Friday, March 30, 2012

Coffee to go

Holly has recently begun packing her own school lunches, so last night I was in the kitchen keeping her company as she sliced cheese and bagged grapes. It felt downright abnormal to be in my own kitchen with nothing to do, so I measured out coffee into the filter and poured water into the chamber of the coffee maker for this morning.

And then this morning, just before I started making Tim’s breakfast at 6:45 a.m., I pushed the button and the coffee started brewing.

It was such a trivial act, and yet I felt like I’d given myself a little gift. Fresh coffee on its way without my having done anything to get it started – not having to rush around the kitchen multi-tasking the way I usually do in the morning, anyway – felt like a whole new way to start the morning. Usually I’m juggling so many things at once at that hour: slicing a bagel for Tim, packing up lunches, feeding the dog, unloading the dishwasher. And then along with juggling everything else, I try to put the beans in the grinder, the filter into the holder, the water into the pot.

Today it was ready at the push of a button, all because I’d taken three minutes last night to get it ready. I could have done that any night. And it’s not that I never thought about it; I just never bothered. My attitude was always that once the dinner dishes were washed, I was done in the kitchen for the night; doing morning tasks ahead of time never seemed like much of a bargain if it meant having more work to do at night.

Somehow it was different this time, though. Seeing Holly make her own lunch – an innovation in itself – made me feel like I was getting a break already, and making the coffee instead of standing there watching her was no trouble. But it was just such a revelation to me how pleased I was with myself. It was as if all those “Pamper yourself” approaches that go into the marketing of soaps, cosmetics, and spa treatments could have just been replaced by this one act: having coffee ready ahead of time.

I can try to keep this habit up, but I know the luster will wear off eventually, and making the coffee at night will seem like just another regular part of my routine. And then having it all set in the morning won’t seem so special anymore. But for the moment, it does. When you have the chance to do something nice for yourself, you might as well do it. Especially when it’s as easy as the push of a button.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Where the ideas are

Yesterday morning while running, I listened to an interview of Jonah Lehrer discussing his new book, Imagine: How Creativity Works, in which he explores the roots of creativity and tries to answer the question of where people get ideas.

The interviewer asked Lehrer about his premise that all kinds of creativity have common elements in terms of how and where they generate. Creativity does not manifest only in writing a poem or painting a landscape; Lehrer posits; creativity can also be found in the formation of an advertising tagline, the invention of masking tape, or the solution to a software bug.

Not surprisingly, when I think about the presence of creativity in my life, I tend to think about my writing, especially essays and blogging. Coming up with ideas – no fewer than three a week, to meet my self-prescribed blogging quota – sometimes feels like an almost agonizing workout of my creativity muscles.

So I was interested in what Lehrer had to say. One key point he made was the importance of the mental stimulation we get from other people. To take his point a step further, the secluded-cabin-in-the-woods concept for writing isn’t really the best way to generate ideas, though it may seem awfully tempting to a would-be novelist who is also a stay-at-home mother of three young children or a would-be poet who is also an accountant heading into tax season.

My experience definitely bears this out: although solitude is wonderful for output, a retreat tends to be most useful when you already have an idea you want to pursue. For sheer generation of ideas, what I find to be most useful is, more than anything else, exposure to other people who have something to say, whether in the form of friends, academic lecturers, clergy members giving sermons, or even celebrities making off-the-cuff comments about their own lives. Even chaperoning kids’ activities always gives me a rich storehouse of new ideas. So does a half-hour of sitting in a doctor’s waiting room, though I’d rather not have to do that to be inspired.

Lehrer tells the story of Steve Jobs insisting that the Pixar Studios be reconfigured such that everyone was required to use the same pair of bathrooms rather than have one close to their desk. It was, quite simply, the optimal way to be sure that employees had regular and inescapable contact with one another – and it was from that constant exposure to other minds that the ideas started flowing, no pun intended.

All of this is a good reminder for me when I start to feel reclusive and try to justify staying home to write rather than going grocery shopping or meeting a friend for coffee or volunteering in my kids’ classrooms. No: I know that really I need all of those things. Those are the moments from which creativity is generated. And next time I’m stuck for an idea, I’ll shrug off the temptation for quiet and solitude, and will instead grab my notebook and head for wherever the crowds can be found.

Monday, March 26, 2012

...And then what?

In Portland for the weekend, we embarked on a long harborside walk after lunch on Saturday: almost four miles, from Commercial Street onto the Eastern Promenade bike path all the way to the entrance to the Back Cove, and up the steep stone staircase onto Munjoy Hill, and from there past the old Victorian homes back into town.

It was brisk and refreshing and great for conversation and a really good workout besides, but when we arrived back in town, I noticed how much my foot hurt.

This had never happened before. I’ve been a runner since I was nineteen years old and I’ve never had a running injury, other than two days of back pain a few years ago that inexplicably arrived and left with no apparent reason.

I left my friends to their shopping and made my way to a gelato shop, where I sat down and had a cup of gelato and thought about my newfound injury. I was fairly sure it was the result of the long walk – though why this particular hour-long walk rather than any other, I didn’t know, since I do walks of this length nearly every weekend. And I was fairly sure that sharp foot pain after a long walk indicated a stress injury, and not one that was about to fix itself.

So for the first time in my four-and-a-half-year-long running streak – at 1,787 days – I contemplated the possibility that I might not be able to go running the next day.

This might be it, I thought to myself. The end of my daily running streak.

And then what?

It wasn’t something I’d thought much about – how it would feel to stop running. But that wasn’t even what I found myself thinking about. More complicated in my mind was what would happen when I eventually got better. Would I start another running streak? That’s what plenty of other runners on the U.S. Running Streak Association registry have done – ended a streak for any number of reasons and then begun another one eventually. When Ronald Kmiec, from whom I first learned about streak running, had a heart attack, he ended a 32-year streak, took five weeks off, and began another one. And what intrigued me about that was that he was in his 60s at the time. He had to know he didn’t have another 32-year streak ahead. But he started at Day One and began again anyway.

It’s hard to imagine what it would feel like to start counting consecutive running days all over again, from the single digits, into the double digits, past Day 100, up to one year, and so on. I’m not sure if I’d do it or not. On the one hand, ending the streak would be a way out of the compulsion of never taking a day off – a compulsion that is definitely not a deep-seated psychological issue for me but merely a mental and physical challenge. On the other hand, I’ve said so many times that being a streak runner means never waking up and having to decide whether it’s a good day for a run, and I sometimes feel like the worst part about not being committed to the streak would be having to decide when to go running.

But as I sat there with my gelato, I thought more about what it means to acknowledge that someday my running streak will end, and it’s a good idea to be able to project some kind of game plan for when that happens, or at least have some kind of idea of what it will feel like. “So you’ve stopped running,” I imagined telling myself. “And then what?”

It made me think about other things that could end. The lease on our house, which we love, lasts another sixteen months; being able to live there is something I’m grateful for daily, but at some point I need to focus more seriously on what comes next. I write for a regional section of the Globe, and my editor assigns me plenty of work, but my editor could be transferred and I might no longer be wanted there. And then what? What would it mean to my professional identity to no longer be a weekly Globe contributor? Right now my kids are young and need me daily, to do everything from make their breakfast to help them work out friendship issues, but they’ll eventually be at an age where they won’t necessarily want to share so much, and not long after that they might even move away from home. And then what?

To my surprise and relief, my foot felt a little bit better when I was done with the gelato; apparently just a half-hour of rest was enough to help. And when I woke up Sunday morning, I felt fine, without a trace of pain. I ran four miles.

So my streak is intact and I’m now up to Day 1,789. But someday, my last day of streak running will come, and unless it’s also the last day of my life, I’ll still have that question to answer. And then what?

With running, with the house, with the kids, with other family members. Live in the present, but have some kind of game plan for what comes next. Even if you’re on a streak – of running, of health, of parenting, of anything – that you’d rather not see end.

Friday, March 23, 2012

Skateboarding (Day One)

The first time Holly brought it up, I suspected it might also be the only time she’d bring it up. “Mommy, you know how you always want me to try more outdoor activities and sports. Well, I want to try skateboarding.”

I assumed it was something she’d seen on TV or heard a friend talking about. It was mid-February and we were in the midst of the very small window every year when I’m actually not looking for more ways to spend time outdoors with the kids. So I pretty much brushed it off.

But she brought it up again – every week or two, it seemed, throughout the winter. She wasn’t pestering or whining or pleading; she was just confirming that this was something she wanted to try.

No one in our family skateboards and I couldn’t think of any of her peers whom I’d ever seen skateboard. I didn’t know where to begin as far as equipment and instruction. Is it something you just pick up instinctively, like riding a bike? Or is it more like skiing, where a few lessons to teach you the basics can really make the difference between ongoing success and a dead end?

This past Tuesday, a warm sunny day in the midst of what felt like a March heat wave, I ran into my friend Patricia up at school. As we chatted, I remembered that her sons have done a little skateboarding in the past. “How did you get them started?” I asked her. “How did you know where to begin?”

Patricia solved it easily. “Anthony is home right now and doesn’t have any homework,” she said. “Bring Holly over and he can show her a few things.”

Anthony, my friend’s 12-year-old, was waiting on the front porch for us when we arrived, after a brief detour home to get socks, sneakers and Holly’s bike helmet. He offered Holly one of his many outgrown skateboards to use and started immediately with rudimentary steps. “To get started, you just do a double push-off and then glide,” he showed her as we stood in their driveway.

On the drive to their house, I’d wondered what would happen at this point. When I was her age, I went through a phrase of fascination with motorcycles. I insisted I loved motorcycles and wanted nothing so much as to ride a motorcycle. Then one day my father brought me over to his mechanic's house. The mechanic was waiting on his bike. His wife brought out a helmet for me. I was speechless. I never meant to be taken seriously. But the wheels were in motion, both literally and figuratively, so I hopped on the motorcycle, reached around the man’s waist as best I could, and off we went for a spin around the block. It was a thrill, but scary also, doing something I’d never really intended to make a reality.

I wondered if Holly might be equally flummoxed when faced with the reality of a skateboard, but she wasn’t. She copied Anthony’s form, and the skateboard glided in a short, neat line as she balanced atop it. She turned to him for the next instruction.

Patricia and I did the most sensible thing we could at that point: we told the kids we’d be on the porch and we moved out of their line of vision. Curious as I was about what would transpire, I knew that standing there watching Holly’s skateboarding lesson would be helpful to absolutely no one.

Sitting on the porch sipping seltzer, we heard no shouts or tears or anything much at all until Anthony trotted around the side of the house after 45 minutes and said “Holly is ready to show you the three things she learned today.”

Holly double-pushed, glided….and toppled off the skateboard onto the pavement. Immediately she stood up and didn’t even dignify her new scrape with a glance. Back onto the skateboard for another double-push and glide, this one successfully defying gravity. Then a tiny turn, then a stop.

We told Anthony we’d come back next week if he’d do another lesson. He instructed Holly to wear pants instead of shorts next time for better skin protection and then said she could borrow the skateboard for practicing. As soon as we got home, she found the flattest part of our driveway and went out to work on her newfound skills.

It may be the beginning of a new passion, the very first sport she’s taken an interest in doing. It may be a passing phase, or it may be a curiosity satisfied in just one lesson, like me with motorcycling. But today she was back out on the driveway practicing again. Push, push, and glide. She’s on her way.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

The scent of school

Maybe it’s because this unseasonably warm weather gives the sense that the end of the school year is closer at hand than it is, or maybe it’s because most of my volunteer duties at school – the seventh grade play, fourth grade band coverage – are over for the time being, and my next big school-related job – chairing the teacher appreciation luncheon in June – is still months away. But whatever the reason, I was feeling uncharacteristically sentimental as I made my way through the middle school hallway en route to the cafeteria to do my monthly stint as fourth grade lunch/recess volunteer yesterday.

There was a time when I thought any visit to the school would make me feel sentimental. It was my childhood school for nine years, after all, from kindergarten through eighth grade. And so when we started preparing to send Tim to kindergarten and I made those first few visits to the campus to learn about what kindergarten was like in Carlisle in the 21st century, I misted up with nostalgia. And I thought I’d always be like that.

But in the ensuing years, the wash of nostalgia has subsided. Now the school is no longer the setting of my ever-so-slightly-faded childhood memories; it’s the place where my children spend 180 days a year, and much of the sentimentality I once felt about sending them there has been subsumed in the reality that defines the ins and outs of public schooling. I genuinely believe we have a wonderful school system, and I am profoundly appreciative to be able to send my kids to this school. And yet the comparisons with sausage-making are inevitable: being immersed in the quotidian concerns of school life certainly takes away some of the dewy-eyed nostalgia. There are MCAS scores to contemplate, discipline issues to deal with, matters of friendship and bullying and everything that falls between the two to try to understand, and seemingly endless volunteer needs to help fill.

So my recent visits to campus have been a little less nostalgic than my earlier ones.

Yesterday was different, though. The sun was bright and the air warm; my job was to stand out at recess and keep an eye on the third graders. They played tag and soccer and had races; it’s easy to see how we have such a fit student population, given the time they spend running on the school plaza during recess. The smell of the middle school hallway reminded me of how happy I often was during my own days as a child there. I remember a feeling of excitement during so much of the time I spent at school: when I was younger it was about wondering what new opportunities would arise in the classroom from day to day, and then in middle school years it was more related to my social life, but there was always a sense that something interesting was about to happen. Even then, I found our school a comforting place and I was proud of it.

All of those feelings came back to me yesterday, replacing the general sense of weariness I’d developed over a long winter of dealing with school-related issues. Even during years as good as both my kids are having, in fourth and seventh grade, it seems there’s always something causing a little bit of turmoil.

But not yesterday. Yesterday, the school felt like the same engaging and cheerful place it had been back in first grade when my teacher created amazing murals with soap and washable paint on the classroom windows; back in fourth grade when friends and I wrote and performed our own play for the class; back in sixth grade when the posters went up for our first school dance. As I tell my childhood friends who did not move back to town and still have their own misty-eyed memories of our old school, it’s not Disney World. It’s a real place with both positives and negatives, and to get too nostalgic is to misunderstand how complicated a public school system can be in this day and age.

At the same time, sometimes it doesn’t feel complicated at all. Sometimes it just feels...well, like home.

Monday, March 19, 2012

To Do....or not To Do

I woke up yesterday morning already facing defeat with my To Do list.

I just knew I wouldn’t get through it. I never get through it. And if there was ever a weekend when my odds were good of navigating my entire To Do list, this weekend was it. We had almost nothing on the calendar other than bringing Tim to a school dance on Friday evening and picking him up afterwards, a children’s theater event on Saturday afternoon, and church on Sunday morning. So if you start the clock at 5 p.m. on Friday – the time that I consider the work week over and the time that both kids are home from their afternoon activities – and run it until 10 p.m. on Sunday – the time I try to get to bed – and then subtract eight hours each on Friday night and Saturday night for sleeping, that leaves about 37 hours to fill however we chose.

But by Sunday morning, I knew I wouldn’t get through my list, and as I lay in bed thinking about getting up, I found myself unwittingly cataloging those items most likely to get bumped. I knew I’d get through the basics: running, church, cooking meals, washing dishes, probably a load or two of laundry. But I knew I wouldn’t get to any of the lower-priority tasks, like putting away the props from the play that ended its run two weeks ago, cleaning up Holly’s room (which in terms of the frustration it causes me should be top-priority, but because of the amount of work it constitutes always gets bumped down a notch), and searching through the boxes that we still haven’t unpacked since moving here last spring for the nighttable lamps that I really wish we could start using again.

So I got out of bed and focused on the beginning-of-day items I wanted to get through: writing in my journal, eating breakfast, putting bacon in the oven for when the kids woke up (they sleep late on weekends, which is truly one of the many joys of reaching the tween years). But even as I drove to church, I was still thinking about all that I wanted to get done but probably wouldn’t find time for.

And then at some point I had a change of heart. What if I just catalogued those things that did get done, instead of those that didn’t? What if instead of rebuking myself for never getting those last few boxes unpacked, even eleven months after our move, I celebrated the fact that I was out for a four-mile run before church? What if making the bed mattered more than not getting the laundry done?

Just thinking this way put a more positive spin on the day. And when I got home from church, the sun was shining and the temperature had already reached the low sixties. Holly wanted to go for a bike ride, Tim wanted to play badminton, and my friends Jane and Donna were coming by for a walk at 2:00.

So I mentally threw away the To Do list and just enjoyed the sunshine. Truth be told, by the time dinnertime rolled around, I’d accomplished even less than I expected. I hadn’t even made it to the supermarket, having rationalized that if we had milk, orange juice, and lunch-makings for Monday, it could wait another 24 hours.

And yet I’d gone running, biking, walking and played badminton, as well as collaborated with Tim to set up a ladder and pluck three errant badminton shuttlecocks out of the roof gutter. It was a late-winter day that felt like summer, and I’d spent more than half of it outside. Yes, the laundry went unwashed, the groceries unpurchased, and the nighttable lamps left in their storage boxes for yet another week.

But I’d stopped thinking about it. For the rest of the day, I counted what I did do rather than what I didn’t. And that made me feel as if I’d accomplished plenty.

Friday, March 16, 2012

Small-scale excursion

The kids had a professional day yesterday, so I decided it was a good time for a Very Small Excursion.

Well, not small in terms of carbon footprint. Our destination was 45 minutes of highway driving in both directions, though we did drive the Prius. Regardless, our plan was small in terms of ambition. Whereas sometimes we set out with far grander plans, bound for the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston or the hiking trails of Mount Manadnock, somehow I sensed this week that the excursion most likely to succeed would be an easy one.

Our first destination was the Post Road Art Center in Marlborough to see an exhibit I’d written an article about a few weeks ago. An art gallery sold $25 bags of art supplies, each bag identical, and then held a contest for artists to see what they could create using only the contents of the bag. I was curious to see how many different ways a canvas, an orange marker, a tube of blue paint, and a few other art supplies could be deployed.

Dozens, as it turned out. We spent an hour examining all the different entries. The kids – Holly, Tim and Tim’s friend Will – took their time examining each piece of art and offering observations on the artists’ different interpretations. Being able to vote for a winner lent extra intrigue to the process; they discussed at length whether to vote based on visual appeal alone or on creativity of approach in terms of how the variety of materials was incorporated. Finally, Tim voted for the one he found most beautiful; Will voted for the one he thought was most difficult to execute; and Holly, who in the end couldn’t bear to choose just one, appropriated my ballot to cast one vote for the piece she considered most detailed and another for the one she liked the looks of best.

From there, we drove to Wegman’s, the mega-supermarket new to Massachusetts. I’d read about it when it opened a few month ago and tried to describe to the kids what I knew, but none of us was prepared for the magnitude of the lunch area, with its row upon row of buffet tables, each dedicated to a different kind of cuisine. It took us a full thirty minutes to take in all the options before we made our choices: cheese pizza for Holly, fried chicken for Will, Chinese sweet and sour barbequed chicken for Tim, Indian curried vegetables and brown rice for me, and tortilla chips with salsa for everyone to share. But the greatest attraction of Wegman’s turned out to the self-service soda machines operated via by touchpad screens. The kids were mesmerized.

It was an easy day and a fun one, and it reminded me of the extent to which less can be more when it comes to planning outings. Even with small-scale plans, we’d all learned a bit about art and retail. The boys got into a fairly sophisticated discussion over lunch about the amount of revenue an enormous lunch hall like the one at Wegman’s generates compared to what its operating costs might be; then the conversation turned to the question of how that particular location was selected for the state’s first Wegman’s, and the kids forayed into topics such as target consumer groups, local zoning laws, traffic patterns, and competitive retailing.

When my children were really little, I would remark sometimes how little it took to come up with a plan that kept them amused. We could board the train in Concord, ride it to West Concord, cross to the other side of the tracks and do the same thing in reverse and they’d consider it a big day. We could read a picture book on a park bench and it was something to tell Daddy about when he got home. We could throw pebbles into a river from a bridge and they’d recount it during Sharing Time at preschool the next day.

Now that one child is a teenager and the other isn’t far behind, it seems only natural to me that their standards are higher. I try to look for opportunities that are more intellectually stimulating or physically challenging when we have a chunk of free time. But yesterday, I learned anew that sometimes simplest is best. As long as there’s a really cool touch-screen soda dispenser somewhere along the way.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Working the sound board

Seeing Tim help run the sound board at the seventh grade play last month felt somehow like a resolution, like the conclusion of a debate that had been going on in my head for years.

Tim simply does not have as extroverted a personality as I do. He’s serious and introspective where I’m more sociable. And because serious introspection is fairly uncommon in little boys, this has been a source of some puzzlement, if not consternation, over the years – not for me as much as for other people who don’t know him as well as Rick and I do. At a conference with his kindergarten teacher, we heard her concerns that he seemed uneasy and slightly removed in class much of the time. “He just has no tolerance for chaos and mayhem,” I said. “But it’s kindergarten!” exclaimed his teacher, who clearly fell on the other end of the spectrum, given her career choice. “Chaos and mayhem are the order of the day!”

But Tim held steady in his resistance to noisy, busy, social situations. It was harder when he was younger and didn’t much like the birthday parties or playgroups in which louder and more high-energy boys seemed to thrive. As Tim and his peers grew older, and the other kids calmed down somewhat, it became less of an issue.

And yet he’s never liked being in the spotlight, so I wasn’t surprised when he rejected the idea of trying out for the seventh grade musical, even knowing that just about all of his classmates – some of whom have become his close friends in recent years – would be part of it. And when he shrugged and said he’d sign up to work on the sound board instead, I thought it was just a concession, a way of participating in the experience even if he didn’t really want to.

But once he started attending technical rehearsals, I realized this wasn’t a token gesture of participation on his part; this was what he really wanted to do. While the other kids sang and danced and hammed it up on stage, Tim listened intently to the stage manager’s voice on his headphones, learned what all the different switches and dials were for, conferred with his sound board partner and studied the script for upcoming microphone cues. He wasn’t just paying his dues to be part of a class event, I realized; he was in his element. Far from the spotlight, he had an important job to do, and all his concentration was on doing it well. When each rehearsal ended, while the actors goofed around to let off pent-up energy, Tim industriously wound up cables and lugged speakers under the guidance of the adult who was overseeing sound.

So for the final performance, while other parents sat as close to the stage as they could, taking pictures and beaming with well-deserved pride at their children’s comedic talents and singing range, Rick and I sat near the back of the auditorium, where we had a good view of the stage but could also see Tim and the other sound crew member going through their paces.

I realized at last, seven years beyond that conversation with the kindergarten teacher, that Tim’s approach was just fine. No, he wasn’t big on chaos and mayhem. He made it to the cast party – cake and pizza in the school cafeteria – but while the other boys popped balloons, he drank a Coke and talked with a few friends.

He understands himself even if I might not always understand. And last month, being part of the play, he found his niche with no trouble at all and settled right in. He had a job to do, and that was exactly what he wanted.

Monday, March 12, 2012

Spring ahead (even if it's not spring)

I’m still not accustomed to the earlier date for starting daylight saving time.

Even in this winter-less winter, it feels too early to have sunlight at dinnertime. Daylight saving seems like it should be a precursor to summer, and that made sense when it used to fall in April, once spring was well under way. To have the clocks change before winter has even ended – by the calendar if not by the thermometer – still seems strange to me.

And yet it’s hard not to welcome the extra daylight, and the irrepressible surge of energy it brings. Losing an hour is hard for me; harder than it should be – as I said to my 19-year-old niece yesterday, I keep thinking someday I’ll be an organized and caught-up enough person that one hour really won’t make a difference to me either way, but unfortunately I’m not there yet – but it’s hard to argue with the tradeoff. Seeing sunlight last well into the early evening is inspiring, no matter when it occurs.

So I struggled to get out of bed at seven Sunday morning, intent on starting what felt like a new season with the change of clocks on the right foot rather than letting myself sleep in. The kids both slept late, not having any interest in making an effort to adjust to the new time, and that gave me hours in the morning with which I would have liked to read the Sunday papers but instead completed my 2011 mileage chart to send our tax accountant. Tedious, but necessary; and a decent way to make good use of the morning.

Energized by the sunshine, I tinkered a little bit with making parts of the house look nicer – rearranging knickknacks, putting away paperwork -- and Rick got the the kids to tidy up the playroom while I was out running. By the end of the day, we all felt as if we’d done a touch of spring cleaning.

The sunlight lasted well past dinnertime. Yes, it’s still technically winter, but the clocks have changed and the daylight stretches into the evening now, which to my mind makes it feel more like the onset of spring than any change in temperature could. Longer days are coming, and with them summer. It was a beautiful start to a new season.

Friday, March 9, 2012

Surprised by empathy

I think most parents are like me in that as soon as we send our daughters off to school, we know on some level that the day will come when we’re drying her tears and trying to come up with answers about why kids sometimes don’t always treat each other too nicely. No matter how closely we read Reviving Ophelia or Queen Bees and Wannabes, or attend anti-bullying sessions sponsored by the PTA or listen to the counsel of friends with older kids, we wonder how we’ll help her navigate this particular age-old maze.

I don’t mean to sound sexist; boys have friendship issues too, but in my household, that part has been easy. Tim is something of an introvert; he gets along with lots of kids (being a good athlete always helps, as you’re always in demand for a pick-up game at recess) but sticks with a small number of good friends with whom he’s been close for years.

For Holly, it’s more typically complicated, and I consider myself lucky that it’s no more than every few weeks that she comes home on the verge of tears with a friendship issue to vent. I’m definitely no expert, but I do my best at those times: I listen to her account of what happened (which usually boils down to who was excluded from what by whom), offer perspective, reassure her that this too shall pass, and sometimes try to subtly clue her in as to which friends tend to get mixed up in these problems more often than others.

So earlier this week when she said she wanted to tell me about a problem, I automatically pictured the fairly large circle of girls she normally socializes with at school. I wondered which girl had snubbed Holly or said something that was open to misinterpretation this time around. But what I heard instead surprised me. With tears rolling down her cheeks, Holly told me a story about being excluded in the cafeteria – except it didn’t involve her at all. It was a boy in the class who was having trouble fitting in with the other boys whose attention he apparently coveted.

Accustomed to discussing girl problems with Holly, I was a little bit perplexed. I suggested that she could invite the boy to eat lunch with her and her friends if the other boys were excluding him, but she retorted that my solution was not what he wanted. “I understand that he wants to be with the boys and not the girls, but wouldn’t being with the girls be better than nothing?” I asked. But this is fourth grade, the height of the boy-girl voluntary segregation phase. It was unthinkable to her that eating lunch with the girls might be a reasonable second choice for this boy, and my attempt to suggest that having the girls desire his company might in fact make this boy more impressive to the other boys in the long run made even less sense to her.

I wasn’t much help, but what struck me was the depth of her empathy. She almost never cries when she confides to me about her own friendship problems, but she was crying over the fate of a boy being left out. “They’re just so wrong to think they’re better than him!” she wailed in describing the other boys’ behavior.

Her frustration and anguish made me sad, but her empathy surprised me and gave me a twinge of pride. Holly is almost always cheerful and pleasant, but I don’t necessarily think of her as empathetic. I felt sorry that she was experiencing so much sadness over the schoolroom situation, and I felt concerned for the boy whom she perceived as being victimized. My hope is that this situation will pass. But underneath that feeling is a fundamental belief that her empathy for those in difficult situations will last a lifetime, and that almost makes the tears worth it, this time around.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

What I wore

It is perhaps the only pure act of masochism that I practice on a regular basis: reading the “What I Wore” column in the New York Times Style section.

Sometimes the subject of the profile is a celebrity I’ve heard of; other times it’s a socialite whom I haven’t; but no matter what, I’m in the dark when they describe their clothing. Only occasionally am I familiar with the designer; sometimes I’m not even familiar with the piece of apparel they name. And oh, do they spend a lot of time changing clothes. An outfit for yoga. An outfit for morning coffee. An outfit for a midmorning meeting and another one for a photo shoot. Then a quick clothes-change for lunch out and another change of clothes before an afternoon meeting. Finally, the Big Three of end-of-day costuming: a cocktail party outfit; a dinner outfit; and a clubbing outfit.

I try to imagine applying this standard to my own life. If I break down what I wear in a typical day, it looks like this: Track pants (which used to belong to Tim’s friend Austin) and a Dare to Stay Off Drugs t-shirt (which used to belong to Tim) for my morning run. Add to that L.L. Bean duck boots and work gloves for when I’m in the barn feeding the cows. Pants and a pullover sweater for workday, which encompasses morning coffee, lunch, meetings and appointments that crop up in the course of the day, and picking up the kids at the bus or after their extracurricular activities. Then, if I’m really lucky and have no evening commitment, sweat pants and a hoodie before starting dinner preparations; that outfit will easily get me through to bedtime.

Yes, in some respects I’m envious of the socialites and celebrities with their lives so fabulous that the clothes merit their own column in the New York Times. There isn’t one aspect of my life interesting enough to make the pages of the New York Times, and these people show up not only for their own endeavors and activities but for the existence of their clothes! But in other respects, I wonder if they might be envious of my approach to dress once in a while. Sure, it must be wonderful to wear Jimmy Choo and Miu Miu and Marc Jacobs and Isabel Marant and Vionnet all within the course of 24 hours. But having your attire reported on in the New York Times must be a lot of pressure too. I wonder if they ever wish they were me, a self-employed writer and homemaker in small-town New England wearing sweats to make dinner.

Most likely not. They didn’t get where they are by dreaming of smaller things, after all. And I’d love to own, or even borrow – okay, even just breathe on – some of those items that hang from their closets. But I also love my purple Gap hoodie and the quiet, low-key evenings it represents to me.

Monday, March 5, 2012

The Snow White dream again

Snow White’s babies were missing and I couldn’t find them anywhere. Just as I started to panic, they turned up in the art room of my old elementary school.

No, this wasn’t a fever dream, though I realize it certainly sounds like one. It was a typical moment in my somewhat mercurial tenure as Co-Chair of Props for the Seventh Grade Play.

“Let’s do this together; it will be fun!” I said to my friend Leigh on a beautiful sunny evening last May as we gathered with about thirty other parents to plan our kids' upcoming seventh grade musical. Leigh and I were poring over the sign-up sheet and noticed a big blank space next to the line for co-chairs of props.

I have very little background in the theatrical arts other than reading plays and attending them, but I didn’t think being in charge of props sounded too difficult. In fact, I thought it would be like a scavenger hunt. Something along the lines of finding, say, a flashlight, a set of postcards, a book of nursery rhymes, a stopwatch, some pieces of fruit; boxing them up neatly; and delivering them to the auditorium a couple of weeks before showtime, and we’d be done.

But when Leigh and I received our list of items from the producers the first week in January, with two months to go before curtain, I realized it wasn’t going to be quite that easy. Leigh and I pored over this list just as we had the initial sign-up, only this time was notably different in that neither of us uttered the words “It will be fun!”

“A bloody cloak?” we muttered to each other instead. “A sheep-herding crook? A pumpkin…in March? Watermelon…in March? And what in the world is a glowing bag?”

One of the producers leaned over. “About that bag….it needs some kind of remote control so that the actor can alter the amount of light emanating from within as the scene unfolds. You’ll probably need to work with a fairly accomplished electrical engineer.”

Okay, it wasn’t quite that bad in the end, but it also wasn’t quite as lighthearted as a scavenger hunt. Still, being co-chair of props gave me plenty of opportunities to hone my somewhat meager arts-and-crafts skills as well as my hunting-and-gathering skills. I collected bunches of straw and sticks for the three little pigs; I fashioned a mock “Princess for Dummies” book with a bright yellow and black construction paper cover (my props list included only the title, leaving me free to ad-lib the rest; I listed “Kate Middleton” as the author, “with a foreword by Maria Shriver”).

Meanwhile, helpful friends and other parents involved with the play contributed plastic bread loaves, scarves, knitting needles, and tea set items to our collection of props; my 9-year-old even let us borrow her beloved plastic sword acquired when she was a knight for Halloween.

Nonetheless, hard as I worked to collect what we needed and keep track of it all, during the weekend before our final week of rehearsals, I couldn’t find Snow White’s babies in their carrier (the play we were doing has sort of a post-modern fairy tale theme). I looked everywhere in my house and garage; I even emailed the young actress who was playing Snow White to see if perhaps she’d taken them home after the last rehearsal. No luck. One of the costume committee members had hand-sewn the baby carrier, and the stage manager had provided four dolls that fit in it perfectly; re-creating this prop was way beyond my creative aptitude. So yes, I really did put in a sleepless night worrying about where Snow White’s babies might be.

But the next morning at nine a.m. I stopped by the kids’ school and searched around the auditorium until the babies and their carrier turned up, in the former art room that now serves as the “Green Room” where actors sit before their stage entrances.

The play ran for three consecutive days late last week; now it’s all behind us. Leigh and I agreed that our initial instincts were right, if admittedly a little short-sighted: it was a lot of fun to do together, the kind of experience that cements a friendship the same way that, say, being lost on a mountaintop during a blizzard for a night or two awaiting rescue might do.

It’s another three years before my younger child will have a seventh grade play, and that gives me plenty of time to decide whether I would choose to work on props again. Most likely, yes: I had fun doing it and learned a bit about theater and crafts in the process. But next time I’ll be sure to appoint a special group within the Props Committee: Snow White’s Babies Child Care Subcommittee. No more sleepless nights for me next time around.

Friday, March 2, 2012

The one (story) that got away

My kids love to hear their grandfather’s tales about when he was a camp counselor: over dinner they ask for story after story. When their cousins are present, sometimes the older kids are able to chime in with details they remember from when they heard my father’s stories for the first time.

But recently I found myself thinking about the stories that do not get passed down: not necessarily serious or tragic ones, or family secrets, but anecdotes no one ever bothered to retell.

This was on my mind because I was making a salad to bring to a party and decided at the last minute not to bring the set of salad servers that matched the bowl in which I was preparing the greens. That particular situation may sound like it has little to do with family stories, but in fact this particular salad set has everything to do with story-telling, or the lack thereof.

When I was growing up, my mother had a Lucite-type salad bowl, clear durable plastic, in which was embedded what appeared to be real preserved butterflies. It was a pretty serving bowl with lots of colors, so when my sister was cleaning out my grandmother’s kitchen inventory after my grandmother’s death and asked if I would like a similar bowl, I said I certainly would, happy as always to have kitchenware that reminded me of the pieces I grew up using.

Just a couple of weeks after the bowl and its matching servers arrived, I made a large salad for a dinner party. “So about these salad servers…” one guest said midway through dinner, and some of the other guests started to laugh. I assumed I’d missed an inside joke while I was in the kitchen and didn’t give it another thought until the next get-together to which I brought a salad. At that gathering, someone was more direct, asking outright, “Why does your salad set have a pattern of marijuana leaves?”

Honestly, I had no clue. It turned out that the new salad set was similar in materials and style to the butterfly one, except had I bothered to look a little closer, I would have noticed that where the other bowl had pressed butterflies, mine had what appeared to be pressed marijuana leaves. The pattern appeared in the serving pieces as well as the bowl.

I’ve had this salad set for about eight years now. More often than not, when I use it, someone asks about the unusual inlay. And the fact is, I don’t know the answer. I asked my mother, but she had no idea why her parents possessed such a peculiar kitchen item. She too had always assumed the decorative items under the clear Lucite were butterflies or dried flowers, and admitted that even if she’d looked more closely, she wouldn’t have recognized the five-point leaves for what they were. But apparently that puts her in the minority of people I know, because everyone else seems to zoom in on the pattern with laser focus.

So this is a case where a family story was not retold, and details were lost in time that can probably never be recaptured. Whatever the story behind this salad bowl is, my mother and her sisters do not know, and my grandparents are long gone, so we will probably never know.

I’d like to have some interesting tale to tell, but I haven’t even managed to make one up so far. I have no idea what lies behind my peculiar salad servers, and frankly, sometimes I get tired of being asked, which is why on the recent day that I was making a salad, I’d actually decided not to use that salad set simply to avoid the familiar old conversation.

It’s not really surprising that my grandparents neglected to jot down the story of the pot-leaf salad bowl and file it away with their legal documents, but I regret the fact that it’s a story I’ve never heard. All the narratives and details that family members share with one another as the years go by, whether it’s about being a camp counselor or where the key to the safety deposit box is hidden, matter on some level. Most of them matter more than the origins of my salad bowl. But I’m still sorry that this story is the one that got away.