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Monday, January 6, 2014

Snow Day!

Snow day.

Those two little words were magical when I was a child, and as far as I can tell, will remain magical as long as there are children. Here in the midwest, there is a small cadre of traditions that are supposed to bring on a snow day...talismans, if you will, that the children seem mysteriously to intuit the way that they learn jump-rope rhymes and "jinx you owe me a soda" and "I'm tell-ing!" without anyone ever apparently teaching them. If, on a snowstorm-promising evening, you flush ice cubes down the toilet, put your pj's on inside-out, and put a spoon safely under your bed just before you get tucked in, you are nearly guaranteed a snow day come morning.

Absurdity notwithstanding, I have been known to indulge these talismans a few times. We did none of them last night--indeed, my children rarely request them anymore--but it is just possible that they didn't feel the need to dash madly downstairs for a spoon before bedtime last night because by dinnertime yesterday, school had already been called off for today.

When I was growing up, we didn't have such rituals. But I suspect that is only because we didn't need them: it only snowed a handful of times during my entire childhood in Atlanta, and any snow was sure to result in a snow day because the city owns not a single plow, and no one knows how to drive in snow. In fact, the only way a southern city can deal with a snowstorm is this: close everything and wait for the white stuff to melt.

I have vivid memories of the snows of my childhood.

Putting on my ice skates to walk to a neighbor's house where my mom was visiting. I didn't have boots. The skates seemed a very logical choice to me. I felt very proud of my seven-year-old self for thinking of them.
Being walked home by my best friend's mother who brought a giant black umbrella to meet us for the snowstorm early-dismissal and made us walk under the umbrella with her so we wouldn't be killed by falling tree limbs on the way to their house. Greeted by a mother with a life-saving umbrella. Forced to walk away from the school in front of all of our friends under said umbrella, to protect us from tree limbs laboring under approximately 2" of snow. In eighth grade. Easily the most mortifying moment of my life up until that point.
Fashioning boots out of grocery bags to keep our feet dry. (This, contrary to what you might think, is not mortifying. Everyone does it--or did in the 1970s and 80s, back before big, ugly, fleece-lined boots were fashion items. It just makes sense.) First, you put on your thinnest socks, covered by your thickest socks. Then, you take a plastic grocery bag and tuck your foot into it, using one of those big tan rubberbands to secure the bag at your ankle. Then you put on your tennis shoes, or whatever footwear you own that seems most likely to give you some traction in the snow. Tuck the top ends of the bag up into your pants. And your feet do not get wet.
Sledding on cookie sheets down the short steep street on which our house was perched. Yes, sledding into the cross street at the bottom of the hill--because streets in southern cities are simply tree-free sledding zones on a snow day. No one is foolish enough to drive a car on them. (Once the sled run is really well packed, you can switch to a garbage-bag sled, which is faster. Just open the seam at the bottom of the bag, step into the giant plastic tube, bunch up the excess in your hands to pull the bag taut across your entire back side, take a running start, and fling yourself onto the hill.)
My children's memories of snow days involve a lot more gear--snow pants! boots! parkas! real sleds!--and the possibility of building an entire fort made of snow. (When we made snowmen as kids, we generally had to use up nearly all the snow in the yard.) These days are far less rare than the four snow days I recall from my entire childhood. But they are no less alluring.

Happy snow day! And stay warm if you, like us, are anticipating temperatures in the range officially known as stunning cold by this afternoon.

Saturday, February 2, 2013


Exactly a year ago at this time (8:42pm), I was sitting in an empty pediatric surgical waiting room. They don't schedule procedures at that time of night; they only do them in emergencies. I was alone because my husband was still on his way back from dropping our daughter off at a friend's house for the night so that we could stay at the hospital and devote all of our fretting and energy to the child who'd been hit by a car a few hours before.

The word hit seems wrong in that sentence.

Emotionally, smashed seems more appropriate. Careened into

There really are no words that feel adequate to describe the horrifying slow-motion of watching an eight-year-old, your eight-year-old, on a scooter suddenly be plastered onto the front grill of a gold-tan minivan.

One minute, you are walking your dog, and the children are scooting through the glimmer of an unseasonably warm February day, and the next minute, the neighborhood street that was quiet and empty is filled with your panicked screams and the hulking car with your broken child in a limp pile at its bumper.

The point here, though, is not just that I have been having flashbacks all day long, or that I have been alternately on the verge of tears and the verge of near-hysterical laughter, but that I feel the most immense gratitude there ever was because He. Is. Fine.

Apart from two scars above his knee where the surgeons performed their miracles, there is not a mark on him to suggest what happened last February.

He used to be able to say, with definitive firmness "February 2," when asked when the accident happened. But today, he didn't even think of it.

I watched him playing basketball this morning, pounding up and down the court, catching rebounds, making shots on the impossibly high ten-foot baskets, guarding opponents, and the tears just rolled down my face. He is fine.

I can hardly believe I can write those words.

He laughed with his teammates, cheered them on from the bench, scored.

We took the dog for a walk in the snow today. My son didn't want to come. He wanted to stay on the couch and read. But I made him join me. Neither he nor his sister knew it, but I needed them both to come. I needed this peaceful snow, and this threesome, and this walk, if for no other reason than to remind myself that there are so many more days for dog-walking than there are days for horrifying accidents while dog-walking.

We laughed, and slid on the ice that lay concealed under the fresh snow (no unseasonable warmth this year), and raced the dog down the path. We came home to hot chocolate. We made a dinner that only my husband and I knew was a celebration, extravagance marking my own gratitude, cooking my medium for expressing love.

I sat on the couch between my two children and watched a silly television show and could only think of how it felt: Whole. It felt complete. The scent of hair and child and warmth, their individual scents mingled under my nose, their giggles and caresses enveloping me, I felt surrounded by good fortune.

"What was your favorite part of your day?" I asked him at bedtime, as usual. And when he asked me in return, I told him it was the whole day, every bit of it. "That makes no sense," he said. "You liked going to Home Depot?"

I thought about mentioning this anniversary to him by way of explanation.

But then I didn't. Why should I? He has moved forward. Run forward. Become whole and happy and put this accident in his past. He, thank God, did not see what I saw that day. He will never have that sight in the vocabulary of his memory. And so, having recovered, he should be allowed to stay that way.

Because a childhood should be filled with laughter like this.

Monday, January 21, 2013

Nine Years Old

Do you know what nine years old looks like?

Many days, it looks like noise. Lots of noise. Loud laughter, jokes whose punchlines must be shouted, games that require enthusiastic cheers, and laments that are expressed with the vehemence of curse words that Nine Years Old is not bold enough to say.

Nine Years Old is critical commentary on the cheating propensities of Certain Boys on the playground at recess. The critique is less name-calling than matter-of-fact description, but the descriptions are rife with an indignant sense that right and wrong ought to be inviolable. The tone is tinged with disappointment that not everyone understands this. (Eight Years Old could be moved to tears over this injustice. Nine is not. He merely accepts it as a disappointing fact.)

Nine eats five pancakes, two slices of bacon, and two glasses of milk for breakfast, is hungry for a snack at 10am, and then has two helpings of lunch.

Or else, Nine is too busy to eat and picks at his food, occasionally resorting to frustrated tears over the iniquity of being forced to eat broccoli that has been cooked too soft and put into sauce.

Nine uses "verse" as a verb. As in: "I love versing you guys at Mario Kart!!!"

Nine Years Old talks a big big BIG BIG game. In this pivot moment, trying desperately to find its equilibrium between respect for authority and not being a baby any more, Nine misses the mark a lot. He jokes with parents as if they are peers, leading to all sorts of oddly-familiar comments that aren't exactly disrespectful but are uncomfortably not the relationship a child ought to have with his mother.

Nine wants to be read to and tucked in at night but does not want to be kissed. Nine will fight the kiss with every power of his being, pulling the comforter over his head and giggling uproariously. Nine will sing out, "night night, LADY!" as you leave the room, having given up again and consoled yourself with a kiss on the elbow that is under the blankets.

And then, five nights out of seven, Nine cannot sleep and must come down stairs to sit in your lap for a quiet cuddle, a caressing of hair, a dozen soft kisses on the back of the neck and the cheeks. Then, and only then, can he sleep.

Nine is sports. All sports. Any sports. He wants to play them all, watch them all, memorize the stats for them all. He has favorite teams and favorite players and favorite seasons.

He is old enough to understand that his mother doesn't want him playing tackle football in third grade because of the danger of injuries, and young enough to cry over the fact that she is being too protective and he won't get hurt anyway and it's just not fair. He is old enough to ask over and over what happened at Penn State but young enough to be silenced by the quiet answer that it was something terrible, too "inappropriate" to explain to a child.

Nine Years Old will practice trash talking at dinner with his friends.

It will regale you with detailed stories about the Recess Football League, and who plays which position on which team. (They have teams! With names! And positions!) Their friend, Eight Years Old, who is relegated to the second grade section of the playground, is both Defensive Coordinator and Offensive Coordinator, the Nines explain, because he isn't allowed to play in their game, but he wants to play with them and they want him to be a part of it all. He has stats too, which they will rattle off in great detail. And if you ask how he can have touchdown stats if he has to stand on the sidelines, the Nines will tell you that Eight gets credit for all the successful plays the others make that he has called. Because Nines are generous and inclusive and endlessly resourceful despite the rules made by adults--who have marked out definitive territories on the playground to ensure that older children are not selfish and exclusive with the younger ones.

Nine can make complex rules for any game, almost instantly establishing teams and guidelines and amending them as the game progresses. Everything will be fair, even if three warriors are armed with flying monkey slingshots, while two have laser tag guns, and one has a plastic sword. Each weapon will have its own rules of engagement, and all the Nines will abide by them.

Until they don't. And then all the Nines will erupt into noise even noisier than the noise of enjoyable battle to argue loudly about who is or isn't following the rules they have just invented.

But alone, Nine will duck its head to hide tears of happiness when it learns that a friend with a serious medical condition will be allowed his very first sleepover ever on the occasion of a ninth birthday party.

Nine has boundless energy, can stay awake until 11pm--LOUDLY--with friends around, seems like it never needs sleep. And yet, Nines will come to a sleepover with tattered blankets and stuffed lovies they have clearly owned since their baby days. One Nine will announce with pride that his misshapen, greying, knitted square is older than all the boys there.

"Look," a Nine will shout as you walk in the room--half their conversations will be shouted--"did you know his Chewy is older than anyone else here?!"

Nine is nothing if not competitive. But it is also, quite beautifully, able to be happy when someone else wins a contest. Any contest at at all.

Even one over whose lovie is oldest.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Reckoning Time; or, How I've Spent the Past Week

Counts as working: Answering email from students
Fake working: Putting down the paper you're grading, mid-paragraph, to pop over to your faculty email account to see if there are any new messages

Counts as working: Sitting on the couch under a fleecy blanket, grading papers
Fake working: Sitting on the couch under a fleecy blanket with a pile of ungraded papers in your lap and a pencil in hand while "someone else" in the room is watching 30 Rock

Counts as working: Setting up a blog under your real, professional name because you've required your students to use a blogging platform for part of their semester's writing
Fake working: Staying up until 1am tinkering with the blog widgets to make the site prettier! and shinier! and more awesome!

Counts as working: Writing letters of recommendation for students applying to scholarships/jobs/advanced degree programs
Fake working: Re-reading letters of recommendation from five years ago and wondering where that one particularly brilliant student is now

Counts as working: Creating a Twitter account in your real, professional name because you've just signed on to be a monthly contributor to the online version of an Important Professional Journal
Fake working: Staying up until 1am trying to get your avatar photo to upload not sideways and endlessly reworking the 160-character bio

Counts as working: Staying up until 1am revising the syllabus from the last time you taught this class (five years ago) to make it both more intellectually focused and slightly less demanding (read: tone down that crazy Victorian reading load)
Fake working: Rereading whole portions of Tennyson's Morte d'Arthur in order to be absolutely sure you've assigned the right books as excerpts

Counts as working: Reading relevant scholarly articles to prepare to teach that one Browning poem you haven't taught before
Fake working: Getting interested in that wacky personal detail about Browning mentioned in a footnote in one of the articles, and spending 45 minutes reading online about the Brownings' Italian years

Counts as working: Taking a five-minute brew-a-cup-of-tea break after every two quizzes you finish writing
Fake working: Checking Facebook while drinking your five-minute cup of tea, and coming back to the quiz-writing an hour later

Counts as working: Uploading to the online course companion the essays you've assigned to your students
Fake working: Calling the online course companion Help Desk to complain about how no browser interfaces actually enable you to do all the things the system requires, and so you have to bop back and forth between Safari and Firefox, and then restart Firefox every time it times out saving a page (i.e. every time you save a page), and talking to someone who seems to be in India and who gives you a lot of useless information and sends you an email about how to fix the problem that doesn't actually fix the problem but makes you even more frustrated so that now you can't even get any work done anyway and probably better make a cup of tea to calm yourself down

Counts as working: Making a To Do list for the two days you work from home each week
Fake working: Putting "organize Documents folder" or "rearrange files" at the top of the To Do list, so that it takes 6 hours to get through the first item, and all the teaching prep gets crammed into Sunday night

Counts as working: Installing RescueTime Robot on your computer to help keep you accountable for the time you spend distracted online instead of working on the course websites, library databases, and other online platforms you need
Fake working: Writing a blog post about how you are going to be so much better this semester at staying focused while working, even though it's so easy to be distracted when so much of your work has to happen online anyway

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

2013: The Year of Dedication

I read somewhere that the new challenge is to come up with one-word New Year's Resolutions. Many of the standard ones are pretty easy:





They're also pretty boring as resolutions go. (Not to say unnecessary or unworthy. Just uninteresting in their very necessity.)

So, although I need to do more of all of those things listed above, I've been casting around for a really really good one-word resolution for this year. I'm thinking of:


As in: be deeply present in everything I do.

This means I need to work more efficiently when I'm working. No checking email between chapters I'm reading to teach. Stop making excuses that I need to grade papers and can't exercise today, and instead make exercise the reward for working smarter and getting the grading done. No frittering away time online because the work is tedious.

It also means I need to play more joyfully when I'm playing. No more feeling guilty over a board game with my kids that I "ought to be" checking email. No more reading a bedtime story while making a mental list of the tasks I need to accomplish after the kids are tucked in. I am going to try not telling the children "yes" if I don't really want to do an activity with them (I'm not very fond of certain board games *ahem, Monopoly, I'm looking at you*) but then suggesting something else we can do instead that will make us both really engaged and happy.

Immerse means being wholly in this moment rather than worrying about the one I haven't reached or the thing that I can't be doing simultaneously.

It means admitting aloud, to an actual coach, that I want to start taking some figure skating tests and then committing to the lessons and practices that I long to enjoy. Six hours a week of skating is hardly an extravagance of time; it's just that rink hours overlap with work hours, and so I always feel guilty about taking time away. But (see above), if I work more efficiently, there is no reason I can't skate at mid-day and grade three or four papers at night.

It means doing 15 minutes a day of diligent cleaning rather than two hours of resentful cleaning on Saturdays. And doing it even when I'd rather fritter away the time on the couch.

Immerse is about dropping the endless inclination to multi-task and realizing that doing one thing at a time, really well, for the amount of time I am doing it, is enough. In fact, it is preferable a lot of the time.

It means dedicating a weekly chunk of time to writing, and then not doing all the other procrastinator-y things that are so much easier to do than writing. Like laundry. Or answering email. Or walking the dog. 

I will have to find myself a schedule, and I am not sure that will be easy for me, since I seem to be more of a make-a-huge-list-and-then-just-start-plowing-through-it kind of girl. But the problem with those lists is that it's so alluring to cross things off that the easy things always get done first. And then, all of a sudden, a whole week has gone by without any writing or any skating, and the bathroom needs cleaning again, and then the cycle starts over.

I suspect there are a lot of things I will have to figure out along the way. I tend to take on too many projects and then burn candles at both ends to finish them. So I may have to learn to say "no," to choose more wisely, to be more realistic.

But I really really love the idea of doing things deeply rather than just trying to do all the things.


I like it.

What will be your word for 2013?

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

An Open Letter to First-Grade Teachers Everywhere

(with particular consciousness that we, as a culture, do not say these things nearly enough, and that it should not take horror and tragedy to remind us to say them)

Thank you.

Thank you for reveling in the chaos of twenty-six irrepressibly enthusiastic children: most of us could not imagine coping with this every single day.

Thank you for repeating directions over and over and over again. With a smile. 

Thank you for singing.

Thank you for glue sticks and scissors and paper towels and pencil sharpeners.

For taking on the messy projects, so little hands could learn life-long skills.

Thank you for introducing Mozart and Shakespeare in ways comprehensible to six-year-olds, even while making it clear that this glorious romp through music and poetry was just the tip of those icebergs.

Thank you for proffering hugs.

Thank you for settling squabbles, and tolerating the chitter-chatter, and knowing when to be firm and help the children realize how to be responsible for themselves for a moment.

Thank you for zipping coats and tying shoes and finding mittens. (Thank you for knowing which mittens are whose.)

Thank you for reading in ways that open up for children the magic of books. And for talking to them about writing as if they--who can hardly spell--are budding authors. Thank you for planting the seeds that will later blossom into a consciousness about the power and beauty of language.

Thank you for instilling manners and habits and kindness.

For knowing that play can be work and good work can be playful.

For spending evenings cutting out shapes and weekends dreaming up projects and your own paychecks buying supplies to enrich your classes.

Thank you for math and spelling and geography and history...not just for the facts, but for the love of learning.

Thank you for taking our children for hours each day and returning them to us even better, brighter, more learned.

Thank you for protecting them and nurturing them and guiding them and loving them, even when you go long days without anyone telling you "thank you."

We, who could never stand in your shoes so effectively or gracefully, owe you a debt of gratitude as bright as the shiny hearts our children paint into the skies of their happy pictures.

Thank you for knowing, instantly, that those pictures mean love.

Thank you for taking the time to have the patience, and in moments of terrible crisis the bravery, of a thousand mothers rolled into one.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

How to Hang Holiday Lights in 50 Easy Steps

1. Bring up all the boxes of holiday decorations from the basement.

2. So THAT's where those strings of lights were hiding that you couldn't find last year! Right there in the open-topped box next to all the other decorations you were bringing up. No wonder you couldn't see them. Bring them up too.

3. [enormous

4. pause

5. for

6. detangling

7. strings

8. of

9. lights]

10. Dog runs through, scattering carefully aligned strings of light. Crate dog. Resume.

11. Plug strings of lights into outlet, one at a time.

12. Two strings will light. (Hurray!)

13. Two strings will not. (Of course.)

14. One string will light up halfway, while the remainder stays dark. (Obviously.)

15. Jiggle all the strings of lights that aren't working properly.

16. Unplug them. Jiggle them some more. Plug each string back in for confirmation.

17. One of the ones that was working 5 minutes ago will stop working.

18. One of the ones that was dark 5 minutes ago will alight!

19. The one that was half lit 5 minutes ago will flicker hopefully along its entire length and suddenly burst into a lovely glow.

20. You will cheer silently and feel a leap of gladness in your heart, and the string will sense your burst of happiness, flicker accusingly at you, and resume its former grumpy half-lit mode.

21. With a smirk.

22. Conclude that two-and-a-half strings is probably enough for your tree, and you can always buy a new string for outside tomorrow.

23. Carefully thread the lights around your tree, wadding up the dark half-string in the back corner of the tree that no one will see anyway.

24. Step back.

25. Tilt head thoughtfully.

26. Rearrange slightly.

27. Step across the room.

28. Return and reposition tree slightly.

29. Relocate one-foot section of lights to the perfect spot.

30. Smile.

31. Four-foot section of lights will go dark.

32. Summon inner reserves of patience normally allocated for dealing with no-nap toddler in grocery store.

33. Move slowly, jiggle string gently.

34. As soon as lights come back on (which they will) IMMEDIATELY. STOP. TOUCHING. THEM.

35. You have reached an uneasy truce.

36. Resume all other decorating activities with an attitude of utter calm: the lights will stay lit, obviously. They are just lights. Their circuitry is intact. They are plugged in. You can turn them off. You can turn them on. They will obey the laws of electricity.

37. Your attitude about this must be completely blase. This is not surprising. This is not cause for jubilation. This just is. Best not to disturb The Force with your emotions.

38. Find, upon your return to the basement to retrieve the ornaments/stockings/wreath/garland/all other decorative items that are not vindictive, two brand-new boxes of lights that you bought last year and could have used without any drama.

39. (Their first year, all lights behave.)

40. Make your peace with owning lights that have teenage-hormonal properties.

41. Head outside with the newfound strings to decorate the front porch.

42. Have no trouble at all with anything except your completely numb fingers.

43. Go to plug them in and realize you've put them up with the female end of the string adjacent to the only outlet.

44. Consider stretching the extension cord the entire length of the porch.

45. Reject the plan for all the obvious reasons.

46. Redo all the outdoor lights.


48. !!! The house looks so pretty from the outside, especially with the tree in the window !!!

49. Store the belligerent lights that refused to light this year in an obvious place in the basement, so you will be able to find them next year. They will likely learn their lesson and behave better if given one more chance.

50. Drink.


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