Monday, February 28, 2011

Doing good, doing writing?

While writing a feature story on a multigenerational project undertaken by a large extended family. I emailed my primary contact in the family to thank him for putting me in touch with his 81-year-old mother.

He responded that his mother had enjoyed the interview with me and ended his email with these simple words: “It makes her feel important.”

Not only the sentiment but his use of the present tense caused a pang deep within me. Not just that she felt important for the 20 or 30 minutes I engaged her on the phone, but that she continues to feel important; that my interest in a project that she and her husband undertook gives her an ongoing feeling of importance.

“Well, she should feel important!” I wanted to reply. “What she did is impressive!”

But as a journalist, I need to be more dispassionate than this. I can’t let myself believe that my primary purpose in writing is to bolster people’s sense of self. I write for the purpose of fulfilling the demands of the paying readership of the Boston Globe, not to make people feel good.

Objectively, I know that’s true. It would be disingenuous of me to claim I write features to affirm for individual subjects the value of their personal endeavors. If that were the case, I should be doing this on a volunteer basis, not as the cornerstone of my yearly income.

Yet I had the same feeling later in the week when a friend’s mother asked me if I might serve as a consultant (my word, not hers) on her imminent attempt to create a lasting work of memoir out of the letters she and her husband exchanged in college. I might indeed agree to take this on, regardless of my (yet unknown) sense of its literary value, because it might give me the opportunity to make a woman who has lived honorably and kindly for eight decades believe that her past matters, and this is a means by which she can pass her heritage of love and morality on to her grandchildren and their descendents.

And as I thought about it, I realized that in some small way, these thoughts were forming a quiet rejoinder to the accusation I often lob against myself that in my chosen career as a journalist – and, put in broader terms, my chosen life’s-work as a writer – I really do nothing to help anyone. I’m not teaching children or nurturing sick patients or feeding the hungry or raising money to protect the environment. I’m just…writing.

But sometimes I catch the briefest glimmer that my chosen work and the arena of altruism might not be as mutually exclusive as I sometimes imagine them to be. True, I get paid for the writing I do, other than the very occasional pro bono project such as a yearly publicity campaign I do for our local prison outreach program. Nonetheless, is it possible that in some small way, I’m wrong in thinking there’s no humanitarian aspect to what I do?

This reminded me of a conversation I had with my friend Tammie earlier this winter after I blogged here about a quotation by Howard Thurman, “Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive, and go do it. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.”

That just doesn’t sound right to me, I confessed in the blog entry. “Am I really allowed to believe that going snowshoeing for two hours is what the world most needs from me?” I wrote.

Tammie, who first introduced me to that quote while we were on a weekend retreat, responded to the blog entry, offering me further food for thought on the topic. She wrote, “Ask yourself these questions:

1) What is important to you? What do you want to do?
2) What does the world need?
3) At the intersection of those two - dive in and go for it. If either of those elements is missing, that's not the place for action or involvement.”

I wanted to think Tammie was right, because I want to think that those things I love to do – a list that would prominently include both snowshoeing and writing – fall into the category of improving the world. And so I read the email about the elderly woman I interviewed again: “It makes her feel important.”

I’m glad. She deserves to feel important and to feel that something she and her husband devoted their time to has the potential to make a lasting impression on thousands of people who will read about it in next Sunday’s Boston Globe. Just as the memoirist I’m going to start working with later this week deserves to know that her words can potentially impact the actions of her grandchildren and future generations.

It’s not an excuse to give up the kinds of volunteer work I find far less rewarding. I need to continue to find ways to help feed the hungry, protect the environment and fight injustice. But it’s a chance to feel that maybe I’m not quite as far off that mark as I had long assumed.

Friday, February 25, 2011

February vacation at home

Now it can be told: there have been years when I dreaded February vacation week. But right now I’m hard-pressed to explain just why.

Objectively, of course, I remember my reasons. Many families we know travel during February vacation because it’s really not a great time to be home in New England. We find plenty of ways to keep ourselves busy when we are home in the other three seasons each year. We bike, hike, walk, swim, boat; we play badminton, whiffle ball, Frisbee; we picnic; we walk to the ice cream stand.

Winter’s tough, though, really. Especially by February. Yes, there’s sledding and fort-building and snowshoeing to enjoy, but with five school cancellation days logged in the past six weeks, my kids have already done all of that – a lot. This week it just feels cold and icy, rather than wintry in an adventuresome or exciting way.

And yet it doesn’t really seem to matter. When both kids were much younger, I found it very hard to keep them occupied during February vacation. Many of their friends were away skiing or sunning, and the friends that did stay in town and came over to play seemed like just as much work to keep entertained as my own kids.

But everyone is growing older, and this year has been different. We’re actually having a great week at home. We’ve done a few little excursions, and Holly and I went with another mother and daughter up to Portland, Maine, last weekend, which kicked off the vacation week to a festive start, but for the most part the kids are just finding things they like to do around home. Holly asked me a couple of days ago to take her to the arts and crafts store; I spent less than ten dollars on materials that have kept her busy ever since, making collages, sculpture and mobiles. Tim plays on-line games with his friends, but he has also been exchanging emails with a girl in his class, playing nightly games of Uno with me, and even joining me in yoga DVDs a couple of times. Yesterday we each packed up a book and went to Starbucks for an hour of reading and hot chocolate.

So I don’t think at-home vacations are a cause for concern anymore. We’ve managed to avoid the staycation crowds at the bowling alleys and shopping malls, and yet we’ve also avoided the temptation to hole up all week going nowhere at all. I don’t think the kids will identify this past week as their favorite vacation of all time, but we’ve all had a good time, and they’ll end the week with happy memories: Holly has had a couple of afternoon playdates; Tim had one sleepover. I did a lot of cooking, including bacon, which my kids consider to be the only food you really need to make it a celebration.

I’m still hoping we go somewhere for at least part of the April vacation week, and even if we don’t, I hope the weather is warm enough for a lot of outdoor activity. But as February vacations go, this one has worked out pretty well for us.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

One question: Do the Tiger Mother's children make their own lunches?

I haven’t yet read the new book by Amy Chua, long known as a scholar within the legal and academic community but more recently achieving meteoric fame for her controversial parenting memoir, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother. I’ve read plenty of blog posts and articles devoted to the topic since the Wall Street Journal first excerpted it back in January, though, as well as numerous book reviews. And, of course, I read the Wall Street Journal excerpt itself.

But one question that remains unanswered for me is how much of a priority Amy Chua put on self-reliance. Because while I understand that she has proved herself nearly infallible at molding her children into straight-A students and musical prodigies, what I’d really like to know is how much she did for them and how much they learned to do for themselves along with the five-hour piano practices and the all-night study sessions. Could they make their own breakfasts or run a load of laundry? Did it matter to her whether or not they could?

It’s easy for me to say I don’t care that my kids, unlike hers, will probably never take the stage at Carnegie Hall; that’s far enough out of the realm of likelihood that I can afford to be nonchalant about it. What would make me as a parent envious – and what would probably make me subscribe to a different parenting approach from my own – is if it turned out her children were simply more self-sufficient, back when they were the age of my kids, than mine are.

I realize this is something of a recurrent theme with me, and when I gripe about it, there are always a few well-meaning readers who say “Well, you really could do something to change this, you know.” Yes, I complain a lot that Tim would rather stay thirsty than pour himself a glass of water if I’m not around to do it for him – and people respond with “So let him get a little thirsty.” But it’s hard to find a reasonable response to Holly’s perennial unwillingness to dress herself in the morning; I can’t just say “Fine, if you don’t dress yourself you won’t go to school today.” That wouldn’t get the job done, and she needs to go to school.

Yet it continues to vex me that morning after morning, she insists she needs my help in order to get dressed and brush her teeth, just as it vexes me that Tim will wait an hour or more after getting out of bed to have breakfast if I’m busy rather than just slide the bagel into the toaster himself.

As I often remind myself, I was not only able to do things for myself but was taking care of other people’s children as a regular babysitter when I was Tim’s age. Other parents trusted me at the age of 12 to make their children’s lunches and get them to bed on time, in unfamiliar houses; so surely this isn’t too much to expect of my own child. But it’s a very slow process around here. I’m trying to phase in one expectation at a time, and I’m making a little progress: Tim now understands he can’t have seltzer – which is almost all he drinks – unless he operates the seltzer maker, and if I ask two or three times he’ll set the table before dinner. Holly feeds the dog, when I remind her. But neither one of them is exactly brimming with initiative.

I don’t mean to complain; it’s just a point of comparison between my parenting priorities and those of other people. It’s not only author Amy Chua; I’ve observed in other families we know that kids who are developing significant talents in music or sports tend to have a lot done for them along the way. Maybe it’s just envy, but I have a sneaking suspicion that Amy Chua or someone under her hire was making sandwiches for her daughters and folding their laundry while they did their five hours of piano practice.

I realize it doesn’t have to be either/or; I’m just interested in looking at it as a matter of prioritization. I’ve been dressing Holly almost every day for eight and a half years; right now I’m more than ready to give up that particular pleasure. True, she hasn’t developed the self-discipline to practice a musical instrument or even study her multiplication tables for more than about fifteen minutes on end. But if she’d comb her hair and brush her teeth without me asking, and if Tim would make his own breakfast now and then, I’d feel that I’d conquered a quest of my own. The reward would for me seem even better than a headline at Carnegie Hall. Right now, anyway.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

The everyday-ness of feeding cows

Heading back from feeding the cows yesterday morning, I found myself musing. Why do I enjoy this so much? Why is it so satisfying, day after day? Why do I find no particular relief in having a couple days off from the duty, as I did last weekend when I went up to Maine leaving my husband and son with the barnyard chores? Why do I never accept my father’s offer to take a turn with cow-feeding, a job he did on his own here for more than two decades before I offered to take it on a couple of years ago?

It’s hard for me to explain why this job is so satisfying. Unlike dogs waiting to be fed, the cows don’t greet me with ecstatic displays of welcome; they just swing their big heads around to watch me enter the barnyard. Our dog jumps irrepressibly with excitement when we offer her the simplest gesture of affection; the cows and bulls, on the other hand, seem almost patronizing as they submit to a scratch between the ears when I walk amongst them, but they certainly don’t seek out my attention. They just wait stolidly for their bales of hay to be tossed down from the loft or pulled out from the back of the barn, and then they wander eventually over to the water trough to see that I’ve topped it off for them.

But leaving the barnyard always gives me a sense of accomplishment different from anything else I do during the day. Not a bigger sense of accomplishment, necessarily, but in some ways a more unequivocal one. And I suppose that’s because the job is physically demanding but also easy. I haul a few bales, turn some valves on the pump, take off my gloves to manipulate the chain closure to the gate, reach and stretch my arms and legs to climb up and down the hayloft ladder; but really it’s all easy. Very little can go wrong; it’s unlikely that on any given day I’ll find any of these simple processes impossible to execute.

So perhaps the satisfaction comes from that combination: knowing I’ve worked hard physically, but also knowing it’s more or less a sure thing that I’ll complete my task in the course of fifteen or twenty minutes. And when I’m done, I’ve filled that most primal of needs: provided food and water to fill an animal’s stomach. What could be easier, and yet what could feel more critical at the time it’s being executed?

Curious about how something so routine could continue to be pleasing, day after day, I resorted to the question I often pose to myself these days: WWHDTS, or What Would Henry David Thoreau Say? In his journal from 1841, I found this quote: “Routine is a ground to stand on, a wall to retreat to; we cannot draw on our boots without bracing ourselves against it.”

Is feeding the cows every morning the routine against which I brace myself as I draw on my boots to advance through the rest of the day? I like that image, the idea that the sturdy everyday-ness of this task fortifies me for whatever follows. Perhaps that’s the answer: I’m fortifying myself as I fortify the cows: them with hay and water; me with the routine of caring for them. Maybe they don’t show the overt enthusiasm of dogs at my arrival, but I know they wait for me every morning, and I know their day becomes better when I appear. And it might be that that’s enough.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

A midwinter distance run reassures

Over the weekend I was able to go running both Saturday and Sunday in Portland, Maine, where the temperatures were frigid and the wind biting but, unlike Carlisle, the bike path was cleared to bare asphalt, other than the many patches of ice scattered intermittently across it wherever the sun did not hit long enough.

This meant that I was finally able to do the kind of mileage run I’ve been missing all winter. Ever since our first major storm of the season on December 26, our footpaths have been buried, and I firmly believe it’s just too dangerous to run on the road when the snowbanks make it impossible to jump out of the way of an oncoming car. (Admittedly, I’ve broken this rule once or twice when the craving for a longer run was irresistible. But for the most part, I avoid the roadways when the snowbanks are higher than knee level, and as a driver I wish other runners would do the same.)

Being able to finish a four-mile, 45-minute run on Saturday reassured me that I still have the ability to do that kind of distance, even though I begin to doubt myself after eight weeks of putting in just enough time and distance – 13 to 18 minutes, 1.2 to 1.8 miles – to be sure I’m clearing the one-mile daily minimum required to maintain my standing on the U.S. Running Streak Association registry.

Even before I was a “streak runner,” though, I’d doubt my abilities by the end of the winter. I used to cease running altogether once the temperature regularly fell below about 40 degrees, and at some point in mid-February I’d always start wondering whether I was in fact still a runner. What if when spring finally came, I was a beginner again, unable to complete ten minutes without my aerobic capacity failing me?

What I always forgot at those times, though, was that there was another equally powerful force working against the possible lapse in fitness level: the craving to get back out on the road. I have friends who say the first day of warm air and snow melting in the early spring makes them want to buy new spring clothes or go for a bike ride; in my case it makes me want to put on running tights and a sweatshirt and hit the pavement. Now that I run daily throughout the winter, it’s different: my body doesn’t develop that same craving to run, since I never stop running, but there’s still a craving for distance, for the tired muscle ache I get after 40 or 45 minutes, for the awareness as I start out that I have enough time ahead as I run to empty my mind of other thoughts.

And it’s the same now. I’ve done such short daily runs all winter, I can’t help wondering what my abilities will be when the snowbanks finally recede. But this past weekend reassured me: a four-miler in the frigid harborside wind, having to dodge ice patches, confirmed that I can still do it. Although intellectually I believe it’s possible to get really out of shape and lose the facility for distance running, my body has proven otherwise time and again. I’m glad I had the chance to test myself over this past weekend, and I’m looking forward to regular runs of that length once spring arrives.

I would say “It’s like riding a bike,” but Tim has persuaded me that that’s a meaningless expression: as he sees it, everything is like riding a bike. He logically points out that you never forget how to swim, read or pitch a baseball, just as you never forget how to balance on a bike. And it’s not that I think I’ll forget how to run; I just think I’ll lose the ability to stay with it for any duration.

But I never do. Spring comes around year after year, and I’m able to start doing my four- and five- and six-milers again. It will happen again this year, just as it always does. The running of this past weekend tided me over, giving me reassurance and making me look with anticipation toward warmer days.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Disconnect while working? What an idea.

I find myself repeatedly drawn to articles on time management and frequently come away with the same conclusion: turns out I’m actually doing pretty well already. Compared with some of the problem cases described in the story, my time management system is functioning fairly impressively. Reading through the suggestions these articles usually include, I often find I’m already doing a lot of them – or have even better ones.

But, of course, reading self-improvement articles on topics at which we don’t necessarily need to improve is not so very unusual. Lots of people with positive eating habits and a good weight management plan read diet articles. People who operate successful businesses read articles about how to run a successful business. Experienced runners scan articles on how to establish a regular running routine, at least I do. And most likely there are other fairly well-organized people like me who still read any article they come across on the topic of time management.

So most of what appeared in this one was already second nature to me. Make the kids’ lunches the night before? Done. Organize a set of dinner menus for the week and then base your shopping list on those menus? Got it. Sort mail as well as the paperwork the kids bring home from school as soon as it comes in the door rather than letting it pile up? Absolutely.

There was one pointer in this article that rang a distant bell inside my head, though. It said to disconnect from the Internet whenever you’re working on anything that doesn’t absolutely require Internet contact. This was something of a revelation to me. I’ve already been working hard to disconnect from the Internet at times I’m not working – evening hours, weekends – and am relieved to see that practice beginning to take the form of a habit, as I learn to check my email at the beginning and end of the day on Saturday and Sundays and assume I can stay away from it the hours in between, just as on weeknights I now try to stay off line from about 6 to 9 p.m.

But disconnect right in the middle of the workday? That seemed almost counterintuitive: being connected to the Internet is part and parcel of my workday. I need to receive and send emails, check facts, research people and events. How can I do my work if I don’t have constant Internet access, I asked myself?

Yet right away it seemed obvious: How can you do your work if your wireless is disconnected? Well, probably faster and more efficiently. Writing does not require being on line, I reminded myself. Look up what you need and then go off and write the article. And yes, email correspondence is critical to my workflow, but not during the writing process. Hearing from my editor what my next assignment is or finding out when a source for a story is available to be interviewed is important, but it doesn’t affect the piece I’m currently working on; it affects a different assignment down the road, one I can focus on fully when I’m done with the story I have currently under way.

And inevitably, once I acknowledged that simple truth, I had to go a step farther and ask myself why it seems so important to receive emails while I’m working. If it doesn’t enable me to get my work done more effectively, then why is it a priority?

Well, I had to admit to myself, because being literally connected makes me feel metaphorically connected. When I hear from my editors, I know my work matters and the assignments will continue to flow in. When I receive emails from friends, I know someone is thinking of me. Even emails about volunteer work or committee participation assures me that I matter, that my presence is wanted somewhere.

But of course, even as I articulate that, I acknowledge how hollow it sounds. My sense of worth, both personal and professional, need to come from something more significant than email. I need to work on believing that friends and colleagues care about my presence based on the evidence around me, not based on the number of emails I get. If not receiving emails during the work day makes me feel lonely, I need to establish a better community of support, not leave my email on longer.

So that time-management article turned out to be a fruitful discovery, simply as a way of reminding myself to reprioritize. As the new work week starts, I will try keeping myself off line when I’m in the midst of a writing assignment. I’ll check back in when I’m done. And I’ll find out whether my fears are valid that I’ll be lonely if I’m not in constant cyber-demand, or whether I can find other signs to convince myself that my presence matters.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Nothing wrong with a little parental diversity

An article in yesterday’s Boston Globe about differing parenting styles and the arguments that sometimes result between mothers and fathers made me smile – and made me realize how long I’ve now been a parent. In the early months and years, these issues seem so important; as kids grow older, at least in my household, I dwell so much less on the differences in parenting styles between my spouse and me.

But that realization inspired me to wonder just why this is. Is it that over the twelve and a half years since our firstborn arrived, my husband and I have become more similar in parenting techniques? Is it because I’m used to our differences now and don’t notice them as much? Or is it that a decade-plus of parenting has taught me an inevitable and also invaluable lesson that the parents interviewed in this story don’t necessarily seem to have incorporated just yet: it doesn’t really matter all that much if Dad orders takeout pizza and forgets to serve fresh vegetables with it a couple of times a month, while Mom insists on three food groups per meal?

To the contrary, I would argue that when parents differ in their approaches, kids gain their very first insights into diversity and begin to perceive that not everyone is the same and not every adult looks at things the same way.

Had anyone told me during my first pregnancy that my son as a pre-teen would follow in his father's footsteps with an abiding interest in fantasy novels about knights and dragons, playing baseball, and competing with his friends in online video games, I would have blanched. Imagining early in my daughter’s infancy that by the age of eight she would know the difference between a Quarter Pounder and a Junior Whopper, thanks to Dad’s occasional drivethrough forays, would have been equally horrifying to me. And what’s more, he introduced them to American Idol and Survivor!

On the other hand, there are some aspects of his approach to parenting that I could only dream of emulating. When Dad says “Time for bed,” they go to bed; they don’t pull out five or six books that they expect him to read aloud the way they do when I’m in charge of bedtime. And even if he neglects to serve salad when he’s in charge of dinner, when he tells them to take their vitamins, they take their vitamins; when I give the same order, they begin vocally tallying how many days in a row they’ve gone without skipping a vitamin so could this day please be the exception to the rule.

But it’s not only about who has the more authoritarian voice. They also know that if I take them to the pool, they can play and swim all they want while I sit on the deck and read, whereas if it’s my husband in charge of the expedition, he’ll be in the water throwing them around and initiating diving contests.

My kids are eight and twelve now, and they’ve had plenty of opportunities – though certainly not as many as I might ultimately wish for them – to note the ways in which people think differently, operate differently, react differently. My guess is that for plenty of children, the differences between their parents are their first inkling as to how this works. Yes, being one hundred percent unified on every aspect of parenting may be a typical goal of expectant parents. But I imagine most learn quickly, as we did, how unrealistic that is. And in time, perhaps they too come to see that their kids end up all the better for it.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme

We’re in the depths of a snowy, icy, wintry February, and like so many other New Englanders, I distract myself with thoughts of what I’ll do when the weather is a little bit milder.

This year, I’ve decided, I’m going to try to grow window box herbs.

As with most new endeavors, I began at the library. More specifically, I began on the library’s website, reserving the first six or eight books on herb gardening that showed up on my screen.

Never mind that I’ll never find time to read six or eight books about herbs. Never mind that chances are at my level of gardening, which I would peg as extreme beginner, there probably isn’t all that much variety in the basic information I’ll need to get started. All of that not withstanding, when a project catches my attention, the natural first step is always to check out far more library books than I’ll ever be able to read on the topic.

Somewhat overwhelmed with the choices, I’ve decided I’ll start with the herbs I’m already accustomed to using: basil, cilantro, oregano, mint, tarragon, rosemary, chives. The ones that sound wonderful but that I don’t know how to use even if someone else has done the work of growing – lemon verbena, anise hyssop – can wait for another year.

It’s still winter, but I’m already imagining the herbs growing in their little boxes on the sunny deck. I’m imagining snipping off leaves as I cook, pinching a fresh oregano leaf into a tomato sauce, having all the cilantro I want when I make salsa. I can picture freezing or drying the herbs for when the growing season is over.

But so far, all I’ve done is check the books out of the library. That still leaves buying the seedlings, setting up the window boxes, hoping for the necessary sun exposure, supplying the right amount of water, and doing whatever else it takes to make herbs grow.

It’s easy to have good intentions when the ground is still frozen and the air frigid. Dreaming of a sunlit balcony overflowing with savory crops is one thing; learning how to make it happen is another. But in a way, the herb garden is like the yoga: something I finally resolved to try this year after years of intermittently entertaining the idea. And the yoga is going pretty well so far: I’ve stuck with it for nearly four weeks already. I’ll start now with the books about herbs, and in the spring I’ll buy the seedlings. If all goes well, we’ll eat fresh herbs all summer and continue to enjoy the preserved iterations long after. If all goes well, I’ll learn to be an herb gardener. It’s another goal that may or may not come to fruition. Time – and thyme – will tell.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Sometimes a falling tree is just a falling tree

Admittedly, I may have been looking for something that wasn’t there when I told a friend what happened to me yesterday morning. At 7:30 I drove Tim out to the road to catch the school bus. The wind had been blowing in gusts all night, and there were a lot of branches and twigs littering the driveway. Then I saw something much bigger than a branch, a limb that looked practically the size of half a tree trunk, that had snapped partway off a tree and was tangled in some branches overhanging the driveway.

Clearly it could fall at any time, and I wondered when it would fall and on whom. So I worried about it for over an hour, and then I went out for a run. Just as I was running toward it, with the wind still gusting, I heard a cracking noise, and I watched as very gradually the limb splintered away from the trunk altogether and tumbled into the driveway, right across my path.

I tried to move it and was surprised to find I actually could shove it most of the way to the side, and then I called my husband, who was just getting ready to leave the house, and told him to bring work gloves when he headed out because he would probably be able to move it the rest of the way to the side of the driveway.

“Doesn’t that sound like a parable of some sort?” I asked my friend when I was done with the story. “How I worried for an hour, and then what I was worried about happened, and it wasn’t that difficult to deal with? Do you think that’s what it means: that the time you waste worrying about something could be better spent just figuring out what to do if it happens?”

“Either that, or if you see a tree that looks like it’s about to fall down, it probably will,” he replied sagely.

He was probably right. It was mere coincidence that the tree fell just as I was approaching it. I’m guilty sometimes of looking for too many meanings. I want the universe to inform me in easy and obvious ways: with parables, with allegories, with metaphors obvious as, well, a tree falling in the forest.

Sometimes, though, lessons get transmitted in just a few words, not in slowly unfolding anecdotes that involve wind gusts and peril. On Monday, the man from the septic system company paid us a visit. Our system needed some routine maintenance done, but he explained to me he couldn’t do it that day because the ice was too thick for what he needed to do.

He said it might be possible on Friday because warmer temperatures were forecasted for the latter half of the week. “Tomorrow is supposed to be really cold, though, before any thawing begins,” I said.

“It doesn’t even matter if tomorrow is cold,” he replied. “The sun will be shining and the days are getting longer, and those two things alone are making the snow melt.”

I know he was just talking about drilling into the septic system. I really do. But I kept repeating his words to myself. “The sun will be shining and the days are getting longer, and therefore the snow will melt.” We’ve had nearly two months now of regular heavy snowstorms, ever since the day after Christmas; hardly anyone has been talking about melting, but here was the septic company technician, reassuring me that winter would soon subside.

It’s been a long, cold, snowy, icy couple of months, and I really hope he’s right. I know he was referring only to ice, literal, hard and cold, and not to anything on a symbolic level. But still I found it comforting and insightful, just as from the falling tree I took the message that it was better to figure out what to do if something happened than worry that it would. The sun is shining; the days are growing longer. Maybe sometimes symbols are too easy to find if you look hard for them. But for whatever reason, both messages helped me. So I won’t stop looking.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Holly culls her wardrobe

Holly went on a clothes-purging spree Sunday night.

On the one hand, this is better for me than a clothes-buying spree, which is more typical of what she usually does if given the opportunity. On the other, I was a little shocked by how many items ended up in the giveaway pile as she tore through her bureau drawers. When she was done, it appeared to me she’d kept about one-third of what she owns and opted to get rid of the other two-thirds.

I have to admit that I could see the method in her madness. As I’ve bemoaned many times over the past year, both in print and to any listening ear, both of my kids now limit their everyday wardrobes to about three or four different items per season. Holly started third grade wearing the same hoodie every single day and insisting that there was nothing unsanitary about it since she changed the t-shirt underneath daily. Much as I struggled to change that habit, it ended up that Mother Nature came to my aid: once we reached late autumn and it was chillier, Holly started wearing long-sleeved shirts and didn’t like the way the hoodie felt over those shirts, so she gave it up. But that only led to the problem that she was rotating among just three or four favorite long-sleeved shirts, and two or three pairs of pants.

Meanwhile, her bureau drawers were stuffed with other items I hoped she’d eventually be tempted by: colors (such as pink) that she claims not to like anymore; styles (such as straight-legged jeans) she says she finds uncomfortable; dresses that she says are too dressy. “My style is stylish but sloppy,” she informed me. “I don’t like clothes that make me look all neat and put together.”

Oh sure, who would ever want to look neat and put together? Well, me, for one. But as I’ve learned more times than I can possibly count over my twelve and a half years of parenting, our children are different people from us. And considering the genetics, who knew that any daughter of mine could ever hope to have any kind of defined style whatsoever – even one defined as “stylish but sloppy”?

Several of the garments Holly put in the discard pile were old favorites that she accurately recognized she’s begun to outgrow, but others were pretty dresses that she just isn’t interested in wearing. And somehow she’s managed to intuit the same closet-weeding rule that many of us have to tell ourselves over and over again: “If I haven’t worn it in the past year, why do you think I’m suddenly going to decide I like it?” she asked me.

Well, because tastes change as you grow up, and you’re growing up really fast, I wanted to tell her. Sure, that floral sundress from Talbot’s Kids might not appeal to you for right now, but starting in fourth grade, you’re going to have to dress up for the semiannual school concerts, and that dress would be perfect.

But at the same time, dresses for young girls really aren’t that expensive, and it will be fun to pick one out together when that time arrives.

In a way, I’m still conflicted. Two of my friends who heard about Holly’s wardrobe purge were impressed. “That's a good thing! Too many choices and options are what cause stress, so narrow it all down to the necessary basics!” my friend Desa said.

And I know she’s right: Holly is executing on a habit that many of us adults are still trying to develop. It’s true that if she needs something she doesn’t have – a concert dress, a pair of pink tights, a white cotton cardigan – I can buy it for her. At the same time, it’s not a very positive message in terms of conservation of resources to approve of her getting rid of things we might just end up replacing.

But the bottom line is that she’s developing a good habit by learning to cut down. “Gotta love a kid who learns the skill of de-cluttering early on. I'm still working on developing that in myself,” my friend Kathleen observed. So I won’t stand in Holly’s way. This morning, I scheduled a pickup from Big Brother Big Sister, which accepts clothing donations. If her tastes change in the near future, we’ll restock her wardrobe. Until then, we’ll just enjoy the sight of neat, almost bare shelves and closet racks, as Holly continues to wear her three or four favorite seasonal outfits.

Monday, February 14, 2011

A sheepish convert defends Facebook

Even as I said it, I could hear the defensive tone of my voice. “I am a Facebook user,” I told the six students in the essay-writing class I’m currently teaching for our local adult education program.

I can’t help it, though. I do feel a little defensive admitting it, in part because I was such a late convert that my own skepticism about Facebook espoused over the couple of years preceding the start of my membership last July still rings in my ears. Isn’t Facebook for kids? I used to think when middle-aged people like me mentioned it. Teens, college students, maybe twenty-somethings, okay. But middle-aged suburban moms?

Now, though, I’ll defend my use of Facebook with the best of them, even if I do so a touch sheepishly because it’s just so darn cliché to become a convert. I liked myself a little bit better when I showed some moral fiber, insisting that my only problem with the idea of Facebook was the time-suck aspect, and that I would join only after I’d managed to find time to read the entire New York Times every day.

Well, in all fairness to myself and to the spirit of compromise, ever since buying a Kindle, I’ve developed the good habit of reading the Sunday New York Times every week, if not the daily one every day. It’s a start, right?

My justification for Facebook, on which I spend probably five to eight minutes per visit, five or six times throughout the day, is that I’m a self-employed writer who sits at my kitchen table writing all day. The time I spend on Facebook feels uncannily similar to the time I used to spend in friends’ cubicles back when we all worked together in the same corporate environment. Back then, I had no trouble at all justifying the little sociability breaks with which we regularly interrupted our work day. I genuinely believed, and still do, that it perked us up and increased our mental energy to spend a few minutes every couple of hours discussing TV shows, current events, our horoscopes or office gossip in the midst of an otherwise long and somewhat tedious work day.

Now that I work alone, I do the same thing, only electronically. And in some ways it causes me to work more diligently, not less. Finish drafting the article about the new orchestra and then you can dash off a quick Facebook post, I tell myself, and the incentive works. Make those revisions to the medical website and then you can spend five minutes looking at the vacation photo album Jody just posted, I tell myself, and sure enough, that gets me back to work on the medical copy.

Moreover, in ways I never expected, Facebook has actually enhanced some of my existing relationships. Before I was a member – when I stood on the sidelines feeling a little bit scornful of Facebook users – I bought into the stereotype that it was just a way for people to banter with their high school sweethearts. But in fact, I find it much more valuable in helping me to keep track of and better get to know the local friends I run into all the time. Even in this small town where some of us cross paths two or three times a day – at the library, at afterschool pick-up, at a committee meeting -- sometimes it’s hard to get past the daily small talk in these regular encounters. I’ve known Karen well enough for casual “What do you think of the second grade project” chatting for years, but were it not for Facebook, I wouldn’t have known that she lost her mother when she was still a teenager. I see Tom almost every week at church, but the subject of his recent trip to Barbados never came up there. Reading on Facebook about the people I see regularly anyway helps me to get to know them better.

And sometimes it’s more serious than that. Last year was the first year following my friend Emily’s father’s death, and she wasn’t shy about posting her feelings when she was having a particularly difficult day. That made it easy for her friends to be supportive, whether by a return Facebook post or an actual visit. But it would have been hard both emotionally and logistically for Emily to communicate to so many individual friends that it was one of those times when she was feeling particularly low.

So I admit, my earlier contempt was misplaced. Yes, I’m on Facebook. Not for more than a few minutes, several times a day, but I’m there. Checking in on my friends, touching base with long-time acquaintances, keeping track of my nieces in Germany. For a work-at-home writer, it’s both office water cooler and village well: something that brings us all together. I’m glad I’m there.

Friday, February 11, 2011

The yoga project, two weeks in

It’s good to remind myself that I’ve always believed the self-help maxim that it takes three weeks to instill a habit. Yoga doesn’t feel like a habit yet, and that was bothering me until I looked at the calendar and discovered I started trying to fit in two or three sessions a week just two weeks ago, and not three weeks ago as I’d thought. Of course it’s not a habit yet! I told myself. Wait another week, and it will be!

Well, I hope so. Much as I question my self-judgment sometimes in having allowed both running and journaling to become a never-miss-a-day compulsion – an approach I decided from the outset I would not replicate with the yoga practice – I have to acknowledge that being flexible with the repetition of yoga is a little bit of a detriment to making this feel habitual. My goal is to do a yoga DVD session two or three times a week, and so far I’ve done that. But the lack of rigor as far as sticking with a firm schedule compels me to question whether it really has the potential to qualify as a habit or not.

Of course, it doesn’t really matter whether doing yoga a few times a week qualifies it as a habit or merely an occasional practice. What matters for the sake of my deciding to try to take up yoga is whether it feels worthwhile. And so far it does, although I still have the occasional uncertainty.

Having been a runner for so long, and before that an aerobics and weight training practitioner, I’m still struggling with the fact that yoga doesn’t promise results that are nearly as fast nor as quantifiable as these other pursuits. Losing weight would be nice and is certainly possible with yoga, but is hardly a guarantee the way it almost is when you take up running. Seeing physical changes that result from the practice is again more of a long-term probability than something likely to happen in the first month, as with aerobics or weight training. I’d like to think my flexibility is gradually improving, but that’s hard to measure at this point also.

What has changed already, though, is how I feel about yoga. For years, I didn’t think it was something I’d ever choose to devote time to practicing. And yet in just the space of two weeks, I’m already finding myself looking forward to the workout on those afternoons when I do put aside the time for it. Very slowly, my mentality about exercise seems to be expanding. Running, which I’ve done so much of for so long, is about hitting the pavement (or gravel) and propelling forward: fast, hard, steady, relentless. Yoga, as I perceive it just a half-dozen sessions in, makes me feel like I am opening up, stretching out, embracing something.

And as I thought about this yesterday, I realized that latter feeling might be just what I need more of in my life right now. More slow opening-up , reaching out, embracing: to ideas, to possibilities, to efforts, to people. Less tucking my head in and barreling ahead, as I do in running.

Last month I was writing in my journal about how much ground I’d covered in terms of my work in the year 2010. I’d gained new clients, increased my workload with existing clients, and published a book. I worried that 2011 couldn’t live up to the same standards. I have no book in mind to write; I’m not even working very hard to find new clients right now. And then it occurred to me that my creative or professional success might not operate on a continuum. Moving forever upward and onward might not be either possible or sensible. If 2010 was about accomplishing and producing, 2011 might be about something else, something more along the lines of reflecting and assessing. And somehow yoga is starting to feel to me like the physical embodiment of that process, just as running seems to represent progress and linear development.

So even without metrics such as weight loss or amount bench-pressed, I’m committed to continuing my practice of yoga. I wish I could see quantifiable results, but for now, the results seem to be all in my head, and as long as they’re there, that’s good enough.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

A 12-year-old takes flight

Since winter is currently the only season that my 12-year-old does not participate in a baseball league, this is typically hibernation time for him, since he’s never been a joiner in any of the other extracurricular activities that some of his classmates enjoy: Boy Scouts, chess club, symphonic band. Tim’s interests are narrowly focused, Much as I may wish it were not the case, and he savors afterschool time without structure.

So I was pleasantly surprised when he mentioned that he was interested in taking an afterschool class this winter that he’d heard other middle schoolers talking about: flight simulation class. It’s offered as part of our school’s Science/ Technology/ Engineering/ Math (STEM) enrichment program and involves a local dad in town who is a licensed pilot setting up flight simulators in the library and teaching kids about the mechanics and physics of flight.

Needless to say, this offering is a big hit with the middle school boys, though I’m sure girls have signed up as well at some point. I was delighted to sign Tim up; it was encouraging to see him developing an interest in something other than sports and fantasy fiction about knights and quests, not that there’s anything wrong with that.

But I found it hard to say “Tim’s taking a flight class” with a straight face, even though I knew how politically incorrect the joke was: the whole idea of a flight class reminded me of the September 11th hijackers and the flight instructors from the Midwest who later told investigators that no, they did not see anything unusual about men who specified that they needed to learn only how to fly horizontally and not to take off or land. (Related to that, when I was first getting to know my friend Patricia, whose husband is a licensed pilot and frequently flies their family of four around the country, I was surprised that she had no interest in learning about flying. “What if he has a heart attack at the controls?” I asked her. “Shouldn’t you at least take a class in how to land a plane? Hey, maybe you could split tuition with hijackers-in-training: you can do the takeoff and landing classes and let them take the sessions in the middle.” As I said, I acknowledge how tasteless all of this is.)

In any case, Tim is caught up in the excitement of learning to use flight simulator software, and it seems to me like an ideal antidote for a twelve-year-old with cabin fever. The class meets twice a week; he climbs into the car after each meeting to tell me about which simulated flight path they attempted, which national or regional airport he “landed” at, and what new details he learned about the physics and engineering underlying the basic principles of aviation. My child may be somewhat self-restricted in his interests -- at this rate, he’ll never earn the label of Renaissance man – but that only makes it all the more exciting when something captures his imagination.

When my children were little, I felt like I knew everything about their interests simply by watching them play. Now that they are older, I sometimes wish I had more direction over what they devote their time to. I’m sorry that Tim gave up trumpet lessons this year, and I’m really hoping he’ll agree to sign up for the social dance program that starts next month. As for flight simulation class, all tasteless jokes aside, I’m not sure whether I would have chosen it for him, but I certainly don’t oppose it. I’m happy to see him learning a new skill. Besides, it could come in really handy if he ever goes on a flight with my friend Patricia and her husband.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Peer pressure? There's an app for that!

Occasionally, when I receive text messages from my son asking me to pick him up at the bus stop a quarter-mile from home because it’s cold and snowy, I’m tempted to tell him that when I was his age I had no cell phone and had to just hope my mother would happen to drive by as I reached the bus stop. It’s the circa 2010 version of “When I was your age, I walked five miles to school in a raging blizzard every day.”

But in general, most of the technological innovations that my kids take for granted seem like nothing but progress to me. I like the fact that we receive emails when there’s a snow cancellation rather than sitting by the radio for a half-hour listening to the alphabetical listing of towns. I like that my kids can stream pre-approved movies via Netflix rather than just flipping on the TV and watching whatever’s airing. I also appreciate the fact that since my 12-year-old has a cell phone, he and I don’t squander time searching each other out at dusk after an extracurricular activity on the school campus. If he exits the building after a sports practice or club meeting and doesn’t see me, he calls or texts and I tell him where I am. It’s that easy.

But yesterday I finally came face-to-face with an innovation that made me feel like the crotchety old grandfather saying “In my day, we used to...”

In this case, it’s this, assuming “my day” was any segment of my adulthood up to and including the present: In my day, when a group of friends wanted to go out to eat, we would discuss who wanted to go where and make the decision based on majority rule, proximity of the location, lobbying efforts, or any of a number of other factors. In my day, when the family had the opportunity to go on vacation, we asked other people for suggestions, read travel articles, and thought about the places we’d heard of that tempted us. In my day, we used our analytical skills and judgment to decide whether or not we felt like seeing a movie.

Not anymore, thanks to a brand new iPhone app called Cloudy. As Cloudy’s ad copy puts it, “Need help making a decision? Let your friends decide for you! Cloudy lets you quickly and easily ask groups of friends for their opinions....Pick friends from your contacts...and Cloudy will text them your question. Cloudy displays the responses to your yes/no and multiple-choice questions, and allows you to easily send your decision back to your friends. So go ahead - let your friends decide!”

So much for the heretofore all-purpose “If all your friends decided to jump off a bridge, would you?” approach to negating peer pressure. Now there’s an app that actually promotes letting your friends decide what you should do!

I understand that Cloudy isn’t presumably intended for pre-teens. It’s an iPhone app, and iPhones are still primarily the domain of adults. But our kids generally end up using the technology we rely on, and I worry about the inferences they will draw. Imagine growing up never having to negotiate with friends over whose turn it was to decide what game to play or try to persuade your parents that a ski vacation was a way better idea than a tropical getaway. Worse, imagine not knowing that decisions like that could be worked out by persuasion, debate, passion, manipulation, emotional blackmail – any number of tactics both positive and negative that most of us develop over the course of many decades of group decision-making.

I don’t mean to suggest that I’m immune to the value of online tools that help groups make decisions. When I was hosting the annual holiday cookie exchange party last December, my friend Mollie introduced me to a terrifically helpful tool called that enabled each guest to cast a vote for which date we should hold it.

As I sat back and watched the choices tally themselves, I was delighted to be required only to send out the final consensus – “Wednesday the 14th it is!” – rather than have to take responsibility for decisions like whether a fourth grade band concert was more or less critical than a volunteer firefighter training session, or whether it was more important to me to have the close friend who makes mediocre holiday cookies attend versus the new acquaintance who has a degree in pastry science.

Yes, there are definitely times when it’s wonderful to turn the process of making a judgment call over to an algorithm. But I do hope the new Cloudy app doesn’t take over the world too quickly. My kids still need to learn that sometimes you still have to weigh the pros and cons – no matter whether the decision in question is sushi versus barbeque or sleepaway drama camp versus accelerated pre-calculus summer school – and call it as you see it. In your heart, not on your screen.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Chair share

Some time not too long after kickoff for Sunday’s Super Bowl, I came across an unexpected sight: my two children nestled together in an oversized , cushioned wicker chair.

We were at a very large party, one we attend every year. By the host’s estimation, there were 40 to 50 kids in her house and two-thirds that number of adults. It was a big house, but it was also a lot of people. When the buffet dinner was served just a few minutes before game time, people helped themselves and found a spot wherever they were comfortable, based on their level of interest in the game: serious football fans parked themselves in front of one of the three TVs playing throughout the house; mildly engaged fair-weather fans (as in “I’ll pay attention once the playoffs start”) stood in a loose circle around those gathered in tight by the TVs; those who cared more about eating than watching sat at a table or at the rec room bar (in case it’s not clear, this big house is extremely well furnished).

There was room for everyone, but wherever you went, there were a lot of people. My 8-year-old and her 12-year-old brother had filled their plates, with a little help from me, with chicken wings, hot dogs, rolls, salad and chips and wandered off in search of a place to perch. But I didn’t expect them to choose the spot where I found them a few minutes later: together in a wide comfortable chair.

With the overbearing interest that mothers devote to the sibling relationships of their children, I wish I could have overheard the conversation or witnessed the choreography that led to their sitting down. Did one of them say, “Here’s a chair big enough for both of us!”? Or, more likely, did one grab the chair and yield half of it only at the other’s insistence (which I knew would have taken the form of stern threatening if it were Tim and nails-on-chalkboard whining if it were Holly)? When my sisters and I were my kids’ age, we used to call this “chair-sharing,” and as I remember, we often did it with jollity, although my guess is that there were other occasions with chair controversies that I’m conveniently forgetting.

In any case, it pleased me beyond reason to see the kids elbow to elbow, eating their Super Bowl fare. Tim and Holly are four years apart in age, and in general they get along fairly well for siblings. When people comment on this, I often say that being as far apart in age as they are and different sexes, there’s very little for them to compete over. Nonetheless, the flip side of not having a lot to fight over is sometimes not having a lot that binds them. They enjoy different hobbies and sports, play with different toys, and aren’t particularly interested in each other’s friends.

But like most parents, I put a great deal of stock in finding evidence that they care deeply about each other. When I was growing up, I didn’t really understand why it bothered my mother so much when my sisters and I quarreled, which we did fairly often: where the three of us were each two years apart and all girls, we had none of the safeguards that protect Tim and Holly. As I remember it, there was plenty over which to argue.

And I didn’t see why my mother cared. It was between us. But now I get it. It’s not just the annoying sound of kids sniping at each other: it’s the profound awareness that when all is said and done, siblings are often each other’s last resort. When friends and partners fail you, it’s only normal to look toward your siblings. And so as children grow, parents naturally look for evidence that their children are building that kind of support system for each other and take longlasting comfort from believing in a bond that will sustain their children through whatever each one is destined to face.

I may be putting too much stock in the simple act of finding my children sharing a large chair, but still, the sight stayed in my memory long after the dinner was over and Tim had gone off to play ping pong with a friend. I don’t know what kind of negotiation if any led to the chair-share, but whatever it was, whether intrinsically harmonious or initially explosive, the kids worked it out themselves. And seeing this fleeting moment, two kids sitting pressed up against each other as they eat chicken wings, gave me a welcome pang of hope for their shared future.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Every weekend, "Things to Accomplish" does battle with "Things Accomplished"

From the perspective of pitting Things Accomplished against Things I Intended to Accomplish, weekends often seem like a small recurrent allegory for the challenges of life as a whole. On the larger scale, both categories are regularly on my mind – the Things I Intend to Accomplish being along the lines of writing another book, reading the works of the Transcendentalists and taking up strength training, while the Things Accomplished list includes giving birth and developing a writing career.

But on the much, much smaller scale, each weekend has its own lists, and my hope is always simply that by Sunday night I’ll be able to believe that there’s some general sense of balance between the two.

But there never really is. Almost by its very nature, the Things to Accomplish list always outweighs the Things Accomplished, and this weekend was no different. I made several desserts late Friday afternoon and then completed the rest of my preparations for a Farewell Party I was hosting that evening for a friend who is soon moving out of town. Naturally, I overestimated quantities; we have far too many desserts left over, but the baking, the party planning and the party itself can be moved over to my Things Accomplished list, so that’s satisfying. On Saturday I did what felt to me like a lot of housework but doesn’t appear to be much at all when I compare it to all I wanted to get done. Sure, I cleaned up the kitchen from Friday night’s get-together and I ran one load of laundry and folded another, but I didn’t remove the tiny light bulbs that need to be replaced in the oven and microwave as I’d hoped to. I didn’t go through all the boxes stashed in the darkest corner of the attic that are crying out to be sorted. I ran my daily mile, but I didn’t get to those yoga DVDs.

On Sunday I accomplished planning a Sunday school class – it’s my turn to teach Holly’s age group for the next few weeks – and I took the car to the car wash, but that too was nothing compared to what I hoped to get to, which ran more along the lines of reading the New York Times, going snowshoeing, helping Holly to clean out her toy box.

Still, as the weekend ends, I remind myself of the valuable and important moments that end up on neither list. I spent a really convivial four hours with old friends on Friday night. I visited with 50 or so Carlisle acquaintances at a Super Bowl party on Sunday. I took care of children, animals and spouse: all moments whose long-lasting value should not be overlooked, even if they are not as practical as folding laundry.

It’s unclear to me where the fine line is between self-acceptance and complacency. I’m not sure if I should feel good about the party I hosted and happy I had the chance to catch up with still more friends Sunday evening or whether I should focus on all I didn’t do. True, we didn’t fit in any family yoga time this weekend, but I played cards with Holly and helped Tim with some homework; is that good enough?

In the end, both conclusions are probably valid: it’s good to take satisfaction in what you accomplished, and it’s also good to keep striving to improve. I’ll try again for yoga and Thoreau next weekend. For now, I’m still feeling happy about all the time I spent with family and friends over the past couple of days. Surely the oven light bulbs can wait a few more days to be replaced.

Friday, February 4, 2011

Should a middle schooler email a teacher?

Following a recent eye exam, the pediatric ophthalmologist told us Tim did not need glasses but should ask his teachers to be seated in the front half of the classroom if possible. I emailed this request to the sixth grade team leader, who responded with assurances that this could be easily accommodated. A few days later, Tim was frustrated over his social studies homework. His teacher had told the kids to answer some questions about current events in Egypt as listed on a website associated with her class assignments, but Tim couldn’t find the link she had referred to. “Mom, can you email Ms. Rooney and ask her where it is?” he asked. I dashed off a quick query to Ms. Rooney, and she wrote back almost immediately verifying that she had in fact given the kids the wrong link. She gave me the corrected version and Tim went on to do his homework.

Both of these experiences gave me pause. Normally I consider the relationship between student and teacher to be sacred. Except for the few assignments that the elementary schoolers take home which are labeled “family homework,” I believe the kids should be responsible for communicating with their teachers about anything related to school absent the benefit of parental intervention.

At the same time, I wasn’t comfortable telling Tim to email his teachers. Every teacher at our school has a published email address and encourages parents to use this as a form of communication, but it seemed inappropriate for me to tell Tim to email his teacher. Not off-the-charts inappropriate, just mildly inappropriate. It just seems strange to me for a kid to email a teacher, as strange as it would have been when I was a student for a student to call a teacher on the phone. Yet I don’t necessarily know that the teachers feel this way; nor would I perhaps feel this way if my son was in high school rather than middle school.

Most likely, education is just another of the many arenas in which our (or at least my) general grasp of common etiquette has yet to catch up to social media, particularly regarding the sometimes awkward triumvariate of student, parent and teacher. Last summer, after I joined Facebook, one of the names that appeared on the “People you may know” listing was that of someone who’s been a friend for the past several years, ever since he was Tim’s third grade teacher. I clicked on “Send friend request” and only after he’d accepted it did I remember he was also Holly’s teacher for the upcoming year, and it might seem awkward to have her teacher reading my Facebook posts (though he would be the first to assure you he doesn’t read all my posts; who could possibly be expected to keep up with my verbosity?).

After the school year was under way, I would often forget he was a Facebook friend and realize only midway through a posted exchange in which other parents and I kvetched about an annoying and time-consuming third grade assignment that it was all visible to him.

I’ve read a raft of articles in recent years about college deans who are astounded by how over-involved the parents of incoming freshmen are in their children’s lives. They rail at the inappropriateness of parents calling their offices to complain about a rooming situation or a course load rather than having the students fight their own battles. I doubt I’ll ever be like this; I tend to lean the opposite way when it comes to expecting my kids to do their own dirty work, and from that perspective it seems reasonable for a kid to send an email to a teacher. At the same time, recent media coverage of schools that prohibit teachers from friending students on Facebook (or vice versa, by definition). But in some ways, we’re still testing the waters when it comes to social media, and I’m just not sure where a sixth grader emailing his social studies teacher falls on the spectrum of acceptability.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

A new culinary tradition for snow days

We’ve long had a tradition that when the kids have a snow day, I make bacon for them. It’s a cozy and pleasing habit: they love the taste and I like the way it makes the house smell for the rest of the day. I’m a fan of food-related traditions in general, so I’ve always found it satisfying to have one special food dedicated to snow days. And true, bacon is not good for them from a nutritional standpoint – “salted fat,” as a friend of mine referred to it recently – but surely for a special treat it’s okay. After all, if they have it only on snow days, how often are they really going to get to indulge?

Well, once or twice a week this winter, it turns out. And yesterday morning, as we embarked upon our fifth snow day in three weeks, I told them we’d have to skip the obligatory bacon. “It’s just getting to be too much,” I told them. “Thirty years from now, your doctors will ask you how you developed such a bad cholesterol problem and you’ll have to say, ‘Remember how much snow we had in the winter of 2011?’”

The kids took it pretty well. Either they’ve grown mature enough to accept the occasional disappointment, or they’ve grown old enough to appreciate a nutritional hazard when they see one, or else we’ve actually had so many snow days that they’ve reached the previously unimaginable point of being tired of bacon.

But we needed some kind of gustatory observance of the day, some ritual to mark the special ambience of a snow day even if snow days feel more like the rule than the exception this winter. “How about chocolate mousse?” Tim suggested.

That gave me an even better idea. “I’ll make something for you that I used to love when I was your age,” I told them, and pulled out my mom’s recipe for Pots de Crème. I instructed Holly to fetch from the china hutch the tiny covered porcelain pots that are specifically dedicated to this particular dessert. They are the same dishes we used for Pots de Crème when I was growing up, and because back then it was my favorite dessert, my mother gave me the set of dishes once I was an adult. Holly uses them occasionally for tea parties, but I couldn’t remember ever making Pots de Crème in them for my kids.

It’s an easy recipe, and as I whirred the chocolate in the blender and heated milk to a simmer, I reflected on how much delight I had gotten from this dish when I was little. Ineffably rich and concentrated in its dark chocolate taste, it’s one of the few desserts that works perfectly as single servings in these miniature white and purple-sprigged dishes; it’s so rich that no one asks for seconds. And there’s just something so special about a dessert served in its own dish, topped with a little lid as if what’s inside is a secret until you’re ready to taste it.

Like everything my mother made when I was growing up, I assumed this recipe was standard special-occasion fare in every household – until, when I was in second grade, my class put together a cookbook with each child’s favorite recipe. Within days after we all brought our photocopied (actually mimeographed) cookbooks home, other parents were stopping me on the school plaza to tell me how much they liked my contribution. It was the first time I’d discovered the social currency of a really great recipe.

We ate our Pots de Crème after dinner last night. When I was growing up, my mother even had tiny spoons to serve with it; I don’t, so we used regular teaspoons and savored every bite. My guess is we’ll make this specialty again on future snow days. It doesn’t fill the house with an aroma the way bacon does, but it definitely makes the day feel like a special occasion.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

In praise of schoolbus drivers

My relief was almost palpable, a sensation as restorative as a deep cleansing breath or a nap. Holly’s bus, 25 minutes late, was pulling up to the end of the driveway. All I needed to do was get her into the car and get the car four-tenths of a mile down the driveway and back into the garage and both kids would be safely home from school. I scraped the half-inch of new snow that had fallen in the time I’d been waiting off the windshield and told Holly to buckle her seatbelt even though we were on our own driveway because it was so slippery and I didn’t want to take any chances.

During the seconds-long interval that the bus idled on the road while Holly clambered down the steps, I tried to express to the driver how much I appreciated what she had done on that particular day. The snow was teeming down and had been since her second morning shift. With Holly as her last stop, she was on the final leg of the second of two successful round trips on one of the snowiest days I could remember in years. Turning the car around to head home, I couldn’t get over the relief of knowing both kids were safe at home.

And I couldn’t stop thinking about the amazing service the bus drivers perform on days like this. Yes, it’s what they’re trained to do; yes, it’s the job they’ve chosen for themselves. But still. I’m not sure I could operate a school bus in the most ideal weather conditions possible; I can’t imagine having to drive one along Carlisle’s narrow, winding, half-plowed streets on a day like this. The fact that we’ve had so many consecutive storms in the past couple of weeks make it even worse: the snowbanks are so high that visibility is reduced significantly on every turn and curve of the road.

Our bus driver, Cheryl, is new to our school this year. The kids like her. She always greets them when they climb onto the bus in the morning, and she always waves at me when she opens the door in the afternoon to let Holly out. We gave her a tin of homemade candy for Christmas; she’s the first bus driver we’ve ever had who wrote me a thankyou note and sent it to our home during the vacation week.

So I’m impressed with Cheryl even on the best of days, but never more so than on a day like this. I can do a lot of things for my kids, but I can’t drive them safely home on a school bus in the snow. She can, and has proven that several times this winter. I don’t know her at all, but I imagine there must be elements within her that are courageous, calm and physically strong. She has a tough job to do on a day like yesterday. Having to wait an extra 25 minutes for Holly to get home – 25 minutes that Cheryl spent negotiating the backroads of Carlisle in the most treacherous of conditions – only deepened my admiration for her abilities and those of all the other school bus drivers responsible for kids’ safety on a day like today. It’s not something I could do, but I will be forever grateful and impressed that they can.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

School dances, iPods, and me in the middle

It wasn’t exactly synchronicity as much as coincidence that landed me early last month with the two duties on the same weekend: chaperoning my first middle school dance for my 12-year-old son and his peers, and teaching my 71-year-old mother to use her new iPod.

“Which one will be more likely to make me run screaming from the room?” I mused on Facebook. And this, to my husband: “If I wake up Monday morning with a head of gray hair, you’ll know it was one or the other: either the dance or the iPod tutorial session.”

The staff member from the recreation department who provided an orientation to the chaperones fifteen minutes before the dance began made it clear that our main duty was to make our presence known. We wouldn’t be administering breathalyzer tests or peering under stall doors in the bathrooms, he assured us: any potential trouble of the sort that these particular middle schoolers are likely to get into tends to dissipate instantly when they see an adult approaching. “If you see kids scatter when you walk up, you’re doing your job right,” he advised us.

He also noted we had been wise to choose a winter month to fulfill our yearly chaperoning obligation. In the warmer months, he said, chaperones have to monitor the exterior doors because kids tend to try to slip in and out of the building during the dance, which is against the rules; but on a January night with temperatures in the teens, he didn’t expect this to be a problem. And as soon as the kids started arriving, I could see why he was so sure of this: boys and girls alike were dressed as if they were headed to the beach, with t-shirts, tank tops, camisoles and spaghetti straps. Had any succumbed to the temptation to slip outside, the punishment would have been dealt by Mother Nature, not by a chaperone, in the form of probable frostbite.

One significant difference between dances when I was their age and now is the recognition that kids who don’t feel comfortable dancing should still have a reason to go. So now, two activity rooms are open side-by-side: one for dancing and the other for games of basketball, ping-pong and Wii. In addition, there are tables in the hallway for chess players. Chess at a school dance? Something for everyone, indeed.

But in the course of the evening, I also discovered that this particular setup gives a whole new raison d’etre to middle school dances. Far more than any time spent dancing in Room A or playing basketball in Room B, the majority of the kids spent their time trotting up and down the hallway to see what was going on wherever they currently were not. Back and forth, from one room to the other, with the occasional bathroom stop for the girls (in groups of no fewer than five or six, naturally): the main activity of the night could most accurately be summed up as Seeing Who Is Where. No doubt it’s clear at that age that whichever of the two rooms you’re in, there’s always the strong possibility that you’re missing out on something much more interesting in the opposite room.

The next morning, my ears still buzzing slightly, I headed to my parents’ house to give my mother the first of what would eventually become a dozen or more (and counting) lessons in using her iPod.

I give her credit for effort. I imagine it can’t be easy to learn this kind of technology when you’re in your 70’s. So far, we’ve gotten as far as turning on the iPod and switching from one album to the next. Yes we still have a lot of ground to cover, but Mom is sticking with it, and she turned out to be better than I am at navigating the iTunes store.

I’m proud of my son for having the self-assurance to dance within view of his chaperoning mom, and I’m proud of my mother for approaching new technology with verve, if not a whole lot of comprehension. I like to think these experiences make me part of a sandwich generation. From dances for pre-teens to iPods for senior citizens, we all – myself included – seem to be reaching new stages every day, and I feel lucky to be in the middle, assigned the challenging and ever-intriguing role of facilitator.