Day has never been a favorite of mine. First of all, every year I assume it's the last grade in which this reward will be bestowed; but so far we haven't aged out yet. Aren't fifth graders too old to wear pajamas to school? I also think it's unsanitary to have pajama pant cuffs drifting across the bathroom and cafeteria floors, although I can see the argument that it's no different from other clothing in that respect. Pajamas just seem more porous somehow. And I'm always concerned my kids and I will forget they wore those same pajamas to school and go to bed in them that night, cafeteria crumbs and all. Ick. Stuffed animal day is fine with me -- innocuous and cute, in my opinion -- but a recent lice outbreak put an end to any extraneous items with soft, absorbent surfaces in the classroom.

Naturally, all of these rewards are optional on the kids' part. Holly said last night she couldn't decide whether she'd do Crazy Hair Day or not, and when she left for school this morning it looked to me like she'd made a compromise along the lines of Uncombed Hair Day. But it made me think about all the rewards I could benefit from, if my friends and I decided to start rewarding ourselves with theme days rather than with whipped-cream-topped coffee drinks. Frizzy Hair Day would be great in the middle of August. I Feel Fat Day would suit me just fine in early January, and Wear Your Oldest Clothes Day would make me feel a little less insecure about my wardrobe.

President Obama looked pleased with his Nobel Prize, but his acceptance speech underscored how much work he believes he still needs to do in order to be truly deserving of it. Holly had no such reservations about Crazy Hair Day. She seemed certain that her class earned its one hundred compliments. I hope Crazy Hair Day is enough fun that it serves to motivate Holly and her classmates ever onward onto greater accomplishments. Who knows, maybe someday she'll accept a Nobel Prize of her own. And maybe that will even inspire her to comb her hair. Or maybe she'll just ask the King and Queen of Denmark if they'd consider proclaiming a nationwide Pajama Day instead.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Favorite traditions: Making candy for Christmas

This weekend we’ll start making Christmas candy.

Well, I will, anyway. My use of the plural first-person might be a little optimistic. I’m hoping that the kids will find it enough fun that they’ll want to help out, but if not, I’m happy to do it on my own.

December is the only time of year that I make candy, and I make a lot of it, because it’s my favorite gift to give. I’ve never been a big fan of cookie assortment plates as gifts, although I do think they look very nice at parties. Last week I gathered with a dozen friends for a cookie exchange; everyone went home with numerous varieties of cookies that other people had made, and I’m going to use my take to make up a plate for an event we’re hosting this weekend. But in general, I find cookie plates kind of unappealing if they require packing and transporting. I don’t like the way the cookies all slide around on the plate or the way the flavors mix: peanut butter next to mint next to almond next to molasses.

What I do like about candy is that it feels so genuinely festive to me. I do far more baking all year long than I probably should from a caloric standpoint; we’re almost never without a batch of homemade cookies or brownies in the house, and it’s not unusual for an afternoon snack or weeknight dessert at our house to include cupcakes, biscuits, muffins or any number of other rich treats. But I make candy only during the Christmas season.

I make truffles from a recipe we’ve had since my childhood. Really they are faux truffles, more like little balls of fudge: chocolate and butter and confectioner’s sugar. But they look so pretty rolled in cocoa and tucked into a small candy box. My mother gave me a new recipe last year for peanut brittle which takes five minutes to make and is delicious, so I’ll make that as well. Two years ago a friend who made the best toffee I’ve ever tasted for our church fair gave me her recipe for that, and I added it to my repertoire. The Crate & Barrel holiday catalog gave me the idea to make white chocolate bark studded with chopped candy cane pieces, which adds some variety of color for my candy medley. Then maybe some peanut butter buckeyes to round out the collection.

None of these is complicated or even necessarily very authentic within the realm of candy making. None even requires a candy thermometer. But candy is a novelty to me, one of the few culinary treats that I restrict myself to once a year. In the past, I’ve made baked goods along with candy for gifts for my kids’ teachers; we’ve filled baskets with cookies, breads, scones, muffins. This year I think we’ll skip the baked goods. They’re more time-consuming and require more clean-up. (For some reason I cannot seem to take out flour in my kitchen without creating an instant mess.) Not everyone necessarily likes candy, but I figure the people we give it to can enjoy it or serve it to guests or regift it.

So it will be a candy-making weekend, no doubt full of sampling since that’s an integral part of the cooking process for me. Once a year it can’t hurt too much. We’ll find holiday-themed containers to pack them in and the kids will take them to school the day before vacation when everyone brings in teacher gifts. I acknowledge that I may enjoy the candy ritual far more than any of the beneficiaries do, but that’s okay. Part of what makes this time of year special is returning to favorite traditional annual activities, and for me, rolling 300 truffles in cocoa is all part of the merriment of the season.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Minor battles: Tim's concert attire

Tim is performing in two holiday concerts this week. Last night was the fifth grade band and chorus – he is part of both groups – and tomorrow is the more competitive symphonic band that he tried out for at his trumpet teacher’s urging.

Seeing all the fifth graders take the stage in their concert finery was a magnificent sight. The girls’ outfits ranged from satin and taffeta dresses to stylishly draped pants and blouses. The boys looked like little men in their button-down Oxfords. Some even wore ties. A few, including an adorable pair of identical twins, wore ties and jackets.

Which is why during intermission, Rick murmured to me, “Just in case you haven’t noticed, Tim really is the worst-dressed kid on stage.”

It’s something we’ve never been able to steer Tim past: his aversion to formal or even slightly formal clothing. Well, even calling it slightly formal is an exaggeration. He despises anything – top or bottom – with buttons. Even casual items like rugby shirts. Even khaki pants. He likes jerseys, t-shirts, sweatshirts and sweatpants, no zippers, no buttons, preferably not even so much as a tag.

I’ve heard this referred to as a sensory aversion issue, and I know for some kids the manifestation is a lot more severe: they’re sensitive to labels in jackets, even seams inside of clothing. So while I appreciate that Tim isn’t even more rigid, I was still frustrated last night to see him on stage amidst all his crisply starched classmates.

I’d been anticipating this struggle for months. In fact, when I first asked Tim if he wanted to continue into a second year of taking trumpet lessons last fall, I reminded him that as of fifth grade, the kids are expected to dress up for the concerts. I hoped that his burgeoning enthusiasm for playing the trumpet would trump his dislike of non-sloppy clothing. But as expected, a battle had ensued the evening before the concert. The compromise was a plain cotton jersey – new and clean, with no lettering or images on it – and a clean, well-fitting pair of black sweatpants that looked from a distance almost like regular pants.

Parents sitting around us overheard Rick’s comment about Tim being the worst-dressed kid on stage and laughed. They know us and know our particular challenges. “Our fight with Austin was about tucking in his shirt,” my friend Nicole confided. “He was fine with the Oxford; he just wanted to wear it trailing out, which is so sloppy he might as well not be wearing it.” Another mom leaned over to tell me that she struggled to persuade her daughter not to wear an older sister’s clothing that was three sizes too big.

All the other kids up on stage looked terrific to me. And honestly, so did Tim. He looked clean and tidy and was beaming with enthusiasm over the first concert of the year. Yes, I’d be even prouder if he was willing to dress the part. But the other parents’ kind comments reminded me that almost everyone goes through some kind of minor conflict with their kids on a regular basis. Tim has classmates who despise haircuts, whereas Tim appreciates a neatly groomed look. He also likes showers and shampoos, and he doesn’t prefer pants that sag below his waist the way some of the boys do.

Furthermore, I reminded myself as the kids filed back onto the stage for the second half of the concert, each family faces bigger struggles with their children as well, and will continue to do so. Homework battles. Table manners. Polite language. Disciplinary issues. One of the kids at Tim’s school penned a threatening note last month that resulted in a campus-wide evacuation; surely those parents would be happy to be arguing with their son about concert attire.

I don’t mean to say that clothes don’t matter. I still want Tim to overcome his resistance to dressing up, because there are certain occasions – concerts, church, weddings, funerals – when it’s simply the right thing to do. But sometimes the best way to gain perspective is to gaze upon a stage of eighty sweet and smiling faces and remember that there probably isn’t a parent in the audience who couldn’t name some kind of daily battle they go through. We’re not alone. And somehow that helps.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Recipe for a bucolic morning: Cows, sheep, dogs, hay

I fell into the daily habit of taking care of the barnyard animals in a circuitous way.

The barnyard and its inhabitants are primarily the domain of my parents, who live next door to us. And for the first few years we lived here, I didn’t have much involvement. I occasionally helped out for an hour or two during haying season or stepped in for backup herding duty when my parents needed to move the animals around and wanted an extra person to stand at one of the gates, but for the most part it wasn’t really my arena. There aren’t all that many jobs to do on a daily basis – let the sheep out of their pen in the morning; feed the cows a couple of bales of hay from the barn if it’s not grazing season – but my parents covered those responsibilities themselves, and when they were away, Rick usually took over.

But fourteen months ago we adopted our dog, Belle, and I started taking her out for a walk first thing every morning. Since we were passing near the sheep’s enclosure, it made sense to stop and let them out. As October came to an end, I noticed the cows, previously out grazing in the pastures while Belle and I took our walk, were congregating near the barn every morning. I asked my father if it was time to start “feeding out,” meaning giving the cows hay bales rather than leaving them to fend for themselves in the field. He conceded that it probably was about that time, and I said that since I was out with the dog -- and now the sheep -- anyway, I’d take on that responsibility as well.

More than a year later, I have to say it’s become one of my favorite times of day, those ten or fifteen minutes I spend with the animals in the barnyard. First I put on the heavy padded coveralls my parents gave me to wear in the barn; then I grab my pocketknife, my work gloves, and – if I am to be perfectly honest here – my cell phone, just in case I fall out of the hayloft or get trampled. Yes, I know that traditional farm hands don’t carry cell phones, but I’m on a tight schedule in the morning, needing to hurry home and get the kids off to school, so I figure it’s for the best to be able to call for help if I ever need it, which I never have.

Belle gallops across the field toward the barn, her energy high after a good night’s sleep and her exhilaration at being outdoors and free almost palpable. The cows see me coming and meet me along the way, expecting to have their curly dark-red heads scratched and then plodding along after me as I make my way to the barn. The sheep bleat as they hear us coming.

Once in the barnyard, it’s an easy job. I climb the ladder to the hayloft and toss down a couple of bales to get the animals below out of my way; then I descend and enter through the front of the barn to pull out a couple more bales for them. I use my pocketknife to snip the twine around the bales, which makes me feel like a Boy Scout. I scatter the hay a little so the animals don’t all cluster in one place.

Then I scan the barnyard and pasture until I locate Belle, who camouflages beautifully with the brownish-gray of the trees and dirt. She is usually either burrowing her face in cow manure, drinking from the brook or chasing squirrels in the thicker grass. Once assured that she’s not too close to the sheep pen – every few months she gets an inexplicable urge to chase them -- I let the six sheep out. Unlike the cows, they don’t particularly want my attention; they trot goofily past me, hurrying toward the hay to get their share before the cows finish it.

That’s all there is to it, and as my father reminds me frequently, there’s no reason I have to do it every day; he’d be more than happy to share the job with me or take it over once again for himself. But I love getting out with the animals early every morning. The heavy lifting as I move the hay bales and the climb up to the loft make me feel strong and well-exerted even though it’s brief and not that arduous. Seeing Belle get in some fast running and vigorous playing before my work day begins is satisfying too. And so is the benign appreciation of the animals. They’re a peaceful bunch, placid, never pushy (or if they are pushy, it’s to each other, not to me). Unlike dogs, they don’t go wild at feeding time. Unlike my kids, they don’t have opinions about what they do or don’t want. They just stand there waiting for hay, and when they get it, they eat it. Job done.

It might be an overstatement to say this is the best part of my day, but it’s definitely up there among the most satisfying. And it’s definitely a contender for easiest part of my day. I release the sheep, feed the cows, let the dog run and everyone is happy. How simple the animals can make life seem.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Rituals, holiday traditions, and the daily run

Yearly rituals are a favorite part of the holiday season for many people. Especially me. I have often said I’m an adult with an inordinate attraction to routine, which is one reason I have an 849-day-long running streak. I like the steady drumbeat of repeated actions: daily rituals, yearly rituals. To me they feel like a heartbeat.

But every now and then I have to call myself up short and ask: Is this a repeated ritual because I like doing it, or do I like doing it because it’s a repeated ritual? Sometimes I catch myself believing that things are important to me and claiming that’s why I do them every year – and then having to admit that the event itself is no longer that enjoyable but I just like the idea that it’s one of our many rituals.

Yesterday was a busy day; I didn’t have time for everything I wanted to fit in. So one ritual was maintained and the other temporarily abandoned. I’m hoping I made the right choice.

The ritual that was abandoned yesterday was the holiday concert at our church. The holiday concert has been one of my favorite traditions ever since we moved back to Carlisle eight years ago. There are so many reasons I love it. The music is wonderful, especially in terms of its variety: there are traditional singalong carols, instrumental performances by children, complicated choral arrangements sung by the choir, talented soloists, and a chance for children in the audience to shake bells and play other percussives while everyone sings “Jingle Bells.” The sanctuary of the church looks beautiful at night with the lights low. Friends, neighbors and church members fill up the pews. It’s a cost-free, gift-free, even Santa-free (most years; sometimes he shows up to hand out the Jingle Bells instruments) event, which is reason enough to make it one of my favorite yearly traditions.

But last night it just wasn’t in the cards for us. After church in the morning, at which Holly and I were the advent candle lighters, we headed out to attend two different parties an hour from home. On the way back, we were delayed due to arriving in Concord Center just as Main Street was closed down for their Santa parade. When we finally got home, I went for a very short run – one mile, the bare minimum required to maintain an official running streak – and then put together some leftovers for dinner. When dinner was over and it was time to decide whether we were going out again, I asked Holly how she felt about the concert, knowing she and I were the only ones likely to have any interest. She looked ambivalent, and I found something touchingly mature in her uncertain response of “Do you want to go?” No more childishly definitive yes’s and no’s for her; she’s apparently picked up the womanly art of gauging other people’s desires before making her own decisions. To say I find this development a mixed blessing is putting it mildly.

But since her response smacked of maturity as well as sincerity, I answered in a similar vein. “I sort of really want to, but I also sort of don’t feel like dressing up and going out again,” I said. “Me too,” she said. “Maybe we should just stay home and get more caught up here,” I said. We’d been out for most of the day; I needed to clean up the kitchen, make the kids’ school lunches, do a little bit of desk work, run some laundry, clean the guinea pig’s cage: the usual Sunday evening lineup. Holly, meanwhile, had inexplicably hit on the idea of converting her book case into a miniature shopping mall layout, and I knew she was itching to work on that.

In some respects, I felt sure we were making the right decision. I tend to overplan and overschedule anyway, and we do a lot of rushing around and arriving places flustered and late. In fact, most years that’s just how we arrive at the holiday concert, since it always falls at the end of a busy Sunday. And it was appealing to think that I’d be two hours ahead of where I’d otherwise be if we skipped the concert versus if we went. After all, the lunches, guinea pig and deskwork would all still require my attention when we got home at nine o’clock.

But in another respect, I’m never sure that letting opportunities slide is the right tack to take. It’s always easier to stay home than go out, always easier to let the kids keep themselves busy than to drag them to a cultural event. But cultural events are important, and so is community. And so are holiday rituals. So I could see both sides of it. I still can, even though I appreciated having a quiet, unrushed evening and feeling like I accomplished everything I needed to in that timeframe.

The ritual I did get to was the daily run. By the time we got home from the parties it was well after dark, and Rick was out doing something else, so I couldn’t justify taking more than the time required for a mile, nor did I especially want to, on a cold dark night with new snow on the ground when I had plenty to do around the house. But I fit in my mile nonetheless, just as I’ve done for the past 849 days.

And I really can’t justify the importance of that. Even other runners have said to me about streak running, “What’s the big deal? Being able to run every single day without ever taking a day off doesn’t make you a better athlete.” True, and ten or twelve minutes of exertion isn’t enough to have any impact as far as fat-burning or other aerobic benefits. The truth is, I don’t know why I do it. I can’t explain what the point is. For the first 732 days, when Tim ran with me, that was the point: us taking on a challenge together. But I can’t use that explanation any more, now that Tim has stopped his streak and I’m running by myself.

Moreover, why does it matter more than going to a concert? It wasn’t really one or the other: we could have done both, or neither. But still. I fit in the run; I skipped the concert. I can’t explain why the run matters. Except that it’s a ritual. I don’t feel like I need a compelling reason to do it as much as a compelling reason to stop.

So the concert was an unfortunate loss; we’ll try to resume that tradition next year. Meanwhile, there are other holiday traditions to observe: the annual town tree lighting later this week, plus Tim’s school band concert, and then another yearly party next weekend. I can’t give up on getting the kids out of the house to cultural events, but at the same time it’s reasonable to listen to them when they just feel like staying home. Just as it’s reasonable, I guess, to go running for no substantial reason. Every day.

Friday, December 4, 2009

A month of holiday festivities

One of my family’s favorite children’s books about Christmas is Christmas in Noisy Village by Astrid Lindgren. Better known as the author of the Pippi Longstocking books, Lindgren re-creates the festivities in a small Swedish farming village, as seen through the eyes of one little girl who celebrates with her brothers, parents, grandfather and neighbors.

While there are several elements that the characters’ observance has in common with ours – like them, we bake cookies, decorate a tree, talk about Santa, partake of a feast or two, and even live on a similarly configured farm -- one small detail in the book brings a smile to my face every time I read it. “I’m going to tell you how we celebrate Christmas,” the young narrator declares, and then offers the first step. “Three days before Christmas, we bake ginger snaps.”

Three days before Christmas? I find myself thinking each time. That’s when you begin preparing? I suppose it’s admirable that they manage to proceed with business as usual for the first 21 days of the month, but it also sounds a little abstemious. For us, there’s usually one or two solid days of rest after Thanksgiving and then it’s time to swing into Christmas mode.

But unlike holiday decorations in the drugstore in October, starting in on the Christmas theme soon after Thanksgiving doesn’t bother me. I think it’s fun to draw the festivities out, and four weeks never seems like an inordinate amount of time to me. Regardless of which winter holidays you celebrate, December is a really special time, a fact that struck me anew three years ago when I’d just re-entered the professional workplace. The corporate environment seems like it would be the last place where you’d feel overcome with holiday spirit, but the influx of vendors’ gifts and company party invitations underscored for me how welcome a break the jolliness of December provides from the rest of the year. Even if the baskets of cookies that the vendors send aren’t that tasty and the office parties can be more rote than meaningful, I love the fact that there’s a sense of universal agreement that this is the month for frivolity. Though it might be somewhat removed from the Christian meaning of Christmas, I really appreciate the idea that December is when we’ve generally all agreed to eat more decadently, socialize with more people, and indulge in more superfluous spending than we might at other times of year.

So our holiday observances start early in the month and extend all the way to New Year’s. Although the narrator of Christmas in Noisy Village makes the last-minute bustle of cookie baking and tree cutting sound merry, I like being able to enjoy each component without any rush. Earlier this week I took part in a holiday cookie exchange, at which 14 women each made several dozen cookies and then we went around buffet-style and made up plates using a little of each, which was a wonderful way to kick off the holiday season. Next week we’ll attend our town’s tree lighting and Tim’s holiday concert. The following Saturday we’ll buy our tree and decorate our house in preparation for the big party we host every year for the nonprofit board on which I sit. (Filling up the house with delicious food and appreciative guests is one of my favorite ways to celebrate Christmas.) We’ll take part in our church pageant and our Christmas Eve children’s service too. Weather permitting, we have an annual tradition of walking to church on that day.

No one in my family is particularly fond of shopping. Of course, we can’t bypass that part altogether, but we’ll avoid it as much as we can. We’ll make candy for the kids’ teachers, pick up a Dunkin Donuts gift card for their bus driver, and do some other creative projects for other gift recipients. Speaking of creativity, it’s about time for us to do our annual Christmas card photo shoot. Light snow is predicted for this weekend, which will make for a pretty background. Last year we got the kids, the dog and two cows in one tight frame; maybe this year we can wedge in a couple of sheep as well. And then there’s the beloved-but-dreaded task of drafting our Christmas card poem, a 12-stanza extravaganza intended to commemorate the whole year in iambic pentameter. It’s an exercise in writer’s anxiety when I sit down to do it, but being done with it always gives me a grand sense of accomplishment.

And one of my very favorite parts of the season comes tonight. Our church puts on a greens sale the first Saturday of December every year, and on Friday evening volunteers prepare for it by setting up all the boughs, wreaths and other forms of greenery. The function hall fills up with the scent of pine, and the display tables glitter with decorations for the wreaths: bells, ribbons, bows.

I always manage to be one of the last to leave just so I can spend a moment in the darkened hall, surrounded by the evergreens – taking in the tranquility, because that too is part of the holiday season, and so different from the merry chaos of the fair itself the following morning. Shopping and hand-crafting; feasting and baking; bustle and tranquility; spirituality and frivolity. It’s a season of contrasts. All of it worth treasuring, all month long.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

I'm a "slow parent" -- I let my kids do their own homework!

After reading this article published in Time Magazine last month, I discovered there’s a name for what I’ve been doing. Turns out it’s called “slow parenting.” One can imagine all kinds of definitions of what “slow parenting” might imply, most of them unflattering. But as defined in Nancy Gibbs’ article, it’s the opposite of helicopter parenting: just letting kids be.

And I thought I was merely lazy.

In our circles, we hear a lot about helicopter parenting, but I can’t say it’s something I witness a great deal, even though it would seem we’d be squarely in the midst of the demographic most often charged with it: highly educated professional parents in academically competitive, high-income suburbs. Perhaps it’s more of an issue with high school aged kids, since the term “helicopter parenting” seems to be a favorite of college deans describing the parents who appear at registration to advise their children on what classes to take, or call professors directly to complain about grades.

My husband and I have a large cohort with kids in the same general age group as ours, but unlike the people in the article, we don’t know any parents who take a photo of their kids on the way out the door every morning in case they have to file a missing persons report later the same day, nor has my husband, who coaches boys’ baseball three seasons a year, ever had to contend with a parent instructing him on what position a particular child should be allowed to play or protected from playing. While it’s true that we know some kids with tutors, it’s just as common in our community for our public school to contact a parent and invite a child to attend an early-morning math tutorial than vice versa.

But sometimes I feel like we’re getting a mixed message. The media loves the term helicopter parenting and loves articles in which human resources executives describe parents who help their newly graduated children negotiate the salary at their first job, but at the same time, my kids come home with a somewhat unsettling number of assignments deemed “family homework.” Not every week – most of their regular homework can be done independently – but several times a year. There are some school projects that involve family discussion, such as the one the first graders do on their country of origin; children are instructed to spend time with their parents exploring their heritage. There are others that would be logistically impossible for kids to do without parental help, such as the one the third graders do in which they have to locate and describe various landmarks around town: there’s simply no way to do that one without a parent driving the child around or, at the very least, accompanying them by bicycle. It’s frustrating to me to be reading an article about the scourge of over-involved parents one day and then have my child come home with yet another “family homework” assignment the next.

On the other hand, it’s possible to develop a sense of judgment about levels of involvement. Tim’s fifth grade teacher sends a long e-mail home every week detailing what the kids’ special assignments are for the week and how we can help them. I skim those e-mails and then file them in a folder, figuring if Tim comes to me with questions about his homework I’ll have a resource to fall back on. But we’re three months into the school year and other than quizzing Tim on spelling words and multiplication facts occasionally, I have yet to help him with his homework. Is he falling behind the other fifth graders as a result? Not as far as I know, but I’ll find out next week when we get his first report card. It’s possible that I really should have been studying those e-mails and following through on their recommendations all along, but my guess is that they are more of a safeguard measure against those parents who complain they never know what their kids are supposed to be doing.

Maybe it’s partly because I’m self-employed and spend so much time pursuing my own assignments, but I’m really not that interested in my children’s homework. I check with them most evenings to be sure they’ve done it, and usually by the time I ask, they have, because they know it comes before other privileges like TV or computer games. I try to be helpful with the occasional project that requires significant extra research or materials. My parents had a hands-off attitude toward my work when I was in school, which was typical of that time, and in retrospect I feel like a little bit more guidance would have nipped some of my organizational problems in the bud: for example, asking me whether I’d checked the supply of typing paper so that I didn’t run out the night before a term paper was due wouldn’t have been the worst thing. On the other hand, I learned from the experience. It took me all the way through college to become really proficient at the more organizational, as opposed to academic, side of homework, but I eventually got there. And I tend to think my kids will too.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Cell phones, nail polish and other requests that throw parents

Amy Suardi wrote an interesting post about children and cell phones on the Frugal Mama blog today. I wrote earlier this fall about our decision to give Tim a cell phone now that he is 11. Tim didn’t ask for one; what he asked for was more afterschool freedom in the form of going to the library or the school’s “homework club” after dismissal, and when Rick upgraded his phone, it made sense to give the cast-off to Tim.

He doesn’t particularly like to talk on the phone, nor do his friends, so I wasn’t concern that he would misuse the privilege. It’s just helpful for making last-minute changes of plans, and eliminates problems caused by miscommunications or other complications that can result in missed connections, such as the day I told Tim he could go to the library for an hour after school and he arrived there to discover the library was closed.

As Amy points out, a lot of people equate cell phones with accelerating the growing-up process for kids. Although this hasn’t been the case for us, in that Tim’s cell phone is strictly a practical aid, there are other ways in which the debate about acceleration of childhood raises questions for me. For example, my 7-year-old loves nail polish, and I have no particular problem with her putting it on occasionally, especially since it’s something she often does as a social activity with a friend, but one of her closest friends is allowed only toenail polish and not fingernail polish. What is the message I am sending her by allowing nail polish? Is it that she has to add artificial color and shine to her appearance in order to look pretty, that what nature bestows on us is not enough? Or is it just that painting is fun, whether it’s on paper or on your nails?

Earlier this week Holly handed me her Christmas wish list, which included the line item “makeup kit.” This, I admit I balk at. Should a 7-year-old be taking an interest in makeup? But upon further reflection, I can see how a case could be made that letting her play with makeup at home wouldn’t be so different from letting her play dress-up, which she and a few of her friends do by the hour. I wouldn’t let her go out in public wearing blush or lipstick any more than I’d let her go out in my grandmother’s floor-length yellow silk gown, but in a way, both seem to me like reasonable ways of practicing the fun of masquerade. I’ll probably veto the makeup idea simply because unlike silk gowns, makeup has the potential to damage rugs, countertops and other hard-to-clean household surfaces, but not because I’m convinced it’s inherently wrong for Holly to play with.

When Holly was five, she started asking to get her ears pierced, something she was finally permitted to do on her seventh birthday. Some of our friends were surprised we allowed this, but for me, the reason to say yes ultimately had to do with Holly’s reasons for asking. It wasn’t that she wanted to look like an adult; it was that she likes the way earrings look and she thought it would be fun to start collecting them. She’s allowed only stud earrings or tiny hoops, no dangling earrings, and I think they look pretty on her. Moreover, getting her ears pierced for her birthday seemed to me a far more satisfying gift for both value and timelessness than a toy or other object easily outgrown. (Holly’s case was also helped by the fact that when I asked our pediatrician for her advice on ear piercing, she responded, “You forget, I’m from a Hispanic background. My daughters had their ears done at nine months.”)

Maybe cell phones, nail polish and makeup all come down to the child’s intent in wanting them. As with so many things, the objects themselves have no intrinsic meaning regarding who should have them and when; the debate really emanates from how the kids perceive them or plan to use them. Is the value of a cell phone in its use for communicating last-minute changes of plans, like in our household, or is it for furtively getting in touch with friends while bypassing the oversight of parents? I heard a commentator on NPR recently speaking about the small but seemingly critical component of etiquette that has been lost now that kids can call each other directly. No more, “Hi, Mr. Hatch. This is Tim. May I speak to Cole?” now that Tim can reach Cole directly on Cole’s individual phone. When I was growing up, if you couldn’t handle the challenge of speaking politely to a friend’s parents on the phone when you called, you didn’t dare call. (But for counterbalance, I read an essay in which the writer described the unexpected joy that his wife’s cell phone brings him: now that her mother can call her directly rather than through a house phone, he is forever free from the obligation of making awkward small talk with his mother-in-law.)

So in a way, it comes down to a riddle. When is a cell phone not a cell phone? When kids want it to send inappropriate pictures, offensive text messages or arrangements for meet-ups they shouldn’t be having, I suppose. When are clothes and makeup not just clothes and makeup? When girls Holly’s age want to feel and act like teenagers, rather than just like children in costume. If Holly wanted to dress like Britney Spears, it would bother me. But she doesn’t: she wants to wear my grandmother’s long silk ball gown. That’s not about growing up fast; it’s about playing make-believe. And as I see it, there’s nothing about make-believe that’s going to do her any damage at all. And Tim has a cell phone he didn’t even particularly want so that he can let us know when the library is closing early. Every decision comes within its own context, and parents learn to assess, evaluate and decide, one request at a time, over the course of many years.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Instilling self-sufficiency one baby step at a time

How to teach kids self-reliance has been on my mind lately. It’s something my husband, my family members and one or two close friends would say I’m not very good at doing. Much as I joke about being mom to the world’s laziest kid, they would be quick to point out that I enable Tim’s tendencies by doing things for him rather than telling him to do things for himself. Maybe it’s because I want the propensity for him to help himself to evolve naturally; it’s not something I want to have to force. But he is who is, and as various people in my life have subtly (or, in my husband’s case, not subtly at all) tried to convey to me, his tendencies do not seem likely to change until I stop enabling.

Tim is the kid who will ask me to put ice in his drink, hand him a fork, fetch the butter out of the fridge. When it’s homework time, he’ll ask me to get his backpack for him. When he needs a shower, he wants me to put out a towel. He’ll never do anything for himself that he thinks there’s a chance I’ll do. One day he actually handed Holly a used Kleenex to throw out for him rather than crossing the room to the wastebasket. Normally the doting younger sister, she responded by exploding, “Gee, Tim!” with uncharacteristic exasperation.

So when the seltzer maker arrived, it presented a perfect opportunity to change Tim’s habits a little. Tim loves seltzer; it is just about all he drinks. He learned to use my parents’ seltzer maker and then they gave us our own, so from the moment it arrived we declared that seltzer making was Tim’s job. By deliberate choice, I haven’t even learned to use the seltzer maker. Sometimes when Tim drinks the last of the seltzer he goes days on end without bothering to make more, and sometimes he doesn’t hydrate as much as he should during those days. But I refuse to cave on it. The seltzer maker is his domain; when he wants seltzer badly enough, he makes more. It’s a small victory.

One day when Tim was in preschool, I stopped off at a yard sale. The merchandise comprised mostly sports equipment; I had been hoping to find some baby toys for Holly. Although I was the only customer, the woman running the yard sale called her son over, who was about ten. “Ian, go see if we have any baby toys in the garage,” she said. In retrospect, it seems trivial enough, but that made an impression on me. She wasn’t giving him a regular chore to do like making a bed or taking out the trash; she was just delegating a simple task to him that she could have just as easily done herself, but demonstrating to him that there was no reason he couldn’t be called into service. Similarly, I remember a teacher at Tim’s daycare when he was a baby who used to often ask preschoolers to fetch specific toys for the babies, and I could see it was not because the babies actually needed those specific toys but just to show the bigger kids the ways they could help out.

Tim is 11 now, and like most boys his age, there are certain chores he’s expected to do around the house. He does those chores, but ensuring that he makes his bed and puts away his clean laundry is of less concern to me than just seeing him be resourceful enough to take care of himself. The seltzer maker is a small start. Sometimes now I ask him to help Holly with something when I could just as easily do it myself, just for the sake of promoting the behavior I want to see.

Over the summer Rick taught him to operate the riding mower himself, and again, it was progress. Most kids love using riding mowers, so it wasn’t much of a sacrifice on his part, but it means he’s now responsible for mowing the side lawn. Again, a start.

Partly it’s a matter of training myself to expect more. It’s really no trouble to hand Tim a fork rather than telling him to get it himself. But then I remind myself that this is part of a continuum. He needs to develop self-reliance, even if it’s not instinctive to him, even if he’d much rather be served. So I frequently remind myself, “Let him do it for himself. Ask him to help you with this. Show him that he can take care of it on his own.” Even if he has to force these behaviors and will forever be someone who would rather be served than help himself, I’ll know I tried to do the right thing.