Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Last Days of Summer

I never got around to describing the tiger mom at the small farm I ran into in June. Since I've lost the story value in waiting so long - lost the emotion that would have fueled it - I'll just summarize what happened. We were in Massachusetts at this adorable little farm nearby where there is a tomato maze. As we approached the owner to ask about it, a family jumped in front of us saying they hoped we didn't plan to pick blueberries as they'd pretty much taken all the good ones. They then scurried over to the tomato maze ahead of Wally who was taking a long time admiring the children's scissors, which were really for picking herbs. The mom and dad were tripping over themselves racing through the maze, starting on the outside, while their toddler waddled along behind them, more intent on admiring the plants than harvesting their fruit. 

The tiger mom (and dad) were as pushy and aggressive as the Friday afternoon shoppers at Whole Foods in Manhattan, even when a major Jewish holiday begins that night. So I just could not understand why that couple chose to pick-your-own only to treat it in such a competitive, frantic way. If all you want is a big basket of tomatoes, stop by the farm a quarter of a mile up the street and buy it. You can't throw a hot dog in this town without it landing on a farm stand. Anyway, they zipped through everything in no time, and zoomed off. After they left the small farm felt like exactly what it was, and we stayed for an hour or so, picking herbs after the tomato maze, then chatting with the farmers a bit.

Cut to his past week. We were with the two young boys of one of my lifelong closest friends up in New Hampshire. They are fantastically sweet kids, home-schooled and adept at great old-fashioned, outdoor boy type stuff like fort-building and capturing caterpillars. But they strike me, in many ways, as considerably more sophisticated than Wally. They've seen all six Star Wars movies, and the older kid can recite Darth Vadar stats like nobody's business. Wally is still into those gentle little shows on Sprout and Nick Jr like Little Bill and Fireman Sam. While his friends were engaged in play sword fights on the dock, he was happy to watch a duck bobbing in the water. In their room he gravitated to the stuffed animals, but was clueless about how to begin with the boxes full of tiny figurines, model boats, action figures, lengthy books of instructions. When it was time for bed Wally took out the little picture books he'd packed while the older boy had his Star Wars Encyclopedia and the younger (Wally's age) a Marvel comic book. Still, as Alex read Richard Rabbit out loud, a simple little book from when I was a kid, the other two boys huddled around eager to see the pictures. 

These examples of people that run counter to expectations set by place-- the tiger mom on the farm, the cosmopolitan kids in the country -- make things seem less fated, in terms of where or even how you raise your kids. Perhaps our children's lives are not as circumscribed by landscape as we might think. Sometimes I feel sorry for less-sophisticated kids. They can seem not only innocent but babyish, out of the pop culture loop, unaware, while meandering through a tomato maze, that they're in a race or that there's even any rush. There's a sweetness there that you know can't last, a sensitive nature that is easily bruised. It's hard not to see the innocent kid as naive, behind the times, left behind. And yet I know -- I remind myself -- racing along doesn't necessarily make you happy. I know "left behind" is the wrong way to look at it. 

It is August 29th ...most of these days even now that are so essential to Alex and I...watching Wally run in the crystal clear water of Maine, hearing him laugh in the tent with the boys in New Hampshire, seeing him run in the fields of Vermont with a friend from New York (whom we hadn't been able to meet up with for months in NY, even though we live across the street)...these imprinted days of his early childhood that conjure our own, that allow us to sink back into that vast expanse of childhood memory, most all of this he won't remember. He is just now starting to live the days that will return to him in fragments, chimerical pieces, faded-out snapshots..."I think I remember swimming in that lake"..."Did we once take a trolley to an ice cream place?"

It occurred to me that repetition is an essential part of my own summer memories, that it's necessary for that "dilation of time" as my friend Eli put it. Chasing experience, racing from activity to activity, through mazes, onto more grown-up books and toys, the "What's next?" mode of living, the agendas, timetables, benchmarks, forward-looking plans, the vacation days chock full of novelty--para-sailing, amusement parks--the afternoon hours cut short by the gesture my dad makes all the time, even on vacation that drives me crazy, where he points with two fingers to where his watch to say, "If you want to do x, we should start thinking about leaving"..all these run counter to time dilating into that dreamy, expansive cadence, the lemonade-stained afternoons on the porch, the one we long for, and think we remember.

There is a lake near my parents’, not the greatest lake, but it has a sandy beach, a wooded picnic area, a dock and a raft you can swim out to. We’ve never been before this summer, even though they lived for 26 years in a neighboring town. And we can’t figure out why. Is it the same phenomenon as city dwellers who take their museums for granted and never go? Is it because we compare it to much nicer lakes in New Hampshire and Vermont?

Anyway on this trip we started going. On the second day in a row I started to think about the joy that only comes with doing the same thing over again, that sense of wholeness that's carved by ritual and repetition. After nap time, taking your suits off the line, packing a snack and heading to the lake. Setting up the towels and chairs in the same spot as the day before, seeing the same girl Abigail, and watching her with Wally make a giant bucket of soup with pine needles and acorns, waiting on the beach until you’re really good and hot then finally wading in, practicing handstands, swimming under the rope to the deeper part, then when you're waterlogged coming out for a snack of goldfish, wrapped in a towel, drinking a sip of water that has is now ridiculously hot. Another dip then lying back and watching the top of the evergreen trees against the blue sky. In a few hours it will be time to go home for dinner. You’ll wait to hear the sound of the garage going up, signaling that Pops is home from work. You’ll watch for fireflies on the porch after you eat, your bathing suit and towel hanging out on the line. You’ll take note of the moon, slightly bigger tonight than the night before, your tan lines, you notice as you slip into the shower, are a little more precise tonight. The changes, from the previous day, are incremental; things are happening not in a rush, not with the gale force wind of change, not with the stupor-inducing speed of "What just happened?" but slowly, slowly, by degrees. The days feel like they’re passing at the right rhythm. You can feel them passing. August 29th seems right. You’re one day closer to the end of summer, but that doesn’t matter really because you’re still subsumed under the vast honeysuckle waterlogged daydreamy weight of summertime. You’ve read your picture books--the same three from the night before, the only three you brought--and the house is quiet. As you rest in that liminal state before sleep, you can remember jumping off the dock, digging fairy castles with the girl Abigail, but it’s hard to separate the memory of one day from the other. Tonight the air is a bit cooler than it felt at some other point on this trip, maybe not last night, or the night before that, but definitely cooler than it felt in the beginning, when you first arrived. It brings with it the hint of another season, one which gives no other outward sign--everything is still green, cicadas are humming, fields of wildflowers growing ever so slightly now silently outside your window.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Out of town now, which always puts me in this very detached mood. I lose touch with current events, even those in my own life except in a sort of dreamy way, full of sense memory. It's strange how even though the internet is equally as accessible here (at my parents' house) as in my own, it doesn't call out to me. I hope everyone is enjoying the summer. It makes me feel bad sometimes when I see people preoccupied with "back-to-school" stuff at this time, when these can be the most lush, verdant, lyrical, ripe and overflowing days. Wally's been taking long naps and staying up late. Last night we ate outside at this great 1950's style roadside hot dog/grilled cheese/ ice cream kind of place. My father and I might land a big project soon, one that has been kind of a dream of ours for years in the field of minority education. We've worked on and off in that area together for over a decade, focused on college students. This one will cover the entire educational span from kindergarten through college graduation. My dad sees this work as kind of a tribute to the original Rachel, the one who took care of him in childhood after his father died and his mother went back to work. That Rachel for whom I was named never learned to read.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Only in Dreams

Early on in the summer I visited a bungalow village where Free-Range guru Lenore Skenazy goes every summer. I did my usual thing where I was overly enthusiastic -- and I don't do it in a phony way, at least I hope not. I just think a lot of things are cool. I loved the little cabins with linoleum floors, bunk beds and transistor radios, loved the idea of kids running around freely, grown-ups meeting for impromptu barbecues, popping over to each other's picnic tables, playing cards. It's a total relic from the past, that little village, where New Yorkers -- mostly Jews -- used to spend the summers when people were content not to do anything exotic, to spend time with the same group of people each year, to enjoy the outdoors and each other. 

Lenore is hoping to help combat the decline of these colonies. As far back as 2005 she wrote in The Jewish Daily Forward"Of the hundreds of bungalow colonies that once thrived throughout the Catskills, most are dead or very different now, killed off by the three A’s – air-conditioning, airplanes and assimilation. Once people could stay cool in their homes or fly someplace fancier for the summer, they did. Moreover, once Jews no longer felt compelled to cluster, they didn’t."

A big advocate for this particular bungalow village, Lenore is friends with the owner and has been going for years, staying in the same cabin, serving up snacks to kids scampering about, showing movies outside sometimes in the evening. And because I've admired her for the past two years since I heard about her campaign to let kids run around outside and play (now such a radical approach to parenting) I guess I was predisposed to like the place as much as she did.

As soon as I heard about it on her blog, I started fantasizing. Could I rent a place to share with friends and my sister and her family? Trade weekends, overlap sometimes, roast marshmallows and play guitar? Only an hour outside of the city, could this be the land of the lost American Childhood summer I see mostly only in dreams? 

It has a little luncheonette where kids can get ice pops in the afternoons, a pig that wanders around, a lake, a few pools, a tree swing, a dirt road, a little village nearby to get supplies. An old-fashioned Casino where entertainers come on Saturday nights. Since kids can and do go off by themselves there could I actually, maybe, guilt-free, read during the day one afternoon in the summer? Like sit down in a chair on the screened-in porch and read an entire book? Could I work on writing uninterrupted for hours at a time, stopping only to gaze up at the sky then back down at the page? Could I write postcards? Could the days unfold hour by hour, the only reference to real-time being the drink on the bench next to me: hot coffee in the morning, iced tea in the afternoon, and when the sun begins its descent: a glass of white wine? Could I slip into that amazing, intoxicating feel of weightless, shapeless summer days, titrating caffeine and alcohol perfectly to give the hours a gossamer, luminous quality?

Could it not only be a chance for Wally to play tag, spit watermelon seeds in the yard and dig freely in dirt, but offer me a portal to those kind of carefree summer days, too? 

On Lenore's suggestion, we went for a visit one weekend afternoon in June. Because I had gushed with enthusiasm for the place over email, we were provided with a tour of the grounds by the owner. Lenore gave us mac 'n' cheese and cupcakes, we brought beer, which no one seemed to drink. (See second graph above as to who frequents these places: New Yorkers, mostly Jews.) We went for a dip in the lake--a bit further than we'd imagined, fifteen minutes walk through the woods or else you drive, which is how we got there. The luncheonette wasn't open. The place had a bit of an empty feel as this was early in the season and most people had yet to set up camp. 

It all still seemed like an incredible deal -- $4,000 for the summer -- if a cabin could be split up among various parties, if different groups could come for weekends.

But even as I took pictures of the lake and raved about the pack of teenagers wandering off together, in my head a list of various drawbacks began to accrue. One: from the age of 5 on up kids are required to go to the day camp across the dirt road. From the looks of it, it's a great, old-fashioned camp with tons of outdoor activities and relaxing little porches for afternoons of arts and crafts. But it's not particularly cheap, on par with other local camps I think. And I had kind of thought that the whole point was kids running free, swimming (supervised obviously), making up games, digging for worms, and basically finding ways to entertain themselves, the way we did when we were kids. 

I had envisioned this bungalow colony as a place where summers would stretch out endlessly, full of those magnificent empty days for kids like in the wonderful book Nothing to Do by Douglas Wood, where a boy dreams of "...building a fort, a secret place where no one can see you because you can't see them. And surviving for hours on peanut-butter sandwiches and lemonade."

And then there was the fact that I hadn't been able to rouse up anyone else's enthusiasm about it, couldn't gain any traction for that utopian image of summers in that little bungalow village, except, to her credit, my sister's, but the camp component negated it for her, too. She feels lucky to be able to be home with her kids in the summer and wants to keep it that way. It reminded me a bit of the opera situation last March. Something I thought was neat everyone else had to agree to based on some kind of unreasonable axiom I held that because you say you want to spend more time together, and here I'm offering you that chance, you must take it. (This is more for another day--the phenomenon I'm becoming aware of where people don't always want more time from you, they just want confirmation that you'd like to spend time with them.)

And there was also the fact that it just didn't make sense at all with our schedule. I realized this when pressed by Lenore as to how we could make it work. Alex doesn't have summers off. Wally was in "school" through to last week, and I had my hands full with work (a large part of which I could maybe do there, but with the wonderfully, spotty Internet connection I hear they have, perhaps not so easily).

Later that afternoon we thanked them for the tour and lunch, took a few pictures on the tree swing, and said goodbye, finding ourselves among those city-dwellers who dream of a place like that--one where you could have a sense of continuity and community, where kids would grow up spending their summers together--but in the end, don't make the effort or lifestyle change or whatever it is to participate.

End of story for any normal person, but not for me. In my head, debates about the bungalow's merits raged on. Perhaps a deal could be reached, Lenore proposed over email the week that followed, for just the weekends? That I considered for a day or two, then declined that offer, too. Just not tenable given the reality of the schlep factor of not having a car -- even though they kindly offered to pick us up and drop us off at the train -- and how many weekends (almost all) were already booked.

A few more days went by. Then Lenore wrote an email saying to call her. She'd spoken with the owner and there was an option to get a bungalow for free in exchange for working maybe 5-10 hours a week during the summer on promotion for the place. 

At first that sounded great, and I was momentarily submerged in the excitement of the whole bungalow fantasy again. I told Lenore I'd think about it. Hung up the phone. Grew increasingly agitated over the next few days. I felt maxed out with work as it was, and had just been given an offer of a part-time job, the acceptance of which would make any additional work impossible. Plus there was still the problem of having hardly any free weekends. If I accepted this new bargain -- a more than fair one, for someone with the right setup -- that would mean seeing less of my family and friends, having fewer quiet weekends with nothing to do, having to squeeze more things in during the week. 

I nervously called up Lenore's husband (I was supposed to discuss details with him) and told him I wasn't going to take the offer. I pictured myself stressed and overwhelmed, squeezing in the extra work, packing up groceries and blankets and whatever else we'd need on a Friday, taking the train up that evening, then back to the city Sunday night. There'd be this pressure to get "use" out of the cabin because of the barter. And we'd miss out on the community we have here in Chelsea on the few summer weekends we are in town. 

It would be, I realized, chasing some dream of simplicity, community, free-range kids and old-fashioned lemonade summers, by agreeing to a stressful, scattered blur of summer weeks, always worried about work, always turning down bbq's and river picnics because we'd be heading up to the Catskills or back down to the city, always just arriving or about to say goodbye. 


On the trip home from the bungalow village, Wally had fallen asleep in the car on the late side. That meant we had a longer night ahead of us, so after dinner we went to the lot across the street so he could ride bikes with a neighbor friend. I sat leaning against the fence with the other parents while the kids played. We chatted about not too much because they don't like to gossip and that's pretty much all I do. The conversation was light. Every now and then a ball came our way and we threw it back. It grew dark and we saw fireflies. 

And you just couldn't get any more symbolic really, could you? 

At that idealized little community of the bungalow, we know Lenore just a little, but we'd be pretty much strangers. We'd come and go on weekends, making us into transient, rootless figures. If we took our vacation up there for a week, for only this one year could Wally have free, unstructured days because next year he'd be in camp (if I could somehow afford and justify it). No one we knew was interested in joining that village, so it would not provide a place for us to recreate the scenes from my childhood summers I loved so much, where my parents and their closest friends rented houses in Vermont and we went to the lake, had big group dinners, played ping pong in the morning and cards at night, and sometimes the Olympics was on in the background on a little black and white TV with bad reception. 

Up in that village we wouldn't be recreating that little sense of community, unless we formed a new one with all new people. But that would just add to the quantity over quality mania of the age we live in, the scattering relationship dispersal, the high surface, low density friendships in the age of Facebook. Keeping in touch with everyone; really talking to, confiding in, finding continuity with or relying on almost nobody.

Through these recent posts -- or maybe all along on this blog -- it's become obvious that the one essential element that underlies the pursuit of most things I associate with a simpler life and childhood is time. Having enough of it, knowing how to manage it, not trying to constantly fill it up, not depriving kids of it, spending enough of it with people you care about and doing things that matter to you. 

Sure that evening after the cheerful trip to the country, back here in the city, we were surrounded by ugly buildings, sitting on an ugly blacktop, but we enjoyed the summer twilight with friends, no rushing off, no hassle, no schlep, no plans to interfere with and undermine the experience. We had time. Wally rode his bike with a boy he's known as long as he can remember and may very well know his whole childhood, as few people ever leave this neighborhood. When we were ready to go home, we said goodbye and walked a few steps back inside.

The pastoral fantasy of living in the country or spending the summers there can be the same thing as the fantasy of finally enjoying your life and your family "some day" and meanwhile missing out on all the days you have.

Maybe it's a grass is greener type thing that makes me so vulnerable to pastoral fantasies (it's certainly greener out there, in the bungalow village). Maybe it's just the difficulty of seeing things clearly for myself, being so easily persuaded by others. Every time I disillusion myself in one of this situations, I question why it is I'm so quick to imagine something is incredible, why I have such a hard time seeing things for what they are.

To come to this same conclusion again and again is jejune (a word that, to me, sounds nothing like what it is). That the ideal quiet life you seek might be best found in the noisiest place. That the sense of small community might be more readily available in a giant city than a lovely, little village with a luncheonette and a casino. That you might often be searching for something you already have.

I know there has to be more to it than that. There is also the fact that I've grown somewhat less enamored of the spokesperson for the place and free-range kids both, for a variety of probably trivial reasons. But basically the sense that this is a business person, with an agenda.

And there is the thing Alex's friend who accompanied us said about it as we were driving away. "They're not selling a summer rental. They're selling a lifestyle." To me, that made the rejection of it all the sadder. It wasn't just a cabin that was unaffordable for us, it was the fact that we weren't part of that community of people who chose to spend their summers in that quiet, old-fashioned, community-minded way.

And there is another piece to my delusional thinking. 

Yes, for city folk, in the hot kitchens of stuffy apartments, that little stretch of land up there with grass and a little lake and surrounding trees was the country. But to me, who grew up in the rural suburbs of Boston, went to college in New Hampshire, and spends time in the White Mountains in the summer, the bungalow country would hardly be put in a separate category from Central Park. It's mostly flat, the lake was more of a pond, still water, with that muddy, soft, leafy ground where you can't get a foothold underneath. The water practically bordered right up against the woods, no sand to play in, no room to spread a blanket, really. (I suppose you could argue that makes it more rustic, more natural. I won't completely overlook my own squeamishness when it comes to real nature.) But all in all, by any account this was a city-folks' version of nature. There wasn't too much of a breeze, and though it was maybe the start of the Catskills, I saw no real sign of any mountains. It wasn't really the country, wasn't really all that grand.

I'm stuck on that, too. That I would be taken in by someone's influence? Good marketing? My desire to please or, not quite as cynical, to connect? That I would walk away thinking that was the tableau of country summers, but not completely feeling it, and yet not trust the feeling that for days I wrestled and batted away until I finally turned the whole thing down, by a strange series of degrees, the way I turn against most things, hedging, debating, wondering if I'm missing out or turning someone down unfairly, trying to see every side.

For inspiration with my various novels, I recently turned again to Natalie Goldberg. I had loved her two books on writing, and yet now they are somewhat ruined for me, like the bungalow village, inauthentic, because -- as I mentioned before here -- her single novel was such an abomination. She is an authentic writer-as-advice-giver, and a terrible storyteller. Now even reading the great advice just feels too much like you're being sold something that isn't there. Lenore Skenazy -- as she calls herself, free-range "generalissimo" -- puts her kids in camp every summer. All day every day. If I were to join that picture-perfect old-fashioned summer community, I'd be virtually trading in all the ones I've already built. Natalie Goldberg, writer of sentences about writing so glorious you could fall down on your knees, like "At the same instant we have these magnificent hearts that pump through all sorrow and all winters we are alive on the earth. We are important and our lives are important, magnificent really, and their details are worthy to be recorded. This is how writers must think, this is how we must sit down with pen in hand. We were here; we are human beings; this is how we lived." This same writer cannot write a non self-referential sentence to save her life. Her one novel is such an atrocious, abysmal train wreck of a novel, so clearly her own mangled, self-centered, neurotic autobiography, reading it stripped away the power her advice once had to inspire me.

"False idols fall" rings in my head on heavy-rotation, from that all-time favorite Dylan song of mine. I've put Goldberg's books away. I've stopped following the free-range kids website with the devotion I once had. False idols falling isn't necessarily a bad thing, in fact it's the opposite. It means seeing things in a more honest way, trusting yourself rather than others.

Listening now to Weezer's "Only in Dreams", I'm submerged under memories of the summer of 1994, between high school and college. 

Maybe the key is to separate the realm of the imagination from imaginary, and to stop trying so hard to please others that I make every effort to see everything they see. Seeing what’s not there, when it comes to writing, creating imaginary worlds for kids, and thinking about how to address climate change-- the three obsessions which compel me most these days-- is even more important then seeing what is.

Outside our windows, now, we can see lovely green grass, flowers in bloom, plenty of water and fruit carts overflowing. If I didn't know better -- if I couldn't see what wasn't there -- it would certainly look like everything was okay.

Friday, August 10, 2012

In your ship's path are sirens

I thought I was no longer considered one of those "busy" people. Yet a friend told me recently the reason she sent me The Busy Trap article was because I am, and the fact that so many forwarded it to me should serve as a referendum. 

Hmmm. That's disappointing. I thought people had sent it to me because 1) I talk about that topic a lot on my blog and 2) I have done a lot to try to escape the busy trap, and have been somewhat successful?

In an article in Slate Hanna Rosin responded to The Busy Trap this way: "..the same thought keeps coming back to me: I don’t want to be busy. I don’t want all my friends to start their messages to me with the sentence 'I know you’re really busy but …' Anyone have any advice?"

To me the biggest shift in terms of free time getting sucked up is the cable modem. Before then, when you went online it was a thing. Okay, I'm going to dial up now and check email or do some research. You didn't surf endlessly-- you were tying up the phone line, for one, and it was shaky and you sometimes got kicked off. Now you're always always on. With smartphones, even worse. (A friend a year or so ago mocked me for talking about how much time I waste "checking" email. With a smartphone, she said, you don't check. It's just always always there.)

Remember how Kreider talked about busy-ness as a "hedge against emptiness", a way to draw attention away from a fundamental sense of meaningless about how you spend your time? It's become obvious to me that busy-ness obscures emptiness. If you feel empty, you will try to fill that space. That is, I suppose, if you view emptiness in a negative light. We all know those parasitic empty people with no emotional resources to give who take endlessly from others--time, attention, money, whatever it is, they're all related, some are just symbolic (those rich people who never have their wallet, or are always the first to take a dollar back). But emptiness can be viewed in a different way, if we let it. The choreographer Twyla Tharp talks about her love of the empty, white room where she goes to create new dances, like the blank page for a writer, the empty canvas for a painter. In Zen Buddhism emptiness is something to be sought after. "When we have emptiness," says Shunryu  Suzuki, "We are always prepared for watching the flashing."

Some say you'll feel that you're life is fuller -- that you're living "in abundance" -- the more you give away. The emptier you are, the fuller you are. If you can give, you must have enough. There are lots of stories of people who've decided to give something away every day for a month or a year, or the man who gave away $5 bills for his birthday, reporting that they felt happier and more fulfilled as they did so. 

One day when I was asked to pick up Wally from school because he had pink eye, we had time to waste before we could see the doc. We were hanging around midtown when I remembered this "oasis" in the city I read about. It's on 31st street, right across from Penn Station, inside a church. You go in and there's this little peaceful courtyard in the middle, across from the chapel. Wally threw coins into a fountain, then we sat on a stone bench looking at plants growing there and the statues of saints. 

We had to push past that initial resistance, that "let's go now" impulse of children when they find they have run out of things to do somewhere to get to the point where you realize there is always so much to do anywhere. If nothing else, you can watch, listen, think. You can do what Annie Dillard did when stalking muskrats, "slow down, center down, empty". You can let yourself feel the good kind of empty, not the kind that needs to be instantly filled with activity, stimulation, even anxiety. Not the kind that seeks out contsant attention from others, sometimes tension with others, struggle, anything but quiet. 

Quiet, solitude, time, blank pages on the calendar, or even hours, minutes -- these are things we say we want, right? So what's interesting is to observe what we do when we get them. Check email? Make a phone call? Text someone back? Rush off to the next thing?

Or wait. Allow time to pass. Like Annie Dillard stalking muskrats, I realized last summer stalking peaceful moments you have to be just as vigilant, just as disciplined and capable of restraint. The universe conspires to overwhelm you with birthday parties, Family Jams, friends in town, butterflies on the High Line, sunset drum circles -- it is always holding out those treasures. 

The cover of that BigApple Parent magazine caught my eye the other day. In between these two teasers on the cover:

After-School Activities Resource Guide


160+ Family Events (see our calendar, p.32)

was this one: SLOW DOWN! How to Manage Kids' Schedules. 

And just in case the mixed message isn't obvious enough, along the bottom a there's a headline for a "Where-to Guide" to berry picking. So here are ALL THESE WONDERFUL THINGS YOU SHOULD BE DOING WITH YOUR KIDS and, just in case you're dizzy now, here's some advice for slowing down and cutting back. I even feel bombarded these days with advertisements about meditation, decluttering and simplifying. And although I know the interviews for preschool and test-prep coaching for four-year-olds (we're in the leadup to the Hunter College Elementary School testing process for parents of kids Wally's age) are worse in New York than the rest of the country, I really refuse to believe that the busy-ness is any worse here than anywhere else. If it were, why are my friends way out in the boondocks equally incapable of answering emails, letters, phone calls, equally stressed and pulled and limited when it comes to trying to make plans to meet? Wouldn't those far from the carnival song of the city be sitting in rocking chairs on their porch saying, "Ya'll come back real soon now, ya hare?" But they're not. They've got puppet shows and gardening class and karate just like everyone else.

It's hard to resist, like some siren figure in a Greek myth, the shining and glistening promise of so much fun and happiness, acceptance by peers, as "mean mom" Denise Schipani refers to it, the rules laid out for parents by the "'This is how it's done' police". How it's done is you choose from among these after-school activities, cram as many as you can in. You attend as many family events as possible. You schlep around to pick berries. And if you don't, it's only because you already have a birthday party and christening scheduled for those days. 

Thinking about Tim Kreider's lifestyle -- work less, make less money, enjoy your life more -- it's the same as promoted in the book Your Money or Your Life. All the people I know who work late hours, whenever they bemoan their lack of time, and I ask if there's any way they could work fewer hours, leave at 5 or 6 most days and be done, they say they could do it, maybe, but not without a pay cut. There's the trade. Your money or your life. Almost everyone I know who read The Busy Trap said they agreed with it, yet I don't know if any of them (us?) are doing anything to change. 

Much as we say we long for it, we devalue time to live our lives. We reward people who have it all (the Anne-Marie Slaughterhouse article notwithstanding, or, let it stand. By most reasonable measures she really does have it all - Princeton professor, devoted mom?) We worship people who juggle and do smoke and mirror tricks, making up illusions out of time. Anne Morrow Lindbergh talks about how any excuse is valid -- a hair appointment, work, a social obligation -- to say you can't meet someone but to say it's because you want time alone is considered an insult, outrageous. Even before all our present-day distractions, Ms. Lindbergh struggled with many, including even the radio, which she pointed out replaced daydreams and solitude for housewives. Here she clarifies the struggle in Gift from the Sea:

"The problem is not merely one of Woman and Career, Woman and the Home, Woman and Independence. It is more basically: how to remain whole in the midst of the distractions of life; how to remain balanced, no matter what centrifugal forces tend to pull one off center; how to remain strong, no matter what shocks come in at the periphery and tend to crack the hub of the wheel.” 

As I've mentioned before here, behind so many of the pulls and distractions we feel and siren calls we hear, there is money to be made by someone -- the organizer of the activity, the seller of the recent invention you absolutely need (never mind humans have done without it for a couple hundred thousand years). And to have the money to pay for the things you don't need, you have to work. Since you're always going to need more, you'll alway need to work more. The treasure offered is tempting, it's packaged to be. And completely misleading. "Advertising exists only to purvey what people don't need," says Jerry Mander, author of Four Arguments Against Television (really, it's a terrible title, the book is so much more incredible than the dry title suggests). He goes on: " In fact, advertising intervenes between people and their (real) needs, it separates them from direct fulfillment and urges them to believe that satisfaction can only be obtained through commodities." We're indoctrinated from birth to believe in its value, and will be targeted until we die -- cradle to grave, it's been an official marketing term for a while. 

In the aggregate, unfiltered, unabated, these distractions whether in the form of activities or commodities or the rush to get an advantage for your children, exact a heavy price. The sirens, remember, lured sailors to shipwreck. 

Some of the activities lure us away from quiet contemplative time are fun and low cost, but it is still our responsibility to decide which ones to agree to, when to let days stretch out, imagination take over, emptiness--the good kind--pour in. When it does, creativity can begin. 

Creativity requires the blank page, the white room. Because you are full to overflowing with ideas and connections -- you've absorbed art, culture, music, life dreams weird personalities strange interactions odd group dynamics -- but at a certain point you insisted on quiet and distance to interpret it, to transform it into something original, something worthwhile. 

On the way out of the church Wally was fiddling around with these little tin cans. Normally, I would have tugged him away, in a rush, annoyed as his dilly-dallying. Can we move three steps in a row please without stopping or dropping something or almost getting your hand caught in the door? This day, our schedule having been interrupted, the doctor's appointment still a ways off, we had time. So I went over to see what he had. They were these little cans covered with heart-decorated paper. They said "Gift of Love" on them.

"What are they?" Wally asked, as I read the sign above the basket of cans.

"They're for poor people. People without enough money."

I took a few, handing two to Wally. "We fill them with coins then bring them back."

"Cause we have enough money," he said, clacking the two tin cans together and skipping out. 

"Yes," I said, feeling so full in that moment, but lighter than air, too, waltzing into the New York morning with Wally, carrying those empty cans. 

title: The Odyssey, Homer

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Freelance Balancing Act

I kind of like this article:

Response to a working mom's hallelujah moment: Amen, work-at-home sister!

and especially this section:

"A common workday scenario for me has been this: walking my daughter to preschool, running back home to write, picking her up, buying food for dinner on the way home, cooking and eating together as a family, and then tucking her in before working on deadline alongside my partner (also self-employed) till midnight or 1am. Am I sometimes exhausted or time-crunched or anxious about money? Hell, yes. But I also spend a good amount of time pinching myself for being able to be so present for my daughter while still making ends meet."

Recently I posted something -- I can't remember what the context was -- but in it I said that I didn't want Wally to fall asleep in the stroller in the afternoon. It occurred to me later that maybe that didn't make sense to most people. Why not let a kid fall asleep? Isn't a sleeping kid always easier than one who's awake? Yes - but a kid sleeping at 5 in the afternoon giving you that peaceful walk home from the grocery or playground means a wide-awake kid pole vaulting in the living-room at 10. (There are some parents who say even a 5 o'clock nap doesn't have a negative outcome for bedtime for their kids but I just don't get that! Then again Wally often turns down dessert and I just don't get that either.)

So, anyway, if Wally falls asleep in the late afternoon, that means I won't get him down 'til late, and that means I won't get the work done I need to get done after he goes to sleep, and the whole house of cards of a freelance sort-of-stay-at-home-mom life just comes crashing down. It's so tenuous. But so worth it. (And most nights I don't have to work nearly as late as that woman. Although maybe I should start. I'd certainly get more done.)

Monday, August 6, 2012

There is that dream state of arrival back from vacation if I get home in time for it. If it's really late, then it doesn't happen. In that case I stay on autopilot -- get the bags in, find something to eat and fall into bed. But if it's not so late I find myself in that layered ethereal space between worlds. It's heavier than usual daily life, more poignant, less grounded. I am better able to remember earlier and imagine future versions of myself. They accompany me in that strange in-between space that is mostly in my own head, before checking the news or email, before letting anyone know we are here. That makes it feel like I'm not quite here, certainly not part of this scene. The city itself takes on a muted quality before I run into anyone I know and the apartment feels like more of a cocoon, the way it used to. By early morning, the usual gears will click back into motion, and that will change.