Anatomy of a Snow Day

It’s cold—6 degrees F, not counting the wind chill. Snow is churning. The winds are howling. Highways are closed due to low visibility and slick roads.

At supper tonight, Ace begrudged this waste of a storm, coming as it did on a Saturday. “On a regular day, this would have been a snow day.”

Sonny agreed. “I could use a day off from school.”

(No, today did not count as a day off from school. I know because I asked.)

I understand the appeal of snow days, but my kids are not deprived, having enjoyed one only last week. A good, typical snow day, it progressed like this:

The day before:

4:20 p.m.: A storm is brewing. The weather forecast suggests that it will not subside until 6:00 tomorrow morning. Will tomorrow be a snow day? Maybe it will.

8:13: Ponder whether to pack lunches. They might not be needed. But packing them unnecessarily beats throwing them together in a rush tomorrow morning if school is not canceled. Besides, Sonny and Ace can eat them at home. I assemble sandwiches and peel carrots.

9:07: The school Facebook parent page begins to light up with speculation on the possibility of a snow day.

10:46: Go to bed.

The day itself:

5:20: Wake up. Strain my ears to listen for snow. How silly. Forgive me, but it’s early.

5:30: The school-closing e-mail arrives. I turn off the alarm.

5:31: Numerous parents visit the school Facebook parent page, noting that school is closed.

5:38: I congratulate myself on having laid in a melty bead craft for such a day as this. Oh, and also for having lunch ready.

5:42: I can’t fall back to sleep. Oh well. I console myself with how nice it will be not having to drag groggy, protesting Sonny and Ace out of bed at 6:30 today. They can sleep in! How grateful they will be.

6:07: Ace gets up.

6:11: Sonny gets up.

6:12: I wallow in the uncanniness of it all. How do they do this? Every time, they do this.

7:00: J goes outside to snow blow the driveway. Sonny and Ace follow him with shovels.

7:46: J decides to brave the roads rather than work at home. He suspects it will be quieter at the office. Chances are he is right.

9:07: Sonny and Ace eat breakfast.

9:16: I head upstairs for a shower.

10:00: Sonny and Ace negotiate which game to play. Connect Four.

10:06: Unabashed ovations from the winner of Connect Four.

10:07: Dark accusations of cheating and other treachery from the loser of Connect Four.

10:29: Sonny and Ace decide to talk like Yoda for the rest of the day.

10:31: Sonny asks Ace if playing outside he would like. Ace replies that sledding fun to him sounds.

10:36: Sonny and Ace head out the door, bearing much resemblance to Ralphie of The Christmas Story.

10:49: The kids come back inside, announcing that cold they are, and inquiring whether hot chocolate may they have.

10:50: I assent and go to prepare hot chocolate. Alas, though: we seem to be out of cocoa. Oops. I surreptitiously scrape elderly chocolate fondue from a container in the fridge and plop some into each mug, stirring vigorously, hoping it will dissolve. It does, kind of. Well, sort of. I conceal the still-pale milk with marshmallows.

10:58: Both kids notice a chocolately lump on the bottom of their mugs and wonder what it is. I cast it as a surprise treat. Yum! They eat it with spoons.

12:00: Ace announces that hungry he is. Lunchtime! Lunch is already made; how convenient. I open the lunch boxes. Empty. It seems that Sonny and Ace ate their contents for a second breakfast while I was in the shower. I make more lunch.

12:12: Sonny and Ace ask if screen time they may have. I remind them to clean their room and practice their instruments first.

12:13: Sonny practices his guitar. (“There was a farmer had a dog and Bingo was his name-o . . .”)

12:28: Ace practices his violin. (“Lightly row, lightly row, O’er the glassy waves we go . . .”)

12:43: Sonny and Ace clean their room, deliberating over each toy, book, and clothing item. Who is picking up more? Who is not doing his share? Who picked up whose sock—a stinky sock, no less? I eavesdrop and note that either by forgetfulness or design, my kids have ceased to talk like Yoda. Bless.

12:59: Sonny and Ace run to the basement, eager for an hour of Netflix.

1:59: Laughter and the sounds of air hockey float up the stairs.

2:48: I find Ace in the kitchen, inhaling pepper, hoping to sneeze out his loose tooth.

3:14: Sonny and Ace liberally dip into the cologne set that Ace bought J for Christmas from the school Holiday Shop.

3:16: Sonny and Ace ask to read together. We settle on the couch.

3:16: Wow. That cologne is strong. Cough-inducing strong. I have flashbacks to the high school bus.

3:17: Ace takes a bath in the elephant bathroom.

3:17: Sonny takes a shower in the master bathroom.

3:28: We settle back on the couch, breathing fresh air, and read a couple chapters of Journey from Peppermint Street.

4:12: Sonny and Ace declare boredom.

4:15: I start making supper while Sonny and Ace plan for the snow day that they are sure will come tomorrow. They fervently hope so, anyway, their boredom notwithstanding.

5:35 Sonny and Ace dance wildly in the hall to the strains of ABBA. They invite me to join them. Sure, why not? Only one of the three of us is a good dancer, but who cares?

5:36: J comes home and notes that he’s never before seen anyone do-si-do to ABBA.

5:45: We turn off ABBA and sit down for supper.

5:47: J asks what we did on our show day. Sonny says we didn’t do anything. Ace reports that we watched Netflix all day.

8:00: Sonny and Ace go to bed. In his prayer, Sonny gives thanks for the snow day.

8:03: Ace proposes that tomorrow, on their snow day, they talk like Yoda all day. Sonny agrees.

8:22: Sonny and Ace are asleep.

8:23: I remember the melty bead craft.

8:56: I pack lunches, quite sure that they will be needed tomorrow. I am both glad and regretful for this.

10:48: I go to bed and set the alarm, quite sure that it will be needed tomorrow. Still glad and still regretful.

10:49: In my prayer, I give thanks for the snow day.

10:59: With ABBA in my head, I wait to fall asleep.

Stay warm. May your snow days be good ones.

Have Yourself a Simple Little Christmas

Last month I happened upon an article with the approximate title of “Twenty Parenting Hacks That Will Make Your Life Simpler.” Ever seeking a simpler life, I plunged in.

Hack #1: “Wash Legos in a laundry bag in the washing machine.” (Because evidently Legos should be washed once a week. Who gets to decide these things?) My admiration for whomever had come up with this ingenious (although undoubtedly noisy) method to purify Legos was overshadowed by a burning question: How is washing Legos in a laundry bag simpler than not washing Legos, which is what I do now?

I did not finish the article.

December brought an onslaught of other not-simple ideas masquerading as simple. “Thirty Hassle-Free Elf on the Shelf Ideas! Each simple idea takes less than five minutes to set up.” Wouldn’t leaving the Elf on the Shelf on the shelf, per his moniker, be even more hassle-free—if one doesn’t bar him from one’s home entirely, which, let’s face it, is the most hassle-free approach of all? Many families enjoy Elf on the Shelf, but let’s not pretend that having to pose that creature every evening lends simplicity to one’s season.

Nor does twisting napkins into Christmas tree shapes, suggested as a “simple” way to set one’s table. Festive? Yes. Simpler than a folding a napkin into a rectangle? No. Same goes for the six “simple” ways to decorate one’s car for Christmas. Really? Decorate my car? Hanging ornaments from the rear-view mirror is not complicated, but whoever decided that cars should be decorated was not thinking simply.

Still, I have found a few ways to keep the Christmas season a little simpler. Here are a few of my attempts.

(Note: It may seem that one or two of these endeavors are driven more by laziness or incompetence than by a noble quest for simplicity. Let’s just blur those lines, shall we? Potato, potahto . . .)

  • Believed that Sonny was already booked on the morning of the Christmas recital and therefore did not sign him up to participate. Was wrong about him being booked, a discovery that came too late for the sign-up deadline. Not preparing for a recital during an already busy season: simpler than preparing for a recital.
  • Tried a new recipe wherein “Batter may be soft” was a shameless understatement. Poured the batter into a 9×13 pan and offered it to the oven. Renovating would-be cookies into (mediocre) bars: simpler than making a new batch of cookies.
  • Resisted the fleeting urge to rearrange the ornaments after the tree decorating session. Yes, five of the six striped glass bulbs are clumped up together, nearly touching each other, instead of spaced evenly around the branches. Yes, the Nutcracker and the straw angel are both facing the tree trunk. But so what? The kids who decorated this tree are convinced it is “the best tree EVER, and perfect.” Besides, in a few years Sonny and Ace will decorate the tree more conventionally, or they won’t want to help decorate it at all, and I will feel nostalgic. Letting the decorators’ style remain: simpler than trying to refine the tree.
  • Accepted Ace’s offer to wrap presents. The result, many meters of tape later, is a pile of gifts that look like a five-year-old wrapped them. Martha Stewart would recoil and avert her eyes, but the recipients won’t mind. And the five-year-old is proud of having helped. Allowing a volunteer to wrap the presents: easier than doing it oneself (assuming an ample supply of tape).
  • Avoid irritating “Christmas” songs. Yes, music is a matter of taste, so I won’t specify any titles, but some of these songs are plain creepy (cough“BabyIt’sColdOutside”cough). At least one is a carol of self pity that has nothing to do with the Christmas season itself (“Last Christmas,” I’m looking at you.) And have you ever suffered through an hours-long earworm of “Wonderful Christmastime,” a song that is annoying even on its first pass through your head? So if you encounter a woman with her hands over her ears humming loudly to drown out the loudspeaker’s rendition of “Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer,” that woman might be me. Listening to meaningful music or just enjoying the silence: simpler (among other things) than suffering through “Santa Baby” and its ilk.
  • Trying to remember that Christmas will preval despite missed recitals, imperfect food, ideal plans (as defined by me) going awry, and too-high expectations of myself and others. It will triumph despite unmet goals and hangry kids . . . and cranky grownups. It will go on despite commercialism. These things are not what Christmas is all about. And I’m so glad.

Here There Be Glow Sticks: The Teal Pumpkin Project

Sonny and Ace have been planning for Halloween for weeks. Maybe even months. Possibly since last November 1. It’s probably time for me to start paying attention to their plans—especially since none of Google’s results for “easy porcupine costume” look sufficiently easy. I foresee toothpicks and a hot glue gun in my very near future.

And candy. I foresee lots of candy, as over the last few decades people have grown generous with their offerings. While back in the day my sisters and I were generally issued one Tootsie Roll midge or hard pink bubble gum pellet per house, Sonny and Ace often score a multiple candy bars or a handful of Skittles packets with each ring of the doorbell. On the one hand, the plethora of sugar and food dye makes me cringe; on the other hand, without it how would I be able to surreptitiously pillage my sons’ treat bags for Milk Duds?

Fondness of Milk Duds notwithstanding, I consider it good news that FARE (Food Allergy Research and Communication) has launched a new tradition this year: The Teal Pumpkin Project. Participants in this campaign will display a teal-painted pumpkin or sign (download and print one here) to indicate the availability of non-edible treats. This helps kids with allergies, intolerances, diabetes, and other dietary restrictions to fully and safely participate in the evening’s fun.

The Halloween purists have popped up, however, questioning the distribution of anything other than sugary treasure on October 31. Common comments and questions about the idea include the following:

  1. Kids will resent being given a pencil or sticker instead of candy. Some will. But tastes vary. Some kids resent being given M&Ms. Some kids resent being given candy corn. Most kids resent being given those black licorice taffies or Necco. (Just being honest here.) And I recall resenting a certain mysterious rectangular confection apparently composed of nougat and birdseed. But that’s okay. Win a few, lose a few.
  2. Kids with allergies have to learn that the world doesn’t revolve around them. Oh, they’ve learned that already. They’ve learned that from foregoing cake at birthday parties. They’ve learned from ordering salad while their friends order pizza. They’ve learned from sprouting rashes after consuming even a smidgen of food dye. They’ve learned from sitting at isolated lunch tables so that peanuty air wafting from someone else’s sandwich won’t cut off their air supply. So, rest easy: receiving a glow stick or a spider ring instead of a Kit-Kat bar won’t catapult them into a life of egocentricity.
  3. If they can’t eat candy, they should just stay home. Really? Trick-or-treating is about wearing costumes and having fun in one’s neighborhood. Why should they skip an evening of laughter and running house to house—remember how much fun that was? These kids will have a good time even if some, most, or all candy is off-limits to them. (But being offered a pencil or a glow stick would be a bonus, don’t you think?)
  4. Why are these kids (or their parents) acting so entitled? Nobody is demanding anything. Nobody is acting entitled. Teal pumpkins simply serve as a signal that non-candy treats are being offered. Voluntarily offered. (Actually, isn’t the expectation that one should receive candy instead of bookmarks or little containers of PlayDoh in itself somewhat entitled?)
  5. Aren’t trinkets more expensive than candy? Not necessarily. This depends on the particular trinkets and the particular candy, of course. I spent only about five dollars for about 75 non-edible treats—spider rings, stickers, and Halloween erasers—from the dollar store.
  6. That plastic junk won’t last long. No, probably not. Spider rings break and tattoos rub off. Glow sticks fade within hours. But Milk Duds (just for example) don’t last long, either. (Not that I would know anything about that.)
  7. Won’t this stuff eventually end up in the landfills? Some of it will—along with all of those candy wrappers and possibly much candy itself. (Especially that composed of nougat and birdseed.) But some non-edible treats, such as pencils and erasers, can be used up instead of thrown away.
  8. Why must Halloween become so complicated? Is it complicated, or is it progress? Is it complicated, or is it thoughtfulness? It’s no more complicated to buy Halloween pencils than it is to buy Nerds; painting a pumpkin teal—or printing out a sheet, coloring the pumpkin with a teal crayon, and taping it to your front window—is no more complicated than preparing any other Halloween decoration.
  9. If I hand out trinkets, can I still hand out candy, too? Yes. It’s helpful to offer them in separate bowls to avoid the risk of contamination.
  10. Halloween is about candy! Non-candy treats takes the fun out of everything. Actually, they add to the fun for those who can’t eat candy. And at the risk of using the word voluntary too many times in one post— this gesture is voluntary. If handing out spider rings would ruin your fun, then don’t do it!
  11. Do I really have to do this in order to be considered a good neighbor? No. Nobody will point and tsk at you you if you hand out candy. (I recommend Milk Duds.)

Thanks for considering this. A safe and happy Halloween to all.

 

One Good Deed

Once upon a time, after a bombing that killed many civilians in Beirut, some reporters crowded around Mother Teresa as she helped load two wounded little girls into an ambulance. One reporter asked her if she considered her relief efforts successful—after all, another 100 children waited in another bombed-out hospital, and she wasn’t helping them.

Mother Teresa only replied, “Don’t you think it is a good thing to help these little ones?”

In defiance of the maxim that there is no such thing as a stupid question, the reporter repeated himself: “The other hospital has many wounded children, too. Can you call your efforts successful if you leave them unattended?”

Employing the patience of a saint, Mother Teresa simply stated, “I think it is a good thing to help these children.”

—————————–

Last week a Michigan police officer pulled over a driver for a traffic citation and noticed that the woman’s child was not restrained in a booster seat as the law required. The mother explained that her daughter’s booster seat had been repossessed along with her car in August. (If there is a good reason for car seats to be repossessed—perhaps a better word would be stolen—along with cars, I’d love to hear it. Anyone? Anyone?) She couldn’t afford to buy a new one.

Officer Ben Hall could have issued a ticket for this violation. Instead, he invited her to the nearby WalMart and bought her a car seat with his own money.

The story of his generosity has gone viral. I’ve read articles from many news sources, large and small. While doing so, I have, against my better judgment, occasionally descended below the article into the Reader Comments sections. (This is always a bad idea.)

Many of the comments have been positive and encouraging. But naturally, this being the Reader Comments section, many aren’t. The usual band of naysayers are naying fervently, lest . . . I don’t know; lest the Internet implode without their input?—shoring up the dictum that no good deed goes unpunished.

The Survivalists: “My generation never sat in car seats when we were kids! We wandered around the station wagon and even rode in the back of pick-up trucks. Somehow we managed to live.” (Except the ones who didn’t.)

The Eeyores: “That was nice of him. If the mother was telling the truth, that is. She probably wasn’t.” (No, she probably was. People often do.)

The Leapers of Logic: “That cop gets paid with my tax dollars, so my money bought that seat!” (Huh?)

The Projectors of Their Own Sexism: “He only did this because the driver was a woman. A father wouldn’t have gotten off so easily.” (Had a father gotten off this easily, someone would have claimed that it was because he was a man. Just a guess, here . . .)

The Tossers of Bones: “I’m not sure I’d believe every sob story from every person who is about to get a ticket, but at least his heart was in the right place, so good for him.” (Yes. Good for him.)

The Jaundiced Eyes: “I wish someone would buy me stuff.” (That would be nice, wouldn’t it?)

The Yawners: “Slow news day? How about some real news? This article is a waste of space.” (More so than your comment?)

Cynics: “He did this for the publicity.” (How could he have predicted that this story would make news?)

The Tangential Ranters: “One good deed doesn’t offset other cops’ actions of rape, assault, murder, corruption, murdering their spouse and family members, filing false reports, lying, etc.” (Okaaaay. See also: Leapers of Logic.)

And on, and on.

But while the naysayers, in their many subspecies, continue to nay, a child is now safer than before.

Do you think it is a good thing that Officer Ben Hall helped this child?

I think it is a good thing.

Why I Didn’t Give My Kids a 1970s Summer

Today was the last day of summer vacation. Three months have passed since the beginning of June, when the Internet oozed with ideas of how to manage one’s children’s summer. Many set standards of dizzying heights.

“Fifty Activities You Must Do with Your Children This Summer!” (Oh I must, must I?) I glanced at the list, hoping for a few gimmes such as having lunch and bathing. No such luck—only suggestions entailing digging clams and learning a foreign language. (Nyet, spaseeba.)

“101 Fun Things to Do with Kids This Summer!” In case you are interested, I will reveal #28—Create salad spinner art: Place circles of paper inside a cheap salad spinner, dab tempera paints on top, cover and spin away. #46—Go fossil hunting near a lake. #96—Visit a national park and help the kids earn a junior ranger badge. (“What are we going to do today, Mom?” “This morning you have swimming lessons. This afternoon we’re going next door to the national park and earn a badge. After we find some fossils at the lake, of course.” Right.)

The pressure was on.

Counterpoints abounded, however; other articles encouraged the rejection anything that had the faintest hope of a Pinterest appearance. Many bloggers challenged parents to give kids the best kind of summer, the real kind of summer: the 1970s summer. Limit their screen time to Brady Bunch reruns, hydrate them solely with Kool-Aid and hose water, drop-kick them into the neighbor’s yard and lock the doors until the fireflies signal it’s time to let them back in. Let them toast their legs on a metal slide. They’ll survive, and they’ll be stronger for it! Like us! (Let’s all pause and thump our chests!)

Initially this all seemed very attractive—certainly more appealing than setting up a pool-noodle circus in the backyard. What could be simpler than returning to simpler times?

Ultimately, however, I ignored the challenge to provide a throwback season to Sonny and Ace, and not only because bike helmets have been proven to be beneficial to one’s wellbeing. Why would I reject a 1970s summer when I greatly enjoyed the ones I experienced in that actual era?

First, it seemed hypocritical to foist a 1970s-style summer on my kids when I don’t want one myself. I like 2014. My phone doesn’t tether me to the wall. When I take a picture, I don’t have to snap 23 more to use up the film and then be disappointed upon realizing, three weeks later when they arrive in the mail, that eight of them didn’t turn out. No worries if I’m not home when my favorite TV show airs; I can watch it later at my convenience. My motel rooms never reek of cigarette smoke; likewise, my family breathes fresh air in restaurants. Leftovers to heat up? Hello, microwave! Mail orders require me neither to fill out a paper order form nor to calculate my own math. This is a good thing, as is the ability to renew library books online.

So, since I had no intention of exchanging my laptop for a manual typewriter, why should I replace Sonny and Ace’s favorite streamed-in music with a turntable?

The other reason I didn’t go through any trouble to replicate my childhood summers for my kids: imagining that one’s own childhood summer should serve as the prototype for all kids’ summers seems a mite egocentric. Children have always enjoyed summer.

The ability to find amazing in the ordinary did not rise and fall 40 years ago.

My grandpa, a child in the 20s, occasionally spoke of his childhood summers. He once told Sonny and Ace that he and his friends spent a lot of time building kites and even more time fixing them. And he frequently relayed an outstanding childhood memory: that of a road trip with his uncle and other relatives, 700 miles in the heat of summer. Seven in all, in a Whippet, which Google tells me was intended for five passengers and which was probably not air conditioned. (Just a guess.) Crammed in a Whippet with six other people, some of which rode on his lap, with a ham and a jug of water as the main sustenance for the three-day trip. Does the mere vision of this make you cringe? Yeah, me too. But he was amazed by the experience, even decades later.

(His dad, whose primary childhood trip had involved an uncomfortable voyage across the Atlantic Ocean, embraced the times and let him take the trip.)

My grandma, a child in the 20s and 30s, spent her summer days doing farm chores and overseeing her youngest sister. She fed chickens and gathered eggs and with her sisters visited the boarders who paid $5 per month to live in one of the spare upstairs rooms. In the evenings her family sometimes went swimming in the lake—my great-grandpa would often take a bar of Lava soap along to scrub off the day’s sweat and grime. The highlight of the summer was the carload of uncles who sometimes drove up from Indiana to go fishing. Ordinary? Yes. Magical, to her? Yes. “I have always liked summer,” Grandma said.

As have my parents. My dad took swimming lessons (in a pool!), except for the year they were canceled by the polio epidemic. His family occasionally took trips to the Black Hills or to fishing cottages. He shoveled places that the pigs had been and milked cows, both by hand and machine. He camped with his buddy near the rocky hill by the east field and invariably headed home in the dark when the dew began to settle on them. (No, they didn’t have a tent; why do you ask?) Ordinary, yes, but magical enough to make him smile over half a century later.

My mom also took swimming lessons—in a lake. She picked beans and strawberries and pulled weeds. She participated in the county fair with sewing projects and with her horse. She looked forward to church camp—always a highlight of the summer, for it included a roller-skating evening. The summer of the polio scare she unwillingly took afternoon rests, ordered by her own mother in an effort to conserve immunity. Her family went on picnics and gathered at her grandparents’ farm on Sunday afternoons. She once joined her aunt’s family on an East Coast vacation in order to look after her cousins on the trip. The county fair and New York City in the same summer: magical.

Which brings us to my own childhood summers, some of which took place in the heralded 1970s. Road trips to Iowa (bumping elbows the whole way with my sisters in those bygone pre-minvan/SUV days). Consuming warm strawberries straight off the plant. Playing with kittens. Spending hours in my fuzzy pink beanbag chair with Ramona Quimby, Laura Ingalls, and Trixie Belden. Playing ghosts in the graveyard after dark. Wading in the creek in the field behind the house. Being parked on the picnic table to shell bushels of peas or snap bushels of beans or husk bushels of corn. (Bushels! Bushels, I tell you.) Swimming lessons at the high school. Playing cards with my best friend. Watching The Waltons in the morning and, apologies for the cliché, Brady Bunch reruns in the afternoon.

Sometimes I wish I could inject Sonny and Ace with the magic that was often palpable in these ordinary experiences: the fragrance of baking Queen Anne’s lace and goldenrod as we walked the half mile to my grandparents’ house, and the smell of cucumbers and dill in their kitchen. The rush of air conditioning and the taste of chilled homemade lemonade after the long, hot car ride to my other grandparents’ house. My dad pushing my sisters and me on the sack swing. Mixing Kool-Aid in my grandma’s amber glass pitcher. Making popsicles with my mom. Playing Little People with my sisters and cousins.

But I can’t. But that’s okay, because Sonny and Ace just had their own summer. They drank from the hose. (I realize this is practically against the law, but I’m just glad they’re no longer drinking from puddles. At least I don’t think they are.) They took swimming lessons, caught toads and turtles, and played outside a lot. They watched Netflix on rainy days and sometimes on sunny days. They enjoyed camping and a few other short getaways. They played with their cousins. They enjoyed their grandparents. They floated on the river. They did a few Pinterest craft projects directed by me; they did a few craft projects directed by their own creativity. They attended VBS. They rode their bikes (with helmets).

Ordinary? Yes. Magical? I hope so. I think so. Because . . .

“There is a garden in every childhood, an enchanted place where colors are brighter, the air softer, and the morning more fragrant than ever again” (Elizabeth Lawrence). No particular decade required. So whatever kind of summer your kids had, I’m sure it was magical.

I hope yours was, too.

Ten Things I Learned from My Dad

Have you ever shopped for a Father’s Day card? Too many of them rely heavily on bathroom humor or remote-control jokes. Or incompetently executed home repairs. Or the assumption that dads are the biggest doofuses ever.

None of these work well for my dad—or more dads, I suspect. (Can someone please clue in the greeting card companies?) I’ve learned many things from my dad, none of them related to bathroom humor or swearing on the golf course. Here are ten of them, in no particular order.

1. Just because other people have one doesn’t mean you need one. For several years our house was devoid of a television set. Any suggestion to rectify this situation was met with “And why would we need one of those?” In high school, my sisters and I didn’t have our own car. (Because, why would we need one of those?) And so on. We must have survived these deprivations, because here we are.

2. Whatever you own owns you. Why gather stuff when you’ll just end up catering to it? Temptations to accumulate things notwithstanding, this is the bare truth. With this in mind, sometimes I envy the Ingalls family despite their having to haul their own water, contend with Nellie Oleson, and keep one eye out for panthers and wolves at all times. Everything they owned fit inside a covered wagon. Freedom!

3. One secret to happiness is recognizing what is and what is not your problem. I could expect this advice when fretting about a situation that didn’t concern me. The mean girl mocking me? My problem. My sister’s chores? Not my problem. I still check in with this truth occasionally. Turns out a lot of things are not my problem, and I am happier when I keep this in mind.

4. Don’t noise up the place for no good reason. My dad would often each over to turn off the radio (despite having probably selected the station himself), saying, “This music is not an improvement on silence.” Nothing wrong with stillness; no need for mediocre background noise. Just appreciate the quiet already.

5. Work and play. My bedroom window overlooked the back patio; I remember waking up on snowy mornings and looking out the window to check for his footprints to determine whether he’d been called to the hospital before dawn, for he worked at all hours of the day and night. Other childhood memories include him chopping wood, gathering maple sap, shoveling snow, picking corn with my mom (and gleefully piling it in front of the designated huskers, aka his daughters). They also include him attending concerts with my mom, enjoying afternoons the beach, building snowmen, playing chess, driving the family on road trips, walking in the woods, cross-country skiing, picking up our friends to take us all out for ice cream, hanging out at a cottage for a week. He works, he plays—he has found the balance.

6. People aren’t watching you as closely as you think. My dad once told me this once when I was in the throes of adolescent angst about . . . well, something. I’ve long forgotten the (probably trivial) situation, but I just knew everyone was jeering at me. Turns out, he implied, that probably nobody had noticed, and those who had probably weren’t even thinking about it. This was a gentle way of telling me to get over myself, a crucial step in overcoming self-consciousness—especially the misplaced variety.

7. Be there for your family. He does this and always has, in many different ways. He and my mom once came home from vacation a day early in order to see me in my school play. When I was sick and J was traveling out of state, he drove over 70 miles to hold newborn Sonny for a couple hours so I could take a nap. When his parents were in declining health he traveled regularly across three states to check in. Later he moved his nonagenarian father to across those three states to a residence a few miles away so that he could care for him. You get the idea. So did I, early on.

8. You can’t have too much garlic. Although my mom has always been the family cook, whenever the menu featured spaghetti or lasagna my dad would prepare the garlic toast. Heaps of it, heaped with buttery garlic. He’d smuggle garlic into the scrambled eggs and once, I suspected, over the popcorn. Whenever anyone would object, he’d simply reply, “You can’t have too much garlic.” He loves garlic.

Not being quite the garlic fan that he is, I’ve taken the liberty of extrapolating on this idea: “If you enjoy it and it’s not harmful, indulge to your heart’s content.” Dark chocolate, for example. You can’t have too much of that.

(Turns out that garlic has been declared a superfood. So has dark chocolate. I guess we were both on to something.)

9. Be a jokester once in a while. One April Fool’s Day I woke up in my sister’s room and she in mine, having been the victims of a midnight switcheroo. Occasionally—rarely enough to catch me off-guard, but occasionally—I’d find myself sprayed with the hose while minding my own business in the yard. And only a couple years ago I was baffled by an egg that refused to crack. Turns out he’d smuggled a ceramic egg into my egg carton while visiting one day, even though he knew he wouldn’t be on-site to witness my confusion when I’d try to break it open. Want to hear him laugh? Ask him about the egg.

10. It’s okay to be the minority in one’s own house. “Oh, your poor dad,” some folks would say with various degrees of jest upon learning that he had three daughters but no sons. And he would occasionally lament about being outnumbered—usually when my sisters and I were hosting sleepovers, or when his favorite reading chair was occupied by Barbie paraphernalia, or when the kitchen reeked of three Ogilvie home perms. But what I remember most clearly is the time he told my sisters and me that he was glad to just have daughters.

As the mother of sons, I have been offered sympathy and encouraged to have another child to give myself a chance of having a daughter. But you know what? I’m thrilled with having sons, content with being outnumbered. And just so Sonny and Ace are clear on this, I follow my dad’s example and tell them that I am glad that God gave me boys.

And, I am glad that God gave me the parents that he did.

Happy Father’s Day, Dad. I love you.

On Batman, Ancient Flutes, and Paint

Last Sunday Sonny ascended a stage at his first guitar recital and carefully plucked out the Batman theme song, an accomplishment weeks in the making. His serious expression transformed to one of obvious delight upon reaching the final note, confirming that the practice sessions had been worth it. “I felt kind of embarrassed,” he explained later, “but it was fun. I love to make music.”

So does nearly every child on the planet. Even those who do not beg for violin lessons at age 3 or sing with perfect pitch at age 4 or play concertos at age 5 love to make music. Sonny and Ace’s vocal repertoires are extensive and spirited, if slightly off-key and rife with mondegreens. They puff cheerfully on recorders and harmonicas and kazoos and train whistles, gifts from people who do not live in this house. And almost nothing is disqualified as a possible percussion instrument: oatmeal canisters, rubber bands, forks, books, tongues against teeth—you name it, and it can be an agent of whatever rhythm is currently occupying their imagination.

Paleolithic children, too, probably wandered the forests singing ancient versions of “Let It Go,” humming into auroch tusks, shaking pebbles in a seashell, tapping rhythms with a rock, whistling, crooning “Your toes are stinky, stinky, stinky” melodically into their brother’s ear. These children would get along well with today’s children. They’d squawk on a grass blade and become instant friends.

And then, perhaps inspired by blowing through a hollow stem, one of these children eventually fashioned a device solely for music-making purposes. Flutes made of vulture bone were discovered in Germany in 2009. The world’s oldest known instruments, they were made by an inventive music lover who lived 40,000 years ago.

Of course brilliant artistic minds existed in the Paleolithic age. Why wouldn’t they? But 40,000 years ago, surviving was a full-time endeavor. One might predict that this genius would remain latent in deference to gathering berries, chipping an axe blade out of stone, slaughtering the wild boar, fashioning crude clothing from animal skins. But it didn’t. Ancient musical instruments and cave drawings and even specially painted concert halls show that music prevailed despite life-threatening lifestyles. This probably would not have been the case were artistic expression not such a vital part of being human. It matters.

(I wonder what Paleolithic folk, who managed to create music and art even while evading the saber-tooth tiger, would think of their descendants, some of whom, despite their comparatively cushy lives, cannot rustle up the wherewithal to preserve music and art classes for schoolchildren. Not to digress here. Just wondering.)

Recognizing this essential nature of musical expression should help answer the lingering question, “Why can’t I go anywhere without hearing the nearest kid sing ‘Let It Go’?” It should help us better appreciate the enthusiastic strumming on the ukulele and the intrepid attempts to pick out “This Land Is Your Land” on the nearest piano and see beyond the challenges inherent in guitar practice with a six-year-old.

So play on, kids. Paint on. Sing on. Don’t ever let it go.

Lies and Otherwise

Once upon a time, before I became a mom, I believed that I would never lie to my offspring. I believed this firmly, as firmly as I believed that a few exposures to any given food would guarantee that a child would learn to accept it—yea, even love it. Or that a toddler cleverly offered two acceptable choices (for example, that between the red pajamas or the striped ones) would dutifully pick one instead of, say, fleeing the room mightily protesting bedtime. Or that there was never any reason to bribe a child.

But parenthood divested me of these notions. My sons have yet to willingly consume black beans despite the beans’ frequent presence at our table. The “just give them a choice and they’ll automatically cooperate” tactic: futile. And if M&Ms are the key to persuading a four-year-old to swallow his medicine? So be it.

And despite my lofty aspirations, I have told Sonny and Ace things that aren’t true.

To wit:

“Close your eyes, and I’ll push a button so the car will fly over that overpass. It only works if you close your eyes, though.” (My dad used to feed this line to my sisters and me, and we turned out okay. Besides, it’s fun.)

“It’s against the law to whine on your mom’s birthday.” (Don’t judge me. It works.)

“If you walk around with food on your face, the bunnies will come and lick it off.” (Do I get credit for saying “bunnies” instead of “cheetahs”?)

“I guess I’m getting a cold.” (This on the terrible evening of the Sandy Hook massacre, when at bedtime Sonny asked me why my voice sounded funny. Even the simplest honest explanation—“I’m sad because some people got hurt”—would have spawned more questions whose answers I could not give.)

“I can tell always if you haven’t brushed your teeth.” (Regrettably, this is not true; my mom-skill set is incomplete. I can sometimes tell, though, and they need to brush their teeth, right?)

“You can’t have a cookie because the jackals came this morning and ate them all.” (Dinner was being dished up at the time. Ask a silly question, get a silly answer.)

“The class I took on how to be a mean mom recommended never saying yes to anything.” (Contrary to his contention, I don’t say no to everything. Just so we’re clear.)

So it’s true. I’ve lied to my kids. This should probably unsettle me more than it does.

But I am more unsettled by the truths I tell my children. Oh, I believe them wholeheartedly, and I want Sonny and Ace to believe them, too. But sometimes I worry that my actions will belie my words so that Sonny and Ace will regard as lies truths such as the following:

  • God loves everyone. He doesn’t hate anyone.
  • It’s okay, often even good, to make mistakes. You don’t have to pretend to be perfect.
  • Apologizing when you’re wrong is essential and is not a sign of weakness.
  • I will always be there for you, no matter what.
  • You are not better than anyone else, and no one else is better than you.
  • Comparing yourself to others is pointless.
  • Cutting down others is a sign of insecurity. Remember that when someone cuts you down; remember that when you are tempted to cut down someone else.
  • Money and contentment are unrelated.
  • Money and is unrelated to one’s worth.
  • It’s much easier to judge than to show mercy, but mercy ought to trump judgment.
  • You don’t have to be the best at something, or even good at something, in order to enjoy it.
  • If someone needs help and you can help them, it’s your job to do so.
  • You have many gifts.
  • Everybody deserves respect. This means you; this means everyone else.
  • God forgives, and so should you.
  • You are loved—not for what you do, what you’ve accomplished, what you own, what you say, or how you look. You are loved for being you. Nothing will change this.

How many inconsistencies between words and actions will it take before they reject these messages? How many slip-ups am I allowed?

It’s a lot easier to stop threatening my kids with fictional face-licking bunnies than it is to always demonstrate mercy or to always show respect to everyone or to brush off one’s own mistakes. But I’ll try to clean up my act on all counts.

And that’s no lie.

 

Wisdom from Wooliam: My Messy Beautiful

“People generally see what they look for, and hear what they listen for.” – Judge Taylor in To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

—————————————-

Ace marched proudly from the preschool classroom, clutching the telltale yellow fabric bag. “I got Wooliam,” he announced, triumphantly displaying the bag and its occupant. “It’s my turn again!”

Wooliam is a stuffed lamb whom Ace and his classmates take turns hosting. This endearing little creature participates in the family’s activities and chronicles them in a journal entry. Naturally, the chosen four-year-old is thrilled over the opportunity to oversee him.

I must admit, though, that “thrilled” is not an apt description of my own reaction. While I applaud the spirit of this tradition and appreciate Wooliam’s importance to Ace, hosting duties can be . . . well, a wee bit burdensome. Not because Wooliam is a troublemaker (he’s not, although he has managed to get lost and throw us into a panic every single time he visits our house, starting with his first visit to Sonny over two years ago), but because of the journal. The journal is not only read to the preschool class but accompanies Wooliam on each visit for the host families to enjoy. Not to overthink things, but the temptation to manipulate an activity or two in order to make our family seem well-adjusted and not too tedious (or neglectful of Wooliam) is real. Turn off the TV and let’s play Battleship, everyone, and then let’s go to the park!

Which brings us to this last visit, which happened to land over spring break. Yes. When it dawned on me that Ace would be in charge of Wooliam for eleven whole days, I had two simultaneous thoughts: a) Where can I buy Wooliam’s twin in case we lose him for good this time, and b) How can we possibly come up with eleven days’ worth of journal-worthy activities?

But fast-forward to spring break’s end, and Wooliam’s selective reporting had come through for us yet again. Bless him.

What Wooliam divulged: “We played hide-and-seek!”

What Wooliam concealed: “Sonny and Ace forgot to look for me and nobody missed me for two days. It’s dark under the couch, and I evidently am allergic to dust.”

What Wooliam divulged: “I helped set the table.”

What Wooliam concealed: “Hot chocolate spilled on me. But it’s okay, because it turns out stuffed sheep are machine-washable. Who knew? The dryer made me dizzy.”

What Wooliam divulged: “Sonny and Ace made me a colorful pipe-cleaner tightrope that stretched across the living room.”

What Wooliam concealed: “I got strung up from the colorful pipe-cleaner tightrope by my ears.”

What Wooliam divulged: “I helped Ace and Sonny make a salad for dinner.”

What Wooliam concealed: “It may be that Ace’s lunch consisted primarily of Cheeze-Its.”

What Wooliam divulged: “I watched Ace dig for dinosaur bones.”

What Wooliam concealed: “I got buried in the dirt up to my neck. Ace’s mom rescued me and brought me inside before it started raining. See previous comment regarding machine washing.”

Good old Wooliam. Ever the gracious guest, he manages to make us look competent. He is grateful and uncomplaining. He looks and listens for the wholesome beauty and turns a blind eye to the rest.

20140414_081224I could take a lesson and look and listen for the beauty, too, and spend less time dwelling on the messy—not in order to appear more competent, but in order to be more grateful. Not to deny or veneer the messy realities that need acknowledgement or resolution, but to welcome the everyday gifts concealed in messy wrapping.

Last fall, for example, I was felled by a nefarious strain of the stomach flu and spent a miserable day flat on my back. But Sonny wrote me a note: “I love you, Mommy!” I awoke at one point to Ace’s favorite dinosaur book propped on my nightstand; he’d brought me the best thing he could think of to make me feel better. Both boys crept in periodically to rub my arm and ask in whispers if I felt better yet or if I needed more water. They proudly announced that they’d cleaned the house without even being asked.

The discomfort of this nasty virus? Messy. My sons’ blossoming compassion and empathy? Beautiful.

My kitchen is in an almost permanent state of disorder: smears of sunbutter and crumbs of play-dough, sticky spots, ubiquitous papers and crayons. I can’t take two steps without stepping on someone who just wants to help. But it’s the space where my family gathers to play and create and cook. It’s where Sonny and Ace learn to pitch in. It’s our favorite landing spot when we want to connect.

My kitchen is messy. My kitchen is beautiful.

I spend hours in the minivan, sometimes frustrating, teeth-gritting hours. With the minivan we pick our way over slippery roads in the winter and creep through traffic jams in the summer. Inside the minivan imprisoned hangry kids hone their whining credentials during long errand runs. Here snack crumbs and wrappers fall and crumpled papers overstay their welcome until I get around to cleaning the interior. But in the minivan Sonny and Ace and their carpool friends play their own version of “Name That Tune” and tell knock-knock jokes that never grow old. It’s where Sonny talked Ace down from his nervousness about starting preschool. It’s where the four of us sing Christmas carols as we cross the several states to Grammy’s house in December. It’s where Ace encouraged Sonny that he was “the best soccer player on the field, and also the best brother.”

Is the minivan a messy place? Yes. Is it a beautiful place? Yes.

Beauty does not eradicate messiness. The stomach flu is still miserable and always will be; my kitchen is still in disarray; I sometimes consider changing my official primary address to “minivan—the messy one.” And some heartaches and struggles are too large to be glossed over by a surface check for the positive. But at other times, if we look and listen for the beauty, we will see it.

Thanks, Wooliam, for the reminder of what to look for. You’re always welcome at our house, and next time I promise to hide the pipe cleaners.

 

This essay is part of the Messy, Beautiful Warrior Project. To learn more and join us, click here. To learn about the New York Times bestselling memoir Carry On Warrior: The Power of Embracing Your Messy, Beautiful Life, just released in paperback, click here.

Image

On Finger Flippers and Connect Four

I point Ace’s face toward the sketchy pencil marks on the bathroom wall. “What is that?” I demand. He brightens. “A rhino!”

Sonny’s guitar practice sessions often involve more drama than guitar.

The person who is supposed to provide information for an article is not getting back to me.

It’s officially spring, but this morning’s wind chill was 2° F. This winter season will overlap with next winter; I just know it.

When I cook, I prefer to be unobstructed. This scenario almost never happens.

I’ve been on hold for 26 minutes, being periodically (seven times so far) instructed to stay on the line because my call is very important.

Yesterday, after I had to stop suddenly to avoid hitting another car in a parking lot, the driver of the car behind me leaned on the horn and prominently wagged her middle fingers (plural—what was she driving with, anyway; her feet?) at me. (“It’s okay, Mommy!” said Sonny, picking up on a few warning signs. “Just take deep breaths!” “And count backward from ten,” advised Ace. “Shall we do it together?”)

Patience. I need it—badly, sometimes. And when my (frequent) advice on practicing it is handed back to me, it suddenly seems not quite as easy as all that.

But meanwhile . . .

J is neat and organized, but IImage? Not so much. The state of the house usually reflects my habits.

An hour has passed since I told Sonny that I’d play Connect Four with him in a few minutes.

Occasionally Ace confesses that it upsets him when I raise my voice, and I promise to try not to do that anymore. But I keep doing it.

The bulletin board that Sonny and Ace are waiting to have hung on their bedroom has been leaning against the wall for about three weeks.

I have put off responding to a certain e-mail.

My resolution to be cheerful and lighthearted early as the boys get ready for school has not yet come to complete fruition. (Do cheerfully worded comments count as cheerful if they are delivered through gritted teeth?)

Patience. I demand it of others. Sometimes acknowledging this is my fastest route to offering patience to others.

“Love is patient,” says 1 Corinthians 13, and of course this is true. Why is it so hard to be patient to people we love?

“Patience is a virtue,” says common wisdom, and of course this is true. Why does proving ourselves to Crazed  Finger-Flipping Parking Lot Driver sometimes seem more appealing than virtue?

“Though patience be a tired mare, yet she will plod,” says William Shakespeare, via Nym in Henry V. Why is patience so tired? I don’t know. She’s lazy? She’s overworked? She’s underfed?  What matters is that she plods on regardless.

Patience: may she plod on beside you this week, both coming and going.