Saturday, September 29, 2012

Don't Blink

Don't blink, or you might miss that kindergartner speeding past!  

We amused ourselves today by doing my homework for photography class.  The subject was shutter speed, and the exercise required I use different shutter speeds take photos of an object in motion.  I chose my five-year-old daughter, who was more than willing to run, jump, and spin so that I could "make her a ghost" with a long shutter speed.

If you have a performance-oriented little person to entertain and some basic camera knowledge, you too can make speedy ghost photographs.  I'm partial to the first one, where the white polka dots on her pink fleece created those beautiful whooshing marks across the image.  What do you think?

Salt and Glue

A cool, rainy fall day and a cancelled soccer game meant it was time to see what I'd pinned on Pinterest in the way of kid crafts.  Luckily, there was one that piqued my interest and required only stuff we had on hand--a canvas, watercolors, clear glue, and salt.  The original link that provided our inspiration can be found here at Sweet Happy Life.

The idea is simple.  Paint a canvas with watercolors.

Unlike what we did, I would recommend covering the entire canvas for a better effect.

Immediately after painting with watercolors, apply clear glue in whatever pattern strikes you.  It will cause a blurring together of the paint in the areas it is applied.

After glue, sprinkle salt in desired areas.  The color will intensify around the salt, and the salt will provide a glittery effect.

We liked the outcome, but as I mentioned, I think the effect would have been more dramatic if we had covered the entire canvas with paint.  I also suggest controlling the amount of water the littlest ones use;  the darker, less watery paint produced the best results.

Anyone else grasping at straws for entertaining their kids in the gloom?  Any great ideas you want to share with the rest of us?

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Feeling Good

There just might be something to this exercise thing. Those were the words floating through my head when I finished my workout two days ago.  I'm sticking with it.

After a dismal five-year-hiatus, I recently committed myself to a regular exercise regimen. As you would expect, I had gained weight and looked it, but that was not the primary driver of this effort. I'd been having lower back problems for months, such that getting up off the couch was a several minute endeavor. I'd seen an osteopath who remedied the sharpest and most awful pain, but I still moved like a person years beyond my age.

I was motivated by physical changes that were affecting my daily life, but making it a habit required that I admit some things. First, I am not self-motivated in this department. We have an excellent gym in our basement, but I never use it because it's in my basement. The minute I enter my house, I can think of forty-seven other things that need to be done (or that I'd rather do) than exercise. Plus the basement's sort of gross. Second, I love being outdoors but I viscerally despise running. I've officially given it up forever. Wish I liked it, but I don't. Third, I hated all the machine cardio I was trying to force myself to do. I needed a scheduled time, outside my home, where someone else would direct me in doing things I like to do.

Luckily for me, a friend recommended a local business that specializes in personal and small group training. The cost is significantly greater than the local YMCA, but I actually go to the gym and work out, which I wasn't doing at the Y. I also found a Masters swimming group. The time and location are inconvenient, and I'm hopelessly slower than some, but swimming was my favorite sport growing up and I respond well to having someone else design and direct my workout.

I started the training sessions over the summer, but they were spotty given our summer travel. I added swimming on the first day the kids went back to school. Less than a month later, I don't know if I look different, but I feel different. Better. Less sluggish. Less gooey about my midsection.

Mid-morning yesterday, it dawned on me that my back didn't hurt. It had hurt to some degree for so long that it was a part of me, but it was absent. This morning, still lying in bed, I noticed that my back still didn't hurt. It always hurts when I first wake up, but not today. I climbed out of bed without tremendous stiffness and immediately bent down to pick up something without supporting most of my weight on the nightstand. That doesn't sound like much of an accomplishment, but when that's what every morning has been like for the last several months, it's a pretty big deal.

I'm hoping this means I've turned a corner on both my back problems and my poor exercise routine. I'm not naive enough to think my back problems are solved, but two days without pain and stiffness gives me hope that I can solve it. I had been worried that I'd be living with it forever, and I still feel like I have a lot of years left before I should be physically limited. It's a good day.

Anyone else out there making changes for the better? Trying something new? Already have something that works? In exercise or otherwise?

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In case you are a neighbor of mine and interested in trying what's working for me, I've been doing:

Fitness Together

Triton Swimming

Tuesday, September 25, 2012


Some people are habitually late.  I am not one of those people.  Call me habitually punctual.  I have difficulty with parties because I know I'm not supposed to arrive at precisely the stated arrival time but have no idea what "proper time" to target.  When I am running late, which inevitably happens with kids, I get anxious.

I had never given much thought to my punctuality until I was engaged.  My husband and I were married in the Catholic Church and required to attend pre-cana counseling.  We were living in California at the time and were assigned not to a priest, but to a psychologist who taught at a local seminary.  It was a perfect fit.  Neither my husband nor I is particularly religious (the church was for our mothers' and extended families' sakes), so when the psychologist realized we were both raised Catholic and shared similar religious views, he told us we didn't need to talk about religion anymore. Instead, we took some personality tests, talked about the ways my husband and I differ, and discussed how we cope with the differences.  Truly helpful.

The test measured each person on several 0-100 scales of personality traits.  On one scale, a score of zero was Impulsive and a score of 100 was Self-Disciplined.  I scored a 93.  Self-Disciplined was defined on the results page as "controlled, methodical, persevering."  Yep, sounds about right.

The psychologist inquired how I responded to chaos.  I explained that, fortunately, I had not had much chaos in my life.  He clarified that he didn't mean huge life disruptions, but everyday chaos, such as being late for an appointment.  "Oh no, I don't like being late,"  I described.  He told me he could tell that from the test;  what he wanted to know was how I dealt with it.  Because I had gotten lost on the way to the appointment, my reaction was fresh in my mind.  Anxious, stressed out, generally unpleasant to be around--that's how I respond to being late.

Taking it a step further, the psychologist gently said, "You know that kids are chaos, right?"

I suppose that should have given me a clue.  To a degree, I have learned to live with the everyday chaos of being a parent, but running late still freaks me out---and we're often running late.

I recently read an article explaining that the common perception that our kids are stressed by their overscheduled activity level is false.   Kids do not seem to be stressed out by their schedules, but they do respond anxiously to their parents' anxiety.  That sounded like a recipe for disaster and, as I thought about it, seemed borne out by my experience.  As a result, I've tried to to avoid my anxious, hurried, inevitably snarky natural behavior.

First, I've tried to create systems that work to keep me organized (remember the "methodical" bit above?), such the weekly whiteboard calendar I mentioned here.  When I have calendars and lists and everything written down, I feel more in control and less anxious (see "controlled" above).  Even when we're running late, I've tried to roll with the flow a bit and, more importantly, not hustle the kids along in an anxious tone.  Strangely, they actually seem to move a little faster and definitely with less attitude when I'm explaining that we're soon to be late for school in a matter-of-fact tone rather than a Come-ON-Already tone.

This afternoon, I had seven different pick-up and drop-off times to hit in less than three hours.  I was running ten minutes late after stop two.  On the twenty-minute drive to stop three--ten minutes late and convinced that drivers on cell phones were going to kill me before I could arrive late--I could feel my anxiety level rising.  So I pulled out the big guns;  I called up Enya on my iPod.  That's right.  I went there.  It sounds absurd, but it actually helped.  Even more than the music, beginning to compose this post in my mind distracted me and calmed me down.  I was nice-ish by the time I picked up my daughter.

Even better, I was on time for stop four.

What can I say?  I'm a work in progress.

Monday, September 24, 2012


Schadenfreude:  Glee at another's misfortune.

There is something about the vigilante that we seem to like in our fiction.  From Batman to Kill Bill to those Dixie Chicks' women who make wife-beating Earl a missing person no one misses, we like to see bad guys get their due, especially from those on the receiving end of their rotten behavior.

In the real world, the sane among us are not out seeking actual vigilante justice and would be awfully frightened if others were.  We do, however, love to see someone get his comeuppance.  I get particular joy when some self-righteous politician is caught engaging in the very behavior he (and it usually is a he) has been expounding as evil (infidelity and homosexuality among some of the most recent cases).  I confess that I also don't mind when something inconvenient befalls the jerks of the world.  I'd never wish injury, illness, grief or other actual pain and suffering upon anyone, but I admit to a little schadenfreude when things don't always go the way of certain people.

I like to think of it as an Inverse Golden Rule:  if you treat others badly, you deserve a little bad treatment of your own.  Or if you prefer, what goes around comes around.  Or karma's a bitch.

You might be with me so far, but here's where I begin to show my dark side. That whole Inverse Golden Rule thing?  Well, I'm finding it applies girls' U6 soccer, at least in my gut.  Yes, that's right.  Soccer for 4- to 6-year-old girls.

I firmly believe that good sportsmanship--by child athletes and their parents--is crucial and more important than winning.  I would never berate a child or coach from the sidelines and cringe at those who do.  I would never encourage my child to hurt another child or cheat.  (If you're going to cheat, why bother?)  However, when other kids show poor sportsmanship, some vestige of my caveman brain cheers when they get their comeuppance.

Take The Shover, the otherwise cute and enthusiastic little girl who used her hands and elbows to aggressively shove other little girls out of her way (and to pick up and move the ball to better field position, but that's another matter).  At first, I tried to give her some leeway--she's young, she's new, she's just being aggressive.  But after about the fifteenth shove, warnings from both coaches, my daughter's mid-play pause to tell her to stop shoving (I couldn't hear the words, but it looked like a five-year-old version of "WTF?!?"), and a notable absence of anything but an enthusiastic "great job!" from her dad, I'd had enough of The Shover.  When the goofy little girl on our team, who'd spent most of the game lying in the goal or trying to climb the coach like a jungle gym, went all ballistic on The Shover after being on the receiving end of a particularly aggressive shove, I admit that I quietly cheered.  No one got hurt, but that little girl tried to make The Shover realize that she was in the wrong in a way that the coaches' gentle admonitions were not able to do.  And I was pleased.

I've already admitted I'm evil, so I'll go one more and confess that I also really didn't mind when The Ball Hog, who constantly steals the ball from her own teammates, tripped.

So there you have it.  Reason #37 that I am going to hell, schadenfreude toward kindergartners.  Someone tell me I won't be there alone?

Saturday, September 22, 2012

LEGO Organization - Repost

The LEGO organization post was one of the earliest on Flotsam of the Mind, on January 5, 2012, and has been one of the most popular.  I have always been bothered by the low-quality iPhone photos I used in the post, because photos are important to me.  Here it is again, with more and better quality photographs and an update at the end.

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Like most little boys, my son becomes absorbed by his current interests.  Unlike most kids, his interests each last for a period of years.  In nearly eight years, he has been interested in cars, then dinosaurs, then Legos. The whole Lego thing has lasted for three years and shows no signs of abating.  It's a hobby that I'm happy to encourage, but the volume of Legos is rather overwhelming.

It was his idea to begin organizing them.  It started with, "I really need some trays to sort my Legos."  Then the trays multiplied.  Then the trays became drawers, and the drawers multiplied.  The desire for organization is his, but the maintenance of the system seems to fall on me, as he can't seem to look at a pile of Legos on the floor without building something.  Secretly, and when not under the time pressure of an imminent visit from our housekeeper, I rather enjoy color-sorting Legos.  Adding order to chaos is a good thing.

Knowing my son's passion for Legos and my passion for organizing, several people have asked me how we organize Legos.  For those inquiring minds, here's the answer.  Don't judge.

1.  The Legos are organized by color into 10-drawer rolling craft carts.  I recently labeled them, as they weren't usefully translucent, and I couldn't resist alphabetizing the drawers (I doubt this will last).  The benefit of the craft drawers is that they can be easily removed and moved to a work area.  The unit also is on casters, making it easy to move it (or remove it, when the Lego aficionado misbehaves).  I bought ours at Sam's Club, but you can find similar ones at Michael's, Jo Ann Fabrics, and a bunch of other places.

ten-drawer cart for LEGO organization

2.  Other drawers (yes, that's a second cart to the right in the above photo) contain divided trays for separating and containing colors if there are not enough to warrant an entire drawer.  I bought these at Target.  I believe they are the Itso line.

itso divided trays for lego organization

3.  Instructions are kept in plastic sleeves in three-ring binders.  They appear in the order of the index at the front of the binder.

three-ring binder for LEGO instruction storage

plastic sleeves in binder for lego instruction organization

4.  Each binder contains an index, which is alphabetized by theme and in numerical order within theme.  The index is also helpful for letting shopping grandmothers know what he already has.

LEGO index in binder

5.  The binders are kept with the other Lego books and reference materials. (The cubes also are Itso from Target).

Itso cubes as bookshelves

6.  Current completed work is displayed on shelves. 

LEGO Display shelf IKEA Lack

LEGO mess on floor

Unfortunately, the child is also into Lego Bionicles.  His "big gift" for Christmas was an 11-pound box of miscellaneous Bionicle parts I bought on eBay.  The number and variety were enough to tip him over the organizing edge.  The Bionicles, which used to exist in a single box, are now sorted by color, type, and (I think) release date--the little general directed his grandmothers in that sorting process--and we are awaiting our next two sets of craft drawers.

So, there you have it.  My husband thinks that we are both lunatics, and he's probably right.

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The system has not changed since the original post, but it has grown.  We now have three sets of 10-drawer craft carts, with an extra still in a box in the closet.  The Bionicles are also organized by color and type.  There are now many Hero Factory pieces, which only a novice would confuse with the shockingly similar Bionicle line.  For now, they remain intermingled in a single box, which makes clean-up quite easy.  I'm certain that it is only a matter of time until the fourth craft cart comes out of storage and is filled with color-coded Hero Factory pieces.  As I predicted, the drawers did not remain alphabetized.

We have three cubes (formerly two) filled with LEGO-related books and instruction binders.  The binders have now increased to four--two 3-inch binders of standard LEGO instructions, one one-inch binder of Bionicle instructions, and one one-inch binder of Hero Factory instructions, each with a separate index. 

We've added a wall shelf from IKEA above the bed for the few very large items that are never dismantled.  I've added two sets of cubes from Target under the windows to serve as both bookcase and LEGO display area.

Despite all the effort, most days the floor looks like this (and this is a good day).  At least we have somewhere to put everything when it's time to vacuum.

Friday, September 21, 2012

Much Ado

It's been a busy day here at Flotsam of the Mind.  Let's break it down:

1.  A redesigned site, with the possibility of more tinkering to follow.  I feel it looks a bit more professional and less distracting, but let me know if you disagree.

2.  A Flotsam of the Mind Facebook page.  If you like the blog, please Like the page and share it with friends of both the Facebook and the real-life variety.

3.  The addition of a Like on Facebook button right on the blog page, making it even easier to recommend the page and have updates to it appear in your Facebook News Feed.

4.  The addition of a StumbleUpon button.  By clicking the StumbleUpon icon, you can recommend the blog to StumbleUpon users, while categorizing and tagging the blog.  If you haven't used StumbleUpon yet, you should give it a try.  It is a tremendous time suck way to find new things on the web, much like surfing TV channels, except that you can do so by categories that interest you.

My day as a blogger has come to an end, and I need to rest up to resume life as a mom at about 7:00 a.m. tomorrow, so that's all for today.  Like the changes?  Dislike the changes?  Have any questions?  Send all your thoughts my way.  Thanks for staying with me through some growing pains.

New Look

Yet another new look here at Flotsam of the Mind.  The immense size of the previous cover photo and the green tinge had begun to annoy me, so I've gone clean and crisp.  I didn't want the extras to distract from the content.  Do you like the changes, or have I just removed all personality and flair?  Your opinion counts, so weigh in.

Good Ideas

More than one teacher has told me that my son "responds well to structure."  He comes by that naturally, as without organization, lists, and schedules, I'm pretty much useless.  This fall, our schedule seems to have kicked into an even higher gear, and it has forced me to make a few organizational tweaks.  As so often happens with such things, I found that one good idea leads to another.  I'm feeling more streamlined and organized and couldn't resist the urge to share.

It all started when I reorganized the pantry.  I'll spare you the exciting details of that project, except that I decided it made sense to have a lunchbox-packing area so I could grab all the pantry items for that dreaded chore in one swipe.  Enter one Dollar Tree container that I place on a pantry shelf, and problem solved.

We are always running from school to activities and have become a little too dependent on pre-packaged snacks like granola bars.  I haven't solved the healthy eating issue there, but I did make grabbing the snacks easier by removing all the packaging and putting them all in a single place, another Dollar Tree basket on the pantry shelf.

The "no packaging" is my greatest revelation.  Eliminating all the boxes, bags and other containers as soon as I get home from the grocery store means that I don't need to open packages and rummage around every time I want to take out a food item.  I also can see easily when we're running low on an item and need to restock.  Here are our cereal containers (from IKEA).

No more opening and trying to pour around the box and the crinkly bag, and no risk of that crinkly bag being left open.  The kids can even manage this, which means I can sleep a little later on weekends.

After putting away groceries this morning, I had this much packaging to recycle or throw away.

By my count, emptying all these packages as I put away the groceries not only saved the time otherwise required to dig around for what I need, but also saved me fourteen future trips to the recycling bin and two trips to the trash can.  Streamlining the process is step one.

Step two is reminding all four of us where we need to be and when.  I am a digital girl with a heavy dependency on my iPhone, iCal and the magic of the cloud.  At the beginning of each week, I used to print out the week's calendar for my quick reference and post it next to where I pack lunches.  I realized that wasn't going to be enough anymore--that the other three people in the family needed to know what was in store for the day--so we now have a color-coded weekly wall calendar that I update each Sunday.

The kids have responded well to knowing what's next, and my husband seems to like knowing where we are.  Like menu planning (an area in need of work here), I found that writing on the calendar at the beginning of the week the days I plan to exercise and days the kids should practice piano makes it much more likely those events will occur and will do so with fewer complaints.

Finally, my last tip is not a new development here but is a huge favorite of mine.  I thought I'd toss it in as a bonus, in the spirit of sharing tips that make drudgery ever so slightly better.  This time--dishes.  I hate them.  I hate hand washing, I hate loading the dishwasher, I hate emptying the dishwasher and putting the dishes away.  I really hate sorting the silverware.  Solving the silverware problem made the whole task more bearable and appeals to my organized mind.   

It's a simple solution:  I sort the silverware as I'm putting it into the dishwasher.  After all, I'm already putting it in a few items at a time, why not put spoons in one silverware slot, forks in another, knives in another?  When the dishes are clean, I just grab a handful from each slot and put the entire handful in the appropriate section of the silverware organizer.  Those of you who may not "respond well to structure" will certainly find this to be insanity, but for those of you with this affliction, I highly recommend it.  

Little changes like these make me less anxious and annoyed.  When I'm less anxious and annoyed, it's a good thing for everyone else in the house. I wish the same for you, your house and your family.  Enjoy!

Sunday, September 16, 2012


I just noticed that I have precisely 3000 page views as of this moment.  I don't know if that's considered any sort of milestone in the blogging world, but it seems fairly amazing to me.  When I started this blog back in January, I was legitimately concerned that my parents might be my only readers.  As much as they love me, I doubt they've logged a combined 3000 page views, so thank you to all the rest of you. I know that there are many other ways to use your time and nearly endless content on the web, so it means a lot to me that you have taken a few minutes here and there to spend with me and my ramblings.  I hope you have not considered the time wasted, and I hope you keep coming back for more.  

If you like what you see here, please share with your friends.  If you have something to say, please leave a comment. (I've recently removed some of the comment restrictions, so it should now be easier, in case you once tried and found it not worth the effort.)  I continue to enjoy sharing my thoughts and escapades here, and I'd love to hear your feedback.

Thanks for listening.  Hope to have you back again soon.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

The Box

"The box is there for a reason." - Me

I am not the most creative thinker.  I'm a rule follower.  I do things the way they've always been done.  This made me pretty good junior associate when I practiced law but understandably hampered my advancement.  In a discussion with my husband once about the concept of "thinking outside the box" and my resistance to the whole idea, I vehemently responded that "the box is there for a reason."  He said it was possibly the most defining statement I'd ever uttered.

We lived in this house for two years before it dawned on me that I could just dig up the ugly bush that annoyed me every day.  In my mind, it was a healthy plant and only my problem that I found it ugly.  Eventually, I clued in that I owned the bush and, if I hated it so much, I could get rid of it and replace it with something better.  See, I'm slowly coming along.

Paint has been a revelation for me.  When house hunting, I was always hampered by bad decor.  I just couldn't see past it, couldn't envision what that floral wallpaper could become.  Now that I've repainted a few rooms and discovered the ease and effectiveness of a can of spray paint, whole new worlds have opened up to me.  Until recently, I'd never considered looking at used anything;  garage sales, thrift stores, craigslist were all just other people's nasty junk.  Then I went all crazy last spring and bought a scratched up, water-damaged red armoire, which I (with my dad's help) converted into an attractive light yellow art supply cabinet.

I also used to spend way too much time looking for just the right thing--right size, right color, right everything.  Now, I accept "pretty close" if I can see a way to work with it.  It's a whole new world, aided by ideas from the Internet.

Case in point:  Last week, I was reviewing my son's school work from last year, deciding what to toss and what to save.  I found four prints he'd made in art class and decided they would make good wall art.

I was concerned that I wouldn't be able to find a square frame with a mat that wasn't huge.  It must have been my lucky day, because Michael's had ones just the right size in stock and on sale.  However, once I was home, I decided that the dark brown frame didn't really look very good with anything else.

Nearly every frame in my house is black, and those in the room in which I plan to hang the prints are white.  I know, I'm supposed to match the frame to the art not to the room, but I really wasn't doing that either.  Anyway...I decided to repaint them white.  I recently repainted a natural wood frame hanging in my daughter's room white, so I already had a can of glossy white paint on my shelf.  I sanded the new frames, painted them white, and used them to frame my son's artwork.  They now hang on the guest bedroom wall.

Until recently, I would still be searching in vain for just the right frame, in the right size and the right color, at the right price.  Now, I accepted two of three and fixed the third.  Not bad for a girl who lives in a box.

Monday, September 10, 2012

Writers and Rock Stars

Since both kids went to school full-day last fall, I've had some time to think about what interests me.  It's not like I sat down and made a list, then went and devoted time to my listed ideas.  It's just that over time I have found myself returning again and again to the same things--photography, home improvement, books, and writing.  (Well, and then there's the Internet, which takes a fair amount of my time, but I don't think it's fair to call it a hobby or interest, although it's facilitated the others).

For as long as I can remember, I have loved reading, books, and libraries.  I have incredibly fond memories of the public library in my hometown.  I can easily visualize myself in the children's section, choosing my own books, or sitting at a table in the adult section, working on a school project.  For the last twelve years, I've always been a member of at least one book club;  the one I joined when I moved to Rhode Island over five years ago has supplied many of my best friends here, as well as some good reading and a lot of wine and cheese.  While I've always enjoyed reading, I have had more time to devote to it recently.  For the first time in ages, I watch very few TV shows and will almost always choose to read a book over watching TV.

As I was reading Anna Quindlen's new memoir Lots of Candles, Plenty of Cake over our recent vacation, I decided I have what can best be called a "writer crush" on Anna Quindlen.  Every time I read her work, I feel like she has gotten inside my head and used her talent to articulate my thoughts.  Her words are what I want to say but don't have the talent to communicate.

As I contemplated how weird it is to have a writer's crush at all, I admitted to myself that it fits me.  I tend to admire most those who excel in creative pursuits, perhaps because I derive such joy from other people's work but know I'll never paint a beautiful picture, write an amazing song, play an instrument with such talent, or dance with any grace.  While I deeply admire artists and musicians, writers are my rock stars.  Those who can formulate a great story and tell it in a compelling fashion move me.  I love a great plot.  I adore dialogue that sounds real.  And I can read and re-read a single sentence just to admire its structure and beauty.

Until I started this blog, I never wrote anything other than a letter that wasn't for a teacher or client.  I never really wanted to.  I have found, however, that I really enjoy the challenge of organizing and communicating my thoughts.  I enjoy the comments and feedback when I share something that makes someone think or laugh or commiserate.  I hope that, with more practice, my writing is improving;  that was my original goal in starting the blog.  While my true love of the written word is fiction, I don't harbor a novel in a desk drawer or even in my head.  I find the whole idea of creating characters, plot, and dialogue frightening, which probably is another reason I worship those who can do it well.  At least for now, I'm happy with the simple essay.  I'll never be a rock star, but I can still practice the craft.

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As an aside, if you've never read any Anna Quindlen but you share my love of reading, you must stop what you're doing right now to buy or borrow a copy of her How Reading Changed My Life.  If you are an avid reader who shares your love of books with your children, you must read her 1991 New York Times opinion piece "Enough Bookshelves," which you can find here.  I read it often.  The following excerpt is one of those that perfectly articulates my sentiments:

"If being a parent consists often of passing along chunks of ourselves to unwitting -- often unwilling -- recipients, then books are, for me, one of the simplest and most sure-fire ways of doing that. I would be most content if my children grew up to be the kind of people who think decorating consists mostly of building enough bookshelves."

Thursday, September 6, 2012

Book Rec: The Penderwicks

As I've mentioned before, the kids and I listen to audiobooks in the car.  My son's school is a 20-minute ride each way, so even without soccer, swimming, tennis, drama, piano, and gymnastics, we spend quite a bit of time in the car.  Audiobooks have added great peace and harmony to our minivan time.

Whenever I find a book or series that all three of us love, I have to share it.  Pleasing an eight-year-old boy and a five-year-old girl is one thing, but when Mom is excited to get into the car to see what happens next, you've found a real winner.  I've been wanting to tell you about this one since we first listened to it in the spring but thought it appropriate to wait until we listened to all three currently released books in the series before opining.  After all three books, we love it even more.

The Penderwicks:  A Summer Tale of Four Sisters, Two Rabbits, and Very Interesting Boy by Jeanne Birdsall is the story of a family of four girls and their widowed father (seriously, do the mothers ever catch a break?).  Ranging in age from five to twelve, each of the four sisters has a very distinct personality and voice.  Rosalind, the eldest, is the responsible one, who manages everyone and everything.  Skye is stubborn and determined, quick- tempered, and a lover of math, science and soccer.  Jane is a writer--dreamy and prone to flowery language and long-windedness.  The youngest, Batty, is endearingly goofy and rarely without the family dog, Hound.

In this first book, the family spends a portion of the summer renting the guest house on an estate.  At Arundel, they meet the owner, the wicked Mrs. Tifton, and befriend her son, Jeffrey.  In the course of the summer, they become embroiled in some Tifton family conflicts, Rosalind develops a crush on the college-age gardener, and Batty falls in love with the gardener's pet rabbits.  Hound eats a lot of stuff he shouldn't, while Mr. Penderwick wanders around muttering in Latin and offering up tidbits about botany, his area of study.

What impressed me most about this book is that it is nothing but the story of a family doing relatively ordinary things, yet it is an extraordinary story.  With a little boy in the house, many of the books we listen to together involve dragons, elves, talking cockroaches, evil fairies, and other fantastical creatures.  This book was about a human family--of all girls, nonetheless--and my son loved it (despite a fair bit of dreaded "romance").  Our family is not alone in admiring the book;  it won the National Book Award for Young People in 2005, as well as being on many best books of the year lists.

We were pleased to find two subsequent books about the Penderwicks--The Penderwicks on Gardam Street and The Penderwicks at Point Mouette.  Gardam Street picks up not long after the first book and covers a portion of the school year. A major storyline is Mr. Penderwick's reluctant dating and his daughters' reactions, but there is a new neighbor, a mysterious man, and some academic dishonesty by Skye and Jane as well.  In Point Mouette, the members of the family have dispersed for two weeks of the summer, with Mr. Penderwick abroad at a conference and Rosalind off on vacation with her best friend's family.  That leaves a very stressed out Skye as the OAP (oldest available Penderwick) in charge, Jane with a case of writer's block, and Batty to join their Aunt Claire on a vacation to Maine, where they meet a whole new cast of fascinating characters.

Because we listened to the audiobooks, I should credit reader Susan Denaker for her excellent portrayal of the ever-growing cast of characters.  She voices each character differently, distinctly enough to distinguish them but subtly enough that it doesn't distract the listener from the stories.   In writing this, I was excited to discover that author Jeanne Birdsall plans two more books about the Penderwicks.  I don't think I'll tell the kids, or I'll spend the next several years hearing, "Is the next Penderwicks book out yet?"

Sunday, September 2, 2012


I am a housewife. A very educated housewife, but a housewife nonetheless.

The first time our accountant wrote housewife in the little occupation box on our tax returns, I nearly fainted. I'd been looking at corporate attorney or student for so long that I still expected to see one of those despite choosing to stay home when my son was born. I chuckled and tried to think of alternatives, because housewife seemed so Leave it to Beaver. Frankly, homemaker sounded like a silly overstatement of my contributions, and stay-at-home-mom sounded only like I was trying too hard to avoid using the term housewife.

Over the last eight years, I have come to terms with the fact that I am a wife, mother, and [shudder] housewife without a career or even a job. I don't feel like my brain has atrophied too much, and in the last year I have developed and begun to pursue some new interests that excite me. Although my youngest is starting kindergarten this year, I have no interest in getting a job (and am fortunate to not have to do so) and plenty of interest in learning more about photography, writing this blog, and doing DIY projects around the house. I'm also planning to get back to my pre-second baby level of fitness, and have a personal trainer and a plan to join a Masters swimming group. (There. It's in print. Now I have to do it.)

Of course, most of my time is still committed to cooking, cleaning, shopping, gardening, ferrying children to and fro, and tending to my small flock at home. It can be tedious and frustrating, but I continue to choose this existence over the alternative. I'm over whatever hang-up I may once have had about the whole thing.

I do wonder, however, how my children perceive me. During the summer Olympics, we were joking about which fictional Olympic sports our family should compete in to guarantee gold. Examples included LEGO building (my son), fairy identification (my daughter), and talking on the phone (my husband, whose job my children believe consists only of talking on the phone). When my husband asked the kids which events Mommy would excel in, the only things they could come up with were cleaning, cooking, and laundry. Are those really the only things they think I'm competent to do?

Women fought for years for the opportunity work outside the home. I have the opportunity, I have the education, and yet I now embody everything that previous generations of women fought to escape. The difference, of course, is that I did get the education, I did have the career, and I had the opportunity to choose what kind of life I want to have. If someone had told me that I had to do this and wasn't capable of anything else, that would be a different matter entirely. I know the reality.

The kids, however, don't know all the facts. They don't know anything about the women's movement, and they don't appreciate that I went to good schools and had good jobs before I did what they see me do every day. I'm pretty sure they have no idea that I'm fairly bright. In fact, I think my eight-year-old may actually think I'm a little dim. Maybe that's just being eight.

My daughter is only five, but already I can see she has the ability to do whatever she puts her very clever mind to. She has both the wits and the personality to succeed in whatever arena she chooses to pursue. When she is a little older, will she look down upon the choices I've made?  Will she think I was either not smart enough or not driven enough to succeed at "something better?" If the latter, she may have a point, but I desperately hope it's not the former.

All children are narcissistic, so it makes sense that at their young age they see me only in terms of themselves. I suspect that, as they get older, they may question some of the decisions I've made and wonder if they would do the same.  I can only hope that, once they are adults, they view me as something other than that lady who does the laundry and takes them to gymnastics.