Monday, May 31, 2010

Lending a hand

This weekend, the kids and I spent two nights in Portland together. In general, being the only adult and going away with them isn’t my favorite scenario. It’s not that they’re so much work; I just have more fun with Rick or friends along to share the adult responsibilities with me.

But this weekend it worked out well, and one thing I kept noticing was how all three of us were helping each other out. When we’re in the configuration more typical in our family, two children and two adults, the adults tend to help the children; it’s a fairly straightforward equation. This past weekend, with myself, my 11-year-old son and my 7-year-old daughter, it felt more like a symbiotic triangle, as I observed how each of us found ways to help the others.

Saturday, we went for a long walk around town. I had a street map, and Tim helped me read it to figure out the various ways to get to the post office and the playground. He navigated again for me yesterday when we drove twenty minutes to see our friends at the beach, this time from the front seat of the car. We made a few wrong turns based on his misreading of my handwriting, and we would have gotten there a little sooner had we the advantage of state-of-the-art GPS technology, but we didn’t; we had only the directions I’d scribbled down while on the phone with our friends earlier in the day, and we had Tim’s earnest attempts to make sense of them. GPS is great, I found myself thinking, but this kind of teamwork is kind of fun too.

When we needed milk and orange juice, the kids together walked down the street to the market just a block away. Holly carried the grocery bag both ways; Tim handled the change (and, I admit it, the cell phone, since this independence is new to us and I couldn’t help being just a little leery). And when our bikes started to slip off the bike rack on the back of the car, all three of us had to work together to fix the problem: Holly held the duct tape and scissors; Tim supported the bikes; I wrapped lengths of tape around each juncture until the bikes were fastened tight and ready for travel once again.

I was still weary at the end of the day and had the same feeling I do at home of having spent a lot of the day doing things for other people, but when I reflected upon it, I couldn’t deny that it wasn’t a one-way street this time. When Holly realized after we’d left the condo for a walk that she couldn’t possibly go an hour without her blankie, Tim took the door key from me and sprinted back to fetch blankie for Holly. She in turn offered him all the bacon from her breakfast sandwich that she didn’t want.

The biggest thing the kids did for me was agree to bike along next to me so that I could fit in my daily run. They like biking, but might not have chosen this particular course or time of day. Yet they knew it was really important to me to fit in a 45-minute run before breakfast. And they knew I couldn’t leave them alone for that long. So they agreed to go with me. Holly biked a short distance ahead of us; Tim rode next to me and asked questions about every single boat we could spot in the harbor as we passed by – questions of which I knew the answers to exactly none. But I was grateful to the kids for being willing to make my daily run work out for me.

Later in the day, watching them play a modified game of one-on-one in the courtyard outside the condo (because they had a ball but no basket; the game consisted of dribbling and stealing but no shooting), I thought about how much more reliably they get along together when we’re away from home. It’s not that they quarrel at home, more that they generally go their separate ways. The proximity of traveling puts them unavoidably in each other’s company, and they make it work for them, with games like this one, with help here and there, with enjoying each other’s company and making things easier for me when they can too.

Everyone helped everyone. To use my father’s favorite cliché from his years as a camp counselor, we ended the day tired but happy. And I felt a new appreciation for the kids’ attempts to pitch in when needed. It’s one of the great things about traveling: giving them the opportunity to be more than the people they are during normal everyday life. They came through for me in numerous ways, and I really appreciated it.

Friday, May 28, 2010

My business card, myself

A young woman I met at a memorial service earlier this week asked me how she could look up my blog. I gave her my business card, explaining as I did so that my blog domain name isn’t actually listed on the card, but the business card has my full name, which is the same as the domain name for my website, on which she can find a link to the blog.

Really, about half the information on my business card is wrong or incomplete. Yet even though every day in my email box I receive promotions for new business cards, I hold back on ordering. Why? Well, because I feel like something more could still change.

Of course, this is silly reasoning, because first of all, business cards are so cheap, and second, something already has changed. The cards I have are missing my website, missing my blog, and list an old email address that I’ve crossed out and rewritten (I do that in batches of about twenty as I transfer them from my desk to my wallet) but even the one I’ve penned in, though valid, is no longer my most professional email address.

And yet I don’t order new cards. The book I’m trying to see published could suddenly find a publisher, and then I’d want that information included on my card. Last week I lost my cell phone antenna piece and have ordered a replacement part, but it seems to be taking forever to arrive; there’s the possibility that I’ll lose patience and buy a new phone, and have to change my cell phone number as a result. Or I could suddenly submit to the lure of a fancier, “smarter” phone and need a new number. Or I could get a great head shot taken that I felt should be on my card. Or someone might offer to design me a logo.

On the one hand, I feel virtuous for trying so hard to use up my existing business cards before I order more. (Though really, does anyone ever actually use up business cards? I never have, not even in the job I held for eight years, and that was back in the days when professionals in the corporate realm still bothered to exchange business cards, rather than just using electronic contact methods the way they do now.) On the other, of all the things I feel guilty for disposing of – batteries, computer cords that have mysteriously stopped working, obsolete electronics – business cards, little 2x3 slips of stock paper, are surely the least of my worries. They’re recyclable. And we could probably use a lot of them around home. I can use them for bookmarks. (Oh wait, no I can’t. That’s changed too; my books are electronic now, and therefore so are my bookmarks.) My seven-year-old is famous for her scrap pile approach to craft projects, she has yet to find a throwaway item that she can’t turn into an art supply. She could probably build an entire paper village with my unwanted (and inaccurate) business cards.

Last week on NPR, I heard Gail Steketee, Boston University professor and author of a new book about compulsive hoarding, describing a woman who wouldn’t throw away an ATM receipt because on it she had written a few notes about purchases she’d made, and if she threw away the receipt, she told the researcher, she would lose that whole day. It would disappear from her personal history, she believed. I’m normally the opposite of a hoarder; I discard things with abandon, because I abhor household clutter and I figure there’s almost nothing short of family heirlooms that I can’t replace if it’s really necessary.

Business cards may be the one thing I hoard. But unlike the woman in the book, it’s not exactly that I fear losing the person I am on that card. (A person without a website or blog and with an email address that belongs to a now bankrupt internet service provider? Why would I care about losing that person?) It’s more a matter of not being quite sure of the person I might soon be. What if I do soon become a published author? Or a professional with a new logo? Or a member of Facebook? I’ll need that information on my business card. Shouldn’t I hold off on ordering them until all bets are in as far as what the future might hold?

Admittedly, I’m making too much of this. For a few dollars, I could order the cards and be done with it. But there’s something strangely reassuring about holding off. Maybe there’s information about myself I don’t yet know. An ordering address for my still-not-published book, for example. A phone number for my state-of-the-art new mobile phone that I don’t yet own. Who knows. It’s ridiculously trivial but it’s true: Without committing my coordinates to paper and ink, anything still seems possible.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Pedaling uphill

Our minister told a story from the pulpit over a year ago that I’ve been thinking about a lot lately. I consider it a parable; she referred to it as an “old joke,” which I would like to think suggests merely that it’s more meaningful to me than it is to her and not that I’m so simplistic that what constitutes a joke to other people is a symbolic morality tale to me, though I admit that it’s quite possible that’s true.

The story – whether joke or parable -- tells of two people riding a tandem bicycle up a steep hill. Not only is it difficult to make progress forward; the hill is so steep that they are in danger of sliding backwards. Finally they reach the top. The one in front says, “What a ride! My quads are burning up! I wasn’t sure we were going to make it!” The one in back says, “I know. I was so afraid of backsliding, I had the brakes on the whole time.”

My cyber-colleague Michele Dortch, who writes the Integrated Mother blog, posted on Twitter yesterday that her intention for the day was “to move with the flow of change & stop trying to work against its current,” and I asked her if she knew that parable. She didn’t, and I couldn’t boil it down to Twitter’s requisite 140 characters, so I promised her I would tell it in today’s blog post.

It’s a story that means a lot to me. As I often say, I’m someone who loves routine – both actual routines and the whole idea of doing something in a diurnal or otherwise regularly scheduled fashion – and, by extension, I don’t always embrace change.

Several years ago, my friend Nancy invited our family over for dinner on Labor Day, which in our town is also usually the eve of the new school year. “Oh, that’s a great idea,” I said eagerly. “And if it works out well, then next year we’ll invite your family for a Labor Day, first-day-of-school-eve dinner.”

Nancy is too clear-eyed and practical to put up with me sometimes. “I’m inviting you for a dinner, not the launch of a new tradition,” she said bluntly.

But to me, it sounded like the perfect way to launch a tradition. So the next year we did invite them, and then they invited us again, and I thought we were on to something wonderful until the year after that, when the school calendar changed and school started for the first time the week before Labor Day. I called Nancy, full of anxiety, as soon as I found out. “It’s our turn to host, but I don’t know what to do,” I confessed. “Which night do you want to come over? Is our tradition a Labor Day dinner, or a first-day-of-school-eve dinner, now that they’re not one and the same?”

So yes, I do love traditions, and that’s okay. Not being one to embrace change isn’t always bad either – until you become the person putting the brakes on the bike as someone else struggles to ride it uphill. Every now and then I stop and look at a decision I’m making or an action I’m taking and ask myself that question: “In doing this, are you the one keeping the bike from reaching the crest of the hill? Is your tendency to avoid change really more like an inability to recognize the possibility for progress?”

Sometimes, yes. I try to keep that parable in mind, because it’s a story so relevant to my life and, often, to my faults. Working against the current can be challenging but ultimately productive: just ask a salmon. Keeping a bike from being able to pedal, not so productive. Yes, it’s just a parable – or, to a more sophisticated thinker, an old joke. But to me it’s tremendously informative, and a really useful image to keep in my sights.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

In the middle of baseball season

When my 11-year-old’s baseball season ramps up, with three evening games and one practice a week, I sometimes catch myself musing that this isn’t quite as much fun as I remembered it being when I thought about it over the winter.

Well, of course. The long, dark, snowy days of winter are when my son, who really dislikes cold weather, tends to become pallid and fade away a bit. At that time I remind myself of what he is like at his best: playing shortstop or on the pitcher’s mound, stretching for a fly ball, winding up for a pitch, taking a practice swing on deck.

But in the thick of baseball season, where we are now, it’s harder for me to remember just why I looked forward to this time of year. Since my husband coaches Tim’s team, both of them are gone four evenings a week from five in the afternoon until nearly nine at night. It’s too early for dinner before they leave; they’re both weary and hungry when they get home, and I spend a lot of time throughout the season trying to think of dinners that I can make early in the evening for Holly and me but that will still be tasty when reheated hours later. This approach to cooking isn’t so hard in the winter, when stews and casseroles are typical fare, but harder with summery meals.

Also Tim gets so tired with all the night games, and often returns home with mild injuries that make it all the harder for him to drag himself through dinner, shower, and bed. Last night a pitch hit his side, leaving a big circular pink bruise. He’s a good sport, but I know it hurts.

And it’s not ideal for Holly and me, either. Since Rick is the coach, there isn’t as much pressure on me as there is on some moms to be at every game, but I try to show up at least half the time. Unfortunately, Holly is not the kind of younger sibling who adores watching her big brother compete. Most evenings, she’d rather stay home. Occasionally I can rouse some enthusiasm in her for going to Tim’s game for at last an inning or two, but that’s usually when the game is at a field where she has a vague memory of once seeing an ice cream truck.

Nonetheless, there are good parts to baseball season. On a warm spring evening, sitting on the bleachers can be a blissful interlude in a busy work week. I run into plenty of friends at the games and can happily pass an inning or two just gabbing with them; Tim doesn’t know the difference. But I also spend a fair amount of the time I’m there watching him play, because I love to watch him play. I’m not a huge baseball fan, but the sight of my own child throwing a fastball or fielding a grounder astounds me. “I created that child, and he can do that?” I marvel silently. “I understand how he learned to read, and swim. And even talk. I was part of it. But how did he get so good at something that has nothing to do with me?

In this respect, baseball is a rite of passage, not so much for Tim as for me. It’s the first thing in his young life that he’s really good at which I have no competency with whatsoever. Even though he’s eleven, sometimes I just can’t get over the fact that he’s branched off from me so visibly. I know nothing about how to play baseball; he knows a lot about it. And this is just the beginning. Maybe he’ll follow me in all kinds of ways – maybe he’ll be a runner, a journalist, a parent, a baker – but maybe not. Maybe he’ll learn to fly a plane, or do surgery. Maybe he’ll speak Russian.

Back in infancy, he was physically dependent on me, and he’s still in many ways emotionally reliant on me, the way children are with their parents at least up to their teen years, which still seem far off. But he’ll grow to be someone different from me, as different as he wishes. Knowing how to pitch a baseball is only the very very beginning of this process.

Spring league ends soon but summer baseball begins soon thereafter. I still have months of night games left to go, and along with them tired children and reheated dinners. But also warm sunlit evenings, energetic ball players to cheer on, and yes, ice cream trucks. All in all I like baseball season. And next winter I’ll try to muster a little more appreciation for non-baseball season, with its early evenings and family dinners.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Privileged to tell their stories

Weekly if not monthly I think about how lucky I am to be a journalist, but usually my reason for thinking that is just that I like the work so much and it’s what I’ve wanted to do for as long as I can remember. This month it’s been a little different: I feel lucky all over again, but not only because the work makes me happy but because it’s been a genuine privilege to cover the stories I’ve covered this month.

Just yesterday, I put the final wraps on a “centerpiece” feature that will run the Sunday of Memorial Day weekend. It’s about a nearby town that is unveiling a memorial to the four fallen soldiers who graduated from the local high school, and I’ve learned so much while working on the story, both about military logistics and about how families cope in the wake of tragedy.

I thought the calls I had to make would be hard: to the families of two young men who died in Iraq, six and seven years ago, respectively. But their family members talked about them with a sense of fond good cheer. One young man’s mother laughed and laughed as she told me about her son as a ten-year-old building a fox hole in the backyard. How can she be so merry? I wondered as I listened to her. Indeed, some of it might have been a touch of mild hysteria brought on by my taking an interest in her stories about him, and maybe preparing for the dedication next week has made her more emotionally mercurial right at this time than she normally is. But she didn’t sound like I expected. She just wanted to tell me funny stories about her son, and then in a tone only a shade more somber, she talked about her gratitude to the town for initiating the memorial.

After that I talked to the younger sister of the other Iraq soldier. He died at nineteen, as she was about to celebrate her thirteenth birthday. “He was the most awesome brother,” she told me, her tone exuberant. “He’d babysit for my little sister and me and do the silliest dances to make us laugh.”

I expected the families to sound more angry, more depressed. But they were proud of their soldiers, they were full of happy memories, they were grateful to the town for planning the Memorial Day dedication. “The community has been a tremendous source of support to us, and we’re so grateful,” said the father of one of the young men.

Last week I was working on a very different story, one about Transcendentalist and writer Margaret Fuller. A group in Concord was in the final stages of planning a bicentennial celebration honoring her 200th birthday, and they were just as eager and willing to tell me about their passion for Margaret Fuller’s lifework as the soldiers’ family members were to tell me about their lost loved ones. In the few days I spent researching that story, I learned a lot about Margaret Fuller, a historical figure I first heard about in a very general sense in eighth grade and then for several years thereafter confused with Margaret Sanger. I definitely won’t make that mistake again. I felt privileged to spend those days in her company just as I did with the soldiers.

And the weekend before that I did a story that was not like either the fallen soldiers or Margaret Fuller. I wrote about my parents’ volunteer work at prisons. For years, I’ve wanted to write about the program through which my parents volunteer, but it’s the irony of my work as a feature writer that I can write about anyone who I think is doing something fascinating except for my own family members. In a feature story, that is. But every now and then the Globe runs a personal essay segment. That’s a first-person narrative and the usual rules do not apply. I asked my editor if I could try an essay about my parents’ volunteer work and what it means to me, and she said yes.

The results were spectacular, not in terms of my prose but in terms of the response. Strangers were calling my home phone number to say how much they enjoyed reading about my parents. Friends and acquaintances from all over the Globe’s readership mentioned the story to me, and to my parents as well. My mother heard from two former volunteers who had lost touch with the program, and she also heard from a town employee whose brother was once an inmate – though not one my parents worked with – and the town employee felt reassured to learn that there were people like my parents devoting their time to people like him.

So it’s been a good month for me: not because I’ve had a lot of bylines or paychecks but because I’ve experienced so much through my journalism. I’ve learned about the resilience of brave and proud, though bereaved, parents; the determination of a nineteenth century feminist; and the power of my own parents to affect people through their work. And I did all this through my work. I’m not a soldier, a crusader, not even a volunteer to the needy. I can’t claim to be doing anything nearly as important as my subjects. So what I’ve done in telling their stories is not something for me to be proud of, just grateful for. I’m always grateful to be a journalist. This month I’ve felt enormously privileged as well.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Determined to learn something new

I decided over the weekend that I am going to commit to trying to learn something new this summer. I’m going to try to learn to drive a powerboat.

Proclaiming this in the most sanguine of tones right now could be seen as a bit disingenuous. It will be a while before I have to prove my seriousness of intent. The specific boat I plan to learn to drive isn’t even in the water yet, and I’m more than a hundred miles from the particular coastline at which I hope to get my start. Sitting in my home office on a farm in the outer suburbs of Boston, with a view that overlooks woods and pastures as well as grazing cows and sheep, I might as well be 2500 miles from the ocean as the 25 I actually am. Easy to sit here at my desk on a warm May morning, coffee cup in hand, and announce that I plan to learn to drive a boat.

Nonetheless, my intent is genuine, and one reason I’m writing about it is that I believe so strongly in the “Write it down, make it happen” method of self-determination espoused by Henriette Anne Klauser, which says that the mere act of committing a resolution to paper (or screen) increases the odds of success. At least a few dozen people read my blog every day; if I openly share my intention, surely that’s a small step toward making it a reality.

I grew up in a boating family and married into another one; I now have an 11-year-old son who loves boats. And yet I always took it for granted that operating a boat was simply not something I was cut out for. I have boat phobia the same way some girls and women have math phobia: though no one but me is to blame for any message I’ve internalized about boating, I’ve always believed I just wouldn’t be capable of it. Boating was, I thought, something that required skills and talents that I was indisputably missing.

Well, I guess we’ll find out, and I can only hope this blog entry won’t be read at my memorial service after I go to a watery grave. (If that sounds like a morbid thought, I firmly believe bloggers and diarists have to think this way. I write in my journal every single day; something I write could be the last thing I ever write, and I have to be comfortable with the idea that anything I choose to publish could be what I’m ultimately remembered by.) My reasons are simple. I have the opportunity this summer to make good use of a new vacation property in the family at which is a boat, and if I don’t learn to operate it, we’ll be able to use it only when one of the two current boaters in the family is present, my father or my husband. However, my plans for this summer and farther into the future definitely involve time at the vacation place when neither of them is likely to be there. My kids love going out in the boat, and I’d like to be able to offer the option to my friends and other guests as well. So it’s simple: I can either continue thinking, as I have ever since adolescence, that I’m someone who is just not capable of operating a boat – as I’m not someone capable of learning trigonometry – or I can try to learn.

When I was in high school, I had a science teacher who told us on the first day of class that every year she tries to take up a new hobby – piano playing, American Sign Language, improv comedy, chess – just so that as a teacher, she never forgets what it’s like to be learning, to be a beginner trying to master a whole new concept. In my adult life, I haven’t been very good about seeking out new skills. I’ve let myself get into a lot of ruts in terms of believing I know what I’m good at and what I’m not.

Well, it’s one thing to know yourself and recognize your weaknesses, but I’m not convinced. I believe I’m a fairly good automobile driver, though I wasn’t when I started out, and I want to see if I can transfer those skills to the marine world. The benefits of my being able to use the boat will be many, but probably the greatest benefit if I succeed at this resolution will simply be the sense of empowerment it gives me. Maybe I’m someone who can learn new skills. Maybe I’m someone who can develop abilities that she previously assumed she didn’t have. And if that’s the case, maybe operating a boat is just the first step of many.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Four fussy eaters

“Did I tell you about the Spanish omelet I made yesterday?” my sister Sarah asks me on the phone. “I’m going to send you the recipe. I think everyone in your family would like it!”

Oh, what fantasy words those are. And how utterly out of reach. The thought of making an entrée that everyone in my family likes is a distant dream to me. And I already knew the Spanish omelet wasn’t going to fill the bill; my husband Rick is a fierce opponent of eggs.

Many parents of very young children complain about their kids’ picky appetites, but that’s not really the issue for us. My kids aren’t all that young, and their appetites aren’t exactly picky, in the sense that they’re not the types who will eat only chicken fingers and goldfish, say, or boxed macaroni and cheese. They’re just…well, they’re not omnivorous. They each have several things they like and a few they don’t. The problem is that my husband has his list as well, and I have mine, and if you drew a black-and-white Venn diagram, you’d find very few gray overlap areas. And this is one situation in which some gray areas would be most welcome, but we don’t have many.

My 7-year-old likes fairly plain foods. She likes meat without sauce, starches and vegetables without spice, and so on. This means she can eat a healthy variety as long as nothing has much seasoning, which means I need to remember to separate whatever she’s going to be eating early on in the preparations. I also have long believed she has sort of a biorhythmic appetite: she just sometimes seems too tired by dinnertime to make an effort with eating. When she asks for a bowl of shredded wheat and a sliced apple with cheese while I’m getting dinner ready, I’m usually willing to accommodate her, knowing she probably won’t be interested in anything that nutritious an hour later at the dinner table.

My 11-year-old son has a broader diversity of tastes. Unlike his sister, he likes spices and seasonings, garlic, onions, anchovies. In fact, it sometimes seems that his palate craves extreme flavors the way some people turn to extreme sports because they crave excitement. One of his favorite food items is balsamic vinegar. He’ll pour it on salad, eat the salad, and then finish off the vinegar with a spoon. He’ll refill his salad bowl with straight vinegar once or twice if I don’t stop him, which I eventually do because I think vinegar is bad for tooth enamel.

So his tastes are fairly convenient except that he passionately despises tomatoes. That’s it: just tomatoes. Which brings us to my situation: I’m a vegetarian. People sometimes mistakenly think that means I’m a picky eater, but I’m not: I like just about anything that doesn’t include meat. Still, the kids both like most vegetables, so there are dozens and dozens of wonderful things that I can make for a family dinner, except that my husband dislikes eggs, rice and beans, which are essentially a vegetarian’s mainstay. (He also doesn’t like tofu, but that hardly seems worth mentioning: who unless they are a vegetarian actually does like tofu?) And although he loves pasta, as do the rest of us (as long as Tim’s doesn’t have tomato sauce), for reasons of weight control he has been strongly advised to avoid it.

So making dinner has been a rather wearisome challenge lately. Despite my own vegetarian habits – I haven’t eaten meat since 1985 – I’m comfortable preparing it for my family; I actually think it’s better for the kids to eat some meat than to avoid it altogether. But no spices or sauces on Holly’s. No tomatoes with Tim’s. No omelets or rice-based casseroles for Rick. For years, before the kids were born and then before they expressed preferences, I was fine with cooking for both a carnivore and a vegetarian. That was easy compared to this.

Once in a while I hit on an effective menu, one that everyone eats enthusiastically. Something like pork chops – plain for Holly, sauced for Rick and Tim, none for me – and baked potatoes and steamed broccoli which we’ll all eat, though Rick doesn’t have more than a bite or two of high-carb potato. Tim and I both like salad for dinner; I add some tofu to mine for protein and feel like everyone is in good shape for the evening. But those meals are the minority. So I just keep working at finding the right mix of options for everyone, and sometimes we just all have leftovers and that’s okay too.

In a way, it’s a microcosm of family life. You try to please everyone, and you can’t, and yet everyone eventually finds something they can be happy with. Compromise and flexibility. In menu planning as in interpersonal dynamics. With lots of freshly grated Parmesan cheese on top if at all possible.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

The Full Catastrophe (but not that kind of catastrophe)

My father is fond of the line from Zorba the Greek in which a character asks Zorba if he is married. Zorba replies in the affirmative, "… Wife, children, house, everything. The full catastrophe."

Having heard my dad quote this dozens of times, I began to wonder if it was possible that “catastrophe” had a different meaning to Zorba, or to author Nikos Kazantzakis, than it does to us. After all, the word itself, like the author, is Greek. Maybe Kazantzakis knew about something that had been lost in translation. Surely Zorba was not saying that having a spouse, children and a house was akin to, say, a natural disaster or a historic stock market crash.

I did a little bit of research and found a familiar name who had studied this particular phrase extensively: Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn, founder and former director of the stress clinic at UMass Medical School. Kabat-Zinn in fact found the phrase so useful he copped it for the title of his book, Full Catastrophe Living, in which he said that the phrase “captured something positive about the human spirit's ability to come to grips with what is most difficult in life and to find within even the most difficult trials room to grow in strength and wisdom.”

This is a more profound interpretation than the way it is usually used in my family, in which “the full catastrophe” really just means all the balls that are in the air at any one time. In that sense, today was a full-catastrophe day for me, except that there weren’t really any catastrophes at all. No accidents, injuries, floods, earthquakes, fires, political upheavals directly impacted my day. Instead, there were balls to juggle.

Before 8 AM, I had fed the kids, let out the sheep, and fed and let out the dog. By 9 AM I had run two miles. By noon I had drafted four short informational articles for the encyclopedic website I write for and interviewed the principal of a high school for a Boston Globe story about a war memorial to be dedicated on his campus next weekend. Before my children arrived home from school at 3:30, I’d also circulated emails with the members of a church committee I chair to try to identify the best date for our next meeting, drafted a plan for the Walk to School Day I’m in charge of early next month, updated the spreadsheet for who is contributing what food items to the upcoming teachers’ appreciation luncheon at our elementary school – yes, chairing that one too – recruited five judges for the pie baking contest to be held as part of our townwide Old Home Day celebration in late June, talked to an engine repair specialist about taking a look at our malfunctioning boat engine, and had a phone call with a new friend my husband put me in touch with to talk about possible writing opportunities she could explore. By dinner, I’d also taken the dog to the vet for shots and, of course, made dinner. After dinner there was a meeting for fifth grade parents to start planning next fall’s Spaghetti Supper fundraiser. I’m not chairing that event, just chairing the Publicity Sub-Committee.

Full catastrophe indeed. Surely some of these events can go on without me, I hear myself saying as I look over my task list. Surely if I really stop and examine my priorities, I’ll decide some of this doesn’t matter.

But actually, no. The writing matters because I get paid for it and because I enjoy my career. The volunteer efforts, all those chairmanships, matter because living in a closeknit community like ours without pitching in to various initiatives would be like going on vacation to the Caribbean and not bringing a bathing suit: if you live here, you might as well jump in and get involved. And, of course, the dog’s medical needs and the family’s wish for dinner matter too, and so on.

It doesn’t feel to me like a catastrophe, exactly. It just feels like a lot of different responsibilities. But each one is on some level a choice I’ve made. Poet Margaret Crouse Skelly has a line I love in her poem Snow Day. In that poem, the housebound children are yelling, “Mom! Mom! Mom!” and the poet-narrator murmurs in the closing lines, “That’s me. I asked for this.”

In my case, it’s not my kids yelling for me, it’s the running and the committees and the appointments. But again, in Skelly’s words, that’s me. I asked for this. This full catastrophe. Which is really not a catastrophe at all.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

The power of positive thought when the fire whistle blows

I don’t know how unusual this is, but our town still has a fire whistle that blows in a designated pattern when firefighters are needed to respond to a fire. The pattern, a series of monotones with spaces between them, like Morse code, is determined by the address of the fire.

To me this has long seemed anachronistic. We have an on-call fire department, meaning that no one staffs the station; all the men on the force -- and at the moment it is all men – transform into uniformed firefighters only when called to respond to an emergency. The rest of the time they are at their day jobs, with their families, out biking, and doing all the other things that Carlisle adults do. So I understand that once many decades ago, the code informed the firefighters of where they were needed. But today they all carry beepers and cell phones through which an address could be instantly text-messaged, which is surely much easier than parsing out the code as you listen for the pattern of seven tones, space, three tones, space, six tones, repeat from the beginning, or whatever it might be. So I don't know why we still use the code system.

But this week in church, I saw a different side of the issue. The minister was talking about ways that we as a congregation offer help. She was making the point that we help others both close to home and far away: it might be a neighbor facing foreclosure; it might be earthquake victims in Haiti. We each make choices all the time about where we are going to direct our charitable resources and our generous impulses.

And just as she was emphasizing the point about helping close to home, the fire whistle went off. As the one firefighter who happened to be sitting in the pews that morning jumped up and gathered up his belongings, the minister had the presence of mind to offer a blessing on his efforts and a brief prayer for safety as he hustled out of the room. It was all fast and spontaneous, and yet remarkably appropriate given the situation.

In a few minutes, we could hear distant sirens, and although it was a very good sermon, I think at that point everyone’s mind was half on Kevin and the other firefighters. That made me wonder for the first time if maybe the purpose of the fire whistle system is not to summon the firefighters, which could just as easily be done by phone or beeper, but to alert the community to the fact that someone in our town was experiencing a household emergency and that several other townspeople were off tending to that emergency, and that our hopes and wishes should be with all of them. Maybe by directing our thoughts toward them in that way, we were increasing the odds of a good outcome.

As it happens, the question of whether it helps to direct positive thoughts to people in need is a topic of ongoing debate in our congregation. Like many Unitarian Universalist churches, we devote time during every service to Candles of Community, a ritual in which parishioners can opt to light a candle and speak a few words to express, in the minister’s words, “a joy or sorrow in their lives.” Some people believe that asking for thoughts or prayers to be directed to, for example, someone who has just undergone surgery actually results in a faster healing time. Others maintain it’s just a way for parishioners to stay in touch with each other’s lives, and those who choose to announce personal joys or sources of sadness are doing so just to forge a stronger bond with fellow church members.

I’ve never believed in the former idea, that asking a roomful of eighty people to think healing thoughts about your uncle who just had open heart surgery will actually help him to get better, because I maintain it turns faith into a popularity contest: that is, why not attend a bigger church that day, so you could have twice as many people directing healing thoughts to your uncle? But it’s fine with me if sharing intimate issues is just someone’s way of reaching out and asking for the community’s emotional support, even though it’s not something I choose to do myself.

Still, hearing the fire whistle that morning made me reconsider a little bit. Maybe every time the fire whistle goes off in town, some number of people stop and hope for safety for the firefighters and the victim of the fire alike. Maybe that helps. In church that morning, it certainly felt as if Kevin was rushing out to the fire station on a wave of well-meaning prayer.

It turned out to be a minor event – so minor, in fact, that Kevin was back in time for coffee hour. But it was an informative moment for me, and gave me a new way of looking at our seemingly anachronistic community notification system. Sure, we can instant message or email to get word out, but there’s something symbolic about the whole community listening to a fire whistle blow. We’re all hearing the same news at the same time, together. And though I know this probably isn’t the case, maybe on some level that was the purpose of the system all along.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Admitting to petty frustrations

I admit this guiltily: I’m a little frustrated.

I’m frustrated because I’ve made no progress in my efforts to instill a new habit in my 7-year-old. All year, she has pleaded with me every weekday morning to help her get dressed. All year, I’ve been trying unsuccessfully to persuade her to dress herself.

And I feel guilty in my frustration, because I completely understand it’s no big deal. I shouldn’t mind helping her. I work from home; it’s not like I’m in such a big rush to get out of the house in the morning that I can’t take the time. And by the time she needs to dress, my other child is already on the bus headed for fifth grade; it’s not like she’s taking me away from caring for other children.

I’m just tired of dressing her. I’ve been dressing her every morning for seven and a half years. I’d like her to dress herself. Which is just how I felt when she was a late walker. She was twenty months old and I was still carrying her and I just wanted her to start walking already.

But all of this makes me feel guilty because it’s such a petty thing to whine about. I’m so lucky to have a happy, healthy child. With so many cases of autism in evidence these days anywhere that children gather, I feel so fortunate that she can effortlessly verbalize her wants. I’m lucky that it’s not a physical disability that keeps her from dressing herself, just stubbornness. I’m grateful that I can afford clean, properly fitting clothes for her to put on every morning, and I’m even more grateful that we have a home in which to dress. Other mothers are dressing their daughters in homeless shelters.

None of this gratitude eradicates my frustration. I wish she would stop asking for help getting dressed. There’s no reason I can’t help her; I just don’t feel like it. It’s one job I’d like her to take on for herself. Even as my kids grow and become increasingly independent, parenting still involves a lot of daily tasks. I make breakfast for them, pack their school lunches, nag them to bathe and put their dirty clothes in the hamper, remind them of the time they need to leave the house in order to catch the school bus, tuck them into bed at night. I’d like to give up just this one thing, the daily task of putting Holly into her clothes.

Fortunately, just as when she showed no inclination to learn to walk when she was well past eighteen months, I know this will eventually change. She finally started walking after twenty months, and after that I almost never needed to carry her anymore; someday she’ll finally decide she’s ready to dress herself.

And it would be easy here to lapse into the familiar language of “…and then I’ll miss this morning ritual of helping her dress.” But you know, I don’t think I will. I have always loved being with my children and taking care of them, but I can’t think of any phases I really missed when they were over: not because I’m such a grudging parent but because kids are always growing into something new, something more interesting, something just as fun as what they gave up. True, when Tim was a toddler and pushed around a toy grocery cart filled with random household items or when Holly pulled all the canned goods out of the cupboard every day and climbed in, closing the door behind her, it was adorable, but other equally endearing activities replaced those. I’m just as happy watching Tim play baseball as I was watching him ride his trike; I like hearing him tell me about his favorite new science fiction series just as much as I once enjoyed reading Goodnight, Moon.

Earlier this week I was reading a blog entry by parenting expert Michele Borba reiterating the familiar fact that it takes 21 days to instill a habit, and that’s how long you need to expect your children to take to acquire a new practice as well. If I started tomorrow simply insisting that Holly dress herself, maybe in just three weeks it would be second nature to her. As with walking so long ago, I know it’s going to happen eventually; I just have to decide how hard I want to push for it.

Someday I might be appalled by her taste in clothes or her personal style. And I might get sentimental about those days when she was seven and still depended on me to dress her every morning. But if I could get that to change in three weeks’ time, I would. And I don’t think a day will ever come when I’ll ever be sorry to see her emerge from her bedroom, fully dressed.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Letting the kids wander a little - while I sit and worry

Yesterday was a beautiful warm sunny May day. My 7-year-old invited her friend Samantha over to play. They asked me if they could go out to the barn. This is something fairly new for Holly. We live on the edge of my parents’ farm, and although she likes climbing rocks and playing in the pastures, Holly has generally showed little interest in the barnyard. But this was the second time this spring she and a friend had asked to play there.

I said yes with the usual caveats. “You have to be either in the barn or somewhere between there and the house; no wandering farther away. And you have to play together. No dividing up, even for something like hide-and-seek.” The girls agreed readily to these terms and headed out. I sat outside trying to read the newspaper, but because they were out of my eyesight, I worried.

I knew how silly that was. I knew this was exactly the kind of thing many parents love to see their kids do: play outside, take a friend by the hand and go do something a little bit adventuresome. My next door neighbor, Gail, introduced me to the book “Last Child in the Woods,” which essentially posits that it’s a big problem that we give our kids so little free rein anymore, both in terms of time – they are always scheduled for some activity or another – and in terms of physical independence. And recently I’ve discovered Lenore Skenazy’a popular Free Range Kids blog, devoted to this same idea. In fact, Skenazy is currently planning a fairly controversial event for next weekend called “Take Your Kids to the Park – And Leave Them There!”, intended to raise parents’ consciousness about being a little more lenient with our kids and allowing them to benefit from a little more physical freedom.

So as I sat there trying to read the paper, I reminded myself that it was a wonderful thing that Holly and Samantha were off exploring the barnyard. I knew they both had good judgment, just as my son Tim does. Neither of my kids is a daredevil: when I tell them to be cautious, or even if I don’t tell them to, I know they will. Both are diligent about following rules, and I’ve always trusted that if a friend does something my kids know to be wrong while playing at our house, my kids will tell me.

Still, I was uneasy with Samantha and Holly over in the barnyard, because I couldn’t see or hear them. The fears I have, based on the specifics of where we live and what they were doing, aren’t the typical worst-case scenarios. It’s extremely unlikely that there are child abductors, or anyone else for that matter, lurking in our pastures. The girls weren’t visible from the main road. And all the animals who have access to the barnyard are friendly, gentle and shy, so that wasn’t a concern either. Instead, I worry that one of them will wander into the woods, maybe even into a stream, which is why I insist they stay within eyesight of each other when they play and why I specifically disallow hide and seek. I also worry about stings. Twice, I’ve been in a situation with kids where we accidentally blundered into a hornets’ next, and it’s an awful situation to be in. While I trusted that if one of the girls had a minor accident like a fall, the other one would come get me, I couldn’t imagine how they’d manage if they stumbled onto a nest of hornets.

So I waited for a little bit, and then I wandered over just to check. A short distance from the barn, I could see them exploring the area together. They were fine. They were doing exactly what every mother should be lucky enough to see her seven-year-old doing on a beautiful spring day: enjoying the outdoors, discovering new elements of nature, exerting her independence to find ways to have fun. In this way, Skenazy’s idea about having kids spend some time at the park with other kids and without adult supervision makes a lot of sense. But still, I worry about emergencies: not abductions so much as bee stings.

After checking on the girls, though, I made myself stop worrying and just be happy that they were enjoying themselves. It can be hard to reach a state of mindfulness as a parent. You watch your child run off toward the woods and want to relish the Kodak moment but instead you’re worrying about hornets’ nests. Finding a balance is always the challenge: assure yourself they’re safe, and let them have fun. I know the girls had fun yesterday, and I believe they were safe. And I’m just really grateful that they got to play outside on such a magnificent spring day.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Another chance to learn U.S. history, thanks to my fifth grader

Most parents know that asking their kids what happened in school on any given day tends to be a losing proposition. If they answer at all, they’re likely to tell us about a recess game or possibly a bit of lunchroom drama, but seldom anything from the classroom.

This is definitely true of my fifth grader, which is why it’s such a surprise to me lately when I browse through the pile of papers he sometimes removes from his backpack and leaves in a heap on the kitchen table. This isn’t his subtle way of asking me to admire his work; he’s just cleaning out his backpack to lighten the load and never seems to make it as far as the recycling bin with his old homework papers and tests. But it still gives me a welcome opportunity to look through his classwork, and lately it’s been so eye-opening to see how much he’s been learning, especially in social studies. His class has been studying the early years of U.S. history this year, and I honestly think he knows more about U.S. history at this point than I do. He knows specifics about the founding fathers and their individual approaches to government. He knows about all of those second-tier historical figures whose significance I tend to draw a blank on: Roger Williams, Patrick Henry. Today he went on a brief discourse about the sentiment behind Benjamin Franklin's oratory “We hang together or we will hang separately,” only he acted it out for me, pronouncing the first half but then pantomiming strangulation for the second part. It’s definitely not a quote I’ll ever forget again, after hearing Tim’s rendition, ending with “or…gaaaahhhk!”

I don’t remember learning anything nearly so substantive at his age. I went to the same school, but the approach was so different back then. Without the curricular benchmarks that characterize public school education today, it never seemed like anyone put that much importance into the specific content of what we learned. The classroom was much more process-oriented. We did a lot of writing, and reading, and discussion of concepts like what it means to be a civilization. Though process is important, I’m certain I didn’t leave fifth grade with the tangible body of knowledge Tim will carry with him. Some of it he’ll no doubt forget – every now and then I wonder how it is that we discussed the layers of the earth over the course of four consecutive grades in elementary school and I still can’t name them – but of course, American history will come up again and again in his years of education, so I tend to think what he’s learning now will form a solid foundation for future curricular units.

And he understands so much about what he’s studying. Sometimes I forget just how much historical detail he has assimilated. Last month when we were in D.C., we came across a poster that showed a picture of every U.S. president and identified them by party. “Wow, Millard Filmore was a wig?” I heard Tim say. I chuckled indulgently, ready to explain to Tim that it didn’t mean we actually had a hairpiece for president back in 1850. But Tim continued before I had a chance to say anything. “I’m just so surprised that seventy-five years after achieving independence from Britain, political figures were still identifying themselves with the Whig party.” Oops. My mistake.

Although to me it seems he’s learned an astonishing amount of tangible information about American history, I also remember how his social studies teacher described her approach to teaching when we met with her on Parents’ Night back in September. “What we talk about in fifth grade social studies is essentially two questions,” she said. “One, What is worth fighting for? And two, Why do people leave their homes? I teach the kids that one of those two questions lies at the heart of nearly everything we’ll study in social studies this year.”

I really like those two questions, as social studies guideposts but also as writing prompts and as questions for thinking about life. What is worth fighting for? What is worth leaving home for? It seems to me that Tim’s teacher is right: those questions lie at the heart of so much that explains who people are and why they do what they do. It’s a good way to look at what has happened, and to think about what could happen still. Tim still has years of school ahead to learn about so many things, some of which I knew and have forgotten and some of which it seems I never quite got to. I’ll keep browsing through his homework, because I’m finding there’s a lot I can learn within those tattered and marked-up sheets of paper.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Change it up

I write often about how strong my affinity for routine is. I like diurnal rituals, yearly traditions, seasonal rites. My attraction to daily practices is one thing that makes it relatively easy for me to carry out a resolution to run a mile or more every day of the year – a resolution I’ve held now for two years and nine months. Writing one thousand words in my journal is another daily practice that my love of maintaining habits makes it easy for me to stick with.

But even for me – okay, probably especially for me – it’s good to shake up the usual once in a while. Ever since the school year started in September, I’ve been taking my daily run on weekdays at about 11 AM, after spending two hours at my desk. In many ways, it’s an ideal time to go: I’ve made some headway into the day’s writing assignments or other work-related tasks, the sun is high and warm (which in New England is an advantage all but about two months out of the year, when I’m better off waiting for the cooler hours close to dusk), it renews my mental energy for another three or four hours of work when I return from the run, and traffic on the roadways is at a minimum.

But for the past two days I’ve done something different and run right after my seven-year-old climbs onto the school bus. The first time it was because I had a late-morning appointment that would interfere with my usual run, but the second time I just decided there were advantages to this new schedule. There was a sense of energetic continuity in taking Holly out to the bus stop and then just launching right from there, as if Holly and I were both soaring into the crux of our day at the same time. There were loads of people to wave to in passing cars, since I run past the school and so many of my friends drive their kids up to campus in the morning. I even passed a couple of people I knew along the footpath as I ran by; they had parked their cars up at school after dropping their kids off and were taking their dogs for a walk.

I also found that the sense of having my whole work day still ahead of me once I returned home was very motivating. Sometimes when I leave for a run in the late morning, it feels like an interruption; other times when I get back I feel like the day is practically over, even with nearly three hours left before the kids get home from school. Yesterday I really appreciated the feeling at nine o’clock that my run was over and I had almost six hours of uninterrupted desk time ahead. It gave me a good sense of immersion into my work.

Still, I know if I followed that schedule every day, I’d need a break from it. Any regular schedule is good to alter once in a while. When I worked at the American Meteorological Society, one of the scientists described a study in which the light bulbs in the office that housed a group of clerical workers were changed in some small way. The clerical workers’ productivity increased by a measurable amount after that, proving—the researchers thought—that the new light bulbs created a better working environment. But then six months later they changed the light bulbs back to the original ones, and again there was a rise in productivity. It turned out it was the change, and not the bulbs, that energized the workers.

I remind myself of that whenever I get too set in any work or household routine. Running in the late morning is great, but I’m glad I discovered the benefits of running first thing once in a while. I try to read a different newspaper some mornings. I do my work in a different order sometimes.

For some people, routine is never an option: due to the nature of their work or the hardships of their lives, change, as the expression goes, is the only constant. For those of us like me who are fortunate enough to have quite a lot of control over our daily environment, a small shift in our micro-universe is a positive thing, even when we have to push ourselves into it.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Brown-bagging it: How not to pack a school lunch

When my son was just a toddler, I realized what I was doing wrong when it came to his daycare lunches. I was packing to impress his teachers, rather than to satiate his appetite.

I couldn’t bear to pack food I wasn’t proud to be serving my child, knowing that every item from his little lunchbox passed through a teacher’s hands as they helped lay it out on a tiny tray for him. Never mind that three-quarters of the menu came back home in that same lunchbox at the end of the day; I wanted to be sure my yogurt brand and peeled apple slices were a daily reflection of my conscientious attitude toward parenting.

So I was thrilled to realize once my kids started public school that no adult was watching them eat anymore. The parent volunteers who patrol the lunchroom are way too busy to inspect any one child’s lunch box, and the professional lunchroom aides are far more interested in seeing which table can win The Quiet Game for a chance to be First Group Out to Recess to glance at what the kids are eating.

Still, I always packed with an eye toward nutrition. I don’t shop as vigilantly as some of my friends – my neighbor buys all her groceries at Whole Foods and wonders why her weekly food bills are at least $50 higher than mine every time we compare – but I’m careful with preparation. Even if I buy the mayonnaise at Market Basket rather than the organic aisle of Whole Foods, I spread it thinly, and though I let my kids have regular Oreos once in a while rather than Paul Newman Organics, it’s only one per lunch.

But recently I’ve been trying to offload more household tasks onto the kids, and school lunches seemed like an obvious place to start. I suggested to Holly that she pack her own lunch earlier this week. I knew what she’d be choosing among; it was all groceries I’d bought, so how bad could it be?

Well, it turns out that even in my fairly carefully stocked kitchen, you can make yourself one ugly lunch if your taste so dictates it. Whereas the lunch I made for myself yesterday consisted of a slice of fresh mozzarella and a slice of hydroponically ripened tomato with a thin layer of grain mustard on a ciabatta roll, Holly went through the very same kitchen and came up with this menu for herself: string cheese, squeezable yogurt, pepperoni slices and a mini-cupcake. Yes, I admit those were all items I bought, but not to be eaten together. Sometimes the kids ask for special snack items that I don’t particularly approve of but think are okay to buy now and then, like squeezable yogurt. And the cupcakes were an impulse buy to reward Holly for being such an agreeable shopper during a rush-hour trip to the supermarket earlier in the week. The pepperoni? Well, we made pizza last month. I didn’t know it was still there in the fridge.

When Holly proudly showed me the bounty of her first attempt to make her own lunch, I bit my tongue. It ranked about a C+ for nutritional value and even lower than that for gustatory appeal, in my opinion, but she’d done it herself, which was what I wanted. I’ve been packing children’s lunches for the past 11 years; the prospect of handing over the responsibility was enticing. And I was willing to take the consequences, mostly because I knew no one would notice. No one looks at what the second graders are eating.

Holly punctured that illusion five minutes after she got off the bus. “It was lunch-date day!” she crowed. “I got to have lunch with Mrs. Graham!” Once a month or so the kids have the opportunity to eat lunch with one or another of their teachers from years past. Mrs. Graham was Holly’s first grade teacher.

But with 20 second graders clamoring for her attention, it wasn’t possible that Mrs. Graham had observed the contents of Holly’s lunch box, I told myself. “Was it fun?” I asked. “Did you catch up with all your first grade classmates?”

“No,” said Holly cheerfully. “Just Mrs. Graham. I was the only one who remembered it was lunch date day. So I got to have her all to myself.”

Oh, wonderful, I thought. On pepperoni and Go-gurt day. “Was it a nice lunch?” I asked.

“It sure was!” Holly said. “I ate my cupcake first!”

So Mrs. Graham now knows the worst: not only do I let my daughter bring a cupcake (a mini-cupcake, in all fairness to me) for lunch but I haven’t even taught her the self-discipline not to eat dessert first.

“What did you talk about?” I asked, almost afraid the answer would be “The food groups.”

“Lots of things. Second grade, books, Girl Scouts. Oh, and also, Mrs. Graham told me her son is starting kindergarten at our school,” Holly answered.

I perked up. Really? He’ll be a kindergartener at our school? Great. I plan to sign up for lunchroom volunteer duty as early in the year as I can. With any luck, I’ll see Mrs. Graham’s son eat his cupcake first, and feel exonerated at last.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

What can make a big difference? I found an unexpected answer

Once again, a simple question posed by Leo Babauta of the Zen Habits blog inspired me. He writes, “What tiny change could make a huge difference in your life? Taking a daily walk, eating fruits, cutting back on email, etc?”

Well, I started taking a Vitamin D supplement last week at my doctor’s recommendation, but so far I haven’t seen the vitamin make any difference in my life. And for the answer that leaped to mind, I felt a little bit bemused. Because I know it’s not what anyone who writes a blog called Zen Habits has in mind. It’s nothing so pure and organic as a daily walk, eating fruit or banishing electronic communication. It’s the fact that my friends Nicole and Tony unexpectedly provided me with use of a small, lightweight laptop they did not need.

Lots of people have laptops, you might be thinking. They’re convenient, sure, but life-changing? How’s that possible? Or if it is, just how materialistic are you?

But what the laptop did was enable me to change my habits for the better. As a self-employed freelancer, I have a home office. And like most self-employed freelancers, it’s really hard for me to close up shop for the day at any particular time. It wasn’t long ago that I worked in a corporate environment in which I snapped my computer off at the end of the day and went home. But recently, I realized how drastically that habit had changed. Not only self-employed and home-based but also enjoying an increasingly robust workload, I seemed in recent months to gravitate back to my desk consistently throughout the hours that I considered my non-work day: while the kids were having an afterschool snack, while I was getting dinner ready, when I was headed in to say goodnight to my daughter, while my son was bathing. And then once the kids were both in bed, I inevitably settled back down at my desk for an hour or so, doing more work.

Now, it’s different. Knowing that I can now do quick easy little things like send an email or check my Google calendar without having my desktop computer on, I fostered a new habit. Now I shut down my desktop computer at 5:00 every day, just the way I used to when I worked in an office.

Reading this, you might suspect that I simply do all the same computer functions as before but in a different room, so how’s that really any different? But it hasn’t been like that. Not having a computer running all evening removed the temptation of peeking at my email or doing a quick re-edit of a document file. It simply broke up that pattern of gravitating repeatedly back to my desk. Now the computer goes off at five and I focus on other things, family things, until nine o’clock.

And as for the later part of the evening, the laptop has reintroduced me to the joy of reading in bed, just like I used to when I was a kid but somehow lost the ability to do in recent years, because I was always at my desk instead. Of course, usually it’s not exactly reading in the purest sense of the word. It’s still emailing, or web-surfing, or drafting essays. But sometimes it’s real reading. Sometimes in the late evening hours I go on line to read magazine or newspaper articles, and a couple of times I’ve even downloaded e-books from the library website to try “reading” in bed that way.

So although I’d love to have a more holistic answer to the question of what has made a huge change in my life, an answer centering on daily meditation or spiritual engagement, it’s the three-pound laptop that has changed my daily life lately. The change it made was to liberate me from my desk and make me feel nurtured again by the treasured act of reading in bed. Doesn’t exactly have a Zen ring to it, I realize. But it’s made a world of difference to me.

Monday, May 10, 2010

One thousand days of daily running

Last Friday, my running streak hit 1,000 days. Not since August of 2007 have I missed a day of running; every day since August 12 of that year I’ve run a mile or more. As of Friday, that totaled 1,000 days.

Several people who follow my running streak through personal contact or Twitter have been generous with their congratulations, emailing, Tweeting or tracking me down in person to comment on the milestone. My mother gave me a flowering rose plant with a card of congratulations – in fact, she left it on my kitchen counter while I was out doing that one thousandth run -- and my parents even took me out to lunch that day. My minister praised me for it as well. The comments have been flattering.

One thousand days may sound impressive to my friends who are not streak runners but puts me only at just above number 200 nationally on the United States Running Streak Association Registry, whose highest-ranked streak runners have done decades, not years, of consecutive daily running. So even as I reflect upon it, it’s with the awareness that another streak runner, whether registered with the USRSA or not, could be reading this and thinking “Two and a half years? I’ve done three and a half decades! Why are you even talking about it?”

And to some extent, I wonder why I’m talking about it too. A lot of people who ask me about my running streak have one question: How do you do it? The answer to that is so easy as to sound glib, though I don’t mean it to: To maintain a daily running streak, you just run every day. That’s all. And oh yes, you learn to ignore the weather and physical ailments and time crunches and deadlines and complicated travel plans, and you just…run every day. And eventually one thousand days have passed.

The harder question for me, which no one ever asks but which I sometimes ask myself, rather than how do you do it is why do you do it. When I started, back in August 2007, I had a good reason: it was a project I was undertaking with my then 8-year-old son. Our goal was to run together every day for a year, so that was reason enough for me to keep the streak through the first year. And then when that year ended, my son wanted to see how much longer we could go, so once again I needed no further justification: I did it because it was something Tim and I were in together.

But when Tim ended his daily streak at two years, I kept going. That was nine months ago now, and brought me from Tim’s total of 732 days to my current of 1,003. What I did to get here was easy: run. Why I did it is a lot harder for me to articulate.

I did it because I love running. I did it because I wanted to test my ability to commit to a daily practice, one that I knew would be much harder to maintain than my daily writing practice. (Yes, I said earlier it was easy, and in a pragmatic way it is, but there’s been plenty of ice, snow, frigid temperatures, thunderstorms, headaches and meetings that ran late over the past one thousand days.) But the biggest reason I ran for one thousand consecutive days and am continuing to do so three days later is that after a certain point I realized I’d need a really good reason to stop. For me, at this point I don’t need a reason to continue the streak – I continue the streak because I’m a streak runner – but I’d need a compelling justification to end it.

Still, I felt sheepish accepting the congratulations for reaching one thousand days, and couldn’t help suggesting that maybe I’d crowned myself Queen of the Trivial Pursuits. So you ran one thousand days? What good is that to society? Or, to be more blunt, who cares? Of all the things you could have been doing to save the world, or to improve your community, or even to better tend to your own family, where does running a daily mile fit in to the general goal of being a better person?

It doesn’t. Not really. And that’s why I don’t really see the one thousand day mark as a big deal. If I continue to run every day, lots of big benchmark numbers will come and go. But I still can’t get past the feeling that this is less about my willpower or fitness level and more about my ability to cleave on to a trivial commitment and refuse to let it go. Is that a growth experience?

I have trouble claiming it is. I can only hope that other, related talents and abilities related to commitment and tenacity are quietly taking root as a result. Maybe eventually, I’ll apply my streak-running neural pathways to something more valuable to society. For now, I’ll just continue the streak for the only reason I know: because it’s easier than coming up with a justification to break it, at more than one thousand days.

Friday, May 7, 2010

Had enough of the To Do list? How about a "Done!" list?

The Zen Habits blog posted an article recently suggesting a novel approach to To Do lists: list just one item. Accordingly enough, it’s called the One Thing System.

I like the way author Leo Babauta explains his process, but the problem with that approach, for me, is that I actually like To Do lists. I feel far more anxious when I don’t have an active To Do list going than when I do, no matter how long it is. Frequently, I sit down at my desk in the morning feeling like I can’t possibly get through all the tasks I have for the day. But then I open my Google calendar and take a look at the Tasks list and it looks much more manageable than I expected. In a way, it relates to what I always say when I talk about journaling: writing down your feelings is important because thoughts move in circles but words move in lines: if you keep it in your head it swirls around endlessly, but if you write it down you progress from point A to point B. The tasks in my head swirl endlessly, but written on a To Do list, they extend straightforwardly from number one to number five, or number ten, or wherever they end. And then it’s just a simple matter of checking them off.

Or not so simple, sometimes. When my To Do list feels daunting even once I see it written down, I have a different trick I employ. Once in a while, I break from writing a To Do list in the morning and instead, at the end of the day, I write a “Done!” list. I itemize everything I did get to, everything I finished, every small goal I reached in the course of the day. Productive? Well, it may not seem so: after all, seeing what I’ve already done won’t overtly help me make progress to those things I still need to do. And yet somehow it helps. It reminds me that even on those days when it seems like I did very little, something, however finite, got done.

I did that yesterday, and as often happens, it was reassuring. First I wrote down the work obligations I’d fulfilled. I interviewed an expert on Margaret Fuller and finished drafting an article about an upcoming Margaret Fuller celebration. I submitted a photographer assignment form to get a photo to go with the story about Margaret. (Yes, it’s hard to take a photo to run with a story about someone who has been dead for 160 years. We decided to go with a picture of an actress who will be playing Margaret Fuller in an upcoming dramatic production.) I reached my daily editing quota.

Then I moved past work to list other Done! items. I noted that I fed the dog and the guinea pig. I ran two miles. I folded a basket of laundry. I made dinner for my family. I delivered a check I owed to a neighbor. I stopped at the bagel shop for some pumpernickels and some sesames. I filled a two-liter bottle with water and brought it up to the attic. (For vague post-9/11 reasons we try to always keep a few full two-liter bottles of water around, and during last week’s water main break affecting communities around Boston, I’d given away our supply to our student minister.) I called a friend to find out what happened at Wednesday night’s School Committee meeting.

It’s all somewhat satisfying until I take yet another step back and acknowledge how many things are on neither list: not my To Do nor my Done. I didn’t read the New York Times, not one single article. I didn’t serve any meals at a soup kitchen. I didn’t send any checks to charity. I didn’t compost. I didn’t write a letter of comfort to a prisoner.

But the Didn’t Do list can be turned on its head to serve other purposes as well. Because it’s only fair, if I list things I didn’t do and didn’t plan to do, that I include a few items on that list that it’s good I didn’t do. I didn’t kill off any pets. I didn’t make any frivolous clothing purchases. I didn’t poison anyone. I didn’t commit slander. And so on.

There are myriad ways that task lists can work for us or against us. Sometimes they’re overwhelming; other times they’re a comfort. If I tried the Zen Habits method and put just one item on my list each day, what would it be? Well, I could always resort to the Hippocratic oath: First do no harm. Suppose day after day, that was the only item on my list. Could I live up to it? Probably not. My children may well end up in psychotherapy claiming that the essays, blog entries and in Tim’s case full-length memoir that I wrote about them did plenty of harm. My not-very-impressive environmental habits probably generate more harm than I realize every day. I kill mosquitoes. I forget to water plants.

Still, at the end of the day I can look at all these different lists and reassure myself that overall, I did okay. Not stellar, maybe. But not awful. And tomorrow’s a new day, full of new lists to be made.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Pitching in, pitching out

I’m feeling entangled in deadlines and lists this week. My paid work is not the problem. Although I have four articles due for the Globe, an appendix to assemble on a master plan that a municipal client is about to submit, and an obligation to edit at least ten articles a day for an on-line editing site, I can do all of that. All of that is my job; I know how to get it done. It’s the volunteer work that’s bogging me down this week, and even keeping me awake at night.

The problem is so many of the functions that have value to me run largely on volunteer effort. I’m part of a church community, a school community, a civic community, an arts community, and all of those require a significant amount of participation from interested parties. But there are times, this week being one of them, when it just doesn’t seem to me like the system is working. Each of these institutions seems to need too much help, too much volunteer participation. Not only from me; from everyone involved.

In church, rather ironically, I’m on the Nominating Committee: the committee that identifies people willing to fill vacancies on other committees. So at the very same time that I’m soul-searching over the necessity and value of all this committee work and volunteer work, I’m trying to track down – and then persuade -- more volunteers to serve on more committees. Without all of us helping out, goes the traditional perspective, how will we put on a coffee hour every week after our service? How will we make decisions about building maintenance, and church funding, and Sunday school, and social action projects? It’s exhausting just to think about, let alone to find people willing to do all of these tasks.

At my children’s school right now, I’m co-chair of the June teachers’ appreciation luncheon. On the first Tuesday in June each year, the parents put on a lavish luncheon with a gorgeous array of homemade culinary offerings. I sent out the first batch of emails yesterday, imploring parents schoolwide to offer help in this yearly endeavor. But right now my spreadsheet is empty: I have to find fifteen people to make entrees, twenty to make salads, a dozen to make desserts, a few to provide paper goods, some to help with setup and serving and clean-up, and even two or three more to decorate the lunchroom ahead of time. Though I know every year it works out sufficiently, this is the part of the process when I’m close to hyperventilating with anxiety over whether we’re going to get the volunteer labor and the contributions we need.

It’s a frustrating dilemma to me. What would my life be like if I opted out of all of these volunteer obligations? I wouldn’t be part of as many groups or have as many friends. We live in a very close-knit community in which there’s always something to get involved and always people to share ideas with, if one is willing. But I can’t seem to find the balance, and neither can anyone else who serves in any of these functions with me.

Just today as I was trying to get a grasp on the various tasks I needed to attend to, I received an email from the president of our PTA asking if I wanted to help organize the semi-annual Walk to School Day. This is part of a statewide endeavor that our town has participated in for about three years: on a designated day in the fall and spring we raise a lot of publicity for the idea of walking to school, and then we set out making an event out of it. There are designated spots within a mile radius of the school for groups of kids with parent escorts to meet up. There are water stations and refreshments along the way, and as each walker arrives at school, he or she is given a little prize and a raffle ticket. Then there’s a big raffle with lots of big prizes.

I wrote back to the PTA president. “Couldn’t we make it simpler?” I asked her. “Have a Walk to School Day on which we skipped the refreshments and check-in stations and raffle tickets and prizes and just, you know, walked to school?”
That one seemed easy to solve. The others don’t lend themselves as well to an organic, “let’s just do it without making a production out of it” approach. We can’t invite 150 teachers and staff members to a luncheon and then just hope we get enough food and paper plates to make it work out.

I don’t know the answer. And for the next couple of weeks, I’ll still be waking up in the middle of the night worrying about whether we’re going to run out of desserts at the teachers’ luncheon and whether we found enough new members for the church’s Finance Committee to meet the requirements of our by-laws.

But I do think on Walk to School Day, my kids and I will just do that: walk to school. In a way, the idea of organizing this event seems like a perfect example of overkill when it comes to volunteer effort. Put one foot in front of the other. There, I’ve organized a Walk To School Day. Some things are just easy, and when they are, we’ll take advantage of them.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

A compliment, a question, and a few minutes of worrying

My seven-year-old daughter and I were on the Minuteman Bikeway, a paved-over rail trail just four miles from our house. Named one of the country’s best rail trails, it attracts dozens of walkers, runners, bicyclists and in-line skaters on sunny weekend days like the one on which we were using it.

I’d wanted to fit in an afternoon run, and Holly wanted to go for a bike ride, so I suggested we try to do the two activities in tandem. Holly is still fairly new to a two-wheeler, so we hadn’t tried this combination before, but I’d seen other parents doing it lots of times, and it appeared to me that as long as the bicyclist has fairly short legs and a small bike and therefore couldn’t ride very fast, it could work out reasonably well.

We made our way two miles down the path, with Holly just a short distance ahead of me. I could see her the whole time, and at the few road crossings on that two-mile stretch, she stopped to wait for me so we could cross together.

After we reversed direction at the two-mile marker she must have accelerated, though, because I started finding it harder and harder to glimpse her in the distance. She was way ahead of me and quickly widening the gap.

“Nice job!” said a jogger who looked to be in his late fifties or early sixties as he ran toward me. He pointed back toward Holly. “Very good work!”

I’ll take a compliment wherever I can get one, but for the next ten minutes or so I puzzled over just what he meant. What were we doing that constituted a nice job and good work? Was it that I was out exercising with my child? When my son and I used to go running together regularly, strangers would often comment because it’s a little bit unusual to see a nine-year-old boy jogging, but Holly and I weren’t doing anything out of the ordinary. Lots of kids her age ride their bikes. Did he just mean that she was a good steady rider? Maybe. She is small for her age, so although most kids at seven and a half are competent riders, perhaps he was impressed with her skill, thinking she was younger.

Or, I thought, did he mean because I was letting her get so far ahead of me? As I’ve come to realize, there are a lot of adults from earlier generations who think parents my age hover too much. It wasn’t out of the realm of possibility, on this trail where many parents were biking so close to their kids that their wheels almost touched or else pulling them in bike trailers, that he was complimenting me for letting her ride at her own pace.

But her own pace grew faster and faster, and after she disappeared into the distance, I grew anxious. Compared to most parents we know, I give my kids quite a lot of leeway when it comes to personal safety, but not being able to see her at all in this setting alarmed me.

Still, I needed to keep running. I had over a mile to go before I’d be back at the park where the trail begins. I dearly hoped I’d find her when I got there, but there was nothing I could do in the meantime but keep moving forward. Stopping or slowing down certainly wouldn’t help the situation any when all evidence pointed to the likelihood that she was well ahead of me.

I worried that she had fallen and was hurt. I worried that someone had jumped out of the thick woods bordering the trail and snatched her. I worried that she had reached the park but then wandered into traffic there. And, too, I worried about what other parents must be thinking now that there was a child riding along the path with no accompanying adult anywhere in sight. The man who complimented me earlier might have been impressed that I let her go at her own pace, but that was when she was still within eyeshot of me. I wasn’t sure anyone would compliment me on this bit of recklessness.

The two miles unspooled as I ran at my usual steady but slow pace. I told myself all I could do was continue on to the park. When I got there either Holly would be waiting for me and everything would be fine or she wouldn’t and I’d need to act quickly to get help. One or the other.

So I had nearly twenty long minutes to worry about Holly’s well-being. Then I arrived at the park and there she was, standing next to her bike and beaming. The relief was tremendous, but I didn’t let on that I’d been worried. Nor did I want to scold her for riding so far ahead of me. She’s still new at biking and still developing her skills; if anything, I was impressed at how well she’d done. Although she’d soared far ahead of me, I didn’t really feel she’d done anything wrong.

But had I done anything wrong? I wasn’t sure. I thought again about the jogger who said “Good job!” Good job teaching her to ride a bike? Good job getting out together for a workout? Maybe. Not so good letting her get so far away from me, though – and then worrying about it for the remainder of the run.

But it all worked out. So I’m not sure what I’ll do differently next time we head to the Bikeway together. But whatever it is, I hope someone lifts my spirits with a quick, if ambiguous, compliment along the way.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Days of delight

There are a couple of advantages to having a child like my 11-year-old son who tends to have a slightly withdrawn disposition. One became clear to me a couple of weeks ago when the parents of one of Tim’s friends took Tim along with three other boys his age into the city for dinner. “Tim is so calm!” the mother commented to me afterwards. Calm? I’d never thought about it. For all the time I’ve spent wishing my child would dial up the energy a little bit, get a little more engaged with the world around him, take a bit more of an interest in a wider range of possibilities, it had never occurred to me that compared to most 11-year-old boys – especially when being taken out for dinner in the city – he comes across not as sullen but as calm. Where they made rude noises and generally bounced off the walls, he pleasantly ate a hamburger. Not sullen. Not surly. Calm.

It’s a matter of perspective, of course. But the advantage with which I’m more familiar is the joy it brings me when he suddenly brightens, when something catches his attention and causes him to visibly perk up. It’s like the sun breaking through the clouds. And it happened just yesterday when he bounded up the stairs after school. Having spent so many years of picking him up after daycare and then preschool, and then meeting his afternoon bus day after day when he was in elementary school, I’m still not accustomed to the freedom our public school system affords a fifth grader: no longer required to meet him at the bus stop, I’m now usually hard at work in my home office when he suddenly pops through the door. He appreciates the independence, and so do I.

So he’s often in a relatively upbeat mood after school, but yesterday he was almost soaring. “Mom, it’s the weirdest thing!” he exclaimed, his dark brown eyes sparkling. “It’s like there are animals all around me today. When I got off the bus, there were all these bees flying around my head. Then I saw something like a groundhog run across the driveway. Then I turned around the bend and saw three deer, just standing there. They didn’t even seem startled; they just looked at me and walked on into the woods. And one of them was probably only about three weeks old!” He paused for a breath. “And then right before I got to the house, I was able to get really close to the new calf!” The new calf was born on our farm a week ago, and like most new calves, he is still skittish around us and usually jumps away when we tried to approach him.

Hearing the exuberance in Tim’s tone made me smile. He may be a pre-teen in many ways, interested mostly in baseball and science fiction, but seeing a fawn and walking up close to a calf still delights him. There are so many stages in which kids seem to straddle their earlier selves and their future selves all at once. My 7-year-old daughter will be striking model poses in the mirror one moment and then teaching an imaginary art class made up of stuffed animals the next. Similarly, Tim will ask a question about the Supreme Court only to grab his stuffed frog and start sucking his thumb, a habit he’s having a very hard time breaking.

But that’s part of what’s fun about watching kids grow: realizing it doesn’t always happen in a straight line, and in some respects, that’s what makes their personalities unique: the ways in which their younger selves and their older selves mingle as they age. In Tim’s case, it was an afternoon of wondrous sights: bees, groundhogs, deer (who, given the prevalence of Lyme disease in our community, we really shouldn’t be one bit happy to see, but we just can’t help it because they’re so beautiful and wild), a week-old calf. The unbridled delight on his face reminded me of the best part about his being usually so placid: when something thrills him, it’s a joy for me to be on the witnessing end.

Monday, May 3, 2010

Keeping a journal: Two perspectives

Columnist Beverly Beckham wrote in yesterday’s Boston Globe about keeping a diary. I always read Beckham’s columns not because I find her ideas particularly profound but because I really admire her simple, direct way with language. She has a talent that I do not for expressing her ideas with un-self-conscious clarity. As Strunk and White would say, she uses subjects and verbs. As some one who struggles with a surplus of adverbs and adjectives, I envy Beckham’s ease with the written word.

I wrote a few months ago in this blog about my writing streak, but that entry focused more on how to write regularly than why to write regularly. Reading Beckham’s column, I realized I hadn’t given that much thought recently. Yes, I’ve kept a journal regularly since I was in sixth grade and daily, with my 1,000-words-a-day streak, since late 1994. But why?

Beckham ends her essay with this typically eloquent statement: “My journal makes me remember. And that’s why I write.” Interesting, I thought when I first read it. Because my journal doesn’t make me remember at all, for the reason that I barely ever reread it. My journal is for me a process, not a product. It doesn’t matter what I’ve written; the act of writing it was what mattered. In writing one thousand words a day, I process certain thoughts so that I can then move on and, ideally, get to other, fresher thoughts. Or maybe not; maybe I keep dwelling on the same few thoughts. I wouldn’t know, since I don’t re-read except on very rare occasions.

But within Beckham’s essay is a very good explanation for why she and I differ on this point. Her journals sound like small works of art, with ticket stubs, postcards and emails pasted on to the pages. She spends considerable time choosing the actual vessel for her journal, too, perusing Barnes & Noble’s journal shelves with an eye toward color, size, materials and cover design.

Not me. In fact, my journal doesn’t actually exist. Not in any form that I can paste ticket stubs and concert programs into, anyway. And the color of the cover certainly isn’t a factor. My journal has been solely electronic since about 2000. First, of course, as a girl in the 1980’s, I wrote longhand; then in college I typed (with my little portable electronic typewriter, a long-gone precursor to today’s laptops; my roommate always said that I looked like Schroeder from the Peanuts comic strip bent over the piano). In my 20’s I started writing on computer but printing out. Not until about a decade ago did I question the point of printing out the entries. I was filling up a lot of attic space with binders – this was private, after all; not something I’d be displaying on my living room bookshelves – and the printing and filing was somewhat labor-intensive.

So now I simply save to an electronic file. And yes, I do back up those files. So if I really need to look back at something, I can find it with a mouse click. But that hardly ever happens.

If not to remember, then, why do I write? Because writing what’s on my mind every morning frees up metaphorical desk space on my metaphorical hard drive – the one inside my brain – to think about other things. And because I believe that thinking is circular whereas writing is linear. When I mull over a problem, I keep circling back to where I began; but when I write it out, I tend to progress from point A to point B. I’m also a believer in the “Write it down, make it happen” credo: many days I write rambling breakdowns of tasks I need to accomplish during the day, believing that recording in my journal increases the odds it will get done.

Both journal systems – electronic and ornately designed, shelf-worthy hard copy – are worthwhile, and both of us have reasons that make sense. Beverly Beckham and I are both writers; we feel better when we write. Neither of us expects our journals to matter to anyone but us. But we write anyway. To remember. Or to forget. As practice. As process. To commemorate and to move on. For so many reasons, we write.