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.