Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Parental rite of passage

The first fourteen times you send a child to the grocery store on his own, he will call home to ask you where to find the item he came for, even though he's been in that store a hundred thousand times. The fifteenth time he goes he will lose the money. It's just the way it is. Be prepared.

Today we had a different (but equally obligatory) scenario: the child who forgot to call home when plans changed, and whose cell phone was turned off when I called for an update. I was expecting said child home around 1pm, and had promised to take Little Guy to a movie around 2:00. Oy. And I didn't have the child's friend's mother's cell phone number. Oy, oy. And although I know the mother well from hours spent chatting in the ballet studio, I suddenly realized I didn't even know her name. Oy, oy, oy!

I put Andrew on the case of tracking down the ballet mother, and took Little Guy to the movie. By the time the missing child reported in at 2:30, I was learning How to Train Your Dragon. The movie was scarier than I'd generally recommend for a six year old, though it's possible I was a little more attuned to the possibility of violence than usual. Little Guy, who appeared unfazed by the flames and large teeth, commented, "It's funny that I don't get scared by dragons, but I do get scared when people yell at me." Interesting insight... though we'll see if he gets nightmares tonight. Thankfully, my own nightmare has passed, and all is well. 

Our family rule is that children have to call home whenever they change locations. That did happen today, but the kink was that I expected the activity in Location #1 to last about two hours, when in fact it lasted four. So kudos go to the child for remembering the rule. And now off I go to fine-tune it!

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Useful words

This morning I was looking up a quote for a piece I'm writing, and came across this:

You don't have to attend every argument to which you're invited.

Ahhhh, now isn't that useful? It's pithy. And pithiness is important when I'm talking to my kids. I discovered years ago that...

  1. The fewer words I use, the less likely I am to Rant.
  2. The fewer words I use, the more likely it is that I will keep my temper. 
  3. The fewer words I use, the more times I can repeat them calmly.
  4. The fewer words I use, the more likely it is that someone will, eventually, remember what I say.
When the kids were little I aimed for five words or less. This translated into a mantra of "Hitters get time out" and (on the subway) "You shout, we get out." Nowadays the sayings are a little longer: "Homework is done when it's in your backpack" and "Supper is over when your plate's in the kitchen." The idea is to distill what could be a lecture into something I can repeat endlessly, without getting annoyed.

The repetition part is important. A priest once complained that he said the same thing over and over but people never seemed to get it. I laughed and said, "You're annoyed about it because you're not a parent. You need to assume it will take a huge number of repetitions, like 500,000. That way when you get to 397,262 you aren't as frustrated, because you know you've still got a long way to go!"

I still Rant, especially when people leave an above-average mess or argue about cleaning up. If you have any pithy sayings to help me with those topics, do tell. 

Monday, March 29, 2010


As an adult, the things that fall into my mental file folder labeled CATASTROPHES tend to be tornadoes and earthquakes and terrorist attacks and a-life's-on-the-line hospital visits.

My kids seem to have a different definition. Today's catastrophes included an accident in which some unused glow-in-the-dark bracelets (the kind you snap to activate the chemicals) were dropped and began to glow, a misunderstanding involving pickled herring, a hair holder that ended up on the wrist of an unrepentant brother, and some obstreperous math that was too hard to handle.

I found myself thinking that adult catastrophes center on problem solving, on working through a crisis (at least when adults act like adults). Kid catastrophes are a whirlwind of finger-pointing, arguing, tears, blaming and the obligatory passing of the baton of anger to siblings. We don't have a lot of days around here that descend into that kind of maelstrom, but today was one. 

These thoughts were percolating through my brain along with self-reminders to breathe deeply when yet one more child whirled into a super-size snit over a microscopic offense. Overwhelmed by the sense that life had spun out of control, I was about to commence some childlike behavior of my own when I thought, Wait a minute! I'm reacting as if this were a catastrophe!

I was so astonished that I stopped feeling frustrated.

Now I'm wondering: what percentage of our less-than-admirable parenting moments arise from perceiving normal challenges in a catastrophic way? It's something to think about.

Sunday, March 28, 2010


A while back, during a particularly rough period, I wrote a note to a listserv I'm on for parents of "twice exceptional" kids. (Twice exceptional, or 2E, is a way of saying someone is  intellectually gifted and also has some sort of disability.) I'm on the list primarily because of Big Guy. He's very bright, but has dysgraphia and slow processing speed, so his output is not proportional to what he knows. (If you know a kid like this, take a look at Mel Levine's The Myth of Laziness.) 

There are other kinds of disabilities represented on my 2E list as well: severe ADHD, early-onset schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, anxiety disorders, Asperger's Syndrome, and so on. The parents tend to be wise-through-weariness types, sympathetic people who are used to dealing with extremely difficult kids. It's one of my go-to places when Big Guy has challenged every ounce of my resourcefulness, and I need help from those who have struggled through similar situations.

In the note I wrote to the list, I outlined several new challenges that had arisen with which I felt unable to cope. Within an hour a half-dozen people wrote back. Their responses were compassionate, heartfelt, understanding. And they all said the same thing:

           Put on your own oxygen mask first.

I knew that. I knew it but had forgotten it, or forgotten where I put my oxygen mask, or forgotten how to turn on the valve.

So in recent weeks I've been thinking a lot about oxygen masks. The first thing I considered was that if I'm living my life in alignment with my priorities, there will be many times when I place the common good (like the needs of my family) above my own desires and needs. That's normal, and important, and healthy. Most of us can afford to 'sacrifice' quite a bit of attention to ourselves without any ill effect.

The second thing I considered was that oxygen masks aren't needed every day. They are designed for emergencies. Oxygen should be a naturally occurring substance in our lives. If it's not, something's out of balance and we have to figure out what that is.

Finally, there's the issue of oxygen flow. When I'm feeling depleted, what is it, really, that takes that grayish tinge out and brings back a rosy hue? This takes significant thought. Knock exotic places to go and luxurious things to do off your list; in a crisis there's rarely major funding (or time) available. Besides, oxygen is pretty basic stuff. 

Oxygen can be found in laughter, solitude, companionship, sleep, glorious art, thought-provoking conversations, exercise, good music, books that stretch your mind, prayer, acts of kindness, or any one of hundreds of simple things. Here's hoping you have an ample supply.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Too much Star Trek?

Last night Little Guy asked me, "How many pages are there in a Dr. Seuss book?"
I was busy, and said absentmindedly, "I dunno. Go count."
This morning he asked, "Can I work on my book for writing today?"
"Sure," I said, "What book are you writing?"

The Captain will be pleased.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010


When Eldest was a baby, she had a friend named Tommy. Or rather, I had a friend named Annette, who had a son named Tommy, and we got together in the park several times a week. Tommy was born at 24 weeks gestation. He was an extraordinarily bright child, cheerful and good-spirited. But Tommy wasn't keeping pace with his developmental milestones, and around his first birthday, he was diagnosed with cerebral palsy. 

I saw Annette the day she got the news, and she was devastated. Yet a week later, she was avidly researching what there was to research, and was already deeply immersed in the slow torture of negotiating insurance coverage for therapies. I was astonished. I sputtered, "How?... How?..." and she replied, "I gave myself 48 hours to cry, and then it was time to move on."

Moving on didn't mean that Annette never cried, or that she didn't continue to grieve. I'm convinced part of the reason God made days 24 hours long is so there's always a 2:00 a.m. for the tears of weary mothers. Annette continued to mourn the life she'd dreamed of for her son. But during the daylight hours, when there were things to be done and progress to be made, Annette focused on what she had to do. Slowly, slowly, slowly she accepted that she could still have beautiful dreams for Tommy, dreams that reflected who he was instead of who she'd thought he'd be. My sister's amazing that way, too.

Many years later I realized that some of Annette's amazing coping skills came from her own serious health problems. She'd suffered from toxoplasmosis for many years, and had had to learn the hard way how to bounce back and keep going. Because otherwise... well, there was no otherwise.

Most of us, I think, learn to rebound the hard way. We weep over minor things until the day we fall down in a busy street and have to choose between sitting there and crying, or dragging ourselves to the curb before getting run over by a Mack Truck. When the options are dramatic, the choices become clear. The key question is whether or not we have the mental muscle at that time to pull ourselves up off the pavement and move.

One of my Mack Truck experiences in life -- Big Guy's anxiety disorder -- has taught me that a lot of that mental muscle is teachable. Most of it comes from self-talk: what we say to ourselves when we encounter setbacks, and what we tell ourselves about why we succeed. I have more than one kid who is a hard-wired self-defeatist, and that's why Martin Seligman's Learned Optimism is on my top-10 list of required parental reading, even though it's not a parenting book. Studies show that resilience is the most important factor in determining success in life. You can be brilliant, creative, witty, or gregarious, but if you can't rebound from setbacks, you're not going to be happy.

I'm no Annette, but I've gotten more resilient over the years. There are times I feel like my younger brother's Popeye punching bag, which would tip back when you whacked it, then bounce up again. But as I think of that image, I realize that Popeye bounced back because Popeye (or at least the punching-bag version) was well-grounded. His center of gravity gave him resilience.

Which leads me to think that resilience and self-talk and being well-grounded are closely related. We have to know what we believe is true and essential in life, or else we can't hold on to it and yearn for it and return to it when we're down.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Playing history

We had a lazy homeschooling day today, emphasizing physical recovery over academics. At one point the kids watched a DVD on Sacagawea. We've been reading Streams to the River, River to the Sea by Scott O'Dell as our read-aloud lately, so that tied in nicely. Good thing I discovered the DVD last night while hunting for the original b&w version of Phantom of the Opera!

Later in the day, Little guy raced in to see me while I was working.
Little Guy: Mom! We just noticed that this Playmobil pirate would make a perfect Clark!
Mom (clueless): Oh, really?
Little Guy: See -- if he didn't have this eye patch, his beard and uniform would be perfect!
Mom (still clueless): Oh. Uh, Clark. What do you mean by Clark?
Little Guy, laughing: Like Lewis and Clark, Mom! Clark!
Mom: Oh, yeah. Right!

Good thing I'm the teacher, huh?

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Family bowling

Last night around 1:30 a.m., shortly after I cleaned up Big Guy's one-for-the-record-books heave of chocolate brownies across the carpet (and a mere hour after Andrew cleaned up Little Guy's surprise reprise, which covered the sofa), I distributed bowls to the rest of the family. Lemme tell ya, if you have a big family, this is a good idea! My own gurgles of digestive discontent began shortly after. Then Snuggler was hit at 2:37, and Dancer at 6:53. It was, as they say, a night of family upheaval. My room looked like a battlefield, with bodies sprawled everywhere across the floor.

There's a 12-hour lacuna in my memory between then and now, for which  you will probably be grateful. We've had some bad tummy bugs over the years, but I don't think we'd ever had five of us down at the same time. My poor mom woke up, surveyed the damage, and (God bless her!) promptly got out the scrub brush and Febreeze and set to work doing laundry.

Which only goes to show that just when you're thinking that some day your kids will be grown and gone, you may find yourself traveling 700 miles to see them and end up cleaning up after them, anyway!

So... thanks, Mom. Hope your plane trip home is truly uneventful.

Friday, March 19, 2010

We're Off to See the Wizard

After two months of rehearsals (including roughly 20 hours in the past week), The Wizard of Oz opens tonight. Snuggler is a Munchkin, and in four out of eight shows gets to proclaim that the witch is "really, truly dead". I don't think we've ever had a coroner in the family before.

There are a number of things I like about having kids involved in theater:
  1. It gives them an outlet for their dramatic streak. (Though maybe it's just practice... some days I'm not sure.)
  2. There's a sense of teamwork and cameraderie. This production has kids ages 6 to 18, and the older kids do rise to the challenge of setting a good example of the younger ones. That's nice.
  3. It's an activity for which the participatory time exceeds the transit time.
  4. Parents aren't allowed during rehearsals, so the kids can be proud of this as their own thing.
  5. The end product is fun to watch.
In honor of Snuggler, I offer the following bad Oz jokes.

 Where did Dorothy slip and fall down?
 On the Yellow Slick Road.
 Who made the yellow slick road slippery?
 The Wizard of Ooze.
What did Dorothy sing after she slipped?
"Somewhere over the sprained toe!"
Who made Dorothy fall asleep in the poppy field?
The Wicked Witch of the Rest.
What did the Munchkins become when a house landed on them?

Snuggler, may you be like Dorothy and bring the house down.

And just WHAT am I doing posting at 2am?

I'm taking a break from writing a brochure, because the occasional interruptions to help Little Guy find the bowl when he throws up aren't all that refreshing. And blogging is a better use of my brain than wondering if the tummy woes are contagious, and if so how long it takes before the bug hits: Snuggler debuts as a munchkin in The Wizard of Oz tomorrow night, at the children's theater. She has four performances this weekend, and my mom flew in to see her. So... I hope this too shall pass. Or at least pass Snuggler by.

A random thought, apropos of being WAY too old to be up all night:

A neighbor called me a couple weeks ago, because she wanted me to consider joining her in a money-making venture. It sounded like it was going to be one of those pyramid deals, where everyone on the top gets a share of what everyone on the bottom sells. But to be polite I looked at the online presentation. They were pushing a line of beauty products that purportedly stops aging at the genetic level.

I called the woman back and said I wasn't interested. She asked why. I said, "Well, I kind of figure that people who are getting old don't need help with looking young. What they need is help getting comfortable with the fact that they're getting older."

Apparently my neighbor hadn't heard that objection before. She let me go.

Back to the brochure.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

On apologies, part I

I know you'll never believe this, but recently one of my kids snarled, "Why should I say I'm sorry when I'm not?" 

Answer: because sometimes the words come first, to point your heart in the right direction.

Answer: because it's the right thing to do. We try to do the right thing, whether we feel like it or not.

Lately I've re-introduced the concept that sometimes it's politic to apologize more than once. Anger dampens one's ability to hear, you know. It sometimes takes more than one I'm sorry to get a hurt or angry person's ears to process what you've said. And repeating I'm sorry leads to peace much faster than repeating the sacred litany of What He Did First. (Silly Mom! Who's seeking peace?)

If we ever master the basics, I've got a harder idea waiting in the wings: You can, and should, apologize for your share of the problem without regard to what the other person has done, and whether or not the other person apologizes in return.

How long do you think it will take to get there? A long time. Last week I was forcefully reminded that there are a lot of adults who still haven't arrived. (I'll spare you the details.)

It got me to pondering. What do people think they have to lose by saying I'm sorry? An apology doesn't affect your bank account. It doesn't cause cancer. It's healthy and mind-clearing and helps everyone involved.

When you have the wherewithal to omit references to how the other person was (also) at fault, you are heard. You are heard in a way that tends to calm the waters quickly, and sometimes that calms the other person enough to hear her own conscience. Not always. But often. Which is a good thing.

But for now we're still working on saying I'm sorry without snarling. Practice makes progress.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010


I bought Little Guy a science kit about light that I've bought at least once before, maybe twice. I like this particular kit because all the ingredients and equipment are included, and it has some fun experiments. Little Guy now knows the difference between concave and convex lenses, and between reflection and refraction. Yesterday he got to put on a pair of paper glasses with diffraction grating lenses. That was cool. I gave Little Guy and Snuggler (who also had a pair of the specs) the camera and had them take pictures through the diffraction grating.

This is Little Guy's booklight:

Snuggler snapped this pic of Little Guy in front of the window:

We also played around with a magnifying glass, figuring out how close-up you had to be to make it magnify, and how far away to make things turn upside down and backward.

Today we addressed a different topic. I cut several equal-size pieces of aluminum foil from Little Guy's treasure trove, filled a bowl with pennies, and put some water in the tub. The assignment was to make boats, and figure out which one could hold the most pennies. (No, I didn't control for pre-1982 vs. post-1982 pennies, though it does make a difference!)

Boat #1: small, round, and thick, held 62 pennies

Boat #2: triangular and thick, with higher and more even walls, held  92 pennies

Boat #3: round and too shallow, only held 29

Then he switched to making barges. The first barge was 11 inches long, and it held 109 pennies.

Barge #2 was 13 1/2" long and held a whopping 200 pennies

Surface area wins, provided the walls are high enough. Just as important as the scientific experimentation was the fact that the project was done without adult involvement. Free time obtained: 40 minutes.

Friday, March 12, 2010


Fifteen years ago I was director of marketing for a large life insurance company. I was in middle management: high enough that I didn't have to step in it, low enough that I didn't have to duck when it flew. There was a lot of pressure on the higher-ups to make the company more profitable, though no one on my level was ever asked what we thought could be done to make that happen.

Every now and then there was a new round of layoffs.  After one particularly large cutback my boss asked me what I thought. I was silent for a moment, then said cheerfully, "Hey, cutting off your leg is one way to lose weight. It's got a few drawbacks, but it's fast... and effective!"

The big lesson I learned at that job was that if you don't define a problem accurately, chances are you'll end up with (as Dancer's math teacher says) an interesting solution to a different problem.

I've noticed that surprisingly few people spend much time figuring out exactly what problem they're targeting. This is one reason why I've been using a problem-solving skills book called What to Do? with Little Guy. He is an adept solver of engineering and science problems, but more than a wee bit rigid with problems that involve personal disappointment or embarrassment.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

College Essays

Here are my talking notes from last night. Note that I'm working from n=1, so I'm not an expert. I've just been there once. 

*  Application essays are not your standard 5-paragraph essays. The goal is to have your child reveal something about who he is that the admissions officers don't yet know. It's all about that elusive thing called voice. Have your child read The Gatekeepers or On Writing the College Application Essay before starting to write (both books are written by former admissions officers). The latter has superb examples of how to edit a piece. Expect 7-8 revisions of each essay. 

*  Unlike interviews, a great essay probably can get a marginal student in. (According to the woman last night who does college interviews, interviews are really more useful at weeding candidates out.) 

*  Someone else who spoke on essays pointed out that you should tailor your essay to what is lacking in the other elements of your application. E.g., if your recommendation letters are likely to cover topics X and Y, your essay should highlight something else.  

*  Think of what's special about your child. You want those things to shine through. Don't preach: show. The point isn't to say, "I'm creative" but have the reader think "Wow, he's creative!" (or thoughtful/resourceful/persistent/innovative/witty...)

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

The day's miscellany

1. We went to a kids' musical about the Constitution today that featured the rock group The Founding Fathers. I should probably stop right there, but I have to get this off my chest: The first amendment to the Constitution does not have anything to do with my right to tell my mother whether or not I like brussels sprouts.

2. Big Guy was doing his homework this evening, and upon closing his book said, "Note to self: don't find a big pearl." (Yes, Steinbeck.)

3. Tomorrow I have to speak at the PA meeting at Eldest's school, on the topic of college essays. I'm considered an expert, having gone through the "college process" a grand total of once. (Twice, if you count getting into college myself, decades ago.) Fortunately, I only have seven minutes to fill.

4. I have a deadline this afternoon. But oh wow -- it's evening already. Time to get busy!

p.s. I do like brussels sprouts. So do my kids.


Andrew came home last night itching to show us stuff from the Archie McPhee website. The family crowded around the laptop. Although we liked the Albino Bowler Oil Painting and the Avenging Unicorn Play Set, what we liked best was a link on the Parasite Pals Blinky Vinyl Pouch page which led us to this video.

See what the internet can do for you? In the old days it was really hard to find Remote Control Hopping Yodeling Lederhosen. If you're not convinced you need some (who is?), you can have fun watching the demonstration.

Monday, March 8, 2010

Getting Ready for College (and life)

A while back Eldest asked, "But what if I'm not ready for college?"

I was pleased she'd thought of that her own. My reply: "Honey, nobody's ready. Some people aren't ready in one way, and others aren't ready in others. Believe me, there are some 18-year old boys who will never be ready! The question is whether or not the ways in which you're not ready will be a problem."

I have a long 'get Eldest ready for college' list. I'm assuming we won't get through it all before it's time to deliver her to school, and that's okay. Some things she will learn simply from being there, or from other people. Some she may (like the rest of us) stagger along without. But here's what I have so far:

Mundane Things to Tell Her:
- buy your sanitary supplies before you run out
- you can buy a new nail clipper at any drug store
- lock the door when you leave (practice for several months in advance)
- salad will keep in the fridge if you haven't already put dressing on it, but fruit will go bad if you leave it in your room too long
- a batch of brownies is good for making friends and soothing tensions
- how often you laugh is a pretty good gauge of how healthy (or depressed) you are
- the long-term success rate for first-semester freshman-year romances is zero
- you probably won't feel completely at home at school until after Christmas break
- your homesickness will fade as you make good friends and college starts to feel like home.
- don't do anything  you wouldn't want to see on the front page of the New York Post

Practical Life Skills:
- how to write a check and balance a checkbook and pay your bills on time
- how to know if you need to go to a doctor when Mom isn't there to tell you to go
- how to get out of doing ______ when others are doing it and you don't want to and can no longer say, "My mom won't let me"
- simple diplomacy for dealing with difficult dorm-mates and unpleasant professors
- basic cooking, hygiene, sewing, housekeeping, laundry, budgeting, manners. Really basic.
- how to self-monitor screen time when Mom isn't there to kick you off the computer
- the cardinal rules of drinking: eat before and during, imbibe slowly, and have plenty of water (and a Tylenol) before going to bed (she thinks she's never going to drink, but still...)

Essential Life Skills:
- having the courage to ask for help when you need it
- knowing how to bounce back from stupid mistakes and errors in judgment
- remembering to balance fun and work
- resourcefulness in solving logistical problems
- perseverence in advocating for yourself 
- having some idea of the kinds of 'down time' you need in your life to keep from getting too stressed
- knowing how to set healthy boundaries
- knowing how to cripple a 250-pound man
- knowing how to calm yourself from a panic

- understanding that there's no shame in changing your mind. Being wise enough to see that you made a mistake is a good thing (as long as you're willing to change and move on).
- remembering that when you've forgotten some of the above and have blown it and are sure Mom will be deeply disappointed in you, that she will love you and help you anyway.

I just noticed I don't have any academic skills on the list at all. Oops!

New uses for aluminum foil

The Giraffe in the Iron Mask
(by Little Guy)

Saturday, March 6, 2010


Little Guy was given some money at Christmas, which he has spent thoughtfully. Among his purchases are:

four colors of duct tape, a package of birthday hats,
and some twine from the 99-cent store

 300 yards of aluminum foil from Costco

a stuffed platypus with magnetic feet

a dynamo, so that he's not forever running out of batteries when he needs a flashlight

a dozen stuffed mini monsters, kind of like Ugli dolls (still
waiting impatiently for the shipment, but we've gotten some
geography done as we trace the path of the box on the FedEx site)

a small Playmobil submarine

a tie, because he likes to be natty...

and this tent...

The Am-I-a-Martyr question of the hour is, if you lived with seven people and 6,000 books in a 1200 square foot apartment, how long would YOU allow the tent to remain up?

Friday, March 5, 2010


I took part in a conversation the other day about choosing a high school. Here in the city it's a big deal. There are lots of choices, and parents are often focused on getting their kids into a Good School so that the dominoes of the future will fall in an auspicious way. My friend Ellen commented that we need to be aware that whenever our kids are given options, we're given a strong temptation to nudge our offspring in the direction of our own idols. She thinks we're too focused on opportunity, and that our priority for our teens should be character issues, instead.

Although I value education very highly, I tend to agree with this. In recent years I've come to realize that character isn't just about honesty and kindness and a sense of justice. It's about how you handle the problems you face. Do you withdraw and huddle in a heap, or do you rebound quickly? Do you take the bull by the horns, or wanly hope someone will notice you're having trouble and step in? Do you "feel the fear and do it anyway" or feel the fear and feel the fear and feel the fear and crash?

Character qualities are closely wrapped up with coping skills. This is because a lot of the time we can't act on our beliefs if we can't cope effectively with obstacles. If we believe in honesty but are afraid to face people with uncomfy news, we end up weasling out of the situation -- and that's not honest. If we believe in hard work but are easily crushed by setbacks, we give up. If we want to be reliable but procrastinate excessively because we're anxious, we can end up deeply unhappy. How well we cope plays into how true we can be to ourselves.

The teen years involve a lot of stumbling around, trying to make sense out of life and deciding what's important. In the jumble of competing priorities, parents do need to nudge kids toward opening doors instead of closing them. But I think Ellen's onto something. What kind of people our kids grow up to be depends a lot more on character than on which school they attend.

Monday, March 1, 2010

People who've made a difference in my life

Frieda S.

Frieda lives in our building. Some people think she's a kvetch, but my kids adore her, and stop to give her a hug whenever they see her. She always glows at their affection for her, and tells me I am a great mother. I'm not sure how old she is, but she emigrated from Germany after WWII. She speaks five languages. Her son is a doctor, a fact which makes her very proud. She remembers the birthdays (and names) of all five of my children, and calls up on the right day and always has a little gift waiting. She mails a card at Christmas, too, even though she's Jewish.

Frieda has some weird habits. Our apartment building is on a steep hill, so that by the time you walk to the back wing you're actually on the fourth floor instead of the first. Frieda lives on one of the lower floors. For years I watched her wheel her little collapsible grocery cart into the elevator, press the button for her floor, and then walk down the stairs to retrieve her purchases.

One day I happened to be going down instead of up in the elevator, just as Frieda was putting her cart in. Instead of heading toward the stairs, Frieda decided to go down with me. As the door closed she confided, in her German accent, "You know, I don't like going into confined spaces alone. I spent four years in hiding as a teenager, and I still get a little claustrophobic."

Four years in hiding in a small space. Sixty-five years later, and the scars are still there.

You never know why people do things that are a little weird. You just never know.


Heading downstairs the other day to get the mail, Little Guy and I encountered Captain America playing with Curious George in the lobby. It's Purim, time for costumes and fun. 

Yesterday afternoon a bag full of goodies -- mishloach manot -- arrived at our door. My kids particularly liked the hamentaschen, triangle-shaped cookies filled with poppyseed paste or jam. According to the note in the bag, the tradition of baking and giving sweets on Purim came about, in part, as a way to rid the house of chametz (leavened goods) prior to Passover.

We live in a neighborhood with a large Jewish population, including a number of elderly emigrees from the Hitler era. Purim is a big, fun celebration that includes all ages, though the kids seem to have the best time. A friend tells me that during the feast you're supposed to drink until you can't tell the difference between the phrases "Cursed is Haman" and "Blessed is Mordecai". In 2009, Purim fell on Ash Wednesday. My friend wondered what kind of slaughter that caused in years past. She guessed her ancestors in caroused very quietly.

I am grateful that our goodie package was delivered on Sunday. Lent lasts 40 days, but every Sunday is a 'little Easter' and hence is a feast day, so it doesn't count for fasting and abstinence. That means that if treats arrive at the door on a Sunday, we can rationalize eating them.

But not all of us gave up sweets for Lent. Little Guy is giving up saying,"I hate you!" Another child is working on being kinder to siblings, and another is trying to get rid of a bad habit. The most memorable Lenten sacrifice I recall was years ago, when Big Guy was about five. He graciously gave up eating butter with his fingers. So far as I know, he hasn't reverted.