Monday, October 31, 2011


Little Guy, the paramecium
(Yes, he can identify the innards: contractile vacuole, macronucleus micronucleus)

Snuggler, the tourist

Dancer, grapes

Saturday, October 29, 2011


Snow outside our window. No river in sight.
Big news! I remembered my husband's birthday today. Even Mother Nature thought this was remarkable, and made sure it was a year to remember. (What's weird is that the leaves are still on the trees; I can't remember seeing snow on a fully-clad oak before.)

Little Guy's soccer game was cancelled. The college game his league was supposed to attend this evening is presumably postponed. That means I have time to bake a dessert or make dinner or something. I'm thinking peanut butter pie would be good.

Message inside: Shady Oaks has a place for you!
The kids (or at least most of them) managed to get birthday cards made in advance. Last night Snuggler commented, "The problem with having older parents is that they're going to die sooner than everybody else's." Might be, might not. That didn't stop her from ragging on her dad with her birthday message. (The note at the bottom reads: "Black and white to soothe old eyes." Handwriting isn't her forte.)

Big Guy went off this morning, for the second time, to his class on the history of protest music at the historical society. This is huge: prying him out of the house for the first class took epic energy, though (as with all labor pains) I immediately forgot the agony once I held the joy of seeing he was actually there. Big Guy hasn't done any activity for years, because the anxiety of doing something new has been too great. I know better than to hope that going twice is the start of a new trend line. But I'm very thankful that for today his world was able to be a little bigger. And I sent him with a little money, so he and his dad could have a celebratory birthday lunch.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Pipe dreams

The plumber has found the problem in our bathroom! It wasn't the drain from the apartment above. It wasn't a pipe that leaked only when the stars aligned badly and two apartments emptied their tubs at the same time. After weeks of trying to decipher the problem, we finally figured out that the problem occurred in the pipe where water flowed in, not where it flowed out. It turns out that the "shower body" upstairs was cracked.

This is such a metaphor for life. How often do we assume that pipes are pipes, and forget to distinguish that input is different than output?

*        *         *         *          *

When Andrew and I got married my father-in-law came to live with us. If there's one thing that can be said for starting out married life accompanied by an 84-year old with dementia, it's that the later adjustment to having babies feels relatively uncomplicated. There were days Dad thought I was his wife. There were times he thought I was the intruder from a TV show, and stood next to the door ready to bash me on the head when I came home from work. He occasionally showed up in our room at 2am, demanding breakfast, impervious to arguments about how dark it was outside.

But what was most baffling was that I could tell Dad to take the chicken out of the freezer at noon, leave him a note reminding him, and even have him read the note aloud -- and he still wouldn't do it. It took a long while (and the book The 36-Hour Day ) for me to grasp that the part of the brain that hears and the part of the brain that reads and even the part of the brain that speaks isn't necessarily the part of the brain that stores information. Life got a lot less frustrating when I realized that what to me seemed like all one brain process was actually a sequence of processes, and that the transfer of information from ears to memory, or reading to memory, could in fact fail to happen. Different pipes.

*        *         *         *          *

This morning I was working with Little Guy on persuasive writing. He tends to panic when he has to do something new, so I stopped to parse the situation. Saying, "I can't write!" could mean all kinds of things.Was he just being obstreperous? Did the problem lie in transferring thoughts to paper? Or was it in the idea generation itself?

I eliminated the written output portion of the lesson so we could focus on nailing down the thought process.

Tell me some reasons I should give you a bigger allowance. "I could buy stuff." Hmmm.

Tell me why we should get a dog. "It would help calm Big Guy, and I would have something to play with when you are working." Better.

Finally I hit on a topic Little Guy could articulate: Why should our building allow kids under the age of 10 to play in the courtyard without an adult present? Whew! He had a lot to say about that.

But it was clear that we need to spend some remedial time developing thinking-up-ideas skills before we attempt to transfer that flow of ideas onto paper. There are different pipes feeding into writing. You can't produce if you can't generate the raw material.

*        *         *         *          *

I think there are two pipes at work in a meaningful life: input and outflow. Often we miss important shifts in our emotional and spiritual composition because we fill ourselves up, then feel as if we've done something. We mistake the full-belly feeling of consumption for the full-heart satisfaction of production.

Feeling full isn't the same as having a full life.

Input. Output. Different pipes. If things aren't working right and you're only looking at one kind of pipe to find the leak (or clog), try looking at the other kind.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Doing things just because you can

My StatCounter shot off into the stratosphere yesterday, at a rate of 350 page loads in a matter of minutes from a single user, which I suspect is not humanly possible.  After the blog hit 6,000 page loads for the afternoon I posted an inquiry on the Google Help board. Within an hour someone I don't know, and will almost certainly never meet, wrote to me saying the share buttons were broken. He provided instructions on how to turn them off until the problem was fixed.

This made my day. Someone, somewhere took time to be helpful, just because. Just because... he could. Just because... it was a good thing to do. Just because. I love that.

*        *        *        *        * 

This past summer when Eldest was home we were chatting one day, and I related to her how I got involved in various volunteer activities. I'm always amazed to realize how little kids know about the backstory of what adults do: how we ended up in various situations, the thought process (or lack thereof) that got us there, what effort it took. This is my fault, because I forget to talk about these things.

Back in my single days, when I was a Director of Marketing for a Very Large Insurance Company and an up-and-coming ambitious young exec, I went to an open house for volunteering. It was an excellent event, one which I've always meant to replicate but have never got around to doing. One local organization in my neighborhood invited all the nearby non-profits who needed volunteers to come over one night, and also invited anyone in the community who was thinking about getting involved in some kind of volunteer work. Many matches were made.

Not long later, my phone rang at work and it was a woman who wanted to meet me for lunch to talk about having me join the board of the local mental health clinic. (The mental health clinic had been the sponsor of the volunteer fair.) I explained, somewhat embarrassed, that I knew nothing about mental illness or mental health. My experience was limited to inadvertent encounters with homeless people on the subway who'd forgotten to take their meds.

That didn't bother her. Somehow she convinced me to meet her anyway, and over sandwiches she persuaded me to join the board for a trial period.

It was not a high-powered group. The Board was a mishmash of people, some of whom were clients of the clinic, some of whom were family members. I felt rather out of place. But within a couple of months it was obvious I was needed: I was the only person there with the skill set to do certain kinds of tasks that needed to be done. Things like political strategy and fundraising fell in my bailiwick. It wasn't that I felt a need to do these things. It wasn't that I wanted to do them. It wasn't even that I knew how to do them. But I was the one person there who could do them. So, I did.

I could go on about where that led me, but the destination isn't the point. The model for my volunteer work has been pretty much the same my whole adult: I just sort of found myself in a place where it was obvious that I was the right person for the job.

*        *        *        *         *

The advantage of finding myself in situations where I can do what's needed is that there's little ego involved. In my heart of hearts I know that I don't know what I'm doing. The only difference between me and others who don't know what they're doing is a) I have different skill sets to tap (I can give testimony at a public hearing, or write persuasive letters to officials), and b) I'm okay with doing things that are uncomfortable for me.

At various points in my adult life I have been the buildings manager of a church that had had a big fire, the head of a "Friends of ____ Park" committee, the organizer of an event commemorating a Revolutionary War battle, the head of the research committee at my daughter's high school, and a facilitator of neighborhood events. There are seasons when I've done a lot of volunteer work, and seasons when I've done almost nothing. After Little Guy was born I withdrew from heading up an organization, and the group died. That was okay; I can only do what I can do, and it's not my job to save the world. But it is my job to contribute to it. 

 *        *        *        *         *

The great blessing of doing things because you can rather than because you're burning with motivation is that there's little ego involved. That frees up a huge amount of energy. Life gets simpler when we're not trying to force the universe to rotate around ourselves.

One of the most important things I learned in high school (perhaps one of the only things I learned) was the Ptolomaic explanation of the universe. Way back in the second century they were trying to figure out why the sun and moon and planets appeared to move at differing speeds. Astronomers came up with a complex explanation that involved something called epicycles. These cycles within cycles could, more or less, explain the observations of how the sky moved around the earth.

The real explanation, of course, is much simpler: planets revolve around the sun, not Earth (or a point somewhere near it).

We put a lot of epicycles in our lives, because we assume that everything revolves around us. The simpler, more elegant explanation is that it doesn't.   

Monday, October 24, 2011


It was a cold and croupy night; the coughs came in torrents -- except at occasional intervals, when they were checked by snuffles which rattled through sinus and chest (for it was in bed that our family lay), barking germs through the house, and fiercely agitating brochii and bronchioli as lungs struggled to stay functional.

When day broke, so did the bathroom ceiling (again). A stream of water poured in rivulets through the just-repaired wallboard, pooling behind paint, diverting itself in a myriad of directions until, following the irresistible forces of inhuman nature, it found its release by the steam riser. Plunk! Plunk! Plunk! The drops fell in succession, gathering force, spraying forth in Pollockian array across medicine cabinet and tile, rivulets of rust and dust forming a legend on the wall, the palmistry of which only the building manager will be able to decipher.

I ate hot pumpkin bread and drank tea. No coffee, for the milk was tepid, a victim of a refrigerator door cruelly left ajar through the cough-filled night.

Children were roused and fed and dressed. We sang a hymn, recited a Psalm. The sun flickered brightly on the changing leaves of trees on the other side of the river. As one child instructed another in a writing lesson, I hammered out the last lines of an almost-overdue freelance assignment. The phone rang, then rang again, and again. There was good news, and unhappy news, and just-so news, and a few remaining spaces on my overcrowded date book filled in.

Math was completed, papers written, one wrist was sprained, many tissues sniffled into, a lifesize Origami Yoda was made from butcher paper, scooters were ridden, fresh pumpkin seeds were baked and munched. Homemade matzoh ball soup is on the stove for supper.

In the end, it was only the teary bathroom wall that cried. The rest of us chose to find joy where we could.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Developing Coping Skills in Kids

One reason I write a lot about the need to help kids develop coping skills is that I have several who are less than naturally able in that department. I have a few who are anxious, some who are inflexible, one who panics,  and several hard-wired pessimists with automatically veer into downward-spiralling thought patterns. Challenging that negativity is... work.

When I find myself inwardly grumbling about how exhausting that is, I do a little mental drill:

                     WORK... JOB... WORK... JOB

Duh -- the two are related! It's my job to parent my kids. Sometimes it's work. Sometimes it's a lot of work. Enough already -- onward.

*       *       *       *       *

I've been thinking more about that talk on characteristics of successful employees, and the importance of letting kids fall. Why is it so hard for us to let them do that?

It could be that we're too tied up in ourselves: if my kid falls, I'm a failure.

It could be that we're too focused on what our children will think of us: if my kid falls, he'll think I wasn't there for him.

Or there's this: not everyone who goes into a sink-or-swim situation ends up on the surface. Some kids sink. Will mine?

And yet... there's a huge difference between being a mama whale nudging my calf to the surface so he can breathe while he's learning to swim and being a child's full-time personal flotation device so he never has to learn to swim.

There are many steps between providing too much support and none at all. It's helpful to remember that.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Making things happen

I took Snuggler down to the pre-Harvest Festival party last night. She and a friend are running one of the events today. They needed to pick up their much-coveted t-shirts (the only way to get one is to be a volunteer), and were supposed to attend a face-painting lesson. The lesson turned out to be a super-cool, super-professional thing. I had trouble prying Snuggler away from it.

Snuggler putting her new skills to work
I stood around, feeling rather old. It was an observation, not an existential crisis: all the moms running this year's Harvest Festival have kids who are preschoolers. I don't know many of them. I was happy to stand there and feel out of place, for this is the generation of moms who took the baton and ran with it after the first group of Harvest Festival coordinators (myself included) moved on.

Over a thousand cupcakes were decorated today

Here is what I love about the Harvest Festival: its insistence on being a grass-roots event. There's no corporate sponsor, no government organization that does most of the work. There are neighbors who work together to make a great event. There's no 'them' to blame if you're unhappy with something. If you think the line for face-painting is too long, you can fix that problem by being a face painter next year. If you have a great idea for a new activity, you are empowered to make it happen. And no matter how busy your life, there's a way you can help. Even if the only thing you can do all year is bake a dozen cupcakes to donate for the cupcake-decorating table, you're needed.

Little Guy (left) in the sack races
In recent years the Harvest Festival has drawn over 700 people, and more than a hundred volunteers make the day happen. That's a very cool thing in the big city. We build community. We make it happen. Or... we don't.


Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Factors in Success: One Insider's View

A bigwig came to talk to the moms at our homeschool co-op today. He's head of the Human Resources department at a Very Large Bank (and also the husband of one of the moms in our group). He spoke to us about what makes for a successful employee at the Very Large Bank.

When this Very Large Bank looks to hire, it considers three factors:

1. Ability. This is broken down in to two components: intellectual abilities/skills and "emotional intelligence". The latter is more important nowadays, because knowing how to deal with ambiguity and failure and difficulty is something today's helicopter-parented children really don't know how to do well.

2. Engagement. Are they intellectually and emotionally engaged in the job/business?

3. Aspiration. Do they want to succeed?

One of the questions asked was whether the speaker thought emotional intelligence was more a matter of nature or nurture. He thought it was about 30% nature (hard-wiring), and the rest was nurture.

But the more he spoke, the more apparent it became that what he meant by nurture wasn't parental nurturing, but having lived in an environment where you'd been allowed to experience significant difficulty, and had developed the ability to bounce back. For, as he said, "Businesses have crises and hard times and occasionally failed projects. And we don't want employees failing for the first time on our watch."

He said that he can choose from hundreds of Ivy-League MBA grads, but increasingly his favorite candidates are those who a) have been in the military or b) have done some sort of out-of-the-comfort-zone work, whether that's the Peace Corps or a two-year Mormon mission, or even a gap year in college. Because there are things you learn when you're 'out there' that you don't learn any other way. There are obstacles to overcome, and there is character to forge, and resilience to build.

Food for thought.

Monday, October 17, 2011

High school daze

We're going through the high school search process for Dancer, which means allocating most of this month to open houses. You see, our city has about 700 high schools. You can quickly reduce that to a more reasonable pool by using a 5-question screening quiz:

1) Can you get there?
2) Is there a metal detector at the door or are there posters warning you not to wear gang colors?
3) Is the graduation rate greater than 50%?
4) Do those who graduate go on to college?
5) Is your child even remotely interested in the subjects they teach?

Because Dancer is Dancer, we also look at when school gets out, how far it is to a train, and how long it takes the train to get to ballet.

After you've done all your searching and screening, you're allowed to rank up to 12 schools. The schools then look at various data (report cards, test scores, attendance records, essays), and rank you. Then a big computer plays matchmaker between the four hundred million trillion adolescents pining for the same 20 schools and the 700 schools that have expressed interest in the same 20 students.

At the end of the print run you are given ONE high school assignment. Or, occasionally, nothing.

On a separate track there is a group of "specialized" high schools, for which the admissions criteria boil down to how you do on The Big Test. This test (which is taken by, I kid you not, 28,000 eighth graders) will be given at the end of this month. Students who take the test get to rank all the specialized schools, too. If you score well enough you get into ONE of them. Maybe. There are about 4,000 seats available.

So if you go through both processes you might have a choice of two places to go to school.

Then, of course, there are private schools and church-related schools. In general those are out of reach for us, money-wise, but there is financial aid. Maybe. Those schools require different tests and different applications and interviews and forms and whatnot. Count that as track #3. If you're up for it.

I suspect the whole procedure is a plot designed to make us think the folks at the Board of Ed are smarter than we are, because they understand this and we don't. But don't be intimidated, for brilliance requires a degree of elegance, and that's an unknown quality in this process. Other words come to mind: convoluted, archaic, labyrinthine, tortuous. You can toss these words around a bit and perhaps improve your child's SAT score. It will give you something to do while you wait in the 5-block line to get into the open house for the school with 100 openings.

After all this, one hopes someone, somewhere learns something. Maybe even the kids.

Saturday, October 15, 2011


Little Guy was up early today because of a stuffy nose. I was having my morning quiet time, and invited him to snuggle up. "I like to get up and just listen," I whispered to him, "Even when I was a young adult and lived by myself and there was no one there to make noise, I got up early and made a cup of coffee and listened to all the sounds I couldn't hear the rest of the day. Practicing listening helps."

He smiled up at me and snuggled closer; he'd learned something new about his mama.

So we sat together and listened. He whispered, "I can hear your heart."

Yes, he could.

Monday, October 10, 2011


My boys are playing together tonight. The narrative arc tends toward the violent and the absurd, but perhaps what's most absurd is that they're playing with... bells.

These are my grandmother's antique brass bells, shaped like figurines. I played with them as a child. Fortunately, they are practically indestructible. Tonight one of those girl-shaped bells is Prunella, and another is a governess. The plot has involved bombs and explosions, a crashing elevator, confused identities, mobsters and a couple of murders. You know, normal boy stuff.

It's good when brothers play together in peace.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Healthy sadness

I told Little Guy that his buddy Seamus is moving to California. My seven year old cried most of the evening. He'd calm down for a bit and then I'd find him curled in a ball on the floor somewhere, sobbing silently. And then he'd cry loudly all over again.

Our family likes Seamus a lot. He's Snuggler's age (she cried, too) and lives downstairs, and is homeschooled, and plays soccer. Seamus has more energy than half a dozen kids put together. He's the one who teamed up with mine to make the casino in the lobby. The one who took my kids to mini-golf. The one who calls to ask if Snuggler and Little Guy can come down to the basement, where they play for hours. We are going to miss him badly.

Last night as I alternately comforted Little Guy and let him find his own solace I thought about how helpful it is, parenting-wise, to be in a situation where I could not fix things. It forced me to set aside all my make-it-better impulses and let my son face sadness and come through it.

That instinct to shield our kids from pain... well, it's not always right. Sometimes the real issue is that we are pained by seeing them suffer. Or we don't like feeling helpless.

And yet loss is a reality of life. The world isn't always going to be pretty and comfortable for our kids. We're not going to be there to buffer the bad news every time. So while it's sensible to leave out the gory details of death or the nasty bits about divorce, it's not necessary (or even healthy) to see ourselves as responsible for shielding our kids from ever experiencing sadness.

We're not going to make our children better able to cope with the future by protecting them from every pain of the present. But since it's hard to gauge when to intervene and when to abstain, lately I've been asking myself, How long will it take them to rebound? If the answer is a day or a week, I let them hurt. And I comfort them.

Saturday, October 8, 2011

The Jets in Egypt

My kids watched West Side Story the other day. They seem to have absorbed the lyrics instantly.

This morning they have the stuffed animals out, and are acting out the show with the Bears vs. the Cats. There are some hysterical scenes (e.g., the song sung to Maria the cat: "A bear that kills, cannot love/a bear that kills has no heart... one of your own kind, stick to your own kind.") What slayed me, though, was when they had to unwrap the stuffed animal slated to be Bernardo from a coating of toilet paper. Turns out that while they were mummifying knock-off Barbies yesterday they got carried away, and mummified some other toys as well.

"That's okay," Little Guy said, finding the obscure connection between studying Egypt and watching West Side Story, "We can just mummify Bernardo again after he dies."

Thursday, October 6, 2011

What we did in school today

My two youngest are taking a construction class this fall. Next week they're going to start framing a playhouse, but the first two sessions were centered on acquiring basic skills with hammer and saw. Today they made robots. My kids made alien robots. Then they came home and made a space center for them.

They did do their writing assignments and phonics on the train. But I forgot, when I signed them up for this class, to allocate a shelf (or room?) to hold finished projects. Though maybe that's what the playhouse is for. But no, we're not bringing that home.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Practice makes progress

I went to Little Guy's soccer game on Saturday. I went to Snuggler's game on Sunday. It's tempting, while standing on the sidelines, to compare my kids to the ones who are hungry to win, who run harder and work more intensely than the others. Boy is that a fast way to becoming an unhappy parent!

I was not unhappy. I remembered to compare my kids to themselves. And it made me smile.

A year ago Little Guy stood morosely in the middle of the field, kicking the grass, mad that no one gave him a turn. This year he is running after the ball, occasionally even intersecting with it. He doesn't mind losing nearly as much, because he's playing hard enough to appreciate the game itself. He complains of sore leg muscles afterwards.

Snuggler, too, has improved. She's not afraid of the ball now, and doesn't do the polite girl thing any more of waiting for someone else to have their kick. She runs instead of lopes. She has built up her stamina. She works at keeping her eye on the ball and thinking strategically.

Neither child is a natural athlete. But the more they put into the game, they more they're getting out of it. Which makes me glad that I didn't give into my gut inclination to run screaming from the soccer field each time Little Guy had a meltdown last year. I guess the 'practice makes progress' motto applies to moms, too. I practiced being more quietly determined than I really felt. And -- compared to myself a year ago -- I think I've made progress.

Monday, October 3, 2011

Tongue-lashing vs. tongue-holding

I got really annoyed at Little Guy this morning. He wasn't doing his schoolwork -- lots of dawdling, with a fair dose of red-herring "I'm hungry" excuses -- and I had a deadline this afternoon, and hence no time to coddle or cajole. One thing that pushes my buttons big time is when I'm doing my job and someone else isn't doing his, so I end up having to do more work.

But one problem with yelling at kids is that, as Dancer so aptly pointed out, "They don't hear what you're saying. They just think you don't like them."

Well, yeah. It stinks. It stinks because as a mom you're frustrated and, hey, you have a right to be frustrated. But kids don't get that when they are little. So you're stuck in that place where there's not much you can do to make things better, with a lot of things you can do that make them worse. Trust me: a sad, scared seven year old is not an improvement over a dawdling seven year old. It would be better to hold my tongue.

Don't you sometimes wish you could do that cartoon ghost thing, and have a shadow of yourself (the Good Mommy) float off to help your kid while you get other things done?

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Book club thoughts

Eight times a year my almost-13-year old and I go to a mother-daughter book club. This month’s read was the classic A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. The girls all loved it. The moms did, too. Like the other mothers, I was struck by two things: how different the book was than I remembered, and how fiercely determined and resilient Katie, the main character’s mom, is. Katie isn’t focused on giving her kids a good life in the present – that’s not in her power -- but on giving them the skills they need to survive and thrive through all of life.

Me, I tend to want my kids to be comfortable: physically and emotionally and spiritually. And so I was thinking last night, If convenience and comfort were plucked from my life, how would we fare?
  • Are my kids scrappy enough to survive? Survive morally?
  • Is my gut-level determination strong enough to hunker down and do what needs to be done? Or would I flounder in worry and fear and anger?
  • Do we have the emotional wherewithal to stay focused on building toward something better, instead of wallowing in the losses or disappointments of the present?
  • Is there a wide enough range of adult personalities in my kids’ lives that they are drawing on the strengths (and learning from the weaknesses) of people besides me?
  • Can my children still find beauty and poetry in life when things are grim?

I’m fond of saying that a lot depends on how Mom reacts. This is true not only when a kid is scared or bleeding, but of other kinds of crises, including a mother's own struggles. I hold in my mind the image of Katie-the-mom, recently widowed, scrubbing floors in the building next door at 5am so that she can get some of her work done while her older children are home to watch the newborn before they head out to school. 

How does Mom react when she faces her own despair? Her own anger? Her own disappointment?

And what do our kids learn from that?

Good stuff.

Oh, and for anyone interested in forming a mother-daughter book club, I highly recommend the book Deconstructing Penguins