Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Getting Testy

I must say first off that I never liked taking tests in school. No matter how prepared I was, or thought I was, there was still anxiety over exposing my ignorance and subsequently being judged on it (also known as grading). So I totally sympathize with my boys when they are stressing over a test. Not only that, I know it even when they don't tell me they're having a test that day.

This is not because I'm a highly sensitive, super-tuned in Mom, sensing anxiety in my children and knowing instinctively what's causing it (though wouldn't that be nice?)

No, they make it easy on me. When Ben has a test, I know because he arrives at the breakfast table dressed in black from head to toe, as if heading to a funeral. His own? Not likely, in third grade, though I'm sure test days feel that way to him. As one who wears his heart on his sleeve, he doesn't shy away from wearing his hatred of all things academic there too. I try to think of it like PMS: an early warning system that tells me right away to tread carefully.

Jacob, on the other hand, has seemingly inherited some ostrich blood from somewhere in his ancestral history. It's easy to know when he's got a test because he burrows under the covers, moaning and whining and refusing to get out of bed, as if ignoring the day will make it go away. I'm sure my whole family wishes this would work when I'm suffering from PMS, and I certainly remember the days of client presentations when I knew I'd be getting up to speak in front of a crowd. It was test day at school all over again. At least I had the incentive of a paycheck to keep me from hiding under the covers.

When the boys were younger and would get upset about something, the power of distraction was my greatest tool for calming them down. Maybe my memory of that is why now, when they get testy with me because of some school issue even before breakfast, I fall back on it.

"Oh, did we get up on the wrong side of the bed today?"

"Can it, Mom."

"My my, such a bad temper so early in the morning. That can't be good. Do you have a challenging day ahead?"


"So, do you want waffles or banana bread for breakfast?"


Granted, it doesn't always work, and at those times I just point out that breakfast is the most important meal of the day, blah, blah, blah, let's warm your belly, etc. etc.

I can't study for them, I can't make the tests go away, and I can't tell them to go get a job instead, if they really hate school that much. But what I can do is offer, as only a mom can, a little support and comfort before they head out into the cold, cruel world. Preferably topped with syrup.

Friday, October 8, 2010

Carte Blanche

Our school system has a new program in place, where parents can load money into their kids' lunch accounts, and then the kids merely need to plug in their PIN at the cafeteria cash register, and they can buy lunch, milk, a snack, whatever. Fab! I thought. No more sending in nickels, dimes and quarters for lunches! No more worrying about exact change! I set the boys up with $15 each and gave them their PINs with instructions. This would be good for six school lunches each. So at one lunch every two weeks or so, we were set for the first three months of school.

Ben is excellent at math, but apparently this was not how *he* approached the money in his lunch account. No, Ben--the kid who is always saying he wants to be a millionaire when he grows up; the kid who won't spend a dime of his tooth fairy, birthday or found money; the kid who checks every vending machine, pay phone and train seat for loose change--clearly didn't understand what this account was all about.

At least, that's what I tell myself.

Because in a matter of two weeks, despite the fact that he was bringing lunch every day, as well as milk money, Ben burned through that lunch account like a Wall Street hedge fund manager.

My husband and I talked about it. Maybe someone got a hold of his code when he wasn't looking. Maybe he is using it to buy his way into the hearts of other kids with cookies and chips. Maybe he's just really, really hungry and is embarrassed to tell us that he's actually using the money, which is why he keeps denying it.

Finally, after talking about it with Ben, and after the account continued to decline into the negative balance and I got an email from the cafeteria manager, I did something. I told Ben I was closing the account, and that if he wanted to buy lunch, we would talk about it and I would give him cash. I told the cafeteria manager that Ben has insisted he is not using the account, yet it has gone down by at least .50 every day for a week. An investigation is underway.

What I learned was, just becuase one kid has his own money burning a hole in his pocket, it doesn't mean he won't follow directions when it comes to someone else's money (Jacob's account is still full). And just because another kid hoards money like oxygen, it doesn't mean he values all forms of money and will treat them equally carefully.

I also learned Ben likes the Harvest Pizza on Fridays at school. So I guess I'm back to nickels, dimes and quarters again. But at least I know they will last until the end of the year.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

The Education of Mom

I know that knowledge is power, and I always try to be honest and forthright with my kids. As they get older, there is less I need to 'hide' from them about life, and they can process a lot more, provided I present it in an age-appropriate context. Why, then, am I having such a hard time with receiving the same treatment from Jacob's middle school?

Last week was the first full week of school. I worried about Jacob getting lost and being late for class; I worried about the strain on his back from all the books he carts back and forth from school; I worried about the bus ride with all the 13-year-olds and what he'd be hearing and experiencing, whether he'd be able to deal with it all. Thankfully, he calmed me with his own comfort level, sense of confidence and easy smiles. The first week ended well for both of us.

This week, the emails started from school. One day, I learned that a 7th grader had brought a pocket knife on the bus to show his friends, and had it in his locker at school. A conscientious student reported the incident, and the knife was confiscated, the student reprimanded. I'm sure the administration presented the context and sequence of events in such a way as to prevent parents from panicking, to convey the fact that everything was under control and that at no time were any students in danger.

The next day, we were informed that one of the staff members was recently diagnosed wtih Viral Meningitis. We were told not to confuse this with the more serious Bacterial Meningitis, which can result in brain damage, hearing loss, learning disabilities and, you know, death. Viral Meningitis, on the other hand, is "serious but rarely fatal in people with normal immune systems," according to the CDC.


OK, fine.

Yes, I know that pre-teens use bad judgment, and make bad choices, as they gear up to be really effective teenagers. And it's true that I would not have gone to the CDC website to learn all about meningitis had I not been given the link by the school.

But did I really want to know about these incidents, which ultimately presented no danger or harm to my own child? I'd have to say no.

Did I need to know? Probably.

I guess the good of it all is that I now have confidence in Jacob's new school administration to swiftly address issues that arise, and keep me informed about the details, as well as what I need or don't need to do about them.

But I also realized that I am going to have to ease into this new school environment almost as much as Jacob. We are both on the edge of tremendous changes that will, without a doubt, rock both of our worlds over the next three years. And it's going to take some getting used to.

So I'm thinking about not checking my email for a few days, just so I can go back to worrying about simple things, like whether his sneakers are getting too small, or if he remembered to put deodorant on after gym class. I want to revel in blissful ignorance of the world my baby is really going into each morning when he leaves me.

If only for a little while longer.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Tooth And Nail

It happens every year. Yet, as with childbirth, I forget what it was like last time. This enables me to look blissfully forward to the beginning of every new school year. Cool weather, new crayons, quiet mornings. What's not to love?

Ask Ben.

Actually, don't ask him, because it won't get you anywhere. Like a good writer, he will show rather than tell you that he is not happy about the start of school.

I suppose some little part of my brain retained a memory shard of what starting school is like for Benjamin, because this year, when he was all ready to leave on the first day, he wanted to play cards with me until it was time to go. I said that would be fine, but then something made me say, offhandedly, "Ben, why don't we get our sneakers on too so that we're completely ready to walk out the door? Then we can play right up until the last minute!" He agreed and went to get his sneakers. But they weren't by the door. And they weren't in the playroom.

Or his bedroom. Or the living room. Or his brother's room. They weren't even in the bathroom, and I know because I looked through every room and closet of the house. Three times.

As luck would have it, I had put several pairs of sneakers by the front door, in various sizes, since Ben and his brother have a bad habit of outgrowing things when I'm not looking. After two tries, we found a pair that fit perfectly and had about five minutes left to play cards. Then off he went on his new bus, with his new backpack, to his new school.

At the end of a very productive day, I walked out to meet him at the bus stop. He looked OK as he got off the bus, but when I asked him how his day was, he didn't give me his big smile and trademark, "GREAT!" with a thumbs up. I figured he had a long day and a lot to absorb, so we went home for a special after-school snack of milk and cookies before checking out the homework situation.

"I just have to read for 30 minutes," Ben said.

"Great! Let's get it out of the way before dinner. What would you like to read?"

"Mom, I'm still hungry."

"OK, here are some apple slices. Now. Do you want to read in your room or here in the living room."

"Mom, it's my turn to feed Bailey."

"OK, but then come on up and read while I start dinner."

He came back upstairs. "Mom, I have to go to the bathroom."

I was beginning to see a pattern. When I pressed him, all the tension of the day came out. Shouting, tears, demands, refusals and, of course, an 'I hate school!' to make sure I got the point.

Needless to say the reading never got done. Whether it's because Ben feels like he has to be as smart in third grade as his brother is (even though his brother is in sixth grade), or if he misses me or just doesn't adapt to change easily, he fights the routine of the new school year every September. Perhaps it's a combination of things, but he is so stubborn that when he makes up his mind about something, he makes it up 100%. There is no in between for Ben--no flexibility--which means the rest of us have to be extra flexible to help him ease into the new situation.

And I was very proud that I remembered this on the first day of school, rather than after a week of battling with him. I was able to talk to him about it, give him extra love and attention and be a bit more flexible myself, which is no small feat.

Miraculously (coincidentally?), the missing sneakers turned up right by the front door some time before dinner, but no one knew where they came from. Maybe it was a sign that Ben is loosening up a little, and will adjust to school after a few days this year, instead of a few weeks. Or maybe I'm just being blissfully optimistic again.

Until I know for sure, maybe I'll just keep his shoes under my bed.

Monday, September 6, 2010

Alternate Universe

My husband and I like to joke about our kids because Jacob looks just like his dad and acts just like me. Ben, on the other hand, looks just like me, but is in every other way like his father. That is, happiest when he is eating or doing some kind of physical work or play.

So it's not surprising that Ben's most interesting revelations come when he is out, say, hiking in the woods, which is where we were today: Mom, Dad, Ben and Bailey dog.

"OK, Ben," David said. "You're the leader. What does that trail marker say?"

"It's red, Dad, but I'm not the leader. You're the leader."

"Why am I the leader? You're the cub scout."

"Whoever is first in line is the leader," declares the scout.

By now, the dog is way out in front of all of us, having a field day with all the unfamiliar scents in the woods. "Uh oh," I say, "Bailey is first. That means we're in trouble because he's color blind. I hope we don't end up on the wrong trail."

(Silent pause)

"Mom," Ben says speculatively, "what if dogs see the world the right way, and we're the ones seeing it wrong?"

My eyebrows go up. "Oh, you mean like seeing the world in color is what makes it so complicated, and seeing it in black and white the way dogs do is really the better way?"

"Yeah," says Ben.

"That's a very interesting theory, Ben! Then maybe we SHOULD be following Bailey." David and I look at each other, thrilled at his fascinating thought process.

"Yeah," Ben clarifies, "unless he chases a squirrel!"

Friday, September 3, 2010

Expanding Palates

Tonight, my husband brought home a lobster to share with Ben for dinner. Ben, who had never seen a live lobster in his kitchen before, proceeded to quickly go through the five stages of assimilation:

1) Whoa! Dad, is that alive?!?

2) Jacob! Come see this lobster! It's alive!!

3) Can we pet it? Hey, we can keep it in the old fish tank!

4) Wait, we're going to eat it? Aw, poor little guy!

5) Wait, lobsters taste better than crab? Yum!

Ok, I made up the part about there being five stages of assimilation. But still, you can see how his thought process goes.

Jacob, on the other hand--the one who won't bait a hook because he "doesn't believe in killing innocent worms"--was appalled on more levels than I could count. That Dad had brought home a live, gigantic, bug-like creature (when he knows how much Mom hates bugs); that he put it on the kitchen counter; that it had beady eyes and moved when he petted it; that Dad was going to kill it; that Dad and Ben were then going to eat it. Indeed, it was almost enough to kill his own appetite. Until he found out he was having steak.

When I asked Jacob if he was at least going to try the lobster, he said, "Mom, it's cruel to eat animals!" It was at this point that I pointed out where steak came from. That is, an animal much softer, warmer and with bigger and sweeter eyes than a lobster.

"OK," Jacob conceded, "it's cruel to eat animals after you pet them first."

I wonder if he's going to be a lawyer or a lobbyist when he groes up. One thing I can be sure of: he definitely won't be a vegetarian. Unless he's a farmer.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Coffee Break

Ben hates to get water in his face. Showers are a power struggle, swim lessons were a no-go and even water parks are a turn off since he came down the slide and--because he was so light--flew off the end so fast, he didn't have time to stand up. He actually ended up going under water in a sitting position.

But he wants to overcome this fear and loathing, and this is never more evident than when he watches his brother make friends with every other kid on the beach, and then head out into the waves with them to boogie board.

So I hold Ben's hand, and we stand waist-deep in the ocean. The waves come up, Ben jumps and turns his head away from the splash, and asks me every few minutes to go out farther into the water. Occasionally when a wave splashes him in the face, he drops my hand, runs to the towel to dry himself off, and then returns for more.

Last night was a full moon, and I remembered it today when we were at the beach playing chicken with the waves near the shore. We watched Jacob, his friends and his dad frolicking in the swells, and I decided to see if Ben knew about the effect of the moon on the waves.

"Hey Ben, do you know who controls the waves?" I asked him. His eyes widened at the thought that someone was actually in charge of these things, and for a moment I thought he was going to say, "Pop-pop?"

"Who?" he asked, clearly intrigued. I could imagine him silently penning a letter to this person as we spoke.

"The Man in the Moon," I told him. But before I could explain how it all worked, he looked out at his brother and said, with no hint of sarcasm,

"Well I wish he'd turn them off for a while so I could go out farther."

Monday, August 23, 2010

Digging Deeper

One of Ben's favorite activities when we visit the coast of North Carolina each summer is to capture and observe the little digger clams that proliferate the shore. We dig in the wet sand, scoop up the each smooth, shiny-shelled mollusk and put it into a bucket filled with sand and water. The clam sits on top of the sand and within a minute, sticks out its tiny hatchet foot, tilts itself up on one end and then digs down under the sand in a matter of seconds.

One of my favorite activities is digging for these clams alongside Ben. His curiosity and enthusiasm are so much fun to watch, and if I let him he would dig in the sand for hours. He is a 'nature boy' who loves the natural world around him--whether it be working in the yard, weeding the garden, picking berries or looking for cool insects. He is in every way his father's son.

While I sat meditating on the wonderful situation we found ourselves in--alone and rapt over something together that did not involve a homework assignment or video game--another young beach visitor stopped by. Peering in our bucket, the boy, who was about eleven years old, asked if we'd caught anything. As Ben pulled up some of the clams and showed him how they dig, the boy proceeded to fish around in the sand next to his foot, and with his hands pulled out a clam to add to Ben's collection. His mom called him away just then and, as he left, Ben commented on the boy's actions.

"He was really nice. Clams are nice too. Basically, anything that's harmless is nice," he said nonchalantly.

But the way he'd phrased it, choosing the word 'harmless', made me wonder if something upsetting was going on in his head.

See, Ben is the type of kid who, when put into bed at night, will lie in the dark and come up with questions like, "Mom, what do blind people see? Is it total blackness, or total whiteness or something else?" It's no wonder he has such a hard time getting to sleep when his mind is trying to puzzle out such questions. So even though his comment seemed innocuous, knowing him as I do, I decided to do a little digging of my own, into his brain.

"You're right, Ben, he was nice. What would you consider 'not nice'?" I asked.

Bracing myself for an answer like 'bullies,' 'mean kids,' 'my brother,' or 'scary dogs,' I hoped my tone came off as more curious than prying. I held my breath.

"Laser beams," he replied.

I bit my tongue to keep from laughing at his answer, as he might misconstrue it as laughing at him.

"Ah, yes, being shot by a laser beam doesn't sound very nice."

Soon after, we decided it was time to free the little clams. As we placed them back on the beach one by one, they dug their way back into the shore unscathed. When I noticed one that didn't seem to be moving at all, despite my nudging and re-positioning of it, I tried to decide if I should hide it from Ben or tell him that I thought the clam was dead. He spotted it before I had a chance to choose.

"That guy's not digging."

"I know, Ben, I think he might be dead."

"Or maybe he's just sleeping."

"Hm, maybe," I said cautiously as he continued to stare at the motionless clam.

"Yeah," he went on, getting more sure of himself. "Maybe he's just a hard core sleeper."

"HA!" This time, I couldn't help but laugh out loud at his choice of words. "Oh, I mean yeah, you're probably right. He's hard core. Let's tuck him in so no one eats him while he's sleeping," I suggested.

"Great idea, Mom. You're really nice."

I don't always have the answers to Ben's questions. But knowing he doesn't mind my digging around to get him to share them with me is enough. Maybe even enough for Ben.

Photo credit: Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission

Monday, August 9, 2010

Hilton Retirement Plan

I love watching Ben mature, yet every now and then he will come out with one of those statements that just underscores for me how his still-young brain works. We haven't been to the Berkshires since my father-in-law passed away last year, and decided it was time we took a ride up as a family. My mother-in-law recently moved to a senior living facility, and the kids love it there. Between the ping pong table, the swimming pool and the restaurant-style dining room, they are never bored. Ben, though, is still making the logistical adjustment in his brain from the old house they used to own to this new place. Tonight I threw him a curve. The last time this happened, the conversation was almost as funny.

Me: "Ben, be sure to get some rest. We don't want you to get sick because we're going to Grandma's house in Massachusetts this weekend."

Ben: "Wait, which house?"

Me: "The one with the tennis courts and the lake. Remember?"

Ben: "You mean the hotel with all the old people?"

Me: "No, that's her new apartment."

Ben: "Wait, you mean the one where we SLEEP OVER??"

Me: "That's the one!"

Ben: "Better take cover, Mom. I think my head's going to explode."

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Lounge Lizard

When Jacob was born, he weighed six pounds and one ounce. That's about three-quarters of what a gallon of milk weighs. I can still remember when he was just a couple of weeks old, and we went to visit friends who had triplets. The triplets were exactly six months to-the-day older than Jacob. And they were HUGE. I remember looking at them and then looking at Jacob and thinking, I cannot believe my child will ever be that big. Ever. No way. Can't happen.

Well, last week Jacob discovered the Teen Lounge in our town. No, he's not a teenager yet, but on Mondays, the Lounge is open to kids entering 6th grade this fall. Having grown substantially since birth (which seems like, oh, last week), he was eager to check out this new 'tween scene. So I took some deep breaths to silence my heart palpitations, and said "of course I'll drive you there."

When we arrived, there were about 15 kids there already. Several were inside playing various games while others were spilling out the door onto the stairs. Great! I thought. Jacob isn't the only one here! Then he stopped dead in his tracks.

"Mom, I don't see any boys."

Neither did I.

I convinced Jacob to come inside anyway so we could look around and get some information. Outfitted with a bumper pool table, ping pong table, big screen television, couch, foozball and vending machine, the place was deemed 'cool' by Jacob. And the adult supervisor who registered him, checked him in and gave me the low-down and a list of rules for Jacob to study, made me think the same thing.

The question remained: stay or leave?

Jacob decided to stay, and asked if he could remain until closing at 10pm. I said he could, gave him my cell phone in case he changed his mind, then headed out before he had a chance.

On the way home, I tried to recall what it's like to be almost 11 years old, and when I remembered, I cringed at the thought of the social situations I often found myself in. Girls who knew more about the mechanics of girls' bodies than I (or at least sounded like they did), boys whose actions were mysterious, bizarre and contradictory, and me in the middle. Learning to relate to others was a very difficult process for me--the back and forth of relationships was something I would not fully grasp until many years later.

So in a way, I felt that games like ping pong, bumper pool and foozball were perfect vehicles for relating at this age. Children learn through play, after all, and my hope is that Jacob can learn to negotiate the delicate dance of social interaction by being in this environment. Instead of competing about who knows more about sex, or who has tried out which evil deed or web page, they can actually connect over friendly--and harmless--forms of competition. Innocent back-and-forth situations can help facilitate ones that are more complex.

When I picked him up later that night, he was grinning from ear to ear. We had a bit of chat with the supervisors, who praised him for his courage in staying with so many girls. Blushing, Jacob was tongue tied and, I daresay, speechless.

Considering the only time Jacob is speechless is when he's unconscious, I'm going to assume he had fun.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Hooked? Eh, Not So Much

When I was a kid, I would ride my bike down to the sound, bait my hook and fish for whatever would be interested in eating half a worm. It was fun, a great way to hang out with my cousins and pass the time on a summer day, and it's what kids do.

Or did.

This week, I ran into another mom friend at the lake, who was there with her two children, a boy and a girl. Her boy was fishing, and the mom was telling me that they'd just gotten back from Alaska, where her son had been fishing with his grandpa. Ben had been watching the young fisherman, and seemed keenly intrigued. When a fish was caught, he was thrilled to watch the process of reeling it in, unhooking and releasing it back into the lake. The boy asked if Ben would like to try it.

"Sure!" he squeaked. I grabbed half a worm and started to show him how to bait the hook.

"Uh, no Mom, you do it," he said, backing away with a grimace on his face. Jacob was soon beside his brother.

"Jacob, you can try after Ben is done," I suggested, trying to include him in the fun.

"No thanks. I don't believe in killing defenseless worms. I'll just watch," he said, also backing away.

What the heck? Do they not make kids like they used to? It's not like they were girls in crinoline dresses, shrieking at the site of worm guts. They're boys for pity's sake!


I cast the line, handed the rod to Ben and we waited for all of 30 seconds. Then, he got a bite.

"Ooh! Reel it in!" I cheered.

Ben was thrilled as he pulled up a little sunny. Until it swung toward him.

"OK," I said, grabbing the line, "now let me show you how to hold him so we can get the hook out."

Needless to say, he wanted nothing to do with that part either.

I decided we would take it slowly, round up Dad in the coming weeks, take our rods, some hot dogs (for bait) and work up to the 'ick' factor as a family. Don't get me wrong: I'd love it if my kids grew to be environmentally conscious and caring about the animal world. But there are some things that kids just have to learn how to do, as rites of passage: ride a bike; swim; bait a hook, and remove a fish from said hook.

OK, I know I was a tomboy as a kid, but still. Am I expecting too much? Being overly nostalgic? Torturing my kids?

Insights welcome.

Thursday, July 22, 2010


You know how some kids, when they get hungry, get really cranky? Well, when Ben gets really hungry (as in, he's been watching cartoons so intently that he doesn't realize he's starving until I tell him to turn off the t.v. for the ninth time and come eat), he morphs into Satan's spawn. People tell me all the time how cute he is, and I tell them that it saves his life every day. They laugh. I'm not kidding.

Ben is a lover of structure. This is only a problem in summer, when schedules are more lax. We spend a lot of our days at the beach. But since no one ever wants to leave, we tend to get home later, eat later and go to bed later. All this sounds very relaxing, and it is, except for Ben.

Remember the movie The Exorcist? That scene where little Linda Blair's head turned completely around? That's Ben if he doesn't eat within an hour of waking up. Or when he has eschewed snacks and is waiting for dinner to be ready. I'll be standing at the stove cooking, and the conversation will go something like this:

Ben: "Mom, give me something to EAT!"

Me: "Excuse me? Ben, if you're hungry, eat a carrot. Dinner will be ready..."


Jacob: "Ben, I'll peel carrots for both..."


Me: "That's enough, Ben!"


Yeah, that I get.

Having seen his intense mood swings, I cannot tell you how much I dread his teen years, now that I know how vicious, loud and mean he can be when a number of factors all come together at once. It's like the personification of a perfect storm.

How can you live like that? you might ask. It sounds like insanity! Yes, it is like that, and we yell a lot at each other when things get out of hand.

But then Ben eats, brushes his teeth, reads a story with me and asks me to lay in bed with him a while before he falls asleep. I tell him I need to jump in the shower first--for 15 or 20 minutes--to wash off the sand from the beach. When I'm done, I hear him calling me. I get dressed and go into his room.

Ben: "Mom, what took you so long?"

Me: "I was just drying off."

Ben: "Oh yeah. Sorry I rushed you."

Me: "That's OK."

Then I'll lay down next to him, and as he starts to drift off, he says things, things that are like little, open windows that let me peek into his brain.

"Mom, I never want to get married. I want to live with you forever."


"Mom, is this real life or a dream?"

and my favorite,

"I love you Mom. You're the perfect mom. It's like you were made just for me."

Though I joke about the tough moments and the challenges Ben throws at me, it's moments--and comments--like this that actually save my life every day.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Feed Your Head

There is a scene in Pixar's Monsters, Inc. movie when Boo, the little human girl, is returned to her bedroom after her big, scary, unexpected adventures in Monsteropolis. She runs giddily from toy to toy, handing each one to Sully, her monster friend, to share all of her excitement of being back among her own things. It's a great scene, and I saw it play out in real life this weekend when Jacob returned home from sleepaway camp.

Gone for a week into the woods with the Boy Scouts, he hiked, went whitewater rafting, picked blueberries at the top of a mountain, swam in the lake, and did all those outdoorsy, boy things that boys do when they camp in the woods. No phones, computers or video games. No nagging mom or annoying brother. It was a 10-year-old's version of Heaven.

Until he got home. Tired, dirty, happy to be back in 'civilization' (i.e. where the microwave is), he moved from his books to his LEGOs to his piano to his Pokemon card collection to his video gaming magazines as if he'd been gone a year. He read the whole week's stack of newspaper comics that we'd saved for him. He played with the dog. He watched SpongeBob.

I've always been fascinated by Jacob's interest in, well, everything. Since infancy, he's been a sponge, soaking up everything from math to computer animation, from science to singing solos on stage. His interests are wide and varied, and he manages to balance them all. After a week of feeding his physical, outdoor, nature-focused self, he came home to feed his head. Reading, writing, playing piano, building with LEGOs. He did it all, and all before he'd been home for two full days.

He seems more mature than he did when he went away. I wonder how much of it is a new perspective on his place in the family, having been away from us for longer than he's ever been, and how much of it is a new perspective on himself. Perhaps it's a bit of both, having learned how to feed all of his passions, body and mind, and find contentment at home when he was through. Even with a nagging mom and annoying brother around.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Summer Slide

Summer is that carefree time of year when kids dream of doing nothing for days on end, and parents can sit around thinking of ways to make them work. After 10 months of cramming their brains with more information than they'll ever be able to use in one lifetime, my sons are ready to bike ride, play at the lake, swim with friends, play video games and veg out. But I have to be careful, apparently, to avoid the 'summer slide.'

It sounds like a water ride, like something fun. In fact it's just a term crazy, type-A parents developed to describe the actual relaxation of their children's brains over the summer months. Fearing their brilliant offspring will forget everything but their first names once they're out of school, parents send their kids to tutors, summer classes, and have workbooks out for daily summer drilling.

I, on the other hand, prefer to give my kids ways to think outside the classroom that's actually fun. Figuring out what animals the clouds look like. Helping me measure ingredients for making cookies. Stirring the Jello in the hot water and pontificating on what makes it melt. Picking out dinner recipes and then calculating how much of each ingredient we'll need if we are cutting the recipe in half.

This led me to start thinking along other lines, and I came up with what type of food each of my kids would be. Ben, who will throw a tantrum when told he can't have a milkshake with his cupcake, will--if ignored--tell me minutes later how much he loves me while making a ridiculous face in my rear-view mirror. Or he will yell at his brother for taking his magazine in the car, and then when Jacob says "I'm bored," will suggest they fight. Then he'll close his eyes and wave both hands up and down like he's ready to have a slap-battle all by himself, making his brother and me burst out laughing.

So I would say that if he were a food, Ben would be a sweet and sour meatball.

Jacob is a bit tougher. He doesn't wear his emotions on his sleeve the way his brother does. He'll walk around looking pensive, but ask him what's on his mind and he'll say 'nothing.' He's a big fan of bland textures and flavors, but has days when he'll burst into song, or try a new food or task without being asked. There's a lot more to him than meets the eye, and I'm always walking a fine line between over- and under-estimating him. But he's also very even keel, without the illogical outbursts his brother subjects me to on a daily basis.

Yes, I decided, Jacob is a plain donut with strawberry jelly inside. Average looking on the outside, but hiding much more than you'd expect on the inside.

OK, so I guess we're doing more 'thinking outside the ice-box' than really getting creative. My kids' brains may slide this summer, but at least they'll have lots of fun stories to share when they go back to school.

Monday, June 21, 2010

The Hope for Wide Horizons

I've always been proud of the fact that my kids don't have any cavities. Part of it, I know, is because oral hygiene is very important in our house, and the boys do a good job of brushing every day, go to the dentist regularly and don't drink soda. But with Jacob, my starch-a-holic, I figured it was partly because flour doesn't cause cavities, and that's pretty much all he eats, in one form or another.

So I was thrilled when the dentist referred Jacob to an orthodontist. (Bear with me. I'll explain.)

After many x-rays, photos and probing of Jacob's mouth, the orthodontist informed me that he was going to solve all of my problems with my finicky eater: he was going to expand his palate. At least, that's what I chose to hear when he told me Jacob would need a palate expander.

When he saw the look of appreciation on my face, I think he realized he was going to have to elaborate because I was obviously missing something.

"His upper jaw is too narrow, so some of his adult teeth don't have room to come in. This appliance will widen the jaw, allow more space in his mouth for the teeth to move down, and then they'll push out the remaining baby teeth."


I still hold out hope that someday, when someone uses the words "appliance" and "mouth" in the same sentence when referring to Jacob, they'll be describing our empty refrigerator, due to Jacob's incredible appetite and eating habits. Though I guess I should be careful what I wish for. When the palate expander comes out, Jacob may very well have new adult teeth, a bigger smile and a sudden craving for a corned beef sandwich. And pickles. And meatloaf. And salad. And cheeseburgers.

From my lips to my butcher's ears.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Mom Magic

Ben is part turtle. Have I mentioned this? If he stays up late, I have to wake him in the morning, and watch as his head retreats from his pillow, disappearing under the mounds of blanket shell on his bed. This is usually just a winter problem, but rainy school days are a close second when it comes to not wanting to get up.

Wednesday morning he was a snapping turtle: when I lovingly whispered, "Ben, honey, time to get up," I was greeted with "Mom, get OUT!" before his vanishing act. He didn't even open his eyes.

I could hear the rain beating on the roof. The thermometer said it was 48 degrees outside. Inside, I was thankful that I didn't have to go anywhere. In fact, I could even go back to bed after the kids left if I wanted to. That is to say, I felt his pain. So I knew that if I was going to get Ben out of bed, it was going to take bribery.

My husband likes to try to tempt Ben with a race: who can get dressed faster? Sometimes he'll ask Ben to feed some scraps to Bailey the dog, something Ben loves to do. But this morning, Ben was unresponsive to any and all attempts to lure him.

It was time to pull out the big guns.

Usually, when it comes to bribing Ben, all you need is something sweet. But it was also rainy and cold, so it would have to be something sweet and warm. Honey Combs weren't going to cut it, and neither was peanut butter on toast. No, it was time for GIANT PANCAKES WITH SYRUP.

Of course, with 30 minutes until the bus and Ben still under the covers, there was no time for even Bisquick. So I pulled out some big, fluffy pancakes I had made on the weekend and froze for just such an occasion. Four minutes in the toaster oven, and breakfast was served.

He chowed, I packed his lunch, he brushed his teeth, I gathered his coat and shoes and he was out the door right on time with a smile on his face and a big hug for me.

Yes, it was a shortcut. But like all moms, I choose my battles and cut corners where necessary. And I learned long ago that, with Ben, when the going gets tough, it helps to have a sweet trick up your sleeve to get the tough going.

Funny thing is, I was never much of a magician until I became a mom. I guess discovering new things about yourself is just one more part of the magic of parenthood.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Dessert Police

When I was a kid, cookies were always kept in the house. Sunshine Hydrox, my dad's favorite, never ran out, and much to the delight of my brother and me, were kept in an easy-access cupboard. Maybe my mom thought this would promote our self-restraint. After all, we knew the rules: dessert AFTER dinner. Only TWO cookies apiece. Got it.

But once I became a teenager and life got harder, nabbing four (or five or six) Hydrox cookies after school or after dinner (or both) seemed to help my mood. Not that it helped my teeth--they were filled with cavities before I went to college. The lesson I learned was that you can't keep sweets in my house and expect me to have any restraint.

Today, I try to impart to my children the lesson I *should* have learned. That is, we have a limit of two cookies because more than that is unhealthy for your teeth and your body. This is why we don't get dessert every night, and when we do, it's usually a small treat. Some might say I'm pretty strict about desserts today. (OK, maybe just my kids would say that.) But I'm starting to think they have good reason.

One recent evening at a scout meeting, snack time rolled around. One of the dads was in charge this week, and he put a package of individual cookie packs on the table that was surrounded by eight or nine kids. The package had Nutter Butters, Oreos and Chips Ahoy cookie packs in it, and I think it was expected that each boy would take one package. Notice, I say "expected" and not instructed.

I watched as my son took a package of Oreos (six cookies to a pack), each of the other boys also took a package, and then some also grabbed a second. One actually was stuffing the first pack in his mouth and had two more packages in front of him. His mom was chatting with the other moms, and I wouldn't be surprised if his goal was to eat as many cookies as he could before being discovered and stopped. He is seven, after all.

Once I got Ben to give up his Oreo pack after we negotiated that he could have three cookies, I went around the table and told all the other boys "one package per scout." When they protested, I turned to the room of moms and said, in a voice that I thought was rhetorical, "Hey Moms, would any of you object to your boys eating 10 to 12 cookies tonight?"

They kind of hemmed and hawed, but no one really answered.

Maybe they didn't get my joke. Maybe their not as fanatic about dessert rules as I am. But I was surprised to get barely a reaction to my question, and so I told the boys "one package each unless your mom tells you differently," and left it at that.

Don't get me wrong. I'm sure Ben would have eaten as many packages of cookies as he could have if I hadn't been standing there, and would later have complained of a stomach ache. But That's OK. I'll take the 'bad mommy' rap now, if it means that my kids will learn self-restraint, and that I can be there to point out when they exhibit it. Maybe I'm depriving them of cookies, but I hope I'm giving them some useful tools in their stead.

If nothing else, it means less vomit for me to clean up while they're young.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

It's A Grill Thing

I've come to believe that kids are born knowing things instinctively, and adults later prove them correct through research studies and testing that requires a lot of money. Take grilled meat, for instance. My kids--carnivores both--have an aversion to any meat cooked this way. They love hot dogs, cheeseburgers, steak and sausage. Unless it's cooked on the grill. Then, they're asking for leftover pasta instead.

At first I thought maybe it was the smoky flavor they objected to, making the food taste, well, different from what it usually tasted like. But on further interrogation, it turns out they don't like the grill marks. This is not a visual thing; they don't like the charred flavor that grilled meat takes on, and any sign of grill marks will send them running for a knife and some ketchup. Jacob sometimes refuses outright to eat grilled food.

"Great," I thought, "another day in the life of irrationally picky eaters." But as it turns out, apparently they know something I didn't: that eating a lot of grilled meat actually increases our risk of getting cancer.

I'm not saying my kids are brilliant, or even that this isn't coincidence. But Ben has eschewed processed food since he was born, and would rather eat a bowl of steamed spinach than a plate of onion rings or chicken nuggets. Like most busy moms, having ready-made foods that don't take long to cook is something I've come to rely on. When you're rushing from piano lessons to boy scouts, and picking up kids at tennis and wiffle ball, the one thing you always run out of is time. Unfortunately, for most families that lost time is taken from time spent on meal preparation. So we cut corners on the very fuel our kids need to do their best in all of these activities.

What it means to me is that I need to budget my time better. That way, I can do all the things I need to do during the day, including smart, healthy meal planning.

Parents complain about their kids' eating habits, but maybe our kids are really trying to tell us something important. What makes my picky eaters easier to live with is this: the foods they are turning up their noses at are actually the foods that aren't really that good for them anyway.

Well, except for dessert. Hey, they are kids, after all.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Teething Pain

When I was a kid, I never really gave my teeth any thought unless they were loose, missing or had something stuck in them. But these days, it seems my life is all about teeth: loose ones, missing ones, prizes to exchange for missing ones, crooked ones that need orthodontia, impacted ones that will hopefully correct themselves after the orthodontia, etc. etc.

Thankfully, none of them are mine.

Anyone who has read this blog in the past knows the suffering I endured at the hands (or rather, mouth) of Ben when he had his first loose tooth. My chowhound couldn't chow, and life was a tragedy for at least two weeks. I was this close to pulling it myself, just to put me out of Ben's misery.

Now, six months later, the saga continues. Both of Ben's top, front teeth have been loosening simultaneously for some time. He wiggles them with his hands and his tongue, but does all his biting and chewing on the side of his mouth. The tension mounted more every day with fear of the swallowing, hurting or bleeding of said teeth. That is, until Friday.

Friday evening, just before his dad and I were to go out, Ben pulled me aside to tell me "something private" and held out one of the teeth. Hooray! We're halfway done. I gave him a hug, helped him wrap it up and told him to put it under his pillow for the tooth fairy. Then I went to a party. Ben was very happy with his new dollar bill the next day.

Later Saturday, we went to my brother's house for another party, kids in tow. After playing outside for a while, Ben came inside and pulled me aside yet again. But he had no tooth in his hand this time.

"It fell out in the grass and I can't find it," he said with obvious worry over his potentially lost reward from you-know-who. Did I reassure him that it would be fine, that the tooth fairy understands about these things happening? Yes. Did I then go back to chatting with my family? Er, not exactly.

Instead, my husband, my mother, Ben, his cousins and I went out to the back yard, located the general vicinity in which he had been playing when the tooth came out ("I was in the grass"--great), and spent a good 15 minutes looking for an itty bitty baby tooth. You'd be amazed how many tiny, white pebbles-that-look-like-itty-bitty-baby-teeth are in my brother's back yard. I certainly was. And I had to laugh at how ironic I found the whole situation, considering that this is the kid who kept biting me during his breastfeeding days. It felt like CSI: Motherhood.

In the end, we didn't find the tooth, but Ben got his reward anyway. Some might say I went way overboard and that I should have let Ben deal with this small disappointment, a natural part of life. But I like to think that, by putting in a real effort in response to his distress--regardless of how hopeless we knew the search was--we taught him that his family is here for him in times of trouble. Hopefully he learned that we will take his pain seriously, and even if we can't fix it we will do what we can to make him feel better.

Disappointment--like teeth--will come and go, but family is forever. Hopefully, that knowledge will always help ease the stings in his life.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Celebrating Heritage

They say there are two kinds of people in the world: Irish, and those who wish they were Irish. On St. Patrick's Day every year, when I was growing up, I would listen to my uncles tell the story of the night I was born. It was during the blizzard of '67, and in Yonkers--which is full of hills--there was no way to get the cars to the hospital. Everything got stuck in the snow, so my mom's brothers all walked to the hospital. Being of Irish descent, they were all eager to greet the St. Patrick's Day baby who was on the way. They ate terribly stale sandwiches from the vending machines, calmed my soon-to-be dad, and whiled away the hours in anticipation.

I showed up at 2a.m. on the 18th.

To this day, I refuse to be late for anything, and assure my family that I planned my birthday as such because I have never liked corned beef and cabbage. As a result, I always got to eat spaghetti and meatballs on St. Patrick's Day, while the rest of my family happily shared the traditional meal. And there was nothing my uncles could do about it but tell me the disappointing story of my birth, again and again, throughout my entire childhood.

Now that I've grown, I forgive them for torturing me. Mainly because it's such a good story.

For some interesting history on the rest of the Irish, check out


Monday, March 1, 2010

Ah. NOW I Get It

DanseDance from Julien Vallée on Vimeo.

This is a great visual example of what writer's block can feel like. It's also a great way to explain to others what ADD feels like.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Security Breach

We got Bailey, our Golden Lab/Retriever mix, two years ago this month. Since then, he has become like our third child. So I decided it was time to start being a bad mother to him as well. After all, I didn't want him to feel left out, comparing himself to his brothers Ben and Jacob all the time.

To do this, I accepted a volunteer position at my local library for two mornings a week. To keep things fair (after all, the children came first), I sent the children back to school yesterday, after a 10-day vacation, but I didn't make Bailey suffer until today. After a brisk walk with my neighbor and his Beagle, with whom Bailey is good buddies, I brought Bailey inside, changed into work clothes and left for three hours.

He may have taken this as a personal insult, as I usually spend my days with him in the house. If I'm up and down the stairs doing laundry, he shadows me. If I am working on the computer, he sleeps curled up against the heater right behind my chair. Heaven help him when I go to the bathroom, because he seems convinced that there is another exit from the house in there; he cries and whines relentlessly from the time I close the door until he can see me again.

But my dog doesn't handle insults the way some do. Other dogs might pee on the furniture, lay on my bed or rip up my tablecloth while I was gone. Not Bailey. Bailey instead becomes very insecure. (Clearly there is no cat DNA in him.) First, he took the doggie pillow he sleeps on and twisted it up by swinging it around with his mouth. Then he humped it across the room. (Don't ask me how I know this. You'll just have to trust me.) After that he dragged his wool blanket downstairs to the front door. And finally, when I got back home, he ran and brought two different toys to me before I had even taken off my coat.

What is the answer? Quit the job? Doggie Prozac? I say nay to both. Call me selfish, but for the first time in over a decade, I'm going to relish the feeling of being fully appreciated, sorely missed and warmly welcomed when I come home. I'll reassure him by playing catch with him and taking him for a walk, and I'll give him lots of attention.

And then I'll throw throw his doggie bed in the wash.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Color Me Happy

Ben: "Mom, if oranges are called 'oranges,' why aren't lemons called 'yellows' and limes called 'greens'?"

Me: "That is an excellent question, Ben. What should we call bananas, strawberries and apples then?"

Ben: (silence) "Hm. I'm going to have to think on that one a bit."

Sunday, February 14, 2010

I Heart You

Call me old-fashioned. Because that may be the reason I just don't get all of this "it's so hard to find true love" talk that swirls at this time of year. Books, articles, Valentine's Day haters, bitter singles--it seems everyone spends today pontificating on the elusive, indefinable, different-for-everyone state of true and lasting love. The divorce rate is off the charts.

What's the answer? Are there just no more perfect mates out there anymore? Are all the good ones truly taken?

I say no. In fact, if everyone would read and follow this blog entry, there'd be a lot more perfect mates out there. That's because I've got the fix for everyone. Call it the Atkins Diet for love. Three simple rules.


1) Always be respectful of your partner. Treating someone with respect, even when you're mad at them or disagree with them or are frustrated with them, is not easy. OK, it actually stinks. Because you're forcing yourself to argue without being petty, mean, spiteful or cruel. But here's the thing. By working hard to do it anyway, you are being a better person. This argument will soon end, but your relationship will continue. Your partner will probably forget all about the argument down the road, but will remember how you treated them. Make that a good memory.

2) Give more than half. Keeping score of whose turn it is to scrub the toilets, who needs to apologize and who washed the dishes last time is a crumy way to live. Maybe if you're living with a slacker college roommate, it needs to be addressed. If that's the case, use a job chart. As for love, think of it this way: if you were alone you'd have to do these things all the time by yourself. So if you had to wash the dishes four times this week and your partner only did it three times, that's still three times less for you. Be appreciative. If you disagreed during an argument, chances are you both have room for improvement. Apologize. Maybe you did more laundry this week, but your mate took out the trash and cleaned up the dog vomit. Say thank you. And then let it go.

3) Don't hold grudges. Holding grudges is like going to bed without brushing your teeth. The yuck seeps down inside and starts doing damage. The longer it's in there, the more unhealthy you become. Did you know that tooth decay can kill you? In the same slow, painful way, grudges and resentment can kill a relationship. Take the high road. When the issue is resolved, leave the past in the past. You'll both be better for it.

That's it. Three rules. What could be easier? But, like love, by following these rules, you give a little but reap so much more. Kindness begets kindness. Being respectful inspires respect.

Life is hard. That's why it's so great to have a partner to help you through it. If you can let the little, petty things go, all that's left are the big things that keep us together.

And, as that Little Rascal Alfalfa once said oh-so-poignantly, that's what love is all about.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

On The Fence

As Jacob moves closer to adolescence, his behavior has become something I liken to climbing a fence.

Some days, he's still on this side. He wants me with him constantly: when he's brushing his teeth, he wants me in the bathroom with him. When he's done in the shower, he wants me to towel and blow dry his hair for him (he likes the warmth). At bedtime, he wants me to tuck him in and sit with him a while to talk about his day's trials and tribulations.

But other days, as he tries out the other side of the fence, I am an embarrassment, an albatross, an annoyance. Lately, for example, if I am singing along to a catchy tune on the radio while making dinner, rather than sing along with me as he used to, or even smirking at me, he will throw me a "get over yourself, Mom" look. It's a visual version of giving snaps, as if he wonders why I bother, for my voice could never trump his. A look that says I should know better than to show such displays in my kithen (forget about outside the house!), that I should just stick to cooking and leave the singing to him.

Unless he does something that is outright rude, in these situations I usually laugh at him or sing even louder. But this week, perhaps fueled by his performance at the school Variety Show (and the accolades that followed from friends and strangers), he envisions himself as the next Michael Buble, and actually had the nerve to tell me to stop singing.

'Tween or not, hormones or no hormones, I gave it right back to him.

"Dude, who do you think *gave* you that set of pipes, that rhythm, that musical ability you love so much? Toys 'R' Us? Noooo. Your dad? Noooo. He couldn't carry a tune if you put it in a backpack. It was ME, boy, singing to you even before you were born, using ASL to sign the words of Twinkle Twinkle Little Star to you as a baby, paying for your piano lessons and showing you how to place your hands on the keyboard. All RIGHT then!" Now it was my turn to give snaps.

OK, so when I step back, I understand this is just the beginnings of Jacob's budding independence, his need to feel separate yet capable, confident and talented. And as a kid, it's all about putting himself above others to prove to himself he really does have worth.

I concede that maybe sometimes I respond more like a kid than necessary. Perhaps it makes me sad to think of my little boy growing up. But I find that, as he climbs that fence between childhood and adolescence, turning occasionally to throw rocks at me down on the ground, that this is the best way to get my point across to him. And if I can make both of us laugh in the process, hopefully I can slow his journey just a little bit, and the climb won't be any harder than it has to be, for either of us.

Monday, February 8, 2010

I'm With Cupid

There's something about the mystery of children that I love. Now I know some of you are saying, "mystery? What are you talking about? Kids are as transparent as puppies!" And maybe that's it. They are undying in their devotion, can't get enough of their mother's love and attention, and no matter how many times she yells at them, they remain unfazed and attached.

This, of course, only adds to the gobs of guilt that moms get to carry home, along with their baby, when they leave the hospital. One would think that, as we become more proficient in our roles as parents, the guilt would begin to dissipate. One would be wrong.

This guilt grows as our children grow, magnifying our imperfections like the flourescent lights in a women's changing room. Sometimes it's brought on when they cry over something we've said to them, like, "no." Conversely, it's also brought on when they accept what we say blindly, demonstrating their faith and trust in us, thus leaving us to our late-night brooding sessions (to replace the sleepless nights we had when they were babies), the ones in which we wonder endlessly whether we are damaging our children for life, and how much.

Even when we are acting with love, we blow it. Take today for instance. I wanted to blog about my kids' unending well of love, and the wonderful Valentine's Day card Ben made for me. I decided to take a picture of it to post with this entry. He heard the camera clicking and came in to the room asking, "Mom, what are you doing?"

"I'm taking a picture," I said, realizing at that moment that I may be doing something that wouldn't be well-received.

"Of WHAT?" he asked as he got closer. There was no hiding now.

"Of the beautiful Valentine's Day card that you made for me!" I said cheerily.

The tears started flowing and he cried out about what a terrible thing I had done. I had read it before Valentine's Day, and now it was 'ruined' and Ben would have to make a whole new one. And this one had taken him "like, FIFTY minutes to make!"

I tried to soothe him with, "It's OK, Honey, it's for my blog!" but he was completely uninterested in my motives.

Sigh. I swallowed my guilt, apologized and offered him some pink construction paper, glue and glitter in the hopes of inspiring some creativity (and yes, distracting him from his dismay).

It worked, he seems unscathed, and a new Valentine has been created, even before dinner is ready. Perhaps it's just youthful innocence, short attention span or a love of art. But I prefer to think of it as more evidence of that undying love which, guilt aside, will always remain a mystery to me.

Monday, February 1, 2010

Snob? I Wouldn't Say That

OK, I'm a writer, right? So friends send me things they've written and ask me to look them over, edit, proof and maybe spruce them up. It's something I'm proud of, as I do this in daily life (though I try not to do it when it's unsolicited), so to be asked makes me feel a little less like I'm being a word snob and more like my editing skills are valued. After all, everyone needs to read and write. Like any endeavor, don't we want to do so to the best of our abilities?

Apparently not.

I'm not talking about fifth graders here, or even adults with limited educational opportunities. I'm talking about professional adults in finance companies, college students who edit literary magazines and graduate students in writing programs in charge of the quarterly newsletters.

"Mr. X spoke with your wife whom stated..."

"It donned on me that if we want to encourage..., than it would be good to..."

"In this vain, we felt a strong..."

Commas where there should be periods. Capitalized words that should be lower case. Misspelled contributors' names in the table of contents. And these are just a few examples.

Am I being too nitpicky?

I suppose I'm really lamenting the decline of the publishing industry, with so many good writers and editors being let go in the name of saving money. Books aren't being published, not because they have no literary merit, but because they won't be blockbuster sellers with movie options. Newspapers are thinner, their articles more likely to contain errors (I've seen many as I am still a daily subscriber).

Perhaps this is a testament to the disorder of our priorities as a society. "It's only worthwhile if it makes money." "Quantity, not quality, is what matters most." It really seems that literacy is going the way of the payphone. With email, texts and tweets being the most common ways news is passed from person to person, is it any wonder we don't care about spelling or grammar anymore? Too many characters to worry about! Just get the jist of your message across!

Don't get me wrong. I love the new technologies that enable us to access and send information from anywhere in the world. It is now possible for even the laymen, in addition to paid writers and journalists, to share their words and messages with thousands of people at once. But to me, that's just one more reason why the message should be legible and accurate.

Saturday, January 30, 2010

Truth And Consequences (or) Ode On A Dithering Mom

Keats may have said that beauty is truth, but I take issue with whether truth is beauty. Especially after reading a memoir by my ten-year-old this week. Granted, memoir to a fifth grader is a fuzzy concept. Let's just say he took a lot of artistic license.

This was part of "curriculum hour" in Jacob's classroom, where parents are led around to view the various tools and topics their progeny are engaged with during a typical school day. Let me tell you, there is nothing like a day in the life of your fifth grader to deliver a crushing blow to your previous sense of intellectual superiority. It turns out I'm actually not smarter than a fifth grader, at least when it comes to the latest technology. And science? I may be able to spell buoyancy, but don't ask me to define its principle.

But then Jacob shared his writing folder with me, including his journals, memoirs and fiction pieces. This was what I had been waiting for, and I enjoyed his descriptions of campouts, contests and other experiences he'd had. But the one that he had typed up on fancy paper for me to take home (and frame?) was called Rings on a Pillow. It was his memory of the day he was a ring bearer in my cousin's wedding three and a half years ago.

It began impressively with a building sense of anticipation prior to the ceremony, a great alliteration about the sound of his shoes hitting the floor as he walked down the aisle, and the crowd of hundreds with all eyes on him. I beamed with pride when I read how "the bride was dithering over the groom's tie." What fifth grader uses a word like dithering? Surely, he'll be a writer one day, I smiled to myself.

And then I got to the next paragraph, where he talked about me. I read his description of me wiping my "teary red eyes with a hankie." Red eyes? It sounds devilish, or at least very unattractive, although I conceded to myself that he was going for a visual image. But the next line was like a smack across my head:

"My loud-mouthed, hard-to-please mom smiled."

Now wait just a cotton-pickin' minute. Did he read this to the class? Did he get any feedback from his teacher? What, exactly, ran through her head when she read that line? And how am I supposed to hold my head up at the next parent-teacher conference?

But worst of all, is this how Jacob really sees me? Loud-mouthed? Hard to please? Just because I don't let him play LEGOs from the moment he gets home until bed time, but actually make him do homework, practice piano and eat vegetables? Indeed, if that's the case, there is no beauty in truth. At least not when you're ten.

I'm going to tell myself that he did this for effect, to illustrate that an 'ear-to-ear smile' is not something I flash every day, but that the wedding was a special occasion.

And you can be sure that we'll be having a little talk about his writing, when I'll promise him free editing services on any future works he produces--especially memoirs--from now until I die.

Hopefully he'll accept, thus preventing what would surely be my premature death by mortification.

Friday, January 29, 2010

Keeping It Simple

I want to be in second grade again. This week, Ben's second-grade class filled up their "warm fuzzy jar." This jar is in the classroom, and every time someone in the class does something nice for someone else--helps out, offers sympathy, shares--the teacher puts a cotton ball in the jar. I know. How cool, right?

Wait. It gets better.

The jar was finally filled this week, which earned the children a special treat: a pajama breakfast party. Parents all contributed something: waffles, chocolate chips, strawberries, whipped cream, syrup and milk. The kids were instructed to wear their pajamas to school.

I don't know which had Ben more excited: the waffles and chocolate chips, or being able to wear his pajamas to school. I often call him 'Hughy' for Hugh Hefner, because if I let him, he would never get out of his pjs. He is a homebody through and through, so the idea of combining his favorite breakfast with all his school friends and a day in his pjs gave him good dreams for over a week.

Today was the day. Ben got up, took off his footie pajamas and put on his long underwear and fleece pjs over them. He took his vitamin, drank his orange juice and brushed his teeth, and didn't even ask for breakfast (he was building his appetite). When it was time to go, he grabbed his backpack, gave me a big kiss, and hurried down the stairs gushing, "I'm SO excited!!" I honestly think he was vibrating with anticipation.

And that's what being seven years old is all about, right? Do your best to be kind to others, and get rewarded with food and warmth. Actually, maybe that's what life is all about. Be kind. Help others. And every now and then, reward yourself with the simple things that feed your soul.

Yummy on every level.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

The Change of Life

I am an inappropriate crier. I cry at weddings (real and movie), as well as at Hallmark commercials, videos of my kids when they were babies and sappy songs on the radio. But I don't cry after reading books. At least, not lately.

This, apparently, is a problem. I can hide behind "hormones" or "I'm just a big mush" when it comes to the first examples. But when everyone in my book group cries at the end of a book and I don't, eyebrows go up.

"You didn't cry?"


"What do you mean you didn't cry? Did you at least feel like crying?"

"Er, no, not really."

They look at each other and wonder how I got into this club. I can see their minds going, wondering what kind of cold-hearted, unfeeling biotch I am to have not cried at the end of this story. I actually consider lying and saying that I did, in fact, cry.

But the thing is, I used to cry at the end of books. When I was younger, and romantic stories showed me how love is supposed to be, what wonderful men were out there just waiting to fall in love with me, I cried. Mostly because my parents thought I was too young to date and therefore I had no way to meet these young princes, but still. The point is, I cried.

Until I became a writer.

Maybe this made me colder and more calculating when it came to words. I subconsiously read stories and think, "ooh, good line," or "no, that's not plausible after all we know about this character." Mostly, though, I think, "this could have been done better."

Granted, I'm not saying I could have done it better. OK, sometimes I feel like I could have. The point is, I no longer read stories purely for the emotional reaction they cause in me. I read them to learn how to write better. Or in some cases, how not to write.

So maybe this is not the book group for me. Maybe I belong in a book group made up of all writers, and our goal could be the same: find the formulas, the holes, the things that work so we can use them ourselves.

Or maybe I should just keep an onion near my nightstand when I am finishing a book. At least then I won't have to lie.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Dog Days

Ben: "Mom, there are three reasons Bailey's lucky to be a dog, and three reasons he's unlucky."

Me: "Oh yeah? Why is he lucky?"

Ben: "One, he doesn't have to go to school. Two, he doesn't have to do homework. And three, he gets to stay home with his mom all day."

Me: "Hm, yes, I guess that is pretty nice. But why is he unlucky?"

Ben: "Well, he can't talk so if he's hungry or has to pee, all he can do is whine. Also, he only gets to see his friends if you take him to a playdate. And three, he doesn't have opposable thumbs."

Me: "All true, Ben. So which would you rather be? A dog or a kid?"

He's still thinking about it.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Author, Author!

Ask anyone who reads voraciously what is most exciting to them, and they will likely say, 'discovering a new author to love.' The same goes for me. Finding a poet or novelist who affects, me to the point that I put off everything else to spend time with his or her works, ranks right up there with finding $20 in a coat from last winter and getting an unexpected vacation day.

OK, so it doesn't take much to get me going. But it's also difficult for me to find such writers. I recently discovered Westchester author Jonathan Tropper thanks to an interview I heard on public radio. Tropper was promoting his most recent novel, This Is Where I Leave You, and I found myself laughing out loud at the excerpts being read over the airwaves. I jotted down the title at a red light and later joined the long line of people on a waiting list to borrow it from the library.

It was worth the wait.

The book is a sharp, funny page-turner, but the characters have depth and emotion. Their family's dysfunction is award-level, yet they approach their relationships matter-of-factly, with frankness and humor. Early in the book, Judd, the main character, describes his brother Phillip:

Phillip is our youngest brother, born nine years after me. It's hard to understand my parents' procreational logic. Wendy, Paul, and me, all within four years, and then Phillip, almost a decade later, slapped on like an awkward coda. He is the Paul McCartney of our family: better-looking than the rest of us, always facing a different direction in pictures, and occasionally rumored to be dead.

Their father has just died, and Judd's sister Wendy says of Phillip,

"I've left messages at all his last known numbers. On the off chance he plays them, and he's not in jail, or stoned, or dead in a ditch, there's every reason to believe that there's a small possibility he'll show up."

Besides zipping through the book, I recommended it to several friends, added it to my shopping cart at, and reserved some of Tropper's other books at the library.

The best part about such a discovery is this: these books take me back to the wondrous world of reading I first experienced as a child, when I spent endless hours losing myself in books. Reality would fade away, and I'd wonder, worry, laugh and cry with the characters in my books. We'd find wrinkles in time, discover hidden worlds through wardrobes, unearth secret gardens. Anything was possible, and in my favorite authors' hands, I felt safe.

Such an experience is the epitome of childhood imagination. Finding it again as an adult is, in my mind, nothing short of magic.