Thursday, September 30, 2010

Notes of a disenchanted mom reading Diary of a Wimpy Kid

Tim started enjoying solo reading when he was about the age Holly is now, whereas she still expects me to read her a bedtime chapter or two every night. As a result, this is my first time through the “Diary of a Wimpy Kid” series. When Tim was in third grade, he too pored over these wildly popular graphic novels, but he read them to himself, whereas Holly has chosen them for nighttime reading with me this week.

And I have to say, so far I’m not a big fan. Somehow I don’t think author Jeff Kinney will miss me much; he’s spent over a year on the New York Times bestseller list in the children’s fiction genre, so to say I’m in the minority is an understatement. Forty million copies of Wimpy Kid books are in print to date, and Kinney produced the feature film based on his series earlier this year.

My problem seems to be that as a reader, I simply can’t accept vapidity in a protagonist. Greg Heffley, the titular character, isn’t just wimpy. He’s whiny, trite, incurious and self-absorbed. No one’s mind is expanding by getting inside of his thoughts. No one is developing a larger frame of reference for the world by learning how he views his universe.

It’s not that I’m such a traditionalist where children’s literature is concerned. I’ve read some terrific new novels with my kids in the past five years or so that I savored just as much as any of the books of my childhood. And I’ve read some that were perfectly decent even if not brilliant.

But my theory about what’s wrong with books like Diary of a Wimpy Kid has to do with the fact that many of these authors were children in the 1970s, just as I was. And middle grade literature went through a significant change around that time, with authors like Judy Blume demonstrating a new kind of realism. These authors provided evidence that protagonists of children’s books could be lifelike rather than exemplary: regular kids, not paragons. It turned out you didn’t have to be as sanguine as Anne of Green Gables, as quirky as Harriet the Spy or as brave as Bonnie and Sylvia in The Wolves of Willoughby Chase to be a hero(ine). You could be a real kid, with fears, anxieties, insecurities, and hopes that might seem silly at times.

But I think there’s more to it than just an acknowledgment that real kids fight with their siblings and fear looking foolish on the soccer field. Blume’s characters, and dozens of other protagonists from fine examples of contemporary children’s literature, might have reminded kids of themselves, but they also had one crucial characteristic that the wimpy kid does not. They had introspection. They didn’t just witness the world; they contemplated it with a cerebral depth that lent them a certain degree of bravery. Blume’s characters, for example, pondered spirituality, cultural differences, moral decisions and prejudice. What made them appealing wasn’t just their realism; it was their depth. And depth is what Greg Heffley lacks – even depth as far as personal ambition.

Holly realizes I’m not crazy about this series. She likes it, because the wimpy kid gets to complain all he wants – after all, it’s his narrative -- and that’s exciting to a child who is discouraged from whining. And I do understand the argument that children’s librarians and teachers offer in favor of these books: for some kids, books like this are all that gets them to read anything at all, and something is definitely better than nothing when it comes to kids and reading.

So I shouldn’t be so quick to disparage. I’d rather read about characters who inspire me a little bit, even if they are only nine years old. But Holly should be allowed to judge for herself. And if these are the books that get her to read on her own, then she should indulge as much as she wants. But I won’t be a bit sorry if she sneaks off to read these in private – and saves the headier texts to read with me.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Foliage in a vase

On Sunday morning, I embarked upon some fast and furious housecleaning that needed to be done before visitors arrived at noon. In order to ensure that I could concentrate on the tasks at hand, I was on the verge of telling Holly she could play games on my computer when she approached me with a request. “Mommy, may I –“

I braced myself for the dreaded “…watch TV?”, knowing I was busy enough to guiltily say yes.

“…go outside and pick leaves?” she asked.

“Yes. Of course,” I said. I wasn’t expecting this. The leaves were just starting to change, but for the past couple of weeks Holly has needed to be coerced into most outdoor activities, and usually only after I promise that a stop at the ice cream stand will be included.

Holly knows that being outside alone means she has to stay within sight of the house. As I vacuumed, I could see her out the window, plucking leaves off the low-hanging branches of oak trees and collecting maple leaves off the ground. It’s a nice idea, but now she’ll come inside and deposit piles of dried-up leaves all over the house, I couldn’t help thinking as I started emptying wastebaskets.

I heard the front door open and close a little while later. I could picture Holly bringing her armfuls of foliage into the house and depositing them on the polished kitchen countertop. I mentally added “heaps of dried-up leaves” to the list of things I’d need to clean up before this housecleaning siege was over.

But again, I was surprised. “Mommy, can I choose a vase myself?” she called upstairs.

Yes, I told her. Just use the kitchen stool to reach the cupboard where the vases are stored.

After that I immersed myself in dusting and didn’t give much thought to what Holly was doing. So I was unprepared for the sight that greeted me when my cleaning project finally advanced as far as my home office. On each of the two windows in that room, outlined against the morning light shining in through the glass, stood a short round painted vase with a thick sheaf of crimson, yellow and green leaves standing in a few inches of water. While I expected Holly to toss down her bounty and forget about it, she had selected the most appropriate vases, remembered to add water, arranged the leaves beautifully, and found a perfect place to set them.

“Holly, that looks so pretty!” I exclaimed. She followed me into the room and smiled proudly, but didn’t linger for further praise. She felt an artist’s pride in what she’d done; she didn’t need to hear more from me about how lovely it was.

I underestimated her. Where I initially expected a request to watch TV, she went outside to gather the first autumn leaves of the season. And where I expected the activity to end with a messy pile, she made a beautiful arrangement – for my office, no less.

She has an emerging sense of artistic style that will probably suit her well in the years to come. And I learn a little more every day about why I shouldn’t hasten to judge my children. They still have the capacity to surprise me, after all these years.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Who's On First Banana Bread, Part V: The conclusion

The kids announced yesterday that they feel ready to give up Farmers Market for the season.

They weren’t exasperated or frustrated. They just thought they’d had enough fun with it and were ready to move on. They’ve baked and sold banana bread nearly every week since July 3rd. Over the summer, it proved to be a great project for them, just as I’d hoped (and wrote about here and here). Our summer was characterized by an absence of structured plans, and I encouraged them to pursue the idea of a banana bread business.

From a purely fiscal perspective, it went better than we ever imagined: selling 25 to 30 loaves a week, they raked in the cash. And from the perspective of a learning experience, they acquired new skills as well, just as I’d hoped they would: marketing, sales, customer service.

But it’s possible that no skill they’ve displayed throughout the Farmers’ Market experience was quite so valuable as the one that clued them into the fact that now was the right time to give it up. With homework after school and a need to relax at the end of the day that they didn’t have throughout the summer, they stopped enjoying the process of baking together. Nor did they find it so easy to wake up early on Saturday mornings and load up the car with all their Farmers Market equipment – table, signs, samples, product, cash box – once Saturday became the day they could sleep late after a week of early rising for school.

I admire my kids for this. I know how to bake bread. I know how to talk to customers and count out change. What I’m not so good at is knowing when enough is enough with any given project. But it turns out they do.

It’s harder for me to put an end date on something I’ve decided to do. When I joined the society of “streak runners” – runners who run a mile or more 365 days a year without taking any days off, per the definition of the United States Running Streak Association – I thought it would be a hard commitment to maintain, but three years and one month in, I’m not finding it difficult at all. Getting out there for my few miles every day feels necessary, and I’m never tempted these days to give it up. It’s easier to just get out there and go every day than come up with a reason to stop.

The commitment I find somewhat more difficult to maintain is blogging five days a week. Sometimes I can’t imagine how – or why – I plan to do this day after day without any idea of when I’ll end it. But I can’t seem to entertain the possibility of just changing the schedule. When I launched my blog thirteen months ago, I set out to post every weekday, and that’s what I’ve done. I find it very hard to imagine giving myself permission to change the rules.

My kids, it turns out, are a little less rigid than I am. “Farmers Market was fun. We will definitely do it again next year,” they told me yesterday. “But we’re finished for now.”

I thought about that. They weren’t burned out. Unlike many adults I know, who devote far too much energy to work or volunteer projects, Tim and Holly don’t even know the meaning of “burned out.” True, as children, they don’t have livelihoods that depend on facing down fatigue with persistence, but maybe that’s just one of the perks of childhood: there aren’t that many difficult things that you force yourself to do past the point of where you want to do them.

And for the two of them, it was easy enough to wrap up the Farmers Market season cheerfully. They’ll be back next year. They’re not burned out; they’ve just had enough, and they are able to recognize that fact. I could stand to learn a lot from them in this regard, I suspect.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Perfect weekend

At the end of the day on Sunday, I realized why we’d had such a great weekend…it was because every member of my family had the opportunity to do things that they love to do.

My husband Rick brought Tim and a couple of Tim’s friends to Canobie Lake Park in celebration of Tim’s twelfth birthday. They rode roller coasters. They drank Coke and ate hamburgers with French fries. They got drenched in a water ride. They let themselves become dizzy in the hall of mirrors. It was a dream day for him. (Oh, and Tim had plenty of fun as well. Just joking.)

Meanwhile, I brought Holly and a friend of hers to the science museum. Not the world-famous one in Boston; the small-scale version in a neighboring town, which to Holly’s eternal delight includes a hands-on art studio within their definition of “science.” It’s a small enough place – three floors in a rehabbed Victorian house – and Holly is familiar enough with the layout that she and her friend could explore on their own, which meant that for a five-dollar admission ticket, I could sit on the bench near the entrance for two hours reading the past three issues of the Sunday New York Times. Five dollars can’t be spent much more indulgently than that, in my opinion.

Tim and his friends came back to our house for dinner. While the pan of homemade macaroni and cheese baked in the oven, the boys played Ultimate Frisbee on our lawn. I’m not sure who enjoyed it more: the players or me, as I watched them, these generous and pleasant boys I’ve known since they were in preschool who will soon be teenagers.

The boys were staying for a sleepover, and after dinner they tucked into a marathon session of video games that would go on until nearly midnight. Holly does not especially like playing video games. She does like watching Tim and his friends play video games, but that night she had an even better option: my mother came over to babysit and played Holly’s favorite board game, Tea Party, with her.

It might seem odd that Rick and I went out while Tim was hosting a sleepover, but we’d already accepted an invitation before realizing this would be the ideal weekend for Tim’s party, and my mother was kind enough to say she’d come over for a few hours, so we drove a couple of miles across town to attend an annual party that about three hundred of our closest local friends also attended. We spent the evening catching up, swapping summer tales, and commiserating about back-to-school transitions. It’s so great having so many local friends; nothing beats a night out for me where I don’t have to go beyond Carlisle city limits.

On Sunday morning I made waffles and bacon for the sleepover group before they packed up and left. Just as they had at dinner on Saturday, they thanked me and praised my cooking. Midday, Tim had a baseball game: he played shortstop, Rick coached, Holly and I picnicked and watched the game from our lawn chairs. Not even the fact that the temperature had dropped twenty degrees since Saturday could keep us from enjoying the afternoon. Late in the day, Holly and I attended an event hosted by the Carlisle Conservation Foundation to introduce townspeople to a new piece of conservation land. There was fort-building, a singalong, cake, information sheets, and well-marked hiking trails. These are definitely a few of our favorite things. (Though a friend of ours at the same event commented that with almost the entire population of Carlisle tromping through the woods together, this would be an ideal time for local drugstores to practice some price-gouging on calamine lotion and other anti-poison ivy medications.) To top off a perfect day, I stopped next door to visit with my parents and resolved two technical problems they were having, one involving a text message and one involving the auto-dial feature on their cordless phone. As I’ve written about before, fixing tech-support problems makes me feel like a super-hero.

I often bemoan the fact that we don’t put our weekends to better use more of the time. We don’t devote enough time to cultural activities, especially in the city. We don’t do as many outdoor fitness activities as I would like. I don’t even cook as much on the weekends as I feel would be optimal.

But we have fun, especially on weekends like this one. Time outdoors, time at home, time with family and friends. Weekends simply don’t get much better.

Friday, September 24, 2010

My phone, "The Brick"

Several weeks ago, when we asked Tim what we should give him for his birthday, he said he’d like a new phone. He’d had his current phone for a year; it was a hand-me-down from me the last time I upgraded. Unlike many parents of middle schoolers, for whom outfitting their pre-teen with a phone is a soul-searching decision, it wasn’t much of an issue for us. Tim really wasn’t that interested in deploying telecommunications; but since he sometimes walks home from school, sometimes rides his bike, and sometimes takes the bus, I thought it would be convenient if he could easily be in touch and let me know what he was doing. I knew he wasn’t interested in spending a lot of time talking to his friends.

So we were curious why he wanted a different phone at this point. He told Rick it was a cause for teasing. “My friends call it ‘The Brick,’” he said.

This seemed implausible to me because Tim’s friends just aren’t the type to tease, moreover, he’s not the type to have a problem with teasing. Unlike some of my friends’ kids who are the same age, Tim’s not particularly concerned with how he fits in or what other kids think of him. Perversely, of course, that means he fits in just fine and other kids get along easily with him. Plus he has that inexplicable and yet timeless advantage of being an athlete. Boys who are known for being good at sports are almost never subjected to teasing, according to a report I read not long ago, and Tim’s experience tends to bear that out.

Later, when we pursued the question again, he downplayed it. “It wasn’t really teasing,” he admitted. “Austin called it ‘The Brick’ maybe one time.” Really, he confessed, he just wanted a phone on which he could send text messages.

Because it wasn’t a convenient time in our phone contract to buy him a new phone, I offered to trade with him. My phone is nothing fancy, but it’s a very slim flip-phone with more features, including a screen that would make texting easy, so we also bought him a texting plan. All we needed to do was switch the SIM cards so that we wouldn’t have to change phone numbers and we were all set.

And so I ended up with the phone they call The Brick, and although I was a little bit grudging about the sacrifice, it turns out I actually like it. Understand, we’re not talking about the first generation of cell phones here. This isn’t like carrying around a cordless in my purse. In reality, The Brick was probably one of the last models made before the advent of flip phones. It’s not all that big and bulky; it’s just…thick and oblong.

And that’s actually an advantage to me, because the slim black flip-phone was always disappearing in my purses and bags. It would slide into a crevice and camouflage against the black interior; I wouldn’t be able to locate it even when it was ringing. With The Brick, this isn’t a problem. It sits stolidly in my purse like a chunk of ice, its lighter gray sheen easy to see against the purse’s dark lining, its moderate heft easy for my fingers to locate.

I’m fine with its lack of fancy features, too. Yesterday when it started tinkling that old familiar Nokia trademark ring, a friend I was walking with said “Oh, how European!” More like “Oh, how two thousand,” I thought to myself; she was clearly reacting to the fact that I didn’t have a clever sound effect or popular song for my ringtone the way most phones purchased in the past five years or so do. The Brick doesn’t offer a lot of choices, though, and the default ring sounds fine to me.

The Brick doesn’t have an interactive screen. I can’t surf the web or access my email with it. I can make phone calls. That’s all I really want to be able to do with my phone. While everyone else wanders around lost in the distraction of apps, tricks, games and features, I don’t think about my phone much unless it rings. Phones the way phones used to be, you could say.

In general, I tend to be attracted to gadgets and new accessories, but this time is different. When I want to make a call, I know how to do it. I have other gadgets that can take pictures, play music, display email and shoot video. I’m fine with The Brick, a simple, straightforward and solid piece of electronica that can do what I need it to do. And until I decide I need to hear a Van Morrison tune every time I get a phone call, I’ll stick with it.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Summer on the fall solstice

I tend to read too much symbolism into the weather – the pathetic fallacy, I believe it’s called – but having a one-day blast of 80-degree weather yesterday felt reassuring. It reminded me that even though we’ve had crisp, cool weather after since the week school began, fall is still very, very young. In fact, despite the heat, it began only yesterday. “Fall arrived on a summer day!” Tim observed, amused. But he’s right, and for me it served as a comforting reminder that we’re only a little way into the new school year, and it’s okay if I don’t quite have the routine down pat yet.

For us, school has been in session for only two weeks and two days, after all. It’s tempting to start off with firm resolutions and expect everything to fall into place, but it’s helpful to remember that when it comes to establishing good habits, you actually do get second chances. In fact, if the common neurological lore is true and it takes three weeks to instill a habit, we still have at least another week to go before we can expect the patterns of the new school year to be set in stone.

I suppose it’s obvious that I’m building up to an excuse. Well, not an excuse, exactly. More like an explanation. An explanation to myself, as to why the few guidelines the kids and I agreed to at the start of the school year in theory are still taking shape in practice.

It was a simple back-to-school contract. I wrote these rules: Homework must be done before any screen time (TV, video games, computer games) takes place. No arguing about whether it’s a take-the-bus or pick-up-at-school day. No wearing the same shirt on consecutive days. Oh, and have fun.

We’re doing really well with the second one. Holly enjoys being on the bus because she sees friends who are not in her class; Tim’s not crazy about it but recognizes it’s brief enough to be painless since he’s the last one on and the first one off. And the fourth rule is falling into place beautifully: both kids love their teachers and classes, and are definitely having fun. The others? We still have a way to go.

The homework rule has stayed in effect but not without a lot of vigilance on my part. The kids argue that they want a break from schoolwork when they come home from school, and if anything, they point out, it would make sense to get screen time first and then hit the books later, once they’ve had a chance to refresh their minds. It’s a compelling argument, but common sense tells me to ensure they get their necessary work done before they lounge around playing video games, no matter that there’s a certain logic to doing it the other way around.

And the shirts on consecutive days? For some reason, that’s one of the toughest. It used to be just Tim; now Holly too has narrowed her clothing preferences down to two or three items. I try to beat the system by putting what they’ve worn immediately in the dirty laundry – even if it doesn’t really seem dirty – just so there’s no chance they’ll wear in the next day, but then I frequently end up running the laundry and it’s clean again. And yesterday I let Holly convince me that the prohibition against wearing the same shirt two days in a row wasn’t operative if one day she wore a sweatshirt over it and the next day she didn’t, since to observers it will appear that she was wearing two different tops on those two days.

I was starting to feel like I was losing my grip on the starting-the-new-year principles we’d agreed upon. But then this one-day summer blast hit us yesterday, and I felt exonerated. It underscored for me the fact that the school year is still young. Why, we’re barely even past summer yet: just look at the thermometer! Third and sixth grade are still new to us. The ink on the back-to-school contract is barely dry. We’ll work out the details soon enough. It’s only just becoming fall now, and there’s still plenty of time to instill good fall habits.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Good morning, good day

My friend and neighbor Tom Fitzpatrick, who produces the Globe’s Reflection for the Day, posted this Swahili proverb in yesterday’s paper: “A good day reveals itself by morning.”

At first, I quailed a bit when I read that, because it seemed to suggest that if a morning is not so good, forget about it – there’s no way to redeem the day. And I don’t want to develop that mindset, because surely it’s not always true: a difficult morning can still turn into a good day, can’t it? As if to reassure me – psychically, as it turns out, since I hadn’t shared this concern – my niece, Sophie, posted on Facebook before the end of the day that she “was having a yucky day, but then it totally turned around tonight when I made myself do something I didn't want to.”

I think both of them – the Swahili proverb-makers and my niece – are right some of the time. A good day often is one that’s already clearly on track before the morning is over…but a bad day can still turn itself around.

What feels more relevant to me is the corrolary: a good morning often paves the way to a good day. With the school year under way once again, I’m back on a morning schedule I love. I get up early so that I don’t have to rush through the kids’ breakfasts. Once both of them have eaten, Tim rides his bike to the bus stop, Holly heads upstairs to dress, Rick leaves for work, and I cross the pasture to the barnyard and let the sheep out to graze. The dog accompanies me, dashing across the fields or just nosing around the brook, depending on where a flash of movement first catches her eye.

After Holly climbs onto the bus, I hit the footpath for my daily run. It turns out this is a perfect time of day for me to run. Not so much physically but mentally. When I run just as Holly is heading to school, it’s like a physical transition between caring for other people – waking them up, feeding them, keeping them on schedule so as not to be late for school – and spending the next six hours by myself, writing. I say goodbye to her and then by turn my focus inward as I run: nothing demanding my attention but the need to propel myself forward along the footpath. First the quiet section next to the fields my father mows in the summer; then briefly into the woods by the day lily nursery; across Bedford Rd. and into the Center. I pass near the school at 8:55, just five minutes after class has started for Holly and an hour into Tim’s day; I picture both of them already immersed in classroom projects and discussions before I pass onward toward Concord St. and then turn around at Clark Farm to head back.

And then once I’m home, with my simple two-mile run done, it’s time to wash the breakfast dishes, brew the coffee and get to work. Writing is harder for me than running, but getting the run over with early somehow makes me feel like I’ve already slain some dragons. Running isn’t hard, but it gives a concrete sense of accomplishment in a way that neither household responsibilities nor writing necessarily transmit. I did my run; I can surely write this profile, I tell myself. Writing is just sitting here putting words together. Surely you can do that.

So I think the proverb makes sense. A good day may reveal itself by morning; a good morning often portends a pleasurable and productive day. On the other hand as Sophie said, there’s no reason to believe les jeux sont fait if it’s not such a good morning. I currently have a morning routine so enjoyable that the day to follow tends to be fulfilling as well, though. Like a nutritious breakfast, though it doesn’t guarantee a good day to follow, it definitely seems to provide an auspicious start.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Reading together

Last night at a little after eight o’clock, I climbed into bed to read Lionel Shriver’s latest novel, So Much for That. The act itself – sliding under the covers with a book -- wasn’t unusual; the early hour was. Usually at that time I’m helping my eight-year-old with a bath, or reading to her, or helping her clean up her room, or suggesting she pick out clothes for the next day, or overseeing her homework, or finishing the dinner dishes while she works on an art project of her own design.

But this time, I was reading, and the reason I wasn’t busy overseeing any of Holly’s activities was that she was snuggled up in bed next to me, reading the latest installment in her current American Girls series.

This was a big deal to me. One of my stated goals at the beginning of the summer was to find some way to gently push Holly in the direction of reading to herself more often. According to her teachers and my own observations, her reading skills are perfectly proficient for a child beginning third grade, and during silent reading times at school she reads on her own, from what I understand. But at home, she always wants me to read to her.

Finally, over the summer, it started to change. I learned to say “I’ll read the first chapter to you, and then you read the next one to yourself.” We drove to Maine several times, and she discovered how quickly the time passed if she read on the drive. Slowly, the habit began to embed itself.

So last night, I read to her for twenty minutes and then suggested she continue reading on her own. It was just after eight, and her bedtime isn’t until eight-thirty. To my surprise, she agreed that might be fun.

So the two of us lay reading in companionable silence, just enjoying our books and the stillness and the company.

I’ve come to realize over the years that depending on their own particular interests, parents have different activities that they dream of doing with their anticipated children even before they have children. My cousin once told me that he had always imagined a day when he would go skiing with the children he would someday have, a dream that soon enough became a reality. When I see my husband swimming with our kids, I imagine that splashing in the pool is the equivalent for him.

I don’t think I ever specifically fantasized about reading side by side with my child. My parenting fantasies ran more along the lines of baking Christmas cookies and going for bike rides. Nonetheless, it’s certainly something that over the past year or two I started hoping for. Last night was a quiet, calm evening, Holly and I each with our books. It was a most rewarding moment for me. And it’s a scene I hope we have the opportunity to repeat many, many times in the future.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Back-to-church time

Although not all Unitarian Universalist churches observe the “summer break” plan – my parents’ large church in Concord, for example, runs a year-round program – it is typical for small- to midsized UU churches including the one I attend in Carlisle to take the months of July and August off from regular services and either offer an alternative style of services such as lay-led or simply close altogether.

Returning to church yesterday morning after three months off (official Opening Day was last Sunday, but I was driving Rick to the airport), I realized as I sat in the pew how beneficial the time away had been for me. I often end the church year with twinges of burn-out. It takes a lot of volunteer effort to run a church like ours – smallish in membership numbers and even smaller in terms of paid staff, but robust in its range of offerings and initiatives – and by June, I’m usually more than a little worn out from the effort of doing my meager part. I’ve had enough of teaching Sunday school, baking muffins for coffee hour, mixing up brownies for bake sales, attending committee meetings, writing publicity notices, weeding the church garden, and figuring out what I can afford to pledge for yet another year.

And over the summer, I never feel any regret that I’m not at church. In fact, if I’m to be honest, some summers – including this past one – I sometimes start to wonder why I go at all. As a faith, Unitarian Universalists aren’t required to attend church. Our covenant says that “service is our prayer”; you could be a good UU without ever setting foot in a church, if you instead devoted your time to community service and charitable works.

In the summer, I bask in the extra free time. I sleep late on Sundays, fit in more walks and bike rides, make better Sunday breakfasts for my family, read the Sunday paper over coffee, take weekend trips, have brunch with friends. “Why bother with church?” I ask myself at those times. “Isn’t this” – whether ‘this’ is running along the beach or talking with friends – “a worthwhile form of worship in its own right, and just as valuable? Would it make more sense to devote Sunday mornings to quality time with my family rather than rushing everyone out the door to church once fall arrives?”

Yesterday morning, though, I’d had a long break, and everything felt fresh and new, and it all reminded me of why I go to church. The music – choral, organ, harpsichord – was far more beautiful than anything I could have re-created in my own home. The sermon drew upon Bible accounts I wasn’t familiar with and made salient points about the importance of stepping to the plate when voices of dissent are needed. Our minister’s face was comforting and familiar at the pulpit. I saw friends I hadn’t seen since June, and during coffee hour heard about one parishioner’s great new job and another parishioner’s newborn twin grandchildren. Acquaintances I don’t know well inquired after my parents and expressed concern over their recent health challenges.

Besides, on top of everything else valuable about church – the music, the rituals, the covenant, the sermon, the readings – it provides an hour of quiet uninterrupted reflection. And no matter how much I might claim I observe some form of Sabbath throughout the summer, I don’t sit in a pew for an hour meditating and reflecting. I just don’t.

The church year is still new. I don’t have to teach any Sunday school classes until the middle of next month; the committees on which I’m currently serving haven’t started meeting again yet; and surprisingly, no one approached me yesterday about duties for the Harvest Fair. All of that will happen, and I might once again grow a little bit weary and wonder if it’s worthwhile to go.

But then I’ll try to remind myself of how it felt yesterday: quiet, peaceful, welcoming. Sitting in the pew of a building more than a hundred years old, which houses a congregation that has been meeting for more than two hundred and fifty years, is indeed different from observing the Sabbath in any form at home. July and August convince me that it’s effective to take the summers off, but September convinces me it’s worthwhile to come back. The music, the readings, the fellowship…that’s what makes a church. It brought me in yesterday morning, and it will bring me back again throughout another church year.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Help desk, know thyself

As I was about to shut down my laptop late Wednesday night, I saw a message on the screen saying that an automatic system update was about to begin. Fine, I thought. Those tend to be advantageous. Let it begin.

Knowing that system changes had happened while I slept was the only explanation I could think of yesterday morning when I couldn’t get past start-up on my computer. It asked for my logon and then said “User profile failed to load.” And there seemed to be no way to get past that screen.

Normally, this kind of major IT problem would send me straight to my husband, pleading for his help while apologizing profusely for taking up his time. But Rick was out of town on a business trip. My brother-in-law, who can solve almost any IT problem, is in Germany. And I didn’t feel comfortable prevailing on my few other personal contacts with IT expertise.

So instead I found the Windows 7 help forum site and started a new thread describing the error message I was getting. Within minutes, someone wrote back to send me a link. The link took me to a very long, multi-step explanation of how to circumvent the problem I was having.

“I can’t possibly do that whole process,” I thought as I read through it. “Start up in Safe mode? Reboot in Administrator mode? Open system files to rename the user profile? I don’t know how to do any of this. I don’t know how to do anything when it comes to the workings of this computer other than turn it on. I’ll keep this link with its long and complex explanation of what to do, and I can show it to Rick once he’s home, and maybe if I’m really lucky he’ll have time to try the fix this weekend.”

Which meant, however, that the problem wouldn’t be solved for several days, and in that time I wouldn’t have use of my computer or any of the files on it.

And I suppose it goes without saying that I spent about six hours the day before editing my own manuscript and hadn’t backed up that file. Six hours of work isn’t a horrible amount to lose – it’s not like six months, which was more like the time frame of writing the manuscript – but as any writer knows, any time you draft something and then lose it, you’re convinced that subsequent drafts are never quite as good as that first one. (By the same token, first drafts themselves are never quite as good as the one you wrote in your head while showering or running.) Even if I redid the six hours of work, I’d always suspect the version that was lost was better.

So I looked again at the long complicated set of directions. “Start in Safe mode?” I read. “I have no idea how to do that.”

Except...wait a second. Something about that sounded vaguely familiar. Every now and then my computer freezes and I push the on switch to reboot. And then…isn’t there usually something on the screen about starting in Safe mode?

I tried it. It worked. I found the Safe mode. I used it. I went on to Step 2, which directed me into the system files. “I don’t know how to work in system files!” I moaned to myself. “That’s way too complicated!”

Except that the wording in that step aligned perfectly with what I saw on my screen in front of me. So I tried it. And that brought me to a screen shot indicating a folder I needed to open. A folder labeled just like the one on my screen.

It turned out the directions weren’t that hard to follow. I went through all twenty steps, and when I was done, my computer was working again.

The triumph I felt was inexpressible. “I’m terrible with computers,” I had told myself earlier. “I’ll never be able to fix this without Rick’s help. If I try, I’ll cause a much bigger problem.”

But then I located the instructions, and followed the instructions, and fixed the problem. Turns out I had the aptitude after all.

I was smug with joy, but it was a sobering reminder not to be so quick to tell myself what I can and can’t do; what kind of person (not the IT kind) I am or am not.

True, being able to follow directions in a help forum doesn’t exactly qualify me for a job at Microsoft’s support center. But it proves that sometimes the first step to solving a problem is believing you can solve it. I believed. I solved. It’s trivial, but I felt so proud of myself: not for fixing a computer bug but for taking the time to see if I could. My reward? The joy of seeing that I had more abilities than I thought, even if those abilities consist primarily of reading directions.

Later in the afternoon I backed up all the files I’d been working on just in case something like this happens again. Well, not in case it happens again. When it does. Because it will. And next time I might not find a fix. But at the very least, I’ll know enough to look for one.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Tim turns twelve

Tim turned twelve years old yesterday. It is always such a joy to me to celebrate the kids’ birthdays with them. I feel such a sense of accomplishment on their behalf as I watch them reach each new age. It’s not that the birthday itself is an accomplishment, of course; just that it’s such a convenient time to note what’s changed in the past year.

What’s changed for Tim is that he’s grown a lot taller – still wiry as ever – and his facial structure is stronger in appearance, solid bones emerging to define his features. What else has changed is that he grows increasingly confident as a student, as a baseball player, and in my opinion as a mensch. He seems to try to be a good friend to people and expect them to like him in turn. When he was younger, I found him to be somewhat defensive around new peers – as if always expecting them to break his toys – but these days I think he takes a much more circumspect view. In just one week of school so far this year, he’s mentioned two different boys who are new to town and whom he already likes, and I sense that he is learning to appreciate and take an interest in new people rather than viewing them suspiciously. This is a great change, as far as I’m concerned.

Other characteristics of Tim at twelve: he can get lost in a book, just as I used to do – immersed to the point that he doesn’t hear conversation directed at him. He’s a willing and increasingly capable boat captain. I can rely on him for navigational help in the car and for judgment on practical matters. He loves baseball enough to play three seasons a year: not just being at bat or on the pitcher’s mound but even sitting on the bench watching his teammates. He just loves being part of the sport, whether they’re winning or losing, fielding or batting, playing or resting. He tries hard to be a patient and caring older brother, though admittedly those efforts vary in their success rate.

There were only two things he wanted for birthday presents this year, he told us: a text package added to his cell phone (we gave him the phone last year as a hand-me-down, not because it was something he cared much about having but because in fifth grade he started walking or biking home from school sometimes and it was helpful to be in touch); and a waffle iron.

We added the text package over the weekend, and already Tim has used it to become more responsible if also a little more demanding. “Please put a bagel in the toaster for me,” he texts me from the end of the driveway as he gets off the bus. Still, when I texted back asking him to close the pasture gate so that I wouldn’t have to head out later in the afternoon to do it, he closed it even before coming inside for the bagel. So the texting has potential to benefit all of us.

Holly heard Tim’s second wish and asked me if I would buy a waffle iron for her to give him. She and I together stopped in the housewares section at Sears last weekend to pick one out. “I am not giving you a waffle iron,” she told him a dozen or so times in the ensuing days, determined with utter lack of subtlety to be sure this present was a surprise. I’m not so sure it was a surprise, but Tim was definitely happy with it. I don’t know where his obsession for learning to make waffles came from, but I’m willing to give it a try.

In a hundred different ways, he is such a different person from the seven-pound baby I balanced in the crook of my arm for the first time twelve years ago last night. In other ways, not. Traits that emerged in infancy and maintain themselves on the crest of the teenage years include his capacity for stubbornness, his tendency toward introversion, his adoration of Rick, his understated but persistent affection for me.

Most of us parents love our babies from the moment we first see them, and I was no different. But it was so different twelve years ago from how it is now. Then, I loved the very fact of his existence. Now, I love everything about who he is turning out to be. And I feel very, very grateful for the best twelve years, and hopeful that many more equally fascinating, rewarding, and yes, occasionally frustrating, years lie ahead.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Back in the social swing

The Carlisle social season is back in full swing.

In places like Miami Beach and the Hamptons, kicking off the social season looks a lot different from here, or at least that’s what I infer from photos and articles. Designer dresses, charity balls, black tie banquets.

Here in Carlisle, the social season – at least from my perspective – began this week with a school fundraiser at a pizza restaurant on Tuesday evening followed by the third grade meet-and-greet first thing Wednesday morning, which segues into the introductory Room Parent meeting and, later this month, the ski-barn barbeque.

Yes, these events are decidedly dress-down rather than dress-up, but they still serve to pull a very large group of friends and acquaintances – comprising essentially every parent of school-aged children in town who has any interest in being involved in any aspect of community life – together after a long summer during which we all went in different directions.

And I was dreading it. I really was. All throughout August, I experienced twinges of something that felt a little like agoraphobia, not exactly fear of crowded places but fear of resuming my usual social customs: greeting, connecting, schmoozing. Despite the fact that mingling with a large and extended version of my cohort makes up the bulk of my social life, I found myself retreating this summer to the point where I feared the time of year that we all start getting out again. I felt socially drained, as if I’d lost all interest in catching up with old friends and meeting people new to town.

But I’m relieved to say that the events are back under way and it turns out I’m not afraid of crowds after all. I guess I just needed a break. Last night, the kids and I went to a school fundraiser at a pizza restaurant – held in a neighboring town because Carlisle doesn’t have any restaurants – and though it was the kind of scene I’d feared all summer, after five minutes I was basking in the noise and commotion.

I asked a friend’s husband about how his running program was going and heard from another friend about how she selected a new puppy for her kids. I learned a few details about a local family’s six-month stay in South America, from which they’d just returned. I met a family who moved to town last month, having lived all over the U.S. and Europe, and asked about their impressions of Carlisle. I answered thoughtful inquiries about my family and our summer vacation. I talked about work with some people and about the middle school faculty with others.

A woman I was sitting with at the pizza dinner who moved to town over the summer commented on how friendly everyone had been to her ever since she arrived in Carlisle. “Almost Stepford-like,” she said, but I gave her my usual explanation of my theory about why people in Carlisle are so friendly. “Hanging out with each other is all we can do,” I said. “We don’t have theaters or restaurants or nightclubs or concert venues or even coffee shops. Our entire social life, at least within city limits, consists of socializing with each other. If we weren’t friendly, there would be absolutely nothing to do at all.”

Which doesn’t explain my retreat into mild agoraphobia over the summer, a time during which I didn’t want to do any socializing at all and feared the prospect of resuming the usual schedules in the fall. But I’m relieved that it’s passed, and I’m finding it wonderfully rewarding to be talking and catching up and sharing information with a wide and ever-growing circle of acquaintances once again.

It’s good to have friends. It’s good to be part of the crowd. But retreating can be a comfort too. So maybe what I was doing wasn’t so much hiding as hibernating. Summer hibernating, in my case. I needed to recharge my conviviality batteries and maybe just have some time when I wasn’t quite so focused on interacting with other people. It felt good to retreat for a couple of months, and even better now to want to be back in the thick of the conversations. Sometimes nothing informs us more effectively than listening to our own inner rhythms, whether they are telling us about our need for food, water, sleep, exercise, solitude….or yes, society.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

The lists that define us

Our lists define us, I sometimes suspect. Our task lists; our grocery lists; our address lists; our errand lists; our lists of phone calls to return. Looking at our personal lists is like exploring cultural anthropology. I often think no document would tell more about any segment of society if put into a time capsule than individual To Do lists. Here’s the set of lists currently stored on my electronic organizer:

* Recipe for honey lime glazed chicken (yes, I’m still a vegetarian)

* Grocery list – the boring kind (Market Basket): dog food, sour cream, laundry detergent, grape nuts

* Grocery list – the interesting kind (Whole Foods): Pleasant Morning Buzz coffee beans, that runny expensive cheese I can never remember the name of, large green olives marinated in herbes Provencal, Swiss chard, the corn muffins my kids love for afterschool snacks

* Things to give my sister Sarah when she next visits: her hardcover copy of “The Help,” four dollars, her pick of all the girls size 8 dresses Holly won’t wear

* Dates we went to NARA beach this summer (to monitor whether the season pass was cost-effective): more than ten visits, so it absolutely was

* Websites for places I’d like to stay on vacation

* Restaurants I’d like to try

* Books I want to read

* Books to recommend (for when people ask me for recommendations and I draw a blank)

* People to whom Holly still owes thankyou notes (her birthday is August 3rd)

* Steps to take to prepare the motorboat (which is docked in Maine) for a hurricane

* …and, of course, a list of ideas for blog posts.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Not to worry

For much of the day on Saturday, I looked forward to a late afternoon run. After a hot summer during which it was essential most days to run before about 9 a.m. because of the heat, the cool crisp air was enticing, and so was the thought that the temperature didn’t need to dictate what time I headed out. So I went to Farmers Market, did some cooking, tidied up the house, and then I headed out at about 4:00.

And just as I’d expected, it was a beautiful day for running – the sun was strong by that time of day, but not oppressive, and the sky was bright blue – except that almost as soon as I started, I began to worry that I’d get hungry in the course of the five miles that lay ahead of me. And while it might sound funny to say I was worried about hunger – it’s not exactly like I didn’t know where my next meal was coming from, and the truth is that I have enough of a fat layer built up that I could probably hibernate if I chose to – becoming hungry while out on a run is an unpleasant experience. It makes me feel weak and shaky and clammy, which is not a good way to feel miles from home.

So I continued with the run and continued feeling like I’d sabotaged myself by not having a snack before heading out, until gradually something became clear to me: I actually wasn’t hungry. I was just worried about becoming hungry. And the idea that this might turn into an unpleasant run was ruining what had in fact the potential to be a great run.

So I made myself stop worrying about how things might turn out and instead just enjoyed what was in fact happening.

The more I thought about it afterwards, the more I realized how easily and frequently I allow anxiety about what could transpire subsume pleasure at what is actually transpiring. When we went to Colorado last month, I worried in advance that for various reasons the vacation wouldn’t turn out well. It turned out to be a magnificent vacation, but once I got home I felt like I’d cheated myself out of the fun of the anticipation because I’d been so apprehensive.

Last week an even starker example took shape. I needed to write an email to a colleague asking for a problematic favor that I suspected he would reject. I spent weeks agonizing over the necessity of writing the email. I put it off as long as possible. And then I gradually came to realize that no possible outcome of asking the favor could measure up to my dread of doing so. No matter what he said – even if he said there was no chance he would help me – hearing that wouldn’t be as oppressive as the fear that had built up in me over making the request. And so finally I wrote the email – not so much because I’d conquered my fears as because time had run out – and indeed, hearing his answer wasn’t so bad at all, even though it wasn’t an unqualified “yes.” As I’d come to suspect, no answer could have merited the apprehension I’d allowed to develop.

In a way, I think of this syndrome as “Life as a dentist appointment.” I’ve long dreaded going to the dentist because I have sensitive gums that make routine cleanings extremely uncomfortable for me. I worry for weeks ahead of each appointment, and I usually go into a cold sweat once I get to the dentist’s office. And even though about three years ago my dentist discovered an anesthetic gel that all but obliterates my gum sensitivity problem during cleanings, I still have the same panicky symptoms approaching the appointment, whereas if I looked objectively at the fact that thanks to the new gel, the gum problem isn’t really an issue anymore, I could bypass the awful feelings – the pounding heart, the sweating – altogether.

As it happens, I have a dentist appointment later this week, and I’m commanding myself not to go into a tailspin of anxiety over it. I won’t let apprehension ruin even a few minutes of another run, either, and I’ll try not to let anxiety about outcomes get in the way of my work anymore. It’s easier said than done, but it’s a lesson that’s slowly taking hold. If you have the opportunity to go running on a beautiful day, I now try to remember, just take in the beautiful day; don’t worry about how you might feel a mile or two in. Because the reality is you might not feel that way at all. On Saturday, the gorgeous weather was a certainty; the clammy, ill feeling that comes with hunger pangs while running was only a possibility. I’m trying hard to learn to let the sure thing, and not the anxiety-producing possibility, be my guide.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Divine humor

My aunt wrote yesterday to tell me that her camera, which went missing over Labor Day weekend while she was at home in Aspen, turned up three days later in her son’s car at Zion National Park. At the end of the fairly brief account, she implied that this was a story I should include in my blog.

It’s a little bit second-hand for my standards of blogging, but it’s a useful story to me anyway because it reminds me of how much I savor these little moments of grace. We all pay attention when bad things happen, and use those moments to contemplate the nature of Fate, or of God, or of luck and happenstance, or whatever governing force each of us believes in. And so too when really significant good things happen, like the arrival of a baby or an unexpectedly encouraging medical diagnosis. But it’s also important to acknowledge the trivial blessings – such as when you find a missing camera.

My theory is that these moments serve as proof that the Divine can be whimsical. It is one thing to believe that there is a guiding spirit who controls life-or-death matters; it is quite another to believe that this same spirit takes time to attend to the most trivial of circumstances. If God is working on the outcome of conflict in the Middle East, we might wonder, why would God take a moment to reveal that a lost camera fell between the seat cushions in someone else’s car?

A couple of months ago, I needed to find a store receipt so that I could make a return, but the receipt had been stuffed somewhere in a folder that held hundreds of other receipts, filed in no particular order. “I just don’t have time to go through these,” I thought. “The only way I’ll be able to do the return is if the receipt simply appears in front of me.” The next receipt I plucked out of the stack was the one I needed. And then a day or two later, I was setting up my mother’s new computer and couldn’t figure out how to access the wireless network at my parents’ house. I guessed at several different passwords and then suddenly, almost randomly, hit on the right one.

I love these Divine surprises. It’s as if once in a while the powers that be take a break from really important problems to just play a little friendly joke on us: something whose outcome really doesn’t matter all that much compared to, say, war or illness, but just makes us feel smiled upon. That’s how I felt when I hit on the wireless code and when I found the receipt, and my aunt’s camera story reminded me of this feeling: the sense that you’re just being given a small but meaningful gift even though it’s not a special occasion. Moments of grace, just sprinkled in our paths to remind us of the importance of taking time to acknowledge gratitude.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

All in a day's work

I admit that by the time September started, I was ready to send the kids off to school. We’d had a good summer and done a lot of interesting activities, but I was eager to turn my focus to my work. Afraid of the consequences of reducing my output over the summer, I hadn’t cut back on writing assignments at all; I had just tried to do the same amount of work in three-hour rather than six-hour workdays, per the deal I strike with the kids in the summer that I can work from 9 a.m. to noon and then we’ll have fun together all afternoon. So as summer ended, I had ongoing clients, new clients, and projects of my own that I wanted to pay more attention to. The resumption of school meant the resumption of long days of writing for me. At least in my mind.

And for the past two days I’ve been extremely productive, turning around assignments, generating new ones, and hitting deadlines. But what I tend to overlook when I line up my daily agenda in my mind’s eye is the sheer diversity that my workday encompasses. There are articles, essays and press releases to write, of course. That’s the work I get paid for. But there are household tasks, farm tasks, and family tasks that crop up throughout the day as well, which makes it really beneficial to be self-employed but also makes it challenging sometimes to account for my time.

Yesterday, for example, I did plenty of writing. I also scheduled a vet appointment for the dog, made a batch of puttanesca sauce, began organizing the volunteer schedule for the school library, sent a logo to the editor of the school newsletter so that she could help me publicize the upcoming Spaghetti Supper, let the sheep out to graze, posted two articles to my website and ran two miles. Throughout the late morning, I could hear a cow mooing incessantly, so shortly after noon I went out to investigate and found that her calf had once again wandered into the bull pasture. The mother cow wasn’t happy about this at all, but the baby was perfectly content, so I decided no action needed to be taken and went back to work.

When the kids arrived home from school, I helped them assemble ingredients for their weekly banana bread baking session; their goal this week is 25 loaves to sell at Farmers Market on Saturday. I washed dishes and folded laundry in the course of the day, and visited with my parents next door for a few minutes. I sent out save-the-dates for Tim’s birthday party.

And at 10 p.m., I was ironing. Not ironing clothes; ironing artwork. Holly had spent the afternoon making fuse-bead creations, which are like little mosaics made out of plastic beads that then stick together once you iron them, and I had promised her I’d iron them after she went to bed.

We live in a small and fairly homogeneous town, but days like today make me appreciate the inherent diversity in any 24-hour period. Writing is a wonderful way to make a living, but it’s only part of how I spend my day. And I consider this a blessing. A diversity of activities keeps us all busy and stimulated. And it’s made me better than I ever imagined I’d be at prioritizing. Sometimes an article deadline can wait but an impatiently braying cow cannot. It’s helpful for me to recognize the difference, even if I might never choose to share that distinction with my editors.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Photo finish

Yesterday’s mail included something unusual: an envelope containing photos. No email, no attachments, no link to a real envelope with real print photos inside. With the level of obsolescence that hard copy seems to have reached in my life, especially with photos, this was a rare occurrence.

The envelope was addressed in my aunt’s handwriting, so I surmised that they were photos she took when the four of us hiked with her in Aspen last month. And I confess that for a moment I was afraid to look, expecting the worst from a self-image perspective. I was wearing my saggiest jeans that day. It was the week before I trimmed my hair. Did I even bother with any makeup before the hike? How many hair care products did I bring with me on vacation? ran through my mind as I took the photos out of the envelope.

What a surprise. Although I look back on our week in Colorado last month as a really happy time -- one of the happiest parts of the whole summer for us -- I didn’t expect photos to so faithfully reflect my memories. I usually don’t like looking at photos of myself these days. Despite the daily running habit, I’m not exactly at my fittest, and I’ve reached an age where most of my friends and I agree it’s not enough just to exercise: you have to work with a personal trainer to get the look you really want, and a personal trainer is definitely not in the cards for me right now. Moreover, it’s been years since I bought any new casual clothes – my wardrobe budget always goes to special occasion outfits – and I can’t be bothered with the salon cuts I know I would benefit from.

But the photos didn’t particularly reflect all my insecurities, nor did they look like the “before” pictures for a Botox ad, as I’d feared they would. When I look in the mirror these days I see horizontal grooves between my eyes, but these weren’t the kind of photos that show wrinkles. They were photos that show a family on a hike having fun: the four of us beaming at the edge of a rock formation with the blue sky and tall evergreens behind us; the four of us sitting on a granite ledge eating a picnic; Tim with a silly grin, his head against my shoulder, as I held up a giant mushroom we’d picked. Happy people on a happy vacation. Yes, true, that is how I remember the vacation, but it’s not what I ever expect to see when I look at pictures of myself.

And yet this wasn’t the first time I’d had this experience. Photos of me often show a more carefree, engaging image than I tend to have of myself. The rare video on which I appear does as well. When the film starts to roll and I know I’ll be on it, I tend to think, “Oh, this will be awful, I’ll look fat and aged and my voice will sound stupid”…and then instead I see the image of someone who seems nice and friendly and cheerful, someone I’d be happy to hang out with for a little while. Not someone who reflects the self in my own mind.

Poet Robert Burns wrote “Oh wad some power the giftie gie us, To see oursel's as others see us!”, and many readers interpret this to have negative connotations. They believe Burns meant we’d see that others think we are self-important, perhaps, or foolish, or disheveled. (Supposedly he wrote it after spotting a large insect perched on an unsuspecting woman’s fancy hat.)

But I interpret it a little differently. Every now and then, when I see myself as others see me – or at least as the camera saw me – I’m pleasantly surprised. Unfashionable clothes? Emerging crow’s-feet? Maybe so, in reality. But snapshots aren’t nearly as critical of me as I am of myself. My aunt’s pictures just showed a cheerful woman enjoying a hike with her family. That’s how I remember it, too. Especially now that I’m looking at the pictures.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Three, two, one, zero, BLAST-OFF: It's the first day of school

Earlier I wrote about the two-week countdown to First Day of School and then again about the six-day countdown to First Day of School, and now here we are at zero days. Blast-off.

Yesterday I kept thinking of December 24th. I had that same sense that I get the day before Christmas of wanting everything to be perfectly organized and in place before the Big Event. On December 24th, it’s a matter of having every present wrapped and labeled, every Christmas Day delicacy prepared and ready to be baked or sliced or steamed; yesterday the issue was having both kids’ backpacks packed, crossing off every school supply on the list, snacks wrapped, water bottles chilled. And yesterday as on Christmas Eve, I wanted it not only all organized, in place and ready to go but I also wanted all the mess that our frenzy of activity created cleaned up. I wanted surfaces bare and supplies put away where they belonged.

And yesterday, as on Christmas, that was an unrealistic hope. On Christmas Day, despite my best efforts, we so often leave the house with rolls of wrapping paper on the dining room table and dirty cooking dishes stacked in the sink, despite my dreams of a picture-perfect home, clean and tidy, awaiting our return on Christmas night. Yesterday, too, I managed to get through all the important tasks as far as having the kids ready to leave for school today, but I didn’t get all the laundry folded, I didn’t get their rooms tidied, I didn’t have the mail sorted. The first day of school feels like a fresh start, and I wanted my home to reflect that fresh start, but this morning that’s not exactly the case. I still have plenty of picking up to do while they’re off at school. But then again, I also have more than six hours in which to do it.

I think what both experiences – Christmas and First Day of School – serve to remind me is that unless you work for NASA, you cannot expect to execute a perfect countdown. Zero blast-off is never immaculately conducted, leaving nothing but a wisp of smoke in its wake. There will always be wrapping paper and dirty mixing bowls left behind, or plastic packaging from new binders mixed up with empty shoe boxes and sandwich makings. Focusing on the task at hand – school supplies, lunches, leaving the house on time – should be enough for the first day of school.

It just doesn’t matter that much if I don’t hit every goal exactly on the head at the moment the kids leave for their first day of school. There’s still time to pick up after they leave. And there are other years ahead to improve upon the first-day-of-school countdown, too.

Besides, realizing every task can’t be scratched off the list by nine o’clock the night before school starts helps me remember to focus on what’s important: that we had a happy, healthy summer, that the kids had a lot of fun during their time off from school, and that both of them seem primed and ready to start the next grade level. And if I need further reminders of what’s important, I have a treasured image from yesterday to clue me in. In the middle of the afternoon, Tim and Holly collected money from their piggy banks and, with my permission, rode their bikes together to the ice cream stand down the street. Together they sat there drinking their chocolate frappes, and then they biked back home.

More than anything else, this image will stick with me from the last day of summer vacation: the two of them being resourceful and happy and independent together, enjoying each other’s company, biking, savoring a treat. Never mind the messy house. With the countdown down to zero, we accomplished everything that really matters for today.

Monday, September 6, 2010

City mouse, country mouse

Yesterday morning in Portland, Maine, I ran along the Eastern Promenade bike path that parallels Casco Bay. When I turned at the two-mile mark, the loveliness of the view spread out before me made me catch my breath midstride. What a picture-perfect Labor Day weekend. I was running down a slope heading back toward the city, with the Victorian homes of Munjoy Hill rising to my right and moored sailboats bobbing on the sparkling waves to my left. Farther ahead, I could see a ferry sliding into port, and a couple of lobster boats whose proprietors must have been taking a break for the holiday weekend were moored in their rustic splendor aside the dock near the city beach, where a few dogs were taking their daily dip. A preschooler ambled toward me along the bike path pushing his own stroller, reminding me of when Tim was at that same peculiar phase. (We went to Disney World thinking he was big enough that he could walk rather than use a stroller. We ended up renting one merely so that he could push it around.) Other runners passed me; couples with baby carriages walked along sipping coffee. I felt so happy and so fortunate to be in the midst of this scene: exercisers, tourists, boaters, working people, babies, children, pets.

We’ve spent a lot of time in Portland this summer because last spring my parents bought a condo in the Old Port and are generous about letting us use it whenever we’re able to take the trip up. Some of our friends find it amusing that we enjoy vacationing in the city so much, but it’s because where we live is in some ways like a vacation spot itself – secluded and rural – so to me, it makes sense that when we go away, we want the opposite. At home on the farm, we have beautiful views, lots of silence, animals grazing all around us, and the sweet smell of grass growing. At night, we can see hundreds of stars from our own front step. We can swim or row in the pond, and ride our bikes along tree-lined country roads.

So perhaps it’s not surprising that being in the heart of the Old Port is such a novelty to us. On Saturday night, I went to sleep listening to party cruises returning to port and a live band playing at the outdoor restaurant down the street; I woke at dawn to the sound of the seagulls who follow the fishing boats out to sea.

I like all those sounds, and I like seeing neighbors walk past our front door and crowds of tourists and locals filling the sidewalks nearby. I like walking to the general store two blocks away when I’m out of milk, and I like letting the kids go out together on their own for an ice cream cone. At home, we live far from any shopping districts; we have to drive to do any errands at all.

This particular irony is not so new to me. I grew up in this same small quiet semi-rural town. My favorite vacations during childhood were ones where we stayed in the middle of the action, walking to shops and seeing lots of people all around us. I like solitude, but I get all the solitude I need when I’m home on the farm. And since so many of our friends live nearby, breaking the solitude whenever we want to is effortless. On vacation, I like a change: noise and activity and plenty of humanity.

Of course, it’s always good to get home after you’ve been anywhere. Last night after we returned home, I stood outside and looked at the stars once again, hearing nothing but peepers in the pond and a breeze in the treetops. To many people, that would be a vacation moment. To me, it’s home. I’m lucky to live here. But I love getting to experience something different, also.

Friday, September 3, 2010

It's tradition -- or not

Last week, Holly and I went to Staples in Bedford and plowed our way through both kids’ school-supply lists. (Tim wasn’t interested in coming with us.) This afternoon, on our way up to Maine for the weekend, we plan to make a quick stop at Old Navy to buy her a few new school outfits and try to pick out something for Tim as well. (He’ll be with us but says he plans to read in the car. A shopper he’s not.)

This is not how we usually buy our school supplies and fall clothes. Ever since they reached school age, I’ve taken the kids individually for a special late-summer evening excursion. I planned it all out the first time the week before Tim started kindergarten, and we’ve done it that way ever since: we pick a weeknight the week before Labor Day to leave in the early evening for the mall a half-hour a way, buy school supplies, go out for dinner together at Friendly’s, and then continue through the mall to buy some clothes.

It was a tradition. And those have always been sacred words for me.

But as the kids get older, and as I get older, I am beginning to concede that not every tradition has to be carved in stone. This is not an easy admission for me to make. I have often said that I am unusually attracted to traditions, rituals and routines; I like being able to rely on certain habits and events to recur year after year. I love the children’s book Over and Over, in which the little girl goes through a year’s worth of holidays and then at the end says to her mother, “What’s next now?” and her mother says “Now it all starts over again.” That book comforted me when I was a young child looking at the pictures; it comforted me all over again as a parent, when I would read that book to my children and feel reassured that I was creating certain traditions for them as well, including the one related to back-to-school-shopping.

It’s just that at a certain point, I had to admit that tradition wasn’t all that much fun. We always got too late a start at the end of the day and ended up still at the mall at 9 p.m., which I wasn’t happy about. And the mall itself was overwhelming to me. There were office supply stores just as close to home, so I wasn’t sure why it was so important that we go to one a half-hour away. And dinner always took too long compared to the errands we needed to accomplish. Plus, you know…Friendly’s?

So this year we decided to do it differently, breaking the shopping into two separate trips, staying closer to home, going in the afternoon instead of the evening, skipping the dinner part.

Maybe this tradition will turn out even better. There’s something rather romantic about stopping for back-to-school clothes on our way to the coast for Labor Day weekend, after all; much more so than just heading to the department store and then turning around and going home afterwards. And I certainly won’t miss the tuna melt and French fries at Friendly’s.

On the second day of our trip to Colorado last month, we bought tickets to the gondola that ascends Aspen Mountain, just as we do on our second day of our Colorado vacation every year, and once we’d reached the top, the kids stood in line for their turn at bungee jumping, just like they do every year. As always, I enjoyed watching them tumble against the bright blue sky, and they thanked us for the excursion, but none of us got much of a thrill out of it. It just felt like something they’d outgrown.

The next day, we went whitewater rafting. Rick and I had been before, but the kids never had, and initially the plan was for just Rick and Tim to go. We thought Holly was too young and would be scared in the raft. But she watched a video of rafting at the outfitters’ shop and assured us she wanted to do it, so we went. We had an amazing time. Before it was over, the kids announced they absolutely wanted to go rafting next time we’re in Colorado – and do a more challenging course next time.

“Sounds good,” Rick and I told them. “Next time, less gondola; more rafting.”

And I admitted to myself that I’d be fine with skipping the gondola next time. It was great for a few years; now it doesn’t matter to us so much anymore. And the same is true with the back-to-school tradition.

So this afternoon we’ll make a quick stop to pick out some school clothes and then we’ll head to the beach if the weather clears up. Maybe we’ll do that again next year at this time; maybe we’ll do something else. Traditions are wonderful, but so is being able to recognize when it’s time to end an old one and start a new one. Or even try something just once and try something else the next time. Judicious decision-making can be a tradition in its own right. It’s taken me a long time to be comfortable with that idea, but I think I finally get it.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

The teachers and staff are back -- and they look happy!

There have been many mornings this summer that my daily running route has taken me through the school campus. I like being up there when no one is around, when the buildings are unlit and the plaza empty. It makes me feel like the school is hibernating, restoring itself, replenishing its resources, waiting for fall. (Of course, as a taxpayer, I only wish the school could replenish its resources merely by “hibernating.” But this is just its appearance, not what I really think happens.) I like the idea that the school campus not only empties out but sleeps all summer, a long rejuvenating rest for the buildings, the infrastructure, the systems, the lawns.

And not least, of course, the faculty and staff. Classes don’t start again until next Tuesday, and although I knew the teachers had a couple days of meetings before the kids returned, I was surprised to run up past the campus yesterday morning and see the parking lot half-filled with cars. Even though it was only seven-thirty, as I ran by, a couple of teachers were just getting out of their cars, briefcases in hand and coffee cups balanced on the roof as they reached into the back seats for additional supplies.

They smiled and waved at me and looked genuinely pleased to be there. They didn’t look rueful about returning. They looked energetic and cheerful and happy. And this is just what I love about them. It’s so easy for me to be cynical, to wonder how they can choose to devote themselves to hordes of children, day after day…only because it isn’t what I would choose to do. But to them, it’s not a consolation prize or a necessary obligation; it’s their chosen career.

They’re presumably just as devoted to teaching as I am to writing, and even if I half-expect them to approach the new school year with a mixture of apprehension and misery after their summer vacation, it shouldn’t be any great surprise if at least some – maybe even most – teachers look forward to the first day of classes just as much as I look forward to the article I’ll begin researching later today. Years ago I remember seeing a coffee cup that said “The three best reasons to be a teacher…June, July, August.” But the pace at the school yesterday morning reminded me that it’s not really a very funny joke – indeed, it’s a little bit offensive -- because in my experience, that’s not how most teachers feel. They aren’t in the profession for the time off; they’re in it for the time on.

As a parent, I’m so grateful that this is the case, especially as I look ahead to sending the kids off to school next Tuesday. Holly’s teacher has been through the first-day-of-school routine for close to thirty years, I believe. The fact that he can remain interested in each new set of children amazes me. And yet he seems to. Tim’s teachers in the middle school range in years of experience, but from what I’ve heard, none of the middle school teachers at our school strikes parents as jaded. Teaching our children is what they choose to do, and even if I still have the capacity to be surprised by their enthusiasm, they’re ready to start the semester. I thank them all for it, and I wish them a very happy and successful new school year.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Six-day back-to-school countdown

Last week I wrote here about the first stage of the back-to-school countdown. Somehow eight days have gone by and we now have less than a week to go before school starts. I figured I’d better re-evaluate how we were doing with our school-year preparedness.

On the plus side, I crossed off the last three items on the required school-supply list yesterday: a box of Kleenex and a roll of paper towels for each kid, plus a 70-page spiral notebook for Holly. (This is in addition to the 120-page spiral notebook and 100-page bound composition book on her list which I’d already purchased. Don’t get me started on those lists. As I’ve stated before, it’s not the volume of required items; it’s the arcaneness that gets to me.) On the minus side, Holly decided this morning that she was writing a story that absolutely could not be recorded anywhere but in a 70-page spiral notebook, so out came the one I’d just bought so that she could use it and back it went onto my shopping list. Why Holly felt this story could be recorded only in a 70-page spiral notebook, and not any other kind of paper or any other size notebook – such as one we already owned and didn’t need to save for next week – is unclear to me. But she might have a future as a teacher, particularly one responsible for making up required school-supply lists.

Tim’s haircut hasn’t happened yet. No big surprise there. Maybe tomorrow, he assures me.

The earlier wake-up times have been moderately successful this week. I’ve scaled the kids back to eight o’clock, which is an improvement over last week but still an hour later than Tim needs to be up. Realistically, it will be a trial-by-fire situation. He’ll start getting up at seven on the first day of school.

Tim’s making his way through the last section of the math packet. If he stays on course with a page or two per day, he’ll finish toward the beginning of Labor Day weekend. It’s not quite last-minute, but it’s not a model of time management either. Well, I suppose if he finished it too early in the summer, he would start to forget all those math skills by the time school was starting.

Holly still needs to draw her favorite scene from her favorite summer-reading book. She’s gotten as far as identifying in her mind what scene she plans to draw. Unfortunately, it’s two characters having an argument. I’ve suggested that might not be the easiest action to sketch, but she’s made it clear she has too much integrity to choose a feasting scene or a fishing scene just because they’d be easier to draw. Last night she packed up markers and paper to take with us when we head to Maine in a few days. She’s hoping to feel more creatively inspired up north.

So, admittedly, we’re still not quite ready. And I haven’t even approached that most dreaded subject of all: what to pack for the kids’ lunches and snacks. But we still have six days to go. As the pressure builds, we’ll surely grow more productive. And if we don’t? Well, school will begin anyway, and my kids will be there. Ideally with completed math packets, beautifully sketched scenes from summer reading, and healthy snacks tucked into their backpacks. Six days? It could happen. I’m optimistic about it. A new pair of shoes, a good night’s sleep, and they’ll be good to go.

As for myself, I’m still working on getting into the fall spirit. But the first step is getting them ready. Then maybe I’ll find myself full of autumnal energy. It’s possible. It’s even possible I’ll actually get Tim in for that haircut. It’s a new school year, and anything could happen.