You need a hobby

Parents tend to have very mixed feelings about this time of year. I was talking to a fellow mom at church on Sunday. “This is my favorite time of year. I look forward to this time of year for months. So I hate to admit it… but I’m looking forward to the start of school.” The situation is less pronounced for those of us who send our children to summer camp for the summer, but still present.

Several days the last week, I’ve gotten a call around 3:30. This call has become so reliable that when I see an unknown phone number on caller ID, I know who it is. That eldest son of mine who has the remarkable ability to convince grownups to do what he wants.

“Mom, can I go out to ice cream with Andrew and his mom?”
“Mom, should I meet you at the Farmer’s market tonight?” (he’s only this summer gotten the right to walk home by himself after summer camp)
But most often, “Mom, I’m sooooo bored. Can I bring my DS to camp tomorrow? ALL the other kids are playing Pokemon and every single fun thing there is to do has a huuuuuuge line and I’m the only child who’s bored waiting, so I can’t get anyone else to plaaaaay with me!”

It’s the end of summer blues.

I told him to talk to his counselors. I talked to his counselors. I offered to send him with books. “It’s too loud to read.” Games. “No one will play with me!” Role-playing games “I tried, but it wasn’t fun.” Art supplies. “Lame!” His camera (to take videos). “We’re not allowed to have cameras!” A million options, but the only acceptable solution is his DS. And you know, I understand. That’s what he wants to do. I’ve had things I wanted, and nothing else was acceptable. (See also: pregnancy cravings when I was knocked up with this kid. Started early.) But he gets SO MANY screens already. With a pair o’ programming parents, there are tons of screens, all the time. I want running around and imagination and things he’ll form memories with.

He wants screens.

For his birthday, he’s asked for a video game recording rig. I reminded him he can’t have a YouTube account until he’s 13. “I’ll have three years to practice and get really good!” Adam and I are wrestling with the request. On the one hand, his beloved PewDiePie apparently earned $7 million playing video games for YouTube last year. (I banned PewDiePie after hearing a few too many expletives, but he still gets to watch Stampy Longnose who has a cute British accent and a slightly cleaner mouth.) So on the one hand, I support his artistic endeavors. On the other hand, I really want him to have a rich internet life AND a rich life without any screens of any sort. I’m doing better on one of these than the other.

“The kid needs a hobby!” I announced.

A harmonious Thane
A harmonious Thane

Adam sent me a list of 24 hobbies a 10 year old boy might enjoy:

Stuff he’s done in the past:
Biking was working well (but requires parents and weather cooperation)
Legos are fine (but he is less interested than he used to be)
Drawing/Art is great (but he’s only sometimes excited)
Reading is great
RPGs/Boardgames are good (but require other participants)
Programming / HTML / Blogging (but screen related)
Video / Photography / Stop-Motion animation (somewhat screen related)
Writing (he’s talented, but unmotivated – maybe NanoWriMo?)
Cooking (needs parents part of the time)
Electronics Kit (tried but didn’t love it)
Metal Detecting (tried but didn’t love it)
Martial Arts (no local aikido dojo)
Musical Instrument (tried twice, but maybe try again)

Other thoughts from my hobbies:
– Origami
– Clay/Sculpting
– Yo-Yos
– Juggling
– RPG/Boardgame Design
– Soccer / Sports / Outdoor play (weather and possibly other people required)
– Woodworking / Whittling (required parental supervision)

Other Ideas
– Learn / Create a New Language
– Suduko / Crosswords
– Codes / Cryptograms (he seemed to like the one Grandma created)
– Geology (the kids like rocks, but maybe start a nice collection?)

I nodded my head and bought him a Yo-yo. This is the perfect time of life for perfecting obscure skills to entertain people with in college. I wish hackeysack was still a thing, because that’s what he needs. His cousin rides a unicycle, but that’s hard to do at the Y. I honed in on the portable hobbies, and got Grey a learn to Yo-yo kit. Thane got a harmonica kit. Pro tip: harmonica is better than most other instruments you can give a six year old due to it’s harmoniousness.

So tomorrow I’m not sending Grey to the Y with his DS, much to his disappointment. I am, however, sending him with a Yo-yo and a how-to book. May he learn to walk the dog.

Adam has a million random hobby skills
Adam has a million random hobby skills

So what are some good hobbies we haven’t thought of? What’s a skill you picked up at the bored stage early in life that you’re grateful for now? What do your kids like doing that don’t involve screens?

People I never thought I’d be

I spent the first part of this week in Tampa for work. I had not yet unpacked my suitcase from the LAST business trip I was on (Minnesota) before I had to pack for this one. It was my third business trip in about 8 weeks. I felt – as I went through the well practiced shoes-laptop-liquids process – like a jaded road warrior.

Tampa did have some advantages over Minnesota
Tampa did have some advantages over Minnesota

I remember my first few times flying – Boston to Seattle in college – when I stared horrified a the people blowing off the whole “in case of emergency, your seat cushion may be used as a flotation device” speech. Didn’t these people care about their lives? I pitied them their calcified ways – eyes on the Harvard Business Review as this remarkable patchwork of humanity is exposed below them. Do they not know that their flight represents the wildest fantasy – never to be obtained – of generations of humanity? How can they so casually close the window and catnap?

Yeah. During the safety notification, I check to see which is my nearest exit. I wonder if there is anyone, anywhere who doesn’t know how to buckle their seatbelt. Then I open Harvard Business Review (ok, actually it’s usually a fashion magazine for a Technically Pretty fashion magazine review). I still like the window seat, and I still try to spot my house/college/guess-the-big-city as I fly, but the magic is indeed gone.

The training I took was on Pragmatic Marketing. Why I needed this training was a story for another day. It was excellent training – well delivered, thought-provoking, very educational. But there were a lot of identity-crisis moments for me in it. Here was I: liberal arts major, lover of medieval literature, classical musician, backpacker, mother, role-playing-gamer-who-wishes-she-could-talk-her-gaming-group-into-dungeons-and-dragons, baseball-lover, programmer, technical architect… in a marketing class. The word marchitecture was extensively and non-ironically used.

I learned a lot of extremely interesting things I had never previously imagined knowing, but wondered to find myself in such a place under such circumstances.

I am – at this moment – sitting at Chuck E Cheese. I know – I’m breaking form. Usually my now-weekly posts are written at the YMCA during basketball practice. But today Grey and Lincoln have a video game playdate, which would not be nearly as fun if the “little brother” was present. So I told the little brother type person to name his entertainment, and for two hours it would be his. He picked the rathole.

I’m lurking on a local wifi network (seriously, Chuck E, how can you not have wifi). I have a GREAT idea for a new type of business… imagine a big central play area for kids from 3 – 10 years of age. A big, bouncy-housed arcade. Imagine seating around the sides – maybe raised – with great visibility of the play areas. Maybe there would even be closed circuit cameras covering the blind spots. Then imagine this seating around the edge was a mix of 4 – 6 person tables and one to two person locations. There would be a light appetizers and drink service to the grownup section. There would be great wifi, tons of power, comfortable seats, lower noise (low enough that a phone call would be plausible) and someone at the door (like they have at Chuck E’s) to make sure there are no small person escapees.

Work-from-home parents and folks like me would come with our laptops, offer our kids some great exercise/fun (maybe with their friends). We could either catch up on our work/personal digital lives, or come with our friends (who are increasingly the parents of our children’s friends) and catch up on the latest together. It would be awesome. Maybe there could be a per hour (or per day) fee, or you could sign up for a monthly membership. Maybe they’d even mix in some enrichment activities, like sports/activities.

They’d rake it in, I tell you.

I find the process of being no longer young continues to surprise me on a regular basis. My latest “get off my lawn!” moment happened last weekend. I was making some pies. Now, you must understand that I know how to make pie. I was running some quick calculations in my head, and I figure I’ve made between 100 – 120 pies in my lifetime. Every single one of those pies was made with the same recipe, inherited from my grandmother, which is hard to make but deliciously flaky.

Then, a few years ago, Crisco changed its recipe in response to the backlash against transfats. As far as I can tell, Crisco was all trans fats. This pie crust recipe that my grandmother passed down to me is entirely made of Crisco. It took me a while to eat through the old pie starter and Crisco I had. But then I started having trouble. I blamed it on all sorts of things: not enough flour on the pastry crust, too much shortening in the pie starter, not cold enough, too much water, not enough water. Finally though, very tired on a Friday night and working on pie 2 of 6, I finally realized that it just. Wasn’t. Working. For the first time ever, I actually got a pie crust so bad I couldn’t make it work and I had to throw it out. (That was a pie crust that ACTUALLY didn’t have enough water.) Dawning realization hit: it wasn’t me. I wasn’t making a mistake. It was the pie crust. It was unworkable. Crisco ruined my recipe.

Depressed, I turned to America’s Test Kitchen and made a shortening-and-butter crust that came out much, much better. But I had that “Why do they go “improving” perfectly good things and ruining the way I’ve always done them?” I mean, in this case I understood. Transfats = bad for health. But a tie that went back to the early 20th century, and my bright-eyed great-grandmother, was just severed. I mourn its loss. As I move from youth to middle age, I better see the costs – not just the benefits – of the inexorable march of progress. I know how things once were (through the rosy tinted spectacles of youth, of course) and lament their loss. My sons will never learn to roll a pie crust using Grandma Finley’s recipe (unless some enterprising entrepreneur brings back the classic formulation – you never know.)

My grandma’s caramel corn recipe requires corn syrup and brown sugar. Perhaps I’d better make it while I can!

Glittering Images

Glittering Images (Starbridge, #1)Glittering Images by Susan Howatch
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This was a tremendously satisfying book. It started light and Wodehousy, but quickly got deep and complex. There were a few moments of delighted realization as I, the reader, got to know what was going on. The book spoke to the kind of reality I live in, or wish I did.

I think my very favorite part of this book was its treatment of Christianity, Christians and the church. It is rare to find fiction that has a nuanced, compassionate view of any of these. But I found the book to be theologically compelling without being the slightest bit prudish or preachy. There were real Christians, driven by real faith and supported by a church that had some Really Good Ideas. I’m not sure I’ve ever encountered that done as well anywhere else.

I am a gulper of books. I can’t help myself most of the time. But this is a sipping book – like a fine glass of wine.

Read if: you enjoy post-war-period English novels, you like a complex narrator, you would enjoy a nuanced view of Christianity, you like good books.

Avoid if: you cannot handle any sex scenes in your literature, you find books about the journey of the mind/spirit/soul boring and want more explosions, you are overly triggered by child loss.

View all my reviews

A book report on Peter Rabbit

I’m thinking about books a lot lately. My new commute has offered me the precious gift of time to read books. I just finished reading my favoritestestest book ever, Lois McMaster Bujold’s Curse of Chalion, which you need to immediately go out and buy and read for its epic perfection.

I’m a re-reader. I decided, after finishing Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales in Middle English, that I would never again feel inferior for the way I enjoy reading… which includes returning to favorites at least as often as I open brand new tomes. But Curse of Chalion is one of those books that rewards rereading richly. This time I admired how Bujold glorified the thinking through of how complicated things are, and how complex situations do not have emotionally satisfying, one-scene confrontations successfully resolve things. In fact, our hero intelligently avoids such situations in order to preserve the safety of himself and others.

When I was thinking about the book, and thinking about what I wanted to tell you about it, my sister announced her aspirational goal for the year. I want to learn how to play “Kathy’s Song” on guitar. She wants to publish a professional book review. She also watches with pride her ranking as an Amazon reviewer. Back in my pre-bus days, her book reviews used to mock me. I had no time to read! Of course the flip side was what little time I did have to read, I wanted to read good stuff that was rated B (not too depressing or gory). Heidi always summarizes her book reviews with a “read if” and a “skip if”. Sometimes the “skip if” is “you are my sister Brenda”. She’s helpful that way. Anyway, I mention this because I think you might enjoy her book reviews too, which you can find here on Goodreads.

And finally, my son. My Grey. He and I just finished Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH together, and it was awesome. It’s really a great book. Action-packed, serious, takes its readers seriously for all their youth, interesting ideas. He thoroughly enjoyed it. Last night being Library Pizza night (hadn’t realized we’d just passed the first anniversary of this auspicious event!), I came home with Dragonbreath #6: Revenge of the Horned Bunnies. I read him the first two chapters last night, my voice hoarse from having read approximately 89 books to Thane prior to reading to Grey. As I have been waiting for, for some time now, Grey couldn’t wait until bedtime tonight for me to read more. Instead, he’s picked it up and sneaking reading in around the corners of his day… Grey reads all the time, but it’s so awesome to see him start in on longer books.

So that’s it. In these days of dire news on publishing, my life is as full of books as it has been in a decade, both for myself and the people around me.

How about you? Are you reading still? Or are you reading different things now, like, oh, your favorite bloggess? Do you still read books? How do you find them to read? How do you read them?

Daydream believer

A while back, Grey begged to start guitar lessons. After lots of “blah blah blah” about commitment, fortitude, perseverance and a lot of other highly unpopular and multisyllabic attributes, I bought him a guitar and started guitar lessons and nightly practice sessions.

Yeah. That didn’t go well.

I wanted him to play for several months, knowing well that in music you don’t get a sense of accomplishment and fun until you’ve put in some significant grunt work without any real psychic kickbacks. You don’t sound good for a while, and you can’t really play songs for a while. It turns out this is even truer on guitar than, say, piano. Two months later we were having nightly bitter “discussions” about practicing (in which there was a lot of “how little effort can I put in and still get my parents off my back”), he wasn’t playing anything that he found fun, and his behavior in lessons was execrable. I probably should’ve called uncle, but I was all like Commitment! Perseverance! Fortitude! When what I was really teaching him was to hate it, while severely impinging our domestic tranquility.

It came to a head last week. For the second time in a row he refused to play during his lesson when his teacher asked him to play. Now, I’d already expended considerable parenting creativity on guitar. I created my first ever sticker chart. After one appalling lesson I stopped the lesson halfway through and dragged Grey out to a rock in the middle of the woods with night falling until he and I could see eye to eye about how we Treat Other People Especially Teachers. But this night I just didn’t have any shots left in my parenting pistol. I guess some times it’s good to know when to give up.

I’d been sitting in every lesson for the last several weeks (at his teachers request), and so in a fit of inspiration, I told Grey to have a seat in my chair, I sat in his chair, picked up the guitar, and resumed his lesson – asking all the questions I’d been sitting on because it was his lesson not mine and I was going to shut up and be the background already. (A hard thing for me to do.) So the teacher taught me four chords, answered some of my questions (Is the intonation different depending on where your finger is in the fret? How do you read guitar notation? Which string is which? What chords are these?) When I left, the tips of my fingers tingled for days. I practiced a few times.

This week, I went back (carting Grey). The admin and I simultaneously told each other this wasn’t working out, but I have two more lessons paid for… so I went in. And I learned how to tune the guitar (kind of) and two more chords. And you know what? I’m totally digging it.

One of the prices you pay for living the life you want to live is a paucity of daydreams. Almost every big change that could happen to me would be worse than what I have. I have found the love of my life. I have a great job. I live in a neat house with fantastic neighbors. I have just the right number of awesome kids. So daydreams about, oh, being a firespotter in the mountains, or becoming a professional musician or author, being *noticed* (somehow) and transformed into someone rich famous and fabulous… the kinds of things I dreamed about as a kid. Well, they’re all hollow, unsatisfying and ungrateful daydreams to me now. I don’t really want any of those things anymore (mostly. It would be cool to be an author). So I’m really happy with my life, but I miss the fun of daydreaming.

Guitar has given me some daydreams. I probably started off on the wrong parenting foot, daydreaming for my kids. This is natural, understandable and dangerous. These daydreams are how we end up with parents who try to make their children into people they’re not, and it can end unhappily. (Of course, the flip side is that this is the only way we get Olympic gymnasts and violinists who’ve been playing since they were three.) The person who should be daydreaming about what Grey will be and do is Grey. My daydreaming on his behalf was likely inaccurate. I was imagining a Paul Simon type guitar player. He’s imagining a, well, let’s just say the he’s currently *totally into* KISS 108, which they play at afterschool. He has opinions about Lady Gaga and Selena Gomez.*

Anyway, back to me. I’ve been having fun imagining becoming an adequate guitar player. I mean, I’m never going to be on stage playing Concierto Aranjuez. But maybe I could become accomplished enough to accompany myself in Kathy’s Song, or play the (pretty darn simple) accompaniments to most youth group songs. Maybe I could play guitar around the campfire while we’re camping. Or maybe in some late-night hangout, after the games have finished, I could be sitting on the couch picking an accompaniment to our conversation. I mean, trumpet is the most antisocial of instruments. If you’re playing it, you’re doing nothing else. But guitar eases itself into company and makes itself welcome. It’s not too late, and I am not too old.

It’s also been extremely refreshing to learn something so new. Yes, I have a musical background, but it’s an extremely different musical background. Mine is linear, melodic and strictly conforms to written music. Guitar is so not linear. The guitar teacher had no music at all in the lesson room. It is terribly exciting to me, at the entrance to my middle age, to be doing something I have not done before.

So who knows. Maybe I just have one more lesson and we put the guitar away and I opened my mind a little. Or maybe someday, well, who knows.

*And to all you parents of five year olds who are thinking I would never let my child listen to Lady Gaga!, JUST YOU WAIT. You will be driving in the car in some foreign state flipping through channels on the radio. Your child will pitch a fit because they want you to stop because they love that song. And then they will sing along to it, with most of the words correct. And you will never have heard this song before in your life. And then you will find yourself confronted with the choice to either ban all rock and roll as the music of the devil, or accept that your child prefers Pokerface to Prokofiev.

Changing the rules

In everyone’s life there are periods of lesser and greater stasis. For example, when you are a parent to an infant, nothing stays the same and nothing can be relied upon. The minute you’ve figured out how somethings works and what you’re supposed to be doing, it changes. On the other hand, I just went through a period where things were chaotic within well expected and known bounds. Lots of activity, but little change. I knew what I needed to do, even if I didn’t have enough time to do it all.

Then I switched jobs.

It’s funny, but so far it’s not the job that has me on my toes, it’s the commute. The bad news is that the commute is rather worse than I was hoping for. For those of you in the area, I’m trying to get from Stoneham to just south of the Children’s Museum in South Boston. The best option I’ve found so far is the 354 Express bus. It stops less than a mile from my house, and then goes directly in to State Street. From State Street it’s a mile’s walk through the city to my office. (Almost exactly. The horizontal distance is 9/10 of a mile, and then I climb five flights of stairs.) Walking, it takes me 15 – 20 minutes depending on how I catch the lights. Optimally, this would be a 40 minute commute. However, when the traffic is bad (which it often is, in my narrow survey), it can take me more than 80 minutes to get in to work. Driving, I get caught in the same traffic (although I don’t have the 20 minute walk), with the added disadvantage of not being able to take the carpool lane. The T was my first plan, but here would be all the steps in that: 1) Drive to Malden station (15 min?) 2) Park at parking lot 3) Walk from parking lot to T (5 mins), 4) Take Orange Line to Downtown Crossing? (China Town, NE Medical Center?) 5) Walk from there (.5 of a mile?). That’s a very multi stage commute, and also rather expensive, paying for parking and a T pass.

So, hrm. The good part is that when I spend 40 minutes on the bus, I get to do a lot of reading. It’s also a good napping environment (based on my comrades in bus), because there are no stops. I get off when the bus stops, along with almost everyone else. The bad thing about a bus commute is you live in constant fear of being late. That and the straight up time it takes.

With the actual job bit, I’m still in the “reading documentation” phase. I thought I’d gotten through most of the extant documentation in the company, but someone just showed me the repository where all the previous documents created by my group are kept, so I now have plenty to keep me busy. In my early analysis, however, everything seems like it should work out nicely!

Kindergarten is a bit like starting a new job, with the context switching. You are presented with new problems that your baby days had not prepared you for. For example, my son came home with a pledge form for the “Jumprope for the heart” fundraiser. I actually remember this one from MY days in grade school, back when I rode a brontosaurus to school every morning (uphill both ways barefoot!). They’ve watered it down. When I was a kid, people pledged per jump. So $.02 a jump, and then you jumped as many times as you could and ended up collecting $1.20 before you gave up. There’s no such incentive for hard work in this one, it’s just a straight “Give us money form” (now with convenient web links!). So what do I do? Do we personally just sign up for the t-shirt level? Do I offer this tremendous opportunity to the suckers, uh, I mean, grandparents of said children? Aunts and uncles? Blogosphere? What is the etiquette here… the cross between being a good PTO parent, a good citizen, and not completely obnoxious?

I still haven’t figured this one out, but would be curious what you think.

First, first, first day of Kindergarten

My firstborn son went to his first day of his first year of school. I have been anticipating this day for, oh, about 6+ years now. There’s trepidation and excitement: will he love school like I did? Have I taught him the right amount of the right things? Did I do everything I was supposed to do in order to do this first handoff? From now on, he will have to choose to do the things he is supposed to do, and I’m just the supporting cast.

The first day of Kindergarten was a big day for me.

SOME parents don't get surly faced kids until Middle School!!!
SOME parents don't get surly faced kids until Middle School!!!

Not for him. You could almost hear the “yeah yeah” as he happily ran ahead of me to the door. He tried to convince me that I could just drop him off. That I didn’t have to come in. That he was FINE thanks mom! There was, I think, a brief rolling of eyes when I held out my hand. He spotted his teacher and whoosh! He was gone – pausing only to give me a high-five on his way out the door.
Can you spot the Grey?
Can you spot the Grey?

The other parents and I looked at each other and shrugged. I guess that was it. My neighbor gave me a hug.

All day I wondered how it was going. Was he having fun? (More fun than I was having, I’d warrant!) Was he starting off on the right foot? Was anyone making fun of him or his lunch or anything?

When I picked him up from afterschool care, I asked how the day had gone. “Awesome!” He filled us in on the details: they play music at lunch, they played a fighting game in computer class, gym was his favorite part (a candy-filled pinata seemed to influence that decision), a kid had bullied him but the situation had been quickly and favorably resolved (I am having particular trouble figuring out what really happened with this one), all his friends had a great day too.

So Kindergarten, one day in, two thumbs up.

Lincoln and Grey lining up to go upstairs
Lincoln and Grey lining up to go upstairs