Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Dissipating negativity

Yesterday morning, I could almost envision my pervasive sense of negativity as a small glowing sphere that I was carrying around inside me. I knew this was a bad way to be, but I couldn’t seem to shake it. A complicated volunteer collaboration I was in the midst of had become slightly contentious, and the frustration and acrimony were beginning to seem like a physical entity that I had to bring along with me wherever I went, like a baby in a Snuggli pack.

And so I tried to talk myself out of it. I tried to remember everything I knew about the harmful effects of this kind of negativity: the physical toll that stress takes on the body, the sense of spiritual corrosion that being preoccupied with bad feelings rather than good ones always gives me, even the stress headaches that so often accompany situations like this one.

I reminded myself too of my fundamental belief in kindness. Over the past few years, I’ve begun to see kindness as an underrated virtue. Sure, sometimes it’s tempting to try to teach someone the error of their ways or to purge yourself of your own irritation, but the older I get, the more I’ve come to suspect that kindness never really fails. Yes, it would be nice to change the attitudes and approaches of some of the people I was dealing with in this particular situation, but suppose instead I just let kindness lead our interactions? Could I really go wrong with that approach?

And so I responded to a problematic email by thanking the sender for suggesting a different plan rather than by taking offense that she was trying to talk me out of what I had already decided to do. And then, as if through karma, a different participant in the project surprised me by calling to tell me that she agreed with my plan. Gradually, the ball of negativity within me began to dissipate. Nothing had really been resolved; it was just that better feelings were replacing the acrimonious aura.

Later in the day, catching up on Sunday’s New York Times, I was surprised to come across this quotation from Susan Credle, Chief Creative Officer at ad agency Leo Burnett USA, who was describing something she tells her employees: “…Because whether you say something inspiring on the elevator or you’re just nice or you put some positive energy into this office, that’s all helping us [produce succesful] work.”

Reading this when I did, it felt like an affirmation of my earlier thoughts. Putting positive energy into the air: that was what I was doing, to defuse my own negativity and other people’s as well. A leader at one of the country’s most successful ad agencies is saying just what I thought: positive feelings help make everyone function better.

By the end of the day, the group I was collaborating with had worked out all of our bumps in the road and were on course for a well-crafted outcome. My malaise was gone. Kindness and positivity had prevailed, and I felt great about it – as well as really validated.

Monday, February 27, 2012

February staycation

I like to think of it as a fair trade-off, and I savored it fully all day yesterday.

True, for the first eight days of the school vacation week it seemed as if everyone we knew had left town and was either riding up a ski lift or sliding down a water slide while we stayed home and kept Carlisle from getting musty, but yesterday the tables were turned: everyone else was arriving home to empty refrigerators and piles of dirty laundry while the four of us were wrapping up a very peaceful and serene staycation.

And in fact, I didn’t really envy the travelers, except maybe just for the glory of getting to say they’d gone away for the week. But we had such an enjoyable time at home that I didn’t feel like we were missing out. I had some opportunities to go walking in the woods, and even got the kids to come with me a couple of times. Tim went up to Portland with my parents for an overnight. Both of the kids had sleepovers with friends. We went to a museum one day and a movie another day; other activities included Tim getting a haircut and Holly picking out some new clothes. The four of us curled up to watch a Shrek DVD one weekend afternoon. We baked cookies and made Rick a birthday cake.

Not that I ever get all the way through my list, even during vacation. I had planned all week to find the bedside lamps and some framed family photos that are still in storage in the basement; that never happened. More importantly, I had promised myself that I would spend some time cleaning up Holly’s room, which truly does look like the proverbial cyclone hit it. That did happen, but it was literally in the final half-hour of the vacation, after Holly’s shower and before her 9:00 lights-out deadline last night.

It’s okay, though. School vacations are a limited commodity. Even this past week, I was talking to a friend about vacation week when I realized both her kids are now in college and the public school vacation schedule doesn’t mean anything to her anymore. I’ll be at that point myself before I know it. And chances are, when that time comes, Holly’s room will still look like a cyclone hit it; that’s a characteristic of hers that I’m not counting on seeing change. For now, I’m just relishing the memory of such a peaceful stay-at-home week. And unlike all my sunburned, ski-weary friends, I don’t even have any unpacking to do.

Friday, February 24, 2012

Art and craft

Yesterday I finally managed to get a museum visit onto our vacation week agenda, which thus far has been fairly lazy. The kids and my mother and I made the 45-minute drive to the Fuller Crafts Museum in Brockton. Taking our time and enjoying the lack of crowds, we examined tiny origami sculptures, jewel-toned glass pieces, wood carved into the shape of tricycles and bi-planes, textiles of all sizes, mobiles, and all kinds of other hand-wrought creations.

Various text panels throughout the museum explore the meaning of “craft.” How is what you see at this museum different from, say, a painting at the Museum of Fine Art or a sculpture at the Institute of Contemporary Art? Craft, as the text panels explained it, is a term for items that could theoretically be put to practical use. It’s hard to imagine drinking from a four-foot-high orange sculpted glass pitcher or riding a tricycle made entirely of wood, but in concept at least, the textiles can be worn; the chair that was cobbled out of found items ranging from screwdrivers to pen caps to clothespins can be sat in.

I thought of this as we examined vases, bowls, light sconces and furniture in the museum, and then I thought of other examples of art with a function. I thought about the lovely dresses that my niece has designed and sewn for proms and other special events throughout her teenage years. I remembered too a potter I interviewed for an article last fall, who talked about how it’s more important now than ever before to support artisans working in craft mediums. As he said, unlike in centuries past, you don’t need to go to a potter for a bowl or to a basket weaver for a basket or to a furniture maker for a table now. You can buy any functional item mass-produced. But you shouldn’t, he explained, because art needs to remain a priority, and it is up to the populace, in his view, to support art by seeking out beautiful design and elegant handiwork in even in the most functional of purchases.

It’s not a standard I always maintain. I buy glassware at Crate and Barrel, clothes at TJ Maxx, even mass-produced groceries when I could be supporting artisanal bakers. But being at the museum reminded me of what a difference there is when a functional object has been created by an artist rather than simply by someone who can stamp out a mass-produced piece of work.

Later in the afternoon, back home, I was walking with the dog in the woods near our house when I noticed a sizable beaver dam in the river alongside the trail. I had to smile as I tried to put it into context of all the art I’d viewed earlier in the day. The beavers are not, at heart, artisans. They don’t care about a visually pleasing form, merely a functional one. The dam isn’t meant to be pretty; it is meant to protect and shelter the beavers who use it. And yet what they had created struck me as just as breathtaking as any of the blown glass or ornately woven fiber art at the museum.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

A noble tradition of culinary optimism

Now this, I told myself as I put the loaf pans in the oven, is a true Mom move.

By which I meant not “mom” in the generic sense, as in “mom jeans,” but Mom as in my mom.

My sisters and I have long fallen subject to my mother’s eternal optimism when it comes to culinary preparations. Whether it’s because for years she taught cooking classes, worked as a caterer and wrote two cookbooks or simply because this is what all daughters and mothers do, we all call her when we are in a cooking-related jam. “Is it okay to freeze chowder?” we ask. “I need to bake two dishes at once; will the one that’s supposed to bake at 375 be okay at 325 if I just leave it in longer?” “This recipe calls for heavy cream but I’d really rather use 2% milk; will that work?”

Inevitably, her answer falls along a short spectrum: if she really doesn’t think the alteration will make any difference at all, she says, “It will be fine! I’ve done that myself many times!” At absolute worst, like if you told her that you planned to make a beef stew but had forgotten to defrost the frozen meat and would it be okay to just go ahead and start browning it in its rock-hard condition, she would say, “Well, it might change the texture a little, but who cares about texture? It will still taste good.” As my sisters and I joke, she never, never says “You’ve ruined it! That won’t work at all!”

And there are times when this sunny attitude toward cooking has probably saved a lot of sanity. Once when we were children, my sister stepped into a car through the open tailgate window and placed her foot directly into a cake my mother was about to transport to an event. “No problem!” my mother reassured her. “I’ll whip some cream and chop some fruit; we’ll fill in the footprint and call it a trifle!” (A layer of plastic wrap had separated my sister’s shoe from the food; it wasn’t an issue of sanitation, fortunately.)

So I was thinking of Mom on Sunday. The evening before, our propane tank had run dry after I had put into the preheated oven a batch of banana bread my 9-year-old had proudly made all on her own. Just minutes after the baking began, the oven started cooling off. I called the propane company, who promised me that someone would fill the tank bright and early the next morning.

I took the pans out of the chilly oven and contemplated them. I knew that if I asked ten different friends what to do, they would say there was simply no way to salvage the batter. Baking needs to be precise, they would say; and besides, it’s not even batter anymore, it’s partially baked bread. How can the mysteries of physics that turn wet dough into moist, crumbly cake possibly be expected to do their part under such irregular circumstances?

Yet with Holly watching, I couldn’t bear to start scraping batter into the trash. Yes, I told myself, ten friends as well as countless baking experts would surely tell me to throw it away. But my own mother wouldn’t. She’d say, “Refrigerate it ‘til tomorrow and try to bake it then! The texture might be a little different, but it’ll be fine!”

So in the end, that’s what I did. At nine o’clock on Sunday morning, the propane technician refilled our tank; by 9:15 the oven was preheated and the loaves went back in. A half-hour later, we had two pans of banana bread cooling on the counter. Holly was the first to sample it, and she pronounced it just as delicious as always. I could detect little difference in the finished product myself. Sure, maybe the texture was a little different, but the same intense banana flavor and sweet moist crumb prevailed.

I thought about how lucky I am to have a mother who offers this kind of advice. It’s not only that she’s good at cooking; it’s that she has such an admirable attitude. Nothing is ever ruined beyond salvation. Nothing is ever lousy or wasted. If you’ve used good ingredients and put some effort into it, almost anything is likely to turn out just fine.

It’s a good way to look at life as well as food preparation. So you made a mistake? So things didn’t go quite as planned? So you ran out of a key ingredient or the oven broke?

No big deal. Sure, the texture might not be just what you were picturing, in life as in cooking. But if you put in sincere effort and used quality ingredients, you’ll probably end up with something that tastes just fine.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Gathering together

Yesterday our family calendar included two scheduled events. At noon, we drove an hour and a quarter south to Acushnet to attend a birthday party for my husband’s grandmother, who was turning 89. Late in the afternoon, we headed back home to prepare for a dinner gathering with my parents and my 14-year-old niece who was visiting from Pennsylvania for the weekend.

Long after the last dinner dish was washed and our guests had gone home, I stood outside in the chilly winter air thinking about the two gatherings. At the first one, we visited with my husband’s sister and brother-in-law, aunts and uncles, cousins, grandmother. We ate ice cream and birthday cake. We talked about movies, upcoming vacations, the younger cousins’ college courses, home improvement plans, jobs, the vagaries of estate planning.

At the second one, we talked about school administration issues and kayaking and the many, many different ideas my niece has for how to spend a gap year she may eventually decide to take before college. (She’s only a freshman in high school, but she’s familiar with the gap year concept because her sister did this a year ago.)

But what I found myself thinking about was how they were similar, and how much of the day we had spent sitting around tables with our family members, enjoying conversation and food, sharing ideas and memories and plans and hopes, happy to see relatives whom we normally don’t see enough. My husband’s relatives mostly live an hour or so away, and we tend to see them at large gatherings at holidays. This was a relatively small gathering by their standards – about 16 people rather than the typical 30 or so – and it was good to be able to talk with everyone there. I made a salad, expecting it to be lost in the crush of an enormous spread of food, but in fact it was the only salad, and the other guests were remarkably complimentary of it, which meant a lot to me. Dinner with my parents and my niece featured a simple menu – homemade macaroni and cheese, plus steamed broccoli, and gingerbread with whipped cream for dessert – but it was wonderful to just spend time around the table and talk as we ate.

Family gatherings can be a mixed bag, but both of yesterday’s events reminded me of how rewarding these moments can be at their best. It’s just good to spend time together, to connect, to host and be hosted. Celebrating another birthday with an 89-year-old has so much meaning for us; it’s remarkable to me that Rick still has a living grandparent at all, and that she’s happy and healthy enough to attend her own birthday party makes it all the more significant. Welcoming a visiting 14-year-old niece feels equally important: we see her just a few times a year, and it’s always good to find out what’s new with her in terms of interests, hobbies, academic passions, plans for the near future.

Having both get-togethers in the same day reminded me of how connected we are in so many different direction to relatives of all ages and all branches of our family tree. We’re lucky to have this, and we’re lucky to have days like yesterday, days dedicated to immersion in family events.

Friday, February 17, 2012

A cracked screen -- and a worthwhile reminder

Yesterday’s Boston Globe had a cover story about a freelance computer repairman who is rapidly gaining fame – and presumably fortune – for his skills at repairing non-warrantied damage to iPhones. What primarily caught my attention other than the fact that this guy’s own iPhone is going to crash merely from the number of calls he’s going to be receiving as a result of this story was what he said the two major forms of damage done to iPhones are. One is that they get dropped into toilets; the other is cracked screens.

I’ve never done the former, but when I read the story, I remembered that like almost half of the subject’s clients, I too have cracked the screen on my iPhone.

The price for replacing an iPhone screen was listed in the story as $100, which is just about what I guessed it would cost. Except that I’d all but forgotten my screen was cracked. It happened in late November, and although I briefly contemplated having it repaired at the time, I realized yesterday that the whole idea of fixing it, and in fact the whole idea that I’d broken it, had all but disappeared from my radar in the nearly three months since.

The damage isn’t particularly inconveniencing. It’s a cobweb break that starts in the upper lefthand corner of the screen with a concentrated cluster of cracks; one runs horizontally across the upper part of the screen and one extends about halfway down the left edge, but none of it interferes significantly with visibility of the screen.

Ultimately, though, I don’t really think it’s either the thought of spending $100 or the fact that the cracks aren’t much of an inconvenience that keeps me from seeking out a repair. I think it may be that on some level, the fact that I broke the screen just two weeks after getting the phone serves as a reminder of something important to me: a reminder not to try to juggle too much at once: a reminder to pay attention and be attentive to whatever is in my hands, literally or figuratively.

On the rare occasions that someone sees my cracked screen and asks what happened, I usually hasten to explain that it wasn’t entirely the result of my own carelessness. I was a new iPhone user and was out running with a podcast playing and the NikePlus pedometer app running at the same time. And then the phone rang. That in itself might have been a problem already – I’m not sure I could have taken the phone out of my armband while I was running and answered it without dropping it – but there were even more mitigating factors: there was a message on the screen saying I had to click “Pause Nike Plus” or “Ignore phone call” before I could continue with either one. I got distracted and bogged down in the details, and that was what caused me to drop my phone, and that’s how the screen broke.

But I don’t even completely blame myself. It was a Saturday morning and Tim had called me three different times in the course of my five-mile run. My kids seldom call me at all while I’m out running, but he wanted to make waffles for an overnight guest and needed quite a lot of guidance, as it turned out. So I tend to assign some of the blame to Tim and his waffle-making shortcomings.

Really, though, it’s a story of my own carelessness and, more importantly, my lack of ability to prioritize. The podcast; the pedometer; the phone call; the run: it was just too much for me to integrate seamlessly, and so something broke in the process. Shortly after that, I started using a wristband pedometer instead of the Nike Plus app, and I learned to answer the phone without taking it out of the armband if it does happen to ring while I’m running. These are arcane adjustments, but it was a way of addressing information overload that took care of a trivial but still relevant problem.

Maybe I will get the screen fixed eventually. But I don’t know that I’ll do it any time soon. In the bulls-eye shape of the cracks on my screen is a message: slow down, stay focused, stop going off in so many directions at once. It’s a good lesson for me to remember, and so having it reinforced every time I look at my screen seems, by and large, like a very good thing.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Valentine's Day, redux

Just the words “Valentine’s Day” conjure up for me the taste of dark chocolate cupcakes made from a Betty Crocker cake mix, topped with thick sweet vanilla frosting and a sprinkling of grainy red sugar or a cinnamon heart. More than cards, flowers or candy, my most evocative Valentine’s memories come from grade school parties: the novelty of getting to eat sweets in the classroom, the break from routine.

My kids don’t know the pleasures of chocolate cupcakes and sugary frosting in the classroom on Valentine’s Day; food and drinks are no longer allowed at their school celebrations. They don’t know what they’re missing, but that’s not a bad thing, because they think Valentine’s Day at school is plenty of fun just the way it is. Holly spent hours this year making Valentines from heart-shaped pieces of shiny pink and red card stock: she glued sequins and stuck stickers to each one, then wrote her classmates’ names on them, signing each boy’s card “From Holly” while each girl and teacher got “XO Holly.” When she’d finished writing cards for the 18 students and two teachers in her class, she made a half-dozen more for good friends in other classes and past teachers.

Tim, who hasn’t been interested in Valentine’s card exchanges for years, took a different approach this year: he commissioned an original piece of Valentine’s artwork from a close friend known to be a talented artist and gave just that one card. (Shades of Cyrano de Bergerac, I realize, except that no one will mistake Will's artwork for Tim's.) His artist friend charged him $3, which Tim admitted at bedtime last night he hadn’t yet remembered to pay.

I gave Rick and the kids each a small box of chocolates; Rick brought flowers home from work for me. For once, I didn’t pester Holly to clean up the mess her crafts project left in its wake; we can deal with stickers, sequins and trimmed scraps of paper today. With or without cupcakes (though I admit I love cupcakes), Valentine’s Day is such a fun holiday to celebrate. Yes, it’s a day for love, but also for the good cheer of sweets and bright warm colors and silly poems on cards. It’s a holiday that doesn’t take itself too seriously, and yesterday was a great day to throw ourselves into it once again.

Monday, February 13, 2012

An ordinary Sunday

Just an ordinary Sunday.

After breakfast, I ran three miles. Not a particularly impressive distance, but it was 14 degrees out as I headed out the door. Three miles was all I could brace myself to do, and it was enough. Day 1646 of my running streak.

At church, I was prepared to teach Sunday school, but none of my students showed up, which is not unusual during ski season. So instead, I was able to attend the sermon given by our impressive student minister.

After church I stopped by my parents’ house. Mom gave me a batch of brownies to take home, and I showed her how to transfer an audiobook onto her iPod so she could listen to it in the car.

Back home, the kids had just finished unloading the dishwasher. True, I had left a note before I went to church specifically asking them to do that, so I wasn’t surprised, but it was still nice to return home to a partially cleaned-up kitchen.

My friends Jane and Donna came over to join me for a walk in the woods. We bundled up against the cold – typical for February, but not typical for this particular winter – and headed out planning to walk for an hour, but we were having such a good time being out in the woods and talking about a variety of issues that we stayed out for an hour and twenty minutes. Then we came home and ate the chocolate cookies that Tim had asked me to make earlier in the weekend.

Later in the afternoon I read the paper for a while and mixed up a batch of vegetarian chili for weekday lunches before heating up dinner: leftover pizza contributed by my parents, who had stopped by a new pizza parlor late last week. Over dinner, the four of us joked about Valentine’s Day ideas and made plans for Rick’s upcoming birthday. Tim and Holly played a video game together before bath time.

It wasn’t a holiday or a travel day or a day when we did anything very unusual. It was an ordinary day. And yet absolutely wonderful in its ordinariness. The life I live now is the life I dreamed of living when I was in my twenties and thirties: happy, well-adjusted kids and husband, comfortable inviting house, good friends, welcoming community, parents nearby. Getting paid for writing articles and essays. Being able to head out the back door for a walk in the woods any time I want to is the icing on the cake.

These are the kinds of weekend days the kids will remember, I think to myself as the day ends. Yes, they’ll remember vacations and special occasions, but also the days when we mostly just hang around enjoying each other’s company. Pizza for dinner; a video game or two; nothing spectacular. An ordinary day. I look back at my own childhood and remember similar days: listening to records, playing with the dog, maybe a board game or a ping-pong match with my sisters. Regular daily life.

But such a happy reality, then and now. Sure, special events make for great memories, and those are the ones that end up in the photo album: family trips, birthday parties, class plays, enormous snowmen, sand castles, baseball championships. We didn’t take any pictures yesterday; it didn’t occur to us that any of it was worth photographing, and we were probably right.

Perfectly ordinary days are difficult to capture in images: what would the composition of the photo actually consist of? Fortunately, the requirements for good memories aren’t quite so stringent.

Friday, February 10, 2012

Motivational words from a 13-year-old

I find words of inspiration in so many places. The works of Shakespeare. The journal entries of Thoreau. The poetry of t.s. eliot and Mary Oliver. Essays by Barbara Kingsolver. Church sermons and motivational speeches. But earlier this week, it was the words of a 13-year-old from Belmont that made me reverse course and do the right thing.

The crux of my role as library volunteer coordinator is to ensure that I’ve scheduled one or two volunteers to cover each classroom shift in the school library to assist the full-time librarian. Usually it all goes smoothly until winter hits, and then random viruses, extemporaneous vacations and bad weather cause my volunteers to start dropping like flies, at which point it becomes my responsibility to step in and do it myself.

In this case, it wasn’t even a last-minute call. This particular volunteer had let me know two days in advance that she couldn’t cover her shift. I’d already depleted all my library substitute resources for the week, so I told her not to worry about it; I could cover it myself. I put it on my Google calendar and promptly forgot about it.

When the ten-minute warning alarm sounded on my iPhone midmorning, I couldn’t imagine what the warning was for. I was in the middle of drafting an article and was sure I didn’t have any appointments scheduled for the day. And it was still hours until I had to meet Holly’s bus.

But when I glanced at the screen on my phone, there it was: 11 a.m. library shift. I’d absolutely forgotten.

Can’t do it, I immediately told myself. Too busy. The school librarian can manage without me. She appreciates us volunteers helping out, but she won’t mind covering by herself this once. I won’t even tell her I was supposed to do it; I’ll just tell her that the usual volunteer had to cancel and I didn’t have anyone else to cover. She’ll never know that it was actually me who reneged on the commitment.

And then for some reason, I remembered an interview I’d done a few weeks ago. I was talking to a 13-year-old named Nelson about his decision to step forward and initiate a fundraiser for the genetic condition from which his brother suffers. This was a big step for this young man. He didn’t normally talk much about the fact that his brother was nonverbal and mobility-impaired. And in the particular group that was looking for a cause to support with a fundraiser concert – the 13-year-old’s afterschool music program – he was new and hardly knew any of the other kids yet.

There was no reason, he had previously thought, to discuss his personal life and talk about his brother’s difficult situation with them. For all they knew, his family life was just like theirs, and he was happy to keep it that way.

But then, he told me during our interview, a thought came to his head. If no one else knew about his brother, it was a sure thing that no one else was going to suggest dedicating their fundraiser to research for this condition. Nelson was the only person in the room who had the set of information necessary to propose this idea – and, he realized at that moment, if he didn’t do it, no one else would. Or, as he put it, “My philosophy is that if you’re the only person who can do something and you don’t do it, it’s not going to get done. So I just went up there and talked.”

I thought of Nelson in the moments after my calendar alarm went off. True, I could get away with skipping library duty. No terrible consequence would come of it. On the other hand, I was the only one who knew it needed to be done. In this particular case, it was more my responsibility than anyone else’s in the entire world. Just as Nelson said, if I didn’t do it, it was a sure thing that no one else would.

So I went up to the library and did my volunteer shift. As always, it was easy and fun. Yes, it took an hour out of my workday, but somehow I managed to make up for it by the time the day was over. And Nelson was absolutely right: when you’re the only person who can do a thing, you’d darn well better do it.

Lesson learned, from the most unlikely of places. I love Nelson’s philosophy. It’s a quote you might never see in calligraphy on a wall hanging or inscribed in a book. But it was a fine reminder to me of how to do the right thing, and I feel sure that the words of Nelson Barnett will stay in my mind for a long time – and, I hope, ring out loud and clear once again the next time I’m in a dilemma about whether or not to step forward.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Amaryllis, unfolding

When it arrived, I wasn’t sure what to do with it.

Strangely, there were no instructions attached. Just a medium-sized square cardboard box in our mailbox a week before Christmas.

It was a bulb, I could tell that much, in a festive if frangible gold-colored gilt flowerpot. And with it in the box was a dark chocolate torte, as well as a packing slip and a computer-generated card saying the gift was from my two Colorado aunts. I wondered whether that particular combination packaged together – a bulb in a gold flowerpot and a chocolate torte – was a regular catalog item or if my aunts had chosen to combine the two. Either way, it was a generous Christmas present.

I know a lot more about chocolate tortes than bulbs. And as it happened, we were having guests midweek. So I refrigerated the tightly wrapped cake for a few days and then sliced it into thin wedges and served it on our holiday dessert plates with a spoonful of whipped cream. Our guests loved it; I admitted regretfully that I hadn’t made it.

I told myself I’d do a little bit of online searching to find out how to take care of the bulb, which the packing slip informed me was an amaryllis. I’m not very skilled with plants under the best of circumstances, and bulbs, with their onion-y appearance and tendrils barely emerging from the dirt, are even more mysterious than ordinary house plants. I put it on the windowsill and gave it a small amount of water, after asking both my mother and my aunt how to care for it and having both of them tell me, “You’re either supposed to water bulbs or not water them, but I can never remember which.”

Though it was right on the kitchen windowsill facing toward the sunny back yard, I didn’t think much about the bulb. I gave it a little water every few days, with no idea as to whether I was hurting it or helping it. I neglected my resolution to do some online research and find out how to take care of it.

And then in late January, the stem started to grow: a strong, pale green stalk extending straight up from the peculiar orb in the dirt. A bud formed on the end. And this morning, I noticed the bud was starting to open a tiny bit, revealing dark pink petals within.

The sight of this bud so very slowly flowering reminds me of when my children were born. First, the incredulity that anything was actually gestating at all, physical evidence to the contrary not withstanding. In the hospital while in labor for the first time, I saw the bassinet that the nurse had placed in the room and had a pang of surprise that she was so confident a baby was actually going to occupy that tiny crib by the time we were done. But sure enough, a baby did arrive soon enough, in both cases, and throughout the years ever since, I’ve been watching with wonder and curiosity as the bud slowly opens and the brilliantly colored petals of my children’s personalities emerge.

And of course then, as with the bulb, they arrived without printed instructions. I had to do my own research, and ask for advice, and figure it out by trial and error.

In a few days, we’ll have a fully flowering amaryllis on the windowsill, and it will remind me of mid-December and the arrival of a bulb that I really wasn’t sure how to take care of. Wondrous beings emerge from the plainest of containers. From this dull and oddly shaped brown bulb came a beautiful flower. Opening fully as it will just in time for Valentine’s Day, it will be our first hint of spring.

Monday, February 6, 2012

Super Bowl sentimentality

I don’t normally look forward to the Super Bowl. It’s not that I lack affection for the Patriots; it’s the sport of football itself that leaves me indifferent.

But this year I found myself looking forward to the Big Sunday. Sometimes it takes a few years of repetition before I begin to recognize a ritual for what it is, but for the past five years or so, we’ve watched the game at the same house, attending a party that seems to double in size every year.

And although big parties aren’t always my favorite place to be, this one is special because the guest list is loosely centered around the families of Tim’s wide circle of casual friends: the boys with whom he’s played baseball, sat in class, played at recess, and attended birthday parties for the past seven years or so.

It’s a group of people – parents and kids alike – whom I generally really like. But more than that, this year for the first time I began to sense how transient this ritual might well turn out to be. Our boys have all hung out together or at least attended school and played on teams together over the past several years, but that probably won’t last too much longer. In another two years, they’ll start high school; those who go to the public high school will attend classes with three times as many kids from the neighboring town as from their own, and some will go to private schools nearby or even off to boarding school. They’ll still be happy to see each other and maybe they’ll become part of Carlisle’s traditional day-after-Thanksgiving soccer game, an event that typically draws together old friends after they’ve gone off to college. But this particular group of fifteen or twenty boys won’t make up Tim’s daily peer set anymore, and their parents won’t be such a regular part of my life either.

I find that hard to face, but in a way this sentiment is very much in keeping with how I’ve been feeling ever since the start of the school year: Everything is perfect so please stop the clock right now. Both of the kids are happy and well-adjusted, with a healthy mix of social, recreational and academic interests. Holly is finally past the mercurial stages that can make the early years of school difficult; Tim isn’t yet thinking about SAT scores or learning to drive. This, right now, fourth and seventh grade, this is perfect. This is where I would freeze us, if I could.

And so as I began coring peppers and mixing filling for the tray of chilis rellenos I was bringing to the Super Bowl party, I thought of the other parents whose presence in my life I had taken for granted for so long: from the sometimes-hilarious, sometimes-tedious days of toddler playgroups, to the continuous birthday party circuit of their early grade school years, to the spring and summer baseball games at which we spend so much time gabbing. Even as I recognized all the specific privileges that my parenting circumstances afforded me – a friendly and safe community full of like-minded families with similar priorities – I indulged once in a while in twinges of boredom, admitting to myself if no one else that I’d rather be reading a book or working on an article than attending another library sing-along.

And yet as with so many things, the awareness that it won’t in fact last forever is finally making me appreciate it. Tim will probably always have friends, but not these friends; I’ll always have other parents to share the parenting experience with, but not these same couples I’ve known for almost a decade. The boys will grow apart and so will we. Even now, the boys hang out after school at the library or the general store or the soccer field on their own, so we parents don’t spend as much time gathered together watching them play. Soon we’ll see even less of each other, and that realization makes me sorry.

So this year I headed off to the Super Bowl party with something I didn’t usually take along: a sense of anticipation. I was looking forward to seeing all those other adults whom I see less now than I used to. Tempis fugit, in this situation as in all others. I don’t know how many more years this particular party will happen for, or who will attend in future years. This time, I’m looking forward to all those familiar faces. We grow older as the boys grow up, and it’s good to be spending time together once again.

Friday, February 3, 2012

The coffee grinder, rising like a phoenix...

Ironically, the very same week I conceded that my frequent and open expressions of gratitude are apparently annoying to some people, the coffee grinder fixed itself.

And if there was ever a time that I simply cannot repress my feelings of gratitude, this may be it.

A coffee grinder isn’t all that important, of course. And yet having it break seems like an inconvenience far out of proportion to the appliance itself, especially at 6:45 on a Tuesday morning. I had no ground coffee in the house, only whole beans. So without the grinder, there was no way to make coffee.

This development wasn’t completely unexpected. The grinder is almost ten years old, which is geriatric for an inexpensive electric kitchen appliance. And recently I’d noticed that it had been making sort of an irregular chucking noise when it was running. And I’m sure the fact that the particular kind of coffee I favor has a very high oil content doesn’t help when it comes to machine maintenance.

So I was disappointed but not shocked when it stopped working altogether on Tuesday morning. I took it apart and cleaned out each piece and reassembled it, but still, only a dry whirring sound rather than the reassuring roar of a successful coffee-grinding operation came out.

But the next morning, just on what felt like the most futile kind of whim, I turned the dial just one notch to the right, and it roared to life.

I have no idea why. I guess maybe it just needed a little vacation. This was a small thing, but there was something so satisfying about it because it left no room for ambiguity. The coffee grinder was working again, and I could have a fresh cup of coffee, and there were no further contingencies to address.

Meanwhile, other good things happened this week too. A family member who was expecting bad news on the medical front instead received news that was conditionally optimistic. The acute soreness left from my gum graft surgery last week began to subside. I finished my first small project for a new client and both of us were happy with the results.

The coffee grinder was probably the most trivial item on my entire list of problems earlier this week, and so my sense of delight when it inexplicably came back to life was probably somewhat out of proportion. But it was just so easily solved that I couldn’t help being pleased. Fresh coffee: a minor concern compared to health, pain relief or many other issues. But a fine reward nonetheless. And so once again I can’t refrain from expressing, yes, gratitude.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Snowless winter

It’s been a warm, snowless winter.

And in some ways, that’s not so bad. Last winter was the snowiest winter I could remember, the snowiest winter in fifty years, the snowiest winter on record – I don’t remember how it was defined, but parents of school-aged kids came up with their own term for it: a winter so snowy that even the kids stopped thinking snow days were fun.

Snowbanks that looked more like walls than piles lined the roadway. Plow drivers complained that there was so place left to put the snow.

Not this winter. After one bizarre and unseasonable storm two nights before Halloween, we’ve had just a dusting here, a dusting there. Traces of white on the tree branches now and then, but no sledding, no snowmen. All fall, as I walked along the trails of the state park behind our new house, I thought “These trails will be great for showshoeing,” but my snowshoes remain in the exact same place where I put them when the movers unloaded them last April.

Thre’s a lot less inconvenience to a warm snow-less winter. No scraping sound of the plow driving by before dawn. No clearing snow and ice from the windshield after work. No pestering the kids to shovel a path for the dog, who refuses to go to the bathroom in drifts as high as her stomach.

And we’re certainly saving money on the plowing, or lack thereof.

But I could use a snowy day right about now. Sure, we all romanticize the school cancellations of our childhoods. We all reminisce about long days passed in snowball fights interrupted only for servings to hot chocolate or a fresh batch of cookies from the oven. And we all grow up to learn about a different kind of snow day: the kind when you absolutely have to get to work for a ten o’clock meeting or drive 45 minutes down the icy, blizzarded-in highway for a long-scheduled doctor’s appointment just as the no-school text message arrives from the superintendent’s office.

Yes, we all at some point in adulthood experience a moment of snowstorm-induced stress, after which we wonder what happened to those wonderful stormy days remembered in rosy shades from our youth.

But having no snow has taken us too far to the other extreme. I’m tired of mud. I want to wake to the strange grayish light of snow covering the skylights over the bed. I want to hear the kids cheer when I tell them there’s no school today. I wouldn’t even mind hearing them plead for bacon and waffles, a special breakfast for a special day. (Last year, there were so many “special day” breakfasts on snowdays that I began to worry about my son’s cholesterol level.)

Instead, I woke today to bare ground, bare branches, bare sky. Last winter at this time there were four feet of snow on the ground. We took pictures of the rail fence with the snow reaching the highest rail, of the wooden swing with snow up to its seat, of the kids diving into snowdrifts taller than them, and we dreamed of summer.

This year there’s nothing to wish away, no need to dream of warmer days. And there’s a sense of something remiss in that. Perhaps we need the snowbanks to remind us of beaches, the snowdays to remind us of summer vacation. Without duress, there can be no welcome rush of relief. And as the mushy, mild days roll on, I wonder if we’ll notice when spring arrives.