Thursday, March 31, 2011

A disconnected week

Because we are transitioning from one house to another, we have Internet access in neither home for most of this week. It’s been nearly fifteen years since I lived in a home without Internet access. As with so many changes to routine and the things we take for granted as part of daily life, it’s good to be reminded that what we are accustomed to isn’t how it has to be. And while for the most part I have to admit it’s a big inconvenience to be without Internet access – not only for email but for looking up addresses and phone numbers, checking my Google calendar, backing up documents I’m working on and much more – there are ways in which it brings a touch of grace, as well.

For the past few days I’ve gotten on line only a few times in the course of the day, by bringing my computer to my parents’ house or the library and taking advantage of their network. In between visits, I tend to wonder what I’m missing out on. Is someone trying to reach me – an editor, a friend? (Of course, if they are, they can always call.) Is there a breaking news story I don’t know about? (Of course, I’d hear about it on the hourly NPR news broadcast to which I tune in at least every couple of hours.) And what about those thoughts that constantly flit in and out of my head concerning ideas I need to communicate to other people? (I’m finally learning to write them down as I think of them, and then use those notes to dash off emails once I do get on line.)

In reality, it’s reminding me of what daily life was like when I was in college and in my early 20’s, before the widespread use of the Internet. Contact with friends was sporadic, not continuous. Whether “sporadic” meant a phone call every day or a letter once or twice a year, there were intervals of disconnection. We had time to mull over our correspondences and our relationships, rather than constantly and ceaselessly expanding upon them. I’m remembering what it’s like to save up personal news for the occasional phone call with my sisters or my parents rather than dashing off an email every single time I think of something that might interest them. And I’m remembering what it’s like to wonder what’s going on with my college roommate and look forward to our yearly or semi-yearly get-togethers rather than just logging onto Facebook to see what she did yesterday, last night, this morning.

All in all, it would be dishonest of me to pretend I’m fine with this Internet hiatus. Knowing that hours are going by when I might not know about an assignment from an editor or an important new piece of information for a story makes me anxious about getting my work done sufficiently, and I miss the steady comforting stream of chatter from email and social media.

But I’m also enjoying the novelty of a kind of silence that isn’t common anymore: not silence in the literal sense but the silence of cutting off our usual streams of communication. My 12-year-old son, who during our enforced Internet recess is missing the interactive online games he frequently plays with his friends and the instant-messaging he often conducts with a couple of girls in his class, said it was like a power outage only without the cold and darkness. I know what he means. As with a power outage, we’re having to break out of our usual patterns and find different things to do, different ways to carry on our preferred communications and entertainment.

I never cease to be delighted by the thrill that comes when the lights blaze and the heat roar back on after a blackout. It’s as if we’ve been without heat and brightness forever and not just for a few hours, each time it happens. We’ll feel the same way once we again have regular Internet access. For a couple of days it will seem fabulous; and then it will seem everyday again.

It’s good to be knocked out of our routine and thereby to remember anew just what exactly our routine consists of. I’ll owe a lot of emails once I’m back on line. For now, I’m thinking fondly of my friends, working hard on assignments, and hoping that I’ll be forgiven for my lack of communication this week.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

...And still more boxes

In sorting through literally every last item we own over the past month as we prepare for a household move, I inevitably became disabused of my illusion that we as a family are good about not storehousing our possessions.

I believed we lived lighter than most people we know, and the truth is we probably do. We don’t keep tons of books around; we read them and pass them along. We keep only the very best examples of the kids’ artwork and schoolwork. We cycle through knickknacks and similar gift items fairly rapidly: we try them out, and if they don’t work for us, on they go. If we do like them, we find the right place for them.

But now that the packing is about 90% done, I’m flabbergasted by how much there still was to sort through.

What’s wrong with this picture? I kept asking myself. How can one family be so materially rooted, for lack of a better expression? If our house was consumed by a fire, earthquake or tsunami, heaven forbid, what of this would I actually miss?

Next to our bed is a large packing carton that I have been filling with the personal items that I keep closest at hand, right in our bedroom. So far it contains my jewelry, photo albums, chargers to the electronics I use most often, my camera, pens, a flashlight, a knit wrap that my mother-in-law made for me, my Kindle. I want to think that that box, along with my laptop, my running shoes and the items in my purse, comprise the full extent of what I consider absolutely vital. I want to think that if I had to, I could happily move on to our next home with just that box and no additional personal items.

But it would be hard to cook with no cookware, and it would be discouraging to decorate for the holidays absent our twenty-year collection of holiday ornaments. And it simply wouldn’t make sense from the perspective of conserving resources to have to replace items I already own such as office supplies, dishes and the kids’ favorite toys. Those are all in other boxes.

I started the packing process with a slightly supercilious attitude. Visitors to our home often comment on how tidy it always is; we always respond it’s just because we don’t keep a lot of Stuff, capital “S,” around. But I’m afraid I stand corrected. When I look at the boxes all over the house, awaiting the moving trucks, I don’t think we’ve succeeded much at all in trying to live lightly.

We’ll soon find out just what we really need, though. Rick and I agreed that rather than start a marathon unpacking endeavor when we get to our new home, we’ll unpack things only as we want them. That way we’ll soon know what we really use and what we don’t, as we see what remains in boxes after a week, a month, a year. And then maybe we can make decisions about living with even less Stuff. Because right now, it feels overwhelming, but somehow our lives absorb it all. That is, until we try to box it and move it, and then we need to take stock of why there’s so much of it.

I’m certain the box next to the bed doesn’t contain the full extent of material items I really care about, but I’d like to think it does. I don’t know exactly how to cut back on our physical inventory right now. But it will surely be useful to find out what we end up unpacking from all the other boxes, and when.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Field trips: Number one on my reverse-bucket list

At some point this morning as I was sending out emails to remind parents in my daughter’s third grade class that they had signed up to chaperone next month’s trip to Plimoth Plantation, the thought drifted through my head that before my younger child gets to high school, I should really sign up to chaperone a field trip myself.

And then I realized with no small sigh of relief that I still have five more years in which to procrastinate on that particular goal.

Over the seven years I’ve had children in the public school system, I’ve served as a room parent more than half of those years. And for the most part I’ve kept my reasons to being such an obliging volunteer a secret, suspected by only a very small number of my parenting colleagues: being room parent means you get to delegate and never feel obliged to sign up yourself for anything you really don’t want to do. Which in my case would be chaperone a field trip.

But by late morning, all six parents had responded enthusiastically to my reminder email. Not only did they acknowledge that back in September they had signed up to chaperone the full-day spring excursion to the Pilgrim reenactment site; they sounded genuinely delighted at the prospect. In fact, there’s one mom in the class who routinely reminds me that she’s always available to fill any field trip space left unclaimed by other adults.

Witnessing so much exuberance over the subject of field trips made me reexamine my unwillingness to go on one. My memories of field trips from my own childhood include complicated friendship tangles played out on the bus ride, warm cartons of milk in torn paper sacks, a great deal of difficulty being able to see whatever it was we were supposed to be observing (I was the shortest kid in the class), and the pervasive fear of being left behind. (Fortunately, I was old enough to have lost this particular fear at the time when my father, nearing his fortieth year as a high school teacher, took a group of kids to a theatrical performance forty miles away and reported cheerfully afterwards, “We left with 28 kids; we returned with 26. Not too bad!”).

And besides, I reason with myself, none of those fears hold up to the light of day now that I’m an adult. As long as I don’t sit with any of the other chaperones, I don’t have to worry about friendship tangles. I can pack myself a Thermos of coffee instead of a warm carton of milk. And seeing the exhibits shouldn’t be so tough; I’m taller than at least two-thirds of Holly’s third-grade classmates. Joining field trips would actually be a fine opportunity for me to re-visit some of the educational sites around Massachusetts that I’ve neglected in my adult years.

But the primary reason to do it, I suppose, is that for so many years I haven’t wanted to. Over the past winter, my aversion to going anywhere grew to the point where I worried it might be bordering on agoraphobia. For a variety of reasons, now I’m feeling a little bit more adventuresome (though to be fair, driving to the post office would constitute feeling more adventuresome than I was over the winter), and thinking that I should take advantage of opportunities like third grade field trips.

So maybe there’s some value in establishing a kind of reverse “bucket list” – not things you want to do before you die, but things you resolve to do precisely because you don’t particularly want to. Quite likely a daylong trip to a historical landmark with Holly’s class on a nice spring day would forever cure me of my lifelong aversion to field trips. And that’s why I’m determined to sign up for the very next one that has openings. Right now, I have six parents who are truly excited about their upcoming trip to Plimoth Plantation, so my plan is to pack them a jumbo Thermos of hot coffee and wave them all away as the bus pulls out of the parking lot.

Friday, March 25, 2011

When the Kindle screen goes blank

Yes, I admit I felt foolish this morning when my Kindle froze and I had no idea what to do.

I don’t mean I had no idea what to do from a technical standpoint. I was confident even in those first few seconds that a trick to unlocking a frozen Kindle would be easy to find on the customer support section of

I just mean I’d forgotten what I used to do when my reading material didn’t shine off a screen.

It sounds ridiculous; I’ve been reading for more than 40 years, and only the past five months have been from a Kindle. But my Kindle is superloaded with reading material these days: my newspaper subscriptions, novels from the top of the New York Times bestseller lists, magazines, works of nonfiction, reference books, even articles and long emails from friends that I’ve pdf’d and sent into my Kindle directory.

So when the screen froze in the middle of the story about Mike Tyson from last Sunday’s New York Times Magazine while I was only a third of the way through my morning workout on my stationary bike, I momentarily froze along with it. Racking my brain as I continued to pedal, I couldn’t think of where in the house I had any reading material that I particularly wanted to dive into, mid-workout.

The fact that I was having something of an Andy Rooney moment did not escape me. While it’s true that during the many years I subscribed to the print version of the daily newspaper, there was the occasional morning that the paper didn’t appear on my doorstep because the deliverer was incapacitated or simply because the paper was under a snowbank, when that happened, I would just pick a book from the stack on my nightstand, or grab a magazine from the pile of mail on the kitchen table. The problem with the Kindle, I realized as I forged ahead with my biking regimen, was that it was the quintessential all-my-eggs-in-one-basket scenario. It wasn’t just that the morning paper had been suddenly rendered inaccessible; it was that every piece of reading material I’d selected in the past five months was now inoperable. Who ever heard of a technical malfunction keeping you from being able to read? I asked myself bemusedly, but also fully aware that the irreversible pull that mobile technology has over me had led directly to this quandary.

The only thing that gets me through my daily 45-minute stationary bike workout 7 days a week is that I so enjoy the chance to read while I’m doing it. As the minutes ticked by and my Kindle showed no sign of reactivating itself, I started to feel fatigued and bored long before the workout was scheduled to end. I tried to think of what books I had in the house that would keep my mind occupied for another 25 minutes or so. There was a copy of Camping for Dummies in the library bag, checked out earlier this month in hopes that it would motivate me to start planning a summer vacation. Somewhere in the kitchen there was a cooking magazine or two. I could read the Crate & Barrel catalog that arrived with yesterday’s mail. None of those sounded nearly as appealing as continuing with the Mike Tyson saga whose contents had apparently been sordid enough to crash my Kindle.

Just as I contemplated dashing into my 12-year-old’s room to grab a Guinness Book of World Records that might pass the time for five or six minutes, my Kindle flickered back to life, with today’s Boston Globe at the top of its directory. I grabbed for it and began scanning through the headlines, then toggled back to the Mike Tyson story, then hungrily checked to be sure all my other ebook files were still in place.

They were, and I don’t particularly blame my Kindle. The technology is still new; one bug in five months doesn’t seem so bad to me. I started reading again and made it through the rest of my workout. But I’d learned my lesson. From now on, I’ll definitely keep a back issue or two of the newspaper by my bike in case it happens again.

If only I could remember where to buy a newspaper.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

A pot of soup, a token gesture

I knew my neighbor wasn’t feeling well. I could tell this because I didn’t see her out tending to her yard or taking care of her livestock. I didn’t even see her driving in and out of the driveway. And the car that belongs to her mother was parked in front of the house all week, meaning that she had come to help with errands and rides for my neighbor’s two children. Eventually, I emailed a note of concern to my neighbor; she responded briefly, saying indeed she had not been well for the past several days.

I tried to offer help, but it can be hard when you don’t know exactly what a family needs. I emailed my friend again and also mentioned to her mother when we saw each other on the road that I could help out with errands, cooking, or rides for the kids. But the family didn’t particularly need anything. They just needed for her to feel better.

On Saturday, feeling a little discouraged that I couldn’t make myself more useful, I distracted myself by turning to a favorite cooking blog, Mangia Vita, to make a pot of soup. I’d spotted the recipe several weeks ago and even gotten as far as buying those ingredients that I didn’t already have on hand, but I wasn’t really sure at the time that I’d ever get around to making the soup. I knew no one else in my family but me would like it, and most of the time, if I’m going to dedicate myself to a cooking project, it had better be something that feeds the whole family and not just myself.

Still, I was curious about this one: a curried lentil and yellow split pea soup with carrots, ginger, coconut milk…and I planned to add some barley I’d long had in the freezer to plump it up a little bit as well. Soon the whole house smelled of curry. I watched it simmer and thicken. I poured myself a bowl. It was delicious. And it looked like it would last a long time, given that no one else wanted to try any.

And then it struck me that of course I hadn’t made this soup for myself at all – I’d made it for my neighbors. They are a family of four, all vegetarians, and they put a high priority on healthy, low-fat cooking with interesting flavors. A vegetarian soup featuring curry, lentils, barley and coconut milk? It sounded interesting to me, but it was much more their kind of dish. My subconscious must have known that all along.

So I let it cool a little, poured it into a large plastic container, put that in a reusable grocery bag, and left the whole thing on their doorstep. I didn’t want to bother them by ringing the doorbell, but I knew whoever next went in or out of the house would find it.

Making soup isn’t much when you feel like there’s a lot more you’d like to be able to do to help, but sometimes all you can come up with is a token gesture. It might nourish them for a meal or two, just as the act of making it and giving it away nourished my spirit in a very small way. I’ll make the next pot for myself, and hope they tell me what else I can do to help.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Boxes upon boxes

The attic clean-out project continues, and the archive problem grows only more complex. Earlier this month I wrote about not knowing what to do with a box of letters sent to me from myriad different friends when I was in my twenties. But that was just one box, and at least the content of the letters was ultimately the responsibility of other people.

All of which is to say that the letters were nothing compared to the journals.

I started keeping a journal when I was in fifth grade. That was 34 years ago. I have a paper trail that leads continuously from 1977 to 2003, when mercifully I started storing journals electronically instead of in print. That’s a lot of looseleaf binders. Boxes and boxes of them. Binder after binder. Thousands and thousands of pages covered with my blue-inked script. Friend issues, school woes, fitness concerns, academic successes, job aspirations, job disappointments, blind dates, breakups, engagement, marriage, travels, pregnancies, parenting. Page after page after page, filling binder after binder, which fill box after box. And all of them heavy and hard to move.

So it’s the same problem as with the letters only hundred-fold. I don’t want to read them. I don’t want anyone else to read them. And yet I just can’t see heaving them into the recycling bin.

I have often said that memorabilia isn’t particularly important to me because the essays I’ve written and published ever since I was in my early twenties serve as record enough for all that has happened in my personal life over the years. And in a way, that’s true: everything significant appears somewhere, in some form, in a published essay. But at the same time, the essays present a sanitized version. It’s not that they’re all humorous or that I avoid anything difficult when I write essays, just that even the edgier topics get spun, reworked into an appropriate telling for a public audience. The journals are raw, uncensored, unedited. If my children want someday to know what I thought about corporate life or toilet training toddlers or attending back-to-school night as a parent, they can find an essay of mine about it and read the version for which I chose my words meticulously. That’s a much more comfortable fit than thinking of them paging indiscriminately through my journals.

My sister told me that once when she was home visiting my parents, she found a journal she kept in college. She read the whole journal cover to cover and then threw it in a trash bin at the airport as she was flying home at the end of the visit. She chose the airport for its anonymity.

For me to throw my journals in a random trash bin would constitute an environmental disposal hazard punishable by fine or imprisonment, at this point. I’d almost have to haul in one of those transportable dumpsters that people use when they are moving. A bonfire would be no less environmentally hazardous. I’m afraid for the time being, I’m stuck with them.

It’s ironic when I think of all the classes I’ve taught in writing personal narrative and how many times I’ve encouraged my students in those classes to keep a journal. “Keep” is obviously the wrong verb. Write a journal, I’m now tempted to counsel instead, but find a way to dispose of each day’s record as soon as you’re done writing it.

Fortunately, in 2003 I started keeping my files only electronically. I save them and even back them up, but they aren’t taking up any tangible space. They’re in The Cloud, that appropriately named ephemeral space in the Ethernet where files exist in impalpable form. And although I’ve been warned by various computer security experts that they could become lost from the cloud at any time, that doesn’t scare me. In fact, it’s a little bit tempting. A small part of me hopes they do.

But that’s just the past nine years. It’s the records of the preceding quarter-century that are the problem. They fill box after box, big heavy boxes. Perhaps we could use them as sandbags to stop a flood. That would kill two birds with one stone: help remedy an emergency situation while also potentially ruining the journal pages with water damage. It sounds like a good ending to my journals. But I don’t wish for any floods to take place. So as of right now, they’ll stay in the attic, filling box after box, until I come to peace with them.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Just being at church is grace enough

It was another one of those days when I debated with myself as to whether to go to church or not.

This is easy for Unitarian Universalists to do. Unlike in many other faiths, going to church isn’t really a requirement for us. As our covenant says, “Service is our prayer,” and many UUs take that message to heart; there are several members of our church who put in hours every month assisting with construction for Habitat for Humanity, serving at a food pantry in a neighboring town or helping out at a women’s shelter in Lowell but almost never show up at a Sunday service. And this is okay: service is our prayer, and they demonstrate exemplary Unitarian Universalist values in what they do day in and day out.

So I wasn’t so sure about showing up yesterday morning. There are plenty of Sundays every year when I’m committed to teach Sunday school, serve as entrance greeter, or both, and on those days I have no choice about getting myself to church. On mornings like yesterday, when I’m obligation-free at church, it’s easy to contemplate staying home to catch up on the Sunday papers and maybe make a pot of soup.

But I went, because in general my conscience tells me it’s okay to miss church but I have to have a reason more compelling than inertia: I have to not go because there’s something more important I plan to do at home, not just because I don’t really feel like it. And as always happens in these situations, I was so glad I went. The guest speaker, a disciple of Mary Daly, was excellent: both educational and entertaining, plus the service began with an announcement about a new hire that I was glad to know about.

But more than any element of content in the service, it’s just good to be at church. The branch of forsythia in a vase below the pulpit shimmered with a golden glow cutting a bright line through the air: a simple branch of blooms rather than the more elaborate floral arrangements we have at other times of year. (Even our flower arrangements reflect our locavore priorities these days.) The candle wax smelled soothing and old-fashioned. The soft seat cushion of the pew, the sunlight slanting in through the east windows, the occasional flutter of paper as someone opened the program or flipped through the hymnal: all soothed my spirit and reminded me of the ineffable spell of a hushed room.

It’s good to be at church because often, that’s the one time of week when I spend an hour sitting quietly and listening. I could chalk this up to the busy pace of daily life or the onslaught of stimulation from the radio, the internet, the newspaper, and real live people around me; but really it’s just that spending an hour listening isn’t something many of us do regardless of the reasons. At church I sit still and I focus on what other people are saying. One hour a week isn’t really enough, but to do that at all as a regular practice should be a priority.

As we filed into coffee hour after the service, I chatted with a long-time acquaintance from another town who was attending yesterday as a guest musician. She confessed that she never goes to church if she’s not performing, but that every time she goes, she leaves feeling intellectually stimulated and spiritually soothed.

I do too, and that’s why I need to keep making it a priority as many Sundays as possible. As Woody Allen said about life, a lot of what you get out of church happens just from showing up, and I’m always glad when I do.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Smartphone-free and fully focused

Because my kids are not exactly brimming over with intellectual curiosity every day, it can take a bit of effort on my part to get them to enjoy a cultural excursion. So when they agreed to my suggestion that we visit the Salem Witch Museum on a rainy day earlier this week, I made sure that a hearty meal at a local luncheonette was part of the deal. We were sitting at a booth when Tim, after watching a table of construction workers all pull out their iPhones simultaneously and start scrolling through their screens, suddenly said, “Mom, you should really have a smartphone.”

“Why?” I asked.

“Because everyone else does,” he responded. I suppressed a smile. Isn’t that normally the reason kids his age – twelve – want things for themselves: because everyone else has it? Was I discovering a new phase of child development: peer pressure by transference? Bad enough for a pre-teen not to have what everyone else does: is it even more embarrassing when your mom doesn’t hold the latest purse-sized technology?

“I don’t want a smartphone,” I told him. “I like to be able to walk away from my email. If I had a smartphone right now, I’d be checking my email and writing back to people. I like having to just leave it all behind when we go somewhere together.”

So it was fitting that less than 24 hours after this conversation, I was reading an article about MIT internet expert Sherry Turkle, who in her newest book, Alone Together: Why We Expect More From Technology and Less From Each Other, describes her experience conducting interviews with hundreds of teen subjects who complained about their parents’ overuse of mobile technology when they should be paying attention to their kids.

Turkle said that most people who heard that had the same reaction: they expected to hear that parents were complaining about their kids’ reliance on constant access to mobile communication, but what she instead found was the opposite. No matter whether they are toddlers or teens: kids want their parents’ undivided attention. My kids complain when we do errands or go to community events and I spend time chatting with other adults I know. “No chatting, Mom!” they insist time and again.

If I had a smartphone, it would be like chatting, only silently, I fear. My attention would be directed away from them even when we were deliberately choosing to spend time together. Turkle describes the scenarios she sees in which parents’ attention gets divided: a mother pushing a child on the swing with one hand and texting with the other; a father who sends emails during his son’s baseball game. As Turkle points out, it’s a mistake on many levels, and not only because it detracts from one-on-one time between parent and child. It’s also dangerous to let yourself get so distracted, and multitasking tends to lead to a decrease in the quality of whatever it is you are trying to accomplish as you multi-task.

So despite Tim’s comment, I’m glad not to carry my email around with me. I know I’d succumb to the temptation to use it when I shouldn’t, so why put myself in that position? As we ate our sandwiches, I listened to the kids talk about the witch museum, and then we all laughed quietly about a conversation going on at the booth behind us, which reminded us of a similar situation last month in which we heard a funny conversation at the booth behind us while we ate breakfast at a local diner. Tim asked me what kind of job I thought the construction workers who were avidly punching away at their phones as they waited for their lunches were doing on this rainy day, and Holly drew a picture on her paper placemat.

In short, we paid attention: to each other, to our surroundings. I was glad not to have any distractions; when my phone rang I silenced the ringer. My guess is that I won’t hold out forever. Everyone else walks around with their email at their fingertips, and eventually I will too. I just hope I remember that undivided attention should always be a priority: whether it’s on the kids, the driving, or just the sound of the rain against the restaurant’s windows.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

What my kids know

It was a professional day at Tim and Holly’s school yesterday, which is the perfect opportunity to visit the sites that get too crowded during normal school vacation days. I remembered that last time we drove to Salem to visit the Peabody Essex Museum, Holly saw a sign for the Witch Museum and asked if we could go, so earlier this week I suggested that might be a good destination for the day off from school. Tim agreed that it sounded like a decent enough plan to him, even if he’d rather go bowling. “Bowling next time,” I told them. “Let’s do something a little more educational today.”

It wasn’t until we were on our way there that I realized my eight-year-old’s expectations might be a little bit far from reality. In my joy over the fact that both kids were actually interested in visiting a) any museum at all and b) even better, the same museum, I had neglected to think about whether Holly had any concept of what the Witch Museum actually was. “It’s not about witches like Halloween witches,” I told her somewhat cautiously as we reached the highway. I suspected she was imagining an array of women in Walmart Halloween costumes surrounded by clouds of vapor from cauldrons of dry ice, possibly even handing out candy.

“I know that, Mom,” she replied with a touch of condescension. “It’s about the girls who lived in Salem in the 1600s and started acting strangely, just because girls sometimes do, and then everyone accused them of being witches and most of them ended up being killed for the way they acted. And the strangest part of it was that one of the girls who started it was actually the daughter of a minister. Her name was Betty.”

That certainly silenced me for a long moment. “How did you know all that?” I finally asked.

“We have a book about it at school,” she said.

In truth, the kids learn all sorts of things at school these days that make me suspect they are now better-educated than I am. In social studies, Tim’s class recently compared dictatorships; as we watched coverage of the riots in Egypt last month, he said to me, “The unfortunate thing is that the overthrow of a dictatorship is usually followed by a civil war.” I knew that too, I told myself, and surely I could have reasoned that out if I’d thought about it. I just hadn’t given it the level of contemplation he had.

I tell myself it’s just that they have more time to study specific topics than I do. Tim’s social studies class meets five times a week; many of those hours are devoted to current events. If I had the chance to discuss current events with a knowledgeable professional for an hour a day, five days a week, I’d have insights as fully formed as Tim’s, I tell myself. And Holly’s class devotes time every day to free reading, which is when she picked up the book about the Salem witch trials. I too learn all kinds of things during those phases in my life when I can devote time every day to reading whatever I want, I remind myself.

But really, I’m terribly impressed by the breadth of their curriculum. When they were very young, my approximate goal was to teach them all that I knew. Now it seems that they’ve far surpassed that. The audiovisual presentation at the Witch Museum outlined the story of the Salem Witch Trials just as Holly had told it, including the girl named Betty whose father was the Reverend Samuel Parris. I’d remembered the story, of course, but not that particular part of it.

Someday they’ll forget some of what they know also, and their interests and areas of study will become more narrowly focused as they enter careers or home in on specific disciplines. I’m just glad they’re learning so much now. And I’m glad that most of the time they’re willing to share their knowledge with me. Because I seem to become more aware every day of just how much I’ve forgotten.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Tweendom arrives - and so far it's all good

It’s something of a cliché for parents to gripe a little bit about the onset of that phase once known as pre-teen years and now more commonly called tweendom. From a chronological perspective, we’re in the thick of it, given that Tim will turn 13 exactly six months from yesterday, and yet from a developmental perspective it feels like we’re just getting our feet wet. Perhaps he was a little bit of a late bloomer.

Holly, meanwhile, may be something of an early bloomer. She too seems like a tween all of a sudden, and she’s only 8 ½.

And yet you’ll hear no griping from me about tweendom. Not today, anyway. To my surprise, I’m finding it entertaining and interesting in ways I never anticipated.

For example, the music. Holly has been downloading songs to her iPod and playing them over the speakers so that she can dance. Her dancing reminds me more of Turkey’s traditional Whirling Dervishes than anything you’d see on MTV, but given her lack of interest in sports, I’m happy any time I see her physically exerting herself, and the dancing definitely meets that criterion. Plus the music is, well, interesting. I can’t say I choose to play it when she’s not around, but it’s still good for me to be exposed to something new. Taio Cruz, Katy Perry, Taylor Swift, the Back Street Boys – I mean the New Kids on the Block – I mean Big Time Rush. Yes, that’s it, Big Time Rush. Okay, so they don’t sound so new to me at all. But the other ones add something to my scope of musical awareness, and that’s something from which I can definitely benefit.

Meanwhile, Tim is keeping me amused with his newfound devotion to instant messaging. In the evening, he and a couple of friends get on their computers and tap away. He lets out the occasional chuckle or comments to me about their news: “Mom, Austin just picked out a new baseball glove! Katie is going skiing at Mount Cranmore this weekend!” I always like to hear what other families we know are up to, and this is the first time Tim has appeared to take any interest in what his peers do when they’re not in his presence.

Tim is choosing to get out of the house more, also, which is an advantage. He goes to school dances, Friday Night Live parties, and last weekend a middle school dodgeball tournament. He’s always been such a homebody; when it’s not baseball season, he practically hibernates. I’m happy to witness his newfound animation and willingness to try new experiences, even experiences like dodgeball. And what’s even better is that both kids now take showers without being asked.

Tim will be an actual teen and not just a tween in less than half a year now. We’ll see whether that suits me – and him – as well as tweendom does. Holly, meanwhile, still has years of dancing, loud music and eventually instant-messaging with friends yet to go. Some parents bemoan the end of the early childhood years, but I have the sense that things are getting increasingly interesting around here, and I can’t wait to see what happens next.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Giving and taking and asking for help

The email from a friend here in town was brief and succinct. She explained that her husband had been at the bedside of his terminally ill mother for days and my friend had to drive to West Point to pick up her son and bring him home for spring break. They were all worn out from the hospital vigil but wanted to welcome him home with a nice family dinner. Was there any chance I could make something they could all have together when she and her son returned home?

Of course I could, and I did. This is a task that’s easy for me: cooking a family dinner. I made a Mediterranean beef stew with onions and new potatoes, along with a container of marinated cucumber, red pepper and fresh basil salad. Then I brought it over and left it in their fridge.

Asking for help is so hard for most people, including me. This particular friend is one of the smartest and most proactive people I know, and although she’d never asked me for a favor before, it didn’t surprise me that she was able to do this. For me, it would have been harder. When my first child was an infant, I was constantly turning down offers of help, though politely, I hoped – not from friends and family but from strangers who tried to help me carry the stroller through a subway turnstile or pick up a sock that had fallen off the baby. Then one day when I was in the city with my mother and the baby, my mother noticed this tendency and set me straight. “People offer help because they want to,” she said, and that was all it took for me to realize my lack of courtesy in turning down their offer.

The friend who asked if I could make dinner had never asked me for a favor before, but she’d done me a favor – a big one, last year. She and her husband gave me a high-end laptop computer they didn’t need, which effectively transformed my workday, allowing me to write and conduct interviews from anywhere I chose rather than only while sitting at my desktop computer in my home office. I couldn’t help thinking that a pot of stew and a container of salad didn’t exactly match up to a virtually new notebook computer, but then I realized that in a way, to her, it did. She had something I needed and she gave it to me; I had something she needed – the ability to make a family dinner on a day she couldn’t but particularly wanted one – and I did it for her. The monetary value of the items didn’t matter to either of us as much as the fact that we both had something to offer in the name of friendship.

Being able to ask for help is a gift, even more of one than being able to offer it. I was grateful she asked and grateful I could provide. Her generous gift of a computer a year ago astounded me, but to her it was second nature: if you have more than you need, offer it to someone else. It’s a wonderful, admirable way to treat friends, and I’ m lucky for this opportunity to follow her example.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Late late winter, spring approaching

I always call this time of year late winter, but last night I realized it’s latest winter: barely a week until the Spring Equinox.

Spring Equinox has such a pretty sound. All of those old-fashioned seasonal terms do – solstice, equinox, harvest moon – but yesterday it was particularly inspiring to think of spring starting in just another week. The past couple of days haven’t exactly been sunny and warm, but they have definitely held a hint of winter’s retreat. With temperatures above freezing all weekend, the snowbanks are rapidly melting away from the edge of the roadway, and mud is beginning to advance over much of the ground where snow has laid claim for the past three months.

The brook is rushing, not reaching alarming levels yet but starting to run high as it does every spring; with this much water swelling the banks, there’s no chance it will freeze again. And the cows seem to sense the change in season as well: even though a mix of snow and mud still cover the fields where in a few more months they’ll graze, they’ve been wandering over to the brook and out to the far pasture recently, whereas in the dead of winter they don’t leave the hard-packed dirt right in front of the hay barn. Even without the option of grazing, they seem curious to see what’s new in the woods and across the field, or maybe they’re just restless, but it’s inspiring to see them roaming beyond their usual tightly circumscribed winter route of barn to trough and back.

The kids exclaimed with delight when they spotted chipmunks this weekend, and the dog chased a flock of geese out of the field. I think she was as happy to be running fast over the rapidly diminishing snow cover as she was to think she could catch a fowl, which of course she can’t. But the geese and the chipmunks alike are a sign of spring encroaching.

And yesterday we turned the clocks forward, which gives us the first hint of summer’s long sunlit evenings. Summer still feels far away: the temperature is after all only in the 40’s, and with the depth of snow we had this winter, it could still be weeks before the last of it melts away. But indeed, it’s late late winter: spring begins next week. The earth, the sky, the animals all seem ready to transition into a new season, and I too welcome the softness in the air, the light in the sky, the muddy ground, the certainty that spring will soon arrive.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Easier said than done

Yesterday’s daily dose of inspiration from was this quotation from Bulgarian philosopher and mystic Omraam Mikhael Aivanhov:
“If you see to it each day that your conduct is impeccable, the following day will be completely clear, and you will be free to carry out your plans, always vigilant that you leave no loose ends. In this way, each new day will find you free and well disposed.”
That’s an inspirational quote? was my initial reaction. It struck me as more of a tautology, or even perhaps a particularly eloquent truism, since to me it translates roughly as “If you can just be perfect, you’ll have nothing to regret.” Well, of course. It’s all easy, if you can just get past that enormous “If” starting things off there.

But in a way it’s just a fancier revisiting of the universally applicable “One day at a time.” “Do things right today, and you’ll have less to worry about tomorrow,” it seems to say. Again, undeniably true if not quite so easy to execute, but still worth keeping in mind.

The general idea behind this somewhat murky quotation reminded me of a list of holistic tips I received recently from a yoga instructor. These were the first two:
1. Every morning before getting out of bed, notice what first thoughts rush in. Are they about the past? The future and what needs to be done that day? Has your mind jumped ahead to next week, next year, retirement?

2. When you get out of bed and go about your morning routine, notice your energy level. Aside from the amount of sleep you got, what did you eat the day before? Be conscious of what foods and drinks leave you feeling sluggish and unhappy in the morning, and what foods energize you for the new day.
Over the course of last summer, I became aware of how often I awoke to a sense of grinding anxiety. There were some specific reasons for this, and there were also some non-specific reasons, but even knowing I was to some degree justified in my anxiety, it bothered me a lot to think that just when I should be appreciatively greeting the new day, my first unbidden reaction was one of moderate panic, day after day. I would think about some of the other women I know and wonder if any of them woke to a sense of panic. I suspected they didn’t, at least not always, at least in the middle of summer. It just felt wrong to me, a clear indication that I needed to be doing something differently.

And it seems to me the same seems to hold true with digestive health as emotional well-being. As the yoga instructor says, what you eat one day should help you to wake with a sense of well-being and wellness the next. I am not always as vigilant about sensible eating as I should be and often wake with a sense that I didn’t make quite the best nutritional choices the day before. Yet indeed, like Omraam Mikhael Aivanhov says, just do things right one day and all will be well the next.

It’s a fairly steep requirement, but it’s also simple. Avoiding the urge to eat ten or twelve marshmallows after dinner, as I so often choose to do, sounds easy compared to making sure everything I say is kind and well-meaning. But it’s a wise guideline nonetheless, whether you use the words of Omraam Mikhael Aivanhov or of the yoga instructor as a compass. I will try to eat well. I will try to behave well. And I will gauge my success in both areas by how I feel the next morning.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

A discussion on disco casts new light

When I was in fourth grade, my teacher decided to teach us some disco.

By today’s standards, at least at my kids’ school (which is, of course, the same school where we did the disco-dancing), that’s a fairly preposterous use of classroom time. My kids’ teachers have organized schedules: they allot their classroom hours carefully, and the results show with well-prepared kids who get good standardized test scores and are effective learners.

Things were different in the mid-1970s. It was a progressive time in general, and in our school particularly so. Even though it was a public school system, we were part of an experimental structure called an open classroom. The classroom space was configured non-traditionally, but so was the way we spent our time in school. So it wasn’t particularly unusual when our teacher decided that he was going to teach us some of the line dances he’d been learning in his disco class.

At the time, I don’t remember finding this strange at all. We students were perhaps mildly amused by the idea that our teacher was taking a dance class, but in general we didn’t give much thought either way to how he spent his time outside of school. In that respect, little has changed about nine-year-olds: questions about whether our teacher was busy or bored, happy or lonely, satisfied in his personal life or depressed really weren't on our radar.

But sometimes it’s possible to look back more than thirty years and see a situation differently. Earlier this week I heard an On Point podcast on which an American studies professor at USC named Alice Echols was interviewed about Hot Stuff: Disco and the Remaking of American Culture, her recently published book on the disco trend and its impact on American society.

According to this author, one effect that the widespread popularity of disco had on American culture was that it made gay men more comfortable dancing. Previously, it was seen as inappropriate in many circles for men to cut loose in general and with other men in particular. But disco was different: it gave everyone a reason to mingle on the dance floor together. And as I understood it from the interview – having not actually read the book – this gave some men the chance to be out in the public eye enjoying themselves while also hiding their affinity for dancing with men behind the fact that in disco, doing so doesn’t look strange.

But as the researcher talked, I realized that maybe in some sense we fourth graders did sense a newfound delight in our teacher when he brought dance moves into the classroom to the tinny strains of a Sony cassette player. He had told us a lot of stories from his childhood (this is yet another example of how loosely formed the curriculum was back then; my children’s teachers would never devote hours of classroom time to stories about their past): he grew up very poor as the only child of a single mother in rural Kansas. He told us he had very few friends, and we assumed it was because he lived out in the countryside, but looking back as an adult, I can imagine how emotionally isolated he probably felt in that particular part of the country at that particular time. Moving from the Midwest to the East Coast in his adulthood may have represented an improvement in terms of open-mindedness and tolerance, but he still must have felt somewhat lonely, a single male schoolteacher commuting to a suburb where the school was populated almost entirely by children growing up in affluent two-parent households.

Most of this is speculation, of course, as far as how he felt and what disco meant to him. He didn’t stay at our school much longer, but many years later, one of his former colleagues told me that he ended up back in Kansas living with a life partner and that his life had turned out settled and happy.

But really the point is less what disco did for him as what hearing this interview did for me. It put a situation from a long time ago into a new perspective and made it interesting all over again, more interesting than it had been when I actually learned to do the Hustle and the Bump. I like the idea that disco might have made his life a little more enjoyable than it otherwise was. And I like the way it’s possible to learn something so many years after the fact that can change one’s understanding of the past, even in a very small way.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

How running starts

A friend emailed me to ask for advice. “How did you start running?” she asked. “I can't seem to get past thinking about starting running. I guess that's a start.”

Oh yay! I thought when I saw her question. There’s nothing I like better than talking about running! I rolled up my sleeves, metaphorically speaking, and flexed my fingers over the keyboard, literally speaking, as I readied myself to answer her question.

Except I didn’t know the answer, as I discovered when I tried to begin to write. I started running so long ago that I can’t remember how I did it or what motivated me.

I mean, I remember on an intellectual level. I was home from my freshman year in college, where I’d become familiar with the weight room and had lost some extra pounds doing long workouts on the stationary bike. I wanted to keep up the good work but I didn’t want to join a gym at home, so I decided to switch over to running.

But I don’t remember how it felt. I don’t remember if it seemed easy or difficult, or how I kept myself motivated to stay with it all summer. It was too long ago. Just a few months short of twenty-five years.

Since I couldn’t answer her question about how I started running I wrote to her instead to talk about what keeps me running.

“I can eat more,” I told her. (Less and less true now that I’m in my forties, but at one point it was definitely an operative factor.) “It gets me out enjoying nature and the outdoors every day.” (In sleet, snow or hail. In heat and humidity. In windstorms and downpours. But yes, it gets me outside every day.) “It reduces my level of mental stress.” (True, always. I give myself a pass from thinking about, well, anything, while I’m running. It’s just one-foot-in-front-of-the-other, without thoughts of home, family, work, or the world. I require myself only to think about the road under my feet. I let everything else slide out of my head for those twenty or thirty or sixty minutes.) “I listen to NPR podcasts, so it’s intellectually as well as physically stimulating.” Ah yes, NPR. I’ve listened to NPR while running for years, but once I learned about MP3 players and podcasts, running became almost secondary to the priority of getting to pick and choose my own NPR-listening schedule.

So even though I can’t remember how I got myself started, it’s easy to explain why I keep going. That and my membership in the United States Running Streak Association (USRSA). According to the quarterly registry I received from the USRSA last week, I’m currently # 185 on the list of active “streak runners” in the U.S., with 1,305 days of running a mile or more under my belt as of yesterday. The fact that I’ve already paid my $20 in USRSA dues for the year motivates me to try to make it another year.

I hope my answer was helpful to my friend, even though I wasn’t able to address her question precisely. And whatever finally gets her to go running, I hope she finds it satisfying and stays with it for a long time. Long enough that she too eventually forgets the reason she began.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Letters in a box

I’m on a mission to clean out our attic this month. From end to end, I plan to go through every single box – clothes, toys, books, art supplies, retired electronics, sports equipment – until I’ve sorted or purged or re-classified every last item. With the possible exception of my grandmother’s wedding dress, no more items will be allowed to wile away their days up below the eves unless they can justify their existence to me with a specific purpose.

But then I opened a box that brought me to a screeching halt. It was full of letters. More specifically, letters I’d received from friends between approximately the date of my high school graduation and my early 20’s. Letters from my college years, for the most part.

Some were from high school friends. Others were from friends I met during a summer-long European exchange program. A few were letters my college friends wrote to me while we were all off on summer break.

I read just one and then couldn’t bring myself to read any more of them. And now I don’t know what to do with them. Keep them even though I don’t expect to do any further re-reading? Stuff them into an even darker corner of the attic and let my children puzzle over their purpose decades from now? Or heft them with one good toss into the recycling bin at the transfer station?

It’s not that the letters represented any particularly bad memories. The opposite, really: those were good friends writing to me about generally great times. I was very happy during my college years, and for the most part I was every bit as aware then as I am now of how lucky I was to have so many contacts across the globe with whom to share thoughts and memories. I’m certain that every single one of those letters was a welcome sight in my mailbox. So why am I so resistant to look at them now?

Just that it was a different part of my life, one that I don’t really feel the need to revisit. The letter I opened was from a close high school friend who wrote to me during a study break her sophomore year in college, complaining about how difficult it was for her to get along with a mutual friend of ours and how much her boyfriend had let her down in the moral support department. It was hard to read even though there was nothing terribly serious about the situation she was describing. Even at the time she wrote it, she would have said it was mildly troublesome and not hugely problematic. Nonetheless, it resonated with me, and not in a particularly welcome way. Friends disappoint you when you’re in your late teens, but they do when you’re in your forties also. Maybe what was hard about it was not feeling like I could look back and say “Boy, have we changed! What a learning experience all of that was!” Habits and personality traits set in when we are teenagers, or even earlier, and remain with us as we settle into middle age, and in a way that’s what those letters seemed to be telling me.

Somewhat cosmically, the days that followed the discovery of the box seemed to be full of references to letters. A woman in her late 70’s asked me to help her draft a memoir based on letters her husband sent her when he was serving military duty overseas. A couple in their early 40’s whom I interviewed for an article laughed about the letters they sent each other as college students – “Back when people still wrote letters!” they remarked. And it’s true: my children will probably never have a box full of letters from their friends, unless they choose to print all their emails and text messages.

For now, I’ll keep this box of letters. Maybe someday I’ll feel more dispassionate about the emotions of the past and find it more amusing than disquieting to read through them. Maybe my children will find them interesting, though unlike the situation with the woman who showed me her husband’s letters from overseas, I don’t think they reveal much about American culture or history. They’re just the tale of my friends and me, having the same kinds of jokes, misunderstandings, bonding experiences and uncertainties about our lives that we do now.

So maybe that will seem useful at some point. Until then, back they go under the eaves, where they are welcome to stay, unlabeled, unclassified, and for the time being, untouched.

Monday, March 7, 2011

Mud season

I never expected mud to be something for which I’d feel so grateful.

But we had a balmy weekend, and the four feet of snow as well as the three or four inches of ice that have covered various parts of the ground had plenty of time to melt over the past forty-eight hours. And melt they did, thank heavens.

It wasn’t a bright sunny weekend; it was cloudy and foggy. So the melting ice and snow didn’t evaporate, as they would have (at least partially) on a sunny day. Instead, they just soaked slowly into the ground. The fields are still covered with snow – albeit a few inches less than before this recent melting – but the driveway is down to bare gravel now, so the melting ice perked its way into the dirt and created mud. Lots and lots of mud.

Mud is not something I previously would have thought to honor. Yes, it’s good for growing; but to me it mostly means that things get dirtier: things like cars, dogs, children and floors.

Not today, though. Today the mud meant the absence of ice, and I welcomed it. As a runner, I’ve suffered mightily this winter from the presence of ice. It has made running treacherous some days and nearly impossible others, even with my normally reliable Yak Trax on. But the Yak Trax are four years old by now, and by the middle of last week pieces had snapped on both the left and the right one.

My only big fall of the season came when I was walking, though, and it might have been the last icy day we’ll have (knock on wood). It was Saturday morning as I headed out to the barn, and it was black ice, the kind that looks like water. I fell slowly, pitching forward, trying for what felt like minutes rather than milliseconds to regain my footing before hitting the ground. And when I did hit the ground, it wasn’t as bad as it might have been. I was wearing my barn coveralls and work gloves: plenty of padding there, and even my palms showed no beads of blood, though they stung, as did my knees and a few other parts. Five minutes later in the barnyard I made a stupid mistake that involved opening a gate too wide and then not being able to prevent a cow from showing her way through it; I felt like the distraction of having fallen on the ice was partly to blame for my mindlessness.

But as of late yesterday, there’s no more ice, just mounds and mounds of mud. I went running just before dusk, and it felt wonderful under my feet: soft and yielding, with blissful traction where just days earlier there was only a slippery glaze.

As I ran, I listened to the trickle of water: from the lightly falling rain as it splashed into accumulating puddles of snowmelt. It reminded me of the scene at the end of The Long Winter, which Holly and I read together last year, in which Laura wakes up in the middle of the night toward the end of a brutal winter of nonstop blizzards and hears a trickling sound. At first she doesn’t know what it is, and then realizes it’s the first time she’s heard the sound of running water in months. She knows then that the snows are over. And it reminded me also of the dripping sound that Christopher McCandless hears in the film “Into the Wild’ as he wakes one morning in the Alaskan tundra, and he too knows it means winter is ending, though in his case it turns out to be too late for him to survive.

Survival, mercifully, isn’t the issue here as ice turns to water and creates mud: it’s purely psychological and not a matter of life and death to know that the temperature is rising and the ice is receding. Temperatures in the forties are predicted all week; I shouldn’t have problems with ice again for the foreseeable future, and that’s a huge relief. Mud. I never knew what a comfort it could be, but this week, mud represents the best meteorological development I could hope to see.

Friday, March 4, 2011

Rhino slippers

If Holly wore oversized slippers shaped like stuffed rhinoceroses, it wouldn’t seem particularly funny. Holly is a silly kid by nature: she sings and dances and writes fanciful stories all day long. But when Tim wears rhinoceros slippers, it’s different. He’s just not a typically jolly guy, and so the fact that he’s so committed to these slippers amuses me.

The rhinos were a gift from my sister Lauren’s family, sent from Germany – where they are spending the year – at Christmastime. Not knowing what was in the cardboard box when it arrived in the mail, I opened it and found myself staring down at two large gray plush lumps nestled in crumpled newspaper. My husband Rick peered over my shoulder. Then we looked again at the box, addressed to Tim, and then at each other. “Rhinoceros slippers? For Tim? Really?” Rick asked me dubiously.

With the single exception of his stuffed frog, Tim tends to be down-to-earth in his preferences. He likes books about baseball, video games that replicate sports events, and clothes in solid colors. Frivolity is just not his thing. So we were curious as to what his reaction would be when he opened his gift. “In another couple of years they’ll fit Holly,” I rationalized to myself. “We can just stash them away until then.”

But, despite my predictions, Tim loves the rhinos, and has ever since Christmas morning. And not only that, but they have actually had the unanticipated effect of bringing out a goofier side to him. He puts them on as soon as he comes home from school and wears them until bedtime, whenever he’s inside the house. If, or rather when, Holly does something to annoy him, he waves a slipper-clad foot in her direction and yells “Eat my rhino!” Or sometimes, if she’s annoying him from very close range, he turns his ankle to and fro to make the rhino “stab” her with its soft stuffed horn. “The rhino will get you!” he threatens.

Now, ten weeks past Christmas, I don’t think Tim even notices their rhino character anymore. They’re just his slippers: his favorite comfort wear when he’s hanging around at home. But I still notice, and I still laugh, whenever I see him slouched on the couch doing homework or playing video games with these two big fuzzy gray critters blooming from the ends of his ankles.

My son is just not a rhino slipper kind of guy. And the fact that he loves them anyway is the kind of contradiction in which a parent like me delights.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Bus stop

Normally, I have a problem with chronic lateness. I never leave quite enough time to get where I’m going; I’m never quite done preparing dinner before the dinner guests arrive; I even get to bed later than I intend to every night. Running a few minutes behind schedule seems to be part of my DNA.

But there’s one significant exception: I’m never late to meet the school bus in the afternoon. In part, this is because parents learn quickly that to miss the bus drop-off is to submit oneself to a big bureaucratic hassle involving a call from the school office and a hurried trip up to school, where the parent has to enter the inner sanctum of the main office to reclaim the seemingly abandoned child, while the office administrators throw accusing glances at the arriving parent, making it clear that they’d be on their way home by now if it wasn’t for your custodial negligence.

I’ve only made that mistake once or twice, though, and that was in my kids’ earliest years of school. Now I actually look forward to waiting at the bus stop. Truth be told, I sometimes leave a little earlier than I need to for the privilege, and for me to leave to go anywhere before I need to is a rare event.

Except to the bus stop, because somehow it’s just such a tranquil interlude in my day. Especially this winter. Our driveway is nearly a half-mile long; in temperate weather I insist on walking to and from the bus stop, for the kids’ sake and also my own, but this winter has been cold and icy enough that I’ve caved on my fresh-air-and-exercise priorities and driven out every day since the first snowfall.

And then once I’m there, I experience a disproportionate sense of serenity. It feels like one of the few times of day when nothing is expected of me. I can’t do housework; I can’t write; and I can’t get on line, since I’m still not a Smartphone user and my computer is conveniently back at the house. I read the paper, savoring each section as the midafternoon traffic passes by.

Occasionally someone honks and waves; sometimes neighbors with tougher constitutions than mine even pass by on a walk. Meanwhile I sit inside my little automotive island, just relishing the silence and the vague sense of self-righteousness. I’m ahead of schedule, I’m right where I’m supposed to be and I have no other obligations until the flash of yellow school bus appears around the bend to the east. In that setting, as in almost no other, I’m early – and enjoying every second of it.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

The-week-after-vacation elation -- no matter the weather

“Monday morning, back to work, freezing sleet and rain, ugh,” said the broadcaster on the morning news, her tone overdramatically glum. Obviously this broadcaster has not walked a mile in my shoes – cold, wet and soggy as they may be – recently.

Yes, it’s true that I wrote just a few days ago about what a fun vacation/staycation week the kids and I were having. And it’s true: we had lots of good times during their five days at home. Just as we had plenty of fun during the five snow days they had in the four weeks that preceded the vacation. They’re both at great ages where there are plenty of things they like to do – with each other, with me, with friends, or alone – and emotional meltdowns are few and very far between. I’ve always enjoyed spending time with my children, but perhaps at their current ages of 8 and 12 more than ever. It’s terrific to be with them these days.

Yet still. There’s no silence quite like the silence that descends over the household the first Monday after a school vacation week. It is total. It is unbroken. It is…monastic. Patter of sleet against the windowpanes? Howl of wind in the trees? Speaking for myself, all I hear is chatter-free, TV-free, frenetic-karaoke-singing-free silence.

And that’s a good thing, because I have a lot of work to do this week. I’ve gotten pretty good at keeping up with my baseline assignments even when the kids are home – it’s been two years now since I left the corporate workplace to became a full-time freelancer, and we developed a reliable vacation system in which I do my work from breakfast until lunch and then do something with the kids all afternoon – but it’s still a little bit of a struggle to keep my mind on my writing when the house feels full of people: Tim and Holly, their friends, even the friends’ parents dropping them off and picking them up and staying for a cup of coffee and a little bit of conversation.

But there’s still always a certain undercurrent of anxiety when I try to work during school vacation week. (So as not to sound too draconian, I should mention there are also vacation weeks when we all go on trips together and I don’t try to work at all, but this past week was not one of them.) There’s always the sense that if I meet my regular deadlines and basic professional obligations, I’ll be satisfied; never mind trying to take on anything new or extra.

This week, however, is brimming with possibilities new and extra: potential clients finally ready to close on contracts, story ideas to pitch, articles I’ve drafted but now have the chance to improve upon. And all around me the silence reverberates, promising me that yes, other than the dog napping on the couch, I am truly alone, alone with coffee and laptop, exactly how I work best.

So Monday’s dismal weather, with its ice and sleet and rain, wasn’t a concern for me. It’s a quiet week comprising five consecutive days of six or more hours each devoted to work. Let the forecasters say what they will: I myself couldn’t be more content with it.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Million-calorie meal for Rick's birthday dinner

For my husband Rick’s birthday last weekend, I offered him the choice between a dinner out and a home-cooked dinner with a menu of his choosing. He opted for the home-cooked meal. And when it came time to choose the menu, he named all his favorite dishes – which when put together comprise better fare for a Superbowl party than a birthday dinner.

Nonetheless, I complied with his wishes, because cooking what my family members want brings me such satisfaction. So we celebrated Rick’s 43rd by raising not a glass but our cholesterol, as we feasted on baked artichoke Parmesan dip spread on slices of warm French bread, chili con queso scooped up with tortilla chips, cold shrimp dipped in cocktail sauce, and a million-calorie dessert consisting of mint chocolate chip ice cream atop an Oreo cookie crust layered with fudge sauce.

Yes, it was decadent. Okay, maybe it was even beyond decadent. Birthday dinners should be special meals, though. One horrendously rich and anti-nutritious menu won’t spoil us forever. Because the food was so rich, we ate only modest quantities.

I can come up with any number of rationales for why it’s okay that we ate like this on Rick’s birthday. Mostly, though, there’s just this: eating against the mandates of common sense a few times a year is a thing of joy. I can’t imagine life without the occasional decadent meal. We all savored every bite.

And now if I could only come up with an equally compelling rationale for eating the leftovers.