Tuesday, September 27, 2011


Last week, Ellis's school held an activity fair, where students could learn about all the different clubs and activities they could participate in. It was like a candy store for Ellis full of interesting things he could do: chess club, Lego league, cub scouts, and Suzuki violin. Now I'm sitting here with a stack of informative handouts trying to figure out if we can reasonably do all of these things in addition to Aikido, piano lessons, and track in the spring. He can certainly do some, but maybe not all. What do I know? I have always been one of those people that enthusiastically bites off more than I can chew.

As a general rule with the kids the activities they've engaged in have been based on their interests. As Ellis gets older, that rule becomes more complicated. Should we limit the number of things he can do at one time? Should I try to help him have balance in the things he picks (e.g., so far he hasn't been much of a sports guy)? Should I encourage him to put more effort into some things to really excel when he seems content to just participate?


I don't have an example from my own childhood to help me sort this out. As a kid, I was on my own to figure out what I wanted to do. My parents drove me to practices and attended performances, but I think they would have preferred me to have a more sedate schedule. A less self-directed kid than I would probably have languished in this environment. With Ellis, these decisions are also complicated by the shared custody arrangement and the land-mined terrain of my relationship with his father.

I suppose it helps to remember that this is Ellis's life and that I am here to support him and guide him in the direction he wants to go (as long as it's a healthy one). Up to this point, he's shown good judgment in creating balance for himself.

Ellis (with great sense of humor) boos himself at a track meet. Photo by Paul Feng.
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Friday, September 23, 2011

Perfect Song: First Day of Autumn Version

Do you categorize the music you listen to on a seasonal basis? I find that I have strong seasonal associations with certain songs and genres. Sometimes it's based on the content of the song or the general feeling of the music. Other times it's based on the memory associations I have from the first time I listened to a song.

I remember listening to Led Zeppelin in high school in the first months of the school year - staying after school for the theater or speech team when it started to get dark early, going to football games, dreaming about what my perfect school year would be like, writing feverishly in spiral notebooks while listening to my stereo late into the night. Now every fall, I play "Ramble On" (in my opinion, their best song) and it makes me feel positive about those cozy cool long evenings.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Perfect Song: Alt Rock Nostalgia Version

"Here Comes Your Man" - Pixies

One notable observation from my high school reunion is that popular music generally sucked while we were in high school. Since we graduated in 1991, "The Year that Punk Broke," we were already enrolled in college by the time Nirvana and the other great alternative rock bands created their sea change. Nope. For those of us who found the Top 40 crap being churned out during our secondary education there were essentially two choices: R.E.M. (hats off to you) or classic rock. I spent most of high school doing an independent study on the history of rock music and finally pulled myself out of the sixties and seventies in college.

While we were listening to the crappy d.j. at our reunion social event, a friend posed the question: "Pixies were around. Why didn't we listen to them?" I don't have an answer to that except perhaps to note that Chicago's south suburbs have their own insular quality. My husband, who is older than me used his chronological advantage to amass a great vinyl collection and was tuned into this stuff while I was still wearing mall bangs. I have the benefit, then, to rewrite my music-listening history and make myself cooler.

Please enjoy the song that Charlie now refers to as "Here Comes Old Man." I think that's a homage to his father (if he gets to be cooler, I at least get to enjoy being younger).

Wednesday, September 21, 2011


Charlie has become very interested in drawing and writing. He's getting good at writing some letters, but I love his drawings of people the most. I think they look like the drawings of Shel Silverstein. I'm excited to see Charlie reach this stage. Ellis has been a prolific drawer and I was hoping it would be the same with Charlie. I think it helps to have lots of paper and drawing tools around. For a while it was tricky because Charlie liked to write on the walls, furniture and windows if you didn't watch him like a hawk. He seems to have gotten over that (mostly), moving onto other ways to wreck our property.

One of my favorite drawing tools for kids is the Fisher-Price Doodle Pro. It's a magnetic board that you draw on with a metal pen and metal stampers. They can do drawing after drawing with no mess and then erase quickly and start over. It's also great for traveling. I make sure to have my camera close by to capture the real masterpieces in a more permanent way.

Kids With Teeth by Charlie McCabe
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Monday, September 19, 2011

Farm Fantasies

Judging by the growing backyard chicken trend and the increasing number of urban gardeners, I know I'm not the only city slicker with serious farm fantasies. Mine started somewhere in college driving through the rural areas of Illinois and Indiana and admiring the desolate beauty of old farm houses and the solitude they symbolized. Later as I thought about starting a family, the dream of spending time working together with the ones I love the most on our shared livelihood appealed far more than the "meet at the end of the day when everyone is spent" reality of nine-to-five jobs.

There are many things I love about my urban life and for at least a long while we're committed to St. Paul, but someday, oh maybe, someday there's a plot of land out there with our name on it. In the meantime, here are some of the ways I've been indulging my farm fantasies lately:

Blog:SouleMama. This family of seven finally made good on their farm fantasy in the last year.
Movie: Sweet Land. If you haven't seen this cinematically beautiful and quiet movie about a German mail order bride and the Norwegian farmer she comes to live with in Minnesota just after World War I, it's an immediate must rent. 
Children's Books: (Nothing wrong with indoctrinating your children into your fantasies.) We're currently reading aloud all the Little House books by Laura Ingalls Wilder as a family in the evenings. Right now we're on Farmer Boy about Almanzo Wilder's childhood on a New York farmstead. In the picture book category, I also love Ox-Cart Man by Donald Hall.
Grown-Up Books: I just finished reading Coop by Michael Perry about his family's first year on their Northern Wisconsin farm. I also read This Life is in Your Hands by Melissa Coleman, which is her story of growing up with her back-to-the-land parents in rural Maine in the seventies.
Places: Dodge Nature Center has a lovely little farm with chickens, goats, mules, pigs, and sheep. The Gibbs Museum of Pioneer and Dakotah Life is kind of like a living version of the little House books. There's also the family farm at the Minnesota Zoo, which is open during the part of the year while the weather is nice. I'm still trying to push Josh into lobbying for "free baby goat" to be one of the benefits given to zoo employees and their families.

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Thursday, September 15, 2011

Oh, That Light!

Run on the beach while you can under the bright blue sky.
Enjoy the last of the green as it turns to yellow before next month sets it ablaze.
The sun washes everything in the glorious light of its shortening rays.
There is still plenty of time.
Don't waste it by looking too far ahead.

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Wednesday, September 14, 2011


Tomatoes or Squash?

You never know what you're going to get with September. This week started out with the wading pool and here we are at midweek harvesting all the ripe tomatoes in the garden so they don't get wrecked when it drops into the thirties tonight.

The transition to fall doesn't happen all at once. I switch from sandals to shoes, but refuse to take the plunge into wearing socks. Bike riding is still preferable to the Y, but if you miss the window before the light starts to fade, evening comes fast and it's the treadmill for you. Some neighbors one street over have a makeshift pumpkin patch on their lawn, but I know that pumpkins purchased before mid-October end up more scary from mold than from carving by Halloween time.

I've committed to fall in the sense that I know there's no turning back now. I'm ready for summer to be done and to pack away the light and airy members of my wardrobe. I appreciate the time between air conditioning and heat, and not just for the reduced energy bills. Our minds tend to want to classify things into hard and fast categories. We want things to be one thing or another. Liminal times like September can be a good exercise in acknowledging the necessary existence of ambiguity.
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Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Lessons from Summer: Simple Things Can Be Special

Tri-Color Wax

I feel bad for parents with kids that are scared of the car wash. A quick trip through in the van is seven bucks worth of pure kid-friendly fun for Ellis and Charlie. I found a fancy one near by that has a digital sign that tells you where you are in the cycle. Ellis likes to read the sign out loud so we can all anticipate what will happen to our vehicle next (our favorite is the tri-color wax that splats out on the windshield in blue, yellow, and pink).

We are lucky to live in a community where there are lots of things to do, and we definitely take advantage of them as a family. Nevertheless, my favorite thing of all is to stumble upon something that fits into our everyday life that is something to relish as much as any special event or occasion. I hope that when they are grown, the boys will continue to be able to approach the mundane with pure delight.

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Monday, September 12, 2011

One More Time For Good Measure

If the forecast is correct, the fall cool down is headed our way this week. Not today, though. It's warm and bright. I thought I'd give my bathing-suit-loving boy one more crack at the wading pool to bid adieu to one of his favorite summer activities. Soon we'll develop a new repertoire of go-to activities for fall. I wonder what will be his favorites of the new season.
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Friday, September 9, 2011

Sneaky September

Can I admit that first weeks of September kick my butt every year? It's sneaky. The weather is mostly summery, but all of a sudden we have to develop a whole new routine once the school year starts. Perhaps if I could get the universe to agree to make it chilly, dark and rainy for this couple of weeks, it would be easier. I have a hard time taking things seriously in short sleeves and bare legs.

I'm just about to pick Ellis up from the last day of his first week at his new school. He's been positive and upbeat and it seems like we made a good choice. It's also been a little easier to get Nate up and on the school bus on time this year (fingers crossed for more adult brain chemistry settling in this year!). Nevertheless, my easy, lazy mornings are over for the next nine months and apparently our languid evenings as well. We've had appointments, meetings, and visitors every night this week.

I am ready to have me some weekend, everybody!

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Thursday, September 8, 2011

Lessons from Summer: The Most Important Commitments are the Ones You Make to Yourself

I have been working out at the local branch of the YMCA for almost two years. When I started, I made a commitment to myself that I would go at least four times a week. With the exception of a few times when I've been ill or had to travel, I've followed through on that commitment. Part of why the commitment has worked is that I was realistic when I set the parameters. If I had promised that I would go everyday, I would have failed too frequently and that would have caused me to give up after a while. With my system, any day I go past four is like extra credit and encourages me to keep going. I also know that if I don't have built in breaks to any activity I do, no matter how much I love it, it will begin to feel oppressive and I will rebel. When attempting to play psychological games with yourself, it's a good thing to be well-acquainted with your own nature.

This summer, I became unhooked from any external schedule. After years of living a highly-scheduled life, it was a relief, but also a little scary. What would our day to day life look like? I needed to create some structure, but I also wanted to respect the fact that an important part of this experience was to be able to surf a little bit. Routine can be helpful, but it can also be a numbing agent that insulates you from having to inhabit your life.

There were some routines based on childcare that were naturally present, although I became a lot more mellow about many of those, too, as an easing of our regimented life. There were also some routines we stumbled upon, like the Tuesday Farmer's Market, that were so pleasant they hardly counted as routines. What became the defining routine of the summer for me, though, was a commitment I made to myself about writing on a daily basis. Upon leaving my job, I knew I wanted to focus on writing, but I also didn't want to focus on a specific product. Instead, I wanted to focus on the process of writing. I committed to myself that I would write three-pages of long-hand in my spiral notebook every week day. It was my modified version of Julia Cameron's morning pages from The Artist's Way. I didn't always write them in the morning, and I took the weekends off, but write them I did. I also committed to writing daily blog posts - again with the rule of weekends off, and occasionally allowing myself to skip a day so as not to foment rebellion (know thyself).

These two writing commitments have been the guiding force in my life. The "morning pages" have primed the pump for deeper creative energies and have served as a psychological workshop for me. The blog created the structure and public accountability that all artists need. I have been fiercely protective of my writing time. My children are used to me saying, "Not until I finish my writing." They respect it and it's good for them to understand that I have important things to do that have nothing to do with taking care of their needs. I look forward to my writing time just like my time at the YMCA (even though I struggle at times to honor both commitments). This is the basic maintenance in the care and feeding of me that gives me the energy to accomplish all other endeavors. No matter what else I commit to, I am always my primary and most important client.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Lessons from Summer: Familiarity Can Also Breed Affection

Nine summers ago, I was pregnant for the first time, sick as a dog, and struggling to show up at my full-time job everyday. When Ellis was born the following March, I had six weeks off before I had to return to work for what was the beginning of years of working outside jobs while being a mama. With Charlie, it was a little better - three months maternity leave, a good year where I only worked three days a week. Sometimes I got a great deal of satisfaction out of my work, sometimes I definitely did not, but I can honestly say that I never felt like I had enough time with my kids.

This summer, it has been a gift to just put in a lot of time with the boys. Sometimes they drove me nuts (especially the tired old sibling rivalry routine), but mostly I just liked being around them without the clock ticking or being en route to some scheduled activity. What I wanted was just a short period of time where the outside world had very little influence on my relationship with my children. I wanted us to have some breathing space to get to know each other in a way that only comes from spending most of the day everyday together.

I am grateful for the simple ability to just be here.

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Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Hello Fall/Lessons from Summer

The older boys started school today, our neighborhood has a post-State Fair quiet to it, and grandma and grandpa arrive from Alaska tomorrow. It must be the start of fall. My hope for this September is that it will be better than the last two years when exposure to the new germs from all our school friends made each of us successively ill for the entire month.

I'm pleased with the cooler weather and the promise that the change of seasons brings, but also a little sad to see this summer go. Summer 2011 was the best I've had in a long time. Over the next few days, I'd like to share some of the lessons I've taken from my "summer off" hanging out with the kids. The reason for this is found in the first lesson: Reflection is as important as action. We did a lot of fun things this summer, but what I've appreciated most is the quiet time to think and to find the meaning in the things that we do on a daily basis. The time to reflect has made me continually conscious of the abundance of our life together as a family.
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Friday, September 2, 2011

School Supplies

When we were little girls, my sister and I couldn't wait to go shopping for school supplies. There was so much potential for creativity in a fresh spiral notebook and a perfect unbroken colorful pack of crayons. I love going school supply shopping with Ellis, although, for at least the first grades of school here, the supplies are purchased to be put into the classroom supply that all kids use, so there isn't as much room to become attached to individual items. I understand the logic behind it with little kids, but at the same time, it's not quite as fun.

Since I've carried my love of school supplies into adulthood, I enjoy the time of year when the basics are so cheap. It's an opportunity to stock up on more thoughtful and reflective tools as we prepare to spend more time indoors for the colder months. One thing I do is buy extra supplies to use at home. For the past two days, Ellis and Charlie have been doodling in notebooks with markers and crayons and sharing their creations. This will be a great activity all fall and winter.

I also always buy some supplies for myself. Who can resist one cent spiral notebooks? Having tried fancy journals and Moleskines, I tend to always fall back on this cheap, tried and true basic that I've been using for my musings since I was in grade school. I save my more fancy instincts for choosing the perfect pen. This particular pen is still my favorite.

My friend Val, with whom I spent a lot of time in our college bookstore identifying really great pens, sent me a link this morning to this post at Mighty Girl highlighting school supplies for grownups. It made this bookish girl swoon with excitement for having the right tools for the introspective months to come.
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