Monday, December 31, 2007

I've been busy building.

If you tell people that a small boy is interested in building robots, that small boy is very likely to receive robot related kits. And if that boy has a mother who enjoys assembling items, that mother will likely spend much of her holiday vacation building and rebuilding and rebuilding yet again. The boy might even have to remind his mother that the kits were given to him, not to her, and that she should really pick up her knitting and leave the kits alone for a little while.

Grandma and Grandpa showed up with some Wacky Wigglers. The Wigglers are indeed Wacky. The kit has a motor, many gears, and some accessories. It's fun to see how the gears work together to move our creations.

Santa dropped off a snap circuit board. I cannot even begin to describe how very cool this toy is. The version Jake received has instructions to build 100 different projects that illustrate various circuits and ways to use electricity. The kit was for kids over age 8, so we've had numerous discussions about only building the written projects and only building with an adult until Jake understands the underlying concepts (or until I finally get sick of building with the kit myself).

Jake also received a race track that uses magnets from his other grandma and a snap-together construction set from his great-aunt. All told, we have about 675 individual pieces that have thus far added up to over 60 hours of fun. I don't remember toys being this cool when I was a kid.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

It's not Christmas until the white kids rap.

Jake's school had their Christmas concert last night. I left my sick husband at home with my crabby tired girl and met my mother-in-law at the concert. I had a blast. Sure, it was a little longer than necessary and I'm sure that we've all heard one too many cheesy medleys in our day. But really, what could possibly be more festive than 30 awkward white Catholic midwestern 7th graders getting their groove on with a Christmas rap? I think the choir director chooses a rap to accommodate the changing voices of the boys, and the occasional squeaky honk from the choir certainly did add a certain something to the experience. I realize that I am probably coming off as sarcastic, but the truth is that the kids had a great time performing and I had a great time watching them.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

It hurt a little to say it.

Boy! If I see you reading that book for one more second, I'm going to come in there and take it away. Go. To. Sleep.

Monday, December 17, 2007

Christmas Past: A Slip of the Tongue

My mother has always been an inveterate supporter of Santa Claus. Even after all of us girls had figured out who delivered the presents, we played along. It seemed so wrong to rob Mom of her little secret.

Every year, we'd make a list for Santa. The entire family would make our annual Christmas shopping trek to the nearest mall in Springfield, a 90 minute drive from our rural home. At some point in our day, Mom would disappear for a while under the cover of a lame excuse. The funniest was the year that she told us an upset stomach had her in the mall bathroom for over an hour. She delivered that excuse while devouring a slice of sausage pizza. Anyway, while we were shopping, she would surreptitiously put items on hold at the counter. Then once she'd made her excuse, she'd fly back through the mall picking up all the held items and ferrying them out to the car where they would be hidden under a blanket in the trunk. We would surely never notice that the blanket was a little lumpier by the end of the day! Once at home, the gifts were safely hidden away from eyes that never really pried. We carried on in this manner for years.

Mom finally slipped in 1990. I was a sophomore in college and was home for break. Mom had gotten a beautiful embroidered jacket for me. It was very expensive. I'd tried it on at the urging of a store clerk who thought the green color would complement my eyes. I fell in love with it, then looked at the price tag. $145! Scandalous! I gave it back to the clerk and told Mom I'd check the clearance rack in a few months. When I saw the jacket next to my stocking on Christmas morning, I shrieked, "Thank you so much, Mom!" Mom replied, "You're welcome!" Then she stopped, realizing that she'd actually admitted to the Santa Claus racket. We all laughed, both relieved and disappointed that the game was over.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Not Exactly About Christmas

Claire's third birthday was yesterday. True to form, she spent the day surprising me. She started her little life by shocking me at an Easter egg hunt. Jacob and I were sitting on a bench when I realized that I felt awful. And then I realized why I felt awful. I ran home to take a pregnancy test. After a year of heartbreaking negatives (and enough drama and tears for years of heartbreak), I had finally gotten pregnant during the month that we stepped off the conception carousel for the sake of my sanity.

Many months later, I was sitting on the living room floor feeling awful. Then I realized why I felt awful. Nick and I took our time leaving because I'd had a long, grueling labor with Jacob. Thirty minutes later, we were flying down the highway while I was desperately trying NOT to have a baby. Claire's head crowned in the delivery room before the very nice security guard managed to move our double-parked car away from the emergency entrance. We were sure that we'd be greeting Samuel when the doctor put my beautiful baby girl on my stomach. Nick and I laughed and laughed. "We have a daughter! Already! We just got here and we have a daughter!"

She surprised us by being an easy baby. Then she surprised us by being a remarkably challenging toddler. Every time I make any assumption about Claire at all, she turns my expectations upside down and inside out. She is never who I expect her to be, but she is always wonderful.

When I walked into her room at daycare yesterday, she was wearing a turquoise flower girl dress. We donated the dress to the preschool some years ago. It had originally belonged to my niece, who wore it to her mother's wedding. I had completely forgotten about the dress. It was surreal to see my no-longer-a-baby-girl wearing that dress that belonged to a girl who now drives and has a boyfriend. Claire's growing up behind my back while I've got my eyes on her all the time. It's a surprising trick.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Christmas Past: The Tale of the Bells

There are those family legends that everyone tells, even those who may not remember the actual event. I was too young at the time to really remember what happened. Still, the bells and how they came to be is part of the fabric of my Christmas. I tell the story to my children as if I do remember.

Late one Christmas Eve in Texas, my sisters and I were sound asleep waiting for Santa to come. We'd been told that Santa only comes when children are sleeping so Tiana and I wasted no time getting to bed. Katie was an infant at the time, Tiana was a serious preschooler, and I was a difficult toddler.

Tiana and I woke to the sound of jingling bells. We lay there, eyes screwed shut lest Santa think we were awake. Then we heard my father shout, "Santa! Santa! You forgot your bells!" We rushed into the living room, where my father was standing in the open door. He had his eyes on the sky and in his hand was a long red velvet ribbon with jingle bells sewn to it at regular intervals. Tiana pressed past Dad and caught a glimpse of the sleigh in the night sky. Mom called us back in and said that we'd save the bells for Santa to pick up next year. We hung them on the wall, looked longingly at the presents, and went back to bed.

The next year, we hung the bells on the wall again for Santa to find. He never did take his bells back. We figured that he had just made another ribbon during the summer. The ribbon is still hung near the door of my parents' house every year. We girls insist on it. Tiana is still sure she saw something or someone flying through the sky on that Christmas Eve.

Monday, December 10, 2007

Christmas Present: Cookies

Someone - it might have been me - had a bright idea at November's book club meeting. Instead of reading a book in December, we'd all bake cookies! And then we would bring the cookies to the meeting and exchange them! We could nosh and chat and make plans for the next year. And leave with cookies! Cookies, cookies, cookies! Well, it seemed like a swell idea in November.

This past Friday, I peeked at my calendar. The little boxes for this weekend had somehow gotten crammed full. Breakfast with Santa, setting up for the school's Christmas store, selling scrip (I really should write a post about that sometime), and the list went on. The cookie exchange was starting to look more and more like a bad idea. I've never really been one to back off a challenge, though. In fact, I made the challenge more interesting by filling every spare moment with video games instead of cookie making. Cookies taste better if they're made at the last possible moment, right?

I decided to make pinwheels. I reasoned that if I could make a jelly roll, then I could make pinwheels. Besides, Joy of Cooking claimed that people bought the entire book on the strength of the refrigerator cookie dough recipe. Clearly, this was a good plan!

At seven on Saturday evening, Jake manned the mixer while I dumped in the ingredients. The dough was very sticky, so I decided to chill it for a bit before attempting to roll and layer it. Around 9 or so, I decided it was chilled enough. I put on the kettle so that I could have a cup of tea when I was finished. I assembled the paraphernalia and began to roll. Then I remembered that I cannot use a rolling pin. I did manage to somehow get the dough to a relatively uniform 1/8" thickness, but it required copious amounts of flour and the end product was more shredded amoeba than smooth oblong.

I turned off the whistling kettle and soldiered on. I rolled another oblongish sheet of dough. I put sheet 1 on top of sheet 2, yanked off the waxed paper, and very nearly put sheet two into the garbage can. It was still attached to the wax paper. After several more attempts, I actually managed to get the sheets together and roll them into a very bumpy looking log. Then I tackled the second set. All told, it took me an hour and twenty minutes to create two logs of cookies. The recipe claimed that they would yield 120 cookies but I had my doubts. I shoved them in the fridge and went to bed.

Sunday morning, I got up before the kids (!!) and headed to the kitchen to bake. After slicing the first roll, it was painfully clear that I was going to be short at least a dozen cookies. I scraped the remaining sugar out of the bin to make another batch - even forgoing sugar in my coffee in order to have enough for the dough. Then, miracle of miracles, I had enough cookies! I stacked them 3 across, 3 down, and 6 up. I counted and recounted. Yes! Six dozen cookies! I did a happy dance in the kitchen, then went on about my day with the extra dough safely in the fridge.

After lunch, at t minus one hour, I started packaging up the cookies. I swatted Nick's hand away, "I barely have six dozen. You can't eat them. I know it doesn't look like six dozen, but it is. I counted and recounted." Nick looked at me, opened his mouth, then shut it again. Then, my poor math hit me square between the eyes. I was 18 cookies short. Somehow, I managed to roll, laminate, slice, and bake the dough I'd put in the fridge earlier. I made the 18 extra cookies, and packaged up all six dozen in a frenzy.

I arrived at the party two minutes late to discover that the hostess wasn't home. She had been delayed at the tree lot and had sent her mother over to open the door for us. As I arranged my cookies on the table, I noted that the hostess had only packaged up 10 cookies per package. My mother in law arrived with 4 dozen toffee bars and 2 dozen snowballs because she had also miscounted. I closed my mouth up tight and accepted the compliments on my lovely cookies. All the same, I don't think I'll suggest repeating the cookie exchange next year. Maybe we can roast chestnuts instead.

Friday, December 7, 2007

Christmas Past: Episode 2, aka Another Tree, Another Man

In the winter of 1996, Nick and I spent our first Christmas together in a shared domicile. We had become engaged a few months prior and promptly moved into the bottom floor of a two family flat in Dogtown. These flats are common in St. Louis, both two and four family varieties. They are large brick building with apartments one up/one down or two up/two down. Most are owned by individual landlords. Both the apartments and the landlords are rich in character. We were very happy in our new apartment and couldn't wait to decorate for Christmas.

In my previous apartment (a studio in a four-family flat), I'd always decorated a small table-top tree. We were excited about having a larger tree that actually stood on the floor. We trundled off to the nursery to pick one out. We found a lovely four foot tall fir - just tall enough to be on the floor, just small enough that I could actually close my trunk on top of the tree. I was practically hopping up and down by the time we had it wrapped in netting and safely in the trunk.

I could have cried when we got home and realized that the tree wouldn't fit in the stand that I had. The trunk was simply too large. Nick, ever my hero, quickly ran to the store to buy a new tree stand. He came home with the next biggest size. It looked huge but we set it up anyway. I prostrated myself in order to turn the screws while Nick lift the tree into the stand. "OK, drop it!" I told him.

"I did drop it. Tighten the screws."

"Hm. It's not really in the stand yet. It's not anywhere near the bottom." I stood up and held the tree so Nick could see for himself. The branches had been trimmed from the bottom 8" or so of the trunk, but the stand was a good 6" deeper. Nick stood back up, grabbed the tree, and started jamming it up and down in the stand like a piston. The floor was covered in needles, but the branches held firm. I laughed a little at his uncharacteristic fit of pique and received a dirty look for my trouble. He stood the tree against the wall, then stomped into the kitchen.

I heard a drawer slam shut, then Nick came back with a steak knife. I stupidly asked, "What are you going to do with that?" Nick didn't even bother to answer me. He just started to hack and saw at the branches. Five minutes later, he stood up again and unleashed a volley of curses at the still intact branches. Then he stomped into the hallway and slammed open the door of the linen closet.

This time, he came back with a hammer. This time, I refrained from asking stupid questions. He grabbed the tree and the knife and carried everything out onto the porch. I lit a cigarette (Don't harass me - I quit. Well, mostly.) and listened to the war outside. It sounded like Nick was cutting down an entire forest out there. Eventually, he brought the tree and tools back inside. Everything, including Nick, was covered in sap. He jammed the tree into the stand and spat out, "There. It's beautiful." And it was.

Thursday, December 6, 2007

Christmas Past: Episode 1, aka Dad will never live it down.

Our story starts on a tree lot in '78 or '79. Dad, Mom, my older sister Tiana, my younger sister Katie, and I were choosing a tree. I was 7 or 8, Tiana was 9 or 10, and Katie was around 5. It was dark, cold, and utterly magical. We girls wandered through the lot looking at each and every tree. "Dad! Let's look at this one!" Dad would obliging pull the tree out of the stand and give it a slow twirl. "No! Too tall!" or "No! It's flat on that side!" or "No! Not green enough!" We had it narrowed down to two trees. Mom made the final decision.

When we got back to the turquoise Ford XL, my father's pride and joy, we discovered that the tree was mammoth. It hadn't looked quite so big on the lot. Mom worried, "Maybe we should go trade it for a smaller tree. This isn't going to fit." Dad tut tutted at her and told her to get us in the car. "It'll be fine! I've got some rope." We climbed into the backseat and waited as Dad tied the tree into the trunk. The car rocked as he crammed the tree into the open trunk and laced it in. We giggled and slid all over the black leather bench seat. Mom got out of the car to check Dad's work and was promptly sent back inside by my irritated father.

We set off for home. It was a short trip - we had to drive by the PX, turn left at the big intersection, then two rights on smaller streets. Tiana, Katie, and I were all kneeling on the back seat, peeking at the tree through the gap in the open trunk. Dad turned at the light and the tree slid out of the trunk. It landed right in the middle of the busiest intersection on the base. Cars were honking and veering around the fallen tree. We were screaming, "THE TREE! THE TREE! THE TREE IS IN THE STREET! AAAAAAAAAAAHHHHHH! DON'T RUN OVER OUR TREEEEEEEEEEE!" Mom was cackling, Dad was cursing, and I'm pretty sure the partridge in the pear tree laid an egg. Somehow, the tree got laced back into the trunk and we got it home with minimal damage. The next year, Mom bought an artificial tree and Dad didn't even protest.

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Starting at the end.

Jacob has library on Wednesdays. I get excited to see what he chose each week. Last week, I picked up his book bag to check his homework and very nearly strained a muscle. "What on earth is in here?" I asked. Jake came flying back into the room to snatch the bag out of my hand. The heavy bag swung from the momentum and very nearly spun Jake in a circle. He ripped it open, pulled out a huge tome, and held it up with straining muscles for my approval.

"It's Harry Potter!"

"Yes it is! It's the last one, though. Don't you think we should start with the first?" I replied.

"No! I want to read this one!"

"Well, I don't know that we can read this in a week. Grandma has all the books. Why don't we just..."

"No! It's ok! Mrs. Z said that I can just keep checking it out until I get it all read. I'll just keep checking it out and checking it out." With that, I was out of arguments.

But I really, really didn't want to start with the last book. I haven't read any of the Harry Potter books yet. I wasn't particularly interested in reading a children's series for myself when the Harry Potter buzz first started. Then my mother-in-law started buying all of the books for Jacob. That annoyed me, so I determined that I would read the books to Jacob when he came of age. Grandma could give Jacob the books, but I would read them to him. (In the interests of full disclosure, I should probably reveal that Grandma intended all along for Nick and I to share the books with Jacob. I can be fairly petty sometimes when it comes to my mother-in-law.) I've been waiting all these years, avoiding the movies, the books, and discussion of the books among my friends, so that I could have a fresh reading when Jake was ready. And now, he's ready but he's starting at the end. I can only laugh because I am well-known for reading books - especially whodunits - out of order. I read the first few chapters, skip to the end and read the last few pages backwards, than resume reading in a normal manner.

We're on chapter five and we're both enjoying it. It's a little confusing here and there because we don't really know the major players or the rules of Harry's world. Jake keeps asking me questions about the story. I'm not above a snippy reply, "We'd know that if we started at the beginning, wouldn't we?" But I've already peeked at the last few pages. It appears that Ms. Rowling was ready for readers like me, though, since the last few pages seem to be an epilogue of sorts. I think that is profoundly unfair. If Jake is going to make me start at the end of the series, I should at least be able to quickly find the end of the story. Harumph.

Monday, December 3, 2007

Not according to plan

I was woken at five on Saturday morning by a small plaintive voice, "Mommy, my ear hurts." She kept repeating it as I was digging my way out of sleep. There's something about that time in the morning for me that makes me thick. Any other time, I can spring out of bed in a second. I finally managed to move myself five feet and pluck her out of the crib. I pulled her back into bed with me, unable to think of a better response than getting under the covers again. She lay there with me, rolling around a bit, until I finally had the brilliant idea of waking Nick up to fetch some ibuprofen.

Claire just couldn't get comfortable so I soon gave up on sleep. I put on my big fuzzy robe and wrapped an afghan around Claire. I stood her up in the dark hallway, went into the bathroom and flipped on the light. As I brushed my teeth, she slowly sank to the floor and sat there in a little fuzzy yellow lump. I knew then it was going to be a long day.

I had planned my day out to the minute. Instead, I spent hours sitting with Claire in the big chair waiting for the doctor's office to open. Then another hour at the doctor, another hour grabbing snacks and medicine, and another hour sitting in the chair again until Claire fell back to sleep. I was worried about Claire, irritated about the change in plans, and anxious about my ever-expanding to-do list. Jacob was clamoring for attention as well. Then late in the day, I saw pus filled discharge seeping out of Claire's ear. Her eardrum had burst again. That pushed up the dial on the worryometer and added a few items to my to-do list for next year, like specialist visits and perhaps tubes for her ears.

In the end, I had a productive day. If I look at what I accomplished, not the least of which was comforting my child, it was a good day. But if I look at the big balance sheet in my head, I'm in the red. I either need to find a way to increase my productivity tenfold or find a way to fix the books. Frankly, I'm leaning toward accounting tricks.

This stopped me in my tracks this morning.

A woman writes about suffering - click to read.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Returning to the Scene of the Crime

My father made all three of us girls participate in organized sports when we were children. Every year, we had to choose at least one sport through the DYA (the YMCA equivalent for military kids). Every year, my sisters gleefully discussed their options and chose a sport or two. I grudgingly tried every sport available. I stood daydreaming on the defensive line in soccer while the attackers flew past me with the ball to score. I made daisy chains in right field during softball games and struck out looking every single time. I had countless double faults before I gave up on actually serving a tennis ball over the net. And then there was the year I tried basketball.

I signed up for basketball in the fourth grade. The season was shorter than the summer sports, so I felt like I was getting a break. Besides, only 5 players were on the court at a time! Even with regulations that forced everyone to play, I would still get plenty of bench time. I thought I would run up and down the court a few times, never actually touching the ball, and then I'd be free of athletic obligation for the year. It was an ingenious plan!

The first day of practice was a horrible day. I don't remember all the details of the day. It might have been the day that I hit my archenemy Laura in the head with my umbrella. Whatever the reason, I know that we were running late for practice, my mother was irritated with me, and I was in a foul mood. I had to use the bathroom, but Mom must have thought I was stalling. She told me in that tone to hold it until I got to practice. As I ran into the gym, desperately searching for a bathroom, I wet myself. The team groaned. Not only did they remember my incompetence from soccer and softball, but I was clearly addled in other ways as well.

The season continued in much the way I had planned. I warmed the bench for most of the time. When I was on the court, I ran around the periphery while my teammates pretended not to see me. Then, toward the end of the season, the ball somehow managed to get into my hands. I glanced around in a panic. All of my teammates were on the other end of the court. All of our opponents were on the other end of the court. I had the ball and the basket was wide open. I took a shot as everyone in the entire gym shouted, "Nooooooooooooo!" Somehow, the ball actually swished through the net. My coach immediately pulled me from the game. I had put the ball in the wrong basket.

I went back to biting my nails in right field for the rest of elementary school, until my father blessedly gave up on me in sixth grade. Years later, I discovered that I really do enjoy sports. I love to play volleyball and I've played softball on company teams. I'm far from the best player but I've learned how to let go and just have a good time. I think that's what Dad wanted all along. He just never could figure out how to make it happen, how to draw my attention outside of my head for a while. It must have been frustrating for him to watch me fail in so many different ways. It certainly was frustrating for me! I swore to never force my kids to participate in any activity, athletic or otherwise.

Last night, Jake had his first basketball practice. I wasn't as apprehensive as I expected to be. Jake was so excited - he loves any team sport and any new experience. It's easy for me to catch his attitude. Claire was excited too! She and I sat next to the wall watching the big kids until she just couldn't sit still any longer. She joined the pack when Coach told them to run laps. I am so happy for them. I love watching them move for the joy of movement. I love seeing Jake laugh and joke around with his teammates, secure in the knowledge that he has something to contribute. I finally understand what my dad wanted for me.

Monday, November 26, 2007

Claire and Libbibiff

Last Saturday, my niece Elizabeth spent the day with us at my mother's house. She's five months older than Claire. The girls are like night and day. Elizabeth has dark curly hair, a round face, piercing blue eyes, and a reticent personality. Claire has smooth ash brown hair, a perfectly oval face with soft greeny-brown eyes, and an engaging attitude. I am constantly amazed because as infants, their personalities were reversed. Elizabeth's volume was stuck on high while Claire wanted nothing more than to sit in her sling and watch the world go by.

Elizabeth came in the door just as Claire and I were getting ready to make pancakes. "Libbibiff! You help too! Get a chair!" Elizabeth, ever obedient, dragged a chair over to the counter next to Claire and climbed up. She carefully watched while I measured the ingredients and chopped the apples. I gave each girl a slice of apple. Claire rejected hers, preferring to sneak bites off the board. Forbidden fruit is always sweeter, I suppose. "Libbibiff! Eat an apple. It's good apple. Yum!"

The morning wore on in that manner, with Claire ordering the obliging "Libbibiff" around. I started to get really worried that this would be the tone of their relationship - Claire the queen and Elizabeth her obedient servant. After a few hours, however, Elizabeth loosened up a bit and started to voice her own opinions. The girls played together for hours in relative peace and quiet. I'm hoping that this is the start of a long relationship for them.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Monday, November 19, 2007

How low can I go?

At dinner last night, Jacob told me that he was going to build a robot to clean the house. My internal smartass (or maybe jackass would be more appropriate) rose to the surface and choked off the more sensitive aspects of my personality. "If you can build me a robot that cleans, I'll buy you a game console." That got a blank look, so Nick chimed in with "Nintendo!" Jake squealed, pushed his plate away, and leaped into action. That is the point where I should have stopped the train. Instead, I kept concentrating on my yummy sausage.

A few minutes later, Jake headed up the stairs. I manage to wrest my attention away from the keilbasa long enough to tell Jake to stay out of my toolbox and have a follow-up argument about exactly whose toolbox it is. For the record, it's mine. He stormed back downstairs. I passed up yet another appropriate moment to end the farce. Instead of coming clean about the probability of Jake actually constructing Mr. Clean, I suggested that Jake draw up some plans first.

A few more minutes later, Jake thrust a page ripped from a composition book under my nose. I glanced down to see a stick figure with a broom in one hand and a mop in the other. By the time I looked back up, Jake was sitting in the middle of the living room floor with a pair of scissors deconstructing a Diet Coke box with cartoonish speed. I foolishly asked him what he was doing and he said, "I'm making a motor for my robot. I really want that Nintendo."

My heart sank from my chest down my left leg into my pinky toe. "Um, Jake? You know that you can't really make a cleaning robot tonight, right? Robots take a long time to make. You need to learn about motors and stuff first. I'm sorry. I was joking when I made that promise and I thought you knew that." Jake threw himself onto the couch and sobbed. Before I could say or do anything else, he threw himself back off the couch and screamed at me. I couldn't even process what he was saying - I was too upset with myself for letting the whole joke get out of hand, or really, even for making the stupid joke.

Nick heard the screaming and thankfully put two and two together. He took Jake upstairs and they did some robot research online. Nick pointed out that no one had ever made a robot that can clean every mess, not even engineers with tons of experience. Jake came downstairs calmer, if no less angry with me.

Jake and I talked a bit more and came to an understanding of sorts. We're going to build a robot together. Maybe not a cleaning robot, but some kind of robot. I know next to nothing about motors and moving parts. I guess I'd better get to learning.

Friday, November 16, 2007

Public Service Announcement

Christmas starts on December 25th. It ends twelve days later on the eve of the Epiphany. Advent starts on December 2nd this year. It starts four Sundays before Christmas and is therefore of varying length. However, Advent has never been long enough to start the day after Halloween. That is mathematically impossible.

Monday, November 12, 2007

Monday Menu

Inspired by KC and constant dinnertime irritation, I'm going back to my old habit of menu planning. This time around, all of the reasonable members of our household can contribute ideas to the plan. We're on week three and it's going well. So far, Jake's two contributions to the weekly menu have been identical: mac & cheese one night, spaghetti another. I do believe the child would eat the same meal 21 times per week. I require a little more variety.

We plan seven meals per week in no particular order. The lovely chef (that would be me) chooses which meal to make on a given night. I use a complicated selection formula. First, if any family member has made me particularly happy then I make one of their selections. Failing that, I determine if any family member has made me particularly unhappy in order to narrow down the selection field a bit. Then, I calculate the cooking time available and the relative dislikes of the remaining family members (no one deserves to eat non-preferred food two days in a row) and make a choice.

The only hard and fast rule of the menu plan is that no one may make a single complaint about dinner. Those who complain lose a choice the following week. I do make the occasional exception for my own grumbling, since I grumble alone while cooking and manage to paste a yum look on my face for the actual meal.

The Menu

  • Mac & cheese, peas, fish
  • Spaghetti and meatballs, mandarin oranges
  • Chicken and veggie pasta with garlic sauce
  • Grilled chicken sandwiches, sweet potato fries
  • Meatloaf, mashed potatoes, peas
  • Apple-walnut pancakes, sausages
  • Tamale pie, oranges

Thursday, November 8, 2007

Time for a new plan.

Nick and I fight about three things: housework, sleep, and my Time magazine. I have had a subscription to Time for as long as I can remember. I read it from cover to cover every week, except for the Man of the Year issue. That one gets pitched immediately. Many years ago, I'd read the entire magazine the day I received it. After I married Nick, I handed it to him once I was finished. Once Jacob came along, I couldn't read the magazine that quickly. It takes me all week to get through it now, in 5 or 10 minute bits. And therein lies the problem.

Nick somehow manages to carve out entire hours of his days to read magazines. Once he makes it through his two subscriptions, he starts eying my Time like a vulture eyes carrion. As soon as I leave it defenseless, he swoops in. Then he takes it off to some secret hidey hole. Well, perhaps not so secret. He generally takes it into the bathroom, out onto the back stoop, or to a truly secret location. Later in the evening, I sit down with my tea and a cookie to and discover that my reading material is not where I left it.

I really don't mind sharing my magazine. What I mind is Nick's complete lack of understanding that it is my magazine. He can read it, but he needs to put it back where he found it. This is a tricky concept - this idea that things belong in certain spaces. If he wants to drop his own magazines all over the house, then that's his business. But I expect my magazine to be returned to me. And so the fight begins again.

In the past, I have threatened to buy Nick his own subscription to Time. It's an empty threat and I know it. Not only am I too cheap to shell out the cash for two subscriptions, I know that Nick will lose his own copy and steal mine anyway. On Monday, purple with rage after a 15 minute hunt, I wrote "PUT ME BACK! I DO NOT BELONG TO YOU!" in black marker all over the front and back of the magazine. Then last night, I saw it on the back of the toilet, which is most assuredly not where it belongs.

I think I'm going to start hiding it. I have the perfect location - near my chair but out of sight. Nick will be a little less informed of the world's affairs, but we'll be fighting about one less thing. It's really for the good of our marriage.

Monday, November 5, 2007

There must be a grillion ways to say grillion.

I am a linguist by temperament, if not by training, and I am forever reminding people that language is a living, changing entity. If I am able to communicate my ideas, then language is fulfilling its role. There's no need to run around a la Chicken Little bemoaning the Decline of Grammar as the First Sign of the Impending Fall of Civilization.

Then last night, the acorn dropped on my head. Settle down, Goosey Loosey! I'm getting to the point. I was watching some trashy tv - if you must know, Turkey Lurkey, it was an episode of Men in Trees. The main character used the word "grillion" in a hyperbolic statement. I enjoy a bit of hyperbole now and then and I generally have little problem with words bastardized for effect. However, the whole -illion thing is getting completely out of hand. We have million, billion, jillion, kajillion (which I admit using on occasion), zillion, squillion, and now grillion. If there are fifty ways to leave your lover, can we not at least come up with ten ways to express "lots" without resorting to -illion? A plethora, hordes, many, scores, countless, masses, need I go on?

Ducky Lucky et al., our collective vocabulary is collapsing! We cannot go to tell the King because, well, we overthrew him a couple hundred years ago. I'm pretty sure the President has priorities other than our ever diminishing vocabulary. So who to tell? Everyone! If we don't spread the word about words, we shall find ourselves limited to grunts, gestures, and l33t by the end of the century. It's up to us, fearless barnyard poultry, to save the language. Grillions of precious words are depending on us for their survival.

Saturday, November 3, 2007

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

A Marathon?

Jacob burst through the door last night. "I'm going to run a marathon, Mom!" A who a what a where? A marathon?

I grabbed the paper that he was waving in my face and sat down to read it. He is, indeed, going to run 26.2 miles. Luckily, he can run 25 of those miles between tomorrow and March 30th. Then he'll run 1.2 miles on April 14th to round out his "marathon." The program is called Read, Right, and Run. It's part of the Spirit of St. Louis Marathon.

I've been saying for some time that Jake is well-suited for track. I suppose now is as good a time as any to start! I am not well-suited for track. But I figure if my 6 year old son can run a mile, then so can I. So ready... set... GO!

Monday, October 29, 2007

Set Apart vs. Elite

After last week's brush with racism, I had a distinctly more uncomfortable encounter with a different -ism. Jacob has been talking about "publics." It took a little while to figure out exactly who these publics are. It took even longer to realize why Jacob thinks publics are worthy of disdain.

Every Friday, Jake's class receives a four page Scholastic magazine. A few weeks ago, the topic of the magazine was Constitution Day. I didn't save the magazine and I cannot seem to view it online, but I do remember a blurb about the separation of church and state. Jake's class talked a bit about the difference between parochial schools and public schools. He spoke about it at home a bit and we reiterated how different people have different beliefs. We also reviewed the reason that the Pilgrims came to America and how that influenced the founding fathers to guarantee freedom of religion. (I realize that it sounds a little far-fetched that Jacob understood all of this at such a tender age, but he went through a period of intense interest in the revolution when he was 5. When you combine that interest with Nick's historical bent and my complete inability to dumb down explanations, you get a kid who knows more about American history in the late 1700s than most adults. I highly recommend the book John, Paul, George, and Ben for fostering such interest. And for a few good belly laughs as well.) After that dinnertime conversation, I promptly forgot about the whole issue.

A frequent topic of adult conversation is the (lack of) quality of St. Louis Public Schools. With the exception of a few charter schools, the system is dismally inadequate. While the decision was easy for us since we'd always planned to send our children to Catholic school, many other parents agonize over the decision. Non-religious private options are few and far between, and are prohibitively expensive anyway.

I'm thinking the equation goes something like this: classroom discussion + overheard fear of public school system + comments from Nick and I about how lucky Jake is to be at his school = Jake's belief that the kids at his school are somehow better than the kids at the public school across the street. Clearly, we have to set the child straight. There is a huge difference between the quality of a school and the quality of children who attend that school. Funnily enough, the gospel from this weekend was about the Pharisee who gave thanks because he was better than his neighbors (Luke 18:9-14). I hope that Jake was listening during the homily because that's where we're going to start our discussion. He needs to understand that choosing to set oneself apart does not translate into being elite.

Friday, October 26, 2007

It takes a long time to change.

I grew up on an overseas Army base. That insular community protected me from a lot of ugliness in the larger world. (There was ugliness of a different sort, of course, but that's a story for another day.) Racism was heavily masked on the base. I simply wasn't aware of prejudice on a personal level. Maybe some of my ignorance was by virtue of being white, but I think a lot of it came from the color blind policies of the military. We watched "Free to be You and Me!" with our friends. My class had kids from all sorts of different backgrounds, and even a few multi-cultural children. I knew that racism existed out in the bigger world but it was foreign to me.

When we came back to the states, I learned a different sort of truth. We moved first to an integrated Army base. Then when my mother was unhappy with the quarters and the school, we moved to a nearby rural town. A nearby lily white rural town, that is. There were only a handful of non-white kids, all the progeny of military personnel, and even they were all Asian or Hispanic. I was shocked. I had no idea that such places still existed. Frankly, I'm still shocked that such places exist.

Now, I live by choice in arguably the most segregated city in the US. It's a hard choice. Most of the time, when I weigh the positives of living here, the balance comes out heavily in favor of St. Louis. There are many, many terrific things about this city. And while prejudice exists, it rarely shows itself in my life. I get lulled into believing that having an open attitude is enough to teach my children acceptance of all people. I can almost convince myself that running across all kinds of people in public is enough to make up for not having a diverse classroom, parish, or team.

The other day, reality slapped me twice. Two women, both around 60 years old, made separate comments to me that illustrated their personal struggle with racism. Both of these women are kind, caring people. Both of these women grew up in St. Louis before and during the civil rights movement. Now, all these years later, they are trying to reconcile the prejudice they were taught as children with their experiences as adults.

My coworker told me that she'd automatically assumed a young black woman at the next gas pump had stolen a shopping bag out of her car when she stepped inside to pay. She realized that probably wasn't the case - that the shopping bag had been misplaced somehow. She was bothered by her visceral reaction and was able to control her reaction to it.

A grandmother of my son's classmate related another story to me that evening. We were talking about Halloween, about how much we dislike purchased costumes. We traded stories about costumes that we manufactured for ourselves as kids. She told me that when she was a child, she and her friends would put on blackface to go trick or treating. Again, as with my coworker, she was bothered by that history but unable to escape it.

I wonder if it's possible for people to escape their childhoods. I know people who were raised as bigots and who rationally rejected those beliefs later in life. But they all deal with a little kernel of that prejudice deep inside. I wonder how many generations it will take for us to get rid of that little kernel for once and for all.

Monday, October 22, 2007

How to Make Clown Pants in 352 Easy Steps

  1. Enjoy a bottle of hard cider.
  2. Rummage around in drawers to find a pair of pants to use as a pattern. It's best to do this when most of the clothing is in the washing machine, leaving you to choose from an outgrown pair of corduroys and another outgrown pair of corduroys.
  3. Swipe some paper from your kids' easel when they aren't looking.
  4. Flatten the pants out with the front facing you, then fold in half. Pull out the funky little crotch divot and smooth everything out.
  5. Trace the pants onto the paper. Put in a little extra room in the top. What the heck - put in a little extra room everywhere.
  6. Contemplate the angle to cut the hem so that the hem will be smooth. Give up and just make straight legs.
  7. Pile up four layers of remnants. Spend a lot of time flipping and turning the fabric so that you'll have one blue front, one green front, one yellow back and one blue back. Pin on the pattern and cut.
  8. Curse a blue streak when you realize that you forgot to allow for a waistband.
  9. Sew one front to one back at the inner and outer seams. Repeat for the other leg.
  10. Curse a blue streak when you realize that you've ended up with two blue backs despite all the flipping earlier. Comfort yourself with the knowledge that no one really knows what you intended to make. Everyone will think you designed it this way.
  11. Flip one leg right side out and insert it into the other leg. Pin together.
  12. Laugh when you realize that you sewed the top shut instead of sewing the crotch seam.
  13. Rip.
  14. Pin again and sew the correct seam.
  15. Turn the entire mess right side out. Contemplate how to fix the waistband issue.
  16. Measure the waist. Measure the child. Say uh-oh a few times. Pray that the child will stop this incredible growth spurt before she grows out of the pants you haven't finished.
  17. Resume waistband contemplation.
  18. Fold a piece of fabric and cut to your measurement + 1" for seam. Sew.
  19. Burst into uncontrollable laughter when you realize that you should have doubled the waistband measurement. You only measured the front of the pants, ergo you should have doubled.
  20. Laugh harder when your husband asks you if you're making a yarmulke. Briefly consider adding a yarmulke to the costume.
  21. Recut the waistband to the correct size. Sew it together, pin it the the pants, and toss it aside until the following day.
To be continued....

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Overheard by a fly

Hi, Nick. We got booed tonight. Jake is so excited.
We got booed? Who would do that?
No, it's fun! Like a chain letter but fun. We have to boo two people tomorrow. Jake can't wait.
Let's boo John Paul!
Are you kidding me? You want to drive all the way out there just to boo him?
Sure, why not? Sounds fun.
OK. I'll run by Target some time tomorrow and pick up some treats.
Wait, treats?
Yes, treats. Treats to boo with. You know, like the bag of treats we got?
Somebody gave us a bag of treats? Who did that?
I don't know. That's the point. We were booed. Wait a minute, did you think you were actually going to boo John Paul? Like stand outside his house and yell "Boooooooooooooo" at him?
Well, I was going to bring a lawn chair. And I figured after I yelled, "You suck!" a few times, he'd invite me in for a beer.

For the uninitiated, booing is a Halloween game. You drop a bag of goodies along with a chain letter and a photocopied ghost at someone's door, then knock and run. The letter explains that the recipient is to pay it forward to two other houses. The ghost gets hung in a door or window so that your house doesn't get booed twice.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Is there such a thing as fall fever?

The weather finally broke. Surprisingly enough, my spirit seems to have broken with it. Well, that's a little melodramatic and overstated. But I do seem to be having a little spring fever in the fall. I'm Lazy with a capital L and that rhymes with - I'm too lazy to even finish the rhyme.

I have plans. I have things to do. I have plans about things to do. And somehow, I get up in the morning and go to bed at night without having actually followed those plans or finished those things. Work, home, dinner, soccer, homework, work, home, dinner, soccer, homework, ohmygosh it's Wednesday where did Tuesday go?

What I need is a list, I fear.

    The Aforementioned List
  • Socks
  • Halloween Costume
  • RSVPs
  • Pick up medicine
  • Oil
OK, that's doable. Today, I break the funk.

Friday, October 12, 2007

I must be a little thick.

Last night, Claire was "reading" one of her favorite books to me. She has to read it to me because I read it wrong. In spite of the title and the story and the fact that there is a whole series about Tiny, Claire insists that Tiny is not the dog but is, in fact, the little androgynous person instead. Whenever I start to read it, Claire tsks me and snatches the book out of my hands. Clearly, I am not to be trusted with her favorite story what with my penchant for corrupting the story line by actually reading the words on the page.

Last night, I tried once more to convince Claire that Tiny is the dog. She laughed indulgently at me. She pointed to the dog and explained, "He is NOT tiny. He is big." She pointed her chubby little finger at the boy/girl and asked me, "Is that Gavin?" I replied that it was not Gavin. "Is it Dillon? Is it Thomas? Is it Charlie?" Again, I replied that the boy/girl was not any of those people. She chuckled at me again, gave me a condescending smile, and ever so slowly explained, "Then it is Tiny." Oh right. What could I have been thinking?

Tuesday, October 9, 2007

I Believe

I believe that life is its own answer.

I believe that free will means we're free to screw up.

I believe that free will also means that we're free to try again.

I believe trying your best is enough. I also believe that trying your best is incredibly difficult sometimes.

I believe in keeping promises.

I believe in tickles.

I believe that anger has its place. I also believe that anger out of place is destructive and sinful.

I believe that honesty need not be brutal.

I believe in giving heartfelt compliments.

I believe that gracefully receiving kindness is as important as gracefully offering kindness.

I believe in smiling at new parents, especially when their babies are crying.

I believe prayer changes people - sometimes in unexpected ways.

I believe that every person has value, even if it's hard for me to see.

I believe that quality of life is immeasurable.

I believe that satisfaction lasts longer than happiness.

I believe in giving others the benefit of the doubt.

Inspired by this post on a site I discovered after reading a bajillion comments in response to this other post. The Sweet Juniper post and comments really struck a chord with me and it's been spinning around in my brain ever since.

Monday, October 8, 2007

Big Discovery

Friday, October 5, 2007

At last! Oh wait a minute...

Fall is being a sneaky fellow this year. We had a wonderful crisp weekend about a month ago, but since then we've been stuck in endless summer. The trees have been green, the temperatures have been high, and my soul has slowly been leaking out of my pores while I wait, wait, wait.

This morning, however, I realized that things have been ever so slowly shifting into fall. The leaves, while not yellow, orange, or red, are not exactly green either. The air is still warm, but it's gusty and dry. Things are somewhere between the sogginess of summer and the crispness of fall.

I took a deep lungful autumny summer air (or perhaps summery autumn air) when it hit me. It literally hit me - an acorn that is. I ran to the car trying to shelter Claire's delicate head from the barrage of nuts. Midway to the car, I discovered the prickly sweet gum balls had also begun their assault. The sidewalk was mined with ankle-twisting pods. I managed to tuck Claire safely into the car just as a few more acorns BOOMED on the roof of the car.

I'll gladly brave the reproductive assault of the trees if it gets me out of the summer. Perhaps I should put helmets on the children, though.

Wednesday, October 3, 2007

Picture Day

It's picture day! I bought a new shirt for Jacob. It's dark green with an orange stripe and it will make his green eyes pop. I protected the shirt from him in an epic battle of wills. Jacob is a boy and true to stereotype he manages to soil his clothing quicker than I can say "Don't you dare roll in the grass!"

He had a bath last night, under protest of course. According to Jacob, one must bathe monthly at least and weekly during the summer. I have slightly higher standards. Since his favorite after-school activity these days is shoveling gravel, a bath was in order. He's generally covered in fine gray dust when he comes home at the end of the day.

I was feeling pretty good about the odds of getting a good picture this morning when I got up. He was clean. He had a new, clean shirt. Everything was going to be fine. Then he unrolled himself from his sweaty burrito of fleece blankets. The combination of sweat and turbanesque blankets had slicked down the left side of Jake's hair while biggifying the right side into a faux hawk gone terribly wrong. (As if a faux hawk could ever go terribly right.)

The nail in the coffin came a few moments later when I consulted the school menu. They're having mostaciolli (baked pasta with red sauce) for lunch. I think maybe the school is having a little fun with us parents.

Monday, October 1, 2007

I have got to relax.

In spite of Mary's tongue in cheek advice, I want to talk about Jacob's progress report. The first quarter is half gone and we received a summary of Jacob's grades to date. A's in math and spelling, B's in reading and religion, C's in handwriting and written expression. My internal reaction: "What the heck? We have some work to do! Handwriting, shmandwriting, but the rest of this has got to improve." Nick's reaction: "Wooo! No D's! Great job, Jake!" Clearly, we have differing expectations.

I know very well that I have a stick up my rear about this. That was revealed last week when Jacob got a 93% on a spelling test. I remarked to Nick that we would have to work harder on spelling at home. "It's just memorization! There's no reason to not get a 100%!" As soon as that came out of my mouth, I was horrified. To be completely honest, though, it's how I feel. Anything less than perfect on something so easy as spelling is just completely unimaginable to me. I also know that it's really not a healthy attitude.

All through school, I got all A's in everything except handwriting (Jacob never really had a chance on that front, did he?). Anything less than a perfect score on anything was devastating to me. I don't want Jake to feel like that. I don't want him to cry over a B or lose sleep because he got the extra credit question wrong on a test. It took me until my early twenties and an F in calculus to get over that. Or so I thought, anyway. Clearly, I am not still over it.

What I want for my kids is for them to do their best. And I secretly want that best to be better than everyone else's best. It took every ounce of self-control that I have not to quiz the other parents on progress reports at the soccer game Saturday morning. I'm proud of myself for showing restraint. I wish I could get to the point where restraint isn't necessary. I'm never going to say "Wooo! No D's!" But I would really like to get to the point where a B isn't necessarily a badge of shame.

Friday, September 28, 2007

Baba Dion

Ever since my fantastic victory over the car cd player, we've been enjoying a wide selection of music. Claire's favorite is Baba Dion. The rest of us might pronounce that Bob Dylan, but don't worry. Claire will be more than happy to correct your error with emphatic hand gestures. She's generous like that.

I'll be driving along, listening to the news that has my heart hurting, when Claire requests Baba Dion. By "requests," I mean that she shrieks at a volume that could burst ear drums. Since I can't hear the news anyway, I generally put in the cd for her. If any song other than "Lay Lady Lay" emits from the speakers, she tells me off in very unladylike tones.

I'm trying to decide which is worse: a two year old who knows all the lyrics to "Lay Lady Lay" or the permanent loss of hearing that will result if I fail to comply.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

The I Nevers

All mothers joke about the I nevers. "Before I had children, I said that I'd never let them sleep with me!" Every parent I've ever met has an I never, and most have a laundry list of them. I nevers are usually funny - statements from naive young people who quickly abandon such silly mandates when faced with living breathing children. But there are other I nevers too, the ones that we can't quite joke about.

Before parenthood, parenting seems like it is all about the parent. We have our ideals, political and personal. We extrapolate parenting rules from those ideals and create a vision of what parenthood will be. This is an important process, I think, this preliminary definition of ourselves as parents. In many ways, it's the first parenting that we do! We sift and sort, prioritize and dismiss, and decide exactly who we want to be. Then we meet these small people and discover that parenting isn't just about who we want to be. It's also about who our partners want to be. It's also about who these little people are. And the I nevers start dropping like flies.

My list of I nevers is long and mostly forgotten. What's the saying? I was a better parent before I had children, or something similar. Most of my assumptions were just plain wrong and really quite humorous. (Did I really think that my children would be potty trained by age two?) There have been a few compromises, however, that were difficult. Over the past week, I have been wrestling with one of the difficult ones.

I want my children to learn my values. I want them to be ethical people. I want them to understand that we are all of us God's creations, no matter how different we may seem, and we are all of us worthy of respect and inclusion. I want them to reject hatred and discrimination. I also want them to have an innocent childhood. I want them to make their own choices, make their own mistakes, and live their own lives. I don't want to make my children into my own political statement, my puppets in the larger world. I don't want them to be limited by big topics that they don't, and should not understand at a tender age.

And so I am the mother of a Tiger Scout.

Monday, September 24, 2007

A Souvenir

Jake was exploring the pile o' junk on the upstairs couch yesterday while I was working. He was looking for Star Wars action figures that my husband has been winning on eBay then hiding around the house so that I don't start adding up purchase totals and Jake doesn't ruin them all by playing with them. I do not understand the logic. I just try to avoid looking too hard at any pile of junk. I heard lots of "Hey cool!" and "Wow!" as I resolutely refused to turn and look at Jake's finds. Then I heard him say, "Oh, I guess that's the last of Tweety, huh." I turned to see Jacob pointing to a petrified turd underneath the end table.

Friday, September 21, 2007

A Day for Peace

Today is the UN World Day for Peace. Jacob's school gave plastic cups to all the kids. They wrote the name of a war-torn country on the cup, then arranged them in the chain link fence to say "Be the Peace." Later this morning, they'll have a peace march around the school. I don't know that peace marches really do much to change the world. I do however, believe that individual choices can eventually change the world. I do believe that we can be the peace. Jacob's country of choice is Afghanistan. My project for today is to find something tangible that we can do together to improve conditions there. I have some ideas, but I'm always open to suggestions!

I highly recommend Todd Parr's The Peace Book. The book explains what a peaceful world looks like in simple language with clear, colorful illustrations. It's been a great conversation starter in our house for many different topics from ecological responsibility to homelessness.

Lord, make me an instrument of Thy peace; where there is hatred, let me sow love; where there is injury, pardon; where there is doubt, faith; where there is despair, hope; where there is darkness, light; and where there is sadness, joy. O Divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled as to console; to be understood, as to understand; to be loved, as to love; for it is in giving that we receive, it is in pardoning that we are pardoned, and it is in dying that we are born to Eternal Life. Amen.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

I hope we're doing the right thing.

Our cat has cancer. She's going to the vet today. Barring a miracle, she will not be coming home. She has a large tumor on her belly which she is bound and determined to remove herself. She's losing weight and hair. She reeks of death. She's mostly happy now, but that won't last for long. It's a hard choice but I know it's the right choice.

I am not sure we are doing the right thing for my son. After my husband and I decided on a course of action, I told Jake that Tweety is very sick. I explained that she will probably die soon. He was upset. He didn't understand why we couldn't just give her some medicine. He didn't believe that she was sick. I pointed out her loss of hair and her scrawny flank. After that conversation, he understands that she is dying. We are not telling him that we are putting her down, just that she is dying.

Last night as I was waiting for sleep, Tweety came by for a cuddle. I had a nice chance to say goodbye. Now, I'm wondering if we ought to have given Jake a chance to say goodbye as well. Which is worse? That he knows we're killing the cat or that he doesn't have a chance to say goodbye to her? He is only six. I do not believe he has the experience necessary to understand euthanasia. I'm almost thirty-six and I am struggling with it.

Monday, September 17, 2007

Thanks, Stranger.

I am feeling grateful this morning since a complete stranger helped me out. I realized in short order that strangers help me out all of the time. Maybe it's where I live. Maybe it's my oh-so-radiant personality. Maybe I'm just plain blessed. Whatever the reason, I would like to thank these people with more than a smile and wave. From this weekend:

  • Thanks Mr. man walking his dogs! I appreciate your frantic waving before I pulled away from the curb. I completely forgot that I set my coffee on the roof of my car. You changed my whole morning.
  • Thanks My Girl's owner! I know you're not a stranger anymore, although I still don't know your name. But you were a stranger the first time you stopped over three years ago to let my son pet your dog. My Girl is a lovely dog and you are a lovely person. I'm glad to see you every day.
  • Thanks Ms. fast walker with the short hair for reminding my son to look before crossing the alley. And thank you even more for smiling at me afterwards and telling me that your son was six once too.
  • Thanks to the many, many drivers who have waved us across the street while you sat at the stop sign longer than necessary.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Don't tell me the score!

Jake and I are watching Women's World Cup Soccer. I am Tivoing it and we're watching it in 30 minute increments since we can't seem to find a big enough block of time during the week for a whole game. We're watching game 1 right now. Abby Wombach just left the field with a bloody gash on her head and the North Koreans scored twice (twice!!!) in short succession. And then it was five minutes past time to read books so we had to save the rest for tonight.

Because Jake specifically asked to watch this, because a boy is watching women play a sport and finding nothing odd about that, because I remember hopping up on the boundary wall and watching semi-pro soccer when I was a kid and I'm excited to share a sport with Jake that Nick won't horn in on and take over with opinions and freakish knowledge of history and statistics, because I saw Jake pay close attention to his soccer coach last night, because of all these things I will not look up the score. I will not! But I have to say that it's really, really hard to resist. I'm turning on that game 30 seconds after I walk through the door tonight. And oh, do I hope that Wombach is ok.

I really hope that I'm spelling her name correctly, but I don't dare google it because I'll see the score!

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Please do the needful.

I have been working with an Indian project manager recently. He emails me a few times a week with an issue that requires action of some sort. After a brief explanation, he closes his email with "Pl. do the needful." I am absolutely enchanted by the phrase. I find myself muttering it regularly as a kind of mantra.

When confronted with a long to do list, I skim it and say, "Please do the needful." I say it when faced with a ringing phone, an urgent email, and a coworker standing next to my desk. And most of all, I say it over and over again in the evening when I'm trying to take care of two children, a husband, a cat, a household, and myself. My trouble, it seems, is figuring out what the needful is without a handy dandy project manager. I think I might need a project manager for my life.

Monday, September 10, 2007

Hermetically Sealed

I found this project of Claire's earlier today. She's on some sort of mission to protect toys and evidently, zip top baggies are the solution to all of life's little contaminants.

Unfortunately, zip top baggies aren't always enough. On Saturday, my little family was parading into the school bearing cakes in big white boxes. I had a cake balanced on my right hand and Claire's little fist firmly planted in my left hand. Then I tripped over a low cart. I held onto Claire's hand tighter than Britney Spears held onto a falling cocktail. Claire flew up into the air, and described an arc around my body which abruptly ended when her head met a metal door.

Six hours and six stitches later, we were all more or less fine. A couple of days later, we really are all fine. Claire's head and my legs are starting to show the green patches that betray coming bruises and tornadoes.

Thursday, September 6, 2007

A good idea this time

Jake's suffered from recurring nightmares for most of his little life. We have tried everything we can think of and the only solution is making sure that he gets enough rest. The nightmares go in streaks. He gets a little tired, he has a nightmare, and then we're off on the nightmare roller coaster for a few weeks.

I was tucking him in last night when he asked, "Mom, what can I do so I don't have a nightmare tonight?"

"I don't know, Jacob. We've been dealing with this a long time. It's better when you try to relax and be happy before you go to sleep." I put on some music to help him. And wha-bam! Inspiration hit me right between the eyes.

Jacob knows the story of Jacob's ladder quite well. It's in a lullaby that I sing to him every night. So finally, I realized that the original Jacob would be a terrific help to us. "You know, the first Jacob was a dreamer too. Remember, he dreamed about Jesus. You could ask Jacob to pray for you. You could ask him to pray that you have happy dreams."

"Jacob's dead, Mom. He can't pray."

"Oh sure he's dead. But he's with God right? He can just look over and say 'Yo God! Help Jacob!' " And with that, Jacob dissolved in giggles. He asked me to ask Jacob to pray for him. Then he slept peacefully through the night.

Thanks a million, Jacob in heaven. I'm sorry I didn't ask for your help a long time ago. I'm sure that you've been waiting for me to figure it out.

Wednesday, September 5, 2007

Well that was a bad idea.

I was dressing a very tired Claire for the night after she'd had a long bath with Jake. She caught sight of her wrinkled fingers, then held them up for close examination. She was very, very concerned. I tried to explain that it was just the bath, that her fingers would be normal soon. Her little forehead furrowed. She said in a voice with an edge of hysteria, "I don't like that." After a long pause and further examination, she said it again in an even edgier voice. "I don't like that!"

Thinking quickly, I called, "Hey Jacob! Come in here for a sec! Show Claire that your fingers are wrinkly too." Just as I was mentally patting myself on the back, I noticed that Jake was closely examining his hands. His forehead was furrowed in the exact same manner as Claire's. Then in the same quasi-panicked voice, he declared, "I don't like that."

Monday, September 3, 2007

Open Letter to Biting Insects

Dear Mosquitoes, Spiders, Biting Flies, and all other manner of biting insects:

Please stop biting Claire on her eyelid. I realize that it's probably a big joke to the entire guild of biting insects, but this particular joke has gone too far. For the fourth time this summer, the sixth time in her life, Claire's eyelid has swollen to twice it's normal size. Thank goodness for Benadryl which is reducing the swelling enough for the child to see.

Beyond her discomfort, there is the question of her appearance. Yes, I do realize that is the funny part. But seriously? It is difficult enough for me to deal with her proclivity for nudity and aversion to shoes. The staggering caused by vision impairment added to the drooping eye on top of the nudity and general shoelessness makes my sweet, smart daughter look like she's stumbling into the street after an ill-advised bar fight. Yesterday, I had to chase the most white-trash-looking toddler on the face of the planet onto a mid-game soccer field while strangers looked on and clucked in concern for the well-being of said child.

Once again, I beg of you to cease and desist. You've had your joke. Now leave my child alone. And remember - winter is coming. You'll get yours.



Friday, August 31, 2007

The Power of Prayer

I have been teaching Jacob how to pray during difficult situations. It is not an easy task. I am quite private about my prayer life and I do not often pray with others outside of communal events. Other than the occasional "You are in my prayers," it's just not a topic of conversation. My prayer coaching for Jake has consisted of reminders and examples. "Oh, you're feeling frightened! Well, you could pray about that." or my favorite, "You seem to be having a hard time controlling yourself. Maybe you'd better ask God for some help." The latter is rarely well-received but it does serve as a reminder to me to ask for a little help! Last night, in the most unexpected way, Jacob showed me that my little lessons have been slowly taking a foothold in that stubborn little brain of his.

I was assembling the ingredients for pancakes when I heard Jake hollering at me from the bathroom. "Heeeeeeeeeeeelp meeeeeeeeeeeeeeee! It huuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuurts!" Having been Jake's mother for all of six years now, I knew the problem in an instant. Jacob has a little trouble relaxing in unfamiliar bathrooms. So any time he changes environments, we have to live through a little adjustment period while Jake familiarizes himself with the new bathroom. We all know what relaxation issues lead to and we all know that it's uncomfortable. Once we get to that point, there's not much for me to do assistance-wise beyond some hand-holding and cheer-leading. After about 10 minutes of excruciating waiting, Jake asked the big question. "Mom, do you think God can help me poop?"

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Nine Years

Nine years ago at this very moment, I was in my dining room putting an entire can of hairspray on my recently curled hair in a pointless attempt to coax my stick-straight hair into staying curled long enough for pictures and a wedding ceremony. It worked, although I have almost no evidence of my success due to a low-down dirty dog of a photographer. He went out of business after we paid for our pictures but before he had actually delivered them. Several other couples were in the same circumstance. I cried so many tears over those lost photos.

For our first anniversary, Nick gave me the negatives. I still don't know exactly how he managed it, but he did. He sweet-talked another photographer into developing one of the pictures. He went through all 500 negatives to find a picture of the two of us before the altar. He carefully put it into the pewter frame that I had picked out for our registry. He wrapped it in actual gift wrapping paper - a huge ordeal for a man who generally "wraps" presents in a plastic grocery bag. Through all of this selection and handling of the photograph, Nick never noticed that my eyes are closed in the picture.

I display the picture anyway. It makes me inordinately happy to see it in a prominent location in my living room, showing me in all of my unattractive glory. I have the negatives and I could replace it and even have a wedding album printed, but I don't really want to. I don't need them any more. Memories of a perfect ceremony are nothing next to memories of an imperfect, happy marriage.

I was peeved at Nick this morning because he forgot to write "I love you" on his card to me. I would rather be peeved at him than anyone else in the world. After nine years, I am exactly where I want to be. I can't wait to see what the next nine years holds for us.

Monday, August 27, 2007

Strong Women

A while ago, Katie posted a lament about today's heroines. I'd like to link to it, but having spent 5 minutes looking and not finding, my lazy bone has cried "Enough!" Unless the kind, wonderful, witty Katie helps me out (wink, wink, nudge, nudge), you all will have to make do with my summary. Summary: Young women today lack heroines of substance.

Obviously, the original post got stuck in my craw. I want better than drunken heiresses and vulnerable pop stars. I've been keeping my eyes open for real heroines. This weekend, two very different women hit my radar again.

Carolina Kluft is a timely heroine. She's strong and graceful in competition. She appears to be both genuine and bright.

Mother Teresa is a timeless heroine. A book recently published reveals that she was deeply and spiritually lonely, yet she has done more than any contemporary person to ensure that others need never feel forgotten or alone. Would that we all could use our weakness to such meaningful ends.

UPDATE: Katie helped me out. She's good like that and I am grateful.

Friday, August 24, 2007

A Hard Pill to Swallow

Jacob takes an antihistamine every night for allergies. He graduated from the liquid to disintegrating tablets about a year ago. Those are a pretty neat invention, really, and somehow I believe that they were the brainchild of a frustrated parent.

Last night, I realized that we had run out of the melting tabs. I decided that it wasn't a problem. I was confident that Jake could learn how to swallow a tiny little pill. He was game as well.

I told him to put the pill on his tongue and take a big gulp of water. He did. Then he stuck out his tongue with the pill still on it. "Move it back a little farther, then try again." Another gulp. The pill was still on his tongue. "Move it forward to the tip, then try again." Another gulp. The pill survived. "Bend your head forward and swish the water around, then swallow." Jake complied with only the tiniest roll of his eyes. "Hmm. Well, maybe if you take two drinks in a row."

"This is boring, Mom. I just crunched it instead." I bought another box of the melting tabs. We'll try again the next time I forget to stock up.

Thursday, August 23, 2007

T that rhymes with C

Claire is two - and is she ever two. She is willful, dramatic, independent, and itching for a fight. All of these are important to her development as a person yadda yadda yadda. I can put a nice spin on it, but the low-down dirty truth is that Claire is not easy right now. We grit our teeth and grimly enforce the house rules. We tag team her, switching off when we get near our breaking points. We remind each other of Jake's exploits at this age to reassure ourselves that we will make it to the other side of this phase. At the end of the day, once she's asleep, the entire house lets out a deep sigh of relief.

Claire's favorite battlefield is nap time at daycare. She has decided not to nap against all logic and evidence to the contrary. This has been going on for a while, but two caregivers have managed to retain their authority. They would lay her down, give her the old stink-eye, and Claire would sleep. In the past week, one of the caregivers has moved to another class. Claire beat the other one yesterday.

I walked in at the end of the day to find a manic Claire running around in circles. "Uh-oh!" I said, "It looks like she hasn't had a nap." I have heard that some children get tired and fall asleep when they haven't had naps. My children get more and more manic. The more frenzied the activity, the more tired the child.

I turned to look at the caregiver. She sighed heavily, drooped her shoulders and said, "She beat me." Gulp. Gulp gulp. This caregiver - this experienced mother of 4, grandmother of more, caregiver to dozens of children - gave up in the face of a determined two year old child. I completely understand how that can happen. I have been a hair away from conceding on a few occasions. But now that the caregiver has abdicated authority, she's going to have to earn it back. Claire, who was testing the stability of her world, is reeling.

We're in trouble now, my friends. Trouble with a capital T and that rhymes with C and that stands for Claire. The next month or so is going to be a long one.

Monday, August 20, 2007

Erasers and Pencil Cases and Backpacks, Oh My!

I took Jacob, Claire, and my mother to Target on Saturday to purchase school supplies for the upcoming year. Claire was just there to make the outing slower and louder. I'm thankful, really, because back-to-school shopping is really too easy without a two year old sister (Nick has recently taken to calling her "the meth-head" when the littlies are out of hearing) to gum up the works. Grandma was there because Claire was there. Girl Baby doll, two library books, an extra cart, and a bag of goldfish were also there for Claire. I can't pinpoint the exact moment when running errands morphed into a full-fledged parade complete with sparklers and a clown car, but I'm pretty sure that we can never quite get back to a simple in-and-out trip.

List in hand, we hit the mobbed school supplies area. Then a miracle happened. I said, "You need 4 two-pocket folders, Jake!" Moments later, he handed me 4 two pocket folders. I tried again, "You need three wide ruled spiral notebooks!" We ran into a roadblock there because Jake didn't know what a spiral notebook was. But after a quick explanation, he tossed three of them in the cart. Then glue, markers, pencils, crayons. I almost cried right there next to the pencil cases (which were all the WRONG kind of pencil case, of course).

Jacob is growing up. A lot. This past summer, he has made such strides - great big leaping strides that cover furlongs. Sometimes, it's really hard for me to step back and trust that he will be ok without me. Other times, it's just a little trip to Target that shows me how very ok he is going to be. And then I quietly cry with relief while pretending to evaluate the girliness factor of pencil cases.

School starts one week from today. His backpack is chock full and ready to go. This year, I know that my little first-grader is going to be fine. I can't wait to hear all about the first day.

Friday, August 17, 2007

Who is telling her these things?

Me: Yes, Jake, I know you want to be Spiderman for Halloween. We'll start working on it soon. What about you, Claire? How do you want to dress up for Halloween?

C: I want to be Barbie

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

The Age of Misinformation

School starts in a week and a half! I told Jake last night that we would make a special trip this weekend for school supplies. I thought that he would be excited. He had been talking about being a first grader early on in the summer. I was quite surprised when I heard a small voice from the backseat. "I don't want to go to first grade. I'm scared. In first grade, you have to take math testes and they are hard."

After swallowing a few giggles about the "math testes," I asked Jacob what he knew about tests. He knew nothing, of course. Lack of knowledge has never done much to stop anxiety, though. We we talked a bit about quizzes and tests. I even gave him an impromptu spelling test. He passed it with flying colors (it may have been ever so slightly rigged).

Later, I told Nick about Jake's anxiety. I wanted Jake to have a little extra reassurance that all would be well. Nick emerged from Jake's room laughing and shaking his head. My spelling test had worked all too well - Jake is now concerned that first grade will be too easy.

Monday, August 13, 2007

Miscellaneous Vacation Tidbits

  • Kansas must have the most museums per capita in the entire world.
  • Kansas State Troopers monitor speed on I-70 with slightly more zeal than that of a new mother monitoring bowel movements. I got a ticket near Shawnee and spent the rest of the trip driving agonizingly slowly.
  • Salina, Kansas has remarkably good Mexican food. Woodland Park, Colorado does not.
  • If anyone finds a right pink mary jane sneaker somewhere around Limon, Colorado, please let me know. Claire's only response has been "I throwed it."
  • Jacob pulled out a loose tooth while hiking in the Florrisant fossil beds. I carried it around in my pocket for days and then accidentally left it in Colorado Springs. Thank goodness the tooth fairy is a forgiving sort. Of the three teeth Jake has lost, only one has actually made it home to be put under his pillow.
  • Jacob climbed Blue Mountain. I couldn't quite make it to the top. He's one rough, tough little dude.
  • Nick can't sleep while camping. At all.
  • After a heated discussion, we've decided the correct way to call a llama is "llama llama ding dong!"
  • If you give a six year old boy a stick and tell him to go catch a deer, he'll stay busy for a very long time.
  • If you give two two-year-olds a frisbie and a pile of dirt, they will stay busy for a very long time. They may or may not ingest the dirt.
  • Hotels with water slides are perfect for children who have been cooped up in a car for hours and hours.
  • It's always good to come home again, even if home is 102 degrees in the shade with a broken air conditioner that's struggling to keep the house below 85. It'll be better to go home tonight after the repairman has paid us a visit.

Wednesday, August 1, 2007

Blessed Teresa of Calcutta, Jean Luc Picard, Kathleen Norris, and Carey Landry bopped me on the head.

I've been reading Kathleen Norris' The Cloister Walk for what seems like 74 years now. I even had to extend it at the library. It is a difficult book for me. Norris is a poet by trade, and well, it's obvious. But underneath the difficult prose are really meaty ideas. And underneath those meaty ideas is something that's been nagging at me, making me pick up the book again and again. Her stories about monks past and present keep drawing me in. The section on celibacy broke something free - a little something that's been sitting right on the tip of my tongue for a week now waiting for me to figure out what the heck it is and spit it out already (it's a hairy little something and it tastes a little funky).

A few days ago, my mother-in-law came over to babysit. She brought a book of songs with her. I thumbed through the book, singing songs that I remembered learning in elementary school. The book had quite a large section of vacation bible school songs. I recalled my favorite ever VBS song "Bloom Where You're Planted" and I sang it for my amused and befuddled audience. I guess you had to live through the "Hi, God!" phase of the 70s to really appreciate Carey Landry's lyrics. Singing that song with my friends accompanied by the gentle strumming of guitars is a happy memory for me, though. I can remember thinking that I would bloom where I was planted! I would be a beautiful daisy no matter what my surroundings!

A few weeks before the little blast from the past, I had a chat with a good friend. I don't remember the whole conversation, but I do remember that Mother Theresa came up. "In this life we cannot do great things. We can only do small things with great love."

These three topics have been knocking around in my head a good bit. I couldn't figure out why they kept coming to the front of my mind all the time, much less why one triggered the others. I'd be telling the kids to stop bickering, cooking dinner, and making to do lists in my head when, seemingly out of nowhere, I'd start humming that little song. So last night, when Jean Luc Picard popped into my head while I was mopping, it was a welcome reprieve. I dunked and wrung and pushed and then Jean-Luc-in-my-head said "ENGAGE!" I'd like to pretend it was an "aha" moment, but it was really more of a "well, duh" moment.

I believe that family life is my vocation. I have been called to marriage and motherhood by God - I have no doubt of that. But I sort of forgot that a calling is not an event so much as a way of life. I haven't fulfilled my vocation because I had a wedding or a childbirth (or two). I live my vocation by loving my husband and children. To be honest, that's been a half-assed effort of late. I've been disengaged. Now that I've had a little head bopping, though, I'm ready to really throw myself into my life again, to fully engage in all the little acts of great love that will fulfill my calling. And I can finally put down that book and start something else!

Monday, July 30, 2007

What's wrong with a little failure?

I bought Claire some Play-Doh this weekend. She loves the stuff and we already have a pile of it, but I was buying Jake a little car. I can get away with buying utilitarian items for one child and not the other - nobody screams about socks. But any fool of a parent knows that you can't get out of the store with one toy and two children without screams that can melt steel. So. Play-Doh to the rescue.

As soon as we arrived home, I opened the pack and showed Claire how to use her new tool. She played with it for about 20 seconds before abandoning the tool in favor of the little brochure that had been enclosed in the packet. I sat down to look at it with her. And then I saw it. "Perfect every time." It was in the description of a kit for little critters.

Isn't "perfect every time" in direct opposition to the whole point of Play-Doh? It's PLAY-Doh, not PERFECT-Doh. I want my kids to feel free to play with it. I want bowls made from coiled snakes, dogs with legs that are too short, and lumpy trees. I want my kids to have the freedom to make it the wrong way as they discover that art isn't about perfection.

A few weeks ago, an acquaintance of mine sat down to help her daughter with an art project. They had a booklet with various products and instructions for making fairy princesses. The mother dutifully read the instructions and showed her daughter the correct way to construct her fairy princess. There was even a moment of panic when the mother thought she might have to draw a circle by hand! She eventually found a round object to trace so that the pumpkin coach would be perfectly round. I've never seen a perfectly round pumpkin in my life - and I consider myself something of a pumpkin connoisseur.

I think we're stealing process away from our children in our relentless effort to protect them from failure. I have no doubt that it's done with love. Failure can be awful and we all know how it feels. I am an horrible artist. I still remember Mrs. Olsen, my fourth grade art teacher, sneering at my painting of Peary at the north pole. "This isn't a finished painting. It's just a red blur on white paper!" On my mama bear level, I'd certainly like to protect my children from that sort of scathing criticism. On my intellectual mama level, I realize that kind of shelter comes at a cost.

What I need to do, what I think we all need to do, is teach our kids how to handle failure instead of preventing it. Let's replace "perfect every time" with "perfect with practice." Let's teach our kids to tell the Mrs. Olsens of the world that criticism needs to be constructive. Let's teach them to ask about what's good, what's not good, and how to make it better. Let's give them the freedom of creative process.

Thursday, July 26, 2007

My sharp, Mommy

I've mentioned before that Claire helps me with dinner. I really do enjoy it although it can sometimes be a nerve-wracking experience. She likes to put vegetables into a bowl as I chop them. And every single time, I have the same horrifying vision. I'll be chopping happily along when I see a little chubby finger reaching for a carrot about a foot away from the knife. And then I see the knife coming down on the little chubby finger. It doesn't seem to matter that her finger is too far away for the knife to actually cut it. If I can see both her finger and the knife, I have the vision and I am left sick to my stomach. I always reiterate, "Sharp! This is sharp! OUCH! The knife is for Mommy! Not for you! Sharp!" Then I take a deep breath, ignore the nausea, and return to chopping.

The other night, Claire found a bag of toy kitchen paraphernalia in the basement. She carried it upstairs where she started cataloging the items. When she came across the toy chef's knife, she studied it carefully for a few minutes. Then she showed it to me and said, "My sharp, Mommy. MINE. NOT FOR YOU!" I don't know whether to be relieved by her innocence or peeved that she thinks I'm selfishly keeping the real knife for myself.

Monday, July 23, 2007

Bringing Up Readers

I took the kids to the library on Saturday morning. It's not an unusual event - we usually go two or three times a month. We have a whole bookcase filled with children's literature, but we get bored with the same books. Besides, our local branch has a fantastic children's section. There are so many books, toys, and activities, plus there are always other children milling around. I let the kids pick their own books while I select more books that I think are appropriate for them. We generally end up with a pile of books only slightly shorter than Claire which we read one after the other as soon as we arrive home. I spent much of my childhood reading and it seems that my children are happy to follow in that path.

On this particular visit, the librarian on the children's floor asked us if we had signed up for the summer reading program. Jacob replied that he had indeed. Then the librarian looked at Claire, looked at me, and asked if Claire would like to sign up as well. What??? Why on earth would a two year old child need to sign up for a reading program? For that matter, I'm not sure that a six year old child needs to sign up for a reading program! Jake did sign up and after he reads his first five books, I'll take him to pick up his special pencil (I'm the mean mom who is only counting books that Jake reads himself, not the books that I read to him) and so on until the program ends. But after the request to enroll Claire in the program, I'm beginning to wonder.

In kindergarten, part of Jake's homework every night was for a parent to read to him for 15 minutes each night. We dutifully filled out the sheet with the books we read and Jake carefully colored a star for every book. But we both resented the intrusion into our reading time. Five minutes spent filling out a sheet was five minutes that we had to tear ourselves away from our book. On top of that, we had to fill out a different reading list with ten books we read over the course of the month in order to qualify for a free pizza. Again, we dutifully filled out the sheet to prove that we were reading - which we would have been doing anyway - and received our coupons. We only used the coupon one time out of the nine that Jacob "earned."

I can't help but wonder if all these programs are detrimental. At what point do literacy programs turn into bribery? Do kids really learn to love literature if they're just reading to earn a pencil or to enter a drawing for baseball tickets? If kids love storytime anyway, are we cheapening the experience by essentially putting a price tag on it? I can see the advantage of these types of reading programs if they are actually bringing new patrons to the library, or encouraging parents who do not love reading themselves to read with their children anyway. But for families like ours, where storytime is an activity as normal as bathtime, are the programs accomplishing anything?

Thursday, July 19, 2007

The Overblown Underwear Incident

I used to loathe the saying "boys will be boys." I thought it was used to excuse poor behavior. Oh, Johnny beat up Joey? Well, boys will be boys! Oh, Johnny is pressuring Janey for intimacy? Well, boys will be boys! And on and on ad nauseam.

Yesterday, Jacob got in trouble at day camp. When I walked into the room, he shuffled over and mumbled something. After a few tries, I finally managed to understand him. "I took out my underwear and sniffed it." The camp counselor, an older woman, walked over toward me. I approached her in confusion, and asked for clarification because I had to be missing some information.

She explained that the children were waiting to change clothes after returning from the pool. A group of boys were trying to gross out a group of girls. The boys took their clean underwear out of their backpacks and sniffed it, causing no small amount of shrieking and squealing from the girls. Since the girls were "highly offended," the boys were soundly lectured and punished with a loss of recess.

It took me a few minutes to digest the story. Then, I had to stop myself from laughing. I suggested ever so tactfully that perhaps, just perhaps, the counselor had overreacted a bit. Boys sniffing clean laundry is hardly harmful behavior. Mildly inappropriate? Sure. Worthy of a dirty look? Sure. Worthy of a lost recess? Absolutely not. My criticism was not well-received, to say the very least.

At any rate, I'm sort of thinking this is an example of boys being boys and girls being girls. Boys sometimes like gross things. They sniff underwear - and not always clean underwear. Girls sometimes like to be offended. They squeal and shriek and create drama. While I think that inappropriate behavior should be corrected, I wonder about our definitions of inappropriate behavior. For that matter, I wonder about our definitions of correction!

What do you think? Will boys be boys? Is that a problem?

Monday, July 16, 2007

Ordinary Courage

The kids and I stopped at McDonald's during a longish drive yesterday to take advantage of the air conditioned play structures. Jake played hard and eventually, Claire wanted to join him. I sent her toward the steps and asked Jake to keep an eye on her. The play structure was crowded and Claire hasn't learned how to watch out for herself yet.

After a while, I heard Jake's voice ring out. "That's my sister!" I started scanning the tubes and slides, looking for trouble. Then Claire came shooting out of a slide, unperturbed. Jake was right behind her. He saw me, screamed, and ran toward me crying and shaking. A big mama bear hug eventually calmed him down enough for me to get the story. Two boys had targeted Jake and Claire. They followed along, right on my kids' heels, and threatened Jacob. The older one, who was probably 8 or 9, told Jake that they were going to keep after him. At that point, Jake started to panic and protested that they should leave Claire alone. He pushed her through the tubes until they found an exit.

I was furious, of course. I had Jake point out the boys to me. I couldn't find a parent for them in the crowd. The older boy avoided my gaze, but the younger one looked at me. I stared at him until he averted his eyes and shuffled off. I really wish that I had been able to find a parent. Then again, perhaps if the parent had been present, the boys would not have been bullying kids in the tubes.

I am proud of Jacob's response to the incident. He had the courage to face those boys down until his sister was safe. He held himself together and took care of business. He could have abandoned Claire, screamed for help, or even fought the boys. But instead, he swallowed his fear and took care of his own.

Extraordinary courage is easy to see and admire - and is certainly worthy of admiration. The ordinary courage of everyday life is easy to overlook, easy to dismiss. But everyday courage like Jake's is the bedrock of an ethical life. It allows us to find dignified responses to undignified situations. It gives us the strength to live by our own convictions while facing those who would have us abandon them. In such a small incident, I can see a bit of the man Jake will become. I am so, so hopeful for his future.