Friday, January 29, 2010

Kids' birthday parties: Keepin' it real

Coincidentally, the Moms blog linked to this Associated Press article just a day after my 7-year-old called out to me from the post-bedtime darkness of her room to say she was mentally planning out her next birthday party. This is the kind of thing she thinks about while she’s falling asleep, and she wanted to update me right away so that I could start my part of the planning. Since her birthday isn’t for another seven months, I didn’t feel it was anything I needed to act on too quickly, but I was still curious to hear what she was thinking. Turns out she wants a penguin party this year, with penguin party favors, black and white cupcakes, a slip-and-slide in the yard and slushies for a snack.

Holly has planned her own birthday parties ever since she was five. To me, they never quite feel like the height of simplicity as her visions usually require quite a lot of materials-gathering and baking on my part. Reading this article, I couldn’t help but think it might be easier to just hire a clown, order up a bubble machine, sit back and let the fun happen. Instead, I’m usually busy pre-assembling puppets for a craft project, whipping up frosting for the cupcake-decorating contest, putting together a playlist of dance hits for freeze-dancing, and so forth.

Nonetheless, I’m glad that not only Holly but just about all of our social circle favor simple, backyard birthday parties. Oh, sometimes we go to parties where a juggler or guitarist will perform a set, but for the most part, even when clamor about over-the-top kids’ parties was in its pre-recession heyday, the concept wasn’t popular in our circles. And I’ve always found that notable because we know plenty of families who spend huge amounts of money on recreation in the form of kids’ extracurricular activities and family vacations. It’s not that they couldn’t do these kinds of parties; it just seems not to be a priority in our community.

But I do empathize with the mother in the party article who says her baby’s first birthday party was really for her. And actually, I think she’s right. Getting through the first year of parenthood is a major milestone. Tim’s first birthday party left me with wonderful memories. He didn’t yet have friends of his own, so we invited all of our friends. It was a beautiful day and we had a cookout on the patio at our old house. Halfway through the party, Tim went down for a nap and I visited and laughed with all the old friends I hadn’t seen enough of since Tim was born.

These days, the kids’ parties seem easy. Although in the preschool and early elementary years we tended to have big gatherings to which the whole class was invited, the traditions changed fairly quickly as the kids and their friends grew older. Tim is now eleven, and for the past few years, he’s favored a small-group approach, inviting just a few friends to a special event. One year he invited a friend to our family’s vacation house in Maine for the weekend; another year Rick took him and two other boys to Six Flags. This past fall, he had three boys for a sleepover; they went bowling and then played Wii games late into the night. Not only is it much easier to manage these small groups, but I like the way my kids now take part in planning their own celebrations and choosing activities they really like – roller coasters, baseball games, whatever – rather than the free-for-all parties of their earlier days.

So on the one hand, I’m sorry to see children’s entertainers getting less work; as a writer, I always appreciate any opportunity for artists to find employment. But I think cutting back on over-the-top parties might benefit everyone else: parents, birthday kids and friends alike. It’s fun to figure out how to have your own kind of fun, without bringing in the pros. And in my experience, as long as there’s ice cream somewhere along the way, it’s pretty much a sure thing that birthday boy or girl and guest alike will have a good time.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

The one thing I wish I had more time for...

I was reading an article recently that posed this exercise: List those things you wish you had more time to do. The article even helped the reader along by offering a list of possibilities that might make someone’s list: Exercise more. Travel. Go back to school. Spend more time with children. Work on a hobby. Develop a richer spiritual life. Do more writing.

I made a list, but it wasn’t as long as I expected, and when I got to the next instruction, choose the three most important, I realized there was only one item on my list that was really important to me given the specificity of the question. It’s not that I couldn’t have come up with dozens of ideas for my own self-improvement, but most of them had to do with developing a stronger interest in or commitment to something, as opposed to finding more time for it. I should be more politically active, more environmentally conscientious, and a lot of other things, but it’s not really a function of time that I don’t; it’s a function of my interest level.

When I winnowed my list with a critical eye, it revealed that the only thing I really wish I had more time for is reading. I never read enough. I read for 45 minutes every morning while I ride my exercise bike, but I start with the newspaper, which usually takes up about half the exercise session. That means I often read only 20 minutes or so per day, which given how many amazing and important books there are in the world, with more coming out every day, just doesn’t seem like enough.

So, I asked myself, how can I create more time for reading? How can I make it more of a priority? If I manage to find time for every single one of my other priorities – time with my family, writing, exercise, spiritual contemplation – how is it that I can’t find more time for reading?

Looking at my daily routine, I concluded that one answer is to spend less time doing nighttime tasks and try to get to bed early enough to read. Typically, I focus on the kids until they go to bed; then I start making lunches for the next day, folding laundry, returning e-mails, whatever I didn’t get to in the course of the day. I usually don’t get to bed until it’s time to go to sleep.

Could I cut down on those busy-work tasks in the evening? The laundry does need to be folded, but is there another time I could do it, like during the weekends? Would anything be lost if I spent less time e-mailing? Probably not; I could just turn my computer off early in the evening and catch up the next morning with whatever correspondence remained. The kids’ lunches need to be made, but maybe I could do that at the same time I’m preparing dinner.

So I resolved to try, and the pile of Books To Read on my night table is serving as a powerful incentive. There’s just too much great literature out there for me not to be able to find the time. If it’s the only thing I want more time for, I just have to believe there’s a way to make that happen.

Already, I’m making a little bit of progress. Holly has just started taking an afterschool pottery class that lasts 90 minutes. I thought about all the errands and tasks Tim and I could accomplish between drop-off and pickup. We could buy groceries; get the oil changed in the car; visit the office supply store and the drugstore; pick up dry cleaning. Instead, this week, we headed for the bagel store. I bought Tim a toasted bagel with bacon cream cheese (his favorite treat) and myself a cup of coffee and a chocolate chip cookie (which turned out to be of poor quality, but it made me feel entitled to sit at a table for an hour. Calories don’t count if you’re giving yourself an excuse to take up space at a cafĂ©, right?). Tim had brought along Robin Hood, a childhood favorite of Rick’s that he’s slowly making his way through; I had a pile of sections from last Sunday’s New York Times.

And together, we read. For a whole hour, we just sat there in silence together reading. It was such a treat. I could have been doing so many other productive things, but I convinced myself that this mattered too. We’ll try it again during Holly’s next pottery class, and see if we can make it a regular habit. One hour more of reading a week? It’s a great start.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

A range of winter weather patterns

I’m not sure whether it’s a coincidence or an intentional curricular scheme, but both of my kids’ grades are looking at the weather this month. Tim’s fifth grade class is studying weather patterns from a scientific perspective; Holly and the other second graders have an assignment to record the temperature each day and write their observations.

It seems to me like the perfect time of year to be studying weather. This week we’ve had a wide variety, and each change brings with it welcome effects. Over the weekend, the temperatures hovered right around freezing and there was a great deal of ice on the ground. Holly went sledding and deemed the conditions perfect; from inside the house, I baked bread and enjoyed feeling cozy in the chill of winter. Then on Monday we had a January thaw and heavy rain, which melted the ice that had been causing me so much anxiety on my daily run and washed away a lot of the snow that was blocking the footpaths. Yesterday I felt so grateful to be running on muddy gravel instead of ice, and the balmy air made me think of spring: not really all that close at hand right now, but somewhere in the not-so-distance future. The rainfall meant I didn’t have to fill the tub that the cows drink from when the stream freezes over, and the snow washing away allowed us to open the gates between pastures and let them roam freely, which they love; it’s always fun to see them venture out onto the hillside after staying near the barn for several days.

Today is cold again, with a prediction that much chillier air is on its way, but the sun is shining and the ground is dry. I like the hard frozen conditions of late January; now the ice is gone but the mud has frozen into smooth hard terrain, and the bright sunlight shining through the treeless branches is starkly beautiful. This morning when I went out to feed the cows, I heard birds chirping, and despite the 25-degree air, the sound of the birds conveyed a hint of spring mornings.

My spouse sometimes says he’d be happy living in a warm climate yearround – he likes swimming, barbecues and baseball and has no use for wintertime -- but I love the change of seasons. I love the dreary seasonality of a sloppy winter day and the elusive relief of a January thaw, a short reprieve from the cold. I like heavy snowfalls and dry sunny days like today. I like walking in thick powder or atop a crust of old frozen snow.

Committing to a daily run two and a half years ago put me in closer touch with the weather than I had previously been. In years past, I was guilty of driving from garage to garage in the winter, sometimes not spending any more time outside than it took to cross the parking lot at the supermarket . I used to take the winter off from running, which did have the benefit of generating a craving to run by springtime. But now that I am committed to ten minutes or more of running every single day, I don’t have the option of ignoring the weather. I know when it’s wet or cold or icy or dry or snowing. And sometimes winter running is really challenging. But where modern life and its conveniences make it so easy these days to ignore the weather altogether, I’m glad most days to put myself out into it, comfortable or not.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Of course you look cute in that; now get out the door

Because I was at a meeting during Holly’s bedtime last night, she broke our cardinal rule about picking clothes for the next day before bed. So we were back in fashion chaos this morning ten minutes before the bus was due to arrive.

Well, to me it was chaos. To my 7-year-old it was just another day of dress-up. She seemed utterly unflustered as she held up one shirt after another. “Do you think I can wear my fluffy pink scarf with this blue shirt, or do you think it will look too fancy?” she asked.

“I think it will look nice,” I replied, and then heard the unspoken retort of my conscience – which sounded startlingly like myself at age 12 – saying “I knew you were going to say that!” It’s true; I now do exactly what I once accused my mother of: claim that any outfit Holly picks out looks “nice.” As a child, I was so skeptical of my mother’s fashion choices that her proclamations of approval were akin to George Bernard Shaw’s comments about not wanting to belong to any club that would accept him as a member: if you think it looks nice then it’s obviously too dorky to leave the house in.

At the time, I really thought my mother had a hopeless sense of style, because I assumed she was telling me the truth at all times. Similarly, when my first grade teacher said I looked “very sharp and really smart” in glasses the first time I wore glasses to school, I assumed he had terrible taste in physical appearances because I took his words at face value. Only years later did I realize he probably thought I was self-conscious about the glasses (in fact I was not) and it was his attempt to build my self-esteem.

Now that I hear myself reassuring Holly that the fuzzy pink scarf will look great with the blue jersey, though, I realize there’s another motive at play. It’s not that I’m aesthetically clueless as a mom; it’s not even the inherent bias that most moms really do think their young children look adorable in almost anything. It’s that I have a vested interest in getting her out the door, and it wasn’t looking too promising this morning.

But it turned out approving the pink scarf was insufficient for achieving that goal. “Okay, I’ll wear it,” she announced. “Now I just need help finding it.” It wasn’t with her dress-up accessories or her outerwear; nor was it on the door handle where she sometimes drapes decorative items. “The last time I saw it, Ella and I were pretending it was a leash and had it tied to a stuffed dog,” Holly recalled.

Watching the minutes tick away, I checked her toy box, then remembered that for some inexplicable reason, she and Ella like to cart things around in suitcases when they play. With one minute left to departure time, I unzipped a purple butterfly-patterned suitcase from Holly’s closet. Out tumbled the pink scarf.

“Yay!” she exclaimed, grabbing it and knotting it loosely around her neck. She climbed up on the bed so she could see herself better in the mirror. “Nope, it looks silly.” Nonchalantly, she removed the scarf and flung it into the dress-up box.

So off to school Holly went in just a regular blue shirt and jeans. She looked cute in the outfit; she had also looked cute in the scarf for which I’d squandered precious morning minutes searching her closet. But now I know: some things remain unchanged, and a daughter’s reaction to her mother’s sartorial observations is one of them. “You like it? It must look silly on me.” I don’t mind the oppositional response; I just wanted her out the door on time. Si as of tonight, it’s back to the rule of picking out school clothes the night before.

Monday, January 25, 2010

The luxury of normalcy

My friend Becca has a postcard on her fridge that I gaze at every time I visit her house. The postcard is a black-and-white photo of a bathroom scene. There’s a deep old-fashioned bathtub from which is visible the head and shoulders of a cheerful 30-something woman and the beaming face of a small child. A man is in the process of setting towels down on the ledge next to the tub. The caption reads “Normalcy: the greatest luxury.”

All it takes is a moment out of normalcy to remind me of how true this is, and sometimes not even that. Sometimes I’m reminded right in the midst of normalcy how much I appreciate the everyday.

There are some people who would find my life unimaginably quotidian, with its daily routines of housework, deskwork and child-tending. But I love all of its diurnal patterns, and nothing reminds me of this so much as having them broken, even by forces that are not necessarily negative. Once while I was on a tour of the Irish countryside, I entered a tiny cottage and saw a woman in a re-creation of a 19th-century Irish village rolling out pie crust. Her motions made me suddenly homesick for the daily pleasure of measuring out flour and sinking my hands into a baking project at my kitchen counter, though cooking isn’t normally something to be missed while on a European vacation. Whenever the electricity goes out, as it typically does two or three times per year (though not yet this winter, knock on wood), it reminds me of how welcome the hum of the refrigerator and the luxury of being able to run a washing machine are during my daily life.

I was thinking about this over the weekend because we spent two nominally dull days doing everyday sorts of things, and yet it all seemed cozy to me. On Friday evening, friends came over and I made pizza. On Saturday, we spent a lot of time picking up the house. I ran four loads of laundry. I went to the post office, the transfer station, the supermarket; but simply because there was nowhere else I especially needed to be, I indulged in a sense of reassuring normalcy in these errands as I picked up mail, got rid of trash, loaded up with ingredients for menus I’m looking forward to making. On Sunday we went to church, and in the afternoon played Scattergories. Sunday evening I completed the weekly ritual of cleaning out the guinea pig’s cage. The weather was cold and damp, and Rick was working all weekend, so my running time was limited to only 15-20 minutes a day and we didn’t do any other outdoor recreation, but the kids had fun at the indoor pool on Saturday, and I did some reading while they swam.

One the way home from grocery shopping, just as I was passing our local cross-country ski center, friends of ours pulled out of the parking lot right in front of me. I indulged in a wave of envy; I wished my family had been out on the cross-country trails rather than grocery shopping and dropping off the newspapers at the recycling center. But then I thought again about the reassuring sense of normalcy that doing routine tasks and errands gives me. Seeing the families sleeping on the streets of Haiti is all it takes to remind me how much I love having a house to clean and groceries to put away. Remembering the days after 9/11 never fails to conjure up for me how good it feels not to be worried about much more than whether antibiotics will clear up the dog’s ear infection.

Normalcy, the greatest luxury. Now it’s a drizzly Monday morning: the roads are slippery, the sky steel-gray, and I’m waiting for roadside repair to come fix a flat tire on our truck. But I’m also feeling fortunate that the tire went flat in our driveway rather than in a parking lot, and that roadside assistance is just a toll-free call away. It’s a routine day, and as far as I’m concerned there’s nothing at all not to like about that.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Fifty photos for fifty cents (and lots and lots of memories)

Maintaining my photo album is yet another one of those things that I know I should make a regular habit of, but it always falls in priority to the point where it doesn’t get done. Compared with keeping up the house, completing paid writing assignments, or playing with my children, it’s just too far down on the list. Back in the days of print photography, I was much better about it. I’d finish a roll of film, send it off to get developed, winnow through the packet of prints that came back, and slide the one I deemed worthy into the plastic album sleeves. When friends admired my well-organized albums and admitted they stored their packets of prints in shoeboxes, I felt a little bit superior.

But after I started using a digital camera, my good habits fell by the wayside. It’s so easy to just store electronic files and promise yourself you’ll print them someday. After all, you know they’re right there on your hard drive (and we all know what a safe place that is, ha ha. I frequently remind myself that storing files on my hard drive without backing up is like putting a mug of coffee on the roof of the car while I help the kids with their seatbelts. Maybe it’ll still be there when I remember to retrieve it, and maybe it won’t.)

So when Kodak ran that memorable ad for photo printers with the line “Mothers, don’t let your babies grow up to be pixels,” I knew they meant me.

Still, it’s hard to keep up. I don’t have my own photo printer, so I need to send my photo files out to be printed, and without the standard unit count of 24 that we all became accustomed to with film photography, I never quite feel that the time is right to print.

This year I came up with a different approach – the opposite of the keeping-up strategy that I used back in the film days. I kept procrastinating on ordering pictures although I had them all organized by month on my computer, and then right after Christmas I received a promotional email from Snapfish advertising 50 prints for 50 cents. Not only did it seem like a good deal even with shipping costs added on; I liked the idea of choosing the 50 photos that best reflected 2009 for us, although I wasn’t averse to paying a few cents more if I couldn’t winnow it down to 50.

Once I’d chosen, it actually came out to 54, and by the second week in January, the packet of photos had arrived in the mail. I happened to be going away over the weekend, so I took a newly purchased album and the photos with me, and a mere two hours on Saturday afternoon was all it took to get The Year in Pictures all wrapped up.

And I have to say, I’m delighted with the results. It’s not just a matter of feeling organized. Putting a year’s worth of pictures in an album has the effect of giving the year a certain shape and form that it didn’t necessarily have in my mind previous to this representation. On the one hand, it’s not an original observation to note that in family photos, everyone always looks happy and harmonious; no one (except maybe art students) takes pictures of family fights or boring rainy afternoons.

But it’s not just that. Seeing our year reflected in its most photogenic moments reminds me that even though every year has ups and downs, disappointments, disputes, illnesses, frustrations, we also had a lot of really great times during the past twelve months. There were the obvious and unforgettable ones, like our five-day trip to Florida in late February: look at the kids building a sand castle together on the beach and taking a ride at Busch Gardens. But there were those that we might forget without a commemorative photo as well: the June afternoon when Tim and I went running with Tim’s fourth grade teacher; the morning Tim and his friend Will fed the cows and sheep by themselves; Holly reading a picture book to her two younger cousins on Easter morning. Halloween costumes and Thanksgiving feasts: of course we’d remember that those holidays took place, but the pictures remind me that these annual observances have unique hallmarks from one year to the next: Holly marching in the school parade hand-in-hand with her friend Samantha (a monkey and a witch, together at last – why not?); Tim and three friends savoring a nothing-but-bacon breakfast at the end of Tim’s birthday sleepover.

And while I might have ended 2009 with the overall sense that we didn’t do much in the way of family travel last year, the photos remind me of all the many smaller excursions we took: the Boston Harbor Islands on a hot August day; Bath, Maine, for the Fourth of July; Pennsylvania during April vacation. True, I always feel like I don’t see my sisters and their families enough in the course of a year, but the photos remind me of the good times we managed to fit in with them: playing basketball in Swarthmore; a spring tea party over Easter weekend; an afternoon of tiara-making; an anniversary dinner which featured the most elaborate baked Alaska I have ever seen, made by my sister Lauren.

Maybe it’s just to excuse future procrastination, but in a way I like this approach: wait until the year is over and then compile photos from the entire twelve months. Yes, it sanitizes things by eliminating all the not-so-memorable times. But it also reminds me that if we‘re as fortunate as we were last year, we have plenty of good times to look forward to in the next twelve months.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Yoga? Of course I should, but...

Yes, I should try yoga. Yes, I know I should try yoga. And yes, I was telling myself it was time to try yoga even before I saw this story in today’s Boston Globe. In fact, it’s a bit of a coincidence: among the many possibilities for self-improvement that I contemplated last weekend while I was away on a two-day retreat was that I should take up yoga.

What happened over the weekend was typical for me. Twenty women gathered in the spacious living room of the retreat house at 8 AM. I passed them as I headed out the door for my daily run. An hour later, we met up again: they’d done a long and well-focused yoga sequence; I’d run five miles. We all felt rejuvenated and well-exercised.

At the time, the idea of yoga provoked its usual reaction from me. Many of my friends practice yoga regularly; my mother has taught it for nearly forty years, “way before everyone else was doing it!”, as a long-time acquaintance remarked recently. One of my closest friends studied it so seriously for a while that she almost became what her family referred to as a “yoga nun” (apparently there really is such a thing). So it’s a question I’m faced with fairly frequently.

“Runners don’t like yoga,” I always say dismissively. “There’s nothing wrong with it; I just can’t sit still long enough. Why devote an hour to exercise if you’re not going to reach your target heart rate?” Or, put more bluntly, I can’t be bothered to work out if I’m not going to burn measurable amounts of fat in the process. And although I know there are some forms of yoga in which an aerobic heart rate is the goal, these are generally not the kinds my friends are practicing. In the past, I just haven’t been able to get past the fact that for my exercise value – by which I really mean the time I devote to it – I want the effects of running: the pounding heart, the invigorating fresh air, the justification to eat a few cookies afterwards.

Plus I just know I’d be really bad at yoga. I’m not a very graceful person and I’m remarkably inflexible. (I mean that literally, not just where decisions about breaking up my regular running routine to give yoga a chance are concerned.) I have short, tight muscles that don’t like to stretch. I’m absolutely certain I’ll look clumsy and ridiculous and I won’t be able to achieve any of the poses.

But all it took was one overheard conversation recently to make me think a little bit differently. My mother was explaining to someone who had just taken her yoga class why it remained so important to her. She described how she’d seen firsthand the importance of flexibility in aging bodies. Her own mother, who lived to 93, had inclinations similar to my own: she loved fitness activities but lacked the patience for slow stretching. As my mother put it in the conversation I dropped in on, her mother had played tennis and skied into her 80’s and never carried an ounce of fat on her lean, athletic frame – but in the end, she still paid for her lack of suppleness and muscle resilience. As she grew very old, as my mother put it, “she just sort of shrank away.”

Since I saw my grandmother regularly during those years and could picture exactly what my mother meant – my grandmother really did seem to melt away to nothing in her final years, even though she was never in particularly bad health – it was a wakeup call. I may care more right now about burning fat than developing long sinewy muscles or graceful balance , but if my grandmother is any indication, I might regret those priorities if I live long enough. Right then, I resolved to give yoga another chance.

So now it’s just a matter of making it enough of a priority. A friend who heard me talk about this on the retreat offered to lend me her yoga Wii program, which strikes me as a great way to try it out but ultimately not exactly the right way to go about it: I know that for my friends who practice yoga, being at the studio with an instructor and other students is a significant part of the overall experience for them. And yet at the same time, I know how often my primary reason for not doing something I should do – from picking up the dry cleaning to buying a book I want – is the odious suburban reality of getting into the car and driving. Do I want to add another hour or more of driving every week for the sake of yoga?

It’s been only a few days, but so far I still haven’t done anything about it other than admit to my mother that she’s right. (Of course, that in itself can be a big step for a daughter to take. But it still doesn’t have too much to do with reaping the benefits of yoga.) I read the Globe story this morning and agreed with everything the author said. I know I need to put my priority into action and get myself off to a yoga class. I need to give it the three-week chance that any new pursuit deserves.

Slow down. Start at the beginning. Take a chance. Try it out. Not an easy message for a veteran runner, but clearly one I need to take more seriously.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Motivation and "streak running"

This post from a Cool Running discussion board asking runners what keeps them motivated made me start thinking about the question. Then over the weekend I came across this quote from Walt Guzzardi as replicated in Kevin Nelson’s book The Runner’s Book of Daily Inspiration: “I don’t make a decision every morning. I made a decision once, long ago, to run every day. When I wake up, the decision is already made.”

Exactly. As a member of the United States Running Streak Association (USRSA), a membership organization of runners committed to running a mile or more every single day and therefore maintaining a “streak” for as long as possible, I’ve heard this question a lot in the two and a half years since my streak began, and those USRSA members whose streaks are a lot longer that mine – like three or four decades – no doubt have heard it thousands more times than I have. But the funny thing is that motivation was much more of an issue before I pledged to run every day, when there was still a “Will I or won’t I” question each day. Once I decided to do a running streak, I stopped thinking about motivation, because I was no longer in the position of deciding whether or not I feel sufficiently motivated to go. As Walt Guzzardi said, the decision is already made.

Still, there are days when I feel decidedly more enthusiastic about running than others. Since I live in New England, the weather is probably the biggest factor in how much I feel like going running. But it doesn’t have to be a crisp sunny fall day or a mild spring morning for me to feel compelled by the weather to get out. A light misty rainfall brings out my running urges, and so does a day like today: snowy and wintry by appearance but with temps in the mid-30’s predicted, a good fifteen degrees warmer than any of the days I ran last week. I’m excited today just to get out without neck warmer and face mask on, and without my skin chafing from the bitter wind.

It’s a common phrase among runners that “the hardest step is the one out the door,” meaning all you have to do to go running is get started and then the run takes care of itself, but for me the hardest step can be the one just before that: getting dressed for the run. During the work week, I usually run midday, and especially on cold days, the idea of changing clothes can seem like a hassle. So sometimes if I don’t have to be anywhere else first, I just dress for the run from the time I get up in the morning and remove that step altogether.

The dog motivates me. Around midmorning, she starts poking at my typing hands with her snout. I know she’s ready, and I know that if I give her a good workout now I’ll be rewarded later in the day with the endearing sight of her curled up contentedly on the couch, face on paws.

Podcasts, too. I load up my iPod every week with highlights from a variety of podcasts available through iTunes from NPR, the New York Times and the New Yorker. Knowing that going out for a run means 45 minutes – or even 15 minutes – of Terry Gross, Peter Sagal, Adam Gopnick or any of my other favorites makes it seem not so much like running as entertainment.

But more than anything else, it’s the streak itself that motivates me. Streak running is not right for everyone, but I maintain that it does solve the motivation question once and for all. I keep track of my streak days on a dry-erase white board that hangs in our mudroom. Not only my family members but several friends and neighbors know they can check it any time to see what day I’m on. Ever since getting into the triple digits, I’ve benefited from the added encouragement of the “Wow!” factor: people who glance at the white board and say “Wow, you’re past 100 days!” “Wow, you’re in the 500’s!” My son, upon seeing yesterday that I was up to 892, said “Wow, Mom, you’re going to get to 1,000 days soon!” (Not all that soon. Late in the spring. But eventually.)

Several years ago, my younger sister worked in an office building overlooking Boston’s most popular running route, the paved pathway along the Charles River. Many of her co-workers were accomplished athletes and took advantage of the setting. “What’s great about you as a runner is that you don’t talk about it,” my sister commented to me once.

“Talk about it?” I said, puzzled. “It’s just running; what’s to talk about?”

“Oh, you should hear the people I work with,” she replied. “They talk about it all the time. ‘What time are you going? How far? Who are you running with? Which route are you doing? Do you think I should wear shorts or tights? How many water bottles are you bringing?’ Believe me, they find plenty to talk about.”

Coincidentally enough, not long after that, I went to work for the same company and saw what she meant. Up until then, I had no idea there was so much to say about running – or, more specifically, decisions about whether to go. Of course, in a way the last laugh is on me and I had no right to feel supercilious. I may not have talked about it ad nauseum, but I went on to write a book about my running and start a blog dedicated to the topic. I guess I’m not immune from the running conversation either.

At this point I’d need far more mental impetus to break the streak than it takes to maintain it. Why go running today? Because I’ve already decided I’m going to. And so it’s one less decision to make today.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Joyful moments: Watching children sled on a snowy day

It’s one of the perennial joys of the season: watching kids sled.

I was lucky enough to have this opportunity yesterday. We woke up to a light steady snowfall, and although with the kids home and the snow falling persistently it felt like a snow day from school, it was actually a Monday holiday, so we had the added privilege of bypassing the change-in-schedule scramble that usually results from school cancellations.

Not long after a relatively late breakfast, Holly telephoned our next door neighbor, Ella. It turned out Ella was having an even later breakfast – pancakes that she made by herself for the whole family, as she proudly reported to us later -- but the girls agreed to meet a half-hour hence to try out the sledding.

Watching them stride up the hill and glide down it, stride up and glide down, gave me such a sense of bliss, just as it does every year when they do this. I think watching children sled is one of the happiest moments a parent can experience, as utterly simple as it is. We’re lucky enough to have a beautiful slope in the pasture just past our yard. Not steep, it rolls gradually for a long enough distance that sledders have a good long ride, and at the base of the slope is more pasture, so there are no trees to worry about. Watching Holly and Ella, I felt keen appreciation for their strong, healthy bodies, so able to negotiate the challenge of climbing the hill and so receptive to the thrill of sliding back down. I felt gratitude anew for the presence of our next door neighbors, friendly and easy-going people with a daughter whom Holly loves to play with even though Ella is nearly twice Holly’s height. I felt appreciative of the pastures and fields surrounding our house: what an ideal place to live, especially on a winter day. I felt happy that despite a childhood that includes Wii games, theme park excursions and American Idol, our kids can still savor one of childhood’s most rudimentary pleasures: sledding on a winter day.

There’s a lot these days that we tell our kids we can’t afford right now, but these lightweight plastic sleds we can manage. I mentally projected thanks to my friend Jane, who generously gave Holly her daughter’s outgrown orange parka after barely a season of use, and I remembered too that it was my mother who knit the rainbow-hued scarf that Holly was wearing as she sailed down the hill. I felt grateful that I was able to be at home watching the girls rather than fighting snowstorm traffic on my way to an office – or, as I know from past experience, feeling guilty for having to phone the office and say I’d be working from home due to the conditions.

When the girls came in, they were laughing, breathing hard and wreathed in smiles. “Perfect sledding conditions!” Holly proclaimed. “Now can we have hot chocolate?”

I had already started mixing a batch. My hot chocolate recipe comes from Home Cooking by Laurie Colwin, a novelist and food writer who died in her 40’s and didn’t get to see her own daughter grow beyond the age Holly is now. Meanwhile on the kitchen radio I could hear reports of rescue attempts in Haiti, where thousands of children are buried in rubble, maimed, orphaned. But Ella and Holly are not thinking about how tragic life can be or how fortunate they are right now; they’re just happy to be home together on a winter day when the conditions are perfect for sledding. And as I doled out mugs of steaming cocoa, I was overwhelmed with gratitude myself to be bearing witness to their fun.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Retrospective on the weekend retreat

The annual retreat weekend from which I just returned was wonderful as always, and looking back twenty-four hours after leaving the retreat house in northeast Connecticut (the “Quiet Corner,” as I’ve learned this region is nicknamed), I’m still mulling over how much information and stimulation my brain tried to process in the two days we spent there.

I had hours for reading and writing, which is the most valuable gift I could ask for these days. I finished the novel Cost by Roxana Robinson, an account of heroin addiction which was eye-opening, heartbreaking and thoroughly engrossing. I started Between Here and April by Deborah Copaken Kogan and got just far enough into it to want to keep reading. I browsed through a book that arrived by mail order just the day before we left, The Runner’s Book of Daily Inspiration by Kevin Nelson.

I wrote even more than I read: 6,400 words in all. Most of it was self-reflective journaling, though a few items were more topically oriented and may develop into future blog entries. In having so many hours for journaling, rather than my usual daily 20 minutes of Morning Pages, I uncovered so many ideas I didn’t even know I had. For example, I homed in on the fact that unlike several years leading up to now, I do now feel that I have sufficient time in my life for writing, work, sleep and exercise; what I really want is more recreation with my kids. Because they are both so independent when they’re home and find so many ways to keep busy on their own – Tim by reading or playing computer games; Holly by inviting friends over, doing art projects or playing endless games of imaginary house or school – it’s easy for each of us to go off in our own direction when we’re all home. And in some ways, this is good; after years of caring for small children who needed near-constant attention, it still feels like a luxury to me to have my whole family at home and still be able to write or fold laundry without anyone demanding at least half my attention. But in the writing I did this weekend, I admitted the pendulum has swung the other way; I’d like to be doing more things together. Walks, hikes, bike rides, cultural events, board games. So I am resolved to try harder to draw the kids back into group activities that include me.

I spent far more time exercising outdoors than I do in a normal weekend at home. I ran five miles on Saturday and four on Sunday, and took an hour-long powerwalk on Saturday afternoon. I ended the day with the aching leg muscles that come from the kind of intensity I don’t normally experience anymore.

Though the greatest draw of the retreat weekend for me is always solitude, it’s also a good opportunity to visit with other people, and I had plenty of time over meals and other gathering times to catch up with long-time friends and meet new ones. The most significant impression the visits with old friends left me with is how much can change in a year. It’s been exactly 52 weeks since the last retreat, and that was when I last saw several of the women who were there. One, who was widowed three and a half years ago, has a new boyfriend. Another left her partner and says she is now much happier than she imagined she would be, enjoying old friends and a household to herself. One woman told me about her daughter’s joyful first semester at college; another described her son’s struggles with the intensity and sometimes eclectic constraints of his first few months at West Point. A grandmother with a granddaughter Holly’s age told me how her daughter handles 7-year-old tantrums. A new acquaintance told me about her husband’s hobby flying lightweight airplanes, something I’d never heard of before, and another new acquaintance told me about attending veterinary school in the West Indies.

In past years, I’ve returned home from these weekends to a minor dose of domestic chaos: messy household, needy children, those things popularly called fires to put out. This year it wasn’t like that. I came home midafternoon to a sparkling clean kitchen and the laundry I’d sorted on Friday all put away in drawers. Holly was playing with a friend; Tim was reading a book he’d picked up the day before. The kids told me about going out for dinner and an excursion to the local bookstore. Coming home to a peaceful household only enhanced the sense of peace that had developed during the retreat, and while I’m happy to be back, I’m also happy to have learned, heard, contemplated and discussed so much in the space of 48 hours.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Annual retreat weekend

I’m leaving town in a few hours and I feel so lucky. There is no one I’d rather be than me right now. Well, there are a lot of days on which I’d say there’s no one I’d rather be than me, but today I am feeling particularly gleeful with my good fortune. Every year since 2005, on the third weekend in January, I’ve joined a group of women from our church who go on a yearly weekend-long retreat, and I feel so fortunate to be able to go.

Year after year, it surprises and delights me that this group of women – there are usually a little more than 20 of us – are willing to be so self-indulgent. Though a few are retired, many still maintain busy careers , do significant community work and are raising children, and yet they commit to this getaway year after year. I’ve been to other retreats, but all the other retreats I’ve gone on have agendas, and what always amazes me about this one is that there’s no agenda other than to not have an agenda. There’s a written three-page document that we call our agenda, but what it really is is a schedule: a list of what time meals and yoga sessions and group art projects will take place. By agenda, I mean there’s nothing we as a group are intent on accomplishing together. I’ve been on writing retreats, in which the goal is to get a certain amount of writing done, and I’ve been on professional retreats, in which the goals are always both intimidating and soul-crushing: to come up with a new marketing strategy, to do a point-by-point analysis of the competition. Once my friend Anjali and I went on a spa retreat, which was wonderful in its own way but still had designated events: facial, massage, exercise class.

On this retreat, there are organized opportunities for those who want them, and many do. We usually have a group icebreaker on Friday after dinner, a poetry or writing session Saturday morning, an art project Saturday afternoon, a movie Saturday night, a worship service Sunday morning, plus abundant meals and cocktail hours. But no one is required to attend anything, and I usually don’t. Although I could very happily spend the weekend doing the planned activities and visiting with the other women, I always try to stay focused on my top priorities, which tend to be getting lots of writing done as well as some reading and some exercise.

This year, I have fewer specific writing projects I need to work on but do want to sketch out a few essay ideas; in terms of reading, I'm packing a novel I’d love to finish and a memoir I’m looking forward to beginning. I’m also bringing along a packet of four dozen photos from 2009 to file in an album, and I want to go for long runs both mornings. Although I’m usually the only runner there, the women in this group love to walk, and there are always plenty of opportunities to join other people for a good visit while on foot, so I’m hoping for a long walk or two as well.

But still: no agenda. Nothing that has to get accomplished, nothing that we as a group need to design or resolve in order to make the weekend a success. No one expects to structure a new campaign or lose five pounds. We’re going just for the sake of going, just because it’s a group that values devoting 48 hours a year to their own relaxation in convivial company. I feel so lucky to be included and so fortunate to be going once again.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

One Little Word, Redux: Is it really possible?

It wasn’t my intent to write about the “One Little Word” exercise for two days in a row, but since filing yesterday’s blog entry, I find my thoughts keeping returning to what I wrote. I thought I was happy with the entry when I posted it, but afterwards I started second-guessing myself. (It’s worth mentioning here that this is why veteran print journalists like myself are fascinated by blog technology: if you feel ambivalent enough, you can retract your post, which is a fairly mind-blowing thought to those of us raised on and trained in print media. So if I make a mistake or just feel foolish after writing it then poof, it’s gone? Well, yes.)

But in this case, it’s not that I feel inaccurate or even regretful, just ambivalent. And ambivalence is not a bad emotion for writers at all. In fact, when I was teaching writing through an adult education program, one of the perennially favorite exercises was the one that started with the phrase “I’m not sure how I feel about….” If there are things you’re not sure how you feel about, you will always have things to write about, I used to tell my class. I’m not sure how I feel about…the afterlife. Physician-assisted suicide. The imminent re-issue of The Babysitters Club series. My kids watching American Idol. Taxing cosmetic surgery. Getting cosmetic surgery. War in Afghanistan. And so on.

So for a writer, being ambivalent is often equivalent to being prolific, and that’s a good thing. But yesterday after claiming I’d chosen my One Little Word for the year, “possible,” I started questioning myself. Was that perhaps a bit too tepid? Possible? It’s possible? (I keep thinking of the Rogers & Hammerstein song from Cinderella, where the word “Impossible” morphs into “It’s possible.” Corny, but worth noting.) Was choosing such a benign word simply too noncommittal, like choosing “seasonal” or “maybe” or “sometimes” – words that no one could possibly dispute as far as their relevance to the upcoming year?

Well, maybe. And sometimes. But I maintain that possible still has salient meaning for me. I think the underlying emotion when I chose it was the sense that I do not have strongly formed goals or resolutions for 2010 the way I have some other years. I’m not looking for a specific new job or trying to finish one big writing project. I’m not determined to run a set number of miles or road races. It’s possible that never in my adult life have I been so uncertain about what I hope to see happen in the upcoming year. And part of this is because things are pretty good right now within my immediate sphere. I have a great roster of clients in my freelance writing realm, I’m working with a literary agent I like, my kids are happy and well-adjusted, my home life is stable, my family members and friends are healthy. It’s possible some of those things – or even all of them, though I sure hope not – will change. It’s possible some things will get better – even more great clients would be nice – and it’s possible, even likely, that some will get worse. It’s possible something big and dramatic will happen to me this year, but it’s also possible nothing huge will change.

So I think that’s why the word possible was the one that kept reverberating through my mind as I tried to come up with my One Little Word. I don’t know what to expect this year; I don’t even know what to hope for, beyond the obvious grand-scale hopes like an end to the ongoing war and relief for the tragedy-stricken people wandering through the earthquake-ravaged streets of Haiti today. Because my wishes and hopes are vague right now, anything really does seem possible. Which may be a tepid thing to say, but there are years for emphatic goals and years for indeterminate hopes, and for me this seems to be the latter. Anything is possible, and right now that’s as focused as I seem able to be as I look toward the developing year.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

The "one little word" challenge

Shortly after New Year’s, I found my way to this blog, which details the clever creative exercise of choosing one word to characterize the upcoming year. Of course, the choice is aspirational, since the year hasn’t happened yet: ideally, it serves as a guidepost and a benchmark for the year you hope to have as well as perhaps the year you anticipate having.

For me, there’s something so provocative about choosing one word for anything, let alone the character of the upcoming twelve months. Limiting words has always proved to be one of my greatest professional and creative challenges: on the macro scale, I consistently run over the word count prescribed by my editors for various assignments, and on the micro scale, one reason I get so much enjoyment from Twitter is the challenge it poses to frame cogent thoughts in 140 characters. When I was a copywriter, one of my primary responsibilities was writing direct-mail pieces and other short-form advertising pieces, and for me, short headlines and punchy blurbs were the hardest part of the job. I often said I’d rather be assigned one of the company’s 170-page catalogs than a 250-word direct mail pitch.

But I do like the one-word format of these challenges, similar to the one Elizabeth Gilbert describes in Eat, Pray, Love where she tries first to find a single word for the city of Rome and then a single word for herself. So often, the words we come up with in these challenges are both too restrictive – because who wants to winnow themselves down to a one-word label? -- and, paradoxically, too generic, because there are so many words for our lives that no one could possibly dispute. Several years ago, members of my former book group decided that the theme for our reading choices in the upcoming year should be “resilience.” I couldn’t resist a snicker at that: aren’t all works of fiction or narrative nonfiction on some level about resilience, either the presence or the absence thereof? Couldn’t it be argued that without at least a modicum of resilience, there’s no one left to describe a conflict?

But in fact, a lot of the words we might use for the grand themes in our lives have this same wide-focus problem. At a writers’ workshop in which we paused our writing to expand our creativity with a painting exercise, I overheard a participant say to the artist-in-residence, “I chose yellow. Isn’t yellow the color of change?” The artist responded, “Isn’t every color the color of change?"

In the blog entry that I was consulting for guidance on this practice, some of the choices were predictable – serenity, gratitude, hope – but their lack of uniqueness makes them no less valid. These are the themes almost all of us would wish to have touch our lives in an as-yet-unexperienced twelve months. And there were others on the list I hadn’t thought of: clarity, prosperous, wholehearted, gather.

For myself, I’m still thinking it over, but I keep coming back to my first choice being “possible.” At first I thought “possibilities,” but in a way that seems too biased in its positive connotations. “Possibilities” surely sound like all good things, and I want something a little bit grittier, a little bit more willing to acknowledge that good things may or may not happen. Even though it is almost the same word, “possible” sounds more neutral to me, and therefore more honest. It’s possible that I’ll have some degree of literary success this year; it’s possible I’ll get swine flu. It’s possible my family will get to go on a dream vacation this summer; it’s possible we’ll postpone that another year. Terrorist attacks are possible and so are new friends.

So my word, at least for now, is “possible.” Perhaps I too have cheated by choosing one that’s hard to argue with. Of course things are possible; how could they not be, other than in the most hopeless of situations? But maybe that’s the point right now. Good things or bad things might happen to me and around me, but nothing feels hopeless. It all feels, well, possible.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Coveting thy neighbor's Netbook, iPhone and wardrobe

Sometimes it’s hard not to covet, and other times I feel like I go the other extreme and use anti-materialism as an excuse for being negligent or sloppy. Often I’m not sure where the middle ground is.

As far as coveting, I have gadgety tendencies and find it easy to desire those electronics and office accessories that seem to make life easier. I’m the only person I know – well, not the only person, but the only 40-something semi-professional in Carlisle – who doesn’t have a cell phone that can do more than just call people, and I’m the only serious writer I know who doesn’t have a Netbook. One evening last week, I was feeling covetous and fell into a long contemplation on which I would rather have: an iPhone or a Netbook. With a Netbook, I could write and have web access even when I was away from my home office. Currently I have a little Alphasmart, which is a portable word processor that can store a few files and then sync up to my computer. This is enough to enable me to draft documents when I’m away from home; it’s just that the small screen prevents me from doing much revising.

Then I thought about the iPhone. With an iPhone, I could email or look things up on the web from anywhere, though that wouldn’t expand my portable writing options much. I covet both; I couldn’t decide which would help me more in the long run.

But after spending a couple of hours not only thinking about iPhones and Netbooks but even doing some online “window shopping” (screen shopping?), I woke up the next day thinking I didn’t really need either one that much. The fact is, I can write when I’m away from home – whether at Starbucks for the afternoon or on a weekend getaway or even in the car while Rick is driving – on my Alphasmart, and I’m not convinced that having constant portable access to email, Twitter or other internet functions would actually be a good thing for me. Sometimes, walking away from my desktop computer and over to where other activities are going on – such as where the kids are playing, or into the kitchen where I should be preparing dinner – is the most effective way for me to switch my concentration away from work and on to other equally important things. With portable email, I fear I’d be one of those people who Never Stops Checking, and the fact is, I’m not someone who gets constant emails or tweets or instant messages. Maybe having more access to email would only serve to underscore the occasional sense that I’m not in very high demand.

I covet electronics, and I also covet clothes. It seems everything I own right now is at least four years old and doesn’t fit me very well anymore; and yet now that I work from home and hang in not-very-fashion-conscious social circles, I can’t justify to myself the need to buy more clothes, or accessories, or jewelry. So instead I try to affirm the positive value of being minimalist; I tell myself not acquiring a lot is a positive thing; it’s good to be light on one’s feet and not carry a lot of clutter on one’s person or in one’s household.

At the same time, it’s possible to be too minimalist. I feel a certain disdain for people who find it too easy to disregard style, in terms of their clothing or their home. The world is, after all, full of beautiful things for the body and the home; to appreciate them is part of cultivating an aesthetic sense. I admire those people whose beautifully decorated homes reflect not the message that they can afford to buy a lot but that they possess inherent artistic style. It’s easy for me to say “Oh, I’m a minimalist, I do well with clean lines and a lot of open space in my home rather than a lot of knickknacks,” but the reality is that I’m not very good at choosing things for my home, even things that might enhance those clean lines and sunny spaces. Sometimes it seems to me it’s almost too easy to be anti-materialist; it becomes an excuse for not even trying to appreciate things of aesthetic value.

So for today, I’m writing on my portable word processor at the indoor pool while the kids swim, unable to indulge in the distraction of checking email or Twitter. Back home, my bedroom is, at the moment, neat but not overly accessorized. My clothes for today are very plain but clean and undamaged. I’ll just tell myself that I’m doing fine, in my minimalist way, and leave the tabletop candles, the trendy jewelry and the newest seasonal fashions -- along with the latest electronics -- to those who can pull them off in a way that I don’t seem able to do.

Monday, January 11, 2010

It's National Clean Off Your Desk Day!

After learning via Twitter that it’s National Clean Off Your Desk Day and finding out through some quick research that this annual event takes place every year on the second Monday in January, I started thinking about a good exercise for home-office workers: List What’s on Your Desk.

But the phrase “clean off your desk” also reminded me of a company I worked at ten years ago that had a so-called “clean desk policy,” meaning every employee was expected to leave a pristine work surface in his or her wake at the end of the day. Although I chafed at the implied paternalism of allowing Corporate to dictate my office organization habits, I have to admit it was a worthwhile standard to try to uphold. Leaving a bare desk surface is really just a visual representation for having reached the end of your To Do list by the end of the day. If your goal is to leave your desk clean, that suggests that the expectation is that you will get to everything you absolutely must do before the day ends. Or you won’t leave the office until you’ve gotten to that point, regardless of what time it might be. Walking through the halls at the end of the day at that company and seeing all those shiny green desktops gleaming in the nighttime fluorescent light did convey a sense of efficiency; you felt that you were truly walking through a business in which people spent their days accomplishing things and then went home with a clean conscience along with a clean desk.

Needless to say, employees found ways around this policy when necessary. There are desk drawers to place unfinished work in, of course, and there is also the ever-convenient desk chair, which ensures – unlike a drawer – that you will see the unfinished pile as soon as you arrive the next morning. Moreover, the idea of paperwork representing unfinished work is somewhat anachronistic, as electronic files make for a paper-light, if never truly paperless, office. These days you could have a clean desktop but a full email in-box, and leave a neat office at the end of the day without having accomplished much of anything at all.

Which brings me to the home office in which I am sitting right now. Although I do generally work almost paper-free, relying on electronic files for documentation, websites for research and information, and email for all correspondence, you wouldn’t know it to look at my desk. Here’s what’s on it right now:

* A stack of stories, handwritten in pencil on blue-lined primary-book pages, from my daughter Holly’s second grade class. The teacher needed a parent volunteer to type the stories up, and I offered to do so. At this point I’ve finished two and a half stories out of twenty, so I still have some work to do.

* A book called Running the Spiritual Path: A runner’s guide to breathing, meditating, and exploring the prayerful dimension of the sport by Roger D. Joslin. This book was recommended to me by Episcopal priest Tim Schenck of St. John the Evangelist Church in Hingham when I mentioned to him that I had been asked to give a church sermon on the spiritual aspects of running at the end of this month. I started the book yesterday and haven’t yet started drafting the sermon, but seeing the book on my desk reminds me that I’d better get going on it.

* A stack of odds and ends including empty picture frames, a box of child-protector drawer locks and a can opener. These are items I found yesterday while cleaning out the junk drawer in the kitchen; my goal is to take them up to our third floor attic and put them in a box destined for the swap shed at the town transfer station, which means of course that I’m bringing them up two flights of stairs only to eventually bring them back down and put them in the car, but it will get them out of sight for the time being.

* A plate with bagel crumbs. No further explanation needed, I imagine.

* A plush red cube-shaped beanbag about 2” square, one from a set of three that my 11-year-old son Tim is using to learn to juggle.

* A papier-mache dragon painted bright pink, purple, orange and green that Tim made in school last year while studying the Chinese New Year.

* A birthday card from Holly with the following penciled inscription: “Wat are you wishing for, wat is your grant. It’s the pretest thing in all the land. I wish I could help with all the hard work…and aspeshally the wish which I’d make come true!” Technicolored magic marker hearts and rainbows encircle the text.

* A pencil mug from my 20th high school reunion.

* A ceramic box holding paper clips and rubber bands that Holly made on her last trip to the pottery painting studio.

So as you can see, I’m a long way from a clean-desk policy here in my home office, but it could be worse. The artifacts and card are cheerful to glimpse as I work; the running book reminds me to get started on the sermon; the second graders’ stories urge me to get that project done as promised. The juggling cube makes me wonder whether Tim will get good at juggling. It’s an inspiring mix of distractions, even though Corporate at my former company would surely disapprove.

As for other home office workers: What’s on your desk right now, and what does it say about your life?

Friday, January 8, 2010

Remorse over letting a beautiful day get away

I can’t help feeling like I blew it yesterday. And as trivial a matter as it was, I can’t stop feeling remorseful about it today.

I went out for my daily run at about 10 AM and did a short one, just barely over the minimum mile necessary to maintain my daily running streak. At this time of year, with six inches or more of snow on the ground, it’s hard to do much more than a mile with the dog because the footpaths aren’t cleared and I don’t feel safe running with her on the road, so up and down our long common driveway is about the best I can do.

But it was a sparkling sunny day, not as chilly as earlier in the week, and as I finished up my 15 minutes of running, I found myself thinking, “This is the kind of day that would be perfect for snowshoeing.”

But I didn’t go snowshoeing, and that’s the source of the remorse: because there was simply no reason not to. I had a couple of deadlines to meet but knew I could wrap them up shortly after noon, if I put in a little extra effort. The kids were at school and no one needed me home. There was no reason not to agree with myself immediately and put a plan into action: “Yes, this would be a perfect day for snowshoeing, so let me just finish those two articles and take care of that 12:00 conference call and then I’ll go!”

What really bothers me about it is that I can think of so many times when I’ve had similar impulses but following through simply wasn’t the viable option that it was yesterday. When I was working full-time, I would often look out the window and think “If only I didn’t have to be in this horrid office building, I’d go for a long walk.” When I was a stay-at-home mom with small children, I’d think “If I didn’t have a baby to care for today, I’d go out and enjoy the beautiful weather, but it’s too cold to bundle her up, and I’m not really sure I can manage snowshoes with a baby in a backpack on my back…” Back when I lived in a different town, I would think “If only I lived in a beautiful place with fields and woods for tromping through, I’d go snowshoeing on a day like this.” But now I do, and I still wasn’t heading out. And even as I thought about those real-life situations, I could imagine other, worse situations in which one might look out the window and dream of snowshoeing in the bright sunlight: from a hospital room while watching over a sick family member, for example. Or from prison.

And none of those was the case yesterday. Not only was I not in prison or intensive care, I didn’t even have to wait for a repair person to show up or take part in a conference call that couldn't be rescheduled. I had at least two hours, maybe more, when not a soul in the world would have been negatively impacted if I’d walked out of the house and cut across the fields in my snowshoes. The dog would have loved it; I would have felt good for the rest of the day for having gotten in an extra workout. My endorphins would have been soaring all afternoon, and quite likely in the meditative silence I would have come up with a new article possibility or essay idea that could have been fruitful to future work.

But it didn’t happen. I have no excuse; it just didn’t happen. I went back inside after my short run and started e-mailing and copy-editing and doing other things that did not absolutely have to be done on the sunniest, most beautiful January day of the season. And I’ve regretted it ever since.

It’s so easy to stagnate, to submit to the lure of inertia, and sit down indoors rather than strap on the snowshoes. But there are days like yesterday that truly feel like once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Today is grayer, with light snow falling, but I’m going to try to get out anyway. I feel like I owe it to the universe to get out there today, to appreciate the opportunity and to try to make up for the one perfect day yesterday that I let get away for no good reason whatsoever.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

What I've lost

I am not a loser.

I don’t mean that exactly the way it sounds. Not the way we used the term in high school, anyway. In that context, the status of my loserdom is not for me to judge. What I mean is I’m not someone who loses things.

I’ve been thinking about this for a while and was surprised to see this essay in today’s Boston Globe by Professor Robert Brown, who apparently is a loser: that is, someone who accuses himself of frequently losing things.

When I misplace something, it’s the exception rather than the rule. I think this is for a number of reasons. The foremost explanation is probably just that we keep our house unusually tidy. (I say “unusually” because so many other people have remarked upon the neatness of our house over the years. To me, it seems reasonably tidy, not remarkably so, but enough visitors have commented on the way we keep our house over the years that I’ve come to see it as exceptional.) It’s hard to misplace things when drawers stay organized and surfaces bare to the extent that items placed anywhere are readily visible.

I think it’s also to some extent a matter of focus. People who lose things sometimes make rapid mental transitions from one thing to the next: for example, they’ll enter their house with keys in hand and immediately go see what their children are doing or listen to phone messages, meaning that keys get put down after the next activity has already begun. The first thing I do when I enter the house with keys is put keys away. The first thing I do when I receive a check in the mail is put it in my wallet for deposit. And so on.

But once in a while I do misplace things, and it bothers me for a long time when that happens. This month there are two things I can’t find, and they are distracting me inordinately. Well, one is a distraction; the other is just a frustration, but I’m not still looking for it because I know it’s long gone. The one I know is long gone is an envelope that Tim’s report card arrived in. Unbeknownst to me at the time, I was supposed to sign the report card and return it to the school. Although this instruction must have appeared somewhere, I think I disregarded it because we were going in for a conference with Tim’s teachers the next week so I didn’t think there was the need for further proof that I’d received his report card, but yesterday – nearly a month after the fact – I received an automated call from the school saying that I was late in returning the signed envelope. It is not in the paperwork basket where I normally leave paperwork that needs to be sent back out of the house, and it’s not in Tim’s backpack: both the basket and the backpack are as neat and organized as ever, and the envelope would be readily apparent if it were either place. I think I must have accidentally recycled it with other empty envelopes. I emailed Tim’s teacher, apologizing profusely but admitting that I did not think I’d be able to come up with it and asking her what corrective steps I could take.

The other thing I can’t find bothers me more. It is a key, not a key to a lock but the key that winds an antique tabletop clock we inherited from my grandparents. I have always kept it in a tiny china vase next to the clock, and although the vase is still there I haven’t been able to find the key for weeks. Now I can’t wind the clock, and so of course it has stopped, which bothers me. I keep thinking of that mundane yet creepy children’s song about the clock that held the grandfather’s spirit. My grandmother – who, it should be noted, was a world-class champion at losing things; there are those who believe the national debt could be balanced with the jewels, cash and credit cards she misplaced over her lifetime – managed to keep that clock wound weekly, and now I’ve let it stop because I can’t find that key.

A few days ago, having checked every decorative bowl, box and other vessel-shaped knickknack into which a small child might stash something he or she picked up, peered under every baseboard, and even sifted through the vacuum cleaner bag, I realized that there might be a resolution to the problem other than finding the key. We know two local clockmakers; I could ask them about whether there might be another key in existence that would fit the clock or whether I could have a new one made; or maybe another tool, such as jeweler’s pliers, could be used to wind the clock in the meantime.

I’m not going to do anything about it for a little while longer, because our monthly housecleaner comes next week and my last hope for finding the key is that she’ll come across it while cleaning. In the meantime, I’ll keep searching, and hoping it turns up, and reminding myself that there are other solutions to the problem of winding the clock. In some respects, occasionally losing something might be less an opportunity for self-recrimnation than a chance to relax rigid thought patterns and come up with creative solutions. I’ll find out from my son’s teacher how to resolve the problem with the missing envelope, and I’ll continue being my generally well-organized, well-focused self in hopes of not losing anything else important for a long time.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

January farm scene

Midwinter is a breathtakingly beautiful time of year here. This week, a thick snow cover lies over the ground; the tree branches are bare. Today the sun is beaming out of a milky blue sky, and the trees and fence posts throw crisp shadows onto the snow cover.

December, even after snow falls, often has a muddier cast. Because the temperatures are warmer then, the snow that falls often partially melts on a ground that is not entirely frozen to begin with. But now, in the coldest part of the year, no mud mars the sparkling whiteness. The fields shimmer with gently rolling curves of snow; the pond is indistinguishable from the surrounding pasture other than being flatter. The dog runs across it, looking confused by her new ease of access through the woods where once a large body of water lay.

When I go out in the mornings now to feed the cows, I find them standing shoulder to shoulder by the barn waiting for me. Their spirits apparently rise as hay bales tumble from the loft; they butt each other out of the way to get their heads into the bales even though there’s enough for everyone, not just in the general sense but quite specifically: I feed out six bales for six animals. Nonetheless, for reasons I can’t understand, they clump together, preferring to shove each other around over one or two bales than to spread out a little and eat solo. It’s tempting to anthropomorphize and assume they prefer the conviviality of breaking bread (or hay) together, but that seems so counterintuitive based on what we know about animal nature that I can’t believe it’s that simple. The sheep, meanwhile, trot out of their enclosure when I open the gate and find four or five untouched bales in their path; since this is four or five times more than they normally eat, this has to be pleasing to them.

What strikes me most at this time of year, even more than the beauty of a pristine blanket of snow or the sharp gray branches and evergreen needles against the blue sky outside my home office window, is the light at the end of the afternoon. Just two weeks past the winter Solstice, I know the days aren’t growing substantially longer yet, but the light appears different to me than it did a month ago. Late November and December afternoon light has such a grayish muddy look, like the ground, as if the early sunset means the afternoon never opens up entirely to daylight. At this time of year, perhaps because of the sparkling white snow cover or perhaps because of something more celestial, the late-afternoon light looks brighter to me, even just before sunset.

Whatever the reason, it feels like a promise of milder days and longer afternoons ahead, but there’s no rush. Right now we are in the coldest and most frozen time of year, and that has its own beauty, a winter luminescence of snow and ice and blue sky. When I go running midmorning these days, I frequently see the brilliant red feathers of cardinals in the trees, or the bright blue of a blue jay flying by. The colors are sharp, the cold bracing, the air clear, and the winter breathtakingly lovely, and so right now there’s no hurry for spring.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Let's pretend we're having a meeting

Kids who enjoy games of pretend as much as my 7-year-old does – the technical term, I now know after having two children go through kindergarten, is “dramatic play,” but the use of the word “dramatic” always makes me laugh in the context of small children – tend to favor scenarios depicting real-life events. My daughter and her friends play school, house and birthday party; they never play “climbing Mount Everest” or “deep-sea scuba expedition.” Although I’m occasionally surprised that my daughter still keeps busy with imaginary friends well into second grade, the pretending games themselves aren’t foreign to me; my sisters and I played a game in which we were caterers until we were, okay, if not old enough to hire our own caterers then at least old enough to get jobs with real caterers.

Still, the allure of reality-based pretending exceeded even my experience yesterday afternoon when, as I prepared dinner, Holly announced we were going to play “Meeting.” She instructed me to meet her in the kitchen with a notebook and pen, because I’d have a lot of notes to take during this pretend meeting.

It’s so amusing to me that she chooses one of the hands-down most mundane elements of adult life to turn into a game. I think of meetings as one of my least favorite components in a typical week. I’ve been known to declare at church that I’d rather single-handedly update the entire membership directory in longhand than attend a meeting about it.

At yesterday’s pretend meeting, which Holly explained to me was a gathering of “the Rufflemuffle Committee” (“and you have to be invited,” she clarified, so I guess I was meant to feel honored), the first order of business was for me to be introduced individually to each of the other two-dozen or so participants. Even as she presented me to each of my invisible peers, Holly made small talk about how she was sure I’d met most of them before: “Kayla was at that party I had last spring. Jenna owns the house where I house-sat over Christmas. Petey was on that other committee with you last year. Ellen –“

“—ran over my dog,” I interrupted.

Holly glared at me. She never appreciates my obnoxious attempts to amuse myself at her imaginary friends’ expense.

Introductions over, Holly brought the meeting to order and gave us our assignment. “Everybody write a list of the things you like about ice cream,” she instructed. That was easy; I could complete the task even while I tore up lettuce leaves for a salad. “Variety of flavors. Sweet. Creamy. Rich,” I wrote.

“Good. Now everybody write a list of the things you like about cake,” Holly ordered. This exercise, I discovered, was a little bit more challenging. I do love cake but couldn’t come up with as many reasons. “Crumbly. Moist. The frosting,” I wrote a little bit more pensively.

The last instruction proved to be the hardest. “Now, a list of what you like about meetings,” Holly said.

Meetings! I don’t like anything about meetings! I looked at Holly and she frowned back at me. “Write!” she hissed. “Everyone else is!” I could almost hear their imaginary pencils scratching against imaginary paper.

“Refreshments,” I wrote. “A comfortable place to sit down.” I thought harder. “Getting together with other people.” There had to be more. “Coming up with ideas. Feeling like you’re going to accomplish something as a group.”

Strange, I realized as I was writing, this isn’t as hard as I thought it would be. And it made me appreciate Holly’s pretending in a way I hadn’t before, because by turning a regular element of my life into something of a masquerade, she had helped me see it in a different way. All of the components on my last list really were things I liked about meetings.

Perhaps not coincidentally, I actually had a meeting that evening after dinner, the monthly meeting of a nonprofit board of which I’m a member. As I sat at that meeting taking notes, I had to acknowledge that I actually was having more fun than usual. People were making amusing comments; some of the issues we needed to resolve were thought-provoking; and the decisions about whom to invite as a keynote speaker at our spring event would be fun to discuss.

So I learned something, thanks to Holly. Meetings aren’t so bad, as seen through a child’s eyes. Now maybe we can play an imaginary game of dental surgery or trip to the Registry of Motor Vehicles. Maybe Holly and her imaginary posse can make events even that mundane seem fun too.

Monday, January 4, 2010

My New Year's Resolution: To wake earlier

I made only one New Year’s resolution this month, and it is this: I will try to arise earlier in the morning, even when I don’t have to.

“That’s not a good resolution for you,” Rick declared. “You should resolve to get more sleep, not get up earlier.”

He’s right that I do need more sleep. Like most mothers of school-aged (or younger) children, I work hard all day to maintain my household, my career and my family’s lives and then greedily hoard the late-night hours for those matters that require my undivided concentration. When dusk falls I always promise myself I’m going to get to bed at a reasonable hour, but once both children are asleep, the temptation to savor the silence rather than to sleep through it usually proves irresistible.

Jerry Seinfeld did a very true-to-life, at least true-to-my-life, monologue about “The Morning Guy” and “The Night Guy.” The Night Guy is the hedonist, always insisting that those few more hours of waking time won’t really hurt anything. The Morning Guy is the working stiff always faced with the reality that it’s really hard to get up after five or six hours of sleep, and Morning Guy makes impassioned speeches to Night Guy about being more reasonable and more considerate in the future, about acknowledging that it’s Morning Guy who will have to pay for Night Guy’s bad choices. But Night Guy laughs it off once evening comes again, insisting that (at least in my case) the relief of having finished an assignment, or the rush of triumph I get after coming up with a new story idea, or even the warm glow of conviviality from an enjoyable email exchange with a friend, will more than compensate for the early morning exhaustion.

But I’m always wrong, of course, and feel lousy after six hours of sleep even if I wake with the knowledge that staying up late the night before allowed me to turn in a story on time or craft a seemingly brilliant first draft of an essay. Or relay to a friend a hilarious story about the kids.

Nonetheless, getting to bed earlier isn’t the focus of my resolution, though it may be the necessary corollary; getting up earlier is. On weekdays I need to arise only about five more minutes than I normally do in order to keep everything running smoothly, and that shouldn’t be too hard to pull off; it’s weekends and other non-school days toward which this resolution is really targeted. I know there are beautiful early-morning hours in which I could be writing, exercising or just enjoying the solitude – indeed, the same solitude that I often stay up until nearly midnight to exalt in – but I am instead sleeping through them. I remind myself of that old faithful rule of thumb that habits take three weeks to instill, and if I could just get over the pain of those first three weeks, the payoff would be indisputable: I’d be an early morning person, greeting the dawn, and two hours later greeting my waking family with the smug awareness that I’d already accomplished precious minutes of creativity, or meditation, or something else important. (Of course, since this resolution really pertains only to weekends, three weeks could take me almost four months to accrue, but I’ll try not to think along those self-defeating lines right now.)

The obstacle is that it’s just so easy for me to justify my submission to the urge to sleep late. I tell myself it’s one of the only self-indulgences that costs neither money nor calories. It harms no one – even sleeping until 8 on weekends, I’m still up as the rest of my family is waking – and it gives me so much immediate pleasure. I also remind myself of the years with babies and young children when sleeping late was almost never an option, and how much I craved it then, and how reasonable it therefore is to give in to this small luxury now.

But then I remind myself of the other side of the coin. A lot of times on weekends or school vacation days when I sleep until 8, I feel stressed and frazzled for at least the next four hours, trying to make up for it. If there’s someplace I need to be in the morning (and more often than not there is, between church on Sundays and the usual social or other commitments on Saturdays), I’m usually running late for it because I indulged in extra sleep. I burden myself with the mental stress of rushing, or leaving the house messier than I’d like, or omitting an important-but-nonessential morning task like walking the dog.

I was already thinking about this resolution at the very end of December when I visited a cousin who just moved to a house on the beach. She told me about her new ritual: running along the water’s edge before sunrise every morning. She leaves the house at 6 AM to do this. And I realized that if I can’t overcome my late-sleeping tendencies, I might never have the experience of running by the beach at sunrise, given that I live inland and if I ever wake near the beach, it is likely to be on a weekend or vacation day. And then, as if I needed an even more tangible omen, as I was taking a quick tour of her new beachside house I spotted on her bedside table a volume by the poet Mary Oliver entitled Why I Wake Early.

We had a lot to catch up on, so I did not stop then to ask her about the book, but later in the week I looked up the title poem myself. It opens like this:
Hello, sun in my face.
And ends, three stanzas later, like this:
Watch, now, how I start the day
in happiness, in kindness.

I’ve heard that waking early is a typical symptom of aging, and I have to say it’s probably the only one I look forward to. In the meantime, I’ll continue to pursue my resolution. On January 1, since we’d been up well past midnight the night before, I didn’t even bother to try (this is perhaps one resolution that by definition should not kick in until January 2). On January 2, I failed dismally, waking at 7 and easily persuading myself that school vacation was almost over and surely I deserved one more morning of laziness, upon which I feel back asleep until 8. But on January 3, the last Sunday of the vacation, I was up at 7.

There are a lot of online articles around this time of year about how not to break resolutions, but unlike glassware, broken resolutions can fairly easily be fixed. I did poorly the first day of my campaign but did well the second, and hope that by writing about it here my success will continue. Night Guy will learn that no one is listening when he says an extra half-hour at the computer late at night won’t really hurt anything. And maybe by summer vacation, I’ll be ready for that 6 AM run on the beach.