Friday, February 26, 2010

The best of running, the worst of running

This past week, to borrow an opening from Tale of Two Cities, it was the best of running, it was the worst of running.

My sense of elocution tells me that a more correct way to phrase that would be “It was the best of runs, it was the worst of runs,” but I can’t get away from a distasteful image behind the phrase “worst of runs” (not to mention “best of runs”!), and besides, it reminds me of my 7-year-old’s expression for her new favorite breakfast of a soft-boiled egg: “Mommy, can you make me an egg with a runny nose?”

Last Saturday, I ran five miles, and it was the best kind of running. With temperatures in the high 30’s, the air was cool and raw. There was no precipitation but enough moisture in the atmosphere to feel like a salve on my lungs as I breathed in and out. Layers of fleece kept me plenty warm enough, and a varied playlist of podcasts from NPR, the New Yorker, and the New York Times Book Review kept me mentally occupied for a solid 50 minutes. Traffic wasn’t a problem on a weekend morning as I ran through the Town Center, out toward Concord, across Russell and School Streets toward home. Friends drove by, and I ran past the houses of more friends. It was running at its best, and so satisfying to be covering some decent distance after several weeks of really short running distances.

Midweek this week was, conversely, the worst kind of running. I’ve often quoted Amby Burfoot’s comment that “There is no bad weather for running. Well, if there is any bad weather for running, maybe it is 34 degrees and raining.” The past three days have been high 30’s and raining, and it’s been dreary. Deep slushy puddles populate our long dirt driveway, and my feet get soaked within minutes of leaving the house. I spend the run dreaming of soaking my bare feet in a very hot bath. The dog, who likes running but doesn’t like rain, stops to shake herself hard every ten seconds or so, forcing me to dodge her to avoid stumbling. Mud splashes up over my ankles and I’m just glad to get fifteen minutes or so done, to clock just a little more than my daily minimum mile, and be done for the day, returning with soaking wet hat, jacket, gloves and shoes.

But daily runners know all about the best and worst of running. If we didn’t commit to running every single day, we could avoid the worsts. We could stay in on days like yesterday (or the day before, or the day before that). We could exercise via treadmill. With 930 days of consecutive outdoor daily running under my belt as of today, though, I can only say that being out in that kind of weather is part of the experience.

When my son Tim was a daily runner along with me, we often commented on how miserable weather is just something you make yourself get through, and the opposite, the kind of day I had last Saturday when I did my five-miler, is the reward for getting yourself out in the sleet and slush on the bad days. Though the metaphor may not be subtle, it was a useful lesson for Tim when he was 9 and 10 years old and it continues to be a useful reminder to me at four times that age. Some days are better than others. Some days the air feels pure and fresh in your lungs and you glide along for nearly an hour just happy to be out enjoying the scenery; other days you slog for fifteen minutes and feel grateful as soon as it’s over. But you never regret having gone out, no matter what the weather. And no matter how trivial the pursuit of daily running, you still always reap the rewards of knowing you succeeded at the simple goal of getting out for a mile that day.

When the weather is dreary, I spend a lot of the run thinking about how glad I’ll be to get home. Running every day despite the weather reinforces my innate gratitude for a warm house to which I can return when the run is over. Knowing I choose to be out in the cold rain and can take a hot shower when I’m done makes me think about the earthquake survivors in Haiti who will be living unprotected on the streets as the heavy rains come later this spring, and of course I don’t need to reach that far geographically to find people to sympathize with; there are men and women just 20 miles away on the streets of Cambridge and Boston who don’t have the luxury of retreating into a warm house when the 15 minutes of outdoor exposure are over.

So I’ll be grateful for both: the joyful five-mile gliding run on a cool clear late-winter morning, and the miserable one-mile out-and-back in the sleet and mud. No matter how obvious the metaphor, it’s always good to be reminded of the contrasts life holds, and how the most important lessons to take from the cold and miserable days are that better days lie both behind you and ahead of you, and that as long as shelter and a hot shower await, there’s really no reason not to push yourself out into the cold.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Why I bother to blog every day

The BubbleCow blog for writers posted an entry recently titled “You should blog every day.” Good, I thought upon seeing the headline, because that’s just what I do. Now tell me why.

My blog is almost exactly six months old today. Since launching it at the end of August 2009, I’ve posted five days a week, skipping only major holidays. (And yes, it’s possible that come June you’ll hear me argue that Arbor Day is a major holiday. But so far I’ve been honest, taking off only the major ones.)

I can’t remember exactly where I picked up the idea I should post every day. But I’ve maintained that standard diligently. Occasionally when I check my numbers, though, I have that slight tree-falls-in-a-forest feeling. If only a few people visited my blog on any given day, do I still need a new post the next day? Who’s going to know?

Whether or not it matters to anyone but me, I do post something new every day. One reason I blog every day is the same reason I run every day (as I wrote about here) and write in my journal every day (as I wrote about here): because it’s easier to maintain a daily standard than to spend time every morning debating with myself as to whether or not it’s an appropriate day for a blog entry. As with running and journaling, I fall back on my trusty “Just do it” standard. It’s easier for me to blog than to engage in an internal debate with myself.

I also love the workout it gives my writing skills. Coming up with a cogent theme five days a week is an awesome and often thrilling challenge. While it’s true that I’ve been journaling one thousand or more words every day for more than 15 years, that’s a different kind of artistic discipline. I give myself permission to be boring and stupid in my journal. I give myself permission to write about how there’s nothing to write about. I give myself permission to vent circuitously without letting my words lead me to any conclusion, punch line, sound bite.

But while some of my blog entries may be trivial and others really trivial, I still attempt to tease out a theme or topic every day. And I love that part of the exercise, finding a theme worth covering every 24 hours. Going running. The kids’ homework. Watching my daughter sled. Re-reading Little House on the Prairie. Dealing with an email hacker. A trip to the dentist.

Worth writing about? Really? Sure, why not? Therein lies the challenge: finding a reason to write about any of those things.

Making myself write about something, anything, every single day means that I’ve abandoned my old habit of “stockpiling” ideas. Before I started my blog, I would think of things all the time and tell myself, “I’ll write an essay about that…someday.” Then when it was time to submit my monthly column for our local newspaper, I’d inevitably have forgotten all those ideas – or, even if I’d bothered to make a note of the ideas, lost sight of why it seemed like an important topic to me – and I’d be once again waiting for inspiration to strike. And I’ve discovered over the years that waiting to write until inspiration strikes means one of two things: facing a deadline with a very, very blank page or staying up until two in the morning to capture what suddenly seems like the most compelling thesis in the world.

These days, every idea gets tested out. Some merit further revisions and submission; others get their 24 hours on my blog and then disappear, not to be revisited. But blogging daily is like holding a regular brainstorming session with your own muses: you get the ideas out there quickly and regularly, and then you can go back and see which ones are worth hanging on to. Earlier this week, I faced a monthly column deadline and turned to my blog to see what I’d written that I might want to further develop; I was surprised to find an entry from weeks ago that seemed to me like it merited further consideration. I grabbed it, revised a little, and sent it off not to our community newspaper but to my editor at the Boston Globe, who wrote back within the hour saying she wanted to use it.

So, encouraged by BubbleCow that it really is worthwhile, I’ll continue blogging from Monday to Friday. As I see it, now that I’m exclusively self-employed, it’s part of my job. And even if the output doesn’t end up mattering a whole lot to anyone, as with running, I’ll keep doing it daily just for the workout.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

My time of day (with apologies to Frank Loesser)

I’ve decided that, like Sky Masterson in the Broadway musical Guys and Dolls, I have “my time of day.” But whereas Sky’s is “a few deals before dawn,” my time of day is from 4 to 6 in the afternoon. All the things at which I feel most competent happen around then.

Stay-at-home parents caring for infants often know this same time of day as “the witching hour.” Though I’m not sure of the scientific reasons, it’s when colicky babies tend to rev up their fussiness, and even non-colicky babies often have a fussy time shortly before dinner. It’s when weary postpartum mothers do the thing my sister once described as holding the baby and staring frantically at the back of the front door, waiting for dad to walk in and provide some relief or at least some company. And for parents who have older children as well as babies, it’s when toddlers and preschoolers also start to get hungry and irritable and not interested in taking their place in line behind the baby’s needs.

I’ve gone through all of that myself, but it seems like a long time ago now. These days, the late afternoon is the easiest, coziest and often most relaxing part of my day. I’ve exercised myself and the dog, and I’ve had my six or more solid hours in which to work. By 4:00, both kids are home from school and I’m ready to devote my attention to children and household.

But neither children nor household have the demands they did years ago. The children are generally cheerful when they get home from school, and the household isn’t suffering from a day of neglect. Instead, I close up my work for the day – or at least commit to stepping away from it for several hours, even if a post-dinner check-in or an hour of writing later in the evening is inevitable – and tell myself that whatever deadlines I met or missed, whatever assignments I nailed or failed, I've done my best and everything else can wait for the next morning. I fix the kids a snack; they are easy to accommodate these days, with their requests for cinnamon toast or apple slices. In the winter they like hot chocolate, which I’ve learned is no trouble to make and so much better than the powdered form. I turn on NPR and listen to the headlines with one ear while the two of them tell me about what happened at school. They sort through their backpacks and bring me memos I’m supposed to read or graded tests they want me to see.

Then they settle down to their homework, which seldom takes either of them more than 30 minutes or so. I get organized to make dinner. Almost two years after leaving full-time work, I still appreciate the luxury of being able to start dinner preparations at 5:00 and take the time to make what I really want to make rather than rushing in the door at 6:00 to heat up whatever I’ve hopefully had the forethought to have ready ahead of time.

It’s a part of the day, perhaps the only part of the day, in which time seems to stretch, and all three of us react to it by relaxing. In the morning there’s the rush of getting everyone fed and organized and out the door; after dinner I still spend inordinately long trying to get Holly through her evening routine of teeth-brushing and room-tidying and putting on pj’s, and it gets wearisome. But from 4 to 6, everything seems easy. I can browse through the mail, make a phone call, let the dog in and out as she wishes. I brew coffee, or fix myself some cheese and crackers. I fold a basket of laundry while the kids read or play.

So Sky Masterson sang the pleasures of the hours before dawn, when the streets belonged to “the janitor and the cop”; I’m happy to have my cozy late-afternoon interval, when everything that needs to get done seems easy. What was once the witching hour is now the serenity window in my day. I’m always grateful for those peaceful two hours when they roll around nearly every weekday afternoon.

Overcoming inertia for a trip to the Institute of Contemporary Art

On Sunday, we took a family excursion to the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston: both kids, my husband Rick, and me. My mother came with us as well.

This was a big deal for us. We four are not a good family for cultural excursions. We’d rather be doing something physical, something outdoors. We’d rather bike, swim, go boating, or go snowshoeing, as we did last week, than visit a museum.

Often, I can rationalize this fact about us. In my mind, when I propose a trip to a museum or architectural landmark and the rest of the family votes me down, I give them credit for valuing outdoor recreation, for appreciating the pleasures of the fields and woods and country lanes surrounding our house rather than wanting to get into the car and drive for 45 minutes into the city to pay admission to look at art or scientific wonders.

But recently I’ve resolved to try harder to get my family out of our comfort zone. As I wrote about here, there’s a fine line sometimes between appreciating what you have and becoming quasi-agoraphobic. Much of the time I too would far rather read, go for a walk or cook something than pack up and go somewhere. But it’s important to let the outside world in, and I feel like my family is at a point where I have to make it more of a priority.

The Institute of Contemporary Art was a fabulous destination for us. Even if Tim hadn’t been engaged by the contents of the museum, he would have been happy just with the view out over the water; he loves to see boats, both moored and under steam. Holly, my little artist, is always curious about how works of art are made, and the ICA has wonders of all kinds from an artistic perspective: photography, sculpture, even video art. Both kids were fascinated by the giant glass elevator in the center of the building; just watching the elevator and looking out at the harbor could have filled the time for them.

But both found works of art that fascinated them within the collection as well. Tim was mesmerized by a gigantic cube made entirely of straight pins. Holly liked the pink glass brick whose surface looked like water.

I was pleased we’d made the effort to get into the city. I want my kids to feel familiar with Boston, and yet for all of the aforementioned reasons I’m sometimes lazy about driving in with them. I want them to see the skyline, the buildings, the Charles River, the harbor and know that something interesting is about to happen. I want them to respect the diversity of the city, and its history.

At the same time, I understand the pull of inertia. When children are very little, we spend a lot of time trying to entertain them: playing games, arranging visits with other small children, going to child-oriented performances. In a way, it’s such a relief to me that mine entertain themselves so easily now and are so happy to have time at home to pursue their own activities, as they did for much of last week during school vacation. Whereas in earlier years I planned a lot of activities to keep all of us busy, now I have to insist that everyone rouse themselves from what they’re doing and join in a cultural excursion.

So it’s good to have kids who entertain themselves, and it’s also good to rally the troops once in a while and insist that we all get out. Getting to the ICA had been a goal of mine for a while. Each time we do a trip like that, it gets easier to persuade them to join me for the next excursion. There’s a lot to be said for the recreation and nature out where we live, but I need to remember the importance of exposing them to more of the world as well. Even the world just 20 miles away from our quiet rural home.

Monday, February 22, 2010

My (miserable) brush with public disgrace

Unintentionally, I found myself spending an inordinate amount of time on Saturday bearing witness to confessions. Not in person, but as an invisible audience.

First I picked up the newspaper and read Tiger Woods’ apology for his indiscretions. Then I headed out for a run with my iPod loaded with NPR podcasts which kicked off with an interview with Jenny Sanford, soon-to-be-ex-wife of South Carolina governor Mark Sanford, on her new book about her husband’s infidelity.

As I ran, I kept mentally doing the math as far as how she wrote this book so fast. Mark Sanford’s public confession, as I was reminded several times during the interview, was June 24. It’s mid-February now and Ms. Sanford is in the thick of a publicity tour. Counting production time, that would mean she wrote the book in less than six months even if she started it the day of his confession, which she surely did not. Wow. That’s quick turnaround time for processing a lot of very hurt feelings and regenerating them in a literary format.

When the Sanford segment ended, my iPod transitioned seamlessly to the next podcast, which coincidentally enough was Terry Gross of Fresh Air interviewing Ken Gormley on his new book about the Kenneth Starr investigation leading to the impeachment of former president Bill Clinton. Gormley described the sequential build-up of small catastrophes within the Clinton administration: the Paula Jones lawsuit, the Whitewater papers, the possibility of an indictment for Hillary Rodham Clinton, and then the confession by President Clinton about his affair with an intern. I tried to imagine for a moment what it must have been like to live at the White House during that time. One catastrophe brewing. Then another. And still another. Before even getting to the infidelity part, the feeling that ceiling planks kept crashing down onto your head, one by one.

Although the topic was far, far different from those of Gov. Sanford, Tiger Woods or Bill Clinton, little did I know I’d have my own brush with embarrassment, guilt and public disgrace before the day was over.

When I returned from running and turned on my computer, I discovered my email account had been hacked and every single one of my 500+ email contacts had apparently received an email from me with a Google link to a site in Canada selling sexual enhancement products. (I’ve been blogging daily for six months now and have never yet managed to fit the words “sexual enhancement products” into a post. From an SEO perspective, I look forward to seeing my statcounter skyrocket this week.)

Statcounter and search engine optimization aside, I was mortified to think that distant cousins I hadn’t written to in over a year, my children’s teachers, former co-workers, and every editor I’ve pitched a story to recently had received an email from me with a bad link. At least it wasn’t an attachment. I wasn’t actually spreading a virus, just advertising a product I had no intent to advertise.

Some of my contacts wrote back right away. A few of the responses just had question marks. Others wrote, “Does your computer have a virus?” (No, actually, I’ve signed on as a spokesperson for a Canadian pharmacy.) One friend who knows I occasionally write copy for a medical website thought I was showing off my latest professional accomplishments. And some acquaintances, who have forever earned a warm place in my heart, wrote “It’s no big deal. It happens to everyone at some point.” I’m assuming they were referring to my account being hacked when they said that and not the pharmaceutical nature of the email I inadvertently sent out.

So for the rest of the weekend, I had a tiny taste of what it felt like to experience public humiliation. Unlike the aforementioned adulterers, what happened to me really wasn’t my fault (although the cybersecurity company for whom I sometimes write copy for would surely disagree), but I had a glimpse of what it felt like to see my name associated with something so distasteful.

Now, like Tiger, the governor and the former president, I just have to swallow my embarrassment and hold my head high as I try to make amends. I think I’ve fixed the security breach and I very much hope it never happens again. I’m genuinely sorry and apologetic toward everyone who received the inappropriate email from me. I will try to make all of my future emails more insightful, important, pithy and useful than they have ever been before, in hopes of restoring my good name.

But when I go to sleep tonight, I know I’ll still be cringing with embarrassment. And dreaming of my email contacts swinging golf clubs and throwing subpoenas at me as they pursue me down the Appalachian Trail.

Friday, February 19, 2010

A winter excursion by snowshoe, boot and paw

Midmorning yesterday we went snowshoeing: my aunt Pat, who is visiting from Colorado; my seven-year-old daughter Holly, our dog Belle, and me.

Well, the dog wasn’t showshoeing, just trotting surefootedly through the snow as she always does. And Holly snowshoed only for the first fifty feet or so and then declared that she was sinking farther into the snow with snowshoes on than in just boots, and hadn’t I told her the point of snowshoes was to stay on top of the snow? She said she’d go without the showshoes. Given that she’s the second of my two children to declare snowshoes redundant, I think the kiddie snowshoes are destined for the swap shed.

So Belle trotted, Holly tromped, and Pat and I showshoed, although by the time we’d reached our destination, the center of town one mile away, Pat was having trouble keeping one of her snowshoes on so she decided she’d just carry them.

No matter. I was still enjoying my snowshoes and happy that the rest of the coterie was sticking with the plan to walk to town, snowshoes or none. With our footpath under several inches of snow, I thought it was more fun to march along in my snowshoes than slog through the drifts even if, as Holly pointed out, there was no significant difference in ease of travel. I spend plenty of time throughout the winter slogging through snow in my boots; tromping in snowshoes was just something different and therefore fun.

Mostly I was just glad to be out. It was only the second time I’d put on my snowshoes all winter, and I’m sorry to admit that’s not for lack of snow; it’s that I’m too easily distracted from one of my favorite wintertime activities. I love snowshoeing in the winter, just as I love walking the rest of the year, but with snowshoeing as with walking, sometimes it’s just not quite enough of a priority. And that’s definitely a downside of being committed to a daily run. Knowing that my fifteen or more minutes of running is a higher priority often keeps me from the walking, biking and snowshoeing I love. But there are only so many minutes in a day, and priorities do need to be set. I’ve chosen to be a parent, wife, community member, writer, homemaker: that means I can’t put all the minutes into outdoor activity that I might wish to. I’ve opted for other responsibilities as well, so like just about everyone else in the world, unlimited recreation time is not a viable option for me.

All of which is why it felt so particularly rewarding to get out for an hour today. By foot, by snowshoe, by paw, by leash, with cameras in hand, we made our way to the general store in the center of town. Holly bought gummy worms and took a picture of them before she ate any; Pat and I rested for a few moments and took pictures of each other with Holly.

The conflation of circumstances just worked out today. The kids are on vacation from school. Several inches of snow fell on Tuesday. Pat is here for a brief visit. I had no urgent deadlines today. The sun was bright, the air milder than it has been in weeks. Everything was in favor for us to go snowshoeing, and I’m so glad we did.

By the end of the day, I was surprised and pleased to note how much snow had melted. As a runner, much as I appreciate the beauty of fresh snow, I also consider it an imposition; it covers the footpaths and forces me to run in the roadway or else confine my workouts to our long driveway, which gets dull. With the sun shining all day, gravel had emerged along most of the footpath and the driveway, meaning it will be easy to run there by tomorrow.

I also noticed that the biggest patches of snow-free gravel were in the tracks from our snowshoes. So there was an added advantage to our excursion; we’d facilitated the snowmelt that will make for easier running later in the week. All of this reminded me there’s really nothing frivolous about taking time for snowshoeing at all. The three of us spent time visiting together and had a good stretch of fresh air and exercise, the dog had a good workout that kept her content for the rest of the day, Holly’s gummy worm purchase supported a worthy local business, and we paved the way for melting. A good outing all around.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

February vacation week

When I was growing up, school vacation weeks usually meant family travel. Really great destinations, too. We didn’t go overseas as a family, but we went to all kinds of other wonderful places during school vacation weeks: San Francisco. Florida. Quebec City. New York City. Sea Island, Georgia.

So I feel a little bit remiss in not having any great travel plans for my children during this week of vacation, but circumstances didn’t allow it this year. My husband Rick started a new job recently and doesn’t have vacation time yet, and it turned out to be just as well that we were home-based for this February vacation week since Rick’s 91-year-old grandfather died late last week after a short and unanticipated illness.

Watching the kids, though, I can see they’re having a great vacation week even though we’re right at home. In fact, it’s possible that being at home might be adding to their appreciation of the vacation this particular week. After several days of family visiting, wakes and funeral services, we’re happy to be staying put in our own house now, and the kids don’t seem to have any shortage of things to do. Holly and a friend dragged sleds out to the hill by our house this morning; the sledding on yesterday’s thick fluffy snowfall wasn’t too successful, but the girls buried each other in small snow piles instead, and came in asking for hot chocolate, which I made; then we went to the indoor pool all afternoon. Tim shoveled snow for us this morning and played some computer games.

A friend lent us her Wii Fit Plus set for vacation week, and the kids have been having a great time with that too. Though some parents bemoan the Wii phehnomenon, I always point out that with my kids being different sexes and four years apart in age, there aren’t a great number of activities they enjoy together; Wii is one of them, and so I tend to look on it favorably. Together they’ve been exploring the many facets of Wii Fit Plus, from virtual snowball fights to virtual judo, and the sound of the two children laughing together makes me smile no matter what I’m doing.

My aunt arrived earlier today from Colorado for a short visit with us, and the kids have been having fun getting reacquainted with her after a year. Holly showed Pat her recent beading accomplishments; Tim explained to her how American Idol works (one could argue that if you’ve reached the age of 67 and recently explored the Macchu Picchu ruins, both of which are true of my aunt, you can probably live happily without having American Idol explained to you, but it was a reasonable bonding experience for the two of them). And then she told Tim she has friends at home in Colorado who competed on Amazing Race, which impressed Tim to no end. Plus she took us out to dinner at our favorite Asian restaurant, where the kids can have crab Rangoon and I can have masaman curry and Rick can have a little of everything.

So it’s shaping up to be a great vacation week with lots of happy moments despite the lack of travel. I like seeing the kids have fun around home, and I like being on a schedule where I can enjoy the time with them rather than filling their hours with childcare arrangements. There are always ways in which things might be going differently: according to some plans I ought to have a full-time job outside the house right now; according to other plans we might be traveling somewhere cool, like my family used to do with February vacation time. But for the moment, this is plenty for us. Fresh snow to sled through, a membership card at the local indoor pool; hot chocolate when we get back inside; a houseguest willing to look at the kids’ toys, my photo album, and American Idol to boot. It’s a fine vacation week.

Extravagant gestures: making them, receiving them, and learning from them

“The extravagant gesture is the very stuff of creation.” My mother sent me this quotation from Pilgrim at Tinker Creek by Annie Dillard after receiving it herself from the website

I haven’t read Pilgrim at Tinker Creek in many years, and I don’t know the context of the quote, but I do know why my mother sent it to me. My parents and I had been talking earlier in the week about acts of generosity, the human impulse toward altruism, and what can well be termed “extravagant gestures.”

The subject came up because my parents are friendly with a woman from their church whose husband recently died. The couple has several adult children as well as many grandchildren, and the multigenerational group would soon be gathering for a memorial service. My mother offered to make dinner for all of them, and the widow responded that it was a wonderful idea and she only wished she had enough room to serve dinner to her whole family. As it happens, I take a fair amount of ribbing – some good-natured and some not so much – for having a bigger house than I justifiably need, and I was only too happy to offer them the use of our house for their gathering.

My parents lavished me with kind words, calling it an extravagant gesture for a family I didn’t even know; to me it seemed simply like a logical way to help a fellow human being. The size of my house causes some guilt to me and a small amount of controversy within my personal circles; in a way, this was a chance to mitigate my guilt a little bit, even if just for one evening, about being such a gross American consumer.

But my parents’ kind praise reminded me of conversations I’d had almost a year ago, when I was the recipient of an extravagant gesture. Last April, a close relative (who modestly prefers not to keep being directly identified with this amazing act of kindness) told me that she was going to pay for my tuition to attend a writers’ conference I dearly wanted to attend but couldn’t possibly afford on my own.

It wasn’t anything I’d ever discussed with her. The announcement that she would send me to the conference came out of thin air. And I’m embarrassed to admit my first reaction was, “Oh, I couldn’t possibly do that.” It’s too much. It’s too generous. I couldn’t possibly accept it.

Fortunately, I didn’t say that. I listened instead to my husband, my parents and a close friend, who all said the same thing, “Of course you will accept it! How wonderful! People don’t offer generous gifts with the hope they’ll be rejected.” Glad I’d sought their advice, I did go to the conference and had the experience of a lifetime, but to this day I continue to feel somewhat awestruck by my relative’s generosity.

So to me, that was the definition of an extravagant gesture, and knowing what my reaction to it was, I thought the family at my parents’ church would react similarly to my suggestion that they have their party at my house: “Oh, that’s crazy, we couldn’t possibly do that. We don’t even know you.” But they didn’t. They accepted the offer and had their party, and I genuinely admire them for finding it easy to accept a perhaps extravagant gesture. It was not so easy for me, but fortunately, wiser voices pushed me in the right direction.

What I’ve come to believe is that it’s human nature to want to be generous; it’s just that each of us has a different level of generosity to offer. Few people could make a gesture like what my relative did, but after offering my house for the party, I understood a little bit more about why she did it. It was something she could do for me, just as lending the house was something I could do for this family. And I’d like to think I’ve learned a lesson by being both the recipient and the perpetrator of an “extravagant gesture”: just as those I sought advice from said, generous people want their generosity to be accepted. So when I was the recipient of yet another extravagant gesture last week – a friend who was going away for vacation offered me the use of her netbook for the week – I was quick to say yes. Many thanks, and yes.

But sometimes it’s not easy for me to remember this, even on a very small scale. Last summer, my daughter and I were in line at an ice cream stand. Holly asked for chocolate sprinkles; I told her I’d brought exactly enough money for a cone and not an extra 35 cents for sprinkles (we rode our bikes to the stand, and since I had just one small pocket, it was easier to count out the change ahead of time than to bring my wallet). A young woman in line behind us reached forward and put 35 cents on the counter, and I’ll admit now I did a really gauche thing. I was embarrassed to be caught short and have to accept a favor, even a tiny 35-cent one, from a stranger, so I thanked her but said that my daughter really didn’t need the chocolate sprinkles. Thank you, but no.

I realized shortly afterwards I’d done the wrong thing, and maybe that’s why I admire people who can do the right thing. “The extravagant gesture is the very stuff of creation.” I’m not sure exactly what Annie Dillard meant by this – I’m inspired now to go back to Pilgrim at Tinker Creek and find out – but I’ll continue in my quest to make extravagant gestures when I’m able. And, just as importantly, I’ll continue to try to accept them with grace.

Monday, February 15, 2010

When your child surprises you (in a good way)

When Tim was an infant, the facilitator of the new parents’ group I attended gave me countless nuggets of wisdom about parenting, especially where babies were concerned.

But sometimes good advice about babies turns out to be good advice about kids in general. One that sticks in my mind is “Let your baby surprise you.” Don’t assume that things won’t go well, the facilitator, whose name was Robin, used to counsel us. Just because you’ve heard that it’s really hard to get a newborn to sleep alone in a crib doesn’t mean it will be for you. Put him to bed and see what happens. Just because you’ve heard breast-fed babies won’t take bottles doesn’t mean you’ll have a problem when you go back to work. Give it a chance. Let your baby surprise you.

The “baby” in question is eleven now, but sometimes when I remind myself of Robin’s soothing maxim, it still works. Don’t worry about things that haven’t happened. Let your baby surprise you.

Tim has had a button aversion since he was in preschool – really, now that I think about it, since he could express preferences, so maybe it’s not something that developed but something he had in babyhood and just couldn’t explain to us. He despises wearing clothes with buttons. Zippers, too. And this poses a big problem when he’s required to dress up. Most of the time, he wears sweatpants with jerseys, t-shirts or sweatshirts. Fortunately for us, boys’ sweatpants have evolved now to the point where they don’t necessarily look like something strictly for gym class, with drawstring waist and puckered-elastic cuffs. Now there are sweatpants ideal for kids like Tim who won’t wear anything else. They come in dark colors, elastic hidden, and hang like regular pants. With a clean jersey or pullover sweater, Tim almost looks acceptably dressed these days.

But with the death of Rick’s 91-year-old grandfather last week, Tim was faced with having to attend his first wake and funeral. And I was not at all happy with the fact that along with the general sadness of losing a beloved family member, I knew I’d have to deal with the tantrum to end all tantrums when Tim found out he’d be expected to don zippered pants and a button-down shirt for the occasion.

But, to paraphrase Robin from the era of my life when Tim’s age was counted in weeks rather than years, my baby surprised me. He wasn’t enthusiastic about the shopping trip – in fact, he refused to try clothes on at the store, so I estimated and bought a couple of sizes, figuring I could return what didn’t fit – but when the time came to get ready for the wake, Tim donned his new attire.

And he didn’t complain, which is what surprised me even more. Not only did I not get the full-scale tantrum I anticipated; I didn’t even get much foot-dragging. Having learned a thing or two myself about adversarial parenting situations over the past eleven years, I told Tim to start dressing an hour before we needed to leave, knowing that needing to rush always makes tense situations escalate rapidly where children are concerned. With plenty of time to prepare, Tim put on his new clothes without a word of protest.

And I have to admit, I welled with pride to see him dressed so nattily. (Compared with his usual hooded sweatshirt and sweatpants, an Oxford shirt and cords qualified as natty indeed.) Not only that, but as cliché as it might sound, dressing like an adult really did seem to change his behavior. Once dressed, he was ready to go. He didn’t skirmish with his younger sister; he packed his overnight bag efficiently and helped carry things out to the car. He was dressed like an adult for once and, to my surprise, acted a little bit like one as well.

A couple of hours into the evening, he whispered to me, “Don’t expect me to dress like this all the time now!” No, I won’t. And, needless to say, I hope he doesn’t have to attend any more wakes any time soon. But he surprised me, and in doing so, he reminded me of exactly what Robin tried to tell me over eleven years ago: expect things to work out when it comes to parenting, because a lot of times, they do.

Kids & chores: Why they should and why I should

As I read this article by my Globe West colleague, Taryn Plumb, I noted with some relief that most of the children cited in the story about household chores are older than mine, or at least older than my younger child. The article reassured me that maybe there’s still time for my 7- and 11-year-old to get with the program.

I admit I’ve been negligent when it comes to expecting my children to do regular household chores. It’s much more my fault than theirs. For one thing, as odd as it may sound to admit, I don’t feel like I need a lot of help. This may be the whiplash effect of being a self-employed full-time-at-home mom after two years of 9-to-5 out-of-the-house corporate employment, but I really don’t find it difficult to get most of the household chores done myself. I’m just grateful to have the time at home to do them.

Furthermore, the kids’ schedules aren’t always particularly conducive to household chores. My first thought upon reading the opening about the kids helping with the laundry every day was to wonder how they possibly have time for this before school…and then I read that they go to a private school where catching a bus or even arriving in time for the first bell is not necessarily a requirement of their school day, as it is in our household.

And even though I know setting the table is an excellent match for the skills of a 7-year-old like my daughter, there are a lot of days when I find the half-hour before dinner to be one of the most peaceful parts of the day, as I spend it by myself in the kitchen cooking, setting up and listening to NPR. Sure, I could call the kids down to help, but they’re doing their homework or playing, and I’m relishing the early-evening solitude.

But I know that’s not entirely the point. As the article says, having children do chores isn’t just about getting help with the work; it’s also about contributing to the children’s character development. And intellectually, I agree with this; I just have trouble coming up with recurring jobs for the kids that I consider both ideologically and pragmatically appropriate for them.

For example, we have pets because the kids wanted pets and love having them around, so I think pet-related chores are a perfect match ideologically for the kids. But unfortunately, that’s where the pragmatic part comes in. Though it makes sense intellectually to have Holly clean her guinea pig’s cage, I don’t feel that she has the manual dexterity or the sanitation standards to do a good job. It takes coordination to ensure that all the dirty shavings from the cage slide into the trash bag rather than all over the floor, and I’m generally squeamish about a child who needs to be reminded to wash her hands before snacks and meals being up to her elbows, or even her knuckles, in guinea pig waste.

I also don’t like the level of dissent that chores tend to generate in our household. My two children seldom argue with each other, but when they do, it’s almost always because I’ve asked them to unload the dishwasher or clear the table. Both of them prefer to unload the upper rack of the dishwasher rather than the lower rack, but since it’s not a task that needs to be done daily, they can never remember whose turn it is to have first choice, so they argue about it. When my husband tells them to clear the dinner table, with each expected to take half the tabletop, they furtively try to slide items onto the other person’s half to “even it out.”

In the end, though, I think the winning reason to give my kids work is so that they don’t reach adulthood having never done any household tasks. When I ask my son to clear dishes or set the table, a part of me is aware that I’m paving the way for a future household in which he’s an adult. Since I’ve already picked out several girls in his fifth grade class whom I’d be happy to see him settle down with, it’s fairly easy to picture them cursing me, as his mom, for never have expected him to do any work around the house. It’s a sobering thought, and it almost always keeps me from caving in when he complains about being asked to pitch in.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

I'm not big on stranger danger - but what do my kids need to know?

Karen Dukess’ article on True/Slant about a school that gave a presentation for kids on how to escape from car trunks reminded me of just how far behind the curve I am when it comes to the vigilance level of a typical American parent.

Two years ago, I discovered my then 5-year-old didn’t even know what the word “stranger” meant. Literally. She and her friend Paige were playing with teddy bears in the back seat of the car as I drove. Paige’s bear said to Holly’s bear, “I can’t talk to you! You’re a stranger!” Holly’s bear pretended to cry, saying, “I’m not strange! You hurt my feelings!” “Stranger isn’t a bad thing,” said Paige, so puzzled by Holly’s response that she forgot to maintain her teddy bear voice. “It just means someone you don’t know.”

Oops. I forgot to teach Holly that one. And if she doesn’t know from strangers, you can probably guess that we also haven’t done the stranger-danger lesson.

My reasoning is that we live in a small town surrounded by kindly people with whom I’m acquainted even if my kids don’t always recognize them. Though I don’t mean to sound naïve and I do understand that even the most kindly and familiar faces can harbor sociopathic tendencies, my point is that my kids are much better off assuming that the people around them are to be liked and trusted. My greatest concern regarding how child safety is communicated is the kids who have learned so categorically not to trust strangers that they are afraid to ask an adult for help, whether it’s because they have lost their mom in the supermarket or are hanging helplessly from the monkey bars at the playground and need a lift down.

When I was in my twenties and not yet a parent, I went out to lunch with my cousin and her two little girls. We were seated out on the restaurant patio. When someone at our table needed extra sugar, my cousin instructed her 6-year-old daughter to go inside and ask our waiter for some packets. As the little girl headed inside, my cousin explained to me her philosophy that it was more important for her daughters to move confidently through the world able to ask for what they needed than to fear strangers. The lesson has stuck with me.

So instead of teaching my children to avoid strangers, I employ a secure-the-perimeter mentality, essentially teaching them that the most important thing to know about staying safe is never to leave the premises – whether the premises are defined as the supermarket, the playground, the library, or church coffee hour – with anyone they don’t have permission to leave with. Though I understand it’s still possible for a child to be groped or flashed in the aisles of a store or behind a tree at the playground, this won’t have catastrophic consequences. So I’ve boiled the message down to its simplest essence: As long as they don’t leave wherever I am, the worst will not happen.

What I wonder about more than whether my children could open a car trunk from the inside – as grim a thought as that is – is simply how resourceful they are in more of a big-picture way, how well they could solve problems. For example, I wonder what would happen if, say, our house had a carbon monoxide leak and my 7-year-old woke up one morning to find the rest of us unconscious. (This is hypothetical; in reality we have a carbon monoxide detector.) Would she call 911? Would she go find a neighbor? If the latter, would she put on shoes and a coat first?

I’m sure there are sensible ways to role-play scenarios such as this, just as some parents role-play abduction games with their children. Of course, I’ve never been one of those parents, and so I can’t quite stomach the thought of asking Holly to imagine waking up and finding the rest of us unconscious. But it probably makes as much sense as showing her how to get out of a locked car trunk.

Find a little time to do what you love

Recently I listened to a podcast of author Elizabeth Gilbert interviewed by the editor of the New York Times Book Review. She said that from her perspective, one of the most meaningful things to come out of the success of Eat, Pray, Love is that women come up to her and say “You reminded me of how great I felt when I was twelve and practiced figure skating three times a week…so now I’ve taken up figure skating again.”

Gilbert went on to say that the punch line was decidedly not that these women then became prize-winning figure skaters; the fact that they had first recalled and then resumed something they once loved doing was enough.

It made me think about how important it is that we pursue the things we love, that we not believe it’s too self-serving to make our own joy a priority. These days I feel like I get a lot of time for some of the things I love, far more than I have in the past ten years, anyway. With the kids at school seven hours a day, with me pursuing a freelance career rather than working outside the home, and with both of them having things they really like to do when they’re home that don’t require my participation, I do have more time for my own things than I did when they were younger. And maybe that’s why I’m generally happy and fulfilled these days.

But it also made me think about whether there are things I love that I neglect, things that would make me happy that I have failed to make a priority. I’d like to spend more time outdoors with the kids. I’d like to do more biking; I loved biking when I was in my 20’s and hardly ever go anymore. As I wrote about earlier this winter, I’d like to do more snowshoeing. I’d like to spend more time reading.

It’s not a very long list, and it’s not that self-indulgent either. But finding time for what we want to do always feels a little self-indulgent. Shouldn’t it be more important to prioritize, for example, community service, helping the poor, or working for good causes rather than biking or snowshoeing?

Well, those are not things we should overlook. But it my experience, the greatest step toward daily fulfillment is having time for the things important to you. When you are a happy and fulfilled person, you are of more good to society: first, those who know you, and then those in the greater community. So I will try to find more time for biking once the snow melts, and I’ll try harder to get my kids outdoors. As Elizabeth Gilbert said, the punch line need not be to win Olympic medals, but just because it is good to remind yourself of what you love; it makes you who you are.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Over-praising: Why not to get effusive with your kids

To praise or not to praise? A much-discussed book published last fall called NurtureShock, New Thinking about Children by Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman offers compelling, but in my opinion not surprising, evidence of an epidemic of unhelpful overpraising among parents.

I take a fairly firm stance when it comes to praising. Observation has convinced me that constantly bolstering a child’s efforts and performance with effusive compliments doesn’t have any particularly positive effect.

Like most kids, when my children were in preschool they loved to paint and draw. The current party line in child-development circles seems to be that the best way to praise a child’s artistic efforts is not with an all-encompassing “Beautiful drawing!” but instead with a targeted comment meant to demonstrate how carefully you contemplated the masterpiece: “What an interesting use of dark blue.” I’ve always been hesitant to praise my children for something that they are doing for fun, though. They draw because they like to; why do they need special recognition from me at all?

I prefer to use praise as a tool for reinforcing desirable behaviors. I praise my son for the patience he shows helping his younger sister when I know he’d rather be doing something else; I praise both kids for clearing the table when I’ve asked them to. I praise my daughter for dressing herself because I know she’d much rather have my help with this task. But artwork? That’s their choice. I want them to do it because they enjoy it, not because I’ll admire the results.

Merryman and Bronson focus one segment of their research on the value (or lack thereof) of telling children they are smart. I’m not sure I’ve ever told my kids they are smart. For one thing, I consider smart a relative term: to me it means that a child is showing intellectual or perceptive capability beyond what is typical for his age group. Do my kids excel mentally compared to other children? I don’t honestly know; I don’t have the expertise to compare them with other kids their age. But in any case, it’s not something I would praise them for. As with coloring, they analyze things and work out intellectual challenges because they want to, not because I’ve reinforced the behavior with compliments.

Holly has recently started a pottery class. At the end of each weekly meeting, she shows me what she worked on that day. What I want her to get from the class is the satisfaction of creating something with her hands and the sense that she is exploring new artistic arenas, not the belief that she is a terrific sculptor. So I commend the projects themselves rather than the results: “How fun that you got to try the wheel! What a great idea to have the class make clay food!” My hope is that this gives her the sense that she is doing something she enjoys, not something at which she’s necessarily talented. If I can teach her a sense of commitment and persistence to working at the things she cares about, that’s far more valuable to me than bolstering her self-image.

Monday, February 8, 2010

A word for February: Patience

In this post last month, I took a close look at the one-word challenge: the exercise of coming up with a singular word as a theme for the upcoming year.

Having selected my word for the year, I wasn’t trying to come up with a word for the month, but a word keeps whispering itself to me each night when I stand outside our front door looking at the night sky and taking a last deep breath of cold winter air before locking the house up for the evening. Patience.

Patience during this long, dull, cold part of the winter. No Christmas holidays to build toward; none of the enticing hibernation of January. We’ve done our hibernating; we’re ready to get back outside, thanks. But it’s still so cold, with temperatures in the teens or twenties every day and a bitter wind blowing. The ice on our driveway is so deep and dark it looks like stone; it’s been weeks now since anything frozen melted. I wish it would go away: I’m tired of wearing three layers of outerwear for my daily run, and I’m not even enjoying the running anymore because the face mask that protects my skin from the wind hampers my deep breathing so much.

But still: patience. It’s the time of year for just waiting the winter out.

Groundhog experiences aside, another month or more of winter weather is still likely at this point. In early March, it’s reasonable to grow impatient for a thaw, for milder days. Mid-February, on the other hand, is still way too early to lose one’s winter endurance.

Besides, the days are rapidly growing longer. I drove home well after five o’clock this afternoon and the sky was still light, turning pink and purple near the horizon. Longer afternoons come well before warmer ones, but they remind us that the earth is making its journey toward summer and the sun’s presence is increasing.

There are other reasons to think “patience” right now as well. I’ll be patient with the writing assignments that are uninspiring, and I’ll wait patiently for those that need outside encouragement to find the right reader. I’ll be patient with Holly’s ongoing insistence on help getting dressed every morning, a task I so wish she would take on herself. Tim is already beginning to shed his yearly Seasonal Affective Disorder symptoms, probably because of the longer afternoons; he responded to me with unusual good cheer several times over the past few days, and it reminds me that my patience with his darker moods pays off when they lift.

I have patience, too, as I wait for our strangely behaving guinea pig, who shares my office space with me, to meet whatever fate is best for her: she’ll get over her recent lack of mobility or she’ll give up peacefully. The vet said one or the other was likely, and I should just wait it out.

Models of patience are all around me this month: my mother is following medical instructions by patiently wearing bandages to cover stitches for recent skin surgery although in her case I would have shed the bandages days ago out of self-consciousness, and my sister in DC gamely tells me the aftermath of the biggest snowstorm that area has seen in centuries really isn’t so bad, thanks to the fact they still have electricity.

So I’ll be patient with the kids as we find things to do during their school vacation week later this month, and patient with the prospect of more snow later this week, even as I wish it would all melt away. Because there must be a reason that the winter air itself is whispering a word to me. I’ll listen, and make the best use of it I can.

Cocooning: Is it a sign of contentment, or is it complacency?

I’m conflicted on the subject of cocooning.

Or, to put it another way, what one day I can justify as the cozy desire to stay home on other days looks a little like a very mild case of agoraphobia.

I don’t mean to make light of agoraphobia. It’s a serious issue, and I can’t pretend that my frequent (and somewhat seasonal) aversion to leaving the house is anything like a crippling anxiety disorder associated with crowds. Once I’m out somewhere, I generally enjoy the bustle of strangers and the opportunity to meet new people.

What I find hard to confront some days is the part that comes before that: the requirement that I venture out of my own house. This desire to bask in the comforts of home rather than get out into the world is what trend-watcher and business guru Faith Popcorn termed “cocooning” in her 1991 book The Popcorn Report: The Future of Your Company, Your World, Your Life.

Sometimes I can justify cocooning as a positive thing. It’s good to appreciate what you have -- a warm well-lit home full of family members, books, fresh food, wireless connectivity and friends dropping by – not to mention the ecological correctness of staying put rather than traveling somewhere by car, which where we live is the only practical way to get to a destination more than a mile or two away, at least at this chilly time of year.

But sometimes I have to remind myself that too much contentment goes by the less affirmative name of complacency. Too much aversion to going out suggests self-limitations. It’s important to expose yourself to the ideas, personalities and issues of the outside world.

I was thinking about this earlier this week as I debated with myself about whether to accept an invitation to a newly forming book group. On the one hand, it seemed like an ideal opportunity. This one is local, ensuring I’d never have to travel more than five miles to a meeting, and the group has already decided to meet every other month. Also, they are going to discuss two or three short stories at each meeting, so I wouldn’t have to worry about getting stuck reading a 400-page novel I didn’t like.

But when the organizer sent out a follow-up email asking for commitments from members, I found myself procrastinating on a response. Going out at night is always a hassle during the week, not because my kids make it difficult – they’re old enough now that the bedtime routine is easy and consistent whether it’s me, my husband, their grandparents or a paid sitter overseeing the process – but just because it takes away valuable time from my daily routine. The hours of 7 to 10 are when I clean up from dinner, make the kids’ lunches, check that they’ve done their homework, and finish up any deskwork that didn’t get done during the day, not to mention try to get to bed early enough that eight hours of sleep is a possibility (seven is usually a more realistic goal; six and a half is typical). Even if it was just once every two months, I knew when the evening came, I’d wish I were staying home.

At the same time, my more objective side knows there are compelling reasons to accept the invitation. The guest list comprises women from a variety of professional backgrounds whom the organizer chose because of their commitment to intellectual discourse; I’d learn a lot from them, and the reading list would surely expose me to works I wouldn’t otherwise read, since I almost never opt for short story collections.

Yesterday the question about the thin line between cocooning and pseudo-agoraphobia arose again when I let the kids talk me out of going to church. On the one hand, the idea of staying home for Sunday morning was so appealing. We’d hosted a cocktail party the night before; we were tired and still had a lot of cleaning up to do. If I stayed home, I could catch up with a bunch of things on my To Do list: not just the post-party cleanup but balancing my checkbook and cleaning the guinea pig’s cage as well. And for Unitarians, church is essentially considered optional on any given Sunday.

On the other hand, it’s church. Of course it’s a good idea to go, I told myself. Don’t be so complacent. Church is always a character-building experience; it’s good for you to make the effort, to mingle with the congregation, to sing the hymns, to listen to the sermon.

But I love Sunday mornings at home, the first voice argued. It will be so cozy to just cocoon here, and I’ll get so much done.

But you could use that argument to never go to church, the second voice retorted. You could avoid every party, every community organizing meeting, every possible opportunity to benefit from society as a character-building entity. Where’s the line between staying contentedly at home appreciating what you have and failing to fulfill your obligations – social, spiritual, civic – to being part of a community?

I don’t know the answer. I skipped church and decided to decline the book club, but I promised myself I’d attend every Town Meeting this year. I suppose one rule of thumb might be that if it’s something I’ll it I feel guilty about missing– like church – I should just go. But for the most part, it’s a case-by-case judgment call.

Friday, February 5, 2010

Do you let your kids win at board games? I say let 'em lose!

“Do you always let your kids win at board games? Do you think we should let them win when they're little?” An internet friend posed this question yesterday, and I couldn’t resist taking the bait.

Why, no, I responded. Losing at board games not only teaches children about sportsmanship but also teaches them that for some things, like Candy Land, the outcome simply doesn’t matter that much; the fun is in the process of playing.

The other learning opportunity that may get overlooked in this debate is for kids to learn what a game of chance means. Candy Land and Chutes and Ladders are, as I remember, strategy-free games; the outcome depends entirely on the luck of the draw, making the odds of winning 50/50. If you let your 3-year-old win at Candy Land every time, isn’t there a risk that he’ll get a warped view of the laws of probability?

In fact, when my son Tim was still playing preschool board games, I remember being so intent on not giving him the wrong message by always letting him win that on one long rainy day when we played several rounds of Candy Land in a row, I became concerned that he was winning – albeit fairly – too often, and that I should win a few games just to exercise his good-sportsmanship muscles, so I briefly contemplated manipulating the outcome. But the thought of myself as someone who cheats at Candy Land was just too distasteful, so I went back to leaving it up to Fate.

When Tim was about five, he invited a new friend over to play T-ball. As the visiting child stepped up to bat, Tim started calling strikes. “Strike one! Strike two! Strike three! My turn to bat!”

The other mother, whom we hadn’t met before, seemed appalled. “Tim, when we play we don’t actually keep score,” she admonished him. “We just let each batter keep going until he gets a good hit.”

Tim was clearly puzzled. “But without strikes, how do you know when the inning is over?” he asked.

Although I understood the other mother’s point, I could also see what Tim meant. To him, striking out wasn’t a sign of failure; it was a sign that your turn is over and it’s someone else’s turn to try. Easy, mathematical, straightforward.

Tim went on to be a fairly serious grade school athlete, and since my husband is a baseball coach for Tim’s age group, it’s something I hear a lot of conversation about. As a coach, my husband has never mouthed the party line about “It doesn’t matter who wins or loses.” He wants the kids to play as if winning is their goal. If they get outplayed by the other team and lose, that’s fine, but he expects his players to go into the game with a “Let’s win this” mindset.

It seems to have worked, at least with our son. Last summer, most of their baseball games ran late into the evening, and although I watched when I could, the need to put my younger child to bed often resulted in my missing the last few innings, so I would get the recap when they got home. Sometimes, Tim would crow like any other child, “We won! We won!” Other times, he would say, “We beat them, but we weren’t playing our best. We were just a stronger team. But we made a lot of mistakes.” And generally those games would be followed by a lot more analysis and intense discussion between my husband and son, and sometimes the other players as well, than those in which they lost. On the other hand, when they played hard and lost by a small margin, no one ever seemed heartbroken, just determined to be sure their hard work paid off better next time.

Last spring, Tim’s fifth grade class invited parents to a reading of personal essays they’d recently written. Tim’s friend Will wrote about playing doubles tennis with his brother against their parents. The story was a cliffhanger, with the two boys giving it their all and the nervous tension building right to game point. But in the end, somewhat to my surprise, the parents won the match. Will ended his essay with a shrug and a sheepish smile as he described that final impossible serve from his dad.

On the way out, I caught up to Will’s mom. “Nice job!” I said.

She smiled. “Yes, he loves to write, and he worked hard on that essay.”

“No, I actually meant nice job on letting the boys lose the game,” I admitted. “That surprised me. I was sure they’d win.”

She laughed, but then answered seriously. “They’re about to be eleven and thirteen and they’re turning into really good players,” she said. “By next summer, they’ll probably be consistently beating us at tennis. We wanted one last win while we could get it.”

I admired her attitude because it was so honest and, ultimately, so sensible. She gave Will one last taste of honest losing, knowing that it won’t be long until he’ll have the thrill of honest winning. I’d like to think a three-year-old playing Chutes and Ladders would benefit just as much from an honest, luck-of-the-draw win or loss as Will does from facing the truth this one last season before he becomes a better tennis player than his mom.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Maintaining a daily writing habit: Here's what works for me

I’ve been invited to speak to a local women’s group about keeping a journal, so I’ve spent some time over the past few days trying to pull my thoughts together around a topic that for me feels largely intuitive, and yet still merits articulation once in a while. Daily writing: Why do it? And if you want to do it, how?

Though I make a big deal of being a daily or “streak” runner, I hardly ever think about the fact that I’m a streak journal-keeper as well. It’s become such a habit that I don’t even acknowledge it most of the time, but not since late 1994 have I missed a day of writing in my journal, when I finally realized it was easier to write every day than to skip days and then have a sense that there was “catching up” to do. As I frequently say, journaling is so much like running or any other kind of exercise: the longer you go without doing it, the harder it is to start up again, so it’s easier and certainly more mindless to just set out with a pre-defined commitment – which could be every day, but it could also be every other day, three times a week, even once a week – and stick to it rather than begin every day with a “Should I or shouldn’t I” question.

When I was younger I wrote before bed, summing up the events of the day just gone by. When I was in college, sometimes it was very late at night, well into the wee hours of the next day in fact, but I often felt like I couldn’t go to sleep until I’d processed the events of the day in writing. It was almost as if the day hadn’t officially happened until I’d made note of it.

These days I follow the method set out by Julia Cameron in The Artist’s Way and The Right to Write, which Cameron calls Morning Pages. The idea is to write three fast pages the minute you get out of bed in the morning. Three pages doesn’t work well for me as a benchmark since Cameron is talking about longhand and I always keyboard, so I use one thousand words as my minimum goal. Back when I was writing longhand, I used ten minutes as my framework. I don’t think it matters, though, whether you go by word count or duration or physical pages; it’s just a matter of getting yourself to stay with whatever measuring stick you’ve chosen.

And the reason I think it’s important to choose one of these benchmarks goes back to the idea of never having to decide whether or not this is a good day for writing. If you’ve committed to ten minutes, as I used to, then on those days when you feel like you have nothing to say, you’ll find something. You won’t revert to the all-too-easy “Nothing much going on” entry, or if you do, you’ll write past it. I employ a lot of journaling techniques that delve into the abstract or hypothetical. For example, if you find yourself writing “Not much going on today,” you can then pose the hypothetical statement: “But here’s what I wish were going on.” If you find yourself writing “I don’t feel like writing today,” use the rest of your ten minutes to take that next step “…because this is what is distracting me and keeping me from wanting to write.”

Often, I just write the same way children keep diaries, describing the here-and-now of the previous twenty-four hours. Finished an article; talked to my sister; went on a three-mile run; can’t wait to pick up that new novel at the library. Mundane, everyday events fill the pages of my journals, and have for years. I almost never re-read them. The point for me is the exercise: keeping a daily journal compels me to process my thoughts and feelings (or face the fact that I am avoiding them), and, just as with running, it keeps me at a certain “fitness” level. When I have to write something fast for work, it never seems like a strain, since I’m so accustomed to sitting down and writing, whether I have anything to say or not. Faced with an article assignment that I have no idea how to begin, I do the same thing as with my journal: I just start writing anything, to see if I can get through the mental static and make my way to the point.

Key points if you want to write regularly:

1) Find the time and place that work best for you. It might be 6 AM in your home office, which is what I do; it might be 3 PM at your local coffee shop or library; it might be 9 PM after your family has settled down and the house is quiet. It might even be in your parked car for ten minutes before you go into work. Experiment with different possibilities.

2) Choose your target benchmark for minimum output, whether it’s word count, duration in minutes or number of pages.

3) If you feel like you have nothing to say, write about nothing. Write about not having anything to say. Write about what you wish you had to say. Write about why you don’t want to say what you have to say.

4) It takes three weeks to build a habit. Decide your frequency goal, whether it’s daily or a certain number of times per week, and commit to that for at least three weeks.

5) Have someplace you can jot down thoughts that come to you during the day that you want to write about, and turn to that list when you next sit down to your journal.

As the late writer Donald Murray, a published poet, UNH writing instructor and Boston Globe columnist, often said, “Nulla dies sine linea – never a day without a line.” Ultimately, it’s easier to just sit down and write than to put off writing. And it only gets easier with practice.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Family homework: not my favorite part of second grade

Family homework. The bane of my existence these days.

Most weeks, the kids come home with straightforward assignments they can do on their own, and my job is to make sure they apply backside to desk chair and execute the required task: researching Malcolm X, say, or filling in a multiplication table, or logging the reading they did for the week. Once in a while, though, they arrive from school brandishing the dreaded “family homework” – which means me giving up my evening for something their teachers insist will be fun for all of us.

I adore my children’s teachers – every single one they’ve ever had, in fact – and it’s very unlike me to vent so irritably about anything done by the faculty or staff at our school. After all, not only have my children had six and three great years there, respectively, but it’s the very same school that generated me, so how can I complain?

Well, if you saw the condition of the inside of my microwave this morning, you might understand.

Holly’s homework last night (and, in fairness to her teacher, I have to admit she brought home the assignment four days earlier, but no, we didn’t actually get it started until last night) was the ever-popular “giving specific instructions” exercise. I remember doing the same thing in elementary school: the kids called out instructions for making a peanut butter sandwich while the teacher generated hilarity by sticking the bread peanut butter side down on the counter, thereby pointing out the gaps in specificity (“We forgot to say ‘Use a plate!’ We forgot to say which sides of the bread to stick together!”). Now it’s a written, take-home assignment rather than an in-class one, and I think I know why. Why should the teachers get themselves covered in messy ingredients that they then have to clean up if they can stick the parents with that job instead?

I know this all sounds unduly cynical. My kids have truly wonderful teachers and they learn so much at school. I’m just crabby because Holly decided for her “recipe” to have me make her favorite chocolate-coconut haystacks, and the homework sheet she brought home encouraged parents to take the kids’ words as literally as possible and, yes, to “be silly with it.” So when Holly said to put a half-cup of chocolate chips in the microwave but didn’t mention a mixing bowl, I dumped the chocolate on the bottom of the microwave and pressed start. Yuck. When she said to mold the melted chocolate into balls but didn’t refer to spoons, I stuck my hands on in. Yuck again. And when she incorrectly said to sprinkle on the shredded coconut after cooling the chocolate lumps rather than while the chocolate was still molten, I watched coconut drift all over the kitchen counter.

Ah, family homework. I don’t mind helping with the big projects – the Native American village dioramas or the photograph-local-landmarks assignments – because I understand a seven-year-old couldn’t do those alone, and the school always gives us several weeks for those projects. It’s the regular weeknight assignments that frustrate me. I routinely come across quotes from college administrators complaining about so-called helicopter parents – and yet how much can they blame parents for being overly involved with their college-aged children’s work if the precedent is set in grade school that schoolwork is a family affair? As I grumble to my kids, I don’t ask for their help writing articles; that’s my job, and homework should be theirs.

Our pediatrician sympathizes with my griping. Fortunately for me, she has kids the same ages as mine. She told me that in a recent fit of pique during a family homework exercise that she didn’t feel she had time to do, she said to her daughter, “Guess what? I’ve already done second grade! And I passed it, too! It would have been really hard to get into medical school otherwise!”

In any case, Holly completed her homework. And as soon as I finish scrubbing burnt chocolate off the inside of the microwave, I know we’ll both feel a great sense of accomplishment. I just hope we get a really good grade.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

When only one brand of cream cheese will do, what's a mom to do?

Maybe this is about the exception that proves the rule.

No sooner did I finish writing here about how I’ve developed a deep well of self-discipline that makes it easy for me to say no to my kids than a situation arose reminding me of the proverbial gray area.

I told Tim I was going to buy bagels yesterday afternoon. “Not there!” Tim wailed, knowing I meant I was going to the bagel place near Holly’s pottery class. “I can’t stand their bagels! I can’t stand their cream cheese! PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE go to Bruegger’s!”

“Bruegger’s is in the wrong direction,” I told him. “I don’t want to have to drive all the way to Bedford. After I drop Holly off at pottery, I’m already halfway to Bagels Plus, and that’s where I want to go today.”

Tim ranted a little longer about how much he prefers Bruegger’s Bagels, specifically their bacon scallion cream cheese.

This poses a dilemma for me. First of all, I’m not sure I believe Tim. He is an inveterate creature of habit, even more than I am, and that’s saying something. I suspect he likes Bruegger’s because until a week ago, that was where we always bought our bagels. Holly’s first pottery class was last week, and that was the first time we went to Bagels Plus. While we were there, Tim ate one half of a sesame bagel with their version of bacon scallion cream cheese and sulkily proclaimed it notably inferior. But in a blind taste test, would he really know the difference?

Well, let’s suppose for a moment he would, which brings me to the next part of the dilemma. What I wrote about yesterday was saying no to the kids when they make demands that there’s no sensible reason for me to meet. But in this case, it’s a little different. Tim is asking me to do something that he simply doesn’t have the resources to do himself: shop at Bruegger’s. It’s six miles from home. Unlike refilling the seltzer bottle or letting the dog out, there’s no question in this case that I’m the only one who can execute this particular task.

And in general, I appreciate it when they express opinions about food choices. So I’m on the fence about whether it’s reasonable for me to meet Tim’s wish that I drive a half-hour out of my way for a different brand of cream cheese. The fact is, I harbor tremendous ambivalence about being part of a community – and a society – that depends so heavily on driving. Tim is eleven; there are other places we could choose to live where he would be old enough to go to the store himself on foot. But this is where I’ve chosen to live, and in a way, I don’t feel right making my children pay the price for the fact that we live in a community where retail is inaccessible to non-drivers. I grew up here; I know full well what it feels like to be forever waiting for someone to drive you to where you want to go, whether it’s a store, a friend’s house or a school dance. (Years ago, Carlisle’s ad hoc Planned Parenthood task force concluded that their mission of enabling teens to be sexually responsible was nearly impossible in a community where people who don’t drive can neither get themselves to a clinic nor a drugstore nor a public transportation stop without walking or biking at least five miles.)

So I told Tim I was going to stick with my plan for yesterday but I’d drive to Bruegger’s later in the week, because it doesn’t seem fair for him to be disempowered where groceries are concerned. He neither eats a lot nor asks for a lot; if he really loves a particular kind of bagels and cream cheese, it seems reasonable for me to provide that for him.

And then once we have it in the kitchen, maybe I’ll try that blind taste test after all, and see if it really makes any difference.

Monday, February 1, 2010

Holly can't drive

Just before the alarm clock went off, I started dreaming that Holly wanted to drive the car. She cajoled. She pleaded. She whined. She demanded. I conceded, then realized as she took the wheel that it really wasn’t a very good idea to give a 7-year-old control of the car. “Holly, please, be careful, be sensible….” I fretted as we veered across the road.

The alarm went off and I woke up amused rather than frightened, with these simple words in my head: “Holly can’t drive!”

The light of day showed the dream-conflict for all of its absurdity: Holly is seven! It doesn’t matter how much she demands, pleads, or cajoles: she can’t drive!

The reason I dreamed this seemed clear to me. Holly still has occasional tantrums and I still sometimes find it challenging to stand up to her. Tim was the same way at her age. Though I generally associate tantrums more with the preschool years, both of them at around the same time hit a streak of iron will that enabled them to stand up against every force of parental reason.

But now when it happens I just remind myself: Holly can’t drive. No matter what, it’s not an option.

Reading Eileen Calandro’s blog entry about the importance of saying no and considering some issues absolutely non-negotiable reminded me of that dream and the part its message has played in my life over the past few months. We parents encourage our children to be articulate and analytical, and then sometimes, to use an expression of my father’s, we hoist ourselves on our own petard. “Use your words,” we say over and over again when they are small in an attempt to get them to verbalize their feelings. But eventually, we reach a point where we have to remember their words aren’t always relevant to our decision-making process. Waking from the dream, I realized there was no amount of seven-year-old eloquence in the world that could convince me to let Holly take the wheel; and yet in waking life I still, after eleven years of parenting, have to remind myself sometimes that some decisions are universally mine and not up to discussion.

At 11, Tim is past the tantrummy stage; he may still disagree with my edicts but he doesn’t try to change my mind through force of will. But back when he was Holly’s age, there were similar struggles, and sometimes I found it helpful to ask myself this rather coarse but straightforward question: “He’s still, like, half your weight, right?” It’s not that I would really use physical force against my children; it’s just that reminding myself of this fact underscored the fact that it would be physically impossible for Tim to force me to, say, let him play another half-hour of video games or invite a friend whose presence I found disruptive for a sleepover. No mother really wants to think of parenting as a contest of physical might, but the obviousness of it always jolted me back to reality.

My husband’s simple sense of logic sometimes provides a useful reality check as well. Once when Tim was seven, Rick was present for one of Tim’s and my near-daily arguments about whether I would pick Tim up at school (which he vastly preferred) or whether he should take the bus (my preference). Tim was insisting that I had to pick him up, and I was dithering and arguing and protesting until Rick simply said, “Fine, Tim. You stand out on the school plaza until Mommy arrives to pick you up, because she already said she’s not going to!” And Rick was right, of course. If I wasn’t there to pick Tim up, he’d have to take the bus home. End of discussion.

Not that it’s always easy. But keeping these basic principles in mind helps in the heat of the moment. Just this past weekend, Holly and I were in my bedroom and she wanted me to read to her before bed – but she wanted me to go fetch the book from her room, and I wanted her to do it. She fussed and screeched; she pointed out that she often fetches things for me when I need them. But I simply didn’t feel like it. I was already lying in bed and I was comfortable, and she was the one who wanted the book. So I said no.

She was right; I do often ask her to go grab my phone from my purse or a stamp from the desk. But this time it didn’t matter to me; I wasn’t willing to back down. Because for one thing, when I back down on trivial things with the kids just to avoid prolonging the argument, I end up really irritable. If I went to get the book, I’d be feeling cranky the whole time we were reading. “Fine,” I said to Holly. “If you won’t go get the book, we won’t read. I’m going to do some deskwork. If you change your mind, come get me.”

Holly hates to lose face by backing down. She disappeared into her room, then reappeared a half-hour later to announce frostily, “I’m ready for bed now, if you would please come tuck me in.” So we missed out on reading that night. And I understand it wasn’t all that important an issue. But maintaining willpower against the kids’ demands is a good exercise for me. And so I’m glad once again for the practice. Because Holly can’t drive. And to contemplate allowing her to do so would just be bad parenting.