Friday, July 30, 2010

Old journals: Archive? Toss? Recycle? Pass on?

Journalist/editor Lylah Alphonse wrote here in her blog, “Write. Edit. Repeat.,” about how she is in the midst of a big decluttering project and is contemplating what to do with old journals. I know the feeling.

Like Lylah, I have a series of media on which are stored four decades of my most personal reflections: floral cloth-bound books from junior high, quaint marble-covered tablets from high school (even then I found them quaint; I just liked the way they looked), plain white typing paper from my college years, yellow lined legal pads from my twenties, and then, like Lylah, I progressed from paper to electronic journals. Also like Lylah, mine somewhat reflect the march of computer technology: floppy disks, then CDs, then thumb drives; and yes, I too know that the technology no longer exists – except maybe in computer museums – to read the files on some of those 1980’s-era floppy disks.

But it doesn’t matter to me. I don’t expect anyone to read any of these journals. Not the handwritten notebooks, not the reams of typed pages, not the computer files. They’re just too boring. How do I know this? Because I myself find them too boring to read. And I figure if anyone is going to become engrossed in my thoughts, memories, musings and experiences, it’s going to be me. It’s very hard to imagine anyone else caring. Even if some of the experiences briefly caught someone’s interest, there’s an awful lot of chaff with the meat.

But that’s okay. It’s my journal; it’s supposed to be boring. In effect, since I’m a writer by profession, my journal represents the cutting room floor. The interesting parts make it into my published articles, essays, columns and (arguably) my blog; what never gets past my journal clearly doesn’t deserve to see the light of day.

So the boxes will stay in the attic, because I cannot picture in my mind’s eye the person who would ever wish to read them. Someday my children might open them up and take a peek, but I think they’d quickly get bored. My journal is where I ruminate, analyze, argue, debate, complain. Who would want to read thousands upon thousands of words like that?

When my sisters and I were young, we found an old diary of my mother’s. We loved the fact that we’d found it, and with my mother’s (possibly grudging) permission, we read it cover to cover. But this was the diary of a 12-year-old, one who to my knowledge was not particularly interested in prose. She used it primarily for narrative purposes. Unlike me, she didn’t analyze or postulate: she briefly summarized the events of her day, and that part stayed interesting a generation later. From my mother’s diary, I learned that going to movies was something kids her age, at least in her community, did weekly if not even more often. Since movies were just an occasional treat for us, I was surprised to learn how common it was for her, and I formed the idea that it might have been because there was so little on TV at that time.

In the same way that I read about my mother going to the movies, I suppose it’s possible that a future reader of my journals might find some kind of historical interest. But really, I don’t expect there to be any future readers. The value of journal writing, as I see it, is in the process, not the product. I reap the rewards of a daily writing practice; what happens to the output really doesn't matter.

So I’ll keep writing daily, and I’ll be grateful that attic space is no longer an issue; unlike the bulky notebook days, it would take centuries, not years, to fill up a carton with the thumb drives on which I now store my journal files. And if my children or anyone else is ever tempted? As long as I’m not here to have to answer their questions about content (“Really, Mom, why did it matter so much that Daddy didn’t empty the dishwasher?”), I’m fine with it. But they should be forewarned: it’s pretty boring stuff. And I promise already that I’m not insulted if they take a look and then decide to forego the rest.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Early morning running

Unexpectedly, I’ve returned this month to a habit from college summers: early morning running. And it’s been wonderful.

There are so many advantages to running right after waking, but other habits had evolved over the past several years, and I’d drifted away from that kind of schedule.

For a long time now, even during the past two years and eleven months while I’ve been committed to running every day, my running schedule has varied from month to month. For the two summers I was running with my son, we usually went at the end of the day; he just wasn’t interested in getting up early for the sake of exercising. In other phases, I’ve gone in the late afternoon or just before dinner. During the school year, I usually run midmorning, right around the time the dog starts to get restless, and toward the end of last spring I fell into the habit of setting off on my run right from the bus stop after Holly boarded her bus to school.

So early mornings haven’t been my time for running since college days. But there are so many reasons it’s a great time to run, and in the past month I’ve been reminded of what they all are, now that once again – with Rick off to work by eight, the sun so hot for much of the day this summer, and Tim’s baseball games most evenings – I’m in the habit of rolling out of bed, pulling on my running clothes and hitting the road.

The fact is, as much as I tell myself that running is something to look forward to and not to get over with, it’s so satisfying to know as the day gets under way that you’ve already accomplished that one simple goal of running two miles, or whatever the goal may be. Back when I ran in the late afternoon, I’d tell myself it was something to look forward to all day, an interlude of solitude as the day ended. But really, more often than not, I looked ahead with a sense of wariness, especially during hot weather. Haven’t I done enough today? I’d catch myself wondering. I’ve biked with the kids, gone swimming, walked all over the supermarket; do I really still have to go running?

Heading out first thing in the morning is different. I love the cool air that lasts only an hour or two after sunrise; it’s like I’m getting in on the early bird special by taking advantage of the shaded roadways early enough that the July sun hasn’t yet heated them. My kids are still asleep as I head out; they won’t even realize that they’re missing out on time with me. I like seeing the early morning commuters, the bicyclists, the neighbors out retrieving their newspapers. The school campus lies still as it waits for the onslaught of day-campers, the library parking lot empty, the post office just opening for business. The day is just beginning, and I’m out greeting it. Somehow it makes me feel ahead of the game.

The satisfaction lasts throughout the rest of the day. I ran my two miles; what about you? I think, but the thought is directed toward no one in particular. It’s not like most of the people I see throughout a typical day couldn’t run two miles if they wanted to, or haven’t done something even more physically challenging themselves at some point during the day. It’s just the sense that by getting out early, I’m resting on my laurels for all the hours that remain. Yes, writing deadlines need to be met, loads of laundry started, sandwiches made, trips to the vet or the pharmacy undertaken. But I do it all knowing I already went running. It’s a small and trivial achievement, but somehow it still makes me feel I’ve accomplished something worthwhile, regardless of what other challenges the day brings.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Stuck in the kitchen

I can’t seem to get out of the kitchen this summer.

Yes, I realize how stereotypical that sounds: Mom’s stuck in the kitchen. Not only have I always resisted the cliché of being the predominant meal producer in the family; I don’t even like the domestic cliché of “kitchen as the heart of the home.” Although our kitchen is very much designed in the current trend of kitchen-as-gathering-place, I often insist when friends come over that we sit somewhere else for drinks and appetizers, because standing behind the counter while friends eat and drink always makes me feel like Sam the Bartender.

So it’s frustrating that I seem unable to leave the boundaries of that particular room these days. With the kids home full-time for summer vacation – their choice that they did not want to do camp or regular classes, and our out-of-town trip doesn’t come for several more weeks – I feel like I’m in the kitchen hour after hour.

It starts in the morning as soon as I return from my run. The kids drift down to the kitchen one at a time; both want something different for breakfast. The dog needs to be fed too. I give the dog her scoop of kibble and put bagels or toast in the toaster for the kids; then I slice a peach for myself and try to make it across the room to the coffee grinder without getting distracted by other tasks, reminding myself frequently of the oxygen-mask rule of parenting: secure your own airflow before you help other passengers. Meaning, in this case, I can’t help everyone else if I’m ravenous myself.

And then as soon as I’ve provided sustenance for pet, children and self, it’s out to the barnyard to let the sheep out to pasture; they’re hungry too after twelve hours in their enclosure, safe from coyotes but far from fresh grazing.

Feed, then clean up, then up to my writing desk for three hours – which in the summer is the extent of my work day -- and then it’s time to make lunch. Again, both kids have different requests. Again, I farm out to them what I can – fetch this from the fridge; put that in the sink; someone please let the dog out; someone please let the dog in – but it’s still me orchestrating the whole thing. With a minor pang of despair I watch the kids take their last bites of lunch just as I begin making my own, knowing sitting down to eat a sandwich and read the paper is once again a bit of a pipe dream now that they’re done eating and will be eager to start our afternoon activities, which usually begin with leaving the house to go swimming.

Some evenings dinner is traditional sit-down; four out of seven, though, Tim and Rick are at evening baseball games, Tim as player and Rick as coach. That means Tim needs a hearty snack before he leaves for the game, and then once they’re gone I start thinking about what I can make that Holly and I can enjoy at a regular dinner hour but that Rick and Tim can reheat when they get home.

On the weekends, I all but insist we go out at least once. “I need just one meal a week when it’s not my responsibility to figure out what anyone else should eat,” I implore my family. So we go out, and I make them decide where to go; I don’t even want to think about menus on the night we go out. I just want someone else to take care of it.

I’m learning this summer to take a Zen attitude, to see the beauty in the ceaseless cycle of cooking and serving and cleaning. I revel in the sound of the disposal and the dishwasher, knowing that the appliances are working on my behalf. I sweep the kitchen floor lovingly, telling myself it’s good to see the crumbs collecting together in the dustpan and knowing the broom leaves cleanliness in its wake. I admit, I’ve even been feeling secretly enthusiastic about the new microfiber dishcloths I bought last week, because they leave our countertops so much shinier than the old, grease-saturated dishcloths did.

Feeding, serving, cleaning up the mess: the rituals of a smoothly functioning kitchen become a metaphor for a smoothly functioning family. And as I stick one last plate into the dishwasher and press “start” yet again, I remind myself to appreciate these rituals. Keeping the family fed is no small feat, and I’m happy to be able to do it.

But I should also be trying to teach the kids to do more kitchen chores. It’s important for them to learn these jobs, and it’s important for me to get a break. Maybe they’ll learn to see the Zen aspects of sweeping as well. It’s never too early to appreciate a shining floor.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010


All four of us were walking back from Kimballs Ice cream after dinner on Saturday evening. Holly had become irritable earlier a few minutes earlier and wanted to walk twenty yards behind us, by herself, but after a short time I slowed down until she caught up with me. Her bad mood seemed to have burned itself out and she slipped her hand into mine as we continued making our way home.

“It’s nice to hold hands,” I said quietly, knowing this child whose sense of autonomy and self-definition seems to grow by the day would balk if I made a bigger deal of it than that.

“Why is it nice?” she retorted, showing the irascibility that crops up whenever she thinks I’m babying her. “I mean, yeah, it’s close and cozy and makes you feel really really safe, but why is that nice?”

Close and cozy and makes you feel safe, but why is that nice? I repeated to myself, followed by the thought, Oh, I wanna be you. I want to be at that place where there’s nothing special about feeling really really safe.

To take for granted a sense of closeness and safety: how luxurious. To see it as no big deal to feel cozy and safe: on the one hand, how obtuse, but it’s all right because she’s so young. To her, seeing that as no big deal isn’t insensitivity; it’s proof that the world has treated her very, very kindly thus far.

But that’s a special privilege reserved for a small percentage of the world’s children. I can’t be in that place myself; I can just feel grateful that Holly is there. A time will come when she feels much less safe: either because of global or national events, personal circumstances, or just a growing intellectual awareness of the possibilities. It’s not something I really want to think about: when, how and why will my daughter stop taking for granted a sense of safety and security. It’s just something for me to be thankful she has right now, at almost eight years old.

Other children the world over are so much more knowledgeable and so much sadder for what they know. Holly’s biggest problem right now is that she’s annoyed with us for some trivial interaction at the ice cream stand that I’ve already forgotten about: maybe we laughed at the wrong part of a joke she was telling us, or maybe Tim ended the game of lawn tag before she was ready.

It doesn’t matter. Within minutes she was past the slight, whatever it may have been, and happy to hold hands with me as we walked the last stretch of driveway up to the house. She feels comfortable, cozy and safe. Doesn’t everyone? Most of us know better, of course, but I’ll let her harbor that nonchalance for as long as I’m able.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Home Alone - Six Hours of Solitude

When Rick and I mapped out our plans for last Saturday, it all sounded fine to me: he and Tim had a baseball game, so Holly and I would spend the afternoon with Rick’s family at his sister and brother-in-law’s house, where they would all be celebrating our niece’s fifth birthday.

But when I saw the e-mail from Tim’s coach saying the game had been postponed, my heart leaped with joy. “Now you can take the kids to the party and I can stay home!” I crowed. And that’s how I ended up having a Home Alone afternoon on Saturday, nearly six blissful hours of solitude.

I wasn’t exactly pursuing what I would consider a self-indulgent agenda. Although thoughts of movies, naps, long bike rides, manicures or Starbucks with my laptop flitted briefly through my head, I put myself to work from the moment they left. I cleaned the kitchen, swept the floors, picked up the kids’ rooms and our room, put away everyone’s clean laundry, weeded the flowerbeds and then loaded up the truck with trash and recycling and took a trip to the transfer station. (Thanks to the fact that our monthly visit from our house cleaner is next week, I didn’t feel compelled to start scrubbing bathrooms, which was a lucky break.)

And yet the hours of household labor made the solitude no less blissful. At other times of year, I might not see an afternoon of cleaning and tidying and yard work as such a pleasure, but this summer has been so kid-intensive that just having the silence of an empty house was all the novelty I really needed.

At this stage in my life, I don’t generally suffer from a deficit of time to myself. During the school year, the kids are out of the house six hours a day, and I’m at my desk writing, with plenty of peace and quiet even on the frequent days that Rick works at home. But this summer, time alone has been unusually hard to come by. Both sets of grandparents have been wonderful, as they always are, about taking the kids for visits, excursions or overnights, and both kids get frequent invitations from friends, but generally when one is out, the other is home. One afternoon when my mother took both kids to a movie, I found myself tied up with unplanned work-related phone calls for almost the full three hours. Being with the kids is mostly a pleasure these days, not a chore. But the fact remains that I’ve been getting very little solitude.

So when the door closed behind them, I was as eager and excited to roll up my sleeves and start some intensive housework as I normally am to leave on a vacation or try out a new restaurant. I was just so happy to be by myself. When the kids were preschoolers, I used to sometimes say to them, “I just need two minutes alone with my brain.” Meaning, I just need a little bit of time with no noise clutter, no demands on my attention: just a moment to focus on one thing that isn’t you. Saturday afternoon I felt the same way. Even though what I needed to think about was where to store Tim’s extra baseball pants and how to organize Holly’s many art supplies, that was all I wanted, a little time alone with my brain.

They came home cheerful and tired from the party. No one commented on the work I’d done – not the weed-free flower beds, not the empty recycling bins in the garage, not the fact that the carpet in Holly’s room was visible once again for the first time in weeks – but I didn’t care. I knew the house and grounds had been restored to a state of tidiness, and I’d had five precious hours free of all clamor.

We’re just about halfway through summer vacation; it was a little like the All-Star Break in Major League Baseball, the baseball-free day that every player has just prior to the All-Star Game. Like a baseball player, I ended it feeling refreshed, rejuvenated, and ready to play my best game for the second half of the summer.

I love being with my kids, but I love being with my brain too, and sometimes it feels like I can have only one or the other. Gratitude prevailed on Saturday as I basked in the serenity of a kid-free house. It was only a half-day, but I think it’s enough to tide me over until September.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Who's On First Banana Bread: Part III

The kids have been officially in business together now for a month. (And when I say “officially,” I mean not that they filed for licensure from the Better Business Bureau but that it’s been a month since they put the finishing touches on their sign, a large piece of crimson poster board that says “Who’s On First Banana Bread” in white stencil letters.) As I wrote about in Part I and Part II of the Banana Bread Blogs, the learning process began long before their first day of sales, as they divvied up the tasks required to produce their flagship product, banana bread, and set themselves on a schedule that would enable them to churn out two dozen loaves a week – which is what they’ve been selling every week so far within the first three hours of the Saturday morning market.

The next major lesson began on their first day of business earlier this month: customer relations. Rick and I sat at their table with them, and at first they were shy, hanging back and waiting for me to greet and chat with customers. “But Daddy, Mommy already knows everyone!” Tim protested when Rick urged him to follow my lead in making conversation.

“Well, how do you think Mommy got to know everyone?” Rick asked. “She makes an effort! She meets people and remembers them!”

I had to smile at Tim’s perception of me. Knowing everyone, or ninety percent of the shoppers and vendors, at Carlisle Farmers’ Market is no great feat: it’s a small town, and a rather select demographic chooses to spend their Saturdays at Farmers’ Market: old-timers, people of all ages who are already knit into the town’s fabric in various ways, or families with young children. In other words, the kinds of people I’d be likely to know.

Still, I was a little bit pleased to hear that in Tim’s eyes, I know everyone: not because the appearance of popularity amidst the Carlisle population is important to me – this isn’t middle school, after all – but because what has always been important to me is imparting the message to my children that they are among friends. That’s one reason we live in a small town, the same one in which I was raised: so that they can enjoy the rare feeling of being surrounded by familiarity. Having been an overly anxious child myself, I’ve never believed in teaching my children about so-called stranger danger; I feel they’re far safer believing that most of the adults around them are people they can trust. I believe that sense of comfort will help them be better judges of whom not to trust and whom they can turn to when a problem occurs.

But Rick convinced Tim it didn’t matter if I seemed to know everyone and he didn’t; he still needed to reach out to potential customers. So together we urged the kids forward. We reminded them to encourage people to try the samples they’d put out and to greet shoppers with “Good morning!” if there was nothing else to say. A few visitors to the market engaged them in conversation: one man told them an intriguing piece of trivia about banana distribution, and another customer quizzed them on the ingredients to prove that they really did make it themselves. By the second week, we didn’t need to push them even gently: they were into the rhythm of greeting passers-by, offering samples, chatting with their customers.

So it’s turning out to be yet another positive lesson from Farmers’ Market: greet people as friends and soon they will be. The third week, I left for an hour to go running, and when I came back, the kids gave me a rundown of who had purchased bread. “The lady whose mailbox is across the street, the lady who goes barefoot, the man from church with the plump head, and the people who do yoga with Grandma,” they said. “And some other people we don’t know yet.”

So they’re not great with names, but it’s a start. And they acknowledge that they’ll get more familiar with the clientele if they stay at it. Right now, their biggest incentive to keep their business going is sheer sales: the past two weeks they’ve sold out nearly an hour before the market closed, and needless to say, they love divvying up the cash once they get home. But they’re learning about customers and community and friends at the same time. I’m not sure which lesson will last longer, but I’m happy to see how much they’ve benefited already, with nearly three months yet to go before the market season ends.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Sibling harmony (at least for a day)

It’s probably bad luck for me to even articulate this thought, let alone commit it to my blog, but my kids seem to be getting along better this week than they did in all the weeks since school let out. And as any parent knows, that makes life a lot easier. Exponentially easier, one might even say, especially during summer vacation.

In general, Tim and Holly do get along reasonably well compared to many siblings. At least some of the time, they treat each other with one or more of the following characteristics: interest, appreciation, respect, admiration. Other times not. I realize that having children four years apart in age doesn’t necessarily make things easier, although there have been times that it did. As I’ve often said, it’s my experience that children who are that far apart in age as well as being different genders don’t compete over a lot of things because their interests and abilities are so different.

On the other hand, it seems that those differences in their interests and abilities are what are sabotaging me this summer. At seven and eleven years of age, there just isn’t a whole lot they like to do together. Last week the mother of one of Holly’s newest friends said to me, “My two girls are 22 months apart. Their whole life is a nonstop playdate.” It’s a lot different from that at our house.

Yesterday was a better day than the two or three dozen that preceded it. I told the kids we were going to spend the afternoon at the pond, just the three of us. Earlier in the week I let each of them bring a friend along for a swim. It seemed like a good idea; I thought if each had someone to play with, everyone would be happy. But Holly seems to be suffering more than usual this summer from the left-in-the-dust sense that her older sibling is having all the fun and she’s hanging on by her fingernails to keep up. And in this case it didn’t help one bit that her friend seemed more interested in what Tim and his friend were doing in the water than what Holly wanted to do. I’d long anticipated that this dynamic would eventually occur, but I didn’t expect it so soon.

So yesterday no one brought a friend; it was just us three, and for two hours the kids had fun together. They played, they swam, they dived, they raced. They just enjoyed each other’s company.

Last week I heard an interview on Talk of the Nation with Po Bronson, author of NurtureShock. Bronson cited a statistic that siblings ten years old and under typically argue for ten minutes out of every hour they spend together. Then he said that the best thing parents can do to facilitate sibling relationships is to “stop trying to resolve the conflicts that do emerge and teach kids the skills of initiating play together in a constructive way. [Then] they tend to do less fighting simply because they play better in the first place.”

I found this simple notion thought-provoking. Rather than worrying about the bickering, foster opportunities for them to have fun together. The more they appreciate each other as someone whom it’s fun to be with, the more they will instinctively avoid gratuitious disagreements.

It certainly makes sense. When I was growing up, my family went on long trips together every summer. For the most part, my sisters and I got along better on those trips than we did during the school year. As Bronson points out, in order to have fun, we had to get along; we didn’t have access to any other kids while we were traveling, whereas at home during the school year we could rely on our friends for entertainment and emotional sustenance.

It also reminded me of something a friend with two daughters older than my kids once said. She confessed that if a friend of one of her daughters calls with a last-minute invitation, sometimes if her girls are having fun together she won’t even pass on the invitation. It’s just too valuable to her to see her daughters enjoying each other’s company, so she takes every opportunity to foster those qualities, even if it means decreasing their opportunities to socialize with friends.

So while I watched my kids having fun at the pond yesterday, I wondered what it was that was working so well. Water is always a good setting, especially on a hot day, for one thing. But it was also the lack of distractions and the sense of ease to the afternoon. They had no place else to be and no one else to play with. They had each other and they were both having a good time. As Po Bronson said, it’s not everything, but it bodes well, if only I can make it happen more often as the summer proceeds.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Eating dinner while standing at the counter

Holly’s friend Caroline seemed to think it was odd that I apologized to her for standing at the kitchen counter to eat dinner last night. “I never knew it was bad manners to do that,” she said sweetly, and I appreciated her leniency although I realize it’s something of a can’t-miss to seek etiquette approval from seven-year-olds.

Still, I apologized, because eating while standing at the counter bothers me on principle. Both the girls were sitting quietly on bar stools and I knew I should do the same, if not go the extra measure and have all of us sitting at the table, but the temptation to be lax was too great. Rick and Tim were at one of their many evening baseball games, and Holly and her friend had each other for dinnertime conversation (which in this case was about mermaids, I believe).

When all four of us are home at dinnertime, we almost always sit down together to eat. It’s a tenet I’ve heard dozens of times throughout my eleven years of parenting: eating an organized dinner together is paramount to the success and durability of the family unit. Well, maybe it’s not quite that extreme, but the experts are nearly unanimous on the importance of a family dinner hour.

And I know dinnertime deserves no less respect when it involves half the family rather than all four, or two of us and a guest like last night. But it also always seems like such a convenient time to get other tasks done: unloading the dishwasher, in this case. Sure I could sit down with the girls, but then I’d still have the dishwasher to unload when the meal was over. Why not double up, multitask, and enjoy more time with them after dinner?

Well, because that’s not how it works, of course. Finishing one task such as the dishwasher never means you suddenly have free time; it means you can get on to the next task. Having put away the dishes while I ate, I didn’t then say to the girls, “Okay, now I have twenty free minutes! Fill me in on the mermaid discussion!” Instead, I went on to opening the mail.

Several years ago I attended a talk on the topic of mindful living. The speaker cautioned the audience not to do anything else while eating other than enjoy conversation if you have company or silence if you are alone. She said she didn’t even consider listening to music an appropriate option while eating because your focus should be exclusively on the companionship and the food.

I agree with her when companionship is an option, but I can’t imagine requiring myself to sit in silence without any other activity while eating just because I’m alone. I love my occasional habit of sitting down to the Sunday paper over a solitary breakfast after everyone else has moved on to other activities. During the work week when the kids are at school, I often use lunchtime to peruse websites and blogs of interest while I eat. Not doing anything else while eating alone seems kind of like a waste of time.

The truth is that I hardly ever do it, though: read the paper or sit in silence while eating. I multi-task, just like I was doing last night in front of the girls. And I apologized to them just as I apologize sometimes to myself and even to the food that I’ve carefully prepared when I don’t give it my full attention. Failing to focus on mealtime short-shrifts everyone. It’s a bad habit that I will try harder to overcome. I’ll try even knowing that from the viewpoint of Holly and her friends, if you can’t hold up your end of the mermaid discussion, you might as well go ahead and unload the dishwasher.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Into every life, some rain must fall (and soon, we hope)

When I went outside last night just before bedtime to look at the sky, I could see flashes of lightning just beyond the tree line. I could hear muted thunder and a gentle patter of rain.

“Please rain harder,” I thought as I looked at the sky. “And please rain for a lot of hours.”

The contiguous weeks of unusually hot weather we’ve had this summer are causing the ground to dry out. The grass around us is turning yellow and even brown. Since we live on a farm, the problem of drought is meaningful on more than just an intellectual level to us. If rain doesn’t fall in significant amounts soon, the cows will run out of sufficient grazing land and we’ll have to start feeding them hay. Most years – every year I can remember of the ten we’ve lived here on my parents' farm, in fact – the cows have eaten nothing but freshly growing grass from late May through October; we feed bales out of the barn throughout the winter and early to mid-spring. Resorting to hay feedings this summer means running the risk of running short on hay stores by winter.

So despite the increasing commotion of thunder and lightning as the storm moved closer last night, it was the soft patter of rain that caught my attention. I didn’t want to hear a soft patter; I wanted to hear a downpour. I wanted to picture the dark fields becoming soaked through.

The words “Into every life some rain must fall” floated through my mind as I stood on the front porch, but then I remembered that those words are typically invoked as a negative statement, or a consolation; the rain is a metaphor for undesirable circumstances. Saying it last night felt more like I was trying to convince myself: Rain will fall soon; it always does around here. At that moment the expression seemed so misguided. Why should the metaphor of rain falling into every life be used as a negative image? The ground needs some rain. The trees, the grass, the pond life, the forest animals: every living thing around us could benefit from some rain right now.

Imagining the steady rainfall I wished to hear drenching the pastures, causing new green grass to rise up which in turn would nourish the grazing animals, I started thinking about other forces in our lives that have this positive effect of rain, presences that fall into our lives to nourish and strengthen and help us to grow. Into every life some rain must fall. Seen in that positive context, there are so many ways in which rain falls into our lives. I thought about the presence of friends by phone or email or in person when I’m feeling isolated. The encouraging phone calls from my agent over the past couple of weeks, assuring me that my work-in-progress would live and thrive. Unexpected work opportunities falling on my desk recently to end a dry period of not drawing in new clients. The surgeon with whom family members just met who reassured them that he had plenty of experience and reason for optimism regarding problems like the one about which they consulted him. Even the kids’ report cards last month were like nourishing rain, soothing the anxiety I sometimes feel about their school performance.

Into every life some rain must fall. Let’s hope so: our very existence depends upon it. Let’s hope plenty of rain falls soon to feed our pastures and our animals, and let’s be grateful for the rain that falls regularly on our spirits. Not the kind of rain that ruins a picnic or a ballgame: the kind of rain that does what rain is really intended for: cooling, soothing, hydrating, life-giving rain.

Monday, July 19, 2010

All joy and no fun? Only for a little while

Jennifer Senior’s New York Magazine article has been ubiquitous this month, appearing in some form or other (link, reference, interview with the author) on talk shows, parenting blogs and news websites. Its title, “Why Parents Hate Parenting: All Joy and No Fun,” is fairly self-explanatory, as Senior explores why a wealth of data supports the idea that raising children is not generally a significant source of happiness for people, despite the biological and societal mandate that the majority of us choose to follow so that the species endures.

On the one hand, it raises points that are indisputable: child-rearing is exhausting work given today’s standards. Senior cites the term “concerted cultivation” to describe “the aggressive nurturing of economically advantaged children,” and includes this quote from sociologist Annette Lareau: “Middle-class parents spend much more time talking to children, answering questions with questions, and treating each child’s thought as a special contribution.” I believe it was Judith Warner in her parenting book Perfect Madness who pointed out that many of us parents, in our ceaseless commitment to keeping our young children away from TV and other forms of canned entertainment, sometimes turn ourselves into human television sets, with our steady stream of word games, stories, Q&A, and frenetic verbal engagement.

So I definitely agree that parenting takes a lot of effort, and in general the voluntarily childless people I know appear just as happy and fulfilled, and a lot less frazzled, than the parents. However, there seems to be something insufficient about the data or at least the anecdotal evidence used in the New York Magazine piece: it all appears to refer to parents of very young children. The oldest child cited in an anecdote in the story is eight.

Well, as someone whose oldest is now almost twelve, I can say with confidence that things tend to get a lot better and a lot easier right around that time. Basing information about people’s level of happiness with parenting only on parents with children from infancy through the earliest grade school years seems to me – to choose a wildly random simile – like evaluating a vacation destination based on the van shuttle ride from the airport to the hotel. Sure, you see a little of the topography, and maybe you get that instant feeling that you’re going to love this place or not, but believe me, this van ride isn’t the whole trip; it’s the necessary passage to where the fun begins.

There are of course some parents who really love babies and toddlers. My sister and two of my cousins (one a mother and one a father, from different sides of the family) fall into this category. But I think there are a lot more parents who are like I once was, loving their young children but at the same time gazing at them with sleep-deprived fondness while thinking “Someday I can imagine you being a lot more fun.”

My kids were great babies and toddlers, but oh boy did they grow to be a lot more fun. And that’s not so much about them than it is about me. Even before they were born, I suspected I’d get more enjoyment from the grade school years than the early years, and this is not just because they’re off at school during the day. I simply find the activities and interests of school-aged children a lot more engaging than those of preschoolers. I like watching my son play baseball, helping my daughter with school research projects, going on bike rides with the kids, overseeing their baking projects, hosting their sleepover dates. We all have our individual preferences; these are just much more my kind of thing than the “Music Together” sing-alongs or playground visits of their earlier years.

Moreover, it’s not clear that any of the studies cited in the article included responses from parents of adult children or their elderly childless peers. My suspicion is that the data would have reflected a significant trend of parents being happier than non-parents among the senior set. With all modestly, I feel certain that the existence of my sisters and me, along with the existence of our own children, brings unmitigated pleasure to my 70-plus-year-old parents. I imagine it’s very challenging to grow old without offspring as part of your life. My parents have plenty of interests beyond their children and grandchildren, but I feel sure that we significantly enhance their quality of life, and on a purely subjective level, I imagine it must be lonely to grow old without children around to offer care and support.

So for new (or newish) parents who read this study and think “Yes, that’s us! Joy but no fun!”, I would urge them to hang in there. It gets way more fun. It really does. If sandboxes aren’t really your thing, Little League just might be. If you find it hard to sit through the hokey-pokey at the library music hour without wishing you had a recent copy of the New Yorker to read, you might find your satisfaction level lifting when your children start writing stories and poems of their own.

And if you’re one of those lucky parents who loves the baby and toddler years and can’t imagine what the rest of us are complaining about, consider yourself lucky. Your satisfaction level probably won’t decrease at all. You were born to be a parent, and the world needs more of you.

Friday, July 16, 2010

We whined all day, we danced all night

Yesterday was a Tale of Two Cities kind of day: specifically, a best-of-times-worst-of-times-with-the-kids kind of day. The morning was fine – I finished one article and made significant headway on another; Holly played school; Tim began his required reading for sixth grade – but the afternoon was a little bit of a train wreck. We went swimming at the pond where we have a membership, but Holly was whiny and cranky in the way that a younger sibling gets when she’s feeling constantly left in the dust by her older sibling. Nothing Tim and I did was pleasing to her, and the two of us were treated to a litany of gripes: she stubbed her toe, Tim wasn’t being patient in teaching her to float on her back, it wasn’t fair that Tim was playing with the voice recorder on my phone and she wasn’t, and so on. Cooling off in the water was nice, but the three hours of whining were not nice at all, and I couldn’t help becoming irritable with the situation.

It would have been easy to find a reasonable punishment for Holly’s very difficult behavior. Tim and Rick had an evening baseball game but Holly and I were planning to go to an outdoor concert in Bedford with my parents; I could have taken that away as a consequence for the ceaseless whining and complaining. But I didn’t because I knew it would be fun for my parents to have us along and because if Holly and I were home by ourselves, more battles would crop up, most likely over me telling her not to watch TV and her telling me she didn’t want to take a shower. Even though at the time it didn’t seem like the best parenting move, I packed up a picnic dinner and off we headed to the concert.

And then everything turned around. On the program was a soul/pop/disco band playing Kool and the Gang, Etta James, the Black Eyed Peas and Michael Jackson. No more than three songs into the program, Holly looked at all the people dancing in front of the band and said, “Mommy, come dance with me!”

Little did I know that my seven-year-old has turned into a dancing queen. She raised her arms, she twirled, she rocked, she spun. She pressed her way to the front and boogied. And she insisted that I dance too. It felt good to see her energetic and happy and absorbed in the music, so I stuck with her rather than sitting down with my parents.

It turned out to be such a good thing for us. I haven’t spent so much time on the dance floor – or really dance grass, since we were on the Bedford Common – since college. In fact, it reminded me a little of college, before I met my husband, when I would go to parties with my friends. Rick is not fond of dancing and it’s just not something that happens in my life anymore. A couple of times a year we still go to big parties with live bands and there’s dancing, but I’m usually busy with conversation instead. So I hadn’t danced much lately. But Holly saw to that, and it was like hanging out with a close friend instead of my child.

By the end of the night I was sweaty and laughing and really well exercised. Holly glowed with pleasure. I lost any self-consciousness quickly: after all, when your seven-year-old insists you stay out on the dance floor, you have an excuse for being there. And we just had such a good time together.

So it reminded me that sometimes taking privileges away is just not the best answer to correcting negative behaviors. Sometimes you don’t need consequences as much as you need a change of venue. The beach in the afternoon with Tim was not a good scene for Holly yesterday; but just a few hours later, the park with the band brought out the best in her. We had a blast, even though I’m really hoping no photos of us show up on Facebook.

And when it ended, Holly caught wind of the fact that there will be another live concert at the same place next Thursday. “Can we come back and dance some more?” she asked me. Have that much fun again in a week? How could I say no?

On the other hand, now I have a perfect trump card if we have another whiny afternoon at the beach. Next time, my little Dancing Queen will miss out if she doesn’t show a better attitude during the day. But I had so much fun I just might have to sneak out and go dancing alone if that happens.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Who's On First Banana Bread: Part II

Last month I blogged here about my children’s plans to go into business together baking banana bread and selling it at Carlisle’s Farmers’ Market. With two weeks of Farmers’ Market under their belts, they are off to a marvelous start, and it’s interesting to itemize the skills developed and lessons accrued so far.

The first Saturday, they baked 20 mini-loaves and priced them at three dollars each. In the four-hour stint of Farmers Market, they sold 17 loaves, which was a fine number. As I told them, it left one for us to put in the freezer for whenever we next needed a ready-made “hostess gift”; one to cut up for samples the following week (as avid Whole Foods shoppers, we are well entrenched in the culture of samples, and the kids believed this was an important attraction at their booth); and one for our family to eat in the hours following Farmers Market. ("It's hard baking for other people and not getting to try any ourselves!" Tim had commented earlier in the day.)

The second Saturday, they baked 21 loaves and sold out within the first two hours the market was open. At ten o’clock, just as the parking lot was filling up, Tim and Holly sold their last two loaves to one chatty customer who said her children would be delighted with the treat. Farmers Market still had another two hours to go, but we were out of inventory – and the kids had collected a total of $63, mostly in ones, which they divvied up when they got home. Astounded at their commercial success, they set a goal of 25 loaves, maybe even 30, for the next week’s market. It would require them to spend a lot of time baking, they knew, but they were elated by their initial success and inspired to work harder than ever.

So far this week they’re halfway to their goal, but they’ll keep baking over the next two days. It doesn’t take them very long to make a batch from start to finish.

They still rely on me for a few tasks – they don’t like handling the well-ripened and slightly mushy bananas, so I do the peeling and drop the pieces into a mixing bowl, and I always take on the job of sliding the loaf pans in and out of the oven – but they’ve got the rest of it down to a well-managed routine, with Holly greasing the pans and whisking the eggs, Tim beating the bananas with sugar and combining the dry ingredients. They take turns when it comes to stirring the dry ingredients into the wet, and then they’re done. I help them clean up; ideally they’d do this part on their own too, but it’s a lot to expect.

Week Three is this Saturday. I’m hoping faces will become familiar and the kids will be rewarded with repeat business. I’m already happy with what they’ve learned and look forward to seeing them further develop their business acumen, baking talents and time management skills as the summer progresses. Business is brisk so far, and we’re off to an encouraging start.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Must we protect our children from the worst kinds of stories?

My friend Stephanie alerted me earlier this week to a horrifying story about a woman our age, 40 or so, who was on a bike ride with her family during their vacation last week when she somehow strayed into the path of a truck. From the coverage I read, she was killed instantly as her family rode along with her.

Stories like this are almost unbearable to contemplate, and yet I know my response is typical: I can’t stop thinking about it, horrible as it is. This story strikes at the heart of our darkest fears for two reasons, I think: one, because of the thought of grade school-aged children losing their mother forever in the course of one split second; and two, because of the trauma of having the children not only have to experience the horror of losing a parent but having to actually witness the event. The latter part makes it almost too painful to articulate in our own minds.

And yet while I dwell on the tragedy of a family I don’t even know, I feel unable to share the story with my children. I feel that it’s just too frightening to tell them about this, and I’m almost sure most of the parents I know would agree with me. But sometimes I can’t help questioning where this particular taboo comes from. When my children are at their most rambunctious or frustrating, I can think to myself, “But nonetheless, thank heavens I have them. Difficult as parenting can be, it would break my heart to lose them.” And yet I feel like I can’t introduce my children to that sentiment, to what is basically a carpe diem concept: take a minute to be grateful for what you have. Parenting norms seem to dictate that we have to protect our children from an awareness of the worst that could happen, unless of course it actually does happen to them or someone they know well, in which case we have no choice but to confront it.

But in this particular case of the family out for a bike ride, my children do not know them, and there’s no compelling reason for me to inflict on them the pain of hearing such an awful story….except that I believe on some level it might be instructional, just as it is for us parents to remember the worst that could happen to our children and, consequently, how important it is to us to keep them safe and to appreciate them.

Yesterday, my seven-year-old yelled at me and stomped around for no more than the fact that I couldn’t help her solve a particular problem she was having writing a scene in her newest book. She couldn’t decide what the teenage girl should say to the protagonist to best reflect her innate meanness. I made a few suggestions, to which Holly reacted with “Why would I have my characters say something so stupid?” She was as cross as a hive of hornets because I couldn’t help her write dialogue. On the one hand, this is a little bit amusing. Since I’m a writer myself, it’s funny that the thing that most sets off tantrums in my seven-year-old is writer’s block. On the other, it so vividly reflected the lack of perspective that children have. Meanwhile, my eleven-year-old was cross with me for putting a guilt trip on him for insisting that he help me make beds rather than watch TV.

At these times, I dwell on the thought that my children just don’t understand what it means to have their parents present in their lives. Wouldn’t Holly rant a little less, or Tim sulk a little less, if I could just tell them about the two children who just lost their mother?

But that generally is not considered an appropriate approach with children. We can’t scare them like that. We can tell them how much we love them and how unhappy we would be without them, but we can’t turn the tables and say “I know you’re annoyed with me for forgetting to buy cream cheese, but aren’t you glad for the simple fact that I’m here when you wake up every morning?” It just isn’t considered age-appropriate to take that approach.

Right now, the story about the family on vacation is so awful that it’s hard to draw much more of a lesson than horror from it. But someday, I tell myself, my kids will understand more about the fleeting and often arbitrary nature of life. And then maybe they’ll be a little slower to grow cross with me over my demands that they help with housework.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

The starfish anti-parable: It didn't make a difference to that one (as far as I could tell)

Up in Maine with my parents for a few days, I was heading out to the boat with my mother. We were walking along the pier when we spotted a starfish drying out on the wooden planks. We stopped for a moment to gaze at it, marveling at how beautiful and perfectly formed it was, medium-sized, dark pink in color, wonderfully symmetrical. “Should I toss it back?” I asked my mother. “And then do I get to say ‘It mattered to that one’?”

I lifted the starfish with my thumb and forefinger, just a little bit squeamishly, and dropped it over the side. My mother and I watched it slowly sink in the shallow saltwater below the dock. “I actually don’t think it mattered to that one,” my mother said. “I think that one was already dead.”

Still, I couldn’t help but relish the irony. I’ve gone on more than one tirade about how tired I am of the Starfish Parable that has been making the rounds through motivational speeches, Sunday school classes and commencement addresses for the past five years or more – and here I was, reenacting the very same parable, sort of. Except unlike in the fable of the child who sees an expanse of beach covered with hundreds of stranded and doomed starfish and throws one back, responding to the doubter with him who says “There are hundreds; it won’t make any difference if you throw one back” with “It made a difference to that one,” I had only one starfish to save, not hundreds, and according to my mother, it appeared likely that I failed.

Ha, I muttered to myself. I’ve always known that was a silly parable. Now I know it can’t even be replicated. How long would a starfish live out of water, anyway? How does the child in the parable know that it did in fact matter to the one he threw back? For all we know, he was too late, too. It’s just that he was tossing into the pounding surf rather than the shallow and sunlit depths that I dropped my starfish into, so I could witness my own failure, whereas Parable Boy was free to assume his starfish went on to thrive.

I first heard the starfish parable at the Massachusetts Governor’s Conference for Women in Boston in December of 2006, as told by keynote speaker Attorney General Martha Coakley. Then, as tends to happen with these little tales, especially in the Internet and YouTube era, I heard it again a week later at church. And again at an awards ceremony, and the next year at a talk by a well-known children’s author (who claims his mother told him the story when he was 12, which would have been about 1964, making it a much older fable than I had thought. But I don’t necessarily believe this particular author).

My problem with it is this: many apparent disruptions in the natural world actually happen for a reason. Most of us have heard that forest fires are actually good for forests because they consume all the extra detritus on the forest floor. If hundreds of starfish ever really did beach themselves at one time, unfortunate as it may be for each of those starfish, my guess is that there was a greater purpose served in the biosystem. For example, maybe that apparent disaster corrected a population explosion among starfish that year. Maybe plankton (or whatever starfish eat) prospered that season, with some positive effect on the ecosystem underwater. Maybe seals (or whatever eat starfish) were having an overpopulation problem of their own that year, and a diminution in the starfish supply resulted in the seal population evening out.

Far be it from me to want starfish to die, but I always wonder if anyone else has the same suspicions about this particular tale. Is there possibly a reason that starfish stranded themselves on a beach? Not that it really matters, of course. Maybe it did “matter to that one,” in the case of the one the boy tossed back, but his decision to throw one back probably didn’t change whatever effect on the biosystem a mass stranding of starfish was going to have.

I’ve thought about this parable a lot. So not only was it fascinating to see a perfectly formed starfish on the pier yesterday morning; it also seemed a little bit like a sign to me. Like maybe a reminder that I’m right and that parable is silly; maybe you can’t fix some things just by making one small gesture and just maybe, you shouldn’t even have the hubris to try. Nature seldom needs correcting.

That pretty starfish appeared to sink to the bottom, dead from its stay in the sun. But it’s always possible a bottom-dwelling creature ate it anyway and prospered as a result. And maybe that’s what was meant to happen in the natural order of things all along.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Early to rise

It’s the kind of accomplishment that matters only to me, but to me it matters a lot. Somehow in the three and a half weeks since school vacation began, I’ve managed to get at least partway to a goal that has stymied me for years: resetting my internal alarm clock so that I can arise earlier even when I don’t have to.

During the school year, it’s not a problem, at least from Monday to Friday. I set the alarm early – 5:45 AM – because I have to. What gets me out of bed is not a sense of wakefulness or alertness but a sense of necessity: if I don’t get up right then, I won’t be ready for the basic requirements of the day, like getting the kids to school on time.

But for years, it’s been a perennial goal of mine to train myself to get up early even when I don’t need to. I knew that by letting myself doze until 7:30 or 8 on weekend mornings and vacation mornings, I was depriving myself of the much-needed opportunity for greater productivity. And yet I always had the same rationale: sleeping late is such a harmless pleasure. It doesn’t cause weight gain or high cholesterol. It doesn’t kill off brain cells. It doesn’t cost money. It doesn’t hurt the environment. Allowing myself to lounge in bed felt like the one thing I could do that didn’t cause damage to anyone or anything.

And after all the years when my children were really young and sleeping late wasn’t an option for me, I felt like I’d earned this harmless privilege by the time they finally – finally! – reached the age when they either slept late themselves or were able to keep themselves busy even if I was still in bed. Saturday mornings are the reward for years of maternal sleep deprivation, I told myself.

At the same time, it always gave me the sense that I was unnecessarily handicapping myself. I don’t mean to sound like a frenetic, type A person. I’m not a masochist when it comes to productivity: I just always have things I want to get done, and there were so many weekend mornings in the past when I would catch myself still cleaning up from breakfast well after ten a.m. and think, “If I’d been up at six, I would have already exercised and made that marinade for dinner and returned those emails. I’d be ahead of the game if I hadn’t let myself sleep ‘til eight.”

I even did research to try to change my ways. I actually googled “How to get up earlier.” But the answers I found were too obvious to be of any help: Go to bed earlier. (Well of course.) Start making yourself arise five minutes earlier a day until you get to the time you are striving for. (I couldn’t manage even five minutes.) I was looking for a magic answer, preferably something involving self-hypnosis or an inexpensive herbal remedy.

Instead, I focused on what could be gained. I thought of how I would feel if by the time the kids were ready for breakfast, I’d already exercised, dressed and showered. I thought about how maybe it would allow me to take some time later in the day to just sit and read the paper. I thought of all the ways I could use that extra hour – the one first thing in the morning, but also the one it gained me later in the day when I’d already accomplished some of what I wanted to for any given day.

So I redoubled my resolve, and strangely, I started to notice a difference. This summer vacation the kids are at home and I’m self-employed; there’s no compelling reason to get our day off to an early start. No one needs to be anywhere. But I found as school vacation began that I was awake at 6:30, so rather than rationalizing why it was okay to sleep another hour, I got up. And then I did it the next day. And the next.

I remembered that popular maxim about how it takes three weeks to instill a habit. “Just do this for three weeks,” I told myself. “Then it won’t seem so hard.”

It’s been a little more than three weeks, and indeed, it doesn’t seem so hard. Not most of the time. Yesterday I blew it, having been up late on Saturday night and consequently slept until eight on Sunday morning, but as my mother commented when I fretted that I’d blown my lead, “I don’t think there’s a national registry for getting-up-at-6:30 streaks.” This was a reference to my daily running streak, for which there is a national registry, one I can remain listed on only until I miss my daily mile. My mother made a good point, though: like a diet, blowing it one day wasn’t a big deal.

And indeed, I managed to get back on track. I was up just a little past 6:30 this morning and out running just a little after 7. (This summer’s notable heat wave has provided another incentive for me: it makes a huge difference if I can get my daily run out of the way before the sun is hitting the roadway full force.) So I’m back on track for now, and feeling good about it. I’m past three weeks and while this doesn’t exactly feel like a habit the way, say, my daily run does, it feels like something I’ve proved to myself I can do.

Earlier this year I came across this quotation from Ben Franklin: You will find the key to success under the alarm clock.” Gradually, I’m starting to see exactly what he means. I just need to keep remembering to set that alarm clock, and the success – or at least the chance at it -- will be right there waiting for me to unlock it, one morning at a time, day after day.

Friday, July 9, 2010

Basking in the heat

We’re on the fourth or fifth day of a record-breaking heat wave in the Northeast, and making my way sluggishly through it reminds me of how much I love hot weather. Really hot weather.

Actually, what I love is not so much really hot weather as really seasonal weather, or extremes of any kind when they fall at the times they should. I like frigid temperatures in January and blizzards in February; muddy messy thaws in March; cold dry winds in November. And, of course, picture-perfect sunny blue skies with warm sunshine in June and a crisp breeze in October.

I especially like hot weather at night. I like the feeling of going outside long after the sun has set and feeling air on my skin that’s warmer than a typical indoor temperature. It makes me think I could walk all night and feel safe and comfortable.

But I also have to admit that earlier this summer, during our first hot spell, it occurred to me that a good part of my self-perception as someone who loves hot weather dates back to the time that I worked in an air-conditioned office building most of the day. During those years, the years that I came to think of myself as a big fan of heat waves, my exposure to the 90-plus degree temperatures was often limited to a quick optional foray outdoors during lunchtime and a walk after dinner.

Hot weather is just one of many things that takes on a different flavor when you are home caring for children, as I am these days during school vacation. It seems to me that in the past, being home on a very hot day meant sitting in the shade reading and sucking on ice cubes. Now it means getting everything done that I normally do – from writing articles on deadline to running loads of laundry – while trying not to let the climbing humidity make me unnecessarily irritable with the kids.

Yesterday, though, we broke down and turned on the air conditioning. My husband and I generally take a bit of Puritan pride in how little we turn on the A/C. I don’t think we used it at all last summer, and the summer before I remember we turned it on just once, and that was because we were hosting a large party at our house. We’re smug about the fact that we don’t pamper ourselves with A/C; we just bask in the warm humid air.

Not this week, though, with temperatures reaching record-breaking three-figure numbers. And I have to say, the hot weather is a lot easier to enjoy when you have the option of escaping from it. Getting a good night’s sleep helps everyone’s disposition, too, and that’s a lot easier with the air conditioning on. So this week we’re relishing the heat in small doses: early-morning running, afternoons swimming in the pond, the shade of a fading day during Tim’s early evening baseball games.

And late at night I stand out on our front step just to breathe in the dense, damp, hay-scented hot summer air, taking comfort once again in the sense that I could walk for hours on a night like this.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

The beach may be fake but the appeal is genuine

The kids are getting a big kick out of reminding me that I said a few months ago we’d probably forego our annual summer membership at NARA Beach this year. NARA Beach is a large man-made pond in the town next to ours, just a ten-minute drive away, featuring mounds of soft fluffy sand, vigilant lifeguards and a playground. We started buying a summer membership there five years ago and have every year since, but when the topic came up back in April, I said probably not this year.

I just thought the kids were getting too old for it. With its very shallow water – you have to walk way out to get more than four feet deep, and the biggest part of the swimming area is only one or two feet deep and usually populated by toddlers playing with trucks or pails – and adjoining playground, it’s generally more popular with little kids. Even last year, at 10, Tim often appeared to be the oldest child on the premises. This year I figured my kids would want to join one of the pool clubs their friends belong to.

But they disagreed with me, so back we went to NARA Beach. And back again and again. It’s not even mid-July and we’ve already been around a dozen times this summer. The kids were right; you don’t outgrow a good day at the beach, even if the beach is imported sand overlooking a shallow swimming hole dug into a former quarry.

I knew already that no one outgrows the real beach, of course. My college roommate lives on a beach in Maine, and she entertains dozens of families during the summers. “I have never yet met a kid who did not like to play at the beach,” she once said to me, and in saying that she was echoing the words of one of my favorite parenting columnists, Barbara Meltz, formerly of the Boston Globe, who said beach play is good for absolutely every age group and every developmental level.

But NARA Pond is no Atlantic Ocean. By definition, it lacks the awesome splendors of a real beach: no surf, no tide, no tidal pools, no shells to collect, no lapping waves. No direct view to Ireland somewhere over the distant horizon. Just warm shallow water.

Yet as Tim and Holly proved over the course of three hours yesterday afternoon, the appeal of sand and water is limitless in scope, unbound by the age of the participant or even the magnitude of the body of water. They don’t care that this is no ocean or that they have to make a significant effort merely to swim deep enough that their feet won’t touch the bottom. They were too busy playing together to care.

They played catch with a soggy fabric ball they keep in the beach bag. They played “bridges,” swimming between each other’s legs. Tim taught Holly to do handstands. Holly practiced swimming close to the bottom, with Tim’s encouragement. They spotted small fish in the clear shallows. They held water-walking races and swimming races.

That’s another thing my college roommate has observed over a decade of countless guests at the beach: kids play together when they’re in the water. No one is too small or too slow. They always find ways to share the experience.

My kids certainly did yesterday, and they always do when we’re at NARA. Unlike at home, they never argue there, or want to do different things. They swim together. They play together. And they were right: there was no reason at all to think they wouldn’t enjoy it just as much this year as any other.

So we’ll probably spend a lot of time this summer on the sandy beach by the pond. It’s not the seashore, but I can’t imagine that the kids would have more fun if it were. They swim for hours, and when they need a rest they play on the sand. Just like the much younger kids more typical of NARA’s clientele. As far as I’m concerned, it’s a great way to spend our summer days, this year just as in so many past years.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Reentry shock: Holly returns from a visit to the grandparents

Holly returned yesterday from a two-night trip to see her grandparents, aunt, uncle and cousins. We hadn’t really planned it; the idea took shape as it went along. My in-laws came to our house for a cookout on Sunday and spontaneously invited Holly home with them for a couple of nights; then on Monday they all went over to my sister-in-law’s house to swim and Holly ended up staying with Carolyn’s family the second night.

Now she’s back home, which is a comforting feeling, but I have to admit it was not bad to have her away for a couple of nights. As I’ve already blogged about many times in the past three weeks, we’re having a summer of Extreme Togetherness so far, and it’s only fair to be honest about the fact that a break from all that togetherness came at just the right time. Tim had other things going on over the past couple of days, and I welcomed the chance to put in some solid work hours and even do some pleasure reading.

By this morning I was apprehensive about Holly’s return, not because I wasn’t ready to resume our normally scheduled programming – the 48 hours apart were great, but I didn’t feel like I needed more; I was ready to have her around again – but because the reentry can be so tough when the kids come home from visiting their grandparents. With my parents, it’s different, of course, because my parents live right next door. The kids are back and forth all the time. We all really love the togetherness we have with them, but spending time in their house is part of weekly if not daily life for the kids; it’s a pleasure but not a novelty.

Visiting the other grandparents is more of a Big Deal. Special events (movies, arcades, multigenerational parties), special food (often from Dunkin’ Donuts), special treatment. And I’ve learned over the years that returning to regular life can be surprisingly difficult for the kids after all that specialness. (In Tim’s case, to be blunt, when he was little he usually returned from the visits constipated, which made things even worse: see reference to Dunkin’ Donuts above. Fortunately that’s not so much of an issue anymore.) Holly just gets home a little emotionally overwrought, having had two days of nonstop festivities.

I’m sympathetic, though, because I still remember what it felt like to be in that position. I remember how my parents would openly groan over the way my sisters and I acted after a visit with our grandparents. Returning to the life of a commoner after being princess for a day – or in the case of visiting my grandparents in Colorado, a whole week – can be difficult on the princess herself and all her subjects as well.

My friend Beth calls it TMFS: Too Much Fun Syndrome. When her boys come home from a visit with the grandparents, she tries to give them a buffer zone until the next day – a little TV permitted, no big chores required – so that they can gradually regain their appreciation of home and hearth rather than feeling ripped away from all the fun. I decided I’d try to do that with Holly, but I’d already committed to attending Tim’s evening baseball game and suspected that might be our first battle.

It actually worked out okay, though. She seemed happy to see me and eager to tell me about all the fun she had while she was away, but she wasn’t acting difficult or spoiled. So maybe the transition is getting easier now that she’s older. And ultimately, I think it’s a useful lesson. Lots of events in our lives are so special that it’s difficult to transition out of them. I used to cry at the end of the school year, if it had been a particularly good year. Some women don’t like to see their wedding or honeymoon end because it’s all been so special. (I didn’t have that problem because I was so excited to get home to all my new kitchen accessories.)

These days, the hardest transition for me comes after our yearly vacation in Colorado. I just hate to leave. Believe me, it’s not that anyone treats me like a princess there. Not at all. It’s just a really special and inspiring place to be, and there’s always the sense of something being irrefutably over when I leave.

But then it never seems like a whole year has gone by before I’m preparing to head out to Colorado again, and in a way, knowing it will be hard to leave is what makes it so rewarding to go. Holly is lucky that she has two sets of grandparents to make her feel special: one set next door and one set just an hour away. She’s lucky to have cousins who welcome her for sleepovers too. When the visits end, she learns how it feels to come home to the family: comforting and familiar, and also sometimes a little disappointing because a great time has come to an end. That’s not a bad lesson to learn. It’s a feeling I think we all come to treasure in some small, bittersweet way.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Run versus nap: ways we make ourselves feel pampered

Compared to most women the world over, I lead a pampered life simply by virtue of the fact that I have a house with walls and a roof, a refrigerator full of fresh food, healthy high-functioning kids, and the freedom to do both the work and the activities I choose.

Still, like nearly all the women I know, especially those with children under eighteen, I sometimes feel, well, not pampered at all. I sometimes feel like I spend nearly all my time taking care of other people’s needs and ignoring most of my own.

A look at our dinner table some evenings says it all. Although I’m a vegetarian, it’s important to me that my children eat protein in the form of lean meats several times a week. “I’ll bake some chicken for the kids and Rick, and then along with it I’ll make things we all like, roast potatoes and steamed broccoli – served with a little butter for the kids, maybe some aioli for me – and then right before dinner I’ll make a really good tossed salad with lots of things in it that the kids and Rick might not like but that I will: arugula, toasted pecans, dried cranberries, crumbled goat cheese,” I tell myself in the morning.

Yes, those are my lofty ambitions early in the day. And then by evening, when the dust finally clears after the rush of preparing dinner and getting everyone to the table, what do you see on my plate? A potato and some steamed broccoli. Maybe a few leaves of Romaine with some vinaigrette. The aioli? The special salad? Fell off the priority list once again, and I realize I’ve done what I too often do: made what everyone else wants and neglected to make what I want.

One hot afternoon last weekend, I was thinking about this as I tried to urge myself out for a run. Holly was playing; Tim was reading; Rick was napping. We’d been out late the night before and I wanted to nap also, but my conscience was telling me to go out for that daily run that I never miss. “Why can’t I nap?” I whined back at my conscience. “I go running every single day and I take naps once or twice a year, and usually I have to spike a fever before I allow myself even that. Why do I have to go running when other people are napping?”

But halfway through the four-mile run, the answer came to me. Sometimes people ask why I’ve committed to running a mile or more every day, why I not only claim my intention to do so but actually go so far as to pay yearly dues – minor, but real – to the U.S. Running Streak Association to be listed on the official registry of daily mile-or-more runners (

It’s not something I can answer articulately, so instead I tend to be glib: “Because having not missed a day of running in nearly three years, at this point I don’t need a good reason to go; I’d need a good reason to stop.”

As I ran last weekend, though, a different answer came to mind: Because this is the promise I’ve made to myself. Indeed, this is how I pamper myself. Not with fancy salads or naps but with a promise that no matter what else is going on, I’ll get out there for a run every day. It’s not a sacrifice, it’s a sacrament, if that’s not too strong a word. In a very primal way, it’s a form of comforting myself, because on some level it’s as if my conscience has said to me “I promise you that I will never let you get too busy to do this run. I will never let other people be too demanding for you to get out for at least ten minutes. I guarantee that if it is physically within your power to do so, you will have this daily gift: time to yourself, time outdoors, time in nature, time to run.”

I don’t know why it took me so long to see my daily running habit in that light, but since then it has felt a little bit different to me. True, I do a lot for other people (and also true that my life does not demand a lot of genuine sacrifices or impose a lot of hardship on me). But at the same time, I’ve found a way to take care of myself every day too. It may not be exactly the way everyone would choose to reward themselves, but it means a great deal to me. Not missing a day of running in nearly three years proves to me that I’ve put myself as a top priority in at least one small way.

And maybe that’s what helps me do a lot for the rest of my family, knowing that I’ve kept my promise to myself for that daily run over so many months now. Who knows, maybe I’ll start making myself dinners involving more than one course or even fit in a mid-afternoon nap one of these days.

Monday, July 5, 2010

Between child and tween

As the holiday weekend ends, I’m feeling particularly aware of the various facets of Tim’s current age (or, to use one of my mother’s favorite expressions, “age ‘n’ stage,” which she says so often that at one point in my twenties, before I’d mentally parsed it out, I wondered why everyone we knew seemed to be going through an “Asian stage.”). Often Tim and I go our separate ways for much of the day – he’s at school, I’m working; he’s off playing baseball, I’m at home making dinner; he’s doing homework, I’m reading to Holly – but now it’s summer vacation and we seem to be moving in tighter circles, in closer proximity to each other.

He came downstairs while I was closing up the house last night and asked if he could have some ice cream before bed, knowing there were a couple of pints in the freezer left over from our earlier Fourth of July cookout. I hesitated. “Normally I’d say no to ice cream twice in one day, but I guess it’s okay,” I told him. Although the idea of my kids overeating worries me, the wiry build Tim has had since he was a toddler has not changed one bit even now that he is almost twelve; his ribs stick out still. As he scooped out some mint chocolate chip, I could imagine him as a teenager, going through bowls of ice cream every day the way teenage boys do and still as skinny as ever. “He eats as much as an army, and never gains an ounce,” I’ll tell people, knowing that’s typical of teen boys.

Yes, he’ll still eat ice cream and not gain an ounce of fat, like now, but when he’s a teenager he probably won’t do some of the most endearing things he’s done this weekend. On Saturday we spent hours at the public beach in a neighboring town; there were fireworks and a concert scheduled, and we arrived early so the kids could swim in the pond. Tim and Holly played their favorite swimming game, throwing a ball into the water and then racing from the beach to see who could reach it first, and they made leg-bridges for each other to swim through. Once swimming time ended, Tim pleaded with me to throw a toy football back and forth with him (“Throw it away from me so I have to dive for it, Mom!” he ordered again and again), and at one point when Holly wanted to demonstrate a dance she’d made up but said she needed a platform to stand on, Tim obligingly crouched on the beach on all fours and let her stand on his back to do the act. “It only hurt when she stepped on my neck!” Tim proudly announced afterwards. When the fireworks began, the kids lay side by side on the sand and watched.

But yesterday Tim was all pre-adolescent as he and I helped my father transfer hay bales from the hay wagon into the barn. His answer to everything I said for a solid hour, from “Oh look, there’s a little black snake on that bale!” to “Tim, could you throw the bales a little closer to the edge of the wagon?” to “Good job, honey!” was a thoroughly exasperated, “Mommmmm!” My father and I laughed because in his irritable contempt, Tim sounded so much like the teen he will eventually be. And despite my amusement, that made me reflect on how soon he won’t be a child anymore. He’ll still eat large bowls of ice cream and he’ll probably still help us unload hay bales, but he won’t race Holly into the waves to retrieve a ball, or lie next to her on the beach during the fireworks, or ask me to throw a football with him.

Seeing our kids grow up is perhaps the most natural but also the most blessed part of parenting. When all goes well, we take it for granted that we will see them pass from one phase into the next, and I often express little sympathy with the mothers who say “Right now it’s really hard being up at 5 AM, but I know someday I’ll miss these days!” “You won’t,” I want to tell them. “Think that if it makes you feel better now, but you won’t. I’ve been through that part, and my kids now sleep until eight or nine in the morning if they don’t need to be up for school, and never once have I missed the 5 A.M. wakeups of their toddler days.” Not the sentimental type, I’m pretty easily convinced of the value of moving on, enjoying each stage as it arrives but then being ready to say goodbye to it.

But this weekend I found myself feeling differently. At age (‘n’ stage) eleven, Tim gets a twinkle in his eye when he’s playing on the beach or making up songs to amuse his grandparents (they and Tim have a private joke involving a jingle about Australian cleaning products that I will probably never understand, but it makes all three of them laugh). Even if his personality doesn’t change, I know some of those particular activities, that horsing-around of boys his age, will probably fade away in time.

I’ll miss it. He’ll still eat big bowls of ice cream and burn the calories off quickly, but he might not be quite so willing to serve as dance platform for his younger sister. Between his exasperated exhalations of “Mommm!” throughout the day yesterday and the way he’s resisted cutting his hair this summer, he definitely seems on his way to tweendom; he’ll turn twelve before fall officially begins. New and interesting phases lie ahead if all goes according to plan, I know. But every now and then I pause to get sentimental. Boys are so much fun at this age, and all I can do is try to hold on to the image of Tim racing Holly into the water as long as possible.

Friday, July 2, 2010

A one-day-long gratitude list

A few days ago, my sister wrote a Facebook post listing all her favorite elements of the summer so far. A gratitude list, essentially. Reading it underscored for me the fact that I’ve been a little bit whinier than usual in the past few weeks, dwelled a little bit too much, perhaps, on those parts of the summer that aren’t going exactly right. I should do a gratitude list too, I told myself then. Even if I feel more preoccupied right now with the not-so-great parts, I should remind myself of all that is truly great, as Sarah did: things like fresh peaches and unrushed mornings.

But today I could actually just list everything that happened to me yesterday and that in itself would compose a gratitude list, because yesterday was in many ways such a terrific day. We’re staying at my parents’ vacation condo in Portland for a couple of nights. My day started with reading a copy of Poets & Writers magazine and drinking coffee on the balcony overlooking the harbor while I waited for the kids to wake up. Once dressed and fed, they walked down to the corner store in search of a newspaper for me. They didn’t find the one I wanted, but they returned home full of the good cheer and harmony that result when I send them out together on the kind of walking errands they can’t do at home.

Later in the day, my friend Anjali and her daughters Elena and Vanessa arrived for a visit. Like yesterday, the kids wanted to play in the boat for a while, which was fine with us. Then Anjali and the girls went window-shopping around town, which gave me the chance for a good long run.

When I got back to the condo, Anjali and the girls were still out so I thought I’d go on a quick bike ride to try to solve some mysteries of the city’s geography that had been puzzling me. “Maybe Tim will go with me,” I thought, but knew it was unlikely because he was engrossed in one of his knights-and-dragons novels. “Sure, I’ll go with you,” he said when I asked. What a welcome surprise. We rode down alongside the Harbor and then up to Munjoy Hill and back along the Eastern Promenade, and returned from our bike ride just as the window shoppers returned.

After that we were all tired and needed some down time: Tim and Elena both read, Holly listened to a book on tape, Vanessa rested, Anjali and I talked. Then we went out to dinner and Tim and Holly each ate a massive bowl of steamed clams.

Afterwards, the kids played tag in an empty section of the parking lot. (Credit the First Lady: whereas once I’d see that and think “I hope they’re not in any danger of traffic or inconveniencing anyone,” now my first thought is “Oh good, they’re burning calories.”)

As promised, I took the three older kids to the candy store for dessert while Anjali headed back to the condo with Vanessa Although it took about twenty minutes of contemplation and negotiation for each of the three kids to settle on what they wanted, I couldn’t have asked for a better reward at the end: the young woman at the counter saying to me, “You have really well-behaved children. And I work all day in a candy shop, so believe me, I know what I’m talking about. I see the worst of the worst here!” And as if that wasn’t reward enough, the chocolate-covered marshmallow caramel was the perfect way to end the day.

So, my gratitude list, not even for the whole summer but just for yesterday: coffee on the balcony, happy kids, running, biking, playing in the boat, Tim and Holly’s joy over steamed clams, friends visiting, watching the kids play tag, compliments at the chocolate shop, caramel with marshmallows. What a great day. Listing the highlights, of which there were so many, just serves to remind me that on some days the moments of joy are obvious and other days they’re more subtle, but they are always there to be found. Just look. Every day, just look. And then, when possible, take time to make a list.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Sitting at the dock of the bay (in the boat)

Although I blogged earlier about how it’s my summer resolution to learn how to drive a boat, specifically the powerboat my parents keep at their vacation place in Maine, I think it’s fair to say that starting to learn how to drive a boat is going to be a safer resolution than getting the job done. So far, not much progress, but that’s because of scheduling: we haven’t yet been able to find a time when my father and I could be in Maine at the same time, so there hasn’t been the opportunity for any lessons yet.

All of which is to say that when the kids and I decided to head up to Portland for a couple of days this week, it was with the understanding that much as the kids love the boat, going out on the water would not be part of the agenda. With just the three of us, it simply isn’t an option.

So I was caught off guard after dinner last night when Tim said, “Let’s go out to the boat.” “Yes, let’s go!” Holly chimed in.

Both kids have been here a time or two with my parents but without me, and on those visits they’d discovered a new favorite activity: sitting in the boat. That’s right, just sitting in a docked boat. It turns out that they both like to spend hours playing in the boat while it’s tied up at the dock.

At first I demurred. “It’s getting windy. It’s late. We’ll do it tomorrow,” I said.

But they convinced me. So for an hour or so yesterday, I found myself sitting in the back seat of a boat that never left the dock, just enjoying the ever-so-gentle surf as we bobbed next to the pier and the kids pretended we were going boating.

Not that Tim would say he was pretending anything, of course. At eleven, he considers himself too old for imaginary play. He assured me that he was busying himself with jobs he’s supposed to do whenever he’s in the boat: checking the knots at the tie-ups, confirming that the bumpers were all in place, unsnapping and re-snapping the cover. Generally puttering around seeing that all the pieces of the boat were just as they should be, or at least that’s what it appeared to me that he was doing.

Holly was less restrained. She put on a show for us. “I am the captain of this ship!” she proclaimed, standing at the console. “The cruise is about to leave! First off, let’s have some dance music!” There was no dance music except for the soundtrack in Holly’s head, but she let loose nonetheless. The idea of a Disco Captain is new to me, but according to Holly’s ongoing repartee, the crowd apparently loved it. “Thank you very much!” she yelled. “Everyone sit down now so the cruise can begin!”

Though the ropes held us firmly in place at the dock – and would for quite some time since Tim kept checking and re-checking the knots as he did his nautical rounds -- apparently in Holly’s mind we’d traveled to our first port of call, because soon Disco Captain was standing at the console with another loud announcement. “We’re docking now, so if you need to pee, get off and go that way!” she yelled, pointing to the pier. “Tim, how about you?”

Like any big brother, Tim is disdainful in equal measure of Holly’s imaginary games and any discussion of going pee, so he pointedly ignored her. “Well then, the captain will go!” she called out and marched out of the boat onto the dock.

In a moment she hopped back on, but with a different persona. “I’m your new captain, and I have some orders for you!” she announced. A lot of orders followed. It was the first time I’d played Simon Says at sea. Inches from land, yes, but still at sea. “What? You don’t think I’m a good captain?” she asked her invisible horde of passengers. “You want the old captain back? Fine! We’ll pick her up the next time we dock!”

Sure enough, the next port of call came within seconds. Holly walked off the boat onto the dock, and then re-boarded. “You voted, and I’m back! Your old captain!” she announced.

That drew Tim’s attention briefly away from rubbing down the gunwales with a paper towel. “Would the old captain really refer to herself as the ‘old captain’?” he asked. I conceded that he had a point. It was like ordering a Greek salad at a Greek restaurant, to use an example that my father insists my mother has actually done. (Verification of this story unconfirmed.)

Disco Captain busted a few more moves for us and then, I decided, it was time to disembark for real. The sun was setting, and both captain and maintenance crew needed to get to bed soon. I’d learned something, though. I had no idea sitting in the back of an unmoving boat could be so entertaining. I suppose that’s good news, just in case it takes me longer than I think to learn to operate the new boat. We can always just stay at the pier and pretend. Dance music not necessarily included.