Friday, June 29, 2012

Slower summer? Less blogging!

Being self-employed and working from home if you have young children is wonderful at all times of year, but especially during the summer. Gone are the worries about 40-hour-a-week summertime childcare that plagued me back when I had a full-time job away from home. Now I’m available to spend my kids’ vacation time alongside them, and even better, they’re old enough to keep themselves busy for a few hours every morning so that I can get some work done before we head to the beach, the pond or the bike path.

In fact, at the ages of 9 and 13, they are even old enough that they generally sleep through some of those morning hours when I’m getting my writing done.

On the other hand, back when I was working in an office throughout the year, I had a couple of weeks every summer when I was officially on vacation. I said goodbye to my co-workers, closed up my laptop, walked away from my desk, and put all work responsibilities aside while I spent a week or two traveling with my family.

Now, there are no weeks throughout the entire year when I put all my work aside. I file stories on family trips and on holidays and every week throughout the summer. Self-employed writers are always on deadline for something, and having given up the paid vacations of my salaried life, I never feel comfortable ignoring all possible sources of income for a week or two.

So it’s a double-edged sword: I feel like I’m always partially on vacation, but I also feel like I’m never fully on vacation.

But this year I told myself that summer would be different. I really wanted to find a way to feel like the ten weeks of the kids’ summer break were a break for me as well. I resolved that this summer I would read more, spend less time on line, and even watch those past seasons of “Mad Men” that my husband has been urging me to catch up on for so long. I was determined that this summer would feel different from the rest of the year.

Yet I couldn’t figure out exactly how to do that. I need to keep up with my regular Globe assignments, which include two weekly deadlines and whatever other opportunities arise to write feature stories. I knew it didn’t make sense to turn down the occasional assignments I receive from other clients. I still need to prepare regular meals for my family, which means regular trips to the supermarket. And I definitely don’t want to slack off on the housekeeping any.

Then, late last week, I read this blog entry from my blogging colleague, Amy Suardi, author of the Frugal Mama blog. It turns out Amy has been thinking along very similar lines. She too wants to take it easier this summer. And she gave me an idea I hadn’t even thought of: stop writing so many blog entries.

Yes, I thought. That’s it. That’s something that would absolutely make it more of a summer break for me. Give up the pressure of writing three blog entries a week? That would be huge! And it would definitely buy me some time for reading. And for watching “Mad Men.”

But I was still a little bit conflicted. I’ve always been so diligent about maintaining my blog. Not because I think there are a lot of readers who really care whether or not I post three times a week without fail, but just because it’s an important writing exercise for me, and blogging generates ideas that I can then use in my newspaper column and other published essays. Moreover, I’ve noticed among other blogging colleagues that those who fade away seldom come back. Bloggers start out with intense enthusiasm….and then gradually drop off. I’ve maintained a regular schedule of posting for nearly three years now; I’m afraid to give myself permission to cut back.

And yet, I don’t want to give up any of my other work, or any household responsibilities. Blogging is the clear choice for how to relieve myself of some of my commitments this summer. And Amy Suardi has empowered me to believe it will be okay. I’ll post once a week for the nine weeks between now and Labor Day. I’ll return to three posts weekly as of Labor Day. Really, I will.

Frankly, I doubt anyone will notice. As long as I can reassure my conscience that this is just for summer, it will be fine. It will make my summer more relaxed, and I’m ready to give it a try. More New Yorker issues, more novels, and yes, more “Mad Men.” Sounds like a decent summer break plan to me.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

"I've....been singing at the table, all the livelong day...."

Yes, I admit it sounds a little strange: my husband Rick put our son Tim in a time-out for singing “I’ve Been Workin’ on the Railroad” at dinner last night.

Tim is 13 ½, which means it had been approximately eight years since his last time-out. But beyond that, it’s kind of a strange offense, by most families’ standards.

It’s also somewhat emblematic of our household. Rick and I have fairly stringent guidelines when it comes to rambunctiousness. And we felt that Tim’s insistence on bursting into song after being asked repeatedly to refrain from doing so was nothing if not rambunctious.

Although it was the first time in recent memory that the situation had escalated to a time-out, Rick and I frequently impose restrictions on dinnertime comportment. It’s not just the obvious things that most parents would object to, like eating with fingers instead of silverware or throwing food. It’s matters as seemingly trivial as exchanging inanities.

These are the kinds of moment non-parents simply can’t picture: the speed with which a family dinner involving a nine-year-old and a 13-year-old can devolve into silliness. When we deem a conversational exchange too stupid, we require a change of subject.

This is the part that all the experts in family dynamics and child development never seem to address when they discuss the importance of the family dinner hour. “Families should sit down to a meal together as often as possible,” they all tend to agree. But what about what happens at that meal? Are we wrong to insist that family dinner means an interesting exchange of ideas and not the goofiness that Rick refers to rather colorfully as “flippity-flappity”?

I don’t mean to make us sound like ogres. In general, we’re okay with silliness. But dinnertime is different. I tend to work fairly hard to get dinner ready for all of us, and when we finally sit down, I want to enjoy it with peace and quiet and interesting discussion. It doesn’t need to involve political discourse or scientific theorems, but it has to involve syllables that are real words and a bare minimum of what the fictional heroine Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle calls the “I-Thought-You-Saids.” (“What? Grandma and Grandpa are planning a vacation? I thought you said Grandma and Grandpa were scamming some Haitians!”)

So yes, family dinnertimes are important, but some standards need to apply, and last night, the standard was no boisterous singing of American folk songs. Still, I felt a little guilty when Tim was sent to his room. (“Can Holly come with me?” he asked. “No,” Rick said. “Can the dog come with me?” No again. In truth, it had been so many years that we’d all forgotten the rules of a standard time-out.) My guess is it boisterous singing at the table won’t be a problem again, unless Tim eventually takes up a career in dinner theater. In which case he’s absolutely justified in not giving us any credit whatsoever for his success.

Monday, June 25, 2012

The stories they tell

Once again, my summer is turning out to be full of stories.

I say “once again” because I feel like a summer of adventure-through-narrative hearkens back to my childhood, when summer vacation meant spending hours reading – reading in the air-conditioned library, reading in cars and airplanes en route to vacation destinations, reading in cabins or motel rooms or condos, reading in bed late at night.

When I was in grade school, I read adventure stories: Island of the Blue Dolphins; The Wolves of Willoughby Chase. By middle school, it was more likely to be realistic fiction about the modern-day lives of girls in middle school or high school.

This summer the stories are different, though. They’re true stories, and they’re being told to me in person, and they range from tales of being sent off to boarding school or summer camp to stories of enlisting in the Royal Air Force to remembrances of being the only woman at medical school to stories of discovering a passion for painting at the age of eighty.

All spring, I foundered for a summer project: I wanted an endeavor related to writing that I’d be able to really sink my teeth into. The answer arrived serendipitously, after the Globe sent me to a nearby retirement community to cover an environmental activism group that had recently taken hold there. “This place is so full of stories,” I thought to myself as I left, after an hour of interviewing a group of women in their eighties and nineties. “I wish there was some way to capture those stories.”

Well, it turned out there was. I consulted with a staff member at the retirement community, and she and I designed a project: members who opted to participate would be interviewed on the topic of their most formative experience, the events or circumstances that they consider most responsible for making them the person they are today, and then I would write up the stories into a compilation.

So far I’ve completed 28 interviews, with another 12 scheduled for later this week, and it turns out my intuition was right. The place is full of stories, indeed, and one by one, the residents are sitting down at a conference table to tell me about them. A 90-year-old woman traveled 6,000 miles through Europe on a motor scooter when she was in her early 20s. A man from rural New Hampshire was sent off to Philips Exeter at the age of 13; eventually he became president of the student body. A woman in her eighties immigrated to the U.S. from England as a young mother and found herself befuddled by the cultural differences between metropolitan London and suburban New Jersey. An early entrepreneur in the computer field was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis at the height of his career and learned to reprioritize to save his health.

So far all I’ve done is listen and record; the writing and editing will take place later, and I’ll get to explore all of these tales and anecdotes all over again as I revise.

What a perfect summer job. My family isn’t leaving town for any summer travels for several more weeks, but I’m getting to venture through time as well as space through these narratives. And just as in childhood, my summer resonates with stories.

Friday, June 22, 2012

Perfect timing: Heat and vacation

It seems so improbable, the timing of this week’s heat wave. The coincidence of weather and school scheduling just felt almost too perfect.

But there it was, as if orchestrated by a film director. Since June, the weather has been mild and pleasant, mostly dry, occasionally rainy, but never hot. Perfect weather for wrapping up the school year, I commented several times throughout the past three weeks: cool weather kept the kids as focused as they could be during the final days of the term, and made it easier for me to persist not only through work deadlines but through the kind of housekeeping tasks I wanted to accomplish before the kids were out of school.

That’s how it stayed right through Tuesday, their last day of the term. Then on Wednesday, the first day without school, temperatures in the 90s bloomed, and stayed the next day and into today. Ever since school vacation began, it’s been hot. Not just sunny and warm but heat-wave hot.

Which, as I say, seems almost improbably perfect. On Wednesday, Tim went to the beach with friends on a long-planned trip; they couldn’t have had a better day for it. I took Holly and her friend Samantha swimming at the pond where we have a summer membership, our first visit of the year. In the evening, we worked at our town’s Strawberry Festival. The air stayed hot well past sunset, and the same the following day.

Normally, temperatures in the 90s can be hard to take, especially day after day, and especially because New England heat tends to bring humidity along with it. We wilt; we feel unmotivated; we get cranky.

But not these past few days. Now it just seems so fitting: it’s the start of vacation, and everyone is enjoying the heat. Holly and I sat in the shade on the library lawn reading despite the pervasive warmth yesterday afternoon; Tim went to a friend’s pool and then played evening baseball. Last night, on the Summer Solstice, the longest day of the year, the temperatures were still in the 80s as the light seeped out of the sky at nine o’clock.

Eventually we’ll tire of the heat, if it stays much longer. Tim will start to drag on the baseball field; I’ll have trouble finding motivation for my daily run. We might even get a little cranky. But at this point, it’s a perfect start to summer. I’m not sure whether to explain the timing as a theological or meteorological phenomenon. But for now, we’ll keep basking in it. School is over for the year, and if you venture just a step or two beyond the crisply air-conditioned house, there’s no question that it’s summer.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Farewell to another school year

Most years, the last day of school makes me feel nostalgic and sentimental. This year seemed different, though. My two predominant emotions as the kids wrapped up fourth and seventh grade, respectively, with a half-day of school and noon dismissal yesterday, were mild exhaustion and significant relief.

Oh, there was still a pang or two of nostalgia. The end of a year always means changes ahead. Next year they’ll both be on the middle school schedule, which begins and ends one hour earlier than elementary school classes even though all the grades share a campus, so I’ll no longer get to see the littlest kids when I pick Holly up at school, and I’ll no longer have the fun of hanging out with the parents of the younger children as we wait for our kids to be dismissed. And yes, I teared up watching the school buses drive out of the parking lot while all the teachers formed a line waving goodbye, just as I do every year.

But for the most part, I’m less ambivalent than usual about seeing a school year end. Yes, it was a great year for both of the kids: they had excellent teachers, challenging work and good friends. But it also seemed like I had more responsibilities, and I’m waving goodbye to those duties just as cheerfully as the teachers wave goodbye to the buses. Even walking into the main building to pick Holly up yesterday, I found myself thinking “There’s the auditorium where I volunteered for fourth grade band duty. There’s the cafeteria where I chaired the faculty appreciation luncheon. There’s the stage where I spent hours helping out at rehearsals and performances of the seventh grade play. There’s the library where I coordinated volunteer shifts all year.”

Every single one of these duties is something I offered to do. I wouldn’t have had to do any of them; my kids would have been just as welcome and just as well-treated at school had I not appeared on campus once all year. No, these were all my choices. But they added up faster than usual this year, it seemed.

So for the first time in my adult life, I felt a little like a kid again as the last day of school rolled around. Just as when I was a student myself, I was ready for the year to come to a close. I was happy with what had taken place throughout the year – some of which I could take credit for doing and some of which I could only be grateful to be part of – but I was ready for a break from it.

Now, I have that break, and so do my kids: eleven weeks until Labor Day and the start of a new school year. Eleven weeks should be plenty of time to replenish our mental energy and feel a little less worn down by it all. Even to analyze it is somewhat self-indulgent: being a self-employed professional who can participate in lots of volunteer efforts because she has the luxury of working from home and making her own hours is nothing to complain about. And these aren’t complaints: just an exclamation of relief.

School is over for the year. It’s summer, a time for taking a break from it all. Even Holly has that feeling: she announced during her shower last night that in honor of summer vacation, she might stop lining up her shampoo and conditioner bottles in the shower every night after she’s done bathing.

I have no problem with that. If it makes her feel like she’s taking a break from the norm, then she can scatter shampoo bottles as randomly as she wants. We can all use a little break, and now that summer is here, we can all try to find a way to take one.

Monday, June 18, 2012

"To Do" versus "Did"

It’s another one of those days when I have to remind myself to shift my attention to the “Did” list rather than the “To Do” list, and acknowledge that what I did do deserves recognition just as much as what I didn’t do.

That can be hard to put into practice, though. The “To Do” list is such an attention grabber, with its bold headings and flashy colors – at least the ones my imagination superimposes over the items on it. The To Do list jumps up and down and waves its arms in the air. It does cartwheels and performs cheers. It elbows its way to the front of my consciousness.

Meanwhile, the “Did” list sits quietly in a lounge chair with its feet up, laconically watching the To Do list fuss and clamor.

And so the Did list gets ignored while the squeaky wheel of the To Do list gets all of my mental grease. I run through the litany over and over again of what I need to do, what I did not get to this weekend, what’s due in the upcoming week. I vacuumed yesterday, but only half the house (and the easy half, at that). I need to finish working on my Fourth of July article. There are three baskets of clean laundry waiting to be folded. The car needs an oil change this week too, and I should write an email to the mom in charge of the kids’ beach trip for Wednesday.

But, as I remind myself, one is always making choices about how to spend time. As I was ignoring all of the things on my To Do list, I wasn’t doing absolutely nothing. I was spending a Sunday morning with my sister and her 7-year-old, who were visiting from Washington, D.C. I watched my young nephew row around my parents’ backyard pond in a rowboat, and then I watched the same busy child make up obstacle courses at the playground while my sister and I ruminated on the derivations and deviations of friendship.

True, these weren’t on any To Do list. But the vacuuming will still be there tomorrow and so will the work deadlines. My sister and my nephew, on the other hand, flew back to Washington yesterday. By the time they next visit, my nephew may have outgrown his interest in both rowboats and playgrounds. It truly might have been my last opportunity to see him do these things.

So the To Do list outweighs the Did list in flashiness and magnitude as always, but the Did list basks in a sense of gratitude and satisfaction. What I did mattered to me, even if not to my career development or my domestic upkeep. The To Do list will stick around another day; the Did list will fade into memory. Nonetheless, I’m so glad for what I did.

Friday, June 15, 2012

Information consumption

At some point earlier this month it occurred to me that I have a Field of Dreams attitude toward our school system’s occasional “information nights.”

Just as in the motto of that baseball movie, If they hold it, I will come. Whether the topic is kindergarten preparedness or the sixth grade outdoor education retreat or transitioning to middle school or the seventh grade play, if I receive an email about it and if I have a child in the relevant grade, I put it on my calendar.

The reason I was thinking about this is that fifth grade information night fell a few days ago, in the middle of one of the busiest weeks of the school year, and as I hurried through dinner, it crossed my mind that just because fifth grade information night existed didn’t actually mean I had to attend it. My elder child was in fifth grade just two years ago, and even then I didn’t find it all that complicated to comprehend. Each kid has one teacher for language arts and social studies and another teacher for math and science. One of those two teachers is the child’s homeroom teacher as well. The bus comes an hour earlier – since we’re a K-8 school, there’s an earlier schedule for grades 5-8 and a school day that begins an hour later for the younger grades. Other than that, it wasn’t too different from fourth grade. Or third. Or any of these preceding three grades we’d already gone through.

It’s not as if these sessions are required. They’re proof of the school administration’s benevolence, to assuage parents’ concerns and probably also to protect the teachers and administrators from receiving a deluge of phone calls and emails over the summer about parents with questions. Although really, I’m not sure just what those questions would be. It’s all pretty straightforward.

So I had to ask myself as I drove to the school on Tuesday evening why exactly I was going. Did I really think I was going to learn something terribly important about fifth grade that I didn’t already know, couldn’t deduce or wouldn’t be aware of by the end of Holly’s first day of school in September?

Admittedly, no. It’s really little more than a Pavlovian response at this point. I’m eager for any and every nugget of information from the school, even though hardly any of it changes anything I or my children will do before, during or after the school year.

And as I sat there and listened to the fifth grade teaching team explain in detail what the kids’ daily schedule was like, I realized that at heart, it’s a matter of reassurance. It makes me feel so comforted to be sat down and told what my child’s day will be like. The time for these experiences is running out so quickly. Tim is going into eighth grade, for which there is no information night, but by this time next year we will have attended at least one or two sessions to prepare us for the high school experience, and my friends with kids already in high school are always talking about college information night, AP coursework information night, even driver’s ed information night (mandatory for any parent whose child hopes to learn to drive!). And then if my kids are lucky enough to go off to college, there will probably be one more event, the grand finale of information sessions, when we parents are gathered by the dean once we’ve all arrived on campus with our new freshmen for one huge dispensation of details about college life.

My kids, at ages 9 and 13, still seem a long way even from driver’s ed, let alone college orientation. So I’m not really worried about it. And yet it’s so clear to me that these days pass by quickly, and pretty soon there will be no professional eager to give me information about what to expect in the upcoming year of my child’s life.

Of course, nothing ever goes exactly as expected. Everything about fifth grade, as it’s described during this particular information session, sounds both logical and familiar to me, but the upcoming school year will inevitably throw us some curve balls, as it always does.

So really, I’m here to feel like the unknown can be made familiar. In this case, it can; future opportunities for the kids will be much different in that respect. Someday they’ll be off on challenges or adventures I can’t learn anything about ahead of time. So for now, I’ll take all the information I can get – and be happy that it’s still so readily available.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Turducken time

“Dream big,” we tell our kids. “You can do whatever you want to with your life. Accept no limitations when it comes to following your passions.”

Yes, yes, we said all of those things and we meant them at the time. But we were talking to preschoolers or maybe third graders, and we meant that you could grow up to be a professional ball player or an astronaut or first in your class at medical school or U.S. president.

And if, even when we said it, we already suspected some of those possibilities would probably prove to be out of reach, we hid it well. Because that’s the message parents want to give their kids: assume no limitations, you have the potential to be and do anything.

But here I am, already wishing I could dial down that message just a little. Not because my child is headed for second rather than first in some hypothetical graduating class of doctors or because the Women’s NBA overlooked her as a draft pick, but because I really don’t see why – or how – Tim is going to make a turducken for his seventh grade advisory group on the second-to-last day of school.

Advisory is a weekly event in middle school in which kids are divided up into groups of ten, each one led by a teacher. The idea is generally to have a meaningful liaison with other kids and teachers outside of the curricular setting, so they do team-building activities, skits, competitions, and games throughout the year.

And Tim and his advisory buddy Reid thought the only fitting way to say farewell to the other eight members of their advisory was by cooking them a turkey dinner.

But not a normal Thanksgiving turkey dinner. That, I know how to do. That, I’ve done every Thanksgiving for the past twelve years. No, the boys offered to make a turducken. How Tim even knows the concept of turducken is unclear to me, but by the time he told me about the plan, he and Reid had already spent some time on the Internet comparing recipes and researching poultry prices. “Everyone in the group will donate toward the costs,” Tim assured me.

It sounded like a frankly preposterous idea to me. I’m quite familiar by this time in my parenting career with what generally happens when the kids take on a cooking – or more typically baking – project: I buy the groceries, I supervise the labor, and I clean up the kitchen afterwards.

Tim understands my misgivings but assures me that he and Reid will put in the necessary time and effort to get the job done. Unfortunately, none of us can quite picture just what this time and effort will look like, since none of us has ever cooked – or even eaten – a turducken before.

But as my friend Leigh said, when your son comes home from school and says he wants to make a turducken, how can you say no? How can you quash that particular dream just because you know you’ll be scraping grease off the stovetop for the next six months?

I didn’t exactly say yes, though. I very dubiously said that they could try. And I called the butcher at Whole Foods to order the three de-boned birds. “As small as possible, especially the turkey,” I told him. “It’s only for a group of ten, and they’ll have just a short time to eat between phys ed class and social studies.”

“I’ve never heard of a class project like that before,” he commented when I explained.

“Tell me about it,” I muttered.

Nonetheless, Tim and Reid are on deck and ready to bat. My feeling is that I won’t bail them out if failure or incompletion seems imminent, but I’ll coach them along until they quit.

But, of course, maybe they won’t quit. Maybe they will actually bring a roasted, carved turducken to school next Monday. (My father has already volunteered to do the carving, and if we reach that point in the project, I don’t mind lugging it up to Tim’s classroom.) Maybe the message I’ve been dutifully promoting all along – “You can do anything to which you set your mind!” – will turn out to be true in this case.

And if not, at least I gave the butcher at Whole Foods a memorable anecdote that he’ll probably be retelling at employee training days for years to come.

Monday, June 11, 2012

Not a half-marathon, but a very small challenge

When my friend Nicole asked me a couple of months ago whether I’d like to train for a half-marathon with her, I thought about it, but not for very long.

I knew it would be a good challenge for me. It would knock me out of the general complacency I’ve developed as a runner: yes, I do this official streak thing where I run a mile or more every day and have for almost five years now, but it’s been a while since I tried something that really made me push my limits.

And I knew I could probably succeed, if I followed her training schedule. Back in 2003, for a period of about six months, I did a 13-mile run once a week. That was almost a decade ago, but I think I still have the capacity for it.

Moreover, even going beyond the questions of whether I had or could develop the physical ability to run a 13-mile race, the idea of doing this supported my belief in setting goals and challenges of all kinds for oneself. Much about my life has grown comfortable recently, and for that I’m grateful: with my work, my household, my personal relationships, much has seemed blessedly easy lately. Maybe it was time to push the envelope, to find a new way to make myself stretch beyond my comfort zone.

Yet after thinking all of these thoughts fairly briefly, I said no. I admitted that I really just didn’t feel like pushing myself to run a lot longer than I was accustomed to, and I didn’t want to put in the time that training would consume, either. Even if my daily life isn’t overly taxing these days, it’s busy, and I didn’t want to take on something that would eat up the minutes and hours of peaceful weekend mornings.

Still, as Nicole updated me weekly on her training, I felt twinges of envy. Nicole considered herself a beginner when she started occasionally running with me; it was with me that she first ran four miles, five miles, six miles, and she gave me credit for motivating her by example to do it. Now she was surpassing my mileage every weekend.

But I still didn’t want to do it, even though I was a little disappointed in myself for feeling that way. It would be a great time to take on a training challenge, an ideal time to push my body to new physiological and athletic benchmarks. Building up to do something new like a half-marathon would probably give me all kinds of new insights and modes of self-awareness, I suspected. And yet I just didn’t want to do the running, to make myself be out on the road for more than an hour at a stretch, to test myself anew week after week, in preparation for a single event in July that I might possibly not even be able to complete when the time came.

I resigned myself to the fact that sometimes we’re ready to take on a new challenge and sometimes we’re not. Sometimes, despite being able to see so vividly the possible advantages of setting out on a conquest, it’s the right time not for new conquests but for accepting self-imposed limits, for admitting that time and comfort are more important priorities at the moment than conquering personal frontiers.

So yesterday morning I set out on an easy four-mile run. I just wanted to enjoy the peaceful sunny Sunday morning, not work hard. Four miles would be a breeze, I knew. Easy, enjoyable, relaxing.

Nearly two miles in, though, I saw Nicole running toward me. I knew it was her nine-mile day; without meaning to, I’d been keeping track of her training schedule in my mind and remembering what week she was up to each Sunday.

If I turned back at the two-mile mark as planned, I wouldn’t even be running half her distance.

And just realizing that was enough to motivate me to add on an extra mile. Five miles is still not a big deal, but at least I was pushing myself beyond what I’d planned to do, and that felt good.

I ran five miles and savored every moment of it. So I suppose in the end, the lesson is that both parts are true. Yes, it’s okay to admit when you just feel like resting on your laurels and not taking on new challenges: going with what’s comfortable and easy once in a while instead of feeling forever compelled to overcome new hurdles is a reasonable choice.

And yet it’s also good to find challenges wherever and whenever you can, and take the opportunities that come along.

Running five miles isn’t particularly difficult for me, but the salient fact was that I’d set out for four. Running five instead was pushing myself just a little bit, and feeling motivated by someone else’s hard work to try to do likewise.

It’s no half-marathon, but it was a good way for me to put in just a little extra effort on a sunny Sunday morning, and a good way to remind myself that sometimes, just a little is all you need.

Friday, June 8, 2012

Time out for music appreciation

During what is perhaps the busiest week of the school year, I took time last night to go to a school concert.

This may not sound surprising, except that neither of my kids was in the concert. Despite the fact that the final weeks of school are always a madly revolving door of team banquets, school performances, classroom presentations, wrap-up meetings, and information sessions about next year, I shrugged it all off last night and spent two hours at a performance by the middle school choir, jazz ensemble and symphonic band.

Other parents who saw me there looked puzzled. “I didn’t know Tim was in the school band,” they said. It appeared that I was an anomaly, there just to hear the music.

But it seemed like the best antidote to all the rush of the past few weeks. Earlier in the week I’d attended Holly’s fourth grade band and chorus concert, but honestly, it just wasn’t the same. I was happy to see Holly and her friends on stage, but there really isn’t a lot of artistic depth at the level they’ve currently achieved. Yes, they’ve progressed a lot since they started their voice and instrument studies back in October, but it still doesn’t make for a great concert. We enjoyed their appearance on stage, but it wasn’t exactly an experience in absorbing fine music.

Hearing the middle school ensembles, on the other hand, is very much an experience in music appreciation. The sounds from stage were rich and melodious. The music was diverse and interesting.

True, I had no real reason to go to this concert. No young performer was peering out from the stage to be sure I was there. No one in my family even opted to come with me.

But sometimes when things get really busy, the answer is to opt out, even for just a couple of hours. I thought of Mahatma Gandhi’s quote about meditation: “I have so much to accomplish today that I must meditate for two hours instead of one.” There were a dozen things around the house I probably should have done last night between 7:30 and 9 p.m. Instead, I sat in an auditorium listening to music.

And it felt wonderful.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

The difficulty of measuring importance

It’s hard to gauge the importance of some events.

I spent a lot of time over the past month working on the annual spring faculty-staff luncheon at our school, which took place yesterday. It was my third year as volunteer co-chair for this event, but it hasn’t gotten any easier over time – just more familiar. Every year, the job involves weeks of sending out emails asking parents to contribute food, beverages, paper goods or money to the event and reminding them of what an important way this is to show our appreciation to our school’s very deserving professionals.

The event went beautifully yesterday. More than one hundred families prepared dishes or donated other items, and the 150 faculty and staff members who filed through the buffet line and then sat down to eat amidst decorations and flowers that transformed the school lunchroom all seemed delighted. Dozens of the teachers, aides, administrators and support staff who attended thanked my co-chair and me for our work in coordinating the event.

All of this makes me really happy. I like that this annual event makes the teachers and staff feel appreciated by the parents – they deserve that feeling. And in spite of the weeks of sending emails, organizing plans, purchasing paper products and decorations, and preparing my own contributions to the luncheon, I always enjoy working with the other volunteers. In the end, we always have fun.

And yet as tired as I was when it was over, I couldn’t help feeling a little sheepish that the big event taking up so much of my time and energy had been planning a luncheon. I thought of other women my age whose typical work days consist of performing heart transplants, captaining fishing boats, advocating for children in court. Those all seem like fine justifications for being tired at the end of the day. Hosting a luncheon seems a little trivial given the time and energy that went into it.

It’s one of those things that’s difficult to judge: is it frivolous that I spent so much time on this, or is it just a matter of how everyone does good in their own way? My work day will probably never consist of lifesaving medical procedures or legal advocacy for the needy. If I can throw a luncheon that makes a fairly large number of deserving teachers and staff feel appreciated, isn’t that a reasonable justification for the time it consumed?

I’m not sure. I was happy to do it, though I’m even happier now that it’s over for another year. I just can’t quite decide. Does the sense of benevolence and goodwill that this event generated outweigh the intrinsic implication of frivolity?

I don’t think I’ll ever be able to draw that line in the sand. But just thinking about it reminds me of an interview I did earlier this spring. I had the opportunity to write an article on Peggy McKibben, whose son is internationally acclaimed environmentalist Bill McKibben. At the end, she referred to the fact that people the world over have learned about climate change threats and other significant issues from Bill – through his books or his articles or hearing him speak or participation in a project his foundation organized. But, she said, her other son is a second grade teacher In Maine, and he holds a lot of influence over his small group of seven-year-old followers as well. Who knows which of the two men really has the greater impact?, she asked rhetorically. And she’s right. There’s no way of measuring one’s potential impact or ability to do good.

My luncheon won’t change the world, not even a little bit. But the guests had fun attending it and the volunteers felt good about hosting it. Frivolous? Maybe. But it generated good feelings all around, and that’s something the importance of which I simply do not know how to gauge.

Monday, June 4, 2012

The emerald woods of June

“The woods are lovely, dark and deep.”

I know Robert Frost was referring to the winter woods when he wrote this; in the same poem he refers to those woods “filling up with snow.” But I keep thinking of those words this month, as I gaze into the lovely, dark and deep woods just behind my house.

Earlier in the spring we were in a drought, but since then we’ve had plenty of nourishing rainfall, interspersed with warm sunny days: perfect growing weather. My father and the other farmers in town have already done their first hay cutting, but the cows look like hay is the farthest thing from their minds right now, with all the thick green grass to graze upon in their pastures.

At my house, though, the view is of woods, not pastures, and it looks like a rainforest around here this month. The leaves on the oak, elm and maple trees are lush and emerald, almost blocking out the sunlight so that the forest floor is dark. The trails I walk on are swathed with fern fronds and moss. It’s as if a brilliant green haze has suffused from the tops of the trees down to the ground.

And it’s not only the leaves and grasses and shrubs that make the forest seem so lush right now. Birds tweet all day long; owls hoot at night and sometimes in the afternoon as well. (Since moving to this house by the woods, I’ve been surprised to hear owls at all times of day. Was I wrong to think they were strictly nocturnal?) Peepers and bullfrogs call from the ponds. Yesterday I saw a small but very furry fox trot across our lawn. Turtles of many sizes cross the roadway near streams, and last week I spotted a hummingbird near the kitchen window.

Other wildlife is less present in this weather, which is in its own way a sign of the abundance of this growing season. The deer we usually see at the edge of the driveway have been absent lately, indicating that they’re finding enough food in the forest not to venture so close to the house. And it’s been a while since I’ve heard coyotes at night, a normal sound all throughout the winter.

Insects abound in the moist warm air of June as well: butterflies and dragonflies, but also ticks and mosquitoes. Sleeping with the windows open means putting up with gnats, tiny enough to infiltrate the screens, in the bedroom.

It’s a beautiful time of year, full of birdsongs and the fragrance of flower blossoms as well as grass that grows faster than we can keep it mowed and weeds that need to be yanked from the herb garden almost daily. The woods are indeed lovely, dark and deep – with growth, in this case, rather than with snow. June is in full bloom, and the rich dank warm air beckons me to get outside and breathe it all in before the season changes yet again.

Friday, June 1, 2012

The busy bustle of June

It’s that tapering-off time of year.

And yet it’s also that grand-finale time of year.

In other words, I’m not sure whether it would be more accurate to say the school year ends with a whimper or a bang; a sigh or a crash of cymbals; a quiet smile or a standing ovation.

Holly’s pottery class ended yesterday, and she brought home a paper bag full of creations: ornately glazed ceramic plates, mugs, animals, plaques, boxes. Tim has his last baseball game later this week.

The more ceremonious end-of-year events are under way as well: classroom presentations, student concerts. And also under way are the forward-looking events: fifth grade informational night is in a couple of weeks, and although I admit it’s the first school informational event yet that I’ve considered not going to – is there really anything about administrative plans for next year’s fifth grade complicated enough for me to give up a weeknight in June? –a sense of obligation toward the school and all the information dispensation it plans year in and year out will no doubt prevail.

And even as the kids’ activities taper off, I still have a task list to get me through the next three weeks: a volunteer appreciation coffee to host, a faculty/staff luncheon to oversee, a seventh grade in-school party to plan.

So when I clicked from May to June on my electronic calendar yesterday, there was a brief temptation to hyperventilate just a little. So much still left to do before school vacation starts; and then following that will come the cheerful laziness that descends over the kids as soon as the last day of school is behind them and their time is wide open.

But then I thought of another mother at our school, one who will spend the next few weeks – or longer – accompanying her son, close in age to my son, to chemotherapy sessions. She’s not worrying about baseball banquets or volunteer appreciation coffees, or even what the kids will do once vacation begins. Right now, my slightly frazzling but merry reality is a dream to her.

As I often remind myself, normalcy is the greatest luxury. Bustling around for the next three weeks means that people are having fun and celebrating the small milestones that accompany the end of every school year: milestones like finishing grade school, completing one’s first June band concert, bringing home a great report card. Having all of those little daily events taken away seldom happens for a positive reason. So we’ll make our way through the upcoming weeks, celebrating each event, and just being glad for the happy bustling frazzling overscheduled normalcy of June.