Monday, December 24, 2012

Happy for the Holidays

So this year I didn't get ornaments on the Christmas tree until yesterday. That's right. Oh, the tree had been up for a couple of weeks, but first we had to let the not-really-a-kitten-but-still-acts-like-one get her ya-yas out by trying to climb the thing a few times, and then wrap up the last week of school and school parties and baking and gifts for teachers and random things like a long-overdue toilet repair and excavating Son #1's room and...
 Our cat wishes she could do this.

Is it any wonder that people hate the holidays? I saw the first encroaching signs of the approaching holidays when the back wall of the seasonal section of our local Target filled up with Christmas lights a week before Halloween. I admit it made me cranky, because instead of a wall of lights I saw a long unspooling to-do list, full of Hanukkah parties and Christmas events (yes, our family celebrates both). I saw high expectations and disappointed hopes in my future, because those things always seem to go hand in hand. The pressure to make things magical for the holidays, especially when you have kids, seems overwhelming. But life doesn't stop for you to suddenly become Betty Crocker and churn out twelve dozen perfectly decorated sugar cookies to give to the neighbors, or to spend hours untangling strings of lights to find enough that work to decorate the tree. Hell, for me it's an accomplishment to have enough Hanukkah candles in the house.

This year a couple we're friends with stopped by and dropped off a container of cookies, along with their holiday card. I experienced a moment of panic, even as I smiled, thanked the husband, and waved to the wife, who was sitting in their car at the curb. I hadn't thought of baking for any of our friends, even though a week previously I had made roughly five squintillion sugar cookies and pizzelles for Son #2 and Son #3's holiday class parties, to give to the school office, and to send to Son #1's teachers. I mentally started calculating the time it would take to make some more sugar cookie dough, and whether or not I had enough colored sugar to decorate another several dozen cookies, and then...I let it go. This is not going to be the year that I am the Woman Who Does Everything More Beautifully Than You (and who likes that b*tch anyway?). Next year probably won't be it either.

There are no lights on the outside of our house. I haven't sent out our cards yet because they are New Year's cards (much easier than sending Hanukkah cards to some family and Christmas cards to the rest), and the best present we got from my husband's family was the moratorium on gifts between adults. Last year I spent the Saturday before Christmas in the mall, in a weird mental zen state of completely embracing the suck, knowing that I was elbowing my way through crowds to shop (two of my least favorite things combined, yay) because I had not managed to get it together to complete my shopping earlier online. This year the patron saint of our holidays has been And my husband and I severely restricted our budgets for each other's gifts in favor of the much more practical gift of finally having our living room and dining room painted (a task that will take place AFTER the holidays are a memory).

I don't think the kids will notice that there are no elves on our shelves. We didn't spend three hours in stop-and-go traffic to drive past someone else's Christmas lights, and we didn't stand in a line of grumpy adults and fidgety children so that they could tell a man in costume their wish list. Sorry if that seems "bah humbug"y, but I look back at my own childhood and these things don't stand out to me. Tellingly, my kids haven't asked to do either. Maybe they are wise enough to know that either outing would come with a heaping helping of cranky mama.

This would be me after two hours in line.

The boys seem plenty happy with the endless supply of cookies and the lazy days of winter break when they can be in pajamas an hour past when they would normally be in school. Son #2 will spend this evening, I know, glued to the Santa Tracker app on my iPhone, and Son #1 will probably be the lone voice of reason among the boys as we alternately threaten and cajole them into bed at a halfway decent hour. (The tradition at my parents' house is that no presents whatsoever are put under the tree until after the kids are in bed, which means that we adults have a vested interest in getting them to bed so we don't have to stay up until two a.m. ourselves.)

This year I'm listening to that voice of reason myself. The breakable ornaments are staying put away for their own good, to survive to a year when adolescent feline curiosity has ebbed. The hours I spent coaching Son #1 to recycle most of the mountain of papers covering his desk were much better spent than if I had taken that time putting out myriad holiday decorations that would just have to be taken down again. Tonight I will enjoy a glass of wine with my family, and tomorrow I will enjoy being pried out of bed by my boys, who will not have any idea how I can possibly still be asleep when there are presents under the tree at Grandma and Granddad's! (Okay, maybe enjoy is a strong word on that last one, but I'll be good to go once you get some coffee in me.)

I hope that you have spent your holiday season doing what brings you and your loved ones joy. I hope that you have let go of unrealistic expectations for making the season perfect and that instead you can enjoy what is put before you. (I, for one, am looking forward to another exciting edition of "Seriously, People Really Think That's Okay to Wear to Church on Christmas Eve?" later today.) Laughter, hugs, family, friends, love, good food...and gratitude for everything I have. There. I'm happy already and I haven't opened a single present.

Happy holidays to everyone.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Life Gets in the Way: NaNoWriMo Edition

[Before I get started on the subject of this post, I just want to say a big thank you to the voters of California. For those of you who read my last post, you know I was somewhat pessimistic about the possibility of Prop 30 passing, and feeling a bit worn down after years of cuts to K-12 education in this state. So thank you. I know that we're not nearly out of the woods yet, but I finally have hope that the hard road ahead will lead upwards.]

November is a terrible month in which to write a novel. I know this, because I have done it now three times, and am working on the fourth, and every year I curse the timing. Surely, there must be a better month. One where the kids are in school more (24-7?). One where I am not cleaning up after Halloween and ostensibly planning for the holidays. One that features vistas of spare time just waiting to be filled up with brilliant writing sessions where I effortlessly craft reams upon reams of deathless prose.
If you're wondering, this is what people like me do with their Novembers.

Yeah, right.

I first got introduced to the madness that is National Novel Writing Month by my dear friend and college roommate, who not only participates every year but has her middle school students do the Young Writers Program. The idea is to write a 50,000-word novel in one month, no excuses, no inner editor, just the pure fun of writing at top speed. I watched with envy and awe as she blogged about it in 2008. I was an English Writing major in college, and in the many years between my graduation and that date, had managed to confine my writing skills to business use, grocery lists, PTA fundraising appeals, and the like. She encouraged me to try it myself, so in 2009 I did.

I had forgotten how much fun writing could be. Make no mistake about it, when you're trying to stick to writing 1,667 words a day (approximately 6 or so pages), you're not anywhere in the neighborhood of crafting deathless prose. If you're like me, you've gone into the month with something that looks like an idea, maybe a reasonably well-formed first scene and a few incidents that you know happen somewhere in the middle to drive that shapeless, amoeba-like plot in a vaguely forward direction. But after you've exhausted that meager reserve, you're making it up as you go along, inventing characters, settings, and scenarios on the fly.

In order to have even a prayer of finishing on time, you have to accept that your writing may be bad. Really bad. That later you will look back through scenes you wrote and hope that there's a pony in there somewhere among all the horseshit. On the upside, you will also surprise yourself with bits of clever writing that seems to come out of nowhere, because your brain will spit them out before your internal censors have a chance to shut them down. If you're lucky, you will also have a family that quietly leaves you alone when it finds you giggling over your computer at a phrase or scene of your own that you particularly enjoy.

Save a full rereading for December. Trust me.

That first novel (first draft of a first novel, really) was exceedingly lousy. For that matter, so were novels two and three. But I had fun writing them.

Yes, November is a terrible month to write a novel in. That first November, my husband went out of the country for a week and got go-directly-to-the-hospital-do-not-pass-go-do-not-collect-$200-grade food poisoning, two of the kids got swine flu, the computer died, and all sorts of other hell broke loose. I still dragged myself across the 50,000-word finish line on time. I learned three very important things that year:
  • If your novel is feeling really flat and you hate it, try killing off a character or two to get things rolling. You can always borrow the Traveling Shovel of Death.
  • Back up your novel. It's not fun to spend five days with your computer in the shop, wondering if you're ever going to see the first 11,000 words of your crappy novel again.
  • I can write 50,000 words in a month, even when my life is turning into a domestic disaster movie/farce.

This year I am the furthest behind I have ever been in my word count at this point (I should be at 18,337 and I'm only at about 13,300). My obstacles have included, but are not limited to, hours of following the presidential election, particularly onerous chauffeur duty (soccer practice, rehearsals, therapy appointments, more soccer practice, lather, rinse, repeat), school meetings and more school meetings, and knitting. (Note to self: the next time you think four pregnant friends need cute little items for their babies, plan ahead. Start early, like right after they pee on the pregnancy test. My right shoulder may never be the same.) This doesn't even get into the more routine domestic duties that can make it seem easier to put off writing until tomorrow. Or the next day. I'm bored to tears by my novel and haven't the slightest clue how I am going to eke another 37,000 words out of this story. But since I'll be damned if this is the year I break my perfect streak of finishing NaNoWriMo, I'll keep writing. If I have to throw in an alien abduction, I will.

The truth is, November is a terrible month to write a novel in, but so are all the others. There is no time when life will politely step out of the way and let you write a novel, or start whatever creative endeavor you think you're going to get to "one day" when things settle down. So if I don't return your phone call right away this month...if I don't get to the laundry right away, or the dishes...if I seem distracted and have an odd glint in my eye as if I'm sizing up what's going around me for possible insertion in the World's Worst Novel...I promise I'll be back next month.

I also promise I won't make you read my novel. At least until after the first edit.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

What I've Been Doing

[My apologies in advance. My neighbor asked if I had any new blog posts up, since she hadn't seen one in a while. She hadn't missed one; the thoughts in this post have just been percolating for some time. I'm sharing even though I'm not sure this will be of interest or concern to everyone. I'll try to have something a little lighter-hearted next time.]

I've been a volunteer at my kids' elementary school for a long time. Though I made several mostly joking references last year to chucking my notebook at the first person who even hinted that they would take over as booster club president and then running far, far away, the truth is that I always knew that I would still be devoting a chunk of my time to helping at the school this year, in some capacity or another.

I started out innocently enough, back when Son #1 was in first grade, and I attended the first PTA meeting of the year, hugely pregnant with Son #3 and with one complaint on my mind. The previous year our school had started their first-ever appeal for direct donations, and the letter had stated that if you donated more than a certain amount, you would get a receipt for tax purposes. We had donated, and had never gotten our receipt. After the meeting I talked to the PTA president, mentioned to her my opinion that it made our organization look bad to not follow through on promises like that, and offered to send the thank-you letters in question if she had the information from the previous year.

I ended up not just sending those letters, but running that particular campaign for a few more years. I volunteered on the Box Tops for Education committee. I sent in recycled ink cartridges for the school for cash. I collected bottles and cans for my kids' classrooms to help pay for extra field trips and whatnot. (And yes, it felt like I spent an inordinate time either collecting or picking through items other people consider trash during this period. I have little pride when it comes to getting money for the school.) I served as the PTA's financial secretary for several years around the same time, counting up stacks of the grubbiest one-dollar-bills ever as I verified the totals for weekly pizza and popsicle sales prior to depositing the money in the bank. Our school started an annual festival to raise more desperately-needed money for enrichment programs, and I volunteered there, too.
This is me as a volunteer, only more glamorous.

Then Sons #1 and 2 got into the magnet at our school, which is on the same campus as the regular elementary school (the "home" school). Though I had shed a few minor duties, in addition to most of the above, I started helping with the booster club. The next year I took over as booster club president (giving up both the financial secretary post and the annual support fund chair to two separate, sane people); I had already become a festival co-chair the year before. I won't bore you with further details, but I've joked over the years about indentured servitude, and various people at the school have opined that I actually sleep in the nurse's office and that the festival storage shed is my office.

This year I may have retreated a bit from the fundraising strategizing, but I'm still around, volunteering in the  school office one morning and Son #3's classroom another morning. What I'm seeing, and what I've seen through all the years of trying to figure out every way possible to bring money into my kids' school, is a big reason why I had to take a step back.

Every year that my kids have been in school, our budget has taken a hit. The support fund was started because the school was losing funding. As our state budget woes have gone from bad to worse over the years, more funds have been whacked. Once we had math and literacy coaches to help struggling students--those went a while ago. We went from two librarians to one, to one half-time, to none. Our magnet coordinator has been half time for a few years. We lost our assistant principal altogether. Our assistant principal EIS (for special education) is now half time, splitting her time between two schools, with no chance to get to know the students for whom she administers IEPs. Our class sizes have gone up. And none of this even begins to hint at the turmoil that has been created by years of pink slips going out in the spring, to be rescinded later (or not). Teachers have retired as much to get out before things get worse as because they have genuinely reached the end of their career, and good teachers with just not quite enough experience have been forced out by layoffs. District office cuts have forced a reshuffling of administrators, meaning that on top of all our other losses, we've had a rapid turnover of principals over the last few years. We've lost days of instruction to furloughs.

As a parent, it is demoralizing to work hard all year to raise the money to give our kids weekly (!) P.E. lessons, a little art, a science lab, whatever, and then have the district whack another chunk out of the budget. I got exhausted trying to keep up morale (mine and others'), touting the importance of participating in the latest fundraiser to try to preserve the program of enrichment we already have when it began to feel like so much rearranging of deck chairs on the Titanic. Yes, we have made things better, kept our school going and even reached for things we didn't have before in the midst of a steadily deepening budget crisis in our state, and I don't regret the time I have spent helping those efforts. But each year it has gotten harder to get up the energy to do it all over again when time and again we've gotten the legs cut out from under us by circumstances we don't have the power to change. My admiration for our teachers and staff and my fellow parents has grown as each year, despite the challenges, we all get up and do it all again, but each time with fewer resources and more demands.
The sensible response to having your fate in the hands of California's voters.

The problems with my sons' schools stem from California's budget and governmental woes, and those aren't going to be solved any time soon. In the meantime, we're looking at another round of cuts, mid-year this time, if Proposition 30 on the ballot doesn't pass, with more cuts to come in the years to come. A competing measure, Proposition 38, wouldn't automatically stop the cuts this year, but it would generate revenue for next year and the years beyond. We're beyond the point of cutting fat from the schools, well beyond the point of trimming dubious programs. If we want to get something from our educational system (by the crudest measure, higher test scores, and by a more sensible measure, an educated populace), we have to pay for it. There is no getting something for nothing.

I'm not feeling good about the citizens of this state having the backs of our students. It's easy to rail about higher taxes and grumble about how the state government is spending the money it already has, no matter how modest the increase proposed (to put Prop 30's terms in perspective, a quarter-cent sales tax increase is the equivalent of one penny for every four dollars you spend, and I don't think I know anyone personally who makes the requisite income--$250,000 annually as an individual or $500,000 as a couple--to even see the income tax increase). Most of the people casting a ballot don't have a child in school. From the outside, the schools probably look the same to them, maybe just a little dirtier because of all the cuts to our custodial staff, and a little shabbier due to the cuts to maintenance. Or maybe not, if the custodians work as hard as the ones at our school do.

We've reached the end of where personal efforts can make up for lack of resources, though. Too many years of being in crisis mode have burned out teachers, staff, and parents, and those brave faces are looking a little strained. It's time to stop pretending that we can get educational results at the top of national ranks when our per-pupil spending, teacher to student ratio, and a host of other measures are at the bottom of national averages. Nobody expects to get a Mercedes on a Kia budget when they are car shopping; can we please stop pretending that it is possible when we're talking about public education? California public schools need the voters of California to help us; we need to have the funds to keep going.

On November 7th, the day after the election, is my weekly volunteer day in Son #3's classroom. I'll still be there no matter what the outcome.
Oh, but by the way, I'm not above doing this, either. 

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Paranoid Mama

It's natural, as parents, to dread phone calls from the school in the middle of the day. Usually the cause can only be one of two things: your child is sick, or your child has done something so egregiously wrong that you have to be involved immediately, rather than getting the bad news at the end of the day when you pick them up. Thankfully, my experience has mostly been with the former (including a couple of hilarious-in-retrospect phone calls when Son #1 was in kindergarten, because he had a propensity for absent-mindedly walking into poles). Whatever the cause, though, seeing the school's number pop up on caller ID mid-morning always elevates my heart rate.

I resemble this remark.

Monday morning I got the call midway through an extremely sweaty jog/walk: the school nurse was calling because Son #3 was in her office complaining of chest pains, though he looked fine. I was a bit distracted as I simultaneously tried to talk to the nurse (and briefly to my son) and started trying to map out what this might mean. I've got a little bit of experience at this mom thing, and I've found that children who are genuinely feeling bad are rarely in a state to complain eloquently about it (as Son #3 was apparently doing). However, what if I were wrong? What could chest pains in a kindergartener mean? I wrapped up my conversation and promised to call the nurse back when I got home. Then I rushed back home, trying to decide if I cared if the people in the main office saw me in my sweaty exercise clothes or not, wondering how hard it would be to get him in to see the pediatrician before the end of the school day (when I would have to pick up his brothers), and mentally chucking the rest of my to-do list out of the window.

At home, I phoned the nurse back. She had sent him back to class, but was going to go over and check on him. I wandered aimlessly around the house, not wanting to hop into the now desperately-needed shower lest I miss her phone call. When she finally called back, imagine the anticlimax: he was fine, and the nurse and his teacher, upon conferring, had concluded that his complaint was actually the result of the frustration he was experiencing as they worked on learning to write the letter "e." (As his teacher told me at the end of the day, he has experienced a whole range of bodily aches when asked to work on things that don't come easily to him.) The nurse had told him kindly that he was okay and that he was going to stay in school.

It was all well and good, except for the avalanche of irrational guilt I felt buried under for not being immediately at my child's beck and call the second the school's phone call came. Though I may joke about bon-bon eating and mani-pedi getting while my kids are at school, the truth is that I tend to stick close to home, within easy reach of the phone in case I'm urgently needed. I tend not to schedule anything that would take me far away or require a lot of time; a couple of weeks ago I scheduled a hair appointment on a school day and felt completely irresponsible the entire time. If that dreaded call from school had come, I would have had to tell them that I was unavailable to come get my child because I was having my hair dyed. Worst. Mother. Ever. Right?

It doesn't actually work this way. Sadly.

I know this is crazy. Frankly, if my kids were to have a horrific accident at school, I would hope that I'd be the second phone call the school would make, AFTER calling 9-1-1. But it is hard to shake the feeling that responsible, committed, excellent motherhood requires my whole focus all the time, even when my kids are not with me. It's a quite a bit like imagining the force of your concentration is keeping the airplane you're flying in up in the air. Completely bogus, and yet superstitiously impossible to fully dismiss.

Of course I like to believe that I'm important in my boys' lives. However, when it comes to lurking at home because I fear that my absence may cause terrible things to happen in their lives should I not be available for a phone call from school at any second, I think I need to call b.s. on myself. I can go get a latte with a friend without my kids' world caving in on them. And if I trust the school to educate my kids, I should trust that even if I can't show up the second I get a phone call telling me that, say, Son #2 threw up and is in the nurse's office, they can still hold down the fort until I can get there.

Giving my kids things to complain to their future therapists about--just one of my many services.

Parenthood is hard. But it helps to take a good hard look at what is possible as a parent, and what is just paranoia. I talked to Son #3 about his work, and I reminded him that not everything he learns in school is going to come easy. That it is okay to make mistakes, and he shouldn't be anxious about it. That learning to deal with frustration is a great skill, because many worthwhile things in life are going to take some effort to learn. Do I think he's going to learn this lesson overnight? No. And do I think that if I had been sitting at home instead of trying to get some exercise that this episode would have gone down any differently? I might have spent a little less time afraid to get in the shower and grossing myself out with my drenched sweatiness, but otherwise, no. As a friend of mine once admonished me, it's time to land the helicopter, Mom.

Friday, September 28, 2012

It's Alive!

It's been a couple of weeks since I posted anything here. It's not that I didn't think about it--I did. It's not even as if I didn't write anything--I sat down one day and started not one, but two posts, both of which failed to gel into anything that I cared to finish, much less inflict on anyone else. Now I'm at the point where the weight of guilt, or the sense that I now have to post something brilliant to make up for my sloth, could possibly crush the remaining impulse I have to post anything, so I'm just going to jump in and hope a loyal reader or two will forgive me what is sure to be a fairly haphazard post.

First of all, for those who read my last post about the baby squirrel we found in our back yard, I have good news. Chopper, as he has been christened by the woman who has been taking care of him, is alive and well and thriving, as you can see in the video below. I've actually been a little surprised at the number of our friends who have been asking about him (thanks to Facebook, pretty much everyone we know seems to have taken notice). It's nice to know that even grownups have a soft spot in their hearts for a little beady-eyed fuzzy. (Except of course, for one college friend, who has a long-standing loathing of squirrels. I suspect he understands the rescue but the multiple pictures of Chopper that keep showing up in my Facebook feed courtesy of Chopper's new mama are probably giving him a twitch.)

Secondly, I have not been trapped under anything heavy. I have not fled the country. I have not even locked myself in the bathroom with a bottle of vodka and a straw, even after having to coax Son #2 through finishing not one, but two projects this week that would have been a piece of cake had he not procrastinated on them. (There are days I wonder if he's conducting a scientific experiment to see if he can literally make my head pop off just by raising my blood pressure. He came close this week.)

Instead, I've been muddling along in a fog as my family's routine slowly settles into place for the fall. We did, in fact, end up with a soccer practice every single day of the week, and between that, religious school, Son #1's therapies, Son #2's play, and Son #3's theater class, we're running quite a bit of the time. I've gone in to volunteer in Son #3's classroom and in the school office a few times. I've made a couple of half-hearted attempts to work on the garage, though the weather is still so hot that it is hard to be in there for very long. My dad is having so much fun giving me crap about it, though, that I almost hate to clean it up now. (And that is officially the excuse I will be using for my slow progress until further notice.)
Safety first!

I couldn't quite put into words why I was feeling so aimless until I was talking to my friend L today.* She was complaining that she felt like there was something she was supposed to be doing, but she couldn't put her finger on what it was. For the last two years she was the treasurer of the booster club while I was the president, and she got to deal with all kinds of fun stuff (such as submitting all the required documentation necessary to get the state of California to un-suspend our nonprofit status). I told her I didn't actually think that she was forgetting anything--it was just that she was used to being so swamped with things to do for the booster club that it was like she had phantom limb syndrome now, her brain insisting that there was a to-do list there, where in fact there was none.

If I had been a clearer-minded thinker, I could have applied this diagnosis to myself a couple of weeks ago. And no, I don't have any good answers for her. I suspect the feeling will fade away, given time and some distance from the things that used to be our responsibilities. One of my friends, whose son is in kindergarten with Son #3 and who manages the wrapping paper fundraiser for the booster club, told me that our numbers were up this year. And even as I congratulated her I realized, I don't need to worry about this. It is no longer my responsibility if the numbers for the wrapping paper sales are good or bad.  We have a very capable president this year who can handle that responsibility, and all the others that go with being president, without me hovering.

I've also been talking to my sister-in-law, who is still a member of the co-op preschool Son #3 attended last year. I've been pumping her for details on what is going on there this year, even though with 2/3rds of the members graduating in Son #3's class last year, the co-op is now mostly full of people I don't know. A lot of my time last year was also taken up with my duties there, volunteering once a week and being the treasurer. I even miss some parts of it, though not the long meetings or the plethora of information-free reply-to-all emails. I feel the lack of that responsibility in my life too.
Don't miss this part. Not even a little bit.

So now I have to get used to a new normal in my life, one that does not involve simply lining up to-do list items as if they are hurdles to fling myself over one at a time until the school year is over and I get the summer to pause, catch my breath, and prepare to do it all again. I do have time to write (however meanderingly or badly), time to maybe go get a cup of coffee with a friend and talk about something other than school fundraising strategies, time to rediscover old hobbies, time to clean my house. And even time to still help at school, because now that I feel that it isn't consuming my life, I'm actually starting to remember why I liked volunteering in the first place. The trick will be not filling up my schedule with things that seem critical to distract myself from the frenetic tedium of everyday life, and depriving myself of the time to do things I like.

So now that I've gotten over the delusion that I need to be brilliant to be on the internet (doesn't stop anyone else), I'll be trying to write regularly again and to ignore the phantom limb of last year's to-do list. And if you see me trying to volunteer for something new, tackle me, please!

*Since "my friend who took the batteries to the household hazardous waste recycling" is a mouthful, I'm going to use her first initial, L, to identify her from here on out.

Sunday, September 9, 2012

What Happens When You're Making Other Plans

Yesterday was the start of soccer season. Our plan for the day was to walk over to the park with all three boys, hang out for all of their games, and then head home for the afternoon. That part of the plan actually went off more or less as planned, with the caveat that we probably didn't take nearly enough water or shade-producing devices to make five hours in the sun and heat bearable. And in a classic spasm of Volunteer Tourette's, I volunteered to be team mom for Son #3's team, which means that I will shortly get to start coordinating snack schedules, determining whether or not the team wants to buy a banner to display at games (I personally hate them, as they are expensive and become trash at the end of the season), etc. I'm beginning to wonder if I need an intervention.

Realizing that we had an afternoon relatively free, we invited a friend and her two children to come and hang out. (Bonus: I have had five bags of clothes for her son sitting in the hall for weeks. She was grateful to get them and I was thrilled to have another 29.4 pounds of stuff out of the house!) We sent the kids outside to play in the sprinkler and settled down at the dining room table to chat. Suddenly the kids ran in to tell us that there was a baby squirrel in the yard. We all headed out, I personally thinking that they must be confused.

Well, they weren't. Behind the swing set, on the grass, was a tiny squirrel. He seemed to be moving rather slowly for a squirrel, and looked a bit unwell to me. (My first thought, after our morning out at the park, was dehydration.) I'm a giant softy for small furry critters, and I'd like to say that I immediately sprang into swift, purposeful action. I believe I actually blurted out something along the lines of, "Holy shit! I hope this thing doesn't die on my watch." I routinely kill houseplants, and the only reason our goldfish survives my haphazard tank-cleaning schedule is because it is a rat with fins. I knew nursing a sick baby squirrel would be way beyond my pay grade. However, even if I had been able to stomach the idea of doing nothing, that wasn't an option with four kids looking on.
He did not look like a happy camper.

First I made a clumsy attempt to get him into a shoebox, which simply made him retreat under the steps to the playhouse. I went back into the house, got some leather work gloves, and fished him out. We ultimately housed him in a cat carrier (after Son #2 and my husband brought out for my inspection any number of unsuitable homes). The kids rubbernecked for a while, then moved on. After all, at least for my kids, watching mom freak out and obsess over something is a more-or-less everyday occurrence.
Offering him some water soon after capture. Thick oversized gloves + squirrel = comedy of errors.

I have to digress a moment here to talk about the internet. My husband has always been an early adopter of technology, and way back in the '90s I used to give him all kinds of crap about how the internet was simply a morass of mind-bogglingly useless information. I have been eating crow on this subject since about 2001. In this particular instance, the internet proved staggeringly useful. My husband posted a picture of the squirrel on Facebook immediately, soliciting suggestions of what to do from his friends. Within minutes they were helping him contact an experienced squirrel rescuer. I Googled information on what to do, and found a recipe for a simple rehydration formula (water with a little salt and sugar), which our furry little friend guzzled from an oral syringe when I offered it to him. We found information on squirrel development, which led us to guess that he was probably weaned or close to it, based on the fact that he had a full coat of fur and open eyes.

He wasn't wild about being picked up with gloves, but he didn't mind the grub.

We followed the advice of the web sites and tried to locate the nest he might have fallen from, but mysteriously, the part of our yard where he appeared is not near any large trees. After I posted a picture on Facebook, another friend suggested that he may have been from a nest disturbed by tree trimming, which would explain the sticky clumps of what I guessed was tree sap in his fur, though that theory also didn't point us to any likely spots since I don't think any of the neighbors have had trees trimmed recently. At any rate, we didn't have any luck finding his mom. Luckily, the squirrel rescuer said she could come get him on Sunday morning, so we only had to keep him going overnight.

I was relatively laid back (for me) about caring for him. Which meant that I only:
  • Ran to the pet store and bought $9 worth of puppy formula, which the squirrel refused to drink. (From the smell of it, I didn't blame him.)
  • Hovered over the cat carrier all evening, shooing away a very curious Toothless, who could sense that there was something interesting of a rodent nature inside and insisted on sniffing the carrier from all angles.
  • Rummaged in the garage for something softer than the rags I had initially put in the carrier with him, eventually coming up with a couple of old hooded baby towels.
  • Dosed him regularly with the rehydration formula (which he did like) and fed him a strawberry, one half at a time. (If the squirrel rescuer hadn't cautioned us not to overfeed him, I probably would have been offering him something every fifteen minutes.)
  • Put the carrier in our bathroom overnight, on top of a heating pad and under a towel for warmth, on the theory that having our guest safely away from the cats behind a closed door was the best plan, even if it meant I couldn't check his breathing every half an hour all night long.
  • Got up once before dawn to give him another dose of fluids.
This morning our guest looked a bit perkier than he had before. He took some more fluids, gnawed a bit more strawberry, but mostly seemed interested in burrowing into the baby towel and going to sleep. We had the kids say goodbye to him before my husband took them to religious school, and I stayed home to await the squirrel rescuer. She showed up slightly before her predicted arrival time, and by 10 a.m. our house was once again squirrel-free.

Now that it's all over (from our end, anyway; the squirrel rescuer has promised to keep us posted on the squirrel's progress), I have to wonder what my kids' takeaway will be from all of this. For one thing, I'm sure that while they probably won't remember the details of their morning of soccer, they will probably remember "the day we found a baby squirrel in the yard" for a long time. I hope that they will learn from our example, and try to help sensibly when they see a problem that needs fixing (including taking smart precautions and calling in expert help when needed). Mostly, though, I'm sure that this will just confirm for them that getting things done and panicking are not necessarily mutually exclusive options. After all, their mom's a pro at it.
Sadly, the kids may have to look elsewhere for cool, calm, and collected role models.

Friday, September 7, 2012

A Week Stuck in Neutral

It's amazing how little I can get accomplished when I have a sick kid at home and no pressing deadlines.
Yeah, it's been that kind of week.

I'm not saying this because I'm proud of it--on the contrary, I'm a little horrified that it is Friday and I've made so little progress on my goals on any front. Here's my score for the week:

Garage 1, Jen 0: Though I've been in the house all week, I didn't exactly feel comfortable leaving Son #3 (age 5) to his own devices so I could go sift through the mess in the garage. I had been so hoping to make some visible progress before my parents got home from their long summer trip, since they have long despaired of seeing the floor of my garage ever again. (For the record, you can see parts of the floor now. Small parts.) They got home yesterday--so much for that ambition. The good news and the bad news are the same: the mess isn't going anywhere. It will have to wait until next week.

Laziness 1, Jen 0: Last week I was getting up regularly to walk a brisk 2 miles each morning before the boys went to school. This week the gravity in my bed has increased, or something. And of course once my husband (who has been a real mensch taking Sons #1 and 2 to school each morning so that I don't have to drag their petri dish little brother out any more than is absolutely necessary) is gone, my opportunity to nip out for a walk around the block is gone with him. By the end of the day, after the nightly homework wrangling and chauffeur duty to the kid activity du jour (soccer, soccer, and more soccer), I'm firmly caught in the gravity well of the couch. Again, next week, right?

House 1, Jen 0: You'd think that days of being entrenched at home would produce a whirlwind of domestic activity, right? Instead, I'm finding that the hours of staring at the same walls are producing a paralysis of action. In theory I have had enough time this week to really give this place a thorough scrubbing. In reality, the more I look, the more I see to do. Have the arms of the dining room chairs always looked that grubby? When did those fingerprints get all over the molding? And why on earth do the boys deposit their dirty socks everywhere but the %&*#@^* hamper? It doesn't help that whenever, for example, I start doing some dishes, Son #3 requests a sandwich, or juice, or that I switch the TV channel, or whatever.

It also doesn't help that I am the Least Motivated Housewife in the Universe. It's not that I don't like living in a clean house. I love living in a clean house. I just am not particularly enthusiastic about spending all my time in the process of actually, well, cleaning. The things I like to do include reading, knitting, getting up to speed on current events, watching good movies, etc.--all things that take time in their own right and are difficult to do while you are, for example, scrubbing toilets. The toilets need to be scrubbed, a clean toilet is a joy to have, and yet, I do not like scrubbing toilets. Add in the fact that housework in a house full of three boys has a certain rearranging-deck-chairs-on-the-Titanic sense of futility about it, and I think I can be forgiven for my lack of alacrity in jumping to clean things I know will only stay clean as long as I can keep the kids out of the house.

I haven't been completely idle. Examples:

I spent some of the early part of the week putting together materials for a booster club fundraiser. However, I'm not feeling very satisfied with this work, since I have a couple of forms in waiting-for-approval limbo, and I can't do anything further until I get the stamp of approval from the office. I also baked muffins for last night's booster club meeting (with the invaluable help of my friend of battery disposal fame, who brought over 6 eggs when I realized I didn't have any), thus proving that my case of Volunteer Tourette's is by no means cured. (Volunteer Tourette's is a term that same friend coined to describe those of us at school who compulsively raise their hands to volunteer for everything, regardless of the state of their schedules or sanity. Mind you, she's just as bad as the rest of us.)

I took Son #3 to the doctor yesterday morning, on the theory that even though I was 100% sure that all he had was a virus, it wouldn't hurt to check (or to have a doctor's note when he goes back to school after four days out). One copay and a strep test later, and the doctor concluded...he has a virus. We are now past the fevers and into coughing and snot (lots of snot), and I'm reasonably certain he will be back in school on Monday.

I balanced the checkbook, and didn't even swear when it didn't come out right the first time.

And, yes, I started to pick at some of the housework. Our covered patio out back was just one broken appliance away from junkyard status, so I began sweeping and cleaning out there. I vacuumed a vast quantity of black cat hair off of the area rug in our bedroom (and no, I'm not sure why Toothless and Extra choose to play-fight there, unless it is because their fur contrasts nicely with the light-grey background of the rug). I didn't have the fortitude to do much about the continually renewing pile of junk mail, or the disturbing odor that wafted from the refrigerator the last time I opened it, but I suspect those aren't going anywhere. Their time will come.

Clearly I need to be catching up on my TV watching.

I'm not going to make stupid and likely false predictions about how next week is going to be better. First, I can't foresee the future, and second, the universe likes to send me stuff like swine flu and plumbing disasters when I start to get cocky about how nothing else could possibly go wrong. But now that Son #3 seems to be well enough to beat up on Son #2 about how much room he is taking up on the couch, his return to school is blessedly imminent. And with any luck a day or two of checking things off of my to-do list will snap me out of this funk. Right?

Monday, September 3, 2012

I Plan, and God Laughs

I feel a day like this coming on...

I like to have a plan. I think I come by this naturally. My parents emphasized the importance of knowing what you needed to do when (and neither of them are exactly wild and crazy examples of spontaneity themselves). When I was a teenager, well before the days of GPS or even Mapquest, they used to have me drive to important places, such as the site of a job interview, the day before the event I was supposed to attend, to ensure I knew exactly where to go and how long it would take me. Then, of course, my parents would point out that I should add fifteen minutes to my estimated travel time (at least) to give myself a cushion in case of bad traffic or other unexpected delays. It took me a long time (and many, many strange looks from my husband as I told him about similar family procedures that always seemed perfectly natural to me) before I realized that most people don't operate like this.

I won't say that I didn't have a long flirtation with procrastination in my adolescence and to a certain extent in my college years. I would do my reading and note-taking fairly early but delay the actual writing of a paper, say, until the day or even the night before it was due. In retrospect, I was damn lucky that I was never the victim of a poorly-timed flu or power outage--it would have been nobody's fault but my own if I had missed one of those closely-cut deadlines simply because I misjudged how kind the universe was going to be to me when I needed everything to go perfectly.

Nowadays, I'm back to my hypervigilant planning roots. Our family life has too many moving parts to just have faith that somehow everything will all work out and get done on time. Just the logistics of getting the kids to their soccer practices each week (appropriately dressed, with shin guards, soccer ball, water bottle, and on time despite having to herd along all three of the boys every blessed time) is a challenge--and that's only one part of what we have to make sure happens every week. Needless to say, I have Plan A and B, and often C and D, to try to make sure that the critical things get done each week no matter how crammed our schedule gets.

But the truth is, there is no amount of planning that is enough to keep everything going exactly the way you expect. I'll admit that, but it doesn't make me happy.

Today we came back from a long holiday weekend away with my husband's family. On the surprisingly quick drive back to L.A. from Palm Springs, I began making a mental to-do list of all the things I needed to do on Tuesday, and scheduling each hour of the day until I would need to pick up the kids from school. Drop off an invoice for copies in the booster club box, stop by and see if the school coordinator needs any volunteer help with clerical tasks, go home and work on materials for the booster club fundraiser later this month: not a moment of my kid-free time would be wasted. Then we got home, and Son #3 crawled into his bed and fell asleep for most of the afternoon. Uh-oh. He gave up napping before he turned three, and when he sleeps during the day it means nothing good. Sure enough, by the time he woke up he had an obvious fever.

I wish I could say that it was with good grace that I immediately scrapped Plan A, consigned the bulk of the tasks on it to the category of Things That Could Wait Another Day, and morphed into a cross between Mary Poppins and Florence Nightingale. In truth, I wasn't sure where the thermometer was, and it was only reluctantly that I admitted to myself that even if Son #3's fever disappeared before morning, he couldn't go to school anyway since he would not be fever-free for 24 hours. (Yes, I realize that most school illness policies seem to be more often honored in the breach than the observance, with parents surreptitiously dosing their kids with Motrin or whatever and hoping the teachers won't notice. When I'm feeling charitable, I hope that the people doing this are those who need to work and have no child care options, but I still hate it. At any rate, I do have a child care option when my kids are not in school--me--and I don't like being a hypocrite, so I follow the rules.) I fretted a bit (silently) about the undone Tuesday items that were going to be added to an already pretty full Wednesday lineup, on top of the all-too-real possibility that Son #3's fever would not have run its course in time for him to go to school Wednesday either.

But there wasn't much point in throwing a pity party for myself over it. If being able to plan is critical for being able to keep our family life on a relatively even keel, being flexible is even more important for keeping things going when the plan goes awry. Okay, sometimes my backup plans aren't ideal: one day last year I congratulated myself on my foresight in putting the boys in nearby schools when my car got a flat tire and I had to walk most of the routes I would normally have driven that day. (Walk Son #3 to preschool and stay for my work day. Walk Son #3 back home. Walk to elementary school with Son #3 to pick up Son #2. Walk to middle school with Sons #2 & 3 to pick up Son #1. Walk home. Fall into stupor on couch because you haven't walked that much in a single day in, well, ever.) I wasn't feeling nearly so smug by 4 p.m., though on the plus side I slept very well that night. The boys were pretty game that day, though, and receptive to the idea that they were getting exercise and helping the environment (which is how I shamelessly sold them on the unplanned walk). There was certainly less whining than I would have expected, especially when one subtracted mine. If I could survive that day, I'll survive tomorrow. And probably many other days that don't go the way I hoped or expected.

I hope my kids will learn to both plan and be flexible. I think that no matter what they decide they want to do or be, these are life skills that will serve them well. And if I succeed in teaching this to them, I won't feel nearly as guilty when their future girlfriends realize that the boys never learned to consistently pick up their dirty socks.

Everyone can use a humility lesson now and then, right?

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Like an Adventure...But Boring and Dirty

As I've been picking through my garage (a.k.a. the Pit of Despair) lately, beginning what promises to be a very long process of cleaning, sorting, and discarding, I've found myself thinking of the late George Carlin's routine on "stuff." I think I'm in the right frame of mind to be working on this task, because right now, I'm feeling very strongly that this "stuff" that I thought was so important to store (or at least was not willing to deal with in the moment, and thus chucked in the garage) is all sh*t. I have to admit, in the last couple of weeks I have entertained the notion of tossing a match on the lot of it, but I won't for the following reasons (not in order of importance):

  • Objectively speaking, there are items of worth in there that can be donated and be of use to someone else.
  • The garage is attached to the house, and therefore a fire in it could be less useful than I might otherwise suppose.
  • The kids don't really need to see their mom go to jail for arson.

Due to the weather being hot and the garage generally being filthy and spiderwebbed, I have been working on cleaning it out in (very) short bursts. I tried to make these daily, but one day of a higher-than-average number of PTA emails and calls blew that plan (and my diligence has been sporadic ever since). Nevertheless, I've made some minor progress while causing an explosion of stuff all over what remained of the visible garage floor.

I started out by cleaning out the cabinet just next to the door into the house. When we moved into the house, the previous owners had used this tall, relatively shallow cupboard to store old paint and other chemicals, which my father pointed out was perhaps not the best idea given that it is right next to the water heater. Over the years I had filled it with old toys, empty boxes for our wedding china, spare tiles for our bathroom, half a bag of concrete mix, and various other odds and ends. In emptying it to restock the shelves with things I had definitely decided to keep (for now, anyway) and which had good reasons for being easily accessible from the house, I unearthed delightful items such as a rubber ball found years ago in a hedge, which had actually gone sticky from being in our overheated garage for many summers.

As I expanded my range I found items that I had once put away on the theory that I might want to use them again some day. However, standing (on average) knee-deep in old junk brought me the clarity to realize that I was never going to reinstall the brass toilet paper holder that I thought was too ugly to keep in the half bathroom. Likewise, I had stored some of the boys' old lunch boxes on the theory that if they lost their current ones, we would have backups. However, I cleared out the inventory because a seventh grader is more likely to choose starvation over using their old ripped first-grade Cars lunch box.

Not everything I found went into the trash. I took several bags of random old baby clothes and other oddments, plus the high chair, over to Goodwill last week. (Don't ask me how I keep finding baby clothes around here--I thought I had done a very thorough purge after Son #3's babyhood. Since I found a few more items AFTER my trip to Goodwill, I'm beginning to suspect the baby clothes are sprouting in the dark like mushrooms. Or else someone is messing with me.) On a day when I was feeling particularly overwhelmed and indecisive, I salvaged my cleaning session by dumping a large pile of old proofs from a year-old proofreading job in the recycle bin.

Finally, I sent my husband to the household hazardous waste center with more dead batteries (!) and an assortment of old electronics, including a TV antenna he guessed was from our apartment in Berkeley (and therefore completely incompatible with modern TV technology) and a cordless phone set we discarded because the rechargeable batteries in the handsets would no longer hold a charge. My husband, while not thrilled to go on this particular errand, I think accepted it as the price he has to pay for not having to sort through the junk himself, particularly given that he is not fond of spiders. Good thing, too, because I know there is a dead Xbox out there somewhere, and as long as we've waited this long to clean the place out, we're going to do it properly.

So I've made some reasonable progress on the reboot of the 1,000-Pound Project, as follows:

50.8 pounds donated clothes, shoes, household items, and high chair
19.8 pounds recycled proofs
11.6 pounds trash (including WTF items like the sticky ball noted above)
13.8 pounds batteries and e-waste

Total: 96 pounds

The bad news is that this hardly looks like I did anything at all, except make a bigger mess by tearing apart the carefully stacked piles of boxes and bags to investigate their contents. In eleven years of living in this house, we've transformed from a family of three with barely enough furniture to provide something to sit down on in each room of the house, to a family of five bursting the house at the seams with all of our stuff. The mess in the garage did not happen all at once; it grew gradually out of a series of decisions (or indecisions, as the case may be), which resulted in a growing accretion of papers, toys, appliances, sporting equipment, holiday decorations, luggage, and yes, out and out trash.

Do I wish I'd thrown more stuff out along the way? Bought less? Recognized when things that had outlived their usefulness here needed to head on to their second life somewhere else? Yes, yes, and yes. But I didn't, so now I get to enjoy my karma.

Karma always seems funnier when it is happening to someone else.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Soft-hearted, Possibly Soft-headed

 The magic number where you go from cat owner to "crazy cat lady" is three. Specifically, when you get your third cat, even if it's a fluffy, meltingly adorable kitten, people stop cooing over how cute it is and start asking pointed questions about how many more cats you intend to get. I know this, because my husband and I passed this point in 1997. Even though our official number of cats stopped at four the following year, we've never quite shed the stigma of being crazy cat folk.
This is where the trouble starts.

The problem is that I have a soft heart. Our first cat was a fairly traditional adoption--my husband found an online ad at the Mac users' group he was a member of at the time for "fuzzy logic," and we ended up with a beautiful free grey tabby kitten, Molly, who had a soul of more-or-less pure evil. (She is now seventeen, and she is basically too lazy to take a swing at you. She still thinks about it, though.) Our second cat, though, became ours so gradually that we hesitated to claim to own him for quite a while.

One day we became aware of a cat hanging out in the parking lot of our six-unit apartment building, crying. I went out to take a look, but the orange tabby skittered out of arm's reach when I tried to approach him. I decided to put out a bowl of food by our apartment door for him, but he wouldn't follow me there. Finally, I caught up to him as he jumped up on the fence that separated our building's driveway from the lot of the much larger apartment building next door, and carried him over to the food dish. He meekly submitted, but refused to eat until I stepped inside and shut the door.

Over the next several weeks he gradually acclimated to us: he would eat outside when our apartment door was open, then he would eat just inside the open apartment door. We managed to shut him in one day so we could take him to the shot clinic, where the vet told us that he had previously been fixed. So clearly he had been someone's pet before, we just didn't know whose. We even got him a collar listing our names and number, and I waited for several weeks to get a call from a stranger demanding to know why we had put a collar on his cat. No call came.

The turning point came when Orange (as we finally came to call him, after so long referring to him only as "the orange cat") disappeared overnight one Saturday. We found him the next day in the parking lot, howling, and with his tail drooping unnaturally. We took him to the emergency vet, who gave us the bad news that his tail was broken in two places (he speculated that it had been run over by a car), and the good news that since he was only going to charge us the regular exam fee (instead of the double-on-Sunday usual fee) because he couldn't do a darn thing about it. We took Orange home and kept him in for several days while he began to heal, and after that he was really our kitty, in his own mind as well as ours.

The third cat, the one that pushed us over the edge to crazy, was actually my husband's fault. He went to the pet food store to get a lid that would fit a can of cat food, and came running home to tell me about the kittens they had up for adoption. Lying in bed with a headache, I looked at him skeptically. "We're just going to look!" he insisted. It turned out that he had put his hand inside the cage of kittens, and one had immediately jumped into it. That was it. We went to the store to "look" and came home with cat #3, Minnie. After that, it didn't seem like much of a big deal when cat #4, Jane, sucked up to me at a similar cat adoption event a year and a half later. The line from responsible pet owners to crazy cat hoarders had already been crossed.

I guess the reason I'm thinking about all this right now is that we have just crossed another line--we officially became a five-cat household a couple of days ago. Both Jane and Orange passed away in recent years (at 11 and 16 years of age, respectively). In the meantime we also added two new cats, Toothless (a black cat named by the kids for the dragon in How to Train Your Dragon, and no, he's not toothless) and Boo (a pale grey tabby adopted as a feral kitten from the warehouse at my husband's job, and who after a year of domesticity is still pretty weird), largely to spare our elderly cats from the overenthusiastic affections of our children. We figured we'd wait for nature to take its course and gradually end up as a two-cat household, with Toothless and Boo to keep each other company. At no point did we exceed four cats at one time.
I look into the future and see a scratched toddler in 3, 2, 1...

And then a black cat started hanging out in our back yard. When I first saw her I panicked, thinking Toothless had gotten outside. But it turned out she was just a stray, one who then frequently came to the window to check out our indoor kitties. Of course, soft-hearted me started feeding her. And she started hanging out more. Lounging on our patio furniture. Meowing imperiously in the morning for her breakfast. Not to be outdone in the soft-heartedness department, my husband bought her a cat bed. And she whiled away the winter on a heating pad in said cat bed, refusing all offers to be let inside.

However, other neighborhood cats recently discovered that there was free food to be had at our place. The cat we had started calling Extra (as in "our extra cat") began to hide as aggressive newcomers tried to muscle her out. And last week a raccoon paid a visit to the buffet. He began to amble towards our back patio while I was still outside, and I jumped inside, only to dart out again a moment later to snatch up a startled Extra and bring her inside with me. We stared out at the raccoon and he stared right back as he picked every stray bit of cat food out of the nearly-empty bowl. Then he left, but I kept Extra inside for another half-hour, just to be safe, despite her impatient protests.

Is it a coincidence that a day later she came in on her own for the first time? Even a cat can appreciate the value of air conditioning on a brutally hot day (especially a cat with black fur). Since then she's been in and out, but mostly in. This confirms my long-standing hunch that she was a stray and not a true feral cat. The rest of our cats, having long had a sniffing acquaintance with Extra through the screen door, seem to have accepted her with a minimum of histrionics (though there was some pro forma hissing and growling, just to establish that she is low cat on the totem pole).

So I guess I'll just have to own it--I'm a crazy cat lady in a crazy cat family. I'm already used to the reaction I get when people ask how many cats I have--they invariably repeat, "Four?" in wide-eyed disbelief, as if to say, "And here I thought you were sane all this time!" Only now they'll get to say "five." Welcome aboard, Extra. I may be crazy but I keep the food bowl full.
Not our future...I hope.

Next blog post we'll be back to The Adventures of Jen in the Pit of Despair, or Humility Lessons, Garage Style.

Monday, August 20, 2012


A learning experience is one of those things that say, "You know that thing you just did? Don't do that." --Douglas Adams

Today marked the start of the second week of school. I can tell we're already getting into our usual school routine because Son #1 announced at 7:30 this morning that he had forgotten to tell me that he needed a composition notebook for his theater class. One of us, however, is learning from past incidents of this nature, as I had squirreled a few composition notebooks away for such an occasion. Crisis averted.

Unlike at the start of last school year, I don't feel completely overwhelmed yet. But I realized last Friday, at the end of a day that had been largely frittered away accomplishing not much of anything, that I'm at loose ends. After two years spent completely overcommitted and in panic mode, having a day with a moderate to-do list and a reasonable stretch of time to finish it in feels alien, and lacking an adrenaline kick to keep me moving, I've been less than productive.

So this morning I made myself a to-do list, and put on it everything I hoped to accomplish before I picked the boys up from school. However, I made a deliberate choice to finish MY to-do list items first. So first I went for a two-mile walk (and not just because it's been hotter than the hinges of hell in LA the last week or so), ran an overdue household errand, tended to my email correspondence (including revising and emailing school fundraising materials out for approval), and started gathering some stuff to take to Goodwill. Overall I felt much better about my productivity today, even though a completely crazy packed parking lot meant that I made the snap decision to try to make my donation tomorrow, rather than risk being late for pick-up.

I know that I am in the midst of a reboot. This is something that I'm very familiar with, since my dad was the in the army and we moved regularly; at times, frequently. Each time it would be new house, new neighborhood, new school, new friends, and in theory, new me. I say in theory because I don't think I changed all that much from place to place, and I always tended to find my niche in with the brainy/geeky set. However, starting over amongst a set of strangers did give me the opportunity to leave inconvenient parts of my past behind (for example, my classmates in seventh grade blessedly did not know me as that girl who had to wear headgear in sixth grade). It also made learning from my mistakes that much less painful, since in doing things differently the next time around, I often didn't have to face any of the same people who had witnessed me screwing up the first time.

It's a little different when you know your life is changing but you're still in the same place you've been for the last ten years, and where you're likely to be for the foreseeable future. I've got a kindergartener now, and though I'm walking him into the same elementary school that at least one of his brothers has been at for the last seven years, I'm spending all my time on the opposite side of the campus from my usual haunts for the last four years. Few moms I know already also have kindergarteners, and so I'm meeting many new people after years of basically hanging out with the same group of "usual suspects" (so-called because we joke that when any volunteer task needs to get done, we "round up the usual suspects").

Now, I'm not fooling anyone. I know that I won't be able to reinvent myself by hiding out among the newbies. My reputation as a compulsive volunteer isn't likely to vanish because (a) the school is still full of people who know me very well and who know, say, if they call me at a moment's notice I will probably go pick up a stack of flyers from the copy shop or help them hang up posters, and (b) the chances of me going a whole year without volunteering for something are no greater than my chances of winning Mega Millions and paying the school $100,000 to lose my phone number. Somewhere between doing nothing and volunteering so much that the staff makes jokes about me sleeping in the office is a happy medium where I volunteer, enjoy it, and feel like I'm really contributing without feeling resentful about the things I'm not doing for my family and myself, or about all the parents who obviously aren't contributing if I have so much ----ing volunteer work to do myself.

So the question is, how do I find that happy medium without disappointing the people (many of whom I count as friends) who expect more from me? I do have real obligations this year--Son #1's approaching bar mitzvah being chief among them--that make it impossible for me to work at the level I have been. I'm going to have to learn to say no and stick to it, to step aside rather than rushing in, and to accept that the new me may disappoint some of the folks who are used to the old me. However, the last two years have definitely been a learning experience (see above), and regardless of the consequences, this reboot is necessary if I don't want my husband to commit me.

And in the spirit of rebooting, I've decided that it is time to reboot the 1,000-Pound Project. This time, however, I'm giving it a secondary goal. Our ostensibly two-car garage has been so full of crap for over a year that it has been impossible to park even one car in it. The first goal, as before, is to get rid of 1,000 pounds of stuff from my house. The secondary goal is to be able to park my minivan in the garage again before the rainy season starts (so I can forgo the pleasure of having three boys track a gallon of water into the house through the front door on every rainy school day).

It may not qualify as instant gratification, but I suspect that in my quest to get rid of stuff I'm going to find a lot of low-hanging fruit to pick in the garage. For example, one of the artifacts I didn't quite get to drop off at Goodwill today was the high chair, and since the "baby" is now five and a half, I think it is safe to get rid of it. We'll see just how many walks down memory lane and humility lessons I get before I can pull the minivan in out of the rain.

And rebooted me? She'll undoubtedly be older, and hopefully wiser, than Jen 1.0.

Yes, some of us otherwise intelligent folks learn things this way.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

First World Problems

Back in the days when I used to work full-time (pre-kids, roughly the Jurassic Period), we had a client who was among my favorites. An elderly gentleman, he volunteered for an organization that published one annual journal, and each year he delivered the manuscript to our offices. We were located on the second floor, up a rather daunting staircase, and it was clear that the ascent took some doing for him. He and I would exchange polite greetings, and when I asked him how he was, he would invariably drawl, in posh accents, "Oh, I routinely complain."

Of course, as I think back on it now, I don't remember him actually complaining, just making the same self-deprecating joke each time I saw him. Most of us do routinely complain; I've done plenty myself this week as our family tries to get back into the school routine. But it did hit me (right around the time I was filling out the third emergency card on the first day of school and feeling pretty sorry for myself because poor mom had more homework than any of the kids did that day), that literally every single problem I have right now is a first world problem. So lest I think a pity party for myself is appropriate, here is a debunking of a few of my so-called problems, in no particular order:

My house is too full of stuff! Okay, seriously. Yes, we have too much stuff, exacerbated by my inability to get things out of the house promptly when they have outlived their usefulness. But my family has everything they need and quite a bit of what they want. We have clothes to wear, food to eat, beds to sleep in, and plenty of forms of entertainment (books, toys, TV, video games, etc.). Even if my kids' sock drawers seem to consist of 80% mismatched socks and 20% dirt-colored socks that were formerly white, they have both socks and drawers to put them in. Enough said.

The boys' soccer schedules are nuts! Yes, I am remembering two soccer practices into the season how much I hate the narrow parking lot at the park and the crazy drivers (my fellow soccer parents) who populate it. Yes, I am remembering how much I hate the stuff management involved in dealing with cleats, shin guards, and water bottles, and how much I loathe the scent of sweat that descends on the house after a Saturday of soccer games. But we're lucky our kids get to participate in the local AYSO program, which is actually at a park close enough to walk to. So when the weather cools down from sauna temperatures I am going to explain to the boys that the irony of driving them to the park to get exercise is not the good kind of irony, and we'll spare the last shreds of my sanity the trip through the parking lot.

I hate homework more than the kids do! I have to pay Son #1 a dollar to give me project assignment sheets on the day he gets them so that he doesn't give me an aneurysm by waiting to tell me about them the night before they are due. Son #2 came home with a boatload of homework and a project on the first day of school. And Son #3 hasn't quite realized that homework is now a feature of his life, rather than a novelty his teacher tossed in his folder, so he hasn't quite grasped that he can't watch TV/play on the computer/go for a playdate before homework is done every day. But the kids go to good schools, and I have both time and (barely) sufficient brain power to make sure they are getting their work done correctly and on time. If my hair turns white in the process, well, it'll be a real conversation piece.

We have too many family commitments! Okay, I don't complain about this too much, because whenever I do, some friend or another of mine whose extended family lives in another time zone threatens to beat me about the head and shoulders with a sack full of bricks. Yes, our family holidays could do with a social secretary to manage our engagements, and I probably still couldn't draw my husband's cast-of-thousands family tree accurately if you put a gun to my head. However, there's nothing quite like having the grandparents snatch your children away from you and insist you go have a night out to make you appreciate the true pricelessness of FREE BABYSITTING!

I could go on, but you get the point. Life isn't perfect, but it's worth reminding myself that the good vastly outweighs the bad. And the as far as the bad goes...well, I wouldn't be truly happy if I didn't have something to complain about, right?

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

First Day of School! First Day of School!

This was me. The kids were actually happy to go.

Today I sent my last child to his first day of school. He's been confident and excited about this day for some time; in fact, one of my sole consolations for LAUSD deciding to move their start date up this year, thus depriving us poor burned-out parents of a month of summer vacation, was that it meant that Son #3 would get to start kindergarten that much earlier.

I could say that I was surprised that a weepy little boy crawled into bed with me and my husband at midnight last night, but I wasn't, really. Sure, he mumbled something incoherent about having wanted to clean up on the last day as he drifted back to sleep between us*, but I think really he woke up in the dark and suddenly felt a bit insecure about actually being one of the big kids. He's been running around our local elementary school ever since he could run, as we either dropped off his brothers or picked them up, but now it is really his school. It's a big ----ing deal, if it's kosher to say that about kindergarten.

As for me, I'm not weepy by nature, so I didn't cry when it came time for me to leave him in his classroom and head off to an empty house. I'm not sad that he's growing up, though of course it is sad to say goodbye to the cute things that he did and said at earlier ages. (For example, I did experience a real pang when his last true toddlerism--"bwefixed"--became a perfectly pronounced "breakfast.") It is so much fun to see his unfettered joy in his growing accomplishments and his increasing abilities that I can't wish him to go backwards, or even to hold still.

Still, I was glad to have a kindergartener to escort this year. Son #1 headed out the door with my husband to his first day of seventh grade, knowing only his homeroom number. A little asking around had confirmed Son #1's hunch that his homeroom teacher is the only teacher in the school who still requires his students to tuck in their shirts, even though it is no longer required in the school uniform policy. So he gamely tucked in the shirt**, and reported back at the end of the day that his classes seemed good and adequately populated with friends of his. Aside from the convenient ride home I provided, he didn't need me, and I'm awaiting the day when he asks me to just pull up to the curb somewhere instead of parking and getting out of the car to come meet him near the school gate.

Son #2, who I did escort to his fifth grade class before taking Son #3 to his class, dropped several broad hints that I didn't need to stick around (under the guise of concern that his little brother be on time). However, when I teased him that he was trying to get rid of me, he wouldn't own up. He definitely prefers that if I have to kiss him, I do it where no-one can possibly see. This morning I overheard him and his friends marveling at the fact that they're fifth graders now, with the air of old classmates at their twentieth reunion marveling at where the years have gone. It's hard to believe that once upon a time, when he was between one and two years old, his feet barely hit the ground because he always wanted to be carried--by me--everywhere. The little boy I once fondly called my barnacle is now most often seen receding into the distance as he runs off to be with his friends.***

So yes, it's nice to have a kindergartener, a little boy who assuages his anxiety by slipping a hand into mine as we walk down the hall to his new classroom. A little boy who greets me with a big grin when I pick him up the afternoon because he can't wait to tell me about his first day of school. (Apparently the highlight was when his teacher accidentally stepped out of one of her shoes, which the students all found hilarious.) Now that I know where those growing steps are leading him, I appreciate even more that I still have one boy who doesn't roll his eyes when I insist that I be allowed to kiss him in public.

*I have faith that one day they will invent a bed big enough to comfortably sleep two average sized-adults and one five-year-old. As Son #3 seems to turn into a giant octopus composed entirely of elbows and knees when he sleeps, the king-sized bed we own doesn't cut it.

**When I ask Son #1 to tuck in his shirt (say, when we're going to a nice family event and I want to pretend that my boys aren't next door to feral children in matters of personal hygiene and style), he usually reacts with a level of indignation indicating that tucking in one's shirt is a torture any right-minded society would ban. We can add this to the long and growing list of Things My Children Do Willingly Only When Asked By Someone Other Than Me.

***Don't worry. I know my barnacle will be back the very minute he realizes that the project he thought was due next Wednesday is actually due this Friday and therefore he needs a ride to the library pronto.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Tying Up A Loose End

So I'm finally going to write about that accomplishment I hinted at here, even though from my nit-picky view it is not 100% finished yet. With school starting for all three boys next Tuesday, I concede that any finishing touches that get put on this project will not be occurring any time soon. (And as for the start of school, despite my best efforts over the last couple of weeks to get us on a better schedule, as of Friday morning at 8 a.m., two boys were hunched over the computer, awake but still in pajamas, I was in my nightgown trying to jump-start my brain with a cup of coffee, and our soon-to-be kindergartener sprawled in bed, snoring. We've never been late to the first day of school, but we've occasionally been on time calmly and in style, rather than rushing onto campus at the last moment in a panic. Looks like this is not going to be one of the "in-style" years.)

Anyway, here is the project that I finished during the two weeks the boys were in camp, to the detriment of my project to rid my house and garage of junk, but of immeasurable benefit to my mental health:
This is a picture of the side of my house, and the project I completed was to lay down those square pavers and gravel from the edge of the concrete (just visible at the end, past the bins) all the way to my back yard, to cover the packed dirt that was all that was there before. Dry and dusty in the summer, muddy and slippery in the winter, and ugly all year 'round, that walkway on the west side of our house that almost never gets sun and certainly doesn't get enough water to allow grass to grow has bugged me since we moved in in 2001.

Of course, it took me a long time to figure out what I wanted to do to create a path instead of dirt. The easiest thing would have been to throw down gravel, except that I needed to be able to roll our green bin for yard waste to the back yard. A gravel path seemed less than ideal for that. Not to mention, since Son #1 and Son #2 were rather young at that time, the thought of giving them a vast field of ammunition to throw at one another seemed like a spectacularly bad idea. (Son #2 was also a put-everything-in-your-mouth kind of baby/toddler, and while I don't gross out easily, the thought of fishing gravel out of his mouth on a regular basis did not appeal.)

Thoughts of what to do to improve this area got put on the back burner for many years, while I took up sporadic freelance proofreading/copyediting, volunteered at the boys' elementary school to the point of indentured servitude, had Son #3, and continued all of the above plus enrolling Son #3 in a co-op nursery school. With that to-do list, along with the general work involved in supporting the boys' education and trying to make sure they didn't blindside me with forgotten project deadlines and 9 p.m. requests for two dozen cupcakes to be delivered to school the following day, home-improvement projects were a lost cause.

Last year I finally came up with an idea that included all the necessary components: functional path for rolling a yard waste bin, reasonably priced construction materials all available from a nearby store, and a method I could actually do myself. The only tough part required me digging down far enough into the hard-packed soil to put the pavers at a level with the small portion of concrete just behind the gate to the front yard.

I attacked the project with enthusiasm the week before we headed to Minnesota that summer, which turned out to be ill-timed, to say the least. I finished off the first three rows of pavers, admired my work, started the digging for the next couple of rows, left on vacation, and flew back home into a storm of PTA and booster club emails that immediately sapped my energy and attention for the next, oh, ten months or so. And my project languished, adding to my guilt-load for things undone. (As an added bonus, we have a gardener who comes to mow our lawn and tend to our yard once a week, as do most folks in Southern California. So I had the added satisfaction of knowing that our gardener was well aware of my failure to complete this project as he wrestled our green bin over the uncompleted excavation every single week. Sigh.)

I hadn't exactly intended to dedicate the two weeks the boys were in camp to finishing this path, but once I got started, I found it hard to stop. For one thing, I borrowed a small pick mattock from my dad this year for breaking up the rock-hard compacted dirt, instead of using a hoe like I did last year. This tool was infinitely better for the task, and after many hours of swinging it, I can say this definitely makes the short list for my weapon of choice in a zombie apocalypse.

I also made a move I didn't realize was smart until several days into the task. I left my iPhone inside. Instead, I took the home phone (since I didn't want to be completely out of touch if the summer camp called to tell me one of the boys got hit in the head with a rock or something). No dings when emails came in. No melodious alerts when it was my turn in Words with Friends. Just me, my tools, and insanely hot L.A. weather. And a silent phone. It's amazing what you can accomplish when your attention isn't divided up into five-minute segments.

The one advantage to my delay of a year in completing the path was that I got to see that my plan (dig out the dirt, then tamp down a flat surface, cover with a underlaying polypropylene cloth to keep the gravel from gradually working down into the dirt, then lay down the stones and fill in the gaps with pea gravel) actually held up perfectly over the course of a year. One disadvantage was that I was so eager to jump in again to erase the shame of a year of delay that I started swinging the pick-mattock about an hour before it occurred to me that it might be a good idea to put on a pair of work gloves. The result? A large popped blister at the top of my palm where Band-Aids do not like to stay put, and a futile attempt over the days that followed to keep said blister clean and covered. Oh well. It did eventually heal.

As the path progressed I dug up enough rusty nails to give the entire neighborhood tetanus, many pieces of broken Mexican pavers (leftover from when the patio was finished, I'm guessing two homeowners ago), several bits of bathroom tile, and a toy plastic spoon, a little bit of suburban archaeology that gave a little bit of interest to an essentially boring task. I plotted out the path of the pavers around the drains to our sump system and the roots to the established vines that help to cover some of the cinder-block wall that encloses our back yard. I made multiple trips to the home improvement store to buy loads of pavers and gravel, enduring a bit of "hey-little-lady"ing as it became clear to the male employee loading my car that I wasn't simply taking these materials home for a hired helper or my husband to do the actual work. (I love my husband, but when he so much as picks up a drill driver I have to suppress the urge to pick up the phone in case a call to 9-1-1 is imminently needed. Mechanical ability and gender do not necessarily go hand in hand.) And I had to limit myself to a couple of hours of work a day, because the more I accomplished, the greater my drive to finish. However, there is only so much physical labor an essentially out-of-shape skinny forty-year-old can do in a day without making it impossible for herself to lift her arms the next day. So I played it smart.

But this year I finished the path, several days before our annual trip to Minnesota. (I haven't figured out how long it is exactly, but each of those pavers is just under one foot square, if you're curious.) Of course, the satisfaction of essentially completing it didn't last long--after all, I have a garage full of stuff to empty, closets to sort, bookshelves to purge, kitchen cabinets to clean. Realistically, one item off the to-do list (even a big one) doesn't amount to much. But as a N.Y. friend of mine would say, it's not nothing...