Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Black Friday and Transcendentalism

Two items arrived in my email inbox before dawn on Thanksgiving morning. One email was from A Network for Grateful Living, which sends me daily words of inspiration. It said this: “Within us is the soul of the whole, the wise silence, the universal beauty, the eternal One,” a quotation from Transcendentalist (and fellow Unitarian) Ralph Waldo Emerson. The other was from Walmart and said this: “Shop Thanksgiving Day Online Specials Today & Plan Your Friday Store Visit‏ (Our biggest event of the year starts at midnight).”

I went from one to the other, a little bit bewildered by both, trying to decode the message the universe was sending me by stacking these two emails one on top of the other.

“Within us is the soul of the whole.” In just those few words are all the reminder anyone could need that flat-screen TVs and diamond bracelets really do not need to factor into our observances of the season of Nativity. I so resist the concept of Black Friday, shopping at 4 a.m. the day after Thanksgiving (or, as seemed to be the case this year, at midnight just as Thanksgiving was ending), and in some ways the whole notion of holiday shopping. It’s not a tradition I was brought up with: we did celebrate both Christmas and Chanukah, and we did receive wonderful gifts, but no one ever focused on the shopping aspect of it. Knowing my relatives, most of it was probably done by catalog even decades before the days of online shopping.

At the same time, categorically knocking the whole tradition of holiday shopping is a little too facile, I’m come to realize. My 8-year-old daughter looks forward all year not just to receiving gifts but to planning the gifts she’ll give. She spends the last week of November huddled over her desk listing ideas for what she can make for each family member. “Mommy, do you think Grandma and Grandpa would rather have cookies I’ve baked or a poem I’ve written?” she asks me, her brow wrinkled intently. “What’s Daddy’s favorite color?” she asks, wielding a fistful of markers. And while this isn’t shopping per se, it’s not entirely removed either: we don’t harvest our own cookie ingredients or make our own crayons and paper, after all.

Moreover, dismissing the big-box stores and their fliers as the ugliest sort of consumerism is a shade too myopic for me. In years past, I rigorously promoted the idea of Buy-Nothing Day, the anti-materialism movement urging everyone to avoid all stores and commerce on the day after Thanksgiving. And I still do observe that tradition myself, partly out of idealism and partly out of the wish to avoid crowds, but it’s not quite so easy anymore for me to condemn those who do shop. Many people’s jobs depend on shoppers. Not just the cashiers and shelving staff in the stores but the workers at the manufacturing plants who provide the goods, the custodians who clean the store at night after closing, the security staff who patrol the parking lot all depend on shoppers appearing on their doorstep. If I met a single one of those people individually, I surely wouldn’t wish unemployment on them. Yet their income depends on people who, unlike me, support the idea of rushing to the superstores to hit the post-Thanksgiving and December sales.

Like almost everything, it’s not a black-and-white issue. As Emerson said, “Within us is the soul of the whole, the wise silence, the universal beauty, the eternal One.” There is not a single thing more we need to acquire: not electronics, not toys, not even books containing the ideas of Emerson, to follow this logic to its end. And yet the superstores have their role to play as well. I wouldn’t want to go shopping, but those who do serve a function in keeping others afloat. I’ll postpone any holiday shopping until as close to Christmas as possible, and I’ll make whatever gifts I can from home, but I’ll also remind myself that there are so seldom easy answers. Holiday shopping, in that respect, is no different from any other aspect of my life.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Changing plans no impediment to having fun

The plan for Friday afternoon was straightforward when we formulated it first thing Friday morning. When my sister Sarah is visiting from her home in D.C., as she was over the holiday weekend, my kids and her kids want to spend as much time together as they possibly can – well, Tim at the age of 12 tends to remove himself from the action fairly early on, but Holly will happily play all day with cousins Hannah, who is 8, just like Holly; and Andrew, two years younger – and we were doing all we could to accommodate them.

“The kids can play at our house while you go to aerobics class,” I said. “I’m going to go for a quick two-mile run, then I’ll make them lunch, then we’ll go to the audience-participation screening of Mary Poppins in Arlington at two o’clock.” Perfect plan.

A plan, indeed. Change number one: When I told the three kids I was heading out for a short run and would be back in 25 minutes but that Rick was there if any emergencies arose, they announced they’d just finished the final rehearsal for their hastily choreographed musical revue, “Teenage Conversations.” And since I was their only likely audience member, I couldn’t go running until I’d sat through a performance.

So I sat down at Holly’s desk chair and clapped at the appropriate times as they ran in and out of Holly’s closet, sang, danced and yelled for fifteen minutes or so. “Okay, guys, off for my run!” I then announced. “Back in 25 minutes!”

Change number two: As I was lacing my running shoes, my parents called from next door to say they’d just returned from the slaughterhouse with several hundred pounds of beef – formerly known as Rollie – to unload into the freezer. I headed next door to pitch in, but by that time my sister and her husband were already helping out, so they didn’t really need my participation. I left on my run, and when I got home 25 minutes later started making the kids’ lunch.

“Mary Poppins?” they said dubiously when I told them what we had in mind for the afternoon. “Can we see ‘Tangled’ instead?”

It was fine with me. Change number three: I went to movies.com to see where and what times ‘Tangled’ was playing. Plenty of choices. I told Sarah about their request and we decided on Maynard at 4:05, which gave us a couple more hours before we had to go anywhere. “Will you take us up to the playground?” they asked. That too was fine with me; the weather had turned out much less rainy than was forecasted, and some time outdoors would be good for them before sitting down at the movie. Sarah said she’d go too, so we piled into the car.

Change numbers four and five: As soon as we started driving to the playground, Andrew needed to go to the bathroom, so we stopped at the library. No big deal but sitting there waiting for him gave Hannah time to decide she didn’t want to see the movie anymore. No problem, I said, we could drop her and Sarah off at home after our playground visit, and I’d take Holly and Andrew.

By the time we’d stopped at the ATM – the Maynard theater is cash-only – we had barely ten minutes for the playground, but we still thought it was worth it. Any fresh air and exercise at all is a worthwhile investment in a kid’s day, in my opinion. So the kids power-played for ten minutes, then back into the car, where Hannah decided she was willing to join us for the movie after all.

Change number six: when we arrived at the theater, the movie was sold out. (The Maynard theater is an independent cinema and doesn’t do on-line ticket sales.) That’s okay, Holly said; let’s go somewhere and have a treat. Fine with me, Hannah agreed, since she hadn’t really wanted to go anyway. We headed to West Concord and Nashoba Brook Bakery, where we spent a most enjoyable 45 minutes with pastries for the kids and coffee for Sarah and me. The kids found a little table to sit at on their own; Sarah and I found upholstered chairs nearby, and we all relaxed and savored the moment.

As we drove home in the pitch black darkness that signifies five o’clock in late November, I noted that we’d still be in the movie if we’d been able to get tickets. It was kind of nice to be already heading home, though we probably would have had fun at the movie as well. Regardless, the kids had performed a show of their own design in the morning, played for a little while on the playground, and had fun at Nashoba Brook Bakery; I’d fit in my run; Sarah had done an aerobics class and helped my parents unload a beef shipment; we’d had an unexpectedly long and pleasant visit over coffee.

So nothing turned out quite like we’d planned, and yet it was a great post-Thanksgiving day. The kids played together all day, just as they wanted to. No one was disappointed with all the changes, least of all me. What I wanted most out of the day was a chance for all of us to spend some time together. Six or more changes later, that had been accomplished. We’ll do the audience-participation Mary Poppins show some other time, and ‘Tangled’ too. For Friday, what we ended up with was plenty for us.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Thanksgiving vacation!

On a blogging hiatus until Monday. Happy Thanksgiving, everyone, and happy Thanksgiving weekend as well!

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Thanksgiving, as performed by the third grade

Yesterday morning I attended a Thanksgiving play in Holly’s third-grade classroom, a 13-scene musical drama that gives every child in the class the chance to play the part of a modern-day grandparent, a Pilgrim woman, a 17th-century Wampanoag tribesman, an ear of corn, or some other critical role in the Thanksgiving story.

It was a good production, just as it was when Tim was in the same play three years ago. From my perspective, it seems to reflect a vital if somewhat fabled narrative from U.S. history in simple but honest terms, and aspects that are sometimes overlooked, such as how miserable the Pilgrims were during their 66 days at sea and how difficult it was for them to survive their first New England winter, will likely stay in these kids’ memories as they learn more about U.S. history.

In a way, productions such as this one seem kind of anachronistic. By today’s standards of diversity, the traditional tale of Pilgrims learning from Native Americans, or “Indians,” how to plant crops, seems a bit quaint; it’s more typical at our school to see a depiction of a little-known Serbian folk tale than something as traditionally American as the Thanksgiving story.

But I’m glad this pageant hasn’t gone the way of Christmas, considered too Eurocentric and Christian to hold a place in the school setting. As Holly’s teacher pointed out to us, putting on a classroom play deploys all kinds of skills and lessons. On the most basic level, there was history in learning the story, art in designing the scenery, music in practicing the theme song. But there was also poise in learning to deliver lines effectively, group cooperation skills enhanced by working in sync with classmates, patience in waiting for other kids to deliver (or remember) their lines, even the skill of flexibility, embodied by two children who took on extra lines and jobs in yesterday’s performance to cover for an absent classmate.

Like most public schools, ours focuses a lot these days on benchmarks and data. Measuring the knowledge developed by spending three or four weeks preparing a play is harder than measuring math acquisition or reading comprehension, and yet to spend a half-hour in the classroom watching these twenty kids perform is to realize how much happens in their minds as they work on this kind of undertaking. Not least is the fact that their own teacher wrote the play and its theme song; for a child like mine who says – at least for now – that she doesn’t really like being on stage, it introduces the idea that there are other roles besides acting within the wider realm of drama – playwrights, lyricists, costume designers – and that creativity takes on myriad forms.

I appreciate the chance I had yesterday to attend the play. Not only is it always fun to see Holly and her classmates working on something together, but it’s good to be reminded even in the simplest terms possible of the events that brought about modern-day Thanksgiving. By this evening, I’ll be elbow-deep in stuffing and pumpkin pie filling, with still more to do tomorrow morning before dinner is ready to serve. It’s easy to get lost in the culinary details of Thanksgiving dinner. Moreover, on Sunday mornings throughout the year as I rush to get ready for church, I hardly ever stop to think about the fact that going to church is a choice I’m able to make. Thanks to my visit to the third grade, I’ll be thinking about those poor seasick Pilgrims and how profoundly important religious freedom was to them as I chop onions and set the table.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

The annual late-fall debate: Flannel versus cotton

Some days are still unseasonably warm in mid-November, the air almost humid at times and a good twenty degrees above freezing, but the chill of winter is gradually encroaching. This means it’s time for the yearly marital debate in our household: cotton versus flannel.

It’s a fairly sure thing, year after year, that we’ll barely have cleaned up from the Labor Day barbeque and grown accustomed to the kids’ new school schedule before Rick starts talking about making up our bed with flannel sheets. I’m usually able to dissuade him another couple of months, but by this time of year I start needing to work a lot harder to make my case. Once the air is truly chilly at night, Rick becomes insistent: time for flannel, as well as forced-air heating on all night.

He likes the warm and fuzzy feeling – literally so, in this context -- of crawling into a bed with what I consider unnaturally warm sheets. I, on the other hand, like to slide between cool smooth planes of cotton. Sure, it’s chilly for a few moments when you first get in, but body heat warms up the cavity between comforter and mattress quickly, and I absolutely love the feeling of a warm bed surrounded by cool air. I’m perfectly happy to leave the thermostat at sixty overnight throughout the winter.

But it’s hard to argue with a spouse who says he’s cold. No one wants to deny their loved ones the luxury of a comfortable sleeping environment. And yet it’s a difficult sacrifice for me to make. Being too warm while I sleep isn’t just a matter of comfort; it actually gives me anxiety dreams – you know, the “I never signed up for this class so why am I sitting here taking the final exam” type -- and sometimes even nightmares. Literally from the first day we change over from cotton to flannel in the late fall until we change back in spring, I can expect to have stress dreams on almost a nightly basis.

And yet it strikes me as curious that something as external as air temperature – or skin temperature – can have such an impact on my psychological well-being. Dreams, after all, are what’s in our subconscious struggling to find a voice, aren’t they? So why should my subconscious be more troubled if we change the sheets than if we don’t? Or, conversely, how do those anxieties remain so well suppressed during the seven or eight months of the year we sleep in cotton sheets? And if in fact my subconscious writhes with troubled thoughts, isn’t the flannel serving an important function by helping me to exorcise them?

I don’t know. I just know cool cotton feels good to me and fuzzy flannel pleases Rick. “Sheets” may have a variety of metaphorical meanings in the context of marriage, but I don’t think this is meant to be one of them. And it’s hard to figure out a solution: should he be cold all winter, or should I suffer from troublesome dreams?

Last year, Rick surprised me with a clever attempt at compromise. He made up the bed with flannel and then laid a cotton sheet, folded in half lengthwise, along my side of the mattress over the flannel. It wasn’t ideal, but it was better than usual. I’m game to try that again this year. I think my anxieties will still somehow find their way out if they really need to, and I’ll have at least a fighting chance at a good night’s sleep. Marriage? Complicated. Bed linens? Straightforward. Or at least one would think so. But linen choice, like marriage itself, requires compromise. It’s a slow process, but I’m learning.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Sound effects

I didn’t think there was much more I could write about running. I’ve been running for 26 years now and writing about it nearly that long. Having just finished writing a memoir about running, I felt a little bit as if the well had run dry. I honestly thought I was done with the topic, from a literary perspective, at least temporarily.

Then yesterday while I was out running, I noticed the sounds. And I recognized right away that I’d never written about the sounds, because I’d never before given any thought to the sounds.

Midafternoon on a chilly mid-autumn day in Carlisle, as I ran four miles along the back roads, through the center, and home via the Bedford Road footpath, I heard all of this:

My feet thunking on the asphalt of the roadways
The scritch-scritch of a rake against pavement as I passed a neighbor raking her driveway
Gravel crunching under my shoes on the footpaths
Cars whooshing up behind me
The scuff-scuff of my feet against the packed dirt of our long driveway
The wind schussing through the dry brown leaves left on the trees
The tump-tump-tump of another pair of shoes as a runner passed me
Multiple geese honking in a high-pitched clamor from their pasture at Kimball Farm
The mid-pitched conversation between two bicyclists and their whirring tires as they sped by me
The church bell striking three o’clock

This was a quiet afternoon. Weekday mornings, when I usually run, are louder, with the roar of school buses, the steady thrum of continuous traffic, the heavy engine sounds of trucks; but the automotive sounds are so loud at that time that I miss out on everything else. Yesterday afternoon, the sounds were in balance: cars, wind, running shoes, geese. All the elements of a quiet Sunday afternoon worked in harmony to make up my soundtrack – and for what seemed to be the first time in 26 years, I noticed the sounds of my daily run.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Seven steps to stress-free; one step to joy

Amazon.com thinks it knows what I should read. And so it regularly gives me recommendations. I understand where these recommendations come from – most of the time. They come from an algorithm that relates books I’ve not purchased to books I have purchased, or at least viewed. Or else it makes connections based on gifts I’ve ordered for other people that have no relation to my own interests at all: for example, three years ago I bought my brother-in-law a home-brewing kit and I’m still getting recommendations from Amazon that I buy “Make Moonshine by Midnight” and similar quick-help guides to homemade spirits. My son likes fantasy fiction, so plenty of covers featuring dragons and knights march across my Amazon home page. And, like a lot of people, I took a quick peek last week to see what all the fuss over Amazon’s suddenly questionable sales standards involved, so I will apparently be getting recommendations for how-to books that, if the instructions within were followed, would probably land me in jail.

But sometimes I’ll see a recommendation that is neither quite so off-the-wall as the moonshine handbooks nor quite so obviously targeted as a new novel by a writer whose last book I bought. And then I just look at the title and say, “You think I should read that? Yeah, maybe. I suppose it might make sense…”

This was the case when earlier this week Amazon’s recommendation for me was “Addicted to Stress: A Woman's 7 Step Program to Reclaim Joy and Spontaneity In Life.”

“Addicted to stress?” I mused, puzzled. “I’m not addicted to stress. I’m not even that stressed.” Sure, I have plenty of plates to spin at once, from work assignments to the kids’ activities to volunteer tasks to household upkeep to planning for the upcoming holidays. But stressed? Not overly. And, moreover, addicted to stress? I don’t think so.

Yet the title made me wonder. Seven steps to reclaim joy and spontaneity in life? On the one hand, that sounded like a lot of meticulously prescribed steps in order to reach spontaneity. (Follow all of these steps but then forget you ever followed them, because the important thing is to reach this state without trying.) On the other hand, joy and spontaneity in life? Seven steps seems like a rather small price to pay for that desirable outcome.

I couldn’t quite decide whether I was truly stressed or just busy, and I couldn’t decide whether I was lacking joy and spontaneity or, like most people, just have a few unsatisfied wishes and a few unmet goals. Then I received my “Word for the Day” email from an organization called A Network for Grateful Living. This isn’t really a word in the sense of a vocabulary word; it’s a quote. And on that particular day the quote was this: “O how I laugh when I think of my vague indefinite riches. No run on my bank can drain it, for my wealth is not possession but enjoyment.”

That’s by Henry David Thoreau. He did not use the word stress. He did not suggest seven steps. Just as he went to the woods to live deliberately, he made joy a simple thing too: “my wealth is not possession but enjoyment.” Somehow that quote told me I didn’t need seven steps, or a book, to find my joy. I just needed to remember these essential words from Thoreau: joy, the concept as well as the word itself, is to be found inside of enjoyment. Remembering to take pleasure in all we have, rather than stressing out about all we need to do, is the best stress-reliever we will ever find. No seven steps. No steps at all. Just remembering to be joyful is joy enough, and I was so glad to be reminded of these words at just that moment.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Because time would not stop for me...

The subject line of the email from the cooking website caused my eyes to narrow as it flashed across my inbox yesterday afternoon. “Thanksgiving menu: it’s not too late to start planning!”

Of course it’s not too late, I muttered to myself irritably. It’s not even close to being too late! Thanksgiving is still eight days away.

But in truth, I know it’s also not too early. In fact, I myself should be planning my Thanksgiving menu. And on some level I am. Kind of, In the back of my mind. But not with the zeal I usually plan Thanksgiving.

And when a friend said today that she was already humming Christmas carols and basking in a Christmas mood, I told her I was still in an October mood and working hard to get to a Thanksgiving one. I’m doing everything I can to make time stand still, and yet strangely enough, it’s not working.

I just feel that this autumn is going by too fast. There’s no reason I feel that way this particular year, except that this autumn has allowed me to become so immersed in my writing and the kids’ new school year and some new article ideas and the publication of my book and getting to know the area around my parents’ new vacation home and a host of interests and activities to which fall lends itself. And all of that somehow seems to come to a screeching halt once the holidays approach. New school year? Try Thanksgiving vacation followed three weeks later by winter break, with report cards in between the two to remind you that the year is already exactly one-third over. One-third over? But I’m just getting used to the idea that Tim is in middle school. I don’t want to hear that seventh grade is already looming. I want it to be the first week of school for as long as possible.

But it’s not, of course. It’s seven days ‘til Thanksgiving. I love cooking Thanksgiving dinner. I’ve done it yearly since 1999 with only one exception. For that matter, I like cooking and menu-planning at any time of year. It’s not the domestic side of the situation that’s causing my agitation this year; it’s simply the chronological part. Winter holidays? Really? But I was so happy watching the leaves change.

It’s inevitable, and fall more than any other season seems to bring out the resistance in many of us to see time pass. So I’ll keep writing, keep finding time to walk in the woods, keep up everything that made this fall such a resonant time for me, and also nudge myself onward to the preliminary steps of holiday planning.

After all, no one says that has to mean six different pies on the Thanksgiving table or hours of Christmas shopping at the mall. Holiday season can mean whatever you want it to mean, including writing, reading and walks in the woods. But regardless of what it may mean to different people, simply as a function of the sun rising and setting, Thanksgiving will soon be here, and I have a menu to plan. Fortunately, as the email I received yesterday assured me, it is indeed not too late.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

I need a recipe...

My sister was laughing as I answered the phone. “You’re not going to believe why I’m calling.”

I knew immediately. “You need my recipe for mud pie cake.”

It’s an ongoing joke with us. For the past thirty years, every place she has ever lived, she’s called me for the mud pie cake recipe. It’s an inexplicable coincidence that this is the one recipe she never remembers to hold on to, though perhaps Freud would point out here that there are no accidents. She and I both love to cook; there are literally hundreds if not thousands or recipes she could be calling me for. But it’s always the mud pie cake recipe, which has been in our family for decades, a moist chocolate cake with a name that amuses kids.

The first time was when she was a teenager doing a summer homestay in Switzerland. There was a birthday in her host family, and she wanted to impress them with our trusty family recipe for this most all-American of treats: basic chocolate cake.

She called for the same recipe from Ohio when she was a freshman in college. Then there was the call from Austria while she was an exchange student. The mud pie cake recipe followed her around the globe – through Europe and then back to subsequent residencies in Rhode Island, Massachusetts and Pennsylvania, where she and her husband and children have more or less permanently settled. Since they’ve lived there for so long, I assumed the recipe was safely stashed at last and I wouldn’t be getting any more calls. But no, they still travel, and wherever they go, she gets the urge to use the kitchen, and for some reason remembers to bring along every recipe she wants except for this one. So in the past five years, I’ve gotten the SOS call from locales including southern France, Colorado, and Indiana. Now they’re spending a sabbatical year in Germany, and sure enough, she wants to bake a cake.

Yesterday she claimed that as I read her the recipe, she was transcribing it into an electronic file on her laptop and would therefore never need to ask me again. I’m skeptical. If it was that easy, why wouldn’t she have done this years ago? No, there has to be something more nuanced about it. It’s not like we ordinarily have a hard time talking. We discuss our kids, books we’ve read, our parents and their idiosyncrasies (by the hour, believe me), gifts to jointly give our other sister, exercise programs, the weather. We talk about all kinds of things. And yet it’s the cake that keeps her calling.

This cake recipe has been in our family for a very long time. Unlike many cake recipes, it’s absolutely foolproof; there’s nothing delicate about it. I remember making it in playgroup under my mother’s guidance when I was three years old, and I used to make it for bake sales in junior high. I don’t know much about the cake’s history, but because the recipe includes no milk or butter – no dairy products at all – as well as no chocolate in solid form and no eggs, I suspect it was a Depression-era recipe that bakers invented in order to make a cake out of inexpensive, readily available ingredients. Yet you wouldn’t know it from the taste: it’s moist and delicious, as well as really fun to make, especially for kids. “Water the garden!” my mom used to say back in playgroup days as each child had a turn to add one of the liquid ingredients and then stir. Now I make it with my kids, and both my sisters make it with theirs.

If it guarantees regular phone calls from my sister, no matter where in the world she happens to be, then I actually hope she never does remember to bring the recipe with her – or, worse, memorize it. I like these regular phone calls from across the globe. Mud pie cake batter: the ultimate sororal glue. In our family, anyway.

For those who are curious about this baking tradition, here’s the recipe:

Mud Pie Cake

1 ½ cups flour
3 tablespoons cocoa
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 cup sugar
½ teaspoon salt
5 tablespoons vegetable oil
1 tablespoon cider vinegar
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 cup cold water

Preheat oven to 350. Combine dry ingredients well in a large mixing bowl. Then stir in remaining ingredients one at a time, mixing well after each addition. (You can do this with an electric mixer or by hand.) Pour batter into a greased 8-inch or 9-inch cake pan or brownie pan. Bake for about 30 minutes.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

The honeymoon period: I've written the book, but no one has read it yet

I keep reminding myself that these few short days are the honeymoon period for my book.

The book is in print, the publicity effort has been launched, the order button on various websites has been enabled. The book exists.

And yet, and yet, no one yet has the book in hand. The earliest the printer could promise it, via the fastest shipping available – which I have no reason to think anyone but me opted to pay for – was later this week. No electronic version of my book exists publicly. Both draft copies are in my possession.

So what that means is that my book is completed but there’s no one in the world with a copy of it in hand right now. No one is actually reading it at this moment. Most likely no one will read it tomorrow either. Not until the end of the week…and that’s only if someone were to read it the moment it arrived in the mail, which not only modesty but reality forces me to admit is highly unlikely.

Hence, the honeymoon period. Right now, I get to float along on the victorious sense that my book is done – after more than three years of work, it’s done – and everyone who knows me seems happy for my success. My success in completing my book, that is. No one is congratulating me on my success in having written a good or readable or worthwhile book, because no one has read it yet.

So I’m fully immersing myself in this lull, this brief time before I have to get down to the serious anxiety about what people think of it. Soon enough – within a matter of days – there will be people actually reading my book. Even if they don’t rip it open the minute the mail carrier drops it on their doorstep or in their mailbox, within a few days they’ll be scanning the opening pages, flipping through, checking out the back cover or the acknowledgments. Right now is the only time I get to bask in the pride of having finally finished this long-struggling project, without having to confront any actual criticism.

Because the fact is, there will be criticism. It’s a provocative book on a controversial topic: how I challenged my 9-year-old to run a mile or more with me every day for a year. On the most basic level, that plan was controversial from the outset, as I explain in the book: when I went to an online discussion group for runners, expecting to find other parent/child combinations attempting to maintain a long running streak, I found no endorsements at all, only anonymous posters saying they thought my idea was an awful one.

But that’s the easy part of the controversy, the part about whether or not it’s okay to encourage a nine-year-old to run a daily mile. What’s harder is that the thoughts about parenting I’ve so candidly shared in the book are themselves divisive in some ways. I had about eight friends and family members read the manuscript during the revision process; most liked it, but one or two warned me that it was simply too harsh; that by being so judgmental in some ways and downright negative in others, I was creating in myself an unsympathetic character, a mother who was far too critical of her own child.

So the revision process, for me, was mostly an effort of toning it all down, stage after stage. I removed one adjective after another, finding ways to be ever less caustic in my parental observations. Too much, some of the readers had warned. Too much negativity, too much anxiety, too many questions about what constitutes good parenting.

In other words, I’ve already had a taste of the mixed reactions my book provokes. And that was among just eight readers. In another few days, ten times that many people might be reading it and judging me.

But after three years of work to get this book completed, I honestly believe I’m ready. I understand that some people will be taken aback by the raw honesty with which I depict the less joyful aspects of parenting and family life. Just as people asked us how a mother could submit her son to the physical rigors of a daily mile while we were doing the streak, people have asked me how I can be so candid about both the positive and negative aspects of my life.

My children have seen this book. They know what I write about and how I write. My parents and my husband do too. They accept it for what it is: my best attempts to give literary expression to my most authentic feelings. I know that some readers of my book won’t really like it all that much. Others, I hope, will like it a lot. But of course, I don’t know. And in the end, all I can really hope for is that everyone who reads it respects the fact that I took the time to write it.

Time will tell. But right now, I’m just enjoying the lull between publication and availability. I’ll never have these few days again, when the congrats-on-publishing are pouring in but there aren’t any how-could-you-say-all-of-this to balance it out. The time will come, but for right now, I’m happy to be in this buffer zone, this post-publication, pre-printing cone of serenity.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Closing the barn door behind the...

I headed out yesterday morning before church to feed the cows and sheep, as I do every morning. The ground in the barnyard was muddy, but I was prepared for that.

What I was not prepared for was the sight that met me as I approached the barn. I quickly realized that the barnyard event I’ve always dreaded had come to pass: the cows were not standing in front of the hay barn, as they usually do once the sun is up and they know I’ll be coming out soon to feed them, but rather inside the hay barn.

This is the kind of scene I have anxiety dreams about. You know how some people turn back from their door three or four times before they leave the house to be sure they’ve turned off the coffee pot or the oven? That’s how I am about latching the barn gate. I check and re-check it before I leave the barnyard after each morning’s feeding, because I’m so apprehensive that I’ll leave it open and the cows will discover the open entrance into the haybarn. And then, I’ve always wondered, how on earth would I get them back out?

Well, yesterday I had the chance to find out. The good part was that it didn’t have to do with me or the kids leaving the gate open. It wasn’t our carelessness that caused the problem; it was the animals’ brute strength. They’d simply prodded the gate with their heads until the hinge broke away from the wall.

At the same time, this wasn’t altogether good, because it meant that even if I could get the animals back out into the pasture, there was still no gate to keep them from reentering the barn.

But at the initial moment, that wasn’t my problem; simply moving them was. Unlike farmers of old, I bring my cell phone out to the barn with me every day for just this kind of situation. I called the house; my sister, who is visiting for the weekend, said she would be right out to help me.

And then I had a surprise. Maybe the cows had been in the barn for hours and had eaten their fill by then, but for whatever reason, it wasn’t that hard to get them to move. Four of them were in the barn when I arrived; two I managed to simply push on out. Then I saw that the gate they’d knocked over was flat on the barn floor and one of them was standing with her legs intertwined in the gate rails; when I tried to pick up and move the gate, it discombobulated her enough that she moved her hooves and eventually clomped on out of the barn.

Which left the fourth, Gracie, who I knew from prior experience was likely to be difficult. She’s ornery by nature anyway, the one who has been known to wait until I’m in the rare tight spot during feeding time and then push me nonchalantly against the wall. “Move, Gracie, just move,” I said, pushing against her. She looked at me, unimpressed, and stood her ground.

But just then my sister drove up. Startled by the sound of the truck so close by, Gracie craned her neck around to see what was going on, took a step forward – and then I had momentum on my side. One push, using the detached gate itself as a nice flat tool against her big furry side, and she was out as well. My sister and my father took on the job of fixing the gate, and soon everything was back to normal.

This doesn’t exactly quell my anxiety about what happens if the cows again find their way into the haybarn. I have no reason to think it would be quite so easy to get them out next time. And it’s possible by the time I found them yesterday they were sated; it might have been harder if I’d arrived earlier and they cared more about stuffing themselves. Curiously, the enormous bull, Hank, was one of only two animals who was not in the barn when I arrived, even though he’s nearly twice as big, heavy and strong as the rest of the animals. I don’t know whether he’d had his share earlier or just wasn’t interested.

Still, knowing it’s possible to get out of this situation with a happy outcome is reassuring. I don’t know that it would all go the same way again, but maybe I can worry a little less about it. For now, the hinges are reinforced and the cows are full. And I’ll just keep double-checking the latch before I leave the barnyard.

Friday, November 12, 2010

A Veterans' Day walk in the woods

The kids didn’t have school yesterday, and although we didn’t do anything overtly related to veterans, we were all conscious of the significance behind the day off.

For me, it was interesting to see how many of my Facebook contacts wrote posts yesterday in honor of specific people in military service and reminded me that even though my closest circles include few recent veterans, we’re just “two degrees of separation” in myriad directions.

And Holly reminded us several times that we should all be thinking of Great-Grandpa John, Rick’s grandfather, on Veterans Day; he was a World War II vet and was buried with his military medals last February.

What we did do, after a quiet morning during which I worked on an article under deadline, Holly played school and Tim read, was take a short hike around the Fairy Pond in Concord. (I usually call it by the more dignified name of Brister Hill, but as my father pointed out to me yesterday afternoon, it’s not called Brister Hill, which may explain why I’m the only one who refers to it as such. Brister Hill is on the opposite side of the street. So I’ll need to swallow my dignity and call it Fairy Pond like everyone else does.)

Many people close to me, and almost anyone who reads my blog, know of my ongoing quest to get my kids to do more hiking. Sure, they like time outdoors, but usually in the form of playing touch football in the yard or picnicking on the lawn. Getting them to combine nature with exertion is an ongoing struggle.

Yesterday it wasn’t that hard, though. In part, this was probably because I didn’t make a big deal of it. I didn’t insist or implore. I just asked, “Want to go for a walk in the woods? Maybe that trail we did last fall in Concord, where I took the picture of the two of you dipping your walking sticks in the pond?”

They remembered, and they wanted to try it again, though the recollection was also followed by several minutes of debate as to whether the day we went there last year was the same day a park ranger told us we couldn’t walk around Walden Pond with our dog and we also couldn’t walk around Walden Pond while leaving our dog in the car, a rule none of us could understand. (“I went to the woods because I wanted to live canine-free…”)

So we drove to Concord and spent 45 minutes on the trail. The kids found walking sticks again and scampered up the steep hillsides, then slid down on a slippery scrim of oak leaves. We saw ducks in Fairy Pond and a 5-member arrow of Canada geese flying overhead. (“Where are they going again?” Holly asked. As I said, my kids are not exactly precocious as naturalists.)

After the walk, we drove to Bedford for Tim to get a haircut, and then had hot chocolate at Starbucks.

I expend so much time and so much breath trying to get my kids to join me for activities like hiking in the woods of Concord. Yesterday they agreed to do it with very little discussion, maybe because I didn’t introduce the idea with a great deal of discussion – just casually suggested it. And the haircut and hot chocolate underscored, I hope, the idea that going for a hike doesn’t need to be a major or time-consuming or tiring activity. It’s just an enjoyable thing to do on a sunny cool fall afternoon.

At least it was for me. And I hope for them as well.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

It's only a minor problem -- but I'm not sure I can solve it

My father is fond of saying that some problems have no solutions. Right now I’m facing one of them. It’s not a really big problem. It’s just a challenge that I don’t think can be successfully met. And yet to even say those words sounds so somehow un-American. Doesn’t everything from my education to my country of birth to my religion inform me that challenges exist to be met? Am I really ready to say there are cases when simply giving up is the right thing to do?

To make a long story short, last spring our school’s parent volunteer association decided that rather than having Walk-to-School Day be a twice-a-year event, we should form a Walk-to-School Committee whose mission would be “to make walking or biking to school a safe and regular habit.” In other words, something that happens all the time, not just on two designated days that include raffle prizes and lots of ceremony. And they asked me to chair this committee.

I pulled off a bang-up launch. On October 5, despite impending rain, nearly 200 kids in Carlisle’s elementary and middle school grades walked or biked to school. The grades with the highest and second-highest rate of participation won cool prizes. Fourteen volunteers staffed the crosswalks to ensure safe passage.

But the event’s triumphs, ironically enough, may have turned out to also be its downfall. As successful as it was deemed to be, I’m now stuck with the suspicion that it takes three months of planning, $50 worth of prizes and fourteen volunteers to make it possible for kids to walk to school.

My committee wants to make Walk-to-School Day a weekly event. And we can do it without the prizes and heraldry. It’s the fourteen volunteers that I can’t seem to get past. Carlisle simply isn’t a walking town. Our town doesn’t have traffic lights: walkers are strictly at the mercy of the judgment of drivers. The new footpath system is wonderful as far as making it possible to walk somewhere other than in the roadway on the main streets, but the cars that pass through the center aren’t expecting to stop for crossing foot traffic. The side streets have neither sidewalks nor footpaths, and many of them don’t even have adequate shoulders, at least adequate enough to shelter pedestrians during rush hour.

I put out an appeal for adult volunteers to help with a weekly Walk-to-School plan, but the response was scanty, and I can’t say I blame anyone. Most parents of school-aged children I know are already booked to the hilt with volunteer activities, whether or not they also hold down full-time jobs that might prevent them from being available at the walk-to-school hour. Some of the town’s older residents who do not have young children in the schools provided a great deal of help at our Walk-to-School launch, but I can’t blame them either for not wanting to make this a weekly commitment.

So I’m stuck with how to admit that I might not be able to do this. It would be a much better story – and a much more traditional one – if I rose up against the odds and showed that a safe walk-to-school program could be done. If the naysayers were someone other than me, over whom I could triumph in the face of their skepticism. The problem is the task is mine – and I’m also the one most skeptical.

It puts me in a problematic position. I’m not much of a hero if I say “Sorry, I tried to lead this effort but it’s not going to work.” That surely won’t put me in the annals of American mythology. After all, my friend Deborah faced down fifteen years of obstacles simply to get Carlisle’s footpath system installed. It doesn’t make me look very impressive if I can’t take the project the next step and ensure that they are used.

I haven’t given up yet, and at the same time, I see no evidence that I can make this work. In the end, I may have to be the anti-hero: the one who admits that sometimes a plan just can’t be pulled off. I don’t want that to be my role, and I’m not willing to give up yet. But it may be that Dad is right: some problems do not have solutions. As un-American as that may sound, it just may be true.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Halloween stash, ten days later

It was mid-afternoon yesterday and the thoughts typical of that hour started running through my mind. “Do we have anything in the house that’s chocolate? Or something not chocolate but sweet anyway? Homemade cookies? Hershey’s kisses? Marshmallows?”

That’s just what 2 p.m. is like for me most days.

Then I remembered something sweet that was in the house, something sweet and big. Holly’s trick-or-treat stash.

I checked the bottom shelf of the utility room fridge, the extra fridge that everyone but me forgets about. Inside of Holly’s black cloth Halloween-themed bag, it looked like the demolition site for the witch’s house in Hansel and Gretel: a haphazard array of half-eaten candy bars, untouched pieces of chocolate, and empty wrappers, all resting on a sugary coating of semi-squashed gummy worms, Sweet Tarts and Sour Patch Kids.

Amidst the wreckage I found two untouched miniature Milky Ways. Even better, they were chilled. Perfect!

Halloween was ten days ago; I think it’s been five or six days since I saw Holly pay the slightest attention to her candy stash. Sure, the whole idea of trick-or-treating was exciting on Halloween night…but that was partly the cachet of walking from door to door in the dark, and the thrill of limitless possibilities when it came to gathering candy. Now that her caloric loot is assembled, she just doesn’t care that much. She and Tim – with whom she kindly shared, since he considers himself too old for trick-or-treating, and fortunately they have different tastes when it comes to candy – sorted through her bag when she first came home and each picked out a few favorites, but now it’s largely forgotten.

And this, really, is why Rick and I don’t go to great lengths to limit the kids’ sugar intake. They do it themselves. Oh, sure, they want candy…when it comes to picking out a singular snack at the general store after school on the way to afternoon activities. But their interest wanes quickly when I don’t work hard to make that happen. It’s the same with soda. On the one hand, I honestly find the thought of kids drinking soda rather repulsive, and I often repeat to Tim and Holly the statistic that soda is the number one contributor to childhood obesity. On the other hand, my kids consider a glass of soda a great treat at a party or special event, and the funny thing is that because they’re not used to it, they can’t even drink a whole glass of soda. They ask for it; I get credit for saying “Oh, it’s a special occasion, so I guess so….” And two ounces later they’re done. Easy.

So yesterday, I ate Holly’s two mini Milky Way bars without compunction. She’s unlikely to notice their absence, and her bag still contains plenty of Hershey bars and Almond Joys. But I can fairly reliably assume that she’s forgotten about Halloween candy altogether for this year. By the time she goes looking for it, I will have started our annual ritual of Christmas candy-making, and she can have a peanut butter ball or a square of fudge instead.

And if I’m wrong, and she asks in the next few days where her Milky Ways went? Well, in that case, I’ll simply resort t the most reliable system of all. I’ll blame it on Rick.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Lights out

I woke up early on Sunday morning. Partly this was due to the time change with daylight saving ending, but it was also due to an insistent “chirp” from the hallway – the warning sound from a smoke detector battery that needs to be replaced.

I grumbled a little bit to myself, but then remembered that at least it was Sunday rather than a weekday and my husband Rick would probably have time to change the battery before too far into the day. I know this is something I should be comfortable doing, but our ceilings are so high and our ladders so heavy; I’m much happier to leave it to him.

But when I opened my eyes to see what time it was, I saw that the digital clockface was black. The smoke detector was chirping not due to battery malfunction but because the electricity was out.

When I was a kid, I loved blackouts. I thought they were exciting beyond description, especially when they accompanied a big snowstorm. I was eleven during the Blizzard of ’78, when we had five days of snow and the same amount of time without power. It’s hard for me to fathom now, but I loved every minute of those five electricity-free days. I loved the coziness of sitting by the fire and the novelty of playing board games with my sisters all day instead of being in school. I thought it was fantastic that we drove to my grandparents’ house, 45 minutes away, to take showers.

This is yet another example of how impervious kids are to adults’ feelings. My parents must have been miserable, being without power for five days, and yet I couldn’t have been happier.

Now I’m on the other side of the equation. I’m one of the adults who gets anxious and grumpy when the power goes out. Since we have a well rather than public sewer, no electricity means no running water, and anything romantic about it is quickly dissipated in the reality of no hot showers and no flush toilets.

And yet on Sunday morning I felt differently. I couldn’t use my computer because it has no battery, so I didn’t even have to struggle to resist the temptation to check email. Sunday is the one day of the week that I never exercise in the morning – it gets too rushed to try to fit in a workout before church, so I always wait ‘til afternoon – so I wasn’t too concerned about the lack of shower.

“The kids are going to be cross about the breakfast options,” I acknowledged to myself. They eat cereal during the week; hot cooked food like bacon and French toast are typically a weekend treat.

But I could already feel a sneaky grin spread across my face: Sorry, kids, no bacon, no French toast. You know I’d cook you a big complicated breakfast if only I could, but gosh, no electricity today! How about some cereal? The milk is still cold.

As anticipated, the kids were irritated indeed when they awoke. Days full of board games and reading are great, in their estimation, but by choice, not by imperative. All they could think about as they faced this long, quiet Sunday was the absence of any possibility of computer fun, video games, televised football, and of course bacon and French toast. Tim dispiritedly went out to pee off the edge of the kitchen porch. I mentally apologized to the neighbors.

After they’d had some cereal, I convinced them to come out to the barnyard with me to feed the animals. As we were putting our boots on, the hum of appliances and the warm yellow bath of synthetic lighting filled the house once again, and the smoke detector was silent.

I’d like to think the kids’ exuberance as we headed out to feed the cows was the result of fresh air and exercise. They chased each other, played with the dog, raced up the ladder to the hayloft, flung bales of hay down to the animals, chased each other some more on the walk back home, the very embodiment of youthful vitality. But, of course, I know better. What was fueling their delight wasn’t fresh air; it was the realization that awaiting them at home was a working furnace and a hot shower. Breakfast was long over, but they managed to get me to promise I’d make bacon for lunch.

I couldn’t blame them much, though. I never fail to marvel at the sense of exhilaration I get whenever a power outage ends. Even after just two hours without electricity, it seems like the greatest luxury imaginable to be able to use the oven, the computer, the bathroom.

The rest of the day seemed to go better due to this inauspicious start. Everything seems easy once the electricity goes back on. And, rather surprisingly, the kids are continuing this week to help me in the barnyard every morning. Apparently it doesn’t matter so much why they had so much fun; they just remember the fun itself, with tag and haybale-tossing.

And that, to me, is a fair tradeoff for their expectation that Sunday mornings should rightfully begin with Mom making bacon.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Fall back (into a whole extra hour)

I’ve never bought a lottery ticket, but on Saturday night I had a feeling that must be what it’s like to win one. Holly and I had gone to Portland on Friday afternoon with my parents and needed to be back for church on Sunday – I was both a greeter and a Sunday school teacher this week – so we had to head home on Saturday night after dinner. I was loathe to leave because we were having such a good time, and I didn’t want to rush a fine dinner of fresh, locally caught cod and roasted potatoes, so it was a little after seven when we headed home.

And, as always, I was already feeling behind on the weekend. I was almost-but-not-entirely ready for the Sunday school class; I knew I hadn’t left things all that tidy at home before we left; I hadn’t gotten as much work done while in Maine as I’d hoped to (yes, it was a weekend, but I was a little backed up with article deadlines and should have at least tried to get some writing done); and I’d been too busy to read the newspaper in two days. Staying in Maine as late as possible felt like the right thing to do while I was there, but heading home I was growing increasingly frazzled.

And then we arrived home – grateful as always for safe travels – and a wonderful thing happened. Even though it was technically 9:30 at night, and therefore not only past time for Holly to be in bed but time for me to start wrapping up my evening as well, Rick had already set the clocks back to mark the end of daylight saving. And just like that, magical as a visit from Cinderella’s fairy godmother, it wasn’t 9:30 at all; it was 8:30.

Which made a colossal difference to me. Nine-thirty is practically bedtime; eight-thirty is still the middle of the productive part of the evening. (If neither of these sounds like a very interesting description of a Saturday night, I should just mention that a night before I have to teach Sunday school is, as far as I’m concerned, really a school night for me: it’s important to me to be well-prepared with a lesson plan, all set with any supplies I need, and ready to wake up early.) Holly was tired and went right to sleep; Tim was reading in bed. I was elated to realize as late as it felt, it suddenly wasn’t really that late at all.

The end of daylight saving always feels like such a gift to me, the one I need more than anything else: the gift of time. I know I shouldn’t live my life in such a way that an hour makes that much difference. To my husband Rick, it doesn’t. He’s a much better planner than I am; he doesn’t budget every last minute toward one thing or another. An hour one way or another doesn’t make all that much difference to him; he’s not that starved for time, and I admire that greatly, but I find it impossible to emulate. An extra hour is huge to me. Even an extra ten minutes can be a big deal most days.

Rick dislikes the day we turn the clocks back because of the sense that early daylight means the end of any hope of warm weather. I love the long sunlight evenings of June and July, but the change in the clock doesn’t really bother me. The early darkness makes the transition from afternoon to evening easier; I know when darkness falls, it’s time to get serious about making dinner and getting the kids thinking about bedtime.

But the best part is definitely that first hour, whether we change the clocks back on Sunday morning like we usually do or Saturday evening like Rick did this year. An hour. A whole extra hour. I wish it could happen more often, but even just once a year, it’s an absolutely wonderful gift.

Friday, November 5, 2010

In admiration of November

Ever since moving back here in late fall of 2001, I’ve believed November to be the loveliest month on the farm. Absent the verdant brilliance of June or the stunning golden and crimson colors of October, November has a quiet splendor, with its yellowed fields, early sunsets and bare gray tree branches. Five days into November, here are some of this year’s hallmarks of a magnificent month:

* The sight of the ten-year-old who lives next door on her cantering horse, the sunlight falling across the girl and horse in flashing planes of yellow as they carve wide circles over the yellow-green grass of the pasture

* The sheep hustling out of their enclosure in the morning as soon as I unlatch the gate to get their share of the hay before the cows decimate the bales

* A six-point antlered buck crossing the driveway just in front of me, stopping turn his big head slowly to look at me with big brown eyes before he steps on into the woods

* Yellow leaves so thick across the footpath that I can’t see the border between gravel path and the grass

* Frost making a smooth white plane across the lawn as the sun rises

* Hank, a very large bull, breaking the top plank of the fence as he pushes his neck through to eat the few remaining leaves on a tree at the edge of our yard

* A border of ice on the brook first thing in the morning

* Squirrels skittering along the fences

* The dog, uncharacteristically barking into the darkness when I let her out before bedtime. Maybe she sees a coyote? A bear?

The growing season is ending. The ground will freeze soon. But living things are busy at this time of year: some growing, eating, foraging; others – leaves and plants – dying. November’s assets repeat themselves year after year, appearing to me to be lovelier with each year that goes by.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Yes, again with the gratitude

Two different people, unbeknownst to each other, commented in the past couple of weeks that I write too much about gratitude. “We get it, you’re a really good person and you’re always appreciative of everything,” said one of them. The other was more terse: she simply scrawled in the margin of a draft I had asked her to review, next to a passage about how grateful I was for the blessings of the present, “Enough already.”

And yet it’s hard to internalize this particular critique, the way I might if, for example, someone were to say (quite rightly) that I should use fewer adverbs or not always give examples in sets of three. When I get those kinds of criticisms, I tend to incorporate the recommendations swiftly into my writing. But cutting back on adverbs seems to be easier than cutting back on gratitude.

So once again, I find myself thinking about gratitude. Because my two critics were right: it is something I tend to, well, dwell on. But often I write about gratitude for big things, like an absence of current terrorist attacks or the fact that my children are so physically and mentally healthy. I still sometimes catch myself overlooking the smaller reasons for gratitude. Two days ago, I posted a comment on Twitter about starting my day with a two-mile run and then a cup of coffee. Someone I don’t even know, writing under the umbrella of a sports company, posted this response to my note: “A two-mile run followed by some coffee sounds like a perfect start to the week. Keep it up.”

My initial response, I’m sorry to admit, was a bit of an eye-roll. Keep it up? My running streak is now three years and almost three months long. Going on a two-mile run and then drinking a cup of hot coffee is how approximately 95% of my days begin. I’ve run every day for the past 1,180 days. I don’t really need to be urged to “Keep it up.”

But then I read it again, and this time stopped on the first sentence: “A two-mile run followed by some coffee sounds like a perfect start to the week.” Yes. It is a perfect start to the week. And it’s how most of my weeks start. Also how they middle and end.

But it’s little things like this that I sometimes forget to observe with gratitude. My days start with a run and coffee: what could be better? My workdays consist of sitting in a sunny kitchen in a quiet house writing for pay: what could be better? Most evenings, those when I don’t have meetings or social commitments or errands to do, I change into sweats after dinner and read to my kids: what could be better?

My mother told me an informative story recently. She receives her mail at the post office rather than by delivery. Because the paper recycling piles up so fast at home, with all the catalogs, envelopes and inserts that arrive in the mail day after day, she throws whatever she doesn’t want into the recycling bin at the post office before she leaves. Sometimes she even reads the mail while standing at the post office counter and leaves it in the recycling there. (I have a post office box also and do all of these same things.)

Last week, she received a form letter with the results of a routine mammogram. The letter said that the results showed no cause for concern and she should come back in a year. She told me she dropped it in the recycling bin…and then rethought the action. “That’s important,” she thought. “A healthy mammogram? That’s not just a piece of paper to send to the shredder. That’s a big deal. That’s a piece of paper worth bringing home.” It wasn’t just a matter of being generally grateful for good health, which, like me, she always consciously is; it was this particular piece of paper bearing good news: something small and tangible for which to be thankful.

So I’m holding on to that Twitter post because it reminds me that even though I start nearly every day with running and coffee, it’s still a nearly perfect way to start the day. I’m grateful for it. And yes, I say that a lot. But my coffee mug is like my mom’s slip of paper: nothing good should go randomly into the shredder, literally or metaphorically. So I’ll keep that post to remind myself of just how grateful I should be, yet again.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Files off to the self-publishing house

It was three years and three months ago – August of 2007 – that I started thinking about a book I wanted to write. I’d written a Boston Globe story the year before about people who run every single day without ever taking a day off – “streak runners,” not to be confused with streakers – and I thought the topic merited far more than an 800-word newspaper feature. Plus my 8-year-old son and I had started our own running competition, challenging each other to see how many consecutive days we could do together. Tracking our “streak” might make a good appendix to my book about these men and women who run thirty or forty years daily without a day off, I thought.

Three years, three months. Yesterday morning I made my last edit (catching yet another critical typo; they seem to be never-ending when I don’t have the Boston Globe’s copy desk watching my back), converted the 250-page word file to a PDF, and sent it off to a self-publishing house. Final production stages are now under way.

Self-publishing was not my initial hope. I wanted my first finished full-length book to get into print the traditional way, through a commercial publisher. And I did come close. I did my due diligence, identifying literary agents who might be interested in this project, sending off proposals and sample chapters. And plenty of them responded positively, asking to take a closer look at the manuscript. It wasn’t long before I found one who seemed like the perfect match for this project: she liked the concept, she liked my writing, and she definitely had the professional acumen to give my book its best shot at publication.

Still, it didn’t quite work out. Signing a contract with an agent was a thrill, but once I’d done that, I realized that the many unpublished writers who see getting an agent as the Holy Grail are missing the bigger picture. She tried really hard, but we just couldn’t quite get there with a commercial publishing house. By this time, what I thought would be a book about runners had evolved into a memoir about parenting, and how I tried to strengthen my relationship with my growing son through undertaking a running streak. What I thought would be an appendix had turned into the crux of the piece; now the other runners were mere footnotes. “I’m just not sure there’s a big enough market to carry this book” was what most editors told my agent.

And the thing is, I couldn’t disagree with them. A commercial publisher wants to feel assured that a book will sell well into the five figures. Twenty thousand copies. Fifty thousand copies. It depends who you ask. And it’s one thing to say “Yes, I believe in this project of mine; I wrote it to the best of my abilities and I firmly believe it has a market,” but I know enough about the reading public to not be certain at all that there are twenty thousand individuals out there who would part with $24.95 for the privilege of reading my memoir. I’m sure there are inspirational speakers who would say “If you don’t believe in your project one thousand percent, you’ll never succeed with it,” and maybe they’re right. I believed in the value and strength of my project; I just didn’t believe it had twenty thousand potential readers.

On the other hand, if it never saw the light of day, it would have accrued all of five readers, the five friends I specifically asked to give feedback on my work in progress. And that didn’t seem like the right way for this project to end either.

Hence, the decision to self-publish. I’m not out to make money off of this; I’m out to validate a creative endeavor on which I spent three years by finding people who consider it worth reading. Not twenty thousand people. Two hundred. Maybe even five hundred. Five hundred sounds great to me.

I worked on this for three years, and in another couple of weeks it will be in print. Not everyone who reads it will like it; confessional memoirs about parenting, whether or not they take place against the backdrop of recreational running, are not everyone’s cup of tea. But maybe two-thirds of my readers will consider it a really worthwhile read. In my opinion, that would validate my efforts. It’s not the glory of a traditionally published work, but it’s the joy of having something I labored over be read. And at least this time around, I’ve decided that’s good enough.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Autumn picnic

Early last week during the unseasonably warm weather, Holly and I took a late-afternoon walk. We passed a field near our house, and Holly noticed that a very tall oak tree had toppled over from the woods edging the field and was now lying almost all the way across it.

As she looked at it, it wasn’t so much like an idea formed in her head as like a snapshot popped into her brain. “I would like to have a picnic there with Samantha,” she announced.

Holly has several close friends, and she doesn’t usually plan picnics, so why this particular conflation of details – a picnic, Samantha – I can’t explain. I also suspected that by the next day, or at least once the warm weather broke, she’d forget about the plan.

But she didn’t. Two days later, she was still asking me if I’d emailed Samantha’s mother yet to invite the two of them on a picnic. So I sent the email, and they graciously accepted, and then it was menu-planning time.

Apparently to Holly, planning (and hosting) a picnic means drawing up a complicated menu that I am then expected to execute. Tea sandwiches – three or four varieties. Fruit salad (which would have to be made the morning of the picnic, for the sake of freshness). Apple crisp for dessert, Holly requested: warm from the oven.

I managed to make a few modifications. Two kinds of tea sandwiches rather than three. Sliced banana bread, which we happened to have in the freezer just waiting for an occasion. And how about those fancy chocolates I received for my birthday last week in place of the freshly baked apple crisp? (The fact that I was willing to break out my secret stash of fancy chocolates attests to just how much I didn’t want to have to worry about making an apple crisp.)

Holly was amenable, and I found little jobs for her to do as I prepared the food that Saturday morning: she fetched plastic plates and napkins from the paper goods closet, and then cleaned out the wagon, which we would need to transport our bounty to the field.

When we got there, everything seemed to unfold just as Holly pictured it. We shook out our picnic blanket, and the moms sat in the sun chatting (and munching on the sliced apples and brie that our guests had contributed to the meal) while Holly and Samantha examined the tree branches and jotted down their observations in small spiral notebooks Holly had brought along specifically for this purpose. (It turned out she had chosen the location because she recognized that when a tall tree falls down, it gives you a rare opportunity to examine what’s in those high branches that you can never see in a standing tree.) After we ate our tea sandwiches and drank our lemonade, Holly pulled out the songbook she’d brought along and sang a couple of songs she wrote last week. Samantha was a great sport: she seemed perfectly content with the remarkably micro-choreographed event Holly had planned.

For the two moms, it was a great chance to catch up; we’d both been busy all fall and hadn’t seen much of each other. For the girls, it appeared to be a happy fall afternoon, though the weather had turned a lot cooler since Holly first conceived of the plan, and we were wearing hats, gloves and fleece jackets. Mostly, Holly seemed pleased that the plan had unfolded just the way she pictured it.

But she also seemed unsurprised. She invited Samantha on a picnic; Samantha accepted. She brought notebooks for writing observations; observations were duly made. She gave me a picnic menu; I prepared the food. It’s nice to be eight years old and able to control an event to that degree, and I suppose it worked mostly because I went along so willingly. But this was a rare case where I was happy to take orders from my child. Holly had a plan and with help from me was able to make it come to fruition. The results were pleasing to everyone.

Usually, life is a lot more complicated. Parties don’t work out exactly as you expect; menus don’t turn out just as you imagine they will; the weather changes in unpredictable ways. But not this time. This time everything worked out just as Holly planned. I’m not sure if she realizes how rare that is, but I know it was a happy day for her, and I can only hope she’ll remember how happy she was on this day at some point in the future when plans turn out to be not quite always so easy to enact.

Monday, November 1, 2010

Halloween retrospective

Halloween is a happy event in Carlisle. Last night was chillier than many years, but just as much fun. Although it’s always appealing to maintain regular traditions, Halloween varies a little bit each year, and that’s fine too – at this point, it’s to be expected.

This year Tim opted to stay home and watch the Patriots rather than trick-or-treat. He’s been ambivalent about putting on a costume for the past two years now, and it didn’t really surprise me that he greeted the idea of trick-or-treating less than warmly this year, but I had hoped he would walk along with us even if he didn’t go up to the doors. (He knew that Holly would share her take with him merely for being present.) He didn’t, though; he chose to stay home. But not too long after we left him, I received a text message from him saying he’d gone over to my parents’ house rather than stay home alone, so that made me feel better about how he was spending his evening. (Since we live so far off the road, we never expect nor get trick-or-treaters, so it’s fine to have no one home.)

Also different this year: though my friends Lisa and David hosted their annual pre-trick-or-treating party in their big yard just outside the town center, no one in my family but me wanted to leave the Patriots game broadcast for it. I wanted to be there enough that I went anyway, though, just for half an hour. It was enough time to chat with the other families who were there and eat a plateful of appetizers, as well as a bowl of the southwestern pumpkin soup that I had made and delivered to Lisa’s stovetop earlier in the day.

After Lisa and David’s party, I went home to pick up Rick and Holly, and we headed back to the Town Center, which hosts hundreds of trick-or-treaters every year, a tradition that evolved in response to the fact that so many Carlisle neighborhoods are just too sparsely populated to be ideal for trick-or-treating. For the kids, going to the Center an easy way to reach lots of houses without too much walking, but there’s still enough walking that it feels like the kids are getting a workout along with their chocolate and candy corns. For the adults, with such a crowd in a relatively small area, it feels like a giant floating cocktail party; everywhere you look, you see familiar faces (and while cocktails aren’t officially part of the festivities, no one looks too closely at all those thermal coffee cups being toted along).

Some years we’ve gone with groups of friends, but having it be just the three of us was special. We could go at our own pace and didn’t have a lot of different people to keep track of. At most houses, Rick and I stood at the curb while Holly made her way up to the door; sometimes I went with her if it was the home of someone I particularly wanted to say hello to. Through the windows of the well-lit parsonage, we glimpsed our minister dressed in a black cape and watching the football game in between trick-or-treaters.

Some traditionalists in Carlisle – one of whom accosted me at coffee hour at church yesterday morning – dislike the newer format of trick-or-treating in the Town Center. They liked it better when kids went out in their own neighborhoods, and in some parts of town where the neighborhoods are laid out more traditionally, kids still do trick-or-treat. But I really like the Town Center idea. Over the past few years, when it’s not Halloween, the conversation arises periodically as to whether Carlisle is a lonely place, whether the emphasis on solitude and natural splendor results in too little socialization. Last night it didn’t feel like that at all. The whole town was out – though many were unrecognizable behind masks or make-up – and I was happy to be celebrating another Halloween with all of them.