Saturday, February 27, 2010

Angst-Ridden on a Dark, Snowy Road

I was driving alone in the dark tonight to a basketball game nearly an hour away. The road was smeary with snow, both blowing and falling, and I was late. The game had started three minutes before and I had no idea where I was.
I hated being late, although I frequently am late. I imagined Grace was in the car. She reminds me, "Breathe" in a kind of condescending way since she is much more likely to panic than I am.
I'd had a busy day grading papers. Then I had taken Spencer to pick up Subway for the basketball team and dropped him at the bus with the food.
"We need cookies," he said.
"I don't have time to bake cookies," I told him.
"Buy them. Two packs."
I had two packs of Oreos in the car ready to be delivered. And somewhere in this dark night, Spencer was sitting on a bench, a sophomore at a Varsity tournament game. He probably wouldn't even get on the floor. Still, I wanted to be there. I didn't want to let him down.
That's when I spoke out loud to the empty car: "You're doing the best you can."
The words kind of hung there for a minute. .
It's true. I try hard to be a good mom for all of my kids. Sometimes I succeed; sometimes I fail.
I felt tears sting my eyes because those words felt so true.
I'm doing the best I can. Nowhere near perfect, but it's what I have to offer.
I got to the game in the second quarter and maybe Spencer's eyes found me, but for sure they found the cookies on the bus after the game.

My Almost Perfect Birthday

After telling everyone that my almost-perfect husband baked a birthday cake in the middle of the night, I never followed up by telling you how the rest of the day went.
I woke up early to do some writing. I find that since the Writing Group actually complimented my writing, I'm not nearly as inclined to add words to the manuscript. SO that backfired.
I headed out the door for a Tuesday morning run - unheard of with my Tuesday schedule. I put my iPod in and pushed the button. Nothing. What? Dead?
So I plugged it in and ran without it. As I walked out the back door and heard the birds calling above me in the dark, I considered that the dead iPod might be a birthday present in disguise. Next I heard the drip, drip, drip of melting snow by the garage. Then "Aieee!" that was me as I almost fell on the pile of snow that had been slicked down to become ice. So I ran with only my thoughts to keep me company.
A sub was taking my morning classes, so I got the kids to school and had time to relax at home before I went to have a pedicure. My toes are a lovely, sparkly pink. And my feet are smooth without all of those running calluses.
Next I met my husband for lunch at a cozy Italian restaurant. We started with bruschetta - thick wedges of bread with tomatoes and mozzarella. Then I had a salad of romaine with candied walnuts, tomatoes and buttermilk dressing. My main course was chicken ravioli. Hmmm. Since it was my birthday, they brought a sampler for dessert that had small servings of tiramisu, creme brulee and a thick chocolate pots de creme.
Earl gave me my birthday present (what a cake, a pedicure and lunch out weren't present enough?) a beautiful wine-colored Pashmina. The material was paper thin and so soft.
I had to teach that afternoon and Earl headed off to work, but I picked the kids up for a carefully scheduled dinner -- in between basketball, swim and play practice -- at their favorite new burger joint that offers salty fries, thick hamburgers and shakes. I wasn't really hungry but the company was good.
The evening degenerated a bit into fights over homework and I snatched away one child's phone, grounding him simultaneously before I had to go to the high school to work on costumes for the musical.
At nearly 10 o'clock, Tucker called and pointed out we still hadn't cut into that birthday cake.
"Oh, yeah," I exclaimed to Grace. We were trying to put things away so we could make a hasty escape. "We haven't celebrated with cake yet."
"Celebrated what?" the other women asked as we skated out the door.
"My birthday!" I called.
"Happy birthday," their yells echoed as we hurried home in yet another snowfall.
We couldn't find candles or matches, so the kids sang Happy Birthday in French and I sliced into the three layer cake for a bedtime snack.
The next day, I went to the salon for a facial. I fell asleep on the table and woke up with a snort.
"You relaxed well," the technician assured me.
I did. Good thing birthdays only come once a year. Mine was expensive, but satisfying. And almost perfect!

Friday, February 26, 2010

Interval Training

My mom recently sent a batch of photos, one of which makes me wince when I think about it, much less look at it. I could convince myself that it was just an unflattering picture, or I can believe that's what I really look like. It definitely increased my wish to tone up.
I planned to work out this morning. I have more time today because my Friday class isn't meeting. So I would lift weights and run 45 minutes on the treadmill then maybe hop on the bike or the elliptical machine.
Instead, I was captured by the idea of interval training. An article on Roadrunner summed up some results and it sounded easy enough for me to try, so I did. Here's the AP article link:

According to the article, interval training can be more effective than slogging 10 miles every week. Although trainers thought interval training should only be done by elite athletes, they've found that it can work for middle-aged runners, swimmers, bikers, like me.
My goal was to follow the instructions of running faster than usual for four minutes, four different times and walking three minutes in between each one.
The trainer wasn't at the Y this morning so I couldn't ask her how fast I should set the treadmill. I usually run about a 10-minute mile on the treadmill. Should I set it at an 8-minute mile, I wondered? The women working at the front desk were nervous that I was asking.
"Can you wait about 20 minutes?" one woman asked.
"Why? Will the trainer be here?" I asked.
"No, but I'll be gone," she said.
"Wear the clip," they warned. The clip automatically shuts off the treadmill if I fall.
So I climbed on my favorite treadmill, right under the air conditioning vent, and the old guy next to me, who has a white beard down to the middle of his chest, explained that the treadmill actualy has an "interval training button." I set my "jog" speed and my "fast-paced" speed. He advised me to just increase the speed slightly for that first day, so I set it at a 9:30-minute mile.
Of course, the problem with asking someone for advice is that they continue to give it throughout the workout. He said he wouldn't want to walk for three minutes in between. He wouldn't want to run for four minutes either. He'd stick with a minute or a minute and a half. I couldn't imagine focusing enough to change speeds every minute. So I followed the instructions in the article.
When I finished, I had only gone a little over three miles and thirty minutes. Pretty close to my usual 10-minute mile pace. But the article promises that my metabolism will be up and that the oxygen to my muscles will increase. I will probably look like a totally different person the next time anyone sees me.
My butt muscles were a little sore, but I like working out and then having sore muscles; it makes me feel like I've accomplished something.
As the old guy was leaving, he said, "You probably only need to do that interval training once a week."
"Are you kidding, I'll do it three times a week if it can take the place of my two-hour workout," I said.
I lifted weights and then came home to watch those pounds and inches melt away. I'll keep you posted.

Sad Grace

Tucker is in charge of the picture slide show for the high school swim team this year so we have over 600 photos of swim team members. This one kind of sums up how Grace felt after her disappointing swim at Districts.
As we were driving home from play practice at 9:30 last night, I broached the subject of skipping swim championships for the Y next week. She will have play performances Thursday, Friday, and twice Saturday. Then she'll have to get up at 6 on Sunday and drive two hours to swim. She is setting herself up for more disappointment.
"No, I can't skip. It's my last championships."
Then I pictured how the "last" anything is so sad for Grace and I imagined the tears I will have to deal with.
"Well, if you skip this year then last year was your last year so you won't have to be sad," I reasoned.
She didn't buy it.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Midnight Baking

I woke up at 2:30 a.m. and stirred in the dark.
My husband, who works evenings, was not in bed next to me. He should have been home around midnight.
Then I smelled it. Birthday cake baking. Rich chocolate.
Happy Birthday to me.
No, I don't deserve a husband who stays up in the middle of the night to bake me a birthday cake, but I'm still keeping him.
He put the three layers in the microwave to cool.
I went back to sleep.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Writing Group

Today I am joining a new writing group. I went last month, but it was only two other women, professors, who shared their work. I didn't take anything I had written. I gave them a synopsis of my current novel. The three other professors couldn't make it, so we were an intimate group eating soup and bread. The talk veered from writing to teaching and back again. I nearly nodded off as the other women read their work. (Note to self: Don't drink the wine before the readings.)
This will be different today. I have printed off seven pages to share with the group and I find myself very nervous.
One of the women in the group is a playwright. She has had plays produced off, off Broadway. That's much closer than I've ever gotten. One of the guys is a poet. I can't imagine I'll have much to add when he reads. Poetry swims somewhere over my head for the most part.
One of the no-nonsense women is writing a mystery. She has hard-boiled detectives searching for clues. Another woman is writing a short story about a married couple who settled for each other. She is a little quirky, but has never been married, so this may be interesting.
I struggled with which of my scenes to take. I don't want to spend 10 minutes setting up the novel which none of them knows anything about, so I chose a scene near the beginning where Great Uncle Martin calls Fia and asks her to come to France to run his bed and breakfast.
The pages are spread out in front of me now. Black type on white paper. I read them and read them again. I jot down notes. I hope they like it.
That's it basically. I want them to like what I wrote. I want them to give me a pat on the back. I suppose they'll have suggestions for improving it, and I kind of dread the conversation that will go: "Yeah, I explained that in the pages before." Or, "I go into more detail on that in the next chapter."
Somewhere in this blog's history is a brief synopsis of my current novel, but I can't find it to link to it. So here it is in a nutshell:
Fia has lost her job as a home design reporter and is avoiding phone calls about bills, but she's certain something good will come her way when the phone rings with an offer from her great Uncle Martin. He and his wife Lucie run a bed and breakfast in France. They want Fia and her husband Grayson to run the B&B while they take a break – maybe a permanent one. Uncle Martin sends airline tickets and Fia convinces Grayson to use some of his long-acquired vacation time to travel to France with their 14-year-old twins. She feels sure that this is a chance to cement the family that is growing more distant and to just LIVE and learn from another culture.
What she doesn’t know is that Uncle Martin has a secret from World War II that he has hidden from everyone, including his wife. The clicking on the phone convinces him someone has discovered his secret. As an innocent Kentucky teenager fighting in World War II, he took a rolled up painting from a church in northern Italy. The painting is the most famous piece of art still missing from World War II – Painting of a Young Man by Rafael. He can’t, he won’t, be punished for a teenage mistake and he won’t spend his few remaining years behind bars or bring shame to his French wife, Lucie. He wants to leave the country before his secret is revealed and he must face the consequences.
Fia and her family land in Provence. Grayson and the children are immediately swept into the French culture, making friends and sightseeing, while Fia is left to run the bed and breakfast and wonder about the family closeness she hoped to create.

Obviously, this story line is evolving and has gone past the synopsis above. I'm at 54,000 words now.
I think I described before that reviewing a novel as I write it is like knitting while someone pulls the stitches out behind me. It's hard to make progress.
In real time, in real life though, my novel is progressing. It beckons me during the day when I'm grading papers. I wake up at five and stumble to the computer to type pages about an American woman and the famous painting her uncle took during World War II. I feel like this woman as she rides on the back of a motorcyle, resting her helmeted head against the back of the man in front of her, the man who is taking her to Poland to return the famous painting.
I hope they like it.

Saturday, February 20, 2010


On Friday morning, I debated whether I should whisper in my daughter's ear, whether I should warn her not to get her hopes up too high. It was the District competition for swim. She'd easily made it past sectionals and she had high goals for Districts. 30 swimmers move on to districts, but only the top four move onto states.
I stopped myself though after giving myself a talking to about my Midwestern values. It is so typically Midwestern to caution against high hopes. But it doesn't make the fall any easier even if we guard against high hopes. We still have them.
So I don't warn her. And that afternoon, her friends came searching for me at the swim meet and said, "You have to come. Grace is crying inconsolably in the shower."
I lied to the gatekeeper whose job is to keep parents away from the pool.
"My daughter's injured," I told him.
And I found her, her face flushed red. She lay her face on my shoulder and sobbed some more. At Districts, she finished 10th in her 50 freestyle and she didn't swim as fast as the previous year. In her eyes, she had failed, although she finished higher than anyone else on her high school team.
She went on to swim the relays which finished well and made it to the podium for the top eight places. She also swam the 100 back with a decent time.
When the day ended, she wasn't miserable, but she wasn't happy. This isn't the end, I reassured her. She moves back to the YMCA swimming and then onto college swimming.
Today I drove my son home from basketball, a game they won by nearly 30 points.
"Did you see me miss those layups?" he asked. "And the foul shots?"
I wonder why my children and I all focus on the things we didn't accomplish. I think we have high expectations, but maybe we need a contingency plan, a back up for when things don't go the best possible route.
Because, even when my son doesn't make all the baskets he attempts, or my daughter doesn't swim as fast as she had hoped, or I'm not the best possible wife, mother or teacher, maybe we should all cut ourselves some slack. Maybe we can think that whatever our best is on this day is good enough.

Monday, February 15, 2010

An Army of Snowmen

The population in our little town has really exploded since we received that first foot of snow a few weeks ago. Kids, maybe parents, have been out building snow people.
Some of them are traditional, like this little guy:
This one is pretty run of the mill, except for the open, welcoming arms. Good thing since his smile faded.
This one just came back from sledding and he has some crazy pine cone hair:
I love when people use creative add ons to the snowmen. This one doesn't have a face. Unless he is looking toward the house and waving with his big old wooden arms:

We had enough snow for more than one snowperson. Here are a male and female version. The man tipped forward, the woman tipped back. I worry that they may have been involved in some sort of marital dispute that has left them at odds!
This one is very creative. I think it's the Pillsbury Dough Boy surrounded by minions who are worshipping him with their little branches. Either that or the branches are chains holding onto the little dogs of the Pillsbury Dough Boy. This just in -- My husband has identified this photo as the Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man from Ghostbusters. He's probably right and the little figures are either people running in terror or the ghostbusters blasting him with their sticky goo:
This final one is a masterpiece of evil genius. Who even knew snow could do this?
Here's a close up of the serpent heads. These people should win some sort of prize.
How about you? Have you had snow? Have you played outside? I haven't, but if we have a free day tomorrow, I'm going to. Four to nine more inches on their way today.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Non-Romantic Valentine's Day

Sometimes the stone of family obligations starts rolling and it's impossible to stop it. That was our Valentine's Day.
We missed our dance class, where we were learning how to "hover" in fox trot and waltz. But we knew ahead of time that romance wasn't on our calendar today.
We went out for lunch on Friday in a pre-emptive attempt at romance, but the martini which mixed some sort of hazelnut liquor with kahlua did not sit well. It tasted good, like a Nutella martini, but I felt awful the rest of the day. I only ordered a martini because Earl wanted me to "relax." So that didn't work.
I looked half-heartedly for a Valentine card to give Earl. He finds romantic cards for me. They are always blank and he writes heartfelt sentiments about how he's so glad he found me. Well...I'm not doing them justice.
I made him vow that this year we weren't giving gifts or cards. I couldn't add something else to my list of things to do.
This morning, as the merest of Valentine gifts, I slept in until 7. I looked in his eyes and said if I'd found him a card, I would have written: "Thank you for making every day special, for doing things that will make me happy not just on Valentine's Day, but every day."
Even if our Valentine's Day is not romantic and special, we're counting on all those other days of the year when we have a chance to sneak away for a meal or a drink or just a walk in the sunshine.
Happy Valentine's Day, Earl.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Free Time? What's That

So many things I'm missing right now, like time to write blog posts, time to run with my friends.
It's 6:15 on Saturday morning. The trail is dark and snowy. So, of course, two of my crazy friends are meeting there, their breath rising in dark clouds as they run along. Their feet slipping in places where the snow has frozen unevenly. Wish I could be there and laugh with them.
I have to get Grace up in a few minutes to be at the sectionals swim meet at 7 a.m. Tomorrow we are going to a college for a scholarship competition. I'll miss dance class with my husband.
Everyone always told me how busy senior year is for the students. They never told me how busy it would be for me, the parent.
Then again, I have to consider that this is Grace's last sectional high school meet. I should enjoy these moments instead of complaining about how little time I have.
I'd better get a few papers graded before we go.
What are you doing this weekend? Things you want to do or things you have to do?

Monday, February 08, 2010

Tonight I'm Going to Party Like I'm 18!

We had Grace's 18th birthday party at a dance studio with 35 to 50 of her closest friends.
Other than writing the check, it's the easiest birthday party ever. We lugged in chips and pop. Grace made cupcakes so we didn't have to do a birthday cake, blow out the candles scene in the middle of the party.
She sent out Facebook invitations. She rushed to a camp counselor meeting an hour before and the outfit she had planned to wear didn't work. Luckily, a friend who came to fix her hair in the spare 15 minutes before the party brought 3 outfits. Grace grabbed one of hers, and voila. Instant glamorous 18-year-old.
People showed up. And showed up. And showed up.

We just kept welcoming them and directing them toward the coat rack until Ron, the dance instructor/dj got them out on the floor and led them through their moves.
Then they danced.

They took breaks to grab drinks, mostly water, in spite of the pop we'd carried in. Then they danced some more. Sheila came too and took pictures. Thanks, Sheila!

There was no dirty dancing, except for one couple and they weren't even very good at it. Instead they focused on group dances like the ChaCha Slide and the always fun Snake Dance.

There was a lot of sweating and laughter, so overall, I'd definitely call this a success.

Saturday, February 06, 2010

A Free Weekend

The snow. The kids were disappointed that the snow didn't come in time to give them a snow day. It started about 9:30 a.m. Friday morning. I was leaving the house to teach and when I opened the door, I heard the tinking of ice hitting the frozen ground and the house.
"Do you hear that?" I turned back and asked Earl.
"Yeah, I hear the birds."
But, no. Not the birds fighting over the bird feeder and filling the bushes. The sound of the snow and ice. Tiny little pellets were spitting from the sky.
In class, I looked out the window and the snow flakes were huge, big as a baby's fist as they pelted from the sky. The weather was still fairly warm, hovering around 31 degrees so the flakes were big and wet.
I wore clogs to class. Snow filled my shoes as I walked outside two hours later.

The male cardinal is easy to find in this tree.
Can you spot his mate?

As the snow continued to fall, cancellations filled the television screen.
No basketball game that night. Check. I could mark it off my list.
The swim meet on Saturday was cancelled. Another check. Grace has a cold anyway so she should stay home and get well.
The snow continued in the dark, somewhere between 9-12 inches they estimated. And this morning, the cold had settled in and the newly dried snow blew wildly around the sky. Was it new snow or the old snow blowing?
It didn't matter, because we all slept in and the college we were supposed to visit on Sunday called to cancel.
Cha-ching. Three cancellations and I could spend all weekend at home grading papers.

Tucker took a picture of the bird feeder.
He said it had an afro that needed some styling.

I made a pot of Beach Bar Tomato Soup that includes cream cheese and half & half. Imagine how rich it is with chunks of stewed tomatoes. I put Italian-style croutons in the soup and sprinkle some sharp cheddar on top.
Grace baked cupcakes in preparation for her 18th birthday party tomorrow and we hardly left the house. This is luxury. Even if I do still have a ton of papers to grade. At least, I have time to do that now.

Thursday, February 04, 2010

Images From a Basketball Game

Anyone who knows me, knows I enjoy watching sports and I'm pretty competitive. Last night was just another ordinary basketball game night. Earl got to come to the game since it was his day off. His observation: Spencer has matured on the court.
My impressions:
Long arms like spider monkeys snatching the ball out of the air.
His hands like gecko feet stick to the ball whenever they touch it.
Long loping gallop, ball dribbling beside him as he leaps up for a layup.
The JV won by 30 points, so he sat most of the second half and the boys who don't usually get a chance to play had a turn.
Then the Varsity team comes running out. Spencer has managed to pull on his warm up jersey and run out before the rest of the JV team has even gotten to the locker room.
His white shorts dangle. The strings from the shorts hang out. He holds the shorts in a bunch with one hand and shoots with the other. He lets go of the shorts for just a minute to rebound then grabs them again before they can fall.
The moms in the stands, figure the drawstrings have come out. One mom has a safety pin. Earl had left by that time so I hand it to a dad who isn't afraid of being rebuked by the coaches or the boys. A couple of the coaches and some of the senior boys gather around Spencer. They stand in a circle examining the long strings and the loose shorts.
I laugh and laugh. I wish I had a camera.
The game begins. Within the first few minutes, one of our boys goes down on the floor, sliding along on his butt. His hands are over his face, his eyes watering.
He sits on the bench with an icepack on his face. Then the trainer hands him cotton. He twists it and stuffs it up his nose which swells throughout the rest of the game.
The game ends and long, tall Spencer comes out, the blue strap of his gym bag crossing his chest. Joe accepts a ride from us and the two of them laugh in the backseat about how Spencer co-hosts parties at Joe's house.
We drive through Wendy's to provide Frosties and Baconators.

Wednesday, February 03, 2010


That's the word I would use to describe myself these past few days. And it seems ridiculous. I just wrote a post about a woman who is dying, who isn't going to have years to spend with her kids, and I'm annoyed at my teenagers.
I'm trying to snap out of it, but they live up to my lowest expectations every time.
"My knee hurts."
"Did you take your Advil like I told you to three times?"
"I have another chapter to read," said at 10:30 at night from the boy who won't get out of bed until 7:30 when school starts at 8.
"Why did you go play Xbox at your friend's house if you have a test and another chapter to read? You know you can't get out of bed."
"My elbow hurts. I'm so far behind in my online PE class. I haven't turned in all the tests for my correspondence health course. I don't have my paperwork in for my camp counselor application. Can you go pick it up? I'm feeling very stressed," she says as she harvests peaches on farmville.
Add to that the rude emails I get from online students who never see my face-to-face so they feel free to be rude.

Monday, February 01, 2010

The Words We Don't Say

Yesterday afternoon I spent about three hours working in the costume room. We have taken out every item of clothing in the hundreds of bins and the four big closets. We have organized them according to article of clothing, length, color. We have looked at every item and found some incredibly long pants that would have gone under my armpits, and some incredibly big pants that one teenager each fit into the legs. We have tried on hats and capes and ahhhed at the beautiful gowns. We've thrown away some hideous stuff too.
So Jennie and I were working and her daughter Olivia, a sophomore, was there sorting and helping us complete the final work. Olivia's boyfriend Ben came to help.
He's a dark-skinned boy with dark hair, not very tall but lithe muscle. I've seen him race around the soccer field and he is fast. If I had to guess, I'd say Ben has some American Indian in his blood (from the looks, not the quickness.)
He's a very nice boy. He climbed up the 8-foot ladder and handed down bins then helped arrange the ones that were already on top of the closets. He climbed into the very big pants next to Olivia and, as a joke, held up a bottle of Fuze Slenderize to show how much weight he and Olivia lost to fit in the size 60 pants.
He asked me about Spencer and we commisserated on the miserable English teacher they had last year.
"Still, he should have stayed in honors English," Ben said. "He's really good at English."
What a nice boy.
As we finished, Olivia tried on a pair of old-fashioned roller skates and I told the two of them that Ben is supposed to skate backward while Olivia skates forward. They were off down the hall.
"She is so good for him," Jennie said when they were out of earshot.
And she wasn't just bragging about her daughter.
None of the three of us had asked Ben how his mother was. None of us mentioned that he had spent a few hours away from home in what might be his mother's last week of life.
The only time the subject was broached was when Ben told Olivia how he, his father and little brother had gone to Nordstrom's to look for suits -- suits to wear to their mother's funeral. They couldn't find anything at Nordstrom's so they ended up at Macy's and found suits there.
I'm not sure if I can think of anything sadder than a 5th grader and 10th grader going to the store to buy suits for their mother's funeral.
Their mother, although I don't know her well, is always smiling and energetic. She fought off cancer last year and would come to the pool with a scarf wrapped around her bald head. This year, her hair grew a short and spiky brown. She worked hanging up coats at the swim meet over Christmas break.
Then the cancer reappeared and her time with those boys and her very kind husband is short.
But Ben wants to not have to think, every minute of the day, about the fact that his mom is dying. So he escapes to spend time with Olivia, to be silly and to be part of a normal family.
I remember when my sister died that I enjoyed laughing with my friends and not thinking about that other part of my life, that I could put away for whole minutes at a time.
So I'm happy to see a smile on Ben's face and that for a little while he can be a teenager who doesn't have to focus on how his life will change one day very soon.

Cockadoodle Doo or Cocorico?

 We stood in the middle of the road, having walked together 13 miles that day and Claudine grasped my forearm. "Mais non! It doesn'...