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September 2015

There Is No Try

Did you ever see The Kids in the Hall where the magician asks someone to pick a card, any card and that person says: no. And then the assistant shrieks, "Evil, evil, impolite and evil!"

Because the social contract states that one generally goes along with things. You don't say 'no' to pick a card (seven of diamonds.) Or knock knock (who's there.) Or I am breaking up with you (ok) or (I see) or (wailey wailey wailey.) 

So when I ran into Edward's teacher today and she told me that Edward isn't doing his writing assignments I just sort of blinked. What did she mean: isn't doing? How does that work? What does he do during writing time then, just... sit there all spacey?

No, she said. No no no, not spacey. She's seen spacey and that's not it. Edward, she reported, looks like he is very deep in thought. He looks at the paper and he twirls his pencil and he... thinks. 

Well, thought is good, I said. People ought to think more before they write things. Take the comment section of every single place on the internet except right here, for example. It'd do everyone a world of good to sit there and think very very deeply before trying to stuff a political argument into an article on the best way to remove gum from hair. 

Yes, she agreed, but at the end of all of his thinking he still does not have anything written.

Ah, I said. Well, that's a problem.   

She agreed again and asked me to think about ways to motivate him and I said I would.

But to be honest with you it's so far outside of my experience, both personal and as a parent, that I don't even know where to begin. A teacher tells you to do something and you at least take a stab at it, right? I once missed the entire semester of 14th century French cultural history (things kept coming up - I meant to go) and I admit that I was nonplussed when I sat down for the final but I tried. I picked up my blue book and I licked my quill and I proceeded to fill page after page with everything I knew or thought I knew or could make up about France, culture, the fourteenth century, the thirteenth century, butter, monasteries, the plague, Erasmus... and while my answers bore only the most tangential of relationships to the questions asked, at least I didn't hand in completely blank pages. Which seems to be what Edward is doing.

On the plus side - on the very very plus side - Edward likes his teacher, he likes his school, he has friends, he seems appropriately challenged and when I stop the car in the morning he gets out and walks into the building without needing to be pried off my bumper. It's all good.

And in his defense he has been doing occupational therapy for two years to help with the very same small motor skills that make printing a misery for him. He has improved tremendously but writing is still hard for him. I know that.

But to just... not do it? Like I said. I am baffled.

A Tale Of Two Titles

CAVEAT: If you are a fan of Charles Dickens please don't read any further. It will only upset you and I hate it when I upset you.


I only recently figured out how to get audiobooks from the library to download onto a kindle; an admission that speaks volumes about my technical abilities because I am pretty sure that our library system has been hooked up with OneClickDigital for at least a couple of years. Probably longer. And, despite being idiot-proof, I could never get the hang of it. So we've been a borrowed CD/audible household.

But mother, invention, necessity and my desperation to keep up with Edward's voracious need for bedtime listening

[Dear Audible,

Obviously you are aware of the fact that you and I are in a very serious relationship but your credits are too valuable (read: expensive) to fritter away on a second grader and, honestly, $11 for the first Hardy Boys book is robbery. The entire thing is, like, six minutes long. So please reconsider your pricing on juvenile texts but I still love you. 

Best regards and tell Nicholas Boulton that I am having trouble reading the phone book so if he wouldn't mind... Julia] 

lead me to get it all sorted and now I have gotten the entire family set up with various free audiobooks.

Caroline is listening to A Little Princess.

I got Steve The Road 

["How are you with the apocalypse?" I asked Steve.

"Great!" he said.

Weird - I get flattened by worry with that sort of thing - but I know that some of you loved it so I downloaded it for him.]

Patrick is reading The Outsiders. I offered to get him an audio version but he declined, wiggling his fingers and blinking at me as if to indicate that he, at least, was capable of turning pages and reading. Whatever.

And Edward. Ha. Oh dear. Edward listened to the Prydain chronicles. Then he listened to A Short History of Nearly Everything - twice. He listened to the ED Baker Princess stories. As I am typing this it occurs to me that he might like the How to Train Your Dragon books. He listened to... I'll have to check. I don't remember them all. Lots of stuff. But most recently I went to get him something in a hurry, checked the library catalog and thought, "Oh! The Cricket in Times Square! Charming" and put it on his kindle.

Two days later I asked how his book was going.

"It's a little slow and hard to follow and the words are very... very old sounding."

I thought, huh, I don't remember it being particularly tough but... "Stick with it!" I said. The next day when he complained again I assured him that he just needed to give it a little more time and a couple of days after that he admitted it was less terrible than it had been. Hardly glowing praise but I said something helpful like, "See!"

A week later he finished it and asked for a new book. I suggested the sequel.

Edward said, "How can there be a sequel?"

"It's about Tucker, I think."

"Who?" said Edward.

"Tucker the mouse?" I prompted.

"Who? I don't remember a mouse. Just the miser and the Peerybingles."

Now it was my turn to be confused. "The what and the whos?" I asked.

"You know, the mean guy and the toymaker and Tilly... ."

I went to get Edward's kindle, opened the app and discovered that Edward had been dutifully listening to hour after hour of The Cricket on the Hearth by Charles Dickens.


Whew. Sorry. First, as much as I love 19th century novels, I don't really like Dickens (except for Great Expectations. and the Pickwick Papers.) Never have. In fact, I read Oliver Twist in the seventh grade and had to write a book report that followed this form: the book ______ by ______ was (adjective.) I wrote: the book Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens was maudlin. I spent a good fifteen minutes with the thesaurus before coming up with that and I was particularly pleased by it. Second, of all of the soppy, gloopy, wordy wordy Dickens, this particular Dickens is perhaps the soppiest, gloopiest and wordiest. It has it all: Christmas, guardian angel insects, blind dependents, missing and presumed dead sons, poor but honest working men... you get the idea. In fact, now that I think about it, didn't Vladimir Lenin walk out on a performance of the play version because he thought it was schmaltzy?

I am laughing all over again as I picture Edward lying in his room listening to this book night after night. Edward who likes facts: math, science, geography, historical trivia; facts. He must have thought I had lost my mind.

He is now listening to Cod - the history of cod and cod fishing which I just finished - and he is enjoying it very, very much.

Dickens! Ha ha ha ha ha ha. It's like anti-Edward.

No, Really. Irreplacable

Patrick climbed into the car today and announced, "I know what I'm going to be for Halloween."

"I thought you weren't doing Halloween this year."

"Yeah, well, I am now. Ben and I are going to do a duo costume thing and go together."

"Oh," I said. "Good. You should do something for Halloween. It'll be fun. What have you two decided?"

"OK. Right. Ben is going to go as a baseball bat."

I waited.

"So I am going to go as... ?"

"A pinata," I said, promptly.

Patrick's jaw dropped and he swiveled in his seat to look at me. "OH MY GOD!" he howled. "How did you know that?!"

"I know everything."

"Obviously," he said and shook his head as if to clear it. "Wow. I cannot believe you knew that. Pinata. Whoa. Scary."

Of course, the truth is that I am simply the world's foremost authority on how Patrick's mind works - a position which pays surprisingly little - but it was, without question, my finest moment of parental omniscience.

I enjoyed it hugely.


I went through the stack of bills on my desk this afternoon and paused as I considered the annual premium payment for my life insurance policy. Then I trotted into Steve's office for a consult.

"As I recall," I said, "we originally took out this policy to enable you to pay for a full-time nanny and to hire Taylor Swift to play my funeral. But, honestly, the Red Hot Chili Pipers will be fine - just what I would have wanted - and with the kids in school all day and you home pretty much always I think your nanny might begin to wonder why you hired her... and then sue you.

So, should we let this lapse?"

But Steve said, "No no, we got a good rate on that, didn't we, and, well, you never know."

I thought about it and said, "Oh right. I guess the insurance money could go toward college for the... ."

Steve cut in, "Pay off the mortgage. That'd be nice. Invest it. Oh! Do some work on the master bathroom! I... ."

Then he realized that he was getting a little enthusiastic about a windfall which is predicated upon my untimely demise and added, "I mean, don't go anywhere! But, yeah, pay it."

So I went back to my desk and tucked the bill into my To Be Paid toast rack but I have to admit I was a little... demoralized. Just a few years ago Steve was going to have to pay some significant coin to replace my contributions to our domestic economy; what with the live-in nanny and a maid service and - most likely - a monkey butler, but now my trade-in value is on par with a non-essential home improvement. 

In Eternity's Swap Meet I could be converted into a couple of heated towel racks and a shower door that doesn't leak at the bottom.

Like I said, demoralizing. 

I Just Live Here

Caroline's friend has a Russian nesting doll which Caroline coveted. Mightily. So much so that after a great deal of contemplation (for Caroline. let's say about fifteen minutes) and soul searching (another five) Caroline made the decision to spend her entire life's savings on a matryoshka of her own. 

"In teal," she specified after googling her way onto Amazon.

"Are you sure?" I asked.

"I am as certain as I have ever been of anything before in my whole life," she vowed and you know what? This is probably true.

So she went to the secret recesses of her closet and returned with $16.40, which she gave to me. I duly placed the order and - after traveling on what I can only assume was the literal slow boat from China - it finally arrived yesterday.

[Side note: it's huge. Which is unfortunate because Caroline has spent the weeks leading up to this turning a cardboard box into a matryoshka condo, complete with duct tape wallpaper.

Edward, ever tactful, looked at the doll as it emerged from its wrapping and immediately said, "That's never going to fit in the house you made. Never."]

Today Patrick watched as Caroline carried her doll from room to room and then said, "Hey, Caroline. Now that you have a Russian doll, you need to collect one from every country." 

Edward looked up from his kindle, intrigued by this concept, "Would she get one from Ukraine?"


Edward smiled like he does when he is about to make a science joke, "It can be made out of... Ukranium!"

"Ah," said Patrick, "Ukranium. The world's most politically unstable element."


Oh And Underwear, Of Course

Edward has a kilt that he wore all summer. In fact, it was his wardrobe staple on our road trip and for good reason; it's durable enough to survive Patrick's boundless affection, dressy enough to be worn instead of khakis when dining in Quebec and - unlike everything else we brought - impervious to wrinkles.




So when I told him that Friday was going to be their first free dress day I wasn't surprised when he instantly said, "I'm wearing my kilt."

But I was a little leery.

"You know what your friends will say, right?"

"They'll ask why I am wearing a skirt."

"Probably. Actually, almost certainly. No, definitely. The kids in your class and other classes and at lunch will ask why you are wearing a skirt. Are you ok with that?"

"Sure. I'll just tell them that it's not a skirt, it's a kilt."

"And if they still tease you?"

"They'll get over it."

And so it proved. He got the skirt questions, he fielded them, and at recess he was promoted to first best warrior knight in some elaborate castle game his friend C created because, as Edward explained it, "I was the only one in a kilt."

Uh, right! Excellent battle strategy.


PS In retrospect and as I look at headlines from this past week, I think I should have been less concerned about Bear's delicate sensibilities (it's possible he doesn't have any) and more concerned with what I was going to do if the school called me to book for letting my son wear a dress to school (it's a skirt! I mean, it's a kilt! I mean, you cannae tak’ the breeks aff a Hielan’ man.)

Among Other Things

I suppose I would muddle along somehow without you but I am very glad I don't have to do so; and I signed Patrick up for the Red Cross babysitting certification class at the Y.

Speaking of muddling along and Patrick... I just sighed. Heavily.

After a summer without a single major headache, Patrick climbed into the car last week, croaked, "Migraine" and then curled as much into a ball as a person can while wearing a seat belt. Fortunately, like all migraineurs, I am never without my own stash of various headache medicines, so I was able to immediately give him ibuprofen and some water. He covered his head with a jacket and I told him how sorry I was that he was going to need to hold on for another thirty minutes because we had to pick up Caroline and Edward from school before we could go home. 

He said, ok.

After a few blocks he said, I'm going to be sick.

I made ineffectual little squeaking noises and told him that I would pull over, I was changing lanes, I would get him to the... he threw up. Repeatedly. In the car. Which could have been much worse - well, for me - but I had some those little trash bags left over from our road trip and I managed to find one, open it and thrust at him in the nick of time so... well.  Anyway.

Eventually I got him home and gave him his medicine and the anti-nausea stuff and he lay on the couch under a blanket for a while. Then he was all better.

Until today when he again collapsed into the car after school with another migraine.

Under the heading of ways to learn through natural consequences, I think one of the top three must be When I Don't Go To The Office To Get My Migraine Medicine I Vomit In The Car but...  why? Why doesn't he just go to the office when he feels a headache starting? Could he be embarrassed? I don't get it. I've asked him but he insists it wasn't that bad until it was awful and when I point out that he should probably just go ahead and treat the 'not that bad' headaches he said, OK.

Also why has he gotten back-to-back migraines after going all summer without one?

[Actually I have two theories about this: one is that he is not getting enough food and/or water during the day and this is a trigger for him; and two is that he started many migraines over the summer but he would say hey Mom I have a little headache and I would give him ibuprofen and that would stop it without either of us noticing that it was happening.

I am open to other theories.]

Because They Are All Made Of Spun Glass, Mine Included


Do you think a thirteen year old is old enough to babysit for his seven year old siblings (you know, hypothetically speaking, asking for a friend) and does your answer change if the parents are planning to spend a couple of hours with neighbors vs an evening out across town? Assume the teenager in question is not generally prone to mayhem and the younger children are not usually mayhemable. Also, there is no applicable state law but state guidelines say that children aged 11 - 14 may care for younger children provided the adult plans to return later the same day; which I must say seems astonishingly casual for a childcare guideline. I mean, I plan to go through my closet and donate everything I haven't worn in a year. Of course, MN state guidelines also say that it is ok to make u-turns pretty much all over the place; so just because it isn't prohibited it doesn't mean it is advisable or even particularly safe.

Oh and I know what you're thinking because I was thinking the same thing while I typed this: when *I* was thirteen I had a lucrative babysitting business and when I was twelve my friend Mandy and I were part of a school fundraiser in which the sixth graders offered babysitting services one Saturday afternoon. Somehow we wound up being put in charge of TEN little boys between the ages of three and nine, each one a hell-born babe in his own right. I think we eventually had to tie the ring-leader to a chair.

But I have long since concluded that ours is the Last Somewhat Great or at least Durable Generation and the moment you turn your back on a modern child their arm falls off and the police show up.

What do you think?

In Which I Just Cannot Shut Up

Well, let's see.


First, thank you so much for your thoughts on ways to motivate a child in the morning. It hadn't occurred to me how reactive I have been until I read your comments and thought, oh good grief what an idiot I am - and put a clock in her room. Sue's take on Caroline's need for independence also struck me with particular force; so as of today (well, tomorrow, actually, since I had a wee problem getting the alarm clock to function last night) I have shifted responsibility for Caroline's morning routine to Caroline. The alarm will go off, I have given her the time I need her to be in the car and between those two moments she will have to dress, eat when I offer breakfast or get her own, organize her backpack and brush her hair and her teeth. She is also welcome to move as many of these tasks as she chooses (except the brushing bits) to the night before.

She had a crusading gleam in her eye as I described the new set up and gave me a snappy, "Yes, Mother. I won't let you down, Mother" which I found hopeful. Any time Caroline starts sounding like the heroine in a melodrama you can tell she is committing herself to Noble Action.

I'll let you know how it goes.

Oh and fifty gold stars to Kerrie who wrote: "We used a wireless doorbell set on chimes the loudest it goes & put it in their room, I keep the other bit in the kitchen. It can get very annoying for them but worked for us :)"

I shared this with Steve and we agreed it is genius. I have charged Steve with researching whether he can wire the upstairs bedrooms to one bell. The idea of being able to summon all three kids like a modern Captain Von Trapp (tweedle-deedle-dee... dinner! breakfast! mandatory outdoor fun time!) makes me feel swoony.


Second, I had so much fun reading your book lists and I hope you did too. I am an inveterate re-reader but if I had to pick just a few that I have re-read the absolute most they would be:

PG Wodehouse. I am putting him on his own plane. I am always reading a Wodehouse, always, and have been since I discovered him at age eight. The ones I read most often are the four books that Souvenir Press compiled of his early school stories: The White Feather, The Prefect's Uncle, Tales of St Austin's and The Pothunters.

1. Agatha Christie, Dorothy Sayers, Sarah Caudwell and John Mortimer for mysteries. I find mysteries comforting because they are so tidy. They always resolve.

 2. EF Benson's Lucia and Mapp books. Funny, immersive, gently acid... like what Oscar Wilde might have written had he lived in 1930s England

3. Edith Wharton. Specifically The Custom of the Country and her four novellas.

4. Dorothy Parker's big giant book of everything Dorothy Parker.

5. Georgette Heyer and her contemporary pale imitator Marion Chesney (who is MC Beaton. who wrote the Agatha Raisin mysteries. which I loathed. go figure.)

I wrote down a ton of your favorites (in my illegible scrawl so I'll have to go back and double-check some of these titles: The Itro & The Cro? Mish of Avalr? Wodid Enchantment? The Cipdud Corn?) Someone mentioned that it was a pity that we hadn't put this on the discussion board and it is, isn't it? It also occurs to me that it was probably inevitable. These things just seem to spring up organically here. In light of this realization I am going to do two things: I can mark specific threads like this past one by category and link to the them on the side [done. this one is Books] and I'm going to take down the board. Fair enough?


Finally, I wrote this yesterday but saved it as a draft:

I never knew my mother's mother but I spent quite a lot of time, relatively speaking, with my father's mother when I was little. She was a great storyteller with a beautiful singing voice and I remember both things about her fondly; especially the patience with which she once spent the major portion of a road trip to Tennessee with me in the back seat of their giant American sedan trying - and failing - to teach me to harmonize.   

She was also quite possibly the world's worst cook. Appalling. There is a Simpsons in which Marge looks at a spice rack full of spices and exclaims, "Or-uh-GAN-oh? What the hell?" which has always made me think of her. And when Edward and I recently got to the part of Bill Bryson's At Home in which he describes Mrs Beeton's epic Victorian book on home management and the fact that she recommended that pasta be boiled for an hour and forty-five minutes before serving; I thought, "Aw, just like my grandmother."

But it wasn't just that she would roast beef until it was carbonized; she made the strangest flavor choices. She used Tang as an ingredient and I have a vivid recollection of her spaghetti sauce which was blackened ground beef mixed with a can of tomato sauce plus lashings of sugar and green olives (the kind with the pimentos that are more at home in a martini) which might (well maybe) have benefited from a long, low simmer and yet, oddly enough, was the only thing she barely brought to warm before serving.

I mention these things in no way to denigrate her memory but to underscore the fact I don't have a personal history with venerable matriarchs in the kitchen or learning how to measure baking soda for biscuits by cupping the right quantity into my hand. If my grandmother ever made a biscuit in her life it was the kind that came out of a tube that opens by being pressed with a spoon at the cardboard seam. And then she probably burned it.

So when we saw Steve's (Latvian) birth father during the course of our road trip and Patrick mentioned making Latvian bacon buns for his cooking club's heritage week; I was a little taken aback by the vehemence with which he first joyfully acknowledged the place pīrāgi hold in the collective heart of Latvia and then went on to say that, of course, however, only his mother could make a decent pīrādziņi unless, even more of course, you went back to his grandmother who would make a pīrāgs that made all others taste like unto shoe leather. Bacon-y shoe leather.

And while I could in all honesty tell someone that their scones aren't at all like the ones made by my Scots grandmother; it would most likely be because they were not: hard as flint; charred beyond recognition; flavored with pickled okra. Not at all the same thing.

But back to the pīrāgi.

On the road to Vermont after that conversation with his birth grandfather Patrick said, we totally need to make bacon buns again, and I agreed that we totally did. But what with one thing and another it wasn't until today that we had both the time, the inclination and a couple pounds of smoked pork in the house.

I say the inclination. Right. At two o'clock this afternoon the idea of making Latvian bacon buns (I follow this recipe with the inevitable internet change caveat: I double the bacon, halve the ham and brush them with melted butter) sounded like a great idea. At NINE when I was still shaping little crescents I was less inclined. 



But they turned out well and (this was my point) it pleases me to think that I am continuing a family tradition - one in our case that was interrupted by World War II, refugee camps, relocation and finally an adoption -  related to the thing (food) I love so much; because I can assure you there is no way I am handing my grandmother's spaghetti sauce recipe down to anyone.

PS If you're still feeling chatty after our epic book exchange feel free to tell us about your favorite food tradition/memory.