Friday, September 30, 2011

Dinner conversation

A recent study from Columbia University states that “making time for a nightly family dinner is one of the most important things parents can do to keep their teens away from drugs and alcohol.” Family dinners also lower a teen’s risk of developing an eating disorder, according to the study. Meanwhile, a nearby community has created an online initiative called the Family Dinner Project to encourage families to sit down to dinner together.

This is something parents hear over and over again: it’s beneficial to sit down and eat as a family as often as possible. No one disputes that the combination of kids’ activities and parents’ work schedules and community commitments make it difficult for most families today to do this every night of the week, but we hear often that the benefits are real and measurable if we can try for at least a few nights a week.

This past summer, I became somewhat exasperated by the challenge of planning family meals. Tim (as a baseball player) and Rick (as a coach) had games or practices over the dinner hour four evenings a week. On the evenings they didn’t have baseball, I often planned short getaways for the kids and me. Sometimes, we were home but Rick was at work. Sometimes Holly wanted to attend a kids’ event at the library. And then there were those evenings when some of us had stopped for a late-afternoon ice cream cone on the way back from swimming or a bike ride and weren’t really hungry for dinner anyway.

But now it’s fall, and the predictable rhythm of the school day once again drives our schedule. Fall baseball takes up only one night a week, not four. We tend to be at home doing homework, rather than at the beach or off on a bike ride, as the late afternoon winds down.

And as dinnertimes fall into place in a more organized fashion, I notice that we all enjoy them more as well. Plus the kids are getting older, which makes the event more orderly as well as more interesting. Actual conversation rather than random silliness occasionally prevails. Earlier this week, while we ate grilled sausages, corn bread and sliced cucumbers, Tim asked questions about Facebook privacy after we told him he couldn’t friend anyone who regularly used profanity in posts.

Tim wanted to know if Facebook administration would ever stop a user from using profanity. We said we didn’t think so. “Are there other things you could get in trouble for saying?” he asked.

“Well, you might get in trouble for making threats or dangerous comments,” I said.

“But not posting naked pictures?” Tim asked.

We admitted that was extremely inadvisable but not illegal, to the best of our understanding, assuming it didn’t involve minors.

"What would happen if you posted naked photos of the president?” Tim wanted to know.

“The Secret Service would track you down,” Rick told him.

“But I thought freedom of speech meant you could say whatever you wanted,” Tim argued somewhat illogically.

“Posting photos isn’t the same as freedom of speech,” I said.

“Where would you get naked pictures of the president?” Holly wondered.

“It would be easier with some presidents than others,” Rick conceded.

“Can you say anything you want on Facebook about the president?” Tim pressed.

We tried to explain the concept of treason, and that although freedom of speech is a fundamental American principle, the government also monitors public communications such as Facebook for anything they think could be a danger to society. Moreover, Facebook as an institution has to report communication that they believe to be dangerous.

“This is a very strange dinner,” Tim said at last.

“No, it’s not!” I said. “It’s a real conversation! I’ve been waiting thirteen years to have real conversations at the dinner table!”

It wasn’t even like we were discussing anything that consequential, although it’s always useful to sneak in a message or two about on-line discretion when you’re dealing with a thirteen-year-old. But to me, this was progress. Not only had I made a well-rounded dinner with all the major food groups represented, not only was everyone in the family eating from most of those food groups, but we were also discussing something beyond who said what to whom on the bus that morning.

After we’d cleared the table and washed the dishes, Tim posted this on Facebook: “Yummy and funny dinner. Sausages and cornbread. Conversations about calcium-packed food, a doctor's questionaire and talk about presidents without clothes on... All very.... fun.”

I felt exonerated. The conversation and the fact that we were all having dinner together had made an impression on him after all. It reinforced my commitment to continue having more organized dinner hours as the school year progresses. Sometimes hardly anyone eats what I prepare, and other times the kids exchange silly barbs rather than interesting ideas. But once in a while, family dinner hour works just as it should. And if we all try, maybe that will become the rule and not the exception.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Art in the making

All those weekends we didn’t make it to all kinds of cultural events that landed on my calendar in theory only – well, last Sunday seemed to make up for every museum, concert and performance I tried to get my family to, only to end up going for a bike ride or watching a football game instead.

Holly and my mother and I attended the Open Studios event at Art Space-Maynard. Art Space, we discovered, is an artists’ enclave located in a former elementary school – the 1940s kind, a wide red brick building with a steep concrete staircase leading to the center entrance and echo-ey linoleum hallways. Now, over 40 working artists have carved studio space out of former classrooms, offices and meeting areas.

I had never thought of taking Holly to an open studios event before, but it turned out to be a match made in heaven. Holly loves to make art, but I’ve often been disappointed that she doesn’t take more of an interest in viewing art – she frequently shrugs off my suggestion that we visit a museum or a gallery, even if there’s a particular exhibit that I think would engage her. But seeing how immediately she immersed herself in the studio-touring experience on Sunday, I could start to see why this appealed to her so much more. Rather than viewing finished art hanging on a wall or secured inside a display case – art so complete and professional it probably would look nothing like anything she had ever worked on – this was the down-and-dirty creation phase that we were witnessing. As we strolled amidst the work spaces of painters, sketchers, sculptors, metal workers, wood carvers, jewelry makers, textile crafters, and more, Holly stared: not only at the work itself, some finished and some just barely under way, but also at the clutter of materials and supplies that filled each work space. Paints and clay and canvases, yes, but also scraps of paper torn from magazines, snapshots pinned to bulletin boards, feathers, flowers, seashells. Here she could see something that reminded her of the kind of work she likes to do herself: using clutter and mess to create something.

Although it wasn’t an event geared toward children, the artists were uniformly welcoming to all three of us. Not only did they talk to my mother and me about their work; they drew Holly into the discussion as well. One artist who works in the plastic-coated thread known to campers everywhere as gimp gave Holly four different strands to work with and showed her how to weave a pattern of her own. Another invited her to sketch her own self-portrait and tack it to the studio wall. A sculptor listened to Holly describe the pottery class she attended last year, and all the artists offered snacks and beverages.

All in all, Holly was transfixed by the opportunity to see artists at work. When I asked her if she was ready to leave, she said “No, I want to stay a little longer: this is way more fun than I imagined it would be.” And the next morning, expecting to have to spend the usual five minutes or more trying to get her to emerge from sleep and head down to breakfast, I was surprised to find her sitting up in bed working her gimp pattern already.

Of course, there was a minor down side as well. I am forever asking Holly to keep her room neater, but every clean-up is followed within hours by the start of a new project that requires her once again to scatter crayons, markers, fabric, beads, thread, paper and tubes of glue all over the floor of her room. Now she had a reason. “Mom, did you see how messy their studios were?” she asked me the day after the open studios event. “Artists need to be surrounded by art supplies. That’s why I keep my room so messy.”

Well, I still have the authority to overrule that excuse. For now, it’s a bedroom, not a studio, and she’ll still be required to put everything away at the end of the day. But I think I understand a little bit better why it’s so hard for me to convince her to visit a museum. Never mind the classic masterpieces of the art world. Show Holly some crusty tubes of paint and a scattering of colored pencils, and she’s in her element.

Monday, September 26, 2011

The clamor that generates creativity

Some writers dream of solitude: a Thoreauvian cabin in which to spend their hours writing; a windswept beach on which to walk alone as they let ideas percolate.

I know better: at least for me, it is the company of others and not the silence of aloneness that energizes me and fuels my creativity.

And this is fortuitous, because a solitary cabin on a windswept beach is not a place I am likely to find myself any time soon. But last night, feeling refreshed from the weekend and excited about a new work week beginning, I was struck by all the different constellations of people who had peppered my entire weekend, from start to finish.

On Friday evening, I went to a small gathering at a friend’s house: there I visited with four or five women whom I know but haven’t spent nearly enough time with lately. On Saturday afternoon, I walked for an hour with my friends Jane and Donna. On Saturday evening, one of Tim’s friends came over, and the kids and I played Parcheesi out on the screen porch long after dark.

On Sunday morning, the gathering I was in the midst of had an average age of about nine: I taught the grades 3-5 Sunday school class, and struggled to answer their provocative questions about everything from whether to use “He” or “She” when talking about God (as with so many other aspects of Unitarian Universalism, I told them, you should use whichever one is in accordance with your beliefs, or perhaps neither) to why in Biblical times animals – such as the Garden of Eden’s serpent – talked to people and today they generally do not.

On Sunday afternoon, Holly and my mother and I attended an open studios event at a large arts complex in Maynard; dozens of artists took time to talk with us about their work, which ranged from painting to jewelry making to pottery to metal crafting. In the evening, my parents came over for dinner, and as we once again sat out on the screen porch – it was an unseasonably warm, humid weekend – my father told me a story I’d never heard before about a time during his teenage years when his boat ran out of gas and he spend the night lost in the woods.

While I can’t right now say how any of these encounters will turn into a specific piece of writing, I know it’s all mingling – or perhaps composting -- somewhere in the back of my brain. By the end of the weekend, I was struck by just how lucky I am to have so many people around me so much of the time: children, adults, friends, new acquaintances. Solitude might be effective for meeting deadlines, but company is what writers need in order to generate ideas. And as much as peace and quiet sometimes seems like an unattainable goal when you are in the middle of the busy parenting years, a clamor of voices can be more artistically inspiring than any lonely windswept beach.

Friday, September 23, 2011

The beach in September

Partly because I was so influenced by reading “The Happiness Project” by Gretchen Rubin over the summer, partly because I’d committed to do it, and partly because I couldn’t deny the likelihood that I’d have a wonderful time, I took the whole day off from work on Wednesday and drove to southern Maine to take a very long walk on the beach with my college roommate.

We’d come up with this plan in the middle of the summer: the idea was to walk from her house on Moody Beach in Wells about three miles to Ogunquit, then make our way along the Marginal Way to Perkins Cove, eat an early dinner, and do the whole thing in reverse. But the July late-afternoon we set aside for it was rainy, so we did a shorter walk instead and had dinner on her porch.

That was a fun get-together as well, but she was still intent on finding time for us to do the original plan, so I suggested we try for after the school year started.
This was a rather daring suggestion on my part. I’m usually so protective of my weekday solitude during the school year – the six hours per day that I can write without interruption – that I don’t even like to go to the post office or the supermarket during this time. So taking the whole day off was a big deal to me.
But last week, I took two hours off on a beautiful Tuesday morning to go biking, and it was blissful. As my friend Tracey said then, afterwards you’ll remember the bike ride, not the work you should have been doing. So I decided to play even more fast and loose with my work time and sneak out for the whole day.

It was a wonderful decision. When I arrived at Renee’s house, it was low tide. A bright late-summer sun glowed off a seemingly endless expanse of packed wet sand. Scattered along the miles we covered were sunbathers, other walkers, and even a few swimmers, far more people than I expected to see midweek in September. But their presence was validating. If they could enjoy the beach on such a magnificent Wednesday, even one when I should have been working, then so could I.

By the end of the afternoon, my leg muscles ached from power-walking on the sand, but it was so worthwhile. Yes, maybe I should have been working; but instead I was enjoying a gorgeous sunny day by the sea. Ultimately, which is really more important: racking up a few more billable hours or honoring the bounty of the universe?

In “The Happiness Project,” Gretchen Rubin makes the point that living a good life means identifying what makes us happy and then pursuing it. After finishing her book last month, I took her words to heart. Having interesting employment and holding onto it is important, but so is finding things that make us happy. The long invigorating walk on the beach, and the visit with an old friend, nourished my spirit tremendously.

For today, it’s back to work; I returned home to 42 unread emails, two new assignments and numerous requests for revisions on various pieces. But I also returned home with tomatoes and corn from a seaside vegetable stand, lungs full of fresh ocean air, and a very minor sunburn, all of which will remind me of what a wonderful sunsplashed day I spent by the water.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

She's with the band

Fourth grade brings with it the opportunity to start studying a band instrument, but throughout the summer, Holly had been indicating that she was unlikely to seize that particular opportunity. She likes to do things her own way – which means she’s a very creative person but not generally fond of lessons and instruction regarding those creative pursuits.

But after the band director talked with the fourth graders on the first day of school, she had a change of heart. She did indeed want to play an instrument – the clarinet, she thought.

I greeted that news with delight. I wanted Holly to study an instrument, and I welcomed the thought of one as traditional but also gender-neutral as the clarinet. (Moreover, when it comes to instruments that need to be carted to school for lessons and practices, the lighter, the better.) Holly playing the clarinet? I could already picture it and even imagine the lovely tonalities she would learn to generate. She'd take out her clarinet at family gatherings to play a tune or two. Sure, the learning curve might be steep – and painful to the ears – but I was ready for that. (My sister is a strong proponent of choosing your child’s instrument based on what you’ll find the least painful to listen to as it is mis-played. Yet she nonetheless survived raising a violinist.)

The fourth graders spent every recess last week trying out different instruments. Holly dutifully took her turn with the trumpet, the saxophone, the flute and the oboe as they were trotted out one day at a time, but she continued to say that her interest remained with the clarinet.

And then she came home Friday, crestfallen. The clarinet test hadn’t gone so well. “I could barely make a sound,” she told me sadly.

“Reed instruments are difficult,” I said. “Lots of people find it hard to get the right touch at first.”

Unfortunately, though, Holly had been right there in the music room watching as – according to her -- every other kid in line had had more success with the clarinet than she did.

I offered to ask the band director if Holly could have another chance to try the clarinet. Knowing the band director and his eagerness to engage kids in the program, I was fairly sure he could accommodate this request.

But Holly said no: her romance with the clarinet was over, never to be rekindled, she was quite certain.

I wasn’t expecting what happened on Monday when Holly climbed down the steps from the bus. “I want to play percussion!” she exclaimed. “I tried it out today and I liked it!”

Percussion. Wow. That’s not what I was picturing at all. My visions of Holly all dressed up for the December band concert, sitting toward the front of the stage with the woodwinds, dissipated instantly. I tried to imagine her all the way at the back, standing behind the tympani or a set of snare drums. I tried to imagine her taking out her drumsticks at our next family gathering, tapping out a rhythm to impress her grandparents.

I don’t even know what learning percussion entails, exactly. There aren’t scales or notes to go over. I can’t picture what lessons would be like, or even practice sessions. Never mind the fact that I can’t picture Holly marching in the Memorial Day parade hoisting a bass drum at the back of the line.

The important thing is that trying out the percussion instruments renewed Holly’s interest in music lessons. I wondered briefly if I should have pushed her harder to give clarinet another chance, but this choice is hers to make, and it’s fine that she didn’t make a choice I expected. A lot of kids stick with instrument lessons for only the first year or two, but in those early days, all the parents dream of greatness. So now I’m dreaming of my future as the mother of the drummer.

Not what I was picturing. But it could still be fun.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Real-time conversation

At a get-together on Saturday evening, within a small circle of other parents of seventh graders, I confessed my concern about Tim’s social life: too much of it happens by text message. I’m worried that he won’t know how to have a face-to-face conversation.

For several months now, he’s been an avid text-messager, but it never bothered me much. When I was his age, boys and girls wrote notes to each other or communicated via friends; this didn’t seem very different to me, though I admit I’ve become a little envious of the unfair advantage girls in 2011 have over seventh grade girls thirty years ago, when I was that age: they can carry on conversations with boys without actually having to stand there and talk. “That would be so easy!” I sometimes lament. “Even I could have done that!” Indeed, I would have been like my own Cyrano de Bergerac, poised and eloquent as can be if entire conversations could take place on screen back then rather than requiring eye contact.

But I became a little bit more perturbed in recent weeks as I began to suspect that Tim and his friends use text messaging not necessarily as a lead-in to eventually having a real conversation but as a substitute for one. I want to tell him that you have to learn at some point to stand there talking and feeling awkward. You have to push yourself through the stammering and uncertain articulation. You have to learn how to make comfortable conversation. I sometimes think I’m still learning that, and I need all the practice I can get.

So I had to acknowledge my own hypocrisy as I was driving to Bruegger’s Bagels after church yesterday wishing I could just text in my order. Bruegger’s on Sunday mornings tends to be busy and crowded, and the counter help often seems not to understand their own menu. I knew exactly what I wanted – a half-dozen pumpernickel bagels to go, plus one toasted sesame bagel with butter and one toasted onion bagel with olive cream cheese to take home to Tim and Holly for lunch – but I knew that a disproportionate amount of conversation would be required to get my order through once I reached the counter. “Why can’t I just submit it electronically?” I wished as I drove over. “Skip all that unnecessary conversation.”

And then, of course, the red flag went up. I couldn’t text my order to Bruegger’s for the same reason Tim shouldn’t text so much with his classmates: because standing patiently at the counter ordering is part of living in society. Perhaps the issues differed between the two situations – Tim’s required poise, whereas mine required patience – but the bottom line was the same: spoken communication is the archetype for all human interactions, and it’s something at which we all can stand to improve.

This was a particularly social weekend for us. On Friday, Holly and I had dinner with my father; on Saturday we went to a family get-together at my in-laws’ house during the afternoon and a friend’s bonfire in the evening; on Sunday I was a greeter at our church’s coffee hour and then attended a baby shower. All of the events involved a lot of conversation, and I enjoyed that. Working in solitude for most of my work week, I find it invigorating to be amidst lots of people over the weekend.

Still, it isn’t always easy. Going to so many gatherings this weekend reminded me that it’s fun to socialize, but Tim’s situation as well as my visit to Bruegger’s confirmed that good social skills in a variety of settings require practice. So I’ll try to gently urge Tim to do a little less texting and a little more talking, and I’ll also stop wishing I didn’t have to talk to people at food counters. Instead, I’ll try to welcome the opportunity it gives me to try to practice becoming ever more articulate.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Turning 13

On the afternoon of Tim’s third birthday, I had to work, but my mother was happy to take Tim on a special birthday expedition. The two of them went raspberry-picking at a local farm. The preceding day, he’d received a cardboard crown at preschool, and he insisted on wearing it throughout that birthday, including to the farm. My mother regaled me with an account of how the only other berry-pickers that afternoon were a consortium of chefs from upscale Boston restaurants who were on some kind of group tour promoting local agriculture. As my mother told it, they made a big fuss over Tim at every turn throughout the raspberry patch, exclaiming, “Tim, you’re the birthday king!”

I thought of this story yesterday, exactly ten years later, as I waited for Tim to bike home from the bus stop. Buses, middle school, riding a bike, being outside by himself – all of these would have been unimaginable to me the day Tim went raspberry-picking as a 3-year-old, but all are commonplace matters in the life of a 13-year-old.

Contemporary American society doesn’t hold a lot of age-specific rites of passage for kids. In Carlisle, kids can leave campus on their own after dismissal as of fifth grade, and that tends to be a big deal to them; it means they can walk to the general store or the library by themselves or with friends. But after that, for a lot of kids there’s nothing specifically great about turning any particular age until they reach 16 and start learning to drive.

Happily, social media has changed that. By turning 13, Tim was officially old enough to open his own Facebook account, and he’s been looking forward to that for months.

Not every family upholds the 13-year-old rule for Facebook, since it’s essentially done on an honor system, and some parents don’t even know about the rule, as I discovered over the summer when I expressed surprise that a friend let her 12-year-old have a Facebook presence. But I felt pretty strongly about compliance. Partly it was that I believe it sets a good standard to assume rules exist for a reason, but I also liked the fact that here was an age-specific milestone at a time when those can be hard to come by. I was happy for the built-in opportunity to make something special about turning 13 for Tim.

Rick and I went over the ground rules during dinner: he had to friend both of us, so that we could keep an eye on what he was saying on line; and he couldn’t friend anyone who used inappropriate language. After dinner, Tim got to work setting up his account.

As promised, I was the first person he friended; then he found both his grandmothers and some cousins. Since he’s among the oldest of his friends, he didn’t find too many peers on Facebook, but in time he will. For now, he’s enjoying something special and new, granted to him because he reached teenagehood. It’s pleasing to find rites of passage where few exist. So far, Tim is taking it in stride – and joining Facebook was definitely less thrilling to him than other aspects of his birthday this year including his party last weekend in Maine and the apple crisp I made for his birthday dessert – but he’s having fun with it. And I’m happy in the knowledge that turning 13 does indeed come with some special privileges.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

A priority on going biking

There were plenty of reasons for me not to go biking yesterday.

First and foremost, it was a work day for me. All summer, no matter how much fun I was having with the kids or with friends or other family members, the fact that I was putting in a substandard work day gnawed at me. At best, during July and August, I wrote for about three hours a day, compared with the six or more I can log once school is back in session.

So no matter how much fun I was having during summer break, it was always with a sense of comfort in knowing that a return to real life, and full work days, lay in the not-too-distant future.

And as is the case every year, when the school year started anew, nothing could have been more welcome than the opportunity to work from 9 to 3. That’s exactly how I felt a week ago, on the kids’ first day of classes. I turned on my computer five minutes after Holly clambered onto the bus, and I powered through three or four meaty assignments before Tim showed up with his first day of seventh grade behind him, asking about snack options.

But wanting to apply myself to my work was easy a week ago. It was a welcome novelty after the summer, and besides, that day was rainy. The whole first week of school was rainy, in fact. I was delighted to sit at my kitchen table writing for hours on end.

The Tuesday one week after the start of classes was a classic New England late-summer day, though, with a tinge of humidity underlying a warm, sunny morning. “This would be a good day for a bike ride,” I mused to myself as I drove across town after stopping by my parents’ house. “Too bad I can’t take one.”

Except wait. Why couldn’t I?

Well, because I had to file my weekly set of community news briefs. And write a blog entry. And slog along on a ghost-writing project I’m in the thick of.

But those were only the pragmatic reasons. Really, I reasoned with myself, I couldn’t take a bike ride because….well, because it was the middle of a work week in the midst of a busy month; vacation season had just ended; I hadn’t planned ahead to do something special and frivolous (normally if I’m going to divert from my regular workday routine, I plan it weeks if not months in advance); and besides, everyone else was at school or work – my children, my spouse, most of my friends, my sisters, my neighbors – why should I have the privilege of being out on a bike ride?

Because I can, came the answer, crashing over me like a breaking wave. Because I devoted the majority of my limited reading time this summer to Gretchen Rubin’s “The Happiness Project,” the gist of which is that each of us has a personal obligation to the universe to find what it is that makes us happiest and try to work that into our lives, regardless of our other necessary responsibilities. And spending time outdoors, preferably doing something physically challenging, on a warm late-summer day is definitely something that makes me happy.

But one thing I’ve learned about being self-employed is that playing hooky is very different now from how it was when I had a corporate employer. Back then, I took the occasional day off from work with a sense of triumph, even glee. “I earned this,” I would think to myself. “My company owes me this pleasure.”

When you’re self-employed, though, the boss always makes you feel guilty for a day off.

Make it a priority, I reminded myself. Do the things that matter most to you.

And so I did. I made myself a sandwich, filled up a water bottle and headed out.

You’re just lucky that you can do this, I told myself. You should still be feeling a little guilty, though, that other people can’t.

I wasn’t feeling guilty, though. I was feeling grateful. And happy. And yes, very fortunate. But also a little bit proud of my sense of focus. I’d made it a priority, and I’d done it.

As my friend Tracey wrote earlier in the day when I said I was contemplating putting work on hold, “Do it. You'll always remember the bike ride. You won't remember that extra hour you spent working.”

It turned out to be two hours of not-working, not one, but that was okay. I returned with inspiration for my blog and renewed energy for another couple of hours of work before the kids got home.

I felt a sense of accomplishment, too. Not the same sense of accomplishment I get when I finish drafting an article. The kind that comes from following my own priorities, no matter how frivolous they may be. Which in this case meant taking the opportunity to savor a magnificent and unique late-summer New England day, despite the awareness that maybe I should have been working.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Peculiar and hilarious: My weekend with three 12-year-old boys

I used to always end Tim’s birthday parties with a sense of triumph. I survived, the house survived, and the kids had fun, I would tell myself with a rush of relief as each one ended. The farm party; the cupcake-decorating party; the outing to the minor league baseball park; the sleepover party; the miniature golf excursion; the day at the theme park. All were great birthday celebrations as far as Tim was concerned because he had so much fun; all were great from my perspective because, well, they ended with no one getting hurt. And sometimes they were kind of fun for me too. But more often than not, it was just a relief to know I’d pulled it off.

This year I ended Tim’s birthday party not with a sense of triumph but with a minor sense of sadness. It wasn’t that the gathering hadn’t been successful. It was just that for the first time in 12 years of hosting birthday parties for Tim and his peers, I didn’t want to see this one end.

I suspected that taking three 12-year-old boys up to Maine for the weekend just days before Tim turned 13 would work out pretty well, but I didn’t anticipate what a good time I would have. Partly it was great because the mom of one of the other guests came along too, and she and I had lots of time to talk and visit throughout the weekend, but it was also just that the boys were really fun to be with. Peculiar and hilarious at times, but fun.

Peculiar and hilarious in that any mildly interesting thing any of them managed to do – such as climbing a medium-sized tree, eating an order of fried clams or crossing a street backwards – involved not only the activity itself but the necessity of one of the other boys whipping out a cell phone, taking a picture of the endeavor, and then emailing it to ten or fifteen friends. Peculiar and hilarious in that much of the weekend unfolded in tandem with a continuous text-message conversation going back and forth with a group of girls from their class at school who were having a get-together of their own at the same time. Peculiar and hilarious in that when walking down a somewhat busy city street, 12-year-old boys tend to draw upon the rules of bumper cars more than of pedestrians – caroming off of other people as you tear along is fine as long as you don’t actually initiate any head-on crashes.

But really, what will stay in my mind about the weekend isn’t so much the many ways that 12-year-old boys are different from 44-year-old moms – such as when a formal wedding party arrived by boat at the dock adjacent to our balcony and while my friend and I, along with several neighbors who were watching from their own balconies, oohed and aahed over the pretty bride and her elegant dress, the boys expressed disappointment at what a smooth landing the captain of the boat made, even with a photographer standing right in his line of sight, because, of course, it would have been so much cooler if the wedding party had crash-landed at the dock – not any of that is what will stay in my mind as much as how much fun we all had. We took a long walk along the bike path to the beach. We ate mussels and calamari. We visited the ice cream parlor. We went on a 90-minute kayaking excursion on the Harraseeket River. We played badminton.

I wish I could say this birthday must be the beginning of a long string of parties at which I’ll have just as good a time as the kids, but this may have been a one-off. If I could turn back the clock to Friday, I’d do it all again, just because it was so much fun. But of course, I have to move past the weekend and into a new work week, just as the kids do back at school. Thanks to them, though, there are two or three hundred cell-phone photos of our fun now floating through cyber-space, so I can revisit the experience as often as I want.

Friday, September 9, 2011

Fill in the blanks

The first few questions on the fourth grade parent questionnaire were easy enough to fill out, and those were the only ones we were required to answer. Parents’ names, email addresses, phone numbers, preferred method of contact.
The questions on the reverse side were optional, Holly’s teacher emphasized, but would help her in getting to know each child better. I studied the questions.

“My child is particularly interested in ______.”

I thought about all the ways I could answer that. The TV show “I-Carly.” Finding new and unusual ways to irritate her brother. Who wants to sit with whom on the school bus.

“Learning about other cultures,” I wrote down. Sure. Such as the culture inhabited by the teens on the show “Suite Life on Deck with Zach and Cody,” or, as I like to think of it, “The Love Boat, Junior.”

“My child is great at _________.”

That’s not the kind of statement I ever make. Holly is good at plenty of things, the kinds of things you would expect a nine-year-old to be good at: art projects, making up stories, building sand castles. But I’m just not the type of parent to refer to my child as great at something.

Even though it’s only the third day of school, I already know Holly’s teacher fairly well, because she was Holly’s second-grade teacher two years ago and we run into each other frequently on campus. I know that not only is she an excellent teacher but she’s also an unfailingly well-meaning person tremendously dedicated to her students, and therefore I know her only intention in asking these questions was to get to know her students better. But I couldn’t help feeling irrationally like the questions were a test, to see what kind of parent I was. The boastful kind? The stage-mother kind? A parent quick to promote her child’s talents, or one genuinely concerned about meeting the curricular benchmarks for the mathematics program?

But the hardest question was yet to come: “List the three words that best describe your child.”

I didn’t second-guess myself until after I’d written them down. “Creative. Cheerful. Self-absorbed.”

Wait a minute, my conscience spoke up. Self-absorbed? You’re not supposed to say that about your own kid! It’s so critical! So negative! You’re supposed to have nothing but positive comments, remember? Otherwise along with “My child is great at _________” there would be a question that said “My child is seriously deficient at ________,” and you didn’t see that one, did you?

I looked again at where I’d written “self-absorbed.” I didn’t mean it in a critical way, just an honest one. Holly spends a lot of time thinking about Holly, that’s all. But what nine-year-old doesn’t? Were there actually parents in the class filling in that line with “altruistic”? Wasn’t self-absorption in a girl Holly’s age to some extent just a manifestation of positive self-esteem? She’s a young girl. She’ll spend plenty of time in her life thinking about other people: friends, romantic partners, bosses, clients, spouses, children of her own. Is it so bad that at the age of nine, her primary focus is herself – possibly for the last time?

I believed in my own argument, but I didn’t want to start off the year on the wrong foot, with her teacher thinking I was overly critical. I deleted “self-absorbed” and changed it to “self-confident.” It’s not quite the same, and frankly it’s not quite as close to what I was trying to say.

But that’s all right. It’s the third day of school; Ms. McCabe has the next nine months to get to know the kids and evaluate the parents’ assessments of their own children. Her primary interest is in the make-up of her classroom, not the way parents fill in blanks. I’ll let it go for now. Ms. McCabe has her own challenge ahead, similar to this one but tougher: coming up with adjectives for Holly and every other kid in the class when report card time comes around.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Room for improvement

I admit it: the bus arrived at our stop yesterday morning before we did.

This is absolutely antithetical to how the first day of school is supposed to go, according to my personal code of conduct. I’m appalled that Holly and I were late to the bus on the first day of school. The third grader next door was already boarding as I drove up, and Holly was not ready to hop spryly out of the car and run to the steps of the bus. She was still trying to get her little hands around the three bags of school supplies she needed to bring in for the first day of school.

Speaking of school supplies, let me just state that there is not a single white two-pocket folder with three prongs for sale in any office supply store in Massachusetts. In fact, there appears to not be a single white folder of any number of pockets and prongs for sale in Massachusetts. I know this because I’ve checked them all; it was the only item on Holly’s list of back-to-school requirements that I couldn’t find. I found the black two-pocket three-prong folder, the green one, the orange one, the red one, the purple one, and the jewel-toned paisley one. Okay, I’m making that last item up, but it would not surprise me one bit if that description were to appear on next year’s school supplies list. I’m absolutely fine with the number of binders, reams of paper, boxes of Kleenex and size of ruler on the list, but is it really necessary to have six different colors of folders specified? Wouldn’t it be sufficient to just by six folders?

But all of that happened over the weekend. Yesterday morning, up to about 8:10, I thought we were in fine shape. Tim ate a hearty breakfast and left for the middle school bus on time. Holly ate a smaller breakfast, took a long shower, carefully dressed herself in the outfit she’d selected the night before, combed her hair, brushed her teeth….and then somehow the minutes started to elude us. She felt the need to re-do her pigtails. I wanted to take a photo, and Holly wouldn’t stop making hand gestures that I didn’t want in the picture. (Nothing obscene, just annoying hip-hop gestures that have no place in a first-day-of-school scrapbook.) She had all her school supplies together but had left her summer journal on the kitchen table. The sandals she’d planned to wear wouldn’t do in the unanticipated rain.

All of this cost us only about five minutes, but those five minutes were the difference between waiting for the bus and having the bus wait for us.

This was particularly frustrating since just yesterday, I challenged myself anew to make punctuality a priority in the nascent school year. It’s not that I make this resolution over and over again with futility; every year I improve a little. But over the weekend, two consecutive events caused me to want to redouble my efforts.

On Saturday, I drove up to our friends’ beach house at 1:24, after I told them we’d be there between 1 and 1:30. And on Monday, I sauntered through the door of another friend’s house at exactly 10:00 in the morning, having agreed to meet her for a walk at ten. These are both events I would more typically arrive to a little bit late, but the sense of vindication my timeliness gave me was intoxicating, and I resolved to make this my year of punctuality. (Again.)

If I can maintain a daily running streak successfully for over four years now, I thought to myself, maybe I can do a punctuality streak as well. This weekend makes it two for two; maybe I should see how long I can go without arriving anywhere late.

My neighbor, Carol, who had clearly arrived with her grade-schooler at our bus stop well before the bus was so much as a glimmer on the horizon, could see how embarrassed I was yesterday morning. “Don’t feel bad!” she reassured me. “It’s only the first day of school!”

Yes, I thought to myself, but the first day is the day you should do everything right. The first day is supposed to be the flawless one.

Well, I replied to myself, now you know which area to target for improvement. Carol’s attitude is right: Not “It’s the first day of school!” but “It’s only the first day of school!” You have 179 more just like it to get to the bus on time.
Here’s hoping for a 179-day streak, starting tomorrow.

Monday, September 5, 2011

Summer 2011 retrospective

It’s Labor Day, the unofficial end of summer and the incontrovertible end of vacation. School starts tomorrow morning; time to close out summer of 2011.

Somehow I didn’t expect to enjoy this summer as much as I did. For one thing, I was concerned that it was front-loaded: my big trip to Colorado happened at the end of June, before the kids were even done with school yet. Arriving home still days before July began, I was sure it would be all downhill from there.

But it wasn’t. Lots more good things happened, though none were perhaps as intellectually or artistically inspiring as the five days at the Aspen Summer Words writers’ conference. Still, the summer had all kinds of unexpected highlights. I won’t soon forget the Old Home Day pet contest, in which Holly answered questions about Belle and won a gift certificate for a free ice cream cone. Or the crawfish boil at the home of friends, at which tiny crawfish tried to escape their fate by scrabbling across the patio just inches from the cauldron into which they were about to be dropped. Or the afternoon my friend Jane invited us over for a swim; I told the kids we could go at three and stay for just an hour, but at six o’clock Jane ordered pizzas and by sunset we were still sitting out by the pool, gabbing and drinking cocktails.

Work went on, as it must; I spent weekday mornings on the screen porch drafting articles and conducting phone interviews. It’s among the best office views I’ve ever had, facing into a thick grove of oak trees that border the state park. Often I could hear voices drift through the woods as hikers made their way along the park trails. “Internship in Costa Rica….” Floated over one day. “…accept one more dinner invitation” another.

I tried jet-skiing for the first time, on Lake Chatauqua in western New York during our late August travels. While I’m glad to be able to say I’ve tried it, jet-skiing is definitely not something I’m in any hurry to repeat. As I see it, enjoying the outdoors should ideally involve either contemplative silence or some degree of physical exertion, or both, as well as a lot less fuel output than jet-skiing allows.

We had a handful of beach days: Crane’s Beach in early July, the air hot and still and the water icy cold; Goose Rocks Beach in Kennebunkport a week later, where in the course of three hours I caught up on the past year in my friend Courtney’s life while the kids jumped in the waves; Moody Beach in Wells, Maine, where my friend Renee and I power-walked for almost two hours along the shoreline; Higgins Beach in Scarborough earlier this weekend, where Tim and Holly and their friends built an enormous heap out of seaweed while my friend Nicole and I got completely caught up on the goings-on of each other’s summers.

We saw my older sister and her family for the first time in a year; they had spent the previous twelve months in Germany, and it was wonderful to catch up with all of them over several meals and drop-in visits during their two weeks in Carlisle. I met up for a lunch date with my friend Tracey, whom I hadn’t seen in nineteen years. Facebook brought us back in touch and her trip to Boston from Los Angeles gave us the chance for a get-together, and it was fascinating to hear what the past two decades had held for her.

For sports, the summer included boating, walking, biking, swimming and of course running. There were summer meals, outdoor concerts, baseball games, bonfires with s’mores. There was a heat wave with temperatures spiking well over one hundred, and a hurricane that turned out to be picturesque but not particularly scary.

The kids say they’re not ready to go back to school. While I don’t feel fully ready to transition into fall mode, I’m starting to feel a little bit ready for the seasons to change. Yesterday morning, for the first time all summer, I woke up and greeted the thought of my morning run with something decidedly less than enthusiasm. The humidity has started to be a real impediment to me when running, and I wasn’t looking forward to another draggy slog through the warm damp air. I went anyway, but just for two miles rather than the four or five that a Sunday morning usually merits.

Maybe in the fall, my enthusiasm for longer running routes will return. I know once school begins, I’ll be excited about all the new beginnings that September holds. But today is the last day of summer, even if not officially, and I’m still thinking about what a great summer it turned out to be.

Friday, September 2, 2011

This will be the year

Like the Red Sox fans who surround me, I’m perpetually telling myself: Maybe this will be the year.

Only for me, that sentiment reverberates through the air not on Opening Day at Fenway Park but on the eve of the first day of school.

This will be it, I tell myself. I’ve had seven years of training in How to Make the School Year Run Perfectly. This will be the year it all comes together.

This will be the year that everyone gets up on time and leaves the house punctually. In fact, so smoothly will our morning routine run that dishes will be washed and crumbs wiped up by the time the door closes behind us. No returning after my morning run to a kitchen-ful of breakfast clean-up: this year I’ll figure out how to get it all done at the same time the kids are preparing to catch the bus.

This will be the year the kids remember to sort their backpacks not just once a semester or even once a week but every day. They’ll come home and remove paperwork, lunch detritus, unwanted snacks, notes from friends, and (in Holly’s case) pet rocks, leaves, twigs and flowers accrued throughout the day.

This will be the year we all remember to get to bed on time every night.

This will be the year I make good on my resolution not to pester anyone about homework. Tim has already proved to us that he can be trusted to keep up with his work: we stopped reminding him last year, and his quarterly report cards made it clear he was holding up his end of the bargain. Now it’s time to make the same pact with Holly. She’ll do her work or she’ll learn the embarrassment of going into class empty-handed. I’ll save myself the daily lecture. We’ll all benefit.

Except that there’s always the nagging worry for me that she won’t get her homework done. After all, she hasn’t yet finished her birthday thankyou notes – four weeks after her birthday. Maybe I’ll pester just a little.

This will be the year I make the absolute most of my work time, too. As soon as I get back from my morning run, I’ll start writing, and I won’t stop until it’s time to meet the elementary bus. That’s more than six hours of focused, uninterrupted work. I should have a remarkably productive fall.

Well, uninterrupted: that’s the catch. That means no scheduling meetings or appointments or coffee dates or errands during work hours. But it’s fine. This is the year I realize that I’ll just have to find other times to get all of those peripheral responsibilities tended to: work time is for work, and I’m going to break the habit of letting it get adulterated with other duties.

But having said that, this will also be the year I find more time to walk in the woods. The trails of the state park beckon from just beyond the edge of our yard, and in the six months we’ve lived here, I have yet to learn more of the trails system than the one that leads to the ice cream stand at park headquarters. Well, that’s the only route that interests the kids; fair enough. But with them back at school, the dog and I are resolved to start exploring more of the trails. True, I just said I was going to work an uninterrupted six-hour work day Monday through Friday. But a half-hour walk in the woods now and then surely will only serve to fuel my creativity.

And in the interest of fueling that creativity, this will be the year I redouble my efforts to read more Thoreau. At the beginning of the summer, I bought a beautiful new volume called “The Quotable Thoreau,” clearly meant for people like me who need the Cliff Notes version of the great naturalist’s work. So far, I’ve dusted the book several times, but have yet to actually read it. With the kids back at school, this will be the year.

I know we’ll succeed in all of these resolutions because we’ll be so well-nourished. You see, this will also be the year I succeed in putting a three- or four-course meal on the table at the same time every evening, featuring a well-balanced menu of proteins, vegetables and starches, with just the right amount of leftovers (and continuing appeal) to pack up for the next day’s lunches.

This will be the year. Just like the Red Sox fans who surround me, I can hope, despite all evidence to the contrary. It could happen. And either way, I’ll keep trying.