Friday, August 23, 2013

Mom, why are you calling me Buttercup?

School is in the building! The kids were starry eyed and tired on Monday, but basically happy and glad to be back (although Silas did greet the rising sun by throwing one arm to the sky and howling “noooooooooo”). All of their nagging questions of the past few weeks have been laid to rest: will my friends be in my classes? will I like my teachers? will I have homework the first day? etc etc etc. This is probably why they dropped into bed with a sigh of relief last night (or maybe that was me.) 

The answers, btw, were pretty much yes. Helen has the same third grade teacher that Si did, and I notice, by way of informal observation, that this teacher, who has a reputation for being "strict," also seems to get classes made up of well-behaving children. After two years in a row with Helen in the craziest class in the grade, wouldn't it be nice to have a year in which there WEREN'T weekly class therapy sessions with the school psychologist? Notice how I am assuming that in the Venn diagram of "crazy drama making" and "Helen's class," Helen falls in one circle but not the other. I guess we'll find out!

Si too. Of course, in middle school, drama is one of the required electives. But his first day's assessment of his teachers is 80% awesome and 20% OMG I can't believe she's so strict. One teacher looks to be a tough customer (not a bad thing, from a parent's perspective, although it does make me shrug a little: guess we'll be struggling with social studies this year) and by Silas's report the students were flabbergasted to have their Spanish teacher actually speak in Spanish on the first day (which made me wonder what his Spanish teacher spoke LAST year. Hmm.)


Speaking of class therapy sessions, my work - which has been kind of a wild ride lately, what with office reshuffling and staff restructuring and general let's-shake-it-up shenanigans - had an employee workshop (class? all-day retreat?) last week. You know, one of those team-building things where someone comes in from the outside and works with us on how to get along better. The particular topic of this class was assessing our social style - kind of like the Meyers-Briggs personality test, only focused on how other people perceive you.That was about as pleasant as it sounded, especially since we also assessed ourselves and then got to compare how our personal assessment stacked up against everyone else's assessment of us. I assessed myself as kind of a bossy person who usually speaks my mind, and everyone else (well, five people) assessed me as kind of a retiring introvert who analyzes everything to death. Well, the to death part wasn't on there. Still. On the one hand, I'm pretty sure the assessment is accurate. On the other hand: boo. Here I thought I was kind of the life of the party, in an understated way, and it turns out I'm just who I've always been. The serious one who doesn't talk much. Plus somehow I managed to overshare during class to the point that I kind of wince every time I think about that day - did I really tell all of my fellow employees that I'm tired of being thought of as boring? Apparently I did, as no fewer than three people have come up to me since and said encouraging, buck-me-up kind of things. 

Helen always gets irritated when I grip the wheel and holler "Buckle up, Buttercup!" but sometimes it's the best way to cheer me up about the constant go-go-go-ness of things. And man. The summer wasn't exactly activity-free, but it was a languid stroll in a rose garden next to having the kids in school.

Friday, August 2, 2013

Cultivation concerto for two hands and a couple of feet

Greatest invention in the history of the world: one-cup french press coffee maker. Oh, french-pressed coffee, how I love you. You make the last three hours of my interminable Friday feel bearable. (Note: one drawback of the GIitHIofW is that I now have no real reason not to drink an afternoon cup of coffee. See also: sudden tendency to start using the caps lock in interoffice emails around 3:00 pm).

It's been a long week of baseball. How is this possible, you might ask, seeing that baseball season ended two weeks ago to much celebration? I might ask that, too, except I know the dreary answer to the question, and that answer is: tryouts. In the past three weeks Silas has attended tryouts for 6 -ish?- teams, some of which lasted all day/ lasted multiple days/ involved callbacks (always a good thing, but still). And actually I don't have any right to complain about this at all, since I have so far attended 0 (zero) tryouts, made 0 (zero) emails and 0 (zero) phone calls to coaches asking when tryouts would be held, if they are looking for new spots on their team, if they could have Silas come try out for a practice some time, if they made a decision yet, etc. etc. blah blah blah. M. sat down wearily last night and as he geared himself up to make more "did my son make your team?" phone calls he complained a little bitterly about Si's lack of work ethic. You could really tell the difference at the tryouts, he said, between the kids who actually practiced regularly and those who practiced as perfunctorily as possible whenever their parents remembered to nag them. And the ones who practiced were the ones who were getting the callbacks right away, he added. None of this stretch it out for three weeks crap.

While I have had occasion to complain about the as-yet underdeveloped work ethic in the house preteen as well, I said that maybe M.'s getting a little tired. Just speculation. Maybe M.'s feeling taken for granted. He agreed. I mean, no one will ever say we have a driven kid who likes to work just for the sake of work. But he's pretty average, in a good way, and he's average also in that while we (M.) lavish untold amounts of time and money on his baseball hobby, at the end of the day he's all like, that's great, but when I can I play MineCraft?

"It's not really possible for him to appreciate what we do for him," I argued. "I don't think I even really appreciate yet what my parents did for me. I mean, it's really hard to. Because it's impossible to pay back. It's hard to even say thank you, because it's so incredibly much." [Mom and Dad: thank you.]

Meanwhile, we're still working on that work ethic.

And in good news, Si did get on a team for fall. His first choice, even! And it doesn't cost a million dollars! It doesn't cost a hundred, either, though. Somewhere in the middle. Sigh. And it will be four or five times that somewhere in the middle for spring baseball. (*putting fingers in ears, not thinking about that now, not thinking about that now*)

I've been reading Unequal Childhoods,  a study done in the 90s about how middle class and working class parents raise their kids differently, and how those differences lead to different types of adult attitudes - entitled vs. constrained. Entitled in this book means more than just its negative connotations - adults who feel entitled to be taken seriously are much better equipped to advocate for their own needs - but it doesn't exclude those connotations, either. In other words, all this schlepping and prepping and working more than I want to in order to feed the extracurricular beast is leading directly to the creation of some more entitled young adults. Who will be much more equipped to be successful, and also to forget to call me on my birthday.

So when I get out my checkbook to write another eye-popping check for this or that activity, I can murmur soothingly to myself, concerted cultivation. Instead of, I don't know, one less backpacking trip through Scotland. Or whatever it is I would be spending money on if I didn't have kids.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Back with our packs

Now that sports season is over, we can do things again. We lost no time in taking advantage by heading to the Flat Tops to do some backpacking. This is the second time we've taken the kids backpacking, and the first time we've taken Buster, obviously, so things could have gone either way: the kids could have loved it and busted out into nature with a roar in their throats, or they could have been timorous and sulky and demanded to go to Waterworld instead. Some of my recent insomnia has been dedicated to this exact worry, in fact: are we ruining the kids by bringing them up in suburbs and baseball parks? Some days it seems that we are.

It didn't help that when we went camping back in June, Si was sick, so he spent the trip moping around the picnic table and the tent (the nearer his electronics to be, I fretted), and Helen, left to her own devices, wouldn't stray farther from the campsite than the road. A case could be made that the children were not properly learning to appreciate the important things in life.

Definitely not ruined.
They were fine, of course. They were excited about the trip as soon as they started packing. They didn't complain about the 4-hour drive, not even once. When we piled out at the trailhead Helen did ask, nervously, if we were going to be the only ones camping where we were going - "I hope so!" I said, and she groaned, but by the time we got up over the saddle and set up our tent (at 7:30 p.m.) she'd forgotten that she was afraid of the loneliness. (It helped that we repeatedly emphasized that there were NO BEARS where we were going. No bears. None. Not up here. Nope. To the point where, partway through the next day, she said, "Well, what country ARE we in? We're not in bear country, so..." "Uh, marmot country?" I said, imagining ravening bands of golden brown marmots rushing us to lick our sweaty socks. "Pika country?" What country, indeed?)

She and Silas dropped their packs and climbed from the saddle to the top of the nearest summit - she got tired halfway there and came back (by herself!), but Si forged on. The next morning they went exploring by themselves and found a snowfield and an elk skull and then we all went together to explore some lakes.

Nearing camp around sunset.

There was relatively little of this, thank goodness. The guy is heavy for being such a wee thing.
And Buster: he's a great camp dog. He sticks close to camp and doesn't go off foraging for poop or other campers' meals (unlike some dogs I could name, Costi); he doesn't whine or get nervous, and he's game for anything, although we did have to carry him over the boulder fields so he didn't disappear. He got shivery at night and we had to wrap him in Helen's raincoat when we were sitting around the campfire. "I hope he doesn't turn out to be a sweater dog," said M., thus showing that I am not the only one in the family with a lingering midlife dog complex.

Waiting for dinner.
Plus I had to keep turning his ears rightside out so they didn't get sunburned.

Not a bad family to get stuck with, overall, right, Buster? In spite of the forcible hugging.
The other thing that was a secret balm to my heart was, when we got out of the conflict zone of electronics and baseball practice, Silas turned frequently and devotedly to M. This year was better than last year, but still, during baseball season, they tend to spend too much time together and Silas dedicates much of that time to resenting the fact that M. is his parent and does parenty things, like tell him he's had enough video game time for the day. He often refuses to see what an awesome dad M. is. So it set another of my insomnia frets at ease to see them doing stuff together, and to see Si turn to him the way, I apparently feel, a good son should.

Doing stuff like hanging food bags.
 So all of this begs the question: is this really how I wish we'd spent the summer? Instead of baseball parks and the chlorine-splashed rims of pools? Part of me: yes. But - oddly? unexpectedly? - I'm beginning to see the value in baseball and swimming. The balanced life, etc. It's not like we can go backpacking every weekend, after all. Plus May and June are unfriendly in the high country: what else can we do, but schlep around to ball fields and pools? (No, don't answer that.)

Maybe it's okay, the sports. So long as we're also able to do this.
This photo does not really show how we are perched on the hillside, toes and fingers clutching the grass.

Saturday, July 13, 2013

Life with Buster

1. Midlife Dog Crisis

 The pup is integrating itself into the household much better than I thought it would all those months when I was dragging my feet about getting him. He sleeps at night, he whines very little, and he has only pooped on the floor twice. I have to keep reminding myself that he's a puppy, and the one law of puppies is that they change. Or maybe that's the one law of babies. In any case I've had babies in the house more recently than I've had puppies, and man, it just does not compare. I've heard people - okay, one person, and he was a rather traditional male, and I am pretttty sure his wife did most of the heavy lifting of the baby - say that puppies are as hard/ harder than babies. Yeah, um: no.

Signs already indicate he is a gentleman.

 Still, there are things. For example we have to pile all our shoes on chairs now, or they get whisked away. Also, socks. I will be innocently filling a laundry basket and suddenly a pair of PJ bottoms will slither away by itself - hey! No! Buster! Drop it! Then there are all the things that Costi had been trained to do/ not do that are suddenly, rudely, on the table again. Such as paws. Such as running diagonally right in front of your feet, forcing you to either trip or be a puppy squisher. Such as finding little threads in the still-new rugs and tearing at them, usually with a little decoy toy carefully positioned to block my view. Augh! Buster! Also the pooping.

Plus there is the New Dog mystery. Will this dog grow up to be the kind of dog that fits with our family? will he be friendly? Will he bark? Will he be a dash-out-the-front-door-er? Will he heel? Will he like other dogs? Will he like hiking? (Some members of the family might disagree that this is priority.) Whenever he does something that Costi never did, I blink: who is this little affectionate little stranger we've bought into our house, anyway? Or, disapproving, when I have just hauled him back onto the sidewalk after the 18th dash into the road: my heeler didn't do that.

My heeler didn't do this, either.
And I've been having pangs of regret every time I happen to see a heeler when I'm out and about. We're not really a heeler family, but in my soul I'm a heeler girl all the way, standing by my mud-splattered pickup with my sunglasses resting on my weatherbeaten neck while a triangle-headed iron dog pants loyally by my feet. So what am I doing with a beagle? Who has beagles? English royalty? Daisy Buchanan? If I ever run out in the night and come back with a little heeler puppy friend for Buster, you'll know I finally snapped. It'll be my equivalent of a red convertible.
Helen. Has has beagles.

2. Clocking out

Ooh yeah. The last baseball game ended about twenty minutes ago; the last swim meet ended at noon. Sure, there's fall. But that's miles away and besides: one game. Fall baseball is one game a weekend and so is soccer. Here's a toast to having my life back. Sleeping in! Yard projects! Long runs! Hiking! These are all things I've managed to do in the past four (4!) months, of course, but almost always at the expense of something/ someone else. Oh how I love the crazy hedonism of the off season!

3. Epic, man
I just finished The Son, which I tore through at a record rate, esp. considering it has no suspense to speak of and its plot is basically One Family Gets Really Rich. One review I read said it was updated James Michener - a cruel jab at any literary pretensions the author might have, I guess, but more or less true. The characters don't feel quite so much like they were collected from central casting for the day, but otherwise: history? check. Integration of disparate cultures and peoples to give a total picture of an area? check. Unspooling family histories where everyone turns out to be related in the end? check. Educational? check. Totally compelling read in spite of myself? Yup. I was originally turned on to this book by the Wall Street Journal interview with the author, where he described the extensive research he did to get the details right - an author after my own heart, I thought at first, and then, shamefacedly, an author who took my heart and doubled it and then doubled it again and also finished a 561-page novel to boot. He learned how to make arrows and track deer, went on a bison hunt and ate the liver raw from the still-warm body, talked to elders of the Comanche tribe - yeah, basically set the goddamn gold standard for researching what you write about. Fine. So maybe I was rooting a teeny tiny bit for the novel to suck. It didn't, not at all - it's very well written. Overall it is perhaps more dutiful than strange; but that is a minor matter, or a matter without consequence at this point in time. It still sets the damn gold standard.

3. Definitely an 8
Our designated home improvement project this year was the front and back concrete - on a scale of one to ten, where ten is a dramatic new kitchen and one is replacing the sewer line, you might think that fixing the place where the drainspout creates an ice hazard and making the back porch less slippery might be closer to a one than a ten, but you would be wrong. The new front sidewalk/patio is sinuous and sexy and the back patio is twice as large as it was and I feel like royalty when we sit out on the new huge back patio with a beer at the end of the day. I also feel like I never want to clutter it up with plebeian things like a table and chairs, which is kind of the whole reason we made it bigger (so we can eat outside at a table again after 6 years). Still: royalty. Priceless.
Big enough to hide a baseball guy.

Buster approves.

4. Now a major motion picture.
I also (more distantly) just finished reading my TBR book The Ambassadors. Other than I never managed to get behind the main character's name (Lambert Strether. My mouth does not like), I liked it, and better yet, I never felt I was imprisoned in a Henry James box from which I would never escape or from which I might escape, but only if I relinquished any claim to understanding a single blessed scene of what I had dedicated a big chunk of my life to reading (The Wings of the Dove, I am looking at you.) It's because I discovered the secret to reading Henry James with pleasure, at least if you are me, and it's this: imagine you are making the book into a movie, and you have to convey the essential character of the book - not the plot or the scenes, but its character. I think it would be mostly closeups of people as they talked - not their faces so much as just below their faces. The essence of Henry James is body language. And also maybe a slight chronic frustration on not just getting scenes and plot like an ordinary novel. There would be a few panning scenes and interior shots, but they would have to convey what the characters felt about them.

Monday, July 8, 2013

Update: Not snowing anymore

1. The other day I came home from work to find the washing machine on. This was during a week of independence training for the kids, while M. was in Utah and I had to work all day, so I was uncertain whether to be thrilled or worried. "You're doing laundry?" I asked Helen. I had inexplicable visions of a spic and span house, windows washed, dishes put away, carpets freshly vacuumed, or, alternately, a whole-house juice disaster. What have the children been doing?

"Oh, I'm washing my stuffed animals," she said. Sure enough, I peeked in the dryer and there was the first batch, washed and tumbled. Huh.

"They were so dirty!" she added with relief when I didn't say something crabby. "One had these strings of glitter glue all over it!"

It's one of the goals for independence training, that the kids will see Issues That Need Addressing and then Address them (the other goal being cheapskateness, of course). So. Success, then.

2. On the way to swim practice this morning, Helen and her younger friend got into a discussion of the mysteries of the Speedo. "I don't get why when boys get older their swimsuits are so small," Helen's friend said.

 That makes two of us, I thought.

"I mean, they're just like this to this. Why are they so small? They're like underwear."

They giggled about that, and then her friend continued, "I just don't get why they're so small."

Helen, being her mother's daughter, was right there with an answer. "When they get older, kids get smaller swimsuits. So that they're tighter."

3. I'm reading two Westerns right now. In the car, I'm listening to The Sisters Brothers (awesome! and constantly anachronistic in a Shakespeare-in-Love way. And funny) and every night before bed I open up The Son and read about meticulously researched and lushly described atrocities on the Texas frontier. Both westerns have brothers (or, uh, did. Spoiler alert) and so they blur together a little in my mind (while I'm lying in bed, reading: These guys used to be a lot funnier. Oh, wait, that's the other one. Darn.)

Generally the Western as a Platonic form is one that I avoid. All those carefully researched whorehouses and false front saloons weigh on my soul like so many bedbug-filled saddlebags, plus I think I smell competition whenever I get too close. I, too, write about bears and sagebrush and if my narrative drifts into the past, Indians and members of the seventh cavalry tend to make an appearance. I don't want someone else's words crowding onto my page, or some such.

So it probably makes sense that I'm doing two at once. Drink my dose of Serious Historical Western in the evening, then chase it out in the morning with Bleak, Funny and Completely Ahistorical on my way to work.

4. I know, I know. It's been a while. I needed a break, and this was the only thing I could really neglect. But I'm back, I think. I need something to help me forge through another endless summer of work.

5.We, uh, got a dog. I'm not sure how it happened (well, actually, I am: by dint of incredible persistence on the part of Helen). But all of a sudden I am having to police what can and cannot be chewed on.

Meet Buster.

Thursday, April 25, 2013

Winter of my discontent

Tuesday morning we woke to this:
See that stuff on the road? That's ice. Ice. In April. Snow I can do, but ice? Come on.
Third Tuesday in row, besides. Soccer was cancelled. Baseball was cancelled. All activities celebrating the great outdoors were shut down, possibly forever, because how exactly are we going to do swim season, or camping season, or anything season, with a blizzard every Tuesday? Helen's soccer team hasn't had a practice in over a month (games, though. They've had those. All I will say  is that apparently the other teams are finding space to practice.)

It's had an effect on my mood.
Technically the shores of Duluth, but it could be my heart.
 Not helping is my annual freak out about summer. This year, oddly, has mostly been better: perhaps I have come to accept certain truths, such as that my platonic ideal of summer - a blend of a few childhood experiences, the farm from Charlotte's Web, and various other cultural suitcases that I have not had time to unpack - does not actually exist in the universe as we know it. Also that staying home with my children all day every day would be an unmitigated disaster, one that would have to begin with quitting my job. Therefore: I'm signing the kids up for a blend of camps, sports and babysitters, with a goal of minimizing drive time and camp time, and I'm fine with that. Mostly. We did run into one stumbling block: when I went to sign Helen up for swim team, the team she was on last year, the one with all her friends, was full. I briefly lost my will to live. Just to put in context, this was three days after the bombing in Boston killed three and shattered lives and limbs. So I pulled myself together and decided I had just lost the will to live here, in this competitive, crowded, rat race of a suburb where everything is a fight and a struggle and I'm always having to hustle and bark.

Then I signed Helen up for a different swim team and moved on.

Meanwhile, we are going about our days. It's supposed to be seventy-five this Saturday: that's a good thing. Not all of the tulips and daffodils got snapped in the superfreeze we had at the beginning of April ( 6 degrees. It got down to 6 degrees Fahrenheit), so that's also something. (The lilacs, though, are toast, and one looks as though it might be permanent toast.) Helen and I went for a run slash bike ride yesterday after work; it was warm, or warmish, so long as we kept moving. We saw kingfishers and muskrat and sparrows and turtles and talked about returning to the ponds in the summer with a friend. I found a program for Silas for next year where he can serve as a volunteer in the local parks & rec offices: perfect, I'm thinking, because what he needs more than anything right now is a job. I mean, he'll have to wait until next year, but still. Just knowing that is out there eases my mind.

Sunday, April 7, 2013

Feeding the giraffes


and we went to Colorado Springs. For about four hours. A staycation in miniature. Or a "My parents both work so all I got for spring break was this measly trip to a zoo in another city" T shirt.

Truth be told, though, it was kind of dreamy. Colorado Springs is only an hour away, but it has a totally different feel. Very Spanish, very Old-New-Mexico. M. had to work, so the kids and I took a little trip by ourselves. We went to the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo, which is, in fact, just another zoo - and I am ambivalent about zoos - and yet it is a smaller and much more personal-feeling zoo than the Big City Denver Zoo. For one thing, they have pony rides:

Helen waited 30 minutes for the chance to ride a horse. I need to find her some riding lessons.
For another thing, they have a giraffe feeding station. This is the kind of thing that seems both cheesy and probably exploitative and yet is undeniably amazing when you're actually there in the sun with your hands full of lettuce. I am a fierce believer in the importance of keeping wild things wild and respecting their wildness, and lord knows that every animal on the planet, or most of them, would be vastly better off if we just disappeared - and yet we humans have this craving to be close to animals that bears listening to.

This photo does not do justice to the tongue of the giraffe, which is a thing of glory.
Helen was beyond thrilled to be this close to the giraffes.
Even if she needed a little help from an exasperated older brother to bring herself to feed them.
The rest of the zoo was filled with touches like this. The lizard house felt like an actual house, with lizards in aquariums on shelves, in large decorative hurricane lamps, in cages with concrete sofas and chairs, in cages with bright blue swimming pools in them. The grizzly bear pen was huge. The elephant pen was huge and better than the brand new Denver Zoo elephant pen (at least to someone who doesn't know anything about zoos). They had lots of porcupines, and naked mole rats, and stairs. It was very pleasant, and it also had spectacular views out east over the city. I asked the kids to pose for a picture celebrating our day of family togetherness:

Just plucked off the orphan train, awaiting a new grim life as indentured servants.

The next day we went to the Mammoth & Mastodon exhibit at the Denver Museum of Nature & Science, which, despite Si's tearful predictions of mind-numbing boredom (he was not referring to this particular exhibit but museums in general, as opposed to zoos, or, you know, Elitches), was actually quite spectacular (life size realistic models of a wooly mammoth, a giant bear, and a saber-toothed tiger, to start).

And then, baseball. Tournament season has begun.