Sunday, December 27, 2009

Little Guy's getting bigger

It's Little Guy's birthday, and he's turning six. He says he's happy not to be odd any more (as opposed to even). At the moment he's still sleeping, worn out from using up nearly four roles of Christmas duct tape and from seeing Snuggler's musical again yesterday. And from a little upset in the evening.

Last night Little Guy didn't want to fold his laundry. None of us wanted to, but there was dessert for everyone after clothes were put away, which made the task a little easier. Unfortunately, Little Guy's refusal to work lasted until after Mom's ice cream parlor closed. I snuggled him as he cried, and asked what he'd do differently if he could rewind the evening and start over again. He thought he'd eliminate laundry altogether. (I'm not entirely averse to the idea.)

We talked about how we all make bad decisions sometimes, and how the good thing about bad decisions is that they can teach us to avoid the problem the next time. Little Guy wasn't keen on the idea that we can learn from mistakes; he'd rather not make mistakes. But -- eh -- life isn't like that. 

While we were chatting, Little Guy got busy with scissors and construction paper, making strips that showed a kind of bar chart of the feelings he was having (his idea, not mine). A yellow sliver was for happy, a large blue block was for sad, and a large orange piece was for angry. I asked why he was feeling happy, and he said, "Because tomorrow's my birthday!" As he thought about that he started cutting out a different strip of yellow, this time much larger. And by the time he fell asleep (at an hour far too late to confess), the mix was half yellow, half blue.

Unfortunately, his clothes were still unfolded. I'm thinking I may be a nice Mommy and fold them as a birthday present.

Here is the book my phonetic speller wrote yesterday (you get the unillustrated version):

(cover)    Planit Wors!

p.1     and naw awr feechr presintatshin

p.2     The bala empire is invadng the rth!             (bala = ballet)

p.3     the rth has UFO sensrs!

p.4     oh no, the UFOs ar shooting at an

p.5     astroyd

p.6     the astroyd

p7      bloo up

Sounds like a boy to me! Happy birthday, Little Guy!

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Odd gifts

This morning I went out into the cold, gray wetness of the day after Christmas to buy myself a new grocery/laundry cart. Our old one is well beyond repair. We jerryrigged it with string on the sides where pieces had fallen off, but it was a challenge to keep it functioning.

I walked down the street, feeling rather glum. There on the bland sidewalk was a shiny purple bow. I thought:

     "How sad! Someone lost the bow to a present!"

     "Nah... maybe the sidewalk is a gift. Maybe it wants to be a gift."

     "What a nice contrast, with that shiny purple brightening up the gray sidewalk."

     "I bet Little Guy could find something fun to do with that."

There are so many angles from which to approach life. When I'm feeling down, or angry, or sad it helps to step back and think of how else I could look at the situation. It's hard to step out of the feeling and to be objective. But it's really worthwhile.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Yesterday morning my kids (or at least several of them) seemed bent on proving that we are in desperate need of peace on earth. In a bid to get everyone a breath of fresh air so that emotions could settle, I took the three who are home around the corner to the pizza shop for lunch. There was a group of kids inside, laughing and huddled around what turned out to be a five-foot singing/dancing mechanical Santa.

Question: Does the world need singing and dancing mechanical Santas? In my pre-Christmas Scrooginess I thought, This is why our country is in a recession: we import Santas that sing ""Up on the Housetop" as they rotate their geared hips, instead of making things ourselves that have value. Meanwhile, my offspring sprinted off to squander an inordinate number of their carefully-hoarded quarters on made-in-China doodads from the gumball machine. Oy.

My youngest two thought the moving Santa was funny. Snuggler went over and pretended to waltz with him. Little Guy mustered his courage and went to turn on the  sound after it stopped, but when the machine suddenly called out "Happy Holidays!" just as he reached for the button, my boy was back in his seat in a flash.

Day morphed into afternoon into evening, and the last thing on the day's frenetic agenda was to go get our Christmas tree. Eldest and Big Guy didn't want to go, which was fine, but made Dancer very sad. Dancer loves family traditions, and until this year we all went as a bouncing mass to choose the tree.

The youngest two, especially Little Guy, made up for the gap in bounciness. He ran and jousted and pounced the whole eight blocks. We chose our overpriced evergreen, had it wrapped in masses of fishnet, plopped it in our granny cart, and headed home. Hot cider and carols made the tree decorating go quickly, and there was some consolation for Dancer in that her older siblings still enjoyed participating in that aspect of the day-before-Christmas Eve. We've never found a tree-topper that we like, so we put our favorite alien ornament near the top of the tree:

Afterwards, Little Guy put the tree netting to good use...

And then the three youngest kids slept in the living room, next to the tree. All of which, I think, is a lot better than a gyrating Santa. But maybe next year we'll make a trip to the pizza parlor part of our traditions, too.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Beautiful things

I went with some friends to hear Handel's Messiah last night. Here at home the family has been listening to the music for a couple of days, but it's not the same. Acoustics aside, when you're sitting down with nothing to do but absorb music, you hear it differently.

When I was young I thought it was weird that in Messiah people sing the same words repeatedly. Last night I was thinking that everything that's true and beautiful in life needs repeating many times. It takes a lot of comfort ye's or Who is this king of glory's before the heart starts absorbing what's being said. We are people of story, and the stories that proclaim (or echo) truth are stories that we by nature tell and retell.

I was also thinking how truth and beauty weave in and out of life, passing from one voice to another and  back again, changed just enough to be new but still a variation on a theme. 

I once heard a lecture about studies that show the effect different kinds of music have on the brain. Someone ran rats through a maze, to see how they performed after being forced to listen to different kinds of music for a couple of days. Those who listened to classical music completed the maze faster; those who listened to rock ran slower than they had originally, and those who listened to country music were the slowest of all. The theory was that the more complex the music, the more synapses have to fire, and hence the smarter you become. (This may be what prompted the Baby Einstein folks to claim that watching their videos would raise your child's IQ, but there were a few major gaps in their logic.)

I'm not sure of the validity of those studies, but it certainly takes more thought to listen to something like Messiah than to listen to the Beatles. During a break in the performance, someone wondered aloud if people had any idea, back when Messiah was first performed, that the piece would last hundreds of years. That prompted a discussion of what, if anything, is being built or created today that will last as long. We're certainly good at coming up with things that are catchy or that dazzle. There isn't much that glows in the heart, though. Which makes it all the more important to pay attention to things of lasting beauty.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Random wondering

The other day I wondered how many items are on the average mom's to-do list. I don't mean the yellow pad list, but the whole thing: dropping off the prescription, making sure your teenage boy takes a shower, putting tissues in a child's pocket before she leaves the house, reminding kids to chew with their mouths shut. Some days my list feels like an endless game of Whack-a-Mole; as soon as I hammer down one thing, another pops up.

Tangentally, I wondered whether I talk to myself more (internally) these days than when I was, say, in college. I don't remember the non-stop mental chatter back then. That could be because I never noticed, it could be that there's more to keep track of now, or it could be that it seems there's more popping around up there because some portion of my gray matter is defunct and the same number of thoughts take up proportionally more space.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

What I learned from my pediatrician

We've had the same pediatrician since we moved here 13 years ago. One thing I like about Dr. G is that he's not highly interventionist; if you call him about an ear infection he'll tell you 80% of ear infections resolve themselves in 48 hours, and to give Tylenol for pain before we consider moving to antibiotics. Another thing I like is that he teaches you how to handle problems yourself. Over the years I've learned how to test for a broken bone, what the signs of respiratory distress are, and that a nearly-bit-through tongue will heal itself in about a day (no stitches needed!)

Perhaps the best thing Dr G has taught me, though, is how to keep problems in perspective. His philosophy is, "There are only three things that can happen here: things can get better, stay the same, or get worse. We only need to worry about one of those." Dr. G lays out the possibilities for what could be wrong, making it clear that we're not going to worry about the .0006% chance that we're dealing with something hideous until we've eliminated the 98% chance that it's something simple, the 1.5% chance that it's something moderately serious, and the other fractions of a chance that it's something weird. In other words, we work from the most likely to the least likely.

Today after church the kids were playing in the snow as I chatted with friends. There was a coffee hour, and at some point several children went in (as did I) to warm up and get a little snack. Eldest and Big Guy asked to go home, and the other kids went back outside. A while later I came out to retrieve everyone, and Little Guy was missing. Couldn't find him inside, outside, anywhere.

Thanks to Dr G, my first thought was of what was most likely: Little Guy had gone home with the big kids. I stationed a friend at the church (in case Little Guy showed up) and headed home. As I scurried along I figured out the next most likely place to look, if he didn't happen to be at home. But I opened the door, and there was Little Guy. I said, "Oh, here you are! I didn't know where you were!" Little Guy replied, "I didn't know where you were, either!"

No harm done. No panic. Thanks, Dr. G!

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Someone who DOES deserve a break

Our little friend Gracie, who is three, is in imminent need of eye surgery to relieve pressure on both eyes. The surgery she had about six weeks ago on one eye failed. However, right now she's very sick with the flu and the measles, so they can't operate.

I don't know exactly how many surgeries Gracie has had in her short life (somewhere between 10 and 15, I think), but the eye surgery certainly won't be her last. Those of you who are praying folk, please include her in your prayers this week. You might add her parents Claire and Lorenzo to your list, too.

Dr. Dolittle

Snuggler debuts as Jip the Dog this evening at 7pm. She's yipping with excitement. She's also in next week's matinees (3pm Sat and 4pm Sun), so in the extremely unlikely event that you are lacking for things to do, come and see her.

Friday, December 18, 2009

What we deserve

Last night I had to run out to pick up my thespian at play rehearsal, and when I came back one of my kids who'd stayed home was in a snit of hurt feelings. Another child had baked cookies, and though Child A had been allowed to have one, apparently it was offered with a begrudging, "Even though you don't deserve it..."

Sigh. I've long thought the whole concept of deserving things is problematic. It's so slippery. The "You deserve a break today" slogan from McDonald's used to irk me no end. What did I do to deserve a break? Work longer or harder than I would have liked? There are people in the world who suffer backbreaking labor from dawn to dusk but still don't have enough food to feed their children. I might want a break, I might like a break, and I might even need a break. Life is a lot easier when I get a break. But do I deserve one?

Every person deserves freedom, shelter, food and drink, education, health care, and human dignity. But beyond that the concept of deserving is a matter of judgment, and most of the time we're biased judges. We consider the fact that we put out some effort and think, "I deserve this. I earned it." We forget that we may be earning as much in an hour as an entire family in Indonesia makes in a month. We're scandalized by people who take what they don't deserve, yet if in the midst of daydreaming about that gorgeous cashmere sweater in the clothing catalog we were suddenly transported to the backstreets of Calcutta, we'd probably be just as scandalized by our own self-centeredness.

I'm all for cookies and cashmere sweaters, and for anything which brings joy and comfort and warmth to life. I suppose it's possible to become slightly more cookie-deserving than others if I bake the goodies myself, but that distinction is dwarfed by the fact that there's an equally-upstanding mother in a corner of Africa who can't ever give her kids cookies. In my wildest dreams I can't believe I deserve cookies more than she does, or that my kids deserve them more than hers.

This tells me that most of what I think I deserve I haven't (in any substantive sense) earned at all. I didn't do anything to merit being born in a wealthy nation at a time without war or pestilence raging at my door. I did nothing to deserve the DNA which gave me a good mind and good health. I have done what I could with what I was given, but the raw materials were given to me as a gift.

Perhaps none of us deserve cookies. We're simply blessed to be able to have them.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Look carefully

Little Guy comes to me this evening and says, "Hey Mom, take a look at this catalog. Do you like it?"
I flip through a couple pages and come across the incongruous spread. A coffee pot in the midst of Christmas stockings?
"I dunno, Buddy. This looks pretty odd."
Little Guy grins. "That's because I Photoshopped it!"

(note tape holding the coffee pot on the page.)


This week Eldest and I have been eating breakfast by candlelight. I realized we hadn't lit the Advent wreath on Sunday, and it seemed a nice idea to light it Monday in the early-morning darkness.

There's something about the flickering warmth of candles that brings my thoughts around to mystery. Nowadays we illuminate our world brightly and crisply, and I think it gives us the illusion that we know much more than we do. We operate as if everything is see-able and knowable, or at least should be see-able and knowable. I'm not sure that's healthy. Much of life is not incandescent; people most surely are not! I've been married to Andrew for 16+ years, and while on most days I think I know and understand my spouse, there are others on which I look at him in confusion, as if he just popped in from outer space. With people there is always history we don't know, and subtleties we don't grasp, and patterns of thinking that are alien to our own. There is nuance. Like memories, much of what we know about the people we love lies on the edge of shadows. 

Gazing at Eldest eating her gingerbread in the soft glow of candlelight, I remember things about her that I don't remember under electric lights. There are memories of stories of Milky-Milky (a cow) and Walky-Walky (a horse) that I told at bedtime when she was a preschooler. My mind wanders to her ocean-themed birthday party when she was four. My arms recall comforting her the first time she forgot to do her homework. My ears remember the excitement when her much-beloved Alison arrived to teach math. By candlelight it is easy to appreciate that there is a certain miracle in the fact that this marvelous being across the table is my child. How did that happen?

I have been silently waxing nostalgic during breakfast lately, perhaps in part because early this week Eldest submitted the last of her college applications. Last night we heard from the school to which she applied early. She was accepted. Among my future memories will be the resounding shout of joy that burst forth from her as she read the news. This is my child. What a gift. What a gift.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Keeping busy

I had to go to a meeting (again) at Eldest's school last night, and in the spirit of keeping the home a peaceful place decided to bring Little Guy along. He's had too many non-Mom nights lately, and is cranky with the big kids. We had a slice of pizza together before the meeting, and a lovely chat about life... and his impending 6th birthday.

Here is what we brought to the meeting to keep him busy:
- a package of index cards
- a pair of scissors
- a hole punch
- a package of brass fasteners
- a pencil

Little Guy spent an hour or more happily drawing body parts, cutting them out, then putting them together with the brass fasteners to make people and dogs with movable limbs. When he tired of that he drew train tickets and punched them like a conductor. It wasn't a bad set-up: not too noisy, inexpensive, and reasonably easy to clean up (if your hole punch has a catcher-thingy so the punched-out pieces don't fall on the floor).

Monday, December 14, 2009


Nutcracker's done. Many days of working in a mid-size dressing room with 20+ adrenaline-charged girls has my ears still ringing. I did get to see the last performance, and it was nicely done. Dancer was able to see the second act, which she hadn't seen for four years.

Here are my observations from backstage:

1. Whenever you have to keep a group of kids quiet, it helps to start with the assumption that you're going to have to say "Shhhh!" about 100,000 times. That way when you hit "Shhhh!" number 87,256 you aren't annoyed, because you still have a long way to go. (This approach is good for things like getting your own kids to chew with their mouths shut, too.)

2. The techniques that work for getting a message through to three and four year olds work for eleven and twelve year olds, namely, a) insist on eye contact, b) put your hand gently on their arm while you're talking, c) require a response.

3. Walk toward the troublemakers. It's a subtle thing, but a lot of crowd control can be done wordlessly. If you're right next to a difficult child, she's far less likely to imagine she's unmonitored or free to ignore whatever you just said.

4. People who teach middle school are to be admired.

And now back to the work that piled up last week!

Saturday, December 12, 2009

The unexpected

Last week at the dinner at Eldest's school honoring the kids who participated in the Intel competition, the speaker said something I liked. "Expect the unexpected, because even if you don't, it will happen anyway."

Yesterday we received an unexpected letter from Intel, saying Eldest's submission had been rejected because they didn't think she met the application requirements. Apparently they'd emailed her in November asking for more info, but she hadn't provided it. That didn't seem like Eldest (any self-respecting teen would freak out upon receiving a note like that, and she's uber-reliable, so I was pretty sure she hadn't gotten it), and on closer look I found the communication problem: Intel had made a typo in her email address.

Fortunately, I was home to receive the letter. Fortunately I did not have a deadline breathing down my neck, and could spend half a day on the phone with Intel trying to explain why Eldest was eligible to compete. Fortunately, as I glanced over the rest of the application I realized that the school had written down Eldest's SAT scores from when she was twelve, not her current scores. Fortunately, I found an express mail place right near Dancer's theatre to mail the submission back to Intel. I'm kind of in awe of how all that worked.

At any rate, I think we're back in the competition. Not that that is important to the running of the world, but I do feel like Someone is watching out for us here.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Opening Night!

Last night was opening night for Dancer's Nutcracker. She was a gingerbread in the Mother Ginger scene, and will be dancing that role again tonight. Tomorrow and Sunday, for two performances each day, she is in the party scene disguised as a boy, and then in the battle with the mice.

There was a sign up at the theater that student rush tickets are available for $10 on the day of the performance. If you are interested, email me privately and I'll give you the info.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Little Guy: "Mom, I know what I want for Christmas..."

"Lottery tickets."


When you don't have a magic wand

I like this series of books. We have three: What to Do When You Worry Too Much, What to Do When You Grumble Too Much, and What to Do When Your Temper Flares. There are others in the series, including one for OCD, one for breaking bad habits (nail biting, thumb sucking), and one for sleep issues and fears. For about ten bucks (through Amazon) you get a couple thousand dollars' worth of therapy, though without the personal touch.

The books are written for kids to read and work through, and they're very engaging. It helps to have Mom or Dad there to snuggle up with, though. And the techniques take practice if they're going to be instilled deeply enough to work.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Efficiency and Stress

It's 6:59 as I start to write, and cinnamon muffins have been baked, one kid is out the door, and I've already finished proofing the piece that's headed to the printer this afternoon. That's good, because if I told you everything that has to happen between now and 10pm you'd tell me I'm crazy. The two big things this evening are that Dancer has tech rehearsal, and I have to run a dinner for 225-250 people at Eldest's school.

I'm not an efficiency expert like the dad in Cheaper By the Dozen. I've noticed over time, though, that I am more efficient when I am not stressed. My brain is better at finding solutions when I don't worry about how (or if) I'm going to come up with an answer. Several years back I hit on something that revolutionized my life: I realized that logistical problems belong in the puzzle-solving part of my brain, not in the worry center. When I treat them like crossword clues I can't quite get, leaving them alone while I work on another part of the puzzle, then coming back, I make surprising progress.

I have a lot of logistical issues in my life. There's a 90-minute gap today between when I leave to take Dancer to tech and the time Dancer's godmother can arrive to take care of Little Guy and Snuggler. The younger kids are going to a friend's concert this evening. I can't take them with me to drop off Dancer, because there isn't time to get home again before I have to be at the school.

Frankly, no one is going to die or be inalterably damaged if I don't figure out a graceful solution to this. [Key point: life is easier when we stop equating solution with good solution. There's a whole spectrum of solutions, and if we're willing to entertain them all we come up with something that works more quickly.] At worst, the kids don't get to go to their concert, the friend they're going to see is disappointed, and my guys sit around cranky and bored at Eldest's dinner. But no: it's worse if I freak out, act irrationally with my kids because I'm stressed, put them on edge, and trigger misbehavior and neediness. That actually can damage kids and relationships, and have a long-term effect.

I know that most of the time when I do stress out, it's because I feel trapped. I'm stuck in some way, can't see an immediate escape path, and don't think I have the time or resources to get out gracefully. Then I remember the basic test-taking strategy of setting aside the problem and going on to the problems I can solve. I can always come back, no? Usually when I do (and especially if I've used the intervening time to get other things off my plate), my brain is clearer and the answer is easier to see.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Making progress

I went to a meeting at Big Guy's school on Thursday. Although the topic was how to find the right high school for your child, the announcement called the meeting Discharge Planning. Big Guy attends a therapeutic day school; he has a severe anxiety disorder.

Sitting in the school cafeteria the other night was the first time in the past seven years that I have been among other parents who have been through what we've been through. The social worker who led the meeting said, "Virtually all of you have gotten here the hard way." The daughter of the woman next to me has been hospitalized three times in the past two years. Big Guy has had extended hospitalizations twice, once at age seven and once last year. We've been to the ER many times, and had to call 911 many more. Having to call 911 on your own child sears the heart and bleeds the soul. You get better at it with time.

The social worker commented, "You've had to deal with the difference between the child you thought you had, and the child you were given," and we all nodded. I don't know the diagnoses of the other children at the school, but they range from being on the autism spectrum to early onset bipolar disorder and other severe mental illnesses. These parents have had it rough. There was one woman who said she has four children, two of whom are in residential treatment. I can't imagine that; it's a layer of hell I didn't realize existed.

Big Guy is new to this school, having started in July. His previous school was a cinderblock building in the middle of a treeless section of the city, a place that was all justice and no understanding. At least half the student body was there for behavioral problems, not emotional ones. The city mixes the two, as if it's not sure what the difference is. When we were looking at new schools last year, one administrator explained that because of budget issues the kids who get placed in private schools are increasingly the ones with behavioral problems. If a child has an emotional disorder that causes him to sink quietly, the school system will allow that to happen. If the child is interfering with the rest of the class, the system will find a way to remove him.

Big Guy's old school wasn't quite Dickensian, but no one ever returned to the mainstream from there. We visited schools that were worse, including one where the admissions officer told us cheerfully, "Things are a lot better since we stopped admitting so many gang members." Still, Big Guy had to deal with things at his school that would have made even a healthy person anxious. If we hadn't succeeded in getting him out of there, I do not think he'd still be with us today.

This new school is wonderful. It's beautiful, with over a hundred acres of greenery, paths in the woods, and a horticulture program. The staff are superb. They are caring, insightful people who truly seem to be able to work with Big Guy and make progress. Big Guy is happy, and he's working hard.

The school goes through ninth grade. My big question on Thursday was whether it's harder to get into a therapeutic high school if you apply in 8th grade or 9th. Thankfully, there's no difference. We can keep Big Guy at this school for another year. Deo gratias.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Sometimes when it feels like your life is falling apart...

It is.

Two days ago, just before the light switch in the big bathroom blew ("No, you don't need to see in order to pee. Just go."), I put Little Guy in the tub. Oddly enough, the 1934-era drain didn't seem to be plugging up the water. I jiggled the handle (it's a long, tube-like thing), and it came off in my hand. The pipe had broken clean at the bottom.

The plumbers arrived today. Yeah, plumbers! Well... let's dampen that enthusiasm a bit. They came.

They destroyed.

They left.

They say they'll be back in a few days. But at least the tub and shower are usable again. And the super fixed the light switch, so next time the plumbers won't be working in the dark.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

On Beyond Porcupines

I came home from a meeting last night with this observation: prickly people get under your skin, but toxic people poison the social environment.

Fortunately there aren't a lot of toxic people in the world. You know'em when you meet'em because:

1. The underlying message they send is You don't matter. What matters is what I want and you have no right to get in my way.

2.  Cues and verbal intervention directed at stopping the behavior are ignored.
3. Although you may have profound respect for other people in the room, you leave feeling you never want to go back there again.
4. Everyone involved ends up feeling unclean and soiled (not to mention insulted and angry).

How does one deal with a toxic person (TP)? I think there are a couple of approaches. The first order of the day is to operate at a safe enough distance that you are not sucked into acting the same way. I find I have to consciously tell myself I do not want to be this person. I have to remind myself that I don't want to live in the darkness that person casts; I want to live in the light. I can't fight on their turf. And I have to find the distinction between venting and gossip, letting my feelings loose only with those who can help me heal, and keeping my mouth shut when the only possible outcome will be to re-ignite my indignation or to inflame others.

The simultaneous, almost-goes-without-saying thing to do is to make sure the TP doesn't know how you feel about him or her, so you avoid becoming a target. I lucked out last night because the TP was so absorbed in her tantrum that she didn't notice the gaping look of horror on my face.

Within the parameters of keeping yourself safe, you can develop a plan of action. Last night's situation had a relatively straightforward next step, because this TP has a boss. I sat down to write the boss an email, and it took me well over an hour to write four short paragraphs. To be effective, I knew the letter had to be about the problem, not about my feelings about the problem. I'm slow: it takes me a long time to figure out exactly what I want to say, and then dozens and dozens of drafts to extract the emotion. As a final check I passed the letter by Andrew before sending. He found a few more things that he thought it would be better to leave out.

The letter's done and sent, and now there's one more thing to do. When someone depletes the world of good, one thing I can do is try to add a bit more back in.  That's my project for the day.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009


Yesterday on the subway en route to swimming, Little Guy was telling me about a kid in his class who was getting on his nerves. I could tell this was heading into a rant, so I stopped the tirade with a shrug and my by-now stock comment, "Hey, everywhere you go in life there's going to be at least one annoying person."

The people surrounding us laughed out loud. Guess they'd never thought of it that way. But what are the statistical odds that in any given group of people every single person is going to be pleasant? Life's a lot easier when you assume that there will always be someone in the room you'd rather not have to deal with.

I once saw a book in a catalog called How to Hug a Porcupine. I love that title. I've remembered it for over a decade, though I never read the book. There are almost always ways to get along with prickly people safely. The key is remembering that the goal is to get along with them, rather than make them go away. (Once in a while distance really is the best solution. But not always.)

Like many people, I have occasional quill-like tendencies. As a young adult, I congratulated myself on having blunted most of them. Then I had kids, and discovered I have more prickles than I'd previously imagined. Kids'll do that to you: reveal your flaws. It's one of the good things about having children.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Bad luck, good people

We were slated to go see the Magna Carta today. It was a homeschool group trip, so we headed to the subway at about 9:00 to allow ample time to get there by 10:15. The train went one stop and promptly... stopped. It stopped for a long time. At first we were told there was an emergency a couple of stations ahead (I'm okay with emergencies; a heart attack takes precedence over my field trip any day), but then it turned out to be the usual train with mechanical difficulties. I always think that description sounds a bit like it belongs in an IEP or something.

As the minutes ticked and ticked and ticked past, it soon became clear that our chances of getting downtown in time were going to be small. We were all sad. The kids kept asking if we'd make it, and sometime after we finally started moving again I looked at the time and said, "No, we're not going to get there before they start." When we emerged from the train, still a 15-minute walk from our destination, it was 10:42. Pooh.

I was all for going to Plan B (whatever that was), but Snuggler was indignant. "We can't give up without even trying, Mom! Can't we try?" I hadn't known the Magna Carta meant so much to her. I hadn't even been sure she knew what the Magna Carta was.

So we meandered a bit further south, looking at other good and interesting things on the way. It started to rain. We headed toward the museum, mostly just to show the kids where it was and what it looked like. As we approached, Dancer said, "Hey, look! There's our group!" They'd just come out of the tour.

I crossed the street to proffer my apologies for our absence to the woman who coordinated the trip. She said, "It was a great trip. But you know, the docent said that if anyone else from our group came and wanted to see the Magna Carta, they could. Let me check!"

There are some pretty strict rules on how many people can be in the viewing room at once, and unfortunately the last school group of the day didn't have room for four more people. The docent came back and said, "Oh, you really have to see it! So this is what we'll do. I'm going to assign you a guard, and you can go in the back way. You just take your time looking at the rest of the museum (which is closed to the public), and then when this group comes out we'll slip you right in before we close."

How amazing is that? There's someone in this big, tough world who wants as many kids to see the Magna Carta as want to see it, and who's willing to do something a little unusual to make it happen. So we had a private tour, and plenty of time, and then we had the Magna Carta all to ourselves.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

I only have two rules about these

1. No aiming at heads, faces or glass.
2. Don't come to me to say it stings to get shot.

My boys invested some of their money in Nerf guns yesterday. I must say, on the cost-per-use scale these seem to do pretty well. The boys have spent endless hours shooting each other and a decent amount of additional time looking for lost darts and waiting for darts to fall off the ceiling. The guns are reasonably sturdy, manual-loading, and make no electronic noises. They do make a loud click when the trigger is pulled, which almost eliminates the need for the boys to make those shooting-bullet sound effects (p-shew! p-shew!) that drive me nuts.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Happy Thanksgiving

The table is set...
Even for our guests.
Dinner was good.
Everyone had fun. Except for the turkey.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

How long does it take...

for two kids (ages 8 and 5) to clean a bathroom?

Unsupervised, about four hours. With jelly beans as a reward for each completed task, about three. You gain some efficiency on getting the tub scrubbed well if you put the kids in bathing suits and give them buckets. Preps the floor for washing, too!

How long does it take Mom to clean the bathroom after it's 'clean'? Twenty minutes of "Come back and do this part (that you forgot)" plus five minutes to sigh and clean the truly hopeless-to-expect areas.

But if you factor in that Mom got in three hours of work time, it's a pretty good deal.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

On the air

Or at least recording. The interview will air next weekend, at various sites around the country. Not here, though.

Mother Goose meets Kafka

My two youngest are singing this ditty:

It's raining, it's drizzling,
The old man is sizzling
He bumped his head on the frying pan
And he woke up as scrambled eggs.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Something I've never done before

Tomorrow Andrew and I are going to record a radio broadcast. It's one of those odd situations which seem to pop up in life from time to time, like finding out that your child's ballet friend's father is a Pulitzer Prize winner, or being given expensive seats for a show because someone you know knows the lead actor and got the tix for free.

We're not famous. We don't move in heady social circles. Thankfully, we've never been on the front page of a tabloid (in my 20s, my acid test for whether or not I should give into a wild temptation was How would this look on the front page of the Post?) However, there are 700,000 or so people who read Andrew's book each year, and every month we get a handful of letters from people telling us we feel like family. That's humbling.

Which is why we are doing this radio interview. Because of the book. Next year is the 35th anniversary of Daily Guideposts, so there's publicity and all that. The radio show is part of it. So tomorrow I get to have a new experience. Sounds fun.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009


True confession: I bake breakfast almost every day. I do it because it's less expensive, because I know what goes into the food, and because it's a lot easier to rouse kids from bed when the house smells like something tasty. But the real reason I do it is because when I was a teenager my dad got up every morning and made me breakfast. He baked cornbread, gingerbread, made real rice cereal (not from a box), or mush of some kind. He rarely said anything in those early hours (my school bus left at 7:05), just sat there with his cup of coffee, quietly, while I ate.

Once I asked him why he got up so early to do it. His reply: "It's the one time of day I know I can be with you. Even if we don't say much, I enjoy that."

It made an impression!

November means clementines and cranberries. Today's breakfast is cranberry-orange muffins, and lemme tell ya, they're good! The bag of clementines that I bought yesterday afternoon was devoured by the evening. I put a limit of three per person, but one was used to create a lunar landing module:

Three guesses who had that idea!

Sunday, November 15, 2009


Little Guy is a punster, and lately he's been popping out funny things faster than I can remember to write them down. Two that stick in my mind:

Andrew was telling Little Guy a bedtime story which involved a marsupial elephant. Delighted, Little Guy said, "Oh! A pouchyderm!"

Tonight Little Guy was singing a song that lists the countries of northern Africa. He got to Algeria, paused, and said, "I guess they have a lot of allergies there!"

Sleep studies

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Core beliefs

I was reading a paper today about our core beliefs about ourselves and our world, and how they can affect our lives. It's an offshoot (or variation upon) some of the Seligman Learned Optimism research. The author says there are about a dozen beliefs that tend to get misinterpreted by folks. These include things like:

"I need love and approval from those significant to me -- and I must avoid disapproval from any source"
"Everyone needs to depend on someone stronger than themselves"
"My unhappiness is caused by things outside my control".

Each of these has a kernel of truth (e.g., love and approval are good to get, it's helpful to have strong people as friends), but the problem arises when these kinds of beliefs are turned into 'musts'. There's a difference between recognizing something that's good to have and thinking of that thing as something a law of the universe which cannot be violated.

Out of these demands come different types of problematic thinking:
"Awfulizing" -- turning a problem into catastrophic thinking, as if the events are the most horrible things that could happen.
"Can't-stand-it-itis" -- an intolerance of the discomfort caused by things not going according to our 'rules' of how they should, and
"People rating" -- evaluating one's entire worth by extrapolating from a specific trait or incident to the entire person. This is the 'I'm a horrible person' response instead of 'I did something wrong'.

What interests me about this framework is that it helps me pinpoint specific difficulties that various people I know have. For example, I have one child who spirals downward whenever someone is angry, because of (what I assume is) an underlying belief that anger = being unloved. The nugget of truth is that when we are angry we are the opposite of loving. But this bit of truth can easily be twisted about and turned into an intolerance of conflict or into believing that if people get angry at you it must mean you're unloveable.

The entire list of problematic core beliefs -- as well as strategies for helping people who hold them -- are in the link above. I dunno... I find this kind of thing interesting. Maybe you do, too.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Happy Birthday, Dancer!

She was the only one of our children born during daylight hours. Her friends always get a holiday from school to celebrate her birthday. She's our extrovert, our giggler, our where-did-that-coordination-come-from child. She likes to cook and bake, and her birthday present today was this:

and these:

She's already made chocolate mousse for her birthday dessert! But I get to make the spaghetti and meatballs for supper.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

End of an Era

Today Eldest took the last SAT she'll ever take. It was an SAT II, physics.

Funny that she's old enough to have a whole stage behind her in life. We've had milestones like the end of diapers, and the last ride in the stroller, so I guess this isn't really a first. Except it is a first.

Am I old enough for this? Mature enough?

Friday, November 6, 2009

Little guy figured out how to whistle yesterday. He can whistle one note. He delights in his new-found skill. He uses it over and over. Hour after hour. I never understood the painting of Whistler's mother in quite the same way before. Look at her face. See her trying to tear up that handkerchief to keep from going mad? Poor woman.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Irritable Child Syndrome

Some days ya just gotta breathe deeply. A lot. You know the days I mean: when it feels like kids who aren't even yours are melting down just because you're nearby. When you wonder if a terrorist spiked the water system with hormones and the city's been stricken with universal PMS. When you're so worn down that you finally blurt to the argumentative child, "My name isn't Butmommy!"

Here are the things that work for me on days like today:
1. Breathe deep, pray often. The key advantage of breathing deeply is that it keeps your mouth occupied so you don't say something you shouldn't. When things get really bad, I pray Holy Spirit, guide my words! before almost everything I say.
2. Speak sparingly. When the kids were little my rule of thumb was five words or less. I find that once my patience has worn thin, I fall into a rant if I don't consciously limit my words.
3. Get the kids to speak sparingly.  I put them 'on silence' for a while. This usually happens when we're in transit, and means no talking until we arrive at a given location. The consequence for disobedience is a yucky household chore (I'm not the world's greatest housekeeper, so I have these in abundance).
4. Listen to the voice in your head. Not the one that shouts "I can't take this!" but the tiny one that counters, "Well yes, actually, you can!"

Of course, none of these things work if I don't remember to do them. And there are days when the problem is me and my meltdowns/hormones/irritability. Thankfully, this wasn't one of them.

I've always thought that the best proof that God exists (and that He's merciful) is that even the worst day comes to an end. This day has almost come to an end. How excellent.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

What's wrong with this picture?

Yes, that's a red Sharpie in his hand. The good news is that he must've fallen asleep before he got to use it.

Monday, November 2, 2009


In the past ten days I have written a newsletter for people with mood disorders, a piece about sustaining Easter joy throughout the year, and a grant proposal for a large air conditioning system. Right now I'm editing articles about  Japanese culture. Fortunately I haven't had to write those; my input is limited to profound questions like, "Uh, is furoshiki the singular or the plural?"

The level of entropy that descends on the house during periods like this is jaw-dropping. Little Guy made some kind of mini-doorway out of dozens of pencils taped together last night while I was gone to take Dancer to Nut rehearsal. He was distraught after I discovered tape on the dining room chairs and confiscated the roll. "How can I survive if I can't invent things with tape?" he wailed.

Tomorrow we'll do our Halloween math, sorting and graphing candy. I forgot about that today, having repressed the whole holiday after enduring hours of overheard candy-swapping negotiations Sunday afternoon.

I logged almost five hours today on mass transit, hauling kids to swimming, ballet, home, and then back to ballet to pick up Dancer. Fortunately I'm reading Dante's Inferno, which is a fine choice for keeping the inconveniences of life in perspective.

Friday, October 30, 2009

Odds and Ends

  • True confession: I forgot to go to parent-teacher conferences today. Eldest says it's no big deal, she's doing fine. I guess she's right, but still... 
  • Believe it or Not: Last week I was about to cross a very busy one-way street, when a small truck started backing up -- fast! -- in the opposite direction. On the side was painted the business' name: The Collision Experts.
  • Presidential math: The president was in town a couple of weeks ago. We were heading toward ballet to drop off Dancer when the police started putting up barricades at the end of the street. We slipped through just in time. If we hadn't gotten out then, we would have had to wait 20 minutes for the motorcade to pass. On the way home, our applied math problem of the day was to calculate how much the police coverage cost. There were 8-10 officers per corner, 10 corners, and we assumed $50/hour/officer for a 24-hour stay. It's a lotta money!
  • Did you know: that the president's limo is flown wherever he goes? Upon reflection it makes sense, at least inasmuch as it saves a lot of time in security checks. I verified this and other cool facts about Air Force One at How Stuff Works. 
  • Time to work: I have a massive deadline on Monday, so I'll see you on Tuesday!

Thursday, October 29, 2009


Yesterday I had another meeting out at Eldest's school. I brought Little Guy along, as usual. This time I brought three things for his entertainment: duct tape (his favorite substance in the world), a plastic cup, and some of those dissolve-in-water packing peanuts that can be used to make sculptures.

Reminder to self: duct tape is VERY LOUD coming off the roll.

On a related issue, I once described to Little Guy a picture I'd seen, in which a person had been taped to a wall with duct tape. This is the kind of thing that just entrances him. The other day we bought a new  roll of duct tape, and no sooner had we walked out of the hardware store than Little Guy piped up, "Mom, can you put me in that cool duct tape time-out now?"

It's a thought.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

One app done

Last night Eldest had the happiest click of her life, as she hit 'submit' for her first college application. It's an early admit app, non-binding.

We read a book by Harry Bauld called On Writing the College Application Essay: Secrets of a former Ivy League admissions officer. I mention it because it's superb, and has perhaps the best examples of how to edit that I've ever seen in print. It's worth reading just for high school writing, and definitely worth reading in advance of senior year.

Eldest slaved over the essays, going through perhaps six or seven drafts. Kudos to her for her perseverence! We discovered it was easier for her to take comments from Mom if I wrote them in an email than if we had a conversation. As Eldest said, "It feels that you're talking about the piece then, instead of talking about me!"

Today's her midterm in her college math course, worth something like 30% of her grade.Then it's on to the Intel paper, an SAT II, more college apps, and life.

Monday, October 26, 2009

How we do it


Suddenly it's fall

Yesterday was the first crisp day in a while -- it's been a soggy October -- and I gasped when I looked out the window. The leaves had turned, seemingly overnight. Life is good when the world is beautiful.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Up early

Yes, I know it's 5:40 a.m. on a Saturday morning. However, it's quiet.

I like quiet. In fact, I love quiet. I've always loved quiet, even back in the days when I was single and had as much of it as I wanted.

All the dust that swirls through my mind gets a chance to settle when I'm up in the early morning hours. No one is interrupting me. There's no new input. I can process thoughts and impressions and ideas.

The refrigerator hums. The cars swish by outside our living room window. I sip my decaf, and gather the odds and ends that fell off my mental to-do list.

Alone can be one of the most beautiful words in the English language.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Yeah, it's time.

We allocate an entire closet to dirty clothes. There's half a refrigerator box in it for our hamper. I can't step back far enough to get a shot that allows good perspective, but the pile is about five feet high at the moment. Little Guy has to practically shoot hoops to get something on top.

When I was single I hated doing laundry. Now I don't mind; it falls in the same category as brushing teeth. There's a lot in life that needs to be done that isn't worth an investment of emotional energy.

What I don't like is socks. My solution is to buy two dozen identical pairs, so everyone with roughly the same size feet can wear them. That way I never have to sort anything. If one sock is transported by UFOs to another galaxy, I can match the orphan easily. When the color fades, it fades at the same rate. Unfortunately, at the moment we have a lot of black socks bought at different times, so we're dealing with various shades of gray. It's annoying. I don't mind gray -- I'm headed that direction myself -- but matching socks is not on my list of priorities in life.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009


No, we don't have'em. I'm just recalling a scene from The Hiding Place, by Corrie Ten Boom. When Corrie and her sister Betsie went into the concentration camp, they sat down that first night and prayed a long 'thank you' for everything that had helped them survive. Betsie included a 'thank you' for the fleas in the beds.  "What?!?" said Corrie, "Even the fleas?" Betsie argued that we're to be thankful for everything, not just the things we like or for which we can see the benefit. Begrudgingly, Corrie muttered her thanks for the vermin.

Over the course of time, the two sisters were able to set up and run a multi-language prayer group and Bible study within the barracks. It was a tremendous comfort to many, many prisoners. But one mystery they never understood was why they never got caught. The guards left them completely alone, avoiding the inner part of the barracks like the plague. Finally one day Betsie discovered the reason. The guards avoided the room used for the prayer group... because of the fleas.

We're having a flea-like problem around here these days. Those of you who are praying folks, please include us on your list. There's good that can come out of this. At the moment, it's a bit difficult to see.

Dr. Dolittle

Snuggler has been cast as Jip the Dog in the local children's theatre production of The Adventures of Dr. Dolittle. Lots of stage time, a good deal of barking, two songs, and enough lines to satisfy without overwhelming. She's supposed to wiggle her nose and scratch her ears a lot. After a few initial tries, it appears we will have to apply for remedial nose-wiggling classes.

Two of the three weekly rehearsals are at the same time as Dancer's Nutcracker rehearsals, but in the opposite direction. What was I thinking?!?  Obviously, I wasn't.

Monday, October 19, 2009

The invention box

Today I had to go to Eldest's school to host a breakfast for the parents' association. I brought Little Guy with me. He was the only child there amidst 50 adults; the program took 90 minutes.

Fortunately we brought along Little Guy's invention box. Its contents this morning included two large sheets of aluminum foil, several dowels, paper clips, two kinds of tape, a marker, a notepad, some empty medicine vials, and an assortment of odds and ends.

Little Guy spent the whole time happily constructing a) a mini playground, b) a catapult, c) a plane made out of paper and coffee stirrers (his eyes lit up when he spied them on the table), and d) a set of robots designed from coffee cups.

As a reward for his extraordinarily good behavior, I took him to the dollar store and let him choose something to add to his invention box.  Here's what he selected:

Sunday, October 18, 2009


On my third trek to the grocery store today (I'm baking a lot for a breakfast at Eldest's school tomorrow) I ran into a father of four. In response to my inquiry about how life was going he replied, "Well, you're only as happy as your least happy child."

I felt his pain, but said I wasn't sure that was entirely true. After all, when you're a parent you have to embrace the fact that life consists of many mixed feelings at once. The sadness over one child gets mixed in with the I can't believe he did that! over another, and folded into the joy of seeing yet another kid finally succeed. Life as a parent ceases to be either/or, and transforms itself into both/and.

Part of this is mixup is because (shhh!) we're no longer in control. We have influence over our children's lives, but we don't have the autonomy with them that we have with ourselves.

Frankly, I think this is part of the reason we're told to be fruitful and multiply. Kids help us down the path to humility. They force us to admit we can't do it all, can't control everything, and can't make everyone happy.

Wild Things

Yesterday we had a logistical boondoggle. Andrew had to go to a funeral, and then to work. Dancer had ballet class from 10-12 in one part of town, then Nut rehearsal from 4:30-7:30 in another. Eldest was unavailable to help out with transport due to commitments which took her out of the house until 10:30 pm. I try very hard not to leave the little ones with Big Guy because, well, it's generally not a good idea.

Oh -- and it was a shuttle bus weekend, which adds 30  minutes to any trip by mass transit. That meant I couldn't get home in between ballet pickup and Nut delivery. And Dancer desperately needed new pointe shoes, and there was a one-day 20% off sale at Capezio yesterday. Ahhhh...

Andrew said he'd take Dancer to ballet before he headed to the funeral, and pick her up at rehearsal in the evening. I just had to get her from ballet to shoes to rehearsal. That meant I'd need to be out of the house from about 11am to 5pm. Oy.

I proposed two possibilities to Big Guy. Option A was that he would stay home with the little ones, and take them to see Where the Wild Things Are at the local cinema. Despite the fact that he's 13, this is a movie Big Guy really wanted to see. His special comfort toy when he was little was a stuffed Wild Thing, and he loved the book. Besides, we only go to movies about twice a year.

Option A had the advantage of convenience, but the disadvantage that he'd be in charge of the kids for a long time. Option B was that the kids would all shlep with me to pick up Dancer and get shoes, and then I'd take everyone to see the movie at a theater near her rehearsal. This had the advantage of not putting Big Guy in charge, but the disadvantage of having to haul everyone around.

Big Guy voted for Option A saying, "I think I'm ready for that". It turned out he was right. He not only rose to the challenge of taking care of the kids, but coped extremely well when they got home from the movie and discovered they'd forgotten to bring a key to the house. He took the kids to get pizza (amazing how much easier it is to manage kiddies when their tummies are full!), then took them to the park, where they ran into some friends. At that point Big Guy turned over the little ones to the friends' mom for a moment, ran across the street to a pay phone, and called me. There wasn't much I could do  other than be encouraging about  how well he'd done thus far.

When I got back to the neighborhood an hour later I passed through the park, but the kids weren't there. I came home and up the stairs to find my three snuggled at the end of the hallway, looking a bit like kids in a Jacob Riis photo, quiet but content.

Last night, Big Guy was justifiably pleased with himself.  He felt he'd passed a kind of test: of my trust in him, of his capabilities at handling kids, of his resourcefulness in dealing with an unexpected problem. Hurrah for him!

And, by the way, the kids all said that it's an excellent movie.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Some Changes

I'm guessing that Google is smart enough so that those of you who get this blog via a feed don't get a second copy when I edit a post. If not, my apologies for the spate of updates. I'm spending some time today going back through old posts to replace real names with vaguer ones.

Here's the new list of personalities in the family, and their names on this blog:

Eldest: Loves math, physics, Star Wars, literature, and opera. She's 15.
Big Guy: Likes Gilbert & Sullivan, history, being silly with his siblings, and UFOs. He's 13.
Dancer: My extrovert. Likes being with friends, reading, and ballet. She's almost 11.
Snuggler: An artist and big-hearted kid. Age 8.
Little Guy: A 3-way cross between Dennis the Menace, Thomas Edison, and Calvin (of Calvin & Hobbes) Coming up on 6.


Yesterday while coming back from a doctor's visit, my Big Guy was seated next to my Little Guy on the train. A weary mom came in with twin 5-year olds. Since there was an open seat in the row, Big Guy stood up so the twins could sit down. "What a gentleman!" the mom crowed. It's nice when someone else rewards your child for a gracious action.

I've often told my kids that being observant is the first step toward being thoughtful. If you don't see the opportunity, you can't do much about it. Being observant can be nurtured, but it's kind of like common sense: it really helps if the child has some shred of innate ability to begin with. When Big Guy was little, I used to say, "I see an old lady struggling with a door!" so that he'd get the idea. I haven't done this as much with my Little Guy, and ought to work on that a bit.


Yesterday I hit upon a major incentive for my little inventor: after each piece of schoolwork was done, I read him the caption for a Rube Goldberg invention. He was utterly enthralled, but bitterly disappointed that we weren't going to build any of the contraptions. You will probably see future posts about the things Rube has inspired my little guy to do, though...

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Growing Up

I came into the living room and saw that there were aquarium rocks all over the wooden floor. I barked my Little Guy's name, about to go into a rant.
"Mom!" he interrupted, "Can't you see I'm being responsible? I'm cleaning it up!"

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

The college report

Eldest took the SAT on Saturday, and has to take the PSAT tomorrow. The more exciting news is that she had her first college interview today, with an MIT alumnus. She thought it went well; she was happy and bubbly afterwards. Turns out her interviewer had gone to the same high school and planned to major in math and physics at MIT (!) He ended up majoring in political science and becoming a lawyer. Apparently there were no show-stopper questions, and Eldest felt she'd gotten to say all of the important stuff she'd wanted to say. So far, so good.

Monday, October 12, 2009

How to Learn to Like Vacuuming

My vacuum broke in July. Our budget wasn't able to accomodate getting the machine fixed, and so over the past three months I have developed an almost OCD relationship with the broom. Despite sweeping and sweeping and sweeping, the house never felt clean. It was making me nuts. Last week's mouse was the final straw. Now, as of Friday, we have a working vacuum again. Oh, but this is a wondrous thing! I am so, so happy!

This reminds me of when we lived in a 3rd floor walk-up with two small children, and had to take our laundry out to wash. I used to stand at the top of the stairs and roll the huge bag of dirty clothes down (thump! thump! thump!), while holding a newborn and trying to keep a curious toddler from racing after the bag. Then it was across the street in the rain or snow, only to spend the next couple of hours trying to prevent the toddler from bashing her head into a plethora of hard surfaces. When we moved to our current building, it was thrilling to be able to do laundry without having to go outside.Thirteen years later, I'm still happy.

Similarly, I have a fairly good stock of patience while on line at the ATM. The reason: my first job was in Puerto Rico, in the days before automatic deposit reached the island. Every other Friday I spent an entire lunch hour in line to deposit my paycheck. If I didn't bring home enough cash for the week, it meant sacrificing another lunch hour at the bank!

The only life lesson of this kind that hasn't stuck with me relates to computers. I did, in fact, use one of the very first IBM PCs. It had 10MB of memory, and two floppy disk drives. I had to type in code to run the thing, and wait forever for anything to happen. But today I still get exceedingly annoyed when the web is slow. Oh well.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Learning new things

On my list of things to do today: learn how to do a mail merge. I'd gladly exchange my mental storage bin of Sitcoms-of-the-Seventies theme songs for instant knowledge of how to do this. However, perhaps what I fear will be an exercise in futility frustration will bear fruit in humility.

David Albert, who wrote And the Skylark Sings With Me, says it's important for us to model learning new things with our children. He says that our kids need to see us struggle and persevere, since they tend to think everything comes easily to us.

I think he's probably right. Nevertheless, it's a heckuva lot easier to struggle and persevere when the kids are in bed. Maybe my concentration isn't what it used to be, but I find it challenging to learn new things while Star Wars figurines are being catapulted across the living room and I'm subjected to a perpetual "Can I have another peanut butter cookie?" mantra.  

Thursday, October 8, 2009

What I've been thinking about

1) The funny tightrope we walk between the need to know 'how things should be' (so we know what to aim for) and the need to accept life as it comes (without getting demoralized that things aren't as they should be).

2) The importance of dry periods in faith. I just wrote a longish piece on this elsewhere, and it gave me some good food for thought.

3) The mouse that ran out the kitchen door and into the dining room at 5:30 a.m. Guess I need to get after the super to close up the hole in the kitchen wall...

4) How good it feels to have work done a little bit ahead of time, without the last-minute rush. This is not the norm around here!

5) How to write a Christmas carol about bipolar disorder. Really. (I need to fill space in a newsletter I edit.)

There's more, but I have another deadline looming (see #5, above) and I'm at a cliff-hanging moment in The Unicorn by Iris Murdoch. Not sure if I like the latter or not; seems like a book I'd like better in a discussion group, where others might have more of a clue than I do!

Sunday, October 4, 2009

What Were You Thinking?!?

Several years ago I fell in a brief rut of saying, "What were you thinking?!?" to my kids. It took about a week of hearing myself say this (and seeing blank looks in response) to realize that it was a particularly lame question. Clearly they hadn't been thinking at all when they did whatever it was I was upset about.

Kids make a lot of mistakes because they don't think things through. There are adults who do this, too. There are Fortune 500 companies that do it. I daresay I have occasionally suffered from the same malady.

The tricky part is remembering that just because I can see that A--> B --> C, I can't assume the sequence is obvious to others (especially kids). Asking them, "If you do A, what will happen next? And then what...?" tends work better than bloviating over why they didn't think of B or C. (When I remember to do it, that is.)

However, there are times when a child progresses to point C and it's not a matter of not thinking. There's a name for when you know something is wrong and choose to do it anyway: it's sin. I have been working hard lately not to get angry at my children when they sin. Making bad choices is part of life. My job isn't to get mad, but to help my kids make better choices as they grow older.

In many senses it's easier to deal with things like a stolen candy bar (today's incident) than with dirty dishes left carelessly on the table three times a day. With a stolen candy bar I know what to do: get the child to make restitution and ask for forgiveness. There's a clear path, which I can follow in a detached way without getting angry.

But the less concrete the sin -- and perhaps the more it relates to my kids' character flaws that might reflect on me as a mother -- the harder I find it to remain neutral. Things like habitually inconsiderate behavior or meanness toward siblings put me on weedier ground. I get annoyed when my words go unheeded. I get irritated when my strategies to rectify the situation don't work. Tonight I'm wondering if this is because I feel some kind of personal investment in the outcome.

Today as I escorted my child back from the candy store I had a momentary Oh no! This is the first step on the road to prison! reaction. Fortunately I remembered my child's age, and the number of similar offenses done by other children of the same age, and blew off the tendency to extrapolate. Parenting is a lot easier when you are mindful of the future but centered on the present.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

"How are you?"

A mom in my building asked me this today, and I stammered a bit before replying, "There's no one way to answer that!" This is true of my life in general:

The House: the living room and bathroom are clean, the kitchen's full of dirty dishes (will be cleaned tonight), the bedrooms need substantial improvement, but that's not happening today.

Health, physical: Eldest and I still have the bronchial dregs of last week's cold, Big Guy's only on day three, the others seem mostly mended.

Health, mental: one withdrawn and stressed, one happy, one up-and-down, the remainder pretty much normal.

It's all a mixed bag, just like each day is filled with mixed emotions, mixed motives, and mixed successes.There are times life is like an ice cream cone on a hot day: sweet and tasty, but one side is always dripping onto your new shoes.

On the drippy side of life at the moment, I'd ask your prayers for my brother (who was just laid off);  my parents, who just learned my dad's pension will be cut by 9% a year for each of the next three years (ouch!); and for a woman who was jaw-droppingly mean yesterday to some kids we know.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

A new technique

A couple of days ago I read an article by a man with ADHD which suggested a way to help kids stay focused, using some of the innate strengths that come with ADHD. The basic plan is two-fold: 1) don't let the child sit, but do all work standing at a table that's chest-high. 2) Set the timer for 15 minutes. During that 15 minutes the child is to remain at the table, with work in front of her. If she does the work, great. If not, okay. When the timer goes off, there's no finishing the line you're writing, no reading to the end of the paragraph -- when it's time, it's time.

Then set the timer for 15 minutes of play. Same deal: the child can do whatever he/she wants, but as soon as the timer rings there's an immediate end to whatever's in progress. No excuses, no arguments, no delays, no saving the game being played, just back to the table. Then 15 minutes of work, etc.

The idea behind this (aside from the wisdom of not having to sit still!) is that ADHD kids can hyperfocus when it's to their advantage to do so. And because they hate being interrupted at something they like to do, they suddenly have a really good incentive to get work done so that there is uninterrupted time to play. Although the kids tend to goof off during the first 15-minute period, they generally quickly self-correct.

I mentioned the 15-minute idea to my squirmy and distractible one, and she was keen to try it. I didn't have a way to raise our table up (I figured we'd try the rest of the strategy first, to see if the effort of table-raising was even worthwhile), but I set the timer. WOW. I mean, WOW. In some senses it takes longer than our regular school strategy, because there's time off in between everything. But when she was working, she was working. And what was even better was that I didn't have to nag at all.

It amazed me that my daughter was able to shift from watching a video to doing phonics without any time to transition. I'm guessing that she simply switched from one hyperfocus to a different one. (I can't do that!) I also found that the 15-minute blocks of time helped me. When Snuggler was in her play time, I made phone calls, did chores, or worked with the other kids. It gave me a brief block of uninterrupted time, time when I knew that I didn't have to be supervising her work. She did almost everything unsupervised today, and that was a huge relief!

For Little Guy, who wanted to climb on the 15-minute bandwagon halfway through the morning, this strategy was a disaster. He has too many ideas that require a lot of time to execute, and needs long blocks of play time in order to settle in. For him, school is better done in one consolidated block of time, leaving the rest of the day free.

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Innovations (?)

It was her idea (not mine!) to embarass herself into action.


We had our homeschool co-op today, and since I was on assist-the-photo-class duty during first period, I came into the moms' group late. The topic of the day was discipline. There wasn't a whole lot of time for discussion, so I'm pondering out loud here.

First thought: Discipline comes from the same root as disciple, and relates more to teaching than to punishment. One good clue that a discipline method isn't effective is if the child isn't learning what you want. If it consistently doesn't work, it's time to try another mode of instruction.

Second thought: It takes a lot of self-discipline to implement a consistent system of discipline! Last night I hauled out Transforming the Difficult Child again, and it didn't take me long to figure out where I swerved off course yesterday. I am always amazed by how I think I've absorbed a lesson, only to find I've barely internalized 75% of it. This is so true across so many areas of my life that I ought to be more understanding when my children forget the basics. I mean, it's not as if I've even got the First Commandment completely down pat yet, and I've been working on it for years! But perhaps humility lies in the 25% of the lesson that I easily forget.

Third thought: We need to be careful not to focus on our kids' character issues without addressing our own. We all need discipline.

One of the mixed blessings of being a parent is that our kids bring out our weaknesses. We may moan about how they push our buttons, but the salient point is that our kids help us realize we have all those buttons. I daresay that each button my kids push is connected to a character weakness within myself. Having to face that regularly gives me insight into what I need to work on to become a better person.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

The trials of parenting

When my kids were little, in the newborn/age2/age4 range, Andrew would arrive home at the end of the day and ask, "How'd it go?" On particularly bad days my standard reply was a wry, "We're all still on this side of the window."

Today was that kind of day. I was a Good Mommy for a long, long time today. [Insert pat on back here.] I was calm and patient and detached. I made it serenely but firmly through several public meltdowns by a child of mine, and didn't crack even when this child writhed around on a crowded sidewalk screaming about how horrible I was. But after 90 minutes or so my patience wore thin. Then I was not very nice. [Remove pat from back here, and wag an accusing finger.]

We recovered for a while, due in part to my offer to "hold you without saying anything". The peace lasted a short train ride. When the fussing started up again, I was at my wits' end. I desperately needed this child to be quiet so I didn't go insane, but cooperation with a request for silence was not in the cards. So I suggested praying aloud for the length of a long city block, using a prayer that the child knew by heart. While I'd love to say I thought of this because I'm a deeply spiritual person, the truth is I just wanted something to listen to that wasn't hysteria. The child protested tearfully, "I can't even say that prayer!" However, I was given permission to go ahead and pray by myself.

I put my arm around the child's shoulder, and we adjusted our pace so we could walk together in rhythm to the prayer. I said the words over and over, slowly and calmly. They slowly seeped into our stubborn hearts, and our focus shifted away from hurt feelings and disobedience to better things. By the end of the block, life was much, much better.

Now the child and I are both left with the bouncing back portion of the day (see post below).

Getting stuck

I was having a conversation with Eldest last night about life skills and heard myself say something like, "One of the most important skills you'll need in college is the ability to get un-stuck."

Maybe I'm getting inadvertently wise or something. Getting stuck actually is a big theme of adulthood. Sometimes we get stuck in a feeling, other times in a parenting situation we don't know how to handle, and other times we are mired down in life. Learning to unstick oneself is a skill most of us learn on the job.

When I read Learned Optimism by Martin Seligman years ago, I was struck by the connection between feelings of hopelessness (or 'stuckness') and depression. When people feel powerless to change a situation, they tend to give up and sink. Those who succeed find a different way to look at the problem and what caused it.

Research shows that people of my generation have a higher incidence of depression than people who grew up in the Great Depression or World War II. This seems odd. I wonder if part of the reason is that nowadays people expect life to be comfortable, whereas in prior generations people expected life to be hard. Expectations of how things should be affect our hopes, and from there, what causes us to feel hopeless.

There are many ways to get un-stuck: divergent thinking, prayer, resourcefulness, re-directing one's pattern of thought. I wish I could say I never get stuck any more, but life is life, and sometimes I get mired down. I'm not capable of being a perpetual optimist, so I focus on being resilient. What other choice do we have, really, but to bounce back?

Here's a thought: faith is the one thing in the modern world where there's a model for getting unstuck. We sin, we fall, we ask forgiveness, it's granted... and life goes on. We're to strive to be the best we can be, but it's considered normal to mess up. The other day Little Guy was naughty, and when he was caught he wailed, "I hate myself!" I raised an eyebrow, gave him an are you nuts? look and replied, "You don't have to hate yourself. You just have to say you're sorry."

Monday, September 28, 2009

Little Guy says...

after spilling laundry detergent on the wooden floor in the living room, and cleaning up almost all of it:

"Well, at least it will provide acceleration for my tricycle!"

Saturday, September 26, 2009

And the Nutcracker roles are...

Russian boy, battle scene, and gingerbread.

Dancer was kind of hoping she'd get to be a boy this year, since the bonus is getting to be in the battle scene. Her performances (for the party scene) will be on Saturday, Dec. 12 at 2 and 7, and possibly the matinee on Dec 13. We don't know yet when her gingerbread performances will be. There could be some overlap.

At least if we have to shlep all the way over to the studio, it's not for a one-hour rehearsal! More like... 3 or 4 hours?! Guess I'd better get my laptop fixed!