Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Apple picking time

Holly and I went apple picking last weekend, just as we do nearly every fall, only this year we got a jump on the apple season. Normally we forget to go until Columbus Day weekend, which is the last weekend most orchards are open, and then we scramble to find one whose website confirms it still has apples available for picking.

This year, we thought of it early, and we had our choice of locations. I’d never even gone in early October before, let alone late September. We felt so organized, so ahead of the curve.

And somewhat to my surprise, it was markedly more fun than usual because the apples, while plentiful, were less abundant than they are in mid-October. So we had to actually search a little bit to find our bounty, which made it more like an Easter egg hunt, more adventurous. In mid-October, apple picking is the proverbial low-hanging fruit. Also high-hanging fruit, mid-hanging fruit, and fruit all over the ground. It was fun to go at a time that the task still required a little expenditure of effort.

Actually, any kind of intrigue or challenge makes apple picking more fun. In general, it’s one of those things you do because it’s seasonally appropriate but not really all that interesting a way to spend the afternoon. I love being outside in the fresh air and sunshine of an apple orchard on a fall day, but I’d much rather be hiking than standing around collecting apples. And it takes so little time before the bags get so heavy. I also have a guilty little secret in that I have what can best be described as pedestrian tastes when it comes to apples. I like soft, sweet apples, whereas New England orchard apples tend to be crisp and tart. Intellectually, I know that’s what sophisticated apple consumers favor, but I like the round supermarket Macintoshes with the almost squishy pulp.

While I wandered amidst the trees trying to convince myself that surely I must be getting at least a modicum of physical exercise, Holly filled two bags, one with Cortlands and one with Macouns. Back home with dinnertime approaching, Holly made an apple crisp. I cut up the apples for her, wondering as I do every year while making apple crisp whether Los Angeles street gangs make a dessert they call apple Crips, but Holly did the rest of the work: mixing the topping, melting the butter, blending in the egg. Emerging from the oven an hour later was a hot, fragrant, spicy apple crisp, a perfect way to end the weekend.

Holly and I each had one serving; Rick, who avoids desserts, tried just a bite; and Tim ate the rest. Holly mildly scolded Tim for eating so much of it, but I think she was secretly flattered. If she wants to make another one, we could always go again. There’s still nearly three weeks left of the season. And surely I can manage one more afternoon of apple picking, even if I still maintain that as leisure time activities go, it’s more picturesque than fun. It’s a decent way to spend an autumn afternoon. And the apple crisp – or apple Crips, if you’re a gang member – makes it all worthwhile.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Maybe this year, I'll make the Parent Honor Roll

I’ve decided this is my favorite time of year.

And the reason is simple, though perhaps somewhat pathetic:  we’re three weeks into school and I haven’t messed anything up yet.

Sometimes by the time school gets out in June, I feel like I’m looking back on a ladder of errors and missteps. Arriving late to a parent-teacher conference. Making mistakes on the library volunteer schedule that I’m responsible for organizing every week. Neglecting to refill the kids’ lunch accounts. Overlooking my room-parent duty to supply popsicles for Field Day.

The kids seem to make far fewer mistakes than I do in the course of a school year. But their responsibilities also fall into a narrower scope: get to the bus on time and get homework done. There isn’t a lot of room for error.

I take solace in reminding myself that school isn’t my job, and I make far fewer mistakes at the work for which I’m paid than the unpaid work of overseeing the kids’ schedules and events and my own school-related volunteer commitments. And it also helps to know I’m not the only adult making mistakes. Last year it was the day before Field Day when I suddenly remembered that supplying popsicles was my responsibility. “I would have been the first room parent in the history of the Carlisle Public Schools to forget popsicles on Field Day,” I said to Holly’s homeroom teacher. “Actually, the entire sixth grade teaching team forgot about Popsicles this year. We were relieved that you thought of it at all,” she confessed, making me feel a little better.

But it’s only the third full week of school. We’ve only just begun. No one yet has missed the bus on my watch or left for school without the proper early-dismissal note. So far we have a perfect batting average.

It won’t last, but it’s a good feeling while it does. The kids are always diligent about homework and routines; I’m the one who gets frazzled as the year goes on and makes out the check for intermural sports incorrectly or gets lost on Parents’ Night. So far so good. In another month, I’ll have mistakes to report, but at the moment, I’m passing both seventh grade and tenth grade as a parent.

Maybe this year I’ll even make the Parental Honor Roll, which I’m convinced exists in some secret place and lists all the parents who do everything right.

Or if not this year, maybe next.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Learner's permit

My son Tim turned sixteen yesterday, and like at least two generations of suburban American kids before him, he celebrated the day with a trip to the Registry of Motor Vehicles for his learner's permit.

For the most part, I was pleased by his sense of urgency. Childhood, and even more so the teen years, have far too few rites of passage these days. With all the material goods and all the travel opportunities that so many privileged young people have access to, sometimes it's not clear to me what they have left to anticipate. I look at the teens I know locally who live in McMansions with swimming pools, billiards rooms, in-house movie theaters and vacation houses at the beach and wonder if they have any incentive at all to grow up and leave home. Do you yearn for your own little bachelor pad if your parents’ place has an in-house gym with a full basketball court?

So it feels right to me that there's something special and rare about turning sixteen, something cool and exciting that you get to do merely by reaching a birthday. But it’s not the de facto milestone that it once was. Articles I've read recently have supported what I've personally observed; when my generation were teens, we all wanted to drive, but now, with their overscheduled lives and their helicopter parents who are accustomed to driving them to every activity, some kids don't really care all that much about getting a license.

And it makes sense, in a way. Being able to drive yourself to SAT preparation class, math tutoring, or mandatory community service hours doesn't have quite the same allure as being able to take the wheel and go cruising with your friends on the strip. Moreover, new regulations that restrict whom teen drivers can take as passengers mean any possibility of cruising the strip -- wherever that strip may be, in our quiet semi-rural town -- still feels years away to a sixteen-year-old.

Tim returned from the RMV triumphant, permit in hand. It's definitely a rite of passage, and one he was delighted to undergo. I greeted his news with a little bit of ambivalence. First and foremost, there are the obvious worries about safety -- his own and those of other people with he could potentially collide -- but there's also the subtler sense that if he can drive, he's taking his first steps into not only the excitement and independence of adulthood but ultimately the drudgery as well. Welcome to errands. And having to be places on time. And dealing with car maintenance. And paying for gas.

But he's looking forward to it. He’s had plenty of opportunities to pilot various vehicles while working on his grandparents' farm; during the summer months he drove cars, trucks and tractors all over the fields and private byways on the farm. He knows the excitement of powering a large piece of machinery. Moreover, he's been driving a motorboat since he was about ten, and like a lot of kids, he just likes engines and speed and what happens when you get the chance to combine the two.

So I wish him all the best as he ventures behind the wheel. And I wish my husband all the best as well, because that's who will be overseeing Tim's driving instruction in these early days. I'll wait until he's a little more capable. Then I'll give him some errands to do. Because with freedom comes responsibility, and I'll be more than happy to pass on a few of my weekly trips to the town dump. Maybe that can be considered a rite of passage as well.

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Ten Books

It was a coincidence that on the same day, two friends who do not know each other both invited me into the ten-book challenge, in which participants list the ten books that have held the most influence over their lives.

Probably like most readers who participate in the ten-book challenge, I was first intrigued, then frustrated. Naming ten favorite books sounded like a delightful exercise at first, but then it became clear how many I’d have to leave out. And as I drew up my list, I felt compelled to qualify each choice. “This one because…..and this one because…..and not that one because…..”

But in a way, I think that’s the point. It wouldn’t be interesting to pose this challenge to someone who had read only ten books. Or twelve, or even twenty. The whittling-down is the challenge of the exercise.

I also had to face the fact that I don’t have particularly highbrow tastes in literature. Many of my friends who have already posted their lists named classics of British or American literature, books I read in high school or college but haven’t thought about a great deal since. Yes, I know those books should influence me…. But my taste runs pretty heavily toward contemporary literary fiction.

There was additionally the problem that almost every book I read feels profoundly important to me the day I finish it, and often for several days after, but then months or years later, I find I can hardly remember that same book that I was recommending to everyone I know on the day I finished it. So I’ve come up with “staying power” as a critical criterion for the value of a book: not how important did it seem while you were reading it or when you finished it, but a year or five years or ten years later.

And then there’s the question of just what it means to be on the top ten. Most influential, yes, but what exactly does that mean? A book that changed the way I see the world, or a character that motivated me to be a better person? What about a self-help book that may not be particularly well-written from a literary standpoint but has lots of good suggestions for everyday living?

Gradually, my list took shape, but I’m not sure how useful or insightful it is. “American Wife,” like all of Curtis Sittenfeld’s novels, just make me feel grateful that humankind exists because people are so remarkably interesting. “State of Wonder” dissuaded me from ever wanting to travel by boat down the Amazon while simultaneously making me very glad for the chance to read about it. “Life of Pi” has a plot twist that gave me the kind of physical jolt I hadn’t found in a reading experience since childhood. “We Need to Talk About Kevin,” though hair-raising in its plot, had some of the most interesting insights into human nature I’ve ever come across. “Freedom” resonates with me four years after I read it because of the simple truth about morality reflected in a long and complicated story. “The Happiness Project” reminds me to evaluate my choices every day and be diligent in the pursuit of happiness. “The Indian in the Cupboard” is the only children’s book on my list because it just reminds me of how enchanting a book written for kids can be, and how differently this one comes across to a child versus to an adult – but charmingly for either one. “Bright Shiny Morning” gave me a new perspective on how fiction could be constructed. “Columbine,” one of three nonfiction books on my list, was important to me professionally, since on the surface it’s about the Columbine High School slaughter but really it’s about what happens when journalists make far-reaching mistakes. “The Right to Write” instilled in me the habit of writing one thousand words every morning.

In the end, the only common thread I could articulate was “Books I find myself thinking back to at least once a week.” Here’s my list. I hope many more of my friends will soon post their own lists, with or without a long explanation like I’ve given.

American Wife – Curtis Sittenfeld
Bright Shiny Morning – James Frey
Columbine – Dave Cullen
Freedom – Jonathan Franzen
Life of Pi – Yann Martel
State of Wonder – Ann Patchett
The Happiness Project – Gretchen Rubin
The Indian in the Cupboard – Lynne Reid Banks
The Right to Write – Julia Cameron
We Need to Talk About Kevin – Lionel Shriver

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

My disconnected vacation

Although the destination we’d chosen for our late-August vacation is renowned for its water park, indoor-outdoor aquarium, tropical beaches, and world-class restaurants, my attitude heading into it was that for me, vacation would be a success if I had plenty of time to read and go for walks.

I definitely got my wish – and then some. With the kids happy to avail themselves of all the sun-and-sea recreation free of parental oversight, I had all the time I wanted to sit poolside and read. And I had time for walking, too. Along with a 4-mile run early every morning, while the rest of my family slept, I fit in a late-afternoon walk on the beach every day, sometimes on dry sand, sometimes in the shallowest waves, with the warm water bathing my feet as I made my way first up the island’s extensive shoreline and then back down.

Untethering from email and Facebook was a big deal; not having Internet for filing any articles or doing any work at all while away was an even bigger deal; but I was resigned to both before we left. Internet fees and roaming charges at our destination were just too expensive for us to consider getting on line at all, and I was both apprehensive and curious as to what a fully disconnected vacation would feel like.

But it turned out I was even more disconnected than I anticipated. Upon boarding our flight to the Bahamas, Rick and I both set our phones to airplane mode, but I still planned to keep my phone close at hand so that I could listen to podcasts I’d downloaded before we left, take pictures with my phone’s camera, and time my runs and walks. So I was unprepared for my phone to stop working altogether on the third day of the trip. No more podcasts or photos or stopwatch or alarm clock or any other phone functions I’d come to depend on.

And then the following day, mysteriously enough, my Fitbit stopped working. No more timing my workouts with that, or logging my steps or miles. Suddenly I was far more disconnected than I’d imagined being.

Which meant I had to get by without my usual electronic dependencies. Without my phone’s clock function or the stopwatch on my Fitbit, I had to time runs and walks with my watch, like I used to do back in the 90’s. I had to trust myself that 45 minutes or whatever time I’d set as my goal was a decent workout, even without being able to see just how many steps or miles that entailed. Without access to the podcasts stored in my phone, I turned instead to my 12-year-old for help with audio entertainment to keep me engaged during my run; she lent me her iPod, on which she’d stored the audiobook version of a middle grade novel by a favorite author of hers, and while I ran, I listened not to my favorite NPR podcasts but to the story of a sweet but frustrated 12-year-old trying to get along with her disorganized family.

Though it was disappointing to return home with what felt like a fistful of broken appliances, and losing all the photos that I’d taken early in the trip with my phone was certainly unfortunate, it was good for me to be forced to be so disconnected. It turns out exercise feels good even when you don’t have an official readout of your step count at the end. It turns out middle grade fiction is pretty well-crafted these days. It turns out I can wake up at a decent time merely by relying on my natural biorhythms and not the chirp of my iPhone at a pre-set time.

Most importantly, I did lots of reading and took lots of walks. That, after all, is what I had hoped to do. And all four of us had a great time together. The day after we got home, I was able to get my phone repaired and replace the Fitbit. Being disconnected is a good experience, at least for the course of a weeklong vacation. In a way, I’m glad it happened. It was a great vacation, glitches not withstanding. In fact, maybe the glitches made it an even better vacation.