Teeter Totter

Last night I was rubbing one child’s back while I read The Mysterious Benedict Society aloud to both kids. His muscles were tighter than I expected in a 9-year-old, and my thumb jittered off one particularly knotty spot and settled with a shudder into a softer space. “Sorry,” I interrupted my reading, “that must have felt weird.”

He considered. “I kind of liked it. Can you do it again?”

I could not recreate the exact sensation for him, so I went back to reading and continued to rub his back.

After that moment, though, I wasn’t concentrating on the read-aloud as much as I should have been. Instead, I found myself reliving summer moments on the teeter totter in my neighbor’s backyard. We were far too old for teeter totters: I didn’t even move to South Carolina until the summer before 5th grade, and I’m fairly certain the teeter totter didn’t arrive until sometime after that summer. What sort of self-respecting 6th grader plays on a teeter totter? And why on earth did the neighbors have one in their backyard when the oldest of their three children was also at least 11? I can no longer answer these questions, but I know for sure that for at least part of one sticky hot Southern summer, the neighborhood kids ate watermelon and rode on a teeter totter in the Pinckney’s back yard.

I really was far too old for this and, as the oldest in the group, too big, too heavy, too cool. And yet, I couldn’t resist. Rion was big enough to balance against me – or we could put together some combination of the littler kids with the bigger ones to balance things out. Up and down we rode, day after day, laughing, dripping watermelon juice and gleefully spitting out the seeds.

If I close my eyes, I can still remember being the one down on the ground, looking at Rion on the other end of the board, trapped in the air… waiting… waiting… and then – now! – I push off hard and whoosh up to the top where I stop with a hard bounce against the board. Now I am suspended, looking down at Rion, knowing she will push soon…but when? waiting… waiting… and then, whoosh back to the ground where the seat hits with a hard juddering thump. Sometimes we hold each other suspended for breathless seconds between each motion; sometimes we find a rhythm and go up and down up and down with unthinking regularity. One way or another, the fun of it is in the motion, the unpredictability, the sense that where we are is not where we will be, and that we will have to cooperate to keep it going.

Sometimes, in a tiff, one child would hold another high high high in the sky and then, all anger and meanness, hop off the bottom altogether so that the other person would come down fast with a jolting, horrible whomp. Fights ensued. Teeter totter might be soothing in its regularity or wonderfully unpredictable, but abandoning someone to fall on their own was the unforgivable end of the game.

“That HURT!” we raged, eyes nearly streaming with tears because it did, in fact hurt, or it could have hurt or it might hurt next time, or maybe just because the game was over for at least a few minutes and everyone had to content themselves with the dullness of predictable gravity.

My memories were interrupted when the chapter I was reading ended; it was time for bed. Up and down, up and down. We had had a good day, I knew, though some parts were noticeably less good. This whole time has been like that, really.  Up and down: now I can make a list of the good bits – waking later in the mornings, snuggling longer with my children, working out most days – and the bad ones – missing my friends, not seeing my students regularly, feeling like a failure for some part of most days. I give my son’s back one more rub, wondering if I can rediscover the teeter totter, remember the joy in  the waiting, the whoosh and the whomp that are all part of the ride. Use my memories to make my present more bearable. Maybe. Maybe. But not tonight. Tonight it’s time for sleep. I shoo the boys off the bed and head towards their rooms to tuck them in and sing some songs.

3d17d-screen2bshot2b2014-12-152bat2b7-37-262bpm

Dutch Baby

My younger son trudges sleepily into the kitchen, still snuggled in a brown minky blanket. “‘Morning, Mama,” he says, as he shuffles over to give me a hug. Up close, he contemplates me for a moment, then apparently decides to go for it, “Can you make us a Dutch baby this morning?”

It’s Tuesday, but COVID19 and closed schools mean there’s no particular rush to get out the door, so it’s easy for me to say yes, even though I made this yesterday. I stretch away from the kitchen island where I was trying to sneak in a little work before the kids woke. Then, I begin a series of actions so familiar that I do them without thinking.

I wash my hands and turn to the oven: preheat to 425. Open the drawer by the stove and pull out the middle-sized bowl. Scoop half a cup of flour – no need to be too precise – and use the same measure for half a cup of milk. Find a fork. Mix – or not. Crack in four eggs and mix again.

Shoot! I forgot – again – to put the pan in the oven. Ah well, there’s still time. My son picks his head up from the counter as he sees me rummaging for a pan. “Can you use the small one?” I produce our smaller cast iron skillet, “Sure.” Lately, he’s liked a denser pancake; for a while we used the bigger skillet to get really airy ones.

Now, butter in the skillet – 1 Tbsp? 2? I don’t know or care: I just eyeball it – and skillet in the oven to preheat while the butter melts.

A few minutes later, I pull the pan out, swirl the melted butter to coat the bottom and sides, and scrape in the eggy mixture. Everything goes into the oven, and I head back to my seat to finish a few final minutes of my own work before the parenting work takes over for the day.

My mind wanders briefly to my high school friend, Julia, whose blog post nearly a decade ago brought this recipe into our house. I regularly think of her while I cook this. It’s funny, I muse, the people who change our lives. So often, I think about the big picture: “Who was your biggest influence? Who is your hero? Which person changed your life?” When I answer, I rarely think of my daily routine, the small things that make up the bulk of my life. But how many times have I made Dutch babies in the last decade? Easily a hundred; probably many more. I bet my boys will grow up to make these for their families. Our lives are better because of Julia. I doubt she even knows. Later today I will make tagine and think of my friend Erin, remember a moment in her mother’s kitchen when she showed me how accessible couscous recipes really are; then, as I add salt, I will think of an ex-boyfriend’s mother who told me once that when she’s cooking soups or stews she usually adds as much salt as she thinks she’ll need and then just a little more. Works like a charm.

My older son straggles into the kitchen, bed-headed and groggy. “Dutch baby? Sweet!” he  plunks himself down in a seat at the table.

The 9-year-old has set up vigil in front of the oven. He loves to watch this simple pancake puff to enormous proportions. Somehow, the flour, milk & egg transform themselves into a glorious airy breakfast concoction in a mere 12 minutes. Soon enough, perfection:

 

Perfection in the form of a puff pancake. What a gift! And who knows? Maybe you will read this post, make a Dutch baby for breakfast someday soon, and find that your life has changed just a little bit, too.

3d17d-screen2bshot2b2014-12-152bat2b7-37-262bpm

 

 

I’m in charge of bribes: Slice of Life 30/31 #SOL20

Lately, I can’t stop thinking about Kurt Vonnegut. Specifically, I keep thinking about his short story “Harrison Bergeron”.  You might remember this dystopian gem from high school English class. It’s set in a world where “everybody was finally equal.” George, the main character’s father, is smarter than average, so to prevent him from thinking too deeply a “mental handicap radio” that sends out a loud noise every twenty seconds or so has been installed in his ear.

This is currently my life. Ok, ok, I’ll admit that I usually get more than twenty seconds; I’d guess that I get, on average, three to seven minutes between interruptions, and no government has had to provide an in-ear noise generator for me. Oh no, my thought-preventing mechanism is much simpler: I have children and we are stuck in our house.

After two weeks of complete chaos – the first week was officially March Break; the second was our own fault – we decided to institute a routine so that the kids don’t need to ask me for things every few minutes all day long. (The boys have pointed out that if I would let them do non-stop online gaming, they would barely ask for anything at all; I have chosen not to accept their gambit.) Last night, after dinner, we all sat down to co-create the schedule. This morning, before the kids woke up, I positioned three laptops at a kitchen work-space so that the boys and I could sit and work together. We were ready.

8:15 – I find the 11-year-old in his bed with a device. “My schedule doesn’t start until 8:30,” he assures me. I make him come down for breakfast.

9:00 – Everyone is working on something for school or work – hooray!

9:03 – Just kidding.

And so it goes.

9:42 – Despite the fact that we have devices for everyone in the household, approximately a million non-computer games, and a schedule that has the kids online at different times, a fight breaks out over the computer.

10:03 – Upon learning that I’ve organized a neighbourhood blog challenge for April’s classroom “Slice of Life” challenge, my children declare that they will have none of it – even though we haven’t started yet.

11:47 – *Someone* tries to convince me that bread with Nutella is a perfectly acceptable nutrition option for both breakfast and lunch.

1:00 – It’s cold and rainy – again – so the kids decide that “exercise” should be balloon soccer in the hallway. Wait, let me be more precise: balloon soccer in the hallway where we currently have all the framed artwork that we haven’t yet put up.

1:04 – I’m just about to start yelling when they get into a fight and stop playing together. The schedule says that exercise is supposed to be half an hour. I wonder if 4 minutes is close enough?

Last week, my husband resorted to bribing the kids to do math. I am typically anti-bribe, sometimes going so far as to refer to the research of Alfie Kohn and regularly touting the benefits of intrinsic motivation. Andre is more practical: if it kept them busy and focused, it would be worth it; he suggested that this was not unlike being remunerated for work. Then he offered an exorbitant sum if the kids could finish a particular math app which teaches linear algebra using pictures. (DragonBox – I highly recommend it.) Properly motivated, both kids finished in under 24 hours – so much for keeping them busy.

The 9-year-old laughed, “Dad is terrible at bribes. He pays way too much. From now on, Mom, you should be in charge of bribing us.” I pointed out that I’m not a huge briber. “Ok,” he shrugged, “but I would have worked a lot harder for that much money.”

So here I sit, thinking about how to create a schedule that they can manage a little bit more on their own. There are things that need doing, and too many “natural” consequences involve a lot of MY attention, which makes it hard for me to get work done. And the internet swears that 9-year-olds really only have an attention span of 18-27 minutes or so. Harumph.

If it comes down to a choice between bribes and installing a little radio in their ears so that they will stop taking “unfair advantage” of their brains, apparently I’m in charge of bribes. Wish me luck.

3d17d-screen2bshot2b2014-12-152bat2b7-37-262bpm

Cat nap: Slice of Life 29/31 #SOL20

I am sitting in my bedroom trying to take advantage of some quiet focused time to write. Our internet connection is flickering in and out, and I’m not getting much done. Frustrated, I look up and catch sight of a minor miracle: our two cats are sleeping together. img_2984

Tippy and Hera are each, individually, wonderful cats, and I like to tell myself that they are secretly fond of each other, but I’m not 100% sure that they agree. I’m not even 50% sure they agree. They are sisters only because we chose them at the same time at the Humane Society. They are both calicos. Their resemblance more or less ends there. But now – will miracles never cease? – they are *grooming* each other.

img_2986

This will almost assuredly end in a fight. It pretty much always does. I’ve been parenting so much for the last two weeks that I am highly attuned to “things which usually end in fights.” I wait. They settle. I am stunned.

And then, just like that, Hera is done. She gets up and leaves. Look at Tippy’s shock.img_2989-1

I imagine she’s thinking, “But I was being NICE. WHY ARE YOU LEAVING?” To be fair, pretty little Tippy is not usually nice. Hera was probably smart to leave when she did.

And Tippy doesn’t seem too bothered by it all. She settles back in for a nap, moving to the center of the chair seat, her rightful spot reclaimed.img_2990-1

 

3d17d-screen2bshot2b2014-12-152bat2b7-37-262bpm

My achy breaky heart: Slice of Life 27/31 #SOL20

This morning, my 9-year-old had his first-ever online meet up with his class. The kids were so excited to see each other that some were literally bouncing out of their seats. Several brought pets which led to others leaving the room to go get their pets. Dogs, cats, guinea pigs and even a hamster all played brief outsized roles. I stayed until my son waved me out of the room, but I wasn’t focused on the guest appearances. Instead, I watched his teacher’s face, transfixed by the genuine delight and caring that crossed it as he saw each little person show up on the screen. For one moment his eyes glistened, then he took a deep breath before he continued. My heart ached for him.

*********

This afternoon our 18-year-old exchange student went home to the Netherlands. During his short stay with us, he met a young woman and, in the way of teenagers, they fell head over heels for one another. Because pandemics apparently hold no sway over passion, they struggled to stay apart. Ok, truth: they didn’t stay apart. So this week our family and her family decided to break social isolation and let the two of them be together for four final days. Yes, we took a risk, but seeing them together at our house for the past two days made my heart swell. I had nearly forgotten about that overwhelming, all-consuming love that makes the rest of the world fall away from you. They were almost glued together at our house and were completely devastated when we dropped him at the nearly empty airport. Their hearts are broken for now, and my heart aches with mirrored emotion, aware that I know more than they do and that the knowledge isn’t always sweet.

***********

Today is my husband’s birthday. He woke up and made *us* scones because that is who he is. Later, while he was dropping the teens at the airport, the kids and I tried to secretly bake him a cake. Because I had a call scheduled with some of my own students, my boys proceeded on their own. When I finished the call, I found the kitchen and the kids fairly covered in butter and flour. Unable to find a mixer and unwilling to interrupt my call, the children had tried to cream the butter and sugar with a wooden spoon, then added the flour without adding any liquid ingredients. When I showed them how to read the whole recipe first, their faces fell: “Do you think it will still taste ok?”

“Oh yes,” I assured them, “if you have good ingredients, the results are almost always pretty good.”

Before I could stop them, they dumped all the buttermilk in at once, adding to the existing kitchen chaos. I started to laugh, my heart aching with happiness at their excitement.

***********

After the cake-baking, I insisted that we go for a walk. This was not a popular decision. Still, the kids have been inside for two days and it was finally sunny and veering towards warm. I was relentless. I forced them outside.

On our walk, my younger son complained and complained of a bellyache but offered little information and no solutions. Eventually, I lost my temper and yelled at him. Not long after that, he ran behind a metal bin and everything came out of him. I had to use my disinfecting wipes to clean him up. Afterward, he held my hand and snuggled close as we walked home, and he didn’t say anything about my inappropriate anger. My heart broke a little at his ungrudging forgiveness.

*************

Today my heart has ached all day long.

3d17d-screen2bshot2b2014-12-152bat2b7-37-262bpm

The little things: Slice of Life 25/31 #SOL20

Today did not go the way I expected it to although, now that I’ve written that phrase, I suppose I could say that about pretty much any day of the last two weeks, which is when COVID-19 reared its ugly head in this part of the world. And, if I’m being even more honest, daily chaos of some sort or another has featured in my life for nearly 12 years (hello, children), and probably for longer than that (hello, teaching). Still, since we’re in middle of a global pandemic, I’m totally going to blame the virus rather than my life choices. After all, pandemics need to be good for *something*.

At any rate, I woke up today ready to write this blog – clearly I did not, in fact, finish it this morning because it is now decidedly evening and here I am. And, worse, none of my “hangouts” worked, my children were stir crazy (we baked brownies and polished silver, among other things – yes, you read that right. We polished silver. I cannot explain this. We don’t even *use* silver. I honestly didn’t even know we *had* silver. But there you go.) Still, I had a plan, dang-nabbit, and involved pictures. I’m plowing ahead.

Yesterday, Molly over at Nix the Comfort Zone joined Leigh Anne’s Self Care Spring Fling. Leigh Anne invited us to share our three best self-care ideas. Molly’s second was “Focus–At least for a little bit every day, take the time to slow down and focus” then added, “For me, both writing and photography help.”

If you want to see some beautiful nature photography (and read some excellent poetry, too), Molly’s blog is a great place to hang out. I find the pictures inspiring or calming or just what I need, and recently her inspiration has slipped over into my walks. My walking has increased because of COVID-19 (remember a few days ago when I didn’t even want to name it? Take that, you nasty virus! I can say your name!); I am often nearly desperate to get out of my house. With the walking has come noticing, and with noticing, photography (from my cell phone – don’t get too excited). The photographs, in turn, have enticed my children to come walk and notice. This is a cycle I highly recommend.

We have taken to looking for small unexpectedly beautiful things or big things with details we might have overlooked before. One boy likes close-ups and shapes; the other likes the way colours go together or how things look from a distance. We try to look at both natural and manmade things. We pass my phone between us, sharing each delight with the others. Every walk reveals things we’ve never noticed before, no matter how many times we have previously walked that way.

Our neighbourhood is quiet these days, and we have plenty of time to pause, notice, reflect. Our walks meander. Our focus, however, seems to have sharpened. It turns out that our everyday is brimming with wonder. Who knew?

 

3d17d-screen2bshot2b2014-12-152bat2b7-37-262bpm

Up: Slice of Life 24/31 #SOL20

Thomas has been asking to watch Up for the better part of a week. For reasons he cannot explain – but which he assures us are not merely to torture his brother – Eric has been saying no. Because we are trying to establish some sort of family togetherness or, at a minimum, some basic negotiation skills, we’ve been choosing films that “everyone” wants to watch. Thomas says that means Eric usually “wins;” even I have to admit that Eric’s sheer stubbornness means we watch quite a few of his choices.

Last night, Eric relented. Surprised, Andre and I relented, too. It was a little too late to start, and no one believed that the boys would “go straight to bed” without at least a bit of a read aloud. Work from home has started in earnest and we really had too much to do: Andre needed to clean the kitchen; I needed to create a lesson. “Fine,” we conceded, “you can watch the first 45 minutes while we work. Then it’s straight to bed!” The boys agreed happily.

But then we only have Disney+ on the upstairs tv, and they wanted to watch in the living room. The Amazon dongle wasn’t working for reasons we couldn’t quite fathom. I’d been doing IT support for the boys all day long and was near the end of my tether. Andre offered his phone, assuring us that he could live without it for 45 minutes, but somehow I was on the hook for remembering another password and Andre chose the wrong HDMI port. Thomas kept trying to help; Andre kept saying no; Eric refused to take part. By the time we got everything set up, we were all four on the couch in the living room, but no one was particularly settled.

When the movie finally started I looked at Andre and said, “Stay for the first part. I know how much you love it.” The opening montage, ten minutes that shows Ellie and Carl’s whole life together, engulfs us, and by the end we are holding hands and Andre is crying – he always does. The boys snuggle closer, not quite understanding, but not quite not understanding, either. Our battered old brown leather couch, pushed too close to the television, surrounded by our life in semi-unpacked boxes, holds our family in its embrace, and no one gets up. We just watch. Together. We laugh and talk, colours animating our faces, love animating our faces: a whole life in one short montage.

 

3d17d-screen2bshot2b2014-12-152bat2b7-37-262bpm