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.

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