Friday, April 30, 2010

All's well that ends well

Last night was Little Guy's very first play rehearsal. He and Snuggler have been cast in Fairy Tales From Around the World up at the children's theater. We walked up there (well, Little Guy ran the whole mile, he was so excited). Someone else was bringing them home.

Rehearsal was over at 7pm. When the kids didn't arrive home by 7:30, I assumed that the person bringing them had stopped at the grocery or something. I didn't worry about it, because the director of the theater gets annoyed when parents don't show up, and he's prompt about calling if you're not there on time. But by 7:45pm I decided something was wrong.

I called the woman who was supposed to drive. "Do you have my kids?" I asked.
"No! Your daughter didn't say anything, so I didn't think I was supposed to bring them!"

I frantically called the theater to say I was on my way, but the answering machine picked up. My kids had been waiting for 45 minutes. The sun was setting. I took the subway (we don't own a car), but given how much I paced the platform, I might as well have run. In between fervent prayers, I figured that physically the kids would be okay, because they would have been waiting outdoors in an area not visible to passersby. How they'd be emotionally was another story. Little Guy has some anxiety issues, and Snuggler can be a worrier, too.

It was almost dark when I ran up the last half-block, calling out my kids' names. Two yelps of "Mommy!" responded -- and Little Guy leapt into my arms and stayed there, glued tight, until we arrived back at the subway.

As the story unfolded, it became clear there had been a near-Shakespearean confusion of who was supposed to do what. The kids had forgotten they were supposed to go home with the other mom. I'd thought the ride was a done deal, but should have confirmed, anyway. The director, who is normally very strict about pick-up, had a dress rehearsal for a different play immediately following the kids' rehearsal, and didn't realize the kids were still there. The kids knew the director was stressed, and didn't want to bother him to call home.They didn't have a cell, because it didn't occur to me that they had a reason to need one.

Snuggler was amazing. She dug deep and kept herself -- and her brother -- calm and rational. She read the script in funny voices to distract him. When Little Guy wanted to go home, she explained why they couldn't take the train, and why they couldn't walk. She knew to stay put, that (eventually) I'd come."I kept thinking of things that could have happened to you," she said, "But then I'd say, 'Nah, that's not very likely'."  I'm extremely proud of my eight year old.

We had a lot to be thankful for last night:
  • that it is spring, and the sky stayed light for so long
  • that sensible minds prevailed
  • that everyone was safe
  • that Mom and Dad love their children, and would never abandon them
  • that the subway worked relatively quickly
  • that we had a warm, safe home to return to
  • that Mommy's arms are still big enough to hold Little Guy when he's scared
And of course we were thankful for the ice cream we bought on the way home, to celebrate that all was, eventually, well.

Thursday, April 29, 2010


When I was a girl, one of my favorite parts of vacation was stopping at a factory en route to Grandma's house and taking a tour. So when I saw that a fellow homeschooler had organized a tour of a local artisan glass studio, I signed up in a snap.

This morning the kids were not enthusiastic about going. But once inside the glass works -- oh, my! Is there anything cooler than watching molten glass come out of a 2000-degree furnace? 

We got to visit the torch area, to see how they draw glass out as thin as angel hair, and how beads are made. We visited the flat shop, where they make stained glass and 'slump' sheets of glass into vases. Then we went to the main part of the glassworking studio, where there were two furnaces, seven glory holes, and a pile of annealers. Two guys made a blue vase in front of us, to which they attached a clear glass fish.

Snuggler now knows what she is going to be when she grows up. But she'll have to wait a few years before she embarks on her career as a glassblower. Classes start at age 12. I wanna go!

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Silver linings

Big Guy is heading back to school today, after two mental health days. Real mental health days: a couple of traumatic incidents two weeks ago plunged him into an anxiety-induced depression. At the end of last week his school social worker called, saying she thought we should take him in for a psych eval. We'd already guessed we were headed in that direction.

We've been down this road before. As a parent, it means pushing aside personal feelings and struggling to focus my tear-blurred heart on what's best for Big Guy. It helps that this isn't the first time. It helps that we have a good support team in place. It helps that we have friends who pray for us and offer their support.

A while back I ran across a saying I like:

Sometimes we're so busy looking for gold that we miss the silver lining.

When you have a child who comes with a lot of dark clouds, you need to hone your silver lining-seeing skills. It's not enough -- and honestly it's not enough for anyone, at any time, with any kind of child -- to funk your way through the day, grousing about difficulty and focused on imperfections. If you can see clouds, it's because there's light behind them. Your life will be a lot easier when you train your eyes to see it.

Having Big Guy has taught me to be thankful for every day I have with my child. His troubles have taught me humility. They have showed me the map of my own frustrations and weaknesses, and taught me the difference between reacting and responding to my children. Big Guy has made me realize I'm not as good a person as I thought I was. He has given me the impetus to become a better human being. He has taught me patience (the hard way) and discernment (the hard way) and resourcefulness  (the hard way). I would have chosen the easy path, had it been offered. But I'd rather be on this path with my son than not at all.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Living in a house with 6,000 or so adult books, and 2,000 children's books, we're always lacking for shelf space. This concept made me laugh out loud.

According to ReadyMade, "Books are heavy and somewhat difficult to transport if you want to bring, say, more than 10 along with you. But thanks to David Garcia Studio’s mobile bookcase (Archive II), you can roll your personal library with you wherever your feet take you—and it even offers a place to curl up and read a few chapters. A gerbil wheel for bibliophiles, this interesting  concept was “inspired by ancient traveling libraries from the Far East, which visited courts and cities, Archive II transforms this into a personal space, where walking and reading coexist as refuge and transport.”"

One wonders: where, exactly, would you take your books in a contraption like this? Down the street to a friend's? Would you roll along the sidewalk, or compete with cars on the street? Would it even fit through the door? How would you get up the stairs?

And yet, there's something about the contraption that I intensely like.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

In Code

The boys have been making up codes all evening. A while ago Little Guy came in and said, "I need help. I don't know 26 beer names! I only know Corona, Amstel Lite, and Stella Artois."

Then he came back and handed Andrew a piece of paper with this on it:

   Bud Lite

Natch. "I love you." In beer code. Next time you think collecting bottle caps in the park is innocuous, think again.

Family time

When the kids were younger, it was easy to find family activities that involved everyone. Now, with an age span of six to fifteen, it's a bit tougher. Picnics work. Select museums are a possibility. The beach and Marx Brothers movies are good bets. But lately the family activity of choice is...

old Star Trek episodes. They make my people happy.

Thursday, April 22, 2010


Little Guy has been slower than I anticipated at mastering addition and subtraction facts, and as he seemed to be stuck in the doldrums for quite a while, last week I did the old trick of making it easier by making the work harder. Instead of waiting for him to get all the single-digit facts quickly, we moved to double digits. He's happier, and working harder now. (Shhh! He hasn't noticed he's getting twice the practice now that he's using bigger numbers.) I taught him to carry, too, because if you're going to add 8+7 you might as well know how to do it within 38+27.

Today during math time Little Guy got sidetracked playing the Two-Host Tapeworm Game that's in What's Eating You?: Parasites -- The Inside Story, which we borrowed from the library yesterday. So today's math looked like this:

We couldn't find two dice, so every time Little Guy needed to roll the one he had he shouted, "DIE! DIE!" But math sure went quickly.


Little Guy has figured out that if he stays quiet after we've said it's time to go to sleep, we're likely to forget to check to see if he's still up. Last night he darted through to get some tape after hours, so I knew something was brewing. (Though, knowing him, he might just be snuggling up to the tape dispenser to get to sleep.)

This is a fish:

But THIS....

is an alien mutant bat.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010


I bought a couple of books by Lori Lite to use with Little Guy. He tends to be quick with the temper, and I'm trying to teach him some relaxation techniques. We've been reading A Boy and a Bear: The Children's Relaxation Book at night, last thing before bed. It's a rather plot-free story about a boy who meets a polar bear after climbing a mountain, and how they lie down on a warm rock, and breathe until they are relaxed. The great appeal for Little Guy is that he gets to act out the story. The book teaches how to breathe in a way that does, in fact, quickly release tension. The idea is to practice this daily, so that eventually it will become a skill that can be put to use as needed. We also have Angry Octopus. That one teaches how to tense and then relax your muscles. Again, not a scintillating story line, but it doesn't seem to matter.

Angry Octopus: A Relaxation StoryA Boy and a Bear: The Children's Relaxation Book

Sunday, April 18, 2010

A long ramble

Our read-aloud at the moment is Stout-Hearted Seven. It's about the Sager children, who were orphaned on the Oregon Trail in the mid-1800s. It's not a particularly well-written book, but it does give a sense of what life was like traveling west. Yesterday we got to the chapter where the mother dies of trail fever.

"I don't like this! Stop!" squirmed Little Guy.
"This makes me think about if you die! I don't want you to die!" wailed Snuggler.

I remember lying in bed one night at about age ten, realizing that some day my parents would die. I sobbed for a while, then I distracted myself, then approached the grief again, then backed away. It fascinated me that there are painful truths in the background of our lives all the time, things we don't approach on a daily basis because we couldn't function if we did.

Death is one of those truths.I don't talk a whole lot about death with my kids, but I don't avoid talking about it, either. I know a lot of parents who inwardly panic when their kids ask about dying. I suppose that's because a lot of people aren't sure what to say, and aren't sure what they believe. Or maybe it's because we don't want to let our children know the dirty little secret that some aspects of life hurt. But the less we talk about death with our kids, the more of a shock it becomes when we (and they) have to face it.

*    *     *     *     *     *

In the abstract, death it isn't so bad. We're inured to blowing people up in movies and zapping them on video games and verifiably killing them from miles away in real life with high-tech equipment. Surrounded by virtual (or seemingly virtual) death, we're unaccustomed to the real thing up close.

We don't like real death. I've a hunch we're far worse at dealing with it than our grandparents were, or even our parents. All those old, gray family stories of accidents on the farm and babies (and mothers) who died in childbirth and long-ago uncles who met their end in The War were tragedies in Technicolor for the people who survived. If you knew your great-grandma, she probably lived through the flu of 1918, which killed more people in a year than the Bubonic Plague (at its worst killed) in four. A hundred years ago, people were more familiar with death than we are.

A lot of people today are petrified of death. I think this is related to the modern American assumptions that a) we're in control of our lives, and b) we're entitled to a pain-free, suffering-free life. We get annoyed when things aren't easily fixable. We are oriented toward gain, and dismissive of loss. We live in a world of disposable contacts, disposable diapers, and disposable dishes, and have grown accustomed to tossing things out without any sense of attachment. Whatever we do lose is usually replaceable. Loss that is painful is not part of our daily experience. We are rich.

There is one thing the world tells us is non-disposable: our desires. We're bombarded with messages that urge us to believe life is all about us. It's all about what we want, and dream, and hope. The problem is that death doesn't care what we want. Death strips us of the illusion that we are in control. It hurts.

*     *     *     *     *     *

Andrew's father died four days after Eldest was born.The juxtaposition of blossoming new life and raw, wrinkled death was intense. I couldn't help but think how physical these two landmarks of life are. I'd never been so aware of bodies before: mine, my baby's, my father-in-law's.

A baby's body is a tiny miracle: amazing toes, eyes that work and fingers that grasp. We are overwhelmed and astonished, although we ourselves have inhabited the same kind of machine all our days. We see that physical miracle unravel with age. Yet the real miracle is that life exists at all, that we are given the gift of days to treasure and joy to give.

So I'd argue that we aren't here on this earth just for our own satisfaction. It's not all about us. I think back on the times when someone said something that changed my life for the better, and almost all of them have one thing in common. The person who changed my life probably doesn't  even remember having done it. That informs how I live my life.

This is what I think about death: Aim to live generously. Give of yourself freely. Do the right thing every chance you get. A lot of what we do, and how we change the world, happens where we can't see it and we'll never know it made a difference. Fill your life with thoughtfulness, and you will have a full life... and so will the people around you. When life is full, the prospect of death is a lot less scary.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Of accidents and incompetence

Last night I sent one of my kids to take an unwieldy cart-load of darks down to the laundry room. A few minutes after she left the child returned, crying. While she was struggling to get the laundry cart up the hallway steps, the detergent bottle fell off, the lid splintered, and a couple of cups of detergent spilled out on the floor.

I got the dustpan and broom and headed down. A mop, bucket, and several towels later we had the mess cleaned up. It was an inconvenience, but not a catastrophe. Everyone who passed by as we were cleaning related his or her own story of spilled detergent. It happens. I'm not sure if that particular message got through to my child or not, for she seemed to be having an inner conversation that involved words like stupid and incompetent. Accidents are different than incompetence.

*      *      *      *      *      *      *

Yesterday morning I attended a meeting at the school across the street. That school, along with 17 others in struggling parts of the city, had been chosen to participate in a grant from the GE Foundation for STEM education in middle schools. It was much-needed money, exactly the kind of impetus this school needed to move to a new level in science and math. It raised everyone's sights, as well as hearts. People were motivated, parents were involved.

The other day our city's Department of Education announced that it had decided that although there had been successes in the first year of the four-year grant, the successes "probably weren't sustainable". No evidence, just a hunch. So the DoE decided unilaterally -- without giving the schools involved any feedback on what had been going well or wrong -- to do something different.

Here's what they're doing: instead of focused development of STEM curricula for inner-city middle schoolers, the remaining $8 million of the grant will be used to train teachers in 60 schools (20 elementary, 20 middle, 20 high schools) across the city so that they'll know how to teach to the upcoming Common Core State Standards. (These are the new national educational standards that are being developed in response to President Obama's Race to the Top initiative.)

I've got nothing against the Common Core. Higher standards are, generally, a good thing. But it doesn't take much searching to find out that the draft of the Common Core standards came out in mid-March. From there it's a hop, skip and jump to the realization that our Department of Education looked at the standards, realized they were in deep doo-doo, and started scrambling about for money to save their rears. They saw funding that smelled vaguely of teacher training, and spread it about as thinly as they could.

But it's not as if the DoE was unaware that the standards were on their way. It's not as if they didn't know where our city's kids usually end up on nationally normed tests. It's not that they were clueless  that the new standards would require inquiry-based assessments which our teachers don't know how to implement. So why didn't they budget for it? Where was the plan?

Excuse me while I sputter, but these are the people who are supposed to be teaching our children how to think!

Oh, if only life were as simple as spilled laundry detergent!

Note to daughter: if you ever become an official with the Department of Education and neglect the obvious so thoroughly that it has a negative effect on thousands of schoolchildren, you can call yourself stupid and incompetent. Until then, rest easy.

Monday, April 12, 2010


Andrew and Eldest got back from MIT just in time to see Dancer's last performance. The bus got in at 4:45, and they had tickets for the 5pm show. I was working backstage and watched from the wings.

Several thing struck me yesterday:

1. Dancer's made a lot of progress this year. I've always thought in terms of there being "the big kids" and "the little kids" in these performances. But Dancer is part of an intermediate group that's doing real stuff and looking like real ballet students. She's not a little kid any more.

2. I'm naive about how rude kids can be. Yesterday I asked a 13-year old to stop using graphic language, and she looked me straight in the eye and said, "But I always talk that way!" (I looked straight back and replied evenly, "You don't in here!")

3. Dancer choses good friends.

4. My kid kept herself organized and got herself to rehearsals all week long. I did her hair, but she handled everything else. She held up well under the verbal barrage of her stressed-out dance master, and managed her exhaustion well. I know she would have loved to see all her family and friend in the audience, but she never complained that (at $30/ticket) it wasn't possible.

5.My camera was in Massachusetts, so I have no pictures. But Dancer, you were beautiful. You are beautiful, both inside and out.

Update: someone sent me pictures! Dancer is in the middle row, on the far right.

Saturday, April 10, 2010


Our local park had a wildlife appreciation day today, featuring animals found in city parks, so I took Little Guy up to see what was there.

The inventory (alive): three kinds of owls, a red-tailed hawk, a baby squirrel with his eyes still unopened, a de-scented skunk, five kinds of turtles, and an opossum.

There were also pelts and skulls of coyotes and raccoons, and a stuffed wolf. (There's an active coyote population a couple of miles away, and a coyote was seen within five blocks of here a couple of months back.)

We have some big Pogo fans around here, and Little Guy was so excited about the opossum that he had to call Andrew up in Cambridge on the cell to tell him he'd met Pogo!

There's something kind of funny about when a child's reality begins with a comic strip, and then extends out to real life. So now Little Guy knows what an opossum looks like. He is very happy.

The copyright on the cartoon belongs to the inimitable Walt Kelly. It's one of my favorite snippets.

Today's mystifying child moment

Little Guy: Mom, did you know that last night I Googled 'junky kids toys on a wild goose chase', and nothing came up?

Well, no. I didn't know he knew how to Google anything. Or that he'd been online. And I couldn't imagine that my six year old  could spell well enough to get a real result, anyway.

Being the sort of person I am, I immediately typed junky kids toys on a wild goose chase in the search bar. There were some results (along with the interesting Did you mean funky kids toys on a wild goose chase?) but the words were scattered all over. So I added quotation marks to see if there were any instances of the phrase itself. And there weren't. At all. It hadn't occurred to me that there would ever be a phrase that was nowhere on the 'net. But there was.

Except, of course, now it's come into existence. 'Cause you read it here first.


I am a morning person. It's when I think best, and am at my most mellow.

Not many other people need my attention at dawn. But even a lifetime ago (when I was single, and Solitude was my middle name), I got up at first light. I like the sounds of morning: the humming of the refrigerator, the gurgle of the coffee machine, the swish of the wind coming in over the river. Later in the day these quiet noises are lost.

Thoughts sift down in the early mist, unfrenzied and undisturbed. I need slow time, an input-free oasis, to let perceptions and emotions and ideas emerge from my overloaded brain. In the morning, every now and again, an insight comes to rest on my heart. It's my time to process life.

*             *             *            *             *           *

Andrew is a night person. My boys are owls, too. Little Guy has been dropping off at 11:30 or so, lately. I am a slime mold by that time of night.

My girls need a solid ten hours of sleep, preferably eleven, to avoid ursine behavior. The correlation between sleep deprivation and irritability runs strong around here, so I crank up the Mean Mommy Machine when people aren't in bed on time. Their sleep makes a difference in my day.

*             *             *            *             *           *

During the day I am a master multitasker, but at night it is hard to even task. I have a Cheshire Brain which fades into nothingness at dusk, leaving behind only the half-crazed grin of an exhausted parent. Endurance is the watchword of the evening. I help with homework, untangle teen emotions, and hopefully corral my offspring into bed. And then it's quiet. The day is over. We're on our way to morning.

Thursday, April 8, 2010


I am a big believer in natural consequences. This is partly because for me it's often easier to let life take its course than to try to argue my way into a child's brain. I have many a story about letting children go barefoot in January, or coatless in March. (But I wait until it's 12 degrees out with a 35 mile an hour wind before I take this approach! And I do generally offer an intermediate ground, as in, "Shall we bring your shoes just in case?")

Finding good consequences -- consequences that work when there aren't natural ones to do the trick -- is a parental art form. For me, life is a lot easier when I have a plan for how I'm going to handle likely-to-occur problems. This is because I am not very good at making up effective consequences on the spot. When I'm het up I tend to lay on the consequences too heavily.

At our homeschool, the basic requirements of any school apply: you have to do the work assigned to you. I operate on the premise that if you don't do an assignment well, or at all, you need more practice. Because that way you'll get better at it, right? Right. So that's my Plan: you don't have to cooperate, but if you don't, you get more work.

Now, I know that everyone thinks they have strong-willed children. I've been known to think that myself at times. And I do, in fact, have one child who could out-stubborn a mule. This morning a different child managed to spend most of a half-hour complaining about a phonics sheet, without ever putting a word down on paper. Eventually I set the timer for five minutes, with the stipulation that if it went off and one side of one page was not done, another (double-sided) page would be added. And I reminded the child that life in its fullness was not an option until schoolwork was done.

Five minutes passed. The timer rang. I added another page.
Five more minutes passed. The timer rang. I added a second page.
Five more minutes passed, then timer, and a third page was added.
Five more minutes passed, then timer, and a fourth page was added.
Five more minutes passed, then timer, and a fifth page was added.

I was beginning to think we'd finish the entire year's phonics curriculum today when the child finally proposed doing a different page from the one that "I can't do", in order to stop the accumulation. I personally didn't care which six pages the child did, and graciously accepted the offer. 

By then I'd reached the conclusion that the consequences I'd imposed weren't working. Another 30 seconds and I would have said, "You've earned five extra pages, but I can see that adding another one isn't going to help you get the job done. So I need to take a break for a few minutes to figure out another strategy."

When a child digs his or her way into a deep hole, it can be tough figuring out where the boundary is between holding the line and throwing in a rope to haul'em out. Sometimes you get it right, and sometimes you don't.

But if advantage #1 of Having a Plan is that you don't have to invent stuff on the fly, advantage #2 is that it's a lot easier to keep your cool for a solid hour. And advantage #3 is that when things don't go as you hoped, at least you have a Plan to reassess instead of a jumble of half-thought-out strategies.

An afterthought: I think any effective plan must center on making whatever the problem is the child's problem. If Mom is mad, or frustrated, or cranky, that's Mom's problem. My kids aren't interested in solving my problems. But they can sometimes be persuaded to solve their own.

Most kids do eventually get with the program. There are those who don't -- I have at least one who is very inflexible and prone to dramatic emotional liquidation at the slightest thing that's not right -- and if you have one of those I highly recommend Ross Greene's book, The Explosive Child.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Two little things that make my day better

1. A while back I signed up to receive the word of the day. They come up with some amazing vocabulary. This past week's choices included:

terriculament   n. a cause of fear, v. to inspire with groundless fear
aplustre   n. the ornament rising above the stern of ancient ships
and my favorite:
snarge   n. the remains of birds that have collided with airplanes.

As a word lover, it gives me ridiculous pleasure to learn terms I don't know. There's clearly a lot left in the dictionary for me to discover!

2. I've also been visiting Head for Art, a blog that features commentary on a different piece at the National Gallery each day. One of my vague regrets in life is that I never took art history in college (I figured it would be easy enough to learn all that on museum tours after I graduated). Absorbing it in little bites, a picture at a time, gives me something to chew on without having to swallow with a gulp. I'm liking that.

Sunday, April 4, 2010


Today during church Little Guy climbed on my lap. "I feel strange," he said.
"What do you mean?" I countered.
"I feel like I don't exist," my six year old said.
I paused.
"Well," I said, "That must be a scary feeling."
"It is," Little Guy replied.
"I'm pretty sure you do exist," I said, "Because I feel you and I love you. And because from the very beginning of time, God knew His creation wouldn't be complete if you weren't part of it."
Little Guy snuggled closer. And we went back to paying attention to the Easter service.

Friday, April 2, 2010

Oh... and yesterday's other piece of good news

The weather was gorgeous yesterday, so the kids and I went up to the park for our first picnic of the year. We ate fresh fruit and hummus in the sunshine, they climbed on a large yew tree, I read Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry Into the Value of Work.

When we arrived home there was an overnight package with the stammer-worthy news that Eldest has been selected as a Rabi Scholar. That was more than a little amazing. We knew Columbia wanted her, but... wow.

MIT also came in with a fine package of scholarships, though nothing quite so heady as this. So where (or if) Eldest goes to college is entirely up to her. At this point the primary factor is probably  where she feels she fits in best. And gee it's nice to be able to choose between two great places. 

An utterly unprecedented event

Last night I took Eldest and Dancer to Maundy Thursday services. Andrew was home with the other kids, but had a cold and apparently slept all evening. I knew that without parental supervision the chances that anyone would actually be in bed (other than Andrew) when I got home were non-existent.

I got home at 10pm, and as I unlocked the door I could hear raucous laughter and running water. Huh? The boys were in the kitchen, washing the dishes!

Yes, you read that right. They were washing the dishes and no one had asked them to do it. Big Guy decided that with dad sick and mom coming home late, he ought to clean up the kitchen. And since Little Guy had been squabbling with Snuggler, Big Guy whitewashed the dishtowel, as it were, and conned him into helping out. The two of them were having a grand old time.

The moral: Never say never. If you'd told me it could happen here, I would have given you that tell me another one, and it had better be good look that only a parent can master.

Washing the dishes without being asked. Amazing.