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Monday, June 28, 2010


I'm calling this day an aquarium day. It's so humid I feel the water in the air. I stick my arm outside, I bring it back inside, there's no difference in the temperature. Not only is the atmosphere so thick it's permeated me, so that my internal body temperature and fluid levels have reached homeostasis with it, but also I'm feeling a bit pescine - or is it piscine? pescatory? pissy? - I'm feeling like one of them fishies in the pet shop: trapped in my glass box, swimming around and not making much sense of what's outside that boundary.

It's not just that the big girl is off at camp, a drop-off that went without a hitch. "It's a Dodge," she said Sunday as we watched the big purple van bouncing down 48th street, right on schedule. (She's become an expert at identifying vehicles, since we spent a year discussing the cars we were going buy when we left NYC.) After several hugs and a couple of tears, and many reassuring comments from one of the other parents there, she left. Her sister cried all the way up the West Side Highway, until we stopped for bagels....

But I digress. Back to the aquarium. Now that all those errands for camp have been run, and now that the 2nd grader has started camp as well, I am left, I am tempted to say, bereft. Not exactly, of course. It's really that loose-ends feeling that happens when you suddenly have six hours of unstructured time. Six hours unstructured sounds great, right? But when you start to think about the zillions of things you ought to do and the three or four things you want to do, and the one or two things you absolutely have to do, then you start to feel like you're swimming around and around in a rather claustrophobic space.

I took care of the must-dos, early - mailed off the forgotten items to camp, saw off our houseguests. But then the oughts and the wants and the humidity all mixed together and it was like, how do I get out of here? So I looked up some job possibilities (oughts, musts), took care of some volunteer work I'm doing,  and I sent off one story to a contest and another story to a literary magazine and had to call it a day, as far as personal accomplishments go. Time to walk the dog through the soup, and pick up the 2nd grader from camp, and do the mom thing.

I figure days like these are like those rare periods of childhood boredom. I am a big believer in the possibilities of boredom. When my kids complain they're bored, I give them an, "Oh, um, hmmm," and after a few minutes, they invent a new project. For me, some swimming around is necessary, as frustrating as it is, before I can settle down on something new. I am in a creative transition anyway. Now that I have completed two stories, and have two more to finish revising, I'm starting to contemplate the next project. Some treading in place is not the worst thing. After all, I did send out two things today. Flung 'em out into the void.

At dinner, observing my soggy posture, CFA (husband) said he wants me to make sure I spend two hours every day writing during this month.

"Daddy, stop controlling Mommy," said my child, which amused me greatly. He wasn't controlling me, he was trying to give me the permission he knows I have trouble giving myself, he explained. Job hunting is the main task now, and anything that isn't that is hard to contemplate, and the job hunting is its own mini aquarium, the one you stick the fish in when you're cleaning the big one, as I go around and around trying to find new leads and beef up my resume for re-contacting old leads.

The 2nd grader took my hand and said, "Mommy, go upstairs right now and start typing." Her little fingertips were very soft, but also very firm. 

"That would be difficult," I said, "because my computer is in the dining room." I joked, but I appreciated the permission all around. And here I am now, in the dining room. And thank goodness, the temperature has dropped a little and I feel the suggestion of a new front coming in.

Friday, June 25, 2010

A Little Bit of Freedom

The trunk is open but packed, the duffel bag is in the same state. There are books and journals and stationery and stamps, too. We're all packing up our togs, preparing to take our 6th grader down to the city for the weekend and then put her on the bus to overnight camp Sunday morning. Gulp.

She has the good sense to tell me that she's not exactly excited about it, because she doesn't know what it's going to be like, but that she is looking forward to the experience. Trusting her father and me that because we loved sleepover camp, she will, too. She certainly believed me when I told her that I wanted her to have the chance to do all those fun camp things like campfires and swamping canoes, horseback riding and buying candy at the canteen.

Honestly, sleepover camp was heaven for me, but I had reasons to get away, and my parents were glad to see me go. Honestly, I hope she loves it, but I also don't want my girl to want to fly too far away from me. From us. I know it's good -- independence, I mean. I also know it's a very American thing, this assumption that independence is good. I also think closeness is good, too. I will admit to pre-emptive strategic thinking about the optimal place to live once my children are grown so that they will at least want to visit frequently, if not to settle there themselves.

There have been troubling reminders of immortality and impermanence in the news lately. I am thinking of that poor girl who drowned last week on a class trip on Long Island. It cuts a little close to home, because one of our family friends was in the same class with her and was on the beach when it happened. Makes me a little more aware of my fears for my children, especially when they are out of my sight.

But. It is good to let her go off on this adventure. It was wonderful for me, and at the very least, it will teach her that she has some capabilities of which she might not have been aware. And I am a little bit proud of myself, that despite my anxieties, despite any helicoptering I may have been guilty of over the years, my child is ready and happy to try all kinds of new things. She told me one skill she wanted to learn this summer was archery. Camp has archery. I try to believe that the targets are well-placed where stray arrows will do no harm. "Do you want to try horseback riding?" I asked. "Sure, why not?" she said, blowing me away with her insouciance. So she's got boots and a nice, sturdy helmet in her trunk, and I am trying to forget the horseshoe-shaped bruise in the thigh that my old friend Laurie got one summer when she was at camp.

Horseback riding? What was I thinking?

Tuesday, June 22, 2010


My college magazine just sent out an email asking for stories about people's failures, or perceived failures. They've focused so much on success, they said, that they thought it would be helpful to examine the stories of other people who've not attained measurable success. Well, aside from taking offense at my inclusion in this email, I thought, I have a lot to say on this subject. Success, my lack of it, failure, my perception of it, have been the continuing story of my life for several years.

I know what you're thinking. You're thinking this has to be a post about how my failures really aren't failures, it's really my definition of success that needs adjusting. Well, maybe you're not thinking that, but I am. And I only part-way agree. By some outward measures that I value, I have failed. I haven't published anything other than a couple of poems in Salvage Magazine, which seems to only exist in Chinese now.  After getting an "I-Almost-Took-This-But-Decided-Not-To" personal rejection from a very famous agent for my first novel, I sent my second novel to 39 (Three-Nine; Thirty-Nine) agents without being signed. Only two of those thirty-nine actually asked to see more of the manuscript before declining.

Furthermore, at my ripe old age, which I will not state, but I will say I would never make The New Yorker's 20 Under 40 list, I have only just purchased a home. I've been living on nothing, scrimping and not saving, without new clothes or vacations or the laser treatments I so desperately want for the sunspots on my face and chest, married to someone who has been in medical training for the entire 13 years of our marriage. I have no hope of new clothes or vacations for years, as I have debts and college educations for our two girls to pay, and now a home to maintain. Thank God my hair doesn't need coloring. And now that my husband has finally completed his grueling training, now that our children are well into school age, when I was to have the opportunity to focus on my writing, now that the economy has tanked, I need to get a job.

This was to be my time to work on my professional goal. This was to be my reward for the years I stayed home and worked part time at menial education jobs, some more rewarding than others. We both agreed having me home as a full time mom was a good thing, and we both agreed that even if I did work full time, that because I was a teacher my salary would have just gone to the nanny so it made sense for me to stay home; and we both agreed that spending the money my father had put aside for me was a good investment because it was an investment in our children, and I certainly don't regret staying home. But. But. Because I've been a mom, and have only worked part time, and when I worked full time, I worked as a teacher in a private school, I am trying to break into the workforce with basically nothing. Meanwhile, everyone I grew up with, and went to school with, is entering the prime of her profession, and has the clothes and the home renovations to prove it. To me, this is failure.

This is where I'm supposed to turn this piece around. I know what Wellesley magazine wants, and what I want, too. I want to see it all in a positive light. And in one way I do. That has to do with how I define success. If success means having lots of money and an important job, I do not have that. However, if success is performing well at tasks important to me, then I start looking a little better. I wanted to be a mom and to raise my children, and so far, so good. I wanted to be a writer, and I am one. Three novels and a few short stories, as well as some scattered poems is not bad for a busy mother and wife of a medical student, resident, fellow and now, finally, gainfully employed doctor. And I am newly focused on sending out stories, an option I haven't pursued intensively yet. I've got that persistence that keeps me flinging out the manuscripts as soon as they get rejected, and I am fairly sure that eventually, one of these stories will stick out there. When it does, I'll have a credit to state on my queries to agents for my novel. So, viewed that way, I am pursuing what I want to do, and I have done so all along. I may have sacrificed material gain along the way; but then, I guess I believed people when they told me that money and things don't buy happiness, a sense of fulfillment is most important.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

One Year In

The one year anniversary of our move from New York City to suburbia  has arrived. It was raining when we left the city and it continued to rain for the next six weeks. Or was it six months? The pathetic fallacy was operative in my case. I probably don't need to say more, at least not to the English majors out there. It was raining when I left NYC. It was raining when I arrived upstate. The movers left a house full of muddy footprints and IKEA furniture. Their parting gift to us, as they headed back to the city, was a snow shovel somebody else had left behind on the truck. "You're gonna need this," the foreman chortled. Then he drove away, back to the city, leaving a flotilla of plastic water bottles in the garage. He was right. We did need it. But I digress. The rain. It summed up my state of mind, the state of my internal waterworks. It rained.

I had so many ideals about my first house. After a lifetime of renting, the previous six years of renting two-bedroom apartments in NY with my husband and our two girls, we were finally buying a home. I'd been reading about homes for years and had the idea of what I wanted: A Not So Big House, a Susannka house ( A house that was just right sized, without extra waste, a weatherized, energy-efficient, big enough but not too big house, with a screened porch, and maybe with a front porch, too. The neighborhood would be pedestrian-friendly, close to local shopping, full of older homes with lovely old-growth trees. I also needed a good school district.

The housing market collapsed just as we began our long-distance house-hunt. Then my ideals ran up against one another. The residential, town-like place with good schools that we picked had almost zero lovely old homes, and none on the market. Having moved four times in the previous six years, and another three times in the prior four years, we were eager to settle in one spot.  So we moved to a 1969 center hall colonial, a big blue box, a 3000 square foot cedar-sided house. A lovely house, people always say.  It is after all, a small community. Everyone knows our street, and many people say they love our house.  This reaction always confuses me, as I spent the first six months raining inside, as I mentioned, and the next six months gradually accepting that this house is definitely not a Not So Big House but it is a nice house anyway.  A slightly too big house. A house without a porch, front or screened. A house with a very lovely landscaped yard on a curvy street without sidewalks.

A house not that well insulated, it turns out, and a house with a long, long to-do list. It scares me. I am just now feeling a little bit better about it, as I notice that all houses come with long to-do lists. Really, a lot better, if you consider how well I'm handing the newly broken central a.c., the potentially broken dishwasher - we're checking now to see if a vinegar wash did the trick - and the large black ant that my 2nd grader and I observed yesterday. The ant was purposefully crossing our front stoop, so I flicked it away. It returned in surprisingly short order, just as purposeful, so this time we watched it navigate the pressed-concrete cracks in the stoop and disappear into a tiny hole in the wood at the bottom of the vestibule. Into. A. Hole. In. My. House.

So. I am taking a breath, trying not to feel overwhelmed, and trying not to look too far ahead to when I might be able to retire, sell this gigantic blue chore box and move back to a too-small apartment somewhere.  It's a year in, and I've learned to mulch, weed, spray ant killer, pick up dog poop, budget. And to look for a job. At least it has stopped raining.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Okay. What Would You Do?

So what would you do? I collected my 2nd grader from school yesterday. She was her usual cheerful self, happy to be picked up instead of riding the bus, and happy to see her big sister there to meet her. We were all looking forward to our Tuesday routine of treats at the Perfect Blend Cafe before going onto my 6th grader's piano lesson. On the way from the door of the school to the car she told me that earlier that day, when she went into the hall to collect some artwork off of a bulletin board, she was standing to the side when another class came through the hall. She was the only one in the hall, she said, and maybe she was too far to the middle. The teacher of this other class, another 2nd grade teacher, picked her up and "shoved" her aside, saying, "You were in the way."

"She picked you up?" I said. "Well, just this much," she said and showed me an inch between thumb and forefinger. She didn't seem upset, rather matter-of-fact. But she did bring it up right away after seeing me.
"Did she ask you to move?"
"No. At least I didn't hear her."
"Was she maybe joking?"
"I don't think so. Everyone knows Mrs.X is the meanest 2nd grade teacher."

So I thought about this until evening, discussed it with the husband, and decided I had better notify the principal. I sent her an email asking for a phone call the next day.

 I've just hung up with the principal. She was pretty appalled to hear this story, and said whatever the reason, the teacher shouldn't have touched my daughter. Apologized, thanked me, asked me to please let her know if anything else happens, etc, etc.  All very responsible. I hung up.

Immediately I felt terrible. I needed to stand up for my daughter, who while not reduced to anything near tears, was enough bothered by this incident to report it to me even before petting the dog or asking for a snack. But also I'm a teacher, or I was a teacher, and I am trying to return to teaching now. How many times have I casually touched a child's shoulder? Granted, I would never lift up a child, but a casual pat?  I think what this Mrs. X did was out of line, for sure, but what is going to happen to her? Did she mean it in jest, a friendly recognition of another second grader from a different class? Was I just a big old tattle-tale, or did I do the right thing to call the principal? Did I just phone in some sort of spurious complaint, or have I provided the final example needed to boot out a tenured teacher who has been racking up complaints for years? Either way, I feel cruddy.

Monday, June 14, 2010

The Bees

June 14, 2010

A few weeks ago, I was sitting at my dining room table doing my free writing and I saw bees buzzing around the side of the garage. The garage is canted diagonally from the house, and there’s a lovely perennial bed planted alongside (for which I claim no credit as it was planted by the previous owners), and from my seat at the table I see the blue clapboard and white window trim of the garage and the tops of the turtlehead and astrilbe planted alongside. Also a troublesome rosebush of some kind. But anyway, I’m sitting there and I see bees buzzing around the trim and the painted cedar boards. Buzzing and buzzing. I watch, I write – I describe all I see before me. The bees remind me of last fall, when we discovered three yellow jacket nests one atop the other in the raised bed along the side of the house ($150 to remove, which was nice of the guy who did it, who was supposed to charge per nest but didn’t), and then the next day a scary-looking perfect stereotype of a bees’ nest hanging from a tree right above the place we were training the puppy to pee, a strange, grey and white papery concoction that turned out to be a bald-faced hornets’ nest. ($150 for the same guy, this time in a complete hazmat suit and mask, and even wearing that and carrying a long hose attached to a canister on his back, he still ran away after he sprayed). This is good fodder for free writing. I finish my fifteen minutes and turn to revising a story for my workshop. This is my routine, and days and days go by. I sit. I watch the bees. There are different kinds, that much I know, the wasps and the blundering bumblebee-like critters that seem to bombard more than to buzz around the boards. From some memory stash of trivia I recall these are likely carpenter bees. I sit, I write, I describe what I see, feel, hear, remember – I free write. More days go by, until one morning, when my 2nd grader and I go outside to wait for her school bus, and she stops by the perennials, by the garage, and looking up says, “Mommy, look, those bees are going inside the wood.”

Carpenter bees. The writing and observing self snaps back into the reluctant home owning self. I look up where she’s looking, her head tilted back almost resting against her Hello Kitty backpack. (“Next year, Mommy, I am going to need a different backpack.”) Bees are indeed disappearing behind the slats up by the eaves, and there is this ugly orange-brown dripping stain in two places.

Sue the exterminator is very nice, and not at all critical. She refers matter-of-factly to the staining, and to the tendency for carpenter bees to return annually to a place they like, and thus for the need to re-spray next year. She suggests fresh paint as a deterrent, but I know that is out of the question. She tours the exterior of the house and I am relieved that she mentions nothing else out of order, for I feel sure that if there were anything she could spray and charge me for, she would mention it. She offers a $400 anti-bee package of automatic house spraying (doesn’t cover nests/hives in trees or flower beds). I pass, politely, thinking of all the pesticides. She sprays and powders the carpenter bee holes. $120 pass from me to Sue. Now I do my free writes in the dining room and there are no bees. The troublesome rose bush is in my direct sight line, though.