Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Lunch/recess duty on a rainy Tuesday

One could argue that my having volunteer lunch/recess duty for both the second grade and fifth grade yesterday smacked of divine justice. After all, what I did back in September was subversive. Each parent who is available to volunteer for lunch/recess duty is urged to sign up for one regularly recurring day a month: say, first Tuesdays or fourth Fridays or whatever. Parents like me, who would rather have gum surgery than be lunch/recess volunteers but still believe deep in their hearts that school volunteering is the price we pay for the luxury of being self-employed and working from home, sign up first – and grab the coveted fifth days. The fifth Monday, the fifth Tuesday, and so on. Most months, there’s only four of each day; fifths of each one come along only a few times a year, and some of those months are bound to be during vacations. So we grab the fifths and consider our responsibilities fulfilled.

Rather like gum surgery, when I noted fifth Tuesday lunch coverage in my appointment book last fall, March seemed as far off as the next millennium. Eventually, though, it was time to pay the piper. And it served me right for my sneakiness that my day to supervise lunch and recess along with a paid aide and a few other volunteers fell on Day 2 of a massive three-day rainstorm at the end of the rainiest March in Massachusetts history. Little kids cooped up for lunch and indoor recess when it’s been pouring for days on end? Some might say I got just what I deserved.

Except I had a pretty good time. It turns out when you work by yourself six hours a day, immersing yourself in elementary school clamor for two hours is a fine diversion. Normally I dread the lunchroom. Our school cafeteria, though well-lit, spacious and relatively clean, always puts me in mind of that urban myth that pervades at universities all over the country about architects who designed the library without taking into account the weight of the books, so the structure is supposedly sinking into the ground by several inches a year. I’m convinced that the team who designed and built our school cafeteria neglected to think about the noise generated by 200 kids eating lunch together at once. The acoustics are deadly; the volume at times barrier-breaking.

But yesterday it didn’t seem so bad, and neither did the indoor recesses I supervised, one in the fifth grade classroom and one with the second graders. When I arrived in the fifth grade room, the teacher had just started showing an animated film about the build-up to the American Revolution. I was amused at how the kids seemed glued to the screen. Maybe it was the Disney-ish visuals, but they appeared compelled by the movie. And they knew their history, too. When a slim African-American woman was asked who she was and her companion replied tartly, “Only the first-ever African-American to publish a volume of poetry!” at least half the kids called out, “Phillis Wheatley!” When Benjamin Franklin’s apprentice described how his mentor’s lightning rod had saved his life during a storm, the audience cheered.

The children had use of two connected classrooms; those who were not watching the film were in other room talking, reading or playing games. I dropped in there to see what was going on and found my son and three other boys batting a beanbag ball back and forth with their hands. “Hi, Nancy!” yelled one of Tim’s best friends, dispensing immediately with the typical classroom formalities of Mr. and Mrs. I was pleasantly surprised to get such a warm welcome.

The second graders were a little less resourceful in their use of indoor recess, but they won me over anyway by making me feel useful. Two boys were tossing a nerf football when it arced up to a high shelf and got stuck behind a folded blanket. They asked me to get it down. Only in a roomful of second graders do I have the honor of being the tallest person in the room, but I felt terribly useful as I climbed onto the chair one of them brought me and fumbled around until my fingers located the nerf ball. They cheered when I tossed it down. And that wasn’t the end of my usefulness. I used my well-honed mediation skills to head off an imminent fist fight over Legos (“The fact is, Jeff, even if you think the red one was in your pile and Ryan says it was in his, there’s five hundred others just like it in this bin”) and solved another child’s problem by proving myself able to sound out the word toboggan. A useful lesson for me: If you want to feel clever, strong, physically capable and generally important, go spend an hour with a classroom full of second graders.

Plus I got presents. While the boys played with Legos and nerf footballs, the girls were coloring. And to my great surprise, many of them gave me artwork to take home. One made a flowered bookmark for me. Another made a picture of a pink cat, and a third drew a sketch of herself throwing up. As I mentioned, it was pouring outside, so I can’t say any of those gifts survived beyond the school parking lot, but I was delighted with my haul.

So maybe next year I’ll be more generous and sign up for a real commitment, not the Cheater’s Fifths as I like to think of those fifth days. But maybe I won’t. I wouldn’t want the novelty to wear off. And once the kids grow tall enough to reach their own nerf balls down from the upper shelf, I might find myself far less in demand during indoor recess.

Monday, March 29, 2010

A moment for ingratitude

Gratitude is such a fundamentally important emotion to recognize: gratitude for everything from healthy children to roofs over our heads to, as Emily says when she returns briefly from the afterlife in Thornton Wilder’s Our Town, “coffee. And new ironed dresses and hot baths… and sleeping and waking up.”

Yet last night I found myself wondering if my ceaseless quest to carry gratitude into all aspects of my life was drowning out some other thoughts that might deserve a moment or two of free expression. I was feeling anxious about some things and irritable about others, and yet every time I tried to focus on those emotions, all I could hear was my conscience saying “No, be grateful, be grateful.”

And for the most part, that’s true: what I am blessed with and what I should feel grateful for so overpowers what I might be anxious or irritable about. So there’s another six inches of rain in the forecast? Be grateful that unlike the earthquake survivors in Haiti, you’ll be inside your house as the rain falls. Yes, says a small voice, but we somehow have to solve the problem of the driveway washing out again, and I haven’t done anything about it. The car needs servicing? How lucky that you have a reputable auto shop a mile away and enough money to pay the bill. Yes, says that same small voice, I know that, but the mechanic actually said I need to take it to the dealer to have something else checked out, and somehow I’m going to have to find time for that trip, and spend still more money on it… The kids’ clamor at the dinner table was making my skull vibrate? Well, there are people whose children don’t talk at all. Statistically, you’re remarkably lucky not to have any autism in the family. Yes, true, but it was still a lot of noise at the dinner table when I could have used just a little bit of peace and calm. A client gave a somewhat acrimonious reception to some work you just finished? Be glad for employment. Of course, but it still hurts my feelings when clients don’t like my work.

What I’m beginning to suspect is that about 90% of the time it’s crucial to let gratitude overrule all other emotions, but that there are moments nonetheless when ingratitude deserves just a moment of acknowledgment. I need to complain, carp, whine. I need to ask gratitude to just hush for a moment so someone else can have a turn to talk.

My 11-year-old returned from an excursion with friends recently. As he was saying goodbye to them, I interrupted rather obtrusively to ask if he had thanked them for bringing him along. “You always do that when we drop him off!” chided the parent of Tim’s friend. “Of course he thanked us. He always does. And now he’s trying to tell us about something and you’re interrupting to remind him to thank us yet again.”

That parent was right to call me on it: saying thank you is good manners, but I wasn’t giving Tim a chance to say anything else as the get-together ended. And sometimes I do the same thing to myself. Gratitude matters, but allow negativity to have a voice every now and then. Purge it and get back to the gratitude. Yes, shelter is a magnificent luxury when it’s raining, but for a moment let’s just allow ourselves to feel how cold and wet the rain is. It’s okay. You can say thank you some more in a moment, but for this particular second in time, acknowledge what’s not so great. Because it, too, matters.

As Henry Ford says, even small successes and failures are a self-fulfilling prophesy

Henry Ford allegedly said “If you think you can do a thing or think you can't do a thing, you're right.” I was thinking about this oft-repeated quotation while I was out running yesterday afternoon as I struggled to get to the 1.5 mile mark. I, who a few years ago ran a 13-mile circuit every weekend. I, who for that matter ran four slightly hilly Carlisle miles on Saturday and four significantly hilly miles in midcoast Maine on Friday. Yet yesterday I spent the morning and midday telling myself I didn’t feel like I could do much of a run that day. And sure enough, when I set out, it turned out I was right.

When I tell myself I can run six miles, I can do it. When I tell myself I’ll struggle with two, that’s what happens. Just as Henry Ford said, time and again what I tell myself I can do turns out to be what I can do. And the same for what I tell myself I can’t do.

That quote seemed to reflect other parts of my weekend too. Sunday was the fourth week of teaching Sunday school for me. Our church’s religious education program runs on a model of rotating volunteers: one parent of each child in the class signs up for four weeks at a time. My stint hadn’t been going too well. I was having trouble composing lesson plans from week to week even with the RE Director’s help. I couldn’t seem to keep the kids’ attention or maintain order from one week to the next; nor could I get excited about what I was trying to teach, even though I was free to design my own lessons within the general theme of the curriculum.

So I formed the idea at the beginning of the month it wouldn’t go well, and having done so, I found that was the case. But yesterday, the last of my four-week commitment, I was determined to re-chart the course. Acknowledging that the kids really did do better with hands-on activities than a more pedantic or discussion-oriented approach, I was all set with an art project for them to do. I felt bolstered about it being my final week, and I was even a little bit encouraged by how some of our discussion time had gone the previous week. So I went in ready for a good class, and we had a good class. Not a great one, but a reasonably reflective and intellectually fruitful one. My prophesy self-fulfilled.

Most significantly this weekend, there was the furniture. My parents very generously just gave us a sectional couch and a bed, which we brought home on Saturday morning. But we hadn’t come up with a plan for how to get the new furniture from our truck into the house and up to the second floor. We’d halfheartedly pursued estimates from a few movers, but each company had a minimum charge that made it impractical to pay to move just two pieces of furniture. I was wary of the Craigslist approach and received no response from our local list-serve when I advertised for strong teens or college students to help out. So the furniture arrived Saturday morning but we still hadn’t figured out how to get it into the house, along with the corollary task of getting an old couch and chair from our second floor out of the house.

And yet my husband Rick went into it with the attitude that if we needed to do it, we could do it. Just as Henry Ford said, Rick believed we could do it and he was right. Though to look at the furniture now, it’s still hard to fathom how we managed, the four of us somehow did all the furniture moving ourselves. Rick and Holly devised a slide out of couch cushions and towels that helped them ease the old furniture down the stairs and out the door. Rick and Tim together hefted the new sectional in through the sliders and up the stairs inch by inch. That’s how we did the bed too, only I was on hand to help with that one. With Rick at one end of the bed and Tim and me at the other, we just lifted, lugged, hefted and shoved, literally inch by inch, until it was up the stairs and into the guest room.

Thinking we could do it, we did it. I was reminded of the Anne Lamott expression (and book title) Bird by Bird: When you need to write a report about birds, write it one bird at a time. When you need to move a couch, no matter how much you think you don’t quite have the requisite muscle power, move it inch by inch. In a way, once we got started, it seemed as if there was no way we could fail. One inch? Any team of people could move a couch one inch. We just had to do it over and over again until it was in place.

So I’m going to try to maintain this philosophy into the new week. Earlier this month I wrote about solving problems by anticipating them: one thing that helped me cope with the big flood we experienced in mid-March was figuring out what the particular challenges were – getting the kids to the bus stop, feeding the animals – and posing possible solutions one at a time. But this week I’m going to try the opposite approach. Rather than writing about the concern I’ll miss an article deadline or arrive at a meeting unprepared, I’ll go into it the Henry Ford way, telling myself I can do it. And I’ll hope that he’s right that I’m right.

Friday, March 26, 2010

One photo instead of one thousand words

I blog daily and I blog too many words at a time. I know this. I know my blog entries are way longer than optimal. But I can’t help it. Once I get going, I can’t always make myself hold back.

And the blog just presents too great a luxury to deny myself. Ordinarily, I’m a print journalist and forever constrained by word count. I know that according both to search engine optimization rules and the attention spans of most of my friends, I should write half as much in each blog entry. But I just can’t make myself do it. I did get as far as Googling the phrase “ideal blog entry length” recently. It confirmed what I already suspected: mine are beyond the pale as far as what new media gurus recommend. Oh well. I like to write, that’s all. I spend so much time in my life as a journalist cutting words, writing to word count. In my blog I like to let loose.

But once in a while I wonder why, and I especially wondered why when I saw this photo on my friend's Distracted Hausfrau blog. My friend is a photographer, and her approach to blogging is different: whereas I write hundreds of words in my blog every day, she takes one magnificent photo and describes it with a few sentences. When I saw this photo, I felt like emitting a long sigh. How perfect it is. The essence of simplicity. No words are necessary at all, though she does give a brief explanation about the varying hues of syrup in glass bottles at a maple sugar house she visited. Who needs words at all when you can capture the essence of an early spring Saturday in a photo like this one?

Poems are written by fools like me, but only God can make a tree, wrote poet Joyce Kilmer. And yes, long rambling blog entries are written by fools like me, while Distracted Hausfrau takes one breathtaking photo of syrup in jars with the thin March light seeping through. I spend a lot of time searching for the right words, revising, editing, rearranging, trying ever harder to say exactly what I want to say in the most well-crafted way possible. And every once in a while, I glimpse a better way. I’m not a talented photographer, and I don’t want to give up my blog. But once in a while, a photo like this one makes me catch my breath and just hold off on the deluge of words for a little while.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Fluffy, the family guinea pig

“Mommy, have you written articles about everyone in our family?” Holly asked me yesterday morning.

“Well, not feature stories. It wouldn’t be professional to write features about our family. But I’ve written essays about everyone in our family.”

“Tim and me?” she asked.

“Of course, You’ve seen them.”

“What about Daddy?”

I’ve known “Daddy” for 23 years. Rest assured that he’s made plenty of appearances under my byline during that time.

“Belle too?”

In fact, I wrote just a month after Belle’s arrival how much I was enjoying the presence of our newly adopted dog.

“What about Fluffy?”

Ah, Fluffy. “Well, no,” I admitted. “I don’t think I’ve ever written about Fluffy.”

“You should,” Holly said with concern. “I don’t want her to feel left out.”

Hmmmm. To paraphrase the opening of Love Story, what can you say about a pet guinea pig who really neither adds nor detracts anything of note from family life? She’s so different from the rest of us. We two adults, two children and one dog teem with activity. We eat, we play, we have conversations, we even sleep in particular ways. Fluffy just…just goes about being Fluffy.

Still, Holly’s right. I shouldn’t neglect to write about this smallest and most easily overlooked member of our family. So….Fluffy. Holly loves Fluffy in her own way. She likes to talk about Fluffy and write about Fluffy. She just doesn’t do much in the way of taking care of Fluffy. I do. I refill her food and water dispensers; I clean out her cage once a week. Fluffy always gets held by someone in the family during cage-cleaning time, so she’s assured of that human interaction – and a fresh carrot – at least once a week. And since her cage is in my home office, she and I spend plenty of time in each other’s company. Yet I’m not sure I could think of three adjectives to describe her personality. I’m not even entirely sure she has a personality.

But as Holly says, I can’t go on forever without writing anything about Fluffy. Ah,
Fluffy. What can I say? She has bright eyes and a smooth coat. She sometimes tears around her cage in mad laps of running, though more often she just kind of huddles. She seems happy enough. For a while she was very sick, and I thought we’d soon lose her, but then she inexplicably recovered. Her thinned-out coat grew back in, and she stopped lying on her side and then being unable to right herself again: the turtle move, we called it, during those weeks that she would sometimes flail on her back until I scooped her up and set her right.

Although I didn’t feel too bad then about the idea of losing her, there was something so inspiring about her recovery. We did so little to facilitate it. I brought her to the vet, but no particular treatment was recommended. Fluffy just somehow rallied, and came back more spirited than ever. She runs laps like she used to. She squeaks with astounding volume whenever I open the closet door; apparently the little Pavlov knows that’s where her food is kept. She submits willingly to being lifted and held every Sunday during cage-cleaning time.

Fluffy is a good pet. She’s not a pal to us, like the dog is, but she is in her own little rodent-y way a nice addition to the household. She’s generally calm and quiet, looking out at the world with a bright-eyed stare. She seems to fit in just fine these days.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Professional development: Acquiring a sense of restraint

My editor emailed me late yesterday afternoon to ask if I had any feature story ideas. As I drove later that evening to a meeting, I thought about different ideas, but kept dismissing them. This may sound like a defeatist attitude, but within the context of my journalistic career, it actually might represent progress.

When I started having features accepted by the Boston Globe, I was sun-dazzled with excitement. Having that byline was so important to me that I forgot being part of a Globe story might not be the highest priority of everyone I involved in my articles. It wasn’t a matter of celebrity; it was just that for me, being a regular freelance contributor to a major city daily was the culmination of a decade of striving for publication. Because in my mind, nothing was more important than writing for the newspaper, I grabbed every assignment I could get.

And then I learned some lessons the hard way. While I wouldn’t exactly say I’ve lost friends over any articles or essays I’ve run in the paper, I’ve definitely had some sobering moments. An article I was elated to be assigned about a controversial Halloween celebration in one neighborhood resulted in one of the residents of the neighborhood calling me to express her displeasure over my use of the phrase “granite countertops.” A story about the high number of twins in our town caused a mother to be upset with me for not letting her younger, non-twin son appear in the photo with his brother and sister. And when I wrote a first-person essay that I thought was lighthearted and entertaining about “divorcing” one book club so that I could join another, it received a frosty response from some, if not all, members of both book clubs.

Sometimes, too, I’m the one who ends up at the sharp end of my own judgment. I was thrilled to have an essay I wrote on my son and his first protective cup (as in underwear worn for baseball) embraced by a Globe editor – until I saw it in print and wondered how many pedophiles were reading my essay about my son’s private parts. But it didn’t teach me a lesson: a year later I wrote an essay about my daughter’s imaginary friends – and had similar qualms when I saw it in print.

Gradually, though, I’m finally developing what I consider a little bit of journalistic maturity. I no longer get so carried away with my own delight in self-expression that I completely overlook the possible reactions of the people I might be writing about. While it’s true that earlier this month I published an essay about being annoyed when my kids’ teachers assigned “family homework,” I made sure to qualify at least three times in the same essay how much I like and respect the entire faculty and administration at my children’s school. Besides, I reasoned, I’ve never known their teachers to read the Boston Globe.

I learned within six hours of that article’s publication that parents were clipping it out at the breakfast table and hand-delivering it to the classrooms, so there went that protective measure. But none of them took offense. Not too much, anyway.

Still, my newfound sense of restraint is probably a generally good thing. Except that yesterday it was preventing me from settling on any good ideas at all. A feature about over-the-top luxuries at our school’s fundraising auction? Sure to alienate some of the parents who spent a lot of money at the auction, and equally sure to elicit fiery responses from opponents of public school fundraising. A story about a teardown controversy in a nearby town? No; it was a town where I had several clients for other freelance assignments, and I didn’t want to make any enemies there either. I thought briefly about a family I know slightly who recently lost a child to heroin overdose and have been working hard to bring attention to the issue of drug use in the affluent suburbs. Sure, I told myself, and have heroin dealers on my case? Maybe not.

It’s not professionally productive for me to grow paranoid. I find story ideas by staying abreast of what’s going on around me, and inevitably, friends and neighbors are involved. And often they appreciate my drawing attention to their causes and projects. But overall, it feels like a new stage of wisdom that I have these second thoughts now. Not at the expense of ever coming up with another story idea. But if I avoid future episodes of being blacklisted by my book club, that’s just fine as an outcome.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Oh those creeping pounds...

One of my favorite fitness sites ran an article yesterday that made me smile and roll my eyes at the same time: “How to slow down weight gain.” There’s something so wryly defeatist about that title. Not how to prevent weight gain, not how to lose weight, but how to slow down the inevitable gain, as if whoever wrote that is finally ready to just throw in the towel on the idea of losing or maintaining weight.

And it’s something I could have written myself, since I too am about ready to face up to a new goal of slowing down weight gain rather than losing or maintaining.

Ever since I turned forty, I’ve been surprised by how different my metabolism is than it was in my thirties. The same amount of food no longer allows me to maintain my weight. And it’s not like I was a big eater before. But I felt like I had taken years to figure out what kept my weight pretty steady and even – and then after I turned forty, that all changed. Now instead of feeling good that my weight hardly ever changes, I’m forced to welcome a new pound or two aboard every year, it seems.

Sometimes I just can’t be bothered to care. I eat a mindful if certainly not abstemious pesco-vegetarian diet. I ride my exercise bike for 45 minutes every morning, and I run anywhere from one to five miles every day. So I’ve got the cardio workout part covered. Yes, I should be doing weight resistance at my age as well – for bone mass as well as weight maintenance and toning – but I just don’t have any desire to add more exercise time to my day. I’d rather be reading. Or writing. Or cooking. Or eating. That’s the other thing: there’s so much good food in the world. To make myself continuously turn away from it seems like a show of ingratitude to the Universe for all the delicious things it puts in front of me.

A week ago, I decided to take a break from scale-watching. The continuous creep was just getting too discouraging. Moreover, I felt like I had enough to worry about when I arose in the morning – deadlines, family life, global issues – without giving myself the entirely avoidable added stress of seeing that another pound had hung on overnight. So I simply decided to stop weighing in every morning.

But that took its own kind of courage. What if I gain, like, five pounds because I’m not keeping track of it? I worried. Well, my clothes wouldn’t fit and I’d notice that, I reasoned back with myself. Okay, but what if I start gaining slowly but surely and it just keeps piling on? Well, yes, that’s what’s happening anyway. Why not spare myself the cold hard evidence?

So I gave myself a week off from the scale but followed the same guidelines for weight control that I always do: reasonable variety of food, restrained portion sizes, lots of exercise, avoid eating after 7 PM if at all possible.

And the results? When I finally weighed myself this morning after a ten-day break, it was okay. I hadn’t gained anything new at all.

I really want to think weight doesn’t matter to me, and that the pound-a-year acquisitions that arrived with my 40’s can be reversed. But this headline has me convinced the best I can do right now is slow it down. And then I reached the last paragraph, which starts with these words: “Finally, don’t be afraid to” – gain a little bit of weight as you age, I expected it to say. It’s an inevitable part of growing older, and it’s just not that big a deal.

No such luck. This is a fitness site, after all. They have product to move. The sentence actually read like this: Finally, don't be afraid to maintain and increase the number and volume of high intensity workouts as you age.

Oh, okay. I was looking for encouragement to let my body do what it does, but instead I found more ways to combat it. Don’t be afraid to increase my number of high intensity workouts? Thanks for that permission. I’m sure it will come in handy if I ever decide to start doing high intensity workouts. But for now, I’ll just face the scale every morning and do what the headline says: try to slow down that nearly inevitable post-40 weight gain.

Monday, March 22, 2010

The need to knead: The primal pleasure of baking bread

I was on the library’s waiting list for six weeks before I finally had my hands on the newest, best, state-of-the-art, bestselling book on bread-baking.

It sat in my kitchen for three weeks and then it was due back at the library. Renewing it was not an option; this book was so popular someone else was waiting with bated breath.

Whoever he or she is, I hope that patron made better use of the bread book than I did.

But I didn’t learn my lesson then. A week later, a different, brand-new, state-of-the-art bread baking book – this one actually had the irresistibly alluring word “artisan” in the title – on display at the library caught my eye. And since this one was in regular circulation and not on the reserve list, after I’d had it for three weeks, I was able to renew it for another three.

But still, it sat untouched in my kitchen, like its predecessor. Only for twice as long.

Of course I want to bake artisan bread…in theory. No Atkins dieter I, I love fresh-baked bread. Grains, sprouted wheats, seeds, crusty heels, tender center pieces. Bread delights me, and the idea of baking it myself is eternally enticing.
And yet I hardly ever do it.

It’s not that I don’t know how. I grew up watching my mom bake bread, and my sister has one of the most well-organized bread routines I’ve ever seen: her kitchen is never without a loaf of her special whole-grain boule, which she makes through a complicated multi-day process that involves every member of her family being called into service at some point during the process to spray water into the hot oven to make steam.

But I know it doesn’t have to be that complicated. I’ve made bread plenty of times throughout my life. It’s just that those times are far between, because most of the time I like the idea of making bread so much more than the reality.

It’s true that almost nothing is easier to make in the kitchen than bread, as my mother has always pointed out. It usually has no more than a half-dozen ingredients at most and involves nothing more than stirring and kneading.

But the waiting is what gets me. The first rise; the second rise, the baking. I feel chained to the house when I’m making bread. As one of my favorite food writers, the late Laurie Colwin, once wrote, I don’t think it’s practical to make bread and try to raise children at the same time.

And yet the allure of baking one’s own bread is timeless. The proofing of the yeast; the mixing of the flour: it makes me feel deliberate and attentive, and the meditative aspect of kneading dough is undeniable.

The problem is just that it takes so long from beginning to end. This afternoon, after intending for about three months to make some bread, I finally caved. I started the task at 3:00 and didn’t have bread out of the oven until 8 PM. For a baker who is accustomed to mixing up a batch of cookie dough in under ten minutes and having hot baked cookies emerging from the oven just another ten after that, five hours is quite a lot of time to devote to a baking project, even if it wasn’t five hours of nonstop effort.

But the bigger detriment is the nagging suspicion, behind the earthy satisfaction of taking part in one of humankind’s oldest culinary rituals, that it just doesn’t matter that much whether I bake my own bread. It really might not be worth the effort. Unlike some edibles, I find the bread I can buy at Whole Foods or from a number of local cottage industries just as good as the bread I make myself.

There are quite a lot of food items I’d much rather make myself than buy. Cookies, coffee, tomato sauce and scones all fall into this category. But bread is one thing I firmly believe other people can produce a lot more admirably than I can. Pad Thai also fits into that category, but at least I have a little bit more of an excuse for that, not being Thai.

It’s true that the kids love my homemade bread, and that’s often a good incentive to me. Hot bread from the oven with butter melting on it is one of their favorite snacks. But hot fresh bread is like puppies: it grows up. The same bread they couldn’t get enough of the day I made it often ends up molding in the breadbox after a few days, or fading into anonymity in the back of the freezer.

Still, yesterday I took the time, and I’m glad. As always, it was a pleasing process. Making bread is a primal activity: you feel connected with thousands of years of women providing sustenance to their families. The kids will both have bread-and-butter in their backpacks for school snacktime tomorrow, and I’ll know they’re eating better than they sometimes do.

But unless this turns out to be the best loaf of bread I’ve ever tasted, I’ll probably go back to Nashoba Brook bakery brand for the next loaf. Baking bread is fun, but I have a family to raise and a variety of hobbies. Maybe in retirement I’ll find it to be the perfect match for me, but for now I know it will likely be a new season before I once again submit to the need to knead.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Benefit of the doubt

As part of Wednesday’s fabulous biking excursion which I wrote about yesterday, Holly and I stopped at our local general store to buy sandwiches for lunch. Our general store is a genuine small-town gathering spot, and the people who work there are friendly, welcoming and familiar to us. Except that I usually just go to the register counter, not the deli counter, so I did not recognize the young woman taking sandwich orders.

Still, knowing the high standards of this family-owned business, I assumed she’d be pleasant and I greeted her with a big smile.

To my surprise, she was not pleasant at all. She scowled and muttered over my sandwich order. It’s always strange to smile at someone who does not smile back. It’s a little like asking someone a question when they don’t hear you. Like the question, your smile just sort of seems to hang in the air between the two of you.

Having not seen her at the store before, I wondered if she was always like this or if this was unusual. Maybe, I told myself, something awful had just happened to her. Maybe if I knew her from previous visits and thought of her as a friendly person, I’d be alarmed to see how downcast she appeared today. I thought about how sometimes at large supermarket chains you see a sign in the checkout line saying that the bagger is part of a training program for the mentally disabled and customers are therefore asked to show extra patience. When I see those signs, I bend over backwards to be extra patient, and I imagine just about every customer does too. We all want to encourage someone for whom a job particularly challenging when they have the courage to try it anyway. What if there was a sign at the deli counter that said “J. has just received some very bad news. Please be patient with her bad mood today.”?

Well, then of course I would have forgiven her the lack of smile. I would have gone out of my way to try to be kind.

On the other hand, what if she’s always like that? Why should I have to put up with my sandwich order – and my cheerful greeting – being met with a scowl?

I always try to give people the benefit of the doubt. When someone speeds past me on the highway or cuts me off in traffic, I tell myself that maybe they are rushing a passenger to the hospital. When a child behaves very obnoxiously in public, I consider that he might have severe behavioral problems that the parents are at their wits’ end trying to resolve, and I should just feel lucky not to have to deal with anything like that myself. Last week at the post office, when a woman I didn't recognize left her oversized SUV idling for twenty minutes in front of the "no idling zone" sign, I tried to imagine that maybe she had a feverish child inside the car for whom she absolutely had to keep the heat cranked up.

But sometimes it’s hard to give everyone the benefit of the doubt. Surely not every single person who cuts me off in traffic is rushing to the hospital. Not everyone at the supermarket who brings twenty items into the express line needs to hurry home to meet the kindergarten bus. And sometimes being too willing to put up with other people’s unpleasant behavior just makes you feel like a pushover.

Still, you never know. I’ll go back to the general store’s sandwich counter at some point and hope to find the young woman in a better mood before I judge her as not up to the store’s standards of customer service. Maybe it was just a really bad day. And if so, I don’t have any wish to make it any worse for her by labeling her an unfriendly person.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

A bike ride, a fall, and a lesson

It was a case of felicitous happenstance that the kids had no school – a professional day – on what turned out to be a beautiful early-spring day, one of the first of the year. The sun shone and temperatures reached nearly sixty degrees. Tim went over to play at a friend’s house; Holly and I headed out for her first solo biking excursion, retracing the mile-long route via gravel footpath to the town Center that she had done many times on the tagalong attached to my bike but never on her own two-wheeler.

I was apprehensive. Holly developed her biking abilities last fall. First we practiced on a paved track, then in a nearby neighborhood with wide, flat, interlacing streets. The footpaths in our town are, by design, rough and unpaved, but this makes them challenging for small riders. The terrain is uneven and the paths wind a lot, so attention to both positioning and steering is critical. I wasn’t at all sure Holly was up to the challenge, but she insisted she wanted to try.

As I pedaled along behind her, it occurred to me that there’s really no way for a beginner to learn to ride a bike without falling a fair amount. No matter how much I coached her along, it was bound to happen. Bicyclists fall; it’s that simple. In general she seemed fairly steady and quite confident, but I knew it was inevitable that she’d take a spill at some point. There’s just no other way to develop biking skills than by practicing and trying and occasionally wiping out.

She did well heading up to the Center. On the way back, she started going a little too fast down a slight slope, lost control, and flew into the gravel. She skinned her knee and the side of her palm. She cried a lot. A police officer who happened to be driving by pulled over, lights flashing, to check on her, which I thought was very kind of him if a bit of an overreaction. For a moment, being a typical twenty-first century parent, I wondered if it was possible he’d say I was doing something wrong. Had I overlooked some obvious safety measure or allowed her in an area where she shouldn’t be biking? But he merely echoed what I had been thinking: Kids learning to ride bikes fall. There’s no way around it.

Holly and I sat on a stone wall until she felt well enough to stand up. Then she said, “I don’t want to bike anymore!”

We were just under a mile from home. “We can walk our bikes if you’d rather,” I offered.

“I want to drive!” she wailed.

I thought about it. Fetching the car wasn’t out of the question. We happened to be across the street from the home of a close friend of ours; I could park Holly there while I biked home to get the car, or I could ask her for a ride. We were also close to the library, and even though I know it’s not ideal on principle to leave kids at the library, I also knew she could rest unnoticed for fifteen minutes while I hurried home for the car.

But I also know how quick Holly is to flare up when she’s upset and how equally quick she is to calm down. Which made me suspect that if I didn’t leap in to find an elaborate solution to the problem – one that involved leaving her and her bike while I hurried home for the car and came back again to pick her up – she would soon get past the feeling that she needed a ride.

I fought the temptation to come up with a complicated solution, something that would assure that Holly would stop crying. I made myself refrain from trying to fix everything instantly. “We can’t drive; we don’t have the car,” I said calmly. “If you don’t feel like biking, why don’t we just walk our bikes for a while?”

I gave her a drink of water and dabbed off the drops of blood with a Kleenex. We started walking. After less than two minutes, she said in a very tear-worn voice, “I want to ride now.”

So we rode the rest of the way home. No more accidents; no more tears. And I had the satisfaction of knowing I’d had a chance to practice overcoming one of my faults as a parent: being too quick to try to fix things when they go wrong. I’d held back, made myself be patient, waited out Holly’s need to go home in the car. I’d suppressed my natural tendency to start making arrangements and devising solutions and generally being as proactive as possible to ensure that everyone is happy and everything works out. “We don’t have the car; let’s just start walking,” I’d said instead. And walking had worked. Walking had calmed Holly down until she was ready to ride again.

It wasn’t merely the age-old lesson of getting back on the horse – or bike – when you’re thrown off, though there was that too: certainly Holly ended the day feeling like a successful bicyclist rather than one whose first excursion had been cut short with a bad fall. And that’s an important one. But for me as a parent, it’s even more valuable to remember not everything that happens to the kids is a problem waiting for me to step in and fix it. This time, fixing wasn’t necessary; only waiting was needed. And waiting was exactly what worked.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Playing after the flood

Yesterday’s Boston Globe carried an engaging op-ed piece by Julianna Baggott, a college writing instructor who suspects her late-teen students have little experience with spontaneous, non-electronic, outdoor play, having grown up amidst organized sports and video games. Knowing the Globe’s lead time, I suspect it’s just a coincidence that the essay ran on what felt to us like, if not the first day of spring, then at least the first day of potential spring. And my kids, though no strangers to video games, did in fact play spontaneously outside.

The weather had a lot of meaning for us yesterday. We arose in the pre-dawn darkness as usual, and because the past three days have been dominated by dark gray skies, steady rain and the most massive flooding in this area that I’ve seen in four decades, I imagined that another gray and rainy day lurked under the cover of pre-dawn darkness.

But I was wrong. When light filled the sky, it wasn’t the dull gray light of the past three days; it was sunlight. Thin, white clouds scudded across a pale blue sky. The rain was over. And while the remnants of the storm were still somewhat jaw-dropping to behold – our barnyard and west pastures still under water, a whitewater deluge rushing across our driveway in the two spots where it crosses the brook, and all over town orange safety cones and detour signs scattered amidst the roadways – the sunshine promised that we’d have at least this one day without more rain.

The kids felt the sun not only on their faces but in their bones. After school, Holly rolled out her two-wheeler for only the second time this season and asked if she could pedal it around. I pulled a lawn chair out onto the front step so that I could keep an eye on her. She fetched three favorite stuffed animals and had them take turns riding on her bike with her. The dog lay next to me on the sunny stoop. Tim and his friend Will invented a game of nerf baseball, smacking a soft round orb around with a padded bat, yelling, chasing each other, occasionally tackling. For once, they didn’t even ask to play computer games or video games. They knew they needed fresh air and sun.

The cows and sheep bravely crossed the flooded pasture to make their way to a dry hillside, and the floodwaters started receding. The kids admitted it was kind of exciting to have to trek along a trail through the woods to get to our car, which we’d moved to a cul-de-sac that backs onto our property just before the driveway became impassable.

So Julianna Baggott writing in the Globe is right; kids don’t play spontaneously outdoors the way they did in past generations. But once in a while, when the mood and the weather are right, a more primal instinct takes over and they give up all their usual distractions to bike or run and just be outside. My kids were like that today on what felt like the kickoff to spring, and it made me hope we have a lot more afternoons like that in the oncoming season, and that we still appreciate the warmth of the spring sun even when the floodwaters are just photos.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Worry, worry, worry

"Worry never robs tomorrow of its sorrow. It only saps today of its joy." Leo F. Buscaglia

In the wee hours of Sunday morning, I woke, anxiety-ridden, and lay in bed detailing to myself my worries. I was worried about the fact that I needed to get to church early to prepare for a small presentation I was giving, and I was worried that I would forget the materials I needed for the presentation (the written text I planned to read, plus my laptop to take notes during the discussion that would follow). I was worried it would be too hard to get up on time due to the hour of sleep lost to daylight savings. I was worried about the forecasted rain and whether we’d have problems with flooding. I was worried about how I would fit in my imperative daily run if the flooding was bad, and I was worried that the forecasted high winds would cause a tree to fall on me while I ran.

As I slept, I could hear the wind and rain; I woke worrying about how my mother’s flight home from London was going to be able to land the following night in such bad weather. I was worried that my daughter would dawdle throughout the morning and be late getting to her friend’s birthday party, and probably arrive in a cranky mood for having been rushed.
When I look back on all these worries, I remember the story of the old man who said on his deathbed that he had had a lot of trouble in his life, most of which had never happened.” Winston Churchill

And then Monday I woke even earlier with even more worries. This despite the fact that as far as I knew, everything I had worried about before dawn on Sunday had worked out. I’d arrived at church on time and the presentation had gone great, as had the discussion afterwards. Holly had been good about getting ready for the party and had enjoyed it greatly once she was there. I’d fit in my run before the heavy rains started, and the forecasted heavy winds never arrived. When I’d gone to bed on Sunday night, my mother’s flight was still scheduled for an on-time arrival, though I didn’t know for sure that she’d landed.

Still, it seemed that by 4:40 AM on Monday, I had a whole new set of worries waking me. The flooding had indeed begun as predicted on Sunday, and our driveway was starting to wash out. I wasn’t sure how I’d get the kids to the bus stop if it was impassable by daybreak. I was afraid when daylight came I’d discover that the whole farm was under water. I didn’t know how I’d feed the cows if the barnyard was flooded; I wasn’t even sure the sheep would survive a flood. I worried and worried and worried.
Worry is like a rocking chair--it gives you something to do but it doesn't get you anywhere.” Unknown

Meditation and other prescribed mind-calming measures don’t work for me at times like this. Instead, I arose from bed even though it was an hour earlier than I usually get up and tried to write out possible solutions to everything that was concerning me. Our house is built on a slab; even if the fields were flooded, the area around the house always stays dry, and I knew I didn’t really have to worry about that from the perspective of flooding. The woman who owns the sheep had been here the evening before; surely she had taken some kind of precautions if she thought they might be in danger. Getting the kids out to the road if we couldn’t get through in the car would just require leaving a lot of extra time, and if Holly balked too severely at walking in the flooded driveway, I could pull her in the wagon. My father, who’s the real farmer here – I just help with morning feedings – would surely know what to do if the barnyard was flooded. And there was no point, two hours before sunrise, in worrying about what I would see when the sun came up. I wrote all of this out and tried to let it go. I reminded myself that most of the time, getting up early is one of the best ways to counter worry: there’s quite a lot you can fix or prevent simply by having extra time to deal with it.
There is nothing that wastes the body like worry, and one who has any faith in God should be ashamed to worry about anything whatsoever” Mahatma Gandhi

And most of it turned out all right, except that when daylight broke I discovered the barnyard situation was even worse than I imagined: the entire pasture west of our driveway was under a foot of water. Rick headed out to work and called me to say the driveway had indeed washed away during the night and I shouldn’t even try to get the kids to school; it just wasn’t safe. So there went that worry. I called my father to express my concerns about feeding the animals, and he said he’d take care of it. One less burden on my shoulders. I saw for myself that the house and the land around it were still dry and not in any threat from the continuing rainfall at all.

I tried again to tell myself how unproductive worry is. My mom called a little later in the morning and said she’d safely arrived home from London and that dad had managed with the animals and they were all safe and well, even the sheep. Things were turning out okay.

Worry is such a bad use of time. Listing your problems and figuring out how to cope with them is such a better idea. Getting up early to solve things is often the best strategy of all. Simple guidelines to remember at fretful times like this. It’s not always that easy. But it’s a start.
Worry is a thin stream of fear trickling through the mind. If encouraged, it cuts a channel into which all other thoughts are drained.” Arthur Somers Roche

Monday, March 15, 2010

Wear the baby? How about Give Mom a break?

This well-circulated article from the New York Times about the popularity of baby slings brought me back eleven and a half years, to when my son was an infant. Like the parents in the article, I wore my baby all the time. Everywhere. It soothed him; it entertained him; it kept my hands free. And then I realized something: I was really getting tired.

Though I wasn’t a full-throttle Attachment Parent – both my children slept in our bed only their first night home from the hospital; my son started daycare at the age of three months old; and we used a combination of breastfeeding and bottle-feeding - I definitely bought into the baby-wearing part of Dr. Sears’ equation. When Tim was a newborn I used a Snuggli pack that kept him tight against my chest; then we graduated to the Baby Bjorn, which allowed him a little bit of limb extension. When his neck grew stronger, I turned him to face outward, so that he could stare out at the world with the same perspective I had (literally if not figuratively). And when he was eight months old and could sit straight up on his own, we moved on to a backpack.

Especially for those first six months or so, I loved wearing that baby. Around the house while I did housework or cooked. On walks around the neighborhood. In stores. It was a wonderful thing. My baby was content; we were bonding like mad. It was just like the parents in the article say.

Except did I mention I was becoming really tired?

Still, it kept him happy. Not until my second child was born four years later did I rethink my passion for baby-wearing. And this time, four years older and that much farther into parenthood – as well as having experienced toddlerhood and begun the preschool years – I had a revelation. I’d already carried this new baby for nine months. And from what I knew about babies and small children at this point, there was going to be a whole lot more lugging, lifting, toting and hefting in the months and years to come. So maybe, I slowly came to realize, I didn’t want to spend quite so much leisure time with this baby strapped to my body.

Even the New York Times, normally the last bastion of evenhanded presentation of an issue, seems to suggest that the only downside to baby-wearing is that it could possibly be hazardous to the baby. And of course, that’s a huge downside. But I’ve never heard anyone except for me take a peek at that other downside to baby-wearing: it’s exhausting. And maybe, possibly, the last thing that tired new moms need is the message that they should be expending even more physical effort on parenting than they already are.

So my second child spent more time on a blanket on the floor, more time sitting on my lap rather than on my back, and yes, even more time in a stroller than my firstborn ever had. And I came to see that as a wonderful thing. It turned out my baby didn’t need to be borne by my musculature in order to be happy. It turned out that playing on the floor or even being rolled along in a stroller was just fine with her. It turned out the view she took in as she sat in her jog stroller as we traversed the neighborhood, or even as she perched in the cheap fold-up stroller as we made our way through the mall, wasn’t so bad either. She could still take in the scenery and sounds and enjoy the passing view. Only it wasn’t my spine doing all the work this time.

I’ve heard that attachment parents eschew strollers, though not until I read this article did I come across the amusing term “isolation pod.” Isolation pod? Really? How about “independence unit?”

Because that’s what it came to symbolize for me, really. Putting my baby in a stroller rather than in a Baby Bjorn made me feel more like she was my counterpart rather than my, well, extra weight to lug. I don’t mean to say that I wasn’t willing to carry them when they needed to be comforted, or in places where a stroller didn’t make sense. I loved hitting the hiking trail for a good two- or three-hour workout with the baby in the backpack. There were times that baby-carrying was a great option. But there were times when it was even better to not be bearing the baby’s weight. And I came to see my children as people whom I could love and lavish attention upon and enjoy spending time with – without stressing my skeletal system in the process.

The first couple of years of each of my children’s lives gave me plenty of opportunities for skeletal stress, from pregnancy to nursing to middle-of-the-night soothing to lifting in and out of the car seat. And all of that was before the toddler chase-around phase set in. My point is not that there’s anything wrong with baby-wearing per se but that this might be an area in which more parents could use a break. Trust me, you’re just as good a parent rolling your baby along as you are lugging him on your back. And your vertebrae might very well last a lot longer for it.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Extreme De-Cluttering: Yes, it's morbid, but it works for me

I love reading articles like this one from the Washington Post about housecleaning. I especially like reading about de-cluttering. It’s the lure of preaching to the converted, I realize. I’m good about anti-clutter. In fact, I’m almost to the other extreme. A new acquaintance visiting our house for the first time once used the word “barren.” I prefer to think of it as minimalist, or Shaker, but the fact remains that my spouse and I both favor clean, bare surfaces rather then clever arrangements of knickknacks.

But I still love reading decluttering tips. I always think maybe I’ll pick up yet another one that will make it even easier for me to keep picked up. And sometimes I do. In early January, I read an article that discussed the value of putting aside just fifteen minutes a day for little household projects rather than stockpiling them for a rainy day. “With fifteen minutes a day, you could finish 30 projects by the end of the month,” the article proclaimed. I didn’t keep count, but I did find it useful. Now I spend 15 minutes each month clipping out articles I’ve had published and putting them in plastic sleeves, one 15-minute session putting photos in my photo album, one 15-minute session each week entering credit card receipts into our electronic checkbook, and so forth.

I have one more de-cluttering tip to add to the list. I concede that it’s a little bit severe, but it has served me well. If you were to die suddenly, would you want someone else to have to deal with this particular mess?

The first time I remember thinking this way was one early evening when I was taking a run around our old neighborhood in Framingham. That neighborhood was full of smallish houses close to the street, and one day I happened to glance over and see what must have been a two-foot-high stack of dusty and faded folders piled lopsidedly against the window. I didn’t know anything about the house’s occupant, but at that moment the thought came so clearly to me: “Whoever those folders belong to is never going to sort through them or do anything productive with them. No one is going to touch those folders until their owner is dead and someone else is charged with cleaning out the space.”

Of course, I couldn’t have known this. Maybe the owner of the folders had every intention of sorting through them, or maybe they were the kind of records that you are supposed to keep for a prescribed amount of time and then discard. Even more likely, maybe the owner was nowhere close to his final years and would sort through them himself upon the occasion of moving out of the house, rather than dying.

Maybe. But for some reason, the sight of those folders had a lasting effect on me. Now, whenever I come across a pile of unsorted or out-of-use items in my own house, I ask myself the same thing: am I just leaving these here for some distant day when someone else has to decide what to do with them? Sometimes the answer is no, such as the kids’ school papers, which I store in paper bags but weed through occasionally to keep what I think best represents their work for any particular year and recycle the rest. Same with books: I might stockpile them for a few months, but then I pull out the ones I don’t want anymore and bring them up to the library’s yard sale. But other times I find items like clippings of travel stories on destinations I’d love to visit and think, “No; these could sit here forever.” And then I try to get rid of them.

If this was a sport, would we call it Extreme De-Cluttering? Probably. No doubt there are more upbeat ways of decluttering that don’t dwell on morbidity, but for me, this provides the last and best measure of what to keep and what to toss. And our closets, shelves and file drawers are a lot tidier because of it.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Outside of Aesop, the moral of the story isn't always easy to find

Because I was about to teach a Sunday School class on conscience, I picked up an old collection of Aesop’s Fables last week to see if I could find a tale that would help illustrate the point. Aesop made my research easy: each tale in the collection ended with a sentence summing up the moral.

But usually, of course, it’s not that easy. Over the weekend, a real-life anecdote unfolding in front of me proved itself elusive of a concluding message, much as I would have liked to find one.

My 11-year-old son and I went out together for a late breakfast. While we stood in line waiting to order our bagels, another customer started making a commotion that caught our attention. In fact, it quickly caught everyone’s attention. “I am so offended!” she exclaimed. “I am just so offended!” She repeated these same phrases two or three more times.

I suppose it’s a sign of the times that when you hear someone emoting in public too loudly and a little too passionately and can’t tell whom they are talking to, you assume that they are either mentally ill or talking into a phone clipped somewhere to their person. And I suppose it’s also a sign of the times that you, or at least I, then look them over quickly to try to determine whether they might be carrying any weaponry. This was definitely a situation that brought the phrase “going postal” to mind. I glanced behind us to reassure myself that we were closer to the back door than she was.

But once she stopped repeating, “I am so offended!”’, everyone in the store learned what had happened. She had waited in line for what felt to her like an unnecessarily long time to order a bagel sandwich and six additional bagels to go. Once her $7 order was finally filled, she had set her bags down on a table and then went into the restroom. When she came out, the table was bare. “I cannot believe someone would steal my bagels!” she ranted on.

The Brueggers staff reassured her that they would immediately refill her order at no charge, but this didn’t appease her as she said she had no time to wait for another order; she’d already spent more time than she had to spare waiting for the first one. Instead, she stormed out of the store, still exclaiming over her bad luck.

When Tim and I sat down to eat our bagels, he wanted my take on the situation. It would have been a convenient time for a straightforward moral to emerge, like in the Aesop’s text, but none did. The simplest response would have been that the woman was right to be outraged (and I would actually quibble with her semantics: I don’t see it as offensive to have someone steal your food but rather outrageous and upsetting). As Tim knows, it’s wrong to steal food, and the invisible and apparently long-gone thief was the clear-cut villain in the story.

But the customer wasn’t winning anyone’s sympathy by being so dramatic about it: in truth, the other customers were laughing at her after she left. And this is sort of a disturbing-but-true lesson: losing your dignity can make people far less likely to sympathize with you.

I shared with Tim my initial suspicion that it was unintentional. This was Bedford Center, not the kind of area where people steal in public places. Although I would never leave my purse on a cafĂ© table anywhere while I went to the bathroom, at this Brueggers, I wouldn’t be at all surprised if you could do that and return to find your items untouched. At the Whole Foods in the same plaza, women leave their purses in their grocery carts while they wander down the aisles. But as we ate our breakfast and minutes passed, no one returned to apologize for picking up the wrong paper sack.

So I talked to Tim about how there are two sides or more to every story. Maybe it was an accident and the person who took the bagels hadn’t realized it yet. Or maybe the person who took them really truly needed the bagels. Not terribly likely in this particular neighborhood, but always possible. As the woman herself said when she was ranting, it was a seven-dollar order. That's not a lot to give up to charity if you’re genuinely helping someone in need. The same woman quite likely would have written a check for five times that amount to aid a hunger-related cause. I wondered if she had considered that possibility.

But there was also my own reaction to examine: wondering if she was mentally unbalanced and dangerous. To some extent, there was a teaching moment in the way the other customers reacted nervously, ready to make a quick escape if necessary. It’s unfortunate, but it’s nothing to be ashamed of. Being wary of strangers who over-emote in crowded places is really not such a bad lesson in this day and age.

And too, there was a point to be made about how people would have sympathized with the woman more if she hadn’t acted so odd. Keeping your dignity under duress, though challenging, is a good skill to develop. And then there was the quick and obliging response from the store’s employees, offering to replace her order: a teaching moment about kindness and customer service.

So in the end, I couldn’t extract one crystal-clear moral. Unlike in Aesop’s fables, you don’t always know how to spin situations for your children. It’s not always clear what lesson you want them to take away. So you look for a bouquet of learning experiences in the scenario, offer them to your child as a collection of possibilities, and hope that somewhere along the way, a useful lesson is learned.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Google searches, or why I love being a freelance writer

Almost every day, the work I do reminds me of why I love being a freelance writer, but as I was wrapping up last night, I hit on a tangible representation of what’s so pleasing about my work day. Imagine, I thought to myself, if I kept a list of every term I searched on Google each day?

Of course, the idea occurred to me at 10 PM, so I hadn’t done it for that day, but I tried to re-create my Google search list from memory. It looked like this:

• Homeschooling in Maine
• Pseudomonas bacterium
• Average age of Iraq war veteran
• NFL players religion
• World War II spy doll collector
• Bariatric sleeve surgery
• Littleton school budget FY 2011
• Acupuncture for weight loss
• De-cluttering tips
• Security Tools virus

Okay, I admit that last one wasn’t for an article I was being paid to write: it was because my computer caught a nasty virus and I was trying to figure out how to fix it. But all the rest were for projects I was on deadline to finish. Some of them I wrapped up yesterday; others I’ll finish before the week is over.

When I look over the variety in that list, it makes me feel so privileged that this is how I earn my living. I’ll never be an expert in any of these topics – not a single one of them – and I’m not sure I could give a cogent explanation of pseudomonas bacterium even after spending a half-hour researching it, though I could tell you quite a lot about a microbiologist in Washington state whose postdoctoral research topic and its relationship to cystic fibrosis would eerily come to transform her personal life when her daughter was born with that very condition. And I can’t claim that the article on the Littleton school budget was one of my most fascinating. But it was short and easy to write, and again, I learned something.

My 11-year-old came home from school earlier this week saying he needed to research Colonial taverns. I sat down to help him, but I practically had to physically restrain myself from taking over. Because I simply love research. Never mind that I attracted 17 on-line comments, half of them derogatory, last weekend on boston.com for an essay I wrote on not liking to get involved with the kids’ homework; this was Tim’s first research project, and all of the sudden I saw homework in a new light.

“Mom, it’s my project,” Tim said gently. I made myself give him the desk chair and move across the room, but I was practically salivating. Colonial taverns? I know nothing about that! Hey look – they doubled as inns! They were the place where locals got their national news and debated politics! Strangers were sometimes expected to share overnight accommodations – which appalled European travelers! I could feel my fingertips itching to take notes.

But this was Tim’s project. The others were mine, though, and I got to spend six hours yesterday the way I like best to spend my workdays: immersed in scratching the surface of random topics. Unlike the microbiologist I was profiling for an alumni magazine, I’m no expert in anything (though I fear I might reluctantly become an expert in computer viruses). But I love having the chance to take a quick look at a dozen or more different topics every work day. And that’s why there’s nothing I’d rather be than a freelance writer.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Kindle? Paper? Both generate sparks

Respected literary agent Rachelle Gardner posted on her blog yesterday about how much she likes her Kindle -- but also about how she still greatly values the unique assets of real books. I was happy to see someone admit so openly that she liked Kindles; I feel as if there’s been something shamefaced about their users ever since their debut. People still seem to feel they have to defend their use of e-readers, as if it must be a truth universally acknowledged that a reader in search of fine literature must express a preference for a brick-and-mortar, I mean paper-and-ink, product in her hands.

I don’t have a Kindle, in part because of the price of both the device and the books. I’m generally a library user, so most of my reading material is free. Even the $9.99 charge for most e-books would drive up my reading budget considerably.

Despite the absence of a Kindle, though, I’ve had the opportunity recently to have a taste of electronic reading. A friend lent me her netbook last month, and for the first time, I have a computer I can take with me rather than one that only sits on my desk. I use the netbook mostly for writing, but I also read the newspaper and other articles off of it, and I’m tempted to give an e-book a try, because I have to admit I’m kind of hooked on the electronic reading thing now.

At first I thought it was just the novelty. After I started reading the daily paper on line (and I hasten to mention that we still have a newspaper subscription, because my husband still wants a hard-copy version and because the major city daily that we read is also the one I write for, and I’d feel too guilty if I stopped supporting it), I started making my way to other publications. The New York Times, a variety of magazines, an array of blogs.

And I’m finding I really like the freedom it gives me. I can read on my exercise bike; I can read in bed; I can read at the playground. All of these were true before, when I read hard-copy materials (at least for the newspapers and magazines, if not the blogs), but it was always an issue of having what I wanted to read when I wanted to read it. I’d leave the New York Times Magazine in my purse, thinking I’d read it at the dentist’s office, and then I’d be upstairs in bed and wish I had it. I’d put a magazine in the car so that I could page through it while my husband was driving us somewhere and then want it while I was exercycling. I’d leave an article next to the exercise bike and then wish I had it while I was at the coffee shop. And so on.

Packing for trips was even worse. I don’t travel frequently, but when I do, I invariably packed four or five books to read – far more than I’d ever actually get through in the amount of time I’d be gone, but I wanted to be prepared and I could never anticipate exactly what I’d feel like reading. Then once I was away, I’d wish I’d brought for or five different books.

So even without venturing into actual e-books, I’m really enjoying the freedom of netbook reading. Although I understand the argument against e-readers by those who say “I need the look and feel of a book,” that’s not really me at all. I don’t even like keeping books in my house. I like to read books and pass them along to another reader. With books as with many kinds of objects in my life, I’m the opposite of a pack rat: I’m constantly stripping things away rather than accumulating them. While others feel comforted when surrounded by shelves full of books, I like open space around me. So the minimalist aspect of electronic reading appeals to me as well.

Nonetheless, I don’t have a Kindle, so for now I’m reading newspapers and blogs off my netbook while also working my way through a big heavy hard-bound copy of The Help. I’m not sure how reading a book like that on screen would be different, and it’s such a wonderful book that I’m just grateful to have any copy at all. But at least for now, while it’s still a novelty, I’m really getting a big kick out of the portable-library, always-at-my-fingertips aspect of my little two-pound netbook.

Monday, March 8, 2010

Running every day even when you probably shouldn't

A new Internet friend who started a daily fitness streak 60 days ago shot me a question via Twitter asking me how I maintain my running streak when I’m sick. I have lots of answers for that question, but they all defy Twitter’s 140-character limit, so I replied to her only to say I’d blog about it.

The easiest answer is that to follow the guidelines of the U.S. Running Streak Association, as I do, a streak-runner needs to run a minimum of a mile a day. My streak is only about two and a half years long (939 days today, in fact!), and I’m blessed with astoundingly good health, but I’ll start my answer by saying in that relatively short amount of time, I’ve never been so sick that the ability to run one little mile – even at my slow 11-minute pace – has seemed beyond reach. I can remember a couple of pretty difficult miles – most notably just a few months ago when I had the worst headache of my life and an upset stomach to go with it – but I’ve also run with bad colds (during which running really doesn’t make you feel any worse), sinus infections (which make running feel like there are rocks bouncing up and down in your head) and fevers of up to about 101 degrees (which can make running a pleasantly hallucinatory experience). The fact is, mothers of young children cope with enduring all kinds of things when they are sick, from changing diapers to dragging themselves up to school pick-up to preparing meals to playing endless rounds of Candy Land. Running a mile when sick seems easy compared to all that.

The big guys – the streak runners with decades rather than a couple of years under the belts – have much better stories than I do about running when sick. My streak-running mentor, Ronald Kmiec, snuck out of bed while his wife was feeding their baby in order to fit in a run while he had an esophageal charley horse. Streak runner Joel Pearson from Washington state ran throughout a long bout of pneumonia. As Kmiec says, those are the days to draw on your just-a-mile card. Days when other people wouldn’t run at all, we streak runners run a mile; it’s basically the equivalent for us of not going.

One thing I have never had to deal with as a runner, even before the streak, is an injury. Back in the 1980s when I did a lot of high-impact aerobics, I had frequent injuries, but I’ve been lucky enough never to have one as a runner. Again, the serious streak runners can tell hair-raising stories about theirs, including herniated discs, shin splints and broken ribs; some of these stories appear in my first article about Ronald Kmiec. What’s never been clear to me is how they ever heal. I simply don’t understand how you can run on an injured leg or foot every day and still eventually heal from the injury, but I’m grateful I haven’t yet had to put myself to the test.

When I started working on my book about streak runners and talked to veteran streak-runners about what they’d endured, the few I spoke with talked about weather more than sickness. Hurricanes, thunderstorms, the Blizzard of ’78. Those seem to have more import in runners’ memories than sick days. As for me, I have minor weather stories, mostly about thunderstorms and frigid January temperatures, but if I continue my streak, I’ll surely rack up more.

I know that hardly any medical professional would endorse the streak runner’s attitude of “It doesn’t matter if I’m sick; I run anyway.” But we do. As I wrote about here, Ronald Kmiec finally broke his 32-year-long streak when he had a heart attack (not the kind that fells you, the kind that gets detected later in a doctor’s office). When my then 9-year-old son was streak-running with me, I fervently hoped that he wouldn’t get sick, because what I could allow myself to do – just run anyway – I couldn’t justify allowing him to do. So, in all honesty, there were a couple of days that we purposely didn’t take his temperature until after our run was over. But for the most part, he too had a healthy stint while he was running daily. We’re both just really lucky.

So I suppose my bottom line is this: don’t assume you can’t run when sick. Unlike an injury, which I find it much harder to be nonchalant about, I don’t think there are that many minor illnesses that would get worse with a ten-minute run. Sometimes it almost seems like the fresh air helps when you’re under the weather. So if you’re trying to do a streak and you get sick, see what you think you can do. And if the answer is that you don’t think you can do anything, go back to bed and start another streak when you’re feeling better, because as I’ve said many times, streak-running is trivial and your body is important, and staying healthy should win out in a battle between the two any day.

Friday, March 5, 2010

The cows are by the pond -- is that a sign of spring?

Throughout most of the winter, the cows stay close to the hay barn. Although they have free range over several acres of pastures and woods, they tend to huddle in the cold weather, moving little from the spot where I set their haybales every morning.

This doesn't seem surprising to me. I always assumed it was because they conserve energy and retain heat by staying put, and because they are not particularly comfortable slogging through snow drifts, not to mention the fact that when the fields are frozen or snow-covered, there’s nothing for them to graze on, so why bother to move away from the spot where they are fed, even once they’ve finished eating for the day?

So I was a little bit thrilled to look out the window yesterday afternoon and see that all six of them had crossed over two pastures to mill around by the pond, where they often graze in the summer. It made me think that although the temperatures rose no higher than the mid-30’s and wet snow fell for much of the morning, the cows might be detecting a tinge of spring.

I myself certainly wasn’t. When I went out running midmorning, I was wearing as many layers over my head, neck and torso as I do in January. But I was encouraged to think maybe the cows sensed something I didn’t. It is early March, after all. Spring should be on the way, at least fairly soon. Tim announced a few days ago that he’d seen Canada geese in the sky, which he considers the first sign of spring.

Still, if I woke from a six-month sleep today and didn’t have a calendar, I’m not sure I would have been able to identify this as early March. So I’m curious to know if the cows really were reacting to something in the air, or in their bovine limbic systems, or in their memories. Because not only is it reassuring to think that spring hovers somewhere close ahead, but it’s also appealing to imagine that animals feel changes in the seasons even if we don’t.

I’m a little ashamed of how out of touch with the weather I can be. It’s true that running a mile or more every single day puts me in closer and more constant proximity to the weather than I ever used to be. As I’ve written about before, the fact that I'm outside for at least those ten minutes every day means I always have some idea about how cold or warm it is and whether any precipitation is falling.

But at the same time, I check my computer every morning to see what the temperature is, and sometimes before I go out to feed the cows I check on the digital thermometer connected to our household heating system. Even though we have a traditional mercury thermometer on the porch, I somehow feel more assured if I see the numeric version on my computer screen or on the thermostat, which I realize makes no sense at all, especially as at that point I am seconds from going out into the weather myself.

Environmentalist Bill McKibben wrote in The Age of Missing Information about the peculiar and disturbing fact that in the 20th century, Americans developed the ability to turn on the Weather Channel and check the forecast anywhere in the world but have lost the ability to hold a finger in the air and determine which direction the wind is blowing from, not to mention determine from that information what kind of weather is likely on the way. Similarly, I consult the table in the newspaper every day to see what time sunrise and sunset is, having lost the ability my ancestors presumably had to keep track of the solar cycles by, well, looking at the sky.

So I’m left to wonder if the cows detect spring in the air – maybe even temperatures in the 40’s by this weekend? – or whether they were just tired of standing by the barn and chose to alleviate their cabin fever by taking a ramble over to the pond. And I feel sheepish, no pun intended, about the fact that I check my computer screen for the temperature and the newspaper for the forecast before I go outside, rather than feeling the breeze and smelling the air and watching the sky to obtain information. It all makes me wonder what else the cows might know that I don’t.

Or if maybe they don’t have any special animal sense at all of when spring is coming, but just saw a break in the precipitation and used it to go for a stroll to the pond, rather than worrying about when the next forecasted snowfall would begin.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

When moms go for cosmetic improvements, is the message all bad?

Beth Teitell wrote here in today’s Boston Globe about the conflict mothers of growing children face when they – the mothers – want to get plastic surgery. In effect, Teitell’s question is this: How can we promote the message to our fashion-hyperconscious and eating disorder-prone daughters that you’re just perfect the way you are if we are running off to get tummy tucks and face lifts?

Though cosmetic surgery is not an issue I’ve personally confronted, I see it a little differently from some of the moms in the story who worry about setting the wrong example. I don’t necessarily see it as a problem to communicate to our children that it’s okay to think about your appearance and it’s okay to strive to improve it. Especially if we can tie it in to with aging and make the point that our skin, our hair and our bodies tend to change a little bit once we are well into adulthood, and that children are lucky not to have to worry about gray hair or wrinkles.

When I was growing up, my parents were unflagging in communicating to us that everyone is just fine the way they are. At the opposite extreme is a mother like the one in the book I am reading right now, The Help by Kathryn Stockett. Poor 23-year-old Skeeter is tall and slender, and her Southern belle of a mom constantly urges her to diminish her height by slouching.

There’s no question that a mother as critical as Skeeter’s is detrimental to her daughter’s mental health, yet I would argue that the “perfect as you are” message in families like mine might go a little too far in the opposite direction. As late as college, I was still looking to my friends to pick up basic grooming tips and to remind me not to leave the house in clothes that were missing buttons. My 17-year-old niece clearly knows more about cosmetic enhancement than I did at her age – not in the form of surgery but certainly in the form of beauty products -- and I so admire the poise and self-assurance that appears to have carried her throughout her teens. I suspect that having the acumen to use a little bit of makeup and get a good manicure ultimately has a more positive effect on a girl’s self-esteem than being told over and over again that she looks just beautiful the way she is.

Not long after turning 40, I became increasingly bothered by wrinkles around my brow. Botox is simply not in the family budget right now, but some kind of cosmetic enhancement is definitely something I’ll be open to if and when our finances improve, and if that happens I think I’ll be fine with explaining it to my daughter. After all, she’s the one who just last weekend peered closely at my face and commented that the wrinkles around my eyes made me look a little bit like a grandma. I don’t think it will be all that difficult to explain to her that sometimes our skin and bodies age and make us feel older than we are, and it’s okay to try to fix that. (No doubt I’ll also insert a hearty endorsement for the importance of sunscreen into this same discussion.) Moreover, I can claim to my children that I go running every day for reasons of health, and they do understand that a toned body is probably healthier than a flabby one, but I don’t mind if they also know that I’d rather look lean than chubby and I work out in order to help attain that look.

So: by seeking cosmetic improvements, what’s the bottom line in terms of what we’re telling our children? Is it that our bodies are not good enough the way they are and our kids should probably start saving now for liposuction in order to compensate for what nature gave them?

I don’t think so. I think we’re showing them that we are empowered by taking opportunities to make ourselves happier and more confident, whether those opportunities arrive in the form of getting a new job, running a marathon or coloring our hair. And if in my case that’s erasure of the wrinkles between my eyebrows, all the better.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Hard to say when enough is enough

I was talking earlier today with an acquaintance who is a realtor. She told me she was leaving for a weeklong vacation in Florida because she really needed some time to relax. “But of course, if anything happens with any of my listings during the week, I can work from Florida,” she said.

Of course. Although I’ve never before thought about any similarities between being a real estate agent and being a freelance writer, as she said that, I knew exactly what she meant. I’ve been the same way recently: if work comes my way, I’ll do it. Never mind relaxing or visiting Florida. Those of us not in salaried positions don’t turn work opportunities down.

I remember what it felt like to be a salaried employee with paid vacations. Yes, it’s true that we all put in a certain amount of desk time – or phone time or email time – while away from the office, but there was still always that certain smugness, that sense of “I earned this time off. I work my 49 weeks a year so that I get three weeks like this one, when I’m in effect getting paid for not working.” It was a concept that my husband could hardly fathom when we were just out of college and he started his first salaried position shortly before Labor Day weekend. “Look at me – I’m at the beach, but I’m still getting paid!” he crowed on that first-ever paid holiday. “Look at me now: I’m sitting around eating hamburgers, but I’m still getting paid ‘cause it’s Labor Day!” And so on. New to the corporate world after a young adulthood of manual labor and hourly pay, he loved the idea that the meter was running even on a holiday.

I gave up that comfort when I became a freelancer, and like my realtor friend, I’ve been finding it impossible to walk away from any kind of work opportunity lately. The fact is that right now – like as of the past two weeks or so – I have more work than I ever dreamed possible when I contemplated a freelance career. All my clients and publications seem to be coming through for me at once this week: I have assignments here and there and everywhere, far more than I ever imagined I’d have. It’s as if everyone who ever said to me “I might have some work for you in the future” sent me a contract – and a deadline – over the weekend. In some ways I’ve achieved the point in my career that I always hoped to reach: my day is full from start to finish with paid writing assignments.

The problem, not surprisingly, is that the day doesn’t really reach that finish. There’s always a little more I could get done. When I was working for a corporate employer, when the work day ended, it ended. Now it never seems to end. The sooner I file this story, the sooner I’ll get offered the next one – and paid for it. Can’t slow down now.

But at some point I can’t help wondering how I’ll know when enough is enough. There’s no way to put a number on it, to say when I’ve earned this much for the week I’ll be all set. There’s always more I could be giving to charity, more I could be saving. It’s not a matter of greed; it’s more the fact that it’s hard to declare an upper limit on the amount of money you could put to good use. Now, because the work is available, I’m writing while the kids do their afterschool activities, writing after they go to bed, writing during the late-evening hours when I used to read novels or sections of the Sunday New York Times. File one more story before going to bed? Sure – maybe that editor will be burning the midnight oil as well, and I’ll wake in the morning to an email with the always welcome news that no further revisions are needed on it.

When Tim was about five years old, he and I were walking through a small empty parking lot outside a closed car wash when we chanced across a peculiar sight: coins strewn across the pavement. It wasn’t hundreds of dollars, but it was a considerable number of nickels and dimes. Yet it wasn’t enough to seem like someone had dropped a coin bag on the way to the bank or anything like that. More just like someone had opened their car door, caused a lot of change to spill out, and not had time to pick it up. Tim asked if he could take some. I said yes. He gathered about six coins, handed them to me for safekeeping, and then said “Okay, that’s enough.”

I wondered then, and still sometimes wonder, what in him decided that was enough. There were still plenty of coins remaining. And it wasn’t like he was ethically opposed to taking any at all. Nor was he concerned about having to carry the coins: he dropped them in my purse. Something in him just said “Finding money is good, but I know how much is enough for me,” though I have no idea how he found that line.

I think of that image now: Tim finding the small amount of money and deciding he could take a little of it but not a whole lot. I wish I could draw a similar line in the sand with my work; I wish I knew what was enough, and be able to tell myself at 3:00 when the kids get home from school or even 8:00 after they’re in bed that it’s time to stop working. But for now, I’m still looking at all those silvery coins, sparkling in the sun against the dark asphalt, not sure where to begin scooping them up and even less sure of where to stop.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

A room (or booth or carrel or pew) of one's own: Where to write

Location, location, location.

It’s one of the tips I give when asked to talk about daily writing practice and how to implement the habit: Vary your venue. Try writing in different places and at different times of day. Test out a little of everything to see what works best.

For the most part, of course, continuity and regularity are important in establishing a habit. Same time and same place every day may seem like the best choices to make if you want to establish consistency in a habit, whether it’s writing or exercising or getting to bed at a particular time.

But I think it’s also beneficial to try out different writing spots. Six o’clock in the morning, at my desk in my home office, gazing out at the trees and watching the sky very slowly brighten, is my usual. But three in the afternoon at Starbucks can be nice too. As can lunchtime at the public library, or midafternoon on a Saturday by the side of the pool while my kids are swimming.

Having written daily nonstop for fifteen years, I’ve tried out a lot of locales. Cafes and bookstores by the dozens, of course. But also playgrounds. Beaches. Restaurants. Airports. Airplanes. Parking lots. Parking garages. Church. Yes, I journaled in church. Not during a service; during the rehearsal for the Christmas pageant when I had nothing else I needed to do.

First of all, it’s just fun to see what it’s like to write in different places. Not surprisingly, the varying scenery and ambience can inspire your writing in so many different ways: the aromas at the coffee shop, the overheard conversations on the beach, the parade of people passing by at the airport. And a good cup of coffee or pastry can make you feel like you’re rewarding yourself for taking the time to write. Plus it’s motivating sometimes just to feel like people are watching you. “Oh look, a writer,” you imagine them thinking, and then you tell yourself, “I’d better keep my fingers moving or they’ll suspect I have nothing important to say.” Even better if they are people you know: you tell yourself “Oooh, they see I’m writing. I’d better not stop and open up that magazine.”

And you don’t necessarily need silence to write. Not for journal writing, anyway. While it might be difficult if people are talking directly to you, ambient background noise can be great. I like busy coffee shops for just this reason: sometimes I can write at my best when there are baristas bantering and espresso machines whirring, just as I sometimes do my most productive thinking while listening to the BBC, which I’m afraid tells you something about my ability to grasp world events presented with an intellectual spin.

For the sake of maintaining the habit, it’s not bad to pick a few standard times and places around which to center your writing habit. But be flexible, too. Try a little of everything and see how it changes what you write.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Why is bedtime still the most tiring part of the day?

My friend Anne told me an anecdote several years ago that I think back on often. Anne’s sons were about one and three at the time, and she recounted a scene that plays out every few months between her and her husband. Just as they are about to head upstairs to get the boys ready for bed, she or her spouse will say, “You know, it’s still early. Why don’t we plan to do something after the boys are in bed, like watch a movie or have friends over to visit?”

Half an hour later, one or both of them will stagger back down the stairs looking like a cartoon character that’s been in a fight: glasses askew, skin smudged, clothes torn. “Oh yeah, that’s why,” the one who earlier suggested a post-bedtime plan will say wearily.

My daughter is seven, but I still think back on Anne’s story a lot because in some ways it still feels that way to me. Putting Holly to bed isn’t like dealing with a difficult toddler’s bedtime. She doesn’t scream or struggle or run around the house. She just takes so long and wants so much interaction from me. She wants help putting on her pj’s. She wants me to read to her. She wants to talk about the dream she had the night before and what might happen at school tomorrow. There’s the obligatory glass of water, along with a discussion about the adrenal system and how much I think it’s okay for her to sip before bed without the risk of a bed-wetting incident. There are the traveling rounds throughout the house: goodnight to Daddy, goodnight to Tim, goodnight to the dog, goodnight again to Daddy. And then there are the few details on which I insist: brushing teeth, using the bathroom (sometimes both before and after aforementioned sips of water), and the laying-out of tomorrow’s clothes, which inevitably leads to a discussion on meteorological forecasting, because how can Holly be expected to decide what to wear tomorrow, she says, if we haven’t precisely pinpointed the probable high and low temperature for the day as well as the likelihood of every possible kind of precipitation?

Lights out at last. It’s only eight o’clock. Surely I could finish drafting an article or fold some laundry or –

No. Like Anne and her husband, I can’t imagine how I thought I would get anything productive done after Holly’s bedtime.

The thing with Holly’s rituals is that in general, they are all not only reasonable but fairly enjoyable. I still like reading to her just as much as she likes being read to. I like the orderly feeling of laying out tomorrow’s clothes. I like tucking her in. I just wish it didn’t all have to happen at 8 PM when I’m starting to have an energy crash of my own.

But at the same time, as with so many aspects of parenting, I appreciate on an intellectual level that this too shall pass, and someday I’ll miss all these bedtime rituals. My son, at the age of 11, has long since forsaken the wish to have me help him get ready for bed or read to him. Without discussion, he takes a shower, reads or plays a computer game for a little while, and calls for me to kiss him goodnight (though of course he’d never use those words). And in a way, that’s really nice. I like the fact that getting him to bed no longer takes thirty minutes or more out of my already overscheduled evening. It probably won’t be too much longer before Holly is at the same stage, bathing and changing on her own, maybe even not only content to read to herself but actually not wanting me to be too familiar with the content of what she’s reading.

So as I drag my tired self through another protracted bedtime routine, I remember all of this, and I think too of all the mothers who cannot tuck their children into bed at night: those moms who work the night shift, are inmates or hospital patients, serve an overseas deployment.

It’s a privilege to help Holly get ready for bed. It’s tiring, but it’s one of the best parts of daily life as a parent. And of course, a successful bedtime routine is almost always followed by that most unforgettable gift of all: getting to creep back into a dark bedroom to watch your child sleep, a sight that grows no less adorable from the first night after the baby’s birth until, I would imagine, the night before she leaves for college. And beyond.

So, like Anne and her husband, I’ll continue to have selective nightly amnesia, thinking at 7 PM that there’s no good reason why I can’t still have hours of productivity or at least fun left in my evening, only to be reminded by 8:30 of just why nothing ever happens at that time of night. Someday, my kids will no longer need bedtime rituals, and I’ll have all the time I want. For now, I’ll keep trying to savor the moment.