Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Classroom time

My sister Sarah recounted the story yesterday of being invited into her 7-year-old’s classroom as a volunteer reader. Her son was so apprehensive about how she would perform that he devised a series of coded hand signals that would signify whether she was reading too fast, too slow, too quiet, too loud, with too much animation, with too little animation, with too much or too little time to look at the pictures, and so forth. “He was so worried that I was going to embarrass him. It’s a far cry from when he was so excited to have me come into the classroom to read that I could barely peel him off of me far enough to see the pages,” she said.

Hearing her talk about it reminded me of the days when I used to help out in my kids’ classrooms a lot – and then less so – and now barely ever. Tim’s kindergarten teacher liked quite a lot of parental help. It was her first year at our school, and she had come from a school system in which every teacher had a classroom aide, which she no longer did. So she was accustomed to having a second adult in the classroom at all times and tried to fill the gap as much as possible with parents.

It was difficult because then, Tim was the way Sarah described Andrew being prior to now: he was always so happy to see me come into the classroom that it was difficult when I had to leave after my prescribed hour or two. Once, in anticipation of a problem, I discussed it with him ahead of time.

“Tim, I can come in and help only if you promise not to cling,” I said that day.

“Mooooommmmm,” he droned with a tinge of contempt, and I was sure he was about to insist he was no clinger. Instead, he said, “Evvvvverryone clings when their mom comes into the classroom.”

Well, that may have been true when he was in kindergarten, but seven years later, things are a lot different. The teachers don’t want or need us around much anymore, and the kids are even less enthusiastic about our presence, though Tim usually endures my rare appearances at middle school without much complaining. Earlier this month, one of his classes decided to have a potluck lunch in honor of Thanksgiving; I had the job of bringing in the pies he’d made earlier in the week. Once there, I was so curious to see how his classmates had changed since I’d last seen them – months or sometimes years earlier – that I could hardly tear myself away, until I committed a key error. “Claire, you’re dressed for the beach!” I said to one girl who was inexplicably wearing a sundress in mid-November. The teacher pressed his lips together; too late I remembered that another teacher had told me years earlier that teachers are forbidden from commenting on kids’ clothing, or at least what girls are wearing. Parents don’t fall under the same restrictions, but I had still overstepped my bounds as a classroom visitor.

In any case, with middle schoolers, the issue of school volunteering evolves into a very different paradigm: where once our presence was needed as reading helpers or project assistants, now we’re called upon most often not by the teachers but by the kids, and it’s for one critical role: to chaperone their dances. Every time a dance comes up on the schedule, the administration threatens that if the kids don’t rummage up the proper number of chaperones, the event will be canceled, so all the kids feel pressured to call in favors. And then, of course, they face the ultimate dilemma of which prospect is worse: having your mother at a school dance or having no school dance at all.

Tim actually doesn’t mind having me chaperone when my turn comes up, which I try to make happen no more than once a year, and Holly is generally neutral about my visits to school. I can’t say I miss the early days when we were urged to come in at least once a week to help out, but I do appreciate the occasional chance to take a peek at what’s going on. Soon enough, the invitations into the classroom will dwindle down to once a year on parents’ day at the most, depending on my kids’ specific educational future. So I’ll continue to enjoy the time I spend at school with my kids. And, just like the teachers, with enough practice I’ll even learn to hold my tongue when their classmates show up in sandals, midwinter.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Before anyone has hurt your feelings

I almost skipped right over the Fresh Air interview with legendary filmmaker Francis Ford Coppola when it came up on my podcast list. Filmmaking isn’t a major interest of mine, and I knew there were other podcasts in my iPod queue that would be of more immediate interest to me: a conversation about Thanksgiving cooking with New York Times food writer Mark Bittman; a discussion on the shortage of drugs to counter ADHD; a review of Tom Perrotta’s newest novel.

But the Francis Ford Coppola interview was what came up when my run began, and sometimes it just seems like too much of a hassle to take my iPod out of its armband case and start fiddling with the controls to get to the next podcast once my run is under way. Besides, I reminded myself, even if I wasn’t particularly curious about the topic of filmmaking, I’d almost certainly learn something about it. And even when I don’t leave a Fresh Air podcast retaining any information about the subject, I always learn something new about the art of interviewing.

What I didn’t expect was to find it laugh-out-loud funny, but laugh out loud I did when Coppola was discussing the importance for filmmakers and other artists of practicing their writing with great frequency, and gave this specific instruction about daily writing: “The important thing is: choose the time that's good for you. For me, it's early morning because I wake up, and I'm fresh, and I sit in my place. I look out the window, and I have coffee, and no one's gotten up yet or called me or hurt my feelings.”

What made me laugh was the ingenuity of Coppola saying he needs to write before anyone has hurt his feelings. I too write first thing in the morning every day, as soon as I get out of bed, and I never thought about it that way, but he’s right: at that hour, no one has yet hurt my feelings (though sometimes I’ve already been mocked a little, given my tendency to talk in my sleep and my spouse’s propensity for teasing me about it in the wee hours). First thing in the morning, my emotions are still as untainted as they are likely to be all day, and I suppose in some ways that’s the best time to write.

Of course, it also tends to be the most innocuous time to write. Sometimes, as I sit in the comfortable arm chair in the corner of our bedroom at 5:30 a.m. with the house dark and silent around me, I find myself at a loss for what to say in my journal: nothing’s happened yet, and the events of the previous day have faded into uniform banality.

But most of the time, this isn’t a problem. Most of the time, the events and emotions of the previous day are still present in my mind enough to record, even if my brain may feel a little fuzzy at that hour.

Still, no one has yet hurt my feelings at 5:30 a.m., and Coppola is right: that counts for a lot. I am indeed best off writing in the grayish drowsy haze of early morning, when no one voice takes precedence in my writing only because it is the voice of the last person to have spoken to me.

In an ideal day, of course, no one hurts my feelings at all, and I don’t say things I regret, and I don’t make bad decisions, and I don’t take out my iPhone while running and accidentally drop it on the pavement and crack the screen (not to dwell too heavily on my weekend).

But these things happen, sometimes, in the course of a day. And it was somehow reassuring to hear from someone as highly accomplished and highly regarded as Francis Ford Coppola that there’s nothing wrong with wanting to do your daily writing when your thoughts and emotions still seem to be your own, in your voice, freshly hatched, before you’ve been distracted by people hurting your feelings.

Friday, November 25, 2011

Thanksgiving retrospective

It was a wonderful Thanksgiving. Yes, I spent hours in the kitchen – mostly on Wednesday – getting ready, but I enjoy spending hours in the kitchen. I find cooking relaxing, and I find working on something as easily defined as a Thanksgiving dinner particularly satisfying. One item at a time, I went through my checklist, from prepping vegetables and mixing dips to grinding coffee beans to sweeping the floor to twining up the turkey to roasting the squash to rinsing the lettuce to setting the table. Check, check, check, check, until there was nothing left on my list and it was time to eat. (Okay, forty minutes past time to eat. But forty minutes past estimated sit-down time on Thanksgiving day isn’t so bad, by my standards.)

My audience was appreciative: every dish garnered praise. Nothing went wrong. Nothing was burned or dropped or forgotten altogether.

So from a cook’s standpoint, it was a wonderful Thanksgiving. And so too was it from the standpoint of someone giving thanks. My family is happy and healthy and emotionally unified. My home is secure. My work is challenging.

The bigger picture, of course, is murkier, on the national and international level. There, it’s a little harder to feel that all is well with the world.

But I’m thankful, this week and every week. Making Thanksgiving dinner is, in my mind, a wonderful way to give voice to that gratitude. As I check each item off my list, I feel happy that I’m able to do it. Happy to have the ability, the resources, the desire to make a Thanksgiving dinner, whose purpose in the end is to honor family and friends and, most of all, to try to find a way to express our thanks.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Kitchen lessons

Not long ago, I was reading an article about Szechuan cooking in which the writer stressed the importance of using a wok that leaves plenty of room for the vegetables to cook. According to this culinary expert, it’s a common mistake to choose a pan that doesn’t leave enough room for each vegetable to have ample surface area touching the hot metal at any given time. “Don’t crowd your wok,” summed up the writer.

That’s my problem! I thought to myself. My stir-fries turn out mushy for just this reason: I put too many vegetables in too small a wok. Wiser, I used a bigger pan the next time and found that my stir-fry components were crisp and crunchy rather than soft and slippery.

But the more I thought about it, the more the instruction came to seem symbolic rather than strictly culinary: Don’t crowd your wok. It’s not only in Chinese cooking but in so many elements of my life that I crowd too many things together until none of them turn out quite right.

I thought about this yesterday while I was preparing for a party for a group of high school friends. As I blanched crudités, set out wine glasses and spread brie and chutney on crackers, I contemplated the many life lessons I’ve learned in the kitchen, many of which seemed particularly relevant as I planned yesterday’s party.

For example, you probably won’t need as much food as you think. You don’t need ten different appetizers for a group of twenty. Focus on what you think people will really like; don’t worry about trying to offer some of absolutely everything. Simplify, simplify.

And also, accept guests’ offers to bring food and drink. Doing everything yourself doesn’t make you a better person; it just makes you harried. Accept offers of help.

This, too: no one else notices what didn’t go exactly as planned. Maybe it was my vision to have artisan soaps in the bathroom, wine glasses arranged in lines and candles lit on the table, but guests don’t know about the parts that didn’t materialize. I may be looking at my own results critically, but no one else is casting such a judgmental eye on what I’ve produced. They’re grateful for what’s offered, not annoyed by what isn’t.

Furthermore, if I can possibly plan in enough time to do the cooking and arranging and setting up at my leisure, I’ll enjoy it a lot more than if I leave everything to the last minute.

I tried hard to follow these guidelines that I’ve learned through years of entertaining….and years of living. The similarities between food preparation and life are many, when I think about it this way. And the most important rule? Sit back and enjoy your own party. You’ve gone to all the trouble you can to do everything perfectly: don’t get so exhausted that when the time comes, you forget to have fun. Eat the food, drink the beverages, laugh and talk with the guests. Savor the moment as well as the menu. Be present in the present. Because ultimately, there’s no point in hosting a party if you can’t have fun at it. And there’s no point in living a life if you can’t enjoy what’s going on in it.

Monday, November 21, 2011


Our church service yesterday morning focused on the theme of taking time to pause and concentrate and absorb. We sang a hymn I hadn’t heard before about the need to behave like cows and sheep, standing in the fields watching and thinking. Our student minister read the well-known poem by Mary Oliver in which she describes spending a whole afternoon contemplating a grasshopper. And in the sermon, our minister described a classroom method biologist Louis Aggasiz practiced at Harvard in which students were required to stare at dead fish for days on end and describe it in detail, only to discover time after time how very little detail they were actually absorbing.

This was good for me to hear. I hadn’t been to church for several weeks because of other options on Sunday mornings. A couple of those weeks I’d been out of town, but other weeks I’d wanted to concentrate on other priorities: spending time with my sisters and their families when they were in town on a rare weekend visit in mid-October, going for a run with a friend another Sunday in early November and urging her to stay for a cup of coffee so that we could catch up a little bit.

So sometimes, going to church feels to me like the opposite of pausing and concentrating. Sometimes, I avoid going with the excuse that when Sunday morning comes, I just can’t rush around anymore. I rush every weekday morning to get the kids to the schoolbus on time; I hurry throughout the course of my work day; I hurry to get dinner on the table at a reasonable hour; I hurry to get to bed early enough to try for seven hours of sleep. On Sunday mornings, sometimes I just need a break from hurrying – even if hurrying means something as theoretically contemplative as being at church. I need to pause at home and regroup.

But being back after several weeks away yesterday reminded me that in some ways, the only time I really can stop and concentrate is in church. I tell myself some weekends that I’ll have a leisurely, focused breakfast and maybe even read the paper, but more often than not, I eat while simultaneously unloading the dishwasher and making breakfast for the kids. I imagine going for a leisurely run instead of church, but instead I run with one eye on the clock, calculating what time I need to be done and showered in time to be on time to the next commitment.

I’m not good at pausing and concentrating, and during the holiday season this tendency for distraction only grows worse: instead of letting my mind absorb the present, I’m thinking about the next party, the next cooking project, the next holiday performance on our schedule.

So it was good to be in church yesterday morning to hear this message, and also to be able to enact it just a little bit. In church, there is nothing to do but sit and listen. I couldn’t unload a dishwasher or go for a walk even if I wanted to: it’s church. So that’s the one time of the week when I know I really will just sit still. And it was good to be reminded yesterday of what an important priority that is – at any time of year, but perhaps on the brink of the holiday season most of all.

Friday, November 18, 2011

A taste of success (or not)

On days like yesterday, I’m not sure how to define success.

I don’t mean success in the macro sense, from the 100,000-foot-view, success in terms of a life or a career. I just mean there are some days when I’m not sure if what I accomplished merits a check in the plus or the minus column.

When I worked in the corporate sector, success on any given day was easy to define. Even in the editorial department, where we weren’t tallying the bottom line on a daily basis, we knew whether we’d met deadlines, created a successful project, planned out a catalog or completed the logistics for a photo shoot.

But these days it’s murkier.

Yesterday I put checkmarks in the plus column, metaphorically speaking, for completing three interviews that I needed to do for an article due today and correcting page proofs for a manuscript that was ready to go to press. Beyond my workload, I packed well-balanced lunches for both kids, got Holly to the bus on time, and even remembered to write a note giving Holly permission to go to art club after school.

On the minus side? I meant to clean the kids’ bathrooms and didn’t get to it. I didn’t make any progress on the website I’m supposed to be starting up for Tim’s class play. I forgot to stop at the post office.

Making a dinner that everyone likes counts in the success column, but neglecting to wash the breakfast dishes until after sunset earns a minus. Getting a good assignment from an editor gains another success sign; writing what feels like a weak lead paragraph for that same assignment, not so much.

Trivial, yes, but these are the metrics that often make up my days. And sometimes, they carry even less import than remembering to stop to buy milk before we run out, but I judge them nonetheless: for example, yesterday I called for Rick to pluck a tick off Holly’s arm rather than mustering the bravery to do it myself. Fail!

I suppose it’s inevitable that if I look this closely at this many details, there will be plenty of marks in each column. In the corporate sector, it’s more black-and-white. A project executed on time and under budget is a success. The opposite kind of project is no success at all. These days, I judge myself not on large-scale projects but on dozens of tiny actions that make up the day.

And ultimately? It’s a matter of perspective, of course. I remind myself that if I didn’t hurt anyone or damage any property, it’s probably fair to count the day as a success, at least on balance. And the most conspicuous measure of success sometimes feels like the one that comes after the rest of the day is over: whether or not I’m able to get more than six hours of sleep. Waking up well-rested and ready to start a new day? Definitely, success.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

November elegy

I wish November could last forever.

But then, almost every year I wish November, or at least the first two weeks of it, could last forever.

This month in particular, though, it’s increasingly obvious that we are in the midst of the most perfect few weeks of the whole year. October impresses with warm days and blazing colors, but in November, the pale gold sunlight streams through the bare branches and slants across the burnished dying grass on the fields. Mild days like we’ve had this week seem like a remarkable gift this late in the season, especially after the snowstorm with which October ended. I’ve gone running in temperatures in the mid-50’s the past few mornings, and it seems like such an unexpected bonus.

This is a quiet time of year, a time for in-gathering. Fall sports are wrapping up. The school year is well under way; the kids are comfortably established in their classroom routines, but it’s still too early for major projects or productions. The report cards, conferences and concerts that mark the end of a term are still several weeks away.

And just as far away, mercifully, are the holidays. Well, not quite. Thanksgiving is next week, and I should already be planning the menu and table settings, but it feels like even that can wait a few more days, maybe ‘til the weekend. As for Christmas and New Year’s festivities, I won’t even think about that until we’ve finished cleaning up the kitchen after Thanksgiving dinner.

This is a quiet week. I’m immersed in work and community events, and fitting in as much time outdoors as I can while the weather is still so mild. With the early sunsets, the filtered November daylight seems all the more vital.

Next week, I’ll start thinking about Thanksgiving, and then figuring out the December schedule with all its parties and events, and then Christmas itself. This week, I’m just savoring the quiet and peace and beautiful days of mid-November.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Busy Sunday

At 7:56 last night, I sat down and glanced at the clock.

7:56. I was sitting down for just a moment, but at that moment I felt like it wouldn’t be such a bad idea to avoid getting up again all evening.

But then Holly called from the shower that she needed a towel, and the dog looked like a trip outside for her might not be a bad idea, and I remembered that the clothes needed to be moved from washing machine to dryer.

It was a busy day. I arose early to write my usual one thousand words of Morning Pages. I decoded the problem I was having syncing my Google calendar with my new phone. And though the peace and quiet of the household with everyone else still asleep was blissful, I headed out for a four-mile run.

“Tell me one thing: why do we have to exercise?” a man who looked to be in his sixties and was out for a walk near the state park called out to me as I approached him.

“Funny you should ask; we were talking about that just this weekend,” I told him, which was true. “It’s because we don’t do manual labor! If we were out working in the fields all day, we wouldn’t go running!”

I finished my run and made waffles for the kids’ breakfast. Then I cleaned up the kitchen and took a shower and headed to my friend Jane’s house. She and another friend and I did a 45-minute walk in the warm midday sunlight and talked about how odd it was to have a sixty-degree November day just two weeks after an October snowstorm.

I drove back home and put in a load of laundry and swept the floors. I welcomed a new friend of Holly’s who came over to play. I figured out what to make for the next several dinners and made up a grocery list. Then it was time to go grocery shopping.

Home from the supermarket, I tried to unload groceries, talk on the phone to my mother, and make dinner all at the same time. It took a while, but I succeeded, more or less. I made meatloaf and baked potatoes stuffed with a steamed broccoli mixture, and it was one of those rare evenings when everyone not only sat down together (that’s not the rare part) but ate what was offered.

It wasn’t an unusually strenuous day. As I told the man who was out for a walk while I was running, it’s not like we were working in the fields. Or performing surgery. Or piloting a steamship or keeping a spaceship in orbit. It was just regular weekend life.

And it’s wonderful. I love all of these things: running by myself, walks with friends, cooking, taking care of the house, being with my family.

Still, I felt decadent submitting to inertia at 7:56 while Holly took a shower. But I couldn’t help it. The days are full. Still, every aspect of it had meant something to me. Fellowship. Parenthood. Nourishment. Physical well-being.

Days like this seem mundane sometimes. They aren’t the ones we remember, the way we remember vacation days or parties, say. They are just….days full of weekend-day type things.

But I wouldn’t have taken away a single part of it. Even if by 7:56 I was ready to give up on all mobility for the rest of the evening.

Yes, I was worn out, although I managed to rally enough to do what else needed to be done before bed: tucking in Holly, letting the dog out again, locking the front door. Despite not having been toiling at any kind of manual labor, I went to sleep with that invaluable sense of having done a good day’s work. Even if I have no material harvest to show for it.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Feeding season again

It’s a mid-fall seasonal ritual: the resumption of livestock feeding.

From May through October, the cows graze. That makes life easier for the rest of us. I see them as I drive by or run alongside their pastures, but I don’t interact with them much. They graze and mingle in the fields; I focus on human pursuits.

But for the other six months of the year, I spend time with them daily. I head out to the barn in the morning and they follow me right up to the gate. I climb the ladder to the hayloft and they stand below, watching me. I shoulder my way among them to move a bale or cut the twine around the hay and they subtly shove back, reminding me that my shoving is no match for their shoving. Or even their gentlest nudging, for that matter.

I’ve been doing the cows’ daily feeding on my parents’ farm for the past three years, not out of obligation but because I was outdoors on the earlier side of the morning anyway, letting the dog run around and then going running myself, and it just made sense to take on this responsibility since I was right there already.

But for the past several months, I thought my job with the animals was over. The logistics of farm life have changed over the course of the year; now there is a significantly greater number of animals in the herd, and also more farmhands involved, so I was told there was no need for me to continue.

But rituals, like habits and water, have a way of carving their own paths. I had thought the herd had become too large in number for me to navigate my way around comfortably, but then for husbandry purposes they were separated into small groups in three different pastures. And it turned out I was still the first one out in the barnyard in the morning, letting the dog play and getting ready for my daily run. So once again, it just made sense for me to climb up to the hayloft and throw down some bales while I was out there anyway.

And even though it seemed like giving up this duty might not be such a bad change when I contemplated it a few months ago – surely that extra ten or fifteen minutes every morning that I’d save from not entering the barnyard would come in handy – now that I’m back into the feeding routine, I’m so glad I didn’t have to give it up after all.

I love the way the animals watch me walking toward the barn, the way they low in anticipation of their morning meal, the way they mill and shuffle and edge each other around as they wait for me to make my slow way to the hay supply. I like the way they lower their big faces into the bales once I finally deliver on my promise, and the way they ignore me as I make my way between them once they’re eating.

It’s not an affectionate personal relationship like the one I have with my dog…or my kids. I just like being around them. It’s been part of my day during the cold-weather seasons for the past three years. I know they don’t particularly care who shows up in the barnyard at eight o’clock each morning. My company doesn’t mean anything different to them than any other human’s. But their company means something to me. It’s a tradition, and I’m happy that once again this November, the bovines and I are spending time together.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Good judgment

Perhaps it is yet another unavoidable fact of small-town existence: we parents tend to know a lot more about our middle schoolers’ lives than they necessarily realize.

We talk amongst ourselves and put together the various pieces from the stories we each hear, and eventually we have a much clearer picture of, say, the argument in the cafeteria or the budding romance in art class than any of our kids suspect.

Still, we can’t let on just how much we know. We don’t want our kids to stop telling us about their day, and we don’t want them to feel like they are under surveillance. So a lot of the time, we parents keep it within our own circles, presenting a bland sort of curiosity rather than a thirst for specifics when our kids do choose to share details from their lives.

All of which is why I can’t tell Tim why I am so impressed with him lately. I can only make heavily veiled references to his social situation, with comments like “Glad things are going better for you this week” and “Sounds like you worked things out well.”

And out of respect for Tim’s privacy and that of his friends, I can’t go into much detail here either. I can only say that three different parents whom I ran into over the past few days remarked on Tim’s mature behavior in a difficult situation.

In essence, Tim and some of his peers found themselves over the past several weeks in the kind of situation that middle schoolers for generations have found themselves in: just a timeless pre-adolescent maelstrom of uncertainty, rumor, and fluctuating loyalties. (There were definitely no nude photos exchanged by text message, though, so that’s a relief.) Without asking me for advice, Tim somehow intuitively did everything I would have suggested to avoid coming out on the wrong side of this. He treated the circle of friends who were involved in the issues with fairness, loyalty, and reassurance. He remained calm and dispassionate. He exhibited patience and avoided drama.

And in the end, everything turned out well for him. He fortified friendships and learned a lesson: sometimes your own moral compass takes you exactly where you need to go.

As another parent commented when we moms had one of our furtive discussions about our kids, that’s a lesson that unfortunately may be disproved for him at some point in the future. But I’m not sure that really matters. Right now, the important thing is that Tim discovered at the tender age of 13 that sometimes following your principles and being a kind and fair person reaps rewards. To say I’m proud of him feels inaccurate, since I can’t really take ownership over his actions. It’s more a matter of admiration than pride. He used fine judgment in a way that isn’t always easy for young teens to do.

Usually, when I hear myself saying about one of my kids “S/he learned an important lesson,” I’m referring to a less-than-ideal circumstance, whether it’s that a child rode a bike heedlessly, sent an incriminating email, lied to a friend or neglected to brush her teeth properly (all of which has at some point been the impetus for a lesson learned in our household). This time, I can say that the lesson Tim learned was that sometimes nice guys really do finish first. And even if at some point in the future he discovers the opposite can also be true, I don’t think he’ll ever forget learning this one.

Monday, November 7, 2011

One hour, once a year

It doesn’t take young children long at all to figure out the problem with wishing every day could be your birthday: If every day were that special, then no day would be that special.

Concommitantly, it shouldn’t take me long to figure out why it doesn’t make sense to wish every day could be the end of daylight saving time, the day we set our clocks back; yet it’s a wish that sneaks furtively into my mind every year at this time.

I just find that extra hour so phenomenally helpful. The Saturday night before we set our clocks back always feels to me like the one time you can have it all….you can stay up late but still get to bed early. We weren’t doing much this particular weekend; I stayed awake on Saturday reading until 11:00, and yet just before I turned out the light I set the clock back to 10. Sunday morning, I slept as late as I wanted, and yet when I finally arose, it was only 6:20.

Most of the year, I have to make choices: go to sleep early or stay up late and read. Awaken in time to get a head start on the day or bask lazily in bed. In each case, both choices have their advantages….and their drawbacks. But on the first weekend in November, I get both. The best of all worlds. Have my cake and eat it too. Read late but get to bed early. Sleep all I want but still be up before I need to be.

And so I can’t help wishing every year that I could have this day over and over again: one extra hour. But of course, that wouldn’t really help. If each day had one extra hour, I’d fill it, and I’d still get to bed too late or not get enough reading done and not get enough sleep or stay in bed so late it made my whole day feel lazy and unproductive.

So it’s just once a year, that magical extra hour. Like a child contemplating birthdays, I remind myself each year that it’s valuable only because it’s so rare; an extra hour whenever I needed it would cease to be a luxury. Tomorrow, I’ll already be readjusted; that extra hour will have been absorbed into the fabric of the week, and I’ll be once again caught among priorities without ever feeling like I have enough time for all of them.

One extra hour, once a year. It’s a pretty good deal, if you use it well. And it’s a huge treat every time it rolls around.

Friday, November 4, 2011

Clean-up time

Holly is invited to a sleepover that starts at dinnertime tonight, and I’ll celebrate her absence the best way I know how: by cleaning up her room.

I realize how many principles of good parenting this comes into direct conflict with. Holly should clean up her own room. In fact, cleaning up her room should be a prerequisite for going to a sleepover. In fact, her room shouldn’t even need clean-up; tidying should be part of her everyday routine.

In the best of all worlds, yes. In my world, not hardly.

Holly’s room is a mess. Holly’s room is always a mess, with the rare exceptions of the times that I absolutely insist we spend some quality time together cleaning it up – which is less fun than a dentist appointment followed by a trip to the transfer station – or the times like tonight when I wait until she’s out of the house and then do a kamikaze cleaning job on it.

And it’s not good for any of us. The stress of seeing so much stuff all over the floor and furniture gives me a headache. Both Rick and I have stepped painfully on small, hard, occasionally sharp objects in the dark while up in her room saying goodnight. Things she needs get lost in the strata of materials. Small containers of colored water left over from painting projects have splashed on the rug. Beads have become embedded in the carpet strands. Library books have gone missing.

But she seems unable to improve in this area. She loves her mess, and as I wrote about last month, our trip to an Open Studios event didn’t help at all: Holly considers herself a practicing studio artist, and when she discovered that almost all of the professional artists whose workspaces we visited that day also favored a colorful but chaotic mess of art supplies and works-in-progress, it only served to fortify her argument that this is how artists need to work. “I like to see what I have, Mommy,” she says by way of explaining the necessity of keeping cloth swatches, sets of scissors, containers of beads, paint sets, books, paper, markers and more piled all over the floor in her room. “It helps me figure out what I want to do.”

Perhaps this is true and perhaps she’s just being devious, because the fact is that the way to put something over on me is to pledge creativity. Holly must know on some level that claiming her mess inspires her is the best way to ensure that I’ll never really truly insist that she keep neater. As a writer, I’m all about the creative process, and not a bit willing to stifle it in someone else.

Still, on that rare opportunity when Holly is out of the house while I’m home and it’s not what I consider work hours, I make my move. Tonight, I’ll pick up, and until she gets back home, I’ll enjoy the absolute sense of serenity that comes from a tidy, well-ordered room. She won’t be happy with my efforts. She will immediately start asking for items that she’ll insist she needs but that we won’t be able to find: the stub of a blue-green Crayola, a tiny booklet that she made for a tiny doll, three beads strung on a segment of floss. Inevitably, I’ll end up going through the same garbage bag I just filled in search of some obscure project.

But at least I’ll have until Saturday morning to know her room is neat. I’ll sleep soundly, happy with the order I’ve imposed on her chaos. And if once she’s home she starts creating that chaos once again, I’ll suppress my frustration. It’s all part of the creative process, I suppose. And who knows, maybe someday that same process with inspire her to create a new way to keep her things in order.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Power outage: The conclusion

“Wow, this is totally a family bonding moment,” Tim observed with the jaded attitude of a 13-year-old.

One could argue that the “If you have to ask, you can’t afford it” rule applies here: If your young teen pauses mid-action to identify what you are doing as family bonding, it doesn’t exactly count. Perhaps it wasn’t the noblest of family bonding experiences – we hadn’t just scaled an Adirondack peak or sailed across the Bering Straits together -- but as the four of us crumpled our tax records from 1995 page by page and threw them into the fire, it definitely qualified as one of those rare times when we were all positioned shoulder to shoulder engaged in one common activity: namely, heating our house.

As the power outage affecting most of our town wrapped up its third day yesterday, I had to admit I was a little weary of it all, but I also acknowledged we’d gotten off easy: with my parents just three miles away and with no power outages of their own, we’d been able to enjoy hot showers, hot meals, Internet connections, indoor plumbing and all the other benefits of living on the grid simply by driving over to their house every day.

Still, despite their urging us to spend the night, all four of us felt like sleeping in our own house, so we bundled off together after dinner on Monday to start up a fire. Happy with the good that finally came out of our 16-year-old tax records, we admired the blazing hearth and then went to sleep by its warmth.

In the morning, though, the lack of creature comforts was starting to take its toll. We all awoke cold and grumpy. Tim found that he couldn’t get his contact lenses in by candlelight. Holly couldn’t locate her bookbag or lunchbox. Rick packed up his tie and jacket and trundled off to my parents’ house to take a shower before work, only to call me a half-hour later and ask if I could please bring him his shoes and socks. And the dog looked just plain furious with all of us, unable to understand why we were forcing her to live in a house heated to 45 degrees.

Yet still, when I checked the NStar website later in the day from the comfort of the library and discovered that our power was projected to be back on by late afternoon, I felt strangely ambivalent. Chilly and oppressive as the house had been that morning, I realized there was a lot of work to do once I no longer had the excuse not to do it. The fridge would need to be cleaned out. There was a sink full of dishes to wash, and of course I wouldn’t feel back to normal until I’d cleaned all the bathrooms. A hamper overflowing with dirty clothes awaited. Plus with power returned to my kitchen, I had no more reasons not to cook a multi-course dinner for my family. Out the window went all thoughts of take-out from the Whole Foods hot bar.

Indeed, the power went back on yesterday afternoon as projected. But of course, it will all be worth it, once I’ve cleaned up a little. It will be good to relax in our own home tonight, with the heat on and the appliances humming. Camping is good for vacations, but my family is clearly not eager to move off the grid just yet.

Besides, it’s not even winter yet, and we’ve heard that our new neighborhood loses power a lot. So I’ll have another couple of years of mid-1990s tax records stacked by the heart and ready to go, and we’ll look forward to hours more of family bonding once winter begins.