Thursday, December 29, 2011

Questioning ideals

My brain is swirling these days. Holidays and visits from parents aside, I have a ridiculous number of deadlines within the next week, and they're all on widely divergent topics. One's a strategic business plan for a new event promoting French food (deadline tonight); the guy I'm working for is momentarily in India, having popped through four other countries in the past week. Another project is a monthly ghostwritten newsletter on faith (due Monday, I choose the topic and write it from scratch); another is a quarterly newsletter on bipolar disorder (due the 6th or thereabouts, and I need a general interest article). I also owe a batch of posts for my other blog. And tomorrow I teach a kids' class in the park on squirrels.

Don't ask how I keep all this straight; I don't. My brain is in a constant state of either chaos or idea triage. While I tried to figure out the time zone of India (so I know when my deadline really is) I prepared for tomorrow. When I get stuck writing about gastronomy I shift to Googling various mental health topics, or pause to read a chapter in one of my Christmas books, or start cooking supper. My mom -- who has come many miles to see us -- sat down on the sofa next to me yesterday afternoon and I had to tell her, as gently as possible, "I'm not really here right now. I'm in my cone of invisibility." It's what I tell the kids when I'm hammering out a piece on deadline. And truly, I'm not there. I'm not accessible.

It's not the ideal set-up, but I'm kinda done with ideal. Or, better said, I'm past the point of thinking that ideal (or even close to it) is a prerequisite for joy, productivity, or peace of mind. Ideal is nice, but it's rarely reality. If I want to live life fully, I've got to do it even in less-than-ideal circumstances.

*        *        *        *        *

A couple of months ago I decided I was done with listening to people whine about the weather. Short of a hurricane, tornado, blizzard or life-threatening heat wave, it's not news. We might as well say, "I'm mildly uncomfortable. Are you?" I think we can set the standard for empathy higher than that.

I've sometimes wondered if people who live without air conditioning complain less than those who spend most of their days in temperature-controlled environments. And I've wondered if people are better off learning endurance instead of focusing on their comfort. Certainly there's productivity loss when you're sweating your way through 98 degree weather. But what do we lose if we never endure discomfort?

 *        *        *        *        *

Homeschoolers are fond of the Little House books. Reading them aloud does make one kind of gape at how much work kids used to do (apparently without complaining) compared to today. I suspect that's because if you were out on the prairie and didn't help weed the vegetable garden your family could die of hunger. There were very real, and very harsh consequences to not doing your share of the work, and not just because Pa would whack you with his belt for disobedience. 

In truth, there's very little that I ask my kids to do that has any life urgency to it. I may be obsessed with having the house clean before our Christmas guests arrive, but we all know that no one is going to starve if one of my kids doesn't do his or her job. The worst that will happen is that Mom will be aggrieved (again) that others didn't do their share. It's not the same as the specter of a long winter in a cold cabin only calories away from starvation.

How does one teach children how to cope with the far-less-than-ideal if one lives too close to the ideal?

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

I thought I saw...

an eight year old! 

I did! I did!

Happy birthday to my little cut-up! We may have to give him a new moniker soon, because he's not really a little guy any more. 

Friday, December 23, 2011

Aliens took our star

Or maybe we just liked this better on top of the tree.

(Snuggler thinks we should arrange lights in a nest below it, like crop circles.)

Merry Christmas. Or Channukah. Or whatever it is that you celebrate. 

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Linking to my other blog, Seeds of Devotion, for a Christmas post:

It Shouldn't Be Like This


Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Okay, that's weird

I'm using the new Blogger interface, and it published my new post down below the picture of Dancer. I've figured out why, but... it's still weird. I don't know how to move it up here (or am too lazy to figure it out), so you'll have to scroll down. Sorry!

Monday, December 19, 2011

Dancer, left, and a friend 

Andrew whizzed down from the children's theater with Little Guy and Snuggler after the last performance of their musical, so they all saw Dancer's last show. I watched from the wings. The show was sold out (again), and the audience was great.

It's all over now. The dancers are sad. But they begin choreography for their next performance this afternoon.  

Beyond evil and beyond good

My good friend Liz came to see the kids' musical on Sunday. The show was about the children of Terazin, the Nazis' "model ghetto". I warned her up front that she was likely to need tissues; it's incredibly sad.

Liz, who is Jewish, replied, "I dunno. I've faced all that so many times I don't get worked up too much any more. When I held my first baby in my arms, I thought how magnificent she was -- and then I thought that in another place and time, the Nazis would have thrown her up in the air to use for target practice. Because they did that with babies, you know."

Yes. But I had never connected that atrocity with my own newborn.

The conversation reminded me of a conversation I overheard after 9/11, in which someone was terrified because "there are people out there who want us dead just because we're Americans!"  The other person responded gently, "Ahhh. Yes. Now you know what it feels like to be a Jew."

I have written here before about our neighbor Freida, who died last September. There is also Rose, a neighbor who is turning 100 this year. A while back she had to go for an MRI, and the metal detector kept going off. The good folks at the MRI center kept asking her if she had any metal on her, a pacemaker, perhaps, or hairpins. No, there was nothing. After a while, Rose's face lit up as she figured out what the problem was. "Oh!" she said, "It's the bullet!"

The bullet? It turned out that when she was young the Nazis had shot her father in front of her. And a fragment of the bullet had spun off and entered her brain. And it was still there, all these years later.

*        *        *         *        *

My husband Andrew had a wrenchingly hard time watching the show. Snuggler, who played a teacher in Terazin, is almost an exact replica of his Jewish mother. He is keenly aware that if our children had been born in Europe two or three generations ago, they would have been targeted for extermination. And given the stats -- fewer than 100 of the 12,000 children who entered Terazin survived -- our children would have died. They would have died apart from us, alone beyond alone, more alone than I can begin to imagine.

Real nightmares, the kind that people actually live (and die) through, are beyond our capability to process. We grope our way along, striving to understand, trying to give shape to what we're up against so we can grasp it and expel it. But darkness is not graspable.

It is, however, pierce-able. A pitch-dark sky is made different by a single star. Light, even when it's not as strong as we want it or need it to be, is transforming.

Gerda Weissman Klein, who was featured in an Academy Award-winning documentary about the Holocaust relates, "Ilse, a childhood friend of mine, once found a raspberry in the concentration camp and carried it in her pocket all day to present to me that night on a leaf. Imagine a world in which your entire possession is one raspberry and you give it to a friend."

Yes. Imagine that.

Evil isn't the only thing that's incomprehensible. There's incomprehensible love, too. We get to choose which one to focus on. We get to choose which one to emulate. Every day, we get to choose.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

The fast life

Life is moving so quickly that when someone called on Thursday to see if my two youngest could play "some day soon" I literally didn't know. I didn't know if there was a pocket of time between now and Tuesday. I apologized for seeming as if I'd spent the week having a lobotomy, and told my caller to call back on Monday, when I expected a fresh delivery of brain cells.

Here's the backstory: This past Monday my younger kids said goodbye to their friend Seamus, who is moving to California. That night we called 911 because Big Guy was having a very rough night. A good part of this week was spent dealing with the fallout. (How bad was it? Snuggler, age 10, has been sleeping in her closet.)

So on Tuesday we went to a museum, because some days you just need to immerse yourself in beautiful things. We did some math, but other than learning that chess sets originally had elephants instead of knights (and viziers instead of queens), we didn't do much schoolwork. I completed two freelance projects.

Wednesday we attended our homeschool co-op's Christmas party, where the kids caroled on the street and raised $187 for a homeless program. I got my hair cut. Dancer had dress rehearsal.

Thursday Andrew took Big Guy to an intake appointment at the big anxiety/mood clinic; we are getting new doctors. Dancer had a high school interview. I completed the financial aid app for the private school to which she applied and finished a freelance project. Snuggler and Little Guy had their brush-up rehearsal for "I Never Saw Another Butterfly" (performances are today at 3pm and tomorrow at 4pm). Dancer's Nutcracker opened.

Yesterday we had free tickets to "Amahl and the Night Visitors", and Little Guy cracked his forehead on an announcement board at the theater. It bled, but didn't require stitches (by child #5 you know these things at a glance). Dancer went to her history-through-musicals class, and had a performance (remaining performances are tonight and tomorrow at 7pm). I finished a freelance project.

Today Dancer has her callback for the big performing arts high school at the same time as Snuggler and Little Guy have their call for the show. I'll drop her off, then rush uptown in time for the performance, then whiz down to work backstage at Nutcracker. I have a rush freelance project that was supposed to be in my in-box at 8am, but hasn't arrived yet.

A child has informed me that we are supposed to bring something for a cast party tomorrow.

I think I'll bring myself. Or maybe just send my kids.


Wednesday, December 14, 2011

The lady with the headset

I arrived to work backstage at Nutcracker tonight, and the woman in charge asked, "Are you comfortable using the headset?"

I replied, "No, but I'm okay with being uncomfortable."

So I got to wear the geeky pack on my waist, and wear the headset with one earphone and a mike, and stand in the wings and converse in a subdued voice with the guy in the lighting and music booth. He told me which scenery was up next, and I cued him when things were ready.

That was cool. I won't go so far as to say that I was cool, because if I do my kids will surely chime in to assure you that I'm not. (I warn them about this around the time they turn ten. "In a couple of years you're going to think that I'm not cool, and I want to tell you up front... I'm not," I confide, in a congenial voice, "There's a reason I'm not cool, and it's because cool is not my god. I actually choose to be the way I am."

But it is nice to feel cool once in a while. Tonight I felt like I'd acquired some secret knowledge, or at least that I looked like I was in the know. Next time I might even wear black.

Between you and me, it wasn't that hard. But don't let the folks in the audience know.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

The size of the problem

I was talking to a dad of two the other day, as he held his crying 2yo in one arm and his newborn in the other. "Ah, you've learned to hold both of them already!" I laughed, recognizing the how on earth am I supposed to manage this? look on his face. He wasn't sure he'd accomplished what I thought he had, and he asked how one does manage two, and I advised, "Oh, there's no right way. Half the trick is not to think about it -- just do it."

The good thing about most I-don't-know-what-to-do parenting crises when your kids are young is that they last a whopping five minutes. Which means you don't really need Calgon to take you away; what you need is a five-minute block of patience, or endurance, or lip-zipping. You need to let that wave of frustration or insecurity wash over you, instead of giving in to the feeling that you're drowning.

There are any number of times in life when we feel we are going under when in reality we're just being smacked in the face with a wave. We're facing a five minute problem. Or an hour-long problem. Or a two-day problem. Or a $100-a-month problem.

Which isn't to say that we have the resources at that moment to manage through the next five minutes or come up with another $100. But figuring out the size of the problem can help keep it in perspective. We can say to ourselves, "Okay, so I can't see a way out of this now, but this is a [length of time] problem. It will pass. It will pass. And I will figure it out."

And usually it does, and we do.

*        *        *         *         *

There are other kinds of problems, of course. The other day the mom of a 20-something boy who is off at college wrote to a listserv I'm on, to say she's terrified because her son is deeply depressed. She can't persuade him to go to the psychiatrist. He won't exercise or go out or shower. He doesn't want help, and he definitely doesn't want her help.

Another woman on the list, whose adult daughter had been severely anorexic wrote in reply that when she was terrified about her daughter she told a therapist, "It's my job as her mom to keep her alive!" and the therapist gently replied, "No. When she was little it was your job to keep her alive. She's an adult now. And that's not your job any more. It's hers."

Sometimes it's not in our power to change things we desperately want to change. Sometimes we are relegated to the sidelines to flap our arms helplessly. Much as we'd like to, we cannot climb into the mind of the depressed person and change his thoughts. We cannot make choices for the person prone to rage or alcohol abuse. We cannot force a self-centered person to choose a more thoughtful path. We can present options, make recommendations, pray feverishly, ache terribly, bring the person to professionals who can help. But we cannot be that person and do the things for him or her that are needed.

And here our perception of the size of the problem whacks us upside the head in a different way. For failing (refusing?) to recognize what's outside our control means we don't see that the problem is bigger than we are. We take on more responsibility than is rightly ours. And this causes us to suffer even more.

A single mom of two, whose children both have developmental delays and numerous psych diagnoses, also wrote to the woman of the depressed man. This woman's teenage daughter has had suicidal thoughts daily for over two years. She offered this insight:

Pain x Resistance = Suffering 

Wishing fiercely that we didn't have the problems we do, or denying they're as bad as they are, or getting angry that this is happening only multiplies our suffering. The more we fight reality the harder it is. And it's hard enough. Really.

*        *        *         *         *

A few weeks ago Big Guy and I were coming home on the train and he flew into a rage. He stomped off down the car with the black scowl that I recognize as the physical marker of his entry into a will-we-need-to-call-911 mood. I let him alone, knowing that anything I said would feed the dragon. There are times when the best thing you can do is step back; doing nothing is better than making matters worse.

Ten minutes later we had to change trains, and Big Guy got off at the other end of the car and strode fiercely out of sight. I reminded myself that technically there was no reason he had to travel with me: he's 15, old enough to get home on his own. But when I arrived at the other platform and glanced around, he wasn't there. For a variety of reasons I decided he was probably somewhere nearby and didn't want me to see him. After a few minutes I spotted him pacing further down the platform.

I waited out of sight, wondering what state of mind Big Guy was in. Was he calming himself down, or had he accelerated into despair? I didn't know. And then it hit me: If he tries to fling himself in front of a train, I cannot stop him. He is bigger than I am. He would take me with him.

I inhaled sharply and let the thought sink in. I felt the overwhelming weight  and piercing pain of it. And then I felt the freedom of it, too: It's not up to me. It is not up to me.

For better or worse, the size of the problem was bigger than I could solve. I had to own the part I could own, and let go of the (bigger) part that I could not. And as I grasped this the train came in.

Thankfully, there was no screeching of brakes.


Friday, December 9, 2011

Video footage of Dancer's Nutcracker

She's not in the cast shown in this, but she's doing some of the same choreography:

The Knickerbocker Suite

Fun stuff!


Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Year Two

Eldest called on Monday night; her laptop died. She's taking two computer science courses (one of which has a huge term project due next week), so this was a bit of a crisis. However, before she called me she'd taken her computer to tech support, found out it was a hard drive problem, learned that everything was covered under warranty, and resigned herself to a computer-less life until Thursday. I commended her on how she'd handled it... and suggested she steel herself for the possibility that the computer might not be up and running on the anticipated schedule. Delays happen. I know.

Then Eldest called last night. Since she'd had to go to the computer lab to do her work she was efficient about it. Browsing through FanFic sites when someone is waiting for a computer isn't cool. And so 9pm rolled around, and she unexpectedly had a whole evening ahead of her. No onerous problem sets to keep her up until midnight. Oy, what to do?! (I should pause to explain that Eldest attends one of the geekiest schools in the nation; everyone has too much work, and if they're not doing p-sets they're squeezing in an extracurricular activity.) My heart sang hallelujahs that calling home to talk to the family qualified as a good way to fill time. Though I did suggest that later perhaps she could do something novel, like read a book.

Year two of having a child in college is a lot easier than year one. It's akin to the second year of parenting: when the raw newness has worn off, you realize that you can actually do what's required with some illusion of competence. You've amassed enough data points that you grin when you fly only half-blind. The relentless letting-go-of-my-child ache is ameliorated by knowing that every string that has been cut is being replaced by new connections that will allow you to relate as adults. And all that is good.

Love that girl. I just love her and love her and love her.


Monday, December 5, 2011

A question for you...

What was the most thought-provoking book or article you read this year?

Not the book you liked the most. The book that made you chew on ideas for a while, or think about life from a different perspective.


Sunday, December 4, 2011


It's getting to be that time of year. Dancer's Nutcracker is December 15-18. It's a whimsical, one-hour version, with more family-friendly prices than the big one. It's all centered in New York City; the Chinese scene (which she dances in the Friday show) is done like Chinese take-out, while Marzipan (which she's in all days except Friday) is a thoroughly enjoyable scene of pigeons in the park. The choreography is fresh and clever, and the dancers are from the pre-professional division of Dancer's school.

The theater is relatively small, so there are no bad seats. Let me know if you're coming; I'll be backstage most nights except Saturday, when I'm on call for Snuggler and Little Guy's musical in a different part of town.

We're back

At times, when people ask, "How's the family?" I reply, "On average we're fine... but the distribution on that bell curve is pretty wide!"

Similarly, on average, the trip to see Eldest was fine. For one thing, we actually got there as planned. For another, it was very, very good to see her. The concert was lovely. And we stayed with my good friend Kate, who is one of my favorite people in the world. The challenging parts of the trip were... yes. Yes, there were challenging things. But we made it through and now we're back.

In my absence Andrew taught the younger children a variety of Allan Sherman songs, beginning with Camp Granada and ending with Don't Buy the Liverwurst. My third grader, who labored to memorize the multiplication tables for months, effortlessly mastered the lyrics to a good half-dozen ditties in an hour. Funny how that happens!


Thursday, December 1, 2011

Finding composure

Big Guy and I are supposed to leave tomorrow morning to visit Eldest. Her choir concert is Saturday evening -- they're singing the Faure Requiem -- and since Big Guy has never been up to see Eldest at school, it seemed like a good thing to bring him along.

Tonight I'm not sure if we'll be able to go. Big Guy is working very hard to make it impossible. He has been doing well the past month, better than we've seen him in a long time. Tonight he had a minor disappointment, and he refused to move beyond it. If I told you what caused it, and how many hours of drama ensued, I guarantee you would not believe me.  In fact, you would be appalled.

When Big Guy is in the throes of feeling bad, he compulsively wants to feel worse. Unfortunately, he has a  compulsive need to make other people miserable, too. And he's very resourceful.

Ina crisis like this I run through my mental checklist: safety first, don't react, breathe deeply, pray silently. It is hard, hard work to let the outrageous provocation slide off for half an hour, an hour, two. I make mental notes on every hard object that could be thrown, every semi-valuable that could be intentionally damaged. I casually find my cell phone in case I need to call 911. I make sure the other children are safe: "Don't feed the monster," I say quietly to Little Guy, "Go into another room and ignore everything he says. Don't respond to anything." (Later, when I see Little Guy curled up in a ball on the sofa, head under a blanket, my heart sinks: he doesn't feel safe. I tell him gently to go sleep in my bed, and he eagerly complies.)

Eventually, some time after 10pm, Big Guy wears out. I am glad; you never know which way things will go. He (or we) could have ended up in the ER.

I sit on the sofa with my head in my hands, praying and thinking and suppressing the fear that we are back where we used to be. Andrew and I talk quietly about what has happened. We agree that we need a new plan, because we cannot allow this to occur again. But we're too worn out to think of one.

I get in my pj's and climb into bed. Little Guy is sleeping peacefully. I inventory my whole day, so that I can keep the past few hours from being my sole memory. I remember that I awakened at 5:30 in a state of surprising hope and optimism. I had cornbread made and laundry in the wash before 8am, we did our homeschooling, and I worked on a piece for which I had an afternoon deadline. I took a break from writing to put up Dancer's hair for ballet (she can do it, but she likes me to do it anyway). I brought the younger ones to play rehearsal, and raced back to finish my writing piece.

I am suddenly intensely grateful for the surge of hope this morning; I am not sure I would have made it through the evening without that buoy. I am glad the laundry is done. I think of all the good things, including seeing six stars over the river this morning, a veritable galaxy in the skyglow.

Before heading to bed I open the door to Big Guy's room. He stirs, so I know he's awake. "Good night," I call quietly, and then take a deep breath and add, "I love you."

Big Guy rolls over. "Good night, Mom. I love you, too."

I let the day close as it began: in the dark, with hope, and no real knowledge of what lies ahead. It's enough.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Adapting to change

I took Big Guy to the pediatrician yesterday; his body is covered in a fiercely itchy rash. Benadryl and hydrocortisone hardly make a dent, and Big Guy has scratched off sections of skin though his fingernails are always bitten to the quick. We now have a prescription for a steroid that hopefully will help. Big Guy's had weird reactions to steroids in the past. Like, really weird. So we've alerted his school, and are on the que vive.

All of that is just stuff to deal with, not a crisis. Oddly, what feels like a crisis is that this was probably the last time we'll see our pediatrician. One of the casualties of Andrew's job loss has been our health insurance, and though we've gotten State-funded coverage, Dr G doesn't take the new plan. We've been with him for 15 years, and I ache with the loss. Dr. G made me a better mother.

When I told Dr. G that we probably wouldn't see him again he looked stricken. And he told me that if we needed him, he would see us any time, with or without insurance.

*        *        *         *         *

A decade ago I fell on the sidewalk and left a coating of knee there, and I have never again pooh-poohed a skinned knee. I am uniformly sympathetic to bitten tongues, and am generally accommodating of hormonal moodiness, too. These are uncomfy things about childhood and adolescence which I remember vividly. And though I daresay my children often feel just as misunderstood as anyone else's, it helps, I hope, that there are some areas in which I can be counted on for empathy.

As I go through the steps needed to reinvent our life and keep us afloat (find decent schools for the kids, look for work, consider the logistics of full-time employment, deal with the grief of giving up the family closeness of homeschooling), I remind myself to hold in mind how difficult change can be. Right now the changes are abstract; eventually they will affect my kids directly in one way or another. I try to make transitions as seamless as possible, but one item on my long-term to-do list is "help kids adapt". I don't know how to do that. Yet.

*        *        *         *         *

A neighbor is nearly two weeks overdue with her second child, and anxious. I saw her in the hallway today and told her all the wrong things, then emailed her to say some of the right ones. I have vivid memories of being at that point in my life. I was afraid that somehow I'd ruined my life. How would I ever manage with a second child?

And the things is: you do manage. You sputter and stumble a bit, and then get better at the logistics, and it doesn't take long before you start to grow in ways you never knew it was possible to grow. Your comfort zone grows along with your competence. And you stop worrying about the how can I ever? aspect of life, because you learn to trust that somehow you'll figure out how do what you have to do.

He's ready for his bedtime story

Chemistry goggles, 
bike helmet, 
bowler hat, 
Nerf gun, 
metal detector,
sports coat and 
Star Wars jammies. 

Not quite sure what this has to do with Tom Sawyer, but hey, he's ready.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Questions, questions

It's quiet this morning. I got up early, because I'm teaching a class for kids today on how animals in our local park get through winter, and needed to do a bit more thinking.  
      Why do some birds migrate, and others stay?
      Well, what do birds need to stay alive?
      What do birds eat?
      Are all those things around now?
      So which birds can stick around? The ones who eat...
      We see geese flying south, but not songbirds (even though they migrate). Why?
      How do birds know which way is south?

I like this kind of work, because it pushes me to think like a kid, and to break info down into questions which get kids thinking.

There are other kinds of things I don't like thinking through so much:
      Why is this child this upset?
      What would help him most?
      Is what's best for the short term the same as for the long term?
      What can I do that will make things better? Worse?
      Am I solving the problem for the child, or helping the child solve the problem?
      He's not hearing what I'm saying. What's another way of saying it?

Do you sometimes wish you could press the MUTE button in your brain?

Friday, November 25, 2011

The annual cookie project

I'm writing up the email to my neighborhood announcing this year's cookie project, and thought I'd link to last year's post about it, in the event you want to set up something similar in your part of the world:

The Awesome Cookie Project.

Easy. Helpful. Fun.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Thanksgiving thoughts

I have a blog post scheduled for tomorrow over at Seeds of Devotion about being thankful for bacon. Ironically, over the weekend (I wrote the post a week ago) a chef in our building gave us several pounds of pre-cooked bacon. It's probably the equivalent of 15 pounds of raw meat. So now we have bacon in abundance.

*        *        *        *        *

It's gray and drippy this morning. I've noticed the weather lately, because we have to walk the dog. I've also noticed how odd it is that, in an era when we are almost completely protected from the elements, complaints about the weather pepper the conversation as much as they do. Perhaps our idea of hardship has been reduced to a scale that ranges from comfort to inconvenience. You'd think we'd simply be thankful for warm homes and good coats and umbrellas, but getting more doesn't seem to make us thankful at all. We adjust our expectations instead of our level of gratitude.

*        *        *        *        *

I went down to Trader Joe's yesterday to do some of my Thanksgiving Dinner shopping. On the way back, a young woman (maybe mid-20s) offered me her seat on the train. I demurred and stood, rather stunned at the thought that I've aged enough that people think I need to sit down. Then I laughed: life is good when people are thoughtful enough to offer you a seat on the subway. Regardless of the reason.  

*        *        *        *        *

I noticed a sign at a clothing store near Trader Joe's about a Black Friday sale that starts at 4am. 

Really? People do that? Wow. 

For the record, I'm thankful for online shopping. 

*        *        *        *        *

There is no toilet paper in the house this morning. I am not thankful for this, but I do realize it's a first-world problem which I have the financial resources to remedy. Which is better: to focus on the annoyance, or put it in perspective?

I'm beginning to think paying too much attention to minor woes causes us to lose the emotional muscle we need to deal with bigger things. We focus our energy on finger exercises, and hence when we come to the times in life when we have to lift weights it feels impossible.  

Some of us look at the glass as half empty, others as half full. But even a half-empty glass has water in it. Just sayin'.  

Sunday, November 20, 2011


It is interesting what happens when you go into a situation with listening as your goal. A lot changes. 

We arrived on Friday afternoon, after a train ride up the river.

I moved into my little room. Very simple, mildly frumpy, yet comfortable.

I went down to dinner, and met the other women on the retreat. Most were substantially older than me, and at first I thought I didn't fit in. Then I realized that was a ridiculous thought: how can one not fit in at a weekend focused on prayer and silence?

After dinner we went down to the meeting room for evening prayer. It was our main gathering place; we met four times a day (all optional) for prayer and for "conferences" designed to give us food for thought and meditation. This is what it looks like during the day:

(Well, except it's not crooked.) I spent a lot of time sitting in a chair gazing out at the pine trees, thinking. I was quite struck by how different the world looked when it was framed by window panes than when one was out in the real thing. Here are my favorite trees, from outdoors:

I spent a ridiculous amount of time pondering how the needles all drooped down, and how the only part of the branches that pointed upward was the portion with new growth.

I went for walks in the woods. I spend time alone in the tiny chapel.

 (There was a church, too. Two, actually. They were open but I didn't go there, because the chapel was more convenient.)

I didn't even try to pray until halfway through Saturday. It took that long for my heart to become silent.

Other than prayer with the group, I didn't really talk out loud until today at lunch. I'd rotated between tables at meals, then today learned the names of some of the woman with whom I'd shared my silence. I liked them. 

I probably won't see them again, ever. Unless I go on the same retreat next year.

I did text Dancer early Saturday morning, before her audition for the big performing arts high school. She got herself up and out the door and to the audition alone. She texted me later to say she got a call-back. That was good.

I called home briefly last night, to ameliorate the missing-ness of the kids.

And I arrived home this evening, in time to take Little Guy up to his play rehearsal. Andrew was bringing Snuggler there from her post-soccer game pizza party. So we met up and walked the mile home together. By the time we arrived Dancer was home from Nutcracker rehearsal.

I admired the soccer trophies. I heard all the stories about the dog's adventures. I made people take showers. And now they're all in bed, and it's silent here.


Thursday, November 17, 2011


Tomorrow I am going on retreat. Two and a half days of silence.

Imagine it.

I imagined it for fifteen years before I actually went, and then it was only because Dancer's godmother made a reservation for me a year in advance. I didn't go last year, and am looking forward to it, desperately. If you've got prayer requests and send me an email before noon on Friday, I'll bring'em along.

I'll be bringing paper and pencil and not much else.

See you on Monday.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

A walk in Times Square

My wonderful friend Magpie took me out to dinner on Monday. It was in a real restaurant, and frankly I hadn't eaten anything of that quality in a very long time. What was even more delicious was spending a couple of hours with someone I've known for over half my life. There is comfort in conversation with friends with whom you don't have to reveal history, because they are part of it.

Afterwards, I walked across town to get to my train. The weather was balmy, and I strolled along 42nd Street past the main library, past the Zamboni clearing the ice in Bryant Park, past someone dressed as Grover of Sesame Street who asked, in a clipped Pakistani accent, "Want to take a picture with me?"

The streets were Monday-night-off barren, but busy by any other city's standard.  I walked by Madame Tussaud's, and wondered if she would recognize any of the (wax) people in her window; in America, in Times Square, history extends back a mere decade or two. Ripley's Believe It or Not was next, with its mechanical bearded lady. A street artist sketched a young couple, making a nice-looking picture that would cause each of them to wonder, Do I really look like that? (No you do not.) Then came the suburban multiplex movie theaters and chain restaurants that fit in only by dint of the accretion of neon.

I thought back to my childhood, when coming to a Broadway show meant parking in the very-iffy Hell's Kitchen and navigating one's way pseudo-graciously around streetwalkers. Back then the flashing lights illuminated dark corners, and after the show one was shocked to see little kids playing on stoops at 11pm as their families hung out and drank beer. One wondered about the people living there, then. Now the neon is a zoning requirement and there are upscale apartments and fancy food stores in the surrounding areas. You no longer feel you are walking through the set of West Side Story. Though I suppose you could still get mugged, if you weren't paying attention.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

The Battle of Fort Washington

The year when Big Guy was five it was the 225th anniversary of the Battle for New York. Our neighborhood happens to be right where the worst defeat of the Continental Army took place in 1776. And because every other major battle site was having a re-enactment, and because my son was utterly passionate about history, I did what is, in retrospect, perhaps the most over-the-top thing I've ever done: I decided we should have a commemorative event here, too.

The Americans advance, but are ultimately defeated
Mind you, I was seven months pregnant with my fourth child when I decided this was a good idea. And I'd never organized any kind of event before. Ever. And by the time the day rolled around we'd gone through 9/11, and I had a newborn. But I'd figured out some craft activities and commandeered some costumes and found myself a re-enactor or two and learned how to get park permits and even got a band to lead us in a neighborhood parade. And my son wore a tricorn hat made of cardstock, and breeches made of cut-off khakis (we cut a slit up the outer seam and then laced up the pant legs using shoelaces) and carried his musket proudly as he marched up the street.

There's a small campsite to explore, to see how soldiers lived
A decade later, the Commemoration of the Battle of Fort Washington has long since been taken over by the Parks Department as an annual event. It now features a blacksmith, a regiment of re-enactors (representing both the British and American sides), a lecture by a historian, activities for kids, and an actress dressed as Margaret Corbin who leads tours and explains how she became the first woman injured in battle in the Revolutionary War.

My only remaining responsibility is to run the hat-making table. Today we went through 40 sheets of 22"x28" posterboard. Some kids wore their hats over bike helmets, yarmulkes, or do-rags. Little Guy ran around in an outfit that included a red Chinese vest, a cape, a rucksack and a tricorn, narrowly avoiding (numerous times) whacking people in the face with his rifle. 

The city buses always slow down to see what's going on
The British won the battle, as they do every year. On the day of the real fight, 235 years ago, nearly 3,000 soldiers were captured, along with the bulk of the American army's artillary and munitions. Because New York City (which only occupied the bottom part of Manhattan) had been burned after the American retreat, there were not enough jails to hold the captives. Most were consigned to the notorious prison ships stationed in the harbor, and only about 800 survived the hideous conditions there. Fortunately, we chose not to re-enact that particular portion of the story.

Friday, November 11, 2011

A newly-minted teenager

It's Dancer's birthday today, and now I have more teens than non-teens. This morning she opened a Facebook account; this afternoon she had a salon cut and got her ears pierced. Then it was off to ballet, with a batch of Death By Chocolate cookies to share with her friends.

Happy 13th Birthday, Dancer. I love you!

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Love That Dog

A boy and his dog, with Dancer taking pix
I ran into a friend last night, the dad of one of Dancer's friends, whom I haven't seen in perhaps six months. I was heading out to buy milk and eggs around the corner; he was parking his car in front of the school across the street. We chatted on the sidewalk, updating each other on our lives. I mentioned the recent acquisition of Amsterdam, and my friend gaped and said, "Really?" I could see him doing the mental math: another large body in the apartment, more food, extra responsibilities. On the surface it's insane. Then I mentioned how much Big Guy loves dogs, and how therapeutic having one is for him. Light dawned, as the full mental math problem became clear: all those negatives are more than outweighed by the positives.

You may recall that last year when Big Guy was at the residence he had a problem with falling asleep in school. I'd tried to institute a Big Cookie test to get a read on the nature of the problem: was it physical? emotional? possible to overcome with great effort? Unfortunately, too many elements were out of my control at the time to do a good job of it. But when Big Guy moved home in September, we made a deal: if he put in good effort at school and stayed awake in his classes, at Christmas he would get a dog.

Yeah, I know it's not Christmas. But Big Guy is doing his share, and I wanted to start the adoption process early, because I knew it most rescue operations require a home visit and reference checks and applications. And most of them are run by a handful of volunteers, who have limited time to get around to doing all that needs to be done. Plus, given the preponderance of pit bulls in the shelters here -- a breed not on my list of possibilities for adoption, since wannabe drug dealers get them in order to look cool, then give them up -- I figured it might be some time before a gentle, therapy dog-type dog would pop up.

So I started early. I asked on our local parent listserv (pop: 1200+) for referrals to quality rescue groups, and one of the responses I got was to a place where I distantly knew someone on staff. That group had just gotten Amsterdam, and I knew at a glance that he was the dog for us. What I didn't know was that the long-ago connection with the staff person would translate into overnight approval. And so we went to meet Amsterdam on Friday, and brought him home Saturday.

As I write, at 7am, Big Guy is out taking his dog for a walk. I can't count how many times he's said to me this week, "Mom, he's a really good dog." To which I reply, "He's a great dog." And he is.

There is something wonderful about having someone who's happy to see you every time you walk in the door. There's joy in starting the day getting whacked by a wagging tail. I know the dog walking will get harder to do when it rains or snows. But for right now, life is good. Very good.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Deadlines, deadlines

My triple witching hour of weekly/monthly/quarterly deadlines has passed, and yesterday I felt remarkably free. There was bandwidth for new ideas and for getting Little Guy to write with punctuation (and without cApitAl letTerS in the middle of words). Relieved, I took Amsterdam for a walk in the crisp fall air, and felt as if all was right with the world. It sure is nice to see the good things that are hidden from my heart when I'm stressed or sick; it's not that they don't exist when I'm preoccupied, just that I don't see them.

And then the phone rang last night, and it turned out that the biggest piece I'd turned in was for the wrong month. Oy! It wasn't possible to tweak what I had, either. And so I had 24 hours to come up with an entirely new piece on a different topic, 1200 words long, with at least 10 quotes and a handful of anecdotes. Polished.

As I staggered to my computer an email came in, ALL IN CAPS, alerting me to the need to invoice something within 24 hours or I wouldn't get paid. Now it's not hard to write up an invoice, is it? So I started to do that, hoping my brain cells would kick into gear while I was typing.

Then I discovered that the invoice had to include specifics about each of the six programs in a winter nature program for kids that I'm going to do. Erp! Hmmmm. I hadn't planned those out yet because, well, y'know, the first one doesn't take place for another three weeks.

By the time I'd designed the programs and hammered out the invoice, my brain was so fried I needed a synapse infusion. None was forthcoming, so I went to bed. Got up this a.m. and started grinding out the big piece. It felt like traveling cross-country by pushing a car.

But now it's done, or at least done enough to be in the review phase, and I am heading out to a book reading about Catherine the Great. I don't know much about ole' Cath, but I do know the author, and that's good. I'm taking Big Guy and a friend's child.

Revisions will await me upon my return. I'm hopeful that hearing about Catherine will stimulate activity in at least a few brain cells, and perhaps even re-awaken my desire to write. If I don't fall asleep while I'm there, that is. Zzzzzzzzzzzzzz.

Saturday, November 5, 2011


The latest addition to our family. He's half-lab, half-golden. Ten months old, about 50 pounds, pretty mellow but very affectionate. And housebroken!

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Catching my breath

I've been having trouble breathing the past two nights. Albuterol helps, though it wears off at 3:30am, and I awaken, gasping, from dreams of boa constrictors or being trapped under wreckage. I get up, cough fitfully for a while, find the inhaler, fix myself a hot water bottle to lie on, and eventually drowse off until  the alarm rings at 5:30.

I'm not sure if lack of sleep is swiss-cheesing my brain, or if it's that I've hit the wall on how much I can handle at once. There are school searches for three kids, doctor searches for Big Guy, falling-in ceilings that lead to breathing trouble, stressed out children, an unemployed husband, bills, homeschooling and overlapping deadlines when I'm sick. And a few other things I don't write about here.

I've learned to be resilient, but I'm actually not invincible. Every now and again I find myself in a situation where I need to put on my own oxygen mask first. Got there today, for sure. Had to breathe deep (as deep as my sticky lungs would let me) and pray to be filled with peace.

There are times like that. Times when the very best thing you can do for the world is to breathe deeply and slowly and be very, very still for five whole minutes.

You can bring a lot of oxygen into your life in five focused minutes. Try it.

Monday, October 31, 2011


Little Guy, the paramecium
(Yes, he can identify the innards: contractile vacuole, macronucleus micronucleus)

Snuggler, the tourist

Dancer, grapes

Saturday, October 29, 2011


Snow outside our window. No river in sight.
Big news! I remembered my husband's birthday today. Even Mother Nature thought this was remarkable, and made sure it was a year to remember. (What's weird is that the leaves are still on the trees; I can't remember seeing snow on a fully-clad oak before.)

Little Guy's soccer game was cancelled. The college game his league was supposed to attend this evening is presumably postponed. That means I have time to bake a dessert or make dinner or something. I'm thinking peanut butter pie would be good.

Message inside: Shady Oaks has a place for you!
The kids (or at least most of them) managed to get birthday cards made in advance. Last night Snuggler commented, "The problem with having older parents is that they're going to die sooner than everybody else's." Might be, might not. That didn't stop her from ragging on her dad with her birthday message. (The note at the bottom reads: "Black and white to soothe old eyes." Handwriting isn't her forte.)

Big Guy went off this morning, for the second time, to his class on the history of protest music at the historical society. This is huge: prying him out of the house for the first class took epic energy, though (as with all labor pains) I immediately forgot the agony once I held the joy of seeing he was actually there. Big Guy hasn't done any activity for years, because the anxiety of doing something new has been too great. I know better than to hope that going twice is the start of a new trend line. But I'm very thankful that for today his world was able to be a little bigger. And I sent him with a little money, so he and his dad could have a celebratory birthday lunch.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Pipe dreams

The plumber has found the problem in our bathroom! It wasn't the drain from the apartment above. It wasn't a pipe that leaked only when the stars aligned badly and two apartments emptied their tubs at the same time. After weeks of trying to decipher the problem, we finally figured out that the problem occurred in the pipe where water flowed in, not where it flowed out. It turns out that the "shower body" upstairs was cracked.

This is such a metaphor for life. How often do we assume that pipes are pipes, and forget to distinguish that input is different than output?

*        *         *         *          *

When Andrew and I got married my father-in-law came to live with us. If there's one thing that can be said for starting out married life accompanied by an 84-year old with dementia, it's that the later adjustment to having babies feels relatively uncomplicated. There were days Dad thought I was his wife. There were times he thought I was the intruder from a TV show, and stood next to the door ready to bash me on the head when I came home from work. He occasionally showed up in our room at 2am, demanding breakfast, impervious to arguments about how dark it was outside.

But what was most baffling was that I could tell Dad to take the chicken out of the freezer at noon, leave him a note reminding him, and even have him read the note aloud -- and he still wouldn't do it. It took a long while (and the book The 36-Hour Day ) for me to grasp that the part of the brain that hears and the part of the brain that reads and even the part of the brain that speaks isn't necessarily the part of the brain that stores information. Life got a lot less frustrating when I realized that what to me seemed like all one brain process was actually a sequence of processes, and that the transfer of information from ears to memory, or reading to memory, could in fact fail to happen. Different pipes.

*        *         *         *          *

This morning I was working with Little Guy on persuasive writing. He tends to panic when he has to do something new, so I stopped to parse the situation. Saying, "I can't write!" could mean all kinds of things.Was he just being obstreperous? Did the problem lie in transferring thoughts to paper? Or was it in the idea generation itself?

I eliminated the written output portion of the lesson so we could focus on nailing down the thought process.

Tell me some reasons I should give you a bigger allowance. "I could buy stuff." Hmmm.

Tell me why we should get a dog. "It would help calm Big Guy, and I would have something to play with when you are working." Better.

Finally I hit on a topic Little Guy could articulate: Why should our building allow kids under the age of 10 to play in the courtyard without an adult present? Whew! He had a lot to say about that.

But it was clear that we need to spend some remedial time developing thinking-up-ideas skills before we attempt to transfer that flow of ideas onto paper. There are different pipes feeding into writing. You can't produce if you can't generate the raw material.

*        *         *         *          *

I think there are two pipes at work in a meaningful life: input and outflow. Often we miss important shifts in our emotional and spiritual composition because we fill ourselves up, then feel as if we've done something. We mistake the full-belly feeling of consumption for the full-heart satisfaction of production.

Feeling full isn't the same as having a full life.

Input. Output. Different pipes. If things aren't working right and you're only looking at one kind of pipe to find the leak (or clog), try looking at the other kind.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Doing things just because you can

My StatCounter shot off into the stratosphere yesterday, at a rate of 350 page loads in a matter of minutes from a single user, which I suspect is not humanly possible.  After the blog hit 6,000 page loads for the afternoon I posted an inquiry on the Google Help board. Within an hour someone I don't know, and will almost certainly never meet, wrote to me saying the share buttons were broken. He provided instructions on how to turn them off until the problem was fixed.

This made my day. Someone, somewhere took time to be helpful, just because. Just because... he could. Just because... it was a good thing to do. Just because. I love that.

*        *        *        *        * 

This past summer when Eldest was home we were chatting one day, and I related to her how I got involved in various volunteer activities. I'm always amazed to realize how little kids know about the backstory of what adults do: how we ended up in various situations, the thought process (or lack thereof) that got us there, what effort it took. This is my fault, because I forget to talk about these things.

Back in my single days, when I was a Director of Marketing for a Very Large Insurance Company and an up-and-coming ambitious young exec, I went to an open house for volunteering. It was an excellent event, one which I've always meant to replicate but have never got around to doing. One local organization in my neighborhood invited all the nearby non-profits who needed volunteers to come over one night, and also invited anyone in the community who was thinking about getting involved in some kind of volunteer work. Many matches were made.

Not long later, my phone rang at work and it was a woman who wanted to meet me for lunch to talk about having me join the board of the local mental health clinic. (The mental health clinic had been the sponsor of the volunteer fair.) I explained, somewhat embarrassed, that I knew nothing about mental illness or mental health. My experience was limited to inadvertent encounters with homeless people on the subway who'd forgotten to take their meds.

That didn't bother her. Somehow she convinced me to meet her anyway, and over sandwiches she persuaded me to join the board for a trial period.

It was not a high-powered group. The Board was a mishmash of people, some of whom were clients of the clinic, some of whom were family members. I felt rather out of place. But within a couple of months it was obvious I was needed: I was the only person there with the skill set to do certain kinds of tasks that needed to be done. Things like political strategy and fundraising fell in my bailiwick. It wasn't that I felt a need to do these things. It wasn't that I wanted to do them. It wasn't even that I knew how to do them. But I was the one person there who could do them. So, I did.

I could go on about where that led me, but the destination isn't the point. The model for my volunteer work has been pretty much the same my whole adult: I just sort of found myself in a place where it was obvious that I was the right person for the job.

*        *        *        *         *

The advantage of finding myself in situations where I can do what's needed is that there's little ego involved. In my heart of hearts I know that I don't know what I'm doing. The only difference between me and others who don't know what they're doing is a) I have different skill sets to tap (I can give testimony at a public hearing, or write persuasive letters to officials), and b) I'm okay with doing things that are uncomfortable for me.

At various points in my adult life I have been the buildings manager of a church that had had a big fire, the head of a "Friends of ____ Park" committee, the organizer of an event commemorating a Revolutionary War battle, the head of the research committee at my daughter's high school, and a facilitator of neighborhood events. There are seasons when I've done a lot of volunteer work, and seasons when I've done almost nothing. After Little Guy was born I withdrew from heading up an organization, and the group died. That was okay; I can only do what I can do, and it's not my job to save the world. But it is my job to contribute to it. 

 *        *        *        *         *

The great blessing of doing things because you can rather than because you're burning with motivation is that there's little ego involved. That frees up a huge amount of energy. Life gets simpler when we're not trying to force the universe to rotate around ourselves.

One of the most important things I learned in high school (perhaps one of the only things I learned) was the Ptolomaic explanation of the universe. Way back in the second century they were trying to figure out why the sun and moon and planets appeared to move at differing speeds. Astronomers came up with a complex explanation that involved something called epicycles. These cycles within cycles could, more or less, explain the observations of how the sky moved around the earth.

The real explanation, of course, is much simpler: planets revolve around the sun, not Earth (or a point somewhere near it).

We put a lot of epicycles in our lives, because we assume that everything revolves around us. The simpler, more elegant explanation is that it doesn't.   

Monday, October 24, 2011


It was a cold and croupy night; the coughs came in torrents -- except at occasional intervals, when they were checked by snuffles which rattled through sinus and chest (for it was in bed that our family lay), barking germs through the house, and fiercely agitating brochii and bronchioli as lungs struggled to stay functional.

When day broke, so did the bathroom ceiling (again). A stream of water poured in rivulets through the just-repaired wallboard, pooling behind paint, diverting itself in a myriad of directions until, following the irresistible forces of inhuman nature, it found its release by the steam riser. Plunk! Plunk! Plunk! The drops fell in succession, gathering force, spraying forth in Pollockian array across medicine cabinet and tile, rivulets of rust and dust forming a legend on the wall, the palmistry of which only the building manager will be able to decipher.

I ate hot pumpkin bread and drank tea. No coffee, for the milk was tepid, a victim of a refrigerator door cruelly left ajar through the cough-filled night.

Children were roused and fed and dressed. We sang a hymn, recited a Psalm. The sun flickered brightly on the changing leaves of trees on the other side of the river. As one child instructed another in a writing lesson, I hammered out the last lines of an almost-overdue freelance assignment. The phone rang, then rang again, and again. There was good news, and unhappy news, and just-so news, and a few remaining spaces on my overcrowded date book filled in.

Math was completed, papers written, one wrist was sprained, many tissues sniffled into, a lifesize Origami Yoda was made from butcher paper, scooters were ridden, fresh pumpkin seeds were baked and munched. Homemade matzoh ball soup is on the stove for supper.

In the end, it was only the teary bathroom wall that cried. The rest of us chose to find joy where we could.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Developing Coping Skills in Kids

One reason I write a lot about the need to help kids develop coping skills is that I have several who are less than naturally able in that department. I have a few who are anxious, some who are inflexible, one who panics,  and several hard-wired pessimists with automatically veer into downward-spiralling thought patterns. Challenging that negativity is... work.

When I find myself inwardly grumbling about how exhausting that is, I do a little mental drill:

                     WORK... JOB... WORK... JOB

Duh -- the two are related! It's my job to parent my kids. Sometimes it's work. Sometimes it's a lot of work. Enough already -- onward.

*       *       *       *       *

I've been thinking more about that talk on characteristics of successful employees, and the importance of letting kids fall. Why is it so hard for us to let them do that?

It could be that we're too tied up in ourselves: if my kid falls, I'm a failure.

It could be that we're too focused on what our children will think of us: if my kid falls, he'll think I wasn't there for him.

Or there's this: not everyone who goes into a sink-or-swim situation ends up on the surface. Some kids sink. Will mine?

And yet... there's a huge difference between being a mama whale nudging my calf to the surface so he can breathe while he's learning to swim and being a child's full-time personal flotation device so he never has to learn to swim.

There are many steps between providing too much support and none at all. It's helpful to remember that.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Making things happen

I took Snuggler down to the pre-Harvest Festival party last night. She and a friend are running one of the events today. They needed to pick up their much-coveted t-shirts (the only way to get one is to be a volunteer), and were supposed to attend a face-painting lesson. The lesson turned out to be a super-cool, super-professional thing. I had trouble prying Snuggler away from it.

Snuggler putting her new skills to work
I stood around, feeling rather old. It was an observation, not an existential crisis: all the moms running this year's Harvest Festival have kids who are preschoolers. I don't know many of them. I was happy to stand there and feel out of place, for this is the generation of moms who took the baton and ran with it after the first group of Harvest Festival coordinators (myself included) moved on.

Over a thousand cupcakes were decorated today

Here is what I love about the Harvest Festival: its insistence on being a grass-roots event. There's no corporate sponsor, no government organization that does most of the work. There are neighbors who work together to make a great event. There's no 'them' to blame if you're unhappy with something. If you think the line for face-painting is too long, you can fix that problem by being a face painter next year. If you have a great idea for a new activity, you are empowered to make it happen. And no matter how busy your life, there's a way you can help. Even if the only thing you can do all year is bake a dozen cupcakes to donate for the cupcake-decorating table, you're needed.

Little Guy (left) in the sack races
In recent years the Harvest Festival has drawn over 700 people, and more than a hundred volunteers make the day happen. That's a very cool thing in the big city. We build community. We make it happen. Or... we don't.


Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Factors in Success: One Insider's View

A bigwig came to talk to the moms at our homeschool co-op today. He's head of the Human Resources department at a Very Large Bank (and also the husband of one of the moms in our group). He spoke to us about what makes for a successful employee at the Very Large Bank.

When this Very Large Bank looks to hire, it considers three factors:

1. Ability. This is broken down in to two components: intellectual abilities/skills and "emotional intelligence". The latter is more important nowadays, because knowing how to deal with ambiguity and failure and difficulty is something today's helicopter-parented children really don't know how to do well.

2. Engagement. Are they intellectually and emotionally engaged in the job/business?

3. Aspiration. Do they want to succeed?

One of the questions asked was whether the speaker thought emotional intelligence was more a matter of nature or nurture. He thought it was about 30% nature (hard-wiring), and the rest was nurture.

But the more he spoke, the more apparent it became that what he meant by nurture wasn't parental nurturing, but having lived in an environment where you'd been allowed to experience significant difficulty, and had developed the ability to bounce back. For, as he said, "Businesses have crises and hard times and occasionally failed projects. And we don't want employees failing for the first time on our watch."

He said that he can choose from hundreds of Ivy-League MBA grads, but increasingly his favorite candidates are those who a) have been in the military or b) have done some sort of out-of-the-comfort-zone work, whether that's the Peace Corps or a two-year Mormon mission, or even a gap year in college. Because there are things you learn when you're 'out there' that you don't learn any other way. There are obstacles to overcome, and there is character to forge, and resilience to build.

Food for thought.

Monday, October 17, 2011

High school daze

We're going through the high school search process for Dancer, which means allocating most of this month to open houses. You see, our city has about 700 high schools. You can quickly reduce that to a more reasonable pool by using a 5-question screening quiz:

1) Can you get there?
2) Is there a metal detector at the door or are there posters warning you not to wear gang colors?
3) Is the graduation rate greater than 50%?
4) Do those who graduate go on to college?
5) Is your child even remotely interested in the subjects they teach?

Because Dancer is Dancer, we also look at when school gets out, how far it is to a train, and how long it takes the train to get to ballet.

After you've done all your searching and screening, you're allowed to rank up to 12 schools. The schools then look at various data (report cards, test scores, attendance records, essays), and rank you. Then a big computer plays matchmaker between the four hundred million trillion adolescents pining for the same 20 schools and the 700 schools that have expressed interest in the same 20 students.

At the end of the print run you are given ONE high school assignment. Or, occasionally, nothing.

On a separate track there is a group of "specialized" high schools, for which the admissions criteria boil down to how you do on The Big Test. This test (which is taken by, I kid you not, 28,000 eighth graders) will be given at the end of this month. Students who take the test get to rank all the specialized schools, too. If you score well enough you get into ONE of them. Maybe. There are about 4,000 seats available.

So if you go through both processes you might have a choice of two places to go to school.

Then, of course, there are private schools and church-related schools. In general those are out of reach for us, money-wise, but there is financial aid. Maybe. Those schools require different tests and different applications and interviews and forms and whatnot. Count that as track #3. If you're up for it.

I suspect the whole procedure is a plot designed to make us think the folks at the Board of Ed are smarter than we are, because they understand this and we don't. But don't be intimidated, for brilliance requires a degree of elegance, and that's an unknown quality in this process. Other words come to mind: convoluted, archaic, labyrinthine, tortuous. You can toss these words around a bit and perhaps improve your child's SAT score. It will give you something to do while you wait in the 5-block line to get into the open house for the school with 100 openings.

After all this, one hopes someone, somewhere learns something. Maybe even the kids.

Saturday, October 15, 2011


Little Guy was up early today because of a stuffy nose. I was having my morning quiet time, and invited him to snuggle up. "I like to get up and just listen," I whispered to him, "Even when I was a young adult and lived by myself and there was no one there to make noise, I got up early and made a cup of coffee and listened to all the sounds I couldn't hear the rest of the day. Practicing listening helps."

He smiled up at me and snuggled closer; he'd learned something new about his mama.

So we sat together and listened. He whispered, "I can hear your heart."

Yes, he could.

Monday, October 10, 2011


My boys are playing together tonight. The narrative arc tends toward the violent and the absurd, but perhaps what's most absurd is that they're playing with... bells.

These are my grandmother's antique brass bells, shaped like figurines. I played with them as a child. Fortunately, they are practically indestructible. Tonight one of those girl-shaped bells is Prunella, and another is a governess. The plot has involved bombs and explosions, a crashing elevator, confused identities, mobsters and a couple of murders. You know, normal boy stuff.

It's good when brothers play together in peace.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Healthy sadness

I told Little Guy that his buddy Seamus is moving to California. My seven year old cried most of the evening. He'd calm down for a bit and then I'd find him curled in a ball on the floor somewhere, sobbing silently. And then he'd cry loudly all over again.

Our family likes Seamus a lot. He's Snuggler's age (she cried, too) and lives downstairs, and is homeschooled, and plays soccer. Seamus has more energy than half a dozen kids put together. He's the one who teamed up with mine to make the casino in the lobby. The one who took my kids to mini-golf. The one who calls to ask if Snuggler and Little Guy can come down to the basement, where they play for hours. We are going to miss him badly.

Last night as I alternately comforted Little Guy and let him find his own solace I thought about how helpful it is, parenting-wise, to be in a situation where I could not fix things. It forced me to set aside all my make-it-better impulses and let my son face sadness and come through it.

That instinct to shield our kids from pain... well, it's not always right. Sometimes the real issue is that we are pained by seeing them suffer. Or we don't like feeling helpless.

And yet loss is a reality of life. The world isn't always going to be pretty and comfortable for our kids. We're not going to be there to buffer the bad news every time. So while it's sensible to leave out the gory details of death or the nasty bits about divorce, it's not necessary (or even healthy) to see ourselves as responsible for shielding our kids from ever experiencing sadness.

We're not going to make our children better able to cope with the future by protecting them from every pain of the present. But since it's hard to gauge when to intervene and when to abstain, lately I've been asking myself, How long will it take them to rebound? If the answer is a day or a week, I let them hurt. And I comfort them.

Saturday, October 8, 2011

The Jets in Egypt

My kids watched West Side Story the other day. They seem to have absorbed the lyrics instantly.

This morning they have the stuffed animals out, and are acting out the show with the Bears vs. the Cats. There are some hysterical scenes (e.g., the song sung to Maria the cat: "A bear that kills, cannot love/a bear that kills has no heart... one of your own kind, stick to your own kind.") What slayed me, though, was when they had to unwrap the stuffed animal slated to be Bernardo from a coating of toilet paper. Turns out that while they were mummifying knock-off Barbies yesterday they got carried away, and mummified some other toys as well.

"That's okay," Little Guy said, finding the obscure connection between studying Egypt and watching West Side Story, "We can just mummify Bernardo again after he dies."