Saturday, June 30, 2012

Random summer entertainment

Little Guy asked for a copy of the Greek alphabet yesterday. Andrew pulled out his ancient copy of Philosophical Greek; I printed out a worksheet or two. Little Guy immediately set about figuring out how to write his name in Greek letters. This morning I overheard him calling, "Delta alpha delta!" and spelling out a question to his father.

Every single one of my kids has gone through this phase. It's kind of like codes, y'know? Fun, secret, different. And they learn (painlessly) that English words that have the letters ph and make an f sound (phone, phonics) come from the Greek because of the letter phi, and words where the ch sounds like k (chorus, chromecome from chi, and anything with psy in it (psychiatrist, psychotic) has Greek roots.

They figure out -- because they try to spell words that have the letter Y -- that not all alphabets have the same sounds in them.

It's a good distraction for a lazy day. And frankly, after having heard my kids call my name a gazillion times, it's kind of nice to hear, "Mu omicron mu!" instead.

Friday, June 29, 2012

The night before she leaves for camp

Snuggler:  Mom, I know I should be having family time tonight, but I'm feeling introverted.

Little Guy (holding out two dollar bills):  Dollar Italian ices?

Snuggler (touched):  Awww.

Little Guy:  Well, I might want to bring my Greek alphabet and do some writing.

Snuggler:  Then I'd bring a book.  [suddenly excited] Hey! Want to do that?!? We could have an introvert picnic!

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Staying on Target

Big Guy left on Sunday for two weeks of sleepaway camp. It's the first time he's ever gone; his case management program provided the funding. So we went to Target last week to shop for skivvies and socks and insect repellent and a sleeping bag.

We were already on the train when he said he didn't want to go. I mean, he DIDN'T WANT TO GO.

He didn't want to go to Target. He didn't want to go to camp. In fact, he WASN'T going to go to camp, and I couldn't make him.

I mustered my calm indifference and said, "It sounds like you're anxious about something. You need to figure out what, and then we can talk about it."

But naturally I was wrong; he DIDN'T WANT TO GO.

I smiled with faux-serenity and said, "Ah, but remember you never want to go anywhere. This is new, which means it's unknown and scary. It will be fine once you get there."

No, he DIDN'T WANT TO GO. He hates swimming, he hates being outdoors, he hates everything about this camp he's never been to. (He loves swimming and the outdoors.) 

I shrugged, imitating nonchalance. I've been through this before. I've been though it a million times. I ignored the small corner of my brain that was hyperventilating (What if we've made all these plans and he bails? What if I have to deal with a bored and difficult teenager for two hot weeks?). Panic never makes anything better. It never makes me a more insightful mother. It never helps me respond in a more appropriate way. Sorry, panic -- you'll have to wait.

I told Big Guy that if camp was truly awful and truly miserable, I would compensate him for his misery. 

"How much?" he demanded.

"What's reasonable?" I countered. After a moment he said it didn't matter because he wasn't going.

We arrived at Target and went to see about sneakers. He didn't want sneakers. He certainly didn't want any of those sneakers. In fact, he didn't need shoes (he was wearing falling-apart work boots in 95-degree heat). He didn't want shirts (he only has five, all of which he's chewed) or socks ("I hate socks!") or anything else because he DIDN'T WANT TO GO.

I nodded, and began looking at shirts. Big Guy scowled and walked off. Shopping suddenly became rather peaceful. 

A corner of my brain considered worrying about him or not, but instead I chose to remember how much easier this kind of thing is now than it was when he was seven. 

*        *        *        *

When Big Guy was younger, I couldn't let him stomp off to cool off. Back then I had to weigh many more variables: he had less self-control and could get hurt, or hurt me, or hurt someone else; I could get in legal trouble if I let him wander alone; I usually had other children with me, and had to figure out how to run after him and stay with the others at the same time. It was impossible.

When you're in impossible situations, you eventually learn that you're never going to handle things ideally, because, well, there's not always a best solution. Sometimes there's not even a good solution. The only chance you have to maybe handle things better than the last time is to keep a clear head. So you learn to talk yourself into that. 

*        *        *        *

At Target I shopped for half an hour and then Big Guy re-appeared. "I thought I'd find you somewhere around here," he commented, neutrally. I showed him what I'd put in the cart, and he approved of everything except the socks, which he prefers at ankle height, and the toothpaste, because he doesn't like minty flavors. 

We found different toothpaste and socks, and went to the checkout. We didn't buy shoes.

*        *        *        *

I've been stupidly looking on the camp's Facebook page every couple of hours, hoping that a photo of Big Guy will show up. Snuggler caught me at it, and looked at me with disbelief. "You know he hates having his picture taken. They're not going to post a picture of someone who's hiding his face or who looks annoyed that he's being photographed!"

She's right, of course. But I do think that may be his ratty black work boot in the lower left-hand corner of this picture. I can't tell for sure, because I can't smell it from here. But it looks like it might have the same olfactory effect. I almost miss it. I do miss my guy. Even though the quiet around here is kind of nice.

Sunday, June 24, 2012

Vignettes from a long day

Dancer and I arrived at the Amtrak station at 7:45 this morning. To my surprise, fully a third of the passengers northward were foreign students. A Bulgarian girl had forgotten her cell phone charger. The conductor -- who had cheerfully, and without being asked, punched a gazillion holes in an extra ticket for a four year old -- offered to lend her his personal phone charger. He remembered to retrieve it when he went off-duty at Albany.

*         *         *          *

Our cab driver spoke a language I did not recognize. He spoke it loudly on his cell phone, as he gesticulated with the other hand (the one that should have held the wheel). I considered asking him to hang up, but did not want to distract him from what little attention he was paying to his driving.

The streets of Saratoga Springs are extremely placid. Given the number of taxis in town, I took the driver's card for the way back. 

*         *         *          *

There are times when not having a car truly makes life different. The other girls arriving to the summer dance intensive brought in comforters, curtains, mini-fridges, cases of bottled water, multiple suitcases. Dancer brought two medium-size bags and her dance bag. When you have to carry everything you're bringing, you don't bring much.

It took us 15 minutes to unpack. 

I later realized that even if we'd had room to bring more, she doesn't actually own more to bring. Except maybe an extra pillow. I also realized that this is the first time in her life she has had a room to herself.

*         *         *          *

I'd planned on taking the train home, but wasn't sure whether to take the 3:53 or the one that leaves around 6pm. Turned out I didn't have a choice: the earlier train was sold out. So before we left the train station I'd headed over to the Greyhound booth and got a bus ticket home for 3:50pm.

At 3pm I called the crazy cab driver, who picked me up in front of Dancer's dorm. "How are you doing now?" he asked. I said I was feeling a little sad, because I was leaving my daughter for a month. He pulled out his phone and showed me a picture of his three children, ages 6, 5, and 3. "I haven't seen them in four months," he said, "So don't complain."

He's from Egypt. He's a U.S. citizen, but only lives here for three or four months at a time. "No offense," he told me, "But I don't want to raise my kids in this country. I'd rather have them there, and miss them."

I didn't complain.
*         *         *          *

I arrived at the bus station at 3:14, and as I was contemplating my dinner choices (granola bars, stale bags of peanuts or candy) a woman shouted, "Last call for New York!" Surprised, I asked if I could get on that bus. She said yes, so I did.

Turned out the bus only went to Albany. I looked at my ticket; there was a second section for a second leg, which was good, but the time on the ticket said 1:30 p.m. I looked around the Albany bus terminal, and decided that come hell or high water I was getting on the 4:30 bus. Nestled beneath a highway overpass near some warehouses, the bus terminal seemed to have been built as bad-novel fodder. The most you could say for it was that someone had painted the cinderblock blue.

There was nowhere to buy food or coffee, except for a vending machine. I decided to go hungry. The bus driver did not look at the timestamp on my ticket. I wondered if I'd merely heard 3:15 as 3:50, but then someone told me the bus I'd gotten on first had been 40 minutes late. Who knows?

*         *         *          *

The bus made New York look ethnically bland.  Unlike the train, there was no wi-fi. No one even asked; no one carried the kind of technology that required it.

*         *         *          *

Despite traffic delays, we arrived five minutes early. I went downstairs to the subway and discovered it was Gay Pride Parade day, because everyone was wearing t-shirts and kissing. Got on the train, came home, said hello. Andrew had successfully delivered Big Guy to his camp bus, and was just returning from taking Snuggler and Little Guy to auditions for Stuart Little.

I bought root beer and ice cream for dinner. It was a different than our usual fare. But then it had been a different kind of day. I think it was mostly good.

Photo: I packed my life into three bags. Leaving for NYSSSA tomorrow!!!
My 13-year old daughter's worldly belongings

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Working on working

I am beginning my job hunt. Our homeschooling is done, the kids (all but one) are set to enter school for next year; my offspring are soon to be scattering to do summer-type things, and... it's time.

What am I looking for? I want to join an organization where people are working toward something, where hard work is a given but folks know how to laugh. I have eclectic interests: mental health, how to spark interests in kids, understanding the practicalities of making real change in the world, finding efficiency in systems and services, figuring out how to get a message across so that it sticks and people act on it, teaching resilience, and on and on.

I would love to learn from colleagues, and work with people who are more interested in solving problems than stoking egos. I am not interested in large corporations, finance, entertainment, start-up tech firms (though Games for Good kinds of groups would be right up my alley), glitz or pop culture.

My background is in marketing. I can write and edit and do basic social media. My work has ranged from managing a French culture guide to writing grants for the Dominican Friars, and covered topics as diverse as bipolar disorder and how to improve your prayer life. Anyone who reads this blog knows I have a special spot in my heart for struggling parents.

Many of my signature strengths don't show up in the verbiage on a resume. These include:

  • putting my finger on the right questions to ask; 
  • seeing the box, so it's possible to think outside it;
  • making complex ideas seems simple;
  • keeping long-term goals in sight while working on short-term projects;
  • thinking up many solutions, without getting tied to one;
  • juggling knives, bowling balls, and the occasional cat (without hysteria);
  • expressing practical but genuine compassion;
  • integrating ideas from a wide range of disparate sources and disciplines; and
  • being game to try things I don't know how to do.
If you know someone who's looking for someone like me, pass this on and let me know. 

Monday, June 18, 2012

(Semi) Organizing our homeschool

I am not the most organized of homeschoolers. But as I clean up the year's detritus, I realize there are a couple of tricks I've learned to keep chaos at bay.

Poor Yorick is in charge of pencils
Each child has a box for workbooky-types of things. There's also a "fun box" with puzzle books and critical thinking challenges. Around here, your work isn't done until the book is back in the box.

We also have an ample supply of clipboards. This allows kids to plop down in any location to do work. Except when they're doing handwriting, I don't really care if they work lying down, upside down, or on the sofa.

Coffetable/bookcase from Ikea
School-related books we use regularly (dictionaries, our read-aloud, a Bible, an atlas, reference material, and the occasional textbook) go in the coffee table. There's nothing more annoying than sitting down to read a book and being unable to find it. 

We need a bigger library truck

Library books are stored separately, because it's a pain to have to fish through shelves (and under beds) when it's library day. We use an oversize wooden truck, left over from preschool days. This isn't a foolproof method, but it helps.

I didn't take a picture of our science box because it's a mess. My one piece of advice on science is to buy every single item you will need for experiments at the beginning of the year. Unlike our art supplies, the science box is not open for use without permission, because otherwise everything disappears. There is no faster way to derail a day of experiments than to discover you're missing a key item.

Friday, June 15, 2012

To dust we shall return

One of the mysteries of the past year has been that Big Guy periodically sleeps through the morning at school. We've eliminated the most likely causes, like the possibility that he's up in the middle of the night playing computer games, or that he's not getting to bed early enough. It's still a problem. Last spring he slept through fully 1/3 of his first two periods at school. Soundly.

Last week Big Guy went to a new ENT, who prescribed a new nasal steroid (which hopefully won't make him psychotic, like the last one). The ENT also wants to schedule a sleep study. And because Big Guy's  sinuses are chronically stuffed -- he can't smell anything, ever -- the other day he went to an allergist.

Now, I believe God knows what He's doing. But I want to know: why would an omniscient being place a child with severe dust allergies in my house? And why would that child, who is highly anxious and easily distraught, find having a dog (to which he's apparently also violently allergic) so comforting? And why...

Ah, yes. Well. It did provide an excuse to purge the boys' room. The allergist's to-do list goes on for two pages, and though only half of that will happen, it will take a week or more. I logged three hours on it today.

Many items have been tossed. Many, many items have been cleaned. The carpet has been triple-vacuumed.

The dog is staying. But he did get a bath.

Anyone feel like dusting the 6,000 books in our living room?

Wednesday, June 13, 2012


Little Guy came with me to pick up veggies from the CSA today; the drop-off is in the park up the street. He pushed the granny cart; I walked the dog. Little Guy clanged the cart down the bluestone sidewalk, and at one point I turned around to watch him. I saw his head bobbing along at just so much above the handle of the cart, and had a flash memory of Eldest at that age. And I thought: when she was his age, I was pregnant with him.

Back then, I thought of her as my big kid. And now he's my little one.

*         *         *          *

It's possible I have the least photo-documented family in the country. I am not good at remembering to take pictures. Then, too, stopping to take a photo or video has always seemed to me to detract from being in the moment; my savoring is better done through all-out absorption.

I know this is culturally abnormal, so don't feel I'm criticizing you because I'm photo-feeble.

Every now and then I feel bad about my lack of photo-taking, not for my sake, but for my kids'. Then I remember that it doesn't take all that many pictures to fill a scrapbook. And who wants to sift through thousands of pictures, anyway?

*         *         *          *

Last month a high school friend died. We hadn't stayed in touch much, partly because I'm bad about things like that, partly because we didn't live near each other, and partly because I find it awkward to stay in touch with married men who are not my husband. The last time I saw Perry was at my wedding. The time before that was at his. 

Our parents, however, stayed in touch over the years, and so from time to time I heard snippets of news. I emailed Perry once or twice, and last month I spent most of a day traveling -- subway, train, taxi, and back -- to another state for the viewing.

In the lobby of the church there were posterboards of photos of Perry. I saw a picture of him tossing a baby into the air, laughing. There was a photo of him as a coach, and another surrounded by his kids when they were little, and another of him standing proudly next to his daughter, who was dressed up for what I assume was her prom. And I thought, Ah, yes -- I'm glad he knew these little joys. I am glad these scenes were part of his life. 

They were not the sum of it. But we can't sum up a life with pictures, no matter how hard we try. We can only live life, and treasure it, and provide ourselves with occasional reminders of how much we have to be thankful for.

*         *         *          *

My mom gave me a scrapbook when I graduated from high school. I am truly lousy at keepsake-keeping, and because a scrapbook was something I never would have made for myself, it was a great gift. I still pull it out once a year or so and flip through it. 

Near the back of the book is a photo of Perry and me about to cut a cake at our confirmation party, in 8th or 9th grade. There is also, alongside the program from our high school graduation, a dried rose stapled to a little card. The card reads, "To a great friend, on one of the greatest days of our lives." 

I'm glad for the photo, because it triggers a dozen memories. I'm grateful for the rose, because it tells me Perry valued our friendship as much as I did. But mostly I'm glad Perry was part of my life, glad for the light that was him, a light that has stayed in my heart all these decades.

That kind of light can't be captured in pictures. I don't think it is meant to be captured at all, though surely we want to grasp it and hold it tight. But it shines. Oh, it shines.

Monday, June 11, 2012


I popped into our local kosher bakery this morning to pick up a loaf of rye. The deeply wrinkled little woman behind the counter asked after my kids; we'd run into her one day in a different part of the city, and it turned out that she lives in the neighborhood where my kids play soccer. It's 45 minutes away by subway, not particularly easy-access from here.

Curious, I asked how she got to work. She said she had to take car service in the morning, because she starts work at 5:30 and the buses aren't running yet. (A car service is like a private taxi company which serves parts of the city not generally covered by yellow cabs.) "I don't mind, though," she said, confidentially, "I've been doing it so many years now."

We moved here almost 16 years ago, and I knew she'd been behind the counter all that time. So I asked how long she'd been working in the bakery. "Oh, thirty years at this location, but fifty years overall," she replied, in a matter-of-fact way. Seeing my astonishment she added, "Well you know, I'm 91 now. I'll be 92 in March."

Some people are truly amazing.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

It's been one of those live-at-the-ballet-studio kinds of weekends, what with dress rehearsal and performances and all. Very exciting for the girls (and a handful of boys). And then last night at intermission, Dancer came down with a violent stomach bug. How fast can you say, "Change of plans?"

Except ballet is one of those odd worlds where they actually want -- nay, expect -- you to show up no matter how you feel. And tonight is the gala. And guess who's determined to perform? Though I suppose I'll have to wake her up if that's going to be an option...


*         *         *         *

Snuggler has her last soccer game of the season this afternoon. Little Guy went to cheer her on. He owes her some fraternal support; they're going through a sibling rough patch that's mostly of his making. We'll see how it goes; I asked him what positive and encouraging thing he could say to her if the team lost, and he looked at me blankly.


*         *         *         *

The bathroom floor was dutifully destroyed, and then re-tiled. We're still waiting for the tiles to set, though we can walk on the boards covering the floor. Unfortunately, something went wrong when the Super re-installed the toilet, and it leaks whenever it's flushed. So we still have just one toilet for seven people (soon to be eight, when my dad arrives). That will be the case until Tuesday, because the Super has today and tomorrow off.

In case you wondered, several years ago I determined that the maximum number of potty-trained individuals you can have in the house without needing a second bathroom to prevent at least one crisis a day is... six.


Wish us luck.

Friday, June 8, 2012


You may recall that in January we discovered that Big Guy's insurance had been cancelled. It took three weeks to find out why. It took until March to get it reinstated. None of it was our fault.

On Tuesday I went to refill Big Guy's prescriptions, and the pharmacist said the coverage had expired. This was real-life vocab prep for the SAT: now my kids know what paroxysm and acrimonious mean.

But this time we knew what had probably happened, and other than a little bit of STRESS, all was back to normal within 24 hours of non-stop phone calls. Which I will note my husband made, not me. There are many things I am good at, but talking to an insurance company who can't figure out that if you're going to change someone's coverage you really ought to let the person know -- well, you don't want me doing that.

*        *         *          *

Years ago, during the Bush administration, there was a lot of talk about family values. A woman I worked with commented, deadpan, "I had four brothers, and when we were growing up we could never find the Scotch tape. So in our family, we valued tape." (This is the same person who once mused, "Have you ever noticed that everything they said would happen when Elvis shook his hips... has?")

One thing I personally value is competence. Oh, I know that's not entirely politically correct, but I do. Some people labor under the illusion that to be competent means you are some sort of expert, but if that's the case then I'm an incompetent mother, writer and human being. No, I think of competence as an attitude that leads to getting things done well.

An example: The team of women who work backstage at Dancer's ballet performances are competent. They don't know how to do everything. But, they:

1. Do not panic when faced with a problem.
2. Come up with several possible solutions, without getting wrapped up in a favorite.
3. Think more than one step ahead.
4. Value the common goal, and let it take precedence over their individual egos.
5. Avoid bickering, gossip and negative commentary.
6. Stay on track with their job, yet keep an eye open for wherever else they might be needed.
7. Take satisfaction in making things run smoothly.
8. Know how to shrug if things aren't ideal.
9. Get help when they need it.
10. Aren't afraid to learn something new.

Oh -- and they have a ready sense of humor.

*        *         *          *

When my kids lack confidence, I tell them, "Fake it." If you act confident, people assume that you are, which makes them treat you as if you know what you're doing, which often helps you do it better.

Faking it is not the same as being a fake. It's merely the first step in overcoming insecurity. A little humility helps; admitting, "Hey I dunno how to do this, but I figure I can try!" gets you through a lot of bumps.

Competence is closely related to confidence. Because if you have the right attitude, you can develop the skills you need and learn whatever you need to know to do the job. And if you have the wrong attitude -- well, you can know all there is to know, and still not get the job done right.

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Our Super is supposed to come rip up the floor of the bathroom today. Tomorrow he'll put in the tile. If this actually happens, it will be very exciting. We've had a tile-less section under the sink for, oh, two years. The first year was the building's fault. This past year was mine.

*        *        *        *         *

My dad arrives on Sunday, to help plaster the walls. Yes, he's 79. He's 79 and went skiing this winter, despite having broken his back twice and been hit by a car in the past four years. And he's climbing the Burgess Shale this summer. A few weeks back he and my brother went canoeing for a weekend. He's pretty amazing.

My mom is pretty amazing, too. She still plays the harp at weddings, and gives lessons. Minor detail: she didn't learn to play the harp until she was nearly retired.

Remind me to grow up to be like that.

*        *        *        *         *

Somewhere on my to-do list is to come up with nifty names for all those rites of passage/ages that don't have one. Like this: what do you call the birthday when you turn the age at which your mother gave birth to you, but you haven't had a baby yet? 

*        *        *        *         *

For those who have asked what happened to my The Problem With Happy Kids post, I finally figured it out. So it's back up.

Monday, June 4, 2012

A little bit on lying

Eldest, Snuggler and I went to hear Dan Ariely speak tonight on the topic of lying. Interesting stuff: he's done studies that show that almost everyone cheats and/or lies a little bit, though few people go big time. The general drift is that most of us only lie to the extent that we don't create conflict with our self-image as good people.

One thing that tends to happen is that when people cheat for a period of time, the "What the heck" response kicks in, and then there's a jump upward. The research team tried to figure out if it was possible to pull that new standard of acceptance down again, and the answer is yes. They found that if you make some sort of confession (e.g., write what you did wrong and feed it into a paper shredder) and then ask for forgiveness (even on paper that gets shredded) you pretty much re-establish your self-image as a good person and revert to your previous norm.

But that doesn't work once a cheat becomes socially acceptable. When almost everyone does it, you partition off that behavior and no longer think of it as bad. Pirating downloads off the internet apparently falls in that category now. It's too late to re-set the norm.

The studies found that long-term consequences have little effect on short-term decisions or behavior. (Those of us with teenage boys could have told you that!) But they also found that if you're reminded of morality before taking a test or undergoing some sort of temptation -- if you read over the Ten Commandments or swear on a Bible -- you're less likely to cheat. This is true even for avowed athiests.

We bought a copy of Ariely's new book, and while getting it autographed I asked if he's considered publishing best practices to prevent cheating in educational magazines so that teachers have access to the research results. He said that what they've found works best in test-taking situations is to have students write out their own personal honor code, by hand, prior to taking a test. It's far more effective than just signing a standard statement.

Interesting, eh?

A lovely weekend

If you've never been to Wellesley, it's one of the most beautiful colleges in the country.

Sunday morning I awoke early, and lo and behold the sun had emerged! I went for a walk.  Down at the boathouse, the buoys seemed to have recovered from the time I went through them with the motorboat. (The head of the boathouse, a character straight from central casting named Fred, drawled in classic New England style the next day, "Ayuh. Julia. I had to chase down a bunch of wild buoys this morning. Let me know if you see any more about.")

The architecture is gorgeous. It's one of the three non-academic reasons I wanted to go the school. The other two reasons were that my tour guide used a word I'd never heard before (dichotomous), and my mom said I probably wouldn't get in.

I did not spend a lot of time in the library on this visit. Then again, I didn't spend a lot of time there, anyway. Too quiet. I studied better in the student center, where there was background noise.

Snuggler had a good time. Each class at Wellesley has a color: red, yellow, green or purple. You can guess which color my class was. Snuggler figured out that her class will be yellow.

Friday, June 1, 2012

Superwoman, Shmuperwoman

I'm at my Wellesley reunion this weekend. Snuggler is here with me.

I didn't go to my first college reunion, because I felt I wasn't amazing enough yet. (Yeah. Okay, laugh.) Then I didn't go because I hadn't kept in touch with many people, and didn't know who I'd talk to.  I went once in a swirl of offspring, and don't remember much other than spending a night in the ER with Big Guy, who cracked his head open at the Boston Children's Museum.

This year I wanted to come, because it occurred to me that instead of thinking about reunion as a place to revisit old friends, I could look at it as a way to discover new and interesting ones. Also, I think I've finally purged the last of my desire to think I ought to somehow be Superwoman.  So this evening I offer you...

Five reasons I don't want to be Superwoman

1. I don't want to spend that much time on my hair.

2. Relationships aren't so good on the fly.

3. Impermeability isn't as good as growing strong the old-fashioned way.

4. Who wants to hang out with you if you're perfect?

5. I want to have more to show for myself than skin.

More to come, in the next episode... (though you can add your own reasons, too!)