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.