Monday, April 30, 2012

Running wherever

Two weeks ago, in the Sunday Boston Globe published on the eve of the Boston Marathon – a perfect time for writing about running -- Geoff Edgers wrote an engaging essay about all the different cities all over the world in which he’s gone running. And it inspired me to think about all the different places I’ve gone running in the past 25 years.

Running is definitely not my favorite form of sightseeing. Walking is the ideal way to get to know a city; running is not. It’s not only that you’re moving faster (but not a whole lot faster, in my case); it’s that you take in less scenery when you’re preoccupied with oxygen intake, or at least that’s the case with me. Other factors that preoccupy me when I run in new places are finding long roads that don’t dead-end and not getting lost.

But even before starting my running streak, travel almost always included plenty of running, simply because a lot of times there was no other good exercise option. And I can apply all kinds of superlatives to apply to the various worldwide running routes I’ve explored.

Most dangerous: Bermuda, where I found no sidewalks and ran amidst the traffic for five miles.

Most anxiety-provoking: a run in the English countryside near Stratford, which sounds lovely enough in itself, but I became wildly lost in the course of the run, and the only road I could find was a highway where no one could stop to give me directions. Worse still, I was on a group business trip and had slipped out with just enough time to fit in a run before the bus left the hotel to take us on an excursion: the more lost I became, the more I was in danger of either missing the bus or holding up the whole group. I found my way back literally just in time to board the bus, unshowered and frazzled, to the amusement of my colleagues.

My most ill-advised running plan, though I didn’t fully realize it until years later, was in Venezuela. We were staying in a villa in a gated community; I ran past the guardhouse and then found a rural winding trail alongside the beach. I knew nothing about the area or the advisability of being out on my own running. Every now and then, I’d pass a group of fishermen, but no one else was out on this rugged stretch of beach. It turned out fine, but with the wisdom I’ve gained in the past twenty years, I find it a little hair-raising to think about how blithely I set out knowing nothing about the safety of my surroundings.

In Meteetsie, Wyoming, I set off on a state highway with the goal of a five-mile out-and-back. On the horizon I could see a singular tree. In about two and a half miles, I reached that tree and turned around. It’s the only time I’ve ever been able to fix my sights on a single landmark for the entire run.

In Paris, I ran in the early morning of a New Year’s Day and had the surrealistic experience of having the streets of Paris around Place d’Etoile all to myself. The whole city was still sleeping off New Year’s Eve.

In La Jolla, California, I ran “the Stanford Dish.” At Disney World, I ran below a magpie nest and had the top of my head pecked as a punishment. In Boston during a pre-dawn run I once tripped over a rat, though at the time I assured myself it was a squirrel.

But over the course of a quarter-century, I think my most memorable run happened in August in Colorado. It was on the Rio Grande Trail that runs alongside the Roaring Fork River outside of Aspen, in a canyon below mountainside property that for more than fifty years belonged to my grandparents. I’ve run that same route dozens of times, but this one was unforgettable because earlier in the day, we’d held my grandmother’s memorial service. As I ran near my grandparents’ ranch, I was convinced I could feel her spirit and that of my grandfather’s settling over the valley.

“Strange,” I thought to myself as I ran, “I always believe in the imagery of spirits rising skyward, but theirs seem to be setting into the mountain, into the river, into the earth.”

I kept running, looking at the late-afternoon sunlight on the water, at the shimmering aspen trees for which the town is named, at the red packed dirt under my feet, at the sagebrush growing on the nearby hillsides. I didn’t want that run to end; it was the strongest sense of my grandparents’ spirits I’d had before or since, as I passed near their last earthly home and through the landscape that felt very much to me like where their spirits were settling to be at rest.

Friday, April 27, 2012

Going rogue -- as in, land-line-free

My household is very seldom at the cutting edge of technology, so I assumed when we decided to drop our traditional phone line and use cell phones exclusively, we were at the back end of a trend that had already swept the country.

But as friends, relatives and business contacts aagradually became aware of the change we’d made, I discovered that this time we were closer to, if not at, the forefront of a movement. Of those individuals who had already gone home-phone-free when we did a year and a half ago, the typical demographic was young single people. We discovered it was still quite unusual for a household like ours – a suburban family of four consisting of two middle-aged adults and two school-aged children – to make what seemed to most of our cohort like a radical domestic change.

And yet people were curious. It turned out to be one of those things that a lot of adults were considering, even if they couldn’t quite persuade themselves it was a good idea.

For us, it’s been great. First of all, as with any new or unlisted phone number, our numbers were unknown to telemarketers, political parties, alumni groups and charities, and it has remained that way in the ensuing year and a half, so we get phone calls only from people who have a reason to know our number, either because we gave it to them directly or filled out paperwork they had access to or someone else we know gave it to them.

It also means the only people who call me are people who specifically want to talk to me, and the same is true for my husband. We’re no longer stuck making small talk with each other’s co-workers, college friends or poker buddies just because we happened to be the one standing closest to the phone when it rang.

Admittedly, this aspect also has a downside: there’s an intrinsic social value to some of those unintentional conversations. These days I almost never talk to my mother-in-law on the phone unless she’s deliberately trying to reach me to make plans or to ask me about a family event – most of the time, she calls my husband directly, and I miss the chit-chat we used to have before I put him on the phone.

Still, it saves a lot of time. No longer do I have to field calls from the parents of the kids on the baseball team my husband coaches. Either they reach him directly or they leave a message on his voicemail.

I also really like the privacy aspect of it. It is often argued that privacy is a casualty of modern-day society, and yet I like the fact that people who call me have no way of knowing where I am. When I answer my cell phone, I might be in my kitchen, I might be at the beach, I might be in a doctor’s waiting room, I might be at the shopping mall. This is useful personally but also professionally. Last year when I went to Colorado for a week, I didn’t even tell my editors; I didn’t want them to avoid giving me assignments just because I was out of town. As it happened, my editor did call while I was away to see if I could do a story that didn’t require on-the-spot coverage, and I was happy to take it on, because I often welcome the opportunity to earn some income while I’m traveling. If she had known I was away from home for the week, she probably wouldn’t have bothered to call me about the story.

The downsides have mostly to do with the overlap between being an individual and being part of a family. My 13-year-old has his own phone, but my 9-year-old doesn’t, and when her friends want to make plans, they use my number. This is fine if we’re all at home together but can be inconvenient if I’m out of town and she’s at home. I once called my husband while I was in Chicago to tell him that the neighbor down the street wanted to know if Holly could come over to play. It becomes a fairly inefficient use of communication at that point.

Going land-line free is also probably not a good idea for parents who often have babysitters in the house. In an emergency, you don’t want to have to rely on someone else having their phone close at hand.

The other caveat I mention when people ask about the arrangement is that if you’re accustomed to a household in which three or four different extensions ring each time you get a phone call, you have to remember that cell phones are one unit per number. That means if you leave your phone downstairs and you go upstairs, you won’t be able to answer the phone if it rings. And with consideration to extreme emergencies such as fires, you have to remember to bring your phone to the bedroom with you at night.

It’s worked out well for us, though. I’m not someone who gets inundated with phone calls, and I like knowing that if there’s information I need, it will reach me whether I’m home or away. Considering how many people have asked me about the arrangement, I really do believe it’s the wave of the future. And in this day and age, anything that gives an increased, rather than decreased, sense of privacy is worth at least a little bit of consideration.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Pitching in

This was the quote from my daily inspirational email yesterday: "Penetrate the heart of just one drop of water, and you will be flooded by a hundred oceans." Mahmûd Shabistarî, The Mystic Rose Garden.

It’s certainly true, I thought to myself a touch ruefully, but I’m not sure I’d call it inspirational.

Though I know this wasn’t the intent, I felt that I was indeed being flooded by a hundred oceans for having penetrated one drop of water – if the drop of water was the statement “Yes, I’ll help with that effort” and the hundred oceans were follow-up requests to not only “help with that,” whatever the request may have been for, but to in fact lead the charge.

Last month, a friend was organizing a charity dinner for 100 guests. She emailed me to ask if I would make a dessert. At least that’s what I thought she said. But it turned out I misunderstood by one tiny yet critical word: “a.” Only after I’d enthusiastically agreed to do so – I love baking, and the flourless chocolate torte she had in mind for the menu sounded fun to make – did I reread her request and discover she wasn’t asking me to make “a” dessert; she was asking me to make dessert. As in, all the desserts. As in, flourless chocolate torte for 100.

At first I was amused by my misunderstanding, then a little appalled. Why had I been so quick to say yes, and how could I now explain that I hadn’t really meant I’d take on the responsibility for 100 slices of cake? But then I realized it was time to step to the plate and do my part to help. My friend was coordinating the entire rest of the dinner; surely I could find a way to crank out 13 cakes over the next four weeks.

Then yesterday I received a phone call from my friend Heidi who wanted to know if I’d help put together a memory book for a teacher who is retiring from our kids’ school this June. “I’m not very artistically creative,” I confessed to her, “but sure, I’ll help.”

This morning I got an email from the retirement party coordinator. “Thanks so much for telling Heidi you’d be in charge of the memory book,” it said.

If three times is the charm, I suppose it was inevitable that this would happen once again. Another friend asked if I thought my kids would be willing to help serve food at a church event. I checked with them and confirmed they would indeed be willing, and told her I’d help serve as well. “Great, then I’ll put you in charge of the serving,” she said.

I don’t really think I’m miscommunicating my intentions to all these people. I just think that everyone needs more help with whatever they’ve taken on, and if you don’t say “No!” in your loudest outdoor voice, it’s taken as a “Sure, sign me up to lead the effort.” I’m actually not that effective as a project manager. I’m much better at doing the grunt work than delegating. With the chocolate tortes, my mother offered to split the job with me, and then a few other members of the charity’s leadership committee said they’d make a cake or two as well, but I’m not great at telling people what to do, which might make being in charge of the church meal servers difficult for me; and I’m not good at making scrapbooks at all.

But oh well. I’ve come to realize that sometimes the biggest favor you can do someone who is herself already doing a good deed is just say the magic words “Yes, I’ll do what you need me to do.” There are other people in the school community who are better at making scrapbooks, but they haven’t offered. There are also other adults at church who are better at marshalling child labor, but they haven’t stepped forward.

So perhaps I have indeed pierced the heart of those particular raindrops, in the words of Mahmûd Shabistarî, and been deluged with a small ocean as a result. If there was something I really didn’t think I was capable of, I’d just say no. But this spring, everyone I know seems to be involved in various volunteer efforts, and if they’re going to participate generously, then so will I. We’ll make it work out together. And next time, I’ll be a little more careful to ensure that I’m signing up to make one dessert and not one hundred.

Monday, April 23, 2012

End of vacation week

It seemed fitting yesterday, the final day of school vacation week, to wake up to a gray drizzle.

It also seemed fortunate, given the spring drought we’ve been enduring for the past several weeks. A spring drought isn’t like a summer drought – the ground doesn’t appear to be parched, and the mild weather has coaxed pale green leaves and tiny buds from tree branches even without precipitation – but our town as well as many around us have put open burning season on hiatus due to the lack of recent rainfall, and even closer to home, with the barn nearly empty of hay, we need rain so that the grass grows faster and the cows can graze.

But from the perspective of it being the end of April vacation week, the drizzle came as a reasonable trade-off for the almost impossibly beautiful weather we’d had since school was dismissed on Friday the 13th. Warm, sunny days prevailed all week; it was a wonderful vacation not to be going far, because there was plenty about New England to enjoy over these past ten days. The kids indulged me with walks in the woods; I indulged them with a bike ride to our local ice cream stand. When another family came over for dinner last weekend, the four kids together set up the badminton net, and we played badminton throughout the week. On Saturday, Holly and I took the dog down to the brook in the woods behind our house to see if we could coax her to swim. We couldn’t, but it was an enjoyable walk anyway.

So a rainy Sunday seemed reasonable and fitting, transitioning us mentally back into school-week mode. I ran some laundry while Rick did deskwork, and I insisted that the kids clean out their school backpacks, a job that should have been done when they came home from school ten days ago but went neglected in favor of time outdoors. I vacuumed the baseboards and corners of every room and changed the beds. I took a long, objective look at all the writing assignments that I’d postponed throughout the past week in favor of a three-day trip to Maine and time in the boat.

Today the kids go back to school and the adults refocus on work. Yesterday’s somber weather forewarned us that this change was coming, but we didn’t mind. With ten beautiful, fun-filled, sunny vacation days preceding it, the rain just reminded us that summer isn’t here yet and there’s still work to be done. In another eight weeks, another vacation begins. For now, it’s time for work and school and the growing season that yesterday’s rain presumably encouraged. It was a great vacation week. We’re refreshed, renewed, and ready.

Friday, April 20, 2012

All is well (even if that's not compelling prose)

I’m afraid that as an essayist and blogger, I might find contentment to be my downfall.

It’s true of my journals, also. I set myself a minimum word count of 1,000 words per day, and there’s an undeniable inverse correlation between my level of immediate happiness on any given day and the number of words I’m able to churn out. When people are annoying me, circumstances are frustrating me, fate is confounding me, or opportunity seems not to be availing itself to me, I have plenty to say. I can write for hours on days like that. The worse mood I’m in, the more I have to say in my journal. One thousand words is nothing when I’ve descended into what cartoonist Pat Brady calls “the dungeon of resentment.”

But somehow my fingers run a little less fast and loose on the keyboard when things are looking up.

It’s not particularly logical. It seems as if there should be just as much to say about life’s more positive times as its lesser moments. I should be able to enthuse for page upon page about how great it all is. I certainly could back in high school and college, when a good day with friends or an auspicious first date could fill up my one-thousand word quota almost before I reached the end of my opening paragraph.

It’s different now, though. I sit down to attempt a new essay or newspaper column or blog entry and find myself feeling strangely devoid of commentary. “All is well,” I think to myself. “The kids are happy and healthy. We have housing and gainful employment. As far as I know, no one plans to serve us with a subpoena this month. What’s to talk about?”

Well, there’s always the option of commenting on how good it all is. But after one beta reader of my running/parenting memoir scribbled in the margins, “Enough with the gratitude!”, I’ve been a little wary of that theme. Gratitude, I’ve come to suspect, is a fine emotion with which to govern one’s soul but not such a fruitful one when it comes to incisive prose.

And no, I have definitely never reached the point of desperation at which I’d trade happiness and contentment for more writing material. Not in the least. I still suspect I once lost a job due to contentment – my overall happiness with my workload and the company in general made me too unambitious for that hard-driving, fast-innovating corporate environment – but not having enough difficult material at this particular time of my life to fill out a few essays is not, at heart, a complaint.

Life is good. It doesn’t make for compelling narrative, which is one reason that I devote the bulk of my revenue-producing writing to features about other people – I can’t rely on my own circumstances for enough hard-hitting material these days – but I’ll take it. No complaints here when everyone in my close circles appears to be happy, healthy and emotionally well-balanced. Circumstances will change; fate will throw its inevitable curve balls; and I’ll find myself writing page upon page to exorcise my darker emotions once again. But at the moment, writer’s block is a welcome, if paradoxical, sign that there’s just nothing wrong. All is well, and even if those are the only three words I can find to write on any given day, they’re good enough.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Boat launch

My 13-year-old has a passion for boating.

As my father pointed out, he comes by it naturally, perhaps genetically. Monday evening, Tim announced he planned to go to bed early and sleep late, just to make the seasonal launch of my parents’ boat, which was scheduled for Tuesday afternoon, arrive faster, the way some kids try to get to bed early on Christmas Eve. “I was just the same way at his age,” my father remarked. “And Rick probably was too.”

So with a father and a maternal grandfather who share his passion for motorboats, perhaps it’s not surprising that this is one of the major driving forces in Tim’s life. And I always remind myself that the up side of having a child who is not particularly well-rounded, who immerses himself in a very small number of select interests, is getting to see his radiant joy when a long winter yields to a warm spring and a generous grandfather who was willing to schedule an early launch date this year.

It’s true that I’ve sometimes wished Tim had more diverse tastes. Whereas many of the boys his age watch all kinds of movies and TV shows, hang out in large groups, and opt to attend summer camps that showcase at least twelve to fifteen different activities a week, Tim has always kept his focus narrow. He has just two close friends with whom he chooses to spend most of his time. He currently likes just one genre of books – fantasy -- no matter how much his language arts teacher or I might urge him to spread his wings.

And he has two favorite activities: boating and baseball. Both are worthwhile pursuits, but both are also fair-weather activities. This means he has a tendency to effectively hibernate all winter, spending the vast majority of his free time sitting on the playroom couch reading or playing video games.

That’s hard for me to watch. There are lots of hobbies and interests I’d love to see him develop, and I get frustrated with his monomaniacal tendencies and his winter reclusiveness. But then on days like yesterday, as we prepared for the boat launch, all the hibernating almost seems worth it.

Tim woke up exuberant on boat launch day. He read the owner’s manual for the boat. He counted the minutes until it was time to leave for the marina. When we arrived at the boatyard, he was literally quivering with joy. His excitement lasted for the next several hours of boating and boat maintenance, and his first question after dinner was how early we could take the boat out the following day.

I can’t say it completely compensates for all the time he spends doing nothing during the winter. But with the boat launch this week and his first baseball game scheduled for next Monday, things are definitely looking up. Baseball and boating are under way, and Tim is his warm-weather self, his cheerful, exuberant self, again. Yes, it was a sluggish several months, even without a lot of cold and snow. Tim doesn’t have a lot of purpose during the fall and winter months. But baseball and boating are back in session, and so is he. It warms my heart to witness, yet again.

Monday, April 16, 2012

On the horns of a dilemma

My nine-year-old said the words I love to hear perhaps above all others yesterday. “Mom, could you just read outside while I ride my bike around the driveway?”

She likes to do driveway laps, but not without company. So she likes me to sit there and read while she bikes. It’s like being given a job as an ice cream taster: surely too good to be true.

I pulled a lawn chair out of the garage and found my Kindle, but just as I opened to the front page of the Sunday Boston Globe, I realized that the circumstances were ideal for tackling a household task I’d been procrastinating for months, which was digging through the myriad packing boxes in the garage to find the nighttable lamps we’d never unpacked after moving a year ago. It’s one of those things I keep meaning to do, and yet unlike laundry or cooking, it’s never essential. It’s always sort of a second-tier priority. And second-tier priorities never seem to get done.

If I was ever going to search for those lamps, this was the moment.

And yet there on my Kindle was an entire Sunday Boston Globe plus an entire Sunday New York Times to be read, and the circumstances were ideal for that as well.

It was a fairly straightforward dilemma. The benefits of searching for the lamp were obvious – locating something I needed and garnering the additional satisfaction of crossing off a task that had stagnated on my To Do list for months – but the benefits of the newspaper couldn’t be overlooked either: awareness of current events, exposure to informed opinions, overall intellectual stimulation.

I spend a few idle moments contemplating the nuances of this admittedly trivial dilemma. Reading the newspaper, especially the Sunday paper, really does make me a happier and more fulfilled person. I genuinely feel lacking when I go a whole Sunday without reading the paper at all. I worry that I’m missing out on important world developments. I feel hesitant to join in conversations about current events, feeling uninformed.

On the other hand, procrastinating on household tasks takes its own mental and spiritual toll. Though there are surely people who never think about housework and are able to devote all of their discretionary time to intellectual pursuits, I can’t imagine being free of the gnawing voice inside telling me I can’t let the household tasks get away from me; they multiply like bunnies. Dust bunnies, that is.

In the end, I treated the conflicting choices inside my head the same way I treat my own children when they quarrel: I made them take turns. First I read the lead story in the Globe; and then, with a deep breath, I approached the mountain of packing cartons.

I suppose the outcome was inevitable. Household chores always manage to sink their teeth in; you give them an inch, they take a mile. Two hours later, I was still going through boxes – not because I hadn’t found what I was looking for but because one thing leads to another with a job like this, and once I’d located the lamps, I needed to find the lightbulbs, and while looking for the lightbulbs I came across a favorite vase that I wanted to bring into the house, but if I was going to find a place for that vase, I might as well find the one that went with it as well. And so on.

Not until after the kids were in bed six hours later did I get back to the paper. It was nearly ten o’clock and I was only one article into the Sunday Globe. Unless I stayed up ‘til midnight reading, I knew I’d feel just a little bit behind, intellectually, all week.

Still, knowing there was one fewer task on my To Do list was worth something. So it was with a very small and yet unquenchable sense of accomplishment that I finally finished one last article and reached out gratefully to turn off my much-missed bedside lamp.

Friday, April 13, 2012

"Year-round vacation house"? If only....

I couldn’t help smiling as I read the real estate listing that arrived by email earlier this week:
Vacation year round on Annursnac Hill. …Sun-filled and well maintained 10RM,4BR,2.5BA brings the outdoor in w/beautiful wooded & seasonal pond views. Open flr plan offering cathedral ceilings & skylights in almost every room…Rights to Annursnac Hill Assoc w/swimming pool,4 tennis courts & trails through 14 acre conservation land.
What a promise, I thought. Vacation year-round.

And what a paradox.

Because as we all know, it doesn’t really work like that.

Even if you live in a year-round vacation house, if it’s your own full-time house, there are distinctly un-vacation-like things that must be done. Housework, for starters: floors to sweep, counters to wipe, beds to make.

Also meals to be prepared and groceries to buy. But it’s not just housework that distinguishes a vacation house from a year-round house. More than any architecture, any skylights or water views or proximity to ski areas, it’s the daily schedule you maintain when you live there. A job to go off to, or to do at home, every day. Clients or bosses whose requests must be met. Dentist appointments. Car maintenance. Friends to whom you owe a dinner invitation, even if having to plan a company menu doesn’t make you feel at all like you’re in a vacation house, no matter how airy the kitchen or how many wildflower meadows you can see from the window above the sink.

I often remind myself that I live in a house that could be a vacation home, with its many skylights and views into the woods; and I live in a community that many would consider a retreat from the everyday world, one in which open spaces abound and quiet roads lead to tranquil ponds or conservation areas. From my front door, I can bike to any number of scenic New England settings; from my back door, I can access a trail system into nearly one thousand acres of state parkland.

And I try not to let the opportunities therein go unrealized. In the fall, I do a lot of biking; in the winter I snowshoe; year-round I take walks, both in the woods and through our neighborhood.

But, of course, I have all those non-vacation tasks to fit in every day as well: making meals for people, sorting the mail, going to parent-teacher conferences.

I wonder if whoever buys the house for which I received the ad will treat their new home like a vacation house. Will they notice the views and the breezes? Or will it just be, well, their house, and not so different from how its residents see it than any other house?

No one can be on vacation all the time. When my kids were young, they had a Dr. Seuss book that takes place in a magical land where it’s your birthday every day. It didn’t take Tim long to see the paradox therein: if it’s always your birthday, it might as well never be your birthday.

So too with vacation houses. By definition, no one can actually live every day in a vacation house. But you can try to put a little bit of vacation into everyday life. You can admire the views. You can breathe in the breeze. You can go for a walk.

And once in a while, you can leave the dishes ‘til the next day.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

The privilege of helping friends

Monday evening after dinner, I browned some stew meat and onions in the crock pot, added peas, barley, potatoes, red wine, and spices. All night, the aroma of beef stew filled the house. In the morning, I poured the hot mixture into a foil pan and brought it to a friend’s house for the reception she was hosting following her mother’s memorial service.

Later in the morning, I worked on publicity materials for another friend who is about to open a gallery, and then after lunch I drove one of Tim’s friends to his orthodontist appointment because his mother was running late.

Yesterday may have had elements of "Be careful what you wish for," but I have to concede that this is precisely the kind of life I used to dream of having: one filled with friends. When we lived in a much larger town and I was working full-time, I didn’t have local friends. I waved to neighbors as we passed on the street, but no one ever asked me to help them with cooking or driving or publicity, and I never offered. I didn’t know anyone well enough.

Yesterday was a little busier than usual, but for the most part, it was a fairly typical day. A year ago, I was feeling overwhelmed with volunteer commitments and had to admit to myself that the functions I’d offered to fulfill didn’t feel fulfilling at all, so as guilty as it made me feel, I cut back on various institutional volunteering options.

It wasn’t that I was specifically thinking I’d redirect that same energy to personal friends, but that’s how it worked out. Since cutting back on formal volunteer work, I’ve found it so much easier to be generous with my time. I didn’t even realize how concrete a difference it was until I read something I wrote in a journal about a year ago: “Maybe once I give up some of these responsibilities that I’m finding so onerous, I’ll enjoy seeing people again rather than finding it a burden every time someone drops by.”

I’d forgotten how starkly I’d come to resent the very same people I enjoy most, simply because I’d taken on too much.

And although it’s hard to objectively defend the choice to make stew for a friend’s memorial service rather than serve food at a soup kitchen, it seems to be the more enriching choice for me right now. I’m not sure which is ultimately more important: to be a good citizen or a good friend. I can’t say with certainty that I’m doing the right thing by letting myself focus on personal connections instead of the greater good.

But I end the day feeling grateful for the presence of friends and grateful for the opportunities to help them out, knowing they have done and will again do the same for me when the circumstances require it. It’s not necessarily a rational choice. But it’s one that feels instinctively right. And sometimes, that’s the best you have to go on.

Monday, April 9, 2012

Easter games

Neither of my kids has much of a sweet tooth, and every year the practice of gathering Easter basket components feels a little less relevant to me. Yes, they make exclamations of delight when they see their Easter baskets awaiting them at the breakfast table, and we always manage to get some good photos during the ensuing hunt for foil-wrapped Easter eggs hidden around the house, but within three or four days, they’ve eaten their fill of chocolate, and I end up throwing most of the candy away around Memorial Day.

That plus the fact that at the age of 13, Tim spends more time helping me hide candy than searching for it, and at the age of 9, Holly practically deserves an Academy award for her talent at pretending she is convinced of the viability of the Easter bunny made Easter shopping this year a somewhat lackluster experience for me.

But just before leaving the candy aisle, I saw something I couldn’t resist throwing into my cart against my better judgment. It was a game of sorts: each package contained two implements that looked like small plastic baskets on bunny-shaped handles, with a lever that you pull to release a ping-pong ball that the person holding the other implement then tries to catch: an ersatz lacrosse game for beginners who didn’t want to have to do much running.

It was the kind of thing I ordinarily resist the urge to buy. Easter trinkets tend to be fairly one-dimensional and not very engaging to kids, and I try to avoid buying items made solely of molded plastic at any time of year. But for some reason this one looked more fun than the Easter bunny water balloon kits or sidewalk chalk sets or bubble wands. And it was potentially something the kids might do together, which is always a plus. So I bought them a set.

To my surprise, it was an instant hit. Before the kids even started looking for hidden chocolate, they had the plastic toys out of the packaging and were figuring out how to make the ping-pong ball shoot out. They played before breakfast. They brought the toys with us to Rick’s parents’ house to play during the afternoon. Holly practiced some more once we got home,, and then when we went to my parents’ house for a short visit and dessert in the evening, the kids brought the toys again and stayed out in the driveway playing with them until dusk.

In fact, the ping-pong toss game was more popular than any of the candy the kids received this year. It was one of my most successful impulse buys ever. You can’t always tell what’s going to be a hit. I still feel a little guilty about the non-recyclable plastic nature of this particular purchase, and I know that their appeal may not last long. But on a sunny Easter day when both of the kids have pretty much outgrown any excitement in candy, it was a lot of fun to see them excited about a simple game of toss-and-catch. They may get tired of it soon. But it was yet another time that I was pleasantly surprised by what caught their attention, and in this case, it made the holiday all the more memorable.

Friday, April 6, 2012

Tips welome

Most of the time, when my text-message signal chimes, it’s my 13-year-old asking if I’ll pick him up at the bus stop (which is four-tenths of a mile from our house, so the answer is usually no, though sometimes I say I’ll meet him along the way on foot). Some of the time, it’s my 13-year-old asking what I’m making for dinner or, if it happens that he’s home and I’m out, when I’ll be back and whether I’ll make him some hot chocolate once I get home.

It’s no secret that 13-year-olds love text-messaging, and mine has certainly found a way to make it work for him by making it easier than ever to ask favors of his hard-working mother.

Once a week or so, though, the text-message chime signals something else: a short missive from my phone service provider explaining how to do something. These weekly tips inform me about new apps I might want to download, new data plans that might save me money, or new shortcuts to make using the phone more efficient. And they always end the same way: “To stop receiving these tips, text STOP to this number.”

I always laugh when I get to that part. Information on how to stop receiving tips? Tips intended to save me money, boost my efficiency or make everyday phone use more interesting? Why on earth would I want to do that?

“To the contrary; keep ‘em coming!” I sometimes tell my phone when I see that message.

The truth is, if anything I’d like to get more tips, from more sources, and about more areas of my life. Not long-form advice or counsel, necessarily – though there are certainly times I could use that also – but short, simple, tweet-worthy tips. It would be fine with me if I received lots more text-message advice nuggets: about nutrition, work habits, housekeeping, exercise, parenting.

I don’t mean to suggest there isn’t plenty of advice available on these topics. It’s just that the packaging of these little nuggets of useful information is so appealing. I find them easy to read and easy to use. Sure I could read entire books on parenting or time management. Truth be told, I have, many times. Sometimes they’re useful; sometimes not, and as many literary critics have pointed out, sometimes the best guidance for how to optimize one’s personal life doesn’t appear on the self-help shelf of the bookstore at all but in the works of Austen, Dostoevsky, Thoreau or Faulkner.

And sometimes, that’s just too much information to try to accommodate at once. Not so with AT&T text messages. “Download this app to track your mileage!” it will say, or “Save money on your next phone bill by consolidating your data plan!”

Keep sending them, I say. I imagine the other messages I might benefit from: “Don’t eat cookies after lunch!” “Think twice before hitting ‘send’ on your next email!” “Let the car at the intersection cut in ahead of you.”

Someday in the future, this might well be the case; all kinds of simple guidance may arrive in the palm of my hand by text message. For now, all I have is the phone company offering me a shortcut to directory assistance. But I’ll take it.

Text “stop” to stop receiving tips? Not a chance. I need all the advice I can get – and when it arrives in 140 characters or fewer, who can say no?

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Duck, duck, boots

Last fall, my parents generously bought me a pair of L.L. Bean “duck hunting” boots.

Needless to say, I was not planning to go duck hunting, though with the depth of mud in the barnyard at that time, I wouldn’t have been surprised to see a duck or two float past. No: I was merely trying to trek my way daily from the barnyard gate to the hayloft ladder to feed the cows. But I was doing this in boots that I’d had for nearly a decade, and they simply provided no barrier to the grit, dirt, and cold water. My parents happened to see me one morning immediately after I fed the cows and they kindly told me to go find a replacement pair, quickly.

The only problem with my new duck-hunting boots are that I never want to take them off. They’re fleece-lined and warm. They keep my feet absolutely dry. Mud slides right off their slick leather sides.

Wearing my duck-hunting boots, I feel a little bit like I do when I put on sweatpants at the end of the day, which I’m always careful to wait to do until I’m sure all encounters with anyone outside my immediate family are over. I certainly wouldn’t want anyone to see me in my sweats, but when I put them on, I feel so comfortable and relaxed that it’s almost pharmaceutical.

My feet react the same way to the duck boots. Putting them on makes me wish I never had to wear anything else on my feet. And this is a problem because while they’re new and clean – for mud boots, anyway – they’re not exactly a fashion statement.

Succumbing to the desire to wear them every time I leave the house just seems too decadent….and also too lazy. I’ve never been that much of a shoe buyer anyway, but I at least try to have my feet look acceptable when I leave the house. Now, it’s just so tempting not to even bother.

My duck boots don’t merely protect me from mud, which is why now I wear them for walking in the woods as well as doing barnyard work. Their rigid rubber soles are impervious to ruts and rocks. Their leather sides hold off sharp poking branches. Their well-stitched seams keep out water and mud. And their fleece lining always, always keeps my feet warm.

I tell myself I can’t cave into the temptation of wearing them more than I already do. I don’t wear sweats out of the house, and I won’t wear the duck boots if I’m not walking in the woods or working in the barn. Some standards must apply.

But it’s awfully tempting. Nothing feels quite like sliding my foot into that cozy fleece and zipping up the front.

And I suppose if it were a really snowy day, that might be an excuse to wear them even if I was just heading to the bus stop. Or to the supermarket. Or even to a meeting at the kids' school.

But wait. Standards must apply. No sweats and no duck boots. Not this year, anyway. Maybe next year, if there’s more snow.

It’s almost a reason to hope for more snow.

Monday, April 2, 2012

They really really (don't) like me

A good friend and I were having one of those conversations that you can have only with someone who really is a good friend: we each disclosed the names of people we were certain didn’t like us and what evidence we had.

What sparked this particular discussion was something I’d received earlier in the day by email. It was an essay by the late Erma Bombeck titled “If I Had My Life to Live Over,” and although for the most part it was inspiring, I told my friend that there was one point I disagreed with: the one in which she wrote “Don't worry about who doesn't like you.”

“I actually do think it’s worthwhile to pay attention to people who don’t like you,” I admitted. “In fact, I think I’ve made some very beneficial course corrections over the years based on the awareness that someone didn’t seem to like me, after considering why that may be and whether they might be justified.”

And that’s true. It’s not like I run into people all the time from whom I get a negative vibe, but it does happen once in a while, and if it’s someone I have fairly regular interactions with, I really do find it useful to think back as to why that may be the case. More often than not, I can think of a comment I may have made that wasn’t necessarily very kind-spirited, or a dismissive act related to them, or a time I was simply self-absorbed or self-aggrandizing in their presence.

“But aren’t there some people who just seem to not like you for no reason at all?” my friend argued. “What if you really can’t think of a good reason? Or the reason you come up with just doesn’t make sense?”

I agreed that sometimes this is the case, and there's always something to be said for accepting the things we cannot change. Sometimes you just have to realize you can’t please everyone. But those times when I’ve recognized the validity of someone else’s negative responses to me, it’s been valuable: even if I can’t erase what I’ve done, I can avoid making the same mistake in the future. I can be more careful not to be catty or dismissive or self-aggrandizing again.

I still have a vivid memory of being eight years old and riding in the back seat of my friend Julie’s family’s station wagon. This was in the days when kids were still allowed to ride in the cargo area behind the back seat, and that’s where my friend’s 6-year-old sister and her friend were positioned when I heard the sister’s friend whisper, “Do you like Julie’s friend?” The other 6-year-old made some kind of affirmative comment and then the first little girl spoke again. “Well, I don’t! She has curly hair! Yuck!”

You’d think this would be a traumatic memory, but even at the age of eight I realized the ridiculousness of it. Curly hair? The quintessential thing-I-could-do-nothing-about, and even at that young age I realized there was no point it letting this kind of prejudice bother me.

So, with all due respect to the beloved essayist Erma Bombeck and her generally trenchant points about living life fully, I would disagree with her on this one, at least partially. Do pay attention to people who don’t like you. Give them their fair due. Think about whether their attitude may reflect a weakness on your part that you can correct.

And if not, or if you do correct it and it doesn’t seem to help, accept that fact and move on. Focus on people who do seem to like you, and learn from them what you’re doing right. Everyone can’t like everyone. Trust me. We curly-haired girls learn fast.