Wednesday, April 15, 2015

My blog has moved!

Thank you for checking out my blog. It has been moved to my website. Please find it at .

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

All worth it when the curtain rises

“I thought I’d be really nervous, but once the curtain went up, I couldn’t stop smiling,” my 12-year-old said breathlessly as she hopped into the car after yesterday’s dress rehearsal for her class musical.

Her seventh grade class is putting on a little-known production written specifically for middle schoolers this weekend, and Holly has a minor ensemble role. She didn’t want a big role, because big roles require singing alone, and Holly doesn’t like to sing alone. Instead, she’s a pirate, one of several. She stands near the edges of most of the pirate scenes; some pirates have names and lots of lines, but Holly has no name and just an occasional “Yo ho ho and a bottle of rum!”

No matter. Holly is having a blast.

And so as I once again take stock of a complicated, volunteer-intensive effort that left some parents exhausted and others a little bewildered, I look at Holly and remember once again what the merits of this experience can be. She witnessed terrific talent in some of her classmates who do like to sing and dance and who feel comfortable in the spotlight. She saw other classmates assist in designing, building, and painting sets. She helped her fellow pirates learn their choreography. She did homework with a group of kids from the play every afternoon before rehearsal.

Witnessing all of this over the past three months has reminded me of why this is a valuable experience. For a kid like mine who is not particularly interested in theater, it’s really not about having a chance to learn stagecraft. It’s about learning more about life, as seen through the eyes of a seventh grader. It’s a chance to interact with new adults who are sometimes pushed to the edge by the cheerful unruliness of the cast and put their best foot forward anyway. It’s a chance to be reminded that sometimes the kids who never stand out as the smartest or the best athletes have unexpected talents when it comes to projecting lines or blocking a scene.

Unlike most of the towns around us, our middle school does not have a theater program. So putting on a musical – which each class does only once, in the spring of seventh grade – relies almost exclusively on parental volunteer effort, with a couple of professionals – a director, a choreographer, a pianist – whose stipends are paid for out of fundraisers which were also led by parent volunteers. Sometimes it seems like a never-ending process for parents, pulling off all these events.

But seeing Holly’s triumphant glow after yesterday’s dress rehearsal reminds me of why it’s all worth it. Kids learn and grow from these opportunities: not necessarily from standing alone in the spotlight, but sometimes from supporting the other kids who do. 

Holly might well never choose to be in another musical; she has plenty of interests, but theater still isn’t really one of them. Nonetheless, she’ll retain wonderful memories and subtler life lessons from the past three months of preparing for this one. And we parents can take a deep breath as we settle into our seats in the auditorium this weekend and be glad we put forth the effort to make it happen. 

“I just couldn’t stop smiling!” Holly repeated as we drove home from yesterday’s dress rehearsal.

For the moment, I feel just the same.

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Deep snow, narrow roadways

Despite the near-record snowfall of this winter, I’ve spent plenty of time outside. Due to my good fortune in living on a cul-de-sac with very little traffic and having a reliable plow service, I’ve been able to continue my running streak with a daily mile or two, take frequent walks, and even continue my ten-mile-run habit on Saturdays.

So when I read an article recently about people becoming morose from lack of fresh air and exercise, I didn’t think it applied to me.

And then one day as I was letting the dog out into the yard, where, ever since the snowpiles grew taller than she is – several storms ago – she’s had to run along the one narrow path we shoveled for her, turn around, and run straight back, I realized not all outdoor time counts equally. 

Because I’ve been feeling like the dog recently: running – or walking, or doing anything – on one straight path. And even though that’s better than not getting out at all, it still feels confining.

Part of this is my own fault for not finding other options. Most winters I replace my occasional walks in the woods with snowshoeing. But even snowshoeing has been impractical this winter, with frigid temperatures most days and snow so fluffy that in four feet of snow, the snowshoes still sink three feet.

Getting out at all in this weather is a privilege, but I miss the feeling of open space. I miss walking through the woods or even just across the lawn. Like the dog, I’m tired of every path being so very narrowly circumscribed.

Fresh air, sunshine, and exercise are all important to our emotional well-being, but so is a sense of open space, I’m beginning to realize. Walking or running in a singular line is better than nothing, but I can hardly wait until the snow melts and I can walk in any direction at all once again.

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

The surprises everyone holds

Imagine walking through an airport. All around you are people carrying bags – small purses, large backpacks, gym bags, duffels, briefcases. Imagine that you have to guess what’s inside each bag.

A lot of the time, you’d probably be fairly accurate. A laptop. A water bottle. A wallet. A phone. Cosmetics. Paperwork. Snack food.

But if the bags started falling open, you might be surprised by some of the items that fell out. Heirloom jewelry. Small weapons. Toys of an unidentifiable nature.

That’s how I feel when I meet with prospective memoir clients. They have a story to tell. Usually I can guess parts of that story. Sometimes I can even guess most of it. But there are always surprises.

Yesterday I met with a prospective client in her nineties. She was trim, mobile, alert, articulate. She must have had an easy life, I found myself thinking as I settled into an upholstered chair in her well-decorated condo.

She talked for nearly two hours. And like a stranger’s purse spilling open in an airport, some of it was what I might have guessed. A happy childhood with several siblings. The run-up to World War II. A romantic chance meeting with her eventual husband. A lifelong penchant for arts and culture, especially community theater.

But surprises spilled out too. One of her three children suffered from incurable mental illness and died in middle age. She said goodbye to her parents at the age of 22 in her country of birth and never saw them again. As a young wife and mother of three, she held a clinical fascination for the fast-evolving technology of birth control in its early years. In their eighties, she and her husband were victims of a violent home invasion. 

She recovered from that event, though, and now tells the story of the home invasion in nearly as merry a tone as when she described emigrating from the U.K. to America by ship and seeing the war refugees kneel at the sight of the Statue of Liberty. If there was lasting trauma, it isn’t apparent anymore. It’s just another thing that happened to her, another bead in the strand making up the story of her life.

If she decides she wants to do a project with me, I’ll learn even more details. As with all my memoir clients, I’ll be amazed at some of the details that spill out and unsurprised by others. But as I listen, I always remember how hard it is to guess. As you walk down the street or through the airport, you just cannot imagine what is in all those bags. Remarkable, really, just how different each story is…and how different each person is.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Out (just a little bit reluctantly) with the old

The previous owners of our first home, a small one-story Campanelli ranch in Framingham, left behind for us a cobalt blue shag carpet and a GE washing machine and dryer.

Eight years later, when we ourselves moved out of that same house, I was very happy to leave the blue shag rug behind. And I was happy to take the washing machine and dryer with us. In the first house, they were tucked into a tiny half-bathroom, but our big new house, they had their own room, with shelves and cabinets and a built-in ironing board. And when, after what was coincidentally the same interval of time again – eight more years – we downsized into a medium-sized house, the washer and dryer again accompanied us.

Today, though, we said goodbye. It was time. I don’t know how old they were, but assuming they were at least a year old when we moved into our first house, they were well over 20. And the last few years had been hard on them. The washing machine went through a long phase when it would come to a dead stop between the filling cycle and the agitating cycle, and wouldn’t start up again until its door was open and shut in a very specific way. No one else in my family bothered to figure this out; only I knew how to get the washing machine to run, and for some reason that made me feel somewhat honored and indispensable. Knowing exactly how to open and close the stubborn washing machine in order to get it to resume its cycle reminded me a little bit of being the only one who could soothe a crying baby during the night, or comfort a toddler as a vaccination was administered.

And not long after the washing machine became persnickety, the dryer began showing its age as well. 

Sometimes it would dry the clothes normally, but other times the heating component would fail to activate. It began to take more and more cycles to get the clothes dry. I turned the dial to one hour-long cycle after another, hoping each time that this would be one of the times it decided to heat the clothes as well as tumble them. I began allotting at least three hours to dry a load of laundry, then eventually more like three days. Once, after it had been functioning poorly for weeks, we went on vacation; when we came home ten days later, it worked beautifully, making me think it just needed a good long rest.

But then it stopped heating up altogether. Like any loyal mother, I made excuses for it. “It just needs extra time,” I told the rest of my family. “We need to be patient with it.”

“Just be sure to tell me several days in advance when you’re going to really need your baseball uniform ready,” I told my son Tim. “Three days should surely be enough to get your clothes dry.” 

“Mom, three days is the same amount of time it would take for the clothes to dry if you put them in the dryer and didn’t turn it on at all,” he pointed out logically. Right. The old “That and a quarter will get you a cup of coffee” argument.

Last month, our electricity company raised its rates significantly, and it occurred to me that we were probably spending a lot of money running our nonfunctional dryer over and over again. But I kept the thought to myself out of loyalty and the persistent belief that with just a little more rest and coddling, it would return to its old self. Then I went away for the long weekend. On Sunday evening my husband sent me a text. “Here’s your Valentine’s Day present!” it said above an image of a shining, state-of-the-art washer and dryer.

Earlier today, while I was at work, a delivery truck brought them. A crew installed them and hauled away the older iterations. I can’t pretend to feel truly sentimental about this. I hung on for as long as I could, but the thought of clothes that dry in one hour instead of three days is irresistible, and besides, I suspect that people were just too polite to tell us that we were all starting to smell a little moldy, as we went around in clothes that had never quite lost their core of dampness.

Out with the old; in with the new. It’s a new day in the laundry department. I’m happy about it. But my attachment to the old appliances was nice too, a thread linking us back to our very first home and our second year of marriage. Here’s to hard-working old appliances, and the undeniable vein of sentimentality that keeps me attached to them for what is sometimes far too long.

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Snow and snow again

Snow and snow and snow.

Snow covering the swing set. Snow covering the deck furniture. Snow covering the mailbox, with only the door flap peeking out like a little face under a hat. Snow nearly up to the highest rail of the fence.

Some winters, I find myself unintentionally keeping track of the inches of snowfall, like Henry David Thoreau, who wrote that he was “self-appointed inspector of snow-storms and rain-storms.” A mental inventory builds in my mind: The storm just after Christmas. The storm in the middle of January. The storm on Valentine’s Day.

This year, even I can’t keep track. There was the Saturday storm, and then the one the forecasters promised would break records, and then the one that began during the Super Bowl. But after that, I lost count. I think there was one late last week, and I know it snowed all day this past Monday.

It feels to me as if there’s a message for us in the ceaseless snowfall. With each storm comes another standstill. No school. No work. No driving. As of this most recent one, no public transportation. Maybe the Universe thinks we need urgent instructions in how to stop rushing around.

If so, I’ve taken the message to heart and slowed the pace down in many ways recently. When school is cancelled, I let the kids sleep late. I make an extra pot of coffee and work from home if possible, writing at the kitchen table while watching the snow pile up on the deck; on days that the driving is manageable and I’m expected in the office, I disregard my usual business attire in favor of snow boots and heavy sweaters. I still go running, but not my usual distances; just to the end of the street and back to log a mile or two before finishing my workout indoors on the stationary bike.

Of course, I have the luxury of being able to do this. Every snow day, my thoughts eventually turn to those parents who risk losing their jobs when school is cancelled and they have to scramble for childcare, as well as people without the basic comforts of heat and shelter during a snowstorm. It’s easy to relish the winter weather when you have the option of hiding from it. Even the small amount of shoveling I attend to feels more like a welcome workout than an onerous task.

When I teach personal narrative, I usually have the class write about a memory in which a weather event played a major part in the story. People write about hurricanes, lightning storms, ice storms. I’m not sure this winter’s storms have much of a narrative arc. They’re just there, an ever-present part of the background.

If the lesson was to slow down, I’ve definitely passed with flying colors. I’m going to miss this winter weather once it’s gone and we’re back to a regular schedule of five school days a week, five round-trip commutes into work every week, evening meetings that take place as scheduled rather than yielding to last-minute cancellations.

Winter has put me under a bit of a spell, and I know I need to get back up to speed eventually. But one or two more storms before that happens wouldn’t be all that unwelcome. We can rush around the rest of the year. Midwinter is a chance to cocoon. Or at least that’s what I choose to believe the Universe is telling me.

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

An everyday evening

It wasn’t out of a sense of incredulity that I reached for my phone and opened the camera app that evening last week. It wasn’t that the sight of my two children sitting at the dining room table, pencils and laptops and notebooks spread out in front of them, heads bent over textbooks in concentration, was so unusual. They’ve always been conscientious about getting their homework done.

There was nothing remarkable about the scene at all. And yet a feeling gripped me that this was a scene I might forget someday, perhaps for its very everyday-ness.

When a child rides a bike for the first time, blows out the birthday cake candles, dresses in a special Halloween outfit, catches a fish, we reach for the camera, thinking “I need to capture this moment.” We fill our wall space and album pages with scenes from special events.

This one wouldn’t fall into that category. Nearly every weeknight, my two children huddle together over the dining room table like this. Occasionally brief phrases are murmured – usually the younger asking the elder a question about a mathematical formula; sometimes the elder asking for confirmation on the spelling of a word – but for the most part, it’s a very quiet hour. Quiet, studious, and routine.

But it was that very aspect of routineness that made me want to capture it. As my children grow older, I’m surprised sometimes by the details I can’t recall. I remember first words and first steps, but what books did Tim like as a toddler? What did Holly bring for her preschool lunches?

Last week I asked Holly, “How do you know how to tell time?”

She was clearly bewildered by the question, and for good reason: at the age of twelve, she can certainly be expected to read an analog clock. And yet I have no memory of teaching her this skill, and that bothers me. Despite all my journaling and blogging and photo-album-maintaining, there are still things about their childhoods that I can’t remember.

Now that the kids are in seventh and tenth grade, respectively, they take responsibility themselves for getting their homework done. But as I observed them last week, I realized what a treasured part of the day it had become for me. The quiet; the industriousness; the way they instinctively huddle close to each other as they work, even though they could just as easily choose to sit at opposite ends of the table – or go to different rooms altogether.

It’s not a milestone; it’s an everyday event. And yet that’s exactly why the tableau seemed important to me on that particular day: for the way it reflects our daily life, circa school year 2014/2015.

I’m not even sure what I’ll do with the photo I snapped that evening. Certainly it doesn’t merit framing or wall space. It probably won’t even be allotted a square in a photo album.

But it will be somewhere. Kept in my phone, or printed and stashed in a night table drawer, or simply suspended in the digital cloud. And someday if I can’t quite remember what our weeknights were like when they were both at home, in school, learning and studying and making their way through the later years of their childhoods, I’ll have this picture to remind me.

Eloquence happens

I worked on profiles of two different men this week.

If they were to sit next to each other on an airplane, which is where I can best imagine them meeting, they would assume after exchanging just a few words that they had little in common. Though close in age, one grew up in Minnesota and became a professional football player. As an offensive tackle, he was a two-time All-Pro, a six-time Pro Bowl selection, and played on one winning Super Bowl team. The other was raised in India and came to the U.S. to attend a college none of his friends back home had ever heard of – Dartmouth. (“So you didn’t get into any of the good American colleges?” they asked him at the time.) He stayed at Dartmouth for medical school, where he earned a Ph.D. in cellular biology, and became a senior policy advisor for the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

No, the two men might not find much to talk about on their hypothetical airplane ride. But to me, having interviewed both of them within a matter of days, they have something profound in common: both men are passionate about their work, and both speak about it with the eloquence born of unwavering devotion to what they do.

Eloquence matters to me as an interviewer. I don’t mean that someone needs to have a fine vocabulary or a poetic sense of sentence structure. I just mean it’s much easier to interview someone for whom the thoughts and ideas, and the answers to my questions, flow rapidly. And this happens, I’ve come to realize, not when someone is particularly well-educated or even naturally verbose, but just when they are talking about what they love.

Of course, this is true of me as well, in my own work of helping people tell their stories. “Don’t get me started,” I sometimes caution friends who casually ask what I’m working on. I know they’re just being polite, and yet I can’t hold back once I start describing my latest project. Names and identifying details of my clients are kept confidential, of course – I leave it up to my clients to decide when and how they want to reveal themselves through their work – but once their stories get into my head, I can’t stop rummaging through the details. “She had her first child at the age of eighteen – with her husband off at war!”, I find myself saying. Or “They met at an art opening in their sixties and moved in together the following week.” “He stole a police car at the age of twelve and no one ever found out.” “She first learned about Thanksgiving when her boss invited her to his house to celebrate it.” “He was the only volunteer firefighter at the firehouse who couldn’t drive a firetruck– he was still too young to have a driver’s license.” Like both men I wrote about this week, I too find it almost impossible to hold back when asked about my work.

So once again, it was an illuminating week for me. I learned about what it’s like to be drafted by the same NFL team you used to race home from church to watch on TV as a kid – and then sit on the bench for your first two years on the roster. And I learned what it’s like to advise Bill Gates on cholera research.

The two men will probably never meet, and probably wouldn’t see many similarities between themselves if they did. But both left me feeling full of enthusiasm to write their stories, because both loved talking about what they’ve done. It’s a contagious kind of passion – and one that makes my job easy.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Into Focus

This is the fourth year I’ve taken part in the “One Little Word’ Challenge popularized by writer/artist Ali Edwards. As Ali explains it, “….the idea is to choose a word….that has the potential to make an impact on your life….a single word to focus on over the course of the year.”

I always choose my word, and consequently write about it, in mid-January, once I have a feel for the New Year but still close enough to January 1st to feel like a New Year’s ritual. But I always start looking for my word a little bit earlier. And this year, as I tried to think about it, I found that I kept thinking of the two-word phrase “rabbit holes.” As in “Don’t go down so many.”

This was problematic for many reasons. First of all, it’s two words, not one; but more importantly, it’s a negative, not a positive. The reason it stuck in my mind was not that I wanted it to guide me, as has been the case with past words I’ve chosen – “succeed”; “possible”; “walking”; “radiate” – but that I wanted to avoid it. And choosing a word as an admonition rather than a guidepost just didn’t feel to me to be in the spirit of the One Little Word exercise.

Then it occurred to me what the positive corollary was for the thing I was trying to say. “Don’t go down any rabbit holes.” Too negative. The positive version? “Focus.” Yes, that’s it. That’s my word. “Focus.”

It’s not the prettiest word: not like many others on the extensive list of words that participants in the challenge have sent to Ali Edwards. Her list brims with beautiful, alluring words like “serenity,” “balance,” “joy,” “simplicity,” “breath,” “acceptance,” “resolve,” “intent.” My word, by contrast, feels plain and ordinary.

But it’s “focus” for 2015 nonetheless, because my goal for this year is to overcome some of my distractedness. I’m distracted in tangible and obvious ways, like devoting too much time to social media and email; and I’m distracted in more elusive ways, like accepting opportunities I don’t really want and then having to follow through on them. My mission for 2015 is to pare down the distractions – stop going down the rabbit holes – and stay attentive to that which I mean to do. Focus on food when I’m cooking. Focus on my children when I’m devoting time to them. Focus on writing – and not Facebook – when I have an assignment. Focus on saying “No thanks” when I’m asked to do something I don’t want to do and don’t have to do.

In the interest of full disclosure, I’ll admit that earlier today, I couldn’t even summon the focus to make a pot of coffee without interrupting myself. I measured the grounds, thinking about how I would write about the One Little Word Challenge, and then got the notion that maybe I could find quotes about focus. In the middle of making coffee, I hurried over to my computer to Google quotes.

It was the wrong thing to do, but it just proves there’s room for improvement. A lot of room for improvement. And the Google search that took me away from making coffee affirmed for me that many finer minds than mine have pondered the question of focus, from Henry David Thoreau to Steve Jobs. All of them affirm its importance; all of them also affirm its occasional elusiveness.

So I have my work cut out for me if I want to learn to be more focused this year. But that’s the purpose of this exercise: choose a word and weave it into your daily life. Focus. Do one thing at a time. Finish what you start. Pare away the extra stuff and avoid the rabbit holes. Like The Little Engine That Could, whose sole focus was on getting up the hill, I think I can. I’ll try, anyway.

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

The view from the passenger seat

I am not fond of driving. Not at all. I’ve often said that the singular drawback to living in Carlisle is all the time we spend driving places. Whether it’s for work, school, socializing, recreation, dining, or culture, we seem to be forever taking up a position behind the wheel.

Still, I never expected I’d have my own driver. I don’t even have regular cleaning help; the idea of someone to drive me around on errands or appointments was well beyond my imagining.

And yet that’s just the situation I’m in right now. My son Tim is in that narrow six-month time frame between receiving his learner’s permit and earning his driver’s license, an interlude in which the rules stipulate both that he must gain as much driving experience as possible and that he must do so under the watchful eye of a licensed and experienced driver.

So these days, Tim drives. He drives me to the supermarket and the drugstore, the post office and the library. He drives when we visit my parents. He drives when we drop off or pick up his younger sister from school or playdates. After three full decades of driving myself around, I now have someone whose assignment, and indeed whose pleasure, it is to drive me places.

This is not a developmental phase of childhood that I foresaw. I assumed Tim would want to learn to drive eventually, but as that benchmark loomed, I saw it mostly as a source of anxiety. How would I teach him the rules of the road? How would I explain how much room to give a car when passing, or what the perfect angle was for parallel parking?

But rather than being anxious, as I expected, I’m enjoying Tim’s company along with his chauffeuring services. He stopped wanting to join me for grocery shopping or other random errands at least ten years ago; given the choice, he would always opt to stay home. It’s fun spending more time together again. Moreover, it’s fun merely to see his enthusiastic response when I ask if he wants to go somewhere with me, even if I know that in truth his enthusiasm is more about the driving practice than about my company.

It’s not a time for intense mother-son dialogue. I don’t bring up college choices, or current events, or the moral and ethical dilemmas that teenagers typically face. He’s supposed to be concentrating on the road. But in a way, that’s what makes it so peaceful. It’s just the two of us, spending time close together without an agenda to cover or decisions to contemplate. It reminds me a little bit of the hours I spent roaming the neighborhood with him in a jog stroller or baby backpack when he was an infant. I was never one of those mothers who chatters nonstop to her small children. On those long, quiet walks or runs, it was all about the proximity, not the discourse.

So many developmental phases with children and teens are about growing apart, letting them finding their independence, allowing them to forge their own way. This period of driving together is one milestone that brings us closer together, even if more by regulation than by Tim’s choice. It’s a brief, tightly circumscribed interlude: only six months altogether, if he earns his license on the first try, and half of that time is already gone.

So I’ll just enjoy my chauffeur until the day he turns sixteen and a half. It’s nice to be driven around, and knowing it won’t last much longer, I’ll savor it all the more. He’ll eventually get his license, and then he’ll drive on his own, just as someday he will probably live on his own and spend even less time with me. For now, I’ll take all the time together that I can get. To me, it’s quality time, even if as far is Tim is concerned, all we’re doing is following the rules of the road.