Snow Day

6:25 am – Awake to the snowy glow of dawn. Confirm via TV that school is, in fact, closed, while uttering prayer of thanksgiving that I had to watch through only 2 not applicable closings to get to the one I was looking for. Normal number of viewed, but not applicable closings: unknown, but enormous.

6:26 am – Snuggle…in…cozy…bed.

6:28 am – Jump out of said bed to answer the school’s automated “school’s closed” phone call. Hang up after the school message lady identifies herself, but well before the money nuggets of school closing information is spilled.

6:55 am – Reassure late-sleeping, recently risen, yet still anxious middle schooler that I haven’t waited until 2 minutes before he has to go to wake him up for the bus.

7:00-8:30 am – Catch up on the 27 e-mails from yesterday that are somehow hung up at the bogus POP3 server but mysteriously available at email.verizon.net. Curse you, POP3, whatever you are! Upgrade your firmware, will you?!!

9:30 am – Score big mom points by baking jumbo coffee cake muffins. Yes, jumbo muffins are loads more fun than their normal-sized cousins. Yes, it’s the third time I’ve made jumbo coffee cake muffins in two weeks. And yes, the jumbo coffee cake muffin recipe’s streusel topping has somehow stretched out to cover three times the number of muffins for which it was originally intended. Significance of bottomless streusel? Unknown, but noted as possibly miraculous. A la the widow’s oil. But sweeter.

10:00 am – Sit down for lovely game of Clone Wars “Monopoly” with lovely children whose hot cocoa-driven hyperactivity is slowly making me wish that I was on the Ice Planet Hoth or frozen in thermite.

11:00 am – Enjoy visit from wonderful neighbor children, whose chilly snow antics bring them into the house within minutes of arrival. They choose an alternative indoor activity, which has its own special language. Unfortunately, that language is limited to the words ‘no’ and ‘sto-op’ and the phrase “I’m telling Mom.”

Half a day down.

Phew.

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Movie-Style Drama, Parental Guidance Prohibited

[originally appeared in “Scheir Madness,” in The Dover Post, 1/28/09]

Last night I watched the 2007 film “No Country for Old Men.” If you’re like me and dig gritty, quirky drama (surprised?), then it’s a must see.

The movie featured underworldly figures, drug deals gone bad, and a psychopathic, ghostly gun-for-hire who made life or death decisions based on the flip of a coin and who had just about the weirdest wiggy hairdo of any movie villain I’ve ever seen.

It was tense, suspenseful, and downright shocking, but subtract the Texas scenery, deadly drug trafficking, and murderous pathology, and it captured the tone of the next big item on my family’s agenda, namely, the dreaded school project.

Scary, right?

My son’s got a Civil War assignment due on Monday that he’s known about since before winter break.

Back in December he chose a topic (who wouldn’t, after 3 days of parental reminding/bugging?).

Around Christmas he went to the library (yes, it was my idea, but it was on our way so how could we just pass by?).

Over the past six weeks he’s spent fifteen minute to one hour segments of time (at my prompting, of course), chipping away at the big stone block that is his topic (a detailed time line of the events of the war), with the hope (that would be my hope) that he will carve the researched material into a finely crafted finished product (my vision: an intricate masterpiece, like Rodin’s Thinker or Michelangelo’s David; his vision: something more stark and abstract, like Stonehenge, I think).

A couple of days ago, I checked his progress. At T minus one week, he’d put together exactly one page of material. To his credit, it was illustrated, but still—there’s condensed and then there’s crushed to the size of a microscopic wafer.

Cheerfully, helpfully, and biting my tongue with all my maternal mojo, I said, “Don’t you think that an assignment you’ve had six weeks to work on should be longer than one page?”

And he said, “Oh, no, Mom they said only one page.”

Right.

Seeing the you’ve-got-to-be-kidding look on my face, he regrouped. “I guess they wouldn’t mind if we taped a couple of sheets together.”

You think?

After mounting a coordinated effort with him to transfer the material onto the computer, the original document has grown mysteriously to five pages, with plans (ordered by me) for further expansion.

That night, a little frustrated, disappointed, twitchy, and blinky from the whole experience, I made a school project status report to my husband. He wisely advised that rather than babysit the kid and his project for the next 6 days, we adopt a laizzes faire attitude and let the thing just play out. The boy might take personal responsibility or not, but either way he’ll get what he deserves, and hopefully, he’ll learn his lesson.

As for me, I’m just keeping my hands off the whole thing. I’ll wait, I’ll worry, and I’ll cover my eyes when things get really scary. But if consequences are what he needs, then consequences he’ll get.

I don’t know about you, but I’m on the edge of my seat.

The Tummy Bug

We’ve survived it again, that yearly menace: the stomach virus.

Thankfully, it didn’t come out of nowhere this year. My daughter told me it was going around her class, and believe me, she didn’t have to tell me twice. I’m a winter wash-my-hands-aholic as it is, and we’re in the middle of the no-sharing-food-until-June season (it started in September). I now have hand sanitizer in my purse, in the car, in the entryway, and on the coffee table for goodness sake. But if one of my kids were to pick up the bug at school, then there wouldn’t be at thing I could do about it.

At the first sign of impending barfing (“Mom, I’m really tired. Can I just go to bed?”), I mobilized. I’d already bought Gatorade (to replenish electrolytes) in anticipation of the bug. I was remarkably caught up on laundry, so clean towels and sheets would be no trouble at all. I got 4 trash cans lined and ready (one for each member of the family), and off we went, into the night, with the great hope that we wouldn’t need them.

But we did. One, thank heaven, just one kid. But still it was enough to move me down to the couch, because here’s how I figured it: I’d rather be awake when it happens again, than be surprised in my sleep. I snapped into hypervigilant foxhole mode and lay there, listening, fearful of my own physical well-being, but ready.

After 3 hours, daylight was coming, and I figured the greatest danger had passed. I rolled over to sleep, still anxious, still listening, still fearful. But then I thought about a friend of mine whose daughter’s body systems have become unreliable and unpredictable due to a genetic disorder. I thought of a former classmate who’s just started chemo. I thought of a church member whose cancer, which has already claimed one leg, is spreading.

I realized that peace is available, and it’s available to us all. I had to surrender to sleep, to rest, to not being able, no matter how hard I might try, to control the microbial world and its cellular components. I prayed for these people I know, these ones whose nights would be continually darkened by their respective burdens, that they might sleep. And I hoped that they too might find some miraculous rest.

Growth Tracking for the Not-So-Detail-Oriented

[originally appeared in “Scheir Madness” in The Dover Post, 1/21/09]

My poor children.     

They know the “all about me” basics—their birthdays, the correct spellings of their names, and which room in the house they’re supposed to be sleeping in. But as for other vital personal statistics, they’re pretty clueless, and they have me to blame.

I imagine that responsible, detail-oriented mothers probably have decoratively- archived records of every half-inch their children have put on since birth. They probably have regular weigh-ins to see how close their children are to graduating from their car seats. And I’ll bet each of them carries a laminated index card in her wallet with current clothing and shoe sizes, broken down by brand and store, because some of them do run small, you know.

But, alas, not me.

I’m the mother who makes her kids take off their shoes at the bowling alley counter so I can check what the sizes are. You’d think I’d at least have a ballpark idea, but the only thing I sort of remember on the shoe score is that neither of them is in the double digits anymore.

What I do know is that my fifth grader has been wearing the same boots since second grade. This perpetually good fit is only possible, I think, because (a) he removed the warm but very fat bootie inserts, gaining at least a shoe size right there and (b) if by some miracle we happen to get a good snow this year, then I guess anything is possible.

For my children, “too small” is kind of a grey area. My son (the fifth grader), who comes from a line of men who have nothing but a puff filling out the back of their pants, managed to wear size 4 shorts for about 5 years. And just the other night, my 8-year-old daughter went to bed wearing pants (size 2T) that can now best be described as knickers with a nightgown that has evolved into a shirt.

In my defense, I can say that while I have never marked off my kids’ growth milestones on a whimsical growth chart (like those available for $24.95—regular $49.95!—at beanstalkkids.com), there are a couple of penciled-in lines, names, and dates in the frame of our dining room doorway. But these, I’ll admit, were made only at the children’s insistence, and are in no way adjusted to reflect any added lift owing to tippy toes, chunky soles, or bed head.

My preferred approach to growth-tracking is casual, at best. If I do happen to notice that the children have grown, it’s only because I make obscure Sherlock Holmesian observations and deductions, like, “My daughter has never eaten 3 bowls of spaghetti before. And last night she slept for 15 hours. Plus all of her shirts have three-quarter length sleeves. What’s up with that?”

Add to these the pains in her legs and three straight mornings of emotional instability due to manufactured crises like Daddy leaving for work without saying good-bye and a favorite T-shirt going through the dryer with a crayon, and the conclusion is clear: she’s growing.

Look out.

This I Believe

Recently, someone asked me this question: what is your fundamental truth?

There are a lot of things I could have said, I suppose. I believe in reaching out to the outsider. I believe that striving for perfection has opportunity costs that are of little lasting value. I believe that whatever errors I’ve made as a parent will somehow be remedied by the grace and mercy of the God who, in His great wisdom, gave my children to me and gave me to them. Over all that, I think, my Christian beliefs comprise the very framework of my entire life experience.

But even with these things in my mind, the best answer I could give to my friend is this: “It doesn’t matter what I tell you is my fundamental truth. The best reflection of my fundamental truth is the way I live. I can tell you anything I want, but if it’s not a reflection of what I actually do, then it’s not my fundamental truth at all. Observing me, you would be able to discern my fundamental truth better than I.”

Being confronted this week with the frailty of human life, the fragile nature of our physical bodies, and the unreliability of our own secure stores, there is one truth that I hope that I am living out. It is this, from I Peter 5:5: “God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble.”

It is the truth I had to accept when my education and career plans became unexpectedly and definitively derailed. It is the truth that I saw in vivid color when I came to the end of my human tolerance of a strong-willed toddler. It is the truth that filled me with compassion and dependence on God as I lay, dehydrated and exhausted in a bleak hospital room.

If pride is the arrogance that makes us think we have done it alone, that our own strength has brought us to wherever we are, and that there is no situation that cannot be conquered by sheer will and personal fortitude, then I say, give me grace. I have been humbled by my circumstances, which were ordained by a God who is working all things to my good, and for them I say, thank you.

And as I reflect on the moment of the Barack Obama’s Inauguration as President of the United States, I realize that this will be my prayer for him—that he will do justly and love mercy, but not only that. I pray that he would walk humbly before our God.

The Inauguration ceremony underscored it for me. Barack Obama is by outward appearance, amid the ceremony and cemented tradition, the grandiose gestures of simple, repeated ritual, the magical reinvention of a man into our President, still just a man. He is a man whose shoes wear out, whose clothes become wrinkled, who has his own temptations, shortcomings, and personal struggles.

I don’t know what those struggles are, but I know this: whatever Barack Obama is, he will always be a creature, a created being, made by the God of the Universe, who created the stars and planets and set them in motion. Whatever may befall him or our nation, he can never say, “I was there when the foundations of the earth were laid.” There is no question that he can pose, no answer that he can give, nothing at all that he can do , that will make him into God.

But he can, in humility, submit to the one who did set the stars in motion, and who, on every day that has been ordained, holds them together in their order. I pray that he would lead our nation out of this humility, recognizing that he is but a man, and that the events of this earth, whether prosperity or calamity, are subject to the pleasure of a sovereign God. I pray that he would receive God’s grace with a grateful heart, and with a broken and contrite spirit. These, I believe, will have more lasting significance than any eloquent oratorical display or political maneuver ever could.

My hope for our new President is this: that he will think of himself first as a man, and understand everything else with that in mind.

For good manners, just ask George Washington

[originally appeared in “Scheir Madness,” in The Dover Post, 1/14/09]

At the age of 14, George Washington compiled 110 rules which would serve as the lifetime guide for his actions and interactions with others.

Reading them now in a stately little edition entitled “George Washington’s Rules of Civility and Decent Behaviour,” I see them as qualities capable of transforming a savage into a sage, a man into a gentleman, and a shlumpy teenager into the answer to an anxious mother’s prayers.

Out of the 110 rules, here are my favorites—

Rule number 5: “If you cough…do it not loud but privately…” (And not, as my children do, as if you are about to cough up a lung onto your neighbor’s dinner plate.)

Rule number 11: “Shift not yourself in the sight of others…” (Which I’m pretty sure excludes all permutations of public underwear adjustment.)

Rule number 12: “…roll not the eyes…and bedew no man’s face with your spittle…” (Unless of course, you are the one on whom the spittle falls, then go on and roll your eyes as you see fit.)

I’ve decided to use Washington’s guiding principles in a little manners emphasis I’m running with my children. Right now I’m reinforcing rule number 103, which instructs, “…lay not your arm but only your hand on the table.” No mention of elbows, chins, heads, hair, and sneakers, but it’s a start, right?

I should not fail to mention that Washington personally translated many of these rules from traditional French maxims. Yup, the father of our country was once a teenager himself, and even then he was self-disciplined, etiquette-minded, and bilingual to boot.

No doubt, there are some modern-day 14-year-olds who, like George, would eschew their normal menu of video gaming and Facebook socializing in order to undertake a similar project. Unlike George, though, I’m quite sure that the current pool of teenage authors would manage to cobble down the 110 rules into a concisely abbreviated text message, perfect for friends and family to read while driving.

And, topping the updated list of do’s and don’ts for acceptable social behavior would be something like this, “Thou shalt freely share all digital media,” with its corollary, “Paying for music is strictly for dorks.”

Historians seem to agree that the very young, very focused, and incredibly disciplined Washington undertook the civility project voluntarily. I suspect, however, that it may have been part of his lifelong campaign to finally put to bed the infamous cherry tree incident.

I’m no historian, but imagine the older, wiser General Washington, checking in with his Mom and Dad at the close of the revolutionary war:

“Look, Dad, I just led the Continental Army to victory against the British!”

“Great, son! How many cherry trees did you cut down to pull off that little stunt?”

In closing, I’d like to share with you the simple maxims that guide my daily life. First, always carry tissues. Second, when being chased by a movie villain, never go up. And finally, thou shalt conduct thorough Internet research before shelling out $8.99 for 110 18th century maxims that are readily available on the worldwide web.

The Jury is Out

Just spent every working day of the new year on standby, as I was called for jury duty service starting January 5th. I figured it would be no big deal, really, because who’s in a better position than me to serve on a jury? I don’t have an office to go to every day, I have two kids in school, I had a beefy book I needed to get through (“Founding Brothers” for my book club; liked it but what a workout!), and I like to think I’m about as open-minded as they come. Dare I say, possibly more so.

Never mind that I can be hopelessly indecisive, am likely to trust anyone who receives a government-financed paycheck, and don’t always pay attention like I should.

Week 1 was uneventful, mostly waiting and reading, but when everything got all down to business on 1/12, and the machine started chugging toward selecting the jury for a 1 month murder trial, I was exhilarated but apprehensive. It would be great to serve—what a responsibility—but my practical realities weren’t doing much to grease the wheels of justice. I mean, how could I commit to that kind of time? Where would my kids go after school for a month? It was enough domino-shuffling to create a two-week back-up net. What were 5 weeks of that going to look like? I have great friends, but honestly I wouldn’t want to obligate anyone like that.

A mixture of relief and disappointment came when I was kindly excluded by the judge because I freelance for a newspaper (among other clients), and because I only get paid while I’m working (i.e., not while I’m sitting around in the courtroom reading books and filling in the crossword grid).  Funny that the job thing didn’t come to mind first. I make twice my daily juror’s reimbursement in just an hour of freelance writing, but strangely don’t feel like it’s a job that would count against the big people with the real jobs at the non-home offices.

I do feel good about using a work excuse rather than the old “My kids get home at 2:30 and I have no child care,” although I’m pretty sure I would have been excused for that too. My kids are bigger—8 and 10, so they can’t be at home alone (unless I’d like to come home to rubble), but it’s not like they’re babies. The Mommy card’s great, especially when it’s covered in X’s, O’s, and crayon-drawn hearts, but when it comes to civic duty, I’d rather keep it in my pocket.

Wouldn’t you know that as I was cooking dinner the next night, this came across on NPR: “Jury selection has begun in the trial of [insert name of defendant that was sitting in the courtroom on the day I got excused]…” Ironic, I suppose, but a confirmation, I think, that I was right where I was supposed to be.

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