Tuesday, May 31, 2011

One wonderful weekend

What a great holiday weekend. It was one of those rare times when everything I was looking forward to met or exceeded my expectations. It was a joyful three days, from beginning to end.

The plan that was hatched back in April, which involved meeting my sister Sarah and her family as they flew into Boston and then taking her two kids home with me for an overnight while the adults enjoyed her college reunion in Providence, and then meeting up with them the following morning to hand off their kids as they drove northwest to my brother-in-law’s reunion in Amherst (note to any single people reading this: unless you marry someone who attended the same college you did, be sure to choose someone with a different graduation year, so you don’t get stuck every five years trying to make it to two different reunions at the same time), worked exactly as I hoped it would. The meet-up at the airport went flawlessly, and the four cousins – my two children and Sarah’s two – had a wonderful time playing together from 4:00 on Friday afternoon until nearly 11:00 the following morning. My parents joined us for Friday night dinner, and even the menu worked out just as I’d hoped: mountains of pasta, with a piquant anchovy-tomato sauce for the adults as well as the gastronomically adventuresome Tim and regular marinara sauce or butter for the younger three. Then we met up with Sarah and John for lunch and I got to hear a little bit about the first of the two reunions – and tell them a little bit about the sleepover, including showing them a video clip of the originally choreographed Taylor Swift musical revue performed on Holly’s bed – before we parted ways.

After that, the four of us headed into Boston for our 24-hour excursion: again, we were charmed. The Bostix booth had half-price tickets for the evening showing of Blue Man Group, and Legal Sea Foods still has lobster on the children’s menu. We exited the parking garage with seven minutes to spare on our 24-hour ticket price. Charmed indeed. Even the dog enjoyed herself, doing an overnight with my parents. (Mom bought her a rawhide bone from Whole Foods. I never shop for the dog at Whole Foods. That’s what grandparents are for, I suppose.)

On Monday I attended the town Memorial Day observances at the cemetery and then visited for a while with a friend. The weather was hot and sunny; predicted thunderstorms never materialized. I made a bowl of salsa, with plum tomatoes and garlic and jalapenos and lime juice and avocado and fresh cilantro, and ate most of it myself. (A little self-indulgent, true, but no one else in my family likes my homemade salsa.) Tim played an early evening baseball game and returned home pleased with his pitching.

It was a great weekend. Spending an hour at a Memorial Day observance isn’t quite enough to feel like I paid enough tribute to the meaning of the holiday, but nonetheless, I savored every minute of it. The whole weekend went exactly as I’d hoped, and I can’t ask for anything more than that.

Monday, May 30, 2011

City stay

It was a plan three years in the making, though the actual scope of the plan certainly doesn’t merit taking that long to effect.

Three years ago, Rick and I agreed we’re really like to go into Boston for an overnight getaway: see a live theater performance, walk through the Back Bay neighborhood in which I lived during the years between college and marriage, absorb the ambience of city life that we expose ourselves to so little these days.

Boston is only 45 minutes from where we live, and leaving the house and kids behind for one night really isn’t that complicated an undertaking, so it shouldn’t have taken three years to pull this off. We’ve traveled for longer stints of time to far more distance places in those same three years.

But somehow the stars just never aligned: our schedule and our wishes and our budget never intersected at a point where this little trip seemed viable until this month.

And in the three years since we first imagined it, we’d made a critical change to the plan. Perhaps it has to do with my own growth process as a parent and perhaps it has to do with the difference between having kids age 5 and 9 versus having kids age 8 and 12, but at some point not long ago I decided I wanted Tim and Holly to come with us. “We need a family excursion more than we need an adult getaway right now,” I told Rick when we were finally ready to nail down a plan. “They haven’t had enough exposure to city life lately either. Let’s all do this together.”

So that’s what we did, and even though it was only 24 hours, it was a wonderful experience. We ate at Legal Sea Foods, visited the Museum of Fine Arts, saw a performance by Blue Man Group, swam in the hotel pool, and took a long walk through all our old haunts: past my Back Bay studio apartment, through Rick’s college neighborhood, into the Christian Science Center courtyard where we got engaged. “This is where I was conceived!” Tim exclaimed when Rick told him the stone bench amidst flowering gardens next to the famous fountain was the site of our engagement. “Not exactly!” I exclaimed, startled by his mistake. Conceived of, maybe, which is definitely different. But we let it go at that.

Tim thanked us for including him; Holly followed suit when she saw that we appreciated his words, even though I don’t think she had the same mature awareness that Tim did as far as understanding we could have just as easily gone by ourselves. And that was one thing I couldn’t help thinking was better about traveling with them now than when they were a lot younger: with little kids, you spend a lot of time trying to arrange family trips and hoping the kids appreciate it. At this point, we know they do. And they say so.

Perhaps it shouldn’t have taken us three years to execute on this plan, but I’d argue it was worth the wait. We all had a wonderful and memorable time. Simple enough to drive 45 minutes from home for a single overnight? Absolutely. But all the more appreciated for how long it took us to get there.

Friday, May 27, 2011

President John Adams on a stick

As Holly started the school year, I knew from past experience that once third grade was upon us, the Colonial puppet project couldn’t be far behind. Off it loomed in the distance as the school year wore on, somewhat like a dentist appointment. I knew it was approaching and I knew we had to make our way through it and I just wanted it to be behind us.

But it turned out I need not have worried. I say that not because we did such a bang-up job making a puppet modeled on one of the Founding Fathers or another historical figure of that era, but because Holly went into this project with the mindset that it was her task, not mine. She chose her character (John Adams), she found her research materials (illustrated picture books from the Famous People in History series at the library), she sketched out her puppet blueprint, and then she sat down and made the puppet. All she asked me to do was collect necessary supplies: popsicle stick, glue, black and brown construction paper, cotton (for a fluffy wig of hair).

And then she stuck googly eyes on John Adams. For reasons I can’t explain, any face looks funnier with googly eyes. In general, our second president has a rather grim mien, at least as represented by Holly; but the eyes make me giggle. But even funnier still was after she tried to glue the popsicle stick on President Adams’ back. It wasn’t sticking; I explained she’d have to apply pressure, so she pinned her puppet under my recipe box and left him there to dry. With his black cardboard shoes sticking out from under one end and his cottony head of hair at the other, he looked like the witch in the Wizard of Oz after the house lands on her.

Having constructed the puppet to her satisfaction – little yellow paper circles for his coat buttons, a wide rectangle colored in with pink crayon for his mouth – she began drafting the script for him to recite. “I’m John Adams. I went to Harvard, and I’m proud to be a lawyer!” she exclaimed. So far it was sounding more like my last high school reunion than a Founding Father. “I don’t like it that the king of England tells us what to do and makes us pay taxes!” she went on.

As she practiced, I paged through the newspaper. And there was a photo of President Obama and the First Lady at Buckingham Palace with the descendant of the very same king that my little historian was railing against three feet away from me. “Look at this!” I interrupted Holly. I pulled up the same photo on line so she could see it in color, and then showed her a related photo of the Obamas meeting with England’s newlywed prince and princess. “What do you think John Adams would make of these photos?”

Holly studied the screen, and I could see the proverbial wheels turning. Nearly 240 years ago, a man who would become president helped write the Declaration of Independence with the intent of cutting ties with English royalty, and as Holly’s class found out during their visit to the Freedom Trail earlier this month, men died in the fighting that preceded that outcome; it was a violent and far-reaching conflict. But here was another U.S. president all dressed up and smiling with the queen by his side. And he was visiting her at her home. In England, no less.

“So you see?” I said to Holly. “They eventually learned to get along after all.”
Even for Holly – or perhaps I should say even for me – this is too simplistic a message. She deals with conflict among groups and friends every day – on the bus, on the playground, even in the classroom – and she understands that political differences aren’t exactly like third grade cliques.

Moreover, it’s not like the U.S. and England only recently resolved their differences. Unlike Queen Elizabeth’s visit to Ireland earlier this month, there’s nothing surprising about seeing an American president at Buckingham Palace.

But it makes me wonder what seemingly irresolvable political differences that exist now will be resolved with enough time – or with enough new conflicts to erase the old ones. Arguably, the U.S. and Britain have in recent decades been not so much friends as allies united against common enemies.

So it may be a stretch to try to incorporate this into Holly’s talk about the Founding Fathers. But as I looked at this week’s photos from London, I couldn’t help wondering what lesson there was to be learned from the duality playing out that moment in my kitchen between past and present. Maybe if nothing else, it was a reminder of how alliances and enmities are ever-fluctuating, and must always – whether they are as small as a playground snub or as large as world powers – be viewed with a sense of context.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Move the furniture

Last week I came across this entry on The Book Designer blog in which Joel Friedlander told of a man who rearranges his furniture every few weeks just because the frequent sense of change sharpens his creativity and his productivity. The blog writer, who was telling this story second-hand, used “rearranging the furniture” as a metaphor for changing things up and introducing new elements as a way of keeping the mind alert.

I had to smile as I read it because it rang so true to me. My life has generally not been characterized by a lot of major changes, particularly not in terms of physical setting: I’ve spent almost my entire life in the same state, and the majority of those years in the same town. And yet I can vouch for what a positive impact frequent small changes can have on a creative mindset. So many times, the most minor changes in my life have given me an unexpected and seemingly unwarranted sense of renewal. Two years ago, when I changed the time of my weekday run from early evening to afternoon, it seemed like a great idea and gave me new energy. “Afternoon must be a much better time for me to run, physiologically speaking,” I concluded. But then one year ago, circumstances caused me to change from an afternoon run to a morning run, and I had that same feeling of a new spring in my step. It probably doesn’t actually matter what time of day I run, from a physiological perspective: it’s just the change itself that is reinvigorating.

Almost twenty years ago, when I was a copy editor at the American Meteorological Society, the editorial director told us a story about an office in which several copy editors shared one large space. One day, electricians came in and replaced all the lighting with a different kind of bulb. Immediately the productivity of the copy editors increased measurably, so the department head concluded that the new lighting made it easier for them to see and enabled them to work faster. But then after a month or so, the electricians came back and put the old bulbs back in, and again the productivity increased. It turned out, of course, that neither kind of bulb was more conducive to the editors’ productivity; it was the change itself that put a spring in their step, metaphorically speaking.

I find it particularly invigorating when I can find some small way to make my regular practices a little bit easier. Last week I started backing my car into our garage rather than parking in toward the house. Because of my bad habit of being just a teeny bit behind schedule almost every time I leave the house, this change seems to make a tremendous difference in my outlook whenever I leave to go somewhere. The car is already facing the right way and I don’t have to back out? Fantastic! In reality, I’m probably saving myself all of about fifteen seconds, but that one tiny saved step brightens my outlook considerably.

The “move the furniture” blog reminded me again to find small ways to change what I’m doing: a minor alteration in routine, a new habit like leaving my purse by the door instead of by my desk, or, indeed, a trivial rearrangement of the furniture. Routine is fundamental, but small changes within those routines can be effective as well. And it’s always great to feel that little surge of renewed energy that comes from almost any kind of trivial change.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Project herbal

Amidst all the work over the past few months of packing, sorting, and organizing, I indulged a few times in thoughts of what I would do when those tasks were behind me. I challenged myself to come up with a positive and proactive plan for something I could do once we moved: something beyond the necessary corollaries of unpacking, sorting and reorganizing.

I came up with the idea of growing herbs. This house has a deck right off the kitchen. I’ll put some small flowerpots of herbs on the deck and see if anything comes of it, I told myself. I know I don’t have the attention or ambition for vegetable gardening right now, but I imagined that I could nurture a small pot of some savory growing thing that didn’t require protection from pests or need special kinds of fertilizer.

My sister Lauren, an expert gardener, wrote to me with some advice on growing herbs when I asked her about it. Her long explanation reassured me that some of it would be just as straightforward as I’d hoped, even if a few parts might be a little more demanding than I’d pictured. Lauren encouraged me to think in terms of seedlings and not seeds, and I liked that idea. I didn’t feel ready to test my green thumb by actually having to wait to see something come out of the ground; using plants that were already sprouted and growing, and restricting my role to trying to make them grow some more, sounded like a task that was about my speed.

I imagined that I’d visit some high-end nursery to get the best-quality herbs I could find along with lots of garden-center advice to increase my odds of success, but as it happened, over the weekend I visited my friend Jane. We went for a walk and then ended up at her house; I was already in the car backing out of her driveway to head home when she remembered that she had planned to offer me some herbs to take home.

“Could I possibly take some that I could try replanting?” I asked. She conceded that I probably could. She fetched a trowel and some plastic bags from her garage and showed me what she was growing. We agreed that I would take a cutting of garlic chives and a cutting of mint from her.

As soon as I arrived home, I went out to plant them. Our yard already has a fenced-in area where the previous residents gardened in the past. I couldn’t find a trowel, but I found a large rake and a small one that they had abandoned in the garden, and those two implements seemed sufficient to till the soil enough that I could put my garlic chives and mint into the ground, at opposite ends since I didn’t know how much they’d spread.

I watered them, tamped down the dirt around them, and mentally encouraged them to take root. I sprinkled some water over them from the watering can, also left in the garden by the previous residents. Overnight I heard a light rain falling and hoped that it boded well for my herbs.

The next day I was shopping at Whole Foods and in the produce section discovered some herbs still in their soil, growing in small pots. Buying seedlings at the supermarket didn’t quite fit in with my vision of a visit to a high-end nursery, but then again, neither did taking them from Jane’s yard, and both opportunities had presented themselves over the weekend. I bought a cilantro plant and found a place for it within the garden when I arrived home.

In the day and a half since I planted the third of my three herbs, we’ve had a few light rainfalls and not much sun. I’m not sure how my plants are doing. The garlic chives from Jane’s yard look fairly firmly rooted, and I’ve heard no one can mess up with mint. The cilantro, on the other hand, is looking a little peaked and ragged, more like a pile of produce you might see on the floor at Whole Foods than a thriving crop. But it’s still in the ground, and I’m hopeful it will perk up in the next day or two.

Growing my own herbs would bring me great pleasure. It’s a new endeavor and one I’m not yet sure I have the skill to manage. But somehow it seems like the pieces all fell into place: the encouragement from Lauren, the visit to Jane’s yard, even the fact that Holly, who normally doesn’t like food with strong flavors, ate several stalks of garlic chive right out of the garden yesterday afternoon (and reeked of garlic and onions for the next several hours). Just as I’d hoped when I came up with the idea over the winter, though, it’s something positive, something far more appealing than more unpacking and reorganizing. It’s an attempt to do something new and proactive, and for all of those reasons I’m hoping that it turns out to be something I do well.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Not-quite-full house

Tim was thrilled with the plan for his friend Austin’s 12th birthday party on Saturday night: laser tag at a nearby entertainment facility, pizza and ice cream for dinner, flashlight tag in the yard after dinner, and then hunkering down in sleeping bags with a bunch of his favorite guys. Past experience caused him to suspect waffles and bacon would likely appear at breakfast time, too.

So I can’t use any apprehensions on Tim’s part as an excuse for my own edginess as I locked up our house before going to bed on Saturday. I always get a little edgy when either of the kids is away for the night, even though I tell myself I shouldn’t.

Tim wasn’t far away, and he was in a house I knew well with a family I knew well. He was just as safe and sound there as at home, and I’m not by nature a worrier anyway. Besides, I love the idea of sleepovers. I have so many happy memories of sleepovers with friends from my own childhood. I should celebrate Tim’s opportunity to do this.

And yet when one family member is out of the house for the night, things just don’t feel quite right.

It’s a little hypocritical of me, because in theory I love the idea of the kids going off to do things without us. Not because I want to be rid of them but because I want them to have that kind of life, one replete with outside influences and opportunities to try different options. Growing up, even without traveling far I learned so much about diversity on the most granular level by spending time with families other than my own: families I babysat for, friends’ families, even relatives. I like it when my kids come home from sleepovers with interesting observations about a household practice or tradition different from our own.

But at the same time, it unnerves me just a little when I don’t know where they are or how they are doing. Walking past their empty bedrooms at night gives me a pang of anxiety: why aren’t they here at home in bed? Well, because they’re sleeping somewhere else for one night. And there’s really nothing wrong with that. Some parents whose children cannot experience simple joys like sleepovers, for any of a variety of reasons, yearn for the pleasure of knowing their child has been invited to a slumber party.

So I try to suppress my mild anxiety as I lock the front door and check that the oven is off. Barring unforeseen problems, Tim will be home in the morning, happy and tired, brimming with tales of the party but also glad to be home. I’ll be glad to have him home, too. Seeing your children head out for a night or two is a positive thing, but welcoming them home is even better, and it’s wonderful to know that chances are, all four of us will go to sleep under the same roof tonight.

Friday, May 20, 2011

Creative output

I asked Holly what she planned to do after dinner, during the thirty minutes or so before we needed to head upstairs together for reading and bathing.
“I’m going to write a play,” she answered.

“Wonderful idea!” I told her. Holly’s third grade teacher is a playwright and songwriter, and without overtly urging the kids to take up either pursuit, he has probably been responsible for many more creative efforts this year in our household and those of Holly’s classmates than might otherwise take place.

Holly sat down at the desktop computer in the family room while I started collecting dirty laundry. Five minutes later I saw her heading off to another part of the house. “The computer kept freezing,” she announced. “So I’m going to build a blanket fort instead.”

A blanket fort? I wanted to protest. What if Tennessee Williams or Eugene O’Neill or Thornton Wilder – or Shakespeare – had ever-so-nonchalantly decided to go build a blanket fort rather than write a play?

I don’t mean to suggest that my daughter belongs in that pantheon of playwrights, just that I was alarmed at how easily she abandoned her literary pursuits. To my mind, her intent to write a play was obviously much more important than any kind of fort-building, and it was unnerving to see her shrug off the plan so easily.

But at the same time, this is one of the most delightful aspects of children’s creativity: how they haven’t yet distinguished art from craft, creative endeavor from hobby, self-improvement from fun. In my mind, those delineations are always obvious. Going running is important; taking a walk is just for fun. Writing an article matters; writing a Facebook post is a frivolity. Making dinner matters; baking cookies is self-indulgent. And so on. Not that I don’t do the things in the latter category; I do all of those things, walk and write Facebook posts and bake cookies. Just that there’s always the foregone conclusion in my mind as to whether or not any given activity is truly worthwhile or just for fun.

Kids don’t think that way. I remember one summer afternoon when my niece, Phoebe, was about five and I was babysitting for her. She played in the sandbox for about fifteen minutes; then she decided to weed the garden. She knew how to weed a garden; she’d been helping her mother with that job all summer. But what was interesting to me was that from her behavior and her attitude, there was no clear difference between sandbox play and garden maintenance. To me, one was recreation and the other was labor, but to her, both were opportunities to have fun in the dirt.

Still, I didn’t want to give up quite so easily on Holly’s literary ambitions. “You can use my laptop if the desktop isn’t working,” I offered. She considered for a moment, and then I guess the muse called out to her, because she sat down at my laptop and worked for the next half-hour or so on her play. When she read it to me, it sounded like she’d done little more than establish the mood of the opening scene, with three characters having a few lines each of banter. “I’ll work on it more tomorrow,” Holly told me with satisfaction. “Now I’m going to work on my blanket fort.”

My friends who are engineers might say that it’s the blanket fort that’s the really important pursuit here, and the script is a mere amusement. Either way, it’s probably good that she wants to do both. As is true of most kids, her interests are diverse and her judgments about them are minimal. I would be wise to follow her example in both regards.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Electronic communication: What gets lost when we become too discreet?

Yesterday while running, I listened to yet another discussion on NPR sparked by the article in the Sunday New York Times Style section earlier this month in which a large photo depicted a family of four, all sitting together on a couch but each engaged individually with some form of electronic equipment. Again and again, the question seemed to circle back to this one: Okay, this family is all wired in and focusing on their individual online activities, but what exactly has been lost, if anything?

Well, most adults who remember a time when communication was primarily non-electronic can answer this somewhat by rote. Electronic communication – whether email, Tweets, or blogs – lack the nuance of spoken interaction. Humor and other aspects of emotion get lost in translation. The very reason for emoticons is to try to bridge the difficulty in conveying intonation and inference through the on-screen, printed word. We craft keyboard characters into smiles, winks and frowns just in case what would have come through in our voices were we speaking gets lost in the written word.

But it occurred to me as I listened to the discussion that there’s another aspect to it as well. Many of us have learned the hard way -- through personal experience, retold anecdotes, or stories raised to the level of urban myth -- that tact and vigilance are necessary when writing emails and other forms of electronic correspondence. In short, it’s dangerous to commit anything to any electronic medium if you wouldn’t be comfortable seeing it enter viral distribution.

Which is a fine message as far as reminding people to exercise tact, but prompts a corollary question: So if we’re all communicating electronically, what happens to all the discussions we dare not have through the written word?

This is not an abstraction to me. One evening last week, I stopped by the public library to return a book and ran into my friends Amy and Jean. Jean and I got caught up in a discussion about something that had happened in our third-graders’ circle of friends; Amy countered with a story about her kindergartener and a classmate; and soon the three of us, whispering next to the reference desk, were sharing the kind of personal stories about our own pasts that girls normally tell only after midnight at slumber parties.

The reference librarian didn’t bat an eye as the three of us went on and on about awkward moments and painful heartbreaks from our middle school years, but I found myself still thinking about the conversation the next day. First of all, it just seemed so random. I don’t know either of them really well; had we not run into each other, all of us without kids or husbands, on this particular evening under these particular circumstances, we probably never would have shared any of those stories.

But more importantly, it was only through face-to-face interaction that a conversation like that would have happened; these certainly weren’t anecdotes you’d want to commit to written form.

So maybe, I though as I listened to the NPR discussion about cyber-intimacy, that’s what’s being lost: crazy random personal chit-chat among friends. Amy and Jean and I can certainly arrange a carpool or recruit art show volunteers by email, but confess as to the most embarrassing moment we remember from middle school? Not likely. Not in the least.

On the one hand, it’s a positive thing if electronic communication is starting to get old and familiar enough that fewer privacy faux pas are taking place. (Having discovered that my own 8-year-old sent an email containing an unkind sentiment about a classmate to six friends last month, I know firsthand that the principle of not writing incriminating emails is something that can’t be taught early enough.) On the other, if we’re learning to avoid potentially embarrassing stories or confessions in our electronic communications, and electronic communications are all we’re using, we’re passing up the chance for moments like the one I had at the library last week.

Talking about personal moments with casual friends isn’t an everyday occurrence for me, but it has led to some of my most interesting insights – and, of course, sharing an intimate story is a great way to fortify a budding friendship. So yes, something will potentially be lost if we get into the habit of passing up the chance for face-to-face discussion. I need only remember last week at the library – and the delicious feeling of kinship with two friends that transpired there – to understand how true this is.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Small problems, easy solutions

Some problems, as my father often says, have no solutions. Problems related to seemingly irresolvable disagreements between nations or religions; problems regarding interpersonal relationships. Problems at all points on the spectrum of grandness can potentially fall into this category.

Some problems have solutions, but reaching those solutions is an arduous process, with backsliding and frustration the norm as a seemingly viable and yet increasingly hard-to-reach goal becomes ever more elusive. Again, problems in this category may range from interpersonal to international.

Some problems, thank heavens, are easily solved. This was the case with Holly’s problem yesterday, but she seemed to be surprised that I thought so.

A classmate who is known to exhibit more than a little rowdiness from time to time – and by that I mean, of course, from the time the bus picks him up in the morning until the closing bell at school – asked on the morning bus ride to see a tiny treasure Holly was harboring. The treasure, unbeknownst to him, was a favorite Japanese eraser shaped like a mouse, yellow and white. Holly had put him into a tiny decorative box and made some tiny accessories for him: a minuscule toy, a paper cutout toothbrush, a cardboard fork and spoon.

Holly made what she thought was a safe bet. “I’ll let you see what’s in the box if you can stay quiet for the whole ride to school,” she told him on the bus that morning.

He impressed her by staying quiet, and so when they disembarked onto the school plaza, she made good on her promise, opening the box for him to peer at the little rubber toy mouse inside.

And then, through a series of motions I can’t quite picture and Holly couldn’t quite explain when she told me the story in tears several hours later, his hand flew up – Holly thinks he was waving to a friend – and he knocked the much-loved mouse through the steel wire fence separating the school plaza from the construction area abutting it. The mouse flew into a pile of dirt on the other side of the fence.

Holly made it all the way through the school day and home on the bus afterwards keeping silent about what had happened. Not until we were walking into the house did she say, “Mommy, I have to tell you something that happened that was kind of…sad.” Then the tears flowed as she told me the tale.

She looked amazed by what followed after I’d asked a few questions and reviewed a few details. “We can go back to the store and find another mouse,” I told her. “Or you can pick out a different kind of animal – I mean eraser – if you feel like that mouse was too special to replace.”

“Thank you!” she responded. “I didn’t think you’d say that.”

At the store, she decided for a species change: replacing Mouse would be a beige and white cow she named Benji. On the way out of the store, she thanked me again, still with a tinge of amazement in her voice that it had been that easy.

I explained to her my reasoning. “It wasn’t your fault you lost Mouse. At the same time, it wasn’t really the other child’s fault either. He was being sort of careless, but he wasn’t being mean or trying to hurt you, and you perceived that and didn’t make a fuss about it at school. You recognized that it wasn’t something worth causing a lot of turmoil over or getting adults involved. You also figured out that since Mouse flew into the construction zone, unless there had been a construction worker right nearby to help you, there really wasn’t anything that could be done about it. I’m proud of you for making good decisions about how to cope with the disappointment, and that’s why I want to do what I can to fix the situation.”

Also, I said to myself, Japanese erasers cost $1.25 each, which surely had some small influence over my magnanimity.

But still. Some problems can’t be solved. Some, including a handful of other schoolyard conflicts Holly has become enmeshed in over the past year or two, take a lot of work to solve. This one was easy. And out of gratitude for that simple fact, I was more than happy to do what I could.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Having fun

One young member of my Sunday school class this past weekend wanted to be sure it was absolutely clear to me that she would rather not be in class. “I wanted sooooo much to stay home but my parents made me come to church today,” she whined during the early part of the class when the kids are encouraged to share their joys and concerns.

“What would you be doing right now if they’d let you stay home?” I asked.
I think she thought it was a trick question, that I was trying to trip her up somehow, but I wasn’t. I don’t know this particular child very well. If she had gotten her wish to stay home, she’d probably be having more fun, and I was curious to know what fun for her looked like.

I was thinking about this already because I’ve been reading The Happiness Project by Gretchen Rubin, which also talks about the importance of being able to define your own sources of fun. When Rubin posed the question on her blog about what people find fun, what I found most telling was what some people identified as not fun: games with their children that involved toys (though these same parents liked other activities with their kids, just not playing with toys), going to parties.

As Rubin’s readers articulated, sometimes things we associate with fun because of their general reputations, such as toys and parties, turn out not to be, or just aren’t to our tastes. Going too far in the direction of labeling different activities as “fun” or “not fun” can be unnecessarily limiting: assuming you don’t like parties could mean never going to another party, and there’s always the chance that the occasional one will turn out to be pretty worthwhile. At the same time, knowing what makes you happy can be both self-affirming and practical: self-affirming because it helps confirm in your own mind who it is that you are, and practical because it helps you put your time to good use rather than squandering it.

When my children were really young, time to myself was so rare that sometimes when the kids were gone for several hours at a time, I’d almost literally find myself walking in circles, not knowing what to do with the gift of free time I’d been handed. Although these days I have plenty of time to myself at home, I felt a little bit the same way last Friday when I went up to Portland, Maine, to help my father with an errand and found myself with two free hours to spend there all by myself. I’d been to Portland several times before, but always with the kids. Being there alone – and on a mild sunny spring day, no less – left me almost overwhelmed by the choices.

Should I go for a powerwalk by the harbor? Try on clothes at one of the artsy boutiques on Middle Street? Sip coffee and read magazines at a café with a waterfront view? Watch the boats come and go from the dock outside the condo balcony? I tried hard to pin myself down on my definition of fun so as to make the best possible use of my brief but precious stint of time.

In the end, I used my two hours well. Powerwalking didn’t happen, but the shopping, strolling, coffee and reading all did. I was glad I’d identified those ahead of time as things I was likely to find fun.

Of course, it’s important not to limit yourself. There are always new forms of fun yet to be discovered. But as I tried to tell my Sunday school class, knowing what really makes you happy is part of knowing who you are. And it’s a good feeling when you can zoom in on just what it is that you find to be fun.

Monday, May 16, 2011

The bus-stop walk

Our new bus stop is exactly a half-mile from our house, only a small distance farther than our old bus stop was. Tim knew my expectation with the old bus drop-off was that he would walk it without complaint, though if it was raining or snowing or below about thirty degrees – all of which were frequent occurrences this past winter – I usually drove out to pick him up.

From the new bus stop, my expectations are the same, but after a week with a lot of rainy days followed by a week in which he was sick, Tim seemed to fall out of the habit of walking uncomplainingly. Most days this month he has called me from the bus to ask if I’ll come out and get him.

Typically, my response is the same as it used to be when he would do this: if it’s not raining or snowing or cold, I tell him to walk. End of discussion.

But within the past week or so, I realized that although there was no reason he needed to be picked up at the bus stop in the car, it wasn’t a bad time for me to take a break from my work, and it wasn’t a bad chance to get the dog moving around a little bit too. She and I do our run together first thing in the morning; by 2:30 it often feels like we’ve been sitting still for hours and hours. (Often, we have.)

So for the past few days, I’ve tried to resist the temptation to tell him I’m too busy with work when he calls. Instead, I grab Belle’s leash and head out to meet him on foot.

I expected him to be discontent with this solution. I thought what he really wanted was a ride. I thought his call was mostly about wanting to avoid the half-mile walk.

But I came to realize in the past few days that I might be wrong about that. He seems to be delighted to see me walking out to meet him as he makes his way down the road. (I never actually start my walk early enough to see him get off the bus; he’s always already on his way by the time our paths cross.) And I don’t know why this should surprise me, but it does. I’m just not used to thinking that Tim really wants my company. For so long now, it’s seemed to be the rule that he likes being with me at baseball games and mealtimes and bike rides, but quiet strolls together aren’t particularly a priority. But without my even noticing, that seems to have changed. Ever since I started walking out to the bus, he seems happy just for the chance to walk with me.

What made me take notice of this transformation was that late last week when he called from the bus, he had a specific request. “Mom, could you either walk out to meet me at the bus stop or cook me some bacon for a snack?” he asked. Bacon isn’t an everyday thing, but once a week or so I’m willing to allow it.

“Sure,” I said. “Which would you prefer I do?”

I was sure he’d say the bacon, partly because he loves bacon so much and partly because he’s too lazy to fix his own snack.

He didn’t even seem to pause. “Walk out to meet me,” he answered. “I can make the bacon myself.”

I have to confess, I was irrationally flattered. But this is really interesting to me. For so long, it seemed that my purpose to Tim was based on the primal components that mothers provide to children: sustenance and comfort initially, entertainment and transportation and nourishment as they get older. But by Tim asking me to walk with him, I’m discovering that even when he needs none of these things, he values my company.

I don’t want to make more of this than it is. For one thing, at the old bus stop he had two neighbors to walk with; here there are no other kids on his bus shift. It might not be me in particular, just that he’d rather have company than walk alone.

But still, my company trumped bacon. At the moment, I can’t think of anything more validating than that.

Thursday, May 12, 2011

Aspen Summer Words: Registration submitted, ready to go

This wasn’t my usual type of procrastination. The usual type runs along the lines of “I should do that but I don’t want to do it yet but I ought to just get it done but I’ll get to it soon but just not right now.” This time, it was procrastination more along the lines of putting a Hershey’s chocolate kiss on the kitchen table and telling yourself you won’t eat it quite yet. Not really procrastination at all as much as holding off on a reward until you really feel like you’ve earned it.

I hadn’t earned this one at all, just been lucky enough to stumble into it, but after holding off with my mouth watering, in a figurative manner, for weeks, I finally took a few moments yesterday to submit my registration for the Aspen Summer Words conference.

And in fact, receiving the confirmation was no less pleasurable than the anticipation of looking ahead to registering had been. Assuming all goes as planned and I depart in six weeks for the Aspen Writers Festival summer event, it will be my third time there. And I can’t wait. It’s always an amazing opportunity; I’m still a little bit astounded to think I’m going to experience it yet again.

In general, I’m not a big proponent of writers’ conferences. I get my best writing done sitting at my kitchen table or at the library. When I gave a talk on writing a couple of months ago, one thing I said to the audience was “Don’t tell yourself you’ll write the book once you finally have the chance to spend a month in complete solitude in a windswept cottage on the coast of Maine. Most likely that will never happen, and even if it did, you don’t really need that. Writing at its best should be a regular part of daily life, not something you have to move heaven and hell in order to be able to get done.”

All true, which is why I myself don’t dream of weeks of solitude for writing. But the Aspen conference never lets me down. It’s a full week of conferences, workshops, panels, lectures, and discussions; even better, it’s a week surrounded by other people who love writing. They are writers at all levels: hugely successful novelists, freelancers like me who get paid to write but still believe they have yet to hit their stride, and some who are newcomers to the dream of writing, taking part in the conference as a way to get their very first poems or stories out of their heads and onto paper.

Both times I’ve gone before, I’ve met such a wide variety of people and had so many interesting discussions with them. I’ve learned a lot, too. For me, the best way to hone my writing is to work at it, but I learn other things, separate from the craft of writing, at the conference. I learn about the industry, and new directions in publication. I find out about up-and-coming authors. I hear poetry read aloud. I find out what kinds of experiences other writers have had with first-time publication.

So I consider myself extremely lucky to be planning a return trip this summer. Clicking on the “register” button yesterday filled me with a sense of joyful anticipation. Most of the year, I write in relative solitude; not on a windswept island but at my desk or kitchen table. Once a year, it’s wonderful to spend five days surrounded by colleagues, and so once again, I’m counting down the days ‘til departure.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Empathy in interviewing

Much of my workday is spent interviewing people about subjects important to them: projects, initiatives, passions, experiences. After the publication of my memoir last fall, I had a small number of opportunities to be an interview subject rather than an interviewer. The host of a nationally syndicated show on NPR interviewed me for a whole hour, a reporter for a community newspaper in our region came over for coffee to interview me, and one of my colleagues at the Boston Globe even did a short phone interview that she later wrote up into a brief blurb (reasonably enough, the Globe prefers not to give a great deal of coverage to its own writers’ projects).

At the time, I told some of these interviewers that I was tickled to be “on the other side of the counter,” because it was just fun to have people asking questions about me rather than vice versa. (I’ve sometimes imagined a New Yorker cartoon in which Terry Gross is approached at a cocktail party and snaps, “Listen, I’m really not interested in hearing about you! Let’s make it about me for once!”) But as more time goes by, I realize that it was not only fun but also professionally beneficial for me to be interviewed, because it reminded me to be more empathetic of the people I’m interviewing.

Specifically, when I have numerous quotes to gather in a little time, I tend to grow secretly impatient with people who have a lot to say. Though I have enough experience as a journalist to know it really doesn’t help to try to hurry people, I also tend to know before our conversation even begins what it is that I need from them, and it’s tempting to try to race through the discussion to get to the part I’m after.

But then I remember how as I was falling asleep the night before my NPR interview, I was still thinking about what I would say, how to tell my story, the right words for framing certain thoughts.

In short, it was a big deal to me to be interviewed, and I wanted time and space to tell my story clearly. And it helps me to remember that when I call other people for quotes, I myself may know that they are just one of a half-dozen people I need to talk to on the same topic, and all I really need is a sentence or two – but to them, it’s a big deal to be asked to share their thoughts, and they too probably thought long and hard about just what they want to say.

The bottom line is that no matter whether the end result is an article or some entirely different product, empathy almost never hurts, and being an interview subject, even just for a very short phase in my life, helped me to see that. It’s good for me to remember that I’m asking people about issues that are important to them, and they want to be heard.

So now I try to slow down. Even when an interview subject is explaining something to me that I already understand, I let them process it in their own words. Even when they’re straying far from the important part of my question, I let them meander. Every last element of their response may not matter much to me, but it does to them. And the more I can remember that feeling when I had it myself, the more I can ultimately do justice to their perspective. Which is, after all, why I bothered to called them.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

This too shall pass, Tim

It was a bad time for Tim as this month began, at least bad within his personal frame of reference. He had a fever for four days and missed the overnight class trip. After four days of feeling crummy, he finally felt much better but had to stay home from school anyway per the doctor’s orders, so on that fifth day he was bored silly and frustrated by the awareness that all his friends were back from the trip and having fun at school without him. Last Monday, he was finally able to return to school, which was great – but then Tuesday, as had been planned weeks ago, it was off to the orthodontist to have braces put on.

I was so relieved to finally have Tim’s long-anticipated orthodontic treatment under way that I hadn’t given much thought to how it would actually feel to him. I don’t think he necessarily had, either – given the propensity of kids his age to live in the moment – and I suppose the fact that about fifty percent of his sixth grade class already has braces made both of us see it as an everyday thing.

In fact, I have to confess that I was looking forward to that first braces-installation appointment a little bit. These days, I look forward to anything that involves sitting in a waiting room with nothing much to do. Waiting at the airport for a flight to depart. Taking the car to Jiffy Lube. The kids’ haircuts. The Registry of Motor Vehicles. I’ve come to treasure those rare places where so little is expected of me other than sitting and waiting. Knowing Tim’s appointment would last a couple of hours, I knew I could catch up on a whole weekend of newspapers.

Besides that, Tim’s orthodontist’s office is a unique place to sit and wait. I think of it as the Disney World of medical practices. Every single employee I’ve ever met there is friendly, cheerful, and articulate. The waiting room has a coffee station for parents and Xbox video games for kids. Standard giveaways for patients include t-shirts, movie nights and water park excursions. I settled down happily with my laptop, logged on to the Internet via the office’s free wireless access, and waved Tim off as he headed to the dentist’s chair.

Two hours later, I realized my expectations had been a bit glib. I had one miserable boy on my hands. His teeth didn’t hurt, he told me as I repeatedly asked; he just felt so uncomfortable with wire laced throughout his mouth. The idea of eating anything didn’t appeal to him at all, and he spent an unhappy afternoon back at home.

Later that day he contemplated a bowl of oatmeal and his eyes welled up. “I’m going to eat oatmeal for the next two years?” he wailed.

In those few words, I saw the problem. He was assuming the way he felt at that moment, that hour, that whole day even, was how things would be for as long as he had braces. Even after twelve years of life, he hadn’t yet truly assimilated the transitory nature of time, the awareness that feeling bad, no matter what form it takes, doesn’t mean you won’t soon feel better.

“No, not for the next two years!” I told him. “You’ll be ready to eat regular food soon! You’ll get used to the braces. You’ll feel better.” After all, I pointed out, his friend Austin had been in braces for months, and did Tim ever hear him complain about how miserable a situation it was? Of course not, because the misery passes.

But, as most adults know, easy to say; sometimes harder to believe. When Tim was an infant, I never believed he’d someday sleep more than two hours at a time. When he was a toddler, I never believed he would someday talk. When Holly refused to give up crawling long after her first birthday, I feared she’d never walk. It wasn’t that I had unreasonable concerns about my kids’ development; it was just hard for me to remember that every stage passes, just as Tim was having trouble believing the initial discomfort of braces wouldn’t last for the full two years he was scheduled to wear them.

But it did pass, of course. A week later, he already feels normal in braces. He’s learning to brush his teeth carefully and avoid eating meat off the bone. He’s ready to reassure those friends who haven’t yet started their orthodontic treatment that it’s really no big deal. Oatmeal for the first day or two, he tells them, and then you’ll be fine.

So I hope it’s a lesson he’ll transfer to other situations: discomfort, pain and unhappiness pass. (So do tranquility, elation and triumph, of course, but no need to rush that lesson.) Braces was one way to discover that, and I’m sure it’s something he’ll continue learning, just as I continue learning it still. This is a start, though, and I can only hope he’ll long remember that two days after getting his braces on, he started feeling better.

Monday, May 9, 2011

Ten phrases about me, written by Holly, for Mother's Day

For years, posted on the fridge at my sister Lauren’s house was a name poem her daughter wrote for her in grade school. Name poems are where you write a name vertically on the left side of the page and then come up with a word or phrase for each letter; young kids tend to have great fun with this exercise.

Most notable about my niece’s name poem for Lauren, at least to me, was what Sophie came up with for the “U”: “Usually comes up with good alternatives.” Not being a parent in those days, I didn’t understand why that was such an asset, but once I had a preschooler of my own, I knew how much time parents spend trying to come up with appealing alternatives.

Sophie is now 18; it must have been more than ten years ago that she wrote that poem. Yesterday, for Mother’s Day, I received a name poem of my own from my 8-year-old, who chose to include not only my first and last names but middle initial as well. It was a thought-provoking peek at how Holly views me. And I must say that even though motherhood isn’t a competition, if it were, Lauren would beat me hands-down. Nothing I do according to Holly – nothing that starts with any of the letters in my name, anyway – can hold a candle to “Usually comes up with good alternatives.”

Here’s Holly’s, with editorial comments from me in brackets.

N – Not good at committing to watch Tim’s baseball games [True. But is that really necessary to bring up on Mother’s Day?]

A – Able to run a mile in 9:45 [True. Nothing to brag about except perhaps in geriatric circles, but true.]

N – Number 8 on a scale of life [Obvious question: what’s the scale’s range? Am I an 8 on a 1-10 scale, which sounds pretty good coming from one’s daughter, especially just a day after she was not allowed to order the two Japanese erasers she wanted from Amazon.com this weekend because although the erasers would cost $2.99, the shipping was another $13? Or am I an 8 on a scale of 1-100, which might be a more accurate reflection of how Holly felt following the Amazon/Japanese eraser disappointment?]

C – Courteous of others IF they are not in her family [Thanks for the clarification, Holly]

Y – Yells a lot [A natural follow-on to both of the two preceding letters, I suppose]

S – Sweet when in a good mood [Hey, thanks! A compliment! Sort of.]

W – Writer for the Boston Globe and others [Always reassuring to see that your kids know where your paycheck comes from]

E – Egg white attitude [Holly admitted at the time that she just felt like using this phrase and didn’t attach any particular meaning to it. I appreciate her lyrical aesthetic – and her commitment to using it.]

S – Scared of ticks [Yeah? So?]

T – Tender teeth [True. I suppose I’m lucky there’s no “R” in my name or she might have used “Receding gumline.”]

Ten phrases summing up Holly’s perspective on me. Certainly it could be worse. I’d love to know what ten phrases she’d use to describe me if they could start with any letters at all. (Quite likely many of the same ones, I suspect.) Trying to imagine how our kids see us is always an intriguing exercise. As a special Mother’s Day gift, I was able to get a glimpse. Scared of ticks. Dental sensitivity. Can’t follow through on the commitment to watch a baseball game.

Doesn’t sound like anything child welfare officials will be knocking on my door about. And yet there’s clearly room for improvement. I could try to yell less, be brave around ticks, boost my time in the mile up to the lower 9’s, and extend the same courtesy to people inside my family as those outside of it. Maybe doing all of those things would even boost my ranking on “a scale of life” over 8. It’s surely worth a try.

Friday, May 6, 2011

The Little Engine Whose Mom Hoped It Could

Over the past week or two, Holly’s interest in biking has caught fire. Early in the season, she cast aside her beginner’s two-wheeler in favor of Tim’s larger, outgrown bike, delighted by the extra power its greater size and number of gears gave her. Since then we’ve taken about a half-dozen rides a mile or so up and down the road.

Yesterday afternoon she asked again to go for a bike ride. Holly was in the mood to try something a little more ambitious than our usual aimless jaunts, and I wanted to see what she could do, so I suggested we ride into the town center. It’s a little less than three miles, and not a difficult route, though the last mile is along a fairly busy road. But it wasn’t yet rush hour.

The ride into town went well. Holly pedaled steadily and cheerfully. At the general store in town, I bought her a cookie, and we sat out on the store’s porch while she ate it.

The ride home was more difficult for her, though. I think she just burned out. She whined and fussed and eventually cried about how hard it was. She stopped often to rest.

I knew I had myriad options for how to handle it. I could be a cheerleader, trying to boost her spirits by emphasizing how well she’d done on the ride already and how I was absolutely certain she could do the rest. (I wasn’t.) I could cajole, urging her to give it her best shot. Or I could do the opposite: point out she had agreed to the ride, she had already made it one way, and she needed to be a good sport and push herself a little to make it home.

If one of these was the right answer, I certainly didn’t know which one. So I didn’t do any of them. I just rode behind her, listened to her complaints, told her in as objective way as possible – neither cheering nor cajoling nor scolding – that I was fairly sure she could finish the ride, and waited it out.

The last third of the route is the easiest part. Once we reached that section of road, she stopped whining and wiping away tears; she coasted along and seemed to cheer up. When we arrived home, I knew once again that there were all sorts of approaches I could take – making a big fuss over the accomplishment; pointing out that she’d overcome the challenges and triumphed; trying to make an object lesson out of the fact that we’d completed the ride we set out to do.

But again, I opted for none of the above. Just as earlier in the ride I’d figured whatever strength Holly needed to finish the ride had to come from within her and not from me cheering, cajoling or scolding, once it was over I believed her sense of pride and accomplishment also needed to come from herself and not from me. So I told her I was glad we’d gone for the ride, but we didn’t discuss it much further than that. We went inside and started getting ready for dinner.

This was just one of the many times that I knew I had a lot of options but I simply had no idea which one was best. All of those approaches are tacks I’ve taken at some point in my parenting history, and I know each one sometimes works and sometimes doesn’t.

But it seemed to me no matter what that I couldn’t go wrong by stepping back and letting Holly’s own inner voice guide her: first in telling her she could probably complete the ride, and then in making her feel a sense of pride in having done it. The Little Engine That Could didn't have a mother engine urging her along either; the strength came from within.

Holly had cheered up to her usual self by the time we sat down to dinner. She was tired by bedtime, but not unhappy. There are so many approaches to parenting challenges. It’s hard sometimes to remember that sometimes the best approach is no approach at all. I don’t actually know where Holly found the motivation to finish the ride, or how she felt once she had. We just went along with our day and didn’t have much discussion about it. But however she did it, my guess is she’ll be able to draw on the same method again. And that surely beats any amount of praising or cajoling I could possibly muster.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

End of the barnyard "semester"

It was a little like the feeling on the last day of the school year when you’re not graduating. I knew I’d be back, and I suspected nothing would be radically different when I returned. At the same time, like finishing a grade, it was the end of a phase, so I couldn’t help feeling a little bit reflective.

Specifically, yesterday was the last day of cow-feeding for the season. From now until mid-October, the animals will rely on grazing. I’ve pulled out the very last bale of hay; the barn is empty, and as I did my usual triple-check of the barn gates after feeding to be sure I’d secured everything, I had to laugh to myself: it wouldn’t really matter if the animals did get into the barn, at this point; there’s nothing in it for them to eat anyway.

Just as I used to do on the last day of school, I tried to think back to what had happened this past feeding season that was particularly memorable. There was the growing calf Rain’s uncanny ability to slip in and out of the sheep’s gate, a space that by all appearances he was too big for, and so we left it open when it was time to separate him from his mother for weaning. But every time we separated them, we found him back with her by the next morning. He’s the Houdini of the barnyard, able to will his way through an opening that appears to us to be much too small for his fast-growing frame. Finally we learned to leave the sheep gate closed so that he’d stay where he was supposed to be.

I thought back to the morning in late November when I went out to the barnyard and couldn’t find Hank, the 2,000-pound bull. That’s a lot of animal to be hiding, but when the other animals showed up to be fed, he did not. I drove to the house to share the problem with my parents; we all looked for him and speculated on what could have happened. A bull-napping incident? A fence break? Had he blundered into the pond? All sounded so improbable to us. It wasn’t until after we’d alerted the local police to the problem that we found him stuck (but not too badly stuck) in a chute behind the barn. Emergency averted; we coaxed him back out of the chute, and all was well in the barnyard again.

From that time on, I never again had the experience of animals not showing up at feeding time until last month, when I arrived at the barn one morning and none of them was in sight. The sound of mooing drew me eventually out toward the brook; then three of the four animals emerged from the woods and headed toward the hay bales I’d just put out. The fourth was tending to a newborn calf who then had to be coaxed up from the brook and onto higher, drier land. The calf is three weeks old now, strong and healthy.

This winter was memorable in the barnyard for the same reason it was memorable everywhere else: feet upon feet of snow. I remembered the days I slogged off the plowed driveway and through the untouched drifts to get to the barn in snow that was much higher than my knees. The worst thing to happen in terms of animal care this winter wasn’t the snow, though; it was the day the pump stopped working. My parents were out of town on vacation, and I was at a loss for what the problem was and what to do about it. The cows had already drunk most of the water in the trough by the time I discovered that no water would flow out of the pump, so I took the snow shovel and dumped as much snow as I could into the trough. It didn’t work as well as I expected, though; after a good fifteen minutes of shoveling snow into the trough, the water level had only risen a few inches. At that point I remembered that grade-school rule of meteorology: one foot of snow equals one inch of water. Filling the trough with snow as a means to keeping the cows watered was going to be almost impossible. Instead, I focused on what the problem with the pump might be and noticed that a bit of ice had built up around it. I chipped it away, cleared the accumulated snow out from around the pipes, and waited a few hours; the next time I tried, water flowed easily from the pump.

Also I’d learned at least one very valuable lesson. One day a month or two ago, my father and I tried to separate the cows and bulls. We put hay bales where we wanted the two cows; they followed us amicably into the enclosure, and we closed the gate while they munched away at their breakfast. But when I went briefly back into the cows’ pen I was taken by surprise when Gracie shoved her way right past me to get back to the bulls. Once she had food, I assumed she’d lose interest in being with the bulls. Without giving too much contemplation to what that says about me, I’ll simply admit here that I learned an important lesson about working with large animals that day.

Over the next few months, the cows will eat all the grass they want; we’ll hope the summer doesn’t become as dry as last year did. We’ll mow and cut hay, and then bale it and refill the barn for next winter. Come October, I’ll be back in the barnyard feeding the animals every morning again.

So it’s like the end of a school year. Lots happened – relatively speaking, of course; I acknowledge that these are cows, and nothing much happens even at the most adventurous of times – some of it good and some of it not so good, all of it enlightening. Spending time with this amiable herd every morning at feeding time has been a pleasure. I’ll come back in the fall a little more experienced in animal care, ready, I hope, for a new season of bovine adventures.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Dandelion perfume

Since the kids had an early release day from school yesterday, my friend Nancy and her daughter Samantha came over for lunch, and then we took a long walk in the woods.

As we walked, the girls collected dandelions. Holly loves dandelions. As far as she’s concerned, they’re brilliantly colored flowers, fragrant and beautiful. The idea that some people see them as weeds means nothing to her, proving once again that beauty is in the eye of the beholder.

Once we were back at the house, the two girls went inside and closed themselves in the bathroom for several minutes while Nancy and I drank ice water and talked some more.

I didn’t give much thought to the situation: the two girls find all kinds of mysterious activities to keep them busy together, and I’ve never yet known them to incur any damage. So when I arrived home after doing a short round of errands later in the afternoon, I was amused to see on the kitchen counter a small glass jar half-full of cloudy water with a few flower petals floating in it. On the label in black marker was scrawled “Holly and Samantha’s perfume.”

“What did you make perfume out of?” I asked Holly.

“Dandelion petals, grass, and some of those little soaps we have in a dish in the bathroom,” she said. “Then we added water. It smells really really good and we’re going to keep it and use it forever.”

It made me smile because that’s something that I used to do at her age also. I remember so clearly the times we would go to my grandparents’ mountain cabin in Colorado for a dinner picnic. While the adults had cocktails and prepared dinner, the kids would wander around in the fields and woods. My sisters and I always collected pine needles, sagebrush, wild grasses, and lumps of pine sap to mix up for a perfume. Each component was separately so fragrant…but the perfume part never really worked, though we pretended it did. We didn’t know that alcohol is the main ingredient in commercial perfume.

But what I remember even better than making perfume was one day when my Aunt Mary said to me while we were doing something quite unrelated to this, “At my grandparents’ cottage on Lake Michigan when I was a girl, every summer I would gather pine needles and try to make a perfume that would last all year and smell like the countryside around their home. But it never worked.”

I’m not sure how old I was when she said that, but I remember being surprised to learn she had had the very same impulse I did – and been equally frustrated when it didn’t succeed very well. From what I understood, she’d even had the same period of denial, pretending that in fact the perfume really did have a lasting scent. I think it was my first inkling that some kinds of child’s play are truly archetypal: they just exist for each child to discover anew; no one needs to teach us.

And so it was with Holly and Samantha yesterday afternoon: gathering aromatic scraps from nature to make a perfume, just as I used to do, just as my aunt used to do, just as girls throughout time have probably done, each of us hoping it would work and then eventually shrugging off the disappointment when it didn’t; each of us, or most of us, probably realizing that there’s nothing organic about perfume at all, and to make it successfully you need alcohol plus elements manufactured in a lab, not flower petals and tree sap.

Holly’s perfume jar is still in the kitchen, and I’ll let her leave it there for as long as she wants to. She still thinks it smells of flowers and the forest and soap, even if I’m having trouble detecting much of a scent beyond the detergent with which the jar was last washed. She’ll eventually learn. In the meantime, she can be yet another generation, following dozens of others and probably preceding dozens of others as well, dreaming of replicating a walk in the woods on a spring afternoon in a carefully labeled jar.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Up at night

Thinking of myself as someone who might suffer from insomnia is a reversal of self-perception for me. For my whole adult life, I’ve slept easily, deeply and long. Getting up during the night with a hungry infant never particularly bothered me, since I knew I’d fall back asleep as soon as the baby settled down.

So why did that change in the past month? At least four times in the past four weeks, I’ve been up for ninety minutes or more during the pre-dawn hours: anxious, alert, and unable to fall back asleep, which is so unlike me.

Does it have to do with the weather? The moonlight that comes in through the skylights in our new bedroom? One friend suggested it was hormonal, but I have no supporting reasons to think that’s the case. I suppose it’s not really quite the mystery I’m making it sound. Each time, something specific and external – noises from either dog or child – has initially woken me, and then the internal part takes over and keeps me from falling back to sleep, which used to come so easily to me.

But now my mind races until my pulse does too. One night I attributed it to a difficult conversation about household issues that took place earlier in the day; another night to an email from the parent of one of Holly’s friends raising questions about certain behaviors; and yet another night – Sunday night – astonishment over international events were what churned in my mind when I woke hours after first going to ed.

But I have to admit, I kind of like it, just a little bit. I’m so alone at that time of night. No one needs me for anything, not the slightest little thing, not a glass of orange juice or homework help or counsel regarding weekend plans. I read a while ago, before insomnia was my own issue, that the worst thing to do when you’re having trouble sleeping is lie in bed thinking about how awake you are, so instead I take my laptop to another room and write in my journal. Since that’s how I normally spend the first thirty minutes of my waking hours, I can justify that doing so in the pre-dawn part of the day allows me to sleep a little later.

When I’m done journaling, I read for a little bit. Sheepish as I sometimes feel about all my electronic dependencies, they certainly make it easier to keep busy in the middle of the night: with my laptop and my Kindle, I can stay busy for hours.

But I don’t, because eventually I always get tired again, and then I go back to sleep and fall into the deep, uninterrupted sleep I’ve always come to expect.

It’s possible the novelty will wear off, and being up during the night will stop feeling so efficient, so private, and like such a fine use of time. It could get worse, too: post-midnight creativity sessions more than about once a week would exhaust me.

I know insomnia isn’t something you’re supposed to celebrate, but at the moment, in its own subversive way, it’s working for me. So for the time being, I’ll not only keep my 3 a.m. date with insomnia but even celebrate it, for its wonderful solitude and long uninterrupted bouts of creativity. If it gets worse, I’ll not doubt complain plenty. But for now, I feel like I’ve been let in on a secret: the secret of all you can do if you’re the only one awake during the night (and if you have a full complement of well-charged electronics). Maybe soon I’ll have less to worry about when I wake at night. For now, though I could happily do without the worry, I’m thankful for those quiet post-midnight interludes. So I’ll welcome my occasional rendez-vous with the three o’clock hour. It’s a quiet and useful time, even though I wouldn’t want to get together with it every night.

Monday, May 2, 2011

Why Ira Flatow's fascination fascinates me

Sometimes I inadvertently download the podcast for NPR’s Science Friday and end up with the show on my playlist while I’m out running. This happened on Saturday. I’m really not interested in Science Friday in terms of the subject matter, but there’s still something I love about listening when I find myself stuck with it: the host, Ira Flatow, has to be one of the most genuinely enthusiastic professionals I have ever hard speak.

Ira Flatow simply adores science, and I have such tremendous respect for that even though the topics he chooses to discuss are hardly ever of interest to me. To hear Ira talk about this experiment or that discovery, you’d think you were talking to a whiz kid at a high school science fair or possibly a newly matriculated graduate student. But not someone who is a veteran radio journalist in his sixties, as Flatow in fact is.

What I especially like is how sincere he is about what surprises and fascinates him. In the segment I was listening to, another reporter was describing the way a group of fire ants can form themselves into a floating raft if they fall into a body of water. “I saw that report too, and I could not believe it!” Ira exclaimed to the reporter. “I just cannot understand how they do that!”

He’s an award-winning radio and TV personality, and yet when he says he can hardly believe something, you realize what it means to be truly fascinated by your work. Despite all that he has witnessed, uncovered and reported in six decades, the talents of fire ants still have the ability to catch him completely unaware.

I don’t hear this same sense of wonder, of awe, in many of his media colleagues. Some of NPR’s most experienced personalities will sometimes profess to be surprised by something, but often you know what they really mean is “My surprise about this comes from the fact that I’m such an unparalleled expert on this topic, and it’s really rare for me to stumble upon something I didn’t know.” So they don’t sound truly awed, just dubious about the idea that a fact slipped past them earlier. Even Terry Gross, whom I find to be very modest on air, puts so much research into her interviews that her surprise usually has an undertone of “How is it possible that I wasn’t aware of this one small detail?” Whereas Ira Flatow’s tone of surprise comes across as humility in its best form, as if he is saying, even after almost 40 years in the business, “Can you believe how fantastic and amazing the world of science is?”

Maybe this resonates with me so much because as a journalist, I love talking to people about their work or creative pursuits. “Any time you find someone pursuing a passion, you have a story,” one of my Globe editors told me years ago. He’s right: not only the story of what the person’s passion is, but how it came to have that role in their life.

I sometimes feel I’ve made a career out of this reality: people talking about what fascinates them tend to engage me. I want to know what they know that I don’t, but more importantly, what they care about that I don’t. It’s humility. It’s the opposite force to arrogance. And it’s a wonderful quality for a person to have: the ability to communicate that they are absolutely flabbergasted by the wondrous world that surrounds them.