Monday, August 30, 2010

The best part of the day

“What was your favorite part of the day?” I asked my middle son from behind the curtain as he was showering. He doesn’t like to be in the bathroom alone so I had the human towel rack job.

“The batting cages,” he replied, without hesitation. He was the one who had reminded me that we needed to squeeze the batting cages in one more time before school started, even though we’re now entering week four of the football season. We went to a local place with many other premium attractions vying for our dollars. At the end of the day, when I tallied up all I had spent, I realized that I probably could have paid for half of a pitching machine instead. And so began the debate in my head about buying "things" versus "experiences," which is why I was asking the question to begin with.

I knew the batting cages were the worst part of the day for my youngest. He had brought his own bat this time, but couldn’t find a small enough batting helmet that didn’t have a face mask on it among the rental helmets (he does not have his own; he hasn’t even played a season of t-ball yet…as if anyone needs batting helmet in t-ball, anyway). He refused the face-mask helmets because he knew they were for softball, which is a “girl sport,” even though we always set his pitching machine on “slow pitch,” which means it spews out softballs. We finally convinced him to wear one of his older brothers’ helmets, but when he stepped into the batters box, it was too sunny, and he refused to swing the bat after his first strike. I yanked him out in a hurry and shoved one of his brothers in to finish his turn. We’d bought enough tokens for nearly 200 pitches and while his brothers alternated turns in the cage, I tried to console my youngest. It got old after about 50 pitches when every time I told one of The Bigs, “Wow, nice hit!” or “Waddaya know – another home run!” his piped up with something along the lines of “I stink” or “I’m a loser.”

Finally, I got fed up with the wah-wah and I told him, “Look. You are not going to be able to change the world to suit your needs, so I strongly suggest you change your attitude to get along in the world. Maybe next time you’ll think about bringing sunglasses along.”

“I don’t have any.”

“Of course you do. You have so many you can’t keep track of them.” I could think of at least three pairs offhand: Spider man, Power Rangers, and Cars – one of which was on the floor in my room.

When it was my oldest’s turn in the shower, I asked him from behind the closed door after I heard the water stop (he likes his privacy but still wants me nearby), what was his favorite part of the day.

“You are, mom,” he said.

“Awwww, you’re such a nice boy.”

“Really, mom, I love spending time with you,” he said as he came out of the bathroom dripping wet with one hand clutching his towel around his waist and the other holding his bundle of dirty clothes.

“Thanks, honey. I'm glad I took the day off,” I said, kissing his wet head.

But then I felt a twinge of guilt, because I did look at my work some in the morning and while doing so had been annoyed with my kids. They were just doing normal things kids do, like trying on all their costumes and running around the house shrieking; shooting Nerf guns at each other; eating chips and soda in their room while they finished a movie we had rented from the kiosk in the supermarket the night before, which resulted in crumbs and spillage. Alliances changed a few times, which resulted in some name calling, tattling, my middle son cutting out the gum that he stuck on my youngest’s hair (so much for the professional back-to-school-haircut); my numerous thwarted attempts to divide and conquer; and at last, my giving up trying to work (which, when I put in for the day off, I knew would be impossible, since camp was over and school hadn’t started yet, so by what reasoning I should attempt to accomplish anything this day, I do not know) when my youngest somehow got a bloody head wound, for which his brother was truly remorseful. After cleaning him up and doling out a Diego bandage, I told the boys we’d leave as soon as they got the place in order and oh-by-the-way, if they left any Nerf gun darts lying around, they were going in the trash (ultimately I threw out nearly a dozen).

“Can you take your clothes downstairs and throw them in the machine and start the wash, please?”

“Okay, mom.”

A little while later when I heard the washing machine buzz, I went downstairs to move everything into the dryer. As I passed through the man cave, I asked my youngest what was his favorite part of the day.

“Oh. When we were golfing. And we got to hit the ball through water."

“Oh, yeah…what was that, the 14th hole?”

“No, mom, that was at the end when the balls get returned," my oldest chimed in.

“Oh, no, I think he means that hole where you’re supposed to hit the ball into the water and it gets carried to the right place on the green…if you’re lucky…you know, your brother’s favorite hole…”

“Huh?” his brother took his eyes off the TV.

“It was the last hole you played,” my oldest informed him. Mini golf was probably the least favorite part of my middle son’s day. He spent a good portion of the time complaining about how crowded it was (and truthfully, I am surprised it wasn’t regulated with staggered start times the way California highway on ramps are with signal lights to moderate the flow of traffic) or how thirsty he was. He couldn’t stay focused and had begun splashing in the waterways that surrounded the course. He lost his ball, and after returning from getting a new one, began complaining in earnest with great dramatic flourish about how dry his throat was. I thrust some money at him and told him to go get something to drink when he insisted that it was because they didn’t have water fountains in the office that he came back thirsty. He held out to play his “favorite hole” with the built-in waterway, but then never returned, which was actually fine by the rest of us. We found him later watching the bumper boats.

In case anyone is wondering, my favorite part of the day was going to the playground in the early evening not long after we got home. My oldest convinced my middle son that they could indeed ride to the playground on their own: he had just two days prior taken his first solo trip to meet a friend “halfway” on the rail trail and had brought his own spending money for a foray to the Dunkin’ Donuts downtown, which is just a block off the trail. He’d had a taste of freedom. The Bigs rode ahead while my youngest and I trailed behind, not necessarily together, as he is also testing his “wings.” Eventually we all wound up in the same place, and on the same page – no one whined, fought, or complained for more than an hour – family peace and harmony is my favorite part of any given day.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Choose Joy

“Make sure you choose Joy®…” I called after my son. We were in the supermarket and his assignment was dish soap. His brothers had been dispatched in different directions: one’s mission was milk and the other was headed to the bakery.

“Uh huh,” he said, without turning around. I say the same thing every time we need dish detergent.

We always get Joy dishwashing liquid. I like the orange kind (because the color goes with the walls in my kitchen) but will buy the lemon variety if that’s the only kind available. Even though I have a soap dispenser built into my sink, I keep the bottle out so we can see the label.

It’s a good reminder for my family and me to think about joy. Joy is a choice. We may not be able to control everything that happens in life, but we can control our attitudes about it.

Not long ago I came across a speech my late mother had delivered one year at a Relay for Life event. My mom was a cancer survivor. She talked about that and mentioned that she had “also experienced the terrible disappointment of divorce – and financial disaster, too.” But she didn’t want to focus on the hardships. She challenged us to choose our attitudes, choose our experiences, choose to be the best people we can be, choose to create the life that we want to live.

And she concluded with “Choose joy! And let your light shine brightly in the world.”

Everyone experiences hardship in life. God allows trials and tribulations to help us grow into the people we were meant to be, to draw us closer to Him. He will never give us more than we can handle with His help.

I can choose to be happy even if I don’t get the raise I’d hoped for. My kids can endeavor to be good sports even when they lose a baseball game. We can find moments of joy even during times of great sadness like loss of a loved one.

I remembered the time when I had flung myself face down on my bed, sobbing, lamenting that I felt completely alone and resentful that I was in charge of “everything.” I could no longer call my mom to ask “How do you cook leftover lasagna without drying it out?” Or “Can you take so-and-so to soccer practice?” Or “Do these shoes work with this skirt?” Or “Do you want to come over for dinner and ‘Family Movie Night?’ ”

But I couldn’t indulge in self-pity for too long; I know I’m not really in charge anyway. That much was perfectly clear when my mom, who was healthy and vibrant just the weekend before she was hospitalized, became sick overnight, slipped into a coma the next day, and passed away less than two days after that. People asked me, “How?” “Why?” “Had she been sick?” “I don’t know,” “I don’t know,” and “No,” were all I could answer. Doctors couldn’t explain it either. Only God knew. It is through trials that we learn to have faith, to let go and let God work in our lives.

One of the joys during the time of my mother’s passing was witnessing God’s children come together for a common purpose. It didn’t matter what religious denomination they were or whether they were affiliated with any church at all, they allowed God’s love to pour through them to my family and me, and each other, as we tried to come to terms with a sudden and unexpected loss.

One day recently when I was wondering if I really was “the worstest mother in the world,” I was trudging along the rail trail with the proverbial dark cloud looming overhead. It had been a thankless morning. However, if I hadn’t been walking so slowly, I wouldn’t have noticed that the black raspberries on the bushes alongside the trail had begun to ripen. This was enough of a bright spot in my morning: a seed of happiness that led to hope, that restored my joy and my faith that everything will and does work out for the good.

Sometimes sadness or pain is a little wake up call that something needs to be changed, such as our approach to solving a problem or even just our attitudes.

Because the detergent my son chose that day proclaims that it’s not only “Ultra Joy” but also antibacterial soap, we’ve been using it for bubble baths. My boys bathe regularly in “out-of-the ordinary, extreme” joy.

As my mother said, “Choose joy! And let your light shine brightly in the world.”

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Brusha brusha brusha

This picture really has nothing to do with the story.
“Mom, can I have a mint?”

“Oh, me, too!”

“Yeah, and me.”

I handed the little jeweled tin back to the boy who asked me first. They all managed to help themselves without arguing or spilling the mints.

One of my sons, who will remain anonymous, told me, “I have four mints in my mouth.”

“Wow!" I said, trying to sound enthusiastic, yet wondering what was the big deal for someone who regularly has twice that many pieces of gum in his mouth at any given time. "Is that some sorta record?”

“No. I just forgot to brush.”

“You forgot? How do you forget to brush!?”

“Well, I got up late…” I recalled what time he got up and the things I witnessed him doing in the 45 minutes between then and when we left for camp, which included watching a T.V. show, and admiring his silly band collection.

I asked one of his brothers, also unidentified, “Did you brush?”


“I brushed, Mom!” The last unnamed brother announced proudly.

“Yes, I’m glad to know that, honey.” He and I had a conversation about brushing the night before, when I had quoted a phrase from my former dentist’s wall, “God gave you teeth; you best take care – you’ll have to buy the second pair.” (The “pair” part always bothered me but I like the gist of it.) He’d told me he was “too tired” to get back up and brush, and promised to do it in the morning, which he did – I saw him.

To the other two, I asked, “When was the last time you brushed?”


“Do you even remember?”

“Well, maybe two days ago?”

“Gross! What about you?”

“Yeah. It was two days ago,” he confirmed, but I wondered if that was an under-estimate akin to the answers we give when the pediatrician asks how many hours a day the T.V. is on, or when the treadmill at the gym asks “body weight.”


What? We were busy!

“Yeah, we’ll brush tonight. We promise.”

“No matter how busy I might be, I still make time to brush.”

“But you get to stay home all day, Mommy!”

Do they assume I am sitting at home in my pajamas watching Nickelodeon and eating toaster pastries (which is what they would be doing if they could)?

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Are you smarter than a 5th grader?

Photo caption: Candle light does nothing to improve the ambience of summer math homework.

I got this voicemail today:

“Good afternoon this is So-and-so on behalf of middle school math department. I’m calling to remind you to be working on your summer math packet. I hope that you’re getting close to finishing it and have enjoyed your practice time…”

On the last day of school, my oldest had been assigned homework for the summer. Aside from summer reading, he was given four pages of 100 math problems and nine pages of more word problems than I felt like counting. I have nudged this normally proactive and intrinsically motivated child several times to do this homework. It’s a really sore subject around our house, and the only contentious thing that I can recall discussing with him all summer.

I did a triple take with this message before I decided to delete it. Clearly it wasn’t meant for me, since it’s not my summer math homework. (Technically it’s not mine, but I’ve probably looked at it, worried about it, and moved it around the house more than my son has. I even lost it once; currently it is in my room.) But there was no way I was going to torture my oldest with it. Who enjoys summer math homework?

Students are instructed to show their work, which is something we debate hotly every time we got out the homework in addition to whether or not he should do the challenge questions. The first set of challenge questions I looked at with him was interesting and fun (I tried to make it seem that way, anyway); the second set was horrifying. I couldn’t imagine how any 5th grader could figure out the answer to one of the questions. I hoped it wasn’t just me, so I brought it up with a couple of other moms at baseball one night and we all agreed that it was, indeed, an extra challenge.

Tonight while The Bigs were at football, my youngest and I were having dinner and talking about kindergarten and his first day of school.

“I hate school,” he told me. I wondered where he got that idea. Thanks a lot So-and-so from the middle school math department.

After football practice, shower, and snack, I asked my oldest if he wanted to look at his math homework with me.

“No!” he snarled, and looked at me like I was an alien who had just arrived from a galaxy far far away.

“Do you want me to organize a ‘math party’ with your friends?” The helpful hints in the math packet suggest “you might consider having your child complete the packet with a friend – perhaps a “math study group” would be in order!!” (Note two exclamation points for extreme emphasis.)

“No!!” he looked alarmed. “They’ve probably all done it already, anyway.” The poor kid is in his own personal hell with this homework. Thanks a lot So-and-so from the middle school math department!

"I just want to hang around with you, mom." So we sat in my room and looked at a photo album with pictures of him from babyhood through preschool graduation, while his brothers watched a Jackie Chan movie from the BlockBuster kiosk. I imagine that starting middle school is probably daunting enough in itself without the summer math homework looming on the horizon.


Extra challenge problem #1 (optional)

Each of the numbers 0 to 9 is represented by one of the letters A to J. Figure out which letters represent which numbers. As you find a value for each letter, write it in the key.

E-F = B
J-I = F
E+E = FH
E+E = FH (I am not sure if this is a mistake or we are intentionally being thrown a curve ball here, but why repeat the same equation?)
I+J = FE

A =
B =
C = (not actually on the list, again are we being thrown a curve ball? It can be calculated by process of elimination, though.)
D =
E =
F =
G =
H =
I =
J =


Extra challenge problem #2 (not optional)

School starts two weeks from tomorrow. My son has seven pages left to finish. How many more arguments are we going to have before the first day of school?

Thanks a lot So-and-so from the middle school math department!

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Man up

Tonight was our first football practice. Because of that, I told the boys they should sleep in this morning -- that there would be no TV -- and eat a good breakfast before camp. My youngest was unhappy with the no TV idea and pitched a fit – he would have “run away” if I hadn’t stopped him from going out the door. Other than that, the morning was smooth without TV.

After camp, they ate a healthy snack and then got their equipment ready. Then they went out to play kickball in the back yard.

When I told them it was time to go, they did not argue or procrastinate. They filled their own water bottles.

There were some nerves and uncertainty, since they had missed the first night of practice because they’re wrapping up their summer baseball season, but I pointed them both in the right directions and propelled them forward.

I wound up staying for the first hour of practice, mainly because there were so many other moms I hadn’t seen in a while. (Most of my social life revolves around my kids' sports). My youngest was climbing a tree with the sibling club.

Then my youngest and I went to the supermarket, brought all the groceries home and put them away, and got back to practice about 10 minutes before it ended. More socializing ensued.

When The Bigs were done, they dropped their gear at my feet and went off to run around some more. My oldest told me he thought he’d work on his summer homework tonight (without mentioning how much he hates school and how stupid his homework is).

We got home at 8:15 after recapping the practice for the whole ride. One of our neighbors came over to visit for a bit (and my middle son demonstrated some of his new skills, like the right way to recover a fumble), but I had to send him home so that my boys could have showers and dinner. We ate in the living room and worked on a puzzle together. The boys cleaned their plates.

The TV was not on all day, until after dinner when I told the boys they could watch a movie in their room as soon as they put their laundry away, which they did without complaining or bargaining. (We recently hooked up a DVD player to a second-hand TV so they don’t have to watch movies in my room.) (Despite his good intentions, my oldest put the summer homework off again.) They chose The Polar Express.

They were out like lights within 15 minutes, in their own room!

I love football!

Monday, August 9, 2010

White what?

At camp pick up recently, the counselor handed me a folded piece of paper as I was signing the kids out. I thought, uh, oh, did someone get in trouble today? Because those are usually the only occasions I get notes, unless it’s an injury report, which is also not uncommon.

“What’s this?” I asked as I was opening it. We were double booked for baseball and football that evening, and baseball was starting half an hour earlier than usual, so I really didn’t have time to deviate from our agenda, even if it was only reading and digesting this piece of information.

“Oh, we’re going to tie dye tomorrow. The note says you can bring in a pair of socks, since we didn’t give that much notice and you might not have time to get a white shirt if you don't have one you want to tie dye.”

I folded the note back up. “Oh, well…they don’t have any white socks. Actually, they don’t have any white anything. My boys wear black socks, black underwear…

“Mah-ahm!” one of them interrupted. “TMI!”

I learned a long time ago that if any of the boys’ clothes ever were white, they weren’t going to stay that way very long. Their socks and unmentionables are indeed black, for the most part, and there are a few gray, blue, and red pieces in the mix. Their shirts are the same. Not only do stains not show, but also I have the added benefit of not having to separate my laundry, unless it's mine from theirs (I don't wash my stuff with their sports uniforms).

Saturday, August 7, 2010

How I spent my summer vacation

For me, there was no question about how I spent my summer vacation, it was clear each week when I wrote the checks to camp and daycare. However, if my elementary-school-aged sons were asked to write this traditional back-to-school essay, what would they say, I wondered.

We didn’t have a real vacation this summer, meaning the kind where you pack things and leave your home for an extended period of time. Though I’d taken one week straight off from work and had grandiose plans for a road trip to Niagara Falls with a friend and her kids, those dwindled to going to Maine for part of the week, to simply taking day trips.

We called this our “Daycation.”

One of our day trips was going to be to a large amusement park in another part of the state. We had set aside either of two days for this. Though, as the days drew near, the weather forecast was like a cold black cloud coming down. Additionally, given that it was a two hour drive (the drive time being what caused the reduction in road trip length initially: spending time in a car with three boys thrashing, poking, jockeying for position, and asking me what time is it, when are we gonna get there, how many more minutes, what does the GPS say, is highly undesirable), we chose to go to a more local amusement park on a different day altogether.

Unfortunately, it seemed that everyone else had the same plan. We had to park at a remote lot and be shuttled to the park, which meant my strategy for taking a break midday and eating the carefully prepared food I had packed went out the window. I wound up buying fried food, soda, cotton candy, ice cream and all manner of naughty and costly things.

My kids were hot and grumpy and this was one of the occasions during the week when I said out loud, “Maybe we all would’ve enjoyed our week more if you stayed in camp and daycare and I took a week off by myself,” though I had surely thought it numerous times.

As the day wore on, the crowds thinned. My youngest and I were sitting on the Sky Ride, which is a gondola-type ride that travels high above the length of the park. I pointed out that it was a good thing we hadn’t come any earlier (as the kids had lamented) or we wouldn’t have been able to last all day to see the magic show and the fireworks.

“Mom, what’s gravity?” he asked, ignoring my insight.

As much as I would have liked to engage in a grave discussion of amusement park physics, I told him, “Uhmmm. That’s a good question for your dad, honey. He’s a physicist.”

We sat in companionable silence, and I reflected on some of the life lessons that were illustrated that day. Aside from physics, and practicing patience by waiting in long lines, “black diamond” attractions at amusement parks such as roller coasters show us that life includes ups and downs, twists and turns, and sometimes an upside down part. The water park reminded us that occasionally things get dumped on you unexpectedly. Riding the Ferris Wheel was a good example of how when you’re on top of the world, you can see the big picture, but when you’re down in the weeds, you can only see what’s in front of you. My youngest’s inaugural experience on the bumper cars taught him that when you hold on too tight and try to steer things your way, you end up spinning in circles, but when you let go, you move forward with ease.

Technically, the fact that summer was a break in the usual routine – and as defines a vacation: “being free from a duty or service – we had been on vacation for the whole eight weeks. (At least the kids were, as they were free from the duties of school and scouts, but my duty and service simply shifted from helping them with merit badges and homework to shuttling them to camp and summer sports. Maybe next year I will take that solo week off.)

As the season of summer wound down, we had a few more days off before the start of school. We spent these last days in a frenzy of activity – mostly baseball related, with a mix of laser tag and backyard fun with friends thrown in – before we had to settle back into our school-year routine. The kids’ teachers’ letters had already arrived in the mail with the foreshadowing, “I’m looking forward to hearing about your summer adventures.”

But no one will see it

I set up the nativity in the back yard again this year. In the past it has been out front near the fire hydrant that is on our property, and...