Monday, May 28, 2012

Catch-up edition

Little Guy and I hopped a bus on Friday (not the right one, but that's a different story) to help Eldest pack and store her belongings for the summer. Got to see my friend Kate's son Adam in his school musical production of Studs Terkel's Working, which was impressively good.

*       *        *        * 

Little Guy and I took a field trip to a 17th century house, where he bought two small figurines, one British and one Patriot. One the bus home he played "Super Colonial Brothers" with them, which involved a lot of running along imaginary platforms and jumping on things. I am unsure if either of the Colonial Brothers was named Mario.

*       *        *        * 

I have mostly recovered from the political debate. Didja know that some people can be major jerks? Yup. I guess in part it's an occupational hazard of politics, but I gather there's a degree of choice: you can be beef jerky or chicken jerky or pork jerky or (in the case of one of the candidates) 100% organic jerky. I've always figured that people who are jerks are their own punishment , but unfortunately there's spillover to the lives of others. In this case that didn't affect the attendees, but the behind-the-scenes view sure gave me a new perspective.

*       *        *        *

Last week I had a team meeting up at Big Guy's school to introduce his new case worker and to discuss some concerns. One issue is writing ability. He is a very bright kid, but his writing output is nowhere near proportional to his knowledge of a subject. Some of that is anxiety-related, some may be a learning disability (I asked to have him tested), and some is just avoidance.

In the process of talking about this it came out that he has not been doing the practice essays for his upcoming State-required history exam. I asked, "So what happens when he doesn't do the work? Is he supposed to bring it home and do it there?" No, he just gets a zero. Hmmm. If I were a 15yo boy who has a deep aversion for writing, I'd take the zero, too. Because really, do most 15yo boys think things through? Do their minds work like this:

don't wanna -->get a zero --> get lower grade--> lower my chances of getting into a good college --> worse opportunities in life

No, no, no. This is not how most 15yo boys think. And since the class is global history, a subject my kid owns, he is going to be really upset if he gets a mediocre grade on the exam. Which, if he doesn't practice writing the particular style of essay needed, is going to happen.

So I came home and offered him $5 for each set of practice essays he completes. Sometimes a more immediate and positive consequence jump-starts the motivation.

And yeah, he should write the essays just because he should, but he's not gonna. The way I look at it, $5 gets me a lot more progress than should.

*       *        *        * 

Yikes! It's the end of the month. That means I have a 1200-word article due in four days. Better get busy...

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Huh. Really?

Oh, I am SO in over my head! As a favor to a friend I agreed to coordinate a political debate. Yeah. Me.


And, uh, these are candidates for Congress. Of the United States. And they're all from a party I rarely vote for.

You may ask... well, you may ask whatever you want, but don't expect me to know the answer. I am so far outside my comfort zone I can barely wave to it. But this is how we grow, yes? This is how we learn new things. Oy.

Okay, so at least I'm not moderating the debate. (I was asked, but refused.) Someone from the League of Women Voters will wrangle the candidates. Me, I'm just the shmo who makes the intro speech and runs the stopwatch. That's not hard, right? Unless I hit the wrong button on the stopwatch.

Today I had reporters calling me. Really. Reporters?!? 

But despite all that (the event is tonight at 7pm), I  sat down here to write about something completely different. Something good. Something happy.

Snuggler got mail today, and she is IN to her first-choice selective middle school! Oh, we are doing the happy dance here! She was so certain she'd bombed the entrance exam... and she didn't!

Plus, Eldest completed her last exam of sophomore year today, and we'll pick her up this weekend.

Provided, of course, that I make it through tonight's debate. Which I will. Because that's what we do when faced with new and challenging things, right? We make it through.


Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Bookspine poetry

Courtesy of Brain Pickings, one of the eclectic sites of which I'm fond. This is #5 in a series. I set Snuggler to inventing some book spine poems, but it's harder than you think. And wow, is it a messy process!

Saturday, May 19, 2012

What you find when you clean house

Yes, that's a hole in the top. And those gray stripes
aren't ribs, but grime.
In the process of cleaning up today, I asked Snuggler if we could throw away her Kitty Cotta Sonata umbrella. This is the umbrella, once pink, which she loved so dearly when she was little.

Snuggler looked at me with mock horror and clasped the tattered thing to her. "But it's part of my childhood!" she protested.

I pointed to the ripped fabric, the gray streaks of dirt, the bent ribs and replied subtly, "C'mon -- it's a piece of junk! Take a picture of it and then throw it away!"

But Snuggler switched moods and said softly, "But I've already lost three things that are precious from my childhood!"

Stop. Pay attention here, Mom. Something's up. I stared at her and said, "Huh. What three things?"

She said shyly, "I can't bump down the stairs any more. My legs are too long."

I nodded. I'd liked bumping down the steps when I was a kid, too. There was a long pause.

She said, "I'm too big to pick up."

I nodded. I remembered realizing I wasn't little-girl cute any more, and how no one wanted to pick me up. I was seven then.

She said, "And you remember how we always used to clear off the coffee table and light candles and say evening prayers together? I really liked that!"

I thought back to that "always", the two or three times we had evening devotions around a candle, until erratic preschoolers and girls with flyaway hair near the candle flame made it clear that that was a lovely -- and disastrous -- idea.

I pulled up an "always" memory of my brother and sister and I piling into my parents' bed one Saturday morning, and laughing and tickling and joking around. I thought about how some things in childhood feel so right and wonderful that even if they happen once it feels like always. And how as parents we try to give our kids those memories, and they end up choosing their own.

Snuggler interrupted my reverie to ask, "If I find somewhere to keep the umbrella in my room where you can't see it, can I keep it?"

I nodded absently, adding a grumbled warning of, "But if I find it..."

She scooted off, with the ratty but beloved umbrella in tow. Even I, the toss-aholic, haven't the heart to make her toss it.

Friday, May 18, 2012

Trash, spam and life

I was cleaning out the Trash folder in my Gmail account, and got to musing about that "Delete forever" button. Wouldn't you like to have a personal, portable one for dealing with aggravating situations? Wouldn't it be nice to just tap your index finger and click! make frustrating people vanish?

Click! You are spam!
Click! I have the power to color you puce!
Click! Off you go into your own folder (which maybe I'll open next month)!

Ahhh, yes.

But my inner moralist protested, and I grudgingly halted the daydream. People aren't trash (yes, yes -- I know). And we shouldn't label them (yes, yes). And... and can I make  a subtle index-finger motion anyway when I run into someone who's particularly exasperating? Yes. Because here's the thing: turning the aggravation into something silly makes me smile, which pacifies my heart, which makes it easier for frustration to slide on by instead of getting stuck.

*        *         *          *         *

In the course of my life (and thus, I assume, in the course of everyone else's, though of course that could be a flagrant and patently untrue extrapolation) I've realized that many of the big shifts in my thinking have come from little things others have said -- usually in passing -- that have burrowed into my heart. Like this:

It's hard to allow other people to change.

I'm guessing this was said to me two decades ago, and I'm still chewing on it. Sometimes I'm slow to change, myself.

But I think this statement is true. Once we intentionally file someone in Spam, we rarely go back and click Not Spam. When we decide someone is a jerk or a slob or incompetent, it's as if we've put on special jerk/slob/incompetence-finding spectacles, and we're guaranteed to see every possible manifestation of jerkiness, sloppiness and incompetence there is. After a while that's all we see or remember. The label we've applied dismisses the person's positive facets as automatically as Gmail swishes suspected spam out of our Inbox.

And then, if and when we notice that the person has been a little less jerky or sloppy or incompetent, we assume it's an aberration instead of a trend. We think That's more like it!, and don't take the time to comment upon it.

But if someone (like me) is working hard to overcome a flaw, it helps when others notice. It helps to hear a kind word of encouragement.

And if someone (like me) accidentally does the right thing for a change, hearing how pleased people are makes me far more likely to try to do that good thing again.

*        *         *          *         *

For two years Snuggler came home from co-op complaining that Tom (not his real name) was annoying. She couldn't stand him. This is a kid you've met, even if you haven't: loud, poor sense of boundaries, easily distracted, makes bad jokes. He interrupted class, was disruptive at play rehearsal, was constantly in trouble. I once sat next to his mom at an event where the kids had to pair up, and Tom was the only one without a partner. The mom grieved aloud, "No one likes my kid!" My heart ached for her: I've been the mom of the problem kid in the room, and it's a really rotten role.

Early this year Tom was getting on Snuggler's nerves so badly that I suggested she pray for him and try to make him into a friend. When her lengthy moan of, "Moooooooooooom!" ended, she actually set about doing what I suggested. Miracles happen.

And y'know, miracles really did happen. Snuggler started noticing good things about Tom -- and mentioned them to him. She complimented his writing when it was good. She stuck up for him during free time at play rehearsal, and the two of them got to talking. Snuggler started to see that Tom was quick to admit when he'd been wrong, and quick to apologize. And not all kids are like that. She realized that when she said calmly, "That's really annoying; would you stop?" he did stop. Not all boys do. She began to recognize that the way in which Tom saw the world had color and shape and shadow that was unusual and interesting. And she began to like him.

Tom is no longer in the Spam or Trash folder of Snuggler's life. The transfer to her Inbox wasn't because he changed. It happened because Snuggler took off her annoyance-finding spectacles, and started to see and appreciate different things about him.

That's hard to do. I hope I grow up to be like my kid.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

A delightfully quirky kid

Snuggler (10) is writing a novel. I asked her, briefly, what it's about. She replied, "Copyright infringement."
*        *        *         *        *

On the recommendation of a friend, Little Guy is reading Gregor the Overlander, by Suzanne Collins. Andrew asked, "What's it like?" Little Guy commented that it's a bit weird, because the main character is a cockroach.

Snuggler says brightly, "Oh! That must be why his name is Gregor. Like Gregor Samsa, in Metamorphosis!"

Andrew stares at her and says, "How do you know about Metamorphosis?"

She replies, "You learn a lot on the subway. There's an excerpt on one of the Poetry in Motion posters. It starts, "One morning, when Gregor Samsa woke from troubled dreams...""

*        *        *         *         *

Her current reading:
Great Expectations, by Dickens
Creative Workshop: 80 Challenges to Sharpen Your Design Skills by David Sherwin
and roughly 15 library books

*        *        *         *         *

Snuggler is worried about middle school. We should find out admissions results by the end of the month. If she gets into the more-local school (less than 30 minutes by subway), she'll go there. But she is certain she bombed the admissions test. The other school is a hefty hour away, and it's unlikely any of her neighborhood friends will be going there.

It's possible she won't get into either; life can be like that, sometimes. "What will we do then?" she wants to know. I told her we'd probably homeschool her again, even if I'm working full time. Because she's a kid for whom the flexibility works well.

Monday, May 14, 2012

Classic conversation with an 8yo boy

Mom: I need you to unpack your pack, and put the dirty clothes in the hamper.
Son:   I already took a shower and changed clothes!
Mom: What about the dirty clothes from the other day?
Son:   I don't have any.
Mom: ?
Son:   I forgot to change clothes.
Mom: All weekend?
Son:   Yes.
Mom: Okay, well put the sunscreen and insect repellent back in the closet.
Son:   I forgot about them, too.
Mom: All right. Just brush your teeth and get ready for bed.
Son:   (pause) I lost my toothbrush!
Mom: (pause) Did you take it out of your bag while you were there?
Son:   Um, no. The tent got kind of messy and stuff was all over the floor.
Mom: Okay. Is there a spare toothbrush in the closet?
Son:   (checking) No.
Mom: Hmmm. What are you going to do? Maybe you should double-check the backpack.
Son:   But I know it's not in there!
Mom: Check anyway.

He checked, and didn't find it. And, of course, I later found the toothbrush in the main compartment of the backpack. And there was another one in the closet.

Just sayin'. In case you have an 8yo boy of your own.

Sunday, May 13, 2012


It turns out that Eldest had a solo last night. Or, more accurately, she was part of a trio in a piece by Vergil Thomson. I said, "You didn't tell me!" and she replied, "Awww, I didn't want you to feel you had to come!" But I was glad that I did.

My mom secretly sent Dancer a check, and asked her to buy flowers and make supper today. So I arrived home to a savory French tarte and mocha pots de creme.

Snuggler had a great sleepover and the report is that she played extremely hard in her soccer game today, and was even goalie for the second half, and did a great job.

Little Guy had a good time at his campout, except when he got homesick last night after the special dinner for the moms, and he cried. But he recovered and had a good time.

Big Guy took his shower this morning without grumbling.

Andrew managed the logistics of it all, and although he's exhausted now, appears to have survived. And it's been a happy Mother's Day.

Saturday, May 12, 2012

A short trip

I got on a bus yesterday, heading north to visit Eldest for the weekend. This morning I am miraculously, happily, peacefully ensconced in the guest room at my wonderful friend Kate's. She and I had a good supper and a looong chat last night.

The rest of the family has been shuttled about to do their various things: Little Guy is on a campout with the Cub Scouts, Snuggler has a sleepover tonight that's framed by soccer practice/soccer game, and Dancer went to a show last night after ballet/rehearsal and is performing tonight after ballet/rehearsal. Andrew and Big Guy are lying low, probably sleeping in.

Coordinating all the comings and goings of my crew is less complicated than it used to be. When the kids were really little, everyone went everywhere we went. And we went a lot of places; life was like Make Way for Ducklings: the Field Trip Edition. People used to ask, "How do you get them all out of the house?" The answer was that I was fortunate to have met a woman in my early motherhood who'd taken her three boys to Paris. When I gaped she confided, "It's really not all that much more work than going grocery shopping. Except the food's better and you're happy to be there." And I thought Yes, that makes sense. It makes sense to put my energy into getting us out of the house to a place where we'll all be engaged and interested, instead of investing my energy in keeping the peace between restless kids within four walls. It's way less work to deal with logistics than it is to deal with bored or disappointed kids.

The hard phase was when they were all old enough to be involved in their own activities, but none of them were old enough to travel independently. That took significant logistical gymnastics, which I've written about in Crossword Puzzle Parenting.

And now? Now even Little Guy is happy to trot off on his own. The other day we were coming home from robotics and I mentioned that school was out. He loves to hang out in the schoolyard with his buddies, so he said, "Already? I want to go!" We were a good four blocks away from the school, and I said, "Wait! I need to know that you can cross streets safely!" As he took off he called over his shoulder, "Just watch me!"

(I should mention that our neighborhood is almost entirely residential, and traffic is minimal. He was fine.) Little Guy is right: he does know how to cross streets safely. Watching him run down the sidewalk I could feel us crossing into a new territory, one filled with big kids who don't need Mom in the same way. That is a little sad, but also very good. 

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

In which I am up nearly all night

Dancer's ballet school hosted a Dance Against Cancer benefit last night. She and I volunteered to help set up the party portion; we were there from 3pm until shortly after 10pm. I'd signed us up to do this a while back, knowing that we couldn't afford to buy tickets, and also knowing that contributing labor is often more valuable than contributing money. I'll admit I was half-hoping Dancer would get to see the performance, too: it was a heady line-up of the very best dancers in the city, in a theater that only holds about 250 people. (And yes, Dancer did get to watch!)

As it turned out, between the time that I signed us up and the time of the benefit, the mother of one of Dancer's teachers died of lung cancer, and a high school friend of mine died of colon cancer. So I was doubly glad to work.

But in the interim I'd also taken on a couple of freelance projects, including a job editing a master's thesis that turned out to be due today. And theses being what they are, prone to last-minute changes and formatting that requires knowledge of the darkest corners of Word, yesterday afternoon there were still edits to be made. A lot of edits.

So I went to the benefit, and gladly fulfilled my duty there. And then I came home to slog through the thesis.

Now some of us are 'morning people' and some of us are 'night people'. My children will tell you that it's generally not wise to expect any profound wisdom (or extended patience) from me once 9pm has passed. So the idea of me doing brain-taxing work at night was pretty ludicrous. But I tried. Round about 12:45 I gave up -- even correcting spacing in a table was eye-crossing -- and went to bed.

I got up again at 4:20. Yes, a.m. And reader, the sad part was that there was no milk for my coffee. Not a drop: I had to drink it bracingly, bitterly black. I sat at the computer and hammered away, making steady progress until about 7am, when I hit a formatting wall that took nearly two hours to burrow through. It was one of those situations where you need to have element A and element B in the same place, but one makes the other disappear. I did eventually figure it out, and I finished the edits, and sent the file off at about 10am.

Then the client called to say the department had changed the required order of sections. Today. Then... well, I won't bore you with the details. But we were finally, completely done by 2pm.

The kids miraculously did their schoolwork unmonitored and without cajoling. And it was a good thing, too. On my way out the door to the pediatrician's office to pick up some medical reports I said something to Dancer, who looked at me oddly and said, "Mom, you just told me that!" Hmmmm. Brain fog. There was something important I needed to tell the pediatrician when I arrived at her office, but my brain denied access to the thought. My head was so cottony inside that I had to keep up a running commentary just to get myself home.

I have another project due, one which I ought to send out tonight. I think I'll wait. There was a time in my life when I could function reasonably well on little to no sleep. (Since Little Guy didn't sleep through the night until he was two, I suspect it was as recent as six years ago.) I can look at my inability to handle life without enough sleep as a lamentable sign that I'm aging. Or I can look at it as proof that, when necessary, I have been able to do things that seem utterly impossible. Perhaps it's a bit of both, no?

Friday, May 4, 2012

Courting diversity

I was on jury duty this week, something I haven't had to do for two decades. The last time I went I was on a high-profile Federal racketeering trial for three months. That was an education: there were eight defendants and 29 counts, including drug conspiracy, money laundering, two murders, kidnapping, assault, and gun trafficking. This week I was at the State Supreme Court.

My first thought when I walked into the jury room was Where did they find all these white people? I guess the population of registered voters and licensed drivers is different than the makeup of the city as a whole. But when they were calling attendance, the pronunciation-mangling was significant enough to make it clear there were many nationalities in attendance.

During voir dire for a case, another weirdness emerged: out of forty people questioned, only six were single. One person's brother had been murdered last month, a dozen or more had been robbed at some point in their lives, about half had a family member or close friend in law enforcement, and two had misdemeanor convictions. Oh, and one had a best friend who'd been put on the sex offender registry because he'd mooned some people at a concert, and some of the 'victims' were minors.

There were two psychologists, a sign maker, a bus driver, several financial analysts, a retail clerk, a reporter for USA Today, a graphic designer, some retirees, and an executive chef.

*       *       *        *

This morning I stopped at a food cart near the courthouse to get a cup of coffee before going in. Remembering how hungry I'd been the day before, I decided to get an egg sandwich as well. I gave my order, and a moment later a cheerful voice said, "You forgot two things: sugar in the coffee? And cheese on the egg?" I glanced up, startled to realize I hadn't looked at the man long enough to see what he looked like. He was Chinese. I smiled at his friendliness, saying no thanks to each item.

As the man readied my egg on his griddle he asked, "Pepper?" I looked at him and deadpanned, "Not in the coffee!" He and the man in line behind me laughed, and the vendor said in accented English, "I'm going to be extra nice to you. I want you to come back every day; it's good to laugh in the morning!" We were all suddenly in a great mood.

The man behind me (I think Nigerian) ordered a glazed donut and grinned, "No pepper on that." He got his donut and headed off, then came back in a moment and put a dollar on the counter. "Hey, Give this man a coffee, too," he said, gesturing toward a homeless person behind him. And we all went our separate ways, happy for a few minutes of very human contact.

*       *       *        *

The court building is near Chinatown, one of my favorite parts of the city. On Thursday after being released from jury duty I headed on over. I have ironclad self-control when it comes to buying snacks and treats in a regular store, but I am capable of buying impossible amounts of rice crackers and wasabi peas and black sesame candy and what my kids call mystery candy (the ingredients are not listed in English) at the Chinese grocery.

I wandered the aisles contemplating candied plums and bags of fresh noodles, guessing what sea creature had been dessicated in each tub, and selecting tea. I did not mind being the only white, middle-aged lady in the crowded store. What was weird was that over the din of chattering Cantonese came the voice of John Denver, singing "Rocky Mountain High".

I wondered briefly if John Denver shopped in Chinese grocery stores, and if so, what he bought.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

People who've made a difference in my life

Unknown cashier, Westside Market

Tonight while Little Guy was in Cub Scouts I popped down to the produce store a few blocks away. It's a crowded place, packed with college students, and the checkout lines are always eye-crossingly chaotic. I was waiting in line behind two students when I realized someone else was ahead of me: a tiny lady, so bent over that she only came up to my armpit.

I stood admiring this little lady, whose nationality I couldn't discern. Her hair was a deep black, thinning on top. Though her designer jacket was three sizes too big, her cane hung sportily over one arm. I watched, smiling, as she chose one good chocolate bar and then replaced it with another. It was clearly work for her to get dressed and to the store; she seemed unable to lift her head to look around. Osteoporosis? I didn't know.

When her turn came, she opened her black patent leather purse to pay. I could see that it was empty inside but for a single dollar bill. Confused, she struggled to unzip an inner pocket of the bag. She pulled out a passport and a plastic card, and handed the latter to the cashier. "I'm sorry, ma'am," the cashier said with surprising gentleness, "This is your Metrocard. Do you have another card?"

The old woman rummaged through her empty purse with growing agitation. Then she reached into the left pocket of her jacket and pulled out some papers. No cash. No credit card. The bill for her frozen cheese blintzes  and chocolate bar was $8.17.

"Take your time ma'am," the cashier said calmly, "There's no rush." I nodded in appreciation, realizing that -- had I not been on the same wavelength -- the cashier's words would have signaled that in this line, at least, we respect the elderly.

After a few minutes a manager walked by and the cashier called her over. "This woman is having a hard time locating her credit card," she said in a friendly and matter-of-fact way, "Perhaps you could help her?" And the manager, God bless her, stepped up to the task with the same humane attitude. She suggested looking in the right coat pocket. And it turned out there was a five dollar bill in there. But no credit card.

The manager shrugged at the cashier, "Just ring it up at $6.00, okay?"

The cashier said, "That's not necessary. I'll cover the difference." Without condescension she took the $6 from the woman, who by now didn't understand what was happening except that it was okay. Then the cashier said, with practical wisdom, "You can stand over here and get your things together and your bag set the way you like it, so you feel safe before you leave."

As soon as I thought the old woman wouldn't hear, I offered to pay the $2.17. But the cashier had already pulled out her own bag to find the money. "You made my day," I told her. She shrugged and smiled in her matter-of-fact way, and I knew it made no difference to her how I felt. She'd done the right thing, and she didn't need my approval.