Thursday, July 29, 2010


I have several kids who get frustrated quickly. I suspect it's partly because a lot of things come easily to them, and they think that's the way it 'should' be. Over the years I've developed a large repertoire of things to say to help kids get past I'm no good at this! The quickest fix is simply to add a couple of key words:

"I'm no good at this!" ---> I'm no good at this yet.
"I can't do it!" ---> I can't do it unless I work hard.
"I'll never get this!" ---> I'll never get this if I don't stick with it.

It's all in the self-talk. There's a new study out that adds a dimension to self-talk that I haven't seen before. Apparently determination is fostered by questions more than by statements. People who declare "I will finish this project tonight!" don't follow through as well as people who ask themselves, "Will I finish this project tonight?" There's something about asking a Bob the Builder question (Can we build it? -- Yes we can!) that pushes one to respond in the affirmative, and builds motivation.

I'm pondering how to incorporate this into my parenting. Thus far I've rejected questions like, "Will it take a long time to pick up this enormous mess?", because I'm sure the response I get will be "Nooooooooo! I can't do that!"

Still thinking...

Wednesday, July 28, 2010


My kids have a picture book called Would You Rather... by John Burningham which has gotten a lot of use. It present silly choices, and it makes for good interaction and funny discussions. (The link brings you to the hardcover page, but there *is* a paperback version.) It's the kind of book you send to cousins, or give to a child with siblings, because it will free up mom for a couple of afternoons while the kids quiz each other. My mom gave us our copy, and we're glad to have it.

We seem to be stuck in a dark Would You Rather... here, one where the choices run more on the lines of would you rather drown in the ocean, or be eaten by a shark? I've been in this place before; it's where you get to choose what you hope is the least-worst solution. Except in this situation we're limited to a voice-your-opinion role. It's not in our control.

There is a lot in life that we don't control. Most of it, frankly, doesn't matter. If you write down a list of the things that drive you nuts (to serve as a proxy for what you want to be in control of), I'd be willing to bet that there are few things on your list that are life threatening. Generally it's our reactions that are more life-threatening (or at least life-scarring) than whatever pushed our buttons.

In The Art of Choosing, Sheena Iyengar writes about the research on how we make choices, why we make choices, and what kinds of choices we really want to make. Parents who are asked to decide whether to continue or cut off life support for their child are notably more unsettled and unhappy later on than parents who are informed by doctors of the possible options but told which option has been selected. This is because although we like to feel like we're in control, we don't like to second-guess ourselves. It stinks to live in an endless state of what if I'd chosen the other door.

Hence I'm aware that there's a certain blessing in not being the one who ultimately decides what is going to happen. On the other hand, the illusion of having some influence over the outcome is an ingredient of hope. We like hope. It helps.


Rush hour. Andrew, Big Guy and I snagged a 3-seater on the subway, en route to our meeting. The car filled up with people who, on the outside, appeared to have normal lives. This is an illusion: surely in that number of people there is someone grieving, someone just diagnosed with a dreaded disease, someone severely depressed. You can't tell. I knew they couldn't tell what was screaming in my heart, either, just from looking.

But then I began to cry, and if someone looked up from iPod or newspaper or book, it would have been obvious all was not well. Andrew reached over and took my hand.

After 17 years of marriage we don't hold hands much any more, and when we do I don't sit around and gaze at how our fingers twine.

I stared at Andrew's wedding ring, and remembered the excitement of going to the souk-like shops on 47th Street in Manhattan to buy it.

I thought of the first weeks after we were married, when Andrew tapped his ring on the subway pole to make it clink, a call to all that said, Look at me! I'm married!

I looked at his fingernails cut crooked (he's never learned), and at his small, gentle hands. The skin is slightly more wrinkled now, the veins a bit more prominent. The same is true of mine. Given how much I feel I've aged in the past two months, our hands looked surprisingly youthful.

Andrew worries about getting older, but I do not think of him as old. I think of him as my spouse, the man given to me for always, the man I love. The man who will hold my hand when I cry on the subway in the middle of a crowd that doesn't know what is in my heart.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010


Snuggler and Little Guy are at a half-day camp this week, where they do an hour each of art, yoga, and cooking. We've adopted one of Snuggler's best friends for the duration. Yesterday afternoon after we arrived home the girls convinced me to take them to the 99-cent store to buy knockoff Barbies. They wanted to mummify them. This is a favorite activity around here; if your kids get into it, find the Aliki book Mummies Made in Egypt to learn all the steps.

Since made-in-China plastic doesn't decay for centuries, technique didn't matter as much as, say, the time we mummified a real chicken. That took weeks, and several pounds of salt. Yesterday's activity was based on the project in Snuggler's Book of Artrageous Projects, and involved cheap makeup and stick-on jewels and toilet paper and masking tape and shoe boxes. Today they unwrapped the mummies and -- lo and behold! -- the dolls were perfectly preserved!

Tomorrow we're unwrapping some of the Big Guy crisis, and it's making Andrew and me feel rather ancient and dried out. If you could encircle us in your thoughts and prayers, we would appreciate it.

Photo from the ApplesandJammies blog.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

A regular day

I shut the fan off this evening for the first time since we bought it a few weeks ago. The wind is whipping in off the river, cool and humid. It's not comfortable, but neither is it the sticky discomfort of the past few weeks.

The kids have been busy this evening: Little Guy built a fan-and-light contraption out of snap circuits, Snuggler tried to make tempera paint out of pigment and egg yolks, and there are Legos and stuffed animals around the house, leftovers from games made up earlier in the day. We just did a quick clean-up, and now Big Guy is coordinating a game of Chrononauts with Snuggler and Dancer. Little Guy is looking on, in the hope that he will be able to understand how to play. Cooler weather makes cooperation easier.

Eldest and Andrew have left to see Hitchcock's "The Birds" in HD on the big screen. I didn't volunteer to go; I'm still in recovery from the last time I saw it.

I spent part of the day editing pieces that have come in for The Book, and writing additional material. It is satisfying to have something to work on that involves making things better. I like the mental puzzle of this work. I'm not so wild about the keeping-track-of-everything aspect -- versions upon versions, and did I remember to put the author's feedback in and update my spreadsheet? -- but I plug away at it.

Tonight, life feels normal. I finally understand that's a gift. 

Friday, July 23, 2010

Pound sign

For every parent who either likes comic books (and they way people curse within them) or who is trying to clean up his/her language:

(not my usual taste in music, but the song made me smile!)

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Everyday toys

I was reading a blog post about how to cure kids of 'potty talk', which suggested that the cure was to have the child sit in the bathroom and talk to the potty. This is brilliant for a certain type of child. For Little Guy and Snuggler it would be a disaster. I mean, there's water in a bathroom. There's shaving cream. Soap. Toilet paper. It would not be boring. Trust me.

I learned my lesson on this back when Eldest was four and Big Guy was two, and I got fed up with their messiness. I'd tried many, many methods of trying to get them to pick up after themselves. One day in desperation I decided to remove ALL the toys from their room except for one for each child (their choice). I explained to my children that if they took good care of their toy, the next day they would be allowed to choose a second toy. At the end of the second day (if all went well), they could choose a third. Smart, eh?

No, not smart. Do you know those kids never asked for a second toy? Never. They played happily with a rubber band they found, made a game of 'library' with their books, invented things from paper, and seemed utterly content. It wasn't stubbornness on their part; they genuinely didn't need toys in order to play. They could play with anything.

For an entire month those toys sat in a corner of my room, until the clutter drove me crazy. When I finally put the toys back, the kids were delighted. It was like Christmas all over again. They were happy. They played with the toys. And it was still a battle to get things put away at the end of the day.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Thought progression on doing hard things

  1. I don't wanna do this.
  2. I shouldn't have to do this.
  3. I don't think I can do this.
  4. No one should have to do this.
  5. I guess I don't have any choice.
Kinda sums up my day. Going through a really rough time with the Big Guy issue. Wish my magic wand was working...

Monday, July 19, 2010


Nine years ago today my water broke as I brought Eldest and Big Guy home from a tennis lesson at the school across the street. I'd never had my water break before -- my children were all notably reluctant to emerge from the womb -- so I didn't realize at first that this was not simply a weak bladder. When I finally grasped that walking around leaving a trail of water was more than incontinence, I called Andrew and told him that though I had no contractions yet he ought to start heading home. Then I called Dancer's godmother, who was going to be our overnight babysitter. Then I padded myself up and brought the kids over to the school for the previously-promised school lunch, the main attraction of which was chocolate milk.

It never occurred to me that Andrew would take a cab home. I figured he'd take the train, and it would be at least an hour before he arrived. Hence my husband arrived to find the apartment empty, without even a note to say where the family had gone. Andrew made a series of increasingly phone calls, and by the time we arrived home, my poor husband was in quite a state. He was slightly aghast at my cheerful suggestion that we walk the mile to the hospital, to get the contractions going.

It was a full twelve hours before Snuggler was born. She was the biggest of my babies (9 pounds, 2 ounces), and the hardest labor. She is my best hugger, my big-hearted one, the girl who shares without being prompted and forgives without being cajoled. She is the one who at age seven raised over a thousand dollars to build wells in Uganda. I love her to distraction.

Dancer made the cake today. Impressive, no?

Friday, July 16, 2010


Snuggler and Little Guy have been at Vacation Bible School this week. The theme was pirates (which I don't quite understand), and the crafts were related. Today they came home with picture frames. Look carefully. "Hey Mom!" said Snuggler, "I titled mine 'Oil Spill'!"

Questions of the day

  •  What is it about leaving the house that prompts the brain, when you're already ten minutes late and two blocks away, to remember that you forgot to make that important call to the person who's leaving on vacation today?
  • At what age/BMI/number-of-offspring does the list of things you forgot exceed the list of things you've accomplished in one morning?
  • Which corporation or organization would you nominate for the Densest Customer Service Reps Award? 
  • What portion of the decisions in your life fall in each of the following categories:
    • Desire vs. need
    • Good vs. better
    • Good vs. bad
    • Bad vs. worse
  • How much of your day is (mostly) under your control?

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Other-shoe days

Little Guy and Snuggler are in a half-day camp this week, and I've been enjoying three hours of solitude each afternoon. I bring along my laptop, plop myself in a cafe, and get scads of work done. I even have time for a 10-minute phone call to Andrew to see how he's doing.

Today, though, I had that other-shoe's-about-to-drop feeling all day long. (Heavens know what happened to the first shoe. I probably left it on the dining room table, along with the after-camp snack.)

Objectively speaking, nothing awful happened today. There were bits and pieces of news (good and bad), and some minor frustrations. An errant electric guitar squalled its way into my path, and the sound yanked the myelin off my nerve cells. The kids were tired and bickered on the way home. Everything I said felt like it came out wrong. Everything I did seemed to be just slightly 'off'. Andrew didn't come home until 8:30, and after he ate he threw up.

But that doesn't add up to a shoe about to drop.Which mean, ladies and gents, that whatever was wrong with my world today came from inside me. Now how annoying is that?!?

Monday, July 12, 2010

Bugging out

One morning recently Little Guy and Big Guy woke up with bug bites all over their legs. We rarely get mosquitoes here in the city -- an oddity I don't understand but do appreciate -- and Little Guy was rather alarmed. Apparently he'd learned (somewhere) that mosquitoes can carry diseases. I explained that the incidence of malaria and West Nile Virus was low in the urban northeast, but that didn't assuage his fear.

The bites were numerous enough that the next night I sprayed both boys with bug repellant. Little Guy woke up bite-free, but Big Guy did not. Big Guy had slept with the door to his room closed, so we knew the problem originated in  his room. We then remembered that we'd opened the upper half of Big Guy's window one very hot night, and it was screenless. Ah. Mystery solved.

The mosquitoes have now mostly disappeared, but Little Guy is still very anxious about them at bedtime. Anxiety is the anti-lullaby of the month around here: Snuggler wrestles with it, too. I'm sure it's related to the Big Guy trauma. I tried to explain to Little Guy last night about the window, but he was too wrought-up to process that. It was late, I was tired, and I did the lame-mom thing and sprayed him with insect repellant again so he could fall asleep.

Bug spray is not a real solution, of course. Phobias grow the more you avoid the occasion of dealing with them. But impromptu exposure therapy isn't really an option with mosquitoes (or if it is, I'm not gonna run out and catch a few just to try it). Step #2 in the phobia-fighting arsenal is to challenge flaws in logical thinking, but that isn't very effective with children (or at least my children!) before about age 10. What works around here is asking "Well, what would we do if X happened?" Kids often don't know that there is a next step, and another one after that, and another one after that. So today I'll be asking how we'd know if a mosquito bite gave us West Nile, and what we'd do if we had that symptom, and what we'd do if it didn't seem to get better, and so on.

There's a nice little summary of approaches for dealing with phobias here. It's not written about kids specifically, but it has some good ideas in it.

Friday, July 9, 2010

"It's not the heat, it's the humility" -- Yogi Berra

I've read Gabriel Garcia Marquez' One Hundred Years of Solitude twice. The first time was while traveling in Spain the summer after I graduated from college. The second time was a year later, during the rainy season while living in Puerto Rico. I understood it better in PR, because the idea that it could be so steamy-hot that one could accidentally sleep for twenty years was suddenly feasible. I can remember a summer weekend that year when my ceiling fan broke and I slept until I was so sweaty I woke up, took a cool shower, and then slept again. Sweat, rinse, sleep, repeat.

Last night after supper Eldest and I went out to Bed, Bath and Beyond and bought three expensive fans. Our house is not air conditioned, and yesterday Snuggler informed me that she'd unplugged the 30-year old whole-house fan because "Sometimes it gives off sparks." Good call, kid. I put one of the new fans in her room as a thank-you.

After stagnating in the heat for several nights we all slept better last night with circulating air. Hot weather is one area where I can keep perspective: by my tally there are about ten days a year in this part of the U.S. when air conditioning is a necessity. Thus far I'd say we've suffered through half that many. Suffered is the operative word; lack of sleep, lack of comfort, lack of coherent thought is, indeed, suffering. I sometimes wonder how people who live in chronically unpleasant environments survive each other. One theorizes that they get inured to the unbearable, though perhaps some sink into lethargy or foment unnecessary wars or simply ferment in the sun.

I am grateful for my new air-moving fans. They make life easier, and Lord knows I could use life to be a bit easier right now. In a sense, though, I consider my new fans as proof of my wimpiness. In certain ways I'm soft... coddled... accustomed to comfort. My idea of physical suffering isn't even on the yardstick of most of the third world. That realization doesn't make it any easier for me to deal with where I am. But it does help me to have perspective on how much stronger I could be.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Bubble tea

We headed to Chinatown today. Didn't mind getting stuck in the slow subway en route, because it's air conditioned (our home is not), and we even had seats. Staggered to our favorite Chinese grocery store and bought silly-shaped Japanese cookies and Lichee gummies to send to Dancer at camp. Bought scads of Dim Sum Bo Nay to turn into iced tea at home, and since I'd remembered to bring the insulated bag we even bought frozen potstickers and buns with bean paste inside. One of my closest friends from my college days is Chinese, and I can never thank her enough for dragging me into shops in Boston's Chinatown and teaching me what to eat and buy.

We tried a new restaurant for lunch, and it was so-so. Then we stopped for bubble tea just before getting back on the subway. Eldest had tried it before, but it was new to the others. I wasn't surprised that Little Guy preferred the tea to the tapioca; he'd rather add texture to life than experience it himself! As we rode home on the train, Eldest commented, "At first I didn't really like the tapioca. But then I realized I liked the tea so much that I'd drink it up too fast, and stopping to chew the tapioca slowed me down. So then I got used to that, and now I like it."

Now isn't that a great analogy for busy lives? Find the tapioca equivalent that forces you to chew and savor. Slow down. Enjoy.


I am missing my children today. Funny how that hit me full-strength after they (mostly) came back! Dancer's the only one away at the moment, and yet this morning my heart is aching.

It might have something to do with Eldest going off to college in the fall.

It might relate to Big Guy's difficulties, and a sense of what could have been.

It might be that I'm aware of  how much my family will change soon, and how much the younger three will feel the absence of their older siblings.

There's a howl in me this morning that's being secreted, slowly, from my eyes.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Tipping points

I only recall one piece of career advice from my father. He said, "Any job will have some component you don't like. The trick is keeping that part small enough so that it doesn't feel like you're spending all your time doing it." He gave paperwork as an example; for him, if he had to spend more than 10% of his time on paperwork, it seemed all-encompassing.

This was incredibly useful insight, because it made me aware of tipping points. If I have to deal with more than two toxic people in a group, I feel like the whole place is poisoned. If it's beastly hot for three days in a row, I despair that the whole summer will be like this. If I have to keep track of project details that I didn't assign to myself, I perceive my role as menial.

None of these things are true, of course. But since I'm very good at listening to my blustering as if it were gospel, it helps to have the idea of a tipping point somewhere in my mind to keep me honest. This is especially true with any kind of distress. We tend to think, I can't take any more! when in fact we've reached our tipping point rather than our capacity.

None of us want to function at full capacity, especially with distress. But we're capable of a lot more than we think.

Sunday, July 4, 2010


I am behind the times, way behind the times. That's partly because I don't watch TV, and partly because I just don't care. I have enough challenges keeping up with what's already in my head and on my to-do list. Time is a fine filter for pop culture; by the time I get around to paying attention, the 95% I didn't need to know has already had its fifteen minutes of fame, and gone to its justifiable reward.

So I was suitably surprised to read an article about circle lenses in today's NY Times. Apparently the big-eyed anime look is popular among teens these days, and it's possible to buy illegal contacts that make you look like you just stepped out of a graphic novel. Huh. Why anyone would want to look like a doll is beyond me. In my mind doll=toy, and I don't grasp the logic of presenting oneself as something to be played with. Call me old-fashioned, but I grew up in an era where women wanted respect.

Fad- and wallet-wise, circle lenses are a big step up from Silly Bandz. One 16-year old girl quoted in the article owns 22 pairs, at $20-30 a pair. There were a few things I wanted to ask her parents (hey, I don't own 22 pairs of underwear!), but no email address was provided. I guess that's okay.

As I read on, the article traced the popularity of circle lenses in the U.S. to Lady Gaga's music video Bad Romance. This is how behind the times I am: I first heard of Lady Gaga about three months ago, when a friend mentioned that her daughters were planning to attend a concert here in town. I've vaguely had it in mind to find out something about Lady Gaga ever since. So this morning I loaded up the YouTube video of Bad Romance.

It was early and I didn't want to wake people up, so I watched it without the sound. Go try this. It's interesting to process the images separate from the music. The video is evocative of anything but love or romance. There's not an ounce of it that even hints that anyone has a clue about what goes into forming a healthy relationship. As a statement of what girls admire today, it's pretty appalling. But like I said, I'm an old crow who thinks human beings -- including women -- have dignity, and that people aren't art forms or forms of entertainment.

Maybe if you force your eyes open with circle lenses you end up with a different view of the matter. Maybe.

Friday, July 2, 2010

And over at Camp Lennox...

The activities keep rolling. We've heard news of water parks and pools, of Inflation Nation and movies, as well as...

Picking blueberries with cousin Hannah...

and bathing-suit bubble baths. Happy kids! I hope Aunt Beth is surviving okay. (Thanks, wonderful sister!)

Mixed emotions, roles, and motives

 Lately the emotions flowing around here are rather like the convergence of multiple rivers: everything gets dumped in together for one wild set of rapids. A social worker from Big Guy's school asked yesterday how we're doing, and I told her that our strategy has been that when we're feeling A, we ride that wave. When we're feeling B, we ride it. When we're feeling C, we focus on that. And when we're feeling A and B and C all at once, we breathe deeply and wait it out.

Sometimes there's no way to integrate feelings. Andrew's father died four days after Eldest was born. Andrew is an only child, and his dad was his only close blood relative. On the one hand was the overwhelming joy of being a new dad; on the other was the grief of losing his own father. It was impossible to hold both feelings in the same grasp. Sometimes all we could do was hold the baby, and cry.

*             *              *                 *              *

The past two days, with fewer kids in the house and school over, I've gotten a lot of work done. The breathing room has given me a chance to see how much there is on my to-do list. It's not that different than what I handle normally, but when I can sit down and work for a solid block of an hour or two at a time, I'm more aware of the volume. 

I lose a lot of energy lost switching from Mom-the-Editor to Mom-the-Teacher to Mom-the-Mom to Mom-the-Writer. I've discovered that it is far more efficient to hyperfocus than to multitask. My strategy is to concentrate a huge amount of attention on whatever's at hand. I handle distractions (because they do come, frequently), by allocating a small corner of my brain to act as a kind of receptionist. That lets my main concentration proceed mostly unimpeded. Lately the receptionist has been forgetting to hand me the little pink message slips, though, and I've been forgetting a lot of little tasks. Things like returning books to the library, filling out camp forms, and putting away already-read books are not getting done. I've chosen to shrug my shoulders rather than stress out about it. It's what I can do.

*             *              *                 *              *

It's very likely that Big Guy will be moved to a residential facility later this month. 

He is doing well at the moment, and yesterday ran a little business selling slices of watermelon at the playground. It's hard to integrate that with where we are, overall. It's kind of like looking at a pointillist painting up close, focusing only on a light patch. I am big on light -- that's where the hope lies, and we need hope -- but we have to make decisions based on the whole picture.

Charles Angrand, Le Pont de Pierre

Big Guy feels that if we really loved him we wouldn't send him away. I'm not sure that we are truly the ones making the decision -- the situation pretty much mandates it -- and I hope and pray Big Guy's heart is open, some day, to understanding the real reasons for what is happening. It's heartbreaking stuff.