Garbage In, Garbage Out

Some parents are happy if their children read anything. I am not one of them. I’d rather my kids watch hours of “Dora the Explorer” than read some of the children’s “literature” out there.

Q recently checked out Dork Diaries: Tales From a Not-So-Fabulous Life from the school library. Guess what? I don’t love it. It’s in the tradition of pandering books about silly girls with bad attitudes and nasty mouths who manufacture social drama in the name of plot. The fact that “dork” is slang for “penis” is a minor gripe. Go ahead; check it out. I linked to the series’ website so you can judge based on the most complementary angle on this drivel, tripe, book-like object.dd1-large

I cannot control what she chooses at the library. She goes with her class, and I am not about to ask her teacher to censor Q’s selections based on my criterion. She is a classroom teacher, not a nanny. This is not a battle I want to pick, because it is not one I can possibly win, and frankly, I don’t think it is necessary. Books let us try on someone else’s life and explore new worlds with only an investment of time. There is even a place for mindless and silly entertainment. I unapologetically loved “XENA: Warrior Princess” for years and consume PG Wodehouse novels like candy.

However, what we feed our minds matters as much as what we feed our bodies. A mind fed on a diet of pandering entertainment will be weaker and less healthy. Q’s behavior took a turn while she read this book. She got snippier, less happy, and Hot Swede noticed phrases from the book coming out of her mouth. When she read the Laura Ingalls Wilder books, she played pioneer girl, we had discussions about the Native American/US relations, and I taught her how to embroider.

I won’t forbid her to read these garbage books, (Forbidding something is the quickest way to pique her interest.) but I did make scaffolding for her reading. I explained my concerns with this book and we talked about the importance of putting good things into our heads. She may read another of the Dork series, but must finish Anne of Green Gables first, and so it will go- rubbish, literature, dreck, literature. Hopefully, the trash will become less frequent by her choice. If she comes home with Fifty Shades of Grey, I’ll volunteer to chaperone library trips.

What children’s novels do you love? Which ones stink to high heaven?

How Can I Keep From Singing?

Piano_bokeh_by_NickKoutoulasEvery once in awhile, I get to witness a piece of performing art that really works. All the parts are there- the performer fully synthesizes the work and effectively conveys its beauty and purpose. Such performances stick with me and I always feel lucky to have been there, especially when they are unexpected.

No one goes to student recitals expecting great art. My reluctant pianists, Q and Bear, were slotted to play on the program, and that is the only reason I was there. (I do enjoy music school recitals- assuming they are not longer than one hour and the string players all have a general grasp of the difference between whole and half steps.)

A five-year old in a double-breasted suit and superhero sneakers started us off. His face was serious and his 8 bars were just what you’d expect. There were girls in flouncy dresses, boys in khakis and button downs. The young ones tend to be calm and matter of fact. The older children have nerves when they bow, but not when they play. It is the teenagers that I root for- fighting nerves through every measure, hands shaking whenever not engaged in playing. One of them made the sign of the cross over himself when he finished.

Halfway through the program was John, a singer. I’ve seen him at other recitals. He’s only studied voice for a year or two. He walked to the side of the piano, smiled at the audience, and waited for his accompanist. I saw him counting out the measures of introduction in his head. He sang. His is a soft voice, not powerful or lithe. There is a quiver in it. I don’t think it was because John was nervous. I think it’s because he is at least seventy.

4267059618_af54737fc0_z Effective music is not about showcasing technical perfection. Ultimately, it is about communicating the deepest emotions of the human experience. John emoted his song, transmitting it with his body language, as well as his voice. The poetry was in the combination of the lyrics and this performer, a man who has lived long enough to know the sorrows and difficulties of life, who’s age shows in his face and his walk. Yet he stood in front of a room of strangers and sang with such joy and gratitude that I was moved to tears and inspired to live that same way- to learn new things as long as I am able, to squeeze as much living as I can out of life, and to remain grateful for each day and every good thing.

My life flows on in endless song;
Above earth’s lamentation,
I hear the sweet, though far-off hymn
That hails a new creation;
Through all the tumult and the strife
I hear the music ringing;
It finds an echo in my soul—
How can I keep from singing?
 
What though my joys and comforts die?
The Lord my Savior liveth;
What though the darkness gather round?
Songs in the night he giveth.
No storm can shake my inmost calm
While to that refuge clinging;
Since Christ is Lord of heaven and earth,
How can I keep from singing?
 
I lift my eyes; the cloud grows thin;
I see the blue above it;
And day by day this pathway smooths,
Since first I learned to love it;
The peace of Christ makes fresh my heart,
A fountain ever springing;
All things are mine since I am his—
How can I keep from singing?
                        -Robert Wadsworth Lowry

 

 

How to Lose Friends and Irritate People

I like social media. It connects me to people I would never see in person, but who enrich my life through our digital society. That said, I am sometimes made ill by the behavior I see online- the vile way people talk to and about each other. We behave abominably online in ways that, I hope to God, (I actually do; this is not a taking-name-in-vain violation.) we would never ever behave face to face. After years on Facebook and being witness to much keyboard ugliness, I’ve developed a rule for myself. If you are tired of rabid pedants, aggressive strangers, and other senseless bile, read on.

The Cocktail Party Rule

Old-Fashioned

Old-Fashioned.

Here’s the groundbreaking idea: If you wouldn’t do something at a cocktail party, don’t do it online. Mind blown? No? Good, then there is hope for us.

Before I flesh out this common sense, shouldn’t even have to mention it idea, let me say that all this assumes that the reader has basic adult social skills and is not a complete ninny.

Other People’s Houses

Pages, updates, editorials, etc.

When you arrive at a friend’s house/online space, you are on her turf, interacting with her life and her family/friends/co-workers. For goodness sake, be on good behavior. Assess the tone of conversation; watch your language; engage in charming and mindful small talk. Save complaining about your gouty toe until after dinner and a few glasses of wine. While the other guests there are strangers to you, you are all valued friends of the host.

If someone starts talking about a movie they hate and you love, do you call them a tasteless hack and curse at them? No, because that shows disrespect for your friend’s friend and, by extension, your friend. Also, you are an adult and understand that people have different opinions about every single thing in life.

There are a few types of individuals who damage good social interaction, in person or online. Here are a few of most odious.

The Blowhard

This individual operates under the false notion that passion and knowledge for a subject override common decency towards complete strangers. Even more confounding is when her passion overrides respect for people she does know and calls “friends.”

316350341_00239c8fc2The Blowhard typically sees herself as exceedingly correct in her opinions and feels the need to enlighten or shame everyone within range with her brilliant take on a given subject. She thinks she holds the monopoly on truth and that only misled, bad, or stupid people could have an opinion different from hers. It is a precariously high pedestal on which to balance, and if you rock it, even just a little bit, she will respond defensively with a hiss of vitriol and anger, instead of setting her feet on solid reason.

Don’t attack your friends’ friends, ever- in person or online. Learn to disagree on point without belittling the individual. No one was ever persuaded to change his mind on a subject by being called an idiot.

Changing opinions is a long process, unless the opinion under pressure is not well formed in the first place. We are far likelier to succeed at increasing the understanding of both parties. The best way is to welcome the examination of ideas. This requires both sides to remove their opinions from their person, lay them out and examine them together, as partners. This is far less emotionally satisfying because it requires us to control and scrutinize ourselves. Unfortunately, a lot of people seem incapable or unwilling to do this.

If you want to rant against the Republicans or excoriate the President, that’s fine; do it on your own wall. I don’t like this either because vitriol is poison, but at least don’t inject it into others’ space. I have seen countless good Facebook conversations hijacked or ended by a blowhard with an ax to grind. The great thing about social media is that you don’t have to get involved in a conversation if you are angry or can’t set aside your righteous indignation. Rest your fingers; you might get carpal tunnel.

The Honest Jerk

“I’m sorry, but I’m just being honest.” This is a common excuse for being rude, as if honesty and respect are mutually exclusive.  What exactly is the Jerk being honest about? It can’t be the facts of an argument because facts and logic stand on their merits and are not dependent on verbal muscle to be convincing.

This is an honesty of emotion. The Jerk is irritated/threatened/mad that others don’t share his view, so he expresses that to the detriment of his argument. Because the Jerk is ruled by his emotions, he will call you names and make wild, hysterical assumptions about the other. I recently saw a comment by a woman who said that she teaches her children that any man who is pro-life is a child-molester… – wild, hysterical assumption. Oh, her lucky, lucky children.

I’m not sure why people hold public emotional honesty in such high esteem. When children indulge in it, we call it a ‘tantrum.’ It must make Jerks feel better and they justify it by its being honest and natural. Body odor is also honest and natural, but I don’t particularly enjoy my own, why should I put up with yours?

If you are interested in a good exchange of ideas, a dance of minds- temper your temper. It takes self-control and effort to construct a disagreement around ideas and not emotions, but you will get your point across better. It will not be overshadowed by a tantrum. Yell your anger/fear/disdain at your screen, in the privacy of your own home where no one will see the ugliness.  Don’t put it on a public forum, where the outburst will live forever.

The Quoter

You know that guy you knew in your 20s, the one who communicated almost exclusively in movie quotes? While impressive in the sheer volume of minutia committed to memory, that guy is tedious. Don’t be his equal in digital society- the person who only posts third-party links and never has an original thought. If I’ve added you to my social circle, it is because of you, not because I need you to filter for me everything that Huffington posts.

All those memes are not funny either, not in aggregate. It’s like the drunk at a party who holds everyone hostage with a chain of knock-knock jokes. Share one or two, then give it a rest. Political memes are the digital equivalent of protest signs and are therefore obnoxious by default. Use them sparingly.

Tell me what you are thinking. Hell, show me what you’re eating for lunch. Show me your cute pets. Tell me about your kids. Give me a good book review. Express yourself directly because we are friends and I want to read about you.

The Competitor

Red Boxing Gloves Hanging on WallThis one is easily combined with the other social irritants. The Competitor sees any argument as a win or lose proposition. She does not let up. It is as if she wants her “opponent” to tap out and declare her the winner. Sorry, hon, that is not how the real world works. State your case as best you can, answer any resulting queries, and leave your brilliant rhetoric to simmer in the brains of your conversation partners. If you argument is convincing and you have not been a Jerk, they may come back for a second helping of your wisdom.

Be A Bouncer

It is so easy to fall into these patterns. We’ve all done it, but we need to control ourselves, like we do in real life. Because, in modern culture, digital society is real life. Unfortunately, social media is a terrible medium for dialectic. Only telegram could be worse. Good written arguments take a lot of time and words to construct, and even then, nuance is tricky and the recipient can’t interrupt and ask for clarification. A public space full of knee-jerk writing is simply not the place to discuss important and delicate issues. It is barely the place to take a stand on something as benign as feta vs. chèvre. There is always some troll lurking about.

We can encourage good behavior by practicing it ourselves, and reminding ourselves that a difference of opinion is just that. It does not lessen or threaten anyone’s validity or humanity.

Let’s be less tolerant of rabid pedants. Don’t engage with a name-calling jerk. Don’t respond to a blowhard. Tell them that you won’t continue the exchange because of their rude behavior and failure to control their emotions.  Then, stay away or unfollow the thread.  If the pedant is on your wall, insulting your friends, remind them to be civil and, if they persist, erase their comments and send them a private message explaining why. I would love to know how you respond to bad behavior in your online space.

Please, let’s hold ourselves to a higher standard. I will likely have to log out during the next election year. And then I will miss out on countless pictures of dinner and trifling cat memes.

The Common Creative Life

I am surrounded by creative adults, not to mention the children. It makes sense- Hot Swede and I trained in music and count many performers, composers, directors and teachers among our friends and acquaintances. But that is not the fullness of creative richness around me. The arts do not hold a monopoly on creative life, not in the least.

“Free form shelves” by Uncle Swede.

Hot Swede comes from a strong tradition of men who design, build, fix and “improve” things. You can’t stop them; they are compelled by nature. These men, sometimes to their women’s delight, occasionally to their despair, design and build their homes, furniture, light fixtures, boats, and countless smaller projects. I come from a line of imaginative small business people- restaurateurs, photographers, boutique, grocery, and shop owners, homebuilders, natural health product developers, and a grandfather who, among other things, was a hotelier, radio DJ, theatre director, and actor.

Creativity is about solving problems; working within constraints and finding ways around them- like a composer manipulating voicing and timbres to express exactly what she is after. It keeps the mind nimble and breathes vibrancy into life.

When we are living well, we are all creative. I cannot imagine a full life without using my mind in this way. It is part of the human condition to make, impact, and form the world around us.  We learn through it and need to do it. I once had an art teacher tell me that if I really wanted to know what something looked like, I had to draw it.  We have a hunger for consuming our own and others’ creative product, even when there is no pragmatic reason to do so- YouTube, anyone?

Some people think that if they are not involved in the arts, they are not creative. They sell themselves short. Where would we be without all those non-artistic inventors and problem solvers? I like a Picasso, but I love indoor plumbing. Hot Swede is an excellent musician with a good ear and clear ideas about what he wants, but his most creative work is currently happening in our kitchen remodel- redesigning stairwells, creating new layouts for spaces, and running new pipes. Some of his solutions are beautiful in the way they work around rigid constraints.

Most of my creative challenge has been in designing and sewing Halloween costumes , thinking up new schemes to get my children to behave in desirable ways, and beginning to write this here weblog. And there is the eternal problem of “what’s for dinner?” I find much satisfaction in solving problems or thinking up clever ways to avoid them. “We’re having a treasure hunt dinner. Eat whatever you can find.”

Not all find satisfying creativity in their paid work; that’s why we have hobbies. I know a journalist who makes books, an arts administrator who crafts beautiful objects in Japanese papers, a physician who plays Bluegrass, singers who love woodworking, and multiple attorneys who sing.

What feeds your creative urge? If you can’t answer that question, try something. Go outside. Spend twenty minutes in your own head and find out what’s in there. Ask someone to teach you a new skill. It will enrich you, even if all you do is make an ugly hat or lopsided loaf of bread.  If you present a spectacular creative failure with the words, “Ta da!”, its reception is automatically improved. I promise.

Ta da!

Ta da!

More Than Mom

Recently, I played a set of concerts with the vocal ensemble, Cantus. There were rehearsals, call times, and genuine ticket buying audiences. I did not plan on bringing my children to any of the performances. They are 8,6, and 4. Hot Swede would have to bring them by himself and he does not enjoy courting disaster.

After one concert, a friend of mine told me that I needed to bring my kids. I told her that they had come to a rehearsal and she said, “No, not good enough.” They needed to see their mom as a professional- in concert dress, under lights, making music in front of an attentive audience. I was immediately struck by the wisdom of her insight and grateful for it because it had not crossed my mind.

I take the raising of my children more seriously than I do anything else. I chose a career as a freelance musician and violin teacher knowing that I would want the flexibility when I had children. And when I got pregnant, Hot Swede’s job was the one with the health insurance so, duh, I stayed home.

As a woman of my generation and particular formal education, I have deeply engrained ideas about what it means to be a successful person; becoming a mother is a fine choice, as long as I don’t sacrifice my career. Being just a parent and spouse is not a valid option and is a waste of everything I’ve worked for and am capable of.

betty-draper

Another woman who would have benefited from a diversified identity

Well, guess what? That’s what I chose. I think it is the right choice for me and my family, but I still struggle with feelings of inadequacy and little nagging voices that tell me that what I do isn’t valued or respected and that I should have nurtured my nascent career. But I know myself and I know that if I tried to build both career and family with equal priority, I would do neither to satisfaction and I would carry crippling guilt about the state of both. Still, I hate being in social situations where everyone is asked what they do and some polite follow up questions about their work. If I say that I am a stay at home parent, that is the end of the conversation.

So I don’t say that, because I do try to hang onto the person I was before children. I say that I am a violinist, but am mostly a mom now.  Up until last year, I taught lessons out of my home. (The reasons why I gave it up are for another post.) I play gigs for pay and chamber music whenever I get the chance and sometimes, I even practice. The hardest part is carving out the time and finding babysitters. But it is vital to remain true to who I am without kids, because, if I do my job well, they will grow up and leave me some day. And then what will I do?

The beauty of my friend’s counsel was that it considered the benefit to me as well as my children. Knowing that I struggle with balancing my identities as parent and freestanding person, it is important that my children become aware that I am more than their mother. I want them to know that I’ve made the choice to spend my years on them and that it is an action I take, not a consequence of their birth. As adults, they should know, if they or their partners choose a stay-at-home role, that doing so does not diminish the other facets of who they are or of what they are capable. And they should not readily sacrifice those aspects of self.

So, they attended the performance, because of the kind words of a friend and Hot Swede’s willingness to take the wheel of our family ship, Chaos. He told the children that they would have a surprise and they needed to be ready to go. I texted him when intermission started. The kids threw on their coats and shoes and got in the car. Their father drove the 3-minute drive to the hall and parked up on a snow bank, right in front of a hydrant. He unlocked the doors, pointed to the hall and said, “Run!” AJ got about 10 feet and stopped because her feet hurt. With no time to put her shoes on the right feet, Hot Swede scooped her up and ran to the hall, arriving just in time to usher them in quietly as the second half began. They stood in the back in their coats. I could see their huge smiles from the stage. Q gave me an enthusiastic double thumbs up. They were thrilled. Hot Swede backed them out of the hall after my piece, still carrying the misshod AJ, returning to his illegally parked car. I ran from the greenroom to meet them and thank their father for making it happen. I think Q sees me in a slightly different light- one with a touch of awe. That is just fine.

What a handsome blend of talent, skill, and imagination is Cantus. If you don't know them, here is their NPR Tiny Desk Concert. Enjoy.

What a handsome blend of talent, skill, and imagination is Cantus. If you don’t know them, here is their NPR Tiny Desk Concert. Enjoy.

Dreaming of Spring

It is the spring equinox! It is March 20.  It is 10°F. It is cold. It is windy. I haven’t seen the ground since November. The other night, Hot Swede asked me why I looked so sad. “It snowed today” was the answer. Spring in the north is a trial because it isn’t spring; it’s winter da capo.

persephone20with20pomegranate

Why, oh why did you have to eat so many of those stupid seeds? They’re not even that good!

Some day, some glorious day, life will return, banishing this frozen hell for 6-7 months before the icy darkness circles back around. In the north, Persephone spends a looong time with Hades. I am sick of the snow banks making it impossible for passengers to exit cars without bracing themselves against the salty exterior. The tiny muscles of my epidermis are tired, having been contracted in persistent goose pimples since November. I curse the snow always, from the first flakes in the fall to the obscene ones that I shovel away in March. I am done with it.

Instead of drinking myself to unconsciousness or weeping publically, I will focus on the promise of Spring, when life returns and we escape oppressive winter. I understand that prisoners sometimes use this mental exercise to make their captivity more bearable. It seems apt. Come with me to my happy place.

Melting ice cutting wandering channels in the ice crust of roads and sidewalks.

The scent of thawing earth- a smell of rotting leaves and waking worms- a scent of possibility. Sure, sometimes it smells like urine, but right now that is an improvement.

The first shoots of seeds, curling to push through the earth and then unfurling themselves to the sun. Worshipers.

Silent robins hopping over spongy ground, pulling up the biggest fattest worms from the garden. I cheer for them.

Purple points of peonies, rising together, growing to a height and exploding into fans of shiny leaves.

The song of a cardinal, angered by my proximity to his tree. I look around and spy his fiery breast in a maple, far above my head.

The sunlight as it passes through new leaves on the elms and maples, glowing new green- tender and vibrant.

The first day in a t-shirt, when the wind moves the hair on my arms. I will forget the sensation in a day, but the first time after winter is delicious.

The sun feeling warm again. Skin soaking it in.

The riot of color from the yard of my neighbor, who planted tulips in the fall. Thank you. Thank you.

Bare feet.

The sweet smell and taste of dandelion flowers.

Sending children out and watching them experience these same delights.

Growing a thirst for something cold. Wanting ice but just 3 pieces and only in my glass.

Easy dressing. Smaller laundry piles.

Blowing soap bubbles.

Spending the evening chatting with neighbors up and down the block.

Open windows.

No one makes more of summer than tundra dwellers who know how short it is and how much more lovely than the other half of the year. I know that the first day the temperature hits 40° people in t-shirts will walk their dogs. Once it hits 60° college girls will start sunbathing on lawns and runners will go shirtless.  Gardeners are looking through seed catalogues with a flush on their cheeks and lust in their eyes.  Sweet Persephone, come back. It is time.464046403_6583bc82d1_z

The Labor of Children

            My kids have chores because I want them to grow into functional adults. Also, I am mean and cruel and sneer like Cinderella’s stepmother. They sweep the ashes, black the stove, rub my bunions, slop the pigs and darn their own socks. Okay, I darn the socks (read: throw them away.)

Except I'm not usually this put together and my nose fits in a Chinese tea cup.

Except I’m not usually this put together and my nose fits in a Chinese tea cup.

Daily, they must make their bed and put their clothes away. On weekends during school, they each have one housekeeping job to complete per day. I choose the jobs based on what is needed, how long it should take to complete, and how much whining I can stand. Common tasks include: sort or fold laundry, pair mismatched socks, sweep a room, wash cupboard fronts, empty the dishwasher, pull a bucket of weeds, pick sticks out of the yard, and organize books. It is not much, but it takes half a day and half my daily allotment of positive energy to enforce it (which is why they only have one job.)

I started daily chores last summer. The first morning of summer break, they each woke up to a job list like this: bed, piano, small job, small job, big job. 7 year-old Q got a written list; 5 year-old Bear and 3 year-old AJ got theirs in pictures. Happy summer! (insert sound of whip cracking.) Mouths hung agape; tears welled in eyes; threats of running away were made, and then we had breakfast.

After 3 weeks of this, Bear and AJ didn’t like it, but they accepted it as a part of life that was just “toopee [stupid]” and horrible. Q, on the other hand, was shocked, SHOCKED each morning when greeted by a fresh job list. She fought it every single day, seven days a week. The week before school started, at the end of August, she was still appalled that she had to make her bed.

Q: What? Again?!

Me: Did you sleep in it last night?

Q: Yes.

Me: Then yes, you need to make it.

Q: Fine. I’ll just sleep on the floor.

Me: Well, that’s one solution.

 

Now, 10 months in, she still doesn’t like it (that’d be weird,) but she doesn’t raise a personal insurrection every day.

It's fun now            Children should do chores as soon as they are capable. My grandmother was in charge of making the family bread at age 6. She was too small to knead it, so she used to stand on a chair and beat the dough with a rolling pin, gather it all back up with her little hands and hit it again. I’m pretty sure that if 6 year-olds can make bread and young farm kids can be expected to milk cows, gather eggs, and muck out stalls, my soft city kids can fold clean dishtowels.

It builds confidence in skills that they will need when they are grown and (god willing) no longer living in my house. We all knew 18 year-olds who couldn’t do laundry, sew a button back on, or use a knife without fear of losing fingers. At some point, they will have to do their own housekeeping. Until they do, I want them to learn to appreciate what it takes when someone else does it for them. And I want them to leave my nest with the skills required to make one of their own. Then, I’ll be changing the locks.

Chores nurture self-confidence (which is earned) and independence. Recently, Q asked if she could help make an egg casserole. Because I knew that she had enough experience in my kitchen, I gave her the recipe, reminded her to tie her hair back, and she and Bear made the batter by themselves.  It was a banner moment for us all. They were proud of being trusted with a new task, and I was grateful that I had seen and taken the opportunity to let them try.

When I don’t want to hold them to their chores for their own sakes, or my own, I think of their future roommates and spouses. A grown up who doesn’t think to empty the trash when it’s overflowing and instead puts her empty chip bag on the counter is inconsiderate and kind of a pain. Yes, we can all be slobs, but we should know we are being slobs and know enough to not habitually inflict our slovenliness on others.  Non-slobs, I believe those people are called “childless”, are busy enough with their own garbage and don’t need to wade through someone elses’ who can’t be bothered.  My kids got so tired of me telling them, “Picking up after yourself is like wiping your butt or brushing your teeth- it’s just part of being healthy and living with other people.”

I am joyful as I watch them learn new skills, real skills that they will need everyday, or at least once a week, when they are grown. My biggest challenge is to continue expanding the chore list and giving them more and more complex and challenging work, as their skill and maturity warrant. My mom waited until my brother was 9 before making him plan and cook family dinner for a month. I can’t wait. Then I will sit on the porch, sipping a gimlet, whilst the youngest rubs my bunions.

 

The book, Cleaning House, reenergized my belief in chores. It is full of real ideas.

Getting the Girl You’ve Got

End table- really, I have no idea what graphic to put here, but isn't it purdy?

End table- really, I have no idea what graphic to put here, but isn’t it purdy?

The other day, Hot Swede and I were having a discussion about end tables (titillating, I know,) when he started in on a story from his boyhood.

He told me of a six-year old Cute Swede, playing alone in his parents’ basement, wondering if the story about the boy crying, “Wolf!” was true, if people would come running if he cried out. So he laid himself out, limbs akimbo, and screamed for help. It worked! Dad came running down the stairs, and after assessing the situation, became very angry.

It was my first hearing of that story, and it made him utterly charming. What a nice thing- to discover an amusing new detail about a treasured companion I know so well. For those moments of the telling, he was new to me, and I was as smitten as ever.

A Bad Day

Keeping a good attitude is like keeping a healthy body: it takes knowledge, discipline, nourishment, and work. That isn’t easy, especially when life throws you a bird.

Today was a bad day. Small people fought. A Pull-up, loaded with a night’s absorbings, was thrown at a mouthy sibling and met its mark.  Screaming ensued. Healthful breakfast, made with the children’s immediate and future well being in mind, was refused. On the way to school, the healthful breakfast that was consumed reappeared as vomit all over child and car interior. After arriving home and cleaning child and car, I sat down with a cup of coffee and, at the edge of my vision, saw some kind of critter beeline across the open carpet under my feet. I am still unsure as to its classification- diminutive disease spreading rodent that, while pervasive and cute in children’s books, is utterly abhorrent in my house, or giant stripy house centipede that, while physically harmless, gives me the freaking willies. (I think and hope it was the shiver inducing insect and not the actually dangerous mouse.)

Channeling my inner grumpy old man today

Channeling my inner grumpy old man today

The morning was bad, but not bad enough to be responsible for marring the entire day. The vomit and critters are blessedly rare, but the rest of it is in the range of normal. I spend every day in the company of young children, in a work environment that would have people in paid employment touching up resumes. My youthful co- workers constantly interrupt me, fail to complete routine tasks, and one of them daily exclaims, “I poooped!” I have low expectations and a high tolerance for chaos.

What made it bad was I. After the rough start, I was unable to shake off melancholy and general cheerlessness for the remainder. I wasted the day on a funk.

I owe it to myself and to God to live life purposefully and with goodness in mind. That means making daily choices toward those goals because today is all the life I have to live. It is hard to be positive, kind, purposeful, gracious, and generous when I feel like a poo. Hell, sometimes it’s hard to be polite. But I should try.

Indulging a bad mood does not improve it. It does make me unpleasant company for everyone unfortunate to cross my path.  People have to manage their own difficulties and don’t need me adding my own to their load. That isn’t to say that we shouldn’t ask for help or bury our pain. But it does mean that we should take care of how much we inflict our moods on our fellows, especially when they are brought on by benign things like vomit.

Today, I failed at conquering it, but I did avoid passing it along to my family. I don’t always succeed, (Hot Swede will call that an understatement.) but I try and try again. I know things will look better tomorrow, assuming one or two of the following occurs: I get some sleep, eat healthfully, the sun shines, no one hurls, or the snow miraculously melts and the crocus emerge. (I won’t hold my breath for that last one.)

Some day. some day.

Some day. some day.

To the Letter

An appreciation of the ancient pairing of pen and paper.
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I have carefully saved every single letter I’ve received since I was a child, and a rough draft for every letter I sent out before I was too busy to write rough drafts (about age 23.) The oldest are yellowing in an old square cookie tin in my childhood room. I’m sure my mother would love me to finally empty out that closet. The more recent are in a file cabinet, each in its envelope.  I burned and discarded my adolescent journals. (They practically burned themselves, so full of sap and crackling teenage angst.) But I will not willfully part with the letters. They are the souvenirs of affections and friendships, and the memories of the very best times. No one takes the time to write a trivial letter. They are all precious.

Poetry and power lie in the very physicality of letters, in holding the words of another. Letters reflect the time and place of the writing- postcards, stationary unique to locale, the age and type of paper. They bear witness to the state of the writer at the moment of composition- the way he shaped his letters, the speed and neatness of the writing, the strength of the pen strokes. They can carry the scent of a place and the markings of their place of origin.  They may be read over and over again without the aide of an electric screen. They can be kept in a pocket. They can be treasured.

Reading a letter in someone’s handwriting is like hearing her voice. I know the handwriting of my family members and letter writing friends by sight.  For the recipient, there is meaning in holding this thing that was created in the hands of a friend, lover, family member, honored or even unknown person. I love letters- short ones, long ones, ones with doodles, tear stains, or chocolate smudges.

(Not Hot Swede)

Hot Swede and I spent the summer before we were married apart. I was at the Chautauqua Institution for most of the summer. He was at home in Minnesota and on tour as a member of a nascent chamber music ensemble.  I received a letter from him every day but Sunday, when the mail was not delivered. Every day. They are written on proper stationary, with interesting stamps, in as neat a penmanship as his left-hand and our right-handed language allows. I treasure each one. Combined with all the letters I sent in reply, they make a stack just under a foot tall.

Nothing did more to convince me that this was a man worth combing my hair for than receiving and reading all those letters. Each one was a gift. Hot Swede had never written letters before but did so because he knew how much I value them. They are love letters, descriptions of the day, musings on music and friends, questions begging reply. I soaked them all up. (Since saying the old “I do” 13 years ago, he’s written me one letter…and it was an apology. Ha!)

A handwritten letter is always a gift- completely unique and created with only one reader in mind. The sender takes the time to craft a personal message and present it in a way that reflects not only her thoughts, but the very movement of her hand and the tactile imprint of her surroundings. A letter is a record of a moment of her thinking of someone else.

Of course, these memories can be recorded digitally. Social media makes it easier than ever to stay in touch. We share messages, photos, jokes, and have destructive ideological typing matches that only result in raised cortisol levels and people behaving like the very worst kind of pedants. We Skype family around the globe for less than the cost of a .44¢ stamp. People are doing plenty of writing. My 2nd grader has a blog. (We started ours at the same time, how cute.) Facebook et al are powerful tools- facile, ubiquitous, and cheap. I like Facebook. I’ve rekindled valuable relationships that enrich my inner life and significantly allay the loneliness of being a stay at home parent of young children. It is useful and I enjoy it.

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Twsbi 540, medium nib. It even makes writing checks less painful.

None of it replaces ink and paper for its ability to carry deep significance and leave its mark on the soul. Who doesn’t enjoy getting a real letter? I love writing them too- choosing my ink, pen and stationary, feeling the scratch of my nib on paper, enjoying the pleasing sight of a sheet filled with the lines and curls of the Latin alphabet in cursive. Each time I write a letter, thank you note, or sympathy card, I say, in the very action of taking the time to connect in this ancient way, “I value you. This is important. I mean what I say.”

I am resolved to write more letters. I am resolved to write to remaining influential pedagogues and family and thank them for their lessons. I am resolved to keep my promise of writing letters to my children each year.  I want my words and gratitude to be present in their lives, even when I cannot, and not as a memory, but actually there, in hand, in view.

Need more inspiration to write a letter? Check out the amazing collections of letters over at Letters of Note. (Yes, I know it’s run by a company who trades in online correspondence. The irony is not lost on me. Check it out anyway. You will be rewarded.)