Friday, April 30, 2010

Our electronics, ourselves: Why not recharge ourselves as faithfully as we recharge them?

As I cleaned up the kitchen late in the day, I couldn’t help noticing something on the counter. It looked like all our portable electronics were holding a little conference. Within a couple of square feet of counter space lay two cell phones, a PDA and an iPod, all silent and inert but plugged in and charging up for the new day ahead.

Why, I found myself wondering, do we remember to recharge our electronics every night but we don’t do the same for ourselves?

Well, you could argue that those eight – or more often a little more than six – hours of sleep we get every night are our way of recharging. But in a freakishly paradoxical way, I was finding something so quaint in the way all our little handhelds were lying there together resting, their battery icons blinking as if to remind me that they were receiving the necessary electricity they needed to start fresh tomorrow. I admit it’s an odd image. Usually my metaphors of sustenance come from the stars, the sky, tall oak trees, water rushing over rocks. Not cell phones and iPods.

But what struck me about this image was the sense that we were treating our electronics better than we treat ourselves. Why can’t I recharge every evening after dinner? I wondered.

Because there’s too much else to do, that’s why. Once the kids are in bed I have to return emails, make school lunches for the next day, fold laundry, get the coffee prepped to turn on first thing in the morning. I can’t sit around recharging or I won’t be ready when the new day dawns.

Really? I asked myself. In what way would you be so very unready?

The kids wouldn’t have their lunches made. (Maybe I could do that while they’re eating breakfast.) Emails would have gone unanswered. (Does anyone really need to hear from me at 10 PM? Do I really have anything to tell them that couldn’t wait until 9 the next morning?) Laundry would pile up. (Sure. And then eventually over the weekend or when I need a short break from my desk or want an excuse to take in ten minutes of NPR, I’ll stop and fold it.) More importantly, isn’t it quite possible that I’ll have just as much to offer the world if I’ve had time for reading, thinking and sleeping as if I have a tidy household every night?

So I resolved then and there to try to do things differently in the evening, starting last night. I shut down my computer at 8 PM, and an hour later, once both kids were asleep, I crawled into bed with a book. I imagined myself filling up with energy just like the gadgets downstairs: not expending what little charge I had left and letting myself run nearly dry, but stopping and sitting still and letting that well of energy within me fill up again for a new day.

It felt so good that I’m determined to try it again. As I well know, habits like this are hard to maintain. Yes, it was wonderful to sit and read last night in the evening hours during which I usually do deskwork or housework, but it felt like a one-night break, not a new routine. But who knows? I’m a firm believer in the aphorism that it takes three weeks to instill a habit. Maybe I’ll try it for three weeks and see if I feel…rejuvenated. Energized. Recharged, rather than just efficient and, well, like someone who has folded all the laundry.

Learning a valuable life lesson from one’s iPod does not exactly have a Buddhist ring to it. But now that I think about it, it’s not like our electronics made that decision on their own to plug themselves in and recharge. (Though I’m sure Steve Jobs is working on that.) I did it for them, just as I tucked my children into bed at an appropriate time so that they will be rejuvenated when the new day dawns. All I need to do is give myself the same permission to cease daily labor and take time to recharge that I give my iPod, my PDA, my phone and, yes, my children.

So the laundry goes unfolded. It just might be worth it. And as I try to instill this new habit over the next few weeks, I’m looking forward to finding out.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Rise and shine -- but at the moment it's not easy

In one of those countless phases of child development that wax and wane, taking on paramount importance when you’re in the midst of them and then becoming forgotten within days after they subside, my 7-year-old and I are in a Difficult Mornings phase. For the past several days, it’s been torturous to get her out of the house in the morning, and it never fails to amaze me that after eleven years of parenting, there are situations like this to which I still haven’t figured out a solution. I’ve been getting kids ready to leave the house for daycare, preschool or regular school for well over a decade, I remind myself. How is it that I still have a problem with it?

When I complain about my own ineptitude to my husband, he’s always quick to remind me that for the two years I was working outside the house and he was responsible for morning departures, it all ran like clockwork. It always does when he’s in charge, because he simply brooks no dissent and takes no prisoners. Children are dressed, groomed, packed and ready to go when he starts the car because it never occurs to him – nor therefore to them – that there’s any other option.

Alas, not so with me. Now both Rick and Tim are gone by 7:30, and I have a whole fifty minutes alone with Holly to get her out the door. Yet the past several days have found me practically bursting a blood vessel as Holly stalls and dodges, sometimes for reasons of her own and sometimes for reasons I impose. She’s not dressed warmly enough. She’s wearing the same shirt as the day before. She didn’t brush her teeth yet. (My reasons.) She forgot the stuffed animal that she promised a friend could play with at recess. Her ponytail is fastened with a pink elastic and she likes only purple now. The dog needs to have her stomach scratched. (Holly’s reasons.)

I remind myself over and over again to choose my battles. Holly insists on fixing her own hair these days, and I tell myself it’s okay if her part is crooked and her pigtails mussed. But what about wearing the same shirt she wore the day before? Is that a battle worth fighting? I’m not sure. The ineffective tooth-brushing and my insistence that she go upstairs and do it again is definitely a battle worth fighting, as poor dental hygiene is serious business, but that doesn’t make it any less awful when we’re about to miss the bus and Holly is arguing with me about whether or not the use of toothpaste matters.

One problem with finding a solution to the challenge of leaving the house on time is that it’s hard to find an immediate bargaining chip. Unlike, say, not being ready to go to the playground, it’s not like I can say to Holly “If you don’t get ready immediately, we’re not going.” She has to go to school, and we both know it. Incentives based on after-school activities often seem too far off to have much impact, and at the age of seven, she’s a little beyond being motivated by a sticker chart. The fact is, she knows I’m going to be sure she gets to school one way or another, so it often seems like the onus is on me to get us out with any kind of efficiency, and without major temper tantrums on either of our parts.

Yesterday wasn’t much of a success, but maybe today will be better. Last night when all was calm before bedtime (interestingly, bedtime is not an issue these days; we read and then Holly goes to sleep, easy as that), she and I had a talk about it. I told her why I think it’s important to wear different clothes from one day to the next and why I’m certain it’s important to brush your teeth. She promised to get an earlier start on all of it next time.

The consolation as far as obstacles in schoolday morning routines is that you have so many chances to get it right. Five days a week, ten months out of the year. If yesterday didn’t go so well, I know I have the chance to make today go better. We’ll see if I can. And if not, I just remind myself that each stage passes in time. If now I’m getting apoplectic every morning insisting that Holly brush her hair and wear a fresh clean outfit, the day will quite likely come when she spends hours on her hair and clothing, and I’ll wonder what I ever worried about.

When Tim was just a few weeks old, a mother of a baby just a few months older said to me, “The bad phases pass quickly, and the good phases pass quickly. Whatever is going on with them changes, for better or worse.” True today just as it was eleven years ago. Today’s battles will yield in time to tomorrow’s battles, whatever they might be. And when that happens, I’ll remember that they too will pass in time. For now, I need to focus on the fact that it’s more important to have clean teeth than clean clothes, and that as long as I get the kids to school on time and safely and remember to kiss them before they climb onto the bus, the rest is just details.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Fisher cats and snakes: Another bucolic day in the country

The experience reminded me of being a 12-year-old at a slumber party. Back then we’d all gather around, happy to be together and excited to stay up late at night. Someone would tell a ghost story and we’d all shiver with a giddy thrill. Then someone else would tell a ghost story, and then there would be a third, and before you knew it we were all terrified, afraid of every bump in the night, and miserable over the state of anxiety we’d worked ourselves into.

But this time it began not with pizza and a movie but with a drive down our long dirt driveway at 7:30 in the morning to bring my older child to school. I spotted an animal darting across the road in front of me. It was the size of a raccoon, the shape of an otter, but with a big bushy tail like a squirrel. And it was black. I saw it again an hour later in the same spot when I was driving my younger child to school.

Does anyone know what this is? I typed into our town’s online message board, certain that the many naturalists who live in Carlisle could answer it.

Sure enough, several did. “Sounds like a fisher cat,” wrote one. “And they are vicious creatures,” wrote another. “Suggest to your neighbors that they put the chickens in their coop,” added someone else familiar with the layout of our neighborhood. “Did it look like this?” contributed another, sending along a link that showed the very same animal I’d spotted only with its teeth bared in a terrifying grimace.

“On a different note,” wrote one of my fellow townspeople. “Last week I saw a brown snake with diamonds on its back, basking in the sunshine." Could it be a rattler? some wondered. Fortunately, no; it was subsequently identified as a juvenile Black Racer.

“Speaking of the sunshine,” wrote a neighbor, “It’s warming up now, and the ticks are out in full force, so be on the lookout whenever you get back from spending time outdoors.”

And just like that, I was like a 12-year-old at a slumber party. Suddenly all of us who normally tout the wildlife inherent to our thickly wooded town as one of its most beloved features were sitting at our computers afraid to leave the house.

Every now and then, it happens. The very aspects of our lives that we like best turn on us and become a source of fear. I love the thick woods and open fields surrounding our house and extending throughout our town…except when I start thinking about fisher cats, rattlesnakes, ticks, bears, and other frightening creatures. Not only that, but my daily running streak was at 988 days as we were typing out this online conversation. Another twelve days and I’d reach the thousand-day mark. I’d already run through thunderstorms, blizzards, heat waves, ice storms, stomach viruses and migraines….but fear of wildlife now threatened to keep me from my goal.

Perhaps my first thought upon hearing there might be vicious fisher cats and sunning rattlesnakes in my yard should have been for the well-being of my family members rather than for the integrity of my running streak, but streak runners intent on completing their daily mile-or-more without ever missing a day are not known for their well-balanced perspective and reasonable judgment. Nonetheless, I knew I couldn’t really miss Run Number 989 just because of the potential – and very remote – risk of wildlife. So I headed out anyway. Though my eyes were glued to the driveway in apprehension, I cleared the section of the driveway where I’d twice seen the fisher cat with no further sightings, and then I started to notice other things about the run. It was a cool and lovely spring day. The air smelled like lilac blossoms. Bright green leaves stood out on all the trees. And by the end of the day, a new calf had been born on our farm.

It all served to remind me that there’s always something to be afraid of, but it’s more important to look at the positive. Just as back in the slumber party days it was silly to sacrifice a happy evening with friends out of fear of ghosts and supernatural events, it doesn’t make sense now to ignore the many virtues of spring just because of snakes and ticks. There will always be something to fear. And there will always be something to look on with delight. And so I completed my run that day, and reminded myself to be braver next time, and perhaps not to be quite so quick to enter into discussion on the online town message board. As it so often does, a little knowledge proved itself to be a dangerous thing. But I was safe and sound and another day into my running streak. I’ll worry about wildlife another time; today is another beautiful spring day.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

What the dog did on our April vacation

Considering how many school vacation weeks have found our family traveling absolutely nowhere – due to my work schedule, financial restrictions, or both – I was thrilled that this year’s April vacation, which fell last week, saw the kids and me hitting not one but two different destinations. First, we traveled south to Washington, D.C. for four days to visit my sister Sarah; then, after a brief layover at home to check in on Rick and the dog and do some laundry, we headed north for an overnight stay in Portland, Maine.

I was delighted that we had these opportunities. Mostly, I was happy to be able to offer the kids some new experiences and cultural enrichment and adventure, but I have to admit a tiny part of me was also happy that they wouldn’t once again return to school to hear about all their classmates’ adventures and admit that we hadn’t gone anywhere. Not that this has ever seemed to bother them in the past – they always pull up accounts of a daytrip to the aquarium or a hike at a local nature preserve to shore up their end of the “what I did during vacation” classroom conversation – but in truth, I was a little smug thinking that they too would name cities in other states when it came time for class sharing.

Eagerly, I asked my 7-year-old about how school went as she ate her afternoon snack yesterday. “We all talked about our vacations,” she recounted cheerfully. “Sammy went to the Caribbean, Jamie went to California, and Maggie went to New York City.”

“And did you tell about our trips?” I asked.

“No, I told about how Belle threw up.”

“You mean you told that she threw up,” I corrected automatically.

“No, I mean how. What she had been eating before and what it sounded like and everything.”

Wonderful. I took my kids to our nation’s capital and all Holly got out of it was that it almost caused her to miss being there when the dog threw up.

It wasn’t the first time that the kids’ penchant for literary realism has made it difficult for me to look their teachers in the eye. Earlier this year, Holly wrote a short story about how eating a particularly juicy and delicious pear made her reflect on how she often wishes she could run away because her mother (that’s me) acts like she doesn’t really love her. Holly’s teacher was troubled enough to call me before Holly brought the story home. She wanted to forewarn me. “Oh, that’s okay,” I said breezily. “It’s not as bad as the story Tim wrote in kindergarten.” Tim’s epic account of life in our household had started off like this: “I had a bad cough, so I took a long shower with my dad and then got into bed with my mom.” He even illustrated it.

Fortunately, I suspect our kids’ teachers grow accustomed to these too-close-for-comfort snapshots of their students’ domestic lives. Still, I feel like protesting that we really did have a very culturally enriching vacation. We visited the Natural History Museum. We biked all along Portland’s waterfront.

But Holly’s right; the dog threw up also. All were components of our week off, and I suppose I’m glad she doesn’t have my tendency to focus on only the show-offy parts of our vacation.

Besides, it does somewhat take the pressure off me as I look ahead toward summer. Ideally, I’d like the kids to spend some time in day camp, take musical instrument lessons, and sign up for a reading group at the library, plus the four of us are planning to go to Colorado at some point. But if Holly has her way, something gross will happen, and that will be all she needs to make it another great summer.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Four years, eight years, 18 months: Does sibling spacing matter?

Geoff Edgers had an engaging essay in yesterday’s Boston Globe Magazine about the decision he and his wife made – quite intentionally, according to him – to have their second child when their first is already eight years old. Because the second is due to arrive any day, he doesn’t yet know just how this will play out, but he has a few theories. He (or maybe his editor) ended the piece with a provocative question: In a perfect world, what would be the right amount of time between siblings?

Like most questions of its ilk, has no definitive answer. I don’t think it even has a consensus. And in my experience, it’s a question a lot of people are uncomfortable posing, in light of the wide range of success or lack thereof that so many parents these days have in timing their childbearing with any precision. Given what I know anecdotally, my guess is that the Edgers family has as good a chance as anyone of creating sibling harmony through the choice they’ve made.

My children are three years and eleven months apart. It wasn’t exactly what we intended – we would have been happy with two and a half years between kids – but where I was past thirty when our first child was born, we weren’t surprised when it didn’t happen exactly according to our ideal schedule. We felt lucky to have it work out for us as well as it did.

So now, when people ask my opinion about the spacing between our children, I generally say that four years has worked out nicely for us. At the same time, many of my friends who have more than one child spaced them closer together and are also content with how it worked out. The more situations I consider, the more it seems there are many factors more significant than spacing that determine how well siblings get along and how smoothly the family functions as a whole.

In our case, I usually point out that kids four years apart are unlikely to compete with each other much. My kids enjoy different toys, different friends, different activities, so it’s rare that rivalry results from competing for any resource. Even parental attention – which some specialists consider the only genuine source of competition between siblings – isn’t really a resource they squabble over, since they want our attention in such different ways: Tim wants my husband to play ball with him while Holly wants to sit in my lap, for example. And with four years between kids, it’s simply a given that certain things are going to be different for them, such as bedtimes and household chores, whereas those are factors that children closer in age sometimes see as a source of unfairness.

Nonetheless, I often think the source of my children’s sibling harmony – when it prevails, which it often though not always does – has to do as much with their being different sexes and just different personalities than with their being four years apart in age. My older sister’s children are five years apart, both girls, and when they were younger this didn’t seem to help them at all in terms of getting along, though by the time they were about 10 and 15 they’d eradicated all traces of rivalry and become the best of friends. In their case, I think it helps that the younger girl is so physically and intellectually advanced that she almost never seems to be trailing behind in any way, but my sister says this is partly because the older one always served as built-in motivation for the younger one to strive harder. When I asked my sister how Phoebe, her younger daughter, learned to read so early, Lauren said that it just never occurred to Phoebe that she couldn’t do anything Sophie could do. On the other hand, back in the days when they didn’t get along as well as they do now, Lauren had a simple explanation: “Phoebe can’t get past her resentment at the fact that Sophie has had five more years to eat candy than she has.”

The one drawback I sometimes mention in relation to kids as far apart in age as mine are is that they don’t have many interests in common, and while this is a positive thing when it means they’re not fighting over the same scooter or book, it does sometimes come into play for something like planning a family vacation. As it happens, this past week was our school vacation week, and the kids and I traveled together to Washington D.C. With so many choices regarding which museums and attractions to visit, I was more aware than usual of their very different developmental levels. Tim, at age 11, spent hours engrossed in the exhibits at the Newseum, especially the Berlin Wall and the 9/11 areas of the museum, whereas journalism isn’t particularly of interest to Holly, who is 7. But she has a large capacity for having fun regardless of where she is; she became engaged looking at all the different kinds of lettering and characters used in newspapers from around the world. And they both equally enjoyed our three hours at the National Zoo the next day.

Eight years between kids is unusual, but so is 16 months. We know families who have done fine with the latter – it’s labor-intensive for parents to have two small children less than two years apart in age, but it tends to result in siblings who spend a lot of time playing together – and no doubt the eight years will work out fine for the Edgers family as well. My kids already seem aware that the older they get, the less apparent their age difference will be. And other than possibly the one (or more) year that my husband and I are likely to be paying two college tuitions, I don’t think it’s something we’ll ever see as a problem either.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Children's author T.A. Barron greets the masses

Yesterday evening I drove 30 minutes to the nearby town of Harvard to hear Colorado-based author T.A. Barron talk about his books for children, more than 20 in all, ranging from picture books to middle grade and young adult novels. My motivation to go to the talk was manifold. I interviewed Tom, as he is called in person, and wrote a profile for the Boston Globe that was published earlier this week; during the interview I said I’d try to attend the talk, and I wanted to make good on my word. He is also a long-time acquaintance of my family whom I saw frequently during a particular period of my childhood and have seen very seldom in my adult life. As someone who loves to connect present with past, I was curious to spend a little time in his company.

Besides all that, I thought the library had made a poor scheduling choice by having him visit during public school vacation week. In the affluent town of Harvard, I figured many of his young fans would be out of town with their families this week, and I thought I could do my part to boost attendance.

Doing my part to boost attendance began with me standing in the corridor outside the function room for ten minutes on standby before the talk began because I hadn’t called ahead to pre-register. Watching the many children and adults who had been more foresighted than I flood into the function room and choose seats, I realized I needn’t have worried about poor turnout. At 7:02, the library director gave those of us in line in the corridor permission to enter the room, where there were still a couple of rows of empty seats toward the back. Despite the fact that I don’t honestly know many kids who are big fans of T.A. Barron’s books – my 11-year-old told me he has one friend who really likes the Merlin series for which this author is best-known, but this is sort of damning with faint praise, since my son and his friends all like to read and have lots of favorite books – there were over one hundred people seated at the library’s meeting room when Tom took the lectern.

It was a good talk, but more than anything he said, I was thinking about the audience. It appeared to me that there were almost equal numbers of children and adults; even if kids hadn’t flocked here in droves, they populated the rows of chairs generously, and they all held at least one of Tom’s books, and in many cases several books, in their hands as they sat with their eyes glued to the speaker.

Noting their engagement, it made me think about what a great opportunity it is for kids to get to hear an author talk in person about writing. These kids are familiar with so many celebrities – my own two kids are as well; they watch American Idol and see an occasional movie and follow various professional sports teams – but none of those celebrities will ever stand twenty feet away from them in a library conference room talking about their childhood the way Tom did.

Moreover, I’m increasingly suspicious that some of the books popular with younger readers such as my 7-year-old don’t even have real authors behind them but are cranked out by conglomerates of some kind. If I’m wrong, I apologize for slandering the authors, but I’m all but certain there’s no real author named Daisy Meadows sitting at a desk pecking out the Rainbow Fairies series that Holly and her friends like so much, nor any author behind the surprisingly crude Geronimo Stilton books that both kids have at times enjoyed. When Tim was about seven and started reading Matt Christopher’s novels about kids who play sports, I expressed surprise to our local children’s librarian that Matt Christopher, popular during my childhood, was still writing. “Nancy,” she said with an ironic tone, “do you really think these books are all written by the same person?”

Aha. So maybe some of the more cookie-cutter series for children really don’t have any single author who could stand at a podium talking about themes and developing characters. But the Merlin books do, and last night there were several dozen kids from Harvard or other nearby towns transfixed by what he had to say. It reminded me that children do still love books, despite all the other options they seem to have. And it reminded me that what authors write really does matter to people. T.A. Barron has thousands of readers; even if my kids and their friends haven’t taken much to his books, children around the world have, as proven by his appearance on the New York Times bestseller lists of children’s authors.

I don’t have a book and I don’t attract thousands of readers, other than perhaps for the occasional Boston Globe feature, but earlier this week I received an email that reminded me that even the things I write sometimes matter. Many months ago, I wrote in this blog about how sad I was when my doctor died suddenly; then I wrote a sympathy note to his widow and mentioned the blog entry. That was in November; now, five months later, I received a note back from her asking if she could include the blog entry in a special exhibit that the hospital was putting on display in her husband’s memory.

Of course I said yes. I was honored by the request, and by the fact that what I wrote mattered enough to her that she wanted other people to see it. Yes, there are a lot of forms of entertainment and media that compete with books, but the written word still matters, whether you’re a kid engrossed in the latest installment of the Merlin saga or a widow sadly reading a note of condolence.

Thus, we writers all keep writing, hoping to find an audience, hoping to find someone who cares and takes meaning from what we’ve written. Some of the kids I saw in tonight’s audience will eventually write their own articles, blogs or books – if they haven’t already – and those works will matter to still more people. Our influence spreads. Our best writing goes viral, to use the vernacular; countless people read it. And it’s why we all keep on writing.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Back home, it's a good day for cocooning

There’s something inexpressibly luxurious about returning from a vacation midway through the week…and still having several days left before the kids have to go back to school.

It’s not even like we were gone that long – five days, four nights – but arriving home on a Tuesday night and having all of Wednesday wide open was the best way our trip could have possibly ended. We had nothing on our calendar yesterday. We just…cocooned. And it’s the best way we could have spent the day.

At least that’s my excuse for why Holly stayed in her pajamas until after lunch.

Yes, we were decadent, the kids and I. But I just didn’t have it in my heart to hurry anyone along yesterday. They both slept late. When Tim finally awoke after eight, he took a very long shower. He loves our oversized shower stall; it’s what he misses most in terms of material items when he’s away from home. I let him relish the comfort of the hot water and steam for as long as he wanted. Holly slept even later: until quarter to ten. When she finally emerged from her room, looking rumpled, she said she was still a little tired. Too tired, naturally, to give any thought to getting dressed. Normally I’m not a fan of what I call “slopping around in pj’s” – experience has led me to believe that the kids’ attitudes tend to brighten and their energy levels to pick up once they’re dressed and groomed – but yesterday I let Holly go with it.

We’d been gone for only five days, which is nothing compared to most of the families we know, who routinely travel to Europe or take cross-country drives for weeks on end. We usually take a weeklong vacation at least once a year as well. So I know four nights away isn’t anything that should require reentry. But for us, whether it was required or not, indulging in reentry was a huge luxury yesterday. We didn’t need to be anywhere or see anyone. Even my parents, who live next door, were away for the most of the day and didn’t drop by.

Even gone for just a few days, the kids craved time to reconnect with their home environment and everything they like about it. Holly missed the dog much more than I expected she would; she spent time with Belle just rolling around on the floor the way they like to do. Tim, besides the shower, just wanted to sit in his room and read, or play a few computer games. After plenty of slobbery time with Belle (and a shower of her own), Holly took out her beading kit and did some crafting. It’s what she likes to do when she has time to herself, and I certainly wasn’t going to interfere.

Not surprisingly, I had plenty to do myself. I had emails to sort through and deskwork to catch up on, as well as bags to unpack and laundry to start. Rick kept the house nice while we were away, but the downstairs floors clearly hadn’t been swept since I left. Grateful for the long free day and the extent to which the kids were keeping themselves busy, I immersed myself in household responsibilities and the small amount of assigned work that was waiting for my return.

All this cocooning meant we didn’t take quite as much advantage of the day’s beautiful, mild, sunny weather as we might have otherwise. I was out briefly in the morning to let the sheep out of their pen, but didn’t even feel all that guilty about neglecting to spend more time outside. I felt like we were doing exactly what we most needed to do: luxuriating in the option of not doing anything. Tim had a baseball scrimmage in the late afternoon, so he eventually got his dose of fresh air and exercise, plus he pulled out the backstop and practiced catching for a while before that. Holly and I headed out midafternoon for a little bit of running (for me) and biking (for her) up and down the common driveway.

Even though by nightfall I’d also fit in a stop at the post office, a visit to the library and a grocery shopping trip, it goes without saying that I didn’t get to everything. There’s still more laundry to do, and my editor surprised me with a story assignment I need to move on quickly. (I’d been hoping to stay assignment-free for school vacation week, but I never turn work down.) The kids haven’t unpacked their suitcases yet, and Tim needs to write our hosts a thankyou note. No matter. Tomorrow is a mostly free day as well; we can cocoon a little more. It’s a luxury, one for which we’re thankful and one we don’t plan to turn down. A few more days of vacation; no urgent plans. Cocoon away, is my motto for now.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Written on the train

Though the train ride from Washington, D.C. home to the Boston suburbs takes nearly eight hours and is a little tedious no matter how much I try to tell myself that the scenery is engrossing and the free time welcome, mostly I keep looking at the roadways and thinking how relieved I am not to be doing this same trip by car. Eight hours of travel is bound to be a little tedious no matter how you do it, but Amtrak certainly beats automobile.

If I were driving the same distance, I’d be fighting the drowsiness that overtakes me any time I drive more than an hour or so in bright daylight, and the kids would have to sit still. Instead, I’m free to doze – although Holly seems determined to ensure that doesn’t happen – and the kids can get up and walk around as much as they want, which is a lot. You’d never imagine it from all the time I spend at home imploring them to clear plates, throw away discarded projects, and put dirty clothes in the laundry, but each of them has made a dozen or so trips to the trash receptacle at the far end of the train car. They’re willing to toss out each piece of trash we generate individually if it means more opportunities to be on their feet. And I have no problem with that. It’s good for their circulation, it’s better for their bodies than sitting still, it passes the time – even if ever so slightly – and it increases the odds that they’ll eventually tire out and fall asleep, though that hasn’t happened yet.

The scenery outside is intriguing, and I feel sure that if I were by myself I’d be much more focused on it, but the distraction of staying aware of what the kids are up to keeps drawing me away from the window view. Still, every tableau I’ve viewed is interesting in its own way: the lush forests in Maryland, the glass and steel buildings of Wilmington, the crumbling brick warehouses of Newark, the muddy tones of the Passaic River. Soon we’ll reach the picturesque harbors of Connecticut.

Reading is hard for the same reason admiring the view is: I’m distracted by keeping aware of what the kids are doing. Tim is immersed in his own book, but Holly is squirrely, and she and I are both indulging in too many empty carbohydrates – chips, crackers, cookies – in an effort to make the time go by. I’ve sneakily encouraged the kids to buy food one item at a time – a hot dog, then a drink, then later a dessert – because walks to the cafĂ© car take up their time also, and seem to be of great amusement to them, though I grow a little anxious every time Holly is out of my sight. Just two weeks ago I interviewed an expert in human trafficking; had I not talked to her so recently, I wouldn’t be worrying about Holly being snatched from a lurker on the platform as the doors open.

So yes, it’s a little bit tedious, but it’s sooooo much better than driving. We’ll be home in a few hours, and we’ll get into our car at the train station, which is a lot better than having spent the past ten hours in it. I’m grateful today to Amtrak for making my life easier and more interesting than it would have otherwise been today, and I’m grateful in general for a safe return home after a great trip to D.C.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Playing in someone else's yard

“Getting to play in someone else’s yard” is an appropriate metaphor for our trip to D.C. since the kids have spent more time playing with their cousins in the backyard than engaged in any other activity, but it’s also relevant in the figurative sense, since playing in someone else’s yard is exactly what it’s felt like to me to be here for four days.

Getting to play in someone else’s yard just means having a brief taste of what it’s like to live a different kind of life from the one you’ve chosen. Although staying at Sarah’s home in Washington isn’t as different from being at my own house in Carlisle as, say, staying in a yurt in Nepal or even an attic apartment in Paris would be, it gave me the chance to sample a different kind of life from what I live at home. On my morning run yesterday, I passed women pushing strollers while leading dogs on leashes and business people dressed in suits, briefcase in one hand and Starbucks cup in the other, and even a tennis court where an instructor was giving a lesson, as well as other runners of all ages. On my daily run at home, I pass trees, pastures, stone walls, a cemetery. It’s fun to have so much company while I’m out running. At home, I hole up in my home office working most weekdays, but when I need to go somewhere I climb into the car. Here, because it’s our vacation, we spent the day out visiting museums, and we got there by walking to the subway stop and then taking the subway downtown. Once in the city, we walked along bustling and crowded streets. The kids saw professionals, street people, college students, dog walkers, other tourists. It’s good for them and it’s good for me to be reminded of how much variety is out there.

My daily environment at home is one that many would envy and that I myself treasure, living on a farm in New England. There’s a lot of nature around us and a lot of solitude throughout our days. Here, instead of pastures I saw beautifully flowering cultivated bushes on the small city lawns in front of most of the houses. Unlike at home where the kids generally have to make plans if they want a friend to come over and play, here they’ve witnessed how playdates in a more populous environment work: whoever has the best swinging/climbing structure in their yard, which in this case is my niece and nephew, plays host by default whoever drops by: kids of all sizes, with and without parents, some who stay for ten minutes and some for two hours.

In the classic fable, we’d be analogous to the country mouse who visits her urban cousin and ends up happier with home, but in real life it’s not that cut and dried. I like being in the midst of humanity here. I like seeing other mothers and other runners every time I leave the house on foot. I also like our fields and forests. The subway takes some getting used to, but I like for the kids to see how manageable and useful public transportation is (and how if you get befuddled by the exit-fare system, as I have, there’s usually someone around to help). When a street person approached us chanting a semi-intelligible prayer, I was happy for my kids to experience that as well.

Getting to play in someone else’s yard is as valuable metaphorically is it is fun in the literal context. We’ll be home in a few hours, back to our country life, which we love. But we’ll remember all we saw and did here, and we’ll look forward to coming back.

Monday, April 19, 2010

The Lincoln Memorial versus basketball on the porch

Having close family members who live in cool places is wonderful. My younger sister Sarah lives in Washington, D.C., and I was delighted to have the opportunity to take the kids to see her family this school vacation week. When family members live in a tourist mecca, you never feel too much like you’re imposing as houseguests because there are always things you want to go off and do that don’t rely on their participation or oversight. And, of course, you get to do all kinds of great sightseeing while coming home to a family dinner at night.

But having family members who live in a city where there’s so much to do can also present a bit of a paradox, because with the Smithsonian Museums, the Mall and all the presidential monuments just an easy subway ride away, my kids are equally if not more interested in playing basketball in the yard with their cousins. There have been a couple of times in the past when the kids were really little and we traveled all the way to D.C. and barely did any capital-S sightseeing at all, just enjoyed each other’s company. This time, with the kids now 7 and 11, I felt sure they were at just the right age for a lot of touring, and so far we’ve done some, but I still think their favorite parts of the trip so far are things we could do in the proverbial Peoria, or anywhere cousins lived: played in the yard, gone out for pizza, watched a silly kid-oriented DVD.

This doesn’t come as too big a surprise. When I asked my seven-year-old which museums in Washington were of most interest to her, she replied, “Anywhere we can do our own art projects.” I said that wasn’t really what the museums in Washington were intended for. “That’s okay; Hannah and I can use her art supplies to make stuff,” Holly said cheerfully. I felt a little bit as though I’d been tricked into that one, but I’m glad Holly is just as happy to be drawing pictures with her cousin at the kitchen table as touring the Capitol.

We did make our way to the National Zoo yesterday and saw some exotic animals: leopards, zebras, elephants, chimpanzees, and a quick glimpse – the first one we’ve ever had – of a giant panda as he emerged very briefly from a shady shelter. Tim’s favorite part of that visit? Well, he’s an eleven-year-old boy, you can probably guess. In his words, “Seeing an orangutan smell his own feet and then go pee while hanging from a wall.”

We’ll try to fit in some more cultural attractions before we head home. Or we’ll just play some more basketball in the yard. Either way, the kids will remember it as a great vacation. And maybe they’ll remember to try to catch a glimpse of a monument or two on our way to the train station as we leave.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Change a smoke alarm battery by myself? I think I can, I think I can...

My work day was just hitting its stride at about 10 yesterday morning when I heard the chirp. Then silence. Then another chirp.

Springtime has arrived at the farm this month, with the animals out grazing, the mud drying up and the peepers peeping on the pond, but the chirp I was hearing – every fifteen seconds or so – was no bucolic hint of springtime. It was the sound of a smoke detector that needed a new battery, and though intermittent, the pitch of the chirp was ear-splitting for the millisecond that it sounded each time. I jumped. The dog jumped. Even the guinea pig jumped.

Normally when smoke detectors start chirping, you get plenty of warning. Usually it happens only a few times an hour to start with and gets progressively more frequent long before you actually have to take action. Rather like contractions before childbirth. And also like childbirth, it usually happens in the middle of the night. We hear the chirps in the dark hours before dawn, ignore them, and change the batteries sometime later the next day.

But this was in full daylight, which was good, but also in full volume and frequency, which was irritating. For whatever reason, I wasn’t getting the usual gentle reminder that I’d need to change the battery in the next day or two. My choices were to listen to the chirp every fifteen seconds all day long or find someplace else to work. And I’m fond enough of my usual workday routine that I really didn’t want this to be one of those days that was memorable because I worked in one of the kids’ rooms or at the dining room table all day due to an unexpected disruption. So I did what I always do when machinery isn’t doing what I want it to do: called my father.

In all fairness to myself, as unimpressive a reaction as this may be, I’m not the only 40-something-year-old woman I know who calls her father whenever a car, electrical component or household device isn’t working right. I know of at least two others, though admittedly they’re both related to me. No, that’s not true. Plenty of my friends call their fathers when anything goes wrong, and those who don’t wish they could.

Yes, we’re a little old for this frequent fallback plan. And yes, our husbands sometimes take offense that we consider them strictly second-choice when it comes to advice on how to fix things. But old habits die hard. My younger sister called my father from Colorado last month to ask for advice on how to get the car out of a snowbank. “Is it in four-wheel-drive?” my father asked her. “What’s four-wheel-drive?” she responded. He described the placement of the button she needed to push, and no matter that her husband – a Ph.D. and tenured professor – was less than thirty feet away at the time. From across the country, Dad fixed the problem, as he so often does.

Yesterday, though, no one answered when I called. I should explain that I do know how to change a battery; I’m just not fond of tinkering with smoke alarms. I grew up in the 70’s, when house security systems and car alarms were new technology and utterly unreliable: back then if you breathed on something wrong, you’d be treated to thirty minutes of clamor for your efforts. I can easily change the batteries in my camera or flashlight, but I suspected the minute I tried to unscrew the smoke detector from the wall, something would go terribly wrong and it would end up with the fire department arriving in full uniform with ladders and hoses out. Plus I had to stand on a tall chair to reach the detector. And lastly, my parents live next door. As I say, it’s not that I can’t change a battery; I just thought some reinforcements would be nice.

But no one answered the phone, and the frequency of chirp wasn’t slowing down any, so I found a battery, carried the footstool up the stairs, and while the dog and guinea pig watched admiringly, I went to work. Unscrewed the alarm cap, pried out the old battery, plugged in the new one, screwed the cap back in place. Done. No more chirping.

I felt empowered, but I knew it was really no big deal. So many tasks like that are just a matter of believing you can do it, or getting out of the habit of assuming you can’t. They don’t make smoke detectors with the goal of consumers not being able to use them, I reminded myself. Chances are if most of America can use this technology, I can too.

It’s a good rule for me to remember, and it worked well this time. Don’t think you can’t do it; just think of all the people who can, and ask yourself whether they’re really all more capable and smarter than you are. Some of them, probably. Most of them, maybe. But all of them? Not that likely.

Now the alarm is silent again, and I’m grateful. And I’m ready for next time too, knowing it won’t be a big deal. My father being out for the day gave me the chance to see what I’m capable of. And what I’m capable of is changing a battery. Not exactly life-changing, but not a bad lesson, either.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Sharing, including everyone: Do the principles we espouse when they're 7 still make sense at 40?

Earlier this year, my seven-year-old daughter Holly talked to me about a schoolyard problem she was experiencing.

Holly’s problem was, as I understood it, simply that she was a little bewildered by the revolving-door aspect of girls’ friendships. She has a lot of friends, and although she’s definitely closer to some than others, I’ve long encouraged her to play with many different kids for just the reason that she is now encountering: sometimes a girl who seemed to be your best friend one day wants to play with someone else the next.

I don’t consider this bullying or meanness. No one was deliberately excluding anyone else. At worst, they were being fickle; or to put a less negative spin on it, they were seeking variety in their recess encounters. I can’t fault any of the girls for it, but it was confusing to Holly, who felt that even with a dozen or more girls at school whom she considers good friends, she should still be able to count on playing Tuesday with the same friend she played with on Monday.

Her teacher, who has plenty of experience in the ways of second-grade girls and was remarkably willing to do what she could to nip incipient problems in the bud, went way beyond the call of duty in confronting this problem when I sought her insights. She invited all the girls in her class to a weekly lunch club where they could talk about friendship strategies. Her discussions with the girls have focused on the importance of not leaving anyone out, confirming my sense that no child was guilty of being unkind, just negligent, likely without realizing it. If there was anything at all to identify as a fault, it was one of omission, not commission.

But as Holly and her classmates talked about how it’s more fun to include everyone, I couldn’t help feeling a sneaking sense of hypocrisy that I sometimes get when I find myself encouraging my kids to uphold standards that I don’t feel I’m held to myself. This was a big issue for me when my older child, Tim, was three or four and we talked about sharing. I just couldn’t help thinking about how the way we expect small children to play together is not exactly something adults would be comfortable with for themselves. Even while I’d be saying to Tim, “Give Ryan a turn with your tricycle,” I’d think to myself how odd it would be if Ryan’s mom asked to take my car out for a spin or use my iPod. I’d say yes, of course. It wouldn’t be a problem; it would just be unusual. And yet we expect kids to be generous with their toys all the time.

A few years after going through his own tribulations associated with sharing and playgroups, Tim would sometimes come home from school to see one of Holly’s friends playing with his train set or nerf football. I’d urge him not to see make a fuss over it, but I couldn’t help thinking that it would be a little awkward if, say, my husband came home from work and found one of my friends sitting at his desk using his computer.

Now that both kids are in grade school, the sharing of material goods isn’t so much of an issue for them. These days when they have friends over to play, it’s usually with the goal of enjoying a toy or activity together, rather than avoiding that. But with Holly’s friendship challenges, I find myself again comparing my expectations of her with my expectations of myself. If every single time I wanted to talk to my friend Nicole over a cup of coffee I was required to include a half-dozen other acquaintances in the conversation, I wouldn’t be too happy about it. When I visit with Nicole or any of my close friends, I value the one-on-one time. It’s not the same when someone else shows up unexpectedly. We’d never leave anyone out, but it’s only fair to admit I wouldn’t expect to enjoy the visit as much.

On the other hand, when I hear that a couple my husband and I enjoy spending time with is going to someone else’s house for dinner, I don’t usually feel slighted. At this point it’s just second nature to me to see that if you’re fortunate, you have a range of different friends and enjoy their company at different times.

So maybe it’s not a matter of different standards as much as learning lessons now that will help them later. As I tell Holly, it’s good to have a wide variety of friends so that you never feel left out if any one friend doesn’t want to play with you. It’s just as true for me now as it is for her; the only real difference is that I’ve had a lot more years to learn it.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

After eight months off, my running-streak buddy runs with me again

When my 11-year-old, Tim, and I had our mother-son running-streak challenge under way, we ran together every day for two years. Well, that’s not completely accurate. We both ran every day for two years, and I know for certain that the first year, there were only five days we ran separately. In the second year of the challenge, we ran separately more often, but still, most of the time we ran together. All in all, I doubt there were more than 30 days we ran separately out of the 732 days of Tim’s running streak.

But when he ended his streak last August, it was with a sense of finality. He told other people he’d try running soon again, after he’d taken some time off from it, but I was doubtful. I just had a feeling it was something over-and-done. Not that I really thought that at the age of 10, he would never go for another run in his life, just that I didn’t expect him to resume the regular habit any time soon, if ever.

And I was right. For almost eight months he didn’t go running once, other than the one day he was required to run the mile for gym class. This isn’t to say he grew paunchy and out of shape. He’s only 11 and wiry by nature; plus he played baseball almost daily right through November, which was one of the reasons he opted to stop running, and all through the year he plays actively with his friends at recess and occasionally after school: football, wall ball, kickball, whatever the game of the moment might be.

Yesterday it was monthly early release from school. It was a cool but sunny spring day and Holly had plans. I suggested to Tim we go running together after lunch. He thought about it for a while, conceded that the weather and circumstances were just about ideal, then negotiated, as I thought he would: sure, he’d go running, if we could end our run at the ice cream stand next door and share a sundae.

It was fine with me. I hadn’t gone running with Tim since August 15 of last year. I missed running together. I was happy he was willing.

So we did a short run, up Bedford Road to the library, down the library path and back via Church Street. Our run ended at the ice cream stand parking lot. It was wonderful to be running with Tim again. I love the solitude of running alone, but I also so enjoy seeing his loose, comfortable stride alongside me and hearing the chatter he keeps up while we run.

Needless to say, he had no trouble with the workout. We did only one and a half miles, and he’s in good enough shape from his regular activities for that not to be a big deal. He didn’t say he wanted to start another streak, but he was cheerful the whole time and seemed happy to be out. Over our shared sundae after the run, we talked about possibilities. We’re going to Washington, D.C. soon, and Tim observed that was a state he hasn’t yet run in. His States List so far includes Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Maine, Florida, New York and Pennsylvania as far as running goes. This summer he could add D.C. and also Colorado. Even with his streak over, building his States List doesn’t depend on running every day, so he seemed amenable to that idea.

One of the problems with maintaining a running streak, as I’ve often thought, is what happens when you end it. If the point was to run every day and you no longer do that, what’s the meaning of running at all? Naturally, there are numerous obvious answers to that: the same benefits that everyone else in the world who runs often but not every day gleans from the experience. Fitness. Relaxation. Time outdoors. Still, I suspected that once it was no longer about maintaining the streak, Tim would have little incentive to get back to running, so it hasn’t surprised me that he’s avoided it for the past eight months.

But yesterday was a good change. Yesterday it was good to be out with him again. Our running-streak mentor, Ronald Kmiec, broke a 32-year streak a couple of years ago and after six weeks off recovering from a heart attack started a new streak. That set a good example for us. Ronald is in his sixties, so he probably isn’t now trying to beat his earlier streak of 32 years. He apparently didn’t need that incentive, though. He got out there and started running again regardless.

I don’t know that Tim will run with me again any time soon, but I’m glad he did yesterday. And maybe he will later this month in D.C. and over the summer in Colorado for the sake of adding a new state to his list. In between those trips, I hope we run again as well. Now, as in the days of his running streak, it’s great to spend the time together. And with the pressure of maintaining the streak off, I’m hoping he’ll eventually discover the bliss of just plain running, the way most people do it: getting out there when you feel like it, even if it’s not part of a tally of consecutive days. Even if it’s a day here and there. Simply because running almost always feels great, no matter how long it’s been since you last did it or how long it might be until you get out there again.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Singing for joy, singing while vacuuming

My 7-year-old sings as she makes her way around the house. When she is playing, she sings quietly, long rambling sequences of fairly abstract phrases, as opposed to songs with melodies and lyrics of the sort she might learn in school. When she and her friend Samantha get together, sometimes they sing together in a more organized fashion – verses of a favorite from music class or a Disney movie – but when she’s by herself, she sings just as sort of background noise to keep herself company while she plays.

She also sings questions or observations sometimes. “Mommy may I please have some more orange juice?” becomes its own little melodic sequence, and so does “I can’t find my shoes today; they aren’t where I left them.”

I love hearing her sing. I love the good cheer it connotes, and its gentle yet joyful way of communication. I seldom sing myself because I have a scarily bad voice. When I do break into song, it’s usually to amuse the kids and it’s usually a matter of making up ad hoc lyrics intended to motivate a specific action on their part, such as the song I made to get us out the door on time, paying homage to “We Gotta Get Out of This Place” by The Animals: “We’ve gotta get out of this house, if it’s the last thing we ever do! We’ve gotta get out of this house. Or we will miss the bus, and have to walk to school.”

In the past few days, my son has started singing, and it’s a mystery why. Tim, who is 11, never sang around the house. On Sunday, we needed to clean the house quickly, and Rick asked him to vacuum the upstairs bedrooms. With the vacuum running, we could hear him belting out “Row, row, row, your boat!” On and on he sang as the vacuum ran. I suppose it’s like singing in the shower: with noise and rhythm to back you up, it’s easier to let it out. Still, it’s not typical of Tim, and I was amused. When the vacuuming was done, he continued singing.

So much so, in fact, that Holly grew annoyed. She’s not used to having to talk over the background noise of Tim singing and asked him to stop. He reported to me that Holly was crying because of his singing. Then Holly started to cry. When I asked her what was wrong, she said, “I wasn’t crying! Then Tim told you I was crying because he was singing, and that made me cry!”

Oh what a tangled web we weave, I thought to myself. My usually withdrawn and rather downcast son seemed to be brightening up and had discovered his loud singing voice for the first time in my memory; meanwhile my usually sunny daughter was crying over false accusations of, well, crying. Parenthood is never dull, even when the details seem to be.

Tim continued singing frequently in the days that followed. Could his cheery outbursts of song be an unexpected change with age? Some of the other boys we know who are his age or just a little older, immersed in pre-adolescence, seem to be growing moodier and more sullen. Wouldn't it be ironic if my son, who has always had a moodier mien than most of his friends, did the opposite as his teen years approached?

Another interesting angle is that a new pediatrician we visited for the first time last month when Tim had a slightly sore throat that I erroneously thought might be strep recommended that Tim start taking vitamins with iron. He’s been taking them for about two weeks now. Hence, singing? It seems like a stretch, but the evidence is bellowing its presence in front of me. Chalk one up for Fred Flintstone grape-flavored chewables, and someone please find me a tuning fork.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Happy to stay close to home this weekend

I sometimes say that a good weekend is one in which I don’t leave Carlisle city limits. It’s a bit tongue-in-cheek. Carlisle is a town of 6,000, so using “city” to modify anything about it, including its borders, is facetious. Nonetheless, I love weekends that are home- and community-based, and I can’t help feeling a particular sense of satisfaction on a Sunday evening when I realize I haven’t left town in 48 hours.

This was very close to being that kind of weekend – as close as I almost ever get, in fact. On Friday, Holly had a friend for a sleepover; the highlights of the evening were pasta alfredo and homemade meatballs for dinner, s’mores for dessert (we make s’mores in the oven, which I am unapologetic in my preference for; unlike the campfire version, the chocolate actually melts, and you can broil the marshmallows to perfection every time), and a screening of the DVD "Flicka." Actually, those are what I saw as the highlights; the girls would probably say the best part was getting to stay awake talking until 10 PM and then falling asleep at the same time in Holly’s double bed.

On Saturday, we had our townwide Trash Party. As co-chair with my friends Lisa and Mollie, I had the pleasurable job of sitting in the park in the Town Center handing out trash bags, serving up doughnuts and coffee, and making suggestions as to what street different families who dropped by for an assignment should tackle in terms of trash clean-up. A few minor altercations broke out among neighbors squabbling over the privilege of collecting crumpled newspapers, crushed Coke cans, beer bottles and fast food wrappers along the same stretch of road, but Lisa handled those; I just thanked people for their hard work and encouraged them to take another doughnut hole before they hit the roadways to start gathering litter.

At noon, Lisa, Mollie and I piled into our pickup truck and drove around town collecting full trash bags people had left by the side of the road for us. It felt a little like a warped Easter egg hunt. “There’s one!” we would call out when we saw the big black bags hulking by the side of the road. I’d pull over; the two of them would jump out, grab the bags, throw them in the back, and we’d be on our way again. As the three of us talked about kindergarten placement, houses for sale in our town and ways that one husband in the group had annoyed his wife that morning, it reminded me of the scene where the three girls drive around together in the movie “Mystic Pizza.” This was the middle-aged suburban version.

Later in the afternoon I went for a five-mile run along one of my favorite routes. When I returned home, Holly was sitting on the big rock in front of our house waiting for me. She ran down the driveway to meet me, bursting with news about what happened on her trip to the circus with her grandparents earlier in the day. Because she was breathless, it took three tries before I understood the cause of her great excitement: she’d eaten cotton candy!

We went to church the next morning. In a surge of magnanimity no doubt brought on by the tranquility of the weekend, I agreed to a request to chair a new committee. Easter lilies decorated the altar, and Holly made an origami dove, a symbol of peace, in Sunday school.

On Sunday afternoon, I brought Holly to play at her friend Samantha’s house. Since Samantha’s father was home, Samantha’s mother and I decided to go for a walk. We walked for about two and a half miles and talked about the odd and random things that friends talk about on a walk. (Old episodes of Will and Grace, for example, and how to avoid spending a lot of money during a summer vacation in a resort town.) We saw some astonishing flood damage from last month’s deluges, and we saw several other people out on walks.

Weekends like this, spent with family, friends and community, are so satisfying to me, especially when good weather makes it possible to spend a lot of time outside. Due to my daily running commitment, I don’t take time nearly often enough for a walk with a friend; I’m so glad I did yesterday. It was a lovely weekend from beginning to end.

Yet some part of me always wonders whether there’s something a little bit wrong with being so happy to stay within our tiny town of 6,000 for the weekend. Is it contentedness, I wonder, or is it provincialism? Am I content, or complacent? Mild agoraphobia, even? It’s just that there’s plenty I didn’t do this weekend as a result of staying so close to home. I didn’t climb any mountains or see any live theater. I didn’t really support the arts in any way, come to think of it, and I didn’t do much to support any local economy. I had fun with friends and I exercised a lot, but I didn’t expand my cultural horizons at all. Nor did I comfort any afflicted. I didn’t even cross paths with any afflicted.

So it’s important to remember that being content with staying close to home is good but going out of one’s immediate comfort zone is important as well. I felt so lucky this weekend to be so community-bound, but it wouldn’t be good for me to do that too often. It’s just too comfortable for me. I need to push myself to get out into the world, no matter how happy I may be staying as close as possible to home.

Friday, April 9, 2010

The K-8 model: Why it's great for everyone involved

Yesterday after my regular volunteer shift at my kids’ school library, I fell into a conversation with the library director and a fourth grade teacher. I was telling them about a story I heard several months ago by NPR education correspondent Claudio Sanchez on the advantages of schools like ours that cover grades K-8. The conversation so intrigued me that I did a little more research later in the day and found out that it’s a fairly hot topic in education circles right now: the issue of trying to make more schools cover a wider range of grades, though not necessarily increasing the size of the student body. That is, a medium-sized suburb that currently has four elementary schools and two middle schools might consider still having several schools but making all of them cover all the grades rather than clustering by age.

In our town, we have a K-8 campus simply because with a town population of barely 6,000, all we need is one large school to cover 800 kids between the ages of 5 and 13. But having been through the same school myself and now watching my two children, one a second grader and one a fifth grader, go through it, I spot new advantages all the time. And talking today with the library director and the fourth grade teacher opened my eyes to even more.

As the NPR story pointed out, older kids often behave better when younger kids are around. They feel important and recognize their value as role models. This is obviously not always true; some parents of young children are apprehensive about exposing their kids to middle school behaviors, and not all middle schoolers can be trusted to carry themselves as good examples. But for the most part, the presence of young and impressionable children keeps the pre-adolescent ones a little bit more in line.

Also, younger kids feel safer and just more cared for with older siblings or older kids they know from their neighborhood around. My daughter likes spotting her older brother across the cafeteria as one shift is arriving and the other is leaving; she likes seeing his friends as well. Last year when she was in first grade, she once climbed off the bus bursting with excitement: I could see from the gleam in her eyes that something terrific had happened. Did she win an award or meet a new friend, I wondered? No, it turned out the eighth grader who lives down the street had high-fived her in the hallway outside the nurses’ office. That recognition clearly made her day.

And while younger kids may be drawing succor from the presence of older kids, the students in the older grades often derive comfort from being able to interface with the teachers from their younger years. The NPR reporter mentioned this point, and I’ve certainly witnessed it firsthand. Kids who might be going through a difficult time feel better when they can drop in on the familiar face who greeted them every morning in kindergarten. When my son was in second grade, his teacher was one of the best-loved teachers in the school, and Tim used to joke about how some mornings he had to wait in line to enter his classroom because so many of her former students had dropped by to say hello to her before the middle school bell that there wasn’t any room for the second graders until the older kids cleared out.

The library director pointed out some additional advantages I hadn’t thought about. Not only do the two principals – we have one for grades K-4 and one for grades 5-8 – have plenty of time to get to know each child and each family as a whole, but other specialists can keep track of the kids’ progress and well-being over the course of the years as well: the counselors, the school nurses, even the library director herself said she likes seeing how kids grow and change from one grade to the next.

Our school has various ways of leveraging the advantages of contact between older and younger students. They have a “buddy program” in which older classes and younger classes get together once a month or so and the kids are paired up for special projects: sometimes it’s kindergarteners with fourth graders, sometimes third graders with eighth graders, and so on. They also proactively expose the kids to the work going on in different grades. Earlier this week my son and his fifth grade classmates attended the eighth grade science fair, and when the fifth graders had their own exhibition one morning dedicated to research on Colonial America, several younger grades filed through.

I do understand that a K-8 model has its drawbacks as well. In a town with a big enough child population for several schools, it’s a more practical use of resources to cluster by grade level: it’s easier to stock any one campus with the playground structures, science lab equipment or even textbooks appropriate to just three or four grades rather than nine grades. And some parents of younger kids do worry about risks inherent in the presence of older kids; at our campus this is minimized by the fact that there are separate buses, recess times and cafeteria times for older kids and younger kids.

To me it’s a great system, but it’s also what I grew up with, so sometimes I take it for granted. The talk in the library yesterday made me recognize anew what an advantage it is. And as we wrapped up our discussion, a first grade was filing in for their library session. The library director gathered them all together and then announced their story this week would be read by a special guest: an eighth grader who would soon be graduating from the school. The kids looked fascinated as the older girl sat down to read to them. The girl herself looked poised and proud. And the library director? Beaming with pleasure at the sight of a student she had known since the age of five, now almost three times that age, sitting down to share her love of reading with a new crop of six-year-olds.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Unseasonable weather: A visit from summer

Generally, I like seasonable weather. It doesn’t matter the season; I just like weather that reflects the essence of the date on the calendar. I like heat waves in July, cool sunny days with bright blue skies in September, a chilly gray day with darkness falling early in November, a big snowstorm in January, a raw dampness in March, a soft warmth in the air in May.

But sometimes un-seasonable weather can be fun too. This week, for example, we’ve been having a taste of summer. It’s way too early to think this will last, but ever since Saturday we’ve been enjoying temperatures in the 70’s and unwavering sunshine. Yesterday the mercury rose into the mid-80’s, and it felt like the middle of July, not the beginning of April. Holly rode her bike after school. I went running in shorts and a T-shirt; Belle ran with me and waded into a stream to cool off as soon as I let her off the leash.

Unseasonable weather is like a visit from a friend you don’t see much. When it arrives, you immediately start remembering everything you like so much about it. On a day like yesterday, I remembered how great it is to go outside without piling on layers, and how pleasant it is to see the cows and sheep out grazing in the middle of the pasture rather than hovering next to the barn munching on dry hay. But it happens at other times of year too. An unseasonably chilly day in August makes me start thinking about all the benefits of back-to-school time even with school still a month away. A snowstorm in early December reminds me of how picturesque our setting is when the snow drifts high along the fences.

And being reminded of the upcoming season has practical benefits too. Temperatures in the 80’s yesterday inspired me to look over my summer wardrobe and think about what was worth keeping. A snowstorm in November gets everyone to the hardware store to buy shovels. Even a cold autumnal air front in the summer reminds me to buy the kids’ school supplies.

But also like a visiting guest, the unseasonable weather reminds us quickly not only of what we like about the season it hearkens to but also what we might not like so much about it. I never remember over the winter or early spring how much less energy I have in the hot weather; yesterday I was reminded generously, when I started feeling sluggish by late afternoon, the time I normally gear up to make dinner and start non-work related household tasks. Insects have started whirling in through the screens, too.

According to the forecast, our summer preview ends today and we’ll be back to early spring weather. We’ll miss summer, and we’ll look forward to seeing her again in another couple of months. In the meantime, we’ll get back to the cool windy days typical of April.

Last month during the flooding, when we had to park on the cul-de-sac behind us and walk through the woods to get to the cars because the driveway washed out, Tim commented, “it’s actually kind of fun going through the woods instead of the usual way,” and my father responded to him that any time things are different from the norm, it’s kind of fun. For kids I think this is particularly true. These days, something as trivial as an hour-long dentist appointment during the time of day that I normally write is enough to make me irritable, but I still remember how excited I was during a particularly massive blizzard in my childhood when we lost electricity for three days. Now when we lose electricity even for three hours, I get a little bit frustrated by the inconvenience, even though I know how intransigent that is of me, but back then, just living without lights on was a thrill.

And for Tim, walking through the woods to get to the car last month was a novelty. He’s right: exceptions to the regular routine are exciting. We had fun visiting with summer this week. It was great to get our bikes out and wear t-shirts and shorts. Soon enough the high heat of summer will return, only more in season. And we’ll be all the more ready for it, thanks to this week’s preview.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

When you're too busy to go running...go running anyway

I was too busy to run yesterday. So I did the best thing to do when you’re too busy to run. Avid runners will know exactly what I’m talking about. What’s the best thing to do when you’re too busy to go running? No, not use the treadmill. Not take the day off and double your workout the next day. Not even concede gracefully to the reality that there are days into which a run just might not fit and refuse to dwell on the fact that you didn’t go.

No. At least speaking for myself, the best thing to do when I’m too busy to run is…go running.

I may seem like the wrong person to talk about making a choice to run. As a USRSA-registered streak runner, I’ve committed to run a mile or more every day. In another month, if all goes well, my running streak with be one thousand days long. But yesterday was one of those days when it was so tempting to tell myself, “Okay, but just a mile today. You can spare ten minutes, but that’s it. You have way too much to do to fit in a good run. Just do that mile and get back to your desk…your kitchen…your telephone…your errands list.”

But I didn’t. I’d spent the first 90 minutes of the day up at the elementary school attending Holly’s class’s Iditarod presentation. And while I love being invited into the classroom, starting my work day 90 minutes late is never something that feels great to me, devotee of routine that I am. I was feeling frazzled by waiting to hear from two different sources for two different articles whose input I urgently needed in order to complete and file my stories. When I got back from the classroom event, I had three e-mails saying that school library volunteers had to reschedule their shifts, which is my responsibility as library volunteer coordinator. I wasn’t at all sure that my older child had finished a big homework assignment due later this week, and I hadn’t even started the brainstorming part of an essay I promised an editor I’d draft in the early part of this week.

That was just the deskwork part. On the domestic front, I had committed to make two batches of oatmeal cookies for events taking place that afternoon, and we’d invited a guest to dinner. Though I had a general idea of the menu, I hadn’t done any of the cooking yet. I hadn’t even checked very carefully to ensure we had the ingredients I needed.

And, of course, as a streak-runner, I knew I had to fit in my run at some point. Even if it was only ten minutes long.

Instead, I took a leap of faith. I said to myself, “Deadlines, dinner menus, kids’ homework, housework…no. Just go running. So you don’t have time to run. Just Go Anyway.”

So I set off on my favorite weekday loop. But instead of getting more frazzled as the time away from my desk and home unspooled, I found that the opposite was happening. As I ran, I thought about the dinner menu and what I’d need to prepare when, in order to be ready when our guest arrived. I remembered that I hadn’t bought any salad ingredients but I did have some leftover steamed broccoli, which I could sautĂ© with tomatoes and corn in place of a salad. I mulled over ideas for the essay I’d promised my editor. I reassured myself that the two story sources I urgently needed to hear from would probably call later in the day. I reminded myself that now Tim is in fifth grade, he almost always gets his assignments done without asking for a lot of help or making a big deal of it, and this was probably one of those times.

Seasoned runners will be able to anticipate how this ended: when I returned home after the run, even though I’d squandered a half-hour that I really didn’t have to spare, I felt better about all of it. I was all set to start dinner preparations, having planned out in my mind what needed to be done. With my brain rejuvenated, I felt that I could call the tardy story sources and ask them for the information I was waiting on, and I could at least start jotting down ideas for the essay even if I didn’t start drafting it yet.

So, once again, the best thing to do when I was too frazzled to fit in a run was to fit in that run. After that, time seemed to shift and work its way into my hands again, where I felt capable of organizing it the way I needed to. I’d run the frazzle goblins right into the ground. Literally. Mentally refreshed, my afternoon no longer seemed quite so overbooked. I felt great. And not even all that busy after all.

Monday, April 5, 2010

The cover-up: How do we judge a book by its cover when there's no need for a cover?

Motoko Rich wrote a very interesting essay in the New York Times last week in which she made the point that book covers, and the whole sub-industry of book cover design, risk becoming collateral damage in the ebook revolution.

Rich is a New Yorker, and she alludes frequently to the urban experience of unobtrusively checking out the cover of a book that a fellow subway rider might be reading – a book she then might decide to seek out for herself. She opens her essay with a sketch of a woman who does a micro-version of niche market profiling by noticing that the woman across from her on the subway, who is immersed in a novel, not only looks her age and has clothes and accessories similar to those she might wear but is also carrying a yoga mat. The observer is indeed a yoga enthusiast herself, and before the day is over she has purchased the same book in which the subway rider was engrossed.

The issue of e-books lacking the transparency of hard-copy books with which avid readers assess what other people are reading has been bandied about a fair amount since the advent of e-books. I read an essay last year about a woman who always judges new acquaintances, upon being invited to their homes, by what books they have on their shelves. Asking to look at the directory on someone’s Kindle isn’t exactly the same as glancing at the bookshelves as you walk to the powder room, she pointed out.

I agree that there’s a great deal to be learned from having visibility into what other people are reading. We make assessments of them, even if they are strangers; we also get passive book recommendations, like the woman on the subway. Once my college roommate and I were taking a walk on the beach just beyond the front yard of her summer house. “See that woman on the lawn chair over there?” she asked me. “I’ve been trying to get a peek at the title of her book all day. She’s been sitting there reading for hours, and I really want to know what it is.”

It’s potentially a loss for book cover designers, too. For artists and illustrators, book cover design is a profitable arena. Though many of the published authors I know have professed not to like the covers of their books, I think it would be fascinating to see how a visual artist interpreted my work with a design statement. Not being a published author, I’ve never had the opportunity, but I do have some familiarity with what it’s like to work as a writer in tandem with a design professional because I’m a journalist who writes feature stories, and I’m all too aware of how the photo that runs with my story can make or break its visibility in terms of how big and how high up on the page the editor chooses to place it based on how enticing the photo is.

There are so many ways in which it will be interesting to see how the literary world changes in response to ebooks; the question of cover design is just one of many to ask about this emerging technology. For now, while I’m still reading hard copies of books, I think I’ll develop even more appreciation for their cover designs, knowing it might eventually become a lost art. And I’ll scrutinize what other people are reading in airports and cafes more than ever. If they’re brave enough to let the world see what they’re reading, I’m more than willing to take advantage of that opportunity.

Easter and the Barrymores

Growing up in a household that combined Jewish observances, Unitarian ideals and a generally secular humanist mood, I was never entirely clear on Easter’s meaning.

Christmas, I understood. Observers of all nature of religions and sects can still agree – though admittedly not all do – that Jesus was born and that his presence in history is significant, regardless of where their beliefs fall in relation to the Holy Trinity. So the meaning of Christmas was always clear to me: a celebration of Jesus’ birth, whether you consider Jesus the son of God, a prophet, or a fine and eloquent teacher.

But Easter is different. Without adhering to the idea of the Resurrection, how do we justify our right to observe it? While the oft-repeated secular idea of a holiday, whatever its name, honoring rebirth and the new life that springtime symbolizes is appealing, I’ve never understood why Easter should be specifically identified as that day.

As a child, I barely knew about Good Friday, and only last month did I finally familiarize myself with the meaning of Palm Sunday. That was because I had to teach a Sunday School lesson on it at the Unitarian church that my children and I attend. There, we make an effort to understand and educate our children about as many different forms of religion and personal belief as possible; in Sunday school, after we discussed Passover, Palm Sunday and the Spring Equinox, we made a poster showing all the different symbols associated with springtime and the holidays, from eggs to rabbits to the Christian cross to the Passover matzoh.

None of which quite explains why my discussion with my children yesterday afternoon centered on Drew Barrymore.

It was yet another one of those conversations with my children when if I take so much as a split second to step back and listen to myself talk, I can only ask with figurative dropped jaw, “How did I get myself into this?”

We were driving home from my in-laws’ house, where we’d had an Easter feast that included both an egg hunt and Grace before dinner: traditions both secular and religious. My 7-year-old looked out at all the cars with families returning from similar celebrations and asked why so many people celebrate Easter.

"Because no matter what your religious beliefs are, it's a good day to spend with your family," I said. "Major holidays are a nice time for everyone to take a break from what they normally do and get together with family instead."

“I feel sorry for all the American Idol finalists," she mused. "They had to miss out on spending Easter with their families because they’re still in Hollywood.”

“Not everyone spends Easter with their families,” I amended. “Some people spend it with their friends.”

“Well, I guess that’s what they did, then,” Holly persisted, still fixated on American Idol, “because by this time in the season, all the finalists are friends with each other. So they spent Easter together.”

Though American Idol finalist is one of the last roles I can imagine holding, I can hardly feel too sorry for them for their Easter logistics. I’m guessing they’re perfectly happy to be holed up in their practice sessions and wardrobe appointments this weekend. “Besides, some people consider their friends to be family,” I continued. “For example, Drew Barrymore.”

This spontaneous comment was the result of an interview I heard with Drew Barrymore on Fresh Air last year, in which she told Terry Gross that she no longer has a relationship with her mother but she has friends who are just like family to her and so, she assured Terry, it was okay about the rift with her famously problematic mother.

“Who’s Drew Barrymore?” both kids wanted to know.

“She’s an actress.”

“Why are her friends like her family?”

“Because she doesn’t get along with her mother.”

“Why not?”

As a journalist, there is no one in the world I hold in higher professional regard than Terry Gross. And once I start recounting things I heard on Fresh Air, I’m pretty much on automatic pilot. “Well, because she was very successful right from childhood, from when she was your age. And I think that now she feels like her mother didn’t necessarily help her or give her good advice.”

“Like about what to do with the money she made?” my eleven-year-old asked.

“Yes, and what roles to take. But she told Terry Gross that she has such good friends that they’re like a family to her.”

My husband shot me a look at this point. “Remind me again of what the rift between Drew and Jaid Barrymore has to do with Easter?”

Okay, nothing. That’s what happens when you try to explain things to kids. You get so sidetracked that you end up not quite able to believe what you hear yourself saying. We’ve all done it at some time or another. My mother once found herself actively competing with my then five-year-old niece and my niece’s friend over who knew someone with fewer limbs, and I famously once defended Tim by telling another mom that Tim was much more like a girl than her son was.

The kids didn’t have any further questions, though. Not about the Barrymores and not about the Resurrection. Which is fortunate because I didn’t have any more answers. Although if they want to know anything about Palm Sunday, I’m all set.

Friday, April 2, 2010

Playing hooky

Yesterday I played hooky. After an hour of desk work, I shut down my computer and went for a three-hour bike ride. What a treat.

The sense of novelty that came with being out enjoying the sunshine rather than sitting at my desk reminded me of a tradition from my childhood. Every year, I was allowed to miss one day of school to go into Boston with my mother on the train. We’d go shopping and eat lunch at a restaurant, and although we could have done the same thing on a weekend or a school vacation day, it wouldn’t have been the same. Feeling sneaky, feeling special, the whole sense of doing something exceptional, was what made it so much fun.

And yesterday I discovered that playing hooky still feels special, even though being self-employed means that I no longer have to ask anyone’s permission to spend a day outside instead of at my desk. My 12-year-old niece Phoebe is visiting this week from Pennsylvania, and because she’s such a good athlete, I knew this was my opportunity to do the kind of bike ride my kids are still too small to do. Given the beautiful weather, I grabbed that opportunity.

We set off on the Minuteman Bikeway at 11. We rode steadily for an hour until we reached the Alewife Station at the end of the Bikeway; then we threaded our way along the extension to Davis Square, where we rewarded ourselves with a fabulous lunch of burritos and guacamole at Anna’s Tacqueria in Davis Square. In both directions of the ride, covering 24 miles round-trip, there was so much to see. Flooded swamps and back yards in Bedford and Lexington. The shimmering expanse of Spy Pond in Arlington. Brooks running through the still leafless woods. Along the Bikeway, women pushing infants in strollers, a preschooler using a scooter, dog-walkers whose multiple charges contrasted amusingly in size and breed, a middle-aged father riding his bike with two small kids in a trailer, an elderly couple walking slowly and stiffly together. It wasn’t crowded the way a sunny Saturday on the Bikeway would be, but there were plenty of people out enjoying some exercise and recreation.

By coincidence, I returned to the same town where our bike ride began in the evening for a different reason: I was writing a feature story on a hobby group that meets at the veteran’s hospital in Bedford. I spent the evening talking to some of the men who live in the hospital: men in their seventies and eighties, many missing limbs, some semi-immobilized by strokes or muscular disease, most in wheelchairs. They seemed to be enjoying their club, which was a fly-tying group, but the volunteers who were helping them tie flies all told me the same thing: it’s not about the fishing, it’s about the companionship. The men are just happy to have company and have people taking an interest in them.

I thought about that a lot while I observed the fun they were having. Even the ones who could barely speak or respond were smiling. All of them were once soldiers, deemed fit and able enough to go to war. Now they sit in wheelchairs in an industrial cafeteria with Easter bunny cut-outs pasted to the windows, glad for volunteers who come to help them tie flies for fishing excursions that the men are not physically able to take.

So it was a day of contrasts: physical fitness under a bright sun after three days of rain, all of us out enjoying a beautifully designed recreational trail; and then the VA hospital, with the men so physically compromised but still happy to have company. Yet as different as they were, both experiences reminded me that sometimes there is no more blessed way to spend a sunny day than skipping work or school to bask in the fresh air.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

One thousand tweets: A retrospective

It’s a great feature on Twitter that everyone’s home page keeps track of their tally of tweets. With my affinity for metrics and counting and tracking, I like knowing exactly how many times I’ve put pen to paper – I mean fingers to keyboard – to generate those 140 characters. And what I just discovered when I logged in is that as of right now, that number is 999. Announcing my daily blog entry with a tweet, as I always do, will make it Tweet #1000.

One thousand tweets, I find myself thinking. Wow. What exactly is the take-home message from knowing I’ve written one thousand tweets?

As I blogged about early on in my relationship with Twitter – which began last August -- at first the 140-character limit was so tough for me. As a journalist, word count is my nemesis. It’s no exaggeration to say that per story, I exert more effort cutting out words from successive drafts to match an editor’s prescribed word count than I spend identifying a story topic, contacting subjects, researching the story’s background, conducting interviews and writing up a first draft. In sum, it is really difficult for me to limit my words. And most of the time an article allows me space for eight hundred or so words. So how, I wondered, could I possibly adapt to Twitter’s 140-character limit?

It will come as no surprise to any editors who read this that I quickly learned that the more you have to cut, the more you realize how much of what you thought you needed to say was extraneous anyway. I can say all kinds of things in 140 characters. I once summarized the plot of Hamlet in a 140-character tweet. I use no more than 140 characters to track my daily running streak – including not only the day of the streak but also the distance I ran, the route, and a few notes specific to that run – and less than 140 characters every day to sum up my daily blog topic, since I need to leave some space left for the characters in the link text.

Like a lot of Twitter users, once I started to build momentum, I found that other communications became more abbreviated as well. Especially if I’ve just been on Twitter, I often write emails that would fit into the 140-character box even when they don’t need to. I have a little less trouble limiting word count in article drafts than I used to. I just find it easier to distill a point than I once did. And I’m really hoping this newfound ability seeps into my blog eventually, since my entries here still trend toward close to one thousand words most days.

But speaking of one thousand words, back to the one thousand tweets and what I’ve learned in the process. Well, for one thing, I’m careful on Twitter, and that’s a good lesson in itself. I type something and then, if it seems to carry the potential to be misconstrued, I erase rather than post. If I’m trying to be witty or sardonic and it’s not absolutely clear to me that that intent carries through, I erase. Wish I could be so circumspect and self-restrained in my spoken communications.

And since I don’t always know who’s reading me on Twitter, I’m more prudent about whether what I’m saying is worthwhile. It’s not that my tweets have to be profound. They never are. It’s just that knowing my tweets are filling up someone else’s queue, I make a genuine effort to try to justify whatever I say before I post it. My running streak may not be of interest to anyone else, but I’ve decided it’s worthwhile to me to post it daily. I post links to my blog in the blatant wish to get more people to read my blog. Again, perhaps not honorable, but worthwhile to me.

I tell funny anecdotes about farm life and the kids, but I try to judge whether they are actually anything that anyone else will gain even the tiniest grain of amusement, entertainment or wisdom from. Occasionally I’ll start to post a cute comment made by one of the kids or an observation of my own that I consider particularly trenchant, only to stop myself and think, “Am I saying this just to say it? Or because I honestly think anyone else’s life will be enriched, even the tiniest bit, even for just a few seconds, by reading it?”

Sometimes I have to admit that whatever I’m saying in those 140 characters really won’t do anything but make me feel clever, important or like an admirable parent for a few seconds. And then I scratch the tweet rather than post it.

I’m always surprised by how often I’ll draft a tweet in Twitter’s character-counting box only to see the character counter at zero when I’m done. It’s like karma when what I want to say on Twitter fits like a glove. But it’s not really just karma. It’s really that saying things in 140 characters continues to be a great exercise for me. When it comes out perfectly, with no need to go back and cut words or even letters, I feel like I’m finally making progress: learning to form my thoughts in more concise and pithy phrases thanks to Twitter.

So here I am at Tweet One Thousand, looking back on seven months with amusement and pleasure. Calling it pride would be going too far. There’s nothing to be overtly proud of in my Twitter feed. It’s just fun to have learned something important these six months: How to write – and yes, how to speak and even how to think – in more concise, more direct terms. It’s still fun, 140,000 characters later.