Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Lights out

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Friday, October 26, 2012

The oldest task on my To Do list

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Birthday blog

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

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

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

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

Friday, October 19, 2012

Swap shed success

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, October 12, 2012

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Walking on the beach

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, October 5, 2012

Holly, halfway through the cross-country season

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Staying up late

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

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

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

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

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