Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Playing cards

My 11-year-old and I played cards for over an hour last night before bedtime.

This is unusual. I am not someone who ordinarily plays cards. I am, in fact, someone who will go out of her way to avoid playing cards. For a long time, I've seen it as the ultimate show of pointlessness. When the world still contains more books than any of us will ever be able to read in even the longest of human lifetimes, why spend time staring at cards?

But Holly's cousins taught her a new card game during a sleepover earlier this month, and she was eager to teach it to me. Because I think it's good for kids to have the role-reversal experience of teaching something to their parents, and because it's good for me to make myself learn something new, and mostly just because school starts in a week and I wanted to make the summer evening draw out a little longer, I agreed to play cards with Holly.

And it was so much more fun than I expected. For one thing, it reminded me of my grandparents' lakeside summer house during my childhood, where after dinner, everyone of all generations played cards. I can still remember the desk drawer in which my grandmother kept pads of paper and golfers’ pencils for keeping score of our gin rummy games.

But it also reminded me of why it really is worthwhile to play cards once in a while. Yes, even when there are issues of the New Yorker not yet finished and classic Russian novels not yet begun.

Because playing cards is perhaps the best way to just stop and focus, make the moment last. When you're playing cards, you get caught up in the numbers and the strategy, the luck and twists of fate and intellectual gymnastics involved in trying to win the game. During the hour we played cards, I wasn't thinking about writing assignments or current events or household tasks that needed to be done, the way I do when I'm taking a walk or cooking or driving or doing almost anything else that feels fairly mindless. There was nothing on my mind at all but the game.

And that, I realized as Holly and I dealt and discarded and exchanged and shuffled, is the best reason to play cards. Paradoxically, it is mindless -- just as I'd always feared -- but also commands full attention. For that hour, I was thinking about nothing except the activity to which Holly and I had devoted ourselves.

It's a simple enough notion, and yet it's something that I as a parent do far too seldom. So often, I'm half paying attention to my kids and half thinking about doing something else, or else I’m not just thinking about it but actually doing something else at the same time. Multi-tasking, multi-thinking, multi-focusing.

Not yesterday evening, though. Yesterday evening, we just played cards. It was all-encompassing for that one hour. And in that singular respect, it was just as valuable as any hour I've spent doing anything else this summer.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Running Streak Anniversary #6

The fact that my running streak anniversary was coming up occurred to me only by chance last week. I walked into the office where I work part-time and two co-workers started laughing, confessing they had just been talking about me. “I was telling Halee about your streak running,” Jenn said. “Yes, and I’ve never heard of any such thing!” Halee exclaimed. “You’ve been doing this for how long?”

“I just passed my five-year anniversary," I said automatically, just as I’ve been saying for most of the past year. “Actually,” I continued, as I gave it a little bit more thought, “now that it’s August, I must be at almost six years. Oh wait, my streak anniversary is tomorrow. August 15.”

After completing my first couple of years of streak running, I came to think of it much the same way I think of my wedding anniversary: once you decide you're in it for the long haul, the actual number of years doesn't seem to matter that much. There's something almost binary about these anniversaries: whether marriage or streak running, either you're hanging in there with your commitment or you've decided not to -- a simple up or down vote -- and so it doesn't seem to make too much difference whether it's three years or five or ten.

That day, I posted my sentiments on the Facebook page devoted to streak running and discovered that other long-time runners feel the same way. "I recently celebrated my 10-year Streakiversary, and my 31st wedding anniversary is next month," responded another streak runner. "I must admit I notice my milestones of days (500 ... 1,000 ... 2,500 ... etc. ) for the Streak, but not for marriage  -- just years."

I thought about how strange it would be if we kept track of our marriages in days rather than years. And then I thought about how there’s really no equivalent in marriage to the daily posting of miles, no regular metric to distinguish one day from the next.

Ultimately, I recognize that the parallels only go so far. I'm of the belief that only death could end my marriage, and that’s not a possibility I especially want to contemplate; my running streak is precious but not nearly that sacred, and it really isn't so difficult for me to face the reality that something will eventually end my streak, likely something less drastic than death. Some kind of medical emergency, is what I usually assume, but it could be something as mundane as travel delays or another logistical snafu of some kind.

In any case, each of the two – the running streak and the marriage – are moving along through the years. The first just passed the six-year mark; almost without my noticing; the second hit 21 years last spring, and we took the kids out for a celebratory dinner, as we usually do. (Some of our friends think it’s funny that we take our kids out to dinner on our anniversary, but as I see it, they are the most tangible result of the marriage, so why not include them in the celebration?) I’m not sure what the equivalent would be for a streak anniversary: I suppose I could take my running shoes out to dinner, but the conversation would probably be less interesting than with the kids. (On the other hand, the shoes never argue about who gets to sit where on the ride home.)

It feels good to be past the six-year mark for streak running, but it doesn’t really change anything. The next day I went running again, just as the morning after my wedding anniversary, I woke up once again next to my husband. I’m happy to have both milestones, but neither one inspires a lot of quantifying on my part. Running and marriage: both require tenacity, both inspire joy. I’m in it for the long haul, whatever that might turn out to mean.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Kitchen clean-up

From upstairs, I could smell the rich sweet aroma of chocolate chips in the oven, and I was a little bit afraid to finish brushing my teeth and head down to the kitchen.

After dinner, Holly had asked me if she could make Seven-Layer Bars, and with a healthy dose of trepidation, I said yes.

Rick is always encouraging me to let the kids do more in the kitchen. His theory is that if I say yes when they want to bake cookies (Holly) or fry French fries (Tim), the same skills will eventually compel them to make their own breakfasts and lunches. And that, I sometimes imagine, could add years to my life.

But it takes a big leap of faith, because although I suspect they do have the culinary abilities to scramble eggs or make sandwiches, it’s the clean-up where they still fall short.

Still, when Holly asked to make Seven-Layer Bars last night, I couldn’t really justify turning her down. I started baking when I was just a little bit younger than she is now; I still love baking to this day.

But I also learned to clean up at around that time, and that’s a skill that seems to have eluded my kids so far. Sure, they understand the basics. They put ingredients away and stack mixing bowls in the sink. 

But they always leave copious amounts of flour drifting across the countertops, and they never remember to fill dirty bowls with hot soapy water so that they’ll be easier to wash later on.

When I finished brushing my teeth and apprehensively headed down to check Holly’s progress, however, I was pleasantly surprised. Granted, it’s a pretty easy recipe – especially since her Seven-Layer Bars are only Five-Layer Bars because she doesn’t like nuts or butterscotch chips – but the mess I expected was absent. She’d wiped down the countertops and put away everything she’d taken out. 

No butter wrappers, stray chocolate chips, or coconut shreds remained to be seen. I was impressed.

Apparently all my pleas to clean up after herself had finally paid off, and it reminded me not to give up so easily. Sure, the kids used to be rather negligent when it came to kitchen tidiness, but as they grow older, I can expect more. If I’m patient and remember to show them how I want things done, they’ll gradually learn to do it. Holly’s Seven-Layer Bars came out of the oven looking lightly browned, bubbly, chewy and delicious – and we had a nice clean kitchen in which to savor the first warm bites.

Not that she crossed every t and dotted every i. The pan in which she’d mixed the melted butter and graham cracker crumbs was in the sink….but not soaking. At first I sighed, discouraged. But then I remember that my feeling discouraged wouldn’t help for next time. Only showing her what to do would be likely to lead to improvement.

So I reminded her to squirt some detergent into the pan and fill it with warm water, and a few minutes after that I showed her how to scrub the pan and put it in the dishwasher. Maybe next time she’ll do it herself.

And in the meantime, we have a really delicious dessert to enjoy.

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Heart of the summer

It took us until early August to break out the grill, but we finally had a meal that looked and smelled like summertime.

There's no particular reason we didn't grill earlier. It was just one of those things that passed us by, as summer wore on. But yesterday I marinated a steak all day, and after I got home from work, Rick pulled the canvas cover off the grill, scraped off a little of the detritus left from last year, and lit the flame.

And the summer flavor didn't end there. We also had our first corn on the cob of the season, plus asparagus. It was truly a midsummer meal.

Which feels appropriate, as the mood this week has been very much heart-of-the-summer. Both kids are done with their week of camp, but it's still too early for back-to-school shopping. This morning I received an email containing Tim's freshman football training schedule, which begins on August 19. A friend asked me when the middle school would post homeroom lists and I realized I had no idea.

All of this is because it's still only the very first few days of August. At the beginning of every summer, I spend a lot of time planning out our time, investigating different activities, stocking up on sunscreen and bug spray, and reminding the kids that once in a while they'll need to be out of bed before 9:30 a.m. And at the end of the summer, my thoughts turn to back-to-school issues and I become more insistent that the kids start getting up earlier, in preparation for the 7 a.m. bus pick-up that awaits them next month.

But right now, we're still in the heart of the summer, even if we only uncovered the grill for the first time last night. I've read just one of the three novels I set as my summer reading goal, and we haven't been to the beach yet nearly as often as we'd like. But the beauty of August 6, a full four weeks before school starts, is that there's still time.

The weather has cooled off a little since last months heat waves, but the daylight still lasts well past dinner. Friends are still leaving on vacations or for camp. And we still have plenty of summer plans ahead as well, including my niece's arrival next week and another trip to Maine after that.

It's August, yes. But it's early August. The summer hasn't ended yet, and the corn on the cob is only just now reaching perfection. We'll take our time for these next few weeks; we're in no hurry for fall. Not while summer still holds so many pleasures.