Friday, May 31, 2013

It's about me

Mostly, these days, I write about other people. I’ve written plenty about myself over the years, in essay form and even in one memoir about parenting, but essays aren’t an easy way for a journalist to make a living, and my own experience is by definition finite. Writing about other people gives me a nearly endless scope of options. Plus it’s more interesting than writing about myself.

So when my editor at the Boston Globe asked me to write an essay about my own five-yearrunning streak as part of a series on outdoor activities that he was planning for the month of May, I was surprised to find myself feeling ambivalent. As a younger writer, I would have jumped at the chance to write about my own pursuits, but in this age of constant overexposure through Facebook, Twitter, websites, blogs and numerous other forms of self-promotion (in truth, though, I haven’t even dipped a toe yet into the world of Instagram or Pinterest), it seemed self-serving to take advantage of the soapbox he was offering.

But being a senior editor at a major national newspaper, he did not ask me for my opinion of the assignment; he simply assigned it. And I wrote it, hoping as I did so that my friends and neighbors and acquaintances would somehow read between the lines and know that this time, the self-promotion actually wasn’t my idea.

And in the end, it was fun. I’m accustomed to opening the paper in the morning (or, more literally, booting it up, since I subscribe to the electronic version) and seeing my byline, but I’m certainly not used to seeing my own picture. It was even more fun to get emails and Facebook posts throughout the day complimenting the story. It was almost like my birthday: a day when I felt celebrated, instead of like the person responsible for celebrating other people.

Before the day was over, I was back to turning my focus outward. I was on deadline for two different stories and couldn’t squander too much time celebrating myself. Instead, I researched and interviewed and drafted, just like I do most work days. Today I turn once again full force to using my column space for exploring the good works and deeds of others. But it was fun to be Queen for a Day. And if I’m offered the opportunity again after I complete another five years of my running streak,  I’ll take it.

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

A very simple rule of thumb

Back home after a 3-day weekend in Maine, I briefly contemplated the story I needed to file for the Globe, the emails to be answered, the ticket form to fill out for Tim’s graduation, the popsicles to procure for Holly’s Field Day, and the camp registrations for both kids due in tomorrow’s mail, and then invoked what I call Gayle’s Rule for Returning Home: Always unpack before sundown.

Well, that may be a slightly romanticized version of Gayle’s rule, which I don’t think actually involves the solar calendar per se but merely states that you should always unpack before bedtime on the day you return from a trip.

And in fact, I don’t think Gayle herself even considers it a rule. But I do. For me, ever since I heard about it, it’s been a fundamental practice for self-organization.

Gayle was my sister’s college roommate, and my sister happened to mention a few years ago that she remembers being impressed at how no matter how late in the day Gayle might breeze in from the airport or how full her suitcase might be, she always unpacked right away. I was so intrigued by this basic notion that I emailed Gayle right away to ask about its origins. Was it something her parents had required when she was young? Did everyone in her family follow this tenet?

Gayle responded that she really hadn’t given it much thought. It was just something she always did and never really considered it a fundamental practice.

For me, it was just one of those times when a habit someone else takes for granted becomes something worth emulating. Until that moment, my typical practice had always been to consider unpacking a low priority. A suitcase could sit in the corner of my bedroom for days, its rumpled contents untouched. 

Eventually, when I needed something that was buried at the bottom of the suitcase, or when I was getting ready to do laundry, I’d get around to unpacking. Or at least partially unpacking. The rest of the job might go undone even longer, for weeks sometimes. Possibly, if I was feeling really busy, I might even wait until the next time I needed the suitcase.

But Gayle’s notion stuck in my head as a simple way to make homecomings more organized, to cut down even if only ever so slightly on the frazzle that often comes with the end of a trip. This weekend was a perfect example. I felt swamped by the number of little tasks, work deadlines, and matters of administrivia that awaited me.

But I unpacked my suitcase, and the whole situation somehow looked brighter. No bag of dirty clothes in the corner of my room: surely that proved I couldn’t be quite as disorganized as all that if I’d managed to accomplish that singular task.

Several years ago, there was a popular website called The Fly Lady, in which a guru of personal organization and housekeeping disseminated wisdom: her standard rule was to clean the kitchen sink every day. And Gretchen Rubin, author of “The Happiness Project,” writes that the single most popular tactic developed in her book, according to feedback from her readers, is to make the bed every day.

I still have deadlines and tasks awaiting me, and they won’t go away on their own. Gradually I need to tackle them all. But I still maintain that Gayle’s Rule is a fine approach. Put away those clothes and toiletries. Maybe even start a load of laundry. And somehow the rest starts to fall into place.

Friday, May 24, 2013

A happy anniversary

I remember May 23 of 1992 fairly well.

It was a Saturday. I woke up at my parents’ house around 7 that morning, having moved out of my Back Bay studio apartment three days earlier. I did a four-mile run down Brook and Maple Streets, the same route I still do once in a while these days. We were having a late-spring heat wave that year; temperatures were already approaching 80 when I went running, and reached 90 before the day ended.

Later there was an appointment at a hair salon – a rare occurrence, for me – and a private Mass, arranged by Rick’s parents and hosted by mine on their screen porch, celebrated by a priest who was one of Rick’s grandparents’ best friends. Non-Catholics that we are, no one in my family knew that we should have bread ready when the Communion part came; my mother dashed into the kitchen at the last minute and rounded up a few pita pockets to get the job done. The priest looked bemused.

And then my sisters and I put on our dresses and headed to the Concord Academy chapel.

Yesterday, May 23 of 2013, was a lot different from that day. Instead of unseasonably hot and sunny, it was mild, cloudy and humid. I woke up at 5:10 for a stationary bike workout and then made breakfast. I administered antibiotics and ointment to the dog, who is recovering from eye surgery. Rick and I together attended an event in Holly’s fifth grade classroom, and then he went off to study for a certification exam while I loaded the car for a trip to the transfer station. Later I worked on some articles until it was time to head to my afternoon office job.

May 23 is our wedding anniversary; yesterday it was 21 years to the day since Rick and I became a legal entity. Comparing the two days, the one 21 years ago sounds a lot lovelier. Sleeping late instead of attending to pets’ medical needs; churches and salon visits instead of trash collection and office time. And yet as most married people soon discover, it’s the days of absolute normalcy that end up seeming to spell happiness far more than the big flashy occasions. Our wedding day was joyful….but so was yesterday. It was fun getting to be princess for a day back then….but it’s also fun getting to be mom every day now.

Our wedding day culminated in dinner and dancing and lots of well-wishing before we headed into the city to stay at an airport hotel for the night; we were boarding an early flight to Venezuela the next morning. Yesterday after work, Rick and the kids met me at Legal Sea Foods, where the four of us have made it a tradition over the past several years to celebrate our anniversary. We got home from dinner in plenty of time for Rick to conduct a business call, the kids to finish their homework, and me to return some emails.

Wedding days can and should be fabulous, but anniversaries are often about celebrating the ordinary. I was more comfortable in my everyday clothes yesterday than I was in my wedding dress, even if I probably looked a little better at age 25 than 46. Still, yesterday was a fine day. We’ve been very lucky, blessed with a beautiful wedding day and 21 anniversaries since then. I hope there are many more to come, though that may be a lot to ask for when we’ve been so fortunate already. But last night we all had seafood and clam chowder and came home happy. It was a fine way to celebrate a wonderful occasion, many years after the fact.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Bye bye braces

When I was in my twenties, I used to write in cafes and coffee shops and pubs and parks: sometimes stateside, sometimes by the sea, sometimes in the capitals of Europe. Today I’m writing in the waiting room of a suburban orthodontic practice.

But perhaps for the last time. It’s a long appointment today because Tim is getting his braces removed, two years almost to the day after they were put on.

In general, I’m one of the few parents who does not remark on how rapidly my children’s childhoods have passed by. While other parents are prone to saying “How did it happen so fast!” and “Where did the years go?”, I tend to feel like the past fifteen years or so have happened pretty much in real time. I don’t think this suggests that I’ve enjoyed my kids’ childhoods any less than other parents have enjoyed theirs. I think it’s just that as an essayist, blogger and journal-keeper, I spend so much time examining the minutiae of everyday life that it sort of expands for me in a way it doesn’t for everyone. Very little goes unremarked upon; this somehow keeps it from hurrying past. Socrates may have said “The unexamined life is not worth living,” but he probably could not have known just how meticulously I would examine every aspect of my life and my children’s lives.

So I almost never say that babyhood or the toddler years or grade school has gone by quickly. But orthodontia seems to be an exception. I feel like it was just weeks ago that I was sitting here waiting for Tim to emerge from the examining room, new brackets and wires sparkling just like the tears welling in his eyes. This was a kid who couldn’t stand tags or buttons in his clothing; it hadn’t occurred to us that his sensory sensitivity would extend to his teeth, but he hated the bulkiness of the wires in his mouth for at least the first several days.

But that passed, and the braces became normal, and yet suddenly they’re gone again.

I’m not sure why this was the one milestone that seemed to come and go so quickly. Maybe because I thought it would all be a lot more work for me. Other than struggling to boost Tim’s spirits in those first few days, though, he didn’t need much from me. He figured out how to keep his teeth clean and what he could safely eat, and his appointments were straightforward twenty-minute events at eight-week intervals. It was a surprisingly simple process.

So as silly as it seems with eighth grade graduation, presumably a much more significant milestone, looming just five weeks away, this one feels big to me. For years before Tim got braces, we stressed about the affordability of it, but already it’s paid for and the braces are off. Tim walks out of the examining room beaming, and the change in his smile seems to accentuate all the other changes he’s gone through in twenty-four months’ time: now fourteen and a half, he’s about six inches taller, broader through the chest and shoulders, his voice deeper, his straight shiny hair gone curly.

It’s not quite enough to make me tearfully sentimental. That will probably come in five weeks’ time with graduation. But it’s one of many tangible changes he’ll undergo in the upcoming months and years. And I’m happy today to be here bearing witness.

Friday, May 17, 2013

The wisdom of peer parents

It was just a passing comment, somewhat transparently intended to remind the assembled journalists and the listening public of the president's humanity, but I loved him for it. Though ostensibly in the Rose Garden during yesterday's press conference with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdo─čan to talk about Syria and other international issues, the comment that stayed with me was when President Obama said to the Turkish Prime Minister, As always, among the topics where I appreciate your advice is close to our hearts, and that’s how to raise our daughters well. You're a little ahead of me in terms of their ages.

I already have great admiration for President Obama, but this made me like him even more: a parent who recognizes that your best resource as a parent is other parents.

I've been looking to other parents for guidance and mentorship ever since Tim was two weeks old and I joined a new baby group. The oldest babies in that group were about four months old, and yet I still looked to their mothers as founts of wisdom and experience. They lay their babies on quilts on the floor during our group gatherings. They knew how to breastfeed without removing any clothing. They could change a diaper without looking. They could even leave the room for a moment to use the bathroom themselves without taking their babies along, entrusting them instead to the other mothers in the group. Just two weeks in, I thought these skills were magical, and over the course of the next three months, I practiced everything I saw them doing.

And that was only the beginning. Shortly after Tim turned two, we joined a playgroup in which a lot of the mothers had older kids. Already thinking about what lay ahead, I pumped them for information: What kindergarten teachers? What afterschool activities? Soccer or t-ball? Walk to school or take the bus?
When Tim started kindergarten, I met even more parents with older kids. Now that my two children are 10 and 14, it amuses me to think that a mother with a third grader once seemed to me like the height of experience, but clearly these women knew something I didn't: they had their children in organized school routines, packing lunches, doing homework. And I wanted to know everything they knew.

I still do it even now. Tim will go off to high school next year; I've spent the past several months asking questions of parents with kids in high school. For almost every phase my children approach, I draw on the wisdom of more experienced parents. What's the right length of time for Tim's first trip to sleepaway camp? Should I urge him to go to school dances? Should I let Holly drop out of the school band? Is the cross-country team good exercise, or too competitive?

One year when Holly was still in preschool, I held the volunteer position of town playgroup coordinator. I was surprised when a mother called and said she wanted to start a playgroup but only include kids with no older siblings. I suppose she sought the support and empathy of other first-time parents, but I wanted to tell her she was depriving herself of vital learning opportunities.  I wanted to tell her that practically everything worthwhile that I know about parenting, I learned from more experienced parents.

So I appreciate the fact that the president gets this too. I realize his comment was meant to win over his audience; I don't suppose he and the Turkish prime minister really had time to discuss whether 13-year-olds should be allowed Facebook accounts or what was the right age to stop imposing bedtimes on weekends. But it's the thought that counts, and I only hope the mother who once said she wanted only first-borns in her playgroup learned at some point along the way how much she would miss out on by not exposing herself to other parents who were a few steps ahead.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Mother's Day

I’ve never felt particularly attached to Mother’s Day. I ‘m not overtly opposed to it as a “Hallmark holiday,” the way some people are, but I just never take it very seriously. When I was growing up, my parents paid very little attention to holidays like Mother’s Day and Father’s Day; my earliest memories of celebrating either of those holidays was one year when June was a particularly hot month and my older sister decided the best way to honor Dad was for the three daughters to choreograph a swim show in his honor. This became yearly tradition, both the part in which the three of us planned out and performed our water ballet and the part in which my father said “The best Father’s Day gift would be not to have to watch a swim show.” To this day, my sister calls me a few days before Father’s Day from wherever she happens to be – an academic retreat in Italy, this particular year – to ask if I’m done choreographing our show yet. (My sister also reminds me periodically of her expectation that I will help her choreograph a swim show for Independence Day, Labor Day, and the occasional unseasonably warm Columbus Day.)

This past Sunday, there were no swim shows, but we did have a simple brunch with my parents in their new screen house, which is just about the right size to hold the four of us, the two of them, and the dog. (Admittedly, we all would have fit even better without the dog, but I didn’t want to spend the remainder of Mother’s Day searching for her in the woods. Or removing ticks from her fur.)

And somehow it just felt festive in unusual ways, far different from the usual bouquets-and-breakfast-in-bed (neither of which have I ever actually experienced on Mother’s Day, but that’s what I’ve seen on TV commercials). From Rick, I received the gift I most wanted on that particular day: he did a spring tune-up on all four of our bikes, didn’t complain about the task, didn’t ask me for any help, and cleaned the whole project up when he was done. From Holly, a homemade necklace in a homemade jewelry box. From Tim, plenty of good cheer and affection.

At Tim’s afternoon baseball game, all the mothers wished each other a happy Mother’s Day, and all the fathers who were present wished us one as well. At the restaurant where we ate with my in-laws after the game, there were complimentary chocolate-dipped strawberries served after dinner “in honor of mothers.” There was even a balloon sculpture artist at the restaurant who was specifically targeting the mothers in the room for his patter and antics; mercifully, some very swift bill-paying by Rick enabled us to escape before he reached our table.

Mother’s Day still isn’t high on my list of important holidays, but this year it was more fun than I remembered, with baseball and strawberries and bike tune-ups done without asking. Too cold for swim shows this year, I’m afraid. But I suppose with the current rate of global warming, it’s not out of the question for next.

Friday, May 10, 2013

Fitting in fun

A glance at the calendar as the week began made it seem as if I had about three times as much work as usual. Deadlines for assigned articles; research for upcoming assignments; tasks to complete for the eighth grade graduation planning committee; more tasks to complete in preparation for the annual meeting at church. Plus the house to keep up, dinners to make, and the afternoon office job that takes me away from every other responsibility for twenty hours a week.

So I did something that seemed a little bit illogical: planned a bunch of weekday get-togethers with friends.

Well, it wasn’t quite that direct a connection. It wasn’t like I said, “Forget the deadlines; I’m just going to have fun!” It was just that when anyone suggested coffee, I accepted. And I didn’t cancel a longstanding lunch date with my friend Lisa. And when my friend Cindy and I needed to plan ticket distribution for graduation, I invited her over to the house, knowing it would take longer and be more sociable than if we just exchanged information on the phone.

When I get really busy like this, my attitude toward spending time with friends echoes Mahatman Gandhi’s quote about meditation: “I have so much to accomplish today that I must meditate for two hours instead of one.” When the logical thing seems to be to cut back on socializing, to cloister myself off and get writing done and pursue article leads and focus on the endless administrative tasks that typify all my volunteer work, I remember that I’ll get irritable and frustrated if I focus exclusively on the tasks at hand, and especially if I make myself spend time alone. Finding time to be with friends, on the other hand, will have an energizing effect and will nourish my spirit.

So I followed intuition rather than what seemed like common sense. I squeezed in coffee with Patti before I interviewed the selectmen; I took a walk with Jane after a morning meeting; I brought sandwiches over to Lisa’s house. I even spent two hours last Saturday enjoying an Indian buffet with my friend Anjali, though it was two hours I could have spent finishing an almost-overdue assignment.

Life gets busy, but it doesn’t need to be austere. Making time to be with my friends didn’t actually make it harder to meet deadlines; it made that part easier, because I felt rejuvenated after having a good talk or a brisk walk.

As always, it’s a matter of moderation. If I make too many plans, I’ll start missing deadlines and falling behind in all my work (and drinking too much coffee and eating too many lunches out). Most of us learn at some point in college that having too much fun is a bad idea for many reasons. But fitting in a little bit of socializing every day isn’t counterproductive. To the contrary, it’s the best way to ensure that I get back to work.

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Dialogues with other species

In an interview on NPR last week to promote his new book, “Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation”, Michael Pollan discussed the process of fermentation and then described how his newfound understanding of fermentation enabled him to make his own starter for bread rather than using yeast.

But what Pollan said next about baking was what really caught my attention. “At a certain point, I was able to throw away my recipe books and trust my senses in what dough should smell and taste and feel like, and realizing when it was ready,” he said. “It's just alive, you know? It's sort of like gardening for me. You're in this dialogue with these other species.”

I love the way he phrased it: being in a dialogue with another species. It made me think about the various things I do that could be construed that way. Walking in the woods.Taking care of pets and farm animals. Helping to mow the fields and turn the cut grass into hay bales at my parents’ farm. Listening to an owl. Planting herbs. All of these are activities that I consciously find rewarding, but the thought that it’s not just a diversion but a dialogue of sorts with another living species cast an interesting new perspective on it.

Dialoguing with humans, after all, is such a big part of my everyday life. My job as a journalist relies on my asking people the right questions and understanding their answers. It’s my passion as well as my occupation, but it can also be exhausting. Years ago, when I had an office job in the city, I confessed to my sister that at lunchtime I often bought a ready-made sandwich from the refrigerator compartment at the corner convenience store rather than ordering from the gourmet deli across the street simply because I needed a break from conversation, and would rather buy a sandwich of lesser quality than have to discuss my preferences with a deli worker. It’s nothing against deli workers; it’s just that I spend the work day crafting conversations and sometimes need a break from it.

A while ago, on a cooking show, I heard a Spanish chef explaining how to make a vegetarian stew. “Once you have the garlic talking to the chick peas….” he said. The host of the show laughed and said she didn’t speak fluent chick pea. I think she interpreted the funny turn of phrase as evidence of his faulty English. But cooks understand what this chef meant: ingredients have dialogues with each other, and with the person preparing them.

I can’t get away from human dialogue, nor would I want to. Both my personal life and my professional life depend on openness to verbal communication. But Michael Pollan’s unexpected turn of phrase served as a reminder that dialogue exists in other places too. How I talk to the dog, the daffodils, the stink bug on the kitchen floor, the chives growing in the window box….How I dialogue with other species. I suspect that once I start listening more closely, it may turn out to be just as interesting as the human dialogue that fills my day.

Friday, May 3, 2013

Spring springs slowly

It took a long time for spring to arrive this year.

The leaves all blew off the trees during Hurricane Sandy late last October, and the branches have been bare ever since. Bare enough to disappear under the two feet of snow that fell during Snowstorm Nemo, and the many inches that fell before and after that February storm.

And then the snow finally melted, and the branches stayed bare for weeks longer. The air was chilly and the ground hard and brown. I didn’t think about it much until we traveled south to Washington, D.C. in mid-April. There, in the warm sunshine, with freshly sprouted grass and blossoming trees all around us, the kids seemed to open up just like the blossoms, playing and exulting in the warm air they’d missed out on for so many months.

When we returned home, though, our lawn was still brown, our trees still bare, our shrubbery gray. There had even been a little bit of sleet in our absence.

So we waited. And then finally in the past week or so, our world turned green, the vibrant green of spring. Tiny leaves appeared on the trees and bushes. The grass on our lawn grew in bright green as well. Sunlight warmed the air. The kids and I started playing badminton nightly after dinner in the fading sunlight, something we never do when it’s below about 60 degrees. Yesterday at her painting class, Holly sat on a mat in the grass and painted a patch of yellow and purple flowers, so now we have a painting in the dining room with colors as vivid as those outside, where the daffodils that were planted long before we moved here are blooming once again.

Yet when I went for a walk after dinner last night, I noticed how many branches still didn’t have any leaves, how many patches of lawn have yet to grow in, how many buds on our neighbors’ apple trees haven’t opened yet. And somehow that was comforting too. It reminded me that this doesn’t all happen at once: spring has been magnificent these past several days, but there’s still more of it to come. Seasons in New England tend to unfold slowly, and it was good realize that we’ll keep discovering new blossoms and fresh greenery for weeks to come.

It would be a mistake to rush through this phase of slow blossoming. Summer, with its holidays and vacations and trips, carries with it more overt excitement and celebration than spring. Spring has a quieter splendor, and this week I’m reminding myself to stop counting the days until summer vacation and enjoy every moment of May.