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:
Again.
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

Spring BRRRREAAAK!!!

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.

Friday, March 22, 2013

Dealer's Choice

On Tuesday I was raised by my alarm from a dream in which I was going to lose my job, or might have been going to lose my job, or was going to get reshuffled, or whatever, and the key point, other than man, what is it about getting woken up from a dream? I was groggy the whole darn day - was: I wasn't too upset. Yes, it was a dream, and also my eraser turned into a miniature kit fox and ran into the corner, but the prospect of losing my job, even on waking, was not terribly distressing. I had a momentary flash of panic about the mortgage and other expenses (as well I should), but my main reaction was, "Hmmm. I could do a lot with all that extra time."

Which is perhaps why two days later, after a work day that made me wonder to which cost code I should charge 30 minutes of seething and 45 minutes of wasting my damn time, I thought, hmmm. I could just not have to deal with any of this.

I could just be at home, and do home stuff, and be homey and homely and home. And then I had a little frisson of delight and relief - all of the irritating insoluble problems of the workplace could just vanish, just like that, and I would be free.

It sounded wonderful. For about five minutes. Then I remembered that:

a. I really do like my paycheck very much, and

b. I also am kind of involved in things at work right now, and walking out would leave me with an eternal sense of having left something unfinished, plus

c. Irritation is good for me.

It took me a while to realize this. Irritation - not crushing stress or daily misery, but the kind of condition where you have to sigh sharply and bustle in and do things right - is good for people. So is training yourself to suck it up and just deal with the fact that the air conditioning comes on when it's 46 degrees outside (WTH, Building People?), that the computer upgrades you need to do your job aren't likely to come before October even though other people in the office just got brand new iPads, and that meetings will always be dominated by the ones who do nothing but complain. It's like exercise: it's uncomfortable during the practice of it, but afterward you feel great, plus your muscles are better toned.

So: instead of getting all bent out of shape when I get yet another incomprehensible request to deal with something that I'm pretty sure we solved three months ago, I just breathe, smile, and think feel the burn. And also: nope. Not leaving. Not today.

Friday, March 15, 2013

What I'm Reading This Week

And for a few weeks past. It's a smattering: I'm trying madly to keep up with the madness that is The Morning News' 2013 Tournament of Books. This year I'd read a whopping one (1) (uno) of the books on the list when it was announced in December (Gone Girl), so I've had a lot of reading to do - since December I've read Arcadia, How Should a Person Be, May We Be Forgiven, The Orphan Master's Son (mostly - augh that thing was long), Bring Up the Bodies, and The Song of Achilles. I did my darnednest with Where'd You Go, Bernadette, but I could not stand it (the snark. The snark killed me). I'm still working my way through the marvelously uncompact Building Stories (it comes in a box, with "Multiple easily lost parts," according to the instructions to the library cataloger) and sure-to-be-one-of-my-year's-faves, Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk. I've read enough Alice Munro to get a sense for what Dear Life is like and I've probably seen at least a few of those stories already. I've got Round House on hold (until July, I'm guessing. A smarter person would just buy the book already, but my shelf is full. And do not talk to me about the anathema that is the ebook. I do not want one.) So, out of 16 books, 9 down, 3 in progress. Not bad (pause for a moment while I pat myself on the back. Bear with me: this is one of the few areas in my life where I accomplish things.) Also, it gets my current fiction itch scratched for a while. I'm not always a very engaged fiction reader, I'm sorry to say. Get to the point already! I might think, as I peek to see how many pages I still have left to read. Or: Is this going to be worth my time? Or: Who's this Greg guy, again? I'll own it: I'm a purpose-driven reader. I'm a sucker for any and all self-improvement projects, especially if I can do them in bed with the overhead light off. Reading fiction just because: difficult to justify. Reading fiction because someone told me I should: sign me up!

So I'm reading Building Stories and Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk. Also my first entry in my TBR pile, Mean Spirit, by Linda Hogan, and a collection of essays by Elliott West (my mind is already blown, and I've only read one. Not so much from sheer brilliance - these are standard academic essays - as the way in one essay my admittedly limited understanding of the Cheyenne Indians was totally knocked down, run over with a steam engine, and put up in a completely different place. All with the same source material as I've had all along. Man.)

Building Stories, Chris Ware: like I said, it comes in a box. It looks like a board game, an expensive, heavy one, until you open it and pull out all the pieces: two or three single cartoon strips (it's a graphic novel, or a book of graphic short stories all focused on one person - what is a novel, anyway? What's a short story? What does it mean to read? These are all questions I start fiddling with when I'm pulling the pieces out of the hat), a few soft cover books, a hard cover book, a board game (no pieces, alas.) I'm so intrigued I immediately start thinking of making my own novel-in-a-box: would it be feasible to include animal bones, do you think? Probably not. Anyway, these cartoons will be familiar to readers of the New Yorker: they center around a depressed young woman to whom nothing huge happens, just the usual growing up stuff, no real beginning or end. Very like real life, and like real life you can assemble the pieces in different ways, read them in your own order, skip back and forth, etc. Less like real life, to me, is the persistent feeling of generic-ness: these stories feel less like they've been struck with the lightning of truth and more like they're someone's idea of what a depressed young art student might feel if she were crowdsourced. I get claustrophobic after not very long, reading these.

Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk, Ben Fountain. I've been wanting to read Ben Fountain for a while, and so even though the subject matter of this is the kind that makes me go, huh (a company of Iraq war heroes are featured on stage at a Superbowl Halftime show, written by a nonsoldier), I was eager to pick this one up. And so far, five chapters in, it does not disappoint. Every page, every sentence, almost, I feel like I'm discovering something new, something that I knew all along. The author has a wicked ear for dialogue, and zeroes in immediately  - but with compassion! - on some of our weaknesses, as a society.

Mean Spirit, Linda Hogan. I've been reading this for over a month, and for a long time I just sort of read a few pages dutifully at the end of the day, to fulfill the agreement I'd made with myself in January. I thought it fell wearily into the expected trope of Indian-helpless-and-good, White-Man-predatory-and-bad: small town fiction with a helping of victimhood. The gentle pace didn't help. Only, imperceptibly, it grew on me. It knows stuff. The Christian preacher, half Indian, half white, going into his closet to ask his Indian grandmother's medicine pouch what's going on when things start to get crazy: I didn't expect that. The man, buried accidentally (everyone thought he was dead), who crawls out of his grave and walks around town unmolested, because everyone, white and Indian both, think he's a ghost: I didn't expect that, either. Actually, right now it's got a circus's worth of insanity happening on every corner, the book still has this gentle pace and gentle tone that make me take it more seriously than if the tone were more self-consciously arty or manic.

I'm also listening to Wild, by Cheryl Strayed: almost done. I suppose like everyone who reads this, I kind of want to go out and research hiking the Pacific Crest Trail; what I think about most, though, is why this is so popular. Don't get me wrong: it's a fine book, if occasionally a little magazine-style generic in tone (the death of Jerry Garcia, which happened while she was hiking, felt not just like a death but like "the end of an era." To cite just one example.) It's also a story to which I can relate, even while I don't actually relate to very much of it at all (hmm: maybe that's my answer right there). But I'm always curious what grabs the zeitgeist and what doesn't. I'm glad this one did, but I still don't quite get it.

 Okay: that's my book talk from this week.

Thursday, March 7, 2013

Carpe le diem

So here we are in March, or "march! march! march!" as Helen used to say when she was two years old and wanted to get things moving again. Thus, a selection of activities behind which I have been wearily tagging along:

1. Over the weekend we went to Winter Park (to ski), Frisco (to sleep, mostly, and also order waaay overpriced pizza) and Steamboat Springs (more of the ski) (sigh) (I am getting to the point where I think as we leave the ski area parking lot at the end of the day, "Well, one less ski day to go in this life." I suspect my relief is deeply unhealthy.) While in Steamboat, Helen carpe-ed the diem and talked us into fulfilling her lifelong dream of bungee trampolining:

Embiggen for her expression of anticipation.
Was it as good as she dreamed it would be? She said yes.
2. While fulfilling Helen's lifelong dream cost only $10, Silas has been badgering us for a little more payout. "It's time to make some Spring Break plans," I told him wearily the other night, thinking that if we had a plan, we might be able to avoid some of the wretched fights* of the past two long weekends. "Hawaii?" he said immediately, lighting up. "No, that's too--well, sure, price it out, kiddo. See how much it would cost to fly four of us to Hawaii."

Twenty minutes later he looks up from the computer screen and says, "$3,384. How much do you make again?"

I explained about budgeting and vacations and If We're Going To Spend That Kind Of Money, feeling like a miserly fool (well, why can't we use one month's salary for a four-day trip to the most expensive destination you can reach without a passport?), and also like I walked right into this one.

"What if just you and me go?"

 "Sweetheart, we're not going to spend our entire vacation budget on a trip for two of us."

"But I want to go to Hawaiiiiii."

"It's just not very realistic for a trip three weeks from now."

And etc. At least it didn't end with weeping, if I'm remembering correctly, which I'm probably not.

3. The ironic thing is that we've spent nearly that amount to get us all skiing, a dream destination vacation for people all over the world (especially that trip to Wolf Creek. Damn. Four feet of snow in 48 hours.) Si is only vaguely aware of this expense; he mostly notices the imperfections of the experience, such as the lack of suitable ski partners (Mom's too slow, Dad's too good, and cousin can't goooo), the irritating length of the drive to get there, the fact that getting there involves leaving at particular times not of his very own choosing. The fact that in order to get to skiing tomorrow, less Minecraft must be played today. Also, we said he DID choose this and he DID NOT, we're LYING, he DID NOT choose this.

(Etc.)

(For Pete's SAKE, kid. Let it GO.)

I hesitate to leap into this run. Si no longer does.
 In any case, we all went skiing this weekend, as I mentioned above, and Si was enthusiastic and engaged as soon as we left the premises. He made great strides in his skiing this weekend, or so I heard. I myself was straggling along behind Helen, who is still in the Very Cautious phase of her skiing career, which tends to lead to one grownup or the other being dissatisfied with the skiing experience at the end of the day. Skiing with Helen also makes it difficult for me to determine exactly where I am in my own skiing development - I am definitely better than I ever have been, but I still have a visceral dislike of speed. I am not exactly slow, but I am deliberate. And I am exactly slow when it comes to trying to keep up with Silas, even, as of this weekend, on the bumps (I used to be able to keep up with him on the bumps.)

So the discussion then becomes: in what ways is my blithe admission that I will never be as good a skier as my 11-year-old son demonstrating blind adherence to these familial patterns?

Familial patterns that are not mine, by the way, and don't really get under my skin in a significant way, but which are perhaps more worrisome to M for stemming from his own history. Will this be the shoal on which our family founders? Unlikely, I maintain. Nevertheless, I try to put on my game face and at least make a good show of pretending in company that I want to be a middle-aged first-time extreme skier.

(To which I say: HA. And also: is it time to stop for hot chocolate yet?)

I'm always taken by how much skiing is like sledding, except for the cost. It makes it harder to take seriously.


* We had a taste of teenager this past weekend. On the surface the fight, which was full family, and lasted approximately TWO HOURS, which is insane, was about monitor time and also the frankly minor rhetorical point that while we said that Silas said that his choice was to go to Winter Park on the way to the condo, he said that he did NOT in fact say this. Below the surface, of course, the fight was about control, and how we wish he enjoyed different leisure activities, and how sometimes this wish comes across as wishing he was a different person.


Friday, March 1, 2013

More later

I spent a week at a work conference and all I got was this weird sense of having been completely divorced from my own self. I'm still not totally back, plus we're actually as we speak trying to pack for a trip to the Condo (when you gotta go, you gotta go, apparently, with this privilege), so I'm only here to say I'll catch you later.

More here.


Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Wolf Creek Ski Report

We made a family ski trip this past weekend. This is one of those things that sounds a little like a Beautiful People activity when you casually mention it, that feels like an exercise in exhaustion and forced toleration while you're in it, and when you're home, washed and rested, seems like the kind of thing that Makes Life Worthwhile.



I'm still waiting to get fully rested. Also, our ski gear is still "airing out" all over the bedroom floor. So we haven't reached stage three yet. But we're headed there.

The Beautiful People part was not just the ski aspect - skiing can sometimes feel like just another soccer game death march, what with the rush-hour-style drive up I-70, full parking lots, endless schlepping of gear, squished peanut butter sandwiches in the locker by the ski school, and the regular running into people we know on the slopes (figuratively. Not literally. Yet.) It was the getaway part - we made the long haul down south to one of my favorite parts of the state, to a distant ski area in a place without lines (I'm pretty sure unicorns can be found in the San Juans too), without the brassy me-too glitz of the centrally located ski scene. We went to Wolf Creek, which is a holy combination of legendary snow and low-key digs. Wolf Creek is the kind of place the ski guys go, the young men with nothing better to do than drive half the night for consistently awesome powder. It's not really a place that suburban Denver families go - except that it works for us, too, in all the same ways.



However, I'm still kind of stuck in the exhaustion stage: I'm remembering in a full-body way how we left straight after work on Friday - after a week of cramming in laundry and snack-buying and gassing up between all the usual tasks, we threw the stuff in the car, fed the birdies and headed south. We got up early both days and spent all the nonskiing hours hopping from bed to bed in the motel room so we wouldn't step in all the chunks of tracked-in snow on the floor. We were cold pretty much eight hours a day for two days straight. We spent over fourteen hours in the car. I didn't get my usual weekend run; Silas basically insisted on skin-to-skin contact with his personal electronic devices every minute that he wasn't actually wearing skis and I was too exhausted to urge a better path, despite how much it bothered me. To the enjoyment of everyone, it turned out I was *not* too exhausted to nag.

Both children are wearing skis.

So: will it turn out to have been a trip that Makes Life Worthwhile? Definitely. Just knowing that this part of world is a place we can go in the midst of a regular working month makes it feel already like we have an escape hatch. As we drove across the long dark vastness of the San Luis valley on Friday night I leaned forward into the windshield and watched the stars; even through the reflection of the dashboard lights I could see more than I ever can back in the suburbs. I wanted to stop the car and stand in the freezing night air and really look at them; I didn't, because I wanted to get to the motel even more, but the fact that I was that close and I could have has made returning to the cramped routines of daily life feel more open, like there's air getting in.

It's not a new fact to me, that this is what I need. Some people need spa weekends and pampering and luxury (or cooking, or shopping, or reading) to make them feel like the universe has room for them; I need space, and I don't really get that in the life I've made now. What I'm not sure about yet is if the Wolf Creek trip filled that hole or made it deeper.

Thursday, February 7, 2013

What Doesn't Kill You Makes You Stronger or At Least Makes Good Blog Fodder, Part 1

1. We had an uncarved pumpkin left over from Halloween and an unused pie crust left over from Christmas in the freezer. I will make a pie, I thought; I am an empty-the-pantry genius. Waste not, want not!

2. What kind of pumpkin do we have, besides a long-lasting-at-room-temperature one? Well. A "small pumpkin" according to the label on the squash. Very helpful. I remember that I got it from one of the big bins outside and not from the small stand of pie pumpkins in the produce section; but that shouldn't matter, right? Not really? A pumpkin is a pumpkin, after all.

3. Slice open the pumpkin: clean and fresh inside. Scoop out seeds; bake. (Face down in a tray of water for an hour and fifteen minutes at 350 degrees, for those of you following along at home, which [foreshadowing] I do not recommend.)

4. Scrape out the baked flesh. It sure peels off the skin in long easy strips. Maybe a little too easy. Also a little too strippy. Like spaghetti squash. Hmm. Blend; put in double boiler and add 3 beaten eggs, 3/4 cup of sugar, salt and cinnamon-ginger-cloves. Oh, and 3/4 cup cream. Only I don't have cream, so I put in half and half. Bake pie shell.

5. Hmm. It sure looks kind of...separate. Like I'm mixing chocolate milk with squash chunks.

6. Now it looks more like crumbled brown sugar mixed with squash chunks, with water poured over.

7. Pour off water. Blend the remains. Still oddly separate. Hmm. Sometimes homemade is a little less than picture-perfect, right? It's part of the charm. Pour/ scrape slightly sticky pumpkin custard (somehow custard is not the first thing that comes to mind, here) into baked pie crust. Hmm. Put in still-warm oven for fifteen minutes just...because. Because an additional step seems called for. Because right now the pie looks like I soaked cat kibble in milk overnight and poured it into a pie crust.

8. Well, it will still taste good, right?

9. Verdict: no.

10. If you must know, it tastes like I tried to make a pie with the slimy goop that the seeds come in. Blech.

11. Am still empty-the-pantry genius, only in the directly-to-trash, do not pass go, do not collect two hundred dollars sense.


Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Impossibilities

I spend a large portion of my musing time imagining alternate scenarios to the way we live now. Not just us, our nuclear unit, but us in the community sense. My mind tends to run toward idealistic strategies. (As a counterbalance, much of the rest of my musing time is spent in arguing the merits of my own personal beliefs to imaginary companions.)

I try to imagine my world, more-or-less just as it is, but with certain intractable problems no longer so intractable. The ability to work, make money, have colleagues...and still be able to meet the school bus, or volunteer in class. The ability to live in a place that is pleasant and friendly and reasonably convenient to the places we need to go, yet isn't mostly surfaced in asphalt, shingles, and bluegrass turf.

One of the things I've been imagining lately is how to live once a person's mobility has been compromised, specifically, the mobility afforded by the personal car (a development that often dovetails with a loss of physical mobility). According to what I've read recently, the best place to live as an older, mobility-compromised person is the walking-friendly village or dense urban neighborhood you grew old in, or on an estate with servants, a driver, and a legion of loving relatives with their own separate quarters. I've been wondering about ways those of us who missed the train on (a) or (b) can create their benefits with the materials at hand.

As I muse, I've been using the specific example of an older relative who can see the end of her driving days in her rear-view mirror. How to recreate the village in the suburbs, at a price that's affordable for a person on a limited budget? I will leave aside the issue that one of the sacred tenets of this particular person's personal identity has been her ability to spend all day out and about in her car. That's separate, I think. The basic problem here is systemic.

For example, this person lives in a 55-and-older neighborhood, which is not, as it happens, well-designed to accommodate people who can no longer drive. For one thing, the nearest grocery store is two miles away. For another, the very 55-and-older-ness of the community has bred a certain vicious paranoia about infirmity: the residents here are too close to the age of immobility to brook any suggestion of weakness in that quarter. You drive or you leave, seems to be the consensus. Finally, the 55-and-older-ness has shut off other avenues of community engagement, such as having younger relatives (like us) living nearby. I think such a community could foster ways to gracefully accommodate the gradual loss of mobility and increase in isolation; I just don't think this one has. So I imagine ways this could change: daily dinners at the clubhouse, for example. A mobile pharmacy. A bus service. An errand service.

Even better, I think, would be a community that was closer to us. As suburbs go, we're pretty walkable: we have a nearby grocery store, restaurants, and library (what more does a person want? if a person is me, anyway.) With a little tweaking - such as extending the sidewalks surrounding the grocery store so that they actually extend into the surrounding neighborhoods, instead of dumping pedestrians into traffic in random places - this could be a suburb friendly to unsteady older adults on foot. Oh, and also we'd have to do something about that big road, the one with all the cars. This tends to be a theme in my alternate scenarios. It's not exactly that's I'm anticar, it's just I'd rather there were many, many more places where cars were not. (Am I willing to give up my car to achieve this scenario? No! I mean, not yet.)

So. I'm really not any closer to figuring this one out (and there's the added intractability of the fact that this is a real person with a real problem that we really need to address, sooner than later, and it needs to be affordable and also needs to not involve anyone moving into our basement) (which would be imperfect anyway, because of all the stairs) (notice how I'm not even mentioning the personality problems.)

 And now, for something completely different: it's Western Wear week, and I totally caved.


Not-pink boots were so completely not an option.

Friday, January 25, 2013

What I'm reading this week

The artist's life, communes, tribal history and a Mumbai slum: that's what I'm reading about this week.

Since I prefer it when my books harmonize a little in my mind, here's how I link them together: if you start with the first book, which asks How Should a Person Be?

the rest of the books kind of answer it, only with less emphasis on "should" than "could."

How could a person be?

A person could be in a hippie commune in upstate New York, overworked, hungry, subject to the tyranny of the collective but enriched by it, too: Arcadia.

Similarly at mercy of the elements, but still buoyed by an ancient tradition and an rich religious foundation, a person could be a member of the People: People of the Sacred Mountain, Vol. 1.

Or a person could be hot, wet, hungry and eking out an unbearably crowded life among toxic trash at the edge of a lake of sewage on the grounds of the Mumbai airport: Beyond the Beautiful Forevers.

Lots of harmonizing, so much so that my mind would be one deafening roar of exaltation, were it not for some picky details:

1. The Sheila Heti book, asking How Should a Person Be? (always a useful question), answers it from the point of view of a twenty-something artist, someone without the complicating burdens of children and work and obligation: someone who can do what she wants. It is interesting to read about her struggles to define herself and respond to her friendships, but there's not a whole lot I can bring to my own life. And I consider such take homes my reward for reading this kind of novel (i.e. not escapist. Though it was very easy and enjoyable to read, with short chapters and sentences. I appreciate this kind of book.)

2. I have a scab-picky fascination with hippies commune novels, but I wonder if they don't tend to...blur together, a little. Drop City was great. I like Arcadia even more. They are both rich, unique, original novels...and yet the ground feels trodden, somehow. Perhaps it doesn't matter. But it does feel like a trope. However, [SPOILER ALERT] when I accidentally read a summary of Arcadia, I see that it actually moves beyond the commune and into the dystopian future...so maybe it's less trodden than I thought.

3. People of the Sacred Mountain: a huge, heavy, two-volume history of the Cheyenne people, as told by a chief of the tribe. Who was also - this is confusing to me, and I feel like it shouldn't be, like it's none of my business - not actually Cheyenne himself, I think. He is - was - a Roman Catholic priest who was adopted into the tribe as an adult. I.e., as white as me. And obviously this doesn't matter, except that I worry that I am being presented with a history of the Cheyenne people as told by the People themselves - only it's actually not being told by the People themselves, it's being told by an outsider who thinks he's an insider, who maybe romanticizes and misrepresents. But maybe he is an insider? And in any case, since I am most definitely an outsider and will never claim any sort of authority on the subject, why would it matter? But it does matter. I'm pretty sure that it does. So I enjoy this history, which is rich and beautiful and seamlessly merges the mythic with the historic, yet I hold it at arm's length.

4. I have a similar nagging doubt about Beyond the Beautiful Forevers. I love it, for its intelligent and sympathetic portrayal of these people so different from me (who, it should not surprise me but it does, are motivated by very similar things as the families in my own community); yet it is told in novelistic style in the POV of the inhabitants of the slum, and I keep wondering where the tall, elegantly dressed white woman was standing when these events were occurring, and how her presence affected the unfolding story. So far she's been entirely invisible, but unless the events related were told to her after the fact, and I can't help but think that just by being there she changed how things turned out. Actually, since I've gotten totally invested in the fortunes of these people, I am really hoping that her invisible presence will affect how things turn out for them.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Old-fashioned

After a weekend filled with the usual struggles over electronic devices, it was delightful - and disorienting? - to have the kids read out loud to each other after dinner, as they took turns doing dishes. Then we all played a few rounds of their sudden new favorite, charades. I half expected someone to demand I fry up some apples 'n' onions and roast some potatoes over the open fire. (Instead, the two minors retreated to play a little Minecraft before bed, so all was right with the world once again).

Anyhow. I say this so that tomorrow or next week when I feel like shipping Silas off to military school I will remember that he is at heart a good kid, and capable of behaving with kindness and generosity toward others, even his sister. Despite any momentary evidence that he is not.

This weekend, as we were driving up into the mountains to go skiing, Si was in one of his testier moods. Not at all in a bad way - just determined to marshal the argument against us. " 'An idler is not somebody who is lazy. An idler is someone who wants to enjoy their life and enjoy lots of freedom in their life. Idlers raise children who are more independent and do more for themselves,' " he read to us in an instructional tone from his new book, Unbored. "I'm an Idler. That's what I am. See?"

"That's really good that you're able to be aware of yourself like that," I said. "But it's also good to look around and pay attention to what you give up if that's how you really want to live life."

And I wish I could have been a more Zen parent and left it at that, but of course we got into a pointed discussion about how idle hands are a Devil's workshop, et cetera et cetera, and how b) we're the most idle parents of anyone in your acquaintance, and 3) that's great if you want to be idle but don't expect to have a big nice house in the Preserve or be taking any fancy vacations with that lifestyle.

"But if that's who you are and what you want to be," I finished with a panting return to cheerfulness, "Then that's great! It's good to know that. But also understand what you'll have to give up."

Pant pant pant.

A rare moment of togetherness on the slopes.
Skiing was fine. The snow is terrible. I came straight home and apologized to all the trees and perennials in my care: looks like it's going to be a water-restricted summer, friends. Meanwhile, it was at least freakishly warm and brilliantly sunny. Lately I've been skiing with Silas and his cousin while Mike does Helen duty (which isn't the exercise in gritted-teeth patience that it once was, either), so for the first time since the nineties I've actually been having the sort of ski day that people mean when they say they want to go skiing. Every now and then I get left behind, and Silas did say something about boring it is to ski with me because he always has to stop and wait - but, you know, wind in my hair (or streaming over my helmet), aching legs. exhilaration, etc. It was nice.