Monday, August 30, 2010

Cruising Problem

I’ve spent a lot of my adult life standing in line at the grocery store. When my kids were little all I could think about was keeping them distracted so they wouldn’t realize they were surrounded by candy or remember that it was twenty minutes past their nap times. But now that I’m usually alone when I play the waiting game, I’ve learned so much more about my fellow shoppers.

When people are bored in public settings they will do almost anything to pass the time. More often than not, it will involve a cell phone and a conversation that I have no choice but to overhear. Usually the topic is not that exciting - whose aunt is having surgery and who’s picking junior up from ball practice. But I caught an extra interesting snippet of conversation last week, that made me ponder on its implications for days afterward.

An older gentleman was chatting away in the next lane, phone pressed to his ear, and this statement came out of his mouth. “Yeah, we’re cruising to Alaska this year. Every time we cruise in the tropics we have to walk past the really poor locals when we get off the ship and it makes me feel like some rich, entitled American. At least when we tour in Alaska we’re in the middle of other Americans… you know… who don’t live in poverty.”

I knew nothing about this guy. It would be easy to judge him, and reply (in my head, of course) “yeah, well, our ARE a rich American, if you can afford to go on cruises to the tropics, and you deserve to feel bad!” But that might not be a completely accurate way to analyze the situation. I knew nothing about this man. Maybe he scrimps and saves and works seven days a week all year. Maybe he shops for months for discounts on cruises and the only time he has to enjoy life is on those short stints at sea. Maybe he doesn’t think of himself as better than others, just more fortunate than them. I can kind of see his point.

I wrestle with this same question sometimes. There are so many things falling apart in this wide world we live in. So many causes I could get behind and believe in with all my heart. But where do you start? I’ve always said that ‘if I ever won the lottery, this is what I’d do’ and spelled out a handful of charities I’d donate to, that are close to my heart. But the statistics say I’ll never get to write those checks.

In the meantime I’m stuck in a world where the day to day responsibilities can keep me pretty distracted. It’s fairly easy to forget about the causes of the world when four kids need new shoes for school and in just a few hours six people will be showing up at our family dinner table, expecting there to be food on it. I wake up each morning and face an endless to do list. On the wall of my home office is the family calendar, marked up with events and activities I need to keep straight. There’s plenty to do. It’s almost enough to help me forget how lucky I am in the midst of my own chaos.

Then I hear a snippet of a news report on NPR, as I drive to work. Seventeen million people in Pakistan have been profoundly affected by floods in their country this week. Over 1,600 of them have died from these floods. Mamas and their babies, little children with bright faces like my own, are without food, clean water, or housing. They survive day to day on food thrown from aid trucks.

I can’t let myself dwell on their pain or I won’t be able to walk into work in a composed state. I have to put them in the back of my mind and move ahead.

On my break at work I pick up a book on the history of sanitation (okay, it’s called “The History of Poo” and I know my son will love it.) A simple statement in the first chapter catches my eye. “More than a third of the world’s population - 2.6 billion people - still has no decent place to go to the bathroom.” How can that be? When most Americans are annoyed if every gas station doesn’t supply this ‘simple’ luxury, how can more than a third of the other humans we share the planet with not have a clean, safe option at all?

That night, I’m snuggled in bed, waiting for sleep to come, and a news report catches my eye. I am alarmed to learn that albino people born in Tanzania are hunted, dismembered, and sometimes killed, because witch doctors believe their bones bring good luck and wealth. The ones who survive the attacks are left to live without arms and legs. The woman featured had to rely on her mother to feed and dress her, but the thing she missed most was simply hugging her son. All because she was born without pigment in her skin.

Suddenly I realize I’ve got the same problem as the cruise guy in the grocery store. Every day I’m walking through the reminders that I’m a pretty lucky person. I have a clean, dry place to raise my children. My cabinets are full of food. There are two (usually working) toilets in my house. I tie my shoes and hug my children tight, with hands and arms that work perfectly.

So I can take cruise guy’s approach and close my eyes. I can stop tuning into NPR and 20/20. I can skip over alarming sentences in books and articles. I can hunker down and pretend I don’t see. Or I can take a deep breath and take another approach.

Giving when I can. Teaching my children to be grateful. Digging deeper in my pockets when it’s time to give back. And always, always being thankful for the simple, good things in my life.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Clean Livin'

How can something I depend on so much continue to let me down? No, I’m not talking about my adorable spouse or my distracted sisters. I’m talking about something that sits in the corner most of the day, but when I need it, I really, really need it. When it’s working well I love that darn vacuum more than any other machine in my house. But by golly, when it’s being contrary, it can drive me to the edges of insanity.

When we were first married we found a great deal on an expensive Kirby vacuum. A local college girl was looking for quick cash and was willing to sell it off, a gift from her grandmother, if I remember right. I was thrilled that we could own something so expensive, that would last us for decades (I assumed).

Several years, and several kids later, I was tired of it. After Jeff spent another whole Saturday afternoon taking it apart and tuning it up, because it seemed to have more bad moods than house full of teenage girls, I began toying with the idea of replacing it.

Periodically I let myself wander down the home electronics aisle, gazing longingly at the shiny new machines that promised so many things that my sturdy old Kirby just couldn’t anymore. There were new designs (canisters!) and new features (pet brushes!) that tempted me more than the rows of chocolate that lined the checkout lanes.

Finally a little extra money came our way and I did it. After spending a morning going over and over the same square of carpet because every bit of dust picked up by Sir Kirby seemed to just get dumped out the back again, I headed to the store. Within an hour I was back home, putting it together, and reading the instruction book cover to cover.

It turned out to be a glorious day. I couldn’t believe the suction on my new baby, and was over the moon once I tried out the attachments. I became a crazy woman, obsessed with picking up all the grime, sand, dirt and dust that my old machine had been missing for years. When Jeff came home he found me huddled in the bathroom, sucking dust bunnies out from behind the toilets.

I assumed I’d found the answer to all my house cleaning problems and couldn’t believe I’d waited so long to buy such a lightweight, powerful machine. But all perfect things come to an end. The naïve early days with my new fangled beauty eventually led me to reality. Once filters were full and canisters of grime had been emptied a thousand times, my new baby started to lose her charm. Little by little she once again lost suction, and left behind as much dirt as she picked up.

That’s okay, I told myself. It hadn’t been that expensive to start with. Maybe I’d just picked the wrong brand. I did some research. I read reviews. And I picked a new model, from a different company. But soon I found the same pattern. I brought it home, loved it, sang it’s praises for weeks, even months. Slowly, slowly we found ourselves back at square one. No matter how much I changed filters or wiped down canisters, I could never get perfect suction again. Then one day I got some great vacuuming advice from a neighbor.

Our latest vacuum had been hauled off in a moving van, headed for our new home in Washington D.C. The old house needed one last cleaning before we turned it over to its new owners. I went down the street to ask a neighbor if I could borrow her vacuum. This woman had money. Her husband built houses and their lifestyle reflected the success he’d found in his company. So imagine my surprise when she opened the door and handed over her own vacuum, which just happened to be the exact same (cheap) model I owned. I must have commented on her choice because I’ll never forget what she said to me.

“Oh honey, I always buy the cheaper ones. I used to shell out the big bucks for the fancy ones and they never seemed to last much longer than these,” she said, pointing to the machine at her feet. “I quit trying to keep up with that game years ago. Now I just buy the cheaper one, love it while it works well, then know I will be replacing it in a couple of years.”

I was enlightened. She had made peace with this process and given herself permission to invest in a new one when the time was right again. No more agonizing over which brand might be better than another. Just appreciate the superior quality of a new machine and know it won’t last forever.

I have to admit I hate the fact I add another metal beast to the local landfill every two or three years. And I wish I had better options. Sure, I’ve seen the commercials for those four hundred dollar jobbies. And maybe they do work great, for years and years. But I’m still skeptical. Even if I had that much to drop on a vacuum, what happens if I’m disappointed in a few short years? Would I eventually find myself back in the aisles full of fifty dollar models?

I just got a new vacuum this week. The first one I bought in New York lasted four years. I feel pretty good about that. I loved it so much I actually bought the same model again. It was glorious to go back to new. I spent a whole day just sucking up dirt, from the mini blinds to the stairs. And I didn’t beat myself up over my purchase. If I’m going to keep this family from drowning in a sea of dust and pet hair, I’ve gotta do what I’ve gotta do.

Now excuse me for a second.

I think I spotted a few dust bunnies behind the sofa and I can’t wait to get ‘em.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Phone Phobia

I was clearing the new messages off the answering machine and couldn’t help but laugh when I came to one that rambled on and on. No, it wasn’t my sister, who generally can’t remember the reason she’s called me after she’s dialed my number. And it wasn’t a salesman or political candidate, wanting me to hear their pitch. It was a tiny voice, that belonged to the nine year old friend of my son.

“Um, yeah….this is Peter…and, um, I’m wondering….um….I was thinking…um..”

Then a pause.

“Well, this is Peter…oh, yeah, I said that, didn’t I?.....I was wanting to talk to you….maybe we could play….at my place? (like he has his own pad)…um, yeah…”

It went on like this for a good five minutes. At one point he even seems to realize he’s rambling and says, “um….yeah…..well, I don’t know what I’m trying to say…”

This message, that took up most of my answering machine space, didn’t surprise me. I have three boys, the two older ones are teens. This is how boys talk on the phone. It’s like they don’t realize there’s another person on the other end of the line.

When I call home I’m lucky to get a few ‘yups’ and ‘nopes’ before our conversation ends. And I use the word conversation very loosely.

It was a blessing to have the visual of my son as we spoke via skype when he was in Brazil last year. I would have thought we’d lost our connection or he’d dropped into a coma, for the lack of response on his end of the call. Fortunately I could see him myself, sitting there in front of the computer, scratching his latest mosquito bite while his mom was trying to engage him in some dialogue. He’d spent the day water skiing and riding horses on the beach. It’s not like he didn’t have anything to talk about.

I guess it’s true, that thing about how women have so many more words to use up in a day than men do. Some days I think my boys might even be in the negative.

Especially if there had been any need for them to make or take a phone call.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Big Choices

It was just a little past bedtime but I was unwilling to break the magical spell. My littlest one, only four, and still very eager to snuggle with mama in the minutes before sleep, had tucked himself neatly up under my chin. The back of his little body fit perfectly in the crook of my own. My arms wrapped all the way around his relaxed frame and his cheek rested comfortably on the fleshy part of the back of my elbow.

He was so content, so tucked in and safe. We’d lived in this house, in a beautiful Utah valley, for two and a half years, more than half of his lifetime. His best friend lived across the street and although both were painfully shy, when put together they somehow found courage in their joined forces. After sending the big kids off to school every morning, his days revolved around running errands with his mama and leading army missions with this buddy across the street.

His life was ordinary and predictable. And it was all getting ready to change.

He didn’t know it. His older siblings didn’t either. We held off telling them of the chance we might be moving again until we knew more certainly that it would really happen. But applications had been submitted, interviews arranged, and the job had been offered. A job that meant an office in New York was waiting for their daddy to show up. And a job that meant the world my children knew so well was getting ready to be turned upside down.

As we snuggled in his bed that night, waiting for the sleepies to make his eyelids heavy, I sensed the magnitude of this decision that had been made. It’s sometimes alarming to think about how much power we have over our children’s lives. It can be humbling to ponder.

So much of their day to day life is easily spelled out. We can set it up to look like they’ve made their own choices. Which cereals they can choose from at the breakfast table. Whether the red shirt with the truck or the blue shirt with the dinosaur is the perfect one for this day’s adventures. Exactly which three videos will be lugged home in the library bag.

But a lot of the big stuff is out of their control. Grown-ups have discussions and make decisions, that can translate into huge life changes for the very people who never get to vote. And in reality they shouldn’t get to vote. There are too many big picture pieces of the equation that children are not capable of factoring in. The weight of some decisions rests solely on the shoulders of moms and dads.

I knew we’d thought through all the pros and cons. I knew we could find a good life in New York. I had my speeches ready, about how there were new friends just waiting to be met, way out East. We had email and the internet, and could easily stay in touch with close friends we’d made in Utah. But there was no sugar coating the fact that each one of my children was being asked to start over. We weren’t asking them if they wanted to move. We were telling them.

It made me think about all of the ways we choose for our children. So many days I ruminate in how they are their own people, their own unique personalities, and I cannot change who they are. But there is a power that is bestowed upon parents that exists no matter what personality type a child inherits. No matter how their offspring feel about it, sometimes moms and dads have to make unpopular choices, and just hope they can spin it in a way that makes it palatable.

We’ve done it several times as we’ve made moves from state to state. But I think divorced parents have some of the same issues. They’re forced to make tough choices, carefully weighing what the words ‘the child’s best interest’ really mean. So many variables, each to be worked out for the greater good of the family. Each individual at risk of feeling unheard or dissatisfied.

We’ve had friends who chose to send their children to private schools, and friends who’ve chosen to home school. Both have life changing implications for children. In hard economic times parents who decide to downsize and simplify may force siblings to share a bedroom for the first time, in a much smaller house. We’ve known several families who’ve been dealt the difficult cards of a life threatening diagnosis for one of their children. The stream of hard decisions begins long before the first day of treatment.

But I wonder if the key to parenting comes back to that magical moment I didn’t want to end when my baby boy was drifting off to sleep. Maybe the most important thing we can do, as we navigate the treacherous waters of parenthood, is to make sure every choice we make for our children leads them to a sense of safety, stability and comfort. My snuggle times with each of our children has not been dependent on a certain house, or a certain state. The comfort it brought to them came from the sense that no matter where we lived, mama would be there, to brush the hair from their eyes before they fell asleep at night.

It’s one of the topics I’ve never seen addressed in those parent help books that stand in a proud line at the book store. It’s an aspect of parenting you might not even see coming until it’s landed on your doorstep. The control we have over these new citizens of the world that we’ve been entrusted to raise is greater than we sometimes realize.

It’s so important that we never minimize its impact.

Monday, August 9, 2010

Selective Memories

One day, when I was in middle school (although we called it Junior High, back in the olden days), my siblings and I were discussing the upcoming Missouri State Fair. We decided we should go, since my older sisters had recently acquired those neat little cards you carry in your wallet that give you permission to drive. “That would be great!” my brother said, “State Fairs are so much fun. I wonder why we never went to them when we were little.”

My dad, passing through the room as the last comment was made, stopped in his tracks and did an about face. “You’re kidding me, right?” he said.

We all stared at him, dumbfounded.

Finally my brother broke the silence. “No, why? I think it would have been fun to go to the Fair when we were little…”

What we didn’t realize, was that memories are fickle friends. For the next fifteen minutes we got an earful from our dad. It turns out that we DID go to the State Fair.

Every year.

Year after year of lugging a cooler and a big brown grocery bag full of lunch supplies across the dirt parking lot. Year after tiring year of packing endless cloth diapers and wads of bread bags to haul the wet ones home as the day progressed. Year after year of paying admission for five little people who spent the day alternating between being very entertained and very hungry/tired/crabby.

At the time I didn’t understand my dad’s outrage at our fractured memories. Now that I have kids of my own, I get it. I so totally get it.

This year I’ve set a summer goal. Before the warm months end I would like to have a significant number of our print photographs scanned into our computer. It’s not a small feat. I was a crazy picture lady way before we purchased a digital camera, which means I have literally 25 photo boxes, all full of prints, to eventually be archived onto our hard drive.

The task itself isn’t hard. But going through the boxes, making sure they are all chronological before I begin, has been very, very distracting. Each batch I pull out and flip through brings back waves of memories. Almost every time we’ve taken an adventure, I’ve had a camera along to record the fun. From walks down our neighbor’s stream in Missouri, to cross country trips to visit far away relatives, each activity has a spot in my boxes.

It reminds me of how much we’ve done. When I think back to raising our kids, I tend to remember the daily stuff. Making meal after meal. Digging out tubs of hand me downs as the seasons changed. Bathing little bodies and vacuuming up Legos. What I forget about are the times we made the effort to break away from everyday life and found something fun to do beyond our own front yard. The thick stacks of photographs trigger my memories.

I have had flashbacks to my dad’s outrage about our state fair comments. Many of the pictures I flip through show me things that my husband and I will remember, but most of our children will never recall. Days spent exploring in museums and walking in the shadows of national monuments.

My son Sam, who’s nine, sat with me at one point over the weekend, and I told him story after story of the places he’s been, laying out pictures in front of us to prove my stories true. He was mildly interested but the joy he’d felt as I’d taken those pictures will never be stirred up in his memories. I have to make peace with that.

But I honestly and truly believe he’s a better person today because he’s had life experiences. All of our children, with each of the trips we’ve taken or new places we’ve explored, have become different people because of our efforts. Every simple trip to the children’s museum, the zoo, and even the library, becomes a brick that builds their unfolding lives.

They learn about the world by going out and seeing it, whether they actively retain the memories or not. The library book about zoo animals comes to life as they see a monkey or giraffe up close on that hot, sweaty afternoon they spend at the actual zoo. For weary moms and dads, it might seem hardly worth it. But I choose to believe it’s very worth it.

When a child is buckled into a car seat and is surrounded by the people in his family, he soaks in a sense of who he is, and how he fits in the universe. When they all get out at a restaurant and share a meal, or unload at a trail head and spend the day finding bugs in the woods, he learns that he’s part of something bigger than himself, something warm and nurturing.

The pictures he sees of himself in a dozen years, of his round cherub face inspecting a ladybug, might not bring up any memories. Odds are they’ll bring up none. But he’ll be the better for the experience. He won’t remember the science museum’s demonstrations, that taught him about tornadoes and why ice cubes melt, but his understanding of the world grew with each visit.

I’m looking forward to eventually laying my hands on every one of the photographs I’ve taken in the past two decades. I’ll only scan the best ones, but will thoroughly enjoy each in its own way.

And I know, down deep in my soul I know, that at some point, after I’ve scanned a few thousand memories into the computer, one of my kids will turn to me some day and say, “Why didn’t we ever go to the state fair?”

Monday, August 2, 2010

My Baby Girl

One of the blondes in the picture above is my baby girl. One is my niece. Why can't I process the fact that the one with car keys in her pocket belongs to me?

(The second picture is a blow up of her kindergarten graduation picture. Grammy mounted it on foam core board so we could all sign it.)

A Pirate's Mother

When we turned the corner and walked through the gate,into the back yard, we were greeted by a large ship. Made of cardboard and scrap wood and anchored by two clothesline poles, the theme of the party was suddenly obvious. Ahoy Maties! It’s time to play Pirate!

It was amazing but not surprising. My husband’s brother married one heck of a party planner. She’s a great mom on many levels, and her kids will never be able to complain that they didn’t feel special on their birthdays. They were all born in the summer and every year they throw one big family party to celebrate. Each year it’s a different idea and she pulls it off perfectly time after time. Rain or shine, it’s always a day to remember. From the original cakes to the wiffle ball games that include the oldest to the youngest, this is the party we look forward to every summer.

It’s especially fun for me since all of my kids are old now. Teen parties don’t hold the promise of fun mom interactions the way little kid parties do. It’s more likely that the only role I play in their celebrations is the assignment of food-retriever and brother trapper. Keep the food coming and the brothers out of the way.

Sam is turning ten this year. It might be my last chance to hold a genuine birthday party, with balloons and friends and games played around the kitchen table. Because he was born at the end of October, right when I’m starting to panic about Thanksgiving plans and (oh dear!) Christmas lists, his party is sometimes more of an afterthought. Let’s hurry up and get it done so we can pull of Halloween, then Thanksgiving, then head into Christmas! I’m afraid I’ve squandered some of my last chances at throwing ‘the big one’ for my boy.

So it was fun to watch him in his glory, running around the yard with New Hampshire cousins this weekend, all of them jazzed up on piñata candy and birthday buzz. In the minutes before we walked through the backyard gate, his priority had been to impress older sister’s boyfriend, who had bravely come along with us. But hanging with the older kids lost its draw the second he laid eyes on the almost life size pirate ship and saw there was an eye patch with his name on it. His constant goal to fit in with teen siblings and their friends fell aside and suddenly my boy was just nine again. A little kid, thrilled to play little kid games.

They had sword fights on and off all afternoon. Jacob, who turned ten, and Luke, who turned eight, mixed easily with Sam, like long lost brothers, not ‘just’ cousins. Their little sister, Emma, who just turned five, pranced around in her Tinkerbelle dress and posed for picture after picture in front of adoring aunts. The bouncy house provided a nice release of sugared up energy. Splashing in the wading pool smeared their great pirate make up (beards! Scars!) and they came to the moms, begging for touch ups, adding some fierce tattoos along the way. Cake was inhaled, presents opened, and soon it was time to head back to Grammy’s house for the night. Even magical pirate days must eventually come to an end. My still- little guy’s head was heavy with sleepiness as soon as he clicked into his seat belt.

But the party was not over. Knowing we’d be in New Hampshire for the ultimate summer party anyway, we strategically planned to celebrate our daughter’s recent high school graduation on the same weekend. All of the out of town family who could not come to New York in June, could celebrate with her in July. After a good, long nights sleep, it was time for party number two.

This one was for my child. My oldest child. The one who was the five year old in the Tinkerbelle outfit not that many years ago. The one who brought along her boyfriend on this trip and spent last week signing up for college classes. Just as I got comfortable, watching my youngest melt back into little kid ways, I was forced back to reality, going through the motions of celebrating the end of a childhood. The end of the era of baby dolls wrapped in shiny paper for birthday presents. The end of fairy princess day dreams and stuffed bunnies who are treated like family.

Her grandmother did it up right. The decorations were amazing. The cake was as tasty as it was beautiful. My girl was showered with presents from aunts and uncles that truly love her and want the best for her. It was only her mom who couldn’t seem to understand what was actually happening.

Two of my sisters in law sat in that lawn chair circle and understood. They’ve seen their children grow up and out of their nests. It’s not always easy, on any level, but they’ve braved the storms, better than any pirate in a plastic eye patch ever could. I’m about to join their club and I’m not sure I want to get my membership card yet. I spent most of the afternoon feeling shell shocked. This can’t be my little girl, all grown up. Mine’s the one in the pigtails, prancing around with her magic wand. Not the one opening gifts that will assist her in her journey to leave me.

I watched my tiny niece dance around the yard and thought of her mother - my sister-in-law, and friend. It must seem like she’s got all the time in the world left, to throw wonderful parties. But so quickly it will be over. The pirate ships will sail away and Tinkerbelle will follow. Soon this party will be her daughter’s graduation. And I’ll be the one comforting the graduates mother.

Maybe by then I’ll be an expert.