Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Who's On First Banana Bread, Part IV: An eight-year-old with deep pockets

When I suggested back in May that my children go into business together as banana bread vendors at Carlisle’s all-inclusive Farmers Market, I wanted to see if they could develop the cooperation skills to work together and the determination to stick with an ongoing project. I hoped the undertaking would help them to learn patience, organization and customer service skills – and as I’ve written about here and here, they’ve learned a lot from the experience after their first eight weeks at it.

Interestingly, what I didn’t give much thought to when I first made my suggestion was the fact that if successful, they’d be raking in cash in a manner previously unknown to them. And they’ve been very successful indeed. So their piggy banks have swelled astoundingly over the past two months.

In Tim’s case, it hasn’t affected his spending habits much. He’s a saver; he’s sensible; and the material items he covets tend to be relatively expensive, like X-Box games or online memberships. So he tucked away his earnings for several weeks in a row and then bought a video game he really wanted. Now he’s saving once again.

Holly, on the other hand, is like a crow. Put simply, if it glitters or sparkles, it catches her eye and she wants it. And I don’t just mean jewelry or rhinestones; I mean kitsch. She’s been spending money ever since she started earning it. As the summer progressed, she put her hard-earned cash toward everything from earrings to quiz books to refrigerator magnets to hair clips to the ever-trendy Japanese erasers. And yes, she even bought a pillow pet: a giant stuffed bumble bee that unfolds into a plush pillow.

Since I wasn’t anticipating this newfound wealth on her part, I didn’t think about how much control I should have over it. At eight years old, Holly is old enough to understand what it means to be spending her own money, and she certainly understands the work she put into earning it: she’s right there at Tim’s side every week, greasing pans and beating eggs during the baking phase, and then staffing the booth with him every Saturday morning. So for the most part I’ve taken a hands-off attitude, merely reminding her frequently during our many shopping expeditions that she should think twice about what’s really worth buying and what’s not, but then letting her make her own decisions.

Rick did intervene once in a purchase he simply considered too irresponsible to watch transpire: she wanted to buy a rubber duckie from a sidewalk vendor. “She doesn’t even take baths,” he pointed out to me after firmly steering her away. “And even if it’s her own money she’s wasting, we have to take some responsibility for the environmental side of it. We have the right to tell her she can’t buy useless plastic that will end up in a landfill.”

I agreed with him in that case, but it’s not an easy call. Even as she spent money on odds and ends all summer, she was still saving a lot of it, and eventually she shared with me her scheme: during the last week of vacation, she hoped to do a spending spree at the Build-a-Bear Workshop at the mall.

She’s been asking for weeks now, and yesterday I finally caved and took her to the mall. On the one hand, I was loathe to see her lay out cash for stuffed animals (of which she has dozens already, naturally) and stuffed-animal outfits. On the other, as I’ve been telling her all summer, it’s her money and she has to decide for herself what to do with it. At Build-a-Bear, I asked her as she selected each item – first a stuffed owl, then a pile of outfits and accessories for the owl – “Is this really something you want? Do you really think this is worth buying?”

She did. I did not. And so I struggled with the question about whether to allow it. But I reminded myself these were not impulse buys; she’s been talking about the Build-a-Bear excursion for weeks. And I do believe that mistakes in spending are low-hanging fruit as far as object lessons go: surely as soon as she wishes she had the money for something else, she’ll start thinking more seriously about whether that workout suit and matching headband for the stuffed owl were really so important, and she’ll probably think harder about a similar purchase next time.

More significantly, she didn’t spend all her money at Build-a-Bear. She spent about two-thirds of it, but made a point of keeping some for later. And that amount went right back into her piggy bank when we returned home.

At the cash register, the Build-a-Bear associate tallied up the owl’s outfits and told Holly the total. Then she gave Holly the standard spiel about how she could add an extra dollar to the total as a contribution for a particular charity the company supports.

Holly looked uncertainly at me. “You don’t have to do that,” I told her.

“I do want to give the extra dollar,” she announced firmly. “I want to help.”

That made me feel a lot better about Holly’s spending habits. Not that a dollar for charity is much compared to her overall total, but if spending is going to be a long-term habit of hers, then I can only hope the donation to charity will be as well. In the end, I was proud of that decision if not so much the Build-a-Bear trip in general. But most likely as she grows older, Holly will put less of a priority on stuffed animals and outfit changes for them.

And as that change happens, I can only hope that her priority on charity remains.

Monday, August 30, 2010

A cow in need is a friend indeed

Staying up all night with a fussy baby is a timeless element of parenting in that nearly all parents go through it, but it’s also usually a phase of limited duration. And although a friend of mine once wrote an essay about how she misses being up at 2 AM in a rocker looking out at the moon, I didn’t believe her. It’s been over six or seven years since I was up at night with a fussy baby, and I still frequently wake in the morning grateful for an uninterrupted night of sleep.

So I wasn’t very happy to wake shortly after midnight last night to hear a bellowing cow. Steady, repeated, high-volume mooing went on for the next three hours. Occasionally there would be a break, and I’d fall asleep, and then it would inevitably start up again. MOO! … MOO! … MOO!

Even with middle-of-the-night drowsiness, it wasn’t hard for me to make an educated guess about what had happened. I can’t actually tell the half-dozen cows on our farm apart by their voices, but Gracie is the only one with a new calf and I did recognize this sound: the bellowing moo of a cow calling to her calf. So I knew that either the baby bull born last weekend was stuck somewhere and couldn’t get free, or had wandered off to someplace Gracie did not want him to be, or something worse had befallen him and he was dead or incapacitated. I certainly hoped the latter wasn’t the case – we do have a lot of coyotes around this summer, but I’ve never heard of a coyote attacking a calf – but the reality is that in the dark of night, there’s just not a lot to do about it. So Rick and I tried to sleep.

When dawn broke, Rick headed out to investigate. I heard a few more bellowing moos and then silence. Wonderful sweet silence. I fell asleep at last and slept until eight.

Rick told the kids and me at breakfast that as soon as he stepped outside, Gracie stopped mooing and walked toward him. Then she started mooing again as if urging him to follow her, which he did. Gracie brought him to the gate separating the two pastures, from where Rick could see that the calf had slipped through the sheep’s gate to spend the night among the bulls.

Rick crossed into the bulls’ pasture, made his way behind the small calf, and coaxed him back through the sheep’s gate. “And then Gracie went like this: ‘Mmmm. Mmmm.’” Rick told us. Not a bellowing moo like before; a murmur of thanks.

Though he tends to be unsentimental about the animals, I could tell Rick was pleased on a number of levels. He’d solved the problem; Gracie’s appreciation was obvious and almost human; and even Gracie’s reaction when he first stepped outside was gratifying: she approached him with apparent relief, as if she knew he could help her. That kind of trust, whether it comes from friends, animals or children, is always a good feeling.

My kids sometimes tease me at how delighted I always am when anyone asks me for directions. Of course, with the advent of GPS, it happens less and less, but since we live on a main road and often walk along it, we do get a fair number of requests for navigational help. And it just feels good to set people on their way. On a different order of magnitude, at church we all sign up to deliver casseroles when someone has had surgery or has lost a family member, and this summer I was part of a large group of women who took turns sending daily greeting cards to a member of our circle who was dealing with an illness.

Helping feels good: it’s that simple. Whether we’re helping a friend, a neighbor, a stranger or a cow, it’s gratifying to meet someone else’s need. Explaining why may be complicated, but sensing the truth of it isn’t. Rick could even see it in Gracie’s big bovine eyes.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Some days are better than others (dietarily speaking)

From my stomach’s perspective, it’s like that popular children’s book about Alexander: yesterday was a terrible, horrible, no-good, very-bad day.

Well, it wasn’t all bad gastronomically. But too much of it was. It just happens sometimes: I get too busy and made too many poor gustatory choices. Our housecleaner was working in the kitchen all morning (which was wonderful) so I took the kids to Bruegger’s. The egg sandwiches sounded tempting until it occurred to me that I’ve never seen a frying pan at Bruegger’s, so where exactly are they getting fried eggs from? Pre-packaged and microwaved? Instead I went with cream cheese. And a bagel. That’s not awful, but it’s not great.

My mother and I both like to cook, and since we’re next-door neighbors we frequently share our creations. She gave me a serving of a delicious chick pea, tomato and feta salad, so I had that for lunch, and then started to feel like I was more on track from a nutritional standard. But then in the late afternoon I embarked on a long drive to my in-laws’ house – I expected it to take an hour but it took more than two because of traffic – and along the way ate a bag of caramel popcorn and a chocolate bar. That was way more sugar and stickiness than I needed in one afternoon.

And when I arrived at my in-laws’, I was already late for the dinner celebrating my father-in-law’s birthday, so of course I dug right in to my mother-in-law’s homemade macaroni and cheese. Followed, naturally, by birthday cake. And not just any birthday cake: ice cream cake, made with mint chocolate chip ice cream, crushed cookies, and fudge sauce.

Did I mention that all of this was only a couple of hours after the sticky sweetened popcorn and the chocolate bar?

Some days are like that. Other days I try to practice good nutritious locavore habits, especially on Farmers Market days when I buy piles of fresh tomatoes, basil, peppers, corn, lettuce. At times like that, it’s easy to eat right, although there are favorite foods that make me think I would need to develop a much firmer ideology if I wanted to go whole-heartedly locavore: bananas, avocados and coffee are just a few of the distantly grown crops it would be hardest for me to give up.

So yesterday might have been dismal gastronomically, but rather than dwell on it, I remind myself that today I’ll do better. I’ll start the day with an aerobic workout and a quart of water, like I always do, and I’ll pursue better eating habits than I did yesterday. While it’s not exactly like we get a completely clean slate dietarily every day – what we eat obviously accumulates in and on our bodies in various ways – it’s also true that one bad day of too much popcorn and chocolate and carbs and white flour doesn’t mean I won’t adhere to better standards the next day.

And then once I’ve convinced myself of this from a nutritional perspective, I remind myself that it’s true in other areas as well. There are days when I scold the kids too much; I remind myself I can improve the next day. There are days when I do too little work, or neglect to read anything of substance, or grow exasperated with my husband. But just as with bad eating choices, none of those mistakes is irreversible.

So I take a lesson from popcorn and chocolate: it was the wrong choice, but I’ll make better choices another day. Forgive yourself. Try again. It’s much healthier in the long run than stewing in self-recrimination. There will be caramel popcorn days and locally grown tomato days, whether the food is actual or metaphorical. Not happy with the choices you made today? Do better tomorrow. That’s a good enough approach for now.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Another rainy day yesterday -- but no one except for me minded

Yes, I was exultant when the rain began falling on Sunday morning for the first time in over a month. The ground was parched, the grass had stopped growing, the cows were eating weeds of questionable origin, and I had to fill the water trough every day because the brook had run dry.

Then it rained for three more days, and I was still happy about it, because the drought had been such a source of worry for me over the past few weeks, and I knew it would take a few consecutive days of rain to really change the amount of groundwater and reverse the drought.

So I couldn’t help feeling a little guilty yesterday morning when I woke to still more rain and had a twinge of wishing that we could have a day without rain, just for recreational purposes. But I suppressed the thought. Still, by midmorning I felt a little like the Cat in the Hat, trying to pull fun and merriment out of thin air as the kids and I spent yet another day at home watching the rain fall.

But once I stepped back mentally to take an objective look at the scene, I realized I was reading it all wrong. Yes, I wanted to get outside with the kids; I wanted to go for a bike ride or take a walk or even just sit outdoors eating ice cream, but they were having a fine time with our rainy day program. Holly’s friend Caroline had come over to play, and the girls played Wii games for a little while and then immersed themselves – and also immersed half the kitchen – in an art project involving construction paper, glue, and colored sand. After lunch, they finished their sand paintings and I made a batch of chocolate cupcakes. The girls came up with the idea of designing “order forms” listing various options for the cupcakes that they could then check off according to their preferences: almonds, coconut, frosting, birthday candles.

And that was when I realized that to them, it wasn’t a tedious day of indoor boredom; it was a really great playdate. From this day, they would remember the sand painting, the cupcakes, the order forms; not the rain or the feeling of being cooped up indoors. When you’re eight, you live so much more in the moment, which in part means not regretting that you can’t fit in yet another late-summer bike ride but instead just having a terrific time with a friend.

Why I’m so sure of this is that I can still remember feeling that way myself, and coincidentally enough, earlier this week I received an e-mail from the mother of one of my own childhood friends with whom I’d fallen out of touch many years ago. Corresponding with my friend’s mother reminded me of what a wonderful time I used to have at their house. I remember making confections out of powdered sugar, milk and peanut butter; playing Master Mind; letting their guinea pigs toddle around on blankets on the floor. We used a tape recorder – at that time the apex of home technology -- to produce imaginary radio commercials that we found side-splitting. I remember the inexplicable bliss of a sleepover there and how remarkably happy I was just to get to be part of their household for twenty-four hours. But I doubt my friend’s mom had the same fabulous memories of those particular days or nights. She might have been preoccupied with work or health concerns, or maybe she was happy as well but for other reasons. But I don’t necessarily think she was looking at us and sensing that we were having the time of our lives.

So it was reassuring to remind myself how little the kids cared about the weather. They had fun; that’s all they were focusing on. It was a good reminder to me to forget about the sink full of dishes and the growing accumulation of clutter at the bottom of the stairs and just enjoy another rainy day. Sunshine is predicted for today; we’ll have the chance to do something else. The girls had fun playing together yesterday. Rain and all.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Energized by a good long run

One thing I love about running is how the longer a route I run on any given day, the more energized I feel afterwards. This is not my experience with biking, though I imagine it is indeed the case for more experienced or simply more skilled bicyclists than I am. When I bike more than ten miles or so, all I feel when it’s over is relieved to get off the bike and in no rush to climb back on. After a good run, on the other hand, what I most feel like doing is taking a long walk.

Occasionally, I do have the chance for a walk after a run. One day last winter, as I was returning from my run, I passed my mother just heading out for a walk. I’d covered enough mileage, so I stopped running and turned around to walk with her for twenty minutes or so. When she and I were approaching my house on the return, I spotted my son Tim heading out for his run, so I turned around again and jogged his daily mile with him. By the time that workout was done, I was okay about stopping. But for the most part, it almost always feels good to extend the workout.

Not long ago, Tim asked me what the hardest workout I ever did was. I told him about a memorable day when we were in rural Wyoming for a family wedding. I ran five miles alongside a quiet highway. The run itself was notable because the landscape was so vast that this was the only running route I’ve ever tackled on which I could see a tree as I started running that I estimated was about two and a half miles away, and sure enough, twenty-five minutes later, I reached that same tree and turned around.

It was a long run in the hot sun, and I would have been happy to relax when that one was over, but when I arrived back at the motel where almost all of the wedding guests were staying, I found that a contingency was just heading out for a hike in a nearby wilderness area. I could have used a rest, but I didn’t want to miss out on the hike, so I grabbed a sweatshirt and jumped into the car for the short drive to the trailhead. The hike itself wasn’t so hard – the trail ran alongside a creek and involved very little climb – but I did it with an 11-month-old Tim strapped to my back in a backpack. And not only that but halfway through the two-hour hike he fell asleep leaning straight back, making him seem twice as heavy as when he was sitting upright.

It was a memorable hike both for the scenery and for the physical duress. Oh, and also because Tim was wearing tiny canvas Red Sox logo sneakers and one of them fell off his little foot somewhere on that trail in Wyoming, a fact I didn’t notice until we arrived back at the car. I like to think that somewhere in the foothills of Sunlight Basin, a grizzly cub is playing with a size 12-month Red Sox sneaker.

Most of the time, though, I can’t follow a run with a hike or even a walk; I have to get on to the next activity: deskwork or errands or cooking. But that’s okay; it’s enough just to have that feeling, that wonderful post-run sense of “I could walk for miles now.” It makes me feel light and agile even though I am neither. It’s why I like running so much.

Last Saturday, I ran on the Minuteman Bikeway. When my five miles were over, I had that feeling again, that I could turn around and do the same thing at a walking pace. But I needed to go grocery shopping, so instead, I drank some water and climbed into the car. Next to me, a group of bicyclists was just finishing up their workout. They probably felt just as good as I did, but what I noticed instead was all the lifting and maneuvering they were doing to load their bikes onto racks. Running feels simple to me: low-maintenance, light, easy. No heavy lifting when it’s over. No lifting at all when it’s over. Just me, done with my workout and more energized than when I began.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

The two-week back-to-school countdown begins

Very gradually, we’re beginning the ramp-up to the start of the school year. I figure two weeks is a good amount of time for this. It feels early enough not to be rushed, but late enough not to be shortchanging ourselves of any of the summer. It’s certainly earlier than I’ve ever started before, but after five years on a public school schedule, I’ve learned that getting everyone back into the school year routine takes more planning than I previously imagined.

On Monday morning, I took Holly for a haircut. Tim resisted; he’ll have to go later this week or maybe next. He definitely needs to go before school starts two weeks from today, but he’s still so thoroughly entrenched in summer vacation mode that he just can’t bear to think about formalities like haircuts right now. So I gave him a pass. That’s an easy one, and there’s still plenty of time for it.

Having eased ourselves in with a couple of baby steps, on Monday afternoon we summoned our courage and attacked one of the toughest back-to-school challenges: school-supply shopping. As always, after 45 minutes I was cursing the school for sending home this list of ridiculously arcane items. How is it possible that a child apparently cannot pass third grade unless she has three 0.77-ounce glue sticks (goes on purple, dries invisible!) and yet Staples carries only 0.57-ounce glue sticks? How is it that the supply list from the school clearly states that sixth graders must have white plastic three-pronged folders and yet Staples carries every color in the spectrum except, that’s right, white? Is there any way whoever makes up these lists could actually be required to walk the aisles of an office supply store and prove that these items exist before listing them? (This is one of these days I sincerely hope my children’s teachers are not reading my blog. I love my children’s teachers and I know they take these lists seriously. I also know they are parents themselves and have to deal with similar aggravations from their own children’s schools. I’m just cross because ninety minutes of my life was spent today in a state of frustration at Staples.)

It’s a relief to be done with the school-supply shopping, but there are still enough back-to-school preparatory tasks to last us for the next two weeks. One of the biggest is getting the kids used to waking up early again. I’m determined to start waking them earlier by ten-minute increments throughout this week until I’ve backed them up a full hour, to a time approaching their school-day morning wakeup call. The same goes for me, too, of course. As diligent as I’ve been this summer about avoiding the temptation to sleep in, I need to get up 45 minutes earlier on school days than I have been recently.

Tim still has some pages in his math packet to do; he’s promised to spend at least three mornings this week on it. Holly needs to update her summer reading list. They both need to draw up a list of brown-bag lunch menu ideas they promise they’ll eat and not complain about.

But for me, the challenge is more mental than practical. I feel like it will take me far more than two weeks to feel ready to see a new school year begin. It’s not that summer has been so wonderful – some parts of it have; others were more mixed – but just that I don’t feel ready to summon the energy and initiative that the school year seems to require of me. I’m not ready to start running into everyone I know at end-of-the-day plaza pickup. I’m not ready to send out the room parent communications. I’m behind in organizing the publicity arm of the Sixth Grade Spaghetti Supper, and I’m barely ready to start putting together a plan for the October Walk-to-School Day event I’m heading up.

Even in a small town, summer gives me the chance to hide. So many people leave town, and without our regular school- and church-related events (being Unitarians in a small congregation, we’re church-free all of July and August), there are fewer opportunities to run in to those who stay. I love being part of a tight-knit community, but somehow it’s useful to have a couple of months of invisibility as well. I’m not sure I’m ready to launch into social mode quite yet.

Well, I still have two weeks. And I’m going to need it, even if the kids don’t. I feel like I need an Advent calendar, like the ones the kids have in the weeks before Christmas. Each day I could open a tiny paper door and see a different image: the haircut, the school supplies, the school snack choices, the Back-to-School Night reminder. For now, the temptation is to put off thinking about it, to focus on two more weeks of summer fun instead. But the start of school looms, and I know I need to be ready. So I’ll stop cowering behind my beach towel and get out there, new shoes polished and pencil case in hand. Wish me luck.

Monday, August 23, 2010

A healthy calf and a job to do

Gracie is not our favorite cow on my parents’ farm. She is more stand-offish than the other animals and can occasionally be a little bit ornery, whereas all the others tend to be gentle and sweet. Still, she’s been part of the herd for several years now, and her personality has grown on us. Like the high-maintenance friend you know you’ll stay loyal to despite the challenges of getting along with her, we wouldn’t want all the cows to be like her, but to some extent we enjoy her distinguishing irascibility.

Gracie happens to have another distinction: she’s the only cow who has had difficulty calving. Her first calf drowned in the brook shortly after birth, though we don’t know the circumstances. And Gracie’s second calf was even more problematic; it was the first time in twenty years of my parents’ cattle operation that we’ve had to provide hands-on help with a delivery. Essentially, my husband Rick ended up performing high-powered midwife duties that time, and without going into too much graphic detail, suffice to say that he was the one to do it because he has the strongest biceps among those of us living on the farm.

So Gracie has been unlucky twice, and yet as my father – chief farmer here – pointed out, she was unlucky in two entirely different ways, so when calving season loomed this summer, he assured us there was no reason to think she’d have trouble a third time. Circumstances beyond anyone’s control made it impossible for Dad to be here as her due date approached, though, so with Rick, Mom and me left holding the proverbial bag, we couldn’t help worrying.

And yet luck was on our side – and hers – this time. Midmorning on Saturday I was on the phone with my mother (they live next door, but she and I still spend plenty of time on the phone) and realized that I could barely hear Mom’s voice because of the clamor of mooing – more like bellowing – from the barnyard. So after I hung up, Rick and I put on our boots and headed out to investigate. The cows have many acres among which to roam, but following the sound of the bellowing brought us straight to Gracie, who was standing behind the barn with a small, damp, rumpled brown calf at her feet.

A little poking around assured us it was a perfect delivery. Gracie looked strong and well; the calf rose quickly to stand, which often doesn’t happen until quite a bit more time has gone by, and he started rooting at his mother’s udder. Rick toweled off the calf and treated the umbilical cord with iodine; my mother and I fetched Gracie a bale of hay (the cows graze at this time of year, but we decided to make things easy for her in those first few postpartum hours) and took some photos.

As with human babies, there’s never any promise that a newborn calf is going to thrive. But there’s not much we can do to improve their odds once they’ve arrived; if the mother cow gets through the birth successfully, we’ve done just about all we can. So we felt relieved and triumphant, but one concern remained; Gracie hadn’t yet delivered the placenta, which would need to be buried. Moreover, both Rick and my mother needed to go out for several hours, so that issue was left in my dubiously capable hands.

In my hands figuratively and literally, as it turned out. Rick suggested before he left that I head back out to the barnyard in another hour to check on the situation. My mother’s advice was to bring a trash bag. So I ate lunch (yes, really), read the paper, and then somewhat warily found gloves, a shovel and a trash bag and headed back out to the barnyard.

Mission accomplished on Gracie’s part, I discovered. The placenta was out, all right. I wasn’t absolutely certain I’d recognize it. I’d never dealt with this part of calving before. Moreover, I’d never set eyes on a placenta of any kind – including those of my two children. I have friends who do the whole tree-planting thing, but in my case, my interest in what had come out during childbirth began and ended with my actual children; I was content to hold and touch them, without feeling any need to interface with the by-products. But when I went out to the pasture, there was Gracie, there was the new calf, there were a couple of the other cows playing doting auntie, and there was…well, the placenta, obviously. I identified it by process of elimination, no pun intended.

It was too heavy for the shovel, but using the trash bag, I was able to wrap it up and cart it off to an appropriate disposal site, and my work was done. This particular aspect of farming wasn’t on my so-called bucket list, but seeing Gracie have a successful delivery was something I’d hoped for throughout the past several weeks. Back at the house, I washed my hands as visions of cigars and champagne corks danced in my head, though with the summer-long drought we’ve been experiencing, cigars would have been the last thing anyone would want near the barn.

The next day, it started to rain. We named the new bull Rain, in gratitude for the drought-ending precipitation and his healthy arrival. I’ll never forget my first placenta disposal experience. It was a good week for me not to have scrimped and bought generic trash bags. If the Hefty Cinch-Sak manufacturers want a testimonial, I’d be more than happy to provide one. They’ll have to synthesize an illustration themselves, though; I left the camera in the kitchen. The picture in my mind’s eye is more than enough for me.

Friday, August 20, 2010

One last Colorado post: Thinking more clearly west of the Continental Divide

One more vacation post before the week ends. (Yes, our vacation was last week, but rather than announce through an open-access blog that my whole family was out of town, I’m posting about it on a one-week delay.) So, one more Aspen post before I return to the realities of Carlisle…a place that at times is also nearly as bucolic as a vacation. But not quite, because home never is.

Aspen, on the other hand, always feels exotic to me, even though I’ve been spending a week or more there almost every summer since I was born. My family vacationed there when I was growing up; now I vacation there with my children. It’s a longstanding tradition.

I still remember how when I was barely older than Holly, I was aware that I felt different there. Specifically, I felt more creative, though I couldn’t have articulated it that way at the age of eight. I remember countless projects undertaken there as I was growing up that I never would have taken on at home. I read epic novels. I wrote dozens of letters to my friends back home, and to just about anyone else I could think of. I wrote poems and plays.

And it wasn’t just me. My mother would do amazing handiwork projects out there: knitting or needlepoint. My elder sister would take on complicated academic challenges like learning an entire year’s worth of AP bio. One summer when I was a teenager, I devoted most of my time to photography and even taught myself darkroom skills using Aspen’s community college facilities.

Once I was old enough to be aware of this phenomenon, it didn’t seem remarkable to me. We spent four weeks at a stretch in Colorado each summer, and I didn’t have any friends or scheduled activities out there. It made plenty of sense to me that I was more focused on creative projects than at home.

But later, in adulthood, when my vacation allotment shrank to only a week at a time, I was surprised to note I still felt more creative when I was there. I still accomplished more writing and reading, and came up with more ideas in general.

To some extent, this happens to almost everyone when leisure travel takes them away from home. In fact, I read an article recently about the appeal of SkyMall, the in-flight shopping catalog that you find on planes, and the article said that one reason those catalogs succeed is that they carry a range of self-help products – everything from exercise equipment to foreign language tapes – and people tend to be more open to the idea of self-improvement when they are traveling. Out of our usual context, many more changes seem possible.

But in more recent years, I’ve begun to suspect there actually is something in the Colorado air that sharpens my mind a little bit. For one thing, the summer climate is drier than in New England. Humidity tends to make people sluggish, which is certainly not ideal for creativity. Just as at home I feel sharper and more productive in October than in August, the dry, sunny, often cool Colorado air makes it easier to think. And there’s a certain scent in the air: wildflowers and sage. There’s even a sound I associate specifically with Aspen nights: the clip-clop of horses, since a horse-drawn wagon passes by our condo every night ferrying tourists around town.

Besides, I know for a fact it’s not just me. Aspen hosts all kinds of creative and intellectual events. It has the yearly Aspen Summer Words writers’ conference, which I attended last year, and also the yearly Aspen Ideas Festival and the Summer Music Festival. One afternoon a couple of years ago, I was running near the conference center just after lunch during the Aspen Ideas Festival. It was apparently a time when a lot of the conference participants take a break; thanks to the oversized laminated name tags they all wear, I eventually determined that within a one-mile stretch of the running path I’d passed a Supreme Court judge, a former secretary of state, three professors who are household names, a university president, and the director of a well-known think tank. It was a cerebral place to be running.

Unlike when I was a child or a teen, I can’t exactly leverage this rich source of creativity for maximum output anymore. When I was sixteen, I could spend hours sitting on a park bench writing; now family needs take precedence, and I’m lucky if I can find an hour a day for creative pursuits. But it happened again last week. I’d brought a reasonable amount of work with me, and to my surprise I did most of it, and I enjoyed the hours I spent working.

For whatever reason, the muses still call louder than ever once I cross the Continental Divide. Maybe it’s the vacation mindset. Maybe it’s the thinner air sharpening my thought process. Maybe it’s entirely the power of suggestion. Whatever the explanation, I try hard to capture as much of the creative spirit as I can while I’m there, and bottle it the only way I know how – with notes and drafts – and bring it home. Back to my real life, it’s not always easy to maintain the creative juices. We can’t be on vacation all the time. So, just as with the other benefits of vacation – relaxation, good exercise habits, more positive personal relationships -- we take the best of what we develop while we’re away and try hard to make it work for us at home.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

How unplugged should vacation be?

It was only slightly coincidental that I was flying home from a vacation in Colorado when I read this article from Monday’s New York Times about scientists spending time “unplugged” while debating about whether an actual change in mental facilities occurs when we remove ourselves from the world of connectivity. I say “slightly” because you don’t have to be a professional journalist to recognize there’s a reason this story ran when it did: many Americans, not just me and the scientists in the story, take vacation this month, so the question about the value of separating from technology while on vacation is particularly timely.

Nonetheless, I’d already been thinking about the issue of how far to remove myself from connectivity – email, social media, cell phone calls – throughout the vacation, so it was interesting to be flying home as I read this story, in which some scientists expressed their belief that it makes a huge difference in our powers of focus and mental acuity when we disconnect in this way and other scientists said the difference was incidental.

I’m different from a lot of the people I often read about in regards to this topic in a very simple way: at least by telecommunication standards, I’m not that popular. I don’t receive hundreds of emails a day. My cell phone seldom rings more than once or twice in any twenty-four hour period, and even when it rang during our Colorado vacation, the caller was usually a local friend trying to find out what time I wanted to meet for coffee rather than anyone related to my work. I might like to be one of those typical professionals who acts vexed over the onslaught of calls and messages that are part of the daily fabric, but that’s not really my situation.

Nonetheless, I do appreciate the value of stepping away from the constant contact we have come to expect in everyday life. While in Colorado, I reminded myself that checking email once or twice a day was enough; I didn’t need to distract myself with cyber-discussions about what time the Spaghetti Supper Committee should meet in September. The Twitter feed is always tempting, but I reminded myself that focusing on our vacation plans mattered more while we were away from home than keeping up with constant news updates or pithy observations about the challenges of the writing life. Same with Facebook: I was in Colorado to spend time with my husband and children, and I knew I needed to detach myself from the stream of stories, anecdotes and observations of my friends back home and my high school contacts.

But I wasn’t so sure about the daily newspaper. Should I be keeping up with the Boston Globe online, I wondered? And if so, was it enough to read breaking news, or should I browse through features and editorials as well? Was it okay to say that since I was away from home I could skip the obituaries, or did I dare not take the risk that information I should know would appear in that section during the week?

Phone calls were less of an issue. As I said, my cell phone doesn’t ring that often, and my Globe editors already knew I was on vacation. The only person I really wanted to hear from (given that my parents and sisters aren’t big cell phone users either) was my literary agent with news of a publishing deal, but I hardly expected that call to come through during my eight days in Colorado, and my instincts were right: it didn’t.

Vacation or not, finding ways to routinely detach ourselves from the steady stream of conversation and information that has come to define this era is always a good idea. Earlier this year I heard several interviews with Judith Shulevitz about her new book on keeping the Sabbath, and that inspired me to try to go email-free on Sundays. Though I don’t always stick to it, I try to check email only first thing in the morning and after dinner on Sundays, and stay away from the keyboard the rest of the day.

Moreover, keeping myself off line for hours at a time during our vacation cemented my resolve not to start using a smartphone. I’d been on the fence for a while about whether I wanted that level of mobile communication. Right now I have to be at my computer to check my email, and had been vacillating about whether I’d like the kind of phone that would enable me to carry email access around with me.

Now, I’ve convinced myself that this is not something I want. I don’t like the idea of constantly checking email. It’s not just the issue of distraction: I like surprises. I’m resigned to the fact that opening our “real” post office box is no longer very interesting since hardly anything exciting or unexpected comes by snail-mail, but checking my email after several hours away from my computer can still be a small thrill. With ten or more new messages, who knows what treasures lurk? A chatty note from my college roommate? A compliment on my blog? Word from my agent about finding a publisher? (Nope, not yet.)

I agree with the scientists in the New York Times article who believe concentration is improved when we walk away from our mobile communications. I just have trouble doing it for more than a few hours at a time. But I admit that there was a sense of liberation last week as I hit the hiking trail and discovered I had no signal, or closed my cell phone in a locker before following my kids down the hall to the public pool. Sometimes it’s good to just walk away and concentrate on the life that’s unfolding right in front of you instead of in your various virtual realms. And it’s even more helpful to reconnect afterwards and acknowledge that most likely, you really haven’t missed a thing.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

In the swim

Yesterday I wrote about the extra effort it took to persuade my kids to go hiking during our Colorado vacation, but also how the extra effort was worthwhile, not because they raved about the experience (they neither raved nor complained) but just because it was something I really wanted to do.

This, on the other hand, is what they really want to do when we’re on vacation: swim at night in the condo pool. Like kids everywhere, one of the greatest novelties about going on vacation, to them, is the opportunity to swim in a heated pool at night. We could have traveled twenty miles instead of two thousand for that particular pleasure, but no matter. It’s a universally appealing activity to kids, and I have to admit I get a kick out of it. The pool is right outside our door. It’s close and easy and free of cost. Moreover, it requires no effort on my part; I can bring out a book or a newspaper or (she guiltily admitted) my phone, and bask in some down time.

But I think what I like best about seeing the kids swim at night is not that it allows me to be lazy but just that it reminds me so much of what I loved as a kid. All kids love swimming pools at night, and I was no different. When I was growing up, we drove from Massachusetts to Colorado and back every summer, with four or five overnight stops along the way. It didn’t matter whether we were in Buffalo or Columbus or Des Moines or Omaha: as soon as we arrived at our destination, we headed for the pool. And in some ways, it seems absurd to me that with all the culture and physical beauty of Aspen laid out around them, my kids still most often choose the pool, but in another way it seems absolutely fitting. When you’re eight or eleven or really any age that still qualifies as childhood at all, it’s a thrill to swim by pool light after dark. I’m not sure why, but as timeless as its appeal once was to me, I now get just as much enjoyment out of watching my kids savor the same experience.

So we hiked and fished and did all kinds of Alpine activities during the day; after dinner we headed for the pool. It didn’t matter what else was going on in town; that was always my children’s first choice. They didn’t care if their bathing suits were still clammy from the day before. They jumped in, and were absolutely happy. Kids always are, when you show them the way to a pool, after dark.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Take a hike

A few days ago, in the middle of our week in Colorado, the kids and I set out on a hike with my aunt Pat. Taking the kids for a hike was a big deal to me, as they would be the first to tell you. It seems since April or early May, I’ve been nagging them about it: I know you never want to do this at home, but you promise me you’ll try hiking when we’re in Colorado this summer, right? Promise? You’ll try? A short hike?

I know plenty of kids who love hiking. Mine are not among them. I don’t know why, but it’s the proverbial pulling teeth to get them to go for any kind of walk in the wilderness, and when the topic comes up at home, it almost always requires an ice cream bribe to ensure that the event actually takes place. So I didn’t have high hopes for them following through on their word.

But it mattered a lot to me to believe that they would. First of all, it’s just a great activity for kids to discover, but also, it’s one of my favorite leisure time activities, and it became symbolic to me of the idea that this vacation wasn’t going to be all about them. They’ve been to Aspen before, and they can reel off the list of their favorite Aspen options: swimming at the condo pool, playing at the enormous indoor water park in the Aspen Recreation Center, walking to the candy store, riding the gondola up to the top of the mountain for bungee jumping. And all of those options are fine with me, too. It’s not like I was afraid they’d want to watch cable TV all day. But I was apprehensive that the vacation would turn into a catalog of their favorites and none of mine. I was determined that they would give a little time and effort to a couple of things on my Top Ten list.

We set out just before noon. The hike I wanted to do was a fairly level out-and-back beginning from the East Maroon Portal. It winds through groves and meadows and doesn’t have any particular destination; when you’ve had enough, you can turn back, which I thought would give it a distinct advantage over an uphill climb to an apex. Also, the East Maroon Portal can be reached at this time of year only by public transportation, and I suspected that the cachet of taking the bus to the trailhead would please Tim and Holly as well.

We set out, Holly and me slow and falling behind, Tim and Pat faster and chatting as they strode. Within five minutes, Holly started asking when we could stop for our picnic, but this was to be expected. I’d packed a good lunch for them; I wanted them to associate hiking with being well-nourished, not with a sense of fatigue and hunger. So after just twenty minutes, we found a grove with a big flat rock on which to set up our lunch.

And then after we ate, we hiked for another hour. To my surprise, I heard no complaints at all. Nor did I hear any raves about the views of Maroon Bells or the exhilaration of being out exercising in the fresh mountain air. The kids simply walked along, each at their own pace, as if this was what they’d planned to do all along.

I didn’t mind when they asked to turn back, although I could have gone on for hours more. It’s an easy, level trail, but I was surprised by the sense of absorption it gave me. As soon as we started hiking, I felt as if I had been given a pass from everything that was preoccupying me even during this vacation week: work deadlines I’d brought along with me, a big household project awaiting us at home, health concerns within my family. Walking is usually for me a quiet, meditative time to reflect on ongoing concerns, but this wasn’t like that. It was as if walking in the mountains was job enough; no one expected me to be hiking through these meadows and also mulling over my cares and troubles. I could have walked for hours, only because it felt like such an escape. I was…untethered. Electronically, yes – no cell phone signal in the Maroon Creek Valley – but mentally as well. Pleased with how the kids threw themselves into the hike, nothing more was on my mind as we walked.

If you hiked every day, I wondered, would your worries always stay a few steps behind you? Or would you eventually learn to worry and hike at the same time? Surely there must be people who throw themselves too wholeheartedly into hiking or running or some other kind of exertion precisely because of this escape factor, believing if they can preoccupy themselves enough with the challenge of a brisk uphill high-altitude walk, they’ll be immune from ordinary cares indefinitely.

That day, I felt a little like that myself, but soon I began thinking instead of the Robert Frost lines, “The woods are lovely, dark and deep, but I have promises to keep, and miles to go before I sleep.” I would have been happy to walk and walk and walk, if only to see how long it took before the mental realities of real life caught up with me.

But I couldn’t, because after an hour the kids were ready to turn back. And so we did. They didn’t rave about the experience, but they were happy to tell Rick about it when we returned to town, and they enjoyed seeing the photos of them that my aunt took along the trail. I’m hoping they liked it enough to do it again one of these days. I could use another hour or two of mental escape already myself.

Monday, August 16, 2010

The streak turns three: Three years of daily running

Yesterday I observed my three-year anniversary of daily running. I started to write that I celebrated it, but there was really neither cause for nor practice of celebration. It wasn’t anything to stop and trumpet; it was just a milestone that I was interested to see come and go.

Yesterday was also Day 1,100 of my daily streak, and at first I was surprised by the congruity of the rounded number and the three-year mark, but then I remembered that there is a small disjuncture in my counting. I actually started my daily mile on August 12th with my son Tim, but it took three days before Tim could do a nonstop mile. He first ran a mile on August 15th of 2007, and from then until August 15th of 2009 he ran a mile or more every day. When it came time to register ourselves with the United States Running Streak Association, I listed us both under his start date of August 15th, and when he dropped out, I stuck with that date. So those extra three days for me, plus the fact that 2008 was a Leap Year, accounts for the nice round number of 1,100 days matching up with three years.

Three years in, I still don’t see this as an accomplishment. Instead, I see it as a decision I’ve made. I’ve decided for the past three years to make running a mile or more among my highest priorities. Well, that’s not exactly accurate. My highest priorities remain more typical concerns like the safety and well-being of my family. Running every day simply isn’t that big a sacrifice; it doesn’t take a great deal of work to make this happen, and I’ve decided that taking the small measures required to ensure that it does happen is worthwhile to me. As I’ve often said, a daily running streak turns out to be more about time management than self-discipline or physical sacrifice. The challenge essentially lies in refusing to let a day go by in which I cannot carve out ten minutes or more for running. And that’s a challenge I’ve managed to take on for the past 1,100 days.

I did my three-year run on one of my all-time favorite running routes, the Ute Avenue Trail into the North Star Preserve in Aspen. It’s a run I’ve been doing occasionally over the past five years, ever since we started vacationing in this specific location. I’ve done it enough now that I can visualize almost every twist and turn, even when I’m home in Massachusetts, two thousand miles away from this particular pathway. The route begins behind our condo and passes past the ancient Ute Cemetery and the abandoned Ute Avenue playground (which my kids call “the playground in the middle of nowhere”), winds through the grounds of the ritzy Aspen Club, heads back up to the highway, and then leads through the meadows running alongside the road that heads east toward Independence Pass.

I love this particular route because the scenery is magnificent and so is the people-watching. I pass the high wild grasses surrounding the little cemetery and then the whitewater shallows of the Roaring Fork. Later, I cross a bridge and pass by two beaver ponds; once I saw a beaver swimming. And then I pass through the wide panoramic vistas of the meadows, from which I can see sagebrush, foothills, mountains, and lots of sky. Often, in the morning, there are paragliders sailing into their descent.

There are also other runners on this route, which is a vacation novelty for me. People of all ages, sizes and speeds use this same trail. On this trip, I have regularly encountered a young couple who run fast and push a jog-stroller with a very small baby in it; a woman with long gray hair and a powerful stride; a woman about my age who runs strong and fast; a man with thick white eyebrows and thick gray hair who runs at about my leisurely pace; an elderly man who has the momentum of a runner but barely moves along at all. It underscores the message that almost anyone can enjoy running.

Enjoying running is just what I’ve done, daily for three years now. As I often say, at this point I’d need a reason to stop the daily streak rather than a reason to continue it. So far, I haven’t had one. Eventually I might. But for the time being, I just feel lucky to get out on the road every day, whether the road is a footpath in the Colorado Rockies, the long driveway out to Bedford Road at home, or any of the handful of places in between that I’ve run over the past three years. Eleven hundred days and counting. Why? I’m not sure, but for now, I’ll take it.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

A vacation from blogging!

Summer is a time to take a break from regular routines, and so I've decided to take a break from daily blogging for the upcoming week. I plan to resume on August 16!

Friday, August 6, 2010

Old priorities, new shoes

I knew as I stood in the field of runners at the starting line of last spring's Valley Forge 5-mile Road Race in Pennsylvania that I was in trouble. It wasn’t that I was so worried about coming in last in this field of one thousand runners (I correctly anticipated I’d be in the low 900’s). It was when I looked down at the ground that I saw a problem.

My feet betrayed me as the Cinderella of road racing. Whereas all around me were sparkling new running shoes, mine were a muddy gray with holes wearing through the nylon uppers. They looked like they should be relegated to house-painting projects, or maybe a walk through a salt marsh on a day you don’t mind your feet getting wet. They looked almost like archaeological relics, and by running shoe standards, they practically were.

I’m not going to give the date that I bought these shoes because it’s too embarrassing. Suffice to say I’ve gone about five to eight times as long as I should have without replacing my running shoes. And it’s not a topic I’m willing to dwell on too often, because the fact alone is imbued with too many messages that I’d rather not reflect upon. For example, I’d have to acknowledge that even though I haven’t missed a single day of running since mid-August of 2007, I apparently don’t take myself seriously enough as a runner to invest in decent footwear. And I’d have to acknowledge that in those same three years I’ve probably bought my children between four and six pairs of shoes each. The embarrassment of my tattered, holey running shoes was just too naked a statement about how mothers so easily put themselves last.

A coat or a sweater might be worn past its prime for sentimental reasons, but I don’t think any serious runner wears old shoes out of sentimentality. My feet were crying out for better treatment, but I ignored them. Friends warned me. My friend Lauree, who runs longer distances than I do, told me she replaces her shoes every three months. My friend Nancy cautioned me that wearing old shoes resulted in an injury that has kept her away from running all summer. You’re pushing your luck, they warned me. It’s a matter of time.

I brushed it off, not because I didn’t believe them but because there was always something else to spend one hundred dollars on, even when it was designated for non-necessities: usually something for the house or the kids, or very occasionally something work-related for me such as a computer component or software. But not for something as frivolous and self-indulgent as running.

So I delayed. But yesterday Rick went out to lunch with his friend Chuck, who works for a running shoe manufacturer, and Chuck took him to the company store. The same company store where employees get fifty percent off all purchases. And so, apparently, do their lunch guests.

Rick came home with a new pair of shoes for me. Just looking at them makes me feel like a faster runner. The soles are solid rather than wobbly; the uppers untorn; the treads sharp.

Still, there’s a small part of me that wishes I’d bought the shoes myself. Because the message I gave myself was indisputable: your comfort and orthopedic safety can wait. Take care of everyone else and what they need first. You can make these (worn and practically disintegrating) shoes last just a little bit longer.

Nonetheless, what I couldn’t do, Rick could. He saw that I’d gone too long with one pair of shoes, and even if he waited for the chance to buy them at fifty percent off, he bought them. My feet are grateful and so am I. It’s good to be generous and altruistic, but it’s not so bad to think about ourselves first every once in a while. I just need a little more practice.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Working at writing: It's all about how you spend your time

I’ve been to only a small number of writers’ conferences. Still, this article by writer/editor A. Victoria Mixon about when to be skeptical made me smile, because it reminded me not only of conferences but also of all the adult ed classes on writing that I used to take when I was in my twenties, and, to some extent, what I now sometimes say when people ask me about writers’ groups.

The pitfall that all of these things – conferences, classes, writers’ groups – have in common is that before you spend your time and/or money on them, you have to ask yourself this: Will I get more out of this experience than I’ll gain if I spend the same amount of time at my desk (or favorite armchair or Starbucks table or treehouse) writing?

Because really, that’s what I’ve learned in the twenty years since college, approximately half of which I spent trying to become a published writer and the other half, the ten years since, I’ve spent actually getting work published. Time you spend writing is almost always more valuable than time you spend listening to other people talk about writing, because if my experience is any indicator, writing is really more than anything about practice.

Moreover, there are people whose advice you should listen to when it comes to writing if you want to get published, but they are not friends or instructors; they are editors, and not just any editors but the editor of the publication you are writing for, or trying to write for, or hoping to write for. I’m a regular contributor to the Boston Globe. In my early adulthood, I took a variety of adult ed classes that, since they were offered in Boston and were on the topic of freelance journalism, might as well have been called “How to Write for the Boston Globe.”

Nothing I learned in those five years has been as useful to me as three or four cumulative conversations with one of the many editors at the Globe who has edited one of my stories. They know what they want, and over the years, I’ve learned how to write what they want. That’s not to say it’s the only way to do it, but this is a situation where practical application is so much more valuable than a theoretical approach. I learned how to write for the Globe by, well, writing for the Globe. And I got my foot in the door not by polishing my skills in writing classes but by sitting at my desk coming up with story ideas and eventually finding some that the Globe wanted.

With conferences, the issue is a little different, but my impression has often been that writers who attend conferences squander a lot of time talking about writing when they could be practicing it. The exception for me was the one time I took an admissions-based workshop at a conference. It wasn’t that we were necessarily more talented writers than any twelve members of an open-enrollment conference session; it was just that each of us had to submit a writing sample from a project we had under way in order to be accepted, and the fact that we were working on a specific project meant that the conversation was more targeted than the typical free-for-all discussions at conferences in which participants asking speakers unhelpful questions like “Where do you get your ideas?” (Really, if you have to ask that, you probably shouldn’t even be attending a writers’ conference.)

Writers’ groups are another issue. I belong to one very large group of freelancers, but it’s a networking group, not a critique group. We meet a few times a year for socializing and sometimes to hear a speaker talk about a very specifically targeted topic like writing for the web or writing a screenplay. It’s useful because the information is so specific. I haven’t joined a critique group in many, many years because as valuable as the insights of other writers can be, it’s again a matter of weighing the time you commit to the group against the time you could be writing. In writers’ groups, not only do you spend time at the meetings; you commit to reading other people’s work in between meetings, and the more group members you have, the more time that involves.

Yes, it’s true that over the years I’ve learned from conference presenters, writing colleagues, panelists, authors, and all kinds of other external sources, but ultimately, nothing has taught me as much about writing as sitting at my desk writing has. And nothing has taught me as much about how to get published as talking to an editor who is potentially willing to publish my work.

Writing conferences can be a great diversion, when a diversion is what you need. But for the most part, in my experience, succeeding at writing is about outlining ideas, writing copy, revising drafts. No money, no registration, no applications, no travel. Just sit down and write, and you’re taking the best steps possible for your career as a writer.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Holly turns eight

Yesterday was Holly’s eighth birthday. Past, present, and future: all three manifestations seem to mingle on children’s birthdays. Each year I find myself thinking again about the birthday child’s arrival, about who they are as they celebrate that yearly milestone, about what might possibly lie ahead for them.

Not very much about my memories of Holly’s birth day has changed over the past eight years. The day before she was born, my friend Nancy met up with me at my parents’ house. We sat out by the pond for hours, both of us pregnant with second babies, while our firstborns played in the water. When I finally stood up as the afternoon was reaching its end, I noticed the strange pull and mild ache of early labor. Holly arrived at two o’clock the next morning.

One thing that amazes me about newborns is how much you as a parent know about them the moment you meet them. I wrote in my journal the day Holly was born, recording my impressions of her personality, so I know I’m not misremembering those early ideas about her; I have them in writing. And at the time I thought I was just projecting, describing the personality I might wish for her to have rather than the one I really expected. But looking back, I see how accurate my perceptions were. I wrote that she seemed like a cheerful, independent, pleasant kind of person who would be easy to get along with as long as you didn’t step on her toes, but that she had a powerful sense of self and would react fiercely when intruded upon. And guess what? Eight years later, that’s Holly. Just ask her brother. Sweet and easy-going as can be until he pushes one button too many, and then she’s a fighter. Somehow I knew. Even when she was just two hours old, curled in the crook of my arm in the hospital bed, her dark curls damp, my body weary from delivery, I knew.

Now she’s eight years old. She learned a lot from being seven. She sang and danced her way through much of the year, she learned to swim and ride a bike, and she created enough art projects to fill the Getty Museum (I’m talking quantity, not quality, of course), but she also learned some hard lessons about friendship, some her fault, some not. She learned that you can’t always trust the people you think are your friends, and that you have to be trustworthy in order to keep a friend, and that hardly anything is more valuable than a true and reliable friend. It wasn’t always fun to watch this process, but I hope she carries all of these lessons forward with her as she grows.

She’ll start third grade next month. She has a teacher who likes to sing with the kids and put on plays; maybe she’ll grow into a little bit more of a performer rather than keeping the singing and dancing to the confines of her bedroom. Maybe she’ll start acting more like an eight-year-old and less like a six-year-old in some ways that would really help me, such as, say, dressing herself in the morning. Maybe if she starts acting older, she’ll get along a bit better with her brother, who has little enough patience for girls and especially those who tend to burst into tears after too much (or any) teasing.

She’s a happy, healthy child, and I’m so lucky to be celebrating this birthday with her. During Tim’s first several years of life I tried to write him a letter every year on his birthday. I don’t do that anymore. I just feel like I do so much writing and recording of our lives as it is that it was almost artificial to pour my thoughts about one child and one age into a letter on one day out of the year. If in the future they have questions about how I felt about them as children, Tim and Holly can read my blog, my essays, my collected writings on parenting. I don’t keep a lot of secrets regarding how I feel about much.

I hope Holly will see somewhere in my words how much I love her and how much I enjoy watching her grow. I scoped her out when she was two hours old and saw things in her personality I knew I’d like. Eight years later, I’m amazed at my accuracy but not amazed at how much I treasure her company. She’s a dear daughter, and I wish her every happiness as she steps forward into her ninth year.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Why I Write: A laundry list of reasons

Last week, Talk of the Nation broadcasted a show entitled “What's The Story? Writers Reveal Why They Write.” Substitute host Tony Cox talked to published authors ZZ Packer, Siobhan Fallon, and Ralph Eubanks about their motivation to write.

I listened to it on podcast while I was out running over the weekend and asked myself the same question. Why do I write? I’m not the author of a published book, like the guests whom Tony Cox interviewed, but I’ve devoted my career to writing. At this point I have a weekly presence in the Boston Globe, a monthly column in my local newspaper, a quarterly set of profiles in an alumni magazine. I’m ghost-writing a book about inspirational NFL players; I blog daily; I have corporate clients that include a medical website, a municipal management consultant, and a computer security company; and I’m hoping to see my memoir about running with my son published at some point in the not-too-distant future.

So my initial response to the question Cox posed to his guests and I posed to myself was simply this: “Because it’s the only thing I really know how to do.”

The only thing I really know how to do? I pondered that as I ran. The intuitive response struck me by turns as flippant, plaintive, authentic, dismissive, and ultimately accurate. Okay, maybe not the only thing. I know how to make banana bread and – and some other things that I can’t seem to bring to mind right now.

But mostly I know how to write, within certain parameters. I know how to write the kind of things that I get paid for. I know what the Globe expects in a feature story, what the Concord Academy Magazine looks for in an alumni profile, what it takes to describe varicose veins or liposuction in five hundred words or less. I know how to paraphrase an NFL player and how to bullet-point the key factors in cybertheft. I know how to write the things my clients want written. And I don’t know how to do much else that constitutes paying work, so I write.

But of course, I also write a blog, and most likely no one will ever pay me to do that. And I write one thousand words or more in my journal every day; that’s no paying gig. I wrote a book, not knowing whether or not I’d find a publisher for it. So there are other reasons I write besides pay.

I write because putting the words on paper – or, more literally, on screen – is better than listening to the voices in my head. They stop talking to me when I write down what they have to say.

I write because it gets people to tell me their thoughts and experiences. As a journalist, I can ask questions that wouldn’t go over so well at a cocktail party.

I write because it gives me an excuse to pursue answers to my questions. What is a school’s obligation to helping students manage food allergies? How did the community react when a theater teacher decided to stage a musical about gay families? Why did a pediatrician who was facing a comfortable retirement instead decide to open an orphanage in southeast Asia? What motivates someone to devote her career to legislation against human trafficking? I wrote each of these articles because I felt compelled to find out.

I write because once I describe how I feel, other people tell me they feel the same way, and it’s less lonely for all of us.

I write because it provides such a reliable conversation starter at parties and other big get-togethers.

I write when I’m sure of something.

I write when I’m ambivalent about something.

I write to say I was wrong.

I write to insist I was right.

But ultimately, I write because at this point I can’t imagine not writing. I’ve forgotten where ideas go when they are not recorded. I find words, though usually not very good ones, to anchor reality.

Most of the Talk of the Nation guests said writing was hard for them. They didn’t say how hard not writing would be for them. They are all more accomplished writers than I am, but I’m guessing it would be nearly impossible. We write because the words come from inside of us and need somewhere to go. We give them the destination they scramble for. We take them from our heads and make them stand in line and then proceed single file.

And then, for a moment or two, we’ve created order from chaos, simply by writing.

Monday, August 2, 2010

An extraordinary ordinary day

Saturday was by most measures an ordinary day for us.

By that, I mean it was not an extraordinary day. Within our realm, things happened that typically happen on a summer Saturday.

And yet when I stopped for a moment at the end of the day to itemize in my mind how the day had passed, as I often do, I marveled.

At Farmers Market, as we sold the kids’ weekly inventory of banana bread, we saw old friends and met new ones. Holly wandered merrily around the market with our next door neighbor – they are back on peaceable terms after an unfortunate rift earlier in the summer – and used her banana bread profits to buy earrings and dog biscuits. I bought corn picked that same morning along with three different colors of tomatoes, a large bunch of basil, and a bag of fingerling potatoes. When the market ended, I chopped the tomatoes to make a salsa.

Holly and I had errands to do in the afternoon; we drove several miles on a superhighway and returned home safely. Ordinary. And yet also remarkable. Late in the afternoon, I ran four and a half miles. Ordinary for me, and yet remarkable that I’m blessed with the physical wellness to be able to do this.

Every facet of our day, when I stop to contemplate it, shares this duality: ordinary, and yet extraordinary. Ordinary in that it’s typical for us; extraordinary in that who are we to be so blessed?

Later in the evening we went to a restaurant where we were served far more food than we needed. People in our own country and all around the world starve, but we sent back half our bread basket and took home leftovers from our entrees. Back home, Tim called us from Maine to say he was having fun with his grandparents: he’d gone boating all afternoon and eaten lobster rolls for dinner. How is it possible that we inhabit an existence in which this is ordinary?

All of it seems astonishing to me, when examined. Friends at Farmers Market and abundant food on the table and safe highway travels and strong happy children. Fresh tomatoes. Walls and a roof. Bacitracin for a cut Holly incurred. Books piled on the nightstand, all the books we could possibly want.

This feeling is what I think memoirist Katrina Kenison calls “The Gift of an Ordinary Day,” the title of her last book. The sense of wonder we can take from what is remarkable simply because it happens to us, undeserved and unsurprising. This is what I missed most in the days after September 11th: ordinary days, days filled with aspects both lovely and routine, so easy to overlook, but at the same time begging to be admired, like the brilliant zinnias and the red and orange tomatoes at Farmers Market.

An ordinary day. Undeserved and yet granted to me anyway. I’m blessed with this magnificent reality, and all I can do is wonder at it.