Friday, December 21, 2012

Christmas season under way

It goes without saying that really bad things can put the holiday stress into perspective. Find the perfect gift doesn’t seem all that important when you compare it to feeling assured that your kids will make it home from school at the end of the day.
But it’s perhaps less often observed that really good things can put the holiday stress into perspective too. Though I wouldn’t use the term “stress” to describe it, I was feeling a little overwhelmed with To Do items yesterday. I had two articles to file, three batches of candy to make, eight co-worker gifts and six teachers’ gifts (of the aforementioned homemade candy) to assemble, a Christmas Eve menu to plan, a few Christmas cards still to address and mail, and a handful of holiday-related errands left to complete.

And no matter how many times I told myself none of this really mattered, I wasn’t convinced. We wanted to give all those gifts of candy. We wanted to be sure the kids’ stockings were filled. We wanted to drop off the donation at the toy drive. And I didn’t think the oncoming holidays were any excuse for missing work deadlines, with their compelling incentive at this time of year of the paychecks that follow the deadlines.

Still, I was aware that I was starting to lose sight of the Christmas spirit. I wasn’t irritable, just frazzled. It was only two days ago that I mailed the last of the forty letters I was obliged to write on behalf of Carlisle Santa, and a bad cold earlier in the week set me back a little bit as well.

But late Wednesday night, my sister and her kids arrived at my parents’ house for a pre-Christmas visit. Holly and Tim played with their cousins all Thursday afternoon; after dinner we brought the cousins back here for still more fun.

I set to work packing candy gift boxes with the sounds of the four cousins laughing, singing, wrestling and dancing in the background, and that, more than anything else, reminded me of what the focus of Christmas should be: happy times together. Recipients always appreciate our homemade candy, but no one was actually going to notice or care whether there were four different kinds in their box or only three. Christmas Eve guests wouldn’t check under the dining room table to see how thoroughly I vacuumed. And my kids don’t even really keep track anymore to see if they have the same number of gifts in their stockings.

In short, none of the bustling around mattered all that much, but not until the house was filled with the sounds of kids playing together – long-distance cousins who don’t see enough of each other throughout the year but always fall immediately into the same joyous hilarity when they get together – was it absolutely clear to me what mattered. This: their silliness, their clamor. Never mind the housecleaning or the dessert-making or ensuring that every card is mailed in time to arrive by Christmas. The cousins were playing together and being loud and silly, and so at our house, Christmas had begun.


Tuesday, December 18, 2012

A weekend for gathering

Ironically, it turned out not to be such a bad weekend for holiday gatherings after all.

If the Saturday before Christmas is (despite Black Friday myths to the contrary) actually the busiest shopping day of the year, then the Saturday that falls mid-December, ten days or so before Christmas depending on the year, is surely the busiest party day of the year. And this year was no exception: we had four different invitations for the weekend just past.

But of course, like people all over the country, by Friday evening, we didn’t feel like going to a single event. With the worst possible kind of news coursing off the TV screen and through the radio wires and down the Internet transom, we didn’t want to go anywhere or see anyone.

But we went anyway, and in retrospect, I realize that it was better than not going anywhere. I was not in a mood to take solace from anyone else’s words. I did not want to join a prayer service or take part in a candlelight vigil. I didn’t want to read anyone’s reflections via Facebook post or even listen to the president’s address. I felt the same way I have after other tragedies on a national scale: there is not one thing that anyone can say that will make this one iota better, and I would rather be alone with my thoughts than submit to what will feel like empty noise.

In the end, though, it was surprisingly therapeutic to be with other people: first at a large gathering of acquaintances, then at a neighborhood party, and then at the home of a close friend with just a few other families present. All of these were holiday parties planned weeks ago, and only at one did we specifically discuss the events in Connecticut that had happened just a day or two before. No one tried to offer words of comfort or solace. We just….talked. And kept each other company. And made ourselves present with each other.

It was no more or less than that, really: just being in each other’s company rather than alone. I still can’t explain why it felt unexpectedly okay, but it did. Sometimes it’s all we have for comfort: the presence of other people. And sometimes, despite my inclinations to be alone during the worst times, huddling in a group is the best response we have.

Friday, December 14, 2012

My holiday season indulgence: A night of middle school music

I have many friends whose idea of self-indulgence during the holiday season involves pedicures, massages, or long lunches at fine restaurants.

Mine is a lot more low-budget. My yearly December indulgence is attending the middle school holiday concert.
Last night, just as with every year, someone I run into in the audience is bound to look at the stage, look down at their program, and say in a slightly puzzled tone, “So Tim is in the chorus this year…? Or Holly is playing with the jazz band….?”

Their puzzlement is justified. Neither of my kids is in any musical group associated with the school (or any musical group not associated with the school, unless you count Holly hiphop-dancing on her bed while blasting her iPod), and they can’t imagine why I’d bother to spend a whole evening during the busiest time of year attending a school concert if neither of my kids will be on stage.
But that’s just what makes it an indulgence: I’m under no obligation whatsoever to be there. I go just because I so enjoy hearing talented kids sing and play instruments, and I get such a kick out of seeing them all so dressed up and engaged in the moment of performance. As they file onto the stage, pick up their instruments, train their gaze on the conductor, bow to the audience’s applause….it’s such a different view of the same kids whom I normally see thundering in and out of the school cafeteria or swarming the soccer field or jostling each other in line at the ice cream stand. This is the side of them that foretells a different kind of future ahead: one in which they know how to carry themselves with dignity, dress formally, follow someone else’s lead in order to create magnificent results.

So I go to the yearly holiday concert because it’s such a pleasure to witness this, but also because in some small way, I feel like it’s an important exercise in conquering the tendency to rush through the holiday season. Yes, there were many things I could have been doing with those same two hours, many items that would be crossed off my To Do list today if I’d skipped the concert. I might have made some progress with holiday baking. I might have mopped the kitchen floor. I might have packaged the gifts that need to be mailed to Colorado by this weekend. Or I might have finished writing the couple of articles that are due today.
But it’s good sometimes to renounce your To Do list, especially during the holiday season. There was no reason for me to spend two hours at the concert, but I did anyway. I heard some good music, witnessed talent both great and still developing, and made it a priority not to be bustling around in the usual holiday season way. No, it’s not a pedicure or a fancy night out: just a free evening of music in the school auditorium. But I’m really glad I was there.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Best seasonal job ever: Ghost-writer to Santa

Santa knows when you’ve been sleeping. He knows when you’re awake. He knows if you’ve been bad or good, so be good for goodness sake.

He also knows what a good sport you were about early-morning soccer practices all fall and which pet you brought to the Old Home Day pet contest. If you happen to be in third grade this year, he even knows which tribe you covered for your Native American project.
I know this because within the 01741 zip code, I’m Santa’s letter-writing adviser. The other eleven months of the year, I write newspaper articles under my own name and also ghost-write for a variety of clients who have plenty to say but don’t enjoy putting pen to paper themselves. But when December comes, I get to work with my favorite “ghost-writing” client of all, St. Nicholas himself.
I hope no one will be shocked to hear that Santa utilizes a professional consultant. When he approached me for help, it didn’t seem any more unusual than any of my other clients asking for assistance with writing. If you are the CEO of a biosciences company, a former NFL quarterback who wants to reminisce about Super Bowls past, or a doctor who knows how to perform surgery but not necessarily how to explain it in terms that make people flock to your office door -- to use just a few examples from my current client list -- you hire a writer to help with your materials. And if your expertise lies in overseeing a toy-making operation and flying a sleigh, there’s nothing to be ashamed of in recruiting some professional help when it comes to writing letters.
The first time I worked for Santa, I thought it would be easy. Santa’s reason for hiring locally rather than outsourcing to far-off countries where editorial labor is far cheaper is that he values familiarity with the local demographic. And that I have. Sure, he knows everyone by name and general behavioral profile, but he doesn’t have those intricate connections that those of us within small towns enjoy. When we opened his mailbox last year and the letters flooded out, there was hardly a name I didn’t recognize. Kids all over Carlisle had written to Santa, and happily for Santa, I knew most of them even better than he did.
That turned out to be not quite the advantage I expected it to be. In fact, it nearly resulted in the premature demise of my career as Santa’s literary consultant. As Santa explained to me, some kids are already a little alarmed by the concept of his omniscience, and my suggested responses to their letters were compounding the creepiness factor exponentially. “Great job in last week’s school concert, second only to your performance in the Rainforest Play last May!” I wrote enthusiastically to one first grader who had included none of this information in her letter to Santa. “I bet you’ll have a wonderful Christmas, playing with your two little brothers and your new puppy,” I wrote to another child who had stated in his letter merely that he wanted an Xbox. “Have a happy holiday season AND a happy birthday on January 2nd,” I cheerfully penned to a little girl whose birthday I happened to know.
And then I realized this wasn’t necessarily going so well. Santa told me I was going to scare kids by knowing so much about them. He in fact accused me of turning him into more of a Santa Stalker character than a jolly old elf.
As Santa and I continued through our pile of letters from kids with familiar names and addresses, I began to see why a little knowledge may in this case be a dangerous thing. “The reindeer love landing at your house because of that big open field right next door to you,” we wrote to one child. But farther down the pile we came to a letter from that same child’s younger brother, who wrote in block letters at the bottom of the page, “DON’T FORGET WE’LL BE AT OUR SKI HOUSE IN NEW HAMPSHIRE ON CHRISTMAS.” Oh no, I muttered as I scrabbled back through the pile to find the one I’d written to his sister, who I feared would now spend the remaining two weeks before Christmas certain that Santa would leave all her presents at the wrong house.
And there were also times when Santa had to rein in my tendency to lecture the kids a little. “Was it really sensible to wear shorts to school when it was thirty degrees out last week?” I wrote to one boy. Santa sternly explained to me that that simply isn’t the kind of thing he says to kids. He’s not anyone’s mother, he reminded me. He’s Santa.
It’s a little surprising Santa hired me for another season at all. But I’m grateful he’s giving me a second chance. Now that I know what I’m doing, I’ll exercise better self-restraint. Because it’s true: Santa does know when you’ve been sleeping; and he knows when you’re awake. But if he happens to also know that you left a crumpled sandwich wrapper on the table last time you ate at Ferns and ignored the recess aide when she said to put the balls back in the bin, it’s probably more in the holiday spirit if he keeps it to himself.



Friday, December 7, 2012

Our eclectic yearly cookie swap

I inherited the guest list for the yearly cookie swap from my friend Lisa.
One November evening four years ago, she invited me to a get-together at her house. “It’s a group that meets monthly to have dinner or watch a movie or do some kind of activity,” she said. “It’s mostly mothers of kids in Nate’s class at the Montessori Preschool, but you can come too if you want.”

I did go to Lisa’s that evening. I forget what the theme that month was, but there were about twenty women in attendance; I already knew some of them and enjoyed meeting the rest. In fact, I had such a good time that I rather rashly offered to host the same group the following month for something I’d long wanted to try: a holiday cookie swap, in which each guest brings a few dozen cookies to exchange, and each participant leaves with a cookie assortment that she can serve at other gatherings or give as gifts over the upcoming weeks of festivities.

In what I hope was a coincidence unrelated to my presence at the event, the group’s monthly habit started to fall apart right around then. I was invited to a couple more events in the months that followed, but for the most part the routine seemed to peter out at that point.

Nonetheless, I’d had fun at the cookie exchange and wanted to host one again the following year. By the third year, I realized that if the original group was no longer meeting regularly, I wasn’t really tied to that specific list of people and could invite whoever I wanted, but I was actually fond of that particular group. I had lots of good friends who weren’t part of it, but I could see them at other events throughout the year.

So once again, last night, it was a cookie exchange primarily for my inherited guest list, though over the years I’ve expanded it a little bit, mostly to include new acquaintances in town, because it’s such a good opportunity for them to meet other mothers of grade school aged children.
Now it’s a yearly ritual on a weeknight in early December. We go through bottles of seltzer or wine (a couple of guests always rib me about how small my wine glasses are, and every year I promise to try to upgrade my collection by the next December); we eat cheese and crackers and dips and vegetables and my friend Emily’s addictive cream cheese chutney spread; I indulge in my love of making decadent desserts – eggnog cheesecake and chocolate mousse pie, this year – and  everyone arrives with cookies, which we array on the dining room table.

My husband Rick always jokes that we need to ramp it up, make it more competitive. He claims not to like the fact that we simply take the number of cookies allotted to each guest; he thinks it should be more like the NFL draft, with rankings and deal-making and competitive bidding. But we haven’t reached that point yet. It’s just fun to see what everyone brought. Last night there were red velvet cookies, pumpkin chocolate chip cookies, maple pecan cookies, toffee, biscotti, peppermint bark. The variety goes on and on, but no one takes it too seriously. It’s really just a chance to get together, and leaving with a bundle of cookies is a bonus (with the added benefit that no one’s spouse or children are ever sorry to see them head out the door when cookie exchange night arrives).

Last night, I realized that inheriting a guest list rather than making one up yourself can actually be an advantage. Though we are all local, there are some guests whom I go a whole year without seeing in between cookie exchanges, which is much longer than I go without seeing closer friends. Besides, there’s something about this list that reminds me of the cookie exchange itself. With their children’s preschool days long behind them, even Lisa’s original group of guests doesn’t all see each other that much anymore. We’re a somewhat random collection of people clustered together for this one evening like varied cookies on a plate. And just like the cookies we’re all left with every year, it’s a wonderful assortment, perfect for the holiday season.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Taller than Mom (or pretending to be, anyway)

Holly has become fascinated as of late with trying to imagine what it might be like to be taller than me.

Whenever she finds me standing next to a chair, she scrambles up to stand on the chair so that she can tower over me. If we’re outside, she angles to get me near a stone wall or bench upon which she can stand to look down on me. Her favorite opportunity is when we’re both in her bedroom, from which she can not only stand on her bed to gain a couple of feet on me but can also see both of us in the large mirror over her bureau while she does it.

I’m enjoying her fascination even though I’m not really sure of its source. I think it began earlier this fall when Tim, now fourteen years old, reached a height that unmistakably topped my five-foot stature. At first he and I were eye to eye, but it seemed within days he was discernibly an inch taller than me, and then two inches. Initially hard to believe, it’s now a fact of our domestic life that he can see the top of my head – and that I routinely ask him to reach for serving plates and glasses stored higher than I can reach.

Holly, just ten years old and small for her age, is still a very long way from reaching my height, and yet the fact that Tim has done so seems to have opened up a door in her imagination. It’s as if she realizes for the first time that this is probably going to happen to her someday. She’s correct in seeing that the odds are in her favor – at exactly five feet, I am one of the shortest adults I know. It’s very unlikely that she – or, in fact, anyone else we know – will be shorter than I am when full-grown. Pretty much everyone can look forward to the prospect of peering down on me at some point in the future.

I’m not sure why she gets such a kick out of climbing to higher elevations simply for the experience of standing next to me and looking down, but it amuses me nonetheless. It seems like such a simple pleasure, and yet there must be more to it, in her imagination. She has never been interested in dressing up or trying on high heels or applying lipstick; this may be her first inkling that occupying an adult body is a novelty yet to be experienced.

And I’m glad if the thought pleases her. Of course, by the time she really does surpass me in height, it will no longer seem like the thrill it does now. By then, there will be more important markers to the growing-up process, milestones that may please her or may dismay her but either way will surely seem more significant than achieving a height greater than her mother’s.

But in a way, it’s like pulling back the curtain and watching her mind at work. As she “practices” being taller than me by standing on chairs or park benches, she’s starting to think about what it will mean to grow up: to be a full-grown woman, an adult, maybe even a mother herself someday. Clearly she’s having fun with the idea, and because of that, so am I.

Friday, November 30, 2012

A seasonal battle with my conscience

Yes, I’ve already done a lot of Christmas shopping on line. And yes, I feel a little guilty about it.

But when I take a closer look at the guilt, it really just serves to remind me that there are very few ways of Christmas shopping that don’t make me feel guilty. The whole concept can just seem so self-indulgent, even if I’m shopping for other people.

At the same time, it’s so satisfying to point, click, and save myself a trip to….well, anywhere. A mall. A superstore. A plaza.

Last weekend, I was lucky to be in Portland for a couple of days.  So, having not shopped at all – on principle and by preference – on Black Friday, I actually did quite a lot of small-scale purchasing on Saturday. But that didn’t seem so bad. A far-reaching public relations campaign had dubbed the day “small business Saturday,” and it felt like that’s what I was supporting: small businesses. Even though I know many of the little unique-looking boutiques in Portland’s Old Port are actually small chains, with counterparts in other boutique-heavy communities like Edgartown, Nantucket, Chatham, and Portsmouth, I still felt like I was shopping the old-fashioned way, ducking in and out of little shops, carrying my purchases by hand rather than pushing a cart, aware that since I was car-free, I’d better not buy more than I could comfortably tote the several blocks back to the condo, on foot.

It did feel like the right way to shop, compared to the newspaper and TV images of people in line at big box stores on Black Friday. But my self-righteousness only goes so far. None of it was really necessary – not the little pieces of Christmas candy for the kids, the token gifts for friends, none of it. We could all celebrate Christmas with no gifts at all. But it was fun, and I was contributing in a very small way to local vendors and artisans, so I mollified myself with thoughts of how I was adding to the city’s economic development.

A few days later, though, I couldn’t resist plowing through most of the remainder of my gift list on line. I still had no desire to get into the car and drive anywhere to shop. And even though it pains my conscience to give so much business to Amazon rather than local businesses, it still doesn’t seem entirely wrong. I was saving carbon emissions by not driving anywhere. And, well, I was saving myself a lot of aggravation, which I would like to think benefits the world in other ways, though that may be a bit of a stretch.

But the reality is, there’s no one answer to whether it’s right or wrong to indulge in holiday shopping, and whether there are right ways or wrong ways to do it. Yes, any shopping supports employees somewhere – whether in Framingham or Bangladesh – who no doubt need the work. No, I still can’t begin to explain how buying stuff has anything whatsoever to do with the birth of Christianity. Yes, shopping on line means avoiding the environmental impact of driving. No, I don’t feel great about the often bizarre amount of disposable packaging in which each small item shipped from Amazon is swathed. Yes, I do understand that those “two-day shipping” promises exact a toll on the overworked employees required to fulfill the orders at breakneck speed.

But in a way, what I was left with was realizing, mostly, that there seldom are cut-and-dried answers when it comes to matters of the conscience. Yesterday on NPR I heard a debate about communities outlawing plastic shopping bags. A great idea, in my opinion – except the other side of it is that people end up buying plastic bags for things like lining wastebaskets and cleaning up after pets for which they previously used their old grocery bags. It’s easy to have strong opinions when you don’t give things much thought.

Last night after dinner, my ten-year-old sat down at my computer and designed a brochure advertising holiday services. According to the full-color printout she gave me, she’s willing to do tasks such as wrap presents, design cards, address cards, and “personalize gifts,” all for less than a dollar. I contracted her immediately to wrap and make cards for any gifts on my list that weren’t for her. It will run me about six dollars. That’s one form of Christmas spending I think I can do with a clear conscience. Possibly the only one, but it's something.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

A little too much minimalism

Yesterday on NPR’s On Point, I heard authors Joshua Fields Millburn and Ryan Nicodemus, founders of the website, discuss the process that transformed them from people who actively pursued material gain to people devoted to a lifelong process of stripping down. One of them described an experiment in which he packed everything he owned into boxes, as if he was moving, although he wasn’t. Then he unpacked things only as he needed them, in order to find out what objects he really had use for in the course of a day, a week or a month.

We’re doing that experiment too, only not so much as an experiment in minimalism as just because it’s easier for the time being. When we moved here in spring of 2011, we thought we might be able to stay only a year; it turned into longer, but we still haven’t bothered to unpack all the boxes in the garage. In the past 20 months, we’ve done just what the minimalist author described: unpacked only what we needed. And so we too can tell what objects matter most to us.

Of course, 20 months with a family of four makes for a fairly broad range of material needs, or at least material uses. Dishes and kitchen appliances were unpacked within hours of the move; clothes and linens too. Over the next several weeks, the kids brought out games and books and craft supplies. Now that we’ve been here well over a year, any decorations we own for any particular holiday have been uncovered, and so has just about all of our athletic equipment and computer accessories. Last Labor Day weekend, we unearthed the lobster steamer and lobster crackers for the first time since moving.

So in a way, the author is right; this is a great way to see what you really need. When we do move again, we’ll have to take a very critical look at anything that has stayed boxed all this time. The only problem is that there’s one large category of items we never unpacked but that I still can’t think of as superfluous: sentimental objects. We don’t have a single wedding photo in our current house; it didn’t seem worth unwrapping them from their protective casing. In fact, we don’t have any framed photos at all here, except for the kids’ school photos, taken earlier this fall. Last summer I pulled out a few vases, but we have other knickknacks – some heirlooms passed down, some collectibles from our travels, others wedding gifts – that we haven’t bothered to pull out.

And for me, that’s a source of struggle when I contemplate the issue of minimalism. Doing without piles of, say, cloth placemats in different patterns, or CDs no one listens to, or old high school notebooks, or any of the other things that people typically accumulate in their attics or basements is definitely a positive thing. But not having any family photos around? That seems sort of sad.

So next time we move, we might try the same thing, but this time I’m determined to find that box of wedding photos and other framed pictures and unpack that box early on. Minimalism is good, but living without sentimental objects seems a little too abstemious. I miss our photos and collectibles, and I look forward to seeing them again, whenever the next round of unpacking occurs.


Friday, November 23, 2012

The quiet at the end of Thanksgiving Day

I really love Thanksgiving. I love the menu-planning. I enjoy the cooking prep that begins the weekend before and extends right through Thursday midday (my very last culinary act yesterday was to assemble an apple crisp and slide it into the oven at 2 p.m., just as Rick finished carving the turkey). I even relish the supermarket trips that take me to three or four stores in place of the usual one or two in order to find exactly what I have in mind (produce from Whole Foods, staples from Market Basket, cheese – of remarkably high quality at remarkably low prices – from Trader Joe’s, and fowl – turkey, duck and chicken for the legendary dish known as turducken – from Roche Brothers, because that was the only butcher I could find willing to debone all three for me the week of Thanksgiving). I love the way everyone in my husband’s family of origin praises my cooking throughout the meal because they’re glad I hosted and they didn’t, and I appreciate the fact that my sisters-in-law and my nieces are always up for a walk after we eat.
But I always forget that one of the best parts of the day comes after the guests leave, when the table is cleared, the dishwasher is running, the leftovers are in the fridge, and for at least an hour or so, no one is asking me what they can have to eat.

It’s such a peaceful time. Darkness falls early on Thanksgiving; our guests left yesterday at around 4:30, and by 5 it was dark. I hadn’t had time to read the newspaper that morning, having gone for a run and then started in on the remaining cooking and kitchen preparation tasks, so I sat down with the kids and my Kindle. I read; Tim watched football; Holly worked on her Christmas wish list. Rick was already sound asleep, explaining to me that a long nap was critical since he’d be up late watching the Patriots game.

The sense of peace came from more than just having it be the end of a busy day. There’s something about Thanksgiving that feels like the deep cleansing breath before the holiday season kicks off. We’re not big holiday shoppers; we won’t be at any malls or department stores on Black Friday or quite possibly for the entire holiday season, but there’s still a lot to do once December begins. And even though most of it is a lot of fun – concerts, pageants, parties – it’s still good to have a conscious moment of rest before the calendar dates start filling in.

My family of origin likes to have Thanksgiving dinner at night; when we were growing up, we’d do other things all day – those who weren’t cooking, anyway – and then get into feast mode at about 6 p.m. It took me a while to get used to an early afternoon Thanksgiving meal; the first few years we celebrated on that schedule, which is more traditional in my husband’s family, I felt like we’d missed out on all the other possibilities of a free day. But I’ve come to like the schedule, eating a big holiday meal and then having the late afternoon and evening free.

So Thursday evening was blissfully serene. By a little after six, the kids were starting to ask me what they could have to eat, but even that was easy; they were happy with reheated mashed potatoes, leftover cooked carrots, a small slice of pie. All I felt like eating by that time was cottage cheese on crackers. I wish there were more nights with the hushed calm of Thanksgiving night. I felt thankful for a lot this year: health, happiness, security of various kinds. But as night fell, I also felt thankful for that particular moment: the quiet after the storm, even though it’s a good storm.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Comfort foods

Tonight a group of my high school friends will be coming over for appetizers and desserts, just as they did the Tuesday before Thanksgiving last year. Thursday, we’ll host Thanksgiving dinner for thirteen (a thought that would have horrified my maternal grandmother, who was superstitious and never seated thirteen at the table. But I’m hoping the fact that we’re actually dividing the group between two tables mitigates the potential for bad luck). In early December, it will be time for the annual cookie exchange, an evening of food, wine and conversation, at the end of which we all take home dozens of Christmas cookies made by each other. And once that party is over, we’ll start our yearly candy-making for Christmas gifts.

It feels good to be welcoming back these seasonal rituals. Their sameness is soothing. When I told Holly on Saturday that the annual gathering of high school friends was in just a few days, she responded, “Yay, chocolate chip cheesecake!” She remembers correctly. I’ll make chocolate chip cheesecake for that gathering, pumpkin pie and apple crisp for Thanksgiving, eggnog cheesecake and a peppermint chocolate layer cake for the cookie exchange.

All of these are foods we don’t eat the rest of the year, and there’s no particular reason that each recipe came to be assigned to one particular event. But I appreciate the sense of tradition behind it. There’s no reason to associate chocolate chip cheesecake with my high school friends and chocolate peppermint cake with the cookie exchange group. It just took hold that way.

Cooking traditions can be such a welcome ritual in uncertain times. We host Thanksgiving every year; most years I try to experiment with one or two new dishes, but I never worry about it, knowing the old favorites will always be, well, the favorites; and yet there’s always room for something different. The roasted squash salad tradition dates back to 2006, when my friend Nicole gave me the recipe, and everyone has come to expect it, but the idea of making turducken rather than traditional turkey is one Tim came up with just this year. We’ll find out if it sticks or not.

I’m finding it reassuring to pull out the annual recipes: the apple crisp recipe in my mother’s handwriting on a tattered recipe card; the recipe for chocolate mousse pie (which is always another choice for Thanksgiving dessert, alongside the apple crisp and pumpkin pie) printed out from an email address I haven’t had in seven years.

At every party and get-together, everyone is appreciative of the food no matter what I make; sometimes I worry that I wouldn’t even know if no one liked my cooking because they’re just glad I’m willing to host these events. And that could be true; they could be thinking “Oh please, not the roasted squash salad again!” But unless I ever hear that, I’ll turn back once again to the familiar favorites. It’s part of what makes this time of year feel so familiar, so ritualistic, and so dear.


Friday, November 16, 2012

Just soup

My friend Rebecca emailed me Wednesday morning. A mutual friend of ours who not long ago went through a terrible trauma had, in the wake of everything else, come down with the flu, Rebecca said in the email. Was there any chance I could bring her some chicken soup?

Yes, I emailed back. Soup is something I know how to do. And I would be happy to do it.

Happy, in a way, combined with a sense of general insufficiency, was how I felt over the next couple of hours as I poached chicken parts, chopped carrots, washed celery, measured seasonings. Soup, I know how to do. And sometimes it seems soup is about all I know how to do. Well, not just soup. Casseroles. Baked pasta dishes. Meaty or vegetarian entrees. Sweets, to bring a little extra cheer.

Which seems like very little to offer sometimes. We’ve had such an unusual number of unexpected losses around us recently, and it seems all I ever do to help anyone is make soup or drop off a bag of groceries. I know so little about how to try to console people. I have so little to offer in terms of solace or emotional sustenance.

And so I make soup.

When my sisters and I were young, we used to read a classic picture book about a bunny who raised dozens of offspring. Each young bunny had a specific job to do in the bunny warren: washing clothes, polishing silver, mending, making beds. Two bunnies even had the “job” of singing and dancing to keep the rest entertained. Sometimes I feel as singularly capable as those bunnies. When things go wrong for people, all I ever seem to be able to do for them is bring dinner.

But yesterday, our friend had the flu and wanted chicken soup. It doesn’t solve anything else beyond what to have for dinner, not for her and not for any of the other people we know suffering losses. It’s one tiny trivial thing: one day, one meal. I wish I knew more about how to help people.
But for now, I’ll bring dinner over, just because I can.


Tuesday, November 13, 2012

The woods are calling

It was a productive Sunday afternoon. I’d just finished dusting and was about to sort two baskets of laundry when I glanced out the window. With so many leaves off the trees now, the view from the kitchen to the state park hiking trail that runs behind our back yard was unobstructed. Words floated into my head: “I cannot bear the fact that I am not walking in the woods right now.”

I thought for a moment about all the reasons someone might look out this window and say those words. Because they were too ill or injured to leave the house and reach the walking trail. Because they were taking care of someone else – someone ill, injured or simply too young to be left alone -- who needed their presence. Because there was an impending hurricane or tornado that would make woods-walking too dangerous. Because night had fallen and there was a risk of getting lost in the dark.
But none of those was the case. I was experiencing a physical yearning to be out walking in the woods, and instead I was…dusting and doing laundry. In short, nothing that really needed to be done.

And at that moment, the decision I’d made earlier in the day to focus on housework and my To Do list reversed itself. I put on boots and retrieved the dog’s leash. The dog herself needed no summoning; she was at my heels as soon as she saw the leash in my hand. We headed out.

I told myself it would be just a short walk, the easy twenty-minute loop from our yard down to the brook, across the esker and back. But once I was heading down the trail with the house behind me, dusting and laundry seemed a lot less important than they had ten minutes earlier. It was warm out, and despite last weekend’s time change, there was still plenty of light in the sky. An owl somewhere overhead hooted repeatedly. I’ve learned since moving to this house near the state park that I was wrong all my life in believing owls were solely nocturnal; we hear them throughout the day.

There was something so compelling about the urge to get out into the woods as I looked out the window to the trail. Maybe my sense of urgency had to do with the awareness that this option is temporary – we’re renters with less than a year left on our lease, and might not be able to walk through our back yard and into the state park much longer – and, of course, on the larger scale, any number of twists of fate could end my ability to go walking in the woods of Great Brook Farm State Park. Or maybe it was because I’ve been reading a lot of Thoreau lately and noticing, time and again, that Thoreau and I have in common a passion for walking equal to (in his case) or much greater than (in mine) our interest in nature itself. Thoreau had no family at home to take care of; he didn’t worry much about dusting and laundry. But he’s not here anymore to walk through the woods of New England, as far as I know (though I concede I could be wrong about that). I felt like I needed to do it for him as well as for myself.
Robert Frost said that the woods are lovely, dark and deep; my feeling yesterday was that the woods are also unconditionally welcoming. They didn’t make me feel guilty for not visiting them sooner, or for considering briefly that something else – housework – might be more important. They didn’t make demands or ask questions. They just welcomed me.

And after forty-five minutes, I was back home, free to dust and sort laundry for the rest of the afternoon, just as I’d wanted. Except I wasn’t even sure why I’d wanted that anymore, when the woods provided so much more solace than the housework.


Friday, November 9, 2012

Yoga and butter

On Monday morning, I dropped by my parents’ house after going running, just as I do nearly every weekday of the school year. I stayed for about twenty minutes. During that time, my mother told me a story about how sometimes she can hear easily her yoga teacher easily during the Buddhist meditation component of the class, and other times she has trouble. (It seems to depend where in the room my mother has positioned herself for the class.) Then my father announced that after fifty years of marriage, he only that very morning understood for the first time why my mother puts sticks of butter atop the refrigerator. (She does this because the faint heat that emanates from the coils brings the butter to just the right consistency for baking. Previously – for five full decades – Dad had thought she just considered it a convenient storage spot.)

It was mundane even by the usual standards of our weekday morning get-togethers. But while driving home, I thought about some of the other women I know and the recent discussions they’ve described with their parents. One friend is desperately – and unsuccessfully – trying to convince her mother to seek treatment for alcohol abuse. Another friend has to determine the best placement for her father after his upcoming heart surgery. And another worries that her mother, who is diabetic, doesn’t seem to care enough about her own health to eat the foods that will keep her out of a coma.

 And suddenly it seemed like a tremendous gift that on that particular morning, my parents and I had nothing more important to discuss than butter storage and yoga acoustics.

I don’t mean to suggest we haven’t had our share of serious concerns. Like all families, we too deal with health problems, intrafamilial conflicts, financial decision-making, and other emotionally demanding topics. But not on this particular morning. This time, it was all trivial.

 And that seemed like something for which to be particularly grateful, as I thought of my various friends. Over lunch the same day, my friend Lisa and I were discussing some of the more difficult situations going on with the friends and family members around us. “Why does it all seem so difficult right now?” Lisa finally asked.

“It’s not all so difficult,” I corrected her. “We’re just focusing on the things that are. We forget about the things that aren’t. But let me tell you about this morning’s visit with my parents.”

She understood. (And she also thought that warming butter to room temperature on top of the fridge was a great idea.) She saw what I meant, that it’s easy to overlook the non-demanding encounters and relationships rather than recognize what a welcome break they can be.

I admit, when my mother finished telling me the story about yoga and Buddhist acoustics, my first thought wasn’t gratitude for her well-being; it was a more prosaic “Well, there’s five minutes of my life I’ll never get back.” But as I thought about it more, I recognized it as the gift it was. I'm lucky that I live five minutes away from my parents and can drop in to visit with them every morning. But I’m even luckier that as often as not, all we need to talk about on any given day are the simplest details of life. Serious conversations matter too, and shouldn’t be avoided or dreaded. But quotidian details can sometimes be the best possible marker that for the moment, all is well.


Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Nothing much to say about it

Just a little less than three months ago, on August 15, I passed the five-year mark of my daily running streak. Shortly after that date, the director of the United States Running Streak Association wrote to me to ask if I wanted to write something about meeting this milestone for the association’s quarterly magazine.

“When’s the deadline?” I asked. At that moment, I couldn’t think of a single thing to say about hitting the five-year mark.

He told me it was November 15. That sounded far away, a whole season away, the difference between summer vacation and the middle of the fall semester for the kids, the distance between watching the sun set long after an outdoor cookout and commuting home at 5 p.m. in the dark.

But, as so often happens, it was here before I knew it. And I still don’t really have anything.

I’m accustomed to writing on deadline. Weekly articles, monthly newspaper columns, twice-weekly blog posts, regular assignments for a medical website: having to produce copy, whether or not I have anything important to communicate, is truly second nature for me.

 Except for this time. Five years of daily running? I just can’t think of a thing to say about it.

I know that may sound improbable. Yes, there’s been some challenging weather, of both the frigid and scorching variety as well as snowstorms and hurricanes. Yes, there have been a couple of migraines and stomach viruses through which I had to run. Early days, late nights, pre-dawn running. High altitude, unfamiliar neighborhoods, hotel parking lots.

But when you run every day, it all kind of blurs together. As I’ve said before, I don’t think about running any more than I think about taking a shower. Which is to say now and then I have to set my alarm extra early or push myself to fit in in, but most of the time, it’s just an inevitable part of my day, one that happens without thinking.

A few weeks ago, I came across this passage on a blog called The Logic of Long Distance. It summarized my feelings about running better than I could.

"Running doesn't offer a coherent plan or life strategy; it doesn't pretend to completeness or offer the secrets to a well-lived life. What it gives us is a way out of the plans and meanings and senses that have begun to seem virtual and hollow. A run gives life no meaning. It simply reminds us that beyond the sense that life makes, there is so much more life."

Yes. Maybe the reason I don’t have anything to say about my five-year running streak anniversary is that there just isn’t really anything to say. It has no special meaning. It’s just….running. For the sake of running. And in a way that I can’t explain, that’s reason enough.

Friday, November 2, 2012

Crossing my fingers for a boring weekend

I’m hoping for a boring weekend.
I need a weekend with no community events, no harvest fairs, no costume parties, no parades, no sporting events, no dinner parties, no concerts, no soirees, and no storm preparedness to do.
I need a plain dull weekend at home. I need to fold laundry, three basketsful. I want to do some cooking and baking. I should vacuum and dust and mop. There are light bulbs to change, plants to water, Halloween decorations to put away. The kids’ rooms are a mess. (Yes, that should be their responsibility. No, it’s not going to get done unless I’m standing in the room waving my arms like a semaphore.)
All of the things that can start to seem so tedious if you do them too many weekends in a row are starting to seem like something to be coveted, now that it’s been so long since I’ve taken the time for those tasks. The idea of vacuuming the house top to bottom actually appeals to me, and not only because I have a fabulous new vacuum cleaner. Just because I haven’t had enough time to devote to my house lately.
It’s been a busy fall, the way fall always is; my workload was heavier the past couple of months than I anticipated, and a few unexpected responsibilities popped up as well. Such as, for example, preparing for this week’s storm, which ate up several hours last weekend.
So this weekend I’m not going to invite anyone to do anything. I’m not going to suggest any cultural excursions to my family. I’m not even going to implore anyone to go for a walk with me. (Okay, that’s a little bit inaccurate; my friend Jane and I already have plans for a Sunday walk. But I promise I’ll try to keep it to just an hour.)
A day away from the weekend, it still all seems like a novelty, all those mundane cleaning and cooking and housekeeping chores that I’ve neglected these past few months. A few hours into Saturday, I’ll probably remember exactly why I’ve let myself get so easily distracted by community events, parties and cultural excursions instead lately – because they are all a lot more fun than vacuuming.
But not this weekend, or so I keep telling myself. My house needs attention, and for the time being, I feel like lavishing it on. Setting the clocks back means I’ll even have an extra hour to do it.
It might be months before this kind of mood strikes again. It’s a rare thing to get a craving for housework, and I don’t expect it to happen soon again. But as long as it lasts, I plan to work it.


Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Lights out

Reluctantly, I find myself adding power outages to the list of things, like staying up late and bingeing on candy, that were more fun in childhood than they are now.

I was eleven during the Blizzard of ’78, and it might have been the happiest five-day stretch of my childhood. We had mountains of snow and no school for a week, but as far as I was concerned, the highlight – no pun intended – was losing electricity. I wished for the blackout never to end. I compulsively flipped the light switches every hour, not hoping they would work but hoping they still wouldn’t. We kept a fire going and made toast over the open flame. We read by candlelight. We huddled together under tents made of quilts.
And yet honestly, I can’t quite remember what I loved so much about it. For a few hours, sure, but for five days? I just remember it felt so special. So old-fashioned. So rarefied.

Of course, at the age of eleven, none of the worries that an adult would have during a five-day power outage mattered to me. A freezer full of spoiled food? What did I care: the time and expense involved in buying more weren’t my time or expense. The chore of preparing meals with no oven or stove? Well, I was eleven; I wasn’t thinking about the nutritional pyramid. Cinnamon toast and roasted marshmallows seemed just fine to me. No plumbing, and no fresh water for washing hands? At that age, who worries about personal hygiene?

I wish I could recapture that feeling, and during this week’s hurricane it almost happened. I was well-prepared for the power outage when it struck at about 3:30 on Monday afternoon. I’d filled pitchers and bottles and bathtubs so that we had plenty of water. I’d planned a few meals that wouldn’t require heating. I had books and newspapers to read. I lined up candles and flashlights along the kitchen counter and encouraged the kids to dig up a few favorite board games.

But still. When the power went out, I found it relaxing for about an hour. Then I started worrying about deadlines I’d miss if I didn’t have an Internet connection and meats in the freezer that wouldn’t last much longer, and the likelihood that we wouldn’t be able to shower in the morning.

It happened at a bad time, too. Sunday evening I received word of the death of a childhood friend; Monday morning her parents asked me to take responsibility for notifying a group of other mutual friends. I sent out an email before the power went out, but their responses began flooding in once my computer was down and I had only my phone for reading and sending emails. Processing everyone’s shock and grief while reading on a tiny screen and tapping my responses on a tiny keyboard compounded my feelings of blind inadequacy at coping with this tragedy.

After dinner, we lit a dozen small candles, arranged them in the center of the kitchen table, and all four of us played two rounds of Bananagrams. It was fun, but part of me kept wishing I could enjoy it as wholeheartedly as I did in childhood.

And then I looked at my two children. They were enjoying it that much. They, in essence, were me, thirty-five years ago. Maybe my childhood delight at power outages was forever a thing of the past, but it was happening all over again in them. They were thrilled with Bananagrams. They loved the dinner of cereal and cookies. They thought washing their hands with Purell and rinsing them in a pitcher of cold standing water was a fine way to keep clean.
So okay, I told myself. I’ve outgrown the joy of power outages, but my kids still have that joy. Someday for them too it will be replaced by adulthood concerns, but then there will be more children to take delight in a household lit by candlelight. Growing up is like that: inevitably, you cast off certain childhood joys. But seeing other children come along, pick them up, dust them off and wear them anew makes it not really a loss at all.


Friday, October 26, 2012

The oldest task on my To Do list

The oldest item on my Google calendar Tasks List is 367 days old.

I’m happy to say that this is the exception, not the rule. In general, I take my To Do list pretty seriously. That’s not to say I get to every item the very same day I list it, but usually I do it within forty-eight hours or so. And if I haven’t crossed it off within a couple of days, I rethink whether it even belongs there.

A good two decades into adulthood, I’ve come to realize that To Do lists should function not as lists of wishes, aspirations or goals, but as lists of tasks – whether work assignments, household chores or errands – that really and truly must get done. Therefore, if I start to run more than a day or two late on any particular To Do item, I instead question just how high a priority it is, whether I really plan to do it at all, if it’s equally essential as the items on the list that I am getting to, and whether there’s perhaps a better time to try to get to it. And then, most of the time, it gets reassigned to a future date.

But the item that I listed on October 25 of 2011 was one I just couldn’t bear to let go of, even as I also apparently couldn’t motivate myself to do it, a full year later. Namely, reading the collection of Thoreau writings that I’d bought last fall.

I really wanted to do it. I really intended to do it. But I just couldn’t seem to get to it. And while I seemed unable to get to the reading, I seemed equally unable to treat Henry David Thoreau as dispassionately as I treat the other items on my To Do list, those that I knock off the list or save for another time if they haven’t justified their importance after a couple of days. Poor Thoreau just sat there languishing in the overdue items column as the listing went from days to weeks to months to finally a year overdue.

But now I can finally cross the item off. Oh, I haven’t read the whole collection yet, but I’ve finally started it, a year and two days after first meaning to get to it. That’s because I found a convenient trick. On my birthday earlier this week, my sister sent me the same Thoreau collection as an e-book. And I synced it onto my phone. Which means even if I remain unable to find the time to sit down and give poor Thoreau my undivided attention for hours on end, I can sneak a peek practically any time I want to, just by glancing at my phone screen. While I’m frying pancakes. In line at the post office. Cooling down after my run. On hold with customer support. Waiting for the movie to begin.

Thoreau himself, I suspect, would hate this. He’d despise not only the technology I rely on in general but also the fact that his writings are now making use of that same technology, and the fact that I was so nonchalantly willing to exchange hours of fireside reading for a quick peek at a 2x3 inch screen.

Well, yes, but it’s better than nothing. For 367 days, I’ve made no progress on this one item on my To Do list. Then yesterday I downloaded the text and started reading the introduction. It probably wouldn’t be good enough for Thoreau, but he didn’t have children’s breakfasts to make, commutes to endure, or customer service on-hold queues. The original hard-copy version of the book of Thoreau readings looks pretty as a decorative object on our hall table, but the e-book is actually getting read, at long last. And my To Do list once again has nothing older than two days on

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Birthday blog

Because I am sixteen months older than Rick, he likes to joke about my advancing age, and now that my birthday is here and his is still four months away, it’s that segment of the year when my age is actually two digits higher than his rather than the usual one digit. But by now he must know that if he really wants to provoke me, that’s not going to do it. Not to fall back on the clichéd “age is a number,” but getting older doesn’t bother me any. Getting fatter, that bothers me. Running slower, yes. Seeing more poorly, absolutely. Going gray, for sure. But turning a year older? No big deal.
I just can’t help feeling that reaching any birthday is a lucky break. Forty-six is solidly and unquestionably middle-aged, but there was a time not too many centuries ago when forty-six would be more like old age. In another era, I’d be losing teeth rather than finding the occasional gray hair.

I don’t mean to bog down in morbidity on my birthday, my point being in fact quite the opposite. Forty-six is fine with me. I lost a friend at fifty earlier this year; by the time she turned forty-six, she already knew she didn’t have many birthdays left. When people joke about getting older, I always think of the essayist and journalist Caroline Knapp, who wrote in the late 1990s that she first felt old when she turned 38, because it was when she finally had to concede that she was closer to 40 than 35. Though she was in fine health at the time she said this, she died four years later of lung cancer, making her perspective on 38 particularly poignant.

So yes, it’s my birthday and I’m 46. Laugh away, Rick. I’m grateful to be turning any age at all – and, truth be told, I’m relieved that 50 is still comfortably far off in the distance. At least I think that’s 50 in the distance; I’ve grown a little bit more near-sighted lately, and I must admit, I occasionally sneak a covetous glance at the rack of reading glasses in the drugstore as I walk by, wondering when I’ll be ready to let down my vanity guard enough for this seemingly unapproachable step.

All right then, I admit it. My eyesight isn’t quite as good as it once was and I run a slower mile – or five-miler – these days than I did in my thirties. But I can still see, and I can still run, and I’m still here to write about it. So you won’t hear any birthday angst from me at all. Not until 50 draws just a little bit closer, anyway.

Friday, October 19, 2012

Swap shed success

The swap shed at the Carlisle Transfer Station is like its own little box of legends. People who take its "drop-something-off, pick-something-up" credo to heart make claims of astounding finds: showroom-quality furniture, electronics in their original packaging, children’s toys that appear to have never seen the imprint of a child’s finger.

Maybe, but sometimes I think the legends exceed the reality. When I stop in the swap shed to drop off outgrown toys, what I usually see are tattered computer manuals, mismatched Tupperware, and the occasional action figure with a couple of limbs missing.

It’s a nice idea that you can drop things off and someone else might want them. And it’s fun for small children to browse among the discarded toys. But in reality, it’s something of an open secret these days that many of the people sorting through the items on the swap shed shelves are more likely to resell their finds on eBay than to display them on a shelf in their china hutch.

Yesterday, though, I made one of my rare stops at the swap shed as I unloaded trash and recycling at the other stations in the dump. We had recently bought a new vacuum cleaner, and I had been doing battle with my conscience about what to do with the old one. The swap shed isn’t supposed to be a repository for broken stuff that no one could possibly find a use for; that’s what the trash bins are for. But the vacuum cleaner wasn’t broken; it just wasn’t the greatest vacuum cleaner. It might work fine, I tried to convince myself, in a different setting, one with less floor space, fewer rugs, or no shedding dogs in residence.

I was the first person to visit the transfer station yesterday, so the swap shed was empty. Or so it initially appeared. But as I lugged in my vacuum cleaner, I spotted one singular item on the shelf: a glass pedestal cake plate.

“I could use a cake plate,” I thought to myself. I love making desserts, and I like the way pedestaled cake plates look on a buffet table amidst a number of other desserts. It’s even the right time of year to add this to my collection: we host an annual appetizers-and-desserts party in mid-November, followed by Thanksgiving two weeks later, and then a pre-holiday party in early December.

There was something so pleasing about the symmetry as I dropped off my vacuum cleaner – genuinely hoping there was someone who could use it and that I wasn’t just leaving trash – and helped myself to the cake plate. I didn’t need to sort through piles of items to find it. It was the only thing there. I dropped one thing off; I picked one thing up. It was the essence of simplicity.

The swap shed attracts its share of controversy. The idea of neighbors trading treasures from one household to another in a small town has a certain charm that the boxes of dusty National Geographics piled in the shed’s corners sometimes belie. And there are those who resent the reality of the eBay dealers and other forms of resale trade that goes on there, believing it dilutes the altruistic intent of the facility.

I don’t particularly agree with this argument. I think reselling on eBay is as honorable a job as any, and if there are people willing to spend their time going through junk at the transfer station to make a living this way, they’re welcome to do so. But for those of us who have dropped off boxes of dishware or other household items only to have them snatched out of our hands and shoved into someone’s car, sight unseen, to take home and resell, it does sometimes make the overall experience of stopping by the swap shed less appealing.

Yesterday’s experience felt like the swap shed returning to its roots. One item left; one item taken. I’ve already washed the cake stand and put it in my kitchen; this weekend Holly and I are going to make a cheesecake that we can serve from it when guests come for dinner on Sunday. I’m happy I found it and happy I took it home. I just hope someone can make equally good use of my mediocre-but-functional vacuum cleaner.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Grandfathers, grandsons, barber shops, and a bucket 'o fried chicken

The first time Tim ever went to get his hair cut, it was with my father. The two of them – Dad then in his early sixties, Tim a toddler – together climbed the stairs to the old-fashioned barber shop on Walden Street in Concord Center, just as fathers and grandfathers and sons have probably been doing together since the nineteenth century in this particular spot or one just like it. For all I know, Henry David Thoreau himself got his hair cut at Palmucci’s Barber Shop, from one of the predecessors of Dad’s barber.
And for the next ten years or so, the tradition continued. Every month or two, Dad would pick Tim up and the two of them would head to the barber shop.

It was the kind of rose-hued tradition that age-old memories are made of….except that when Tim turned twelve, he admitted that, as kindly as his grandfather’s barber always was and as much fun as it was to have this special grandfather/grandson outing which had gone on for as long as Tim could remember, he wasn’t crazy about how his hair looked after a cut by Raffaele.

I suppose it goes without saying that I was a little bit disappointed by Tim’s truth-telling. As a family tradition, it had been such a particularly pleasing and picturesque one. How could a mother not get misty-eyed at the sight of her father and her son trekking off together for dual haircuts?

But at the same time, it’s never an entirely bad thing when your twelve-year-old expresses his preferences dispassionately and honestly, and another part of me knew the importance of respecting what Tim had to say. It was nothing against his grandfather or his grandfather’s barber, he emphasized; he just wanted to get his hair cut somewhere else.

So I started taking him for haircuts elsewhere, at a barber shop with only a couple of years of history (and surely no Transcendentalists among its past clientele), where his hair is cut by young women whose name badges say Shayla or Ashlee.

But somewhere around that same time, probably during football season while they were both watching a lot of NFL games on TV along with the barrage of advertising that inevitably accompanies the broadcasts, Tim and his grandfather both developed a hankering for fried chicken from KFC.

There’s no fast food in Carlisle, of course. But the two of them made a plan for a Friday evening when Dad would pick Tim up around dinnertime and they’d go to a neighboring town to share a bucket of drumsticks and wings.

But when Tim told me about the plan, I reminded him that he already had a commitment that evening; his good friend Austin was coming for a sleepover.

No problem, my father said generously; he’d bring both boys to KFC.

And then last weekend, with football season once again under way, Tim and his grandfather decided it was time for another pilgrimage to KFC. This time Tim didn’t even have a preexisting commitment to his friend; but still Dad said “Let Austin know I’ll pick you both up at 5:30.”

Thus was born a new tradition, and I had to smile on Friday as I saw the boys hopping into the car with Dad – and returning two hours later stinking of deep-fried grease and sipping the last of their appalling 24-ounce Cokes --  because it drove home so vividly the message that traditions are what you make of them. When Tim was an infant, I might have dreamed of him heading off to the barber shop with his grandfather someday, the same way I might have pictured sledding excursions or Christmas Eve church services or Tim’s first road race: the kind of tradition I imagined I would treasure.

But real life intervenes with daydreams sometimes. Even the words “KFC” make me a little nauseated, but the fact that Tim and his grandfather found their own way to a new tradition still makes me smile. Yes, it’s smelly and greasy – but it’s theirs. A special tradition. Not the one I would have picked, but the one they picked. And so now I dream of this new one continuing for many years to come.

Friday, October 12, 2012

"You're only as happy as your least happy kid"

At dinnertime, night after night this autumn, the kids trip over each other to tell stories about their day at school. They interrupt each other; they even interrupt themselves. They don’t interrupt their parents only because we sit there silently listening, nodding attentively but, at least in my case, secretly marveling at the miracle of their apparently unadulterated happiness.

Tim wants to talk about Math League, Writers’ Guild, helping out in the first grade gym classes, an idea for the eighth grade science fair. Holly cuts in to tell us about a recess game, a science quiz, a plan she and a friend made to dress alike the next day.

And while I act like it’s all perfectly normal, as I listen I just can’t get over their contentment. Over and over again, I repeat silently to myself, nothing beats having kids who are happy at school.

Although you wouldn’t know it from our dinnertime conversation, there’s plenty to worry about and plenty of problems on which to dwell, and more than enough sadness and anxiety to go around: locally, nationally, globally. Whether it comes via a friend’s phone call or an NPR broadcast, bad news happens all around us. And somehow it seems impossible that my two children can be so happy right now.

But they are. They like what they’re learning and doing in school; they value their friends; they bear a notable absence of fear. They’re not worried about the price of college or the prevalence of cancer or the fiscal cliff. They’re just….happy.

Yes, it’s remarkably self-absorbed and solipsistic. But, to paraphrase Ferris Bueller, so’s childhood. An acquaintance recently made a comment that I had never heard before, though he claimed it was nothing original: You’re only as happy as your least happy kid.

So maybe that’s what it is. I have plenty to worry about; we all do. Every sentient adult recognizes the peril and fragility all around us. And yet….my kids are happy these days. Really happy. If you’re only as happy as your least happy kid, it’s no wonder I end most days with a sense of peace despite all that I could instead be focusing on. My kids are happy, and so in many respects, I’m happy too. They’ll have darker times and so will I. But this fall, they’ve got math league and community service and dress-alike day at school, and it’s all good. For them, and by extension, for me.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Walking on the beach

On Sunday, there was ocean, sky, sunlight, clouds, beach, gulls, and hours of conversation.
My college roommate, who is still among my closest friends, lives on Moody Beach in Maine. Once or twice a year, we schedule a visit, but we always try for the same kind of visit: one during which we can walk for hours.

Both of us love long walks. Back when we were college students, we would leave from our Boston campus on spring evenings when the daylight lasted long and walk through neighborhoods of Brookline, or we’d head toward downtown and walk along the Charles River. We didn’t particularly give much thought then to whether we’d still be taking long walks together twenty-five years hence. But as it turns out, we still are.
According to my pedometer, we walked eight miles on Sunday: first from her beachside house along the shoreline to Ogunquit Center, then by roadway to the nearby village of Perkins Cove, then back to Ogunquit for a lunch on the porch of a busy café, and then back along the water’s edge to her house.

Actually, when we reached her house three hours after setting out, we still hadn’t quite had our fill of walking, so we continued to the end of the accessible beachline and then doubled back.

It’s how we catch up on each other’s lives every year. My friend has four daughters; I wanted to hear about all of them, from the one who is spending her junior year abroad in Ireland to the one in the midst of middle school. She in turn wanted to hear about my kids. And once we’d covered those topics, there was still so much more to touch upon: husbands, jobs, projects, problems, concerns, parents, vacations, and books we’d read since we last visited.
Ending a visit with her is a unique feeling. I have other friends who like to walk, of course, but few with whom I devote nearly the whole day to it, and few whom I see seldom enough that we have quite so many topics of conversation through which to wend our way. It’s exhilarating, both physically and emotionally, to cover so much territory – by foot and by word.

Saying goodbye toward the end of the afternoon, we agreed it would be good to get together over the winter if we could find the time, but we both know it’s not a critical priority. Yes, it would be fun to see each other more often, but there’s something so satisfyingly ritualistic about our tradition. The forecast for Sunday was rain, but the rain didn’t materialize. We would have walked even if it had, but instead, we were blessed with a sunny day by the water. It was wonderful, as always, and we’re all caught up for now, and I know we’ll do it again sometime within the next twelve months.  

Friday, October 5, 2012

Holly, halfway through the cross-country season

I didn’t take it too seriously the few times over the summer that Holly mentioned she might want to join her school’s cross-country team. I knew some of her friends were interested and figured that hearing them talk about it was fueling her interest, but it wasn’t clear to me that she even knew exactly what a cross-country team was – or, more importantly, that it involved running, something Holly has almost never been known to do.
But when the date of the first meeting arose, she attended it, and when it was time for the first practice, she asked me to sign a permission slip and write a check. It turned out she really did plan to go through with it after all.

Now we’re four weeks into the season – about halfway through it – and  to my surprise, Holly’s commitment hasn’t wavered yet. She puts in four afternoons a week at practices or meets. She generally doesn’t talk much about training regimens or race times; occasionally I wonder if to her, cross-country is essentially an extension of recess, a chance to wander through the woods while talking with her friends. At least that was the impression I got from her early descriptions of team practices.

But then recently, something changed. Though not a star runner, she discovered at the past few meets that she gets a better time when she tries hard, focuses on the course, and runs by herself rather than with her friends – and her times are actually not bad for a small fifth grade girl.

It’s been a lesson to me in taking her seriously when she says she wants to try something new. And much as I hope she develops a passion for running and an allegiance to this team, I was perhaps proudest of her a few days ago when she said offhandedly in answer to a question Tim asked that she very well might not sign up for the team again next year – four sessions per week just seems too time-consuming, she said. What made me proud was that this was the first I’d heard of her not being crazy about the strenuous schedule. Even though she’d been feeling that way all along, she took her commitment seriously, never voicing her misgivings to me or hinting that she might not last the season.

No, she’s planning to see it through. And even as I nurse a secret hope that with another few weeks to go, she’ll come to like it so much that she will in fact sign up again next season, it’s fine even if she doesn’t. She has discovered the very best part of running: a chance to de-stress while loping through the woods, by yourself or with a friend, caught up in silent reflection or in conversation. It might not be the best basis for a team sport, but it has carried her happily through half the season, and to my mind, that’s a fine start no matter what happens next time around.

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Staying up late

I took a late-night trip to the airport to pick up my parents last Saturday. Their flight arrived a few minutes after ten o’clock. By the time I’d dropped them off at their house and gotten home myself, it was past eleven. But when I walked in from the garage, Tim was still in the playroom, playing a computer game.

“Go to bed, Tim,” I said automatically. “It’s really late.”
“I will. Soon,” he told me.

But as I headed upstairs to bed, I realized something unexpected: it didn’t really matter to me if he went to bed soon, because I had a sudden flash of memory of what it was like to be fourteen and staying up late on a Saturday night.

Quite simply, sometimes it was the best part of the week. At fourteen, in eighth grade, you’re still too young to drive anywhere or go out with your friends, but your body is developing a teen’s affinity for staying up late and sleeping late in the morning. On weekdays, you just have to fight it: force yourself out of bed when the alarm goes off, turn off the light at night when your parents tell you to in order to get a decent amount of sleep before school the next day.
But on weekends, you can give free rein to your naturally changing biorhythms. And when I saw Tim still playing computer games at 11 p.m., it reminded me how good that used to feel. I remembered the weighty hush of a house in which everyone else is sleeping. The sense of getting away with something because you’re still awake doing what you want to do. The privacy and solitude that are not necessarily easy to come by when you’re a middle schooler busy with friends, classes, team sports, and family activities.

Sometimes, I confess, I’m still tempted to find that late-night solitude, to stay up really late and wend my way through the wee hours reading or working on a project or watching a movie or writing, the way I used to do at Tim’s age. But, like eating candy every day, it’s one of those things you assume when you’re a kid that you’ll do as soon as no one can tell you not to, and then by the time you could do it without facing any sanctions, you have too many compelling reasons not to want to do it anymore. The house gets cold late at night, and it’s so much harder to think clearly after midnight. Predominantly, of course, is the reality that it’s just so hard to get up in the morning if you’ve stayed up really late. And sleeping late in the morning is unthinkable, with so many plans and duties and responsibilities.
So even though the words came out automatically that night – “Go to bed, Tim; it’s late” – I never followed up to confirm that he did. I just went to bed myself. And part of me hoped he didn’t go to bed for a while yet. For a few moments there, I was living vicariously, remembering the freedom of being a young teen with no weekend bedtime. And it felt good to remember.

Friday, September 28, 2012

Sobering contrasts

It was the strangest and most unsettling coincidental juxtaposition of events, and yet hundreds of parents in our community experienced it this week: transitioning in the course of twenty-four hours from a wake to a funeral to Parents’ Night at school.
In a matter of hours, we moved ourselves from something none of us could have imagined we’d be doing to something all of us take for granted as we proceeded from the service for a 43-year-old father who died suddenly over the weekend to a conversation about math concepts and reading groups.

And yet as sad as we are all feeling, there was something profound about the inadvertent timing of events. It reminded us of the extremes that can affect our children’s lives. The death of a parent: just about the worst thing imaginable to happen to a ten-year-old. A new year of school: stimulating, exciting, full of possibilities and new things to learn.

For those of us who had gone from the wake on Wednesday to the funeral on Thursday to Parents’ Night on Thursday evening – and it appeared to me that there were hundreds in that category – it was a matter of doing what needed to be done: paying tribute to a friend with crushing sorrow, and then sitting down in our kids’ classrooms to hear about what lies ahead for them this year.

Our school takes good care of its kids, intellectually but also socially and emotionally. At Parents’ Night, the focus was exclusively on middle school curriculum. But earlier in the week, there were emails and articles from the school to help us talk to our children about grief. There were opportunities for the kids to talk to guidance counselors. There were school psychologists visiting the classrooms to help the kids try to understand tragedy.

Both experiences – the school’s emergency response and the calm familiarity of Parents’ Night – reminded me that overseeing children’s well-being is a complicated responsibility, for parents and schools alike. We do our best, sometimes in the most difficult circumstances and sometimes, as in the case of teachers who welcome parents to their annual presentation year after year, under the most familiar circumstances. It’s been a painful week for many of us, but Parents’ Night was a soothing reminder that almost without exception, we send our children off every day to a safe, stimulating and nurturing place.