Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Blast! Foiled Again!

Ah, the best-laid plans of mice and men...

and mamas.

I was hoping to take my newest library book over to the pub tonight, to tuck in a few chapters and a pint and just get out of the house. Maybe graze on a plate of tater tots, who knows? Until last night, when Kiddo's residual nightly cough from a cold a few weeks ago changed into a new cold, complete with stuffy nose and red tonsils. I was already on alert because one of his fellow preschoolers had strep. Suffice it to say, we're calling up the doctor's office as soon as they open, just to make sure this is a garden-variety cold, but I don't think it is.

To quote Jonathan Richman*, 'I have to sigh now...'. 

I know I'm lucky in the big picture. The parent of a single child, this makes dealing with colds a lot easier than in families with multiples, when you have one kid who's down and the others are bouncing around the room, ready to run a marathon. What about hauling all of the kids to the doctor's office? The mom whose child had strep said that it was her older one who was exhibiting symptoms of strep, and so Mom had them all swabbed for strep, then and there. I wonder about taking three kids to the store for the antibiotics when one is horribly miserable.  Ugh. Not an enviable task. Another reason I shouldn't complain is because other than the lingering cold, my son is in relatively good health. His immunity isn't compromised, he doesn't have asthma or any other condition which would further complicate a cold. In the big picture, I'm very, very fortunate.

Still, we've spent a lot of one-on-one, child-centered time lately and I was hoping for a little time to feel like I was indeed my own person. When I read that last line, there's a loving yet sarcastic voice in my head laughing "oh yeah, right, Hazie. You are never going to be your own person again. You are a mom. That kid owns you, whether you realize it or not."

Well, damn, isn't that the truth? In fact, as crazy as it sounds, I think this is what parents are supposed to feel, in the same way that a person who commits oneself to a husband or wife is supposed to feel they've grown a third hemisphere of their brain, where decisions go from 'me' to 'we' because the common good of our chosen family unit must be given first consideration.

So, today I'm expecting a trip out to the doctors, a stop at New Seasons for some chicken noodle soup for Kiddo, and maybe a trip to the pharmacy for antibiotics, who knows? I'll be having my pint of beer at home tonight and maybe immerse myself in the jigsaw puzzle I've been working on: "Backyard Birds", 550 pieces. Mama needs a little something of her own, so the puzzle stays upstairs, away from a little would-be helper. In the meantime,I'm going to keep hopeful for Friday night: I've got a date with a girlfriend that was rescheduled from a couple weeks ago, when Kiddo had the last cold. I'm hoping he'll recover enough for the weekend, because we are thinking about going to the local cat show. But if we have to wait until next year, so be it.  I'll just have to keep my fingers crossed... but only metaphorically, because it's really hard to type with crossed fingers.

*The song quoted is "I'm So Confused" from Richman's 1998 album by the same name. I find this song rather apropos to this moment, because a simple task like making plans for tomorrow feels impossible and elusive when kids are sick.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

The (Young) Man in the (Backyard) Wilderness--Richard Proenneke and Kiddo

Sometimes, serendipity plays a bigger role in educating our kids than we would expect. Sometimes, we find a gem when we least expect it. This happened to me last month; I'd turned on the tv for some distraction while ironing and stumbled into the middle of "Alone in the Wilderness", a documentary made by Richard Proenneke.  I was initially intrigued by Proenneke's narration of his life out in the Alaskan Wilderness in the winter, living in a cabin that was "a toasty 32 degrees", shoveling snow paths daily so he could make his trips to the lake, where he cut a hole in the ice for water. So unusual in its nature, this documentary sparked my curiosity and we rented it for the whole family to watch over Christmas. After bit of my own research, I've come to admire Proenekke; a World War II veteran, he moved to the remote Twin Lakes area of Alaska to retire and then did what most of likely do not have the sheer gumption for: he packed in the metal parts of tools, some bare essentials, and built himself a log cabin by hand as well as a john, a woodshed, an elevated meat storage (and I hear there was another cabin he built later). He'd crafted his own tools, handles for some of the metal tools he already owned, and then also built furniture for his cabin. This is really an insignificant description of Proenneke's ingenuity and incredible work ethic; I was fascinated with his ability to craft so many things from wood and his tireless striving to succeed out there in the very far back of beyond.

Kiddo, too, has been enchanted by this video. I've since learned that Proenneke has also made other documentaries about his time out alone in nature...he spent 30 years as a disciplined naturalist, keeping exact records of weather, temperature, flora and fauna. Kiddo never minds that, instead, he's hooked on watching the carving of logs to fit together so perfectly to make a house. He's amazed that someone can take a piece of wood and make a spoon. (I was amazed that someone could take pieces of wood and make door hinges and an operating latch mechanism with a lock.) We've talked a lot about the caribou and wolves that Proenneke mentions, and how nature's ways of survival aren't always pretty. (There is a bit of animal carnage, but that's pretty par for the course in an area where animal control doesn't come and remove dead critters.)

One moment that Kiddo has talked about repeatedly was Proenneke's discovery of a burl on a dead spruce; he removed the burl in two large sections and took it back to his cabin (strapped to his back, no less) to craft a table and a bowl out of the burled wood. Kiddo wanted to know about burls and this resulted in some researching, first in a "Nature Questions" book (no luck there) and then on the internet, where we found some explanations (burls form where trees are stressed) and images. Being able to see both the burls on the trees and wooden works crafted from burls was great; when the bark was stripped away, the beauty of irregular, chaotic grain of the wood is impressive. We've also taken the time on a few walks to notice the burls on the trees in our neighborhoods, as well as the shelf mushrooms growing on the trunks of trees--and in the fork of one older tree, actual little toadstools growing all the way up there four feet from the ground.

Our observations of nature have increased in the cold weather as we've been offering our neighborhood juncos and "Sweetie Tweeties" (the song sparrows) some seed scattered on the ground. Our thistle feeder has brought a regular pair of lesser goldfinches and the suet feeder has (for now) remained undiscovered by the acrobatic squirrels. Instead, a sweet delight, a Townsend's Warbler, with its little black mask so dramatic against its yellow head and breast, has been visiting. Two days ago, I spied what I think was an Anna's Hummingbird, with a red head instead of just a ruby throat. We haven't had any visits yet from the downy woodpecker pair we saw last year, but I'm still keeping my fingers crossed.

Kiddo's also becoming more interested in letters and words. I want to just take a minute here to say to so many parents: if your kid isn't interested in letters at four years old, don't sweat it. At the beginning of last summer, one well-intentioned person in our lives was fretting that Kiddo had no awareness of the difference between letters and numerals, and nearly-zero letter recognition. I'm glad I took the deep breath and told myself it would be fine. There's some sort of moment when they get interested in something where the lightbulb in that part of the brain clicks on automatically and it can sometimes all start falling into place. My friend Alisha has loaned me a stack of engaging 'early reader' books, which I really like. Kiddo's been looking at words and naming each letter of the word to me, all on his own. We are nowhere near learning sight words yet, but I'm delighted that he's enjoying noticing and recognizing letters, or asking me "what does PCL (or any cluster of three or four randomly selected letters) spell?" So, parents of children who aren't yet interested-- have some faith; four is a very long year and we've made it this far before five.

We've been playing games: Mystery Garden, Dinosaur Bingo and Granny's House are my three favorite board games for right now. Granny's House (from Family Pasttimes a favorite game company of mine--they make cooperative games for players of all ages)  takes the team on a trip through the forest to bring Granny a basket of goodies. Along the way, the team moves forward and can collect and employ "Good Things" to overcome obstacles and challenges. This game allows for children to be creative and use a bit of reasoning--even if it's magic reasoning--to help the team along. Dinosaur Bingo is what it says it is, a bingo game with dinosaurs. Kids are challenged to observe the smaller details, since many dinosaurs appear to be generally similar but have differing features; the names on both the small cards and each player's card also allow for children to practice looking at the letters/names to get secondary confirmation of a 'match'. Mystery Garden is a game centered around a fairytale-inspired 'garden'; small cards each show one object/character that is in the Garden, when one player draws a card, the others must guess which object/character they have drawn by asking yes/no questions. I like all of these games and they are helping Kiddo in the areas of reasoning, observation, counting and deduction. All in all, good times.

I write all this to remind  myself--and perhaps you, too--that we have so many opportunities to teach our children in fun ways, right at home, in some more old-fashioned ways. Especially by simply spending time with them and listening to their interests and curiosities. In retrospect, I don't think we would have had as much fun or learned as much about the burls if I'd just told Kiddo what one was. I like the exploration of a topic. I like board games by the fire, and the need to get one lit right now is nagging at me a bit, so I'd best get to it soon. If you haven't guessed it yet, I'm trying to bring some of that remote log cabin life of Proenneke's here to Portland, to our little bungalow. I like having a life where we learn to be hardy by walking to school, even if we need to put our rain pants on to do it. Kiddo's a child who can keep himself busy in the most creative ways, both indoors and out. I'm thinking Lincoln Logs are next on the gift list, perhaps for his birthday, or maybe some Kapla blocks. Not that he needs anything new--with a big potful of sticks outside, plus the stacks of other, bigger sticks, he's got plenty of building potential once the weather warms up. He's still a little man of simple means: give him those sticks, a place to dig mud and some water and voila, paradise for the young.

I'm hoping to grow more easily satisfied as I grow older, too.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Golden Moments via the Golden Globes (sort of)

Yesterday I had the good fortune to head out on a late lunch date with a dear friend. We headed up to Cheese Bar for tasty eats:my head filled with the decadence of a child-free daytime moment, I ordered a small round of rich, heavenly goat's brie, a small sliced baguette and some olives which had been sitting in a citrusy chutney, bright and sharp in flavor. This, and a nice pint of New Belgian's Belgo IPA, which complemented the repast perfectly. Our conversation lingered until I felt quite sure that any further consumption of the creamy deliciousness of the brie would likely result in severe consequences, and soon our ways had parted... Until we meet again, dear friend.

Giddy with the good afternoon, I decided that I'd do something I only rarely (as in, once every few months at most)...I would try to watch a Grown Up TV Show while Kiddo was awake. I wanted to watch the Golden Globes awards that evening, which started at 5. Joe was out fixing a friend's computer, and so I began making dinner and talked to Kiddo about my plan. "I want to watch a TV show for Grown-Ups. You might see some things that are interesting or maybe something you don't understand, and if you get confused, it's okay to ask me about it."

Kiddo's first question was such a boy question. "Will there be fighting?" Well, there might be a movie clip which showed fighting. Who knows? So I told him that "maybe there will be, but I'll try to turn it off for a few minutes if we need to." He was nibbling his plate of veggies, and his attention returned to his food. He held up his red pepper slice for me to look at. "This is a 'J'" he shows me. Then he takes a bite. "It's an 'I'." Bite. "It's an 'I' still." Bite. "It's an 'O'".
Our conversation then turned to his observations of the neighborhood crow family returning to their evergreen tree, the tv temporarily forgotten.

When the Golden Globes start, Kiddo is in his room playing under a small table draped with baby blankets, pretending he is our cat going in and out of "the Gus doors". Ricky Gervais (sorry, but he's the only reason I am watching the pageantry du jour) and the audience both seem a little nervous after his antics last year. Gervais is good at finding the soft spots to poke at and I like him for not kissing up to the celebrities by compromising on what's really funny. Then, Kiddo's out in the living room and I'm in the kitchen on a commercial break, getting the skillet ready for some tofu.

Suddenly, a promo comes on for "The Celebrity Apprentice". After George Takei (cool beans!) and a few other famous faces come on, there's talk about people being thrown under the bus and then we see Teresa Guidice push a table over. "Mommy, is that a bad person?" Kiddo asks. Hmmm.... there's not a lot of room for nuance in the mind of a four-year old, and let's see, what is he noticing? That a person pushed a table over while others were sitting at it. Sorry, Teresa, but normal people do not act that way unless they are using the table to shield themselves from a natural disaster. "Yeah, honey, that's a bad person." His next question is indicative of the current state of language, because he then asks "who is under the bus?" I reassure him that no one got stuck under a bus and that no one actually threw another person under a bus and that no, no one is hurt. I try explaining that this is something adults say to each other when there is blaming going on, and that yes, it's sort of a strange thing to say.

Between the next few segments, I am tending tofu in the kitchen and popping out to see the glitz and glamour-- but not enough Ricky, sadly. I'm already tiring of this, and we're getting closer to his bedtime. I'm combating commercials by either muting them or refuting them "No, Pepsi is not the most refreshing drink. That's not true." (if you don't believe me, I must introduce you to my friend Gin and Tonic.) When magical swirls of color come down from the top of the screen, along with globs of golden-brown which plop into them, Kiddo is enchanted. "What's that?" he asks. I must now explain to my child that there is a food-substance called a 'nugget' and that the colors are different sauces for the nugget.

At this point, I'm bored with it all and bedtime is nigh, so we head in to read stories and snuggle up. Later, I'll turn on Gervais for his excellent last line, telling them to enjoy the swag bags and reminding the comers/viewers that it was nice to forget about the recession for a bit. Interestingly enough, this joke was hard to find when I researched it, the ones about celebs were far more popular, but for an evening full of the excess and glamor of the 1%, it was by far my favorite.

Now, to get ready for our friend's Oscar party in February!

Friday, January 13, 2012

Some Thoughts on Kindergarten Choice--and Choices in General

This morning I had a chance to visit my son's preschool during their Morning Gathering time. What a lot of fun everyone had! Presented with journals for drawing in, each child hopped over to a table to lay their new little books down. The teachers led the children through the activities: singing songs, jingling little hand bells, and at the last, an obstacle course round the preschool space which made us all giggle as the kids crab-walked, wiggled like worms, hopped on "their happiest foot", and generally had a  blast. As the group was separated by the teachers--some children were directed to make bird feeders in the art room, some to play in the main room-- I kissed Kiddo and headed back out into the day, grabbing up a newsletter as I left.

I love the newsletters which are sent home each month. There are always a few glimpses into the silly and imaginative world of the children as well as other pertinent information. Sometimes there is an article attached, often with a focus on respecting our children's time to just be kids. Today's newsletter included information on kindergarten and contained a line in this regard:

"If your child will be starting kindergarten in September, now is the time to be thinking about where s/he will be attending. For many families, your neighborhood school may be the best  match. For some families, you may be looking for another setting. .... Again, remember that it is important not to involve your child in any part of this process. These should be adult decisions and discussions. ...Please give us a call if you want to talk with us about your child and school options for next year."

This is one reason I love Kiddo's preschool teachers so much--they really do understand kids. We will honor this request. Kiddo needs to enjoy his next five months or so of preschool. Kindergarten is still a long nearly-nine months away, and too far ahead for to turn his attention to it. He needs us to be mindful that we are the keepers of his childhood, and one part of childhood is that lovely ability to be completely immersed in the present moment. Therefore, we will be happy to discuss kindergarten with Kiddo when he brings it up, which is very rare, but we do not bring the topic up with him.

It's been on our adult minds, kindergarten has. I've written about school choice before, and stand by my convictions that the current situation of Too Many Choices leads us to be less satisfied with the choices we do have. I've also been seriously considering homeschooling, for so many good reasons. It may be that Joe and I will choose to send him to the local elementary school to attend a half-day kindergarten class for the first year and then reassess, but we're not done discussing this. Yet, we do not talk about this in front of Kiddo, nor do we ask his opinion on the matter.

While some parenting styles lately are trending toward more egalitarian-type relationships between parent and child (where children are allowed to call more of the shots and treated more as a peer and less as a child), I'm of the strong belief that children need us to make the decisions, to choose for them. The day four and five year olds are qualified and informed enough to make choices about their education is the day they start hatching from eggs, capable of surviving alone. Youngsters need us to be thoughtful and decisive and to know what's best for them, because they truly aren't capable of the task; just offer a five year old a cookie or a plate of carrot sticks and I guarantee he'll prove me right. I don't consult with Kiddo on what he might like to do at school (be it about  the arts or language immersion programs or accelerated math and science programs) because it doesn't seem right to set the precedent that he gets a say in the matter at this age. He is not a little adult, capable of processing all this information; he's just a kid who wants to go play with his toys.

And the fact of the matter is, school is really not an experience which offers endless amounts of choice. While this could be an argument in favor of home/unschooling, let me define my statement a bit. Even if I were to homeschool, and it might be a more emergent/interest based type of teaching (I believe we can teach much of what needs to be learned through their interests, and this is what I did as a preschool teacher), nevertheless-- we must still "do school" on our school days. Certainly, a home-based curriculum would use up less time in our day, but we can't just blow off school wholesale because we 'don't feel like it'. I'd say it's similar to many adult experiences of work: even if one pursues a career they enjoy, there are still aspects of the job which are less than fun and which must be done, no matter what, even if it's sunny outside and we want to claim a personal day and go hiking--there are very real consequences to not being disciplined about showing up on time and doing the work that is expected of you.

It's not a particularly fun way of looking at the world, but then again, we live in a culture which currently--albeit falsely--allows us to believe that we are entitled to more freedoms than are realistic. Hard work and having to practice self-discipline are often perceived as things to be avoided, impositions on our grand right to basically do what we want, when we want. We see this immature point of view increasingly in the messages our pop culture reflects back to our youth: "Follow your dreams and it will happen"; "If you believe in yourself, you can do anything". I do have to wonder what happened to the values of hard work, humility and dignity*. Sure, follow your dreams, but make a plan for real life too, so that you can keep yourself afloat while working toward those goals. If you believe in yourself, you can do some things, if you work really hard to learn how to do them and make sacrifices so that your priorities are in keeping with your desired end result.

Okay, I've gone off on a tangent here, but all of that to say, I don't want to fill my child's head with false promises or hopes that kindergarten is going to be the land of rainbows and lollipops and that this experience is somehow based on his choices. Heaven forbid, what if he decides he wants to change his mind? I don't want him to feel that we are picking a school in regard to his preferences. This is why we keep our mouths shut around him on the topic. This is a top-down decision, an authoritative decision. He's better off knowing that we will make a good choice for him and we move on from there. Life isn't about having all the choices; rather, I'm going to challenge that thinking by saying that we might be better off learning how to accept and be content with the choices we do have. When kindergarten time comes, we'll do everything we can to support and encourage our little guy, but he still has to go to school.

 And when he grumps, I will borrow a phrase from Mr. Monk~"You'll thank me later."


*This statement makes me nostalgic for the trade apprenticeship programs of not-so-long ago. This method of learning a trade from an established craftsman/tradesman required one to develop a higher, less-selfish set of interpersonal skills. It was expected that the apprentice would do what it took to learn a trade through which they would be able to provide for themselves and eventually their families, possibly for the rest of their working lives. I believe the US transition from being a country known for quality manufacturing to becoming one which is increasingly service-oriented has been damaging to the nation's morale as a whole. When we lose opportunities for people to feel proud of their work and craftsmanship, we lose something that is integral to who we are as a nation. Just one mama's thoughts here...

Friday, January 6, 2012

Thank You Notes: More Than Just a Thank You

This one is dedicated to Betty Wheeler, my mother-in-law and, I believe, a connisseur of Thank You's.


I have a childhood memory to share with you...

It's December 28th, 1979. I am nine years old, living in Sandpoint, Idaho, waaay out in the toolies. Our property is like a winter wonderland outside: there is bright, glistening snow everywhere. We lived out on seven acres, our ranch house and stockade fence near the winding rural road and behind the house, a pasture, an abandoned old stable, and five acres of forest. We'd cut down our own Christmas tree that year, with my stepfather's Homelite chainsaw leaving fresh sawdust at the site. Our land has a small spring where deer come to drink, a burned out stump which reminded me of Pa's Bear Stump in Laura Ingalls Wilder's "Little House in the Big Woods", and endless trees. We'd decorated the conifer in the backyard with carrots and other nibbles for the deer and birds. I'm just grabbing up my snow pants to head outdoors when my mother's voice grabs me by the collar and stops me in my tracks:

"No one goes outside until your thank-you notes are finished."

Ooops. I'd had two whole days to play with the new toys, most of which I still remember: a sewing kit I would use for years, a fashion design center (which would get thrown over for the less imaginative Fashion Plates toy we'd get next year), a Newberry's 'Barbie' type doll and Tinkertoys. I remember these because I did sit down and write those thank you notes. I also remember my grandparents always giving us a box of stationary each year, perhaps not directly for such a purpose, but it was always made clear: if someone is considerate, kind and thoughtful enough to take the time to buy you a present, wrap it and send it, a thank you note was necessary.

For years, of course, my young self would have considered it more of a necessary evil perpetrated on my poor self by my mean mom. I was a kid, right? Kid deserved toys, or so I thought. I mean, we always got something each year from the Grandparents on each side, the home parents, the 'other parent' (those previous spouses who didn't get Christmas with the kids) and Santa. We also received clothes, which in hindsight, was a really great gift because they were needed and as we got older, more appreciated. When we moved to less-attractive homes in later years, sometimes playing outside wasn't so enticing, and then it was "If you don't write a thank you note to your Grandmother, we can put her presents up until you do". Parents can become a threat factory, manufacturing punitive motivations like snowflakes: they can be copious, and similar and no two will be exactly alike. We grumbled, but we wrote...

As a young adult, I fell off the Thank You wagon. Perhaps it was the teen years, when mom just decided not to press it anymore--we had bigger things to fight over. But older and wiser now, I'm of the solid belief that Thank You notes are one of the best tools we have, not only in fighting the growing sense of unjustified entitlement in kids, but also in helping our children grow their relationships with others. Think of it as a double lesson, both in gratitude and social skills.

It was my (at the time, future) Mother-in-Law who first corrected my impression of thank you notes. I'd sent one to her that I'd made by hand-- and she sent one back to me, telling me how much she'd appreciated my words and the time I'd taken to make the card. That felt good. It made me think that it would be fun to do this more often, and so I started up sending a note now and then, sometimes to a friend for inviting us to a lovely dinner, sometimes I'd send one to Joe's work, just telling him how much I appreciated him. It began to change my perspective, a bit at a time. Writing thank you notes and taking time to think of these little blessings in life given to me by others made me feel the truth of these moments: it wasn't anything to do with my deserving something, it was about the kindness and generosity and consideration that others had taken on my behalf. I believe that these notes helped to strengthen new relationships as well as to keep the warmth and care in my more established ones; to show older friends and loved ones that I was not going to take them for granted. Over the years, these notes have become just a part of who I am now, they are easily written and come from the heart. Sometimes it's an email of appreciation, just because that person is so wonderful for who they always are, and sometimes it's a nicer, more formal card, which the older relatives love and the younger people need to see. They need this modeled for them, and as a teacher, part of my philosophy is that teaching kids how good it feels to receive a Thank You can be a more compelling argument than just making kids write them. (I know, sneaky me, taking the empathetic angle like that.)

These days, Kiddo and I are working our way through our post-holiday Thank You's. Some would say that younger kids can't 'do' Thank You's. I beg to differ. When children are young, we can ask them to 'make a picture' (however they like) for Auntie or Grandma to say thanks for their gifts. Reminding our kids that "Auntie and Uncle sent you the puzzle. Let's make a picture to say thanks" is all they really need. We can write a short message afterward and read it aloud to the child. At four years old, Kiddo dictates the text, which usually goes along the lines of "Dear So and So, I love you. Thank you for...." and then I ask him to tell me one thing he likes about each gift. This is the message, he makes the picture, and gets to put the letter or card in an envelope, seal it and affix the stamp. I sit at the table, too, and write out my Thank You's on cards, so that he sees me doing this as well. Like recycling and composting, the thank you notes are becoming part of our family's spiritual practice. Much in the way that recycling and composting are about being good stewards of the Earth, these notes help us become good stewards of our relationships with others and teach us to consider their feelings before our own convenience.

I don't deny that some days, especially around the holidays, Kiddo can sound like he's a member of that famous kid's band,  I Want and the Gimme Gimmes. That's par for the course with kids and young people. I won't deny that it's been a latter-day revelation to me that the concept of deserving has no true part in much of life. (This is a more egalitarian view than is often popular.) We live in a culture that is entirely too obsessed with what we supposedly 'deserve', which is one part of the reason our country is in the economic mess we are in. Many people felt they deserved a lot and  got greedy with all that deserving, and what we think we deserve often comes on the backs of others, making their lives less than humane and less than what they truly deserve so that we can have more. Not everyone lives this way, but enough people do to the point that it's thrown things significantly off-kilter. When I hear that a discreet homeless-persons camp in downtown Portland is an eyesore because shoppers deserve not to be upset and confronted by poverty, I know that things are terribly skewed. I'm not saying that a thank you note is going to change the world, but if we can help our kids--and our own selves--direct our attention to what we've got, and how it isn't about our inherent awesomeness, but about the kindness and thoughtfulness of another person, it's a start in the right direction.

Fortunately, too, I've got some better tricks up my sleeve than my mother had: I don't have to threaten grounding or no toys to make my son write thank you notes; I choose to do it with him and to make it a fun, bonding time. Cups of something yummy and warm to drink, crayons and markers and stickers, cards and paper and the love, the talking, the enjoyment of each gift as we write about them~ here, at the table, we create something transient, to be mailed off, and yet something very real, which are the memories of good times together in gratitude.

You can give your child this memory gift too....

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Migraine Melee and some Silver Linings

Some Winter and Christmas Seasons have their own hallmarks for every family. For me, this season, thus far, has been The Season of the Ocular Migraine. Yes, I know it's not as bad as a real bona-fide full blown migraine, and if you think I'm not eternally grateful that I only get 'migraine lite', think again. It's a pain in the ass, the migraines are.(Well, actually a pain in the head, but still...) Up until this winter, they were--very thankfully--quite the rarity. These days I think it's safe to say that they are like a movie supervillian and back with a vengeance, recurring twice a week or so. Plus, they are crimping my social life. I mean, why would anyone want to go out anywhere when they are experiencing blind spots and flickering arcs of light unless they are headed to a rave?( Let's also be clear that I have no desire to go to a rave because I am not 16 and I am way past the expiration date on those sorts of activities.) Even when the lights stop and things seem normal, I'm pretty wiped for the next couple hours. I've had to cancel on a few things lately and so please, I've blown you off because of this, please don't take it personally. You don't want to be around me at those times anyway...trust me.

All of this is less about complaint and more to say: it's been a bit of a tough winter thus far. That said, there have also been some nice 'silver lining' moments

1. Pots and Pots of Tea. I don't think I need to explain this; either you get it or you don't. There's nothing in the world more perfect to me than a quiet, warm space, a cup of good tea and something deliciously interesting to read. Whether or not a migraine is involved is irrelevant. Tea makes my world go round.

2. Smartwool Socks. I spent some of my Christmas money on another pair--my second--and got the cute knee-high ones. Can I just tell you how grand and cozy and well-loved I feel when I put these socks on? It's ridiculous, but for someone like myself who suffers from cold feet all winter and who wears Keen's because they are insulated and not for fashion's sake, these socks are like a wool blanket for the tootsies. Bliss....

3.. Midnight in Paris. You might be sick of hearing how freakin' good this movie is, but guess what? It's really freakin' good. I love a movie which assumes that the audience has interests beyond the contemporary culture and an intellect beyond a fifth-grade reading level. (Most movies these days, sadly, don't.) I don't want to say too much more and spoil the lively, wonderfully fantastic plot, but if you are a fan of good classic literature, The Surrealists and the human condition in general, Woody Allen has created another masterpiece you'll enjoy. One of the more delightful movies I've seen in a while.

4. "The Big Snow" by Berta and Elmer Hader. Kiddo and I are enjoying some quieter, more in-depth books these days and The Big Snow is a perfect example of such a story. The animals in the woods near a stone house prepare for winter, each in it's turn. Will they migrate, hibernate, or stick around to fully inhabit the winter up in the cold north? When the big snow comes and the seeds and grasses are covered, what will the hungry animals eat? Told with warmth and giving real character to the animals, this story bears repeated reading. This is one of those books I find 'virtuous', because of the sense of benevolence portrayed both in the writing and in the actions within the story. The artistic depictions are loving and quaint as well; The Big Snow was published in 1948 (received the Caldecott Award, too) and bears the painterly illustration style of its time. The Haders lived on Willow Hill in the Palisades, in Nyack overlooking the Hudson in a stone house they built themselves; this story is based on real life events and their love of the animals around them.

5. "The Day the Sun Danced" by Edna Thatcher Hurd; illustrated by Clement Hurd. Primal and bright with both nature and woodcut prints, The Day the Sun Danced tells a simple story of the return of the sun after a cold winter. While the deer is asleep deep in the wood, the bear asleep in his cold den and the fox asleep in his cold hole in the ground, a small rabbit invites them to come and see something wonderful : "I know that something is going to happen. The world is going to change." Will the larger animals trust this 'foolish' rabbit? The writing is almost a prose poem with a great sense of rhythm through repetition and the story well-paced. Kiddo asked me to read this story again immediately after the first reading; it's engaging and there's enough going on to keep the relatively simple plot interesting. (Trivia: this book was published in 1965. Find it at your library. Clement Hurd is also the illustrator of "Goodnight Moon" and "The Runaway Bunny", both by Margaret Wise Brown. Edna and Clement's son is children's book author and artist Thatcher Hurd.)

6. "A Pocketful of Cricket" by Rebecca Caudill; illustrated by Evaline Ness. This year, one of Kiddo's presents was a small bamboo cage with a bamboo cricket inside of it. He loves it, and why not? There's something very mysterious and endearing about this strange zen stick cricket. Because of this, I grabbed A Pocketful of Cricket from the library. Little Jay is enjoying the last days of summer on the farm before he starts must begin his first year of school. As he sets out to drive the cattle home, he makes small discoveries which he collects in his pocket: a rock, a gray goose feather, striped bean pods and an old Indian arrowhead. Bringing the cows back, he finds a cricket and decides to adopt it as a friend. Jays attention to nature and willingness to be in the moment are pleasure and kids will relate to this way of losing track of time; the author places us directly in Jay's world. Once Jay must leave for his first day of school, but how can he leave Cricket? I loved the kindness and understanding of Teacher in this book; it is a reassuring book for children because of the way in which the story itself shows an understanding of the Child and the Child's sensibilities, and also because of the way in which a graceful, warm teacher helps to make a little boy feel welcome and successful at a new and slightly intimidating venture. 

7. James Herriot's Treasury of Inspriational Stories for Children.  (James Herriot, Scottish veteranerian and author of "All Creatures Great and Small".) Sometimes, a book can present great values and virtue within the story, shown primarily through the choices that the characters make and how the characters interact with each other. These stories of the country animal doctor showcase the virtues and values of hard work, compassion, sharing, caring, empathy and honesty. They focus on kinship and community and how we are all so interconnected in each others lives, if only because of a chance decision or circumstance. I love the stories in this book; Kiddo is looking at the pictures again as I write this. I've read this book over the years to the children of many of the families I've nannied for and have noticed a universal quality to many of the stories in this book. Note that one of the stories includes the death of a stray female cat; she has brought her kitten to a woman who had been kind to her and this new relationship is the focus, the death is handled in a sympathetic and matter of fact way. In our modern times, we live lives which tend to be disconnected from nature and allow our children to be shielded from some of the natural cycles of life. Herriot's stories honor the spirits of animals--young and old-- and the people who care for them.

I could go on, sharing more of these silver linings, but many things await me this morning: dishes, of course, but there's the new Roger Ebert biography sitting on the table. I'm thinking it will go nicely with a good curl up on the couch, a cup of hot tea to make the coziness complete. Happy New Year, friends, and may even your hardest seasons come with lots of silver linings to appreciate and enjoy.