Friday, November 30, 2012

Problem solving, yet again

Years ago, Dancer had a ballet master who, while normally excellent, was downright brutal during tech week. He was pretty good about not blasting the younger kids, but the things he'd say to the older ones -- oh my! Jaw-dropping. It was as if he thought tearing down a soul could build up a dancer. I had serious qualms about letting Dancer stay there when she got old enough to be vented upon.

So as I walked Dancer down to rehearsal, I'd say, "You know he's likely to be stressed, because he wants you all to look your best for the performance. If he screams, what are you going to tell yourself?" We'd review healthy self-talk; sometimes a reminder of what to expect and how to handle it is good, prophylactic medicine.

Ballet is an art learned through mistakes; students learn to consider it an honor to be given a correction, because it means you've got enough potential to be worth correcting. But when you're dealing with a highly emotional director, there's a fine line between taking correction and taking abuse. For a long, long while I wondered how to teach Dancer to be strong enough to withstand the kind of blast that was likely to come her way some day.

And then one day light dawned: this wasn't a problem of strength, but of discernment. What we need when dealing with difficult people is the ability to distinguish between the seed of useful truth they can offer us, and the gale in which it travels. We need to grab that seed, plant it, use it -- and let the rest pass by.

Fortunately, that ballet master has moved on. Dancer's school now has incredibly supportive teachers. And we've all learned a little bit more about how to take criticism constructively, even when it's not given that way.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

It's not all about me

It was good too have Eldest home for 48 hours. The kids were ecstatic: Eldest is a terrific big sister, one who takes time to give attention to each of her siblings individually. Mostly, though, the five of them hung around and giggled about plays and shows they'd made up in earlier years, singing the lyrics to ridiculous parodies they've invented, laughing and laughing and laughing. In its own weird way it is nice to know that what they will remember most about their childhood is their time together. It's not all about me.

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And then -- she was gone. She wasn't eager to leave, especially with three more weeks of a brutal semester awaiting her back on campus. She has multiple, overlapping projects due between now and December 10. We are embarking upon a 'Keep Her Healthy and Sane' campaign, which consists of a daily missive and a bit of extra prayer. If you're a praying person, please toss up a prayer for her. That kid works so hard.

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One reason Thanksgiving went well this year was that everyone helped out. The boys dusted and tidied while listening to HMS Pinafore; Dancer baked pies; Andrew cleaned the bathroom; Snuggler set the table. We got started ahead of time, so there was no rush. Hard work is a lot more palatable when everyone's contributing to getting the job done.

I had a momentary thought that perhaps we're finally over the complaining-about-helping hurdle, and then laughed at myself. Some of my kids may never clear that hurdle consistently. Others clear it all the time. It's not all about me and my parenting.

Friday, November 23, 2012

Problem solving, again

About a week ago I came home and Andrew sat me down and said sadly, "I broke your computer." It was the sort of news that leaves one stunned; there was nothing to say, nothing to feel. It just was. He'd tripped over the adapter cord and the laptop became a floortop. The cord separated from the adapter, leaving part inside.

I do have laptop insurance. I've had enough laptop woes in the past four years that I paid the ridiculous fee to allow me to take the machine in and get it repaired locally, free. But having to use the insurance was too depressing a thought; I let the laptop sit for a day or two before doing anything. I pounded out the piece for which I had a deadline on the kids' clunker.

Then one afternoon I had a bit of time alone in the house (alone in the house!) and I picked up the laptop. It occurred to me that the only known problem had to do with the power source. So I got a pair of needlenose pliers and with a surgical attitude eventually succeeded in removing the piece jammed into the laptop.

I looked at it, and looked at the adapter. I tried putting the pieces together, but no dice. And then it dawned on me: I did not have a broken laptop, but a broken adapter.

I looked up the cost of a new one. It was under $20.

Sometimes, y'know, problems aren't as big as you think they are.

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On Saturday I went out to Long Island to help my college roommate with the estate sale for her mother's house. It's the kind of house I always dreamed of growing up in: huge and old and full of odds and ends that appeal to one's sense of quirky beauty. The mom, Dot, was a character. Her basement was a giant workshop, complete with barrels of wood and power tools. There was a separate sewing room on the third floor, and large bedrooms for each child (my roomie's had its own bath), and hallways that must be at least eight feet wide. I have fond memories of staying overnight after going to the ballet with Magpie, and of being retrieved from the clutches of Kennedy Airport when a standby flight to Europe didn't happen. Dot's guest room was a massively better choice than hanging out overnight in an empty terminal.

Magpie has been my friend for decades. She is, in fact, the person who taught me how to stay in touch with people. She was persistent in calling or writing a few times a year, even when we were in different cities or countries. It took a long time before I came to appreciate this. I was content to wander through life being friends with whomever happened to be sharing my current path. It hadn't really occurred to me that long-term friends are different than short-term friends. My life is much richer because of Magpie.

Sometimes, y'know, we don't know we've got a problem until we discover the solution.

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Yesterday I received a distraught phone call; it was Eldest, who had just awoken. Unbeknownst to anyone else in the family, she was scheduled to come home for a surprise Thanksgiving visit. Her bus was at 8:30am. It was 8:08. 

"Are you packed?" I asked. No, but her needs for a 2-day visit were minimal. 
"Do you have cash?" Yes.
"Go down to the street and get a cab to the bus station. There won't be any traffic, and you just might make it."
She texted me at 8:34 that she was on the bus. Whew!

I have missed Eldest terribly this fall. She has had a difficult semester. There are some courses at her school which should be labelled "ALL CONSUMING" in the course catalog, and she has two of them this term. So she hasn't called much. At the same time, I've had my own stresses, and have wanted to hear her voice more.

Yesterday the family sat down to eat, and Andrew was in the process of giving thanks, when the doorbell rang. Andrew asked, jokingly, "Did you invite a guest I didn't know about?"

I grinned and said yes, opened the door, and Eldest walked in. There were gasps of joy, and the entire family got up from the table to hug her.  Seeing her here and seeing how ecstatic everyone was made it the best day in a long, long time. 

Sometimes, y'know, we can solve problems, at least temporarily. That is a very wonderful thing, a thing to give thanks for and rejoice in. 

Wednesday, November 14, 2012


I had to go for a second-round mammogram the other day, since my annual one showed some possible abnormalities. The place I went was one of those all-in-one centers, the kind you go to when you've already had suspicions aroused, and where you find out your results the same day. The place goes out of its way to make the experience as comfortable and pleasant as possible.

After I'd handed in my paperwork, the friendly receptionist handed me a large, pastel-colored nail file and said cheerily, "This is for you, for breast cancer awareness!" I took it, thinking, Ummm, I think every woman here is already quite aware of breast cancer! And then I got to wondering what, exactly, one is supposed to do with a flowered nail file in order to raise awareness of breast cancer. Wave it around and chant something? Tape it to my chest? Poke random women with it on the subway? File off the lump?

What a mystery. My mammogram was okay. But just so you're aware...


Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Odds and Ends

Sunday was Dancer's birthday. We all got up early-ish for a nice breakfast, because various kids had to be in various places at times which didn't correspond to our regular church schedule. Dancer had Nutcracker rehearsal from 11-6, Snuggler had a soccer game, and Little Guy was marching with the scouts in the Veteran's Day parade.

In truth, it's hard to believe Dancer is 14. She seems older.

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One of my kids didn't do all of the homework assigned for the long weekend. It was not the child who doesn't care; it was one of the ones who cares a lot. This morning there was great wailing and  gnashing of teeth over the prospect of showing up at school without the homework. I was asked to write a note, excusing the child. I replied, "What would I say in a note?" The child said, "That I was unable to complete the homework." To which I replied, "That will be obvious. You don't need a note for that!"

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I am scheduled for a routine colonoscopy on Friday. That means that starting today I am forbidden to eat fruit, vegetables, nuts and beans. Thursday I have the all-clear-liquid diet. Little Guy, mildly alarmed, said, "Well that stinks!" I replied that hopefully I am mature enough to view a three-day change in diet as an inconvenience rather than a burden.  

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Marching up 5th Avenue

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Almost feels like normal

Somewhat miraculously, three of my kids went to school today. It was Big Guy's first day back (his school lost power because of the storm, so he had a 10-day vacation) and Snuggler's second (she went on Monday, then had off yesterday for election day). Dancer's school had scheduled a W-F vacation last week anyway, so her school only lost two days. But she started trekking down to ballet on Thursday, walking nearly a mile to the working subway. Full subway service here was restored yesterday.

In another miracle, I have completed four projects that, because of the hurricane, all ended up due at the same time. And aside from minor issues, like the snowstorm whistling outside our window, life suddenly seems very quiet and simple.

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When the kids were little, once a year or so I'd borrow It Could Always be Worse from the library. It's based on a Yiddish folk tale, and is about a peasant with six children whose too-small house is chaotic. So he goes to the rabbi, who asks, "Do you have any chickens" Well yes, he does. So the rabbi tells him to bring his chickens, ducks and geese into the house.

A couple of weeks later the poor peasant is going nuts, so he returns to the rabbi. This time the rabbi tells him to bring the goats and pigs into the house. After several more visits, in which the rabbi always tells the man to add more livestock or people to his house, the peasant is completely on the verge of a nervous breakdown. So the rabbi says, "Go home, and put all the animals outside, and get rid of all the people except your wife and children."

The peasant does this. And life seems utterly peaceful and manageable. Because, you know, it could always be worse.
*        *         *         

With the kids' play over, we suddenly have 8.5 hours a week of free time. Not only that, but soccer ends next week. That's another four-hour slot on Saturday, and a three-hour slot on Sunday. It's almost scary. Free time. If feels more than free -- it feels like winning the lotto!


Saturday, November 3, 2012


Snuggler and I headed uptown today, to the northernmost part of Manhattan, to help clean up a park affected by Hurricane Sandy.

Our team had about 50 volunteers, and was assigned to rake and bag the debris from the salt marsh that overflowed. We filled 300 bags in two hours.

That's Snuggler in the red and white coat
It was good work. The debris was 3" to 6" thick, and it was nice to work with people you'd never met. There was a natural rhythm to it, where one person shoveled debris into a bag while the other held it, and then we reversed roles. All that bending over is a bit hard on the back.

The low white building in the distance is the nature center where my kids have taken classes in the past. It flooded badly; the dock floated away and is now somewhere on the Upper West Side.

I'd guess 200+ people turned out to help at this one park. There were similar cleanups at other parks. I couldn't help but think how long it would take a handful of Parks Department employees to clean up what we were able to clean in two hours.

Meanwhile, this is what our park up the street looks like:

Photo: FORT TRYON PARK WILL REMAIN CLOSED due to fallen trees and hanging limbs. Thank you for your offers of volunteer help.  Once tree hazards are removed and the park reopens, there will be ample opportunities for volunteering.  You can support the storm clean up and park restoration efforts by making a donation at

It's closed to the public until the heavy-duty work can be done, and it's safe to enter.