Friday, October 29, 2010

Workday inertia

Inertia is an amazingly powerful force, I’ve come to realize. Especially on me.

And more so now than ever, it seems. These days, unlike when the kids were really little and I was home with them, or the years following that when I was working in an office full-time, I spend my work days at home, at my kitchen table, writing. For six hours at a time. It’s the solitude and uninterrupted writing time I’ve craved for years, and now that I have it, I don’t care what the assignment is – I can be working on an article for the Globe, or writing about varicose veins for my client who runs a medical website, or studying up on football stats for the next segment I need to draft for my client who is compiling a book about pro football, or revising my own manuscript-in-progress yet again – it doesn’t matter what the topic, I’m grateful just to have the time to write.

Sometimes a little too grateful. I find it very hard to make myself get up and do anything else.

I know that mental stimulation is important during the work day even when I’m on deadline. I just have trouble sometimes overcoming the urge to just stay where I am and keep writing.

A couple of weeks ago, a friend of mine here in town hosted a midmorning gathering. I was in the middle of a writing assignment, and it started to rain hard. “I should go to this get-together, but it’s so tempting to just stay put,” I said to a client who called to discuss an upcoming project. Since Carlisle is almost entirely a driving town rather than a walking town, there’s always the additional excuse that staying home is more environmentally sound than going anywhere.

“Just go. You’ll be glad you made the effort,” she replied.

I was puzzled. The client hardly knows me; she doesn’t know the host of the party or any of the other guests who would be there; and she wasn’t even close enough geographically to see how hard it was raining. Why was she so sure I should go?

But then I thought about the note I’d have to write apologizing if I didn’t show up, and how sheepish I’d feel next time I saw the host. And so I reminded myself it was less than a ten-minute drive to the party; I could stay for 40 minutes and not be away from my desk for more than an hour total.

Needless to say, it was the right decision. The house was full of cheerful, welcoming faces, hot coffee and fragrant baked goods. I caught up with friends I hadn’t seen since before summer vacation. I traded opinions on local issues and heard updates on the construction project at our school that I should have known about from the newspaper but hadn’t taken the time to follow closely.

Best of all, I didn’t have to write a sheepish apology attempting to excuse my absence.

Yesterday it wasn’t a social occasion that pulled me away from my desk but an unexpected offer from my father to drive me thirty minutes to the repair shop where my car was being fixed. I could have just waited until the end of the day and gotten a ride from Rick, as I’d planned to do. As before, the lure of sitting at my computer writing was almost irresistible.

But so was the chance to have a few minutes to visit alone with my father, and doing that particular drive in the midafternoon was a much better idea than waiting for rush hour. And so I shut down my computer and climbed into his car.

We had a great visit. Not for any particular reason – we talked about an issue related to town government, recent segments we’d heard on NPR, nothing weighty – but it was just good to get away from the silence of my workday and spend a little undistracted time with my father. On the way back, having picked up my car and said goodbye to him, I even prolonged the trip with a stop at the supermarket, taking advantage of the midafternoon lull there to enjoy empty aisles and no lines.

It’s good to be able to focus on work. I’m really grateful that my workday affords me such solitude, but I’m also glad that once in a while something compels me to overcome my inertia. Thoreau wrote that he had one chair for solitude, two for company, and three for society. It’s a useful image to keep in mind. The work day shouldn’t be all about that one chair. Even Thoreau, who moved to a cabin in the woods to live deliberately and in relative solitude, knew that once in a while he should really pull out those two other chairs.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

The "hidden curriculum": What my kids learn in the classroom beyond the academic

On Parents’ Night last month, Holly’s teacher brought up a subtle point that I had never heard a teacher address before when he briefly touched on the subject of how public school is different from home-schooling. Beyond the obvious facts that public school follows a more prescribed curriculum than homeschooling usually does and proceeds at a more standardized pace, he used the term “hidden curriculum” to describe the skills kids develop when they are compelled to learn in a context of 19 other kids.

According to my notes, the “hidden curriculum” he referred to includes the following skills:

* Learning to question peers

* Developing respect for other people’s learning styles

* Thinking before speaking

* Learning to compromise

In a way, none of this is surprising. Those of us who enthusiastically support public education (and I concede that in a town like Carlisle that’s easy to do; we spend a lot of money on our schools and the results are magnificent in terms of teachers, resources and curriculum) are already convinced of the value of learning in a non-selective group of twenty or more kids. But the way Holly’s teacher laid it out was particularly eye-opening to me.

For example, “developing respect for other people’s learning styles.” In the simplest sense, this may mean realizing some kids learn better when they read instructions to themselves and some when they hear instructions read aloud. But Holly is already becoming more sensitive to the nuances of how other children learn – and what the ramifications of a variety of learning styles can be. She has had a classmate for several years who can be very high-energy and not infrequently ends up in the principal’s office as a result. In past years, she would just shrug when telling me stories about this classmate, as if his behavior was a pure mystery to her, but a few weeks ago she said to me, “I think it’s just that he’s so smart, and he gets bored waiting for everyone else to understand what he’s already figured out, so he gets kind of wild while he’s waiting.” Not a bad assessment for an eight-year-old.

"Thinking before speaking"? That may be a challenge for young children, but it's unavoidable in a setting in which the odds are that 19 times out of 20, when you have something to say, it's someone else's turn to talk.

“Learning to compromise” is another one that seems to happen all the time in the public school setting: when they work in small groups on a project or a challenge; when the class votes on a reward such as extra recess versus extra reading time; on the playground. Just yesterday, Holly told me each child in her class was asked to write down his or her top four choices for a role in the Thanksgiving play. Gracefully accepting the teacher’s decision will require plenty of compromise on the kids’ parts. (For the record, Holly told me her choices for roles were child, turkey, Native American and grandfather, in that order. I guess I’d better hold off on costume-making for now.)

Both Tim and Holly’s teachers throughout the years have done a great job at reinforcing all the skills Holly’s teacher outlined as the “hidden curriculum.” Just as with academics, these are skills that will last them all the way through school and into whatever follows: professional environments, teams, even family life. I’m still working on those skills myself. But seeing them laid out so clearly gave me a new appreciation for their importance.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Late-afternoon walk on a warm fall day

The weather turned unseasonably warm overnight on Monday. Yesterday felt like a mid-September day: the air was mild and a touch humid. After last week’s chilly late-October weather, it felt wonderful, like a last chance to warm up from the inside out before winter begins its slow but inexorable approach.

As is often the case, even though I rode my exercise bike before dawn and went running later in the morning, by the end of the day – five o’clock or so – I didn’t feel like I’d had any exercise at all, having spent a solid eight hours sitting at my computer writing (very happily, I should add, but still very immovably). And with such gloriously warm weather, along with a couple of letters to mail and checks to deposit, it felt like the ideal time for a late-day walk up to the Town Center.

I didn’t expect anyone to want to join me, and Tim predictably opted to stay home, but Holly scrambled for her shoes when I told her what I was doing. Having her join me for a walk is a rare treat; I wasn’t going to jinx it by asking any questions about her intent.

The two-mile circuit took us forever, but it was worth it. We had such a good time. Holly found a flat stone about half the size of her hand and stopped repeatedly throughout our walk to knock it against various surfaces and see what kind of tone it made. Trees, boulders, metal pipes, a street sign. At the post office, she played a little tune by finding three metal posts next to each other that each resonated at a different pitch. I’m not one of those moms who stops throughout a walk to point out different kinds of leaves or identify birds flying overhead, but Holly made this walk educational in her own way with nothing more than a small flat stone.

We saw friends, dogs, and a little boy dressed as a Minuteman for a pre-Halloween event. Holly bought the obligatory snack at Ferns, and I mailed my letters and deposited my checks. We saw the middle school soccer team returning by bus from an away game, and we discussed whether an area in a field where a large tree recently toppled over would make a good spot for a future picnic. (Holly’s idea of planning a picnic is reciting to me a list of all the menu items I’ll need to make. In this case, it had better be planned for at least two weeks away, and we might need a pack mule to help us transport the food, based on her ideas.)

Walks don’t necessarily progress very fast when Holly is involved. Dusk settled; then darkness fell before we were home. The warm air made it enjoyable to be out walking even after dark, though. We scuffed through piles of dry leaves as we headed down the driveway in blackness at the end, well into our usual dinner hour. It was late, but we’d had a great time. An unseasonably warm fall day: a long slow late-afternoon walk. Yesterday, it was a perfect combination.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Don't sweat the sweatshirts (or should I?)

I did not expect to be fighting the Sweatshirt Wars yet again. But just as her brother did three years ago (though certainly not because he did), Holly wants to wear the same sweatshirt to school every single day. And it’s really displeasing to Rick and me.

With Tim, it was a bright red hoodie. He liked it so much throughout third grade that he wrote a poem about it and read it at an Authors’ Tea. All the parents laughed, because by that time in the school year – March, I believe – pretty much everyone associated with the class had seen plenty of Tim in his red sweatshirt. For that matter, pretty much everyone in Eastern Massachusetts had probably seen Tim in his red sweatshirt, because it was all he ever wore. Fortunately, that ended once the weather warmed up. As temperatures climbed over 60, he finally, mercifully, shed the red sweatshirt and instead wore a Heinz catsup t-shirt every day for the next seven months.

We didn’t expect to have the same problem with Holly. Wearing the same thing every day is a boy thing, I figured. Even if she’s no fashion plate, surely she’ll have a basic sense of style and hygiene that will inspire her to want to put on a different outfit per 24-hour cycle.

Wrong. She picked out a pullover hoodie at Old Navy on our back-to-school shopping excursion Labor Day weekend and hasn’t taken it off since.
Well, that’s not exactly true. She’s taken it off plenty, but only because we insist that she wear a different layer under it every day. In fact, we wrote this into the kids’ school-year contract this year: “No wearing the same shirt on consecutive days.” So they found a loophole: they each change their t-shirts every morning, and then throw the same old sweatshirt over it.

It’s a dilemma for me how much to care and how hard to crack down. On the one hand, compared to so many things, it’s trivial. It’s just clothes, and as I said, this isn’t a matter of bad hygiene; it’s her outer layer. (I wash the sweatshirt once a week or more, while she’s sleeping.) Don’t sweat the small stuff, I tell myself. Pick your battles. There are enough topics I need to crack down on, from effective teeth-brushing to doing homework to not purposely provoking her brother into physical violence against her. Wearing the same sweatshirt every day won’t result in cavities, failing third grade or bruises. What’s the big deal?

On the other hand, from a fashion standpoint it’s embarrassing. Holly has plenty of clothes, drawers-ful: things I’ve bought for her, items she’s picked out herself, gifts from family members, hand-me-downs from cousins and neighbors. She could wear a different outfit every day of the month if she wanted to. And I have to believe other parents wonder why we let her do this. (I have to believe that because, I admit, I use to wonder the same thing about parents who let their kids wear the same thing over and over back when my kids were still too young to dress themselves.)

I’m still vacillating. I really wish she’d tire of the sweatshirt; heaven knows everyone else in Carlisle probably has. On the other hand, if she did, she’d probably just fall in love with a different article of clothing. And at least I don’t have the problem some of Holly’s friends’ mothers do where their daughters insist on changing clothes three or four times before leaving for school in the morning. No one can accuse Holly of being overly preoccupied with physical appearance.

I don’t know the answer. Maybe I’ll take her shopping this weekend and see if she can find one or two other items of apparel to alternate the sweatshirt with.

And if I’m really lucky? At least one of them will be reversible.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Reluctant running

I admit that I tend to wax exultant when I talk about running. I’ve expended a lot of ink over the past couple of decades writing about all the great things running has done for me. And I’ve expended a lot more ink over the past three years, both real and virtual, on the benefits of streak running, ever since I committed in August of 2007 to run every day without taking any days off. I’ve written about how it keeps me focused, it gives me the sense of stability that comes from a daily habit, it reassures me that there’s something in my life that I do exclusively for myself, and not to benefit anyone else. Mostly, I’ve written about how committing to daily running means never having to decide whether or not it’s a good day to go for a run. I don’t have to waste time coming up with reasons to go running or excuses not to anymore, because I go no matter what.

What I don’t admit quite so often is that occasionally, there are days when I really don’t want to go, days when I just don’t see how my going running is going to change anything in anyone’s life, even my own. I know from a fitness perspective it wouldn’t really matter if I took a day off now and then. And I know the idea that I’m committed to a daily run isn’t particularly significant in anyone’s mind except my own.

Mostly, it’s a daily habit that I relish and a part of the day I look forward to eagerly. But there are some days when it’s not like that. Yesterday was one of them.

I just didn’t feel like going. For reasons unrelated to running, I was feeling both irritable and overscheduled. A household problem was causing me a great deal of frustration, and although usually running improves my state of mind, this problem was intractable enough that I was certain running couldn’t possibly make me feel any differently where that was concerned. I also felt like I had so much to fit in: church in the morning, then a bunch of errands and a flu shot; then I had promised I’d get to Tim’s baseball game for a few innings; and I wanted to drop in to see my high school friend Courtney, who was in town from North Carolina visiting her local family members. I wanted to spend a little bit of time with my parents, and I wanted to get a head start on the week’s writing assignments, and I wanted to make a well-planned-out and nutritious dinner for my family.

I did not want to fit in a run.

But the streak registry keeps me honest. Having paid my yearly dues is incentive enough not to fall off the wagon; I’m listed on the registry, and it would be so disheartening to have to take the necessary bureaucratic steps to inform the powers that be if I no longer deserved my place on it. The membership fee for the year paid, I might as well get my money’s worth.

Yes, there are some days that running doesn’t feel quite so magnificent as it does most days. Yesterday I countered the fact that I didn’t feel like going at all with a promise to myself to stay close to home; I decided to run up to the soccer fields across the street (it’s seven-tenths of a mile each way) and then do however many laps it would take me to total three miles altogether. I thought it would feel comforting to stay close to home.

And it did, but it also felt boring, because running laps is boring and because I wasn’t in the mood for a run. I felt tired and creaky, and as I ran, my frustration over the household problem that had been bothering me was not lessening one bit.

So yesterday wasn’t typical. I didn’t want to go running and I didn’t enjoy it once I went. But I console myself with the fact that I’d feel worse if I hadn’t gone.

Maybe running didn’t have its usual magic powers over me, leaving me feeling transcendent and powerful and serene, but it didn’t make me feel any worse. And I’d met my daily running commitment.

So yes, there are some days when running is not particularly a joy. But just going is easier than making a choice not to go. So the streak continues, and I know the odds are I’ll have a better run today.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Best-friend blues

It started late yesterday afternoon: in the course of routine everyday roughhousing with Tim, Holly started to cry.

Finding me downstairs, she tearfully described a minor scrape or bump she’d incurred during the tussle; I soothed her with comforting words, hugs and eventually a cup of hot chocolate.

But then there were more meltdowns before bed; when I turned down her request that I read one more chapter of her book aloud (because I’d already been reading aloud to her for a half-hour and couldn’t stay awake over the book anymore), she began to cry again, insisting that I never do anything for her. The usual maternal litany went through my mind: other than prepare three meals a day, make sure you get to school on time, set up all your social engagements and activities, take care of your medical needs, keep the house heated, etc., etc., nothing to help you. Nothing at all.

Instead, I said the most radical thing I allow myself in this situation: “Well, try to imagine what it would be like without me and then maybe you won’t feel like I never do anything for you.”

She cried some more, which puzzled me; my not wanting to read another chapter isn’t the kind of thing that would normally be such a big deal. And then, having settled down enough to put pajamas on and brush teeth, she climbed into bed, pulled up the covers, and confided in me, her hazel eyes swimming in tears: there had been a disagreement during the course of the school day about who was best friends with whom.

I should have known. When Holly breaks down like this, it’s always a best-friend issue, or that’s been the case for the past six months or so, anyway. Who is whose best friend occupies a tremendous amount of her mental energy, and even though the problems have persisted intermittently since well before the end of the last school year, I’m still at a loss for how to handle it. In my own mind, I’m utterly exasperated: from my perspective, it’s clear enough who embodies the better qualities of friendship and who doesn’t, and it seems so easy to me to make choices based on that.

But of course, I’m not an eight-year-old girl. On the other hand, I’m not always that far from being one. I was having friendship issues of my own a few weeks ago. I didn’t dissolve into tears over them; I put my forty years of experience behind my attitude that things would work themselves out, and they did. But forty years is a long time to be able to practice.

It’s tough, and it’s not likely to get much easier for Holly any time soon. She’s not being bullied or ostracized; nor is she bullying or ostracizing, to the best of my knowledge. She’s just struggling to understand the nuances of interpersonal dynamics and human relationships. To which I say to her, join the club.

I wish I could help her more, and maybe with time – or a lot of parenting workshops, which fortunately seem to be in abundance – I’ll learn some strategies to pass on to her. But I’m not likely to pursue any patented approaches too aggressively. In my experience, you learn with experience. She’s just at the beginning of that journey, and I’ll do all I can to help her along. But no matter how you look at it, for most of us it’s a long road.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Birthday cake

Late yesterday afternoon, I made a chocolate cake.

For many reasons, that act felt like a luxury. I had worked hard throughout my regular workday to finish a draft of a story so that I would feel justified in not working any more after three o’clock. And the house was empty, which was unusual for that time of day. Rick and Tim were at a baseball practice; Holly was at her pottery class, and since I’d driven her and two friends to the studio, one of the other mothers would drive her home, so I didn’t even need to watch the clock.

With All Things Considered as my soundtrack (and Nina Totenberg warning listeners, just as she did nineteen years ago, that content regarding her story on Clarence Thomas might not be appropriate for all audiences), I melted chocolate, measured flour, greased a cake pan. Atypical for me, who usually rushes to get everything done, I’d remembered to take the butter out of the fridge hours earlier, so it had reached the perfect consistency for creaming with sugar and eggs. I whipped egg whites, all with a somewhat dreamy sense of decadence.

Usually I rush; yesterday I had time, and no distractions. It was a more complicated recipe than I generally use. I bake a lot, but normally if I make a cake it’s a traditional layer cake with soft moist crumbs and creamy frosting. This recipe called for crumbled almond paste and stiffly whipped egg whites that then had to be folded into the butter/sugar/chocolate mixture. I’m not very good at folding batter at all. And I wasn’t sure I’d greased the cake pan sufficiently for when it came time to unmold the finished product.

It didn’t matter. I was immersed in the task at hand and thoroughly content to be doing it. The cake was for my father’s birthday dinner; I would be taking it next door to my parents’ house in another hour or so. The recipe I was using is his favorite, and normally my mother makes it for him, but she was taking care of the rest of the dinner so I’d offered to take on this responsibility.

Two months ago, I didn’t really expect my father to have another birthday. He was recovering from surgery but not very well, and the thought that by mid-fall not only would we be having a birthday dinner but that we’d have to schedule it in between his stints out on the tractor mowing the fields and volunteering at the prison would have seemed utterly improbable. But here I was, glazing the cake and wrapping his present.

Dad shares a birthday with my niece, Hannah, who turned eight yesterday. I hoped that turning eight would be easier on her than the beginning of being seven was. A year ago, she ended her own party with a trip to Children’s Hospital in Washington, D.C., where she was hospitalized for a week with H1N1. She missed out on Halloween, but made a good strong recovery; her birthday celebration this year will include her first sleepover party.

It wasn’t a sure thing that either of yesterday’s celebrants in my family would get to this next birthday, but of course, it never is, for anyone. Yesterday morning when I dropped Holly off at school, I ran into my friend Lisa, who said she’d had dinner the night before with a friend of hers who was mourning her own mother whose birthday it was that day. A year ago, Lisa’s friend’s mother, who was several years younger than my dad, had no reason to think she wouldn’t be around for another birthday, but as we all know, these things happen. Her death was sudden and unanticipated.

Dad’s birthday was a very happy day for all of us. We were glad he was there to celebrate with us; I could easily imagine spending the day under other circumstances. But in fact, I always feel this way on my parents’ birthdays, and my husband’s and children’s too: just glad they’re around for another yearly milestone.

The cake didn’t come out as nice as when my mother makes it. It stuck to the pan a little bit, and I had to reconstruct it somewhat on the cake plate and then slather glaze over the many cracks. But no one complained as they ate it, and I certainly didn’t complain when I made it. Baking a birthday cake yesterday felt like a privilege. I had the time; I had the right ingredients – even a tube of almond paste, which I dug out from the depths of the freezer -- and I had my dad to bake for. It was a happy birthday all around.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

When the sixth graders do the serving

By my calculations, last night’s Sixth Grade Spaghetti Supper was, I’m fairly certain, the 35th annual of its kind. If I’m right, I was at the inaugural one in 1975, and as far as I know, this fundraiser has taken place every year since then.

We attended throughout the years that my sisters and I were in junior high, of course, and then I resumed the habit when my family moved back to town in 2001. Most families with children younger than high school do attend, and so do plenty of singles and couples without children at home. For many Carlisle children, the annual foray to the school cafeteria for the Spaghetti Supper, throughout their toddler and preschool years, is their first and definitely formative peek at the campus they will eventually inhabit for nine (or, if they attend preschool there, ten) years. For kids and adults alike throughout the community, it’s a much-anticipated chance to gather for an informal and always upbeat evening meal.

And every time I attend, I’m struck anew by what a great tradition it is. It’s typical to wait in line for at least a half-hour, but in the crisp October early-evening air, that’s never unpleasant. Dozens of kids run around on the school plaza; adults catch up with friends. By the time you finally get seated, you’re hungry enough that the rudimentary menu of spaghetti, tomato sauce, garlic bread and iceberg lettuce salad tastes delicious.

But the best part is the wait staff, made up of the entire sixth grade class. Wearing white shirts and pants or skirts, white aprons and typeset nametags, the kids are at their absolute best: attentive, respectful, cheerful. In fact, in years past, I thought the kids had to audition for this job and only the best were chosen, because in nine years we’ve never had a single sixth-grade waitperson who performed without the above qualities. But now I know that every student is required to participate, and how they all happen to be on such impressive behavior is simply this: it’s a special occasion and they know they’ve been called upon to show their best side.

This year was the first time I witnessed this as a parent rather than just another member of the public. I expected Tim would be a little bit grudging about the requirement that he put in a 90-minute stint waiting tables, as he’s not normally an extrovert or a laborer. This is the same kid who has never yet poured himself a glass of water without first arguing with me about why I should do it for him or gotten up during dinner to find himself a knife rather than ask me to do it. Wait on other people? Tim? To my ear, it was a contradiction in terms.

But as most teachers and many parents with more experience than I have already know, this is what happens when you pose a challenge to an entire class of kids and make it clear you expect them to succeed at it: they succeed at it. It’s that simple. Like all the sixth graders of previous years, Tim and his classmates did a wonderful job. Because we were willing to wait in line for a little extra time, Holly and I were able to get seated at Tim’s table, a ten-seater, so not only did I order from Tim myself but I got to watch while he served other diners as well. “Hi, I’m Tim,” he said, exactly the way the parents on the service-training team had taught the kids to do. “What would you like to drink? Do you want regular sauce or vegetarian? May I take your ticket?”

With its absence of restaurants, pubs and coffee shops, Carlisle lacks group gathering places, so evenings like this when so much of the town shows up for one event are a big deal. A small number of similar celebrations dot the calendar throughout the year: the Christmas tree lighting in December, the Fire Department barbeque on Old Home Day weekend in late June. But this one is a little different because it involves kids at their best: working hard and rising to the occasion.

That’s not to say it didn’t take nearly every single parent of a sixth grader working behind the scenes to pull off this fundraiser. We started back in the late spring and continued working throughout the summer on efforts such as recruiting auction donors and disseminating publicity, not to mention the efforts in the past 24 hours to prepare 1200 meals. From an objective point of view, the serving the kids do is a very small fraction of the overall effort required to make this event work. But at the same time, for them, in my opinion, it’ s a developmental leap forward when they are the ones doing the serving, and in that respect it’s very different from other community events.

Tim surprised me, and many other parents probably felt the same way about their children. Twenty-four hours ago, I wasn’t sure he could do what was expected of him: talk to strangers, find out what they wanted, serve them with polite efficiency. But he never indicated that he had any doubts about doing it, and now I see why. Given the chance, he and all the other kids proved themselves up to the job. I’m proud of all of them, and I hope they are just as proud of themselves.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Youthful poise

I went out on assignment from our local newspaper yesterday to interview a family with three children about a volunteer project that the kids and their mom had undertaken last summer. The volunteer work they did was impressive, but what was more impressive to me was the poise and manners the kids exhibited throughout my visit. When I arrived, the 14-year-old son was carrying garbage bins down to the curb. We met up in the driveway; he greeted me and led the way into the house, where both his sisters – one 11 and one 15 – greeted me politely as well. “How are you?” asked the 15-year-old. I’m not sure I’ve ever been asked that by a 15-year-old before.

These kids weren’t automatons; their manners and attitude were sincere. They simply didn’t seem to have a capacity for being impolite or even bashful. It wasn’t that I was a reporter or an acquaintance of their mom; it was, I truly believe, merely the fact that I was an adult who had shown up by invitation at their house that caused them to behave so pleasantly toward me.

My two children have fine manners; they know their pleases and thankyous. Any parent who puts in the time and effort can train a child to do that. The poise part of it is harder to come by, though. It’s a distinction I hadn’t given much thought to until my sister used the term last spring when talking about her 7-year-old daughter’s teachers. “We’re very happy that she was placed with a teacher who emphasizes poise along with manners,” my sister said. “When the kids arrive in the classroom Monday morning, this teacher asks them individually how their weekend was and expects an answer. Furthermore, she encourages the kids to engage in the conversation and ask her about her weekend.”

That part, I agree, is tough with some kids, who feel awkward talking with adults and, although not rude, have trouble with one-on-one discourse.

Not the kids I met yesterday, though, and it reminded me of the value of continuing to work on this with my own children. Some of it is disposition, of course. People of all ages vary in their ability to make small talk comfortably with strangers. As a journalist, I’m experienced in putting people at ease while I ask them questions, but that doesn’t mean I’m particularly good at conversation when I’m not on the job. My children tend to be sweet and charming, but also sometimes bashful. That’s not a bad thing, but finding the inner grace to overcome shyness tendencies is an admirable accomplishment for people who manage to do it.

The encounter with these very poised young people also reminded me that it’s always useful to look for good examples and role models. Later, I wrote to their mother that she’d have to share her secret with me, and maybe she can, but most likely this is a combination of how they were raised and their innate personality traits. Observing it was a pleasure for me, but it also reinforced me that this is an important thing to work on in my own household. Rather than just envy these children’s level of comfort with adults, I can try to find a way to instill that same comfort level in my children. After all, some journalist might show up to interview them some day, and I’d like to think they’d greet her just as warmly and speak just as openly as the subjects of my interview yesterday did.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Running at dusk

The earliest I ever remember going running is about 4:40 a.m., before catching a flight to Colorado. The latest I remember going running was one time with Tim at about 9:45 p.m. after he left his running shoes at a friend’s house and I had to drive across town to retrieve them. Between those two ends of the spectrum, there may not be a single point on the clock that I haven’t at some point been out on a run, but nonetheless I’d be hard pressed to name my favorite time of day for running.

Some of those times, like first thing in the morning on a weekend or right after the schoolbus picks Holly up on a weekday, are strong contenders for favorite due to their convenience level. Other times, like early afternoon after a well-balanced lunch, seem to suit me best physically. But I’m flexible about what time I go running, and that’s advantageous as well as convenient because it reminds me that the same route can change dramatically not only with the time of year but with the time of day.

Yesterday, various responsibilities – teaching Sunday school, helping Holly with a homework project, going grocery shopping – prevented me from heading out for a run until the relatively late hour of 5:45. Since I planned to be out about 45 minutes, I knew this meant dusk would be approaching by the end of the run, but the town’s footpath system ensures that traffic isn’t a danger even after dark, so I headed on out.

Dusk did start to fall, and even earlier than I expected, likely because of the thickly forested parts of town in which I was running. It had been quite a while since I’d run at this time of day, though, and doing so yesterday reminded me of what a lovely time it is to be out. Normally I notice lawns and house exteriors as I pass various homes; yesterday I was instead aware of the warmth of lighted rooms within the houses. I glimpsed a few neighbors in their kitchens making dinner, a comforting sight. The trees had a soft dark-gray sheen as darkness approached, and the sky was a milky periwinkle shade, much lighter than the ground. During my last mile, the moon rose, and I looked up at the pearly three-quarters globe hanging over the fields near home as I finished the route.

I’d put a casserole in the oven before starting the run; from the driveway I could smell the aroma of seasonings and cheese. I was slightly chilled but so happy that the day was over and I could settle in at home for the rest of the night. It’s not the ideal time of day for a run, but dusk has a beauty all its own, and I was grateful to be immersed in it once again.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Lessons to be learned from a terrible sense of direction

I have a terrible sense of direction. If ever there was a driver who should use GPS technology, it is me, but I don’t have a GPS and that’s probably just as well: it forces me to work consistently on improving this deficiency. Still, it’s been a struggle for as long as I can remember.

The past couple of weeks have been particularly egregious. Along with the notorious drive to the Manchester airport with my sister Sarah, there was the event last Friday night when an exit closure in Portland forced us to take a different route off the highway than we normally do, dumping me in an unfamiliar part of the city after dark. Tim not only recognized a street name miles from our destination but also somehow intuited which way the ocean was; taking what felt like a leap of faith, I followed my 12-year-old’s instructions and found myself right where I wanted to be. And there was a very brief (three-mile) wrong-way foray when we were leaving Portland to head home that hardly even merits mention. Then a few days later, my mother and I got a little confused driving to a town north of us for apple picking (and, if I am to be completely honest, driving home from that excursion as well).

The point is not to belabor my horrible sense of direction; I’m well aware of that, and I do what I can to compensate for it. I keep a vigilant eye on landmarks I’m passing when I know I’ll need to retrace my steps, and I pay close attention to the position of the sun when I’m driving in daylight so that at the very least I know whether I’m headed toward the right compass point. Rather, what I’ve come to realize from this recent spate of poor directional decisions is what can be learned, literally and metaphorically, from taking so many wrong turns.

For example, during the Manchester airport debacle, Sarah and I took the wrong exit off a toll road. On toll roads, the exits are far apart, and we realized milliseconds after failing to make the necessary turn what we had done, so we had plenty of time – twelve miles’ or so worth of time – to belabor our error. But the fact is that when you’re on a highway after missing your exit, there is absolutely not a single option other than to proceed forward. Pulling over would be dangerous and pointless; turning around is obviously not possible. Realizing you’ve made a terrible mistake, you simply forge ahead until the opportunity arises to correct it, in the form of the next exit appearing. You can’t sit in your car stewing over your mistake; you have no other viable choice than to stick with the bad decision you’ve made and see it through until the opportunity comes to make a different choice. That’s a good lesson.

Another one is that speed is not necessarily the way to right a wrong. When I used to commute by Peter Pan bus, the driver once commented to me, “I don’t know what’s wrong with all these other drivers. Don’t they realize you can go only as fast as the car in front of you?” Now, I remind myself of that when I’m caught in traffic and getting frustrated. It doesn’t matter if you want to go faster or get there sooner; you’re at the mercy of the car in front of you. Take a deep breath and accept that.

Also this: Many mistakes can be fixed. Not all of them, of course. If you cause an accident, that can’t be fixed. But if you miss your flight, you can catch another flight. If you keep a friend waiting inordinately long, you can apologize profusely and make sure it doesn’t happen again. Changing plans might be inconvenient or even, as in the case of rescheduling a flight, costly. But as the anxiety rises, remind yourself to distinguish between those mistakes that have irreversible consequences and those that do not.

And, finally, perhaps the most important lesson to be learned from getting lost: nothing about arriving matters as much as arriving safely. Ultimately, it doesn’t matter if you’re late or if you wasted some gas with wrong turns. It doesn’t matter if you made some bad decisions along the way. It matters only that you eventually reached your destination without an accident.

I don’t take my errors in direction lightly. It’s a personal flaw over which I need to continue to exercise more control. But I do appreciate the learning opportunity that this spate of wrong turns over the past few weeks provided me. I’ll try to learn what I can, and make more correct turns in the future.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Clean sweep

I should finish an article or return a handful of emails, but all I really feel like doing right now is sweeping.

Not sleeping. Sweeping. About this time every day, I get the urge to sweep the downstairs floors.

I think almost everyone could name some chore that they find satisfying for its level of mundane-ness: the kind of task that lets your mind wander to more cerebral issues while your body completes a utilitarian function. I’ve heard other people say this about ironing, or grooming a pet. For me, though, it’s sweeping.

There’s such a satisfying sense that if I do it every day, or at least every day that we’re using the house and not out of town, I can keep up. Unlike so many other pursuits I try to stick with, sweeping seems manageable. As long as I devote twenty minutes every day to it, I really can reach my goals in this area: to keep the floors reasonably clean.

Sweeping is highly measurable, too. How much you accomplish each time is literally visible in the dustpan. In fact, sometimes I purposely make all my piles before throwing any of them away and then pick them all up at once just for the satisfaction of seeing all the dust, dirt, crumbs and lint in one impressive pile. “All that! It was all on my floor, and I managed to gather it all up to throw away!” I think, aware even as I do so of how absurd it is to find this satisfying and yet pleased with myself all the same.

Sometimes I can’t help but think of the mopping scene in the film “Mystic Pizza,” where Julia Roberts’ character, angry with her sister for failing to show up as promised to take her waitressing shift, hands her the mop and snaps, “Wipe your conscience.” Is my enthusiasm for sweeping compensatory? I wonder. Am I sweeping something under the rug? Am I trying to make a clean sweep?

No. I’m just savoring one of my few daily responsibilities that feels finite. Unlike raising children or writing, every day’s sweeping session has a beginning and an end. True, I never get every last grain of dirt or sesame seed. (Sweeping my house would take half the time if my children chose white toast for breakfast once in a while instead of sesame bagels every day.) And I never do it twice within the same day: once the broom has been put away, no matter how many new crumbs I spy, I’m done, and that sense of finality appeals to me as well.

It’s easy, that’s all. And it’s a task for which I always feel that doing my best is good enough. Our floors sparkle only once a month, and that’s after our house cleaner’s monthly visit. She mops and uses floor polish. I do not. And since we live on a farm, plenty gets tracked in every day. (My kids have rightfully pointed out that no matter what the time of year, I claim it’s the worst season for keeping floors clean: in summer, sand from our trips to the beach; in the fall, hay from my morning cow-feeding sessions; in the winter, grit and melting snow; in the spring, mud.)

But I do what I can every day. And unlike many of the other areas of my life in which I do what I can every day, with sweeping, it always feels to me like I’ve earned a passing grade for execution and an A for effort.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Trail riding (or jogging)

In a way, what happened yesterday afternoon complemented what happened on Saturday.

Or, really, what didn’t happen on Saturday. I was sincerely hoping to go on a hike with my kids, but hiking was not meant to be. At least not as the kids saw it. They just didn’t want to. So we didn’t. But although I went along with the alternative they proposed – a walk through Portland and a visit to their favorite playground there – I still kvetched, in my own mind and on my blog if not audibly to them.

Yesterday afternoon, the opposite happened. The kids had a professional day, and so I didn’t get out for a run at the time I usually go, right after Holly boards the school bus. By late afternoon, I was anxious to get going, so I tried to come up with a plan that might interest Holly since Tim was already occupied. “Want to ride your bike alongside me and we can go up to the soccer field?” I asked her. “Then once we’re there, you can ride around the track with me or play on the fitness course.” Running laps is about my least favorite kind of run. But I’d had a good aerobic workout on the stationery bike earlier in the day; my primary goal was just to get my daily mile in, and to see Holly get some exercise as well. Getting her to agree to join me at all would be a struggle, I thought; but she said she’d ride along.

But then we took a detour. The ice cream stand next door to us closed for the season on Monday, so as we headed out to the road, I gave her the option of doing laps around its large parking lot rather than around the soccer field. She liked that idea. And on the first lap, she noticed something: a trail leading off the edge of the parking lot. I told her that it went past Bates Pond and through the woods, ending up at the end of my parents’ driveway next door to our house. “But you don’t want to ride on a trail,” I assured her.

Actually, she informed me, she wanted to try it.

So we started down the trail. Since this same kid will never agree to a hike with me these days, I assumed she’d turn back as soon as she saw that biking on a trail through the woods is a far cry from biking on our town’s paved footpaths or even the gravel driveway. But she stuck with it. We went farther and farther back, and once I realized she really planned to forge ahead on this route, I started noticing how gorgeous the path was on this particular day: the foliage nearing its peak, the waters of Bates Pond still and reflective, the sun dappling through the tree canopy.

Holly rode on, and when she reached parts of the trail that were too narrow or winding for her undersized Barbie-accessorized two-wheeler to manage, she walked her bike. I jogged behind her with the dog on the leash. “This is fun!” she exclaimed.

“But why…” I wanted to ask. “Why is it that if I’d suggested a walk in the woods you would never have agreed to it, but here we are bushwhacking our way along on a combination run/bike ride?”

Eventually we were all the way at the far end of the loop. “If we cut through right by that stone wall, it’s just a short walk down Grandma and Buppa’s driveway and home,” I told her.

“But if we turn around, we can do the whole thing again,” she responded.

According to my Nike Plus odometer, we’d already completed nearly two miles. “Do you really want to retrace the whole trail?” asked her. We could almost see our house through the woods.

“I definitely do,” she said.

So that’s what we did. In the end, we logged more than three miles. It was Holly’s first time trail riding, and she loved it. And what surprised me most was that I hadn’t planned it; it just developed spontaneously.

But sometimes I overplan, like with Saturday’s non-hike. Sometimes the best things happen when I don’t plan anything at all. Holly and I had a great time out on the trail, even though I was expecting a few laps around the soccer field. If I ask her if she wants to do it again today, she’ll probably say no. When I plan things, they end up not happening. So I’ll just wait until the next time that the pieces spontaneously fall into place, and then I’ll enjoy it all over again.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Fruit bowl

As happens every October, all around me appear magnificent tableaus. The trees burst with crimson, scarlet, peach, gold, russet; small yellow leaves float on the dark water of the brook. Against a bright blue sky flies an arrow of Canada geese.

Yet just as beautiful is the tableau on my kitchen counter: one of the loveliest arrangements of fruit I have ever seen. And I didn’t even try specially to arrange it that way; it just happened. A round, shiny, red tomato; a verging-on-ripe yellow banana; a pale green pear; an avocado as dark green as green can be without turning to a shade of black; an orange. I have to restrain myself from fishing for adjectives to describe the colors; the fruits themselves are the best modifiers for these colors. Crayola would name these colors banana yellow, pear green. The fruits are such perfect hues.

Their spectrum catches my eye every time I walk through the kitchen, and I just can’t stop marveling at how beautiful this arrangement of fruit is. At other times of year, I have just as much fruit in the house but don’t always keep it on the counter. Summer fruits – sweet, juicy peaches and nectarines – attract fruit flies, so keep them in the fridge, as I also do with winter apples and grapefruit. But the fall harvest stays out in the silver fruit bowl, making my kitchen more beautiful than any intentional work of art ever could.

I’m reminded of one of Mary Oliver’s best-known poems, The Summer Day. (I’m no poetry scholar; in all likelihood, any poem I know is quite likely to be “one of the best-known” by that poet.) Oliver wrote:

Who made the world?
Who made the swan, and the black bear?
Who made the grasshopper?
This grasshopper, I mean--
the one who has flung herself out of the grass,
the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,
who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down--
who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.

…and I find myself wondering accordingly, who made all of this beautiful fruit with its rainbow of colors, and why? Each piece would taste just as good if their skins or peels were dirt brown. They didn’t need to be so beautiful….but they are. Every time I eat arugula, I think to myself something similar to Mary Oliver’s questions: “Who made this lettuce?” We could have been just as satisfied with endive and romaine, and yet whoever made Oliver’s grasshopper also made arugula, a green that tastes garlicky and musky and delicious.

Who made grasshoppers, and oranges, and arugula? I could get a lot of different answers to that question if I asked even the smallest subset of people. I wouldn’t want to have to try to answer it myself. And yet there’s a feeling today that Divinity nestles in my fruit bowl, reminding me every time I pass it of all that is inexplicable and yet beautiful in the world.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Walking, but no hiking

We had a wonderful weekend in Portland. Once again, the city seemed to pulse with exuberance: on the biking path that runs alongside the harbor; in the shops and cafes; at the public beach; on the sidewalk where the sightseeing trolley disgorge passengers. The sun shone, the air was cool, the breeze was brisk: everyone seemed chipper and happy.

Also once again, my plans to drag my children out on a hike flopped. Or, if flopped is not exactly the right verb, then fizzled.

I wanted to explore one of the easy, kid-friendly hiking trails whose names had appeared on my computer screen ever since I put the word out on Facebook and Twitter that I was determined to get my two children out for a hike this weekend. Bradbury Mountain, or Wolfe Neck State Park, or even the trails that lead off the beach at Crescent Beach State Park.

But it wasn’t meant to be. We spent Saturday morning at the boatyard exploring my parents’ new boat. After lunch, everyone rested and read. And then, when I was ready to brave some new terrain outside the city, the kids had other ideas. It wasn’t that they wanted to watch TV or play computer games. They just didn’t want to get back into the car to drive to a hiking trail, for which I can hardly blame them. Avoiding the car, which often seems important to my kids when we are away from home, is an impulse with which I can never in good conscience argue.

So I told them we needed to do something involving fresh air and exercise, and they could decide what. Holly wanted to walk to the toy store and shop for stickers; Tim was interested in a vinegar tasting at the gourmet shop down the block. (Really. Tim loves vinegar. A vinegar-tasting event for him is like the Ben & Jerry’s Scooperbowl might be for another 12-year-old boy.) Both sounded like reasonable impulses and would at least get us out doing something, if not something that exactly qualified as exploring nature. So we visited the sticker store and then the kids remembered a playground we’d discovered last spring. Forgetting about the vinegar tasting, we headed out in the direction where we thought we remembered the playground being, and found it about a half-mile later. Delighted with that option, the kids ran up and down the slide, chased each other, pumped high on the swings, and ran around some more. Then we walked back to the condo.

I have to admit that no amount of planning on my part, no amount of researching hiking trails and putting out inquiries as to other families’ favorites, is likely to change my kids’ inclinations right now. They’re just not big on hiking. And at a certain point, I need to recognize that and not make the mistake of harping on it.

On the other hand, it’s reasonable to say that as their mother, I have a certain obligation to do what I can to keep them healthy and fit, and part of that is daily exercise. So in light of this weekend’s change of plans, I’ve decided I can’t push them to do activities they really aren’t interested in, but I can tell them they have to find some form of outdoor activity for 20 or 30 minutes most days. Yesterday, Tim played baseball; when I offered Holly the choice of a bike ride, a walk, or time on the swing set, she opted for the swing set – but it was still a half-hour of good physical activity for her.

Maybe eventually they’ll come around. At ages 8 and 12, they surely can’t have formed all their opinions and preferences quite yet. I hope at some point they do develop an interest in hiking. In the meantime, I need to accept what I cannot currently change, push the regular exercise in whatever form they choose, and possibly find other people to hike with.

And to everyone who wrote to me with their Portland suggestions, I really appreciate the ideas, I’ll keep the list, and eventually, one way or another, I’ll try them all out.

Friday, October 8, 2010

Back-to-School Night -- and I feel like I'm going back to school

I’m worried that I won’t be able to find my classrooms. I’m apprehensive that I won’t recognize the teachers. I’m anxious about getting to each class on time. And what on earth am I going to wear?

No, it’s not a stress dream recalling my first day of middle school. It’s me getting ready to attend sixth grade Back-to-School Night as a parent. But I from what I remember of my first day of middle school – which at that time was called junior high – I can’t see a great deal of difference between the two, at least in terms of my state of mind as departure time approaches.

So I’ve laid out my outfit ahead of time, smoothed my hair as much as possible, and asked my son at least three times to recite detailed directions to each of his classrooms (he therefore has the role now that my elder sister did in 1978). Next on my Worry List? That I’ll mispronounce a teacher’s name (fortunately, Liz Gray is at the top of the schedule) or trip in the hallway while changing classes.

In truth, I love Back-to-School Night, and have ever since my very first one when Tim was in the toddler room at Sudbury Small World. It was ten years ago, but I vividly remember a long discussion at that event about why the kids come home with their sneakers full of sand from the sandbox and what parents could do to reduce that problem. (One wonders.) Because while Parents’ Night may be full of the same anxieties as being a student, it also carries some of the same thrill. Will I get called on if I raise my hand? Will I like this teacher? Will any of my friends want to sit next to me? What will they be wearing? Who broke up over the summer? (Actually, while that one may be a thrill in middle school, it can be heartbreaking at our current age. But it still falls under the category of information that can be gleaned via a quick glance around the room at Back-to-School Night.)

Besides, there’s something I know now that I had no clue of when I was a student, and that is this: many of the teachers are just as nervous as we are. And they have to go through both events every year: the first day of school with the kids and Back-to-School Night with the parents. While most of the teachers I know are warier of the second date than the first, it still constitutes two separate occasions of looking out over a sea of curious faces and trying to succeed at this critical first impression.

For some teachers, Back-to-School Night can be a game-changer. Many years ago, my father, a school administrator, had a faculty member on his staff for whom it was so emotionally fraught that she literally could not make it to the event sober. And when I was in prep school, where instead of Parents’ Night we brought our parents to a full day of classes, there was an infamous occurrence in my first-period pre-calculus class that resulted in my math teacher getting fired before Parents’ Weekend was over. (Interestingly, last I heard he was a partner at a major Boston law firm. That strikes me as a little like closing the barn door behind the horse, in that he certainly would have benefited from a better understanding of the law back in his early teaching days, particularly where the legal definition of a minor is concerned.)

In any case, I’m raring to go. I’ve put together an outfit, combed my hair, chosen the right shade of lipstick and brushed my teeth. And if my friend Nicole doesn’t want to sit next to me, I just might come home in tears, but barring that possibility, everything should be just fine.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Running in the rain

Yesterday morning when my alarm went off at 5:30, I could hear a light patter of rain. Nearly three hours later, by the time I was ready to take Holly out to the bus and then start my run, it was a steady downpour.

As I used to tell Tim when he ran with me, running in the rain is tough only for the first five minutes. After that, you’re as wet as you’re going to get; it’s not going to become any worse. You just have to steel yourself for those first five minutes.

So yesterday, that’s what I did: steeled myself for the first five minutes of steady rain. And I discovered once again what I always discover when I urge myself out to run in a rainfall: it’s not that bad. The rain cools your skin as you run, and there’s no sun glare to contend with in your eyes. If you get hot, you can sluice rainwater off a low-hanging branch and pat it on your forehead and cheeks. Dodging puddles gives you practice at agility. In my case, where the dog likes to stop every twenty seconds or so to shake off the water, it gives me practice in quick stops as well; if I don’t put the brakes on myself and run in place while she shakes to her satisfaction, I trip over her.

The best part of running in the rain is finishing the run: entering a warm, dry house, knowing you didn’t let the rain put you off. You feel chilled in damp clothes, but warm inside, knowing you met the weather head-on and fit in a good workout.

True, that’s a little like the joke about “Why are you hitting yourself?” “Because it feels so good when I stop,” which my 12-year-old is at just the right age to find hilarious. Why run in the rain? Because it feels so good when you’re done. But in all honesty, that’s part of the appeal of running whether it’s raining or not: the sense of satisfaction and of conquering that comes when the run is finished. Whether or not it’s raining, running means slaying a certain kind of dragon every time you go out: the dragon of inertia. Running may be natural, but staying put is natural too, and preserving energy even more so. To head out on a run at any time is to say that you are willing yourself to overcome the urge to stay at rest. To head out on a run in the rain is to overcome a natural aversion to discomfort, wetness, chill.

Trivial as those dragons may be, it feels good to stare them down, overcome them, leave them in your wake. There are a lot of inner struggles I can’t conquer as easily as the wish to stay indoors when it’s running. Pushing myself out the door for a couple of miles in the rain makes me feel like I’ve overcome one tiny hurdle in my day. And having done that, maybe I can take on some bigger hurdles before the day, or the rain, ends.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Changes in the weather

When I stepped outside just before heading up to bed last night, I noticed a smell I hadn’t smelled in a long time. It wasn’t completely foreign to me, but it wasn’t anything that had been in the air recently, and I can’t exactly describe it, except that it comes sometimes with rain: sort of a metallic scent that reminds me a little bit of dirty hair. We’d had light rain on and off all day, but this isn’t the way rain always smells, or even often. Just occasionally. Like last night.

I don’t know where the smell came from – some particular combination of the air and the groundsoil and the precipitation, or maybe even something as specific as a mushroom that was blooming due to the moisture – but what struck me was how the environment immediately around us has changed so often in the past few weeks. Every day feels like a different biosystem, or micro-biosystem anyway. One day last week the air was as humid as it normally is during a tropical storm. Another day was one of the windiest I’ve known; my mother and I went for a walk in the afternoon and picked up debris from falling branches on the driveway the whole way out to the road and then picked up more debris on the way back that had fallen since we’d last passed by. Other nights in the past few weeks have smelled like quintessential New England fall, the air crisp and dry, with a scent of pine and maple.

Smelling the unusual metallic/dirty hair/rain smell last night reminded me of how many changes we witness outdoors at this time of year. In the winter, when the ground is frozen, changes in the atmosphere are almost imperceptible: one frozen night and day seem indistinguishable from the next. And in the summer, when the heat and humidity hover, the weather can seem to change very little for days on end as well. But this fall has been like a kaleidoscope of climate: the temperature, humidity, ground cover -- from dry leaves to wet leaves to acorns -- and yes, even the smell of the air, have changed daily.

I’m grateful I can be outside experiencing it for so much of the day. Yesterday I walked to school with Holly in the morning, then set off from there on a two-mile run; later in the day I walked next door to my parents’ house, and earlier in the day I had been out to the barnyard to let the sheep out to graze. When I was working in a corporate environment full-time, one of the hardest parts of it for me was how often I would be indoors from 8:30 a.m. until 5 p.m. or later. It just seemed like such a waste of the world not to get out into it at all. Sometimes during lunch I’d walk around a residential neighborhood near my office, an uninspiring neighborhood with busy streets and a jumble of houses that had little character but at least gave me a chance to be outside.

This is a time of year when our surroundings change fast: the grass begins to die off, the leaves change colors and fall from the trees, acorns encrust the ground, pine needles turn to mulch. There’s a lot to see, and I try to spend a lot of time outdoors witnessing it. It’s autumn in New England, and I don’t want to miss a thing.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

When dinner has a name: Raising kids on a farm

"What’s for dinner tonight?" Tim asked me at breakfast yesterday, as he does every morning.

“Something Grandma made for us,” I answered vaguely, not because I didn’t know but because I was trying to do four other things at the same time: reach a glass down from the shelf for Holly, feed the dog, listen to a voicemail, put away a bag of bagels.

“But what did Grandma make for us?” Tim persisted.

“I don’t know, something she served a couple of weeks ago and then froze the leftovers for us. Shredded beef of some kind.”

“Pulled Freddy!” Tim exclaimed, delighted. “I had that at their house last week!”

“Yay!” Holly chimed in. “Pulled Freddy was delicious!”

My kids can’t be the only children raised on a cattle farm who call dinner by name, but I tend to think they’re in the minority. Fern Arable they are not, that’s for sure. Unlike the wistful and ingenuous heroine of Charlotte’s Web, they’ve never gone to bat to save an animal’s life. Quite the opposite: their attitude is that they’d rather eat a friend than a stranger.

And all the cows on my parents’ farm next door to our house are their friends. My kids or their cousins generally grant themselves the job of naming each new calf. Pre-grandchildren, my parents didn’t name the animals. Like many farmers, they preferred not to distinguish with personal names animals that would eventually go to the slaughterhouse.

But that policy is long gone. My kids and their cousins name each animal and refer to each animal by that name not only throughout the critter’s lifetime but throughout its culinary existence as well. “Jake is in the freezer!” they announce, or “Let’s serve Maggie for the Memorial Day cookout.” I had to smile recently as I read about a popular dish from the 1950s called Steak Diane; that recipe is believed to have been named after Diana, goddess of the hunt, but in my household every steak has a name.

Dinner guests sometimes catch me hushing my children when they use proper names at the dinner table. “Pass me another slice of Jennifer,” they’ll say. I always try to put a quick end to that. “You mean roast beef, Tim.” He smiles innocently at me, confident that he, unlike the dinner guest, can picture this entree when it stood on four legs grazing.

Living on a farm has brought me nothing but pleasure; I subscribe to the belief of many small-farm operators that we ensure our cows have a healthy, happy, free-ranging life for as long as they live and are eventually slaughtered under the most humane conditions possible. Still, I used to find it a bit disturbing that my kids were so sanguine about the history of their protein. I thought often of E.B. White’s Fern Arable, fighting for the life of her pet pig, and wondered if my kids lacked a basic humanity gene.

But now I see it differently. My kids love the animals. They walk among the cows in the pasture and witness the birth of calves. And they love them all over again as part of the food chain. In reality, their perspective isn’t macabre as much as it is holistic. Their friends think of hamburgers as patties from the supermarket freezer; my kids know the life cycle of a hamburger almost from conception.

Does this make them inhumane? I don’t think so. As it happens, I’m a vegetarian and have been since college. It wasn’t for idealistic reasons related to farm practices; it was for nutritional reasons. In some ways, I don’t understand why anyone consumes animals. But at least my kids do it with a high level of awareness. They know where food comes from and how it is raised. They name it and pet it and choose to eat it anyway. And they do it all with respect for the life the animal lived – and the pulled beef barbeque with which they ended up at dinner last night.

Monday, October 4, 2010

Things happen for a reason (even bad drives to the airport)

We left for the Manchester airport with plenty of time to spare. I almost always leave a lot of time for getting to the airport, but this was extreme even for me, by necessity. My sister Sarah had been warned by a TSA official that she needed to be there at least ninety minutes before departure, and she didn’t want to take any chances that she’d miss her flight home to D.C.

The personal discussion with TSA authorities about what time she should arrive at the airport transpired because during her 48-hour visit to my parents and me, she’d lost her driver’s license. It turns out that boarding a plane without photo ID isn’t exactly impossible, as she found out when she called the airport on Saturday to explain the problem; it just requires a lot of extra steps. So she was ready to leave at 2:15 Sunday afternoon for her 4:40 flight.

We were making good time and doing fine until suddenly we weren’t. One missed exit led to a wrong turn which led to a slow back road with a lot of traffic lights, and before long we were running thirty minutes behind schedule and still hadn’t reached the airport. Never mind getting there “at least an hour and a half early” as the TSA official had instructed Sarah; we risked not even being there the one hour in advance normally required of air travelers these days.

For Sarah, it was a stressful half-hour to cap off a stressful weekend. Mishaps from her short solo journey to Massachusetts included the wrong city on her original itinerary, the loss of her driver’s license and other documents, hours squandered searching for the lost items which did not turn up, and now the prospect of missing her flight at a time that she really needed to get home. In between calamities, we’d had a great visit, but it was turning into a bad ending to a problematic two days.

At exactly one hour before her scheduled departure time, I pulled up to the curb outside Southwest departures. She grabbed her bags and dashed in, telling me there was no point in my staying with her; even if she had to rebook for a later flight, she wasn’t going to want to leave the airport again. I, meanwhile, was holding out a glimmer of hope that it would all work out and she’d make the flight. In my experience, that’s just how it often goes: the things you’re absolutely certain aren’t going to work out are the things that in the end do work out.

As I drove home, I thought about the various things that had gone wrong for Sarah and how they fit in with my belief that everything happens for a reason, but a lot of the time we simply don’t know what that reason might be. Missing an exit and making a wrong turn had taken us thirty minutes off our intended course, but maybe it had also taken us out of the path of an accident. Looking for Sarah’s missing documents on Saturday prevented the two of us and my mother from going for a hike we’d planned on, but maybe a worse calamity would have happened on the hike. For that matter, in the course of the search, my mother had moved their truck to check under it – and discovered in doing so (with no bad consequences) that the truck’s brakes were starting to fail. So maybe the lost license actually prevented a much bigger problem from happening involving the truck.

You just never know, but it helps to believe, as I do, that there’s a positive meaning behind these seemingly needless frustrations. And there’s always the matter of perspective. Sarah’s motivation for visiting on this particular weekend was primarily to see my father, who had been very sick over the summer but is rapidly improving. Last time Sarah was in town, my father was in the ICU and Sarah didn’t necessarily think she’d ever see him at home again; this weekend she saw him heading out on the tractor to mow the fields. A lost ID, even a missed flight, would have seemed a trivial price to pay back when she was sitting with him in the ICU had she known how much he would eventually recuperate.

The drive home seemed easy. I followed the signs and found my way along the highway with no problems at all. As I reached the exit for Carlisle, my phone rang. It was Sarah, calling just before boarding her flight, the one she’d planned to take all along. “Turned out to be no problem!” she crowed. “I found a TSA official and told him about my lost ID; they had to ask me some questions and make some phone calls, and then they hustled me right to the gate and I’m about to board!”

She gave me a moment to absorb the good news, then told me the best part. “And the TSA guy congratulated me for my good judgment in arriving at the airport so early.”

Friday, October 1, 2010

Out for a walk

Late yesterday afternoon I managed to do something rare for me: fit in a walk.

I love walking. Any terrain, any neighborhood, any time of year. And there have been phases of my life when I did lots of walking.

But not anymore. I did not anticipate that once I made a pledge to run every single day, walking would become a casualty of that decision. But on days when time is at a premium, which is so often the case, knowing I’ve already fit in a good run, taking a walk just doesn’t seem like a high enough priority.

Yesterday I had an excuse though. It was Back-to-School Night at our elementary school, so I ate an early dinner and headed up on foot. This was partly because I needed to be there at six o’clock for the activities fair and Rick didn’t plan to go until the classroom presentations an hour later, so my walking meant that we could drive home together. Parking gets tight when every parent of a school-aged child in town is up at the school on the same night, too, so it seemed sensible to do what we could to cut down on the problem.

But the bigger reason I did it was that walking invariably calms me down and clears my mind, and last night was no exception. It was a warm, humid, windy evening, the kind that usually means there’s a tropical storm somewhere on the East Coast. It was a comfortable temperature for walking, and the mile up to the school took me about twenty minutes, which was just about right for giving me some time to think without making me feel like I’d taken a lot of time away from anything else I should be doing.

Even though I walked the exact same route that I run every day, it felt different. Running is just so physically absorbing. When I run, I feel like I’m observing the scenery and taking in all kinds of sensory stimulation – the sounds of traffic or wind or birds, the smell of mulch or wildflowers or freshly cut hay – but in truth, more than anything I’m thinking about how it feels to be running. When I walk, I don’t think about walking. I feel like I’m noticing every sight, sound, smell. I feel like I’m part of the air, passing through the landscape, taking it in without touching it.

In a way, the metaphor is obvious. I never go walking because I’m always too busy running. Of course the message seems to be a cliché about stopping to smell the roses. But so often there just doesn’t seem to be time for a walk. There have been phases in the past when I walked a lot with my mother, but now my father is doing more walking while he recovers from medical problems so she has been walking with him. And when the dog was new, I walked a lot with her, but now she runs with me instead. Friends ask me if I want to go walking with them, but I tend to say “No, I took thirty minutes away from my desk to run this morning; I need to get work done now.” My kids don’t enjoy going for walks; when I can spend time with them, I let them choose an activity they prefer.

But getting out for a walk yesterday evening felt wonderful, even for just twenty minutes. It reminded me that nothing else feels quite like walking: simultaneously meditative and invigorating. I don’t want to give up the daily running, and I don’t think anyone fits in everything they want to do in a single day. But somehow I need to find more time for walks.