Friday, January 29, 2010


I bought 14 apples and 5 pears yesterday afternoon at 3pm. This morning there are two apples and one pear (I used three pears for making cobbler for breakfast).

Last year Little Guy declared, "I'm a fruitatarian!" Yesterday he asked (in light of an earlier conversation about the need to eat at least ONE vegetable a day), "How many pieces of fruit am I supposed to eat in a day?"

Remembering the banner on the raisin box I said, "Five." Though I think it's supposed to be five servings of fruit or vegetables.

And then I thought, Five pieces of fruit a day... times seven people... WOW!

That's 245 apples a week, 1050 a month, and 12,775 a year. Assuming a cost of $1.49 a pound, with each apple at half a pound, that adds up to $9,517 a year.

I don't think so.

A Day with Eldest

Yesterday Andrew stayed home so that Eldest and I could have a day out together. It's midterm week, and since Eldest didn't have any exams yesterday she didn't have to go to school.

Last year Eldest took AP Euro, which had a decent art history component. So we went to The Frick, and had a lovely time. Coming across paintings by Boucher and van Eyck and Goya was kind of like meeting friends she'd heard about and seen pictures of, but not met.

We giggled over the grim-faced portraits of Sir Thomas More and Thomas Cromwell positioned to face each other (Hans Holbein the younger), and marveled at the detail in a Chinard sculpture, and admired the light in the Dutch paintings. Eldest particularly liked the Limoges platters.

Afterward we went to a little cafe and had lunch. How civilized and enjoyable!

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Parental milestones

My college roommate recently posted about discovering her 6-year old's self-administered haircut. It got me thinking about some of the milestones we go through as parents. These range from the famous firsts (first time Baby throws up down your shirt, first time Baby bashes her head into your mouth and gives you a fat lip, first time Baby -- or toddler, or preschooler -- sleeps through the night) to the life-altering changes that come later on.

Here's an incomplete list of some of the milestones I've passed in the past 15 years:

- Realizing I can't make my kids happy all the time, and (later) figuring out (again) that that's not the goal, anyway;
- Transitioning from "Don't do that, you might get hurt" to "Whatever... as long as we don't have to go to the hospital later on";
- Choosing to ignore what other people think when one of my kids goes for the tantrum world record in the worst possible place, at the worst possible time, because I can't be mortified and be a patient mom at the same time;
- Learning that what look like bumps in the parenting road for other people feel like mountains when I get there myself;
- Finding out that silently congratulating myself on being a decent parent somehow triggers almost immediate outrageous behavior in my children;
- Understanding that I can't fix everything... and sometimes I can't even make it better (this one's hard!);
- Realizing that being smart and resourceful is no guarantee that I'll have any clue how to handle a given parenting situation;
- Discerning which part of my conflicts with my children is, ummmmm, my own fault;

- Discovering that ranting is more likely to hurt kids than it is to change their behavior (sigh);
- Remembering that the amount of laughter in the house is a good gauge of how well we're doing;
- Learning all of the above, a second and third and fiftieth time.

Anyone have more to add?

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Little Dorrit

Dickens is excellent reading for convalescence. There are wonderful character sketches, you never have to wonder too deeply about what's going to happen, and you rarely run out of chapters before you've recuperated. 

Last week I read Little Dorrit. I enjoyed it, but the heroine would not go over well in a modern novel. She's quiet, helpful, naturally generous. Her strength lies in doing what needs to be done in a gentle and self-sacrificing manner. She's not flashy. She's not sexy. She's got spine, but it comes from groundedness, not assertiveness. She's not out to prove anything, because she is who she is, and that's enough.

In this day and age, the timidity and saccharine overtones of Little Dorrit make her appear quaint. If you or I had a daughter like her, we'd appreciate her sweetness, but we'd worry that the world wouldn't see what we see. We'd urge her to stand up for herself more, to speak up, to aim a bit higher. 

But maybe we should look at things the other way 'round, and think about what it is that helps kids to find their grounding, so they can be who they've been created to be.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Kid Talk

Dancer (11) to Snuggler (8): You're acting like you're six!
Snuggler: Yeah. I immatured.

Friday, January 22, 2010


I'm working on a piece about forgiveness, and spent an hour today reading through stories at The Forgiveness Project. It's appalling what some people have gone through, and it makes me wonder how I would react if someone seriously harmed me or someone I love. I'd like to think I'd be gracious and forgiving, but... well, I suspect there's part of me that's not there yet.

I am working on it, however. My ability to apologize for my portion of an upheaval (without fixating on the apology I think I'm owed) has gotten better. I think this is a function of age: humility's easier when you're past needing to prove something to the world. But sometimes I focus so much on the wrongs that have been done to me that my heart is frozen in self-righteousness; I forget that I can break the logjam of anger simply by admitting my own contribution to the difficulty. 

But that's a lot easier in retrospect than in the heat of the moment. This morning Big Guy spent a long time staring at the breakfast table instead of eating, and then took a 15-minute shower instead of a 5-minute one. Hence he missed his bus. Big Guy's school is in another county (we don't have a car), so missing the bus means he misses school. I hadn't factored having him around into my day's agenda, and I smoldered quite a bit. The smoldering subsided rapidly once Big Guy got around to saying he was sorry. Amazing how those two words -- I'm sorry -- act as a fire extinguisher. When one person says it, it's a thousand times easier for the other to forgive.

But unless we want to lug anger around all the time, we have to be able to forgive even when "I'm sorry" never gets said. When we nurse a grudge, or hold on to anger, we lug the past into the present. In the children's picture book Zen Shorts there's a story about a young man who carries a crotchety old lady across a cold river, and gets only abuse for his efforts. He glowers about it for hours, and later in the day complains about the ill-treatment he received. His companion, an older monk, says, "You put that old lady down hours ago. Why are you still carrying her in your heart?" 

Two lines I read today that had resonance:

      - carrying resentments is like taking poison and waiting for the other person to die

      - forgiveness means giving up all hope of a better past

Hopefully some day I will be able to forgive in all circumstances (though hopefully I won't encounter any that require a big test!) Everyday life gives me plenty of opportunities to practice letting go of offenses. Hopefully, I will eventually find that forgiving has become a habit, and I can leave a legion of cranky old ladies behind me instead of carrying them around forever.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010


I was lying awake one night last week at 3am, thinking about a note a friend had written asking for prayers for a distant friend who has separated from her husband. Anyone who's been married any length of time knows that at times it's seriously hard. For me, what holds it together is that I believe to the bottom of my heart that Andrew is the man God gave me to marry.

I was also thinking about my apartment, which is falling apart. There are doors that don't work properly, bathrooms that need plastering and repainting, a kitchen wall that needs to be re-done, a leaky valve below the sink. It's not that we live in a slum, but that we live in a building built in 1933. Over a long period of time things need replacement; things you never knew existed suddenly emerge as problems. As in a marriage, a certain level of maintenance is required to make life liveable.

When something goes wrong with the house I assume we have to fix it, or I say, "Can't fix that now; no budget or time. Gotta live with it." Flaws are flaws, things fall apart, life isn't optimal but this is the house we live in. So why is it, I wonder, that we sometimes look upon the flaws in our spouses and in our marriages as nearly unbearable, when all they are are flaws?

I think part of it is that we hold in our minds an ideal of marriage, and it doesn't include real flaws (like the kind you and I and our spouses have). Our ideal doesn't factor in grinding long-term difficulties, nor deep disappointments, nor frustrating I-don't-know-how-to-make-this-better problems. And yet, realistically, what can we expect? Marriage involves another human being.

Our wealthy society places huge emphasis on being happy, in part because we don't have to expend a huge amount of effort on survival. Happy is good; I like being happy. I like it when my kids are happy. I like it when my husband is happy. But unhappy things happen if we set happiness up as a god. We neglect less comfortable but important goals like the hard work of becoming a better person, the unselfishness of contributing (significantly) to the welfare of others, learning how to be at peace in the midst of awful situations, doing the right thing even when it hurts.

For most of us, the important lessons in compassion, how to make sacrifices, rebounding from setbacks and suffering, resourcefulness, and being true to what we believe don't come from happy times. They arise almost exclusively from situations we never would have chosen for ourselves. In short, we grow more (or can grow more) through challenges than through happiness.

I love my husband. He loves me. Few flaws are fatal, either his or mine. Most are simply cracks through which we can learn to love differently, better, deeper, more. If we're patient enough. And if we believe that the reason we're together is because that's how it's supposed to be.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Dorothy Parker on Boredom

"The cure for boredom is curiosity.
There is no cure for curiosity."

Or as a friend of mine's mother used to say, "Oh Honey, don't say you're bored! Boredom comes from within, like bad breath. Don't admit to it."


I believe in boredom. I like entertainment occasionally, too, but I tend to think that part of the reason America has lost its creative edge is because we've overdone it on the entertainment front. We've stopped allowing ourselves to writhe through that uncomfortable, foggy, what-can-I-do period, so we never come out on the other side of it with fresh ideas.

There's bad boredom, of course. That happens when you're trapped in a situation and can't escape and have limited ability to use the time creatively, like in dull lectures or endless meetings. But the boredom of free time in which you've exhausted all the usual things to do and mope around and pick up things and put them down and whine to your mom (who only suggests cleaning the bathroom)... that's the boredom that finally results in innovation.

I recently heard someone who's on the advisory board for the Cogito website speak. He said that as they were developing the web site, the first thing the board of scientists and inventors and entrepreneurs were asked to do was make a list of what elements (books, coursework, experiences, etc) were essential for creative thinking. Every person in the room listed the same thing as #1: free time. Time to think, time to play with ideas, time to explore. This makes total sense to me.

Not all kids are good at being bored. Extroverts tend to do their best thinking while with other people; some kids need lots of structure; other kids simply flounder when left to themselves. But I think we do a disservice to our kids when we don't allow enough unstructured time for them to find their own way through boredom. If entertainment is the main solution we offer, we aren't teaching the next generation the skills they'll need to solve other kinds of problems.

Sunday, January 17, 2010


Health:       Yesterday I had my first outing in nearly two weeks. I took Snuggler to a lovely Colonial tea party at a historic house nearby, and after the exertion of sitting for three hours came home and went to bed. Not sure if that counts as progress or not!

House:        Entropy rules. Little Guy bought a Star Wars tent at Target yesterday, and he's encamped in the living room next to the enormous wagon of laundry that's been sitting there for three days.

Heart:          One reason I haven't been posting is that I have no words for what's happened in Haiti. No one around here had better whine That's not fair! for a long time. Talk about not fair...

Healing:       Little Grace' surgery went well (though they still don't know if it was successful). Her Brother Ben had his 18th surgery on Friday, this one to implant a hearing aid, and that went well.

Hope:           A number of friends, without being asked, have brought meals over this week. This tells me there's something right in the world, too.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Health and cognition

I'm vaguely putting together bits of wisdom that I want to impart to Eldest before she leaves for college. In the past few days, as I've been mainly in bed coughing and tossing and turning, I added:

  • Never make any major decisions or have important discussions about relationships when it's late at night, you're tired, hormonal, or sick.
It's amazing how depleted the brain becomes when the body is ill. When Andrew and I were first married, his dad came to live with us. Dad had dementia, caused by a brain contusion when he fell in the bathroom and lay undiscovered for six hours. That happened the weekend after we told him we were engaged. We spent most of our engagement period alternating flying to Florida to check in on him, and trying to figure out where to have him live once he was released from the nursing home. The family of the woman with whom he shared his apartment was not willing to have him live there any longer once he was unable to take care of her.

The long and the short of it was that Dad moved in with me the week before the wedding. Andrew moved in afterwards. It was a challenging start to a marriage, which ultimately made having children seem relatively easy. Medicaid paid for someone to stay with Dad from 9-5, but since both of us worked, that left an hour or more gap at the beginning and end of each day. Because Dad couldn't always tell the difference between what was on TV and what was real life, he'd often think a robber was at the door. I had to stand on the other side, convincing him of who I was when I got home. Half the time he was standing inside ready to bash my head with something (usually innocuous, but not always). If you ever have to live with someone with Alzheimer's or another dementia,  I strongly recommend a book called The 36 Hour Day. It's incredibly helpful.

There were ups and downs with Dad, but when he was sick his mental functioning declined noticeably. I suspect the same happens to all of us to a lesser degree, but we don't notice it because our baseline is so much higher. We think we're thinking clearly, but when we're well again and looking back, that time seems like a fog.

At any rate, I am better but not well yet. Work is waiting to be done. School (it's Pajama Monday, thankfully!) is waiting to be led. So whether I'm fully cognizant or not, life has to go on. I just won't make any big decisions or have any meaningful discussions, right?

Friday, January 8, 2010


There are many flavors of homeschooling, ranging from school-in-a-box to 'unschooling'. Little Guy went to kindergarten last year, and the first words out of his teacher's mouth at our October conference were, "He's a really out-of-the-box kind of kid!" It's not hard to guess why we don't order a canned curriculum.

One thing I care deeply about is that I want my kids to learn, at an early age, what it is to have a passion, and what it means to pursue it. However, I draw a distinction between becoming passionate and becoming lost in passion. It's way too easy to get absorbed (or self-absorbed) by an interest to the exclusion of all else. I have one child who would gladly do without math for years, and one who could probably figure out how to function without ever writing a word. So we don't go the 'unschooling' route, at least insofar as that means only following the child's interests.

My compromise is this: give me 90 minutes for my stuff, and you can have the rest of the day to yourself. I'll make sure we have books, materials, web sites, or whatever you want on hand so you can thrive and grow.

Of course, since I've cultivated independent learners and thinkers, I have kids who know how to protest vehemently against things they don't like. So it usually takes much longer than 90 minutes to do 90 minutes worth of work. Still, my requirements are pretty minimal: math, and writing, and some sort of history, and the occasional handwriting or map skills or grammar. Little Guy has to do reading daily. The others just read (and read, and read) without being asked, so I don't even put it on their lists.

The kids like having a read-aloud, and I like it, too. It gives us all common ground, and it's a nice, gentle way to start the school day. I usually try to coordinate the read-aloud with the time period we're studying for history.

I used to be a lot better about field trips, but now that I'm working so much I don't have enough energy or time.  The kids like field trips, and ideally we'd do one every week. This year it's more like one a month. That stinks, but it's life.

Today in Carry On, Mr. Bowditch we got to the part where he's teaching the common sailors how to navigate using the stars. There was talk of the sextant. We have a Playmobil sextant around here somewhere, but not a real one. Had to look that up on the web, along with instructions for how to use it. But the kids are clamoring for a real one. On the off-off-chance that you happen to have one among your possessions and are willing to show it to us, let me know.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

What to do on a Thursday afternoon...

I had to take it easy today, after a rough night of coughing. The kids meandered in and out of schoolwork, played Plants vs. Zombies for a while, and drooped about. I'm pretty sure math got done, and there was a long round of handwriting when they suddenly became interested in copying over sentences on fancy paper. Dancer finished the Abigail Adams biography by Natalie Bober.

Around 4:30 Little Guy came in needing something to do (besides clean his room, which is always the first thing I suggest). "Please, Mama, can we use the dissecting kit?"

Yes, I have preserved body parts in my room. Not human parts, but a variety of other things. A good friend sent her kids to school this year, and donated some science supplies to us. Among them were a good quality dissecting tray and tools, and numerous things to dissect.

Little Guy and Snuggler did not get to use the scalpel, but they had a fine time finding parts on the frog. It helps that Little Guy received an anatomy game called SomeBody for Christmas. He was very interested in locating the gall bladder, and wrote up his scientific notes on yellow paper ("We thingk it is a gurl.") I was impressed with how far preserving technology has come; there was no real smell at all.

We finished up just before Big Guy came home, which was a good thing. Big Guy gets queasy about things like blood and guts and dissecting. Too bad.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Here's to chapstick

We were on the subway today when Little Guy looked over at the guy across the aisle. The man was reading an oversize comic book of The Simpsons. Little Guy takes one look at the cover drawing of Homer (whom he's never seen before) and comments, "Wow, that guy has really bad chapped lips!"


I finally finished the piece that was due Monday. Wow, it was tough going. I had plenty to say, but finding the words to say it and integrating the different elements was staggeringly hard. Most days (but not yesterday) the process of writing is a challenging but satisfying struggle. I find that ideas crystallize for me when I write, and that makes the effort worthwhile.

I'm a verbal person: I sort-of, kind-of, more-or-less know what I'm feeling and thinking, but until I can put it into words I don't really know it. There's a distillation process that goes on as I write (and once in a while when I talk) that is extremely helpful. A month or so ago when I posted about toxic people it took me several hours of wrestling with thoughts and feelings to articulate what, in retrospect, looks obvious. But an awful lot of my life consists of things that are foggy at the time and obvious in hindsight.

I'm a big believer in making sure I've identified the real issue before I try to address it. Years of working in the life insurance industry taught me that a lot of time and money is wasted solving the wrong problems. If one of my kids is having trouble getting along with other children, that's too broad a problem for me to tackle. I need to narrow it down, and figure out under what circumstances the difficulty occurs. Is it when he/she is with older children? Younger children? Kids the same age? Does it happen in small groups as well as large groups? In more supervised situations, or in less supervised situations? Does anxiety play a role? The more I can narrow in on exactly what is going on, the easier it's going to be to come up with an effective approach to solving the problem. There's no sense trying to kill a fly with a steamroller when a 99-cent flyswatter will do.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Back to school

I have a bad cold, maybe bronchitis, maybe something else, which has been making life difficult. But yesterday it was time to do schoolwork again. It's been a while. It's been long enough that Little Guy and Snuggler thought it would be preferable to do their math at 9pm Sunday night, just so they wouldn't have to do it in the morning (when they'd rather play). Nice idea, but I am not a good mother after 9pm. My kids know this, and when they forget it I remind them. I just don't do nighttime parenting. The exception is dealing with teen angst, which only seems to emerge after the sun goes down.

Yesterday morning the girls played a rousing (?) game of Preposition Bingo, and did a bunch of workbooky kinds of things. Little Guy demanded science (a week of electronics with the Snap Circuits apparently doesn't count), so we did the old slip-pennies-into-the-full-glass-of-water thing, to look at surface tension. Then we read a chapter from Carry On, Mr. Bowditch, our current read-aloud. It's a fine book.

But mostly I coughed a lot and tried to meet my deadline. It didn't happen; I was too sick. Fortunately my throaty longshoreman's voice and a sudden coughing attack when I called my boss were persuasive enough to get me an extension. 

Friday, January 1, 2010

Odds and ends

Someone forwarded this backstage photo (a no-no!) from Nutcracker. Dancer's the tall Russian. Last year she was one of the girls in the brown silk dresses. Next year she'll probably be too tall to be in the party scene.

Little Guy received an Electronic Snap Circuits set for Christmas from his grandparents. We had the same set when Big Guy was younger, and it was used for years upon years. Little Guy spent an entire day building alarms and fans and various contraptions... and he still has about 268 experiments to go! Definitely a winner.

Another winner, but for older kids. Big Guy received it, but Andrew and Dancer like it, too. Every time they finish a game I hear someone exclaim, "That's a really good game!" (I don't do board games, except for Scrabble. This is a card game, but with a board-like feel to it.)

I have two deadlines for Monday, so I've got to get busy. Back to real life, I guess! Wishing you and yours a very happy New Year...