Monday, March 26, 2012

Discomfort zone

5:30 a.m.

I like being up when few other people are. I could say it's a result of the 15 years when I never, ever had time alone, but it wouldn't be true. I didn't get up before dawn when the kids were little, because even in the dark children have an inner alarm that goes off whenever they sense Mom might be sneaking a bit of solitude. If I made time to get up, they did, too.

People used to ask how I managed. I had no idea, so I shrugged and said, "Eh -- you adapt." Which is true: mainly I learned to find my quiet within myself, in the midst of doing what I had to do. I figured there are introverts in the slums in Calcutta, taking turns sleeping for lack of space, living with mere cardboard between their overcrowded shack and the next one. Somehow they make do in a world where they are never alone. It's not impossible.

I used to think solitude was so essential it was like air. But lately I've realized I only need solitude to live without discomfort. I need it to minimize stress. I need it for optimal productivity. I can survive without it, even grow without it, but it's a lot more work.

Doing without things we think we need feels like an invasion our comfort zone. It's as if someone took a bite out of a pie that we thought of as rightfully ours. We chew on that empty space like a bad-tasting cud, even (perhaps) spending more energy ruminating on our loss than on learning how to live with it.

Discomfort has the power to truncate our thinking, transforming "I can't see how to do that" into "I can't". That's limiting, even dangerous. People lived for centuries without Starbucks, air conditioning, Tylenol, vacations, pre-made clothing, TV to keep kids busy while supper's being made, and quick ways to communicate. If we think we can't live without these things, we're wrong. Maybe we can't live without them without increasing our stress load. But if we had to, we'd figure out a work-around. We'd learn. We'd cope. We're far more resourceful than we think... if we don't con ourselves into believing that discomfort makes something impossible.

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Spring break!

Anticipation is building: Eldest arrives this afternoon for her spring break. I cannot tell you how much I have missed her. Last year I went up to visit at least once each semester. This year I haven't seen her except when she came home at Christmas. And while phone calls and texting keep us loosely in touch (I am a far cry from a helicopter parent), it's not the same as being able to wrap your arms around your girl and give her a good hug.

Two years ago, when Eldest got into college, people asked if I was worried about sending her off to school so young. I suspected they thought I hadn't thought this through. But if you know Eldest you know early college was her idea, and you also probably knew which college she'd attend even before she applied. In fact, if you really know Eldest, you would have predicted this when she was about three.

And then last week, while watching Kiss Me, Kate, the contrast between Eldest's chosen path and the path of her age-mates struck me full-force. For the leads in the cast were all Eldest's age. They were neighborhood kids with whom she'd been in productions when she was nine. And they were still here, still living at home, just getting ready to go off to college, having this last great performance as a send-off.

I thought of Eldest, slogging through problem sets and being a 'learning assistant' for a math/comp sci class and trying to find a job that will look good on her resume for that pivotal after-sophomore-year summer. I thought of her doing grocery shopping so that she doesn't have to pay for a full meal plan, and of how she tries to cheer up her overworked friends in her most-intense college. I thought of the choices she's made for activities on campus -- wise choices -- to balance her social life with her academics. And I thought, That's a lot. That's a lot for a kid who isn't even 18.

It is a lot. And yet it's the lot she's chosen. Selfishly, I miss those extra years of hugs and late-night chats that might have been mine, had she followed the usual track. But wanting to hold her is no reason to hold her back. I'll be happy to hold her this week, though. And I hold her in my heart, always.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Cheesed off

I stalked out of the house this afternoon and promptly ran into a neighbor. Sometimes it's good to run into people when you're mad, because you realize you need to tone down your anger in order to appear... well, reasonable. Which isn't how you're feeling.

It was a stu[id thing: I went to make burritos for dinner and there was no cheese. I bought a full pound of sharp cheddar yesterday afternoon, and it was gone. Eaten. Which meant that my plan for tonight was shot, and so was my grocery budget. Again.

In defense of the person who finished the cheese, I had not said it was needed for dinner. My mistake. If you have a meal policy which requires your offspring to forage between breakfast and dinner, you can pretty much guarantee that your ingredients will disappear. I should know that by now.

I guess I need a different strategy. Or a bigger grocery budget. Or a published list of ingredients I'll be using over the next few days. Or...?

Tuesday, March 20, 2012


The police descended in force on the intersection down the block last night. The super of a building there saw someone climbing up scaffolding and entering an apartment. And since there's been a flurry of burglaries in our neck of the woods, burglaries with a signature written in vaseline, interest in catching the thief was high.

It's not all that often that life resembles what folks see on TV. We had a big drug sting in the neighborhood a couple of years ago, complete with people jumping out windows to escape, but hardly anyone saw it happen except on the news. Life here is pretty tame; break-ins are more-or-less limited to cars parked in desolate places and to apartments where people leave the window to the fire escape open. We get an occasional mugging, but not much else.

At any rate, tonight there was an oversize SWAT-like truck and there were several police cars, and  K-9 dogs (which barked in the back of the truck, but I think that's all they did). The intruder was arrested, and I assume that he was suitably surprised to find a cheering crowd waiting for him outside.

The media originally said it was the famous bandit, but now it looks like it was just some shmo with incredibly bad luck.
*         *          *          *           *

Little Guy was scared by the police activity. I pointed out that the only reason he even knows about this is that the burglar got caught. That guy, at least, was not going to be robbing anyone soon.

It's funny what kids don't know that we take for granted. I pointed out to Little Guy that robbers are less likely to come in at night (when people are at home) than during the day (when most people are at work). Criminals try to avoid having witnesses. 

Little Guy wanted to know what burglars steal. I said this one has been taking things like laptops and cameras and jewelry, things that are easy to conceal and easy to sell. They wouldn't want our big computer, because it would be hard to lug out without anyone noticing. And they're not after noisy things, like tubs of Legos. Important toys aren't generally that important to burglars.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Family update

Little Guy has been taking a robotics class this semester. It's outstanding. What better activity can you imagine than to build something, program it, push buttons to make it move automatically, and then put your masterpiece into a ring with someone else's invention and let the two objects destroy each other? This is boy heaven. (Perhaps girl heaven, too, but no girls signed up.)

Thursday was the last session, and my parents arrived in town just in time to attend the observation session. Little Guy and his partner had built a robot whose arm flipped over its head, scorpion-like, to grab at the opposition. But what all the boys were in awe of was the rattlesnake robot someone else had built, which zapped out and bit at whatever came near it. Very cool.

At home we have an almost-complete Lego Mindstorms kit, passed down from my now-college-age nephew, and most of another kit passed on to us by my friend Kate. Little Guy had tried using Mindstorms a few times, but the projects were so complex he gave up after an hour or two. The software's also considerably older, and not as easy to use. But yesterday he pulled out the boxes anyway and started fishing around; he'd decided to make a robot, the one he said was hardest robot in the guide book. "I figure I can do one section a day, Mom," he said.

And he's succeeding. Whatever else they built in robotics class, they built up my boy's confidence. So far his new robot can rotate, and it has one arm that's supposed to claw at things. The arm isn't working yet; Little Guy has matter-of-factly analyzed it and has some theories on what needs to be changed.

*       *        *         *        *

Snuggler has had a good time with Kiss Me, Kate. She's been hanging out with the 12- and 13-year olds, who tend to chatter less in the wings. Having funny, engaging older kids who've adopted her as one of their own has been a delightful solution to the impulse to shush kids her own age.

Thursday night Snuggler had her MRI. This was the last step in ruling out neurofibromatosis. I stayed in the room with her. She's always been sensitive to loud noises, and certain types of clanks and noises were clearly more stressful to her than others. There was one beeping sound that shot her heart rate up from 93 to 104 in a matter of seconds. I watched as she took deep breaths and closed her eyes to calm herself, and within another ten seconds her heart rate had dropped back to about 96. It was an impressive display of mind over matter. I exhaled, too: she has learned to cope.

*       *        *         *        *

Big Guy started a class at the historical society last Saturday. It's free (a prerequisite, since he often can't manage activities even when he wants to go), seven weeks long (a manageable length), and there's no homework (which makes participation more likely). I am trying not to get too excited that he's trying this, because I don't want to be frustrated again if/when he stops going. Last semester he made it to four classes in a course on U.S. protest music. This class is on American revolutions that didn't succeed.

History used to be Big Guy's passion.When he was five he once opened a conversation with my mother by saying, "So who's your favorite Civil War general, Maman?" Later, when he was hospitalized at age seven, he went to the day room and drew pictures of the Monitor, of ironclad fame. A social worker asked him perkily, "Which TV show is that from?"

We don't see much of his history passion any more. I am grateful that we see it at all.

*       *        *         *        *

Dancer goes into tech week next week. I remind myself that at least her tech didn't overlap with Snuggler's tech, and that it didn't even conflict with performances. She is excited to be dancing in three separate pieces for her spring performance, including an excerpt from Balanchine's Stars and Stripes, and the four cygnets piece from the end of Swan Lake. She's also in a new piece being choreographed by Brian Reeder.

If you're in the city and are interested in coming, drop me a line and I'll send you the link for buying tickets.

*       *        *         *        *

And guess who's coming to visit? Eldest's spring break starts at the end of this week. We are sooooo missing her, and are beyond eager to have her home.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

10-year old angst

Snuggler was having a rough day yesterday. It wasn't clear if it was physical or emotional in origin, or simply one of those didn't-get-enough-sleep difficulties, but she stayed home from co-op and busied herself on little projects all day. I mean, all day. The child has an abundance of imagination.

So I get up this morning and find a small packet on top of a piece of paper. And the paper reads:

In this neat packet, the secrets of meaning are uncovered. Existential crises begone! No more doubt! Moving, breathing, speaking, LIVING at its core meaning. 
$3.99 ONLY at M-Mart
M-Mart, shop smart

Need I add that my 10yo has been going through waves of doubt and angst? This is the one who asks questions like, "How can you be happy in heaven if someone you love is in hell?" and "How do we know that what we believe is true?" (She's not going to be content with "Because the Bible says it is" -- nor should she be. Anyone can claim any book holds the truth.) 

Naturally the questions only surface at 10pm, when I have zero brain resources remaining. So we're trying to shift the discussions to a more reasonable hour. I mean, you can't do justice to a question like "Why does it seem like in the Old Testament God zapped you for doing something wrong, and then in the New Testament he's all lovey-dovey?" when it's already half an hour past bedtime.

Personally, I believe doubt is a good and healthy thing. I want my kids to think for themselves, and to think things through. It's no crime (and certainly no sin) to wonder about things, and to ask hard questions, and to demand solid answers. I would rather teach my kids how to explore a doubt than to gloss over it because it's uncomfortable or I don't immediately know the answer. Healthy faith requires healthy curiosity. And patience. And love. 

Oh... and what was inside the packet? A colorful array of broken toothpicks. Heaven knows what that means. I don't!

Wednesday, March 14, 2012


My brain cells are slowly beginning to re-establish control over snippets of time. I've taken three naps today, but also picked up Little Guy from co-op, done some grocery shopping, remembered that my parents arrive tomorrow for the weekend, put in a load of laundry, and sent in a piece for my other blog that, fortunately, was already written.

It looks nice and productive when written out like that, but really it wasn't. I staggered through it, not necessarily graciously, not without some inner grumbling. You know how it goes: my body and I would have preferred to spend the day in bed.

Fortunately there was nothing complex on today's schedule. And now that I've recovered enough to remember that I have to cook for an entire weekend's worth of busy-ness (Snuggler's show runs Friday night, 2x on Saturday, and once on Sunday), and recalled that there will be two extra people here, and checked to see which doctors' appointments are when (and mostly figured out the logistics of how to get everyone everywhere), I think we'll be okay.

I'm not really sure how air traffic controllers manage jets, but I sometimes imagine that there are certain similarities to managing a largish family. There's that inner circle on the screen, where the take-offs and landings are happening, and the bulk of my attention is focused there. But extending out there are concentric circles of incoming events, problems and deadlines. I keep an eye on those but mainly they're in my peripheral vision and require less-frequent and less-intense attention.

Of course, I don't always care to admit how small that inner circle of attention can be. It's rarely as large as a day, often as small as an hour or two. But hey -- it works. Sort of. Mostly. Sometimes.

And sometimes it doesn't. And ya know what? We live through it. Or at least we have, every time so far.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012


We survived camping in the cold, but seem to have picked up a stomach bug while away. It hit Little Guy and me at exactly the same time. He had a milder version; I'm still slowly recovering. I was about 23 hours into it when I mentioned I was sick on Facebook, and within an hour my amazing friend Liz brought over homemade chicken broth (for me) and Arthur Avenue ravioli (for the rest of the family). I'm still another 12 hours from solid food.

It stinks to be sick, but everyone -- even the dog -- has been great. Amsterdam slept on the floor next to me all night, licking my foot whenever it drooped off the sofa. Mostly the past day is a blur, but I feel cared for. And now it's time to go back to sleep. Writing this is the longest I've sat up all day.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

"This is even better than I thought it would be, Mom"

I hadn't really thought about what going camping with the Cub Scouts might entail.  Thankfully, I'd been warned that the Scout Master was not the most organized person in the world, and knew I'd need to go with the flow. So when we didn't arrive at the camp until 8:45pm and then had to hike through the (very dark) woods over a mile, shlepping all our gear in the below-freezing weather, I knew that it made more sense to look at Saturn and Venus shining in the sky than to wonder when we'd get where we needed to be.

After the boys claimed bunks (you can interpret that as seventeen over-tired and excited kids with sudden, intense and passionate preferences on which bunk to sleep on), we were supposed to feed them. Me, I would've sent someone ahead to build a campfire, made the boys hot chocolate, and gone to bed. But I've been a parent long enough to know that if someone else went to the trouble of doing all the planning work, my job is to be appreciative that I didn't have to do it. So we made soup and cut up bagels, and fed the kids. They got to bed at midnight.

One thing about camping with seventeen boys is that you get a clear picture of the range of boys' attention spans. Another thing you learn is how much water it takes to cook and clean up dishes for 25 people. Fortunately the Weebelos were in charge of fetching water from the pump (100 yards away). We constantly had water on the burner, because it took so long to boil.

The parents were an unexpected bunch. The Scout Master is a middle-age Peruvian woman. The one dad with scouting experience was Puerto Rican; there was a dad from Jamaica, a young father who wore a Pelle Pelle jacket and brought various pieces of exercise equipment, and an African-American man who spent hours on his iPhone. The two moms were from the Dominican Republic (I ended up speaking more Spanish than I have in years). We also had two very good Boy Scouts helping out.

There was the obligatory terrified 7yo who wanted to go home, and the mandatory potty accident (though not in a sleeping bag). There were two minor cuts, numerous lost hats, and various accidents with sticks; there was a trip to the archery center, a 5-mile hike to a castle, and a campfire with S'Mores. Kids collected firewood, got too close to the flames, and tried to shake out burning marshmallows near the hair of others. Adults said the usual things: "Put that down!" "Someone's going to get hurt!" "How many times have you been told..."

I worked harder than I've had to work in a decade, constantly on my feet cooking or washing dishes or mediating arguments with little boys. The cabins weren't too cold, but the one winterized bathroom was half a mile away. We should have brought gloves.

Little Guy definitely wants to go back. It was fun.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Scouting Kiss Me Kate

Snuggler's production of "Kiss Me, Kate" opens on Friday. I'm looking forward to it. Well, except I won't be here. Bad mom. A while back I promised to take Little Guy to the Cub Scout campout, which was supposed to be last weekend but then got rescheduled. I didn't figure out we had a conflict until last Tuesday.

We told Snuggler, and she gave us the green light to go camping. I am sure hoping my generous-hearted girl doesn't regret that! We should be back in time for Sunday's matinee, and there are four more performances next weekend, so we'll definitely get to see her do her thing.

Meanwhile, I'm wondering: What was I thinking to say I'd go camping in March? At least it's in cabins (unheated). Which reminds me: I need to borrow a sleeping bag. I'll probably remember that on Thursday night when I'm working backstage at dress rehearsal for "Kate" (to assuage my guilt over not being here for the show) and it's too late to do anything about it.

*        *        *         *        *

Little Guy sold his entire box of 50 chocolate bars in three days. It's a fundraiser for the Scouts. I took him down to the lobby one night around 6pm, and he nabbed all the dads on their way home from work. We also went to selected neighbors in the building.

That got rid of half of the candy. The other half sold in 20 minutes when Little Guy and Snuggler went out to the schoolyard after school let out. They were mobbed by 6th graders, who apparently have cash on hand. Demand was so strong that Little Guy promised to come back this week with more chocolate. He did that today, and sold 46 candy bars. It's not that he's a salesman. But he does recognize a market when he sees it.

*        *        *         *        *

Snuggler has enjoyed being in this musical. She is the youngest age permitted for the 'big kids' production, and being low on the totem pole has its advantages: at least she doesn't have to wrangle first graders. She also gets to sing in harmony. That is helpful because she has a low voice for a girl, and always feels strangled by soprano parts.

The rehearsal schedule is a beast, though. She was at the theater on Saturday, Sunday, Monday and Tuesday for a minimum of four hours. She had today off, and dress rehearsal is tomorrow from 5-9:30. I'm in awe of the high school kids -- some of whom attend extremely rigorous schools -- who have three hours of homework after rehearsal is done, and have to be at school each morning at 8am.  

UPDATE: Thanks to Rebecca, we have a sleeping bag! Rah!

Sunday, March 4, 2012

One of my favorite parts of Lent is...


With thanks to my dear friend Liz, who never fails to send
a bountiful Purim basket!

The card below reads:
On Purim we are commanded to send gifts of food to neighbors. (One reason is purely practical: we rid our homes of flour and other chametz in anticipation of Pesach.) Traditionally the portions include at least two different types of food: one of flour,a nd one of fruit that does not need to be cooked; blessings over grain and fruit are recited. We are also commanded to give tzedaka.
Here's what the goodies look like laid out on a platter:

I'm partial to the Hamentaschen, myself. And I always think it's fabulous that the Purim carnival here falls on a Sunday, when we're not restricted by our Lenten fast. (Purim celebrates the deliverance of the Jewish people through the wise actions of Esther; the hamentaschen are "Haman's hats".)

Friday, March 2, 2012

Can I brag a little bit?

The high school placement letter came in today.

Dancer was admitted to her #1 choice for a specialized high school (one ranked in the top 10 in the country, and Eldest's semi-alma mater*);

She was admitted to THE performing arts high school for their dance program;

She was admitted to a superb public high school affiliated with an Ivy League college, where she could take college courses in her junior and senior years.

She will not be going to any of these, because she has chosen to go to a very fine Catholic girls' high school. But it is a fine thing to have such excellent options open to her. And I am very proud of my girl.

* In one of the quirks of life, Eldest is probably on the books as a drop-out because she went to college after her junior year, without graduating.

Food for thought: Changing comfort zones

Here's some of what I've been mulling over this week. Perhaps you'd like to mull along.

How much time in any given week do I spend in my comfort zone?

When I am out of my comfort zone, is it because I stepped out voluntarily, or because I was forced out?

Do I grow more when I'm in or out of my comfort zone?

Can I be the person I hope to grow up to be, given the size of my current comfort zone? If not, what can I do -- specifically -- to expand it?

... and all of the above, adding the word spiritual before comfort zone.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

You can't have your toast and blog it, too

I've often said that a 'one day at a time' motto is hopelessly over-ambitious. I mean, who among us can focus on getting through an entire Thursday? No, no, no. On the best of days I can only focus on an hour or two at a time. On the worst of days fifteen minutes can be a full-time job.

Think about it. If you have to get a pile of children somewhere in the morning, the span of time between when they get out of bed and when they get out the door is a one-hour day. If you try to get anything else done during that time your kids will intuit (in the same way your sleeping newborn knew you were trying to put him down in his crib, every time) that you are not paying attention. They know. I'm not sure exactly how, but they do. And they take advantage of that freedom. In the pause it takes to dash off a two-sentence email, kids can start an entire art project, create a knee-deep mess, or entirely disappear.

I think that's a fact. You can tell me if it isn't. And if it isn't, tell me how you do it.

Here's the thing: most of my less-attractive parenting moments occur when priorities collide. It's when I'm trying to get a project done and get the kids to do schoolwork, or when I need to get to the doctor on time and find a not-put-away shoe that my temper flares. I suspect that's because when my attention is divided, the mental margin I usually have for dealing with lost shoes is consumed by whatever non-parenting thing it is that I'm trying to deal with.

So sure, I can imagine that I can finish a blog post while the kids are eating their French toast. And I can finish the post. But they won't finish the toast. Guaranteed.