Friday, July 29, 2011

Practice, practice, practice

My friend Mollie, a gifted artist, posted a gorgeous photo of a dragonfly on her blog yesterday with these words under it: “Violin lesson today for my daughter. Every other week, we seem to repeat the same old battle about practicing and going to the lesson, but when she's there, she does well and seems to enjoy it.” It is typical of Mollie’s unique artistic sensibility that she made an intuitive connection between the dragonfly and the sentiment; this is what I admire so much about her vision and her craft. In those few words she summed up the same internal debate I’ve been engaged in much of the summer.

Last spring, following a school unit on the recorder, Holly took her recorder home and played it now and then. Gradually, even though she was working off little more than her own instincts with occasional advice from me, she began to improve a little bit.

So I suggested she take recorder lessons over the summer. But she wasn’t tempted. She’s a free spirit; to her the fun is in spontaneously picking up the recorder and attempting to ad lib a tune or two, not studying it with the goal of continuous growth in skill level.

In some ways, I was disappointed about this; in other ways, I was not. I’d like to see her develop an interest in music as well as the sense of commitment that goes with becoming good at an endeavor such as playing an instrument. At the same time, I have no desire to start fighting the Practice Wars.

Although Holly’s summer is not turning out to include music lessons, the issue will arise again soon. She starts fourth grade in just six weeks, and that’s the year that all the students in her school get to take free lessons on a band instrument of their choice. Holly has already expressed ambivalence over whether this is something she wants to take advantage of in the fall, and I’m already struggling with the decision of how much to push it.

One argument says that studying an instrument is beneficial for a number of reasons. Learning music theory supposedly improves math skills, not to mention the fact that it sets the groundwork for music appreciation. Also, I think being in the school band is worthwhile as far as the teamwork and patience that kids develop from the experience. During Tim’s fourth grade year, I was amazed at the way he and his classmates learned from the band director basic skills such as sitting still and listening to each other. And I love seeing the kids all dressed up for their twice-yearly concerts.

At the same time, if taking instrument lessons is something we parents insist on, we lose all leverage for the arguments about practicing. We can’t say “If you want to be part of the band and take lessons you have to practice” if the lessons are done at our insistence.

I haven’t yet decided what to do this fall. So far, Holly continues not to show much enthusiasm for the idea of instrument lessons. It’s something I would really like her to do, but if I’m going to expect her to spend time practicing, the lessons have to be something she wants. I could insist, saying that just like getting to school on time and doing homework, it’s a process that I consider necessary. Or I can just shrug it off and say if she doesn’t have the passion for it, I’m not going to require her to go through the motions.

This is one case where I’m hoping to see peer pressure kick in. During the first few weeks of school, each fourth grader has opportunities to try out the different instruments before making a choice. My hope is that once her friends show some excitement about it, she won’t want to be left behind.

But even if that happens and she does choose an instrument to study, I’m likely to end up like Mollie, conflicted over how much to argue about practicing.
I’ve already lost the battle with Tim. After that initial year of free lessons, he hung on for one year of paid lessons, and then we reached the point of “If you’re not going to practice, I’m not going to pay for it.” Unfortunately, that was just fine with him.

I hope it will be different with Holly. For some kids it must be, or there wouldn’t be so many talented musicians out there. A few of Tim’s friends have stuck with instrument lessons over the past three years, but not a lot.

In another month and a half, fourth grade will begin for Holly, and she’ll have to express an opinion about what she wants to do with the opportunity before her. I can hope. But I can’t make her share my feelings just by wishing it so. And now is probably not too soon to acknowledge to myself just how often as she grows older that sentiment will hold true.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Calling ahead

In retrospect, it does seem strange that I assumed my spouse would know whether a service department he’d never visited before required appointments or not. But he told me an appointment wouldn’t be necessary, and I took him at his word, which is why I drove twenty minutes yesterday morning for an oil change that I was then told I’d have to wait three hours for because I hadn’t bothered to call ahead and schedule my visit.

Not having three hours to spare waiting in a car dealership waiting room – even one with gourmet coffee and free wireless like this dealership has – I instead made an appointment for Friday and drove back home, wondering all the way why it was I hadn’t bothered to call first.

Several years ago, one of the phone companies had a TV ad campaign whose tagline still rings in my ears regularly to this day: “How could you have known? You could have called!” The premise of the campaign was that people waste a lot of time chasing false leads that a phone call ahead could have set them straight on. The campaign actually gained quite a lot of flak that the company didn’t anticipate because in one vignette, a mother spent a long time rounding up her young sons and packing them into the car for a long drive to a museum so that they could see a dinosaur exhibit….but when they arrived at the museum, the dinosaurs were gone and in their place was an exhibit of dolls. The flak came from the implication that young boys would be disappointed to see dolls rather than dinosaurs. (Quite a sweeping assumption on the creative director’s part, I realize.)

It’s hard for me to believe that after having that tagline echo in my head for a decade or more, I still make mistakes like this. Of course I should have called first to see if I needed to schedule an appointment. But in truth, I enjoyed the drive to the dealership and back so much that I couldn’t help wondering if maybe there was a message in my obtuseness. Maybe a part of me just really wanted to get out of the house by myself for the forty-minute round trip. I know this was the principle behind a similar error I made a few weeks ago. It was a Saturday, and I’d been looking forward all day to riding my bicycle to Concord to buy a book at the Concord Book Shop. I didn’t think twice about the viability of my plan when I finally hit the road for the nine-mile journey to Concord at 4:30 in the afternoon.

But when I arrived in Concord Center, I discovered the bookstore closes at 5. And when I managed to sneak in anyway because at 5:10 there was still a trickle of customers making their way in and out, I learned that the store didn’t have the book I wanted.

Part of me couldn’t believe I hadn’t checked on either the inventory or the closing time relevant to my journey, but another part of me just had to laugh. Clearly I had wanted to do the ride enough to deliberately overlook those seemingly obvious precautions. And in fact it was a notably enjoyable ride, even though the intended errand didn’t get accomplished.

Still, it makes more sense to check ahead. I make mistakes like this far too often. Especially typical of me is to head somewhere without knowing the exact directions. Not having a GPS, I waste a lot of time getting lost when it would have been easy enough for me to look up the directions before I left. And unlike the bike ride or even the drive to the car dealership, being lost never feels like a fun use of time.

In any case, it was uncharacteristic of me to assume Rick would know whether or not I needed an appointment. I’m a journalist; I’m trained by my profession to check facts and not to assume that something is true just because someone says it is. But I also appreciate any chance to find a silver lining. The peaceful, quiet drive to the dealership and back that fell in the midst of a busy day with the kids was definitely a silver lining. Wasting time as well as fuel is never a great idea, but sometimes, appreciating the up side of this kind of error seems to justify the fact that I made such a silly mistake in the first place.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Once in a while, a whine can help

I always enjoy reading the Frugal Mama blog written by my long-distance friend, Amy Carden Suardi. She has practical ideas, a pleasant outlook, and a very natural form of self-expression. Sometimes I find myself to be lacking in all three of these areas, so she’s a good influence on me for myriad reasons.

Recently she invited guest-blogger Nihara of “Doing Too Much” to write this post about organizational tips, which I found refreshing because they were so simple and straightforward. None of the usual “Make six different To Do lists and rank them by priority; then keep hard copies in your glove compartment, your purse and your nighttable drawer while also sending electronic copies to your Smartphone and your laptop computer” kinds of instructions that these articles occasionally contain – which tend to make me decide that maybe being a little bit disorganized isn’t such a bad thing after all.
The post reminded me most of all that some of my own best organizing insights have come from “listening to my inner whine.” A lot of times I already know what would help me to keep better organized – if I just listen to myself.

To some extent, this approach puts me in mind of the kitchen cabinets in our first home. It’s been nearly a decade since I lived there, but I still remember my frustration with the kitchen’s very deep cabinet shelves, which initially seemed useful – all the better to store more pantry goods. But a lot of times I’d find myself standing at the cupboard thinking “It sure is lucky I have all this storage space – now if only I could reach to the back.” Which, in a slightly whinier mood, comes out more like this: “Why have all this storage space if everything I need ends up behind six rows of other things?” A-ha – maybe deep shelves aren’t such a storage boon after all.

A few weeks ago, I was looking at all the summer clothes I haven’t worn yet this season because they need to be ironed. “Ironing isn’t so bad itself,” protested my inner whine. “It’s just the work of schlepping everything from my closet to the laundry room and back to do it.”

Another a-ha moment: if that’s really the issue, why not keep the ironing board in my clothes closet, so that all the components were right in the same place? We have a fold-up ironing board that fit easily behind the closet door, and now when I want to wear something that needs to be ironed, it takes me only a matter of seconds to set it up and get to work ironing.

Similarly, I realized earlier in the summer that I didn’t have a very effective system for that simplest of endeavors, maintaining a grocery list. It just seemed like I was never quite up-to-date with what I was running out of. “It’s because when I’m cooking, I’m too busy to stop and takes notes on what I’m using up,” said my inner whine. So I made a master list of just about every ingredient I buy in the course of a year and saved it on my laptop. Now, when it’s time to grocery shop, I look over the list and highlight whatever I need, rather than trying to initiate a list from a blank page.

It’s somewhat instinctive to try to quash our inner voices when they whine. “Stop complaining and just get the job done,” we say all too easily. But sometimes, those little voices have something useful to say. I’m gradually learning to pay a little more attention.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Pack it in

Our vacation is still a few weeks away, but I’m already thinking about packing. And this article in last week's Boston Globe by Beth Teitell made me smile with recognition.

I have often thought I am about the world’s worst packer. I couldn’t pack light if my life depended on it. And it always seems to me that by an inexplicable principle of physics, no matter where I’m going and no matter what piece of luggage I choose, my suitcase is always this close to bursting, the zipper always this close to tearing away from the fabric. I always seem to have just one more thing than my suitcase can realistically hold.

Beth Teitell describes a number of obstacles to effective packing. I’m guilty of all of them – and then some. For one thing, even though I’m a writer and much of my livelihood depends on my ability to imagine situations beyond the reality in which I’m immersed, I seem to be incapable of picturing any weather beyond that which I’m experiencing at the moment I pack. might as well be written in Mandarin for all the use it does me when I look up the forecast for my destination (and I always do). If it’s 47 degrees and raining at home as I pack for a visit to a Caribbean island, I’m sure to find myself in a tropical bungalow with jeans and wool pullovers. If it’s 92 and humid as I pack for a trip to the Colorado Rockies, I shiver away my time in the mountains in sleeveless blouses and cotton skirts, no matter that I’ve visited the Colorado Rockies nearly every summer of my life and I know it always dips below 60 degrees by the time the sun sets.

Even when I do pack appropriately for my destination, I pack too much of everything. If the weather is just right for cropped pants and cotton t-shirts, I’m not going to want to wear the same ones every day, am I? If it’s chilly in the evening and I need a blazer over my blouse, I don’t want anyone to get tired of seeing the same blazer, day after day. And what are the odds that blazer will match more than one or two outfits? So of course I’ll need more than one.

My other mistake is that I tend to pack aspirationally. That is, I pack for what I hope will happen on the trip rather than what I really think probably will. And so I pack dresses and attractive shoes because it’s a nice idea to think I’ll walk around my destination city in stylish dresses every day rather than a touristy costume of shorts, t-shirts and running shoes, even though once I’m faced with the prospect of a full day of sightseeing ahead, I’ll want the shorts and sneakers. I pack extra outfits with the idea that I’ll change before dinner every evening despite the fact that we’re never that formal when we travel. In short, I pack for the person I want to picture myself being while on vacation, rather than for the person I know I really am.

Still, I’ll keep working at it. Just as I dream of becoming someone who regularly arrives at appointments ten minutes early instead of two minutes late, I dream of zipping up a suitcase with room to spare. And if I never reach that point? There are always bigger suitcases out there.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Tim at the helm

Up in Maine over the weekend, I had my first opportunity of the year to go boating.

I enjoy boating but certainly don’t yearn for it; but for my 12-year-old, piloting a powerboat ranks right up there as probably one of his top three or four favorite things in life. In fact, during the weekend he mentioned that the Saturday a year ago when he boated all morning and went to an all-you-can-eat lobster picnic in the evening was “the best day of my life.”

This year, the two events were divided over two days: the annual lobster roll buffet took place on Saturday, but we didn’t have the chance to go boating until Sunday. My mother pointed out that the two activities were close enough that Tim could still construe it as the best 24 hours of his life even if it wasn’t technically all one day, but Tim responded that “Grandma, it doesn’t work like that.”

The fact that Tim loves boating so much makes it all the more fun for me, because it’s such a pleasure for me to see the level of engagement he shows when he has the opportunity to get out on the water. Under my father’s expert supervision, Tim plays close attention. He takes criticism well when he does things wrong, because he understands the high stakes where personal safety as well as the soundness of the boat are concerned. He takes pride in his nautical abilities, but he doesn’t rest on his laurels; he works hard to improve. With every ride, he gains more confidence and more skill.

It’s also teaching him to deal with obstacles and apprehensions. Yesterday, for the first part of the ride, he was anxious about the many larger boats in the vicinity and the wakes they were causing. “Oh, crap,” he said as each new set of waves from a passing boat hit us, until my father pointed out to him that “Oh, crap” wasn’t actually a nautical term. At that point he realized he was handing the wakes fairly well, and stopped fretting over each new one.

Another reason I appreciate Tim’s interest in boating is that he readily accepts the grunt work that goes along with the fun. At home, he has to be reminded to put dirty glasses in the sink and throw his clothes into the hamper, but with the boat, he’s always ready for the work that the sport entails. He knows the whole checklist he needs to run through before and after the ride, from snapping and unsnapping the canvas covers to putting away life vests, bumpers and ropes in their designated compartments.

It’s always a positive experience for parents to witness their kids engaged in something the kids truly love. I feel this way when I watch Tim play baseball as well, but baseball isn’t as much work as boating. What I appreciate when I see him on the boat is his grasp of the fact that most activities to which one wants to commit oneself include hard work, learning and concentration along with the fun. (Eating lobster rolls, of course, involves none of those extra elements, and he did plenty of that over the weekend as well.) Seeing how thoroughly he commits himself to becoming an ever better boater reassures me that he has the aptitude to learn and accomplish all kinds of things.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Sibling swim

The kids and I spent the afternoon yesterday at a nearby pond, and I was reminded anew of the lesson I seem to re-learn every summer: swimming is perhaps the one activity at which they always have fun together and they always get along well.

And maybe that’s why I have so much fun watching them. While I sit in a lawn chair on the beach, they plow through the water, indifferent to my curiosity about what they are doing. They race each other. They splash each other. They make up complicated games and obstacle courses. My book goes unread as I gaze over at them and contemplate how kids together in the water, at least for me, is a little like a sleeping infant or a fire in the fireplace: I just can’t take my eyes off the sight, even knowing I could be paying attention to something that would seem to be much more engaging.

Most of the time, my children get along fairly well. I always attribute this to the fact that being four years apart in age and different genders, they don’t find much to compete over. But by the same token, there often isn’t a lot they like to do together. Their interests and hobbies tend to be fairly divergent.

But all kids like playing in the water, and it is truly the one medium in which I can count on them to remain happy together no matter how long we stay. I know I could be catching up on the newspapers and magazines in my beach bag, but somehow I can’t pull my attention away from the fun they’re having.

Eventually, just as it’s getting close to time for us to leave, they ask me to join them in the water. But it turns out this isn’t because they want me to race or splash or try out their underwater obstacle course; they want to show me a synchronized singing act they’ve worked out, and they feel I need a close-up view of it. My sisters and I used to make up performances like this by the hour – we usually connected our water shows to an event such as my parents’ August anniversary, and to this day my sister will call me around that date and say “It’s almost Mom and Dad’s anniversary; have you choreographed the swim show yet?” Watching Tim and Holly raise their arms in synchronicity, then twirl and dunk, I contemplate the reach of genetic memory and laugh to myself; I’m guessing my mother and her sisters practiced a synchronized swim show or two in their day as well.

Yesterday was our first pond visit of the year. It shouldn’t still surprise me, after all these years, that my kids have such a good time together when I take them swimming. But somehow it still does. Water, sunlight and proximity make them treat each other far more affectionately than they do in the car, or in the house, or even in the yard. And bearing witness to the phenomenon remains one of summer’s greatest joys.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Simple words of inspiration reinvigorate my daily running habit

For the past few weeks, my daily run has been….well, less than ideal.

It seems my pace gets slower and slower. We’ve had some really hot, humid weather already this summer, and our new neighborhood is a lot buggier early in the day than our old neighborhood was; even if I protect myself with a hat and sunscreen, the horseflies cluster around my dog’s ears and annoy both of us.

So even as my daily streak approaches its four-year anniversary next month, I’ve cut back just a little on distance, reducing my typical weekend 5- or 6-milers to just four miles the past couple of weeks, and not even trying to go beyond my weekday 2-mile route the other five days of the week.

But even though I’ve maintained my daily running streak – which is at 1439 days as of this morning – it just hasn’t been fun. In fact, it’s been a drag. I drag myself out the door. I drag myself along the road and back. I drag myself through the paces of running, day after day, without my usual enthusiasm.

And then yesterday morning, I was going through my usual early-morning routine, the one that begins even earlier than my daily run: I write Morning Pages and then check email before I lace up my running shoes.

Normally, waiting in my email box at this early hour is a daily inspirational quote from And most days I find this helpful. Some examples are more meaningful than others to me, but I almost always find something insightful, encouraging, educational, illuminating or thought-provoking in the words of the daily quote. But over the past several days, no daily inspirational email had arrived. And then yesterday the bottleneck was apparently broken, and there were five. But none of them struck me as inspirational at all.

“All attack is a call for help. When you know this, you begin at once to look deeply into the question of what kind of help is being called for,” said one, attributed to theologian and writer Neale Donald Walsch.

“Let us accept the invitation, ever-open, from the Stillness, taste its exquisite sweetness, and heed its silent instruction,” wrote the late British philosopher Paul Brunton.

Some days these missives inspire me, but on this particular day, they neither made me feel like going out to live a better life nor like going out for my daily run.

And then on Twitter I found this one, from Maurilio Amorim, a marketing and technology entrepreneur and runner in Tennessee: "Morning workouts help me clear my mind and awaken my creativity."

That’s right, said the ever-present voice in my head. That’s the part I’ve been forgetting recently. Running isn’t just about the physical sense of well-being and strength. Sometimes, on hot humid days or for any number of other reasons, that sense of physical wellness just isn’t part of the experience. But this is the part I’d been overlooking as of late. I don’t run just for the physical power surge it gives me; I run because, as Maurilio Amorim says, it helps me clear my mind and awaken my creativity.

Stop thinking about how you feel, I reminded myself – the humidity, the sleepiness, the ever-annoying horseflies – and remember this part: the mind-clearing part. That’s still the most important reason. Rather than thinking that your muscles are moving slowly, think of the run as the part of the day where you gather together your dissipated mental energy and channel it into the creativity and initiative required for the day ahead.

Those thoughts stayed with me as I headed down my driveway. Somehow in recent weeks I’d forgotten about the mental clarity I gain from running; I’d let the physical aspects, most of which have been negative lately, overrun my consciousness. And it wasn’t philosophers or theologians, motivational speakers or athlete-gurus, who put me back on track. It was one cyber-acquaintance in Tennessee, with eleven words that I needed to hear.

I suppose it goes without saying that running hasn’t felt so good all summer as it did yesterday.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011


Preparing Sunday evening’s quasi-locavore menu reminded me that although if it’s awfully difficult to go one hundred percent locavore in our part of the country, it’s always fun to try.

Even Barbara Kingsolver, who brought the concept of a locavore diet to the attention of millions of American readers (including me) in her 2006 memoir Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, allowed each family member one exception, one non-local ingredient that they could sneak in to the yearlong scheme of eating local. Kingsolver herself chose coffee; her daughter chose chocolate. Those would probably be my top two choices as well; I’m not sure which way I’d go if I had to pick just one or the other.

For Sunday’s dinner, to which we’d invited my parents, I started with vegetables I’d bought at Carlisle’s Farmers Market the day before: new potatoes and tomatoes. On Sunday morning, I dropped Holly off to play with her friend Bella, and Bella’s mother handed me a zucchini just picked from their garden.

And the other local cache I had, in addition to these vegetables, was herbs grown in my garden. Some were from cuttings grown in a town close by and others were from my friend Jane’s Carlisle garden, so all the herbs passed the test.

For an appetizer, I made a goat cheese tart topped with herbs and olives. Another year, I would have been able to buy goat cheese right here in town, but unfortunately, our prize-winning goat cheese makers moved out of town earlier this summer. So the cheese wasn’t local, and neither were the olives (which a truly locavore plan would require me to eliminate from our diet altogether, unless we happened to be traveling in Greece), but the herbs scattered over the cheese were. Then I sliced the tomatoes and zucchini, layered them in a baking pan, and made pesto to spread over them. The basil for the pesto came from my garden; the other ingredients – the Parmesan, garlic, pine nuts, olive oil -- were not local, however.

With the potatoes I made potato salad. The local ingredients were the potatoes, of course, and garlic chives from my garden. I theoretically could have made mayonnaise using eggs from local chickens – local eggs are ubiquitously available in our community – but I didn’t, so that was a supermarket item, as was the vinegar, the salt and the pepper.

Since I’m the only vegetarian in my family, I bought sausages to put on the grill: not local at all. I could have increased our locavore score if I’d instead grilled steaks from my parents’ farm. But somehow it never seems right to serve guests food they themselves produced.

For dessert, I made chocolate custard. It would be very difficult to grow cocoa beans in New England or most other parts of the U.S.; chocolate is something many American locavores have to compromise on or give up altogether. The milk and eggs in the custard could have been locally produced if I’d gone to a little more trouble to find those items. Not the sugar, though.

I topped the chocolate custard with raspberry sauce. One of the vendors at Farmers Market had fresh raspberries, and that’s what I should have used, but we’d eaten the entire pint of raspberries we bought before we even left Farmers Market. So that ingredient was grown elsewhere.

All in all, I think my locavore score for this meal was only about a 3 on a scale of 1 to 10, but at other times of year it would be a 0 or a 1, so it’s a start. Locavore eating isn’t easy, as Kingsolver admits in her book about it, especially in New England, where there are abundant choices two or three months a year but very little in the way of fruits and vegetables at other times (although I realize a lot can be done with canning, preserving and freezing).

Moreover, shopping at Farmers Market carries its own inherent conflict. Carlisle’s market includes a few local farms but mostly backyard gardening hobbyists; buying from those gardeners who cultivate plots at our town’s community gardens doesn’t do anything for the goal of supporting local agricultural businesses.

But it’s fun to experiment with locavore cooking and see how far you can get with it. I’m really enjoying my herb garden so far this year, and I’m grateful so many of my neighbors grow vegetables. Later in the summer we’ll go blueberry picking and peach picking and count those into our options as well. In the winter, I’ll probably cave altogether and buy all kinds of distantly grown items. The intent is strong, but during those long winters, it’s hard to resist the occasional fresh strawberry on the supermarket shelf.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Scents and sensibility

This article in yesterday’s Boston Globe opened with what seemed like an obvious point: “Scents are very much linked to memory,” says perfumer Christophe Laudamiel. “They are linked to remembering the past but also learning from experiences.”

Of course they are, I thought. The article went on to explain new efforts under way to include scents in historical depictions: for example, “Jorvik Viking Center in York, England, is famous for taking visitors right into the smells of Viking life as part of its re-created Viking village. Dale Air, an environmental scenting company, imbued the center’s exhibits with smells that would have been present at the time - right down to the odor of a fish market and a latrine.”

And then in this morning’s Globe was a book review of a memoir by a woman whose intended career path in the culinary arts became derailed when she lost her sense of smell in an accident, emphasizing again the importance of smell in our perceptions of the world.

While I might not rush to a historical site specifically for the sake of inhaling the odor of a fish market and a latrine, I always find discussions about scents interesting, because they matter so much to me, and I know it’s not unusual to feel this way. In just a few minutes’ time yesterday, I made this list of ten scents, odors and aromas that always carry the same very specific connection for me:

Gasoline: Boating and waterskiing on the Maine lakes of my childhood summers

Grease in a frying pan: The apartment building in which my husband lived during our college years

Moth balls: My paternal grandparents’ lakeside vacation house in Maine

Coconut oil: The trip to Aruba that Rick and I took in the mid-1990s

A certain kind of furniture polish: my maternal grandparents’ guest house in Colorado, but also my aunt and uncle’s house in New England, since they had the same kind of antique furniture and probably used the same polish

Lemon Pledge spray: Tuesday afternoons of my childhood, which was the day our housecleaner came to our house each week

Industrial strength cleaner: a particular hallway (the one on the lower level of the Performing Arts Center) at my high school

Wet indoor/outdoor carpeting: the tennis club my parents belonged to when I was growing up, where a favorite privilege was getting to drink a can of Coke while watching them play tennis

Creosote: a bed and breakfast in Edinburgh where I once spent several days (though I can’t remember why it smelled of creosote)

Pepperoni pizza: the basement of my freshman dorm in college (the exercise room, where I worked out every evening, was adjacent to the campus pub)

And there’s a crisp, chilly, earth-like scent that every year fills the air in Carlisle on October nights: this to me is the quintessential smell of home.

Aromatic memories make for good writing prompts. Any of the above would be a good place to begin an essay. And I’ll keep adding to my list.

Friday, July 15, 2011

Herbs under way

On Sunday, I bought four potted herb plants. On Monday, I planted them in my garden. On Tuesday, I started cooking with my homegrown herbs, though I have to confess that I wonder just how early in the process I can refer to them as “my” homegrown herbs. At this point, the fragrant greens the little plants produce were born at the nursery where I bought the plants, not after I put them in the ground. So right now, I tell myself, it’s no different from buying herbs at the supermarket. But eventually, they’ll start generating new leaves, and those I can take responsibility for having grown.

I’ve wanted to grow herbs for years, and it was one of many back-burner interests for which life just did not seem to allow quite enough time. It’s not that I believed it would be all that much work or all that much money; it’s just that there were always more pressing demands on both time and money. So the herb idea went unpursued, year after year.

But when we moved into our current home, I inherited a fenced-in vegetable patch, ready to go. I spent a day last week weeding it and knew there was no reason not to go ahead and plant before another summer got away from me. I even had a gift card from a nearby nursery that I’d been carrying around for quite some time: it was a gift from Holly’s first-grade teacher to thank me for being a room parent, and Holly just finished third grade. The nursery, in a town about 30 minutes from here, always seemed too far away for a special trip. Preparing a plot seemed like too big a job. Tending to my plants seemed like something I just couldn’t fit in to my schedule. So instead, I bought herbs for summer cooking, year after year.

Last weekend, with the garden weeded and ready, I did the half-hour drive to the nursery (which turned out to take less than 25 minutes). Going on little more than advice from a library book and suggestions from my sister, who is a very good gardener but lives several states away, I focused on those herbs that I find most indispensable in cooking: rosemary, thyme, basil. A few days earlier I’d visited my friend Jane, and when she heard of my interest in gardening, she pulled up some garlic chive seedlings and gave them to me to replant. So with these new additions, I’d have a range of four different herbs in all. I hoped to buy cilantro as well, so that I could make fresh salsa all summer (tomatoes seem way beyond my agricultural capabilities at this point, not to mention jalapeno peppers, but I can buy those at our local farmers’ market), but the nursery didn’t have any cilantro, so I returned home with the other three.

The rest of the day was busy with other responsibilities, but the next afternoon I found time to put them into the ground. I patted down the earth around them, watered them, and hoped for the best. Like a parent with a sleeping newborn, I went outside several times over the next 24 hours to check on them. I didn’t really know what I was looking for, but they looked fine to me: stalwart, with good coloring and no visible predators.

Tuesday night I roasted potatoes and tossed them with snippets of my herbs. Wednesday night, I used my herbal pickings in a pasta dish. Thursday I whirled handfuls of herbs in the food processor along with cottage cheese and sour cream and used them as a dip to serve with blanched broccoli.

My sister is a talented gardener who grows all kinds of vegetables. Years of family history have led me to believe that if she can do that, I probably can’t. But maybe herbs, I can manage. Maybe not actual vegetables; maybe I can’t actually produce a whole salad, but flavorings? That seems about my speed.

As of now, the plants seem healthy, though as I remind myself, they are really still the very same plants I brought home from the nursery or from Jane’s house. I can’t really take credit yet. But give me some time. By next month, I’m optimistic enough to think I’ll be producing herbs in abundant supplies and beautifully flavoring every dish in sight. With enough time, and thyme, who knows what I can accomplish.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Lessons in happiness - from without and from within

During my run yesterday, I listened to a Talk of the Nation podcast from last week in which guest host Andrea Seabrook interviewed CBS News national correspondent Jim Axelrod about his new book, "In the Long Run: A Father, a Son, and Unintentional Lessons in Happiness.”

In a way, it was a familiar story: middle-aged man comes to an epiphany regarding the fact that he has reached a significant (and long-sought) level of professional success but sacrificed his physical health, his family life and his general well-being in the process. And in a way, the path Axelrod followed to remedy his problems were familiar too: he started training for a marathon, cut back on work commitments, and spent a lot more time with his children.

Still, sometimes it’s the repetition of familiar, even archetypal, stories that seems to resonate most, at least for me. As if hearing something repeatedly is what it takes to buy into the story’s importance and relevance.

One of the most useful implications in Axelrod’s story, from my perspective, was the point that it really helps to identify your personal priorities. I wrote earlier this summer about looking to my kids to figure out what’s fun – this is similar, but it’s about being able to defend to your own conscience just what matters to you. Or sometimes not being able to defend it, but making it an ongoing goal to reach the point where you can. Another topic I’ve written about a lot lately is feeling overwhelmed with – and resentful of – volunteer commitments. I still can’t defend to my conscience why the right thing for me to do is to shed some of these responsibilities, which seem important and worthwhile but only serve to annoy me when the time comes to execute on them.

One reason that the week I spent in Colorado last month was so meaningful to me was that it provided the ideal Petrie dish as far as experimenting with where my priorities truly lay. On my own, without my family to care for, my house to maintain, or my friendships and other daily social interactions to nurture, I could become self-absorbed, attending only to that which truly mattered to me.

And what I ended up doing with my time during those glorious, luxurious, wide-open six days wasn’t so much a revelation as a confirmation. It turned out I was right, all those times when I sat in church meetings or carpool lines telling myself that if I had no other responsibilities at this moment, here’s what I would be doing. I spent tons of time outdoors in physical fitness pursuits: biking, hiking, running, power-walking. I pursued writing assignments along with unassigned writing projects. I attended almost, but not quite, as many of the author talks and panels at the Aspen writers’ conference as I possibly could – once in a while I opted for another hike or leisurely stroll through town instead of the lecture hall, and that too helped me define my priorities. I kept up with the newspaper and tried to fit in some additional pleasure reading as well.

In “real life,” as opposed to escapes from real life like the Colorado trip, my primary responsibility is to my children. They are still young, and I consider caring for them to be my highest priority right now. But in order to pursue happiness, as Jim Axelrod pointed out, it helps to identify one’s other priorities as well. I’ve decided that not only volunteering but also yoga and editing jobs are less important to me than I once thought. I’ve also decided that opportunities to write, hike, bike and read are and will probably continue to be vital sources of happiness and inspiration. And as Jim Axelrod explained and many of the show’s callers supported, crystallizing those issues is a critical step in the process of self-actualization.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Playing hooky at the beach

It was the kind of day I used to dream of when I worked in a full-time corporate role: a hot summer day when instead of dressing up and heading to the office just as the cool of the morning dissipated into hazy humidity, I instead made sandwiches, packed water bottles, rummaged for sunscreen, and loaded them all into the beach bag.

Playing hooky is a relative term when you’re self-employed. I didn’t have to offer excuses (or fibs) to any manager or supervisor; I just had to convince myself that giving up my usual work hours in favor of getting an early start to the shore wouldn’t result in my missing all my deadlines and losing all my contracts for this week.

Over the past couple of summers, ever since I became a full-fledged self-employed freelance writer, the kids and I have developed a schedule that works for all of us when they’re on vacation. I generally sit down at my desk by nine and work steadily until noon; then we have lunch, and after lunch we do something recreational together. Although that scheme allows for only half the daily work hours that I log during the school year, it seems to work, in part because I have less administrivia related to volunteer work at the kids’ school during the summer, which tends to eat up some of my writing time during the rest of the year, and in part because I don’t really mind having to fill in with another hour or two of work in the evening, since it’s the tradeoff for so much flexibility.

But yesterday I didn’t even turn on my computer in the morning: I just packed up our beach gear and climbed into my friend Leigh’s car, while Tim and Holly greeted Leigh’s two boys and one of their friends and settled in amongst the back seats. If the ninety-degree heat and humidity wasn’t incentive enough to make it a beach day, the fact that someone else was willing to drive – and had enough passenger space for all of us – certainly sealed the deal.

It was a wonderful day to be at the beach: hot and sunny but not particularly crowded. For hours, we swam, walked along the shoreline, and basked in the sun (slathered in sunscreen, of course). After we returned home, I let the kids cool off indoors with some computer and video games while I filed the article I should have worked on that morning.

Having this kind of flexibility is not something I’ll ever take for granted; I love being able to rearrange my work schedule so that I can play hooky once in a while but still meet all my deadlines on time. I truly believe that it’s good to practice this kind of spontaneity once in a while. When I was in elementary school, my mother let my sisters and me each miss one day of school each year for a special excursion: a trip into the city for lunch and some kind of performance, most often. My father did the same during the summer, when the stakes weren’t the same – he didn’t have work and we didn’t have school – but there was still the sense of escape: during our yearly vacations, he would spend one day alone with each of us doing something special like fishing, biking or horseback riding.

My kids didn’t seem particularly impressed that I took a whole day off from work to go to the beach; they respect my work schedule but don’t necessarily see it as particularly important. But I hope in some way, the freedom we observed yesterday made an impact on them. I’m so lucky to be able to do this, and it’s important to take advantage of the opportunity when it arises. Having plenty of work to do is a good thing, far better than being under-employed. But finding ways to step away from it once in a while is uniquely rewarding as well, especially on a perfect beach day like yesterday.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

The sounds of silence

The woman behind me barely paused to take a breath. “Look down on the field! What do you think they’re doing? They’re rolling out a tarp! They’re covering the infield with that big piece of plastic. Look over there – that’s the pitcher warming up! See how he throws to the catcher? That’s so they’re both ready when it’s time to start the game. Look at the groundskeepers – they’re trying to seep up the puddles behind home plate! They need to make the field dry enough so that it will be safe for the players to run on.”

The toddler on her lap answered every third or fourth question. Other times he chattered back. And other times he didn’t respond at all.

His mother’s nonstop repartee reminded me of the phrase Judith Warner uses in “Perfect Madness: Motherhood in the Age of Anxiety”: human television sets. Parents like me – and like Warner herself, and like the woman sitting behind me at the minor league baseball game on the Fourth of July – have so effectively internalized the idea that TV and videos for children are to be avoided at all costs that we sometimes instead turn ourselves into a replacement: providing the same nonstop chatter and entertainment that in our generation kids were allowed to absorb in small doses electronically. And as Warner points out, though avoiding kids’ TV is still a worthwhile plan, offering up ourselves as an entertainment alternative doesn’t necessarily provide a great service to our kids.

Just let him absorb the ambience, I wanted to tell the woman behind me, whose bubbly script continued even as the officials on the field conferred about whether to call a rain cancellation. She pointed out to her child the cloud formations, the crowds in the stands, the popcorn vendor, the umpires. She explained everything. Ceaselessly. Just let him take it in, I wished I could say. He doesn’t need this whole experience interpreted for him. Let him explore it with his eyes and ears and nose – and reconstitute it in his own words instead of yours.

When Tim was eight months old, I received a baby jogger for Mothers’ Day. From that point on, I went for a run and pushed him in the stroller almost every day. At first, he was too young to talk, but he didn’t give up the jog stroller until he was a little over three years old, and our practice didn’t change much during that time: I listened to NPR broadcasts through my radio headphones, while Tim drank in the passing scene. Once in a while, as he developed words, he would ask a question – “Who’s that? Why that pumpkin there? Those raindrops?” but usually, we both spend the 45 minutes in silence together.

And I came to believe it was a profoundly formative experience for him. This is what silence is like, I believed I was showing him. This is the silence when you are doing something outdoors and taking in the scenery. It’s different from the silence when you are supposed to be falling asleep or the silence before a concert or play begins. It’s the silence when just observing is a higher priority than discussing.It turned out that the officials at the ballpark did decide to call a rain cancellation, after we’d been sitting in our seats for nearly an hour. I never had a chance to find out whether the mom behind me really would have chattered to her child for the entire game or whether eventually a companionable silence might have settled. And of course, I don’t know that my way is the right way. Maybe my children, accustomed to occasionally just observing scenes in silence, whether on a run or at the ballfield, will in the end turn out to be less intelligent than this woman’s child, as he experiences life through a continuous narration loop.

But my children are now 8 and 12, and both are good at sitting quietly, whether they are reading or looking out the window on a car ride or taking a walk through the woods. And I value that in them. The fact that I’m able to share silence with my children is something I treasure. And maybe the woman at the ballpark will learn that she, too, can pause for air and just let the silence envelop her and her child.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Relaxing my standards

I broke with tradition this past weekend.

Saturday has always been reserved for my longest run of the week. Several years ago, that meant a 13-mile loop, my own little weekly half-marathon. In more recent years, Saturday runs have typically ranged about five or six miles.

This weekend I did only four. To a non-runner, that distinction may sound trivial, but to me it was significant, because I can run four miles any old day. Five miles was my weekly “stretch goal.”

Five miles isn’t even that long a run, but in the past year or two, I’ve found that distance to present a reasonable challenge to me. My pace has slowed down recently for no clear reason, and although I’m still embarrassed that I clock a more-than-ten-minute mile, the fact is that being out for more than an hour robs me of more of my Saturday than I wish to give up, and that was one reason not to push myself beyond five miles.

But yesterday I didn’t even feel like doing that much. I tend to cleave to routine; it was a big deal for me to admit to myself that I just didn’t see any great benefit to running five miles as opposed to four. In earlier years, I found it so exhilarating to build my mileage; it seemed the longer I ran, the better I felt afterwards.

These days that doesn’t really seem to be the case, though. As long as I’m out for 45 minutes or more, I feel well-exercised and challenged, but more than five miles feels more arduous than exhilarating. And as far as weight control and other fitness factors, running longer doesn’t seem to make any discernible improvement.

Mostly, though, on Saturday it was that I wanted to go for a long bike ride later in the day. I could have done both, of course – a long run in the morning, a long bike ride in the afternoon – but I figured this was a chance to give myself a bit of a break, and shave that last mile off my run in good conscience, knowing I’d make up for it from a fitness perspective on my bike later on.

“Streak runners,” those of us committed to running 365 days a year without ever taking a day off, are by definition compulsive about running. I’m the first to admit that streak running is a silly pursuit, one important and relevant only to those of us who practice it, as I have been doing for the past three years and eleven months. Physically, there’s no significant advantage to running seven days a week rather than six, just as there’s no significant advantage to running five miles rather than four. Not for me anymore, anyway.

And acknowledging this to myself felt more like liberation than like a compromise. True, I’m not as strong a runner as I once was, and that’s part of what was driving my decision to cut back on Saturday. But I’m also not as driven by routine as I once was. I used to believe I had to run as far as I possibly could at least once a week. But whether it’s a sign of emotional maturity, physical aging or just a relaxing of standards, this past weekend I didn’t feel that way. I wanted to put in my 45 minutes, enjoy my four miles, and save some energy and excitement for an afternoon bike ride. It’s good to have a solid commitment and steadfast habits when it comes to exercise, but it’s good to waive them once in a while too. The run was fun; the bike ride was even better. And the freedom from feeling like I had to push myself to the max was the best part of it.

Friday, July 8, 2011

What cell phones can do for writers

Among the timeless tips that writers have handed down over the centuries, such as “Write what you know” – the value of which I blogged about earlier this week – has always been to take any and every opportunity to eavesdrop. Snippets of conversations among strangers have always provided fiction writers with an endlessly rich source of ideas. Why did she say that? What did she mean? Were his feelings hurt? Has she ever said that before? Imagining the meaning behind what was said gives writers new ideas for plot; contemplating the vaguer implications of just how it was said leads to nuanced characters with complex personalities.

And this is one area in which cell phone use has made life for writers far more interesting than it used to be. Now we can overhear not just conversations between two people who are talking in person but countless snippets from passers-by talking into their phones – often loudly and unguardedly. Annoying cell phone conversations may be pet peeves for other citizens, but for writers, they are a gold mine. At least that’s what I try to tell myself every time I start to feel irritated by the noise pollution of people all around me having one-sided conversations.

Last month I was walking through downtown Aspen on a warm, beautiful summer evening. Everywhere were visitors and locals alike basking in the beauty of the sun setting over the mountains. A quartet from the Aspen Music School had set up chairs and music stands and were playing classical melodies. Small children in bathing suits were darting through the street fountain. Never had the town looked so enticing to me.

Just then a teenage girl wandered into my field of vision. “I am so bored!!!” she screamed into her phone. “I’m in Aspen and I have nothing to do!”

Well, I thought, that’s another perspective. I always feel like there’s more to do in Aspen than anywhere else I’ve ever been. You can shop, attend lectures on a variety of topics, hike, bike, fish, raft, dine, stroll. But this young woman’s perspective was different from mine. She apparently would rather be anywhere else. Were I trying to come up with a fictional scenario at the moment, beginning with an imagined character sketch of her would be a great starting point. Or I could begin by imagining her circumstances, which might lead to a concept for plot: how had she landed here so unwillingly, what was everyone with whom she was traveling doing, and what would she herself rather be doing and where?

So these days, instead of finding it annoying when people talk on their phones on train cars or shops, I try to appreciate the narrative potential of the situation. Everyone has a story, and listening to phone calls gives us an inkling of what that story might be. From that point, we’re free to imagine the rest as accurately or absurdly as we wish. It’s a gift to writers, really: one that I am trying hard to remember to accept graciously.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Beached seal

The kids and I are up in Portland for a few days; yesterday we drove 30 minutes south to visit my high school friend Courtney and her family at their beach house on Goose Rocks Beach in Kennebunkport.

It was a perfect beach day: hot and sunny, with a little breeze. Tim and Holly were eager to get to the water’s edge. Courtney assured me they wouldn’t really want to submerge themselves since the water was as chilly as one expects from the Maine coastline during the first half of the summer, but apparently several years of living in North Carolina have dulled her memory of what New England kids are accustomed to. Tim and Holly didn’t find it too cold at all; within minutes they were both up to their necks.

And that’s more or less how they stayed for the next three hours. Before it was time to leave, I asked them if they wanted to take a walk along the shoreline. To my surprise, they said yes. Courtney said she’d join us as well; there was a tidal river a short distance to the north that she thought we’d enjoy seeing.

We’d covered only a short distance, though, before we spotted something strange at the water’s edge: a small seal lying on its back in the sand. Three or four other adults were already standing near it; one man poured a bucket of seawater over the animal. They told us they’d already phoned the sea mammal rescue squad, but that it might be thirty minutes before any rescuers arrived. A crowd began to gather, and the man who was pouring the water over the seal at occasional intervals recruited some kids to fill buckets and carry them back to him.

Holly squatted down several feet away and peered at the seal. While the rest of us were looking at its body, trying to figure out what might be wrong – it was definitely breathing but didn’t seem able to make the effort to right itself or move back toward the sea – Holly kept her eyes on the seal’s head. I could see her looking into its large shiny black eyes.

“We could keep walking,” I told her. “The people who are already here said they’d wait until the rescuers arrive.”

“I want to stay,” Holly said resolutely, and Tim said that was fine with him. Holly maintained her position, squatting in the sand not far from the seal’s head, her eyes fixed on the animal’s eyes. I couldn’t tell what she was thinking: she was concerned, obviously, but was she primarily worried, curious, sad?

Mostly, I began to realize, she was trying to be empathetic. She seemed to believe her presence was important to the seal. I know how anthropomorphic that sounds. What this young animal wanted, no doubt, was its mother and its physical well-being back, not a little pale human in a blue polka-dot bathing suit sending it psychic well wishes. But Holly didn’t seem to see it that way. She seemed to think it was her job to stay near the seal, gazing into its eyes, and again she rejected my suggestion that we continue with the walk.

Eventually, Tim and I decided to head onward to the tidal river; Courtney said she would stay with Holly until we doubled back. We were gone only about fifteen minutes, but when we returned, the animal had left and the crowd had dispersed; only Holly and Courtney and a few others remained. Holly looked much more relaxed; she was sitting on the beach building a hill of wet sand.

Later, as we walked back to Courtney’s house, Holly described to me what had happened after we left: two researchers from the nearby University of New England had arrived on the beach and “gave the seal some tests, like feeling around to see what was wrong,” according to Holly; then one of the men wrapped the seal in a towel and placed it in a cage the other man was carrying.

I can’t imagine that things are going to end too well for the seal. It looked sick and injured to me, not just disoriented. though I could certainly be wrong. Another woman on the beach told about a seal who had twice been rescued from a different beach and released; only on the third attempt did the then-tagged animal finally make a successful return to the deep.

It was easy for me to tell how affected Holly was by the experience, and I was affected too, mostly by the way Holly had taken up her post within the animal’s field of vision and stood her ground against leaving until the seal was rescued. I don’t know whether either the child or the marine animal gained comfort from that response, but Holly seemed to think it mattered, and I admire her sense of empathy.

As we drove away from the beach, she said to me, “If I earn any money this summer, I’m going to donate part of it to seal rescues.” No doubt any money donated will be put to good use; saving seals, or any kind of fragile wildlife, is a complicated and costly process. But in Holly’s mind, just being present made a difference to that seal. She sat on the sand; it was all she could do. And whether or not it mattered to the seal, her actions made both Holly and me feel better.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Write what you don't exactly know

On the two-hour drive to Portland yesterday evening, the kids and I listened to Tom Ashbrook interview Josh Ritter on WBUR’s “On Point.”

Josh Ritter has long been a songwriter, and recently published his first novel, Bright’s Passage. I’m generally interested in what anyone at all has to share about the writing process, but I was particularly interested in the reflections of someone who has covered such widely differing genres.

One comment Ritter made (not having a transcript, I dare not try to actually quote him, so I’ll qualify this in advance by saying all of this is paraphrased from memory) was that while the old chestnut “Write what you know” is solid advice, he also likes to dwell on those topics about which he is puzzled – those which he does not exactly “know.” In my experience, this is a very effective insight. Occasionally I’m invited into an elementary or middle school classroom to talk about writing, and one thing I like to tell the students is “I’m now going to give you two opposite pieces of advice. Write about what you are certain of. And write about what you are unsure of. Examples in the first category: What skiing fast downhill feels like, how your grandparents’ house smells, the reasons you had fun on your last vacation. In the second category: anything that leaves you with questions or a sense of being on the fence.” (What I really mean is “a sense of ambivalence,” but in a classroom setting I'm not always sure the kids know that word.)

One of my favorite writing exercises is to start with “I’m not sure how I feel about….” There are thousands of ways to finish that phrase. Angels. Universal health care. Living in a small town. American pioneers. International travel. Visits from extraterrestrials. Anything about which your beliefs waver makes for good writing, just as anything you can describe with no sense of uncertainty at all does. Write what you know…and what you don’t.

Sometimes when I’m teaching, I call this “the Suzanne exercise,” because it reminds me of a colleague from long ago who was one of the least ambivalent people I’ve ever known. Suzanne saw everything as black and white, from people’s personalities to politics to workplace issues. She seemed to have no capacity for ambivalence at all. And not surprisingly, she was not a writer, or any kind of artist at all, as far as I remember. What could she have written about? There was nothing over which she was puzzling.

Josh Ritter feels otherwise, and so do I. Dwell in the murkiness of the not-quite-known, said Ritter on “On Point,” and I absolutely agree. The areas about which you just don’t have the answer provide the richest sources of writing material. So write what you know, but write also what you don’t.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Thoreau's three chairs and my Old Home Day weekend

I had three chairs in my house; one for solitude, two for friendship, three for society. - Henry David Thoreau

Over the holiday weekend, I kept thinking of this Thoreau quotation, one that has always appealed to me. For no reason that I could explain, I felt as if I had removed some of the chairs from my holiday room.

Along with leading into the Independence Day holiday, this was Old Home Day weekend in Carlisle. Old Home Day weekend is a huge deal in Carlisle. It’s the weekend the whole town shows up for, or at least that percentage of the town not yet off to their summer homes in Nantucket or their safari vacations in Nairobi – but that’s still a surprisingly large number of people, for such a small town.

People love it for its old-fashioned community spirit, and being in the thick of the crowd is all part of the fun. Most years, I’m absolutely on board with all of that. But for some reason, this year I just wasn’t into it. I didn’t feel like joining the throngs at the country fair or cheering for the soapbox derby. I stepped out of my usual role of chairing the pie contest. I didn’t buy tickets for my family to attend the chicken barbeque at the fire station.

Perhaps most tellingly, I didn’t register for the road race. Running five miles with a hundred other people didn’t appeal to me this year. And yet I did run five miles (actually 5.2 miles) on the morning of the Old Home Day road race, and I started only about a half-hour after the race’s start time. So it wasn’t the distance of the run nor the early hour that turned me off this year. It was just a year that I felt like running alone.

Nonetheless, it’s not like I spent the weekend in solitude. My eight-year-old was intent upon entering our dog in the Old Home Day pet show, so all four of us headed up to the town center in time for that event. And that turned out to be just about enough for us. Rather than spending the whole day amidst the throngs, like we normally do on Old Home Day, we spent fifteen minutes at the pet show (just long enough for Holly to win a free ice cream by answering several questions about the dog), took a walk along the main thoroughfare, bought a couple of snow cones, browsed at the used book sale, and headed back home.

In fact, the best part of the townwide celebration as far as I was concerned was Sunday evening’s outdoor concert, held on the school’s baseball field. It didn’t attract much of a crowd, in part because a couple of hours of drizzle were just winding down and in part because as the very last event of the weekend, it comes at a time when a lot of families are just worn out. Not us, though. We were feeling energized after such a mellow weekend, and we had a wonderful time listening to bluegrass music and eating ice cream. No contests, no prizes, no dunking booth, no blue ribbons, no announcements. At least this year, it was my favorite part of Old Home Day weekend.

In past years, I’ve thrown myself into the town spirit at Old Home Day weekend: greeting, chatting, racing, competing, cheering, taking part in all the activities that make this event what it is. Those are the years I put out my three Thoreau-inspired chairs and welcome society. This year was different. It was a one-chair weekend for me, metaphorically speaking. Maybe next year I’ll be back up for full-on community spirit. I don’t know why this year I felt so different, and I imagine the pendulum will swing back in another year. But Thoreau reassures me that all of those choices are mine to make: solitude, friendship, society. And when the time comes, I’ll be ready to put out all three chairs once again.

Friday, July 1, 2011

What not to say - but according to whom?

Last month, Bruce Feiler wrote a feature for the Sunday New York Times Style section about what not to say to someone who is in the throes of a serious illness. Soon after reading the article, I heard Feiler discuss the same topic on Talk of the Nation. Both reading the article and listening to the discussion left me with essentially the same feeling: while he made several important points, some of it seemed a little nitpicky to me.

I do understand that Feiler himself went through an awful time not long ago with cancer diagnosis and treatment, which included both chemo and extensive surgery, and I realize how horrible this must have been for him. He’s my age, with children even younger than mine; additionally, we have a good friend in common, so although we’ve never met, I’ve been familiar with his work since he first started publishing articles and books. But I still think his approach to determining what people should and should not say to a seriously ill friend overlooks the critical point that most of the time, those of us who offer any words at all are doing our very best to say the right thing.

I feel fortunate for not having been in his situation myself, nor very many situations at all in which people expressed their regrets to me. When my father was very ill last year, I appreciated anything that anyone said about it – even though, as with Feiler’s experience, there were a few expressions of sentiment that struck me as odd. For example, my father oversees a small farming operation. When he landed in the hospital for four weeks last summer, several of our fellow townspeople said to me, “It sure will be good to see him back out on the tractor.” The reason that seemed peculiar to me is that farming isn’t exactly recreation; it’s hard work. So in a way, it was analogous to if my mother had been sick and people had said “Can’t wait to see her washing dishes again!” Unlike our neighbors, I wasn’t particularly thinking how much I wanted to see Dad out laboring in the hot sun, more just that I wanted to see him back home rather than in a hospital bed: perhaps reading or watching a ballgame.

But when I told my friend Nicole this, she had a sensible explanation. “Seeing your dad on the tractor as we drive past the farm is what we’re all used to,” she said. “It’s familiar, and therefore it’s comforting to us. People who say that really mean that they themselves will feel better when they see him back on the tractor, because a sense of normality will have returned.”

Bruce Feiler would probably point out it’s still not a helpful thing to say because if Nicole is right, the commenters are thinking about themselves and not the patient. Still, some of the points he made seemed a little murky to me. For example, Feiler told Talk of the Nation host Neal Conan that it’s fine to say “I’m thinking of you” but it’s unhelpful to say “My thoughts are with you.” I’m a professional writer, and even I am not sure I quite see the difference between those two sentiments, beyond the syntactic.

Among the worst things to say, according to Feiler, is “It will be all right.” “Not according to my oncologist!” he recommended retorting, and I can understand that; no one has the right to profess omniscience. But surely if you talk about your own feelings – in common parlance, make "I" statements, whether it’s “I’m thinking of you,” “I’m so sorry,” or “I wish I could help more” -- the recipient of your sentiments is likely to appreciate them, or, at the very least, to understand that your intentions were only to be kind. One thing I found curious about his statements was the implication that these situations happen in a vacuum – as if no one who expressed sympathy to him when he was sick had ever undergone their own catastrophic situation, and similarly as if he himself had never been on the comforting (or attempting-to-comfort) side of the equation. Even though he was only in his early 40’s and might well have been the first of his peers to be treated for cancer, surely at some point in his adulthood Feiler has had to conjure up sympathetic words for a friend or loved one. I’m curious as to whether, looking back, he’s satisfied with how he handled it at the time.

The most useful message from Feiler’s essay, in my opinion, is the reminder that saying “Tell me if there’s anything I can do to help” rings hollow; no one ever knows how to answer that honestly. Instead, he says, offer help in the form of whatever mundane tasks you need to do for yourself: take their car in for an oil change, weed their vegetable patch, check the batteries in their smoke detectors. Today’s technology has made it much easier to extend sincere offers of help, as I discovered late last month after receiving unhappy news about a casual friend’s diagnosis. Very soon after I sent a note of concern, I received an email inviting me along with several other people to sign up for a web-based service called Lotsa Helping Hands that provides a personalized calendar detailing what kind of help our friend needs and when. By the time I opened the link, other people had already signed up for the first two opportunities, but I grabbed an available spot late next week to drive her to a chemo appointment. Now I’ll receive updates any time she lists a need.

Of course, rides and casseroles only go so far. Bruce Feiler’s point remains valid: it’s helpful to know what is and isn’t useful to say when you are trying to express sympathy. I do appreciate his essay. But I hope that he too appreciates how much even those who said the wrong thing just wanted to make it clear that they cared and were trying to reach out to him. I hope he does not find himself in this situation again. But maybe another time, what they say will be more meaningful to him, whether or not they follow the rules he sets out.