Monday, December 26, 2011

Blogging vacation

Taking a vacation from the blog this week. Back in 2012! Happy New Year, all!

Friday, December 23, 2011

What a year

What a great year we’ve had. Only I didn’t fully realize it until it was almost over.

A few days ago, I woke up thinking that before January arrived, I’d need to take time to list all the significant events of 2011. This thought process always begins when I sit down in mid-December to write our yearly end-of-year Christmas card poem. I limit it to twelve stanzas, and the first and last are usually dedicated to the very general themes of introduction and conclusion, so that leaves me with ten stanzas for specific events. Needless to say, that’s never quite enough.

So maybe that’s why I woke with a list already scrolling through my mind like the crawler at the bottom of a TV screen. Once I started consciously focusing on it, I realized how many good things happened this year.

We met the wonderful people who ended up moving into our old house. Leaving our home on the farm was easier knowing how happy they were to be there. And they’re making fine use of their new setting, too: within six months of moving in, they’d acquired two cows.

We had amazing luck in finding a rental house elsewhere in town. We were lucky to find a rental house at all, not to mention such a comfortable and spacious one. But the fact that it’s on the edge of a state park with instant access to miles of hiking trails makes the deal seem almost miraculous.

We survived the move. Moving is never easy, and just thinking about those last few days of packing gives me a headache. But we did it. And fortunately, our buyers proved themselves to be the kind of people willing to call us any time they found something we’d accidentally left behind, and the less said about that the better, but let’s just say we’re lucky they’re so honest and ethical.

We had some wonderful getaways: weekends in Maine with friends, an overnight for the four of us in Boston, our summer trip to New York and Pennsylvania. And thanks to my thoughtful parents, I was even able to attend the summer writers’ conference in Colorado, where Mom and I had a joyful week together. One of my favorite snapshots of the year is the one of my mother, her two sisters and me dressed up for a dinner out together during the Colorado week.

We stayed healthy and safe. No accidents, no serious illnesses: not for ourselves nor anyone else in our close family. Those infrastructural problems that inevitably occur in the course of a year – extensive treefall, for example, following October’s snowstorm – could be easily fixed.

I received lots of great writing assignments. I wrote about a producer for This American Life, an ice cream entrepreneur, a child with muscular dystrophy who participated in his first half-marathon, an extended family who has maintained a family newsletter for the past twenty years. And, needless to say, I wrote plenty about the follies and foibles of my own spouse and children, as I always do. Rick stayed gainfully employed as well.

We had a couple of visits from Sarah’s family and a couple of visits from Lauren’s family. We hosted Thanksgiving dinner, a holiday cookie exchange, and a get-together for a far-flung group of my old high school friends. I spent an entire fall afternoon walking on a Maine beach with my college roommate, and I had brunch with a friend from Los Angeles whom I hadn't seen in 19 years. A dear friend from high school who now lives in the Bay area kept me company one morning while I cooked for the upcoming weekend.

And that’s only the beginning. I avoided missing any days of running, keeping the streak intact into its fourth year. Holly and Tim are doing well in school and enjoy strong social relationships. Even the dog has had a happy, healthy year.

It’s far too much for a Christmas card. I’ll have to write my own list of the highlights of 2011, not to try to rhyme it or be funny or clever or interesting but just so that I never forget what a great year it was. I didn’t do anything to deserve this. Commemorating it is the best I can do to pay it tribute. And so I will.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Cooking oil, talcum powder: The smells of Chanukah

For the first night of Chanukah, I made a traditional latkes dinner, and the house filled with the fragrant aromas of this particular holiday.

Okay, that’s patently untrue. Sentimental, but untrue. The house smells like cooking oil no matter how much I run the kitchen fan, and not only that, my hands smell like dirt from peeling potatoes. Dirt is a pleasant smell in the spring when you’ve been out gardening, but it’s not as welcome when you can’t get it off your hands in mid-December.

Still, the latkes dinner was worth the stinky house left in its wake. It reminded me of the Chanukah parties my family partook of annually during my childhood. We’d go to my aunt and uncle’s house. Although Jewish traditions have phased out of our life almost entirely at this point, when I was growing up we still celebrated the major holidays with relatives. My favorite was Chanukah, just as it was with most kids: because of the presents, but also the food – latkes may in fact be the only Jewish ceremonial food anyone would actively choose to eat – and even the ritual of lighting the menorah. Even as a child, I enjoyed public speaking, just as I still do, and being asked to recite one of the readings was a treat for me.

My grandmother liked to shop at department stores, which was typical of her generation and station in life. She gave Chanukah gifts that I now realize were the kinds of things you find at department stores and were different from gifts I’d be likely to receive from anyone else, and I loved them despite what I now realize was their overall tackiness: bubble bath sets, perfume in fancy bottles marketed to little girls, miniature purses. The sharp, artificial floral scent of cheap talcum powder or bath salts still reminds me of getting presents from my grandmother.

Latkes were a once-a-year treat, and for good reason. I once read a description of this particular delicacy as “food that makes you feel like you swallowed a couple of rocks.” Not just one rock; a couple. And once I knew better, from a nutritional standpoint, I stopped seeking out opportunities to eat latkes. I certainly didn’t make them myself. But a year ago, I decided to try, and it wasn’t as difficult as I thought. Plus they tasted delicious and brought back good memories.

So last night I made them again. Like last year, they took much, much longer than I expected – we didn’t eat until 7:30, an hour later than usual – plus I ended up with twice as much batter as I needed; I should really make myself a note on the recipe for next year. And did I mention that the whole house smells? And that my friend Jen, who will not know last night was the first night of Chanukah and whom I have not seen in over a year, is coming over for coffee later this morning and will think my house always smells this bad?

But oh well. My grandparents are long gone and so are our Chanukah get-togethers. Once or twice each December, we’re over at my parents’ house at the right time to help them light their menorah, but most of what my kids know about the holiday comes from discussions at school. It’s not really part of our family tradition anymore.

Still, this is two years in a row of latkes. So even without the floral bubble bath or the general excitement of a high-profile holiday, maybe we’ll make this Chanukah dinner our new yearly tradition.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Seventy-five percent to Christmas

I’m about seventy-five percent ready for Christmas.

I’ve done about seventy-five percent of my Christmas shopping, but my Santa role requires me to take one or two more trips to the nearest retail hub.

I’m about seventy-five percent done with our Christmas cards, too: the newsletter-poem has been drafted and designed, and about one-third of those we’ll send out have been printed, but we need to make a Staples run for another printer cartridge and then print all the envelopes as well before they’re done.

My Christmas cooking and baking feels about seventy-five percent done. I’ve made truffles, toffee, peanut butter squares and peppermint bark for the candy assortments we make up for friends, neighbors and teachers, but I still have to make a peppermint cake for Rick’s office potluck later this week, and I need to make a couple of desserts for Christmas Eve as well.

The house itself seems about seventy-five percent to where I’d like it to be when Christmas Day arrives. It’s generally clean and tidy, but Holly’s room is still a disaster zone, and I definitely want to have it tidied up by Christmas. Not to her standards; to mine, which means I’ll be doing the tidying more or less on my own. Plus there’s one laundry basket of clean sheets and towels yet to fold.

Christmas is six days away. That last twenty-five percent niggles a little bit, but I’ll get there. It’s not such a bad position to be in right now. Christmas is, after all, only as complicated as you make it. The idea that we need to include four kinds of homemade candy rather than two or three, or that Holly’s room must be neat when Christmas morning dawns, or even what should be included in the kids’ stockings, is an idea entirely of my own construct, I realize.

What does it really take to celebrate Christmas? An eagerness to embrace the holiday, whether that means with all its religious significance or rather Christmas as a cultural celebration of family, friends and feasting.

There are plenty of people in the world without children for whom to buy stocking stuffers, parties for which to make desserts, family members for whom to plan a holiday dinner. Christmas festivities are ultimately whatever you make of them. I’m making a lot out of Christmas because I can. And that makes the final twenty-five percent feel entirely worthwhile, no matter how much it may seem to hang over my head.

Friday, December 16, 2011

O Christmas card, O Christmas card....

Due to various circumstances -- most of which fall under the category of personal laziness -- I hadn't been to the post office in three consecutive days when my 9-year-old and I finally stopped by yesterday afternoon. Our post office box was packed with envelopes. The two of us unstuffed it piece by piece, hauled the load home, and spent a very pleasant half-hour opening Christmas cards. As I should have realized, if you're going to take a three-day hiaitus from collecting your mail, mid-December is not the optimal time to do it; on a typical day during the holiday season, we receive as much personal mail as we often receive in an entire month or more at other times of year.

But it was worth it, because catching up on the trove of cards that had arrived during that time was so much fun. I know a lot of people don't enjoy Christmas cards as much as I do, but for me it's a hallmark of the season. And even though lots of satirists have fun poking fun at the different strains of holiday greetings, I can only say that I like them all. I like the posed, professionally produced family portraits. I like the funny offbeat candid snapshots of kids running through pumpkin patches or digging sand castles. I like those taken in people's back yards and those taken at the far reaches of the earth. I like seeing what people did in Disney World, at Niagara Falls, on Mount Kilimanjaro, in the Caribbean. I like those that were clearly intended to be Christmas cards as the shot was composed and those that have more of an "I guess this one will do" feel to them.

I like holiday newsletters, too. I don't mind when people go on and on about every twist and turn in their family's year. Perhaps because personal stories and how people tell them are such an integral part of my career, I'm interested not only in the facts people include but the subtext about what they chose to say and why. One of my friends wrote a fairly long newsletter but had exactly one paragraph about each child and one detail amplified in that one paragraph: a daughter learned to drive; a son started working at his school's radio station; another daughter is going to be in a play soon. How did she choose those singular details?, I wondered. Were there other ideas that she cast aside?

A few details that friends have chosen to include in the past struck me as unusual enough that I still remember them years later. One friend broke the news of her divorce, apologizing ahead of time for breaking the unspoken rule of including only good news in Christmas cards. Two different women I know who are both mothers of men in their 20's routinely discuss the goings-on of their sons' girlfriends, which I find a little odd -- these aren't even members of the family. But it's still interesting. One of my husband's childhood friends even once started a Christmas card with "Thank God that for once we don't have to start with the news that Tina is pregnant."

Our own Christmas card situation has me annually tearing my hair out. I decided the first year Rick and I were married to write a 12-stanza poem describing our year. It was a fun way to narrate events, and I discovered that the kind of people who complain in general about holiday newsletters don't seem to mind poems because of the poems' innate tongue-in-cheek quality: we're not boasting about anything, we're just trying to come up with rhyming couplets. After we’d done two years of holiday poems, a friend of my mother very offhandedly told me an anecdote about a young woman she knew who had done the same thing for a few years but then found it too hard to maintain the tradition. Needless to say, I took this as a challenge, and that's the primary reason that our holiday poem continues to exist nineteen years later. Now a small number of our friends even write little rhymes back to us.

In the past, we threw in a photo card as well, assuming that some recipients would read the poem, some would look at the card, and some might do neither. (Or both.) But as home-computer technology has improved, the cost of commercial printing has gone up, and the environmental impact of photographic dyes and materials has come into question, we ceased ordering glossy photos and just started embedding small snapshots into our newsletter.

It's one of those traditions I love for about 11 1/2 months out of the year, and then dread when it's time to start writing. But as with any big writing project I face, the sense of relief I have when it's behind me makes all the stress seem worthwhile. As Holly and I pored over the pile of cards we received yesterday, I thought about how those same people would be receiving ours in another few days. I hope they enjoy our work as much as I've enjoyed theirs. Because every single card I receive means something to me, and I hope it's a tradition that never stops.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

More to "Hot Cross Buns" than meets the ear

Back in September when my 9-year-old announced she wanted to start instrument lessons, I didn’t dare to look ahead to the holiday band concert.

Too much stood in the way of any expectation that she would reach that point: the idea that she’d follow through from saying she wanted to take lessons to actually attending the weekly instruction; the practicing; having to get up an hour early once a week in order to be at band rehearsals before school. Too much of it just didn’t seem to play to Holly’s strengths. Since preschool days, she’s avoided team sports – even the ubiquitous suburban soccer leagues – and quit Girl Scouts without ever proceeding beyond Brownie level. She won’t attend Sunday school anymore, and she admitted she’d much rather have free time for playing after school than be part of the kids’ book discussion group at the library.

So I didn’t really expect her announcement in September about trying percussion to turn out much differently from soccer or Scouts. And I certainly didn’t expect we’d get through the first three and a half months and find ourselves seated in the school auditorium waiting for the curtain to go up on a chilly Tuesday evening in December.

But Holly attended her lessons. She practiced between lessons. She learned to lug her bell set on and off the bus and up the steps to the music building at school. She even managed to wake up a half-hour early each Wednesday morning for band rehearsal.

And once we were a couple of months into the routine, I began to look forward to the December concert.

It’s not that I expected to hear fine musicianship or a compelling range of musical selections. The first band concert of the first year of music instruction, which at our school is fourth grade, is instead a showcase of abilities that it would have been hard to imagine some of these kids possessing a few months earlier. Holly, and the other 79 fourth graders, demonstrated throughout the course of the 45-minute-long program that they were able to sit quietly in their seats. They kept their eyes on the conductor. They stood when he motioned them to stand, and they took their places on stage. They bowed on cue.

They played music, too, but in the end, that was the least of what impressed me. Hot Cross Buns and Jingle Bells aren’t difficult compositions, especially for the percussion section, where Holly has indeed made her musical home. What impressed me was the life skills they’ve developed in just these first few months of band: their focus, their respect, their ability to function as a group.

Naturally, Holly still had a few hallmarks of her usual maverick self. While the other girls donned velvet sashes and taffeta skirts; Holly insisted on black ankle pants, a long shirt, a scarf and black boots. Her wardrobe vividly reflected that she’s still not what you’d call a conformist. And she doesn’t need to be. I understand why she’s never found her way with soccer or Scouts or afterschool clubs. She likes to do things her own way and plan her own time.

But apparently not always. By being part of the band and part of this week’s performance, she showed another side: a side that recognizes the value, sometimes, of getting with the program. And as I watched her move with confidence and agility from her bell set to the snare drum to the bass from song to song, I realized that she had found a group she felt vested in.

It’s a start. And maybe by the June concert, I’ll even succeed with the velvet and taffeta dress.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Pre-holiday getaway

When we first broached the idea with friends about going away this weekend, I acknowledged that in some ways it seemed like not the best timing. “I know every weekend in December is really busy with parties, plus there’s always Christmas shopping or baking or decorating to do….” I said tentatively. “But do you think it might work out to go away the second weekend in December anyway?”

And in some ways, as the date approached, it continued to seem like a silly idea. After we’d agreed it could be fun to be in Portland instead of home this past weekend, party invitations started arriving via snail mail and email, and I realized we’d miss out on some key social events. I looked at my Christmas preparations list and saw how much still needed to be done – not just the inevitable gift-shopping but also the card-writing and candy-making and Christmas tree-purchasing. I wondered why we didn’t pick a wide-open weekend sometime amidst the tedium of late January instead.

But there was still a sneaking suspicion that this could be a great weekend to go away. And it was. Holiday spirit abounded in Portland, and the city glowed with glittery ornamentation in a way that our quiet suburban town just can’t match. We toured a Victorian mansion decorated for a Civil War-era Christmas; we shopped at bustling downtown stores as part of a Downtown Holiday Stroll, and we viewed an exhibit of gingerbread houses.

Then, inspired by all the clever gingerbread architecture we’d seen, the four kids in our group made their own gingerbread houses. After dinner, we strolled to the Old Port to see the colorful lights on the outsides of buildings downtown as well as the pretty wreaths and somewhat more discreet ornamentation on our neighbors’ doors.

Rather than pulling us away from the holiday spirit, going away actually seemed to add to it. But it wasn’t only because of all the festivities. If I had stayed home for the weekend, I would have done a lot of cooking and some housecleaning and a little bit of shopping. Instead, we did a lot of walking throughout the city, ate some wonderful food, learned a little bit of history at the Victorian mansion, and had a great visit with our guests. Since we didn’t have a lot on the schedule, the kids could take all the time they wanted decorating their gingerbread houses, and when they were done, there was still nowhere else we had to be, so they went outside to toss a football around.

I’ve often wished our holiday season involved a little bit more time for nature and reflection and a little bit less time going to parties and addressing Christmas cards. Yet I wouldn’t want to do without the parties and cards and other holiday minutiae altogether. They’re part of the season also. But being out of town gave me the opportunity to focus on some of the aspects of the season that I tend to neglect: time outdoors, quality time with friends.

On Friday night after dark, I stood out on the balcony looking at the full moon over Casco Bay, with the masts of sailboats lined with holiday lights twinkling from the harbor below. It was a new perspective on the holiday season. And just like the rest of the weekend, it made stepping out of our usual holiday-season routine for a couple of days seem like a wonderful idea.

Friday, December 9, 2011

Blanket praise

Last month, according to the Boston Globe, USA Today and numerous other news sources, the Toy Hall of Fame in Rochester, New York, inducted three new items: Hot Wheels, the dollhouse and the blanket.

According to the article I read, “Curators said the blanket was a special addition in the spirit of two earlier inductees, the cardboard box and the stick. They praised its ability to serve either as recreational raw material or an accessory transformed in myriad ways by a child’s daydreams.

‘Blankets have been keeping people warm for centuries, but they have also been heating up kids’ imaginations,’’ serving as superhero capes and tents, said Christopher Bensch, the Rochester museum’s chief curator.”

If it were up to my 9-year-old daughter, blankets wouldn’t just be in the Toy Hall of Fame; they’d be in the Hall of Fame of Life, if there is one. Yes, she uses it as recreational raw material and for the traditional purpose of staying warm. She also uses it as clothing, napkin, apron, shroud, umbrella, puppet, carpet, slide and imaginary friend. Sometimes she even spreads it over puddles before she walks across, as if she’s a gallant knight offering the height of chivalry to herself.

Each of my children has one comfort object from which they have been inseparable since toddlerhood, but the two objects are very different. Tim’s is a pale green stuffed frog named Ba; Holly’s is a faded fleece baby blanket that once had a print of light brown puppies with red bows, though the pattern is all but indistinguishable now. At the ages of 9 and 13, the kids still need their objects close at hand; when we leave on overnights of any length, the first question I ask once they’re in the car is “Do you have Ba and Blankie?”

As Tim has pointed out, though, I don’t hide my biases well. He occasionally quotes me on a regrettable outburst in which I said “Ba is a member of the family; Blankie is just a blanket.” The kids were shocked that I could compare the two and announce which I preferred, almost as if I had just baldly announced which of them I liked better. But I maintain there’s no contest. To my mind, Ba just has a lot more character. He’s a creature, not a blanket. He has a name that isn’t the same as the name given every other copy of his kind. You can love a frog, whether it is alive or inanimate. But a blanket? Ba has eyes, a mouth, an expression. (These days, he doesn’t have much else; he’s so ragged after 13 years of affection that his limbs and torso have shredded into strings. But he still has a face.) Blankie has just….a lot of square inches of dirty gray fleece.

But Holly loves Blankie, and for that reason alone, I do too. She drapes Blankie over her face while she sleeps at night; when I go to wake her in the morning, I like peeling Blankie back slowly as if I’m opening a present, with Holly’s sleepy face under the wrapping. She totes Blankie down to breakfast with her and holds onto it (“Him!”, she insists on correcting me. Him? No comment.) until it’s time to leave for the bus; then she drapes Blankie as close to the door as she can in anticipation of a reunion in the afternoon.

A few days ago, I saw Blankie lying on the staircase in the middle of the school day as I was throwing a load of laundry into the washer, so I scooped it up and tossed it in along with the other dirty items. By the time Holly got home, Blankie was already in the dryer, but she was horrified by my temerity nonetheless. “You have to ask me!” she chastised. “What if I had needed him sooner?’

It didn’t help for me to protest that she was at school. To her, there’s always that chance that some kind of emergency will necessitate immediate contact with Blankie.

So I suppose the Toy Hall of Fame designation serves as something of a gentle rebuke to me. Blankie is more than just a scrap of material. Holly has insisted that for years, and now toy curators are backing her up, calling it recreation, comfort, an accessory to imaginary play and an agent of warmth. I should really try to appreciate Blankie a little bit more. And for the moment, freshly washed, fluffy and smelling of clean laundry, Blankie has my affection. Blankie, you’re no frog. You’ll never have a stitched-on smile or shiny glass eyes. But to Holly, you’re perfect, and that’s good enough for me.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Unseasonably warm

It seems that people generally fall into two camps regarding the unseasonably warm weather with which December of 2011 has begun. Some, like my friend Jenn, are saying “The holiday season just isn’t the same without frosty air and snowflakes. Where’s the weather to set the mood? When can we say it’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas?” Others are just happy to be catching what feels like a little reprieve before true winter kicks in.

In past years, December has been a cold and snowy month, though last year’s epic snow accumulation didn’t begin in earnest until the day after Christmas. Nonetheless, this week’s temperatures in the sixties seem to mean something to everyone, whether positive or negative.

I’m a little reticent to admit it, but at the moment, I fall into the reprieve camp. I say “reticent” because relishing the unseasonably warm weather makes me feel, well, old. There was a time when I found snowstorms romantic; frigid mornings inspiring; icy ponds and frost-crusted branches magical. But that time was decades ago, when the driveway seemed to magically plow itself and the ultimate crowning touch to a snowy day was a school cancellation the next morning.

There are still plenty of things I like about winter weather. Snowshoeing, for one thing; and I’m looking forward to snowshoeing even more this winter because of all the trails near our new house. I like the surprise of getting to sleep a little bit late because school is closed and the kids don’t have to catch the bus. I like watching Tim and Holly go sledding together. I like the way the fields and woods throughout our town look when blanketed with snow.

And perhaps it’s only because I’m so sure all of that will still come within the next few months – or maybe weeks – that it’s easy for me to say I’m enjoying this unseasonably mild weather. But the fact is, temperatures in the 60’s or even 40’s, with the ground still dry, simply make life easier than deep snow and crusty ice. Last night was our annual town tree lighting. For the past several years, the weather has been uniformly freezing for that event: adults stamp their feet and dab at their runny noses while kids run in circles to stay warm while we sing carols and wait for Santa’s arrival by firetruck. True, it’s a little harder to be in the Santa mood when you can stand outside during the tree lighting in a sweater rather than a parka, but it still seemed like an easier evening overall this year than it has recently.

The weather is expected to change in the next day or two, and maybe then I’ll finally get some Christmas shopping and decorating done. Snow and cold are definitely a catalyst to getting into the holiday mood, as I learned when we had a foot of snow in late October and Holly started talking about her Christmas wish list even though it wasn’t yet Halloween. “It feels like Christmas!” she said on that October 30, and it did. Now it feels like September. But September is a beautiful month, and I’m going to breathe deeply of the mild damp air and enjoy it just a little more before I have to dig boots and gloves out of the basement for another long winter.

Monday, December 5, 2011

Christmas candies and cakes and more

What I like least about Christmas: the pervasive awareness that for so many people, Christmas is not what they wish it was. It’s hard to celebrate wholeheartedly knowing how many people are unable to celebrate the way they would like to – and the way that so many marketing messages tell us we all should – because they are hobbled by illness or financial woes or physical distance from loved ones.

But there are many things I do like about the holiday season: the parties, the decorations, the special concerts and performances.

Way up at the top of the list of what I like about the holidays, though, is the food. Every year, the list of foods I traditionally make for the holiday season seems to grow. When we were in our twenties, Rick and I developed the habit of making truffles for gifts, and that was our sole holiday cooking ritual for years. But now the roster has expanded. The candy we make for gift-giving includes the original truffles but also peppermint bark, toffee, peanut brittle, and peanut butter balls. For entertaining, we make chocolate mousse pies, eggnog cheesecakes, peppermint chocolate layer cakes, at least two or three of each every season. For parties, we buy specialty cheeses and dips.

Sometimes I almost regret the fact that we eat so well all year long, diminishing the specialness of fine food on holidays, but we purposely avoid these special Christmas foods the other eleven months of the year so that they always seem like a novelty when their time comes around. It’s true that eating large and rich meals is not a luxury reserved for holidays, as it must have been for almost everyone centuries ago when a Thanksgiving or Christmas feast stood out markedly from the menus of the rest of the year. But the candies and eggnog cheesecake and peppermint layer cake are always something I’ve gone eleven months without, and the return to those savored treats are among my favorite things about the holiday season.

This week, I’ll start baking in earnest: for our annual cookie exchange party tonight among a small group of friends, for gifts for the kids’ teachers and our neighbors and other friends; later for Christmas Eve dinner and Christmas Day brunch. I could happily live without ever hearing another Christmas TV ad from Target or another story about Black Friday shoppers gone mad, and I wouldn’t even mind a ban on inflatable ten-foot-tall Santas in people’s front yards. But the tastes of Christmastime bring back all the best of the season to me, and I’m looking forward to the kitchen soon filling up with the aromas of chocolate and butter once again.

Friday, December 2, 2011

Creative cow-tending

Despite visual evidence and pastoral sonnets to the contrary, life in the barnyard is in fact never dull.

As I wrote about recently, the herd has grown. And for a while, it looked like my cow-feeding responsibilities would end as a result. Twelve animals, ranging in size from medium to extra-large, just seemed like too many for me to deal with every morning.

But then they were divided by fences into smaller groups, which made it a little less intimidating, and it turned out that I didn’t want to give up barnyard duty after all. So once again, since the beginning of last month, I’ve been out feeding the cows every morning before my daily run.

The feeding season started out well. This week has been challenging, though. I thought I’d developed a foolproof system, one that would work even with a sub-herd of six bovines following me as I trek through the mud to the barn. Adhering to the successful method I developed last winter, I climb up the outside ladder to the loft and throw down some haybales, which is supposed to divert the animals sufficiently that I can then slip in and out of the front of the barn without anyone following me as I pull out a few more bales.

But we have a new animal named Gretchen who is very large and a little bit pushy. Well, maybe that’s unfair. Pushy is a relative term, and when you’re Gretchen’s size, simply ever-so-slightly-leaning, or standing with the slightest bit of sideways motion, can make you seem pushy to someone less than one-tenth your weight. Anyway, Gretchen is clearly a grass-is-always-greener type of girl – quite literally, in this case. She dives in eagerly enough as I toss bales down from the loft, but somehow by the time I slog my way through the mud around to the front of the barn, she’s always right behind me, certain that whatever bales I’m about to pull out for the other herd are inherently superior to those that she was offered.

Other cows, assuming a creature who is both larger than they are and more interestingly colored (black and white as opposed to their uniform red coats) must know something they don’t, follow suit, and before I know it, I’m hemmed into the lower level of the barn, unable to push the gate back open because they are all standing too close to it. So I throw out some more bales, but because they are all in my way, the bales more or less bounce off their sides and land on the ground, directly in front of the barn door. So the cows stand there and eat, and I still can’t get out.

Yesterday I solved the problem by climbing over the barn gate rather than opening it, sliding into the few inches between Gretchen and the side of the barn, and slithering my way to freedom. This is a bad idea in any conditions, given that the space between a large animal and a wall is not where you most want to find yourself; and an even worse idea given the current mud conditions in the barnyard, where getting anywhere quickly – or, in this case, out of anywhere quickly – could present a problem to boots that can’t lift out of the ooze.

Today I solved it more creatively. When Gretchen and a few of her compatriots stood directly in front of the barn, I placed hay bales on their broad backs and let them roll off the other side. The animals turned toward the hay once it fell, and I made my escape.

It’s not a great solution, but in the barnyard, as in life, circumstances are ever changing. Within the next few weeks, the current configuration of animals is likely to change – some will be moved for breeding; others for weaning – and it will be less complicated when there isn’t such a high concentration of critters in any one place. The mud will turn to frozen ground, and that will make general navigation of the terrain easier as well. Moreover, Gretchen might wise up to the fact that there’s no difference between the bales I’m throwing down from the loft and those I’m trying to hoist out of the lower level, and then maybe she’ll eat contentedly near the loft and leave me to pass in and out of the front of the barn unobstructed.

Between the three, that last possibility is the one I’m least inclined to bet on. But it could happen. The grass may be always greener, but the hay is always….hay-colored. Maybe the animals will realize that. And if not, I’ll just keep finding new and creative ways to vault over them. Necessity is the mother of invention, and somehow, if need be, I’ll come up with a bovine circumnavigator of some kind before the winter ends.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Classroom time

My sister Sarah recounted the story yesterday of being invited into her 7-year-old’s classroom as a volunteer reader. Her son was so apprehensive about how she would perform that he devised a series of coded hand signals that would signify whether she was reading too fast, too slow, too quiet, too loud, with too much animation, with too little animation, with too much or too little time to look at the pictures, and so forth. “He was so worried that I was going to embarrass him. It’s a far cry from when he was so excited to have me come into the classroom to read that I could barely peel him off of me far enough to see the pages,” she said.

Hearing her talk about it reminded me of the days when I used to help out in my kids’ classrooms a lot – and then less so – and now barely ever. Tim’s kindergarten teacher liked quite a lot of parental help. It was her first year at our school, and she had come from a school system in which every teacher had a classroom aide, which she no longer did. So she was accustomed to having a second adult in the classroom at all times and tried to fill the gap as much as possible with parents.

It was difficult because then, Tim was the way Sarah described Andrew being prior to now: he was always so happy to see me come into the classroom that it was difficult when I had to leave after my prescribed hour or two. Once, in anticipation of a problem, I discussed it with him ahead of time.

“Tim, I can come in and help only if you promise not to cling,” I said that day.

“Mooooommmmm,” he droned with a tinge of contempt, and I was sure he was about to insist he was no clinger. Instead, he said, “Evvvvverryone clings when their mom comes into the classroom.”

Well, that may have been true when he was in kindergarten, but seven years later, things are a lot different. The teachers don’t want or need us around much anymore, and the kids are even less enthusiastic about our presence, though Tim usually endures my rare appearances at middle school without much complaining. Earlier this month, one of his classes decided to have a potluck lunch in honor of Thanksgiving; I had the job of bringing in the pies he’d made earlier in the week. Once there, I was so curious to see how his classmates had changed since I’d last seen them – months or sometimes years earlier – that I could hardly tear myself away, until I committed a key error. “Claire, you’re dressed for the beach!” I said to one girl who was inexplicably wearing a sundress in mid-November. The teacher pressed his lips together; too late I remembered that another teacher had told me years earlier that teachers are forbidden from commenting on kids’ clothing, or at least what girls are wearing. Parents don’t fall under the same restrictions, but I had still overstepped my bounds as a classroom visitor.

In any case, with middle schoolers, the issue of school volunteering evolves into a very different paradigm: where once our presence was needed as reading helpers or project assistants, now we’re called upon most often not by the teachers but by the kids, and it’s for one critical role: to chaperone their dances. Every time a dance comes up on the schedule, the administration threatens that if the kids don’t rummage up the proper number of chaperones, the event will be canceled, so all the kids feel pressured to call in favors. And then, of course, they face the ultimate dilemma of which prospect is worse: having your mother at a school dance or having no school dance at all.

Tim actually doesn’t mind having me chaperone when my turn comes up, which I try to make happen no more than once a year, and Holly is generally neutral about my visits to school. I can’t say I miss the early days when we were urged to come in at least once a week to help out, but I do appreciate the occasional chance to take a peek at what’s going on. Soon enough, the invitations into the classroom will dwindle down to once a year on parents’ day at the most, depending on my kids’ specific educational future. So I’ll continue to enjoy the time I spend at school with my kids. And, just like the teachers, with enough practice I’ll even learn to hold my tongue when their classmates show up in sandals, midwinter.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Before anyone has hurt your feelings

I almost skipped right over the Fresh Air interview with legendary filmmaker Francis Ford Coppola when it came up on my podcast list. Filmmaking isn’t a major interest of mine, and I knew there were other podcasts in my iPod queue that would be of more immediate interest to me: a conversation about Thanksgiving cooking with New York Times food writer Mark Bittman; a discussion on the shortage of drugs to counter ADHD; a review of Tom Perrotta’s newest novel.

But the Francis Ford Coppola interview was what came up when my run began, and sometimes it just seems like too much of a hassle to take my iPod out of its armband case and start fiddling with the controls to get to the next podcast once my run is under way. Besides, I reminded myself, even if I wasn’t particularly curious about the topic of filmmaking, I’d almost certainly learn something about it. And even when I don’t leave a Fresh Air podcast retaining any information about the subject, I always learn something new about the art of interviewing.

What I didn’t expect was to find it laugh-out-loud funny, but laugh out loud I did when Coppola was discussing the importance for filmmakers and other artists of practicing their writing with great frequency, and gave this specific instruction about daily writing: “The important thing is: choose the time that's good for you. For me, it's early morning because I wake up, and I'm fresh, and I sit in my place. I look out the window, and I have coffee, and no one's gotten up yet or called me or hurt my feelings.”

What made me laugh was the ingenuity of Coppola saying he needs to write before anyone has hurt his feelings. I too write first thing in the morning every day, as soon as I get out of bed, and I never thought about it that way, but he’s right: at that hour, no one has yet hurt my feelings (though sometimes I’ve already been mocked a little, given my tendency to talk in my sleep and my spouse’s propensity for teasing me about it in the wee hours). First thing in the morning, my emotions are still as untainted as they are likely to be all day, and I suppose in some ways that’s the best time to write.

Of course, it also tends to be the most innocuous time to write. Sometimes, as I sit in the comfortable arm chair in the corner of our bedroom at 5:30 a.m. with the house dark and silent around me, I find myself at a loss for what to say in my journal: nothing’s happened yet, and the events of the previous day have faded into uniform banality.

But most of the time, this isn’t a problem. Most of the time, the events and emotions of the previous day are still present in my mind enough to record, even if my brain may feel a little fuzzy at that hour.

Still, no one has yet hurt my feelings at 5:30 a.m., and Coppola is right: that counts for a lot. I am indeed best off writing in the grayish drowsy haze of early morning, when no one voice takes precedence in my writing only because it is the voice of the last person to have spoken to me.

In an ideal day, of course, no one hurts my feelings at all, and I don’t say things I regret, and I don’t make bad decisions, and I don’t take out my iPhone while running and accidentally drop it on the pavement and crack the screen (not to dwell too heavily on my weekend).

But these things happen, sometimes, in the course of a day. And it was somehow reassuring to hear from someone as highly accomplished and highly regarded as Francis Ford Coppola that there’s nothing wrong with wanting to do your daily writing when your thoughts and emotions still seem to be your own, in your voice, freshly hatched, before you’ve been distracted by people hurting your feelings.

Friday, November 25, 2011

Thanksgiving retrospective

It was a wonderful Thanksgiving. Yes, I spent hours in the kitchen – mostly on Wednesday – getting ready, but I enjoy spending hours in the kitchen. I find cooking relaxing, and I find working on something as easily defined as a Thanksgiving dinner particularly satisfying. One item at a time, I went through my checklist, from prepping vegetables and mixing dips to grinding coffee beans to sweeping the floor to twining up the turkey to roasting the squash to rinsing the lettuce to setting the table. Check, check, check, check, until there was nothing left on my list and it was time to eat. (Okay, forty minutes past time to eat. But forty minutes past estimated sit-down time on Thanksgiving day isn’t so bad, by my standards.)

My audience was appreciative: every dish garnered praise. Nothing went wrong. Nothing was burned or dropped or forgotten altogether.

So from a cook’s standpoint, it was a wonderful Thanksgiving. And so too was it from the standpoint of someone giving thanks. My family is happy and healthy and emotionally unified. My home is secure. My work is challenging.

The bigger picture, of course, is murkier, on the national and international level. There, it’s a little harder to feel that all is well with the world.

But I’m thankful, this week and every week. Making Thanksgiving dinner is, in my mind, a wonderful way to give voice to that gratitude. As I check each item off my list, I feel happy that I’m able to do it. Happy to have the ability, the resources, the desire to make a Thanksgiving dinner, whose purpose in the end is to honor family and friends and, most of all, to try to find a way to express our thanks.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Kitchen lessons

Not long ago, I was reading an article about Szechuan cooking in which the writer stressed the importance of using a wok that leaves plenty of room for the vegetables to cook. According to this culinary expert, it’s a common mistake to choose a pan that doesn’t leave enough room for each vegetable to have ample surface area touching the hot metal at any given time. “Don’t crowd your wok,” summed up the writer.

That’s my problem! I thought to myself. My stir-fries turn out mushy for just this reason: I put too many vegetables in too small a wok. Wiser, I used a bigger pan the next time and found that my stir-fry components were crisp and crunchy rather than soft and slippery.

But the more I thought about it, the more the instruction came to seem symbolic rather than strictly culinary: Don’t crowd your wok. It’s not only in Chinese cooking but in so many elements of my life that I crowd too many things together until none of them turn out quite right.

I thought about this yesterday while I was preparing for a party for a group of high school friends. As I blanched crudités, set out wine glasses and spread brie and chutney on crackers, I contemplated the many life lessons I’ve learned in the kitchen, many of which seemed particularly relevant as I planned yesterday’s party.

For example, you probably won’t need as much food as you think. You don’t need ten different appetizers for a group of twenty. Focus on what you think people will really like; don’t worry about trying to offer some of absolutely everything. Simplify, simplify.

And also, accept guests’ offers to bring food and drink. Doing everything yourself doesn’t make you a better person; it just makes you harried. Accept offers of help.

This, too: no one else notices what didn’t go exactly as planned. Maybe it was my vision to have artisan soaps in the bathroom, wine glasses arranged in lines and candles lit on the table, but guests don’t know about the parts that didn’t materialize. I may be looking at my own results critically, but no one else is casting such a judgmental eye on what I’ve produced. They’re grateful for what’s offered, not annoyed by what isn’t.

Furthermore, if I can possibly plan in enough time to do the cooking and arranging and setting up at my leisure, I’ll enjoy it a lot more than if I leave everything to the last minute.

I tried hard to follow these guidelines that I’ve learned through years of entertaining….and years of living. The similarities between food preparation and life are many, when I think about it this way. And the most important rule? Sit back and enjoy your own party. You’ve gone to all the trouble you can to do everything perfectly: don’t get so exhausted that when the time comes, you forget to have fun. Eat the food, drink the beverages, laugh and talk with the guests. Savor the moment as well as the menu. Be present in the present. Because ultimately, there’s no point in hosting a party if you can’t have fun at it. And there’s no point in living a life if you can’t enjoy what’s going on in it.

Monday, November 21, 2011


Our church service yesterday morning focused on the theme of taking time to pause and concentrate and absorb. We sang a hymn I hadn’t heard before about the need to behave like cows and sheep, standing in the fields watching and thinking. Our student minister read the well-known poem by Mary Oliver in which she describes spending a whole afternoon contemplating a grasshopper. And in the sermon, our minister described a classroom method biologist Louis Aggasiz practiced at Harvard in which students were required to stare at dead fish for days on end and describe it in detail, only to discover time after time how very little detail they were actually absorbing.

This was good for me to hear. I hadn’t been to church for several weeks because of other options on Sunday mornings. A couple of those weeks I’d been out of town, but other weeks I’d wanted to concentrate on other priorities: spending time with my sisters and their families when they were in town on a rare weekend visit in mid-October, going for a run with a friend another Sunday in early November and urging her to stay for a cup of coffee so that we could catch up a little bit.

So sometimes, going to church feels to me like the opposite of pausing and concentrating. Sometimes, I avoid going with the excuse that when Sunday morning comes, I just can’t rush around anymore. I rush every weekday morning to get the kids to the schoolbus on time; I hurry throughout the course of my work day; I hurry to get dinner on the table at a reasonable hour; I hurry to get to bed early enough to try for seven hours of sleep. On Sunday mornings, sometimes I just need a break from hurrying – even if hurrying means something as theoretically contemplative as being at church. I need to pause at home and regroup.

But being back after several weeks away yesterday reminded me that in some ways, the only time I really can stop and concentrate is in church. I tell myself some weekends that I’ll have a leisurely, focused breakfast and maybe even read the paper, but more often than not, I eat while simultaneously unloading the dishwasher and making breakfast for the kids. I imagine going for a leisurely run instead of church, but instead I run with one eye on the clock, calculating what time I need to be done and showered in time to be on time to the next commitment.

I’m not good at pausing and concentrating, and during the holiday season this tendency for distraction only grows worse: instead of letting my mind absorb the present, I’m thinking about the next party, the next cooking project, the next holiday performance on our schedule.

So it was good to be in church yesterday morning to hear this message, and also to be able to enact it just a little bit. In church, there is nothing to do but sit and listen. I couldn’t unload a dishwasher or go for a walk even if I wanted to: it’s church. So that’s the one time of the week when I know I really will just sit still. And it was good to be reminded yesterday of what an important priority that is – at any time of year, but perhaps on the brink of the holiday season most of all.

Friday, November 18, 2011

A taste of success (or not)

On days like yesterday, I’m not sure how to define success.

I don’t mean success in the macro sense, from the 100,000-foot-view, success in terms of a life or a career. I just mean there are some days when I’m not sure if what I accomplished merits a check in the plus or the minus column.

When I worked in the corporate sector, success on any given day was easy to define. Even in the editorial department, where we weren’t tallying the bottom line on a daily basis, we knew whether we’d met deadlines, created a successful project, planned out a catalog or completed the logistics for a photo shoot.

But these days it’s murkier.

Yesterday I put checkmarks in the plus column, metaphorically speaking, for completing three interviews that I needed to do for an article due today and correcting page proofs for a manuscript that was ready to go to press. Beyond my workload, I packed well-balanced lunches for both kids, got Holly to the bus on time, and even remembered to write a note giving Holly permission to go to art club after school.

On the minus side? I meant to clean the kids’ bathrooms and didn’t get to it. I didn’t make any progress on the website I’m supposed to be starting up for Tim’s class play. I forgot to stop at the post office.

Making a dinner that everyone likes counts in the success column, but neglecting to wash the breakfast dishes until after sunset earns a minus. Getting a good assignment from an editor gains another success sign; writing what feels like a weak lead paragraph for that same assignment, not so much.

Trivial, yes, but these are the metrics that often make up my days. And sometimes, they carry even less import than remembering to stop to buy milk before we run out, but I judge them nonetheless: for example, yesterday I called for Rick to pluck a tick off Holly’s arm rather than mustering the bravery to do it myself. Fail!

I suppose it’s inevitable that if I look this closely at this many details, there will be plenty of marks in each column. In the corporate sector, it’s more black-and-white. A project executed on time and under budget is a success. The opposite kind of project is no success at all. These days, I judge myself not on large-scale projects but on dozens of tiny actions that make up the day.

And ultimately? It’s a matter of perspective, of course. I remind myself that if I didn’t hurt anyone or damage any property, it’s probably fair to count the day as a success, at least on balance. And the most conspicuous measure of success sometimes feels like the one that comes after the rest of the day is over: whether or not I’m able to get more than six hours of sleep. Waking up well-rested and ready to start a new day? Definitely, success.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

November elegy

I wish November could last forever.

But then, almost every year I wish November, or at least the first two weeks of it, could last forever.

This month in particular, though, it’s increasingly obvious that we are in the midst of the most perfect few weeks of the whole year. October impresses with warm days and blazing colors, but in November, the pale gold sunlight streams through the bare branches and slants across the burnished dying grass on the fields. Mild days like we’ve had this week seem like a remarkable gift this late in the season, especially after the snowstorm with which October ended. I’ve gone running in temperatures in the mid-50’s the past few mornings, and it seems like such an unexpected bonus.

This is a quiet time of year, a time for in-gathering. Fall sports are wrapping up. The school year is well under way; the kids are comfortably established in their classroom routines, but it’s still too early for major projects or productions. The report cards, conferences and concerts that mark the end of a term are still several weeks away.

And just as far away, mercifully, are the holidays. Well, not quite. Thanksgiving is next week, and I should already be planning the menu and table settings, but it feels like even that can wait a few more days, maybe ‘til the weekend. As for Christmas and New Year’s festivities, I won’t even think about that until we’ve finished cleaning up the kitchen after Thanksgiving dinner.

This is a quiet week. I’m immersed in work and community events, and fitting in as much time outdoors as I can while the weather is still so mild. With the early sunsets, the filtered November daylight seems all the more vital.

Next week, I’ll start thinking about Thanksgiving, and then figuring out the December schedule with all its parties and events, and then Christmas itself. This week, I’m just savoring the quiet and peace and beautiful days of mid-November.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Busy Sunday

At 7:56 last night, I sat down and glanced at the clock.

7:56. I was sitting down for just a moment, but at that moment I felt like it wouldn’t be such a bad idea to avoid getting up again all evening.

But then Holly called from the shower that she needed a towel, and the dog looked like a trip outside for her might not be a bad idea, and I remembered that the clothes needed to be moved from washing machine to dryer.

It was a busy day. I arose early to write my usual one thousand words of Morning Pages. I decoded the problem I was having syncing my Google calendar with my new phone. And though the peace and quiet of the household with everyone else still asleep was blissful, I headed out for a four-mile run.

“Tell me one thing: why do we have to exercise?” a man who looked to be in his sixties and was out for a walk near the state park called out to me as I approached him.

“Funny you should ask; we were talking about that just this weekend,” I told him, which was true. “It’s because we don’t do manual labor! If we were out working in the fields all day, we wouldn’t go running!”

I finished my run and made waffles for the kids’ breakfast. Then I cleaned up the kitchen and took a shower and headed to my friend Jane’s house. She and another friend and I did a 45-minute walk in the warm midday sunlight and talked about how odd it was to have a sixty-degree November day just two weeks after an October snowstorm.

I drove back home and put in a load of laundry and swept the floors. I welcomed a new friend of Holly’s who came over to play. I figured out what to make for the next several dinners and made up a grocery list. Then it was time to go grocery shopping.

Home from the supermarket, I tried to unload groceries, talk on the phone to my mother, and make dinner all at the same time. It took a while, but I succeeded, more or less. I made meatloaf and baked potatoes stuffed with a steamed broccoli mixture, and it was one of those rare evenings when everyone not only sat down together (that’s not the rare part) but ate what was offered.

It wasn’t an unusually strenuous day. As I told the man who was out for a walk while I was running, it’s not like we were working in the fields. Or performing surgery. Or piloting a steamship or keeping a spaceship in orbit. It was just regular weekend life.

And it’s wonderful. I love all of these things: running by myself, walks with friends, cooking, taking care of the house, being with my family.

Still, I felt decadent submitting to inertia at 7:56 while Holly took a shower. But I couldn’t help it. The days are full. Still, every aspect of it had meant something to me. Fellowship. Parenthood. Nourishment. Physical well-being.

Days like this seem mundane sometimes. They aren’t the ones we remember, the way we remember vacation days or parties, say. They are just….days full of weekend-day type things.

But I wouldn’t have taken away a single part of it. Even if by 7:56 I was ready to give up on all mobility for the rest of the evening.

Yes, I was worn out, although I managed to rally enough to do what else needed to be done before bed: tucking in Holly, letting the dog out again, locking the front door. Despite not having been toiling at any kind of manual labor, I went to sleep with that invaluable sense of having done a good day’s work. Even if I have no material harvest to show for it.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Feeding season again

It’s a mid-fall seasonal ritual: the resumption of livestock feeding.

From May through October, the cows graze. That makes life easier for the rest of us. I see them as I drive by or run alongside their pastures, but I don’t interact with them much. They graze and mingle in the fields; I focus on human pursuits.

But for the other six months of the year, I spend time with them daily. I head out to the barn in the morning and they follow me right up to the gate. I climb the ladder to the hayloft and they stand below, watching me. I shoulder my way among them to move a bale or cut the twine around the hay and they subtly shove back, reminding me that my shoving is no match for their shoving. Or even their gentlest nudging, for that matter.

I’ve been doing the cows’ daily feeding on my parents’ farm for the past three years, not out of obligation but because I was outdoors on the earlier side of the morning anyway, letting the dog run around and then going running myself, and it just made sense to take on this responsibility since I was right there already.

But for the past several months, I thought my job with the animals was over. The logistics of farm life have changed over the course of the year; now there is a significantly greater number of animals in the herd, and also more farmhands involved, so I was told there was no need for me to continue.

But rituals, like habits and water, have a way of carving their own paths. I had thought the herd had become too large in number for me to navigate my way around comfortably, but then for husbandry purposes they were separated into small groups in three different pastures. And it turned out I was still the first one out in the barnyard in the morning, letting the dog play and getting ready for my daily run. So once again, it just made sense for me to climb up to the hayloft and throw down some bales while I was out there anyway.

And even though it seemed like giving up this duty might not be such a bad change when I contemplated it a few months ago – surely that extra ten or fifteen minutes every morning that I’d save from not entering the barnyard would come in handy – now that I’m back into the feeding routine, I’m so glad I didn’t have to give it up after all.

I love the way the animals watch me walking toward the barn, the way they low in anticipation of their morning meal, the way they mill and shuffle and edge each other around as they wait for me to make my slow way to the hay supply. I like the way they lower their big faces into the bales once I finally deliver on my promise, and the way they ignore me as I make my way between them once they’re eating.

It’s not an affectionate personal relationship like the one I have with my dog…or my kids. I just like being around them. It’s been part of my day during the cold-weather seasons for the past three years. I know they don’t particularly care who shows up in the barnyard at eight o’clock each morning. My company doesn’t mean anything different to them than any other human’s. But their company means something to me. It’s a tradition, and I’m happy that once again this November, the bovines and I are spending time together.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Good judgment

Perhaps it is yet another unavoidable fact of small-town existence: we parents tend to know a lot more about our middle schoolers’ lives than they necessarily realize.

We talk amongst ourselves and put together the various pieces from the stories we each hear, and eventually we have a much clearer picture of, say, the argument in the cafeteria or the budding romance in art class than any of our kids suspect.

Still, we can’t let on just how much we know. We don’t want our kids to stop telling us about their day, and we don’t want them to feel like they are under surveillance. So a lot of the time, we parents keep it within our own circles, presenting a bland sort of curiosity rather than a thirst for specifics when our kids do choose to share details from their lives.

All of which is why I can’t tell Tim why I am so impressed with him lately. I can only make heavily veiled references to his social situation, with comments like “Glad things are going better for you this week” and “Sounds like you worked things out well.”

And out of respect for Tim’s privacy and that of his friends, I can’t go into much detail here either. I can only say that three different parents whom I ran into over the past few days remarked on Tim’s mature behavior in a difficult situation.

In essence, Tim and some of his peers found themselves over the past several weeks in the kind of situation that middle schoolers for generations have found themselves in: just a timeless pre-adolescent maelstrom of uncertainty, rumor, and fluctuating loyalties. (There were definitely no nude photos exchanged by text message, though, so that’s a relief.) Without asking me for advice, Tim somehow intuitively did everything I would have suggested to avoid coming out on the wrong side of this. He treated the circle of friends who were involved in the issues with fairness, loyalty, and reassurance. He remained calm and dispassionate. He exhibited patience and avoided drama.

And in the end, everything turned out well for him. He fortified friendships and learned a lesson: sometimes your own moral compass takes you exactly where you need to go.

As another parent commented when we moms had one of our furtive discussions about our kids, that’s a lesson that unfortunately may be disproved for him at some point in the future. But I’m not sure that really matters. Right now, the important thing is that Tim discovered at the tender age of 13 that sometimes following your principles and being a kind and fair person reaps rewards. To say I’m proud of him feels inaccurate, since I can’t really take ownership over his actions. It’s more a matter of admiration than pride. He used fine judgment in a way that isn’t always easy for young teens to do.

Usually, when I hear myself saying about one of my kids “S/he learned an important lesson,” I’m referring to a less-than-ideal circumstance, whether it’s that a child rode a bike heedlessly, sent an incriminating email, lied to a friend or neglected to brush her teeth properly (all of which has at some point been the impetus for a lesson learned in our household). This time, I can say that the lesson Tim learned was that sometimes nice guys really do finish first. And even if at some point in the future he discovers the opposite can also be true, I don’t think he’ll ever forget learning this one.

Monday, November 7, 2011

One hour, once a year

It doesn’t take young children long at all to figure out the problem with wishing every day could be your birthday: If every day were that special, then no day would be that special.

Concommitantly, it shouldn’t take me long to figure out why it doesn’t make sense to wish every day could be the end of daylight saving time, the day we set our clocks back; yet it’s a wish that sneaks furtively into my mind every year at this time.

I just find that extra hour so phenomenally helpful. The Saturday night before we set our clocks back always feels to me like the one time you can have it all….you can stay up late but still get to bed early. We weren’t doing much this particular weekend; I stayed awake on Saturday reading until 11:00, and yet just before I turned out the light I set the clock back to 10. Sunday morning, I slept as late as I wanted, and yet when I finally arose, it was only 6:20.

Most of the year, I have to make choices: go to sleep early or stay up late and read. Awaken in time to get a head start on the day or bask lazily in bed. In each case, both choices have their advantages….and their drawbacks. But on the first weekend in November, I get both. The best of all worlds. Have my cake and eat it too. Read late but get to bed early. Sleep all I want but still be up before I need to be.

And so I can’t help wishing every year that I could have this day over and over again: one extra hour. But of course, that wouldn’t really help. If each day had one extra hour, I’d fill it, and I’d still get to bed too late or not get enough reading done and not get enough sleep or stay in bed so late it made my whole day feel lazy and unproductive.

So it’s just once a year, that magical extra hour. Like a child contemplating birthdays, I remind myself each year that it’s valuable only because it’s so rare; an extra hour whenever I needed it would cease to be a luxury. Tomorrow, I’ll already be readjusted; that extra hour will have been absorbed into the fabric of the week, and I’ll be once again caught among priorities without ever feeling like I have enough time for all of them.

One extra hour, once a year. It’s a pretty good deal, if you use it well. And it’s a huge treat every time it rolls around.

Friday, November 4, 2011

Clean-up time

Holly is invited to a sleepover that starts at dinnertime tonight, and I’ll celebrate her absence the best way I know how: by cleaning up her room.

I realize how many principles of good parenting this comes into direct conflict with. Holly should clean up her own room. In fact, cleaning up her room should be a prerequisite for going to a sleepover. In fact, her room shouldn’t even need clean-up; tidying should be part of her everyday routine.

In the best of all worlds, yes. In my world, not hardly.

Holly’s room is a mess. Holly’s room is always a mess, with the rare exceptions of the times that I absolutely insist we spend some quality time together cleaning it up – which is less fun than a dentist appointment followed by a trip to the transfer station – or the times like tonight when I wait until she’s out of the house and then do a kamikaze cleaning job on it.

And it’s not good for any of us. The stress of seeing so much stuff all over the floor and furniture gives me a headache. Both Rick and I have stepped painfully on small, hard, occasionally sharp objects in the dark while up in her room saying goodnight. Things she needs get lost in the strata of materials. Small containers of colored water left over from painting projects have splashed on the rug. Beads have become embedded in the carpet strands. Library books have gone missing.

But she seems unable to improve in this area. She loves her mess, and as I wrote about last month, our trip to an Open Studios event didn’t help at all: Holly considers herself a practicing studio artist, and when she discovered that almost all of the professional artists whose workspaces we visited that day also favored a colorful but chaotic mess of art supplies and works-in-progress, it only served to fortify her argument that this is how artists need to work. “I like to see what I have, Mommy,” she says by way of explaining the necessity of keeping cloth swatches, sets of scissors, containers of beads, paint sets, books, paper, markers and more piled all over the floor in her room. “It helps me figure out what I want to do.”

Perhaps this is true and perhaps she’s just being devious, because the fact is that the way to put something over on me is to pledge creativity. Holly must know on some level that claiming her mess inspires her is the best way to ensure that I’ll never really truly insist that she keep neater. As a writer, I’m all about the creative process, and not a bit willing to stifle it in someone else.

Still, on that rare opportunity when Holly is out of the house while I’m home and it’s not what I consider work hours, I make my move. Tonight, I’ll pick up, and until she gets back home, I’ll enjoy the absolute sense of serenity that comes from a tidy, well-ordered room. She won’t be happy with my efforts. She will immediately start asking for items that she’ll insist she needs but that we won’t be able to find: the stub of a blue-green Crayola, a tiny booklet that she made for a tiny doll, three beads strung on a segment of floss. Inevitably, I’ll end up going through the same garbage bag I just filled in search of some obscure project.

But at least I’ll have until Saturday morning to know her room is neat. I’ll sleep soundly, happy with the order I’ve imposed on her chaos. And if once she’s home she starts creating that chaos once again, I’ll suppress my frustration. It’s all part of the creative process, I suppose. And who knows, maybe someday that same process with inspire her to create a new way to keep her things in order.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Power outage: The conclusion

“Wow, this is totally a family bonding moment,” Tim observed with the jaded attitude of a 13-year-old.

One could argue that the “If you have to ask, you can’t afford it” rule applies here: If your young teen pauses mid-action to identify what you are doing as family bonding, it doesn’t exactly count. Perhaps it wasn’t the noblest of family bonding experiences – we hadn’t just scaled an Adirondack peak or sailed across the Bering Straits together -- but as the four of us crumpled our tax records from 1995 page by page and threw them into the fire, it definitely qualified as one of those rare times when we were all positioned shoulder to shoulder engaged in one common activity: namely, heating our house.

As the power outage affecting most of our town wrapped up its third day yesterday, I had to admit I was a little weary of it all, but I also acknowledged we’d gotten off easy: with my parents just three miles away and with no power outages of their own, we’d been able to enjoy hot showers, hot meals, Internet connections, indoor plumbing and all the other benefits of living on the grid simply by driving over to their house every day.

Still, despite their urging us to spend the night, all four of us felt like sleeping in our own house, so we bundled off together after dinner on Monday to start up a fire. Happy with the good that finally came out of our 16-year-old tax records, we admired the blazing hearth and then went to sleep by its warmth.

In the morning, though, the lack of creature comforts was starting to take its toll. We all awoke cold and grumpy. Tim found that he couldn’t get his contact lenses in by candlelight. Holly couldn’t locate her bookbag or lunchbox. Rick packed up his tie and jacket and trundled off to my parents’ house to take a shower before work, only to call me a half-hour later and ask if I could please bring him his shoes and socks. And the dog looked just plain furious with all of us, unable to understand why we were forcing her to live in a house heated to 45 degrees.

Yet still, when I checked the NStar website later in the day from the comfort of the library and discovered that our power was projected to be back on by late afternoon, I felt strangely ambivalent. Chilly and oppressive as the house had been that morning, I realized there was a lot of work to do once I no longer had the excuse not to do it. The fridge would need to be cleaned out. There was a sink full of dishes to wash, and of course I wouldn’t feel back to normal until I’d cleaned all the bathrooms. A hamper overflowing with dirty clothes awaited. Plus with power returned to my kitchen, I had no more reasons not to cook a multi-course dinner for my family. Out the window went all thoughts of take-out from the Whole Foods hot bar.

Indeed, the power went back on yesterday afternoon as projected. But of course, it will all be worth it, once I’ve cleaned up a little. It will be good to relax in our own home tonight, with the heat on and the appliances humming. Camping is good for vacations, but my family is clearly not eager to move off the grid just yet.

Besides, it’s not even winter yet, and we’ve heard that our new neighborhood loses power a lot. So I’ll have another couple of years of mid-1990s tax records stacked by the heart and ready to go, and we’ll look forward to hours more of family bonding once winter begins.

Monday, October 31, 2011

Power down

As I write this on Sunday evening, we’ve been without power for fourteen hours. This is very rare for us; I can’t remember a time since my childhood that we went for more than about six or eight hours without power, and even those events have happened only two or three times in the past decade, as far as I can recall. But this time, with a heavy wet snowfall on Saturday night pulling down power lines all over the state, we are facing the kind of situation we usually hear about but avoid: already a full day and evening, and potentially several more to come, without electricity.

And I have to admit, I’m finding it hard to think of anything to say about it that isn’t a cliché. Everything positive about power outages has already been said by the many who experience them more often than we do, and yet now that it’s our turn, I’m finding them all to be true: the way it’s made us focus on the simpler things in life – reading by candlelight, savoring a grilled cheese sandwich made over a gas burner – the fact that it has imposed upon us a mandatory hiatus from our Internet connections, with the constant chatter of email and Facebook; the strange reality that all four of us are sitting together on the couch in front of the fireplace reading or writing, rather than dispersed into four different parts of the house, engaged in four different activities. Even the dog seems to want nothing more than to sit in front of the fire, gazing into the flames.

Because this kind of crisis happens to us so rarely, I’m admittedly a little lax when it comes to the fundamentals of emergency preparedness. But this storm has taught me that what I’ve done in that realm is apparently good enough, at least for the first fourteen hours of a power outage. The half-dozen bottles of water stored in a cupboard have been enough so far for drinking and washing up. We had batteries for all the flashlights, and all the flashlights were easy to find in their usual places. We have candles and matches. Because it’s still autumn and because it’s our first year of living in a home with a fireplace, we hadn’t stored firewood yet, but the logs we sawed this morning from tree limbs that fell into our driveway during the storm ignited fairly easily and have kept us warm. It’s reassuring to know that even without scurrying around preparing for a storm, we’re pretty well equipped to manage one, although I should also admit that not until this evening have I understood why people fill bathtubs and washing machines, and I’ll remember to do that in the future.

Waking this morning to the not unexpected realization that we were without power, my first thoughts were of the many duties I would not have to do today; a rush of welcome laziness swept over me, and I slept an hour later than I usually allow myself. I also keep thinking how relieved I am that this situation is the result of a weather system and not, say, a terrorist attack or an earthquake, something with far more profound implications than a simple snowstorm. Sunday was one of the most peaceful days I’ve had in months, maybe even in years. Rick and I cleared limbs and sawed logs together all morning; the kids, absent their usual temptations of TV and video games, shoveled snow together and then put my iPod on speaker and danced.

Later, we went to my parents’ house and played card games. In the late afternoon, my mother and Tim and I took a walk up to the soccer fields and around the cemetery. Back home, the four of us warmed ourselves around the fire.

It will get more challenging as the days pass, if the power isn’t soon restored. I won’t feel so peaceful or tranquil if I’m unable to meet my work responsibilities due to our Internet connection being down. (Even as I write this blog entry, it’s with the awareness I’ll have to find a hot spot to post it if we’re still lacking electricity in the morning.) But for now, all is dark and quiet. Tim remarked on the visibility of stars in the sky with no house lights around to detract from their glow. Like a 19th-century family, we all went to bed early, when the cold and dark simply made it unappealing to be up any later.

It’s all been said before. But this time, I had the chance to find out for myself what it was like. And for now, it’s a very serene moment in time for us.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Lost and found (no thanks to Tim)

I’ve written before about how much it bothers me to lose things. Materials objects, that is. I just feel that the material world is something you should be able to count on. People can be unpredictable. So can weather and natural disasters and political situations and boating conditions and reader response. But knowing that you’ll be able to find your keys wherever you last placed them – because they’re not going to decide to go for a walk, or have a change of heart about their fealty toward you, or decide it would be funny to hide – is something you should be able to count on. Object permanence matters to me; it’s one constant in a world of entropy.

And for that reason, I’m careful with objects. I pay attention to where I place things. “Is this where I’m most likely to look for it next time I need it?” I ask myself when I put something down. I’m mindful about having specific places for specific belongings and not mindlessly leaving things in places other than where they normally go.

So it was frustrating not to be able to find my pedometer chip yesterday morning. This is a little plastic oblong that plugs in to my iPod and tracks my mileage while I run. Unfortunately, since it’s about an inch long and white, it’s nearly invisible. So I always leave it in the same place, with my iPod and headphones, when I’m done running.

Yesterday, the fact that it wasn’t there gave me the feeling that something was ever so slightly wrong with the world. An object had picked itself up and gone away; that isn’t supposed to happen.

It wasn’t essential that I have it right away, but it’s so small and inconsequential in appearance that I knew if I didn’t find it quickly, it could simply be swept under a bookshelf or tracked outside with the dog or brought out to the recycling bin with the mail.

And as neurotic as it makes me sound, I felt a little off-kilter all day, knowing that a tiny fraction of my attention was diverted wondering where this little piece of plastic could be.

I told my 13-year-old about the problem when he got home from school. “So just keep an eye out for it,” I concluded. I expected relative indifference on his part, but to my surprise, he immediately started looking on the floor below the mudroom shelf. “I bet it’s either here or in the laundry basket,” he said.

“Why would you think that?” I asked.

“Because those are the only places it could have landed when I knocked it off the shelf last night,” he said.

A ha. A clue. “If you knocked it off the shelf, why didn’t you pick it up?” I asked him.

“Well, I looked for a minute, but I didn’t see it right away, so I figured it had to have fallen either on the floor or into the laundry basket under the shelf and you’d find it eventually.”

Exasperated but hopeful, I lifted a pile of clean laundry out of the basket. My odometer chip tumbled out.

“Tim, if you know you’ve knocked something off a shelf, look for it!” I said, incredulous not for the first time – more like the ten thousandth time – at the seemingly obvious truisms that need to be stated to 13-year-old boys.

“I figured it couldn’t be too far away,” he shrugged.

So now all is well. I have my odometer back and my faith restored in the material world. Tim has learned what I would have assumed was intuitive: if you drop something, pick it up. Okay, realistically, Tim probably has not learned that. But surely a mom can dream.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Lunch walks

Looking all the way back to the job I began one week after college graduation, in early June of 1989, I could trace my work history by job title. Or by salary. By immediate supervisor. By office address. By length of tenure.

But yesterday it occurred to me I could also trace my work history by midday walks. I’ve always appreciated the benefits of a lunch hour spent outside in the fresh air, taking a little exercise. And each workplace setting comes with its own options for lunchtime strolls.

When I worked in Boston, I’d walk over to the Public Garden and circle the Frog Pond and the Boston Common during the noontime hour. I’d watch tourists riding the Swan Boats. I’d see well-dressed Beacon Hill aristocrats stepping along carefully, carrying their little purses and walking their little dogs. I’d see Bullfinch architecture on the skyline and Freedom Trail landmarks along the way.

When I worked in Cambridge, I walked along the Charles River, from the Esplanade down to the Mass Ave Bridge or sometimes only as far as the Hatch Shell, where the Boston Pops play on the Fourth of July. At that time I worked for a big company and a lot of my co-workers liked to go walking as well, so we’d head out together and talk about anything but what was waiting for us on our desks when we got back.

When I worked in Waltham, walking was not a popular midday activity in my company. In fact, I’m not sure I ever saw anyone venture outdoors except to get to their cars in the parking lot. We were situated in an office park on a highway exit, so the surroundings were not exactly inviting, but some of the office parks around us had relatively appealing landscaping, with lawns and manmade ponds, and I even found a cut-through to a little suburban neighborhood that backed on to one of the parking lots. It was a neighborhood nondescript enough that it could have been featured in a study about what went wrong in the design of American suburbs, and I doubt even the people who lived there went for many walks around the block. But it was better than sitting in a windowless break room.

Using the standard of lunchtime walks as a framework, though, it’s obvious to me that I’ve figuratively won the lottery at this point. I’m self-employed and get to write all day; better still, I’m at home, where my so-called office – which is actually our kitchen alcove – looks into the woods. A trail from the yard leads into the state park, with over one thousand acres of trails.

So on days like yesterday, which was an absolutely perfect New England fall day, with cool dry air, an occasional gust of wind, and yellow leaves shimmering in the sunlight, my lunchtime walk consists of grabbing the leash, calling the dog, slipping a trail map into my jacket pocket and heading out.

And once I’m in the woods, deadlines and quotes and fact-checking don’t seem to matter so much. I can enjoy the scent of the forest, the rocks and pine needles and tree roots underfoot, the rush of water from the brooks that lace through the woods. The setting is far better than any of my previous office situations, but the joy of getting out in the middle of the day is the same.

Ultimately, that’s always been the purpose of lunchtime walks: to stop thinking for a little while about the work left behind. The woods, as Robert Frost observed, are lovely, dark and deep, but I have promises – and deadlines -- to keep. Still, it’s inspiring to know that as long as I keep up with my work, I can slip out to the woods again at lunchtime tomorrow.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Happy birthday

It was a perfect birthday.

Those years that your birthday falls on a weekend have an inherent advantage, of course. It’s much easier to feel special and have fun all day long if it’s a day you don’t have to get up early or go to work or keep a dentist appointment.

But yesterday felt special even within the realm of weekend birthdays. I spent the morning at brunch with 14 members of my family: my parents, my sisters, their husbands, my nieces and nephew, and of course Rick, Tim and Holly. I’d spent previous birthdays with various subsets of that group and always felt lucky to do so, but I don’t think I’ve spent my birthday with both my sisters since I was a teenager. So that in itself earmarked this as a wonderful birthday.

They weren’t actually in town for my big day but for my father’s 75th, which fell three days earlier. And I didn’t expect any fuss to be made over my birthday, after all the celebrating we’d done on Saturday evening in honor of his. But at Sunday brunch there were candles in the blueberry coffeecake and presents at the table, and I felt far more feted than I expected to.

My sisters and their families had to head to the airport and the highway once brunch was over, so I went to my friend Jane’s house to help her pack for her upcoming move. Packing my own house for our move last winter wasn’t much fun, but that’s because it seemed to go on endlessly and I had to make so many decisions along the way about what to keep and what to toss….and then too there was the prospect of unpacking all of these same items at the other side of the move. At Jane’s house, there was none of that: I was there only for an hour and simply did what she suggested without worrying about any of the details. It was downright enjoyable.

And then I went home, contemplated the dishwasher full of clean dishes and the dryer full of clean laundry, thought about which of the two I should start with, and then remembered it was my birthday. So I went for a 45-minute walk with the dog along the trails of Great Brook Farm State Park instead.

In the evening, Rick and the kids and I went out for dinner. Tim and I shared a piece of frozen peanut butter pie with fudge sauce. No explanation needed.

This birthday is not a particularly significant number for me – not one I want to admit to, anyway – but what a happy day. There were gifts, cards, phone calls and emails; delicious food; friends and family. Happy birthday, indeed.

Friday, October 21, 2011

An extraordinarily ordinary life

I am almost done with the memoir project I began last March. And even though the client I’m ghost-writing it for will be thrilled if we meet our goal of having it ready for her to present to her family at Thanksgiving, I’ll be a little sorry to see it end.

The project began when the mother of one of my high school friends said she wanted to talk to me about an idea she had in which she would preserve memories of her 75 years of life: her childhood, her teen years, but most importantly her relationship with her husband, to whom she was married for 50 years before he died in 2008. The impetus for putting all of this in writing came during her recent move from her own home to that of one of her grown sons. Faced with box after box of letters that she and her husband exchanged during his time in the military, she thought about what a keepsake it would be for her family and friends if she could just somehow make a book out of all of it.

To say I was reticent to get involved is putting it mildly. I agreed to meet with her only to recommend how she might approach the search for a good ghost-writer who could take this on, but I made it clear that the appropriate person was not me. During our meeting, I framed my sentences carefully. “The writer you end up working with…” I said, and “Once you find the right person to do the writing….” But I told her outright that I couldn’t take it on.

“Let me tell you a little bit more about what I’m thinking,” she said. “I just want to make it a simple story about what it was like growing up in Arlington in the 1930s and ‘40s. About walking to church, and playing violin in junior high, and having my first job at the Arlington sanitarium.”

My fingers started to twitch. The fingers that take notes on my keyboard when I’m interviewing someone for a story.

“And meeting my husband in a chance encounter on the beach a few days before my 18th birthday. Our first year in college. What Harvard was like in the early 50’s.”

I turned on my laptop.

“The excitement of getting engaged the night of my senior prom. My husband’s summer job collecting seaweed in a wooden dinghy in Plymouth Harbor. And then how it felt seeing him go off to Marine Corps officers’ training camp.”

With a sigh, I opened a new Word file. It was becoming increasingly obvious to me who was going to ghost-write this memoir.

Over the course of three months, I did about ten hours of interviews with my friend’s mother, and in between our weekly meetings, I’d review my transcripts and do a little editing. Finally, I started going through the letters she’d selected, letters she and her husband exchanged during three different summers that he attended Marine Corps officers’ training camp in Quantico, Virginia.

From our first discussion to my last edits of our current draft, which is nearly ready to be sent off to the self-publishing press we’ve chosen, I remained transfixed by this story. When I tried to tell a friend about it, she asked, “Did this woman have a really fascinating life?’

“No!” I exclaimed. “She had an ordinary life! But somehow that’s just what’s so fascinating about it: I’m getting such an in-depth look.”

What radio shows she listened to during lunch as a girl. How she and her mother traveled to Downtown Crossing by bus and subway to shop at Jordan Marsh. What she remembers about her first year of teaching. The engagement gifts she received. It’s all so everyday. But told by the person who lived it, it’s also all so interesting.

I suppose it’s not surprising that I find the story of an unsensational life compelling. As a freelance journalist, I’ve essentially made my career out of writing features about regular people doing interesting things. I’ve never covered celebrities or political figures or crime stories; I always seem to write about some aspect of daily life.

Soon the memoir will be printed, and my friend’s mother will give copies to her children and grandchildren. I wonder if they’ll like it as much as I do. I wonder if they’ll even read it as closely as I have.

To me, it’s a wonderful tale of a life well lived and even better remembered. To them, it may seem uninteresting: there was nothing spectacular or amazing about this particular woman’s 75 years. But I hope they see in it just what I did: an unforgettable story about the daily wonders embedded within an ordinary life.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Kids & Kindles

Yesterday’s feature in the Boston Globe about little kids developing a penchant for state-of-the-art electronics such as iPads and iPhones caught my attention. The issue isn’t exactly relevant in our household – at 9 and 13, my kids are considerably older than the toddlers and preschoolers described in the story – and when the kids were that age, we didn’t have iPhones or iPads (and in fact still have just one iPhone in our household and no iPads).

Coincidentally, though, just the night before, I had for the first time purchased a book for Holly on my Kindle. And I didn't do that without a fair share of rumination as to whether it was appropriate for my nine-year-old to be reading on a Kindle.

But my guess is that many parents make the reluctant leap to letting their kids e-read the same way I did: Holly had just finished a book and wanted the next one in the series in order to complete the twenty minutes of nightly reading that her teacher requires. And while I acknowledge that this sounds demanding on Holly's part -- wanting one book and one book only -- I've become used to it from Tim. When he's in the middle of a series, no book except the next book in the series will do. Switching over to reading something else for the sake of convenience -- such as, there's a copy of it right over there on the bookshelf, whereas the book he wants is at the library or the bookstore and we won't be able to pick up a copy 'til tomorrow -- is an option not even worthy of consideration.

And in Holly's case, it wasn't only that she'd have to wait until the next day for me to go to the library: the book she wanted was a brand new release from a popular series, and getting a copy of this high-demand read would take a while.

So I let her order up a six-dollar copy on my Kindle, and thirty seconds later she was reading. I watched her and thought about what I had done. For myself, I'm absolutely a Kindle convert: I love the convenience of carrying as much reading material as I could possibly want -- novels, reference materials, magazines, newspapers, notes of my own -- all on one little piece of plastic that weighs less than a pound.

But the sight of kids using Kindles gives me pause. I've never agreed with adults who shy away from e-readers saying they can't imagine enjoying the experience of reading without the feel and smell of an actual book in their hands -- to me, reading is reading, and why should I have the inconvenience of newsprint on my fingers or the weight of a hardcover in my purse? -- but I'm a little unsure as to whether kids are absorbing the full experience of reading, when no book is in hand.

When a friend told me both her kids, ages 12 and 13 at the time, owned Kindles, I said to her, "I'm not sure my kids would know what they wanted to read if they didn't browse through the stacks at the library." But she told me her kids use the New York Times Book Review section on children's books for recommendations, or they order books by authors whose work they've enjoyed in the past, or they use the "Customers who bought this book also bought" tab on to get ideas about what to load onto their Kindles next.

Or they go to the library, browse through the stacks, and find something they want to read, just like my kids do. Then they order it on their Kindles.

It still seemed a little strange to me, and to some extent, that's the point made in the Globe story about toddlers and preschoolers using iPhones, iPads and similar devices. Surely Holly needs to be immersed in the sensory aspects of reading a book -- the slippery feel of the cover, the heft of the volume, the nubbly texture at the edge of thr pages -- before she's ready to skip that part and go electronic. And seeing her sit there poring over my Kindle screen didn't give me the same twinge of delight that seeing her immersed in a real book always gives me.

Still, it enabled her to read what she wanted to read at that very moment. Admittedly, that might make it more a lesson in instant gratification than literary appreciation. And when she finishes this book, I'll encourage her to find her next one the old-fashioned way, at a library or a bookstore. But for now, what matters to her is that she didn't have to wait even twelve hours to find out what happens next in her favorite series of the moment. And to me, that's a certain kind of passion that I’m more than happy to fuel, whether it finds its resolution on the page or on the screen.