Quote of the week

English: Photograph of Henry James.

English: Photograph of Henry James. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)






Summer afternoon-summer afternoon; to me those have always been the two most beautiful words in the English language.

Henry James


Down time

rain down on window

rain down on window (Photo credit: pennacook)


Everyone is busy these days, even kids sometimes. We all have a thousand responsibilities and to-dos on top of the thousand things we personally hope for. We have jobs and chores, but we also have hobbies and interests that we want to work into the schedule. It’s easy to feel as if every minute has fifteen minutes worth of activity we should pack into it. We can forget the need to stop and do nothing occasionally. That down time is valuable too, just not in a way that we can measure by items checked off a to-do list.


I have so much I need to do. I have so much more I should do. I’m not doing any of it. I’m sitting in a room with a lot of windows watching the rain and listening to it pounding on the roof. My children are either napping or watching a movie, which they’re only permitted once a month, so I think I should take advantage of the electronic babysitting while I can. Later, I’ll probably wish I had spent this time getting work done, but maybe not. I might just appreciate the better mood and calmer attitude that can come from sitting for an hour listening to the rain.


How to waste a week of your life

I think I just wasted a week of my life. The frustrating thing is that there was no point during that week that I either thought it would all add up to a week or doubted that what I was doing was worthwhile. So how do I not waste more?

Our laptop has been suffering the indignities of old age for the past few months. In the case of a computer, these indignities are overheating, constant fan running, a hard-drive replacement, RAM upgrade, inability to play any videos without crashing inexplicably, and then recently inability to do much of anything without crashing inexplicably. As it has aged with such grace, we have been using our new young thing–meaning the new laptop–for more of our needs, but we hadn’t actually switched everything over to the new computer until this past week. Finally, we decided the poor, suffering, elderly laptop deserved to retire to a life of only leisurely computing–meaning, it gets used by whoever wants to do something that we can’t do on an ipad when the other laptop is already being used. Of course, nothing is as easy as it sounds, so moving our files and a few applications we had bought recently enough to want to keep as is rather than upgrade became a week-long ordeal. But it was necessary. The old computer was not stable enough to be our primary machine. It can handle whatever we need it to handle, so long as it isn’t crucial and we don’t mind risking the loss of its data.

So, I spent a few days on the oh-so-fun task of switching files and applications, rebooting during various crashes, and a whole bunch of troubleshooting for just about everything since nothing switched over completely seamlessly. It didn’t help that the new laptop was only new to us, having been my mother’s laptop for about two months before she decided to get a new one for unique reasons pertaining to hard-to-use software compatibility issues that have no bearing on the total awesomeness of our new laptop. Those two months left their mark on our laptop, which though it was still hers and didn’t realize we were its new parents. It wanted her password for a bunch of stuff, as if we weren’t good enough.

Then, once I had spent so much time on switching computers, I was on a roll. I might as well neaten up while I’m at it. We had old, old files from the computer before the computer before the old laptop, some of which were worth keeping and some–like emailed grocery lists and movie discussions that somehow got archived–not. So, since I was there anyway, and since we have this nifty new laptop that’s all clean and untainted by the accumulation of years of electronic soot, I went file by file in documents and on the desktop and deleted what wasn’t worth keeping and organized what was, since there’s no point keeping it if you can’t find it. The problem with this logic is that the files were small, and even as numerous as they were, they didn’t make a dent in the memory of the computer, so storing a 15 year old email as a text file was doing no harm. And with spotlight, we can find anything, whether it’s in a logical place or not. So really, I just wanted to feel like it was neat and clean because it was new, and I spent days of my life making it so.

Then, because I was being so organized, I decided I needed a better way of keeping up with all my various notes and memos-to-self, all my lists of things to do, books to read, foods to cook, and places to go. I needed to streamline the running of the house and family so I’d be more on top of things. So I spent way too long looking for just the right app, and I carefully pondered the important questions of which features this app must have. I tried every free app I could find with the features I was looking for before determining that none of them was good enough, and then I bought an inexpensive but excellent app to organize my life’s notes and lists. And it really is an excellent app. It was well worth the $2 it cost. But once I had the app, I needed to get all the scraps of paper and notes into it. So I transcribed lists that were perfectly neat and organized in a binder (which has the disadvantage relative to the app of always being farther from me than my ipad, which is the reason I needed the app). And now I have them all in the app. Along with a bunch of other notes I made along the way. It took another day or two, but I’m organized!

But, since I was organizing and consolidating everything into one hold-all app, I might as well get around to sorting the 50-ish magazines I have lying around waiting for me to cut out the recipes and articles I want to keep before I recycle the magazine. They’ve been accumulating because my method of storing recipes and articles after clipping them didn’t work well, because I couldn’t search for anything and find it except by flipping page-by-page through yet another binder, which is no less trouble than flipping through the magazine. They didn’t lend themselves to being put into my app. It can manage web clippings, so if I found the articles or recipes on the magazine’s websites, I could theoretically clip them into the app, but it was cumbersome and memory heavy to do so. Then it struck me–Pinterest! The answer to my magazine problem. So I spend another day and a half going through all these magazines and finding every recipe or article I had marked as a keeper online and then pinning it. Now I have sorted all the magazines and don’t have two large stacks of them in two different magazine racks, and they’re all neatly organized and findable in their proper boards on Pinterest. Woo-hoo.

Except…I’ve spent a week moving files and troubleshooting (which, as I said, was necessary), neatening various electronic devices, testing and researching apps, entering lists, sorting magazines, organizing recipes. I haven’t spent the week playing with my kids nearly as much as I want. I haven’t been reading my current nightstand novel nearly as much. I hope everything will be smoother for all this organizing I’ve done. It definitely COULD be, if I can only keep up with it. But if I’m honest, the real limiting factor that kept me from making all these foods and doing all these activities was never that I couldn’t find the recipe or the instructions. It was always that I didn’t have time or energy or motivation to do it, and once I did have time, energy, and motivation, I did it. So I may have just spent a week on nothing but neatening–electronic, physical, and mental–with no other discernible benefit.

There really is organized enough and too organized. There’s being productive and wasting time. Sometimes it’s easy to see the difference–of course making dinner is productive and watching cat videos on youtube is wasting time!–but sometimes not so much. I’m not at all sure all these electronic devices that can streamline our lives don’t waste as much of our time as they save, even when it’s “getting organized” and troubleshooting on necessary tasks, and especially when you consider all the cat videos on youtube. Or maybe I just have a talent for wasting time. Do you?


Quote of the week

A portrait of the American writer Mark Twain t...

A portrait of the American writer Mark Twain taken by A. F. Bradley in New York, 1907. http://www.smithsonianeducation.org/publications/siycfall_05.pdf http://www.twainquotes.com/Bradley/bradley.html See also other photographs of Mark Twain by A. F. Bradley taken in March 1907 in New York on Mark Twain Project Online. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)


The difference between the almost-right word and the right word is really a large matter–it’s the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning.

–Mark Twain


Boredom, imagination, and childhood

daydreaming sockmonkey

daydreaming sockmonkey (Photo credit: Sarabbit)


I read this article about children and imagination and, since one of my goals as a parent is helping my children have the same ability to fill hours with daydreams that I had, it caught my notice. Parents have many reasons for the things we want for our children, and often there’s at least some narcissism where we wish for them to resemble us. In this case–my hope that they can daydream and fantasize as much as I did–it isn’t narcissism; it’s just realizing how much empty time there is in life that we can fill more enjoyably with imagination than with any alternative. It’s also the reason I carry my kindle with me when I expect a long wait. It makes the long wait something to appreciate instead of something to resent or get stressed over, which is a nice quality-of-life improvement in a world that sometimes involves a lot of waiting. Daydreaming was helpful in filling the long empty summer hours of my childhood. Unfortunately, double-edged-swordlike, it also filled more elementary school hours than it should have, was a very effective form of procrastination in later school years, and helped me terrify myself with horrible possibilities whenever I was left home alone at night and saw a shadow outside or whenever someone was ten minutes late picking me up from school. I’d like to spare my children the nightmares I gave myself imagining axe murderers outside my window, but I think it’s a price worth paying for having a nice fantasy life. This article refers to studies that suggest that having such a fantasy life is actually even more useful than I expected in that it apparently encourages people to plan better for the future and show more responsible, delayed-gratification behaviors now. Who knew? All the more reason I hope to encourage their imaginations. (Plus, I actually know the psychologist they cite, though he probably doesn’t remember me, which makes me feel in-the-know and connected in a way I rarely experience!)


Encouraging kids’ imaginations is tougher than wanting it, though, and I often wonder how well I’m doing. As with curiosity and a wish to learn, I think one of the biggest things a parent can do for imagination is to just get out of the way. Kids are curious and imaginative without any encouragement. The question is how to get them to stay that way. That’s not to say that they can’t be encouraged to even more creativity, but I think if I can manage to avoid damaging their curiosity and creativity and love of learning, then I’ve done them more good than any games or tricks could do. And one of the main ways I get out of the way and let them be creative is by letting them be bored. Bored kids can be a real challenge to a parent’s peace of mind. They bicker with each other. They bicker with us. They make messes and go through closets and raid the kitchen and whine and do all sorts of things that can be irritating to parents, and so it’s very tempting to fill their days so they won’t drive us bonkers. I certainly don’t think we parents should just leave them home with nothing to do and nowhere to go and no one to play with and think we’re doing them a big favor. I’m not advocating for doing nothing all the time, just for doing nothing some of the time. They’re out of school for the summer, and I don’t have them in summer camp because I think it’s good for them to have unstructured time when they don’t have entertainment handed to them pre-planned by adults, when they have to think of what to do and who to do it with and how to do it. Maybe it won’t help them at all and I’m just giving them long hours of boredom, but I hope that I’m giving them practice at motivating themselves, entertaining themselves, and planning for themselves.


Did you have an overactive imagination in childhood too? What made you daydream then? What about now? Do you think boredom helps? How do you encourage your kids’ creativity? Do you think they’re better off being scheduled and stimulated or left to their own devices or somewhere in between?


No time to daydream? Why imagination is still key for kids – TODAY.com.


Monitor: Concrete, heal thyself! | The Economist

Too bad this stuff wasn’t available when we resurfaced our front porch. Only four years later, it’s cracked and peeling again. Maybe next time.

Monitor: Concrete, heal thyself! | The Economist.


In defense of helicopter parents

It’s all the rage these days to vilify helicopter parents. They annoy colleges and high schools and elementary schools and coaches and principals and teachers and college admission officers. They handicap their children by hovering and preventing them from having freedom or responsibility or new experiences or failure. They make all the other parents irrationally defensive as we try explaining why we aren’t bad parents if we let our kids walk to the library  alone or have a fight with a friend without our intervening with suggested solutions or send in a college essay on a topic of their own choosing. We’ve all heard the outrageous helicopter parent stories. I read an article last week about how American parents are all overprotective. None of us let our children ride their bikes or go to the store or use a knife or pour their own drinks, while parents everywhere else do, and so our children are growing up to be infantile, helpless followers with low self-esteem. Or so this article claims. I let my children do those things, and I’m American, so the article can’t be completely right, but I get the point.

I agree that it’s unhealthy for parents to be overprotective or too intrusive into their children’s lives and that helicopter parents ARE overprotective and too intrusive. If ever a helicopter parent there was, my  mother-in-law is one because…Her youngest child is now 29, and as far as I know, my husband is the only one of the four who has actually bought his own car, and then, only because I told him to tell her to leave us alone. She calls to remind us to write thank-you notes. She sent me an article about frostbite when she thought my oldest son was underdressed for the cold, and she has lectured me on various health issues in complete disregard of the fact that I’m a DOCTOR!  She cannot be in my house without taking over the parenting of both my kids and my husband and me, and she cannot remember to knock before entering my house. For heaven’s sake, when my husband thought he might have a problem with grinding his teeth, she spoke to her dentist about it and then called us with potential appointment times for him the see her dentist. The important thing is that she means well. She isn’t trying to control. She isn’t trying to intrude. She just wants to help, and what makes her happy is working on behalf of her children. She has hovered over all four of them, and they have all turned out to be happy, healthy, productive people with healthy, supportive relationships, good jobs that they enjoy and find fulfilling, and nurtured and loved children. All her children have grown into the kind of adults that parents hope their children will be. She didn’t ruin them, contrary to all the dire predictions in the helicopter-parent hate literature. Is she too intrusive? Yes, except when they tell her to mind her own business. Does she do things for them that any normal adult should do for themselves? Yes, except when they tell her not to. She means well. She loves her children. She has to be reminded to give them space, but she does it when she’s reminded. There are worse things in a parent than caring too much. There are worse things than doing too much for your children, protecting them too much from pain and illness and cruel people. There are worse things than taking too much interest in their lives and their friends and their education. It’s all the rage to vilify helicopter parents. How about accepting their good intentions while trying to convince them to ease the iron grip on their children’s lives and vilifying the parents who just don’t care?

Quote of the week

Portrait of Edna St. Vincent Millay (1933-01-14)

Portrait of Edna St. Vincent Millay (1933-01-14) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)


It’s not true that life is one damn thing after another; it is one damn thing over and over.

Edna St. Vincent Millay


How birds lost their penises – Science

I did undergrad research in two genetics labs along with a year in a molecular biology lab at NIH as a medical student. I genuinely think genetics is interesting. I did not read this article OR repost it only because it’s about penises. Just so we’re clear…

How birds lost their penises – Science.

The Free Parent’s Manifesto


School has changed a lot since I was a kid, and I think most of the changes have been for the better. For one thing, my kids don’t fear their teachers the way I feared mine. There seems to be more emphasis on kindness and age-appropriate expectations than there was, so the teachers seem more willing to work with the kids’ needs rather than punishing the kids for such things as needing a chance to get up and move around once in a while or needing to go to the bathroom. My kids can have water bottles at their desks so they can actually drink during the day, while we had to beg and grovel for a minute at the water fountain, only to have the teacher claim that we weren’t really thirsty and just wanted to get out of the room. My kids have three recesses each day, which is two more than we had and which means that they never have more than two hours at a stretch during which they’re expected to sit still and silent, and as far as I can tell, kids aren’t allowed to torment each other during recess, which is another welcome change. The school has an official anti-bullying policy and procedure in case of complaints, which certainly wasn’t the case when I was in school and bullying was considered part of the educational environment. The teachers now seem to actually like kids, while the teachers then seemed to think kids were a necessary evil (I’ll grant that impression might have more to do with my being adult now or with this particular school compared to the particular school I was in, rather than any actual change in the type of person who becomes a teacher. Then again, it might not, since women now have more stigma-free career options than the women in my teachers’ generation, who really didn’t have many other choices whether they liked kids or not–but that’s another subject). All that seems unchanged is that many gym teachers are still bullies who obviously like the athletes and dislike the rest of the class.

What I really wish hadn’t changed is parties. We have a beginning of the year picnic and party. There’s a party before winter break. There’s an end of the year party. There are parties for various milestones during the year, when the class completes any big unit or project, usually two or three per class per year for these. I love going to the school and seeing my kids’ classrooms. I love seeing their artwork on the walls or seeing the play they put on to dramatize the part of history they just studied. I appreciate the school’s efforts to include the parents, to encourage the kids to have a good attitude about school, and to incorporate more interesting ways of learning and reviewing than just tests and papers, such as plays and field trips and themed art galleries. I would have no problem with all these parties IF WE DIDN’T HAVE TO BRING REFRESHMENTS.

But we do. Every time I turn around, we’re divvying up supplies to be provided by each parent in the class. This person brings the plastic tablecloth. This one brings plates and napkins. I bring juice or pretzels or fruit or cups or whatever hasn’t been claimed by the time I actually see the email. I’m always the last one to see the email, I think, because I’m the only one (or so it seems) who doesn’t check email at least once an hour. I don’t want to make another trip to the store to buy pretzels or paper plates for 40 people. Why can’t we start the year or finish the year or finish the unit or look at the kids’ projects without ANOTHER party full of junk food and garbage? Why can’t I just eat a snack before I come? The parties never last more than 30 minutes anyway. Honestly, is it so difficult for everyone to go 30 minutes without a snack and a drink? I don’t mind that we have to get flowers for all the teachers and give teacher gifts at least twice a year, at the end of the first semester and at the end of the year. I’ll grant that I think it’s silly that it’s so compulsory that it’s hardly a gift anymore, and I’ll grant to still being annoyed that when I brought the flowers for the first grade teachers before winter break, the “room mother” commented that I’d left the price tag on them (I looked and looked but didn’t see the tag. She glanced once and saw it!). But the teachers work hard, and they deserve the attention. But I DO mind having to buy food for everyone when we’re a couple miles from our own perfectly-well-stocked kitchens and had lunch two hours ago. I do mind having to show up twenty minutes early to set up, when coming to the party in the first place involves waking my two-year-old from his nap and getting there early involves basically not letting him nap at all. I’m sure the room mothers (I’ve been one several times, but I never drafted the whole class into potluck entertaining) think the refreshments add to the festive atmosphere. I think they add to my list of errands and significantly diminish my enjoyment. I could not volunteer to bring anything, but of course, the list of necessary supplies is always exactly calculated to equal the number of families so each family brings one thing, which means that not bringing something would make me a deadbeat.

I’m not a deadbeat. I volunteer extensively to help my kids’ classes. I drive on every field trip. I run errands for the teachers. I pick up supplies they need for actual schooling, and when I’ve bought supplies for the school, I’ve never asked them to reimburse me and have considered the expense a donation. When one of the teachers needed to leave the school and find another job, I wrote her a letter of recommendation, and when circumstances changed and she didn’t need to leave after all, I was genuinely happy for her, for the school to be keeping her, and for my younger children who might still have her for a teacher. But I don’t want to buy pretzels for the class. I just bought snacks for girl scouts two weeks ago when I substituted at the last minute as the parent volunteer (voluntarily, I might add). I have to buy snacks for a community youth group in two weeks. The parent draft boards assume that if they require each parent to contribute on a rotating schedule–all families must volunteer to help at least x times per year–no one is being overburdened. But we ARE overburdened because there are so many groups and so many parties and we apparently can’t figure out how to be happy or celebratory or just plain friendly without potato chips and disposable dishes and a requirement for the parents to provide these things. I’d pay an upfront fee to cover the cost of refreshments if it would spare me yet another last minute trip to Party City for plastic tablecloths and yet another reply-all email conversation to divvy up the duties.

I don’t remember snacks at every activity when I was a child because WE DIDN’T HAVE THEM! And you know what? We survived. I am not scarred by the lack of juice I suffered on the last day of first grade. I also don’t remember parent volunteers at everything. I know with absolute certainty that my parents were never field trip drivers, group leaders, girl scout chaperones, or room parents. And you know what? Even without drafting all the parents into “volunteering” for these activities, they still happened because the parents who were interested enough in each activity volunteered, and when they did it, it was really volunteering and they didn’t mind doing more for that activity than the other parents. I know, because I’m that kind of volunteer on several fronts. I don’t mind in the least that I’m working harder on those things than other people are, partly because it’s truly voluntary and partly because I care about those things. I don’t care AT ALL about popcorn at the end of the year party. And I DO resent it.

The school recently announced that next year they would require all families to provide 20 hours of volunteer service. What’s wrong here? You can’t require volunteerism. I have definitely done more than twenty hours of work for the school this year, but I resent that requirement. I don’t tally up the time I’ve spent helping out, and I don’t want to have to. I don’t want to have to track it and make sure I’m staying on course. I don’t want to compete with other parents for the good jobs like going on a field trip rather than the bad jobs like–I don’t know–weeding the garden. And I don’t mind if I give more effort to the school than some other families whose parents both work. They have less time to give and more things to give, and that’s fine with me. They can provide new sports equipment while I provide transportation for a field trip. It works out nicely with little resentment until you start measuring contributions only in hours spent and requiring “volunteer service.”

It’s time for us to call off the conscription of parents by other parents. If there aren’t enough volunteers to run an activity, then the activity should die; it’s not carrying its own weight in our lives. If there aren’t enough volunteers to organize five big parties per class per year, then we need fewer parties or we need them to be simpler. The point of girl scouts is girl scouts. The point of youth activities is the activity. The point of the end of the unit and end of the year parties is to celebrate the kids and what they’ve learned. I can do that without any crackers in my mouth or cheese squares on my plate. So can everyone else.

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