Wednesday, June 30, 2010

My children, the entrepreneurs

Back in 2006, I wrote this article for the Boston Globe, about the tweens and young teens who were using Carlisle’s new Farmers Market to develop their entrepreneurial skills. As so often happens when I work on a feature story, I became enchanted with my subjects and developed great admiration for these young entrepreneurs.

But, with the typical nearsightedness of a parent, I couldn’t imagine my own children standing among their ranks. At ages three and seven that year, my kids’ only interest in our local Farmers Market was how many free samples of chocolate chip cookies they could cadge before I would notice, and how many dogs they could play with while I chatted with the other browsers.

It doesn’t seem as if four years have gone by, but Farmers Market starts up for the summer this weekend, and my kids are ready. Not to eat or play: to sell. They’ve been practicing their baking skills all week. Their product, they decided, would be banana bread. At the time they settled on this plan, they’d never made banana bread, but they knew it was a specialty of mine, one that they’d heard guests at our house and recipients of our gifts compliment many times. I agreed to help them get their baking abilities up and running.

They chose the business name themselves: Who’s On First. It was over a month ago that they selected the name and made a sign, using stencil letters they found at Staples. Earlier that week, Tim’s fifth grade teacher had played a You Tube clip of Abbott and Costello doing their best-known routine, and the class had been in stitches over it. I love the juxtaposition of old and new: the fact that with all the media currently available to them, nothing is funnier to the fifth graders than a 1940’s comedy routine – but also the fact that they’re all familiar with it now thanks to an innovation as state-of-the-art as YouTube.

I started teaching Tim and Holly, co-proprietors of Who’s On First, my method for making banana bread earlier this week. The first step, I reminded them, is always to wash hands. That part they had down pat. I explained the other steps and they discussed it for a while to determine how to best divide the labor. Because Holly is so much physically smaller and a bit less manually dexterous than Tim, it was fairly easy to decide who should do what. And calling Holly “less manually dexterous” is a euphemism of the first degree. Normally I just refer to her as “the Gravity Queen.” She’s never yet picked up an object she couldn’t manage to drop within moments. So I wasn’t too enthusiastic about her handling much of anything in the way of cooking ingredients, knowing whatever she touched, I would end up cleaning up off the kitchen floor.

I overcame that reservation early on, realizing that cleaning up was just going to have to be a big part of this endeavor for all three of us. And the kids settled into a routine as we practiced with one, then two, then eventually four batches of banana bread. Holly greases the pans while Tim peels the bananas. Tim melts the butter while Holly breaks the eggs into a bowl and beats them with a whisk. (To my surprise, the Gravity Queen isn’t bad with eggs. But I’m not letting her anywhere near the flour.) Tim mixes the dry ingredients while Holly beats together the bananas and sugar. When they’re done, I pour the batter into the pans for them and slide the whole set into the oven.

I’m looking forward to their first day of sales (or their IPO, as my husband calls it). They’ve worked hard together, and I’m hoping they get a gratifying response in the form of lots of customers. I’m also curious to see if they can maintain a regular baking schedule throughout the summer and not let the novelty wear off. If they can, they could each enjoy a satisfying amount of spending money over the next few months, and learn something about running a business and working together. If they can’t sustain their interest, we’ll eat the results of their initial efforts and try again another year.

But my fingers are crossed for a fine opening day on Saturday. Although I couldn’t have imagined it back when I was an objective on-the-scene reporter writing about other kids working as Farmers Market vendors, my children will now stand proudly among them. And I can’t wait to see how it goes for them.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Getting our summer off on the right foot with three rules and a guideline

School ended mid-June and we didn’t have any particular plans, though lots of potential opportunities for activities and small trips. Our big summer trip is still several weeks away, and the kids and I were looking forward to spending our days until then the way we often have in years past – biking, swimming, walking to the ice cream stand, visiting friends – but when the heat and humidity descended just after the last day of school, I noticed we were acting more irritable with each other than I had hoped.

So rather than feel defeated by my decision (with which the kids had concurred) not to schedule camps and lessons but to just fill the time ourselves, I tried to rally and think about specific areas to target for improvement. I’ve noticed over the years that the kids and I all do well with lists. Past experience has taught me that it doesn’t help to say “We need to stop being irritable with each other and generally discontent and instead start having summer fun together”; I need to identify specific behaviors to change. In other words, we do well with rules. Or guidelines.

So I thought about what was going wrong. The kids were complaining too much. Inevitably, what one child wanted to do inspired the other to complain. And then the roles would reverse. One would make a decision about how we should spend our afternoon and the other complained; we’d do it anyway and then it would be the second child’s turn to make a choice and the first would complain.

Lunch was a source of friction too, at least from my perspective. I feel it sets a very bad tone for the day when they act indifferent or grumpy about lunch choices. I like a cheerful, upbeat lunchtime, which tends to pave the way for an energetic and happy afternoon. But no one seemed able to make a decision about what they wanted for lunch.

And, as vacation began, it seemed that each child was amplifying his or her own respective flaws: Tim kept asking me to do things for him that he’s entirely capable of doing for himself – pour a glass of seltzer, fetch a book he left in the car – and Holly kept coming up with material requests: small, but annoying to me since I don’t like to pass time by spending money. She wanted to go buy stickers; she wanted to buy a snow cone; she wanted to go bowling. And so on.

I was starting to feel overwhelmed, but I remembered the Lists strategy: give them specifically itemized behaviors to avoid. “What are some of the things we can all do or not do to get along better than we have been?” I asked them. We talked about it and came up with three rules and a guideline (not to be confused with that perennial icebreaker game, Three Truths and a Lie): Rule 1. Try not to complain. Rule 2. If you can do something for yourself, do it, whether that’s picking out clothes in the morning or helping yourself to a snack. Rule 3. Try not to ask to buy things when it’s not really necessary. And then the guideline: try to have some idea of what you might like for lunch before Mom asks at noon. In fact, the kids took the guideline one step further by taking the initiative of making a list of four or five lunch choices they always like and promising that if I’d be willing to make something from that list, they wouldn’t complain.

Somehow it seemed to clear the air. The kids understand that these aren’t hard-and-fast rules, more like practices we will all employ to try to make our vacation together more fun. They know I’ll still buy them ice cream or books now and then; they know it’s okay to let out an utterance of protest when one is really displeased with a choice the other kid has made. But by reaching a few concrete points of agreement, I think we all felt a little bit hopeful that we could start having more fun and less dissonance.

The summer is still young and the air is still mighty hot and humid; we’ll see if it works out. But it’s a start, and we’re doing our best to stick with it. My end of the deal? Not to blame them when they slip up and ask me to do something for them or complain a little. I’ll try, because they’re trying, and we’ll all do our best to keep ourselves and each other in line.

Monday, June 28, 2010

Running for the Red Lantern Prize, yet again

On Saturday I ran the annual Carlisle Old Home Day 5-mile race. Back in 1991, this same event was the first road race I ever ran; I’ve done several others in recent years, but this one is always my favorite.

I have such mixed feelings about participating in races. And here I should point out that the copy editor in me wants to change the three-word phrase “participating in races” to the singular and simple “racing,” but that’s just my point: “racing” seems like a hyperbolic word for what I do. Every race I enter these days, I go into with the expectation that I’ll likely finish last. I never actually do finish absolute last – usually I fall in the bottom ten percent of finishers, regardless of the size of the field – but I’m always braced for the possibility.

Lots of people have tried to boost me out of this rather defeatist mindset, reminding me that it’s about competing and finishing rather than winning. And when I say “lots of people,” I of course mean my mother. Fortunately, no matter how often she tells me it’s wonderful that I race at all and I need not worry where I finish, there’s always my 11-year-old son to represent the counterpoint to that argument. “I’m just afraid I’ll finish last,” I admitted to him once on the way to a race. “Oh, Mom, I’m pretty sure you will!” he responded cheerily.

It’s easy to say that since I’m obviously not a competitive racer, it shouldn’t matter to me where in the field I finish, but there’s something that causes me an almost primal anxiety about being last. Even though road races take place in safe, well-populated, festive venues, toward the end of the run I often develop this irrational concern that I’ll be left behind. I know it’s not a literal worry: being alone on the course would not in any way be a problem any of the places I’ve ever raced (which include Concord, Massachusetts; Valley Forge, Pennsylvania; and Bath, Maine). But toward the end of a race I seem to revert to a grade schooler on a field trip, believing I’ll come out of the bathroom at the Museum of Science to discover my class’s bus has already departed from the parking lot. As my oxygen level thins slightly and my brain capacity diminishes a little, I become afraid in a childlike way of being left by myself.

In Saturday’s Old Home Day run, fears of being left behind were particularly ridiculous since at no point in the race was I farther than three miles from my own house. But more importantly, I know it sounds self-pitying to say I worry so much about coming in last. I know how lucky I am to have the physical ability to run five miles; surely there are countless women my age suffering from any number of disabilities who might read this and say “If I could participate in a road race, I’d never think about complaining about my finish time.”

On a rational level I agree with them, but there’s more to it than that: sometimes I feel compelled to ask myself why I bother to sign up for races when I’m sure to be one of the last people to cross the finish line. (At the race I’ve run twice in Valley Forge, Pennsylvania, it’s a field of 1,000, so being in the bottom 10 percent still means nearly 100 people are running behind me, but my focus is always on the 900 ahead of me.) Race results are usually posted by name and hometown; when I take part in races in other states, I often picture people reading the results and saying “I can’t believe this woman traveled all the way from Massachusetts just to finish last in our race.”

But, indeed, there are other ways to look at finishing last than, well, finishing last. My friend Nancy Cowan reminded me of something we both learned when our children were second-graders studying the Iditarod, Alaska’s legendary sled dog race. “You’re not the last-place finisher; you’re the Red Lantern Award winner!” she said to me one year. And maybe the Iditarod organizers have the right idea. As written on the official Iditarod website, “Awarding a red lantern for the last place finisher in a sled dog race has become an Alaskan tradition. It started as a joke and has become a symbol of stick-to-itiveness in the mushing world.” In that sense, I’m the sweep: bringing up the end to confirm that the race both began and ended safely for all of us who stuck to it.

So I won’t give up on road races just yet. I’ll keep working for that Red Lantern Prize. Someone gets to be first; someone has to be last (or very nearly last. Last among those who actually ran the whole course.). When you see me cross the finish line, you know that another year’s road race has been successfully run. Time to start looking ahead to next year. Who knows, maybe a slower runner will have moved to town by then.

Friday, June 25, 2010

Working with clay: A 7-year-old and her pottery class

Carlisle’s Old Home Day festivities take place this weekend. While I gear up mentally for the 5-mile road race I expect to run and gather supplies for the pie-baking contest I agreed to oversee, my 7-year-old, Holly, spent a good part of last evening selecting the pieces that she plans to enter in the Art Show.

I almost missed out on the idea of having her take part in the Art Show, and this is a good example of how I tend to pigeonhole myself and my family. I think of our recreational talents lying primarily in baking (me) and sports (Rick and Tim); I’m not artistic at all from a “studio art” perspective, so the Art Show simply wasn’t on my radar. Fortunately, a friend who knows how much Holly enjoys her weekly pottery class urged me to look into it.

Holly does indeed enjoy her weekly pottery class, and so do I, even though my direct involvement is restricted to dropping her off at the instructor’s home studio at the beginning and coming in for a few minutes at the end to chat with the instructor and examine Holly’s newest creations. I feel like Holly has found her artistic niche, though, and there’s so much I admire about this class.

Like most kids her age, Holly has long enjoyed art projects, but I quickly grew frustrated with the ever-popular crafts kits she received for presents or asked me to buy when we made a stop at the toy store or the crafts store. Although the concept is good – all the materials needed for a particular craft activity pre-cut, pre-measured and pre-packaged in one tidy box – it didn’t take me long to realize how much waste was involved. The packaging alone usually involves plastic trays, paint cups, and paint brushes within the heavy-duty cardboard box; moreover, when you’re done with these kits, you’ve usually made one thing. One item, with all that material. It’s not that the young artist is disappointed to have one thing to show for her work; it just never seems to me like a very good use of resources.

Pottery, by contrast, is so charmingly old-fashioned. The instructor, Mrs. Lemmerman, has been teaching pottery to kids and adults here in town since I was Holly’s age. She’s a genuine artist herself, a potter, and I like the idea of Holly seeing how an actual artist works and lives. Furthermore, unlike many of the kids’ activities which always seem a little too scripted and organized, they’re very much on their own when it comes to planning out their time with clay. Mrs. Lemmerman shows them all kinds of examples and has books on hand for them to page through as well as various accessories such as garlic presses, seashells and stencils to encourage their ideas, but for the most part, the kids come up with their own individual schemes for what to make each week.

They learn from each other that way, too. Holly once unapologetically told me she spent most of one class watching the other kids work because that day she just felt more curious about what they were creating than inspired to start anything herself. This too seems to me like the perspective of a true artist: sometimes you make the most progress when you observe your colleagues at work rather than forging out on your own. I also value the fact that the class is mixed-age. Unlike school, afterschool sports, Girl Scouts and summer camp, all of which are rigidly organized by age group, pottery gives Holly the chance to learn from older kids and have the fun of helping younger ones.

Now, having just finished her second eight-week pottery course, she has quite an inventory of completed ceramics to show for her efforts. (In fact, one of my friends said she stopped signing her daughter up for pottery when they ran out of shelf space.) Holly keeps them all displayed in her room; that bookcase is the only part of her room she keeps consistently tidy, in order to show off her work to best advantage.

So when I told her about tomorrow’s art show, she took her time picking out the maximum allowable four pieces, examining each item she made recently, selecting some, ruling out others. What I haven’t told her yet, and probably won’t, is that it’s not only a show but also a contest. I’m hoping she doesn’t notice. She’s thrilled with the idea of exhibiting her work. If she knew about the prizes, winning a ribbon would become important. Right now, her only priority is in deciding whether to award her fourth spot to the fish soapdish, the flag tile or the crimson coil pot.

I’m happy to see her take pride in her work. Prizes and ribbons not withstanding, I’m hoping she’ll continue with pottery for a long time. It feels very organic to me and I like what it’s teaching her about art. I can’t wait to see her work on exhibit with the work of all of Carlisle’s other artists, young, old and in between, this weekend at Old Home Day.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Sailing solo at 16; running daily at 9: The risks we allow and the risks we reject for our kids

I’ve been thinking about 16-year-old California teen Abby Sunderland ever since she was in the headlines earlier this month for aborting her solo sail mission, but I’d resisted writing about her because I kept asking myself why anyone would care what I thought about this story. Weighing in seemed to me like a perfect example of blog-abuse – just because you have a (self-bestowed) platform doesn’t mean you need to use it.

But the story stuck with me despite the fact that I know almost nothing about sailing and my children are (or seem to me) still very far from sixteen. Today while out running, I listened to a podcast of NPR’s Talk of the Nation that featured a debate about this very same story, and finally I understood why it resonated.

Specifically, it was when Outside Magazine contributing editor Bruce Barcott, who was arguing in favor of the Sunderlands’ decision to let their daughter sail solo (while Leonard Pitts of the Miami Herald represented the opposing view), said that “the Sunderlands are…extreme examples of what I call brave parenting. But I think that they help us reflect on the boundaries that we put around our kids.” Barcott went on to talk about how the Sunderlands represent the opposite of helicopter parents, those prototypical peers of mine who worry about the size of hot dog slices versus the diameter of a child’s trachea and who fear abductors around every corner. Leonard Pitts then responded, “I agree with the idea that we are in era of helicopter parenting and parents who are too eager to wrap their kids in bubble wrap before they send them out into the world. But I think that there is a little bit of a gulf between…over-parenting and sending a child out on to the middle of the Indian Ocean. It seems to me that there's a happy medium somewhere in there that is being lost.”

A happy medium. That’s what rang a bell in my mind. Because when I first heard about the Sunderlands, my initial thought was “Oh good, parents who make me look vigilant.” A happy medium. That’s where I was, I thought to myself as I ran. That’s what I was doing in late summer of 2007 when I asked my then almost 9-year-old if he wanted to take on a challenge: run a mile or more every day for a year.

He did, and in a story I’ve recounted many times since then, Tim and I ran a mile or more every single day for two years. Running a daily mile is not one whit like sailing across the Indian Ocean, but there were parents who thought was I was doing was crazy too, just as many people (including me) now think about the Sunderlands. When I posted about Tim’s and my running goals on a message board dedicated to runners, other posters accused me of fostering obsessive-compulsive disorder in my son. “You’re setting up an impossible standard that he’s forcing himself to meet just to please you,” more than one of them wrote in some form or another. “A nine-year-old should not be running every day,” wrote another avid runner.

Despite the fact that my husband, myself and our pediatrician saw nothing wrong with this goal as long as it was Tim’s choice, some parents reacted as if I was, well, sending my son out into the Indian Ocean.

And I did worry about whether it was a reasonable thing to do, just as I’ve worried throughout both of my kids’ entire lives thus far because I tend to be a little less anxious than other parents. I let my 7-year-old play at the playground all the way across the ballfield when I’m watching my son play baseball. I allow the kids to walk together to the general store while I’m at the library across the street. Earlier this spring on the bike path, two different sets of adults admonished me that I was letting my daughter bike too far ahead of me. So there’s no doubt that I’ve taken my share of flak for my un-helicopter attitude over the years, most notably when my decision to let my two-year-old sleep in a (locked) car while I walked 300 yards away to pick up her older brother at school inspired a passer-by to call 911.

So I’ve learned to question my own judgment. With the daily running project, which Tim kept up for a total of 732 days – two years, one of which was a leap year, plus one extra day for good measure – I was vigilant about never urging him to go. The running had to be his choice, every single day, every time we went out. But again and again, he chose to go. He seized the challenge. And yes, he was the only 9-year-old we knew who was committed to a daily running streak. But it didn’t hurt him any. It wasn’t as tough as sailing across the ocean, but it wasn’t easy either. He ran on frigid days and in heat waves, in thunderstorms and blizzards. But it was a challenge he found satisfying, for every day of those two years. And it was something I never once told him he had to do for anyone else’s sake. It was always his choice.

I worried that if anything were to go wrong, I’d have to live with the guilt as well as the grief. When I was in college, a 12-year-old in our town went running on a summer day, then collapsed and died of heart failure at the end of his driveway. If something like that happened to Tim, I’d have to cope not only with the overpowering grief any parent would feel but the knowledge that it was undeniably my fault.

Abby Sunderland’s parents must have had thoughts similar to these. As Leonard Pitts stated on Talk of the Nation, the sailing venture was in a league of its own in terms of the danger it incurred upon her rescuers as well as the expense it caused. Nothing about the running streak included either of those factors.

But the story reminded me too that every parent makes decisions about risks. My decisions seemed extreme to many of my peers; the Sunderlands’ choices seem one hundred times more extreme to me than anything I’ve ever done. Parenting is about judgment calls, from the first time you let your infant sleep on his stomach because it’s the only way he can fall asleep to the day you let your teen go on a ski trip with a friend. Making those decisions is part of how we learn and grow as parents, and teaching our kids to evaluate the risks and benefits of any decision that concerns them is one of the lessons we pass on by our own example every time we do.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Being a grown-up (despite a sore head and spilled sushi)

Here’s one thing I’ve learned about adulthood since becoming a parent: sometimes, you just have to remind yourself to be a grown-up. Sometimes you even have to say it out loud. That was what yesterday evening was like for me.

After many complicated hours of helping my husband through an uncomfortable post-surgery day (he was operated on for hernias), I went to watch my 11-year-old’s baseball team play their championship game. They won, which was great. But any time it gets to be seven-thirty in the evening and my 7-year-old daughter and I still haven’t had dinner, things are bound to go downhill fast.

As they did. Sort of.

I told Holly she could not join the team for their post-victory ice cream celebration because she and I needed to get home to let the dog out and to unload groceries, and also because it would have been too complicated in terms of carpool arrangements. She sulked. “Besides, while I was grocery shopping I picked up a plate of sushi for us to share!” I told her.

She loves sushi. But apparently not as much as she loves post-victory ice cream celebrations, as she made clear amidst the sulking while we packed up the car after the game to head home. Closing the hatchback when I was finally done, I forgot to step back and the bike rack slammed against my head. What’s really surprising about this is that it’s only the second time that I’ve collided with the bike rack since we put it on the car a month ago. Once I walked into it and then yesterday I stood in the way of it while closing the hatchback. Twice isn’t bad in one month for someone as spatially challenged as I am, but that didn’t make it any better when it happened.

Rubbing my head and trying not to let out a sob, I buckled myself into the car.

Holly asked if she could eat her half of the sushi on the way home. “No, you’ll make a mess,” I said.

She began to whine. “But I’m soooo hungry!”

This is the problem with baseball season. We leave for games at about five, much too early to eat first, and get back about eight, much too hungry. Holly repeatedly gets dragged along, though she has very little interest in baseball (and, as I lamented to another player’s mother earlier this season, because she’s four years younger, she’s not interested in the other players yet either, which could have potentially made the games more appealing to her). Dinners on baseball nights are neither timely nor nutritious.

So of course I caved. “I just know you’re going to spill it, but okay then, eat it in the car,” I snapped. We drove three blocks. I heard a squeak of protest from Holly and looked into the rearview mirror to see sushi rolls splayed all over the back seat next to her.

I did the only thing I could think of at that moment: pulled over into an empty parking lot and let out a primal bellow of frustration. “That’s why I told you not to eat sushi in the car!” I wailed to her.

And then it was time for me to take a deep breath and remind myself to be a grown-up. The fact was that I hadn’t told her she couldn’t eat sushi in the car. If I’d said that, she wouldn’t have been eating it, and it wouldn’t have spilled. She’s resistant, but not defiant. Had I said no, she would have complied with that.

Instead, I said no and then let her argue me out of it. For that, there was no one to blame but myself, and despite the fact that my forehead still hurt from the bike rack run-in and I was crushed to lose my sushi dinner, I knew it was time to be mature and fair.

Yes, time to act like a grown-up. Holly piled the spilled sushi back into the plastic tray while we drove home. I felt calmer and my head started to feel better. Holly ate the sushi rolls that hadn’t fallen. I congratulated myself on not letting the situation – driven by my own frustration – deteriorate more fully.
After all, I reminded myself, what’s the most important thing when you bash your head with your own bike rack? To be certain that no one saw you. And although it happened on a well-populated residential block, I had no evidence of any witnesses. So I’d saved face, if not forehead.

When we got home, I contemplated the remaining sushi rolls for a few seconds. They looked so tasty. But I knew what else had been on the same seat where they fell: boots, sneakers, cleats, backpacks (which had previously been on school corridor and auditorium floors), and of course the dog.

Then I had an idea. I could rinse the sushi rolls. They weren’t all that porous; water wouldn’t damage them. A quick blast of water in the kitchen sink reassured me that each one was dog-cootie free, and I ate them happily.

Be a grown-up. Simplistic and trite. But to paraphrase Ferris Bueller, so’s adulthood, sometimes; or at least so are its requirements. And those are the times when that silly message comes in most handy.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

If I heard it, I'll remember it

I was making a quick stop at the general store here in town when I ran into a woman I had met only once, at a New Year’s Eve party six months ago. She was buying a cake mix to make a Summer Solstice cake and mentioned that her elder daughter was home from college for the summer and doing an internship nearby. “And is she still seeing Henry?” I asked.

The woman looked briefly stunned. “How do you know about Henry?”

“You told us on New Year’s Eve. Oh, and by the way, I was thinking of you recently because of a novel I’m reading that reminded me of how you and your husband started dating in high school.”

Now she looked even more astonished. Oops, I’d done it again. I’m usually more careful, but because our encounter was unexpected, I’d let my guard down.

I have this very, very peculiar problem. Though this is entirely self-diagnosed, my theory is that I have a phonographic memory: not a photographic memory, where I remember what I see, but phonographic, where I remember what I hear. Specifically when people are telling me anecdotes about their lives. So when I’m talking to friends or acquaintances, I routinely refer to trivial details that they’ve relayed to me in the past, only to find them astonished and sometimes a little disturbed that I recall those details.

In my thirties, I finally realized that this tendency made me a bit of a social oddity and learned to rein it in. Now I pretend not to know things about people simply because I know there’s no way those people will remember having shared those details with me. Occasionally, people find it flattering that I remember the littlest stories they’ve recounted. For example, the mother of one of my daughter’s friends was amused when I remembered that her sons named a vitamin after their aunt, and now I always ask after Aunt Vitamin when I see this mom. But other people just find it weird, almost as if I’ve been spying on them. “What do you mean, how was my college roommate’s layover in Iceland?” they’ll snap, having long forgotten themselves that they mentioned to me one day at the post office that their roommate was en route to Europe via Iceland that very day.

And sometimes it makes certain events a little more boring than they might otherwise be. When I meet friends-of-friends, I can recall every detail that our mutual friend has told me about them – details that people often share as small talk at weddings and other get-togethers. So sometimes I pretend not to know that someone follows a vegan diet or once dated a U.S. senator’s son simply so that we’ll have something to talk about when we meet.

Several years ago I had the opportunity to talk to a newspaper columnist whose work I’d followed for a long time. I mentioned finding it funny that her son confused his kindergarten teacher with his rabbi. “My son is a senior in high school,” she said, sure I was thinking of someone else.

“But you wrote about it once,” I told her.

“I wrote a column about my son mistaking his kindergarten teacher for our rabbi?”

“Not a whole column. You just mentioned it.”

She clearly had no memory of including this tiny detail in a column that was probably about an entirely different topic. But I remembered.

I assume this phonographic memory is related to the fact that I became a journalist, though I’m not sure which came first: the interest in telling other people’s stories, or the improbable aptitude for remembering what I’ve heard. I tend to think I’m unusually attentive to what people tell me; thus I remember. But I suspect it’s somewhat physiological in nature as well, something about cognitive patterns. My sisters and my mother are both very good at remembering people’s stories as well, though I don’t think they’ve found it to be quite the social liability I have.

No matter; professionally it’s tremendously useful. I don’t need a Rolodex; it’s all in my memory, whether I need to contact someone who has a family member with a food allergy or track down a source who has a neighbor that works for NASA. And some of my friends have even learned to take advantage of me as a resource, which I fully support. One close friend routinely calls me when she needs to fact-check certain details of her own life. “What was the name of the town where I lived when I was studying in Russia?” she’ll ask. “What were the circumstances of the case I heard the first time I had jury duty?”

For a writer, this total recall is not a bad thing. Perhaps it will lessen somewhat with age. But in any case, I’ve learned to hold back most of the time so that I don’t come across like a stalker when I encounter acquaintances about whom I know far more than they realize. Except for times like today when I briefly lose those inhibitions.

The woman I ran into in the general store said that her daughter and Henry were not currently seeing each other. I’ll be more prudent about bringing up the subject next time we meet, which probably won’t be until next New Year’s Eve if then. But when I see her, I can ask how the Summer Solstice cake she made for her younger daughter and friends came out. There is that one advantage, after all: I’m never tongue-tied at parties. And if the CIA has any questions about anyone I’ve ever met, they know where to find me.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Summer vacation resolutions

Summer vacation is not traditionally when I think about resolutions. I associate resolutions with New Year’s in January, but also, like a lot of people whose lives are still tied to the school year as students, parents or professionals, with September: at both of those times, the air feels ripe for resolving to make improvements or implement new habits.

This year, though, I’m surprised by a sense of potential for fresh starts in late June. Since my two children started school, I’ve had some summers when I was working full-time for a traditional employer and some summers when I was self-employed. Either way, the start of their school vacation has prompted anxiety. When I was working full-time, what preoccupied me as the school year drew to a close was concerns about childcare: had I made the right decisions for the kids; would it all work out; would they keep busy and have fun; what if the baby-sitter called in sick? The summers I’ve been self-employed, as I am now, the worries are nominally different but the same at their core: will I be able to get my own work done, at least on a level that will meet my obligations if not break new ground; will the kids stay busy and happy in constructive ways; what if the plans don’t work out?

This year I’d be justified in maintaining the latter set of worries. I have a robust list of clients in my dual roles as a freelance journalist and a corporate copywriter, and plenty of deadlines to meet. But for reasons I can’t quite identify, I’m not worried this time around. I’m excited instead.

This time, I feel like the potential exists for new plans and new resolutions as we shed the duties of the school year. Rather than being apprehensive about giving up the structure of the kids’ school days as I’ve been in past summers, I’m happy that school lunches and pick-up times no longer speckle my To Do list. Almost like a kid myself, I sense that the change in routine that occurs with the end of school could bring with it new opportunities.

So I’m going to try to make summer a time of fresh beginnings this year rather than just a time of changing schedules. I need to maintain a steady work habit, but I’m going to try to pack most of my work into a very efficient three-hour morning so that I can do activities with the kids in the afternoon. That will mean working smarter and not giving in to the many distractions that I allow during my typical seven-hour work day during the school year. I’m going to try to get to bed early and get up early rather than sliding into late-sleeping summer habits. Since I’ll probably be doing my daily run first thing in the morning or at the end of the afternoon rather than in the middle of the workday, I’ll be less pressed for time, and so I’ll try to increase my mileage just a little bit, a few tenths here and there, so that my weekly totals add up to a few miles more than they have been in recent months. With the abundance of delicious summer fruits now available and the opening of our local Farmers Market next weekend, I’ll try to eat a healthier diet and cook more interesting family dinners. I want to take advantage of the increased travel opportunities we have this summer to prove that I can go on trips and still keep up with my workload; as a freelancer, I have to view time off as being a chance to balance fun with work rather than a time to get away from it all, but maybe this year I can really make that balance work out.

I have resolutions for the kids too. First of all, the usual: limit computer time for Tim and TV time for Holly. But a few that are slightly more optimistic in nature as well. I’m going to try to instill in Holly the habit of reading to herself when she has free time, something she’s intellectually capable of but simply hasn’t developed an interest in so far. I’m encouraging the kids to start a baking business together and work out an organized production plan for goods that they can sell at our weekly Farmers Market: I know they have the baking abilities, but I want to see if they can develop both the self-discipline and the collaboration skills to produce quantity on a regular basis together. And as always, I’d dearly love to see them both be dressed and groomed by nine o’clock every morning. Or by lunchtime. But that battle is perennial, so we’ll see.

It might be partly the cooler weather we had as school was ending that motivated me to look at summer vacation in such an innovative light. It’s possible that once the heat and humidity kick in, I’ll be as unmotivated as ever, happy if I can just keep the kids from quarreling during my morning work hours. But maybe not. Maybe I’ve had enough years now as a freelancer and mother of school-aged children to have learned that summer vacation is full of potential and not just full of time to worry about scheduling out. I feel a little like a kid myself as I look toward the summer’s possibilities. And maybe it’s good to be starting off with high hopes.

Friday, June 18, 2010

School's out for the summer

Usually I need to have a really good reason to drive up to the kids’ school to pick them up at the end of the day rather than having them take the bus. This is both practical and ideological. From a practical perspective, my work day is 45 minutes longer when they take the bus, and it’s time I usually need. From an ideological perspective, it’s because leaving the job of driving our kids to school to the bus drivers is a way to cut down on automobile use and traffic. Besides, as taxpayers, we pay for the buses; we ought to use them, and they’re just going to start costing us more if we don’t.

On the last day of school, though, it doesn’t take much for Holly to convince me to pick her up. Unlike some schools where parents drive up to the curb to fetch their children, we’re required to park on the street and walk up to the school plaza. On the last day of school it’s always a madhouse, with parents picking kids up, teachers saying goodbye to students, preschool-aged siblings tearing around enjoying the mayhem. But I go anyway, in part because there is one moment every year that I love so much to witness: just before the buses pull away from the school lot, all the teachers stand in a row at the fence and wave goodbye. I love the part where they all line up together and wave, because it signifies so much for me about the year. Even if it’s hard to deny that they are probably waving with a huge sense of relief – after all, it’s their vacation that’s about to begin as well as the kids’ – there’s also something so affectionate in it. Yesterday was the last day of school: I went up to the plaza, and stood with my kids watching the teachers wave goodbye as I do every year.

Perhaps one reason it’s so meaningful to me is that the school year is a complete entity in a way that not many other things in our lives are. It has a beginning, a middle and an end in a way that not a lot does. And when I see the teachers lined up and waving goodbye, it always brings to mind for me how much mileage we all cover together in the course of a school year. On the first day of school in September, the teachers are just as cheerful, if not with the same look of relief they had yesterday: they make such an effort to welcome the kids into the new school year, introduce them to the benefits and the expectations of the grade they are entering.

And then one by one, the yearly rituals unfold. Back-to-school night. The first few homework assignments. Bigger projects. Occasional presentations for the parents: class plays or “authors’ teas” where the kids read their work to an audience of adults. Parent-teacher conferences. Holiday breaks. Report cards. More projects. Field trips. Classroom tests. Standardized tests. Assemblies. Student concerts. Every year, the same set of events unfolds.

But more than the simple ritual of it all, to my mind, is the sense of distance traveled. I’m amazed by how much progress the kids make every year. So much curriculum gets covered. So much information is incorporated. I’ve written before about marveling at how much Tim has learned about early American history this year, but Holly knows things about Alaska and the Iditarod that she didn’t have a clue about when the year started. Tim learned the basics of a lab experiment and started geometry. His Spanish vocabulary increased. Holly’s class discussed emancipation and the Underground Railroad.

Perhaps in some ways I’m envious. If I look back over the past nine months, I can name lots of events that happened in my life, but I can’t offer an itemized list of what I learned. I can name books I read, but I can’t give a straightforward account of what I know now that I didn’t know in September, the way my kids can. It’s all so quantifiable for them. They learned so much and they can tell you exactly what they learned. For me, the past nine months are a little harder to bullet-point.

In three months, we’ll be back on the school plaza. By the end of the first day of school, the kids will have some idea of the topics they’ll be covering over the following nine months. As always, I’ll listen rather abstractly when they tell me on that first day and then be amazed anew to realize at the end of the school year that they really did cover all that ground, they really did learn all that content.

It’s a remarkably successful system. I never fail to be impressed by it. And as I watched the teachers wave goodbye as the buses pulled away from the curb yesterday, I smiled, thinking about how much the teachers and the kids alike have to be proud of with another nine months of accomplishments under their belts as they say goodbye to another school year.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Dinner (and dress-up) with the visiting cousins

My sisters both live out of state and visit only two or three times a year. One of the best things for me about living next door to my parents is that we don’t have to spend time planning which household my sisters and their families will visit when. Instead, we all circulate indiscriminately between the two houses for the duration of their stay.

Sometimes we even plan a big family dinner with everyone sitting down at my parents’ long, narrow antique dining table together at a set time. But gradually, over the years, we’ve grown wiser. Although my older sister’s two teenage daughters have impeccable manners, my younger sister and I collectively have four children currently ranging in age from five to eleven, and we know better than to expect the centerpiece of any visit to be an organized sit-down multigenerational dinner. We’ve discovered over the years that the best times with all the cousins together happen over a craft project or a swim in the pond. A walk to the ice cream stand or an excursion to the playground usually works out well for everyone too. Big family dinners, not so much.

And yet sometimes they still end up at our house at dinnertime. Not having planned it out ahead of time, we have no great expectations for gentility; instead, on nights like last night, we sometimes just succumb to the urge to let the free-for-all happen and the pieces fall where they may. And even if it can be a bear of a job to clean up afterwards, it usually ends up being more fun than anything we could have tried to plan out.

Yesterday, my sister’s two children, Hannah and Andrew, were still playing at our house well after six o’clock, and Sarah wanted to go for a run, so I started making dinner. The kids’ games had evolved from making food out of play-dough and playing restaurant with it to using the back of the playroom couch as a balance beam, so they were already getting pretty wild. Rick had to go to a coaches’ meeting, so I’d planned an informal dinner of leftovers. When Sarah got back from her run, she and I started pulling things out of the fridge. Stir-fried vegetables. Marinated pork strips. Cooked basmati. Chicken turnovers. Pan-fried cod fillets. Pasta with roasted cherry tomato sauce. It was hard to believe all of these items had been main courses at my family’s dinner table within just the past few days: now the variety looked more overwhelming than appetizing, as we lined up all the Tupperware on the edge of the counter and tried to predict who might want what to eat.

Andrew, who is five, came downstairs to tell us they had been playing dress-up. Chances are we would have figured that out for ourselves: he was shirtless and wearing a magenta tutu with a headband holding butterfly antennae on his head. He looked like the character Mango from Saturday Night Live. (As my friend Leigh said when she dropped by to pick up her son and caught a glimpse of Andrew, “Now that’s a blackmail photo waiting to happen!”) Then Tim, the oldest at eleven, appeared in the kitchen repeating a chant about frogs and port-a-potties. Hannah, who like Holly is seven, showed up wearing a pair of Holly’s jeans instead of the striped dress in which she’d arrived at our house. Holly was conservatively clad in a pink velvet ball gown.

Dinner was a little complicated, as we pieced together leftovers for everyone and tried to keep the play-dough food separate from the real food, but we got through it and we had fun. Our standards of decorum at these thrown-together meals are low. We insist on modulated voices – both Sarah and I have a very low tolerance for kids who shriek – but other than that, we roll with it.

It was a quick meal for the kids. I offered to make s’mores in the oven for dessert; three of the four kids wanted one, but Sarah and I ended up eating most of them ourselves. By the time they were made, the kids were upstairs playing Nerf baseball. Andrew still had his tutu on.

Every time they visit, we seem to have at least one evening like this: mayhem from an outside perspective, but just typical fun from our point of view. The cousins get to spend some time together. By ten minutes after dinner, we had the kitchen all cleaned up. Everyone had eaten from a majority, if not all, of the major food groups. The kids were ready for baths.

Maybe next time they visit we’ll resuscitate the tradition of a big family dinner in my parents’ dining room. For this week, leftovers and s’mores seemed like the way to go. Messy and disorganized? Yes, but everyone had fun and got along well. As far as I’m concerned, Andrew in his magenta tutu is welcome for dinner any time.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Hanging up the phone to focus on the baby

An essay by pediatrician Claudia Gold in the Boston Globe earlier this week raised the issue of parents who talk on their cell phones when they should be playing with their babies. Meanwhile, the New York Times ran this story about parents whose kids are so frustrated by their parents’ distraction level, on account of the parents’ Blackberries, phones and computers, that the kids lobby for them to spend more time unplugged.

I’ve thought often over the past decade about the fact that for all intents and purposes, I didn’t have a cell phone during either of my two children’s babyhoods. In the case of my son, who was born in 1998, I simply didn’t own one yet. It was a short window of time in our cultural history when it was just beginning to be more typical to have a cell phone than not to have one, at least in my circles of suburban moms, but it wasn’t considered weird that I didn’t own one. When I finally bought my first cell phone in the spring of 2000, I joked often that I was the last person in America to have a cell phone, but in 1998 neither choice – to have a cell phone or not to – made you seem terribly unusual.

By the time my daughter was born four years later, it was unusual for anyone not to own a cell phone, but by then we’d moved to a semi-rural suburb where coverage was still very unreliable. I had a phone but couldn’t use it within town limits. So talking on the phone while at the pool or the playground or anywhere else when my children were very small was never a choice I had to make.

And for that I’m glad. My son went through a long phase during his first year when he was content only if he was being held or riding in a car; I don’t like driving all that much, so I usually opted for the holding option. I sometimes say now that if I’d had a cell phone at that time, my baby and I might never have left the car: I could have driven around, he would have been soothed, and I would have been occupied talking to my friends or my sisters by the hour. Since that’s clearly no way to spend a babyhood, I’m glad the temptation didn’t exist.

Besides, although it’s easy for me to say this now, with both my kids in grade school and the demands of infancy many years behind me, I think taking care of an infant is supposed to be kind of boring. Just as Dr. Gold says, ”It is certainly understandable that a parent would be drawn to the possibility of adult conversation [by using a cell phone]. Mothers may fear losing their minds in the face of the seemingly simplistic tasks of feeding, holding, and diaper changes. But in fact they are laying down the foundations of their babies’ healthy emotional development.”

But it’s not only for the baby’s sake. My theory is that parenting a baby is supposed to be boring for the same way long drives or housepainting are supposed to be boring: because it forces you to think, to let your mind wander. My freelance writing career took off when my son was eighteen months old; I think it’s because I had such a build-up of creative energy after that tedious first year of playground visits and nap schedules. Many employers have found the advantages of hiring women returning to the work force after time at home with an infant: their minds tend to be raring to go.

To some extent, this reminds me of a debate that cropped up when minivans were first outfitted with DVD players. “Now long family car rides don’t have to be boring; the kids can watch movies,” enthusiastic parents said. “But long family car rides are supposed to be boring; it’s a great American tradition,” retorted others. “Boring car rides are where you quarrel – and ultimately learn to get along – with your siblings. It’s where you play the license plate game and I Spy. It’s where you learn to watch the road and let your thoughts unspool.” And, of course, for some kids it’s where you do quite a lot of solitary reading. But not now, with DVD players, iPods and mobile computer games all available as options for kids on car rides.

I feel this way about airports, too. Strangers used to meet each other in airports, back when there was nothing to do but talk to whomever else was sitting at the gate. Now, no need to talk to strangers: you can make phone calls, get on line, work on your computer. I never see strangers strike up conversations in airports anymore.

And this brings me back to my point about how early parenthood benefits in some ways from the boredom factor. When there’s nothing to do at the playground but watch your child roll trucks through the sandbox, you become engaged in the process. You start to notice his interest in trucks and the way he manipulates the different plastic pieces so that he can excavate in the sand and operate the dump truck. You take an interest in this most mundane activity because you don’t have other choices, and you learn something in the process: what fun it is to watch closely as your own children develop and learn.

Moreover, as with airports, playgrounds used to be where parents met other parents. With nothing to do but stand there and push the swings, conversations arise and flourish. But not if the parents are on the phone. When my children were two and six years old, we had the opportunity to take a monthlong vacation in another state. I worried at first about leaving all my friends for a month, since my husband would be working and I tend to crave social company on a regular basis; but then I figured I’d meet other parents at the playground at our vacation destination. It turned out, however, that that didn’t happen. We were staying in a resort community where we were all vacationers and no one knew anyone else; at the playground, all the parents were on the phone talking to their pre-existing friends, and not that whole month did anyone strike up a conversation with me.

So I really like the idea that Dr. Gold is reminding parents to hang up and pay attention. Even now, I’ve avoided buying a smartphone because I don’t really want email constantly at my fingertips, and I avoid bringing my laptop downstairs with me once the kids are home from school and I’m doing things with them because I don’t want the diversion of email. The ability to concentrate on our kids is not a skill we should be willing to give up, but it does take practice.

Just as when Tim was a baby I would have happily driven around chatting on the phone while he dozed rather than carrying him around in my arms to soothe him if I’d had the choice, I admit that now there are times I’m a little more tempted by the idea of contacting an editor to follow up on a story idea than listening to my kids describe a recess event. But when I unplug and take the time to listen to them, or even to just watch them play, we all benefit. Just as parents have done for thousands of years, before there were other options beyond immersing ourselves in the sometimes dull but always important world of early childhood.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Memoir writing and "oversharing": How authors find that fine line between candor and too much information

During Sunday’s three-mile run, I listened to a podcast of Fresh Air on which Terry Gross interviewed the writer Ayelet Waldman. Since the occasion was the paperback release of Waldman’s parenting memoir, Bad Mother: A Chronicle of Maternal Crimes, Minor Calamities, and Occasional Moments of Grace, and since Ayelet Waldman is known among other things for her sometimes startling candor about her personal life and her relationships with her husband and children, the conversation turned quickly to the intimacy of the memoir form. Waldman said in the interview that she herself is mildly bipolar, and although she qualified that she did not mean to imply that all memoirists are bipolar, you sort of have to be, as she sees it, to overshare the way memoirists do. As she explained it, both people with bipolar disorder and memoir writers are missing a sense of the usual boundaries between public and private, and that’s what enables them to write about matters most people would consider too personal.

Since I suspect I’m about as far from bipolar as anyone can be – that is, firmly entrenched at the midpoint of mood possibilities, almost all the time – I don’t agree there’s necessarily a mandatory correlation between bipolarity and personal writing, but I’m interested nonetheless in her take on oversharing and how it factors into the memoir form. Last month I gave my memoir manuscript to a few friends and acquaintances to read, feeling the need to get more feedback than I’d gathered so far with the project, and although they generally haven’t gotten back to me with any comments yet – I suggested they take a couple of months to wade through it – I started to think about oversharing as soon as I’d handed it out. Was I guilty? Would they call me on it? Or is the memoir form woven in tightly enough to our contemporary literary fabric that readers simply take it for granted that if you’re going to write a memoir, it’s going to include more intimate details than the average person who is not writing a memoir would opt to divulge?

I’ve been writing personal essays about my friends, family and colleagues since I was in college. To me, the personal essay format is second nature – and to some extent my bread and butter – and I seldom think about the intimacy it implies. My eleven-year-old son knows I write essays in the newspaper about family life, and sometimes he chooses to read them and sometimes not, but he has never complained about content. My daughter Holly, who is seven and has appeared in several published pieces recently, has been telling anyone who asks that she is pointedly not interested in reading my essays about her. If the time comes that my children ask me to stop writing about them, I’ll comply with the request, but to me this is just part of my work as well as my art. Writing about my family is no different from an artist painting the view outside her studio window.

Still, Waldman’s comment made me think about whether my instincts are sound in what I share. Last month after I dropped off my manuscript with one of my reader-friends, her eleven-year-old son picked it up and started reading it. “He said he thinks some of the things you wrote would be better in a private journal than in a book,” my friend said. Well, I can understand why an eleven-year-old would see it that way. My memoir is not going to make sense to someone, whether adult or child, with no experience in the genre. As Waldman pointed out, the memoir form presumes authorial intimacy; a reader who doesn’t normally peruse memoirs is naturally going to wonder why the author is sharing so much, but I think it’s fair to say the precedent is well established at this point.

Waldman has become a highly respected writer with her own form of intimacy. I’ve been lucky that with a few exceptions, most notably the one involving my entire ex-book club, no one has accused me of writing too intimately about myself or about them. That could change, which is one reason I’m trying to get more friends and acquaintances to read through my manuscript and let me know what they think. But Waldman has found success with treading the fine line between candor and oversharing, and I’m hoping I can too.

Although the rules may change if Holly ever decides she wants to start reading my work after all.

Monday, June 14, 2010

The Sunday night rebound

I love going away for the weekend. I love the novelty of being somewhere else for just a night or two, getting to experience a different setting without the larger-scale effort of going on an actual vacation. Just leaving town from Friday evening to Sunday, or in the case of this weekend less: only twenty-four hours. Even twenty-four hours out of town feels special and festive to me.

What I don’t love so much is coming back. Not that I don’t also love to be home: I do. I like to get back to the familiar comforts of my own house and re-connect with whoever didn’t come with me: half the family, in the case of this weekend. I like to check on the pets and see what they’ve been lacking while I was away. I like to re-establish regular household routines, even after just a very short break from them. And not least, I’m always grateful for safe travels completed.

I don’t love coming back from a weekend away only because of the seemingly exponential trouble of catching up before a new work week begins. It just doesn’t make sense to me that as little as twenty-four hours away from home can generate this much extra work as Sunday draws to a close, and I thought this weekend would be different: I thought if I made the effort to bring fewer clothes and less food I’d spend much less time unpacking; if I spent more time leaving the house neat and taking care of tasks before we left, I’d find myself ahead of the game upon return.

But it never happens like that. I always feel overburdened upon returning, between unpacking, cleaning out the car, sorting clean from dirty laundry, getting perishables from the cooler back into the fridge, and then making dinner and ensuring that the kids have what they need for the upcoming Monday at school: snacks, lunches, permission slips, sneakers for PE class.

Common sense tells me that the best way to make Sunday evening after a trip run smoothly is to get home with plenty of time to spare. And yet my friend Nicole does exactly the opposite. When her family goes away for the weekend – which they do fairly often – she has no problem with staying out as long as possible. On Memorial Day weekend, although our families were staying in different towns, we spent an afternoon together at the beach in Maine. “What time are you heading home tomorrow?” I asked her, already thinking about Memorial Day traffic. “As late as we can,” she said. “We’ll have dinner on the porch and go back to the beach until the sun sets.”

“But how can you pull that off?” I asked her, not for the first time. “How are you organized for the new work week if you don’t leave here until after seven at night? How do you have the kids in bed on time? How do you get school lunches made?”

Nicole is a very organized person. She ticked off the ways. “We’ll have dinner before we leave for home, so that’s out of the way. The kids know the tradeoff for staying at the beach late is that they have to go straight to bed when we get home. And that it will be peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for lunch tomorrow. They brought their homework with them. They can pack their backpacks in the morning. It works out, and we get to have more fun by staying longer.”

As I hurried around my kitchen last night at ten o'clock still trying to get ready for a new workweek, I thought about that some more. It’s not like Nicole is being cavalier: she runs a household every bit as organized as mine, plus she has to go off to work in the morning, which I don’t. And I so envy her attitude, of not marring the weekend’s fun with an early departure; if you’re having a good time, why not make it last as long as possible? Her approach makes my conservative plan to get home with plenty of time to spare on Sunday seem so parsimonious.

But honestly, I’m still not sure how she does it. We got home at five yesterday and I’m still not unpacked. The kitchen is untidy; the car hasn’t been vacuumed; and the kids will have to rummage for school snacks in the morning. I didn’t manage well at all as far as the end-of-the-weekend return home.

I want to make it work Nicole’s way: make the fun last as long as possible and then make everything fall into place in the morning. She’s lucky as well as talented in the way that her kids know exactly what they need to do to make the plan work out. Her family’s weekend included three more hours of fun than ours did, and even leaving midafternoon wasn’t enough to keep me from being frazzled by bedtime.

So I’ll keep working on it, and maybe someday I’ll figure out how Nicole makes it work when I can’t. Mostly, I just try to remind myself that part of it might be a willingness to compromise. Peanut butter and jelly for school lunches? It’s not what we normally do, but maybe the kids would agree it was worth a little extra time outdoors on a sunny Sunday.

Friday, June 11, 2010

Second grade class play

It’s a busy week of end-of-year school events. Tim’s concert was Monday; Holly’s class play was yesterday.

Everything about my kids’ classrooms, year after year, reminds me of how nurtured they are at our local public school. The bulletin board displays; the carefully organized schedules the teachers post; the classroom libraries; the art supplies; the accessibility the students have to all of it. And I just can’t believe my children are so lucky, so well cared for and so much cared about. I know how much I love and care about them; I’m their mother. But it’s so much more than I expect from a school system, and yet the message is irrefutable whenever I’m on campus: this is a place where we help children learn and develop.

It goes without saying that you really can’t watch a second grade play without a touch of weepiness. The kids are just so genuinely proud of themselves, and the play itself represented such a rich and multi-faceted learning module: they studied folk tales, they learned songs, they designed sets and costumes, they practiced one of the songs in sign language. It’s not just a performance; it’s a display of cross-curricular education. Putting on a play requires other skills when you’re in second grade too. You learn to listen carefully as you wait for your cues. You practice working together with your classmates to create something that involves everyone. I think it was even a little workout for their organizational skills, as they learned to keep track of all the different pieces of their costumes and store them properly after each performance during the week-long series of shows.

Every school year ends with some kind of classroom event, and every year it’s hard for me to face the fact that another school year is over. I always feel like the kids have learned and developed so much in each respective class; I’m reluctant to give up the rapport they’ve developed with their teacher and classmates, even knowing that it will all start again in another three months.

Sitting on a diminutive molded plastic seat watching the kids dressed as rainforest creatures and acting out a folk tale, I felt all of these things: the nostalgia, the sentimentality, the admiration for all they’d learned, the bittersweetness of saying goodbye to another great school year. And I also felt the unfairness of it, the injustice that my children and their classmates have so much that can’t possibly be distributed where it is most needed. While Holly and her peers prance their way through the rainforest of their classroom, children in Haiti are still living in mud-drenched tents. School is becoming a distant memory for them; now they don’t have homes, they don’t have schools, many of them don’t even have parents. And here we are with the most wonderful second grade teacher and campus and resources a family could ever want. It’s so hard to face the fact that most children have so much less.

Holly knows this only very vaguely, I think. She was proud of her class’s performance of their rainforest folk tale, and she was excited that she got to take her monkey costume home at the end. She doesn’t understand what a rare gift all of this is: a comfortable well-furnished school, a caring and expert teacher. Even parents to fill up the seats in the audience. Someday she’ll know; she’ll see it from an adult perspective. Someday maybe she’ll work to lessen the injustice just a little bit. For now, she’s happy that I took a video of the performance for Rick to see. And for now, that will have to be enough.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

At home with a cold

I hardly ever get sick, even with minor things like colds or stomach viruses, which I credit to a combination of daily exercise, lots of hydration (really, I’m convinced that because I drink three quarts of water a day, a lot of the germs that attack other people simply wash right through me), an enormous helping of good luck, and to a tiny degree the fact that as we all know, mothers can’t get sick, so when we’re feeling a little under the weather, we tend to ignore it. It’s a tree-falls-in-the-forest kind of thing: if we’re the ones who feel foreheads for fevers and dose out Tylenol but no one does that for us, then we must not be sick, right?

This week, though, I’ve indulged in a good old-fashioned head cold. Well, it doesn’t feel so indulgent. My throat is scratchy, my voice sounds like gravel on a cheese grater, my eyes burn, the rest of me is achy, and my thoughts are unfocused. But it’s indulgent in that for once I’ve just succumbed to it: complained to everyone in sight, sucked up every last crumb of sympathy tossed my way (and thanks to the gravelly voice, no one I cross paths with can miss the fact that I’m sick), and spent the day slouching around the house.

I’ve also given myself all kinds of free passes when it comes to parenting in the past 24 hours. Last night, Tim and Rick had a baseball game. I was feeling worn out by six o’clock. Holly could hardly believe her good luck when I conceded to her request to watch TV, but that’s what happens when Mom has a bad cold: everyone has a little more fun than usual. And when Holly admitted all she really felt like for dinner was a bowl of cereal, I felt grateful rather than negligent. So she watched TV, ate some cereal, and then took a long shower, while I felt relieved not to be called on to do anything more complicated than read her a few chapters of Fantastic Mr. Fox before bed.

After we’d read for about ten minutes – all I could manage with my scratchy throat – Holly wanted to snuggle with me before she went to bed. While we lay on the couch, I started to laugh, because it reminded me of a conversation I witnessed years ago between my parents. Holly wanted to know what I was laughing about, so I tried to retell it to her. This took place when my eldest niece was a baby and had a bad cold, and like most infants when they’re not feeling well, she just wanted to be held, preferably carried snugly against someone’s warm front while they stayed in motion. My mother happened to have a cold that week as well, and she commented that it was curious that babies want to be held close and carried when they’re not feeling well, since all she herself wanted was to be left alone. “Really, can you imagine thinking it would feel good to be lugged around all day rather than just allowed to lie in bed?” she asked my father.

He pointed out that to an adult, the idea of being carried around didn’t sound appealing for biomechanical reasons, but for a baby it was different; at their size, their limbs aren’t sprawled and nothing dangles awkwardly down. To know what it would actually feel like and why it might be comforting, he went on to say, you’d have to imagine being carried by someone as proportionately larger to you as an adult is to a baby.

“Imagine if Wilt Chamberlain was carrying you around,” he told my mother. She demurred though, opining that even if the 7’ 1” NBA legend were available to be summoned to the house for the sake of toting her around all day until she felt better, it still wouldn’t be her method of choice for coping with a cold. I had to agree, but the image of Wilt Chamberlain carrying my mother around while she coughs and sneezes is still enough to make me laugh. Even when I have a cold.

So I’ll put up with my cold just the way I’m doing this week: with kind sympathy from friends, cereal for dinner and a free pass on all the usual tasks that make up my day. I’m sure I’ll be feeling better soon. Along with being fortunate enough to hardly ever get sick, I recuperate quickly. Wilt Chamberlain? I’ll pass, thanks. Snuggling with my seven-year-old before she goes to bed is enough closeness for me until the postnasal drip goes away.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

A short excursion on a sunny afternoon

It’s always pleasing when the most unplanned excursions turn out to be so much fun. For all the time I spend scrutinizing the family calendar and reading up on regional cultural highlights, figuring out which weekend we might be able to visit this museum or that landmark only to see the plans nudged aside by bad weather, Tim’s baseball schedule, too much work for Rick, or the out-and-out preference all four of us often cannot resist to just stay home when the opportunity arises – as I call it, the ever-present fine balance between agoraphobia and cocooning -- sometimes something that required no planning, research or advance ticket sales at all just happens and we have a great time. Familial serendipity.

Yesterday afternoon was just such an experience, though it was almost too minor to even term an excursion. I received an email saying that a library book Tim was on the reserve list for was finally available, and Tim asked me if I’d pick it up for him. Holly climbed off the bus cheerful and dynamic, unlike the day before; she skipped down the driveway, making me think maybe she was good for more than an afternoon snack and some coloring, which is how she often opts to spend the hour or two before dinner. The weather was sunny and cool.

“Want to go to the library with me to pick up a book for Tim?” I asked Holly. “If you’ll walk or ride your bike, you can buy a snack at Ferns.” Ferns is our local country store and it’s across the street from the library; both are exactly a mile from our house. In my ongoing efforts to see Holly spend time outdoors, active and exercising, I often couple a small treat with a walk or bike ride. It’s less of an issue with Tim because he plays so much baseball at this time of year.

Holly said she’d go with me, which I didn’t expect, but even more surprising was that when I asked Tim if he wanted to come along just so as not to overlook him entirely, he said he would. That was unusual; he usually opts for homework, reading and computer games in the late afternoon hours. I’m not sure what enticed him yesterday, but I was happy as the three of us set out on our bikes at about 4:30. It felt like a fine way to take advantage of a sunny mild afternoon, one in which we still had hours of sunlight left in the day although at other times of year it would have been dark by then already.

And despite the lack of planning and anticipation, we had a great time. Not even a minor bike malfunction could mar the fun: outside the post office, Tim’s chain got stuck in a gear sprocket, and although I know how to fix a derailed chain, I couldn’t get this one unstuck. As we stood there attempting to fix it, the postmaster himself came out of the building and pried it back into place for us. I was impressed with his abilities and tremendously grateful for his willingness to leave the office to help us.

We continued on our way, picked up the book, and then sat on the farmer’s porch at Ferns, basking in the late-afternoon western exposure. The kids ate ice cream sandwiches; Holly left me a quarter of hers to finish, which was a bonus I never expect these days.

It was a small and simple excursion, but a reminder of how much fun it is when circumstances just fall into place like that. By bedtime, a bad cold was lodging its way into my head and chest, and biking was the last thing I felt like doing. But I was so glad we’d taken advantage of an open and sunny afternoon. Sometimes I’m disappointed when plans I’ve taken great pains to organize fail to execute, but then I remember spontaneous pleasures like yesterday and I’m reminded of how things tend to balance out, one way or another, as long as you don’t work too hard at it.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Fifth grade spring concert night

Last night was Tim’s fifth grade concert. Because we’ve been so busy lately and because Tim wasn’t all that excited about it, I wasn’t particularly looking forward to it, but about an hour before it started I realized that if nothing else, it would be a chance to sit still and in silence for 90 minutes, and that was definitely something I could benefit from. I feel that way at church sometimes too: if I get nothing else out of the service – which never happens, but just if – at least I get an hour of quiet time to myself.

It was a moderately frazzling afternoon. Holly got off the bus complaining, as she often does. She’s not complaining about school: she’s just unwinding after being a well-behaved second grader all day. She wanted her friend Bella to come over and kept asking after I said it wasn’t a good day for playdates; she wanted a different snack from the one I offered; the usual kinds of complaints. I remind myself that this is how she unburdens herself emotionally after holding it together at school and on the bus, and it’s reasonable and healthy even if not particularly pleasant for me. Then the dog decided to go next door rather than come home, so I had to go retrieve her from the wilds of the weeds surrounding the pond; and then I went to pick up the dry cleaning Rick urgently needed for work today only to be told the shirts hadn’t arrived yet and I’d have to wait a half-hour. Naturally, I’d just cleaned out the car and didn’t have so much as a single section of newspaper with me, not to mention a book or my laptop: not a shred of reading material on me, which is rare. Instead, I waited around for a half hour, but the shirts never arrived, so the trip was wasted.

All of this was why once I stopped and thought about it, I was happy for the prospect of the ninety minutes of tranquility I could expect during Tim’s concert.

And I had that, but I also realized I had been overlooking how much I enjoy school concerts. At our school, the kids can start in the instrumental and choral program in fourth grade, so this is only our second set of semi-yearly performances. And this is the first one in which we’ve wrangled Tim into appropriate clothing. We’ve had a bear of a time getting him to wear anything except sweat pants and t-shirts for the past several years, whether the occasion is a concert, a church service, or a family party. In February, when Rick’s grandfather died we finally put our collective parental foot down and told Tim he had no choice but to wear a button-down Oxford shirt and pants with a zipper for the services; as a result, at least Tim finally has one decent outfit for special occasions, and back out it came for the concert. It was the first time Tim was not the worst-dressed kid on stage; I can triumphantly report that there are still two boys in the fifth grade behind Tim in terms of sartorial progress. They were wearing shorts and polo shirts. I glowed with pride at the mundane feat of getting my son to dress reasonably for once.

Even though Tim hasn’t had as much fun playing his trumpet this year as last, I really enjoyed seeing him in the concert, and all his classmates too. The girls all looked so pretty, with their swishy rayon skirts, their spaghetti strap tops and their hair brushed out shiny. The boys would have looked adorable to me if I wasn’t so envious as I noted they still almost all dress better than Tim: now that I finally have him in an Oxford, they’re wearing sports coats.

Almost every year, there are one or two chances to see each child in some kind of performance: class play, chorus, band. And every year, I find myself thinking that surely this is the cutest age. Oh, the Rainforest Play back in kindergarten was great, of course, but they’re cute just by definition then. As they get older, it’s almost more endearing to see them shed (most of) their self-consciousness to act like a toucan or sing an African hunting song. Last year, when Tim was in fourth grade, I thought they were at their cutest because they were still young but clearly so proud to be dressed up and performing in a band. This year they seemed even cuter to me, though, as they take on the physical manifestations and larger size of pre-teens but carry the sweet ingenuity of the children they still are. It was clear that the pride of doing an introductory reading or playing a trombone part meant a lot more to them than a pretty dress or a complicated hair-do. That will surely change, at least for some of them.

So the interlude of tranquility was wonderful, but the performance itself was even more so. Every year, I think the kids have reached their cutest point. Every year they surpass the year before. Only three more years until eighth grade graduation. God willing, we’ll be there and I’ll be once again thinking “Oh sure, the kindergarten rainforest play was cute, and the fifth grade chorale numbers were sweet, but this is their cutest stage yet.” And with any luck, we’ll have Tim in a tie by then.

Monday, June 7, 2010

A trivial prank -- and big questions about memory retrieval

It was a very improbable set of circumstances that caused me to ponder the nature of memory for much of the past 24 hours. Even knowing that there must be centuries of research and reams of scholarship dedicated to the topic of brains and memory, of what and how our minds remember, I find it’s the most trivial events that make me stop and wonder how our brains really work.

In my case, it began with a silly practical joke that someone played on me over the weekend.

My son took part in a baseball exhibition event at the baseball field complex in the town next to ours. Hundreds of kids played games of baseball and took part in skills competitions using four fields in the space of about four hours. Because of the magnitude of the event and the number of people at the field, a gourmet sandwich shop from a nearby town set up a barbeque concession stand and asked the league organizers to get some parent volunteers to help on the selling end while they ran the grill. As I understood it, there was some small fundraising component involved, so parents were encouraged to sign up for a shift.

I didn’t know until I got there that the caterers running the concession stand were the same ones I worked for a couple of summers when I was in college, but as I slipped on my plastic gloves for a turn behind the counter, I was looking forward to a chance to catch up with the owner, whom I run into at events in the area or at his own sandwich shop only about once every ten years. His name was Rick Gordon, and he’d been great fun to work for back when I was in college. He had a wife and three daughters who were still young the last time we’d chatted. I was curious to hear what was new with all of them. Coincidentally, in the late 1990s I had a co-worker named Karen Stroman whose husband Peter was close friends with Rick Gordon, so occasionally when there was a social gathering outside of work Karen’s husband Peter would give me an update on the Gordon family, but for the most part I didn’t know much about what had gone on with them over the past decade.

The thing was, as I took my place behind the counter, I wasn’t entirely sure it was Rick Gordon manning the grill. In our few past encounters, I’d been surprised by how young he continued to look; this time he definitely looked older. But it had been ten years; that made sense. We made eye contact, and I could tell he recognized a familiar face even if he didn’t know exactly who I was. “Rick Gordon?” I asked. “Yes!” he said. “I’m Nancy West. I used to work for you.” “I know that! I recognized you!” he answered.

He introduced me to his barbeque assistant, a college kid named Matt. I turned back to the counter and sold some hamburgers and hot dogs, but when the initial crowd subsided, Rick and I started chatting. I worked the concession stand for two hours; every now and then we’d get a surge of business, but we also had plenty of down time to talk. Even if I might not have recognized him, his voice was familiar, they way voices are years later, with an unforgettable twang. I asked about his three daughters. Two are in college now; one in high school. I asked about business; he said it was good. I mentioned a rumor I’d heard that he might be opening a restaurant in a vacant space near his shop; he said he’d considered it but decided against it.

I didn’t mention our mutual friends Karen and Pete Stroman, since I had nothing particular to say about them. Occasionally Rick’s assistant Matt entered the conversation too, and then I’d go back to selling and we’d drop the thread, then resume it later. At one point, Rick went to his van to get more supplies. “I’m so impressed that they’re still in this business,” I said to Matt when he was gone. “When I worked for Rick and Paula, they had just bought the shop and were just starting out. It’s such a hard business to be in and I’m so impressed that they’ve been so successful.” Matt smiled politely but looked a little bit oddly at me. Rick hadn’t mentioned his wife Paula at all; I wondered if maybe they were not still married. The restaurant business is known for being hard on family life. Matt clearly wasn’t going to go down that road. He simply concurred it’s a tough business and the Gordons had done well at it.

Two hours later we were finally getting ready to close up shop. “Nancy, I gotta tell you something,” Rick said suddenly. I wondered if it was about his wife. “I’m not Rick Gordon.” I looked at him, bewildered but silent, trying to marshal my puzzlement. “I am someone you know, though.” One more beat went by and then the jigsaw puzzle pieces in my brain clattered together. That distinctive twangy voice wasn’t Rick’s at all.

“No,” I said, and it was one of those fabled moments when the words come out exactly concurrent with the idea being formed in your mind, so you feel like you’re speaking in tongues. “You’re not Rick; you’re Peter Stroman.” Of course: the stature, the twang, even the look that seemed a little more aged than I expected of Rick: not Rick at all, but his good friend Peter, husband of my former co-worker Karen.

“I’m really sorry to fool you,” Peter said. “You thought I was Rick when you first got here, and I thought it would be funny to pretend I was. Then it started to seem like we were on a reality show. And everything I told you about the store and Rick’s girls and their summer vacation plans and everything else is true. Matt is his nephew. I was right about all of it, right, Matt?”

Poor Matt looked bewildered. “Yeah, I just didn’t really know why you were doing it.”

“Well, now we have to start all over again so you can tell me about what’s going on with you, and Karen, and your girls!” I said, because I do always love catching up with old acquaintances.

So Peter took about five minutes to catch me up on his family, and then he apologized again for the ridiculously drawn-out prank and said again that it reminded him of being on a reality show.

So okay, whatever. As I think it over two days later, I see it as kind of a dumb thing to do and a little bit mocking of me, but really I don’t care that much. It just doesn’t particularly matter.

What perplexes me isn’t about Peter; it’s about me. Somewhere in my brain, I must have known. Peter actually has a quite distinctive voice, and it is different from Rick’s. Some corner of my brain had to be remembering that voice and know it belonged to someone other than Rick Gordon; some other part of my brain had to remember it was Peter’s. And yet the thought simply wasn’t able to bubble to the surface.

At the same time, another part of me keeps asking what would have happened if it had. Suppose at some point during those two hours, a voice in my head had suddenly said, “Wait a minute, that’s not Rick. That’s Peter Stroman.” What would I have done at that point? Would I actually have looked at him and said “You’re fooling me. You’re not who you said you were.” That’s really hard to picture. This is someone twenty years older than me whom I used to work for, after all. (Or that’s who I thought it was, anyway.) We’re a little old and a little far removed from each other for pranks. Is it possible the reason my brain never kicked in to full memory retrieval gear is that it just would have been too weird to have to deal with the consequences?

I don’t know. Last year I read a memoir by Jill Price called The Woman Who Can't Forget: The Extraordinary Story of Living with the Most Remarkable Memory Known to Science, about a woman whose brain recalls every detail of every day of her life. It’s a very strange syndrome and, to hear Price describe it, not an enviable one either. The memoir is fascinating because of what it tells us about how the brain works: both in typical people, where the brain holds on to critical information and details and allows the rest to be lost in the blur of time, and in non-typical people like Price who is nearly driven to distraction by the amount of clamor in her mind from remembering everything that ever happened to her and losing nothing to the blur of time.

I’m generally someone with a good memory, which is one reason I’m so curious about why this time it didn’t compute. I’ll never know; nor will I ever really understand why Peter Stroman spent two hours playing a practical joke on me. Maybe the lesson is one about attention, though: being more attentive to details, paying closer attention to what’s going on. I’m not sure, and as I said, I don’t particularly care about being the object of the prank. It’s left me with a provocative nagging question about how memory works, a question yet to be answered.

Friday, June 4, 2010

Walk to School Day deemed a success!

It was mostly coincidence, and partly just end-of-school-year pileup, that led to my being responsible for two large-scale events this week: the Teacher Appreciation Luncheon on Tuesday and Walk-to-School Day yesterday. Now both are behind me, and I can breathe a huge sigh of relief and hope that I never again have a stress headache like the one I had on Monday evening as I looked ahead to these two events.

With the luncheon behind me, I turned my focus to yesterday’s event, which was a bit more of a challenge. Within the past couple of years, our town has installed half-mile-long footpaths along the four major roads leading into the center of town. This enables us to take part in the statewide Safe Routes to School program, which sponsors a semi-yearly Walk to School Day. Our school has done Walk to School Day four times before – twice in the fall and twice in the spring – and my enduring memories of it are dance music blasting on the school plaza, ticker tape parades, and raffles in which kids won things like iPod Nanos. I agreed to chair the event this time around if the focus could be on walking rather than on prizes and rallies. Simplifying and omitting most of the hoopla, my co-chair and I put our efforts behind promoting the idea that we would provide chaperoned walks along all four footpaths, with designated drop-off spots, adult guides, and help at the crosswalks.

The problem was that I overpromised, a little. While it was a good idea, we didn’t get the volunteer response I expected. I scrounged up four adults willing to lead the walks along the respective footpaths, and at the last minute we found two more to staff the checkpoints at the entrance to the school (it turns out the Safe Routes program requires us to track how many walkers we have in each grade, so the checkpoints and the raffle tickets have a purpose in terms of collecting that information), but I didn’t have enough adults to assist at every crosswalk (our police department was willing to help, but it’s a small force and they couldn’t guarantee coverage everywhere we needed it), and I knew the guided walks would be a lot safer if there was more than one adult with each group.

So I greeted the day with a minor sense of dread. I’d set up and publicized an event that I couldn’t follow through with one hundred percent, and that’s not a good feeling. I couldn’t stop thinking about the fact that if any child had an unfortunate encounter with a car during Walk to School Day, it would be on my head.

Yet the event worked out well. Dozens of families showed up for it, which surprised me a little. When my seven-year-old and I reached the parking lot of the ice cream stand which was designated as our group’s starting point, I was relieved to see so many adults who planned to join us, and Holly was happy to see two of her good friends there. I expected to walk with her, but a five-year-old named Noah grabbed my hand and didn’t let go until we reached the door to the kindergarten building. And Noah was a slow walker. So Holly had her own walk with her friends.

It was a beautiful sunny day, and no one demanded to know where the amplified dance hits, pep squads or armfuls of swag from previous Walk-to-School Day events were. The kids and the adults alike seemed happy simply to have participated. Better still, later in the day I learned that even though my older child, who is on an earlier schedule than Holly, had planned to take the bus instead of walk, when he reached the end of our driveway, he saw two friends passing by and they called to him to join them, so he ended up walking as well.

With my two dozen young charges – including the sluggish but sweet Noah – delivered safely to school, I put on my headphones and looked forward to running home by myself, full of relief that the morning seemed to have been safe and fun for all involved. As I reached my car, which was parked at the ice cream stand, the manager came out to inquire about my parents and say he hadn’t seen them in a while. Then he told me to wait because he wanted to give me some ice cream for them and some for me. I couldn’t quite imagine eating an ice cream cone at 9:30 in the morning, nor did I know how I’d take cones back to my parents, but I dutifully waited, and soon he emerged from the ice cream stand not with cones but with two half-gallon containers. I took them home and put it in the freezer to take over to my parents later in the day.

Four hours later, alone in my house and still buoyed by the success of the event, I had an idea. How about an ice cream sundae?

I didn’t have any sauce on hand, but that was remedied easily enough. Some chocolate chips, a little heavy cream, a few grains of salt and a splash of vanilla in a glass bowl. Microwave for two minutes. Drizzle – okay, slosh – over scoops of vanilla ice cream.

Delicious. Celebratory. A wonderful way to sign off on Back to School Day and a very busy week.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

A perfectly beautiful early June day

Despite the fact that I’ve lived in this state for over forty years and in this town for the majority of them and despite the additional fact that I make a living as a writer, there are days so beautiful they leave me wordless, unable to put together any descriptive prose at all to reflect their magnificence, and yesterday was just such a day.

You would think I would have seen enough days like this in New England to be able to describe the smell of the air, the cant of the sunlight. You would think I would know enough words at this point in my career to have all the adjectives and correct botanical terms to be able to describe the glimmering emerald leaves and the lush grasses. But I don’t. Forty-plus years here, and a career in journalism, and I still don’t have the words for an early June day that feels like summer in Carlisle.

The sunlight was strong but not hot, warming up the air and the ground one degree at a time, persistent but not overpowering. The sky was clear, and there were so many smells in the air: lilacs with a perfume that would be overpowering if it were not natural, but because it’s part of the outdoors and springtime, it’s gorgeous on the verge of cloying. By late morning, there was the heavy scent of mulching grass in the air, that damp, humid, green smell that emanates from the foliage beginning after the first few hot days of spring and lasting through August.

Living on a farm, with flat pastures and long sight lines, I’m particularly aware of the foliage throughout the year. In the winter, when the branches are bare, I can see from the barn all the way out to the road in the morning; after I say goodbye to Tim and head out to feed the cows, I can see his school bus pass by all the way across two pastures and a border of woods five minutes later. Yesterday as I let the sheep out, I couldn’t see so much as a flash of yellow when the school bus presumably went by; the branches made too thick a curtain. An hour later, waiting with Holly for her bus, I notice the same thing: in winter and early spring, out at the road I can see from a tenth of a mile away when the bus is coming; at this time of year, with the branches so thick with an abundance of leaves, I can’t see ten feet around the curve of the road to know when it’s about to arrive.

At night on a day as perfect as yesterday, the air still smells like lilacs and is full of sounds: crickets, peepers, and toward midnight a family of coyotes yipping their strange coded patterns. The early sunrise makes it easier for me to wake up early.

I’m dismal at nature writing. I don’t know the proper terms for what I see, and I’m not good with lyrical descriptions anyway; as a journalist, I’m better at describing what happened than spinning similes. I’m trying to improve, though. Right now I’m reading A Walk in the Wilderness by T.A. Barron and John Fielder to try to grasp their method of describing natural landscapes, and I recently picked up a collection of Thoreau’s essays about nature as well. I don’t expect to get good at it, but maybe through absorption and imitation I can improve.

Perfect June days like yesterday defy my powers to describe them and make a mockery of my attempts to immortalize them in words. So rather than trying further to write it out, I’ll just absorb the magnificence of a hot, sunny, dry day in June, with blue sky and yellow sunshine and pale green grasses and emerald green leaves, and save my words for another time.