Friday, April 29, 2011

Missing out

In the end, Tim missed the whole three-day sixth grade Outdoor Education trip. Each of the three mornings, he woke with a fever; each morning we said “Maybe tomorrow you can go.” We had plans and back-up plans and extra options for how to get him there. The first day, we said “You’ll only miss the introductions!” The second day, we said “You’ll still fit in one full day!” We told him no one would remember later on exactly which activities he was and was not present for, as long as he was there for some part of it.

But in the end, he wasn’t. He couldn’t rid himself of the fever that was keeping him listless and pale, so he stayed behind the whole time and thought about all his classmates up at camp in New Hampshire.

On Wednesday he asked to go over to my parents’ house for a little bit, thinking their company would cheer him up. When we arrived, my mother reminisced about an experience when she was a girl that I hadn’t heard before. She and her elder sister had rehearsed a tumbling act together for weeks; apparently the grand finale involved my mother being lifted high in the air (or possibly standing atop her sister and somehow elevating herself that way). She woke the morning of the gymnastics show with a fever and wasn’t allowed to go. “If I’d done the show, I probably wouldn’t remember it,” Mom said on Wednesday. “It’s memorable only because I was so disappointed I didn’t get to do it.”

That made me think about events that are memorable for having been missed. When I was about Holly’s age, a friend was having a birthday party; according to the invitation, there would be elephant rides, though looking back it’s very hard for me to imagine how this was going to happen in Carlisle, but I suppose it’s possible. I developed a high fever that day and had to miss the party; I thought about elephant rides for months after that. And as my parents both told Tim about while we were at their house, it was almost a certainty during my childhood that whenever the family took an airline trip together, at least one of us kids if not more would be sick sometime during our travels and have to miss out on some of the fun, lying in a hotel room bed instead. I can remember sore throats in destinations from Orlando to Palo Alto to San Francisco. Apparently we were extremely susceptible to airport germs.

Tim’s classmates all returned from the outdoor education trip last night. Yesterday I took Tim to the pediatrician, who said he should stay home today since he was still running a fever. I know Tim is bored and misses his friends, but I’m actually not sorry he won’t be at school today; all the other kids will be talking about the trip. By Monday, when Tim is likely to be all recovered, it won’t be such a hot topic anymore.

Of course, at eighth grade graduation two years from now, Tim will be missing from a lot of the images in the customary slide show. No ropes course for him; no campfire skits; no peering-out-of-the-cabin photos with the other guys. It’s a lesson all of us learn at some point: how to weather the disappointment of being sidelined when everyone else is off doing something great.

He’s okay with it, though. His group of friends had already planned an afternoon ice cream excursion for next week, and there’s a school dance the week after that. He’ll get back into the swing of things. And someday, like my mother with her tumbling show, he’ll be okay with remembering the outdoor education trip specifically for the fact that he missed it.

Thursday, April 28, 2011


It was an unexpectedly warm afternoon yesterday, almost summery. I’d been at home taking care of a feverish Tim all day, interspersing my writing assignments with Motrin doses and beverage refills for him, but when Rick arrived home early, I realized there was still a little time for me to get out into the sunshine, so I rode my bike to the post office. It’s a lovely ride from our new address: an easy fifteen-minute glide, and being on my bike again made me feel like spring was already segueing into summer.

Then as I was leaving the post office, I looked down at the ground and saw an even more promising sign of spring: a clump of weeds. Delighted, I bent over and started plucking them out of the ground.

I love weeding. It’s my favorite outdoor-maintenance activity, though admittedly that’s a small category in which to hold a title. I just find it so satisfying to pull weeds out of the earth. It’s so quantitative. You can track your own success so easily, at least for a day or so. Then they start to grow back, and you can do it all over again. Sisyphan, true, but also so much more measurable than so many of the tasks I try to accomplish every day.

And it’s gotten to the point where I weed wherever I am: my own yard, public spaces, other people’s front walks. I just really like the feeling of the tiny plants being disengaged at the root. So with warm weather and summer hovering on the horizon, and a damp rainy spring behind us, I’m looking forward to lots more weeding. I wouldn’t call it a talent so much as a passion. I don’t even care that much what the lawn or garden looks like after it’s weeded: I just like getting rid of the weeds. Perhaps it reminds me of editing a little bit, or de-cluttering the house: all the various ways I eliminate those pieces not deemed essential. Except that in weeding, unlike editing or decluttering, you can actually reach an end point.

So I’ll keep seeking out weeds as the days grow longer and the temperatures climb. My fingers become dirty but my mind grows ever clearer as I remove impediments, one tiny shoot at a time.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Under the weather

All was well until 10:30 on Sunday night. Holly had been in bed for two hours when she stumbled into our bedroom crying.

I asked her what was wrong.

“I don’t know!” she sobbed. “I can’t fall asleep and I can’t stop crying!”

The peculiarity as well as the illogic of that response tipped me off that all was no longer well. I tried to settle her back in bed, but she returned to our room within the hour. That time I lay down with her until she fell asleep, but the pattern continued four or five more times throughout the night. By daylight on Monday, she had a fever of 101. I dosed her up with Motrin and left a message on the absent line at school as Tim headed off for the bus.

Holly rested and watched TV all day. Her face was puffy, her nose stuffy. “Mommy, my nose is so tired from blowing!” she wailed at one point. She looked so miserable I didn’t have the heart to try to curtail the TV habit. Quite honestly, I’m surprised the child actors who play the twins on “The Suite Life with Zach and Cody” have lived enough hours to have taped the number of episodes she watched that day.

In the afternoon, my parents were kind enough to babysit for her at their house since I had a previously scheduled appointment. She’d barely eaten all day, but my mother cajoled her into downing a bowl of fresh strawberries. We weren’t even off my parents’ driveway yet after I picked her up when she started to fret. “Mommy, I suddenly feel much worse,” she said, followed by the inevitable projectile vomiting of the whole bowl of strawberries.

At the risk of giving far too much information, I’ll go even beyond my usual Pollyanna look-on-the-bright-side tendencies here to say that if there has to be something that your eight-year-old is going to throw up all over the back of your car, you could not do better than fresh strawberries. It was more like someone dumped a smoothie across the seat than had an actual digestive accident. But anyway.

We continued home. Once there, I mopped out the car with towels and put Holly’s jacket and blankie in the washing machine. Holly took a bath and felt better afterwards, at which point Tim came home looking very pale.

Holly had a good night’s sleep; this time it was Tim who woke on Tuesday with a fever of 101. Holly woke fever-free and cheerfully prepared for school; Tim struggled not to cry in light of the unhappy news that he was going to miss the first day of the sixth-grade three-day outdoor education trip. I promised him if he could shake the fever after one day, we’d drive him up ourselves and catch up to the rest of the class.

So Tim spent yesterday at home watching TV and dosing with Motrin. By the afternoon, he felt better. Holly returned home from school looking well and happy. Until she fell down the stairs and landed on her back. It was a pretty bad fall, although after extensive inspection Rick and I determined that the damage wasn’t serious. She’ll probably have a black-and-blue torso within another day or two, though.

So it hasn’t been the best start to the week for us. Some weeks are like this. We’re lucky ours aren’t worse. The kind of flu from which Holly bounced back easily (and then bounced on down the stairs on her back – but I don’t think that’s any more than a coincidence) would have landed my niece, who has a compromised respiratory system, in the emergency room. I’m grateful both my kids are so resilient to germs and recover from illness so quickly.

Now the upholstery in the car has been shampooed and the empty bottle of Motrin replaced. Disappointingly, Tim woke again today with a fever of 100. There’s still the possibility that he can make it to the third and final day of nature camp with his classmates tomorrow. All in all, we got through it relatively easily. Those weeks when everyone gets sick at once are the kind of experience every parent has but non-parents can’t quite imagine: the stress, the tiredness, the mess of it all.

We managed. Tim needs another day of rest, but soon we’ll all be back on our feet, and Holly has promised to skip a little more cautiously up and down the stairs from now on. Holly probably won’t ask for strawberries again for a good long time, but other than that, as far as I can tell, we emerged unscathed.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Sixth grade outdoor education

Way back in the spring of Tim’s fifth grade year, a full eleven months ago, we first heard talk of the sixth grade outdoor education program: three days and two nights at a nature camp in New Hampshire. “We did that when I was in sixth grade!” I thought to myself. And I think I had fun. I definitely remember learning one critical life-lesson on that trip, though it wasn’t anything the camp intended to teach me. While we unloaded our duffels from the bus in a fire-bucket line, one of my friends was getting on my nerves and I was deliberately rude to her. That night, she rolled out of a top bunk and nearly broke a vertebra; the injury caused her to be sent home from nature camp in the morning, and I felt guilty for the rest of the week. It was my first inkling that one reason not to be rude to someone is that if something bad happens to them, you’ll regret the unnecessary unpleasantness you caused.

But last spring, the sixth grade Outdoor Education trip merited only a brief mention in a parent presentation about middle school curriculum, though I did wonder at the time how what I remembered as a weeklong trip had shrunk down to a mere two nights. But when we received our official instruction sheet a few weeks ago, I realized that the prescribed student drop-off time of 6:45 a.m. on Tuesday and pick-up time of 7:45 p.m. on Thursday meant they still managed to carve out three full days of outdoor learning while taking away some of the pressure that overnights with one hundred preadolescents inevitably invokes – even if not a single one of them tumbles from a top bunk like my friend Jennifer did.

I didn’t give much further thought to Tim’s Outdoor Ed trip until last month, when we were invited to a presentation by the camp director. After listening to the agenda for the three days – nature walks, outdoor exploration, group meals, skits – I was left with a feeling of pure envy. I wanted to be in sixth grade again! At least that one week. Three days at a camp in the woods with all my friends. Was there any chance Tim and I could pull a Freaky Friday so I could be him for those few days?

I don’t think so, and I’m not sure he’d agree to that anyway. Unlike many of his friends, he’s never been to sleepaway camp, but I’ve convinced him this is the perfect way to get a taste for what that would be like: all the fun of camp but all the familiarity of the classmates he sees every day and, in many cases, has known for six years. I’m excited to find out how he likes the experience.

Except now that it’s departure day, I’m anxious. The questions the other parents asked at the March presentation seemed insignificant to me: Does the camp nurse understand asthma treatments? What kind of protein is available for vegetarians? Are the kids allowed to read after lights-out? But maybe I suppressed my own anxieties until now. Will he be okay? Sure, it’s only three days – and, more importantly, only two nights – but will he miss home? Will he feel comfortable with his friends in such ceaseless proximity? Will he take any showers at all in those three days?

Soon enough, I’ll know. He leaves for New Hampshire today; he’ll be back on Thursday night. In the meantime, all I can do is wonder how he’s doing, hope he’s okay, and learn to weather this mild sense of anxiety. Which makes sending a kid off to Sixth Grade Outdoor Education a pretty good overall metaphor for parenting. I’m learning, one step at a time.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Back home again

Planning a trip, paying for the trip, preparing for the trip, leaving on the trip, being on the trip…very little beats the satisfaction of having so much fun once you’re away that all the steps leading up to it seem entirely worth the effort.
But waking up the morning after your return in your own bed can be a pretty amazing feeling too.

We were away for just four days, but with train travel, two kids, the frenzied excitement of getting the cousins together, and the pace of city sightseeing which is so different from our normal suburban existence, it can seem like a big deal anyway. And we couldn’t have enjoyed ourselves more. Everything went beautifully: the transportation, the activities, the interactions among the cousins, the chance to be with my sister and, albeit briefly between business trips, my brother-in-law. We had a fabulous time, justifying every moment of trip preparation and every bit of exertion.

Yet on Sunday morning I woke with the feeling of bliss that comes from being back home.

And that’s interesting only because “home” has had a somewhat fluid meaning for me lately. We moved into our current residence only three weeks before departing for Washington. More than once, while away, I caught myself thinking something like “When I get back, I’ll bake bread” or “On Monday I’ll have time to run several loads of laundry” and pictured myself doing that in the house we no longer live in. So in truth, I wasn’t quite sure how it would feel to come “home” to a home that isn’t entirely home yet.

But I had my answer on Sunday morning: it felt great. It felt like the solid familiar firmness of my own bed. It felt like the silence that overtakes our household when the kids are asleep. It felt like the early-morning light seeping through the skylight in our new bedroom.

Both my kids used to love a particular picture book by Richard Scarry in which a family of animals – I forget the species – goes on a long daytrip that encompasses an epic number of permutations: there’s a visit to the beach, a drive through an airport, a stop at the toy store, a blizzard, a campground exploration, even a traffic accident – and at the end of the day, they pull into their driveway and say “Back, safe, home again.” Those are the words I always think of after a trip: Back, safe, home again.

Perhaps quoting Richard Scarry seems a little mundane. There are surely more profound quotations on departures and returns by weightier authors. Tolstoy, perhaps (“All happy homecomings are the same, but each unhappy homecoming is unhappy in its own way”?).

But to me, coming home always smacks of Richard Scarry’s phrasing. And waking after a trip, with the whole day spread out in front of me and my house, unfamiliar as it still is, spread out around me, feels like the greatest gift possible on this particular morning.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Vacation ethos

It’s so easy to fall into the vacation trap and say “Why can’t it always be like this?”

Well, because if it were always like this, it wouldn’t be vacation, of course.

But still. There are so many aspects of yesterday that I wish we could keep as part of our regular non-vacation life rather than just having it be part of what’s special about vacation week. The unhurried morning, which left me plenty of time to do a four-mile run around Sarah’s DC neighborhood, drink a cup of coffee with my brother-in-law, and eat breakfast while watching Tim and Holly play in the yard. The fact that Tim and Holly were having so much fun together: taking turns pushing each other on the swing, climbing into the treehouse, Tim giving Holly a piggy back across the lawn. And just getting to spend the day sightseeing with the two of them.

Without making a big deal about it, I talked to Tim about our subway routing ahead of time and then stood back once we were on our way to see if he could navigate the journey himself. It’s been a year since we were last on the Washington Metro system, but Tim knew where to catch the escalator into the station and used the map on the wall there to figure out which direction we needed to go in and how many stops it would be. Once we reached the Smithsonian area, he helped me read the street map to figure out which direction to head in.

Later in the day, we met up with their cousins Hannah and Andrew, who are not on vacation this week. While Hannah played soccer, Tim, Holly, Andrew and some school friends of Andrew’s played a sideline soccer game of their own and explored the playground. And this was after we arrived at the subway stop where Sarah planned to pick us up and both the kids said they’d rather start walking in the direction Sarah would be coming from rather than just sit and wait.

Why can’t it be like this at home? I catch myself wondering. Why can’t the kids have so much fun together? Why can’t I be so unhurried? Why can’t Tim so easily take responsibility for age-appropriate tasks? Why can’t they spend hours and hours walking or playing in the sunshine, seemingly indefatigable given such beautiful weather and interesting surroundings?

Well, because this is vacation. And vacation isn’t the same as regular day-to-day life. Regular day-to-day life is actually pretty good for us too, but right now we’re away from home and having a lot of fun, and so it makes sense that everything seems a little more fun, a little easier, a little more fulfilling than it normally does.

That’s what vacation is all about, and that’s why I always look forward to it so much. It’s different from regular life. It’s special. It’s vacation.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Train travel

Perhaps there are better times to reflect on the merits of train travel than within four hours of dismounting from an eight-and-a-half-hour train ride. My legs are stiff from sitting for so long and my stomach is not feeling so great after a daylong diet of Pepperidge Farm Goldfish and insufficient fluids – not because beverages weren’t readily available but just because my willingness to become mildly dehydrated trumped my willingness to use an on-board restroom.

Nonetheless, once the journey is over – at least one way, with the second half to commence in another few days – it seems in retrospect like time well-spent. During the years my sister has lived in Washington D.C., we’ve done the journey by plane, train and automobile, and I always end up concluding that train is the best way, even though seven hours into an eight-plus hour trip, it might not always feel that way.

My kids always prefer train over car for this trip because they know it means I’ll be more available to them than I would if I’m driving. I admit I’m not piles of fun on a train – at their current ages of eight and twelve, I expect them to be fairly self-sufficient when it comes to their own entertainment, and I don’t devote hours to reading aloud or playing card games – but they still appreciate the fact that I can give them more attention than I would behind the wheel. They also like the fact that unlike in a car or on a plane, they are welcome to walk up and down the aisles as much as they wish. They made so many trips to the café car when we did this same trip a year ago that the café attendant recognized them yesterday and gave them each a complimentary bottle of water.

And for the most part, the train journey went really well. Holly’s newfound love of recorded music was a boon; she listened to songs she’d recently downloaded on my iPod for hours on end, and read a couple of books she picked out earlier in the week. Tim spent a little time texting with a friend; then he too read. Together they watched a DVD on my laptop.

Due to delays we weren’t particularly aware of at the time, the whole trip took an hour more than it was supposed to, and by the final hour we were pretty tired of being on the train. At that point, Holly made up a game for all of us to play called “Eight Clues.” It’s sort of like Twenty Questions on Speed: it entailed Holly thinking of a person, place or thing and then immediately telling Tim and me eight facts about it, after which we were free to guess what it was. Games that are really easy are a good plan for the last hour of an eight-hour train trip.

The most important aspect to any leg of transportation is a safe arrival, and I’m happy to say that we couldn’t have asked for more in that regard. We arrived at Union Station a little weary but otherwise fine, and as soon as we emerged into the warm sunlight of a spring evening in Washington, we spotted Sarah and her kids, who were excited to see us and even more excited (on the kids’ part) to tell us that they just saw a man throw up on the sidewalk.

Train travel still wins first place, in my book. It’s easier than dealing with airports and it’s a lot less stressful than driving. And if I’m not exactly chomping at the bit to get back on the train for the eight-hour ride home, I’m still really glad that we chose Amtrak this time around.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Prepare for departure

Almost every year, the kids and I take a short trip together during April vacation week, and almost every year, I wonder if packing might be the best part of the trip.

Well, not really, because our destination is usually the homes of one or the other of my sisters, one in Pennsylvania and one in Washington, D.C., and we always have a great time once we’re there. But for these trips as well as our longer summer visits to Colorado, Maine or other destinations, I’m always amused by how jolly the kids become when it’s time to pack.

Even though they won’t put away their own laundry without a struggle during a normal week at home, the idea of selecting and organizing clothes for a journey seems to inspire new maturity in them. Even though Holly still won’t dress herself without my help on a typical school day morning, when it’s time to get ready for a trip she’s suddenly focused on questions about climate and recreation. “Should I bring one sweater or two?” she’ll ask me. “Did Sarah say we might go swimming? Can I wear flip flops on the train? I’m bringing my new toothpaste and four pairs of socks.”

For Tim, too, the act of packing for a trip seems to bring out his more responsible side. He finds the right sized backpack for the amount of clothes he wants to bring; he counts t-shirts and underwear with care. When it comes time to add the non-clothing items to the mix, both kids give serious thought to how many books they hope to read during the trip and whether they should bring games to play with their cousins.

I enjoy this proactive surge of energy on their part as we prepare for departure, and I sometimes find myself doing the same thing: feeling uber-organized just before the trip begins, as if having all the right clothes and just the right suitcase could guarantee a successful travel experience.

I know that it can’t. There are too many other variables that determine whether a trip will become a wonderful memory or one we’d rather forget. And conversely, forgetting specific items of clothing or an extra book has never ruined a vacation. Packing is ultimately incidental to what actually happens between the time that you leave and the time that you return.

On the other hand, it’s something you have control over. You can’t guarantee safe travels, good health while away, or even that your presence will bring pleasure to your hosts. Bringing the right clothing for the weather seems like an easy challenge to meet compared to those factors. Even though Tim and Holly surely do not think it out to this extent, they too seize control of what will go into their luggage as if happy to feel a sense of control over anything at all.

If recent history is any indication, we’ll have a wonderful trip. We always do when we visit either of my sisters and their families. And if a bathrobe, my running shoes and a reading light turn out not to be quite what I need, I’ll resolve to pack even more meticulously next time.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Wonderful weekend

We had a wonderful weekend.

We hiked in the woods, exploring the paths around our new home and eventually finding our way through the forest to the Great Brook Farm State Park ice cream stand. (As Rick says, what are the odds that our two sequential addresses in Carlisle would both be within walking distance to Carlisle’s two ice cream stands, respectively?) We hosted our new neighbors for drinks and appetizers (and both couples brought blossoming plants as gifts, so the house remains filled with floral fragrance even as last week’s beautiful bouquet is dying off). I went to church and had no responsibilities once I arrived: just sat and enjoyed the Palm Sunday/Passover/pre-Easter/Holy Week sermon. We pulled our bikes out of winter storage, dusted and oiled them, pumped up the tires, and the kids and I did a little ride down the street and back. I ran a total of 9.1 miles: 5.1 on Saturday and 4.0 Sunday. We loafed in the hot tub. We visited with my parents and checked out the new calf, now christened Alice. I even filled our birdfeeders.

Exercise, nature, church, friends, family. It really doesn’t get any better than that, does it?

It wasn’t quite as decadent as I’m making it sound. I did some housework, too. I cleaned all four bathrooms (how our mission to downsize ended up in one additional full bathroom for me to clean is still not quite clear to me) and vacuumed the rugs.

But it felt good to be doing housework. For months, all my household time has been consumed in issues related to moving. First there were months of preparing for open houses and showings. Then we packed, and cleaned some more. Then we arrived here and spent two weeks unpacking. During most of that time, I neglected ordinary housekeeping routines because there was so much else to do.

As of Friday, the last box within our living space has been unpacked and disposed of. There are still untouched boxes in the garage and basement – items we either don’t need right away, like holiday decorations and winter sports equipment, or items we don’t really need at all but will never get rid of, like all of my old journals and my grandmother’s wedding dress – but there are no more cardboard cartons cluttering up our bedroom or kitchen or living room. Emptying the last one out was like seeing the last snow bank melt in the spring: gone, finally, gone.

So much of everything we have done in recent months has been consumed by the enormity of moving. Specific circumstances aside, this is true for any move. It’s just so much work.

And for that reason as well as others, I was so grateful for the joyful normalcy of this past weekend. Grateful to be cleaning sinks and tubs instead of filling boxes. Grateful to be out walking on a forest trail with all four of us and the dog together.

Much remains still undone, both in terms of housework and personal work, but I went to bed last night with a sense of completion and, yet again, gratitude. Normalcy is so often the best reward, bringing both joy and relief. Both emotions filled me as the weekend came to a close.

Friday, April 15, 2011

Hot tub

I hadn’t given much thought ahead of time to the fact that our new house has a hot tub. It wasn’t exactly a feature we were seeking out; it just happened to be here, along with the rest of the house. I had too much else to think about as we packed and organized for the move to focus on the hot tub. And it’s probably just as well, since I was busy and overwhelmed enough that if I’d given it any thought at all, I probably would have imagined it as a liability: something else to clean, maintain and accrue additional expenses on.

But Rick and the kids were curious enough to take it on as a family project to get the hot tub up and running, and it took them most of last weekend. They read a lot of instructions, went out twice for supplies, and spent days filling the tub, measuring the water additives and checking the temperature.

I didn’t pay much attention. I was busy getting the rest of the house in working order. I didn’t even ask when their work on the tub would be done. But when I came back from a 5-mile run last Saturday, I discovered all of them were in the water: Rick, Tim, Holly and a friend of Holly’s who had come over to play and borrowed one of Holly’s bathing suits.

Hot tubs have never been of much interest to me in general. A few times on vacations we’ve had the chance to use outdoor tubs, and this can be a sublime experience: soaking in warm rushing water under the sky. But outdoor hot tubs are rare in New England, and the indoor kind have always seemed to me not that different from baths, which I’m not particularly drawn to.

But the one at our house has sort of an indoor-outdoor feel, because the room it’s in was specially designed for it and it’s essentially a greenhouse, all windows and skylights. It’s technically indoors, but it’s not in a bathroom, and there are views into the woods on three sides.

I jumped in with the rest of the family that day when I returned from my run. (Rick assured me that a little sweat wouldn’t upset the pH balance at all.) It was enjoyable, though it didn’t drastically change my overall feeling of neutrality toward hot tubs. But what I’ve really come to appreciate in the past week is what a great asset it is to the kids. They use it in the afternoon after finishing their homework, or sometimes after dinner. I can’t quite put my finger on what they find so entertaining about it, but they seem to find it just as endlessly engaging as kids normally find real swimming pools. They splash; they paddle; they invent tricks. They made up something called the Seal Walk. But they also interact and talk about things not related to the hot tub itself. They talk about school, and their friends.

I’m not sure what it is about the warm swirling water that makes them spend time together so easily, but I’ve often noticed that the beach is one of two settings in which my children invariably get along; the other is sledding. Swimming in the summer and sledding in the winter, they can be counted on to have fun, cooperate with each other and not argue.

It never occurred to me that having a hot tub would mean drawing out the pool-interaction effect indefinitely. And of course, it’s too early to say how long this will continue for. The hot tub, along with the rest of the house, is still a novelty to them; they’ve only had use of the tub for five days now. Maybe eventually they’ll settle into their usual patterns, which don’t generally involve a lot of arguing but are definitely not as harmonious as the past few days in the hot tub have been.

We’ll find out. For now, I’m just really grateful for this unexpected advantage: sibling harmony the minute we activate the water jets. Had I known about that, I would have been a lot more excited about the hot tub beforehand. Instead, I’m discovering the benefits now, and enjoying every minute of it.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

A month without chocolate

It doesn’t really have a thing to do with Lent, although the timing is such that several people have suggested there’s a connection. My reasons for giving up chocolate in all forms for 30 days starting on March 17 were numerous, but Catholic tradition was decidedly not among them.

Regardless of the motivations, once I made the decision, I was curious to see just how difficult it would be to honor this pact with myself.

Now I’m 27 days in, and the answer is that it hasn’t been all that difficult at all, and the rewards have been significant. I didn’t give up sweets altogether, just chocolate itself, but I do typically indulge in a lot of treats and confections, and chocolate is almost always an ingredient, so doing this has cut down significantly on my dessert intake. Still, this really wasn’t about weight loss or nutrition; it was more just about shaking up the status quo. I felt like I was turning to chocolate every time I needed a gastronomic reward; this was a chance to give up some not-so-great habits (such as the bag of M&M’s every time I drive home from the supermarket) and challenge myself to do things differently.

Since giving up chocolate nearly four weeks ago, I’ve eaten a lot of vanilla crème wafers and a lot of marshmallows. Giving up sugar itself would be a lot harder for me; I don’t care that much about the chocolate itself as long as I can have a cookie or dish of ice cream now and then, and avoiding the chocolate varieties compelled me to be more experimental. The first time my family went out for ice cream during the chocolate fast, I had peppermint stick; the second time I had buttercrunch. One day at home I ate frozen shredded coconut to satisfy a craving for sweets; another time I melted white chocolate chips and stirred in broken pretzels to make a sweet-and-salty bark. (Semantics aside, white chocolate is not technically chocolate, I decided at the outset. Any confectioner would support this distinction, I believe.)

What I miss is homemade chocolate chip cookies, both in batter and baked form. My family misses these as well, as we generally have a steady supply of homemade cookies in the house, so yesterday afternoon I made oatmeal cookies, minus the chocolate chips. Like me, Rick and the kids feel less tempted by sweets when chocolate isn’t an option, so we’ve all been eating a little bit more sensibly during the chocolate fast.

It’s over in three days, but I’m not anticipating any great breaking-of-the-fast. My mother was in Europe last month and brought me back a box of chocolates which I’m looking forward to trying, and I do look forward to the wider selection of ice cream options that eating chocolate affords me. In general, though, the chocolate fast has been valuable simply as a way of shaking things up and making me more deliberate in my food choices. It wasn’t for Lent; it really wasn’t religious at all. It was just an easy, tangible avenue to a temporary change in behavior. Even if I can’t articulate a significant number of benefits that resulted, I’m glad I tried it.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Spring calf

When I arrived at the barnyard yesterday morning, no cows greeted me. In fact, there were no cows as far as the eye could see.

This was mysterious. Like most animals, the cows and bulls invariably show up at feeding time. They haven’t been wandering far recently anyway – when it’s not grazing season, they’re not very motivated to stray far from the barn even though they have plenty of pasture to explore – and I couldn’t remember ever reaching the barn at feeding time with not a single one of them in sight.

I walked a little ways toward the woods in one direction, then a little ways toward the woods in the other direction, puzzled. I stopped to think for a moment, and then I heard mooing from the woods to the east of the pasture. Reassured, I opened the barn gate and pulled out the usual three bales that this particular herd goes through daily at this time of year. I could see them ambling slowly out of the grove of trees, and I could tell it wasn’t the easiest crossing for them. The ground was boggy between the edge of the woods and the pasture. First Rain wandered out, stumbled a little, headed toward the hay bales I’d put out. Then Gracie, a large cow walking sturdily. Then Hank, slow as ever.

No sign of Daisy, which clarified the situation somewhat. My father had asked me just the day before if I’d noticed any signs that she was ready to deliver. I hadn’t, but signs aren’t generally that easy to come by, and I had almost forgotten that she was due this month. She’s calved before without any trouble, so we weren’t concerned, just curious when this year’s calf would arrive.

I headed out in the same direction from which the cows had emerged. Soon I saw Daisy next to the brook, her head down to the ground, and right near her head was a damp dark brown heap of a calf. I could see the calf tossing its head, so that alleviated two concerns already: the delivery was over and the calf was moving.

It seemed to me that Daisy wasn’t too happy about the calf being so close to the brook, almost in the water, and the bank where they stood was steep. As I watched, I could see the calf was having trouble scrambling up the bank to flatter, drier terrain. But within a few minutes, the calf was on its feet and managed to take the few steps that removed it safely from the steep part of the bank.

It looked like a very very small calf to me, but my father arrived just about then – I had called when I saw Daisy to let him know about the birth – and he said it looked like a normal calf to him. The placenta hadn’t yet appeared, so we didn’t have that job to take care of yet. (Suffice to say that I’m always happy when calves are born on one of the three days each week that our local transfer station is open. And suffice to say that I sincerely hope no one from our DPW is reading my blog.)

Just like all the other cows I’ve seen after delivery, Daisy knew what she was doing. She licked the calf’s rumpled fur and nudged it back to its feet. We could safely assume it would soon be nursing. With my mother’s help, I fetched a bale of hay and brought it out to Daisy so that she and the calf wouldn’t have to cross the same boggy terrain the other cows did to get to the barn.

Yesterday was a mild, clear, dry day. Heavy rain is predicted for later today. I always feel bad for the calves that are born during wet weather, but it seems to happen often, and they pull through. This one will grow quickly, as they all do, and will soon seem like any other member of the herd. I’m glad I was able to see it in its first few minutes. I hope it’s glad to be here.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Springtime arrives

The weekend was mild and sunny, but yesterday was even better than that: warm and truly spring-like. The very last pile of snow finally disappeared from our yard. I went running in a t-shirt and tights: two layers fewer than I’ve worn for the five preceding months.

My aunt sent us a floral arrangement late last week as a housewarming present, and the flowers are filling the kitchen with perfume. I placed them on the table near the deck and opened the glass door to let the fresh air flow in through the screen. Even though I knew the flower scent was coming from the bouquet indoors and not from anything blooming outdoors, it made me think the ground was softening and shoots might soon appear; maybe flowers too. We don’t know, since this yard is new to us, what might be planted in the mulch beds around the house, but maybe the scent of outdoor blossoms will soon grace our yard.

The grass covers the ground only very thinly, and much of it is still straw-colored, but the smell of fresh dirt in the air makes me think we’ll soon find fresh green grass growing. I can still see far into the woods surrounding our house; the oaks are bare and even the evergreens seem scraggly, but the warm air reminds me that the leaves, like the grass, will soon enough be thick and green. The walk we did through the woods Sunday gave us the chance to orient ourselves on these trails, all new to us, a little bit, and it was easier to navigate our way with the leafless trees offering such long sight lines. By the time large floppy oak leaves obscure much of the view through the forest, we hope we’ll know the trails well enough to find out way without the extra visibility that the current starkness provides. Of course, when the leaves reach their thickest point, it will also be time for the mosquitoes to hatch, and we’ll probably avoid the woods until the days grow hotter and the yearly mosquito infestation subsides.

With the four feet of snow that covered the ground for much of this winter, spring was slow to arrive. But this weekend it came back: to the ground, to the forests, to the swamps and ponds in the form of ducks and geese paddling along. I’m still feeding the cows three bales of hay from the barn every morning, but they mouth the ground as if they’re practicing for grazing season or maybe hoping that doing so will hurry the growing process along. In another month, they’ll be grazing, and the month after that we’ll be doing the first hay-cutting of the year. One cow will deliver a calf sometime this spring, for the calf’s sake we’ll hope for a string of warm dry days when that time comes, though plenty of times calves arrive during chilly and rainy stretches and still manage to thrive.

The evening sky stays light well after seven o’clock. The sun rises well before the kids are up for school. The year is turning: from a remarkably snowy winter into what is finally turning out to be a mild and gentle spring. Cold days may still come, but we’re glad to have the beautiful days with which this week began, and we look forward to grass, leaves, flowers, and all the blessings of spring that still lie ahead.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Talking trash

Saturday morning was all about trash-talking for my friend Lisa and me.

This wasn’t the kind of trash-talking you hear on the field at a Patriots-Jets game. This was talking about trash in the literal sense, and for us it’s actually an annual tradition. For the past three years, Lisa and I have served as coordinators for Carlisle’s annual Trash Party, the Saturday in April that everyone in town is encouraged to go outside and clean up their neighborhood or other public byways.

Lisa and I, however, do not spend the morning picking up trash, because our job is to suggest collection areas for people not committed to their own neighborhoods, list the sections of roadways that various participants have laid claim to, hand out free coffee, juice, donuts and trash bags (medium, large, or extra-large – the latter for those who want to look like Santa Claus as they trudge on down the road), and offer to pick up trash bags when people are done filling them.

The good thing about this event is that it tends to draw an enthusiastic cohort. The bad thing is that the enthusiastic cohort tends to want to talk about, well, trash. And this gets old fast. We hadn’t been at our post for two hours yet yesterday when I snapped to Lisa, “I’m officially tired of discussing how many cigarette butts everyone finds along the road.”

This was not at all the right spirit for the event, though. Our role as event coordinators goes beyond the route assignments and the free coffee; for the duration of the Trash Party, we’re like trash therapists. People want to talk to us and we have to listen. People want to vent about how although it seems like the number of smokers has decreased dramatically in recent years, you’d never know it from examining the trash along the roadways: cigarettes are still multitudinous, and so disgusting to have to pick up. People want to muse about the number of nips bottles they find, and Lisa and I cite frequently the data the town newspaper actually collected from this event one year: nips bottles, beer cans, and other items typically related to secretive teen activities tend to be found in large amounts along main roads at the entrances to subdivisions, because young people dump all the evidence out before they turn into their own neighborhood.

Another discussion that takes place every year without fail is the one about how surprised trash-party participants are to find empty plastic bottles that held vitamin water or other hydration supplements associated with athletic activity. “The cigarette butts, you can almost understand,” someone always says. “You know, pollute your body, pollute the world, same thing. But bicyclists you think of as being such committed environmentalists. So what are they doing tossing their empties into the woods?”

And then a pickup truck devotee always brings up the subject of intentionality. “Not all litter comes from someone who deliberately tossed it out a car window,” goes the explanation. “When you drive a truck, sometimes things just fly out even though you tried to secure them.” This year one pickup truck driver even explained how the problem is worse after a snowy winter because small pieces of litter get encrusted in the ice and snow in the back of the truckbed and then fly out once the snow starts melting, when the driver has long since forgotten they are back there.

The conversation may get tedious, but the mission is important. Saturday’s haul was typical of past years, when we asked participants who checked in with us at the end what they found, along with cigarette butts and nips bottles we heard about soda and beer cans, endless quantities of takeout food packaging, especially plastic cups, a hubcap, a large work boot, pieces of duct tape, popped balloons. In past years we’ve found PVC pipes and plumbing supplies. One man unhappily found a live snake when he picked up a soggy, misshapen cardboard box.

On Sunday when I went running, I really did notice the difference. Even though I grumble about the repetitive conversations, I’m grateful that so many people get into the spirit every year. Today our roadways look clean. They’ll become untidy again soon enough, but for now, I’m happy to know it’s another year before I have to talk trash. And though there’s no question that trash pickup should be a daily rather than annual habit, once a year is more than enough when it comes to the discussions that accompany the event.

Friday, April 8, 2011

Smart house (or not-so-smart resident)

It’s true that my first 48 hours in a new house made me feel pretty incompetent.

Moving is a humbling experience. First you pack everything you own into boxes and realize the heartbreaking amount of material goods you’ve acquired. You face up to your own bad habits when it comes to purchasing, borrowing, hoarding or retaining. Even with the best of charitable impulses, you watch trash bag after trash bag fill up, and you wonder why it’s so hard to live lightly, not generating or consuming so much matter.

But I got through that part, and finally reached the point where everything we cared about keeping had been transported three miles across town. We’d already resolved to take our time unpacking, going by the principle that we’d take things out as we needed them and thereby figure out over the course of the next year what we never actually used at all.

So it was time to begin settling in. And that was where I discovered what a non-mechanical person I was. This house is not particularly high-tech. It doesn’t have motion detectors to turn the lights on and off or appliances that self-regulate. It’s just…a house. But it was proving more than I could master by the first morning when I finished showering and couldn’t figure out how to turn the water off. I realize that this seems particularly strange given that I’d already turned the water on to start the shower, but somehow that part came instinctively, and I couldn’t seem to re-create the motion in reverse when it was time to dry off. I tried turning the knob hard; I tried pushing it in; I tried pulling it out. Finally I realized the problem; I was using the temperature knob rather than the water pressure knob located just above it. I tried the other knob. The water turned off.

I hadn’t been able to find the coffee I’d packed, so my mother gave me a pound from her pantry. But I couldn’t plug in the coffee maker. The outlets looked normal from a short distance, but I couldn’t get the plug prongs into the openings. I asked my husband for guidance. He showed me how you have to insert the prongs of the plug just a little bit and then slide the whole thing to the side in order to activate the outlet. “And you just knew that by looking?” I asked, feeling increasingly inept. “Well, no,” he admitted. “One of the movers and I spent about twenty minutes trying to figure it out yesterday.” So in that case it wasn’t just me.

The biggest inconvenience that remains yet unresolved is that both garage door openers open the garage bay that we’ve filled with storage, and we can’t figure out how to reset it to open the empty bay. So we still use our garage the old-fashioned way: pull up, get out of the car, open the door, get back into the car, drive into the garage, park, turn off the engine, remember to close the door.

And then there’s the washing machine, which the first time I used it locked like a self-cleaning oven as soon as I closed the door despite the fact that I hadn’t put the clothes into it yet. And the central vacuum system. And the multi-unit thermostat. And the drain in the bathroom sink that I couldn’t figure out how to open and close.

As I say, it’s not that this house is so fancy or state-of-the-art; it’s just all different from what we are used to. I’ve read articles about genuine “smart homes” that turn your oven on for you when you’re heading home and lower the heat after everyone leaves a room. Technically, this isn’t a smart house. But it’s proving itself to be smarter than I am.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Tween time

Tim is singing at the top of his lungs in Spanish.

I’m not sure why. I’m not sure why he’s singing; I’m not sure why he’s singing in Spanish as opposed to English; I’m not sure why he’s singing so loud.

But he’s a pre-teen – and in less than six months, he’ll be a full-fledged teen, no more “pre” about it – and I’m discovering that it turns out we in fact will not be the one household that avoids dealing with adolescent mood swings. We’ll be like all the other households with 12- or 13- or 14-year-olds, trying to figure out why our child is jubilant one minute and catatonic the next; refusing to put the sweatshirt he’s worn for the past six days in the laundry while also taking daily showers these days, whereas up ‘til last month it was a struggle to get him to wash more than once or twice a week.

I suspect mood swings are more difficult for other parents to take than for me, and I say that not because I’m a more patient or tolerant parent but because for us, there’s an unexpected up side. As a younger child, Tim had steady moods, but they tended to be on the somewhat subdued side. He was almost never jubilant, unless it was at the end of a victorious baseball game or coming home from the circus. These days he emanates jolliness and good cheer at the strangest times: getting off the bus on a Tuesday afternoon, for example, or leaving the supermarket with me. There are the bleaker moods as well, particularly in the morning over breakfast when he doesn’t want to begin the new day just yet, but I’m used to those. It’s the bounciness that’s a novelty to me.

So if the past few weeks have been any indication, we’re in luck with our nearly-teen. He’s happy with everything that being almost 13 entails: middle school, with its classes seriously focused on academic progress; school dances; even the local cultural events I’ve been dragging him to for years suddenly appeal to him if it means he can sit with his friends. What’s more, he’s almost always pleasant and polite to me these days (other than during those early-morning breakfasts), in part because he is so often requesting permission to use my computer so that he can instant-message with his friends.

We still have another child to squire through the pre-teen years, and she’s the one who has been blessed with a sunny disposition since birth, so the tables might turn. Fair is fair; I’m afraid we’re owed a stormy adolescence somewhere along the way. But right now we’re enjoying the ride: daily showers, text messaging, study sessions at the library, and everything else that it unexpectedly encompasses so far.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Rediscovering the joy of cooking -- with recipes

A while ago, a friend told me that an organization for which she volunteers was publishing a cookbook and she had offered to be a recipe tester. “It’s been a good experience,” she told me. “It’s helped me get back into the habit of using recipes.”

I know what she means. I too have strayed from the habit of using recipes and would like to get back to it. I used to subscribe to numerous cooking magazines, ask for cookbooks for gifts, comb for new recipes. And then somehow my cooking habits changed. I started relying on old standbys that I’d made so often I didn’t even need an old recipe, let alone a new one, to make them. And I haven’t been trying anything new lately at all.

This probably happens to a lot of families that fall into my demographic: busy parents raising school aged kids. I’m the only one in my family who likes to cook, and the varied preferences of the four of us are admittedly complicated: I’m a pescavegetarian, my husband Rick controls his weight by trying to avoid carbohydrates, and my eight-year-old is going through a phase where she hardly likes anything. My twelve-year-old is the family’s only omnivore, and thank heavens for him.

But still, given everyone’s different wishes, I tend to fall back on the dishes I know we’ll all like, or those dishes that at least two or three of us will eat. Somehow it just stopped seeming worthwhile to find new and interesting recipes for a group with such complicated tastes.

This spring, though, I’m resolved to get back into my previous habits of being an adventurous cook. I miss the fun of gathering ingredients together, the novelty of sitting down to a dinner when I’m not sure how it will taste even though I made it. I miss poring over full-color photos and enticing descriptions in food magazines, or typing a central ingredient or two into the epicurious search engine to see what suggestions the algorithm generates for me.

So when I was packing up for our move last month and came across four untouched issues of Bon Appetit, I resolved that if I was going to bother to put them in a cardboard box, that meant I was committing to read them. And consequently to find at least a few recipes I wanted to try out.

Coincidentally enough, this morning as I woke before dawn to do my daily 45 minutes of stationary biking, I couldn’t find my Kindle in the dark bedroom, and I realized I hadn’t unpacked any books yet. The only thing I could find to read, as I rushed through the house to the basement, was the four issues of Bon Appetit.

So this morning, while I biked, I reviewed recipes, and marked pages. True, Holly won’t like the roasted tomato tapenade napped over swordfish, and Rick would be wise to avoid the pasta under the anchovy sauce, and I’ll have to prepare something else for myself the day I make the Parmesan meatballs. But it will still be a kitchen adventure, something I’ve been missing lately. Old standbys are great, but it’s time to be creative in the kitchen again. I’ll have fun with it. And if my family will expand its tastes a little bit in the process, all the better.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

My weekend o' stupidity

It was my Weekend O’Stupidity. And I’m hoping it’s definitely over. The stupidity part, I mean. There’s no question the weekend is over. But I hope my streak of dumb moves is finished for now as well.

On Friday night, Rick and I watched a Netflix movie on his laptop. Saturday morning I slipped the DVD into the red Netflix sleeve and dropped it into the mailbox when I went to the post office. But later that day at home I discovered I’d left on my nighttable the white DVD sleeve, which has on it the bar code that links the DVD to our Netflix account. So even though the DVD would be returned to Netflix, they would have no way of marking it as returned by us; it would arrive anonymously.

I called Netflix customer service and explained. The associate was kind and reassuring. Netflix has recently started including bar codes on its outer envelopes, she told me, so if we happened to have received one of those newer envelopes, it would reflect our account information. Even if not, she told me, she’d make a note in our file that we had indeed returned the DVD.

And at the time, I believed we had returned the DVD. But then shortly after I got off the phone, Rick opened the DVD drive on his laptop and pulled out the movie. The same one we’d watched on Friday.

“But I returned that!” I protested, despite the physical evidence to the contrary. “It was right next to the computer so I put it in the Netflix envelope! If the movie is still here, what did I return?”

“That would be a disk of proprietary software from my office,” Rick responded grimly. Not customer data, fortunately, just proprietary software. So now the software disk was on its way to Netflix with no identifying information with which to return it, and I still hadn’t returned the movie itself.

Accordingly, I was determined to be ahead of the game with the next items to be returned, which happened to be a book of Holly’s and a DVD the kids had watched over the weekend, both of which belonged to the Carlisle library. “I’ll bring them with me on Sunday morning and drop them into the library’s book drop after church,” I decided.

Somehow that’s not what happened, though. What did happen was that as I was leaving the Whole Foods parking lot and passing by the Bedford post office, I blithely (and stupidly) rolled down my window and dropped the book and the DVD into the drive-by mailbox, realizing one second after I did so that, of course, a mailbox is different from a library book drop. Oops.

It was a sequence of stupid missteps on my part. I can fall back on the excuse that having just moved my entire household last week, I’m a little distracted, but I should know better. I’ve long known that if anything, you should be extra vigilant as far as staying attentive and focused at times when there’s a lot going on. A friend who is married to a police officer once told me that it’s a common occurrence for officers to assist someone in an accident – car, household or other – who says he or she was just returning from visiting a spouse who is in the hospital recovering from major surgery or an illness. In other words, it’s at times of stress that we lose concentration and end up putting ourselves in peril.

I wasn’t exactly in peril, other than potentially having my Netflix account canceled, my library fines tripled and my husband possibly fired, but I was clearly showing signs of distracted living. I knew I needed to refocus, for my own safety and everyone else’s, before I did something even dumber.

I called the Bedford post office at 7:30 yesterday morning and explained that I’d accidentally dropped a book and a DVD into the mailbox. The clerk who answered asked me the titles of both. “So mine might not even be the only library book and DVD in the mailbox this morning?” I wondered. “Do the postal workers retrieve an abundance of non-mail items every Monday morning from other people as inattentive as myself?”

I didn’t ask this, but the clerk verified that the items had been discovered in the mailbox and she would keep them there for me. I stopped by late yesterday morning to pick them up. A kindly male postal worker in the handling area handed them over. “You called this morning, right?” he asked. “I heard Sue talking to you. I thought it was very strange that she asked you for the titles. Obviously they were going to be the only book and DVD in the mailbox.”

Well, so maybe it’s not so common after all. But it definitely taught me a lesson. I’ll pay closer attention to what I’m doing now than I have been. Distraction is inevitable, but making this many mistakes is not. I’ll redouble my efforts going forward to send Netflix DVDs back to Netflix, return library books to the library, and keep my husband’s proprietary office software in his computer where it belongs.

And maybe then my Weekend O’Stupidity will be relegated to a distant, careless memory.

Monday, April 4, 2011

Work I just can't pass up

It was late Friday afternoon and my editor at the Globe was calling to tell me that she’d decided the story idea she’d sent me earlier should be a full-length feature rather than just a short clip – and that she was therefore going to reassign it to another writer since I had two other articles on deadline for this weekend.

“No, let me keep it!” I exclaimed before I could give it much thought. “It’s exactly my type of story!”

And it is, too: a profile of a Boston-area writer who travels the country visiting major league ballparks so that he can then write mysteries for grade-school aged readers about the different parks and teams. Much as I lament the fact that I lack the hard-hitting drive of an investigative reporter or the tenacity of a political correspondent, I love the niche I’ve found for myself: features about not-so-famous people doing interesting things. Or, as I once put it after doing a story about the anomalously high number of twins in one grade in Carlisle and another one about kids with food allergies, “I do stories about twins, stories about food allergies, stories about twins with food allergies.” Or, as one friend has occasionally described my career, “Drawing water from a stone.” Of course, that was before I wrote a feature about him and his family that filled out three-quarters of a section cover on a recent Sunday.

But both of the other two stories I needed to work on this past weekend were exactly my type of story too, and my editor was just trying to lessen the burden on me.

Hearing myself protest to keep all three stories, I almost had to laugh. My editor didn’t know that we’d just moved two days earlier: my house was chock full of boxes to be unpacked, plus I had all the usual weekend responsibilities associated with kids and household; the truth is it was a terrible time for me to take on triple my usual workload.

But I just couldn’t say no, because I simply love writing feature stories and can never pass up the opportunity to do so. When I started freelancing for the Globe about six years ago, each assignment I received was a thrill beyond measure. Days I had an article published felt like my birthday, all day.

And that’s changed only slightly. It no longer feels like my birthday when I have a story in print, now that I’ve come to realize how few people actually read every story in the paper on a daily basis, and I no longer want to run around the house screaming with excitement every time an editor assigns me a story. But as witnessed this weekend, even now that I submit a weekly column and do two or three additional features every month, it still delights me beyond reason to have an assignment, two assignments, a whole pile-up of assignments.

I write features for a major city newspaper. What was long ago a dream and then later a novelty is now more like a regular job, or as regular a job as a freelancer can hope to have. But it still thrills me. And that, I have to believe, is just how a career should be.

Friday, April 1, 2011


As I slid my arm deep into the tall cardboard box and felt an edge of cardstock meet my fingertips, I knew that I’d found victory. “You have to be happy now!” I told myself. “That’s the third of the three!”

After we arrived at our new home early Wednesday evening – which is a mere three miles from our previous home as well as within the same zip code – I thought that the seemingly supererogatory organizational skills I’d been practicing for the past several weeks would pay off. I had been so vigilant about packing carefully and labeling boxes meticulously. Everything was supposed to be easy to find; nothing had been stashed away mindlessly. Especially in the final 48 hours, when I was packing those items we need at our fingertips every day, I was intentional as I slid them into boxes, paying careful attention so I’d remember just where they were once the moving trucks unloaded everything.

But once we arrived at the new house, all I could see was boxes. And yes, they were labeled – in my handwriting, no less – but the labeling wasn’t nearly as useful as I’d expected it to be. Tim can’t sleep without his ancient and ragged stuffed frog clutched in his fist, so with ever so much focus on what I was doing, I’d put the stuffed frog in a packing box with some kitchen supplies after Tim left for school on moving day. I knew I’d be unpacking kitchen supplies right away, so putting the frog in with them made sense.

Except that I was faced with at least a dozen boxes that said “Kitchen,” and none of them also said “Stuffed frog.” Somehow I’d thought I’d remember which kitchen box I expected to open first. But unlike at home when they were half-filled with the contents clearly visible, now they all looked the same.

It reminded me of an incident when I was about eight years old and visiting my grandparents in Colorado one winter. My grandparents had just returned from visiting Japan, and my grandfather gave me a Japanese coin. One snowy afternoon, my father and I were out walking along my grandparents’ driveway when I suggested a game. “I’ll hide the Japanese coin, and you find it,” I said. I thought I knew exactly which lump of snow I’d tucked it under, but once my father started looking – no doubt with complete prescience as to how this game was going to turn out – I realized the clump of snow I’d chosen didn’t really look different from any other clump of snow; it only looked specific and identifiable when it was the one I was focused on. So too with the boxes.

By dinnertime on moving day, there were three things that were vexing me because I knew I’d put them in sensible places but couldn’t find them. One was the frog; one was a stack of clean sheets for our double bed; and the final one was Holly’s homework notebook.

By seven o’clock I’d found the stuffed frog. Just before bed, as I wandered around the house staring at boxes, I lifted one and found that the box below it was labeled “Sheets for double bed.” There was the second mystery solved. Only Holly’s notebook remained lost.

And then late this morning I remembered packing the notebook at the same time I threw the final armload of jackets and hats from the mudroom into a box. So I found a box labeled “jackets and boots,” reached in, and pulled out Holly’s homework notebook, feeling every bit as triumphant as Little Jack Horner possibly could have.

Thus, the moment when I told myself, “Now, you have to be happy; that’s three for three!” And I was indeed happy. As happy as I can be with dozens of boxes filling every room in a house that still seems strange and disorienting to me.

Finding the three lost items gave me a sense of victory, though, just as unpacking the boxes eventually will. I’ll stick with it, remembering the Japanese coin (which even at the time my father and I laughed about; it wasn’t anything of significant value, and I’d learned my lesson). Boxes that look individual on one setting all look alike in another. And so I’ll just keep slogging through until everything is out of them and they are once again a herd of empty boxes.