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Thursday, July 22, 2010


It was a perfectly innocent suggestion by our groovy piano teacher. Let's call him Alan. He lives just down the street from where my younger daughter goes to camp. So, why not let her walk over to his house for her lesson?

She loved the idea. He assured me he had other kids who did it. Kids who went to school there. "8 year olds?" I said. I love the guy, but he has no kids (and very silky white chin-length hair and came of age in the late 1960s, early 1970s.) "Sure!" He said. Naturally, the daughter loved the idea. Frankly, I didn't mind it, either. Camp and piano lessons are on the same side of the quasi-major road. Only one side street would need to be crossed. The distance: one and a half blocks. Still, I hesitated. When I've got a parenting question, I head for the books. If the books don't answer me, I ask around. Parenting by committee, the recourse of the insecure.

I asked around. Most parents were dubious, some outright against it. One said, ask the camp director. One and only one said she and her husband have stopped asking what other people do and have decided to make their own decisions. This was novel. I put it aside for further research, as I do all untested theories.

I asked the camp director. Her wrinkled-up nose and shaking head told me much more than her polite words: wouldn't recommend it, were the words. You're crazy, was the implication.

Still, the bee was in the bonnet, thanks to Alan. And there I was, knowing my daughter could certainly handle it, thinking of all the freedom I had as a kid, thinking of all the recent articles about this question of how much freedom kids used to have versus how scheduled and escorted they are now. Just yesterday, I read an excellent chapter in Michael Chabon's non-fiction book Manhood for Amateurs in which he examines exactly this point. In fact, I felt as if I were reading my own thoughts -- as they would be written if I were a Pulitzer-Prize winning male writer. It's not really surprising that I share similar thoughts with Michael Chabon. Judith Warner discussed this question in her column a couple of years ago. All of us are about the same age, and share similar socio-economic and cultural backgrounds. It's not a wonder that we compare our childhoods of benign neglect to the way kids' childhoods are run these days and come up scratching our heads. How did we let this happen?

The question has been answered pretty well. The next step is the solution. One of the major problems with deciding to let the kids go "free range," is that not too many others are doing the same. The big difference between now and then, is that back then, when I was climbing through the dining room window of my friend Kelly's house because she'd lost her latch key, there were lots of kids all around doing similar things. Safety in numbers and all that.

One of the daughter's qualities is perseverance. The subject did not drop. I'm sure her ability to nag incessantly means only good things about her personality. I believe I read not too long ago that perseverance is one of the hallmarks of the successful person. So, the first week's piano lesson rolled around and I skirted the decision. I parked out front of Alan's house, walked over to camp, signed her out, and let her walk ahead of me to his house. She spent a very long time at that corner before crossing, turning her head side to side to check and recheck and recheck. I kept mum.

Week two came around. This kid is capable. Honestly, when we lived in the city, she used to like to tell me all the different routes we could take from our apartment to school, to the 92nd Street Y, to her sister's ballet school. She has a better sense of direction than her older sister. When I allowed them to take the elevator downstairs and go around the corner to buy me a coffee from Gourmet Garage, I felt secure knowing that big sister would have little sister beside her.  I wished I'd never said anything to the camp director. But I had. The husband said forget it, the camp probably wouldn't dismiss her without a parent present. I considered writing a note, but decided I couldn't take the censure if I insisted on this extreme decision. So this time, I drove to camp, parked at the end of the driveway, picked up the daughter, signed her out, walked with her to the car, traded her backpack for her piano books, and got in the car without her. It took me a couple of minutes to make my way around the circular driveway with the other pick-up cars, so she had a head start.

I passed her on the street. She was striding with purpose and pride, and I felt it was a reasonable compromise. Although I was aware that my presence down the block, while freedom for her, was nothing like the freedom I experienced as a kid growing up in Northwest Washington, DC. By 10, definitely by 10, I was walking about half a mile along Connecticut Avenue, crossing major intersections-- to my shrink. At 8, I was definitely walking (running, racing, hurling myself across the neighborhood streets) alone or with friends to blow my allowance on candy at Broad Branch Market, and to play unsupervised at Lafayette Elementary School's playground, three blocks from home. On wrought iron monkey bars and cement tunnels and ramps. Unthinkable these days.

I considered honking as I passed, but opted against it. She was concentrating. I could see how much the journey meant to her. I parked and crossed over to Alan's house. Trees blocked my view of her and I denied myself the satisfaction of planting myself in the middle of the sidewalk and watching her walk toward me. Covered by the trees, I sat on Alan's front steps, pulled out my book, and waited a little anxiously for her to arrive.

Friday, July 16, 2010

The Mystery of Mysteries

I've been reading a lot of Scandinavian mystery writers for the past year or so. Most of my life, I've been pretty uninterested in mysteries. Sure, I read bunches of Agatha Christie as a teenager, mostly because they were on my parents' basement bookshelves, but those were it. Later, pregnant with my first child, and afraid I'd never be able to read again, I got hooked on Elizabeth George. For the next ten years, I read a P.D. James now and then, tried a Patricia Cornwall (meh), but stuck to my major interests, contemporary realistic fiction and 18th and 19th Century British lit. Then my MIL introduced me to Tana French, and suddenly, mysteries were it. Tana French, Kate Atkinson. Thinky mysteries. Literary, thinky mysteries.

And then appeared Stieg Larsson. Neither thinky nor literary. More like out-of-control train rides. Jo Nesbo, Hakan Nesser, Henning Menkell. All different, all the same. Lots of burned out, jaded detectives with health problems due to poor diet, lack of sleep, smoking, and drinking. Why, I ask you, do I read them? Why?

Why? Maybe in part because I'm amazed by the human body's endurance. Considering how I've reacted to the stress of uprooting myself and family from a place I was enmeshed, to a job search, and to an adjustment to a life I'm still unsure I want, I see, feel, and know the physical and mental ravages of stress. Maybe I like to read about these burned out messes of detectives because they reassure me by enduring so much more than I have.

There is more to it, though. Yes, the stories are compelling, and plot-driven narratives are a lot like movie thrillers: pure escapism. But there are so many forms of escapism -- somatic illnesses, chic-lit, leafing through home decor magazines -- that I wonder why I choose this form now. Especially since I really dislike descriptions of violence, and these books seem to ratchet-up the horrific manner of death with each publication. Nary a one contains a single homicide. They're all double, triple, serial murders.

Shall I tell you my theory? It's because of the value placed therein on human life. I'm stating a paradox, considering how easily and emotionlessly these authors dispose of their victims. Furthermore, their protagonists are hardly models of emotional health. Therefore the general world-view promulgated by these authors is fairly grim. Nevertheless, their detectives (or as in Larrson, their de-facto detectives),  will do anything to solve these mysteries, at the risk of destroying themselves. As I read these narratives, I am filled with reassurance that people still place that much value on a single life.

I think at this time in my life, filled with massive evidence of the general ineffectiveness of one individual against the blind forces of nature and humanity, I am reassured to find that the individual does matter. So I read.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Slipping Through My Fingers

Yes, this title is an allusion to Abba. Yes, the movie was schlock. Yes, I saw it ("MamaMia") and I saw the Broadway Show. And you know what? It really touched a nerve, that movie did, anyway. I know I'm not the only one who thought so. One of my friends described the movie as a secret pleasure, her grown-up "Dirty Dancing."

I woke up at 4:30 a.m. with an ineffable sadness, thinking of my 6th grader growing up for almost a whole summer without me. Thinking of how she might have changed when we see her, thinking of how I'm still allowed to hug her now -- quick hugs, not too many kisses, always on her terms -- and wondering if I'll still be allowed to when I see her again. Thinking of how fast time is going by. None of this is unmapped country for any parent, I know, but sometimes the universality of an emotion really manifests in a moment. A moment of insomnia, usually.

As I struggle with myself these days, I have an added pressure that this little girl's awareness is becoming more profound, and that she is becoming aware of my struggles, too. Until now it's been pretty easy to present a reasonable facsimile of a well-adjusted parent to my children; but now the struggles are a bit more personal, and I am loathe to show them my humanness, because with it comes awareness of a lot of things about me and the world I would rather they not know.

I'm not speaking about Death, at least I don't think so. We've had many a late night conversation about it when she was supposed to be in bed, and I've felt for her, remembering those moments when I used to feel so terrified at the thought of no longer existing. C and I usually try to talk her down from her anxiety and then make jokes, and that works. I always remember, although I have yet to say this to her, what Victor Tolkein, a boy at St.Albans said to me (this was high school, probably senior year) when we were talking about death. He said he didn't worry about death anymore because when he was dead he wouldn't care.

Okay, maybe that's not so profound, but it struck me at the time. Sometimes the root of a cliche is profound. Still, I'm not sure my 6th grader is ready for that piece of existentialism. Unfortunately, I can't comfort her with God talk, because I just don't buy it and she knows.

I really wasn't thinking of death, although it occupied a whole paragraph, didn't it? And probably was what caused me to become wide awake this morning, thinking of time slipping away, of daughters slipping away, and therefore, of course, of myself slipping away. Before I've really got a grip on myself, is what I was thinking. Before I can demonstrate for her and her sister that grown up life is good. It's funny to me that until this last year, I have always maintained being grown up is much better than being a child. This year, though, while looking for a job and trying to manage a house, my teenage years are looking pretty good. I lived in a lovely house that other people took care of, without a care in the world about money, and with a sense that if life was hard now, it was going to improve once I got out of that house.

Sigh. It did, overall. But right now, sending out job apps, on a very tight budget, overwhelmed by responsibilities, I find life challenging. I wish I could show it to my daughters in a better way, but that's my route right now. I just hope it doesn't defeat me. That's the most important thing I want to show my children: that if I can meet a challenge, they can, too.

Sunday, July 4, 2010

Gardens II

I was derailed by the wasp incident reported in my previous post from my original garden topic. Friday evening I was weeding my enormous garden, full of resentment that I was weeding my enormous garden, and thinking unhelpful thoughts. Let me just try to make myself look a tiny bit better by saying that I had spent the day looking up jobs, sending out resumes, and bagging groceries at the Coop, not writing, and therefore feeling put-upon. As I was saying, I was thinking unhelpful things like, "I never said I liked to garden. What I said was that I like gardens." I spent many a lovely evening strolling in the Central Park Conservatory Garden at 105th and Fifth Ave., which was across the street from our apartment, and came to feel almost like a back yard - a back yard in which I could sit on a bench and watch my children dangle sticks and leaves into a lovely fountain and read little signs identifying all the flowers and herbs I did nothing to promote. I highly recommend visiting that garden. It's always beautiful, in every season.

I did enjoy gardening in our little backyard in Somerville, MA. The yard was all paved over by my landlords, retired Marine Jerry and his invisible wife Joanne. We lived in the downstairs apartment their daughter used to occupy. There was a dishwasher in the kitchen and a dryer outside on the enclosed porch. There was also a shag carpet in mottled pink. The backyard was cement, except for a nice 5' X 8'  plot up against the house. Shades of Barenaked Ladies' "The Old Apartment" ("Why did you pave the yard? Why did you plaster over the hole I punched in the wall?") Without even checking for lead in the dirt (pre-kids), I planted six tomato plants and they flourished in a most astonishing manner. Someone told me marigolds protected tomato plants from something-or-other, so I planted a line of those around the perimeter. There were no weeds to speak of. Boom. Bazillions of tomatoes. And I wrote a poem about them, which was later published in Salvage magazine. I don't think Salvage exists anymore, but here's the poem:

Embarrassed By Plenty

My six tomato plants
stand over five feet tall.
They were one tenth that size
when I wheeled them to my car.

At the nursery they said
just plant them and let them grow.
I piled on compost and set
each inside a white wire fence of its own.

Now they've overgrown their cones.
Branches poke through the wires,
loll and droop with fruit,
slatterns careless of their loads.

That plot's an obstetrician's waiting room,
full of wildly fertile ladies
clumped and waiting to birth
dozens of green babies,

A nursery of hatchlings,
jostling like children clambering at fences,
hair wild and unbrushed,
feet stuck in the crumbly earth.

Next door, two refined tomatoes
grow up sedately staked,
pruned and decorous;
mine are riotous green,

spangled with copious yellow florets,
melodramatic and garish like bad poetry,
saying, "Look at us, look at us,"

Anyway, that was a manageable garden, mostly cement. The next garden was at the little house we rented for four years in Albany. I tilled, turned, weeded, dug out, and planted a perennial bed along one side of the driveway. After a year, I became pregnant with my second child, and it was hard to bend and weed. And then some sort of wasp that burrows in the ground invaded, and I was put off. I called the Cornell Extension Service and described these creatures, and the gardener there said with reasonable certainty, but still leaving wiggle-room, that these wasps would not sting. Nevertheless, I was fat and having hives and generally tired out from taking care of a toddler and so I let that garden go. 

Now I have this gigantic garden, and well, that brings me back full circle. Ungrateful? You bet!  I have this feeling we jumped up a couple of levels too many in our homeownership phase of life. We skipped the starter home, and now we have the home you move to when you can afford a little outside help with the yard, or you have enough time and interest to spend your entire life taking care of it. I feel a burden to carry on what Mrs.W, who raised 5 kids here, put in place, because I've met Mrs.W, and she's a formidable woman, as well as a retiree who lives not far from her long-time home. 

Retired Marine Jerry had no regrets about paving. He once told me he didn't want to garden no more. So he enjoyed his days in a folding chair on his front stoop. Joanne his invisible wife might once have enjoyed digging in the dirt, but she was consigned upstairs by some mysterious illness. She was a frail, skinny lady. I saw her every once in a while, going from the house to the car, but otherwise she stayed inside. Apparently by the window, because when we went upstairs in our fourth year there to tell them I was pregnant, she said, "I thought so! I says to Jerry, 'Either she's getting fat or she's pregnant.'" 

We had our first baby there, and we didn't garden there no more. 

Saturday, July 3, 2010

Gardens & Wasp

What I'm thinking about is gardens. This morning the 2nd grader took her Tuppertainer of soapy water around front to search for Japanese beetles. Each one she scoops into the container nets her a quarter - terms set by my MIL last summer when swarms of them overran the roses, and my MIL, much cleverer than I at setting children to work, recalled that her parents paid her 5 cents per beetle back in the 1940s. Anyway, 2nd grader went around front and I forgot about her in a frenzy of sweeping cobwebs away from the doors and trying to sweep off the deck. Wouldn't you know the grooves of the deck planks run the wrong way, so you can't just sweep stuff over the side onto the patio, you have to actually use a dustpan? Well, I don't have a dustpan. And my broom has a tendency to pirouette around its base, sometimes unscrewing itself all the way from the stick. So you can see I was busy.

After an unknown number of minutes, I'm guessing maybe ten, my daughter was back, standing in front of me, with her arms at her sides, in that way some kids have of quietly presenting themselves as upset and waiting for you to notice. At least this one does. Her sister wouldn't be so quiet. And I did notice. When I asked what was wrong, she told me, chin quivering, that a wasp had landed on her eye. I looked and there was a tiny pinprick drop of blood just in the corner of her eye, over her tear duct. "Did it sting you?" Head shook no. "Are you sure?" Head shook no. I wiped away the blood with no comment and gave called-for hugs.

"It was there for a really long time. Like ten minutes," she said, now sobbing, and now I was tuned in, because I understood the whole of what happened. While I was tussling with the pirouetting broom, she was frozen in fear with a wasp on her eyelid, too afraid to move or scream, absolutely trapped. I felt guilty - of course - as if I should have known somehow that my child was in trouble; and sad, thinking of all the traumas we have to suffer alone, even when surrounded by loved ones. Some things you just have to get through yourself, and you do, but doing it alone makes the world seem a little bigger and more impersonal.

"It was on my head for awhile first," she continued, pointing to her crown. "It started here and traveled slowly down." I suggested she could have brushed it away at that point, hoping to help her avoid future incidents. "It was prickly."

I thought it was time to wrap up the subject, as visions of phobias developing crept into my brain. I told her the wasp was checking her out to see if she was a flower, and that luckily it was smart enough to figure out she wasn't. Then the weed-whacker that C bought last night broke, and I sent her off with him to the store to return it - and to get a better broom and a dustpan for outside.