T.S. Eliot's poem, The Wasteland, famously opens:
APRIL is the cruellest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.
But I think he got it wrong--for two reasons. One is that it's pretty clear Eliot never lived in Michigan. Because if he'd made it through the six months of the weather that is late fall and winter here; if he'd lived through October, November, December, January, February and March while only seeing brilliant sunsine for eight days total; if he'd shoveled snow every single day for two weeks straight, or bundled two preschoolers into hats, coats, scarves, mittens, snowpants and boots, only to have to take them to the potty immediately thereafter and then re-dress them; if he'd done all this and then stepped outside one April day to find warm tendrils in the breeze and buds on the lilacs...he would have blessed April as the kindest month of all twelve.
But the other reason is that I'm pretty sure Eliot didn't have to live through October in academia. I don't exactly know why October is so difficult, but it never fails, every year, to be hands-down the cruelest month I have to deal with.
In this particular October, I have done the following:
* written one sabbatical proposal (21 pages)
* written two conference proposals
* written one small grant proposal
* planned the teaching schedule for the coming academic year (19 faculty x 3 classes each x two semesters, multiplied by various idiosyncratic needs in terms of times of day and courses available to be taught, compounded by the needs of the program to offer a particular range of courses at certain times of day equals exponential quantities of headache)
* planned a series of curriculum meetings
* made a ghost costume
* learned to be an "art mom" at school
* supervised the school Halloween party
* dressed the children in Halloween costumes FIVE times for different parties and events ("I changed my mind; I don't want to be a pirate today; I want to be a cowboy, and I want to wear THE SAME THING she is wearing!" -- which is, of course, impossible because (a) SHE is wearing it; and (b) it is three sized too small for HIM)
* carved five pumpkins
* removed all 24 doors from the kitchen cupboards, cleaned the kitchen like there was no tomorrow, primed and painted the walls and all the woodwork and cabinets (no, we haven't re-hung the cabinet doors yet)
* made a series of paper mache balls, in scale to each other, so that Son could build a Solar System Project (not an assignment at school, just something he wants to do for fun)
All of this on top of the normal things that happen in my day-to-day life, such as working at a full-time teaching job, trying to remember which of the three books that come home each week with Son are due back at school on this particular day (yes, each goes back to school on a different day), doing laundry, and remembering which week Daughter's ballet class has been switched to another location (yes, I got it wrong one week, and we missed class).
I do realize that I didn't have to pick this month to take on the kitchen project, but in that deceptive way that September has of seducing you with its crisp back-to-school-ness, I thought way back then that it would be fun! and satisfying! to finally get the kitchen that light and airy blue color I'd been dreaming of. I totally forgot, back when we bought the paint at the end of September, that every single deadline in the academic year comes in October, and that there might be a few other things going on as well.
And so here I am on the last day of October, feeling as if I've been living the last month at warp speed. I have raked and painted, sewn and graded, emailed and negotiated, presented art and put little girl hair up into the sweetest pink bun warmer you ever saw. I have mailed birthday presents and helped plan the neighborhood Halloween cookout.
But I have not managed to get Aunty a picture of Daughter in the sweet little hairdo because I haven't been able to find four minutes to rub together to devote to downloading photos from my camera.
Today, I took the last photo my TWO GIG flash drive will hold. I have been deleting the bad photos like a maniac every time we go anywhere, so that I have space to take more photos, since I haven't had time to download what is now about 500 pictures -- many of which have already been culled to remove the junk.
My blog reader has 880 posts in it.
I'm not complaining, honest. Just marveling that I've made it through October in one piece without losing my mind. I swear November has to be easier (if for no other reason than that the kitchen is nearly done). I might even be able to find time to write a blog post occasionally.
...as soon as I finish copy-editing my manuscript, running those curriculum meetings I scheduled, grading the most recent stack of papers, and figuring out what we're doing for Thanksgiving...
I hope your Halloween was as fun-filled as ours, and your family busy-ness is full of joyful commotion.
Saturday, October 31, 2009
T.S. Eliot's poem, The Wasteland, famously opens:
Thursday, October 22, 2009
As someone who teaches literature, loves all things words-related, and gets excited about eloquent turns of phrase, I wish I had a great story about the day that the frustratingly independent lines of letters on a page miraculously resolved themselves into words that I could suddenly read.
But I don't.
The fact is that I don't recall learning to read at all. I remember that when I got bumped up from four-year-old preschool to kindergarten halfway through the year, I was sent home with a giant stack of worksheets to complete, so that I could catch up with the rest of the class. I remember that these were mostly sheets to practice my writing of letters. (And I remember being completely delighted that I would no longer be subjected to the tedium of naptime!) I remember the thank-you note that my first-grade teacher wrote to me, in very careful printed letters, when I took her a plant on some occasion: I was so proud that I could figure out the word "coleus." I remember writing a longing note to that same first-grade teacher that read, "Please give me some homework." And I remember my deep disappointment that her response was, "We don't have homework in first grade."
Somewhere between being handed worksheets that taught me to recognize and write individual letters and being able to compose a note to my teacher begging her to save me from my own boredom, I obviously learned to read. But I have absolutely no recollection of the process.
Which is why the last few months at our house have been such an utter delight: Son, since mid-summer, has been learning to read. And last week, he read Green Eggs and Ham from cover to cover, by himself, aloud to all of us, as we sat in the doctor's waiting room. It is fortunate that Green Eggs and Ham is a long book ("Mama! I read SIXTY-ONE pages!!") because when we called ahead to the after-hours clinic to find out if there was a wait to see a pediatrician about an allergic reaction Daughter was having to her antibiotics, and we were told that No, there was not anyone waiting at that time, we made the mistaken assumption that that meant that we would actually get to see a pediatrician quickly if we zoomed right over and planned on having dinner afterwards--because, of course, children do not have allergic reactions to their antibiotics at any time besides 4:45 on a Friday afternoon--and so we DID zoom over, only to find out that while there were not a lot of families ahead of us, the pediatrician herself had not arrived because of car trouble, and thus we were forced to wait for nearly an hour and a half before we ever saw a doctor. But, you see, this leaves lots of time to be filled by slow readings of Green Eggs and Ham, so it's not all bad.
That evening, Son said to us with a sigh of deep satisfaction, "Dr. Seuss makes the best books for kids to read to theirselves." "Theirselves" aside, it was a sentiment I could totally get behind. And then, the next day, I heard a murmur from the backseat as we sat at a traffic light, "no...turn...on...red...Mama? What does that sign say?" I started to laugh. "It says 'no turn on red.' You just read it!" And then I realized that as a phrase, that makes no sense if you don't know something about traffic rules, so I explained what it meant.
Even so. The boy can actually read. Not all words, certainly, and sometimes the process is just too exhausting. But he is getting to the point now where he can read with just enough rapidity that he comprehends whole sentences instead of simply sounding out words. That leap has happened just in the last two weeks. Not so long ago, he could have read a Dr. Seuss book, but it would take him so long to get through each laborious word that he (and even I) would forget the first part of what he'd read by the time he got to the first period on the page. He would read all the words, one by slow little one, and then ask me to "read the whole thing fast now," so that he would know what it said.
And then suddenly, it's as if words are magically beginning to speak to him. The patterns of letters are making more sense, and he is recognizing more words on sight (it, had, was, he, the...) so that reading a whole sentence is more efficient. His delight at being the one who got to read the funny jokes in the books has been palpable. His smile as he works his way through a page with a lot of words on it has been glowing.
I've been trying to teach him about vowels, and last night we were playing a game where I was giving him a three-letter word and asking him to tell me what its vowel was. He had to figure out how to spell the word and then identify the vowel. "What is the vowel in mop?" I asked.
"MOP!" His eyes lit up. "I haven't spelled that one before." He thought for a minute. "O," he said, with a little question in his voice.
"You got it!"
He pumped his fist in the air. "YEESSS!" he shouted, bouncing with excitement in his chair.
Of course, it does my heart good to have a child who gets excited by his ability to spell words he hasn't tried before. Of course, I love having a child who is understanding the concept of vowels. Of course, it makes me happy to have a child who thinks it's fun to play rhyming games and do quizzes to see how many three-letter words he can write down on a single piece of paper without help (forty-four!).
But even more than that, I adore having a child who is this eager to learn. One who I can see already wanting to devour books. One who takes delight not just in the thing he can already do but in the process of learning to do a new thing.
I don't know if, when he gets older, he will remember learning to read. Perhaps it will simply be a thing that happened one day when he wasn't noticing, somewhere between the two weeks he spent eating "new foods" in New York City and the day Mama came for her first art parent visit at school--or whatever milestones mark this past spring and this fall in his mind.
But I've noticed. And it has been amazing.
Tuesday, October 20, 2009
As you may know, I study and teach about the 19th century for a living. Every time I read heart-wrenching stories of people losing their children to illnesses that common antibiotics now easily cure, or tales of people who spent their whole lives being able to see clearly only 12" in front of their faces, or descriptions of the process by which type was set to produce books, I am unendingly grateful to be living in the time of penicillin, easily-affordable contact lenses, and computers with word processing features.
But today, in five minutes at the dentist's office, my whole world changed in ways that I am pretty sure will make me a better human being--and it's all to do with modern technology.
My dentist has been taking a class on this new procedure for treating TMJ. (Don't know what TMJ is? It's a problem in the joints of your jaw that leads to charming crackling and popping noises when you chew, and sometimes the added delightful bonus of being unable to fully close and/or properly open your mouth at all. Also, it comes with regular dull pain, occasional stretches of intense ache, as well as headaches, neck aches, and even tension in your shoulders. Apparently, along the lines of that old song, "the ankle bone's connected to the leg bone..." all those things are connected to the nerves and muscles in your jaw, so the pain eminates outwards.) So, I've had TMJ since I was in early high school (read: twenty-five years), and there have been points in my life where the pain was pretty unbearable.
One dentist tried a night-time mouth guard, of the kind that you wear to keep you from clenching your teeth too much. His logic was that he could see a wear pattern on some of my molars that suggested I was grinding them at night. It didn't work. Other dentists basically told me there was no cure for TMJ, but I could take 400mg of ibuprophen at a time, if I liked. But this dentist I have now suggested that there have been studies linking TMJ to problems with your bite -- you know, the kinds of things that orthodontists fix with braces -- and that if I wanted to do the whole adult braces thing, that might help. Never having worn braces as a kid, I considered it. But I've always been just too busy to get myself to an orthodontist to get it sorted out.
And then today, at my routine cleaning, I told her that I'd had a recent bout of pain from the TMJ. She had me do a series of exercises with my jaw, to let her see if I could bite down and then slide my lower jaw from side to side. Short answer: I couldn't. My teeth wouldn't slide on each other because at a few points my molars were sticking up too far. In essence, I CAN'T grind my teeth because I can't slide them back and forth on each other at all.
Which probably explains why the mouth guard I was given long ago to keep me from grinding my teeth at night did nothing to help my jaw pain.
Know what my dentist did instead? She shaved down a few key points on a few of my molars, just by a millimeter or so. It took about 5 minutes. Then she told me to bite down.
It was like a miracle. My mouth closed, and my teeth met, in ways they had never met in my whole life. I felt like when my mouth was closed, it was relaxed. Closed should be a relaxed position for your mouth, apparently. But every time I closed mine, my jaw muscles were having to work overtime because my bite was misaligned.
In five minutes, she fixed what would have taken 18 months and a giant orthodontist bill to fix with braces. And she tells me that in a few days, once my mouth gets used to this new bite, all the stress should melt away.
The headaches should disappear.
The jaw pain should go away.
The neck and should tension should melt off.
In short, I should be a person in no head and neck discomfort for the first time in 25 years.
And I'm pretty sure this will make me a better mother because it's certain to make me less cranky. Right?
It hasn't done anything for the still-crooked front tooth that I've never had fixed. But I'm pretty sure that if the mouth pain is gone, no amount of vanity in the world is going to get me to fix that tooth with braces. Why on earth would I start over with what I just finally got rid of?
And that's why, tonight, I am once again reminded how incredibly grateful I am to live in the 21st century.
Tuesday, October 13, 2009
Excellent ways to keep the kids occupied when you have a rotten head cold and feel like someone has pumped swamp water into your sinuses
1. Have them count the money in their piggy banks. This is especially effective if they don't know a lot about how much coins are worth, since it will take them a really really long time and involve many restarts.
Pitfall 1: The money snatchers are likely to start trying to sneak coins from each other's piles, leading to shouting squabbles, crying, and the necessity for extremely loud interventions on your part and threats to reclaim all the money as your own.
Pitfall 2: Because they need help remembering the value of all the coins, and they are more than a little sketchy on the whole "four quarters make a dollar; so do ten dimes, or twenty nickles or 100 pennies," you will have to help them calculate the dollar value of the giant pile of dirty coins that is probably covered with hideous germs that will certainly compound your horrendous head cold and turn it into something even worse.
Bonus 1: The spitting fights might produce enough liquid to wash all those coins.
Bonus 2: Someone might learn how to count by tens.
2. Have them read each other stories while you lie in bed next to them with your eyes half closed. This works less well if neither of them can actually read, but between the books they've memorized and the ones that they will make up as they go along, it can be effective.
Pitfall 1: You will have to listen to a lot of stories punctuated with references to the planet Cybertron.
Pitfall 2: ...or poop.
Bonus 1: The alligator tears and incessant wailing over whose coins are whose has stopped.
3. Create a craft project table with markers, crayons, paper, scissors, glue sticks, and fuzzy little pom poms that can be bunny tails.
Pitfall 1: You will have to clean up all the slivers of paper from under the table in half an hour.
Pitfall 2: Someone may ask you for help drawing something complex, precise, and detailed that you do not have a clear mental picture of (such as the planet Cybertron), and that someone may or may not have a melt down when your drawing is not photo-realistic.
Bonus 1: The talk about poop will have stopped.
4. Turn on the evil box in the corner on which magic pictures will dance in front of your children's eyes, mesmerizing them completely, so that they are still, quiet, and content.
Pitfall 1: [crickets] Really, I have to come up with a pitfall to this plan for blissful silence?
Pitfall 2:The whole point of the penny counting, creative storytime, and desperation glue sticks is that your Son is banned from TV until tomorrow for bad behavior over the weekend. So you can't in good conscience turn on the evil box, even though all you really want is for someone to offer you a head transplant, which you would gladly accept without anaesthetic because your current head is ringing so badly. Failing the head transplant, content children would be a nice consolation prize, but apparently you can't have those either.
Bonus: At least you can feel virtuous that you made good on your threat that if the fighting didn't stop, all those coins would be yours. Plus, you must be about $50 richer.
Give or take 218 nickels.
Monday, October 12, 2009
Today was picture day at Daughter's preschool. I forgot.
She wanted desperately to wear a little summer sundress to school (it was 38 degrees out when we woke up this morning). It is a sweet little teal dress with a royal blue ruffle at the hem. It's made of soft t-shirt cotton. It has spaghetti straps. I tried to convince her that this was not the dress for today -- not because it wasn't right for school pictures, mind you, but just because I didn't want her to freeze to death on the playground. She, in the way that only three-year-olds can be, was adamant.
Finally I resigned, pulled out her bright pink tights that have royal blue stripes interspersed with purple-and-blue butterflies, added a pale turquoise turtleneck, and then put the sundress over the whole. Strangely, the outfit looked harmonious enough, especially with the addition of a turquoise barrette in her hair.
She skipped happily into school, nominally dressed in a sundress, but really wearing summer clothes in the way that only children in winter climates can: as one layer in a much warmer outfit.
I, of course, was confronted by the giant "School Picture Day" posters as soon as we walked in the front door. Groaning inwardly, I realized that she will be there in her teal, royal blue and bright pink outfit, posing amongst artfully arranged piles of red and orange autumnal leaves. In short, if ever there were a day to wish that no one had invented that fancy new-fangled process for making pictures in color, today would be that day.
And in other news, I would like to provide the following PSA: when you buy maternity tights (yes, brands that you buy in regular tights make them) and they are not labeled as such on the label that's in the seam, and you curse the fact that they are not labeled because they get mixed up with your regular tights, and then there you are, eight months pregnant, at work for 10 hours, wearing NON-maternity tights that look just like your maternity tights but feel like a tourniquet or a boa constrictor around your middle, it would be in your best interest not merely to separate the maternity tights out and keep them in a different drawer, but actually to label the darn things with a Sharpie "M" or something.
Because if you don't, the day will come when you go to work distinctly not at all pregnant, and realize on the long trek to the building from your car that the like-new, inky black, totally-forgot- you-owned-these tights which you discovered this morning and put on in happy realization that it was time to break out the warmer clothes are in fact maternity tights.
And they will slide right off your body all. day. long.
Thursday, October 1, 2009
**with apologies to Laura Numeroff, whose wonderful book I read twice at story-time tonight because BOTH children picked it**
If you give a preschooler an inch,
chances are, she'll want a mile.
You'll compromise, and let her wear her tutu to the grocery store.
She'll probably clamor to "drive" the grocery cart with the car attached to the front.
She does look cute in that car, so you'll agree.
When you pull out the green car cart,
she'll probably insist that only the blue one will do.
You'll have to pull all six of those unwieldy carts out of the line to reach the only blue one at the end.
Riding through the fruit section in the blue cart will remind her that
she LOVES! PEACHES! and STRAWBERRIES! and BANANAS!
She might want to get out of the car to help you choose them.
She'll want you to let her do it all by herself.
She'll start grabbing fruit off the displays--bruised apples, peaches hard as rocks.
Then she'll flit off towards the deli section,
and you'll have to race to catch up to her while pushing the behemoth car cart.
While she's in the deli section, she'll poke her fingers at all the salmon packages.
She'll probably make a hole in at least one of them.
When she's done examining the lobsters,
she'll offer to race you to the "honey O's."
You'll oblige with your best steering efforts,
and she'll dash her pink-tulle-clad self up the cereal aisle.
Then she'll want you to buy yogurts.
So you'll have to back up the blue car cart while she hangs on its handle.
When she sees the yogurts, she'll ask you to buy "monkey drinks" too.
Then she'll want to choose different flavors for each member of the family.
You'll have to help her pick who wants what
and pay for it all.
On the way home, she'll see the purple playground, which will remind her of the brown playground.
She'll want to go there just as soon as the groceries are put away.
So you'll have to get her out of her tutu and into the stroller with the car horn.
When you start off down the street, she'll want to "go faster!"
She'll ask you to sing while you run and push her up hill.
When you turn the last corner to the brown playground, she will catch a glimpse of the library.
Seeing the library will remind her that she wanted to read some new books about ballerinas.
She'll probably ask you to take her there after the park.
And chances are,
if she asks you to help her find ballerina books,
she's going to want to wear her tutu to the library.