Thursday, June 30, 2011

Embarking upon summer break

For some reason, school vacation anxiety hit me yesterday morning much harder than it should have. Really? I thought as I contemplated the faces of my two children happily downing their cinnamon bagels at breakfast. Ten weeks together, with almost no identifiable plans?

I’m not usually like this. My kids, unlike a lot of their friends, don’t like having a long list of scheduled activities. To use Lenore Skenazy’s wonderful and popular terminology, they are free-range kids, but not so much because of any ideology of mine as just because that’s how they like it. We offer them access to day camps and lessons and team sports, but for the most part, they’d rather keep their free time free. Tim plays on a summer baseball league (which takes up no small amount of time: two evenings a week plus both weekend mornings, but that still leaves his weekdays wide open until about 5 p.m.) and Holly consented to letting me sign her up for a weeklong creative-writing program, but that was mostly because the leader is her favorite teacher. Earlier in the spring she expressed interest in recorder lessons, but then looked a little bit relieved when we learned that the recorder teacher we wanted would be out of town until mid-July. They like old-fashioned, wide-open summer days. So why did a wave of apprehension wash over me as their second full day of vacation began?

In part, it might be the contrast of my calendar this month. When I realized back in February that I’d be attending a week-long conference in Colorado during their last week of school, the timing seemed ideal. Though other parents (and kids) bemoaned the fact that the winter’s surplus of snow days had extended our school year into late June, for me, as I planned my trip west, every extra day of school meant one less day I had to figure out childcare during my absence.

But what I didn’t anticipate was the sharp contrast between being utterly self-indulgent for a week, during which I filled my days with writing, author panels, lectures and outdoor activities, and returning home just in time to have my days filled with…them. My two children, whom I love and enjoy but who for some reason seemed like a mystery to me yesterday. How do I make this work?, I wondered, contemplating the ten weeks ahead, befuddled despite the fact that this is our third consecutive summer together since I left the full-time work force, and daily harmony has never been much of a problem during their vacations before.

One day at a time, I told myself, and maybe that’s what did the trick, because as it turned out, the day was a pleasure. I finished my run before Rick left for work and was exercised and showered – which is to say serene, cool, and full of endorphins – by the time the late-sleeping kids awoke. I made them breakfast, and then per our usual deal, I worked for a couple of hours while Tim indulged in computer games and Holly cranked up my iPod and did some dancing, after which she made a book for her favorite new pseudo-pet, a rubbery Technicolor caterpillar. (There’s a whole section of the book she made titled ‘Celebrity Caterpillars.’ I confessed the only one I could think of was the Very Hungry one. Oh, and the patron saint of bulldozers.)

I stopped working at lunchtime and together the three of us tackled the pile of belongings they’d brought home from the last day of school on Monday. Folders and binders that were in reusable condition went into a “school supplies” pile; assignments they were particularly proud of went into the “Kids’ Special Schoolwork” box; papers they didn’t care about went into the recycling bin. Then Tim and I together mounted the bike rack onto the back of the car, which is a quintessential rite of summer for me; I truly believe vacation has arrived and brought with it the possibility of fun once we put the bike rack on the car, and I’m amazed we’ve reached the point (Tim physically, me technically) where we can accomplish this feat with no help from Rick. After that, we all went on a bike ride and then over to visit my parents until it was time to come home and make dinner.

So I needn’t have worried. It’s true we have no big vacation plans this summer: a few camping weekends, we hope; some trips to my parents’ place in Maine; and possibly a few days with our friends in upstate New York in late August. We have lots of ways to keep busy around home, though, with Tim’s baseball games, tickets for several Lowell Spinners games (our favorite minor league team), bike rides, ice cream excursions, swimming plans, get-togethers with friends. My initial anxiety is past, and there’s every indication we have a great ten weeks ahead.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Busy day

By seven thirty last night, I felt like a character in a Richard Scarry picture book. Except much sweatier and with less colorful clothes. But just as busy busy busy. And when it was time to leave to take Holly to her evening library program, I was very sad to wave goodbye to my uneaten dinner.

After I’d worked frantically to complete an article about Fourth of July observances throughout the region, a morning phone interview for which I’d slotted a typical 45 minutes started fifteen minutes late and lasted an hour and a quarter, so by the time I hung up it was noon, and I’d promised Holly a trip to the drugstore before the morning was over (I knew my best bet at getting her to apply sunscreen on a regular basis was if I let her pick out the sunscreen herself, a decision she would doubtlessly base on the color and shape of the bottle).

Back from our CVS run, I made lunch for her and Tim, and then it was time to bring Holly to a friend’s house for the afternoon. I tried not to think too much about Rick’s dire comment that the warning light on the Prius indicated that one of the tires was leaking air and would soon be flat. Just one more trip, I mentally urged the car, and then I promise our next stop will be the mechanic.

But Holly’s friend had just moved to North Chelmsford, and while Chelmsford borders on Carlisle, North Chelmsford borders on Lowell. Needless to say, with my notorious sense of direction, I left North Chelmsford and headed the wrong way; soon I was crossing out of Dracut and into Methuen, rather than out of South Chelmsford and into Carlisle as I’d hoped.

Through Lowell, around the UMass campus, through Dracut, into Methuen, turn around retrace steps, and finally I was on the highway heading toward our mechanic in Littleton. One wrong turn in Littleton, easily corrected at a gas station, and finally I was there…with fifteen minutes to spare before I needed to pick Tim up back at home and bring him to his Little League game in Arlington. I explained my plight to the service department. “The tire pressure warning light is on, but I got lost on the way here and I have no time at all,” I bemoaned.

The technician looked up my records. “You got lost coming from Carlisle to Littleton?” he asked.

“No, I was in Chelmsford but ended up in Methuen.”

“Well, you can’t keep driving around on that tire,” he said. “We’ll get to it as quickly as we can.”

I called Tim and told him to fill his water bottle, put on his uniform, assemble his bat bag and be ready when I returned because we’d have to go straight to the game. I sat on pins and needles in the waiting room, wreaked with anxiety, trying to tell myself again and again that there was simply nothing to do but wait it out. I reminded myself that this was trivial: a car repair, a baseball game; nothing to develop a migraine over. But still, I knew what Rick would say: poor planning. Somehow I should have figured out how to line up the whole day more effectively.

The technician called me over. The tire was repaired, and it was cheap, which was a welcome surprise. I drove to Carlisle, picked up Tim, drove to Arlington, and dropped him off at the field nine minutes before first pitch. The players are supposed to arrive 45 minutes early for warm-ups, but since Rick is normally in charge of baseball transportation for Tim, this was the first time all season – actually probably ever – that he’d arrived late, so I knew he’d be forgiven this once.

Home at last, but I hadn’t yet run my daily mile, so out I went to do that. With a half-hour left before I needed to meet up with Holly for an evening program at the library, I made my go-to quick-meal recipe: pasta with sautéed garlic, cherry tomatoes, arugula and walnuts. Just as I was about to take my first bite of pasta, the phone rang: it was the man who had taken over Old Home Day pie contest duties for me this year, after I decided that I needed a break from that annual responsibility, and he had a lot of questions. I cast longing glances at my plate of pasta as I explained how to prepare the tasting plates for the judges and why I thought the final score should be averaged rather than cumulative. “It’s a pie contest,” I wanted to tell him. “Just do it however you want. It really doesn’t matter.” But I answered his questions as well as I could and then left for the library.

We got home a little before nine and I had time then to eat. The tire was repaired; Tim’s baseball game was over; Holly had enjoyed the library program; my Fourth of July article was filed. Busy day, just like in a Richard Scarry book. But it all ended well. And the pasta was absolutely delicious.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Cabinet contents

I write a lot about running, parenting, farm life, my community, and writing itself. You could say those are my leitmotifs. In fact, I’m pretty sure the bio on my website does say those are my leitmotifs.

What I don’t think I’ve ever written about is medicine cabinets. But there’s a first time for everything.

I’m not interested in medicine cabinets in the aggregate; just one specific medicine cabinet. My family doesn’t really understand this particular hang-up of mine, but the one medicine cabinet that occupies far too much of my attention is the one in the guest bathroom at my parents’ vacation home.

You see, once a year I clean it out. No one else in my family understands why I consider this such an important job. It’s not that they don’t appreciate my work; they just really don’t see why I make such a big deal out of it.

But the reason is this: I’m the only family member who ever looks in that medicine cabinet, and every time I do, I experience a wave of frustration.

When each adult couple in our family – my parents, my older sister and her husband; my younger sister and her husband; or my husband and me – stay in the vacation house, we use the master bedroom, because it never happens that more than one of those couples is vacationing at the same time. (This isn’t so much a coincidence as by decree of one of the aforementioned family member, but that’s another story.) We don’t use the guest bedroom and bath; our occasional guests do. So it’s one of the only places in the house that we never have any reason to inspect.

Twice in recent years, though, I’ve ended up staying in the guest room: once because I was vacationing all alone and it felt weird to use the master bedroom by myself, and then last week because my mother and I went on vacation together. And that’s why this topic is my pet peeve and no one else’s.

My mother and I have discussed more than once the proper way to furnish a guest bathroom. I believe it’s appropriate to have a supply of shampoo and conditioner (a very all-purpose kind: no highlight-preserving, gray-reducing, fine-hair-amplifying or curl-relaxing) along with a fresh bar of soap. My mother, who is in every way an exceedingly generous person and an unfailingly gracious hostess, agrees about the soap but maintains that everyone has an individual hair care preference (along the lines of the options mentioned above) and therefore likely travels with their own products.

Either way, what frustrates me is the accumulation of health and beauty products that guests leave behind. These same guests wouldn't think of leaving a full wastebasket or a dirty tub; they do this presumably in the belief that they are being generous to the next visitor. Well, I want to say as I grind my teeth, you’re wrong. Take your toiletries with you, please. No one wants to use someone else’s organic lipstick, toddler vitamins, menthol shaving gel, herbal sleeping remedies, peach pit facial masque, all-natural baby shampoo, or cuticle strengthener, to name just a few of the items I’ve disposed of in the cleaning blitzes I regularly make on that cabinet. Hostess gifts? Great idea. Half-used allergy remedies? Thanks anyway.

I’ve just vacated the premises, so the cabinet is once again down to its bare essentials. I apologize if any future guests arrive hoping against hope that they’ll find a nail extension or two waiting for them in the bathroom. But as far as I’m concerned, guest bathrooms are like camping areas: If you bring it in when you arrive, take it out when you leave.

Of course, not everyone is going to follow this rule, so maybe the truth is that I need to chill a little bit and not make such a big deal of it. Happily, some previous guest left a bottle of organic stress-relieving drops in the cabinet. Before I throw it away, I’ll give it a try.

Monday, June 27, 2011

Returning home

I left Aspen at 9 a.m. yesterday morning and didn’t arrive home until well after midnight – this is because it takes about five hours to travel from Aspen to Denver using ground transportation, and the ground shuttles run only three times a day, so I had a long wait before my flight in Denver – but it was a good way to wrap up the trip. Flight days always make me think about what lies ahead and I find myself setting goals and contemplating decisions almost as if it’s a variation on New Year’s Day.

Sometimes this makes sense based on the calendar – today, for example, is the last day of school for the kids, so it’s somewhat logical to be thinking about what I want to have happen during the upcoming ten weeks of vacation – but even when there isn’t a particularly good reason to feel like I’m making a new beginning of sorts, that’s how traveling home usually feels to me, because being away from home is always a little bit like hitting the “reset” button. It’s a chance to take a break from ingrained habits and get out of ruts and think about what to do differently.

In this case, my week in Colorado was so restorative that it’s also a chance to figure out just what about it was so meaningful to me. Mostly, it was a week of immersion in two of my favorite things: literary pursuits and outdoor exercise. I spent just about every morning hiking, biking or walking the trails in and around Aspen, and just about every afternoon listening to authors and other literary professionals discuss the business of writing. I did a lot of my own writing as well, and one of the industry experts I met with even suggested a direction for my work that I hadn’t previously considered.

So I’m returning home with new inspiration for writing, thanks to all the time I spent at conference events, and with a really bad sunburn, thanks to all the time I spent on the hiking and biking trails and the fact that on one crucial day, I didn’t use quite enough sunscreen in quite the right places.

What I accomplished during the week is easier to identify that what I’d like to make happen when I get home, though. So I tried to use my travel day to think about what my hopes were for the long summer that lies ahead.

I’d love to maintain the fitness level that I established during my Colorado week, but that’s hard with the kids and their interests. They don’t like long hikes and bike rides, but I can at least try to get them out for some kind of outdoor exercise every day, or if not every day then at least most days. I’m also trying to rethink some of the commitments that I took on too easily last year and make better decisions about what work assignments and what volunteer roles are right for me, rather than saying yes to everything. Having a weeklong break from housework helped me to renew my commitment to taking good care of our home this summer, and having the same break from cooking gave me new energy to contemplate healthy summer meals for my family.

So I woke this morning at home, grateful for safe travels and a wonderful vacation, and somewhat hesitantly ready to see this time period as a new chapter. An arrival home means a chance to establish new habits, and I think I’m ready to try to make the most of it.

Friday, June 24, 2011

Learned at a writers' conference

Spending five days at a writers’ conference is an irreproducible experience. This was my third visit to the Aspen Summer Words conference, and every year I gain more from the opportunity. Being around hundreds of other writers for hours on end provides insight into the writing process on so many levels. We learn from the professionals about how they reached their current level of success. But from the beginners, we learn anew what it’s like to have endless possibilities ahead. We learn from those writing about everyday life that every experience bears fruit from an artistic perspective, and we learn from those writing about international conflict and political upheaval how much power words can have, when insightfully expressed and disseminated to the right audience.

Last time, I came to this conference with a work in progress and devoted most of my time here to improving that manuscript. This time was different: I don’t have a specific project under way, but in some regards I learned more this time than last because I didn’t have the same laser focus on one piece of work. Instead, I talked about journalism and journaling, about blogging and Tweeting and reading.

I ran into friends from other conferences, and I met people for the first time. Some have accomplished far more than I have as a writer; others were barely ready to put pen to paper. I came away from every informal discussion and panel session feeling like I’d learned something.

As I said at the outset, attending a conference like this is an irreproducible experience. Spending time with other writers is different from gathering in any other group, and that’s not always a good thing. Some writers, in my opinion, spend far too much time discussing the craft and would be better off powering up their laptop and doing some writing. But spending this much time together, regardless of the content covered, affirms our validity. We are writers. Published many times over or never yet in print, confident in our abilities or barely able to read a sentence we’ve written aloud, we’re here because we care so much about self-expression and the written word. And that in itself makes gathering together a wonderful experience.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Kaleidoscope writing

Among the most interesting observations I’ve heard this week at the Aspen Summer Words writers’ conference is this one, from National Book Award winning novelist Colum McCann: “There are no new stories to tell. As writers, we must be kaleidoscopic.”

What a fitting image for the way we writers tell stories, I thought to myself. Kaleidoscopic. You look through a cylinder at a specific object, and you see its colors and approximate form – but it is variegated strangely, and if you turn the cylinder, the colors will change as the shapes will shift. That’s exactly what we do when we tell stories, especially if we are in the genre of day-to-day narrative nonfiction as I am. It’s fair for me to assume that nothing that I write about hasn’t been written about before. Right now there are millions of women writing books, drafting essays and blogging about the same topics I cover: daily life, child-rearing, writing, running, friendships, life lessons. In none of those spheres are my experiences unique, or even unusual. But we each shift the kaleidoscope and watch the pieces break into different shapes, colored in different hues: we each tell the same story a little bit differently.

Sometimes the same story can be told differently even when being told by the same person. When I was growing up, my father told us lots and lots of funny stories about pranks that he and his friends played when they were kids in school, or at camp, or at home. In one of his stories about junior high, a science teacher left the room briefly and all the kids put their heads down on their desks and closed their eyes. When the teacher returned, he thought the students had all passed out, and in his flustered confusion, he flung a chair through a window. I’m quite certain that the way my father told this story amused us when we were young. But years later, I heard him tell the same story with different nuances; in this one he included the detail that the science teacher was a World War II vet, and in this telling it became a disturbing story about a prank gone wrong as the teacher apparently had a post-traumatic stress disorder flashback and thought some kind of chemical had been released into the room and knocked all the kids unconscious, breaking a window out of panic.

The memory has stuck with me for just the reason Colum McCann identified: its shape-shifting, color-changing qualities. Sometimes the same thing happens to me when I remember stories from my own past: something that seemed funny or entertaining at the time becomes unnerving or alarming in retrospect. Lots of my favorite and funniest childhood memories involve glitches in household operations that as a parent myself I now realize were probably sources of frustration rather than amusement to my parents (the way that the Blizzard of ’78 knocked out our electricity for five days, for example).

A simpler way of saying it is just that most of the stories we know vary with perspective. The parable most often used to illustrate this concept is the one in which several blind people describe an elephant, each feeling a different part of the animal. I like McCann’s invocation of the kaleidoscope image, though. I’m exploring the same stories as millions of other writers: stories about children, households, community life, marriage. Shift the kaleidoscope and it’s a little different for each of us, and from there comes the art of narrative.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Biking before writing

I didn’t intend to set a precedent on Monday, but the combination of robust physical exercise in the morning and then attending sessions of the Aspen Writers’ Conference all afternoon worked so well that I did the same thing on Tuesday. Only this time, instead of hiking, I biked through Aspen’s West End onto the bike path and from there out to the Maroon Creek Road. Most bicyclists hit that road with the intention of pedaling all the way to Maroon Lake and the base of the Maroon Bells; I knew I didn’t have the stamina for that entire ride, but I decided to just start riding and see how far I could get given the time, and the strength, that I had.

In that respect, it was similar to Monday’s endeavor. I wasn’t under a tight time crunch, which is a rare situation for me when I’m at home, but that’s typical of being away: the restrictions we put on ourselves when home, and particularly the tight scheduling that tends to lay claim to every minute of the day, doesn’t take hold in quite the same way. I wanted to attend a writers’ panel at 2:30, but I set out on the bike four hours before that, so I knew I’d have time to do all the riding I wanted.

The ride was physically similar to hiking as well: a steady uphill climb, and I took it slow. It was terrain I’d covered many times before, but only by car or bus. Being so exposed, and moving along so slowly as I rode, gave me a close-up view of the river, the meadows, the wildflowers, the rocky red-dirt facades. It’s a restricted access road; the few cars and tour buses that passed me were minutes apart. Plenty of cyclists passed me; they were all on racing bikes with slender tires, pedaling hard and flying along even though they too were heading uphill. I was on a mountain bike not intended for that kind of ride even for someone with more pedaling strength than I have, but it didn’t bother me that other riders flew by. I was happy just to be out biking.

Eventually I looked up the road and saw still more uphill and decided I’d covered enough ground. An hour and a quarter had passed since I’d left town, and I had no particular goal in mind as an endpoint, given that I knew I wasn’t going to reach Maroon Lake. So when it felt like I’d worked as hard as I needed to, I turned around and coasted the same distance, all downhill. That part was easy and gave me even more time to admire the scenery, and also mull over a lot of memories of that valley.

For many decades, my grandparents owned a cabin just uphill from where I’d turned around; when I was growing up we’d have family picnics and occasional sleepovers in the cabin. When we reached our teenage years, sometimes our cousins had parties there and invited us, which was charitable of them: we were from out of town and not of much interest to anyone else attending. One of my cousins was married there, though I realized as I rode that my only memory of his wedding ceremony was having to drive back to the cabin from town with the brother of the groom after it ended because the father of the bride had not shown up at the reception and it was feared he had somehow keeled over while still at the cabin and needed help. (None of this was the case, but the drive with my cousin was an adventure in itself.)

Our family doesn’t own the cabin anymore, but that’s all right; like everyone else who visits this part of Colorado, the whole valley is ours to enjoy as hikers, bicyclists or bus tour riders. My ride back to town was fast and easy, and I arrived in time for a quick dessert stop at the Paradise Bakery before I went to the condo to change clothes and head to the conference center for the afternoon events.

When I sent my husband a photo I’d taken of myself on the bike ride, snow-frosted Maroon Bells in the background, he texted back, “Aren’t you supposed to be studying, not biking?” Not to worry, I told him, the afternoon would be full of educational content. And yet as I thought back on the bike ride with all its similarities to the hike on the previous day, and how I’d pedaled slowly, concentrating only on moving forward and not on how far I would get, absorbing the sounds and sights and smells that surrounded me, welcoming the memories they brought, and letting my own pace rather than external instructions be my guide as far as when to turn back, it occurred to me that maybe the morning had in fact been just as educational as the afternoon.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Hiking before writing

I spent the first four hours or so of the Aspen Summer Words writers’ conference hiking.

I know that seems like a strange way to kick off an intensive week of literary conversations and practice, but somehow it felt exactly right. The schedule of the conference is such this year that the events I want to attend are in the afternoon and evening; my mornings are free. And I should be using those free mornings to work on my own writing. After all, that’s why I’m here.

And yet yesterday, even after an early-morning four-mile run through Aspen’s beautiful North Star Preserve, and after savoring a bagel and coffee while I read both of Aspen’s two daily newspapers, what I really felt like doing was hiking.

That’s not really a way to improve your writing skills or network with other writers, I told myself. It’s not even a way to get any writing done at all. You’re really planning to kick off the annual writers’ conference by hiking?

Well, yes. And it turned out to be a magnificent plan. Indeed, it did not result in my getting any writing done. In fact, quite the opposite. It cleared my mind in a way nothing else does. I don’t get to hike nearly enough, especially on challenging Alpine trails, but whenever I do, I notice this same effect: it seems like when I’m hiking I can’t think about anything else except the climb. I don’t find this with walking or running. As exhilarating as those activities are, they tend to expand my thinking so that I can focus on whatever writing project I’m in the midst of or generate ideas for future projects.

But hiking is different. I find myself concentrating only on putting one foot in front of the other, while I absorb the sensory input of the smells and sounds around me without my making a concerted effort to do so. The dirt, the sagebrush, the birdcalls, the rustling in the brush alongside the hiking trail: all register with my senses even as I don’t focus on them. And my mind seems to empty itself out, almost like a suitcase magically unpacking itself.

In a way, it might have been more productive if I’d been actually writing or doing something that facilitated thoughts about writing, but what this did instead was similar to stretching out before a hard workout. I felt like the strenuousness of the climb and the attention I was devoting to nothing but the trail under my hiking boots was giving me a clean slate with which to start a week of intensive writing.

I stayed on the mountain for four hours, and when I reached the beginning of the trail again, I felt ready to think about writing. So it was a useful discovery: sometimes the best way to commence an activity is with the opposite of that activity. The afternoon featured two interesting panel discussions by various writers, and the evening included a social gathering with other participants at the conference. With my mind cleared, I was ready to start thinking about writing and talking about writing. And, best of all, to start writing, with a level of attention that had missing until the hike was complete.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Prepare for departure

It wasn’t hard for me to calculate that if I wanted to fit in a bare-minimum one-mile run on Sunday before my 8:10 a.m. flight to Colorado, I’d need to set the alarm for five o’clock at the latest.

So it would have made sense for me to get to bed early on Saturday. In fact, even without counting in time to run a mile for the sake of maintaining the running streak, I knew I’d need to get up early to make an 8:10 a.m. flight, and should concomitantly get to bed early.

But that never happens. It’s an area in which, despite the accumulating years of adulthood and accrued experience with travel, I really haven’t improved at all. I’m always up into the wee hours the night before flying out of town.

In part, this might be because I don’t travel a whole lot in any given year. I’d like to think if I had a job that required weekly or monthly travel, I’d have the routine a little more under control.

I can’t even blame the kids this time around, because they aren’t traveling with me. I was going away by myself. And I really wanted to break my pattern; I really wanted to prove myself able to be organized enough to get to bed at a reasonable hour the night before departure.

So I started lining up my tasks, errands and other To Do items at seven o’clock on Saturday morning, and I stayed very much on task all day. I didn’t waste any time and I didn’t run into any unexpected obstacles. I did everything I needed to do on Saturday, everything I’d put on my list. But it took me until 12:30 a.m. the next morning.

I wanted to clean the house really well before I left. I had about four weeks’ worth of trash and recycling to load into the car and take to the transfer station. I needed to stop at the post office. I wanted to weed the garden. I felt obligated to buy a week’s worth of groceries for my family, since they were staying home and making do without me. For that same reason, I wanted to write up a document listing everything they needed to remember while I was gone. (Tim’s orthodontic appointment; Holly’s class picnic; the dog’s heartworm pill.) I made a batch of homemade macaroni and cheese, and listed some other dinner ideas for them. And I really felt I had to fit in a five-mile run, knowing the following day wouldn’t allow for much exercise as I sat first on a plane and then in a van for hours on end.

When I was finally done with the house and grounds and errands and paperwork and also trying to fit in some time just having fun with the kids since we’d be spending the next seven days apart, I felt good about all I’d done. But there was one thing I hadn’t done yet: pack. And that’s why I was up until 12:30 a.m.

What I kept thinking about was how when I was growing up, my family drove cross country for a month every summer, and I couldn’t imagine how my mom prepared for that trip, if this was what it took me to get ready for one week away by air. Not only did she presumably have the packing and the house to think about – and in greater depth, since we went away for a month at a time – but there was the additional issue back then of what we’d need for a five-day car ride. Packing the food alone for that kind of undertaking might take me the whole day.

It’s a matter of overcompensation, I realize. I try to leave everything perfect so that it won’t matter that I’ve left. Whether I’m traveling with or without my family, I want whatever I’ve left behind – people or household or both – to be absolutely fine in my absence. I want to cover every contingency, from kids having a menu plan for the week to the floors being spotless, so that it won’t matter as much that I’m not there.

And of course, this is an impossible goal. I can’t leave everything perfect. Something I’ve overlooked in the fridge will spoil. One of the kids will forget something they were supposed to bring to school. It’s just not possible to exert quite that much control from away.

Nonetheless, my hard work paid off. The departure Sunday morning went without a hitch, and 24 hours later I haven’t thought of anything I forgot or didn’t get to. Plus there’s always the remarkably liberating feeling that comes with boarding the plane, knowing you did all you could and now it’s time to just enjoy the trip.

So now I get to forget about all of my responsibilities at home and just concentrate on why I’m here. The house is (or was) clean. I packed everything I needed. The refrigerator is stocked. The kids’ schedule is recorded. All should be well. And someday I’ll learn to get it all done before midnight.

Friday, June 17, 2011

Working outdoors

What struck me as I prepared for bed last night at ten o’clock wasn’t how physically exhausted I was but rather how for once, it seemed justified.

My life, especially my weekday life, especially my weekday life during the school year, tends to be very indoorsy. While it’s true that I go running outdoors 365 days a year –the U.S. Running Streak Association does allow running done on treadmills to qualify for its registry, but in my experience, most streak runners look on that option with contempt – on days the kids have school I’m done with my run by nine o’clock in the morning. And quite often I then sit indoors at my computer for most of the rest of the day. Often this spring Holly and I have gone for a little bike ride after school, and sometimes one or another of my family members will take a walk with me, but for the most part, I spent a lot of my time indoors.

And so sometimes when the typical middle-aged sense of physical fatigue sets in at around ten o’clock at night, I ask myself just what I’ve done to merit the sense of weariness. There were about six years in my life when I lugged children around for much of the day, and there were other phases of my life when I ran between six and thirteen miles some days. When I was in my twenties and living in Boston I walked a mile or so to and from work every day. In college I taught aerobics during the summer. All of those seem like good reasons to be tired at the end of the day in a way that going for a two-mile run and then sitting at my computer does not.

Yesterday, though, I once again had a good excuse, beyond being middle-aged. I’d spent three hours that afternoon helping my father bale and stack hay, which is challenging physical labor, and all of this on a sunny eighty-degree day. I deserve to feel tired, I told myself with a little bit of righteousness last night. I did actual manual labor all afternoon.

We spent the first hour transferring hay bales from the trailer to the barn. That’s a straightforward job that consists of little more than moderate lifting and carrying. The next step was a lot harder. I told my father I’d help him pick up bales from a field he’d already mowed and raked. This was something I’d never done before.

“Is there anything about this job I should know?” I asked him on the way over.

“Stack from the back of the trailer to the front,” he said. “And just do your best to keep up.”

I honestly had no idea what I was in for. Collecting bales involves my standing in the trailer while Dad pulls it with the tractor, which is equipped with a device that gathers the hay up and then catapults tied bales into the trailer. As I stood there holding onto the gate, the trailer rocking back and forth as we crossed the uneven terrain of the field, hay bales flew through the air. After about twenty minutes, I had such bad motion sickness that I had to get out of the trailer and walk. “I’ll pick up any bales that fall out,” I said, feeling fairly useless. Without me in the back, the hay bales still flew through the air and landed in the tractor; they just made a haphazard pattern, whereas previously I had been stacking them neatly.

As I walked through the field, sipped water, and tried to get my sense of equilibrium back, I reflected that I’d probably have either nightmares or a very mild case of post-traumatic stress syndrome from the experience of standing in the rocking tractor while hay bales catapulted toward me. It’s like an amusement park ride for the masochistic, I mused. Try to balance and not get sick while also being really scared by heavy objects flying through the air.

According to my father, my brother-in-law can do this same job while singing and dancing in the back of the trailer. That’s impressive, but we all have our strengths. I had to concede this wasn’t one of mine. Dad was understanding and said it didn’t really matter if the bales didn’t get stacked geometrically, though it didn’t help things any when I then backed the truck up to the trailer too fast and put a crease in the bumper.

All of that notwithstanding, it was good to be working outside for a change. As a writer, I spend far too much time sitting still peering at my screen. Trauma aside, getting outdoors on a hot sunny day to do something productive is a good idea. And I’m willing to try it again, this time knowing that balancing in the back of a rocking trailer while hay bales seem to hail down from the sky is just a normal part of the job.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Volunteer lessons

The kids still have more than a week of school left, counting today, but I feel as if my part of the school year is over, because my last volunteer commitment ended today. As one of two room parents for Holly’s third grade classroom, I presented the teacher with a scrapbook (ably assembled by the other room parent – a fact that should be obvious for anyone who knows me and knows what the results would look like if I were left in charge of assembling a scrapbook) and a gift card redeemable at a number of Boston restaurants.

Both of the kids had a fabulous year at school. In third and sixth grade, respectively, they learned a lot, earned impressive grades, fostered new and existing interests, bonded with teachers, and matured in their relationships with their friends. So we’ll look back on the 2010/11 school year as an overwhelmingly positive experience, for them and for us adults.

But if I am to be honest, I know I didn’t earn nearly as good grades as the kids did, even though my grades are strictly hypothetical. I took on too many of the wrong kind of roles, and in a way it put a little bit of a damper on the year for me. Not enough of a damper to keep me from being happy overall, but just enough to serve as a nearly constant reminder that I’m not always realistic about where my talents lie.

As the school year began, or even earlier, over the summer, I was already experiencing a nagging anxiety that I’d made poor choices in terms of what I’d agreed to do. Along with room parenting, I was once again coordinating the school library volunteer program. I was also heading publicity for the sixth grade Spaghetti Supper and chairing the Walk-to-School Committee, whose flagship event was a walk-to-school day in which we arrange for crossing guards, “walking car pools,” media taking pictures of walkers, and prizes for all. I’d agreed to be one of three Sunday school teachers rotating duties throughout the year and one of three church “greeters” responsible for welcoming people as they arrived on Sunday mornings. I was also leading an ad hoc committee at church intended to evaluate multiple aspects of our performance as a worship community. Late in the winter, I took on the job of heading up publicity for the spring house tour. And when June came, I was in charge of the faculty/staff appreciation luncheon. That event took place just two days ago.

It wasn’t quite the right mix of jobs for me. Even though most of these efforts came with plenty of gratitude and praise from participants and onlookers, I was grudging about several aspects of what I had to do. I’m not a good Sunday school teacher for a number of reasons. I should have recruited more help for the two publicity committees I served on. The walk-to-school day was successful but culminated with the committee essentially dissolving because we felt that our mission – to get more school-aged children to walk or bike to school, and to ensure they could do so safely -- was unworkable. Tuesday’s faculty/staff luncheon worked out well, but it would have been even better if I hadn’t been quite so hesitant in going after contributions.

So I’m ending the school year feeling a little bit worn out: not resentful of all the things I was asked to do but doubtful of my own judgment. It just seems that I need a better perspective on where my strengths lie.

Of course, some of my volunteer responsibilities worked out well. Although Holly’s teacher ribbed me at times for being such a delegator, always sending out emails to find chaperones for field trips and never actually attending a field trip myself, every classroom need was met. The library program ran smoothly, with volunteers happily covering the shifts they’d asked for. The church evaluation committee delivered a well-received report to the congregation.

But I still think there are lessons to be learned. I still think at some point I need to figure out how to be more honest with myself about what I can reasonably do and which efforts I’d be better off assisting someone else with rather than heading up myself.

And that’s fine, because I’ll have plenty of opportunities to improve on my volunteer skills. Yesterday, I agreed to coordinate next spring’s faculty/staff luncheon; while it’s still all fresh in my mind, I want to think about how I can make it better. I’ll do the library volunteer scheduling again in the upcoming school year, and I’ve expressed my willingness to be a room parent again if needed.

Plus there are always new challenges. Tonight there’s a meeting of the sixth grade parents to discuss volunteer jobs for the class play. I’m trying to think about whether something different would be a good change for me: assisting rather than leading a committee, perhaps, or doing something not as closely aligned with my professional roles as publicity.

Since there’s no end of requests, there’s no end of chances for improvement. This year was a learning experience. Yes, I made some mistakes in what I agreed to take on. But I learned from them. Next year I’ll try to put experience into action.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Four in a (hot) tub

I looked around at the damp, pinkish faces of my three family members. “Well, we’re not exactly hiking on the East Maroon Trail or biking the coast of Maine,” I muttered, “but at least we’re all doing something together.”

My husband and children are well aware that there are a number of activities I’d like all of us to engage in together: hiking, biking, trail walks through the woods. These are all activities we have ready access to, both in the places where we tend to vacation and even right outside our door. But it’s hard to convince the other three, especially all at the same time. Sometimes Holly is interested in a bike ride; sometimes Tim is in the mood to walk through the woods to the ice cream stand. Occasionally Rick even sees the benefits of a walk down the lane together after dinner. But somewhat to my discouragement, we’re not yet a family that does a lot of outdoor recreation as a unit. Saying “not yet” is optimistic, I concede, as if to assume it will happen eventually; but I can’t give up on that hope yet.

At the same time, I’m trying to be more realistic. In fact, two years ago one of my January resolutions was to get my family involved in more outdoor activities together, but this past January it was different: my resolution was to stop stewing about how everyone in my family chooses to spend their time. Whether they’re immersed in watching hockey or sewing doll clothes, I need to stop being so judgmental about their choices, and also so easily let down when other people don’t want to do what I want to do.

Gretchen Rubin writes in her book The Happiness Project about how she came to accept the cardinal rule “Just because other people think it’s fun doesn’t mean you’ll think it’s fun”; that rule helped reassure her that she wasn’t missing out on something vital when she decided she didn’t particularly enjoy something like scrapbooking. I need to keep in mind the converse, though: Just because I think it’s fun doesn’t mean other people will think it’s fun.

Nonetheless, it’s emotionally healthy for families to try to spend time together. Which is why last night after dinner, I took comfort where I could find it: in the fact that we’d all decided to soak in the hot tub together. The kids love the hot tub that we’ve had only since we moved two and a half months ago; they treat it like a swimming pool, a never-ending source of great fun. I haven’t taken to it quite as quickly, but at the same time, I know it’s good for me to put aside other responsibilities once in a while – cleaning the kitchen and finishing an article, in the case of the after-dinner hour last night – and jump in with them. Rick tries to take advantage of it too.

So that’s how we ended up all in the hot tub together last night. Yes, I would have felt prouder of us had we been hiking or biking. Or skating. Or boating. But this is us. We don’t do all those other things, at least not regularly. We hot-tub. It’s not what I expected. But it’s pretty good. And those two simple sentences – “It’s not what I expected. But it’s pretty good.” – are sometimes the best words we can hope to say about family life.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

More about boxes (and empowerment)

One entire bay of our three-bay garage is full of boxes, most of them taped shut, some of them labeled and some not. This is because we moved two and a half months ago and haven’t bothered to unpack our non-essentials yet. So the stack of boxes in the garage is much taller than I am, and each of the boxes seems to weigh about as much as I do.

I’ve come to see it, regretfully, as our own personal landfill. The sight of all those boxes piled up makes me feel guilty in the same way that passing a mountain-sized heap of trash at a municipal dump does. What are we ever going to do with all of that stuff, and how did we accumulate it all, and what’s really in those boxes, anyway, and are we really ever going to sort through them?

Once in a while, though, we actually need something from our storage collection, and then the situation gets even uglier as we start trying to excavate through our neatly boxed archaeological dig.

But over the weekend, I was surprised by a small sense of triumph inspired by the stacks o’boxes.

During the spring, as we packed up all our belongings, we filled three large boxes for the annual library book sale. I asked the library if we could possibly drop the boxes off a few months early, knowing they normally didn’t start collecting contributions for the sale until June, but the librarian told me they didn’t have enough storage space. So in the end, our movers took the boxes of books to our new house, along with all the things we actually wanted.

But finally it’s June, the month the library volunteers start actively collecting books for the sale, and I had a place to bring them. One task I was absolutely determined to accomplish before leaving for Portland early afternoon on Saturday was dropping off the books. But first I had to find the right boxes, pull them out of the stacks, and load them into my car.

Quite uncharacteristically, though, I must say I worked efficiently and effectively. I remembered to wear boots, because of the likelihood that items would fall on my feet as I moved things around. I found a pair of work gloves, which I knew would make tugging at the boxes and even lifting them easier. I backed the car right up to the garage door, so that if I did happen to find the boxes I wanted, it would be easier to load them. In short, I worked sensibly, rather than in my usual fly-by-the-seat-of-my-pants way.

And to my great delight, it paid off. After moving just a small number of heavy boxes, the first one marked for the sale revealed itself, and the other two did as well not long after. There were no crashes or breaks or other mishaps. I even managed to load the boxes into the car myself.

It would have been so much more typical of me to wait until my husband Rick could help me. But in this case, I was under the gun. Rick was at Tim’s baseball game, and I needed to get this done. So I found the boxes, moved the boxes, lifted the boxes, and was rewarded with a tremendous sense of empowerment.

Later in the weekend, I thought about a friend of mine who found herself unexpectedly on her own this spring. She hasn’t complained or even talked about it much, but she had her great moment of empowerment when it came time to prepare the swimming pool for summer. She hired her usual pool service to do the initial steps of opening the pool, but she then spent three days trying to balance the chemicals properly to get the water to clear – a job her husband had always done in the past. When her efforts finally proved successful, she crowed unabashedly about her newfound chemistry skills.

There was no doubt that this was a symbolic moment for my friend, discovering that she really was capable of managing pool science on her own when necessity called. I have to admit I’m happy I had the option to wait for Rick to move the boxes, knowing he’d be back in a matter of hours, but I’m even happier that I didn’t do that. There are enough things I rely on him to do, either out of habit or out of the belief that I can’t: deal with ticks when they appear on the dogs or the kids, shovel snow from the roof, climb the ladder to change the batteries in the ceiling smoke detectors. Not only finding the boxes but going about it the right way – even simply remembering to wear work gloves – gave me a great feeling about myself. It’s trivial, but it mattered to me: I solved a problem on my own. And I couldn’t keep from feeling proud about it.

Monday, June 13, 2011

24 hours in Portland with Holly

My eight-year-old and I did a quick 24-hour visit to Portland this past weekend. The weather was cold and drizzly, which was what prevented Tim from wanting to go with us, but Holly and I had a wonderful time together despite the weather.

My college roommate, along with the third of her four daughters – her 13-year-old – drove from their home 45 minutes south of Portland to join us for dinner. Although we usually see each other every summer, we’d missed last year’s usual get-together, so we had tons to catch up on. Her eldest daughter just completed her first year of college; her second daughter is wrapping up her first year of high school. She told me about attending her 25th high school reunion in Sanford, Maine. (“No, no one is impressed at all that I earned a Ph.D. No one there knows what a Ph.D. is.”) Even without milestones, we can chat for hours without drawing a breath; it was rewarding as always to just talk and talk.

As a big treat, Holly got to stay up late watching “High School Musical 3.” I caught up on email while she watched the movie; we both went to bed after 10. She slept Sunday morning until 9:30, which gave me more than two hours to sip freshly brewed coffee and read both the Boston Globe and the New York Times on my Kindle. It was one of the most lazy and enjoyable mornings I’ve had in months.

After breakfast, we painted our toenails. Yes, it’s a cliché thing to do on a mother-daughter weekend, but I had just bought a new pair of sandals that really require painted nails, and Holly assured me that she was the only third grader currently going au naturel in the nail department, so we both indulged in some Glittery Mauve.

And then we headed to the Old Port Festival. Several blocks of downtown Portland were blocked off from traffic for this annual event, and despite the drizzly chill, thousands of people showed up. We heard some good live music among the three stages set up around the neighborhood, and we saw people eating an amazing variety of deep fried foods off of paper plates (Holly being no exception, of course: fried dough sprinkled with powdered sugar for her, which actually seemed fairly conservative compared to the ubiquitous deep fried pickles being sold throughout the festival).

Eventually we needed to head home; Holly had plans to go swimming with a friend in the late afternoon, a thought I must admit I found reassuring as she slept ‘til 9:30 and I wondered how she was possibly going to fall asleep that night. Swimming is always good for tiring kids out. With just the two of us staying in the condo for only one night, it didn’t take long at all to clean up, and by 1:30 we were in the car heading south on the Turnpike.

Not everything worked out exactly as hoped this weekend. The weather was disappointingly chilly, and the forecast of rain kept us from bringing our bikes, which meant we couldn’t go for a ride together and also I couldn’t go running, since the plan was for Holly to ride alongside while I ran. But there was time for running when we got back to Carlisle, and all in all it was such an enjoyable weekend. Maybe Holly and I will look back and remember it as a really special time together; or maybe in the larger context it won’t seem unique, since we do spend time in Portland alone together once or twice a year when no one else is available to go with us.

But in a way, that was what was so special about it: the fact that nothing we did – the pedicures, the music festival, even the visit with my former roommate – was so unusual as to be inherently memorable. Unique or not, I’m just glad we went and had so much fun together. How it fits into the context of our memories with the passage of time is something we just don’t know, but the fact that we had a great time with each other this weekend is a certainty.

Friday, June 10, 2011

Helping tell stories

I’m helping a lot of people tell their stories these days, and I’m more convinced than ever that this is the work I was intended to do.

For several months now, I’ve been helping a 76-year-old woman in Concord write her memoir. She’s a second-generation American born to Italian-American parents. She grew up in the Boston area, met her husband on White Horse Beach in Plymouth a few days before her eighteenth birthday, and spent her college years having fun with him and his friends around the Harvard campus.

People who know I’m working on this project ask me why I find it so worthwhile. It’s not that I think the story will be of great interest to people who don’t know the main characters. It will be self-published with a print run of 25 or 30; our target audience is the woman’s children, grandchildren and a few family friends. But the fact that it’s no literary masterpiece doesn’t keep me from loving the time I’m spending working on it as a ghost writer. I like hearing about people’s lives, but more importantly, I embrace the challenge of using words to impart the same sense of importance that the people involved sense intuitively. To the woman in this story, whose husband died three years ago, this is a love story, a tale of how two young people from humble backgrounds grew up to be valued citizens, good parents, and dear friends to many. It’s a simple story – but it matters to her, and it matters to me.

I’m also helping another client compile inspiring interviews with NFL players. Each player has been interviewed and has told us the story of his life: my job is to weave those stories into a compelling and accessible narrative. And again, just as with the story of the Italian-American immigrants, it doesn’t take a lot of effort for me to sense and to try to convey the heartfelt importance behind these stories. The men in the NFL book all became successful professional athletes. They took a variety of paths to get there, but they all have lessons to impart if I just listen to them carefully enough and give enough consideration for how to explain what they are trying to say.

Last night I went out for dinner with a friend who wants to write the story of her family’s current life, which is a lot different from either of the other projects. She was a divorced mother of three; a year ago she met a divorced father of three, and the two married. She has started crafting the anecdotes from their first year of marriage into a memoir, and as we had dinner, I told her how genuinely I believe in the potential of her project. She too has a vital story to tell, one that will be meaningful and significant to a particular audience.

I like writing my own stories too, but as I work more with other people on theirs, I am beginning to believe this is a calling of sorts. Everyone has a story to tell; I feel as though I have an ear for discerning the narrative thread in each person’s account of their own life and helping them to weave it into a whole. I love these stories, and I’m honored to help tell them. Stories are an archetypal part of being human, and it’s fascinating work to be playing midwife to so many examples of how people turn their lives into narratives full of meaning, significance and ultimately even profundity.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

The passports, but not the TV: What to grab in a tornado watch

When the news broadcasts started mentioning tornado watches last week, I told the kids we might need to go into the basement. “Can I bring the TV?” Tim asked.

I eyed the respective sizes of Tim, the TV and the staircase and pointed out that bringing the TV into the basement would require a special visit from Gentle Giant Movers, and my guess was that they weren’t available to pay a house call in the two or three hours left before the estimated arrival of the high winds. “Bring a book,” I told Tim.

But thinking about it afterwards, I wondered whether his wish was to save the TV from a tornado or to be assured of use of the TV while we hunkered down in the basement. He doesn’t watch TV shows; he uses the TV to play online video games with his friends, which other than baseball (the old-fashioned kind, not the video game) is pretty much his favorite thing to do.

As we listened to the recurrent broadcasts about potential tornadoes – which, to our enormous good fortune never materialized in our part of the state – I thought about what we should in fact bring with us if we had to retreat to the basement. It was something I’d thought about lots of times before. Always that popular question: If your house was burning down, what would you grab?

I remember first being posed that question in a school writing group when I was in second or third grade. As an adult, it became more of a practical matter, something to which I knew I’d better actually have a viable answer. Last year I was reminded again of the importance of thinking about emergency preparedness on a lesser scale when my husband found out his grandfather was in the hospital and probably didn’t have much longer to live. Despite the fact that Rick knew there was a snowstorm in the forecast, as he raced out of the house to drive the hour south to the hospital before dawn on that February morning, he neglected to bring along a change of clothes, his phone charger or his daily medications. He ended up staying at the hospital for 48 hours; all three of those things would have been mighty useful to have on hand. I made a mental note to review the concept of emergency preparedness with him as soon as possible.

Nonetheless, I never have a great answer for that question myself. Over the winter, we packed up and moved our entire household, and the more I packed, the more indifference I felt toward many of our belongings. It’s true that I’d miss my wedding album if I could never look at it again…but I’d be okay. The kids’ writing projects and art creations from grade school are fun to collect….but those too I could manage without. All of my own work – books and articles written, articles and research currently under way – exists these days in the cyber-cloud, as do the past five years’ worth of family photos: if they burned up, I could literally download them again.

We have one file of papers that would be a hassle to replace, such as passports and birth certificates and marriage certificate, so I’d like to grab that file. I have a couple of pieces of heirloom jewelry I’d like to take along. And I’d also want my three favorite electronics: my laptop, iPod and Kindle. But the electronics, really, are like Tim and his video games; it’s not that they’re irreplaceable. They’re not even that expensive. It’s just that I really like them and use them every day, and would want them even the day after a tornado or fire.

Needless to say, this isn’t a question anyone wants to have to answer for real. Had the tornado watch in our region turned into a warning, we probably would have descended into the basement, and I’m certain I would have had the Important Papers file, my wallet, and the aforementioned electronics, plus my family members and pet, of course. I suppose the cookbook my mother wrote would be something I’d want to save as well; other copies of it exist but are not easy to come by. Basic toiletries – toothbrush, glasses, contact lens case – would be useful.

And then I think I’d be okay. There might be books and photos and memorabilia I’d miss, but for the most part, I’d have what I needed. At least I think I would. But maybe I’ll add our wedding album to the list, just in case.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

It's very June

Hot sunny weather: nearly 90 degrees when I headed out to meet Holly’s bus yesterday afternoon. All my usual weekly deadlines plus a few unexpected assignments. A class gift to plan, a teacher appreciation luncheon to organize, an invitation for an end-of-the-year coffee to issue to the library volunteers. An email to send to my friend in Denver in hopes that she’ll meet me at the airport during my long layover there at the end of this month. All that plus the overwhelming desire to finish unpacking the boxes that remain untouched two months after our move: yes, we are definitely closing in on the end of the school year.

Of course, the wish to unpack boxes doesn’t seem directly related to the encroaching last day of school, but the connection is the same as the one I make to my unusually high rate of productivity in my work life lately: knowing that the kids will be on vacation soon, I’m intrinsically motivated to work harder and faster and get more done before school ends for the year. Additionally, I’m leaving for the Aspen Summer Words writers’ conference a week before school gets out, so I have an even earlier end-of-school-year deadline than usual. Ideally, I’d like all of these things wrapped up before I leave for the conference.

Not that my work will come to a stop. I’ll have my usual newspaper deadlines and miscellaneous client assignments throughout the summer, and that’s a good thing: it means I’ll continue to get paid throughout the summer as well. But I’m trying to get a little bit ahead now, and yesterday I found it particularly satisfying to figure out ways I could make the upcoming weeks easier for myself. Rather than planning my lead feature just for next week’s arts column, I penciled in ideas for the next four weeks. And I promised another client that I’d have an assignment done even earlier than he asked for it, just to get it off my plate before I’m really in a pre-departure crunch time.

Meanwhile, the non-work components of wrapping up the school year demand attention at every turn. My friend Lori and I are co-chairing the teacher/staff appreciation luncheon next week: we need to be sure we have enough entrees, salads and desserts to serve 150. As room parent for Holly’s class, I have to collect donations for a small gift for the teacher and remind the kids to work on their scrapbook pages. My friend Leigh and I coordinate the library volunteers and feel obligated to host an end-of-year coffee for them every year; we need to hurry up and get that on everyone’s calendar.

Plus we’re getting into vacation season, which means there are more far-flung friends with whom to try to catch up at more locations. I’m trying to schedule a beach visit with my college roommate, a time to see a California friend who will be in Boston in early July, and drinks later this week with an acquaintance who is visiting from South Dakota and wants some advice on a writing project.

And those still-unpacked boxes that have sat untouched since the end of March are starting to annoy me. Before I leave town for the conference, I really want to have our entire living space box-free.

So it is most definitely June, and most definitely a busy time, and yet I wouldn’t want anything to be different. It’s a busy, sociable time with plenty of motivation to stay ahead of the game. And right now, that’s what I’m busily trying to do.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Tim playing baseball

It’s what you might call an open secret that I don’t show up at too many of Tim’s baseball games. Even before Holly wrote an acrostic for Mothers’ Day and used the phrase “Not good at committing to watch Tim’s baseball games” for the very first letter in my name, I was a no-show more often than not.

It just doesn’t seem essential to me to appear at every game. Since Rick is Tim’s coach, Tim is always assured of one parent at the game. And I’ve never really bought into the cliché of “never missed a baseball game” (or soccer match or dance recital or skating competition) as the hallmark of an attentive parent. I go to some of the games, and I ask Tim to tell me about the ones I miss. He doesn’t read every article I write; I trust him to understand that I care and am interested in what he’s doing even if I don’t stand on the sidelines at every game.

But last Saturday I did get to the game, and it was the All-Star match-up, and it reminded me of what a joy it can be for a parent to watch a child do something for which the child has slowly and painstakingly acquired skills and honed talent. On the baseball diamond, Tim is strong, effective, sure-footed and confident; moreover, he’s happy and has fun. He was on the All-Star team but he’s not a star; he’s a good player among many good players, and that’s how he sees himself as well.

At the age of 12, the boys are no longer playing a kiddie version of the game. They pitch hard, run fast, swing the bat with considerable might and connect bat with ball a reasonable percentage of the time. Off the field, we parents reassure the parents of the younger kids still playing t-ball or in their first year of player-pitching rather than coach-pitching that the games really will get more bearable and move faster eventually. We try not to boast that our kids are at the point where it’s like watching, well, a real baseball game.

Seeing how graceful Tim is on the field reminds me all over again of that strange progression of parenthood, how when your child is young you have control over almost everything related to him: what he eats, what books he reads, who he meets, where he goes, even to some extent what images cross his field of vision. As a result, for a time he knows and experiences nothing beyond what you know and experience. And that gradually your scope of control lessens: he goes to school, meets people you don’t know, hears stories you’ve never read, learns about the Ice Age and the Iditarod and topics you’ve never thought about much at all.

And accordingly, he then develops abilities you didn’t instill. As an athlete, Tim surpassed me before he turned seven. Now, on the baseball field, he can execute moves I don’t even know exist. He’s in his own universe out there, one that hardly overlaps with mine at all. But getting myself to a game is one way to be part of this new universe, and although I don’t feel guilty about the games I miss, I’m full of delight when I do get there to watch him.

On Saturday, Tim’s team lost, and he didn’t have any spectacular at-bats or score any points for his team. But at one moment in the sixth inning, he was in the outfield when a member of the opposing team clouted the ball; it was the best hit of the game. Tim sprang after it and fielded the ball. The batter got to third base, which he certainly deserved after such a show-stopping hit, but Tim threw to the infield in time to prevent him from getting farther. Behind me, a parent I didn’t recognize who was rooting for the other team muttered with audible disappointment, “If anyone other than Tim West had been in the outfield on that play, it would have been a home run.”

This wasn’t a headline moment for Tim, but in a way, that underhanded and unintended praise for him gave the whole experience resonance for me. Tim’s team lost, but he played the strong solid game for which he apparently already has a reputation. And I was happy to be there for it.

Monday, June 6, 2011

Sunday paper

I tell myself there wouldn’t be a Sunday newspaper if no one ever read it. Therefore, it must be possible to do.

And I tell myself that if other people can manage to find time to read it, then surely I can too.

(Unless, of course, like me, the continuity of the Sunday paper is merely a sign that people are paying for it, not reading it. But surely not everyone can be like me.)

Come Sunday, I would dearly love to sit down and read the paper, the whole thing, all at once, in one marathon reading session.

But it never happens. Instead, I chip away at it all week long: a section while on my stationary bike on Monday morning, another section in the waiting room at the doctor’s office on Tuesday, and still another section while I sit at the end of the lane waiting for the school bus to arrive on Wednesday afternoon.

When a day like yesterday comes along when there’s barely anything blocked off on the calendar – church in the morning, and a visit from some friends in the afternoon, but those two events combined won’t take more than three hours – I think surely today I’ll sit down and read the paper.

And then the day comes, and I think “After I make breakfast for the kids, I’ll sit down and read the paper.”

And then “After I eat my own breakfast and wash the dishes, I’ll read the paper.”

No; it’s time for church. Maybe after church. But lunchtime goes the same way: I prepare something for other people; I prepare something for myself; I clean up. The paper awaits, tantalizingly full of stories, untouched.

All right then, I tell myself. No matter. Guests are arriving midafternoon. Once they leave, I’ll have nothing I need to do; I’ll sit down and read the paper.

Well, nothing to do – as it turns out – except accede to the internal pressure to change the sheets on all the beds and weed the garden.

Weeding the garden is hard work. I tell myself as I do it that when I’m done, I’ll cool off by sitting on the porch reading the paper. I take a moment to appreciate the fact that I did my daily run first thing in the morning – before breakfast or church or anything else – so once I’m done in the garden, the rest of the day is free.

And it is free, except that I really want to see my parents before the weekend ends. It’s only a five-minute drive, so the kids and I head over, and when we get back, it’s time to make dinner. While dinner is in the oven I’ll read the paper, I tell myself.

Which I probably would have, had I not instead called my sister to hear about her weekend. When the call is done, so is my cooking. We sit down to eat.

After dinner never feels like a time for reading. I’m helping the kids finish homework and get ready for bed. I’m making lists of what I need to get done Monday morning. I’m making up the bed with the sheets I just washed. I’m organizing the kids’ Monday lunches. I’m filling out permission slips.

Reading in bed? Sounds wonderful. What a great time to read the Sunday paper: just before going to sleep, when all of my duties for the day are behind me.

Except I fall asleep. So once again the paper goes unread. I’ll chip away at it throughout the week. One section here, one section there, and by next Saturday I will have read the whole thing.

The next day a new edition of the Sunday paper will arrive, and I’ll plan to sit down with a cup of coffee and a few free hours and read it cover to cover. Next week. Really.

Friday, June 3, 2011

Love your (revolting small brown eight-legged) enemies

I have resolved to try harder to follow the words of Matthew in the New Testament: Love your enemies.

And by my enemies, I of course mean ticks.

Wood ticks: The large brown disgusting ones. Deer ticks: The ineffably tiny ones, so often compared in size to “the period at the end of this sentence,” so much less revolting to look at, in my opinion, and yet even more dangerous as carriers of Lyme disease.

New England in general and Carlisle in particular are replete with ticks. I absolutely despise them, and yet I know it’s a repulsion I need to try to overcome. I can’t be a responsible mother, dog owner, or citizen of the countryside if I can’t get over my natural impulse whenever I see one, which is to yell for Rick.

This has become particularly clear to me over the past week. Despite Carlisle’s reputation, at least within its own geographical boundaries, of being the Lyme disease capital of the world, there are years when I’ve gone the entire warm-weather season without seeing a single tick.

This year apparently will not be one of them. I found one on Holly’s bed as she was waking up earlier this week, and another one making its way across the dog’s snout. Then this morning as Holly was drying off after her shower, I found one of the tiny ones embedded in her hip.

But the find that leaves me with the worst feelings was yesterday afternoon. I had just checked in at the doctor’s office for some routine lab work when I felt something brushing across my bare arm. I looked and saw a large brown tick. I was so startled that without thinking I brushed it off of me – and then couldn’t find it. Not on the floor, not on the chair where I’d been sitting. Somehow I’d released a tick into the doctor’s waiting room. The guilt I felt about my part in so nonchalantly foisting off a tick onto the next unfortunate person to stand in the wrong place in that waiting room was overwhelming; I felt like a character in a Dostoyevsky novel. I wanted to find it and dispose of it properly, but I couldn’t. And yet I knew it would make its way some other poor unsuspecting patient.

When I’m by myself and see ticks, I can usually force myself to deal with it as needed: using tweezers, or my bare fingers, whatever works. But if Rick is around, I still can’t resist the impulse to call for reinforcements – an instinct so embarrassing to me that I pretend to him that there’s some other reason I called him, as if I just wanted advice and not someone else to do the dirty work. “It’s so tiny; I just wanted a second opinion on whether it’s really a tick and not a scab before I start tweezing at her skin,” I told him when I found the tick after Holly’s shower. Of course, he then found the tweezers and got to work on it, just as I knew he would.

Research tells me it was either Machiavelli or The Godfather who said “Keep your friends close, your enemies even closer.” At first blush, this phrase seems inapplicable when it comes to ticks. Keeping them as far away as possible seems like better advice. But no, I remind myself, the point is that ticks are going to show up whether you want them to or not, and “keeping them even closer” means not only being able to bear them but being really comfortable with them. Grab those tweezers; get your hands dirty; be fearless.

I try to imagine a form of hypnosis that might make it easier for me to approach a tick without hyperventilating. Notice how small they are instead of how gross they are, I tell myself. One thousandth your size at the most. You are the dominant creature here. You are in charge.

Maybe. But it doesn’t feel that way when I’m looking at one, whether it’s on my child’s pale flesh, in the dog’s fur or scurrying across my arm. Absolutely disgusting. And yet absolutely necessary for me to be able to confront comfortably. I’m working on it. And eventually I’ll get there.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Morning party

I am lucky that most people who throw large annual parties don’t bother to cull their guest lists from year to year or I probably wouldn’t have been invited to yesterday’s midmorning brunch given by my friends Liz and Peg. It was the third or fourth time they’d invited me, but it was the first time I’d actually managed to be there.

Yes, I have plenty of work to do this week, and plenty of assignments to wrap up as well as a few to start, and truth be told, I was a little embarrassed to be going to a party in the middle of the workday. It just sounded so very decadent. I could be meeting deadlines; why was I chatting and sipping coffee? That’s not something working people do.

On the other hand, why bother to be self-employed if it doesn’t mean a couple of times a year you can do something you never used to do in the corporate world: just wander across town on an ordinary Wednesday morning for a party?

Peg’s house was brimming over with other party-goers: forty or fifty in all, probably. Several years ago, if I happened to drive past an event like this, I would have wondered about the attendees. Really, I would have thought to myself, in this day and age, how can fifty Carlisle women be free in the middle of a weekday morning to stand around talking?

But I knew most of the women there, and now it doesn’t seem so unusual to me, although I certainly concede we are an exceptionally fortunate group. Some of the women who were there don’t currently have paid jobs, but many do. Some, like me, are self-employed and set their own hours and see something like this party as a special indulgence, a reason to leave the home office for an hour or two. Others work part-time. And some are business owners or senior managers who, quite frankly, can come and go from their offices without feeling obligated to offer explanations to anyone.

It was the kind of event I could have very easily persuaded myself to skip. I enjoy my solitary work day. I like the focus and intensity of being by myself all day concentrating on my writing projects. Going out to socialize takes effort.

But on this June morning, it was an effort I felt like making. Among the forty or fifty guests, I knew most of them, though there were some I hadn’t seen in over a year, and it was great to catch up. Ingrid had been living in Switzerland for the past couple of years, and I was interested to hear how that had worked out for her family; Lisa and I commiserated on our sons’ busy spring baseball schedule; Peg updated me on volunteer recruitment for next fall’s Spaghetti Supper; Liz and I fell into a conversation about what it’s like to visit your childhood home once your family no longer lives there. I met a couple of people for the first time as well, though I knew their names and they knew mine; that’s what small-town life is like.

And as decadent as the plan may sound, we did a little bit of good for the world as well, and for ourselves. Peg and Liz stated on the invitation that the party would include a canned food drive and put out boxes into which people could deposit food contributions that will later be brought to a distribution center, and guests were also encouraged to bring a second-hand book wrapped in brown paper (with a one-word description written on the paper) to trade.

It would have been easy to stay home, but I was so glad I went. It made my day feel richer for sharing it with a wider community than is the norm on a work day. My creativity and productivity improved when I got back to my desk, and it wasn’t even noon yet. It’s just good some days to get out and be with other people, and I was lucky yesterday to have the chance to do just that.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011


The outlook was grim for accomplishing what I needed to before the day ended. This wasn’t a hypothetical “What I really should try to do before the work day ends” kind of notion; it was a “the Registry of Motor Vehicles says it’s the law” kind of notion. Specifically, I had 84 minutes to get my car to a service station before I was officially overdue on my May inspection sticker.

And yes, perhaps it was my fault for not getting it done earlier in the day. Or even earlier in the month. (Does May really have 31 days? And only one of them a federal holiday? And yet I really couldn’t find a single one of those 31 days – minus five Sundays and Memorial Day – for getting my car inspected?) Well, for whatever reason, it was late afternoon on May 31st. And I hadn’t gone earlier in the day because I’m just too miserly about my work hours, especially with only four weeks left to go before the kids are home full-time for summer vacation. I have a manuscript to edit and another one to finish drafting. I have my two regularly weekly newspaper deadlines to file. I have….a whole bunch of other things.

So I thought I could do it after the kids got home from school. After all, why sacrifice my carefully guarded work time when I could instead sacrifice, well, the kids’ carefully guarded afterschool free time?

Because that’s ultimately what it came down to: Holly and me butting heads over whose time mattered more. She was cross when I announced that after she had a snack and washed up, she had to come to the inspection station with me. Just as cross as I might have been if someone had insisted that I go along with them on a tedious errand during my work time. She despises afterschool errands.

Over the weekend, I had an eye-opening moment when Holly insisted that despite my demurrals, she was absolutely certain she could drink a blueberry smoothie in the playroom without spilling it on the couch. You can probably guess what happened to that promise. She spilled no less than half of it, and Rick gave me the usual “What on earth were you thinking?” lecture as we both tried to scrub blueberry stains out of the beige couch.

“You’re right,” I had to admit. “What was I thinking? It’s just so hard to hold my ground sometimes. I just get so weary.” But obviously, I lost my perspective when it came to the blueberry smoothie. Of course I should have absolutely refused to let her drink it in the playroom. And I should absolutely insist that she come with me for the car inspection. But I was finding it very hard to get myself to drag her out of the house, which seemed to be the only way this was going to happen.

Standing our ground as parents can be difficult. At least it is for me. Sometimes Holly wears me down.

But as I contemplated my choices in terms of overruling her resistance to a trip to get the car inspected, I recalled something that has helped me out before: the acknowledgment that in between iron rule and caving in lies another option: letting the child save face. If I stopped fretting for a moment over the fact that we weren’t going to get there in time and let past history come to mind, I could remember something useful. I didn’t need to force her to come with me; I needed to give her enough room to change her mind without feeling like she’d been forced into anything.

So I let Holly stomp up to her room and slam the door. And I waited. I finished some deskwork and prepped a few dinner items. After ten minutes, I went up to her room. She was sitting on her bed working on a coloring project. “Mommy,” she said in a pleasant tone, “if I go with you, will you buy me some stickers?”

I smiled to myself at the reversal in her obstinate demeanor. “I’m not going to pay you for doing an errand with me, Holly, but I would say you could probably have a snack at the service station while we wait.”

“And listen to your iPod?” she asked.

That was an easy one involving neither money nor empty calories. “Absolutely.”

Out we headed. She was happy and I was happy. No one had caved in; we both felt that we’d reached an agreement. We arrived at the service station at 4:38. “It’s a little last-minute, I know…” I said apologetically as we drove into the inspection bay.

“Nah, you won’t even be our last customer today,” the technician assured me.

Holly and I headed into the waiting room. She chose a bottle of lemonade and settled peaceably into a plastic seat to listen to her favorite Taylor Swift album. And I mulled over what I’d learned, hoping to put it to better use next time. Blueberry smoothies on the couch? Absolutely not (although, amazingly enough, it looks as good as new following a lot of scrubbing and a white-vinegar treatment). A compromise when it comes to doing errands after school? It’s always possible.