Water Bugs

Sorry there wasn’t a blog entry yesterday. I’ve been swimming with Sam.  I know I blogged a couple of days ago that he was almost swimming.  Since then, I swear I’ve spent at least twelve of the last twenty four hours in the water with that kid. OK, not true. But it was at least six. He is totally swimming. Not just “almost there”, but really there, totally there, and completely comfortable with himself in the pool.

He orders me to stand further and further back as he leaps from the edge, bobbing easily to the surface with his face still submerged. Then he swims to me easily wherever I am, no matter how far away, with absolute confidence that I will be waiting for him upon arrival. He insists on wearing these Spiderman goggles that don’t stick to his face no matter how often I tighten the straps. So they perpetually fill with water, and we have to keep emptying them out. 

He doesn’t care.

In fact, nothing seems to faze him, including a lack of oxygen. That is, in fact, the one problem in this whole process. He forgets to breathe. He swims out to me without lifting his head above the surface. Sometimes, he arrives spluttering and gasping, but still completely unperturbed. I say, “Sam, honey, don’t forget to do your breathing like Miss Crystal taught you. Pick your head up or turn it to the side while you’re swimming.”

He rolls his eyes and says “That’s not how it goes, Mom. Now let me drag you somewhere.” (He still doesn’t have those l’s and r’s, so it’s “wet me dwag you somewhewe”.

The ‘drag you somewhere’ game is also quite new. He latches on to my arm and sets off swimming backwards, sinking and bobbing in place, but at least staying above the surface because he’s attached to me. After half a minute or so, he says, “You’re heavy, Mom. I’m gonna need your help with this.” So then I’ll start to walk (and if I walk any  sooner, I am reproached with “I’m doing it” and a noisy sigh), and he’ll keep “dragging” me, dictating all the while where exactly it is I’m supposed to be going. Usually, it’s the wall, so he can repeat the whole suffocation swim to the middle of the pool.

All this while, Caroline is weaving around us, sometimes kicking off to make new friends in another area, sometimes heading over to jump from the diving board, never moving more slowly than the speed of light, so it’s impossible to tell where she is. But yesterday, she noticed Sam’s game and joined him. For reasons comprehensible only to Caroline, she started yelling “London!” as she jumped, encouraging her brother to do the same. Always eager to emulate big sis, Sam bellowed “Wanding” as he launched in his turn.

After a few rounds of this, she changed over to “Cannonball!” even though her jumps were these splay-legged affairs that lifted her surprisingly high in the air and bore no resemblance to the tucked up ball the name suggested. Sam dutifully adjusted his yell to “Bangabah” and imitated his sister’s midair pose and height.

Now, for girls, Caroline’s cannonball, while inaccurate, was not a particularly dangerous move. But, as much as he likes to dress in princess clothes and wear his hair in ponytails, Sam is not a girl, and he splashed down with a look of shock, then bobbed to the surface, his eyes wide behind the Spiderman goggles. He had pretty well landed in my arms, and after he caught his breath, he said, in an abnormally soft voice, “No mowe bangabah”. He didn’t cry, though I think it was a close thing, and as soon as I put him up on the pool ledge, he yanked out the waist of his swim trunks to make sure everybody was still OK down there. He recovered quickly and pulled back to pronouncing “London” as “Landing” while making slightly safer jumps.

In any case, that’s where I’ve been for the better part of the last two days when I wasn’t in the car, and I’m sorry to say that my paying gig had to take priority over my blog during ‘computer time’.  In fact, the paying gig is calling now, and I’m afraid I’m off to grade essays.

Swimming Lessons

Sam is learning to swim, and he’s almost there. Well, I say almost, when really, the kid’s there. He’s there. The teacher can let go of him for several strokes and he’ll stay afloat. He doesn’t shy away in terror any longer from her classes, like he did just a few weeks ago, and he even gets excited about jumping in the water and chasing down the toys she throws for him.  His skills have increased dramatically since he started, and his attitude has become correspondingly positive.  He differs from me there. Both my kids do. My attitude is hard to modify, and I struggle to give something I dislike a “second chance”, even if I continue doing it. But Caroline and Sam have a genuinely happy outlook on life, and they are able to change their perspective about an activity if given either enough experience with it or sufficient incentive to do so.

To wit: the swimming.  After one bad experience at age three or four, I refused to learn to swim until I was nearly seven. I loved the water, but clung to my mother in terror at every trip beyond the pool stairs. My children, in contrast, have weathered several negative water experiences each and have always come back to try again.

I’ve had both kids in the water from a very young age, which meant Caroline’s first experiences at the pool were winter scenes. Now, my Mom tried me at a pool in winter when I was an infant and quickly realized it was too cold for both of us. I wasn’t nearly so smart. I dragged Caroline to little baby-parent classes for most of the time we lived in Lexington, even though she squalled for most activities. I even tripped over my own feet while carrying her once, and the instructor had to fish her up as I fell, failing badly to to keep her head above water. She loved her baths but felt overwhelmed by the pool. The water, especially if cold, set off all of her sensory alarms, and transitioning into the freezing air afterwards caused regular screaming meltdowns at the YMCA.

I thought she’d never learn to swim but forced her to take lessons when we moved down to Alabama, largely because I needed to know her limits. She went through some five months of instruction in the 3-5 year old class, gradually becoming accustomed to the teachers and the water. The Y has some awesome swim instructors, and the pair teaching the preschoolers developed a sense for when to push Caroline and when to comfort her, and to my utter amazement, she learned to swim.

At which point she refused to get in the water. She was terrified. But by this point, I was not the one forcing her to go. It was Caroline. She would demand to be taken to class and then stand sobbing beside the pool until one of her teachers coaxed her in. Slowly, she gained proficiency, and she’s been swimming alone for the last two years and loving it. She took herself down a fifty foot slide that I wouldn’t tackle last year, and she can jump off the diving board over and over without fear.  In a situation where I know I would have just developed a hatred of whatever I was being required to do, Caroline has instead adapted, and she’s flourishing.

Swim duckie swim

 Sam has been through several stages  of coping as he learned to swim as well.  He loved the water when we took the parent-and-child courses that followed Caroline’s 3-5 year old class, and he even enjoyed dunking, which his sister loathed. Indeed, I hated dunking, too, as a kid, and I credit it entirely with my early refusal to learn how to swim. My parents took me to one parent-and-child lesson at the pool then located at Chatfield College. For some reason, Dad was the one in the water with me. Or anyway, he was the one holding me, as I think Mom was right there, too. Even though I begged him not to do it, Dad dunked me on cue. I kicked him ferociously and got water up my nose, then screamed like a banshee until they took me home. Sam, in contrast, shrieked for more dunkings when the lessons were over.

But as he got bigger, he began to realize that we grown-ups expected him to start swimming alone. And the fact that this date was still miles in his future had no meaning for him. He went into swimming-shutdown. He screamed through classes just like his sister used to, and he clung to me like the limpet I’m sure I was at his age. He did not want to go under, and he resisted all efforts by the instructor to coax him into chasing toys. Although he would float around the pool in a green swim ring, he would not get in without the thing, and he refused to even be weaned down to a pool noodle for class.

This year, though, things have changed again for him. For one thing, he started enjoying showers, which reminded him he liked getting his head wet. So he started practicing his “swimming” in the baby pool about a month before his classes started this spring. The first day of his 3-5 year old class, it looked like he might backslide, but at the last second, he instead took off, and he’s been scooping and kicking his way forward ever since. Last Thursday, to everyone’s complete astonishment, Miss Crystal let go of him in the middle of the lesson, and he plowed forward for several strokes before he started to sink. She caught him up again before any sense of alarm could interfere with his enjoyment, and when it happened again, he suddenly realized he was doing it all by himself.  His joy was palpable.

He's actually in the baby pool here practising 

Every day, both my children move a little closer to independence, another skill nearer to flying out of my nest. They both have many things yet to learn, but from what I’ve seen, they’ll both develop just swimmingly.

World War III

This morning, Scott went out to put the lid on the sandbox and came back in with three signs from the tree house.

Boys Stink Bunny

These stem from a combination of Caroline’s current Calvin and Hobbes addiction and a recent playdate at our house. Caroline’s been reading the series where Calvin makes a boys only club to keep out Susie. But that’s not  Caroline’s handwriting on the signs. So we know she had help with the implementation here. Our friend Heather has two daughters and a son, and they came over the other evening. This brought a sufficient number of boys and girls together to launch an all out gender war. The daughters, Eva and Astrid, are 8 and 6 respectively, comfortably surrounding Caroline in age. The son, Hayden, is 4 going on 5, just about a year older than Sam. We met because Hayden and Sam go to preschool together, another long story all its own.

Aside from being the perfect ages to play with Caroline and Sam, these three kids have a lot in common with our two. For one thing, the siblings alternately adore and revile each other. Both Sam and Hayden idolize their older sisters and want to grow up to be exactly like them.  Except when they want to cause them bodily harm. Similarly, Astrid and Eva look out for Hayden, just as Caroline looks out for Sam. Except when they’re holding the bedroom door shut keeping the boys out.

On this visit, as soon as she got out of the car, Eva said “I didn’t know you had a tree house out back. Last time I was here, Caroline and I played on her computer the whole time!!!”

And, indeed, she and Caroline had played computer games for that entire visit, while Sam, Hayden, and Astrid played in the tree house, watched movies, and enjoyed Sam’s trains. Eva was so excited that everybody but Sam immediately went out back to investigate. Eva came in soon after, as did Hayden. We put food in the living room for those three (Sam, Hayden, and Eva) so they could watch Toy Story 3 over dinner. We took food out to the tree house for Caroline and Astrid. Hayden never found his food, but he eventually noticed everybody else had some and came around asking.

While he was eating, Astrid came inside looking for two pieces of paper, and Caroline tracked out several handfuls of crayons, laboriously carting them up the tree house ladder instead of hoisting them up in some more simple manner. Presently, the first sign went up. It was the beige one, drawn on the back of some Easter Bunny art, with all of the “O”’s filled in. We couldn’t read it from inside, but we had an idea of what it said because we had heard the words “girls’ club” mentioned.

It must have been the rough draft, because it was soon replaced by the second sign, the one where “boys stink” is printed on a field of happy green grass under a sunny blue sky. Astrid almost has to be the artist here, because the handwriting on both signs is the same, and the first sign has an apostrophe in “girl’s”. Caroline wouldn’t know an apostrophe if you hit her with it.  

Presently, Hayden finished his dinner and went out back to play with Caroline and Astrid. Soon after, he started sobbing. We all rushed to see what had happened. Heather asked “Hayden, what’s wrong?”

“They won’t let me come up!” he told us from the top of the ladder.

“NO BOYS ALLOWED,” Shouted Caroline and Astrid together.

I hollered until Caroline let go of the gate, then Heather fussed some more until Astrid also released it, admitting Hayden into the girls’ inner sanctum. Later, there was another small kerfluffle, when Sam was getting excluded from the game of dress up.

But in between those two things, Hayden’s exclusion and Sam’s, there was apparently all out war. At one point, all of the kids were out back, and we looked out the window to see Hayden at the tree house balcony dumping a shovel full of sand inches from Astrid’s head, while she sulked around the bottom kicking gravel. The significance of this event didn’t become clear until the next morning, when Scott went out to put the lid on the sandbox, found crayons scattered all over the ground, and retrieved the signs.

It turned out that the third sign, the “boys only” sign, was facing out by this time. It’s the one we find somewhat mysterious. It’s printed on the back of the green grass and sunny sky one. Since Hayden and Sam can’t write yet, one of the girls must have penned it for them. Although Eva could have taken up for her brother and made him his own sign, it looks like Astrid’s handwriting again. Was she trying to make up for having left her brother out earlier? Was the war itself a game at that point and were the kids taking turns at having the tree-house club? We grown-ups will never know.

Indeed, at this point, only one thing is certain: Scott and I are very wary of the strips where Calvin goes flying in a cardboard box.


  I got me a good sunburn this weekend.  I’m not pink, either, I’m red, from my shoulders to my midback. 30 SPF sun block just isn’t strong enough for me anymore, I guess, and it helps if someone other than Caroline applies it. It’s been a long time since I pulled a stunt like this, and, quite frankly I did myself a much worse disservice then than now. This time, although the burn stings and looks quite nasty, it doesn’t feel too bad, and it’s only on part of my top half.

  The last time I got a bad sunburn, I was finishing up my first year of grad school at the University of Kentucky. I’d just started dating this guy named Scott a month or so prior, but we were already maintaining the fiction of separate apartments. I was pretty well living with him. I was also a volunteer at the Kentucky Rolex Three Day Event. It’s a horse show with glorious flowers, and I was a volunteer on the flower committee. (Remember, this is Lexington, KY, horse capital of the world or something like that.) We went around the week before the show placing grown plants (still inside their planters) in strategic locations around the jumps on the cross-country course.

  It was a fun activity for me, and also a connection to my home, because it was friends from back-home who had gotten me involved. We also got passes to attend the Rolex itself, and my back-home friends had VIP passes to a tent with free champagne. And the real kicker was the flowers used in the show were ALL GIVEN TO THE VOLUNTEERS at the end. Talk about wow. The organizer was a nurse named Sheila who really had her system together. She knew what went where and who could do it. She collected names and contact information for next year’s event, and she made everything come together in two very fast days.

  The following weekend, I came to the actual Rolex with my friends, looking forward to the show’s end, when I could get flowers. Although I lived in an apartment, my Mom didn’t, and neither did Scott’s, and they are both horticultural goddesses. In the VIP booth, I didn’t really drink much champagne, but I had a couple of glasses over the course of the day. And I didn’t really pay attention to the bright April sunshine over my short sleeved shirt and ponytailed hair. I think one of my friends tried to warn me that I was getting sunburned, but I missed the message until way too late.

  By the time I got to Scott’s apartment that night, he said, “Huh. Got a little sun today, didn’t you?”

  By the next morning, I looked like somebody had boiled me. I went out and bought aloe lotion and slathered it on before school.

  The Rolex was on Sunday, and I had an early class that next day. I was always running late for this particular class, and I often skipped it altogether.  The teacher had been horrible, and then she’d abruptly quit midterm when her tenure was denied, so we were all pretty much guaranteed A’s.  The Writing Program Director and Assistant Director had taken over the class, and I was at war with them. Well, with the Director anyway. The Assistant Director was pretty much an innocent bystander caught in the line of fire.

  Here’s what happened. The semester before, I had started grad school. I wasn’t dating Scott yet, and I was enrolled in all the usual first semester graduate student courses. We had to take a cycle of two Intro to College Teaching courses that allowed us to be Teaching Assistants who actually maintained our own classrooms until we had earned the almighty eighteen graduate course hours typically required for such teaching assignments.  During that first semester class, the prof, a Dr. Cynthia,  was dreadful. She assigned some half dozen expensive texts which she then proceeded not to use. She gave strange esoteric instructions and had us completing outrageously unrelated projects.

  The Bitch didn’t like it, and neither did the rest of my alter egos, even though the only one who had a formal identity at that point was Madame Syntax. So, I reported Dr. Cynthia to the Writing Program Director. I had a detailed list of her inappropriate assignments, which included things like writing summaries from the textbooks that we weren’t using. Summaries at the graduate level? Really?

  The Writing Program director shut me down. Shut me down. He didn’t want to hear my alternate plans for completing the course without attending her classes. He had no intentions of finding a way for me to make the course relevant to my own work as a teacher or student. And he basically told me to suck it up and get over it.

  This is not a good thing to tell me. Ever. I’m bipolar. It’s not an excuse, it’s just a thing. And that particular type of response has always been a trigger for me.  At that point I was completely un-medicated, and The Bitch did a lot of my grad school work anyway, so she was always very close to the surface. I launched a telephone campaign, calling him every single day Dr. Cynthia’s class met, and it met three times a week, (a grad course!) with a new reason why the course was awful. He dug in his heels and kept acting like he had full confidence in her, essentially pulling back behind the lines and defending her just because she was a colleague and I a mere student. He routinely brushed me off on the assistant director who didn’t know how to handle me.  I think I avoided expulsion and a lawsuit on two merits. First, I was right, and, as later became apparent, they knew it. Second,  even when belligerent, I’m not a threatener. I’m an explainer, a fixer, and an idea-woman, but I don’t tend to threaten at all. So they just endured my thrice weekly harangues without ever giving me so much as a shred of support.

  The campaign continued into the Spring semester, when I had to take another Dr. Cynthia class to complete my how-to-teach-college cycle. Then, it turned out that everybody knew what a terrible prof this person was. Because her tenure committee rejected her pretty much out of hand about three weeks into the Spring  semester. As part of my rebellion, I had refused to buy that term’s expensive reading material, even though she did actually assign us to read one of them. When she turned out to have quit without giving notice, I cheered and taunted.

  Of course, we all found out the hard way, so that the school couldn’t even put a whitewash on it. Not long after her tenure bid failed, we went to class one day to find no prof. We waited. Waited much longer than the traditional ten minute grace period. A classmate went up to the Writing Program Office  to see what was going on.  Nobody could find Dr. Cynthia. She wasn’t at the school. She wasn’t answering her phone.  It was a few days before they figured out she had quit. It took a few days more to assign a new prof, none other than the Writing Program Director with whom I was feuding. He promptly assigned six more expensive texts, even though the bookstore wouldn’t take back Dr. Cynthia’s overpriced sextet. It didn’t affect me. I hadn’t bought hers, and I didn’t buy his.

  We all knew by this point that we were guaranteed A’s for the class, and some people immediately stopped attending altogether. Not me. I wanted that Director to see me as often as possible to know that I had told him so. I wanted him to think about the fact that he had been presented with and rejected the opportunity to fix the situation before it had gotten like this. He argued that nobody could have known things were that bad. I pointed out that I had been telling him they were that bad for literally months, and that he had been blowing me off because he was unwilling to investigate.

  In the middle of all this, I started dating Scott. He listened to my war stories with amazing patience, and only told me a couple of times he was surprised I hadn’t been expelled. There was one day when he visited my apartment after I had just finished throwing all my textbooks at my car’s windshield from my balcony on the justification that I wouldn’t have to go to the class if I broke it. (It remained stubbornly intact, in spite of my use of some heavy tomes). He just picked the books up and brought them up to me on the balcony. Another time, he came in the apartment door just in time to avoid being hit by the corded phone I was in the process of ripping out of the wall and throwing at the sofa. (I was smart enough not to damage the apartment walls. I knew I wanted my security deposit back someday.)

  SO. The weekend of the Rolex, when I got the horrible sunburn, I woke up the next morning at Scott’s apartment, ran out and snagged myself some aloe gel, applied it liberally, then got ready for class. My face and arms were lobster red, covered with a layer of aloe slime, and I looked like something out of a horror film. Overnight, the weather had gone from sunny and warm to chilly and pouring rain. I was going to have to walk across campus to the class, and I wouldn’t let Scott loan me an umbrella. He did convince me to wear a hat and his trench coat. My hair was considerably longer then, roughly down to the middle of my back, so I tucked it all up under the Rolex cap I’d bought myself the day before, and put the trench coat on over my backpack, to keep it dry.

  I looked like some bizarre hunchback as I ran across campus, arriving to this class, as usual, late.  Now, the Writing Program Director had done an amazing job of ignoring my badgering up until this point. He tried to make use of the veiled insults I would lob at him for the whole hour, turning some of them into helpful course questions even. He did his utmost not to give me the satisfaction of a reaction. But on this day, when I walked in the door, which was in the front of the classroom, and past him as he wrote on the whiteboard, he just stopped. He didn’t say anything, but he turned and looked at me, with my raw, greasy, face and soaking hunchback trench coat, watched me pull of the hat and shake down my hair, then forced himself to return to the whiteboard. It was the most wonderful moment. It made the sunburn and bad weather worthwhile, because it meant that I had won. I had horrified him so sufficiently that he couldn’t blow me off anymore. He would never admit it, but he had finally heard me.

  In Dance Macabre, Stephen King says that horror tales have several common tactics, and that the most simple to achieve is the gross-out. I had hit this Director with a hard gross-out, and it worked where argument, tears, and even logical reasoning had failed. When he looked at me, I knew he got it. But later, he sicced the assistant director on me to ask why I even bothered to come to class.

  I said, “Because I want him to know what it’s like to dread coming to your course three times a week, with no idea what is going to happen that day.”

  She didn’t have an answer for that.

  I think that sunburn was the real birth of the Jester Queen. I had certainly antagonized bad teachers before. Sometime I’ll tell you about my experiences in Jr. High gym. And I already dressed up like the Gypsy Pirate Jester Queen at Halloween. But I think that day with the red face and the hunchback backpack was her first real outing. It was still a few years before I caught her formal name and started using it, but she really came into her own then, on the day I finally won my crusade.

Book Hunters

   Well, I survived the rapture, and, if you’re reading this, so did you. Oddly enough, so did everybody else on the planet, unless the raptured were all invisible to begin with, making it difficult for the rest of us to tell when they’d gone. And since we all still seem to be here, I’ll tell you what I did instead of looting and pillaging.

    I went to a book sale,  which is just as good, especially as most of the money I spent belonged to someone else.  It was the school’s money, Caroline’s school, and the Parent Association president, Susie, and I had a jolly good romp through Scholastic’s warehouse spending out some of our book fair dollars.  I left Scott with the children, who did not behave, and had an impromptu girls’ day out shopping for the only product I truly enjoy buying. Scholastic has warehouse sales about twice a year to unload stuff. I’m sure it’s a combination of overstocks, returns, and items that didn’t sell, but it was pure joy for me.

  The last time I attended a warehouse sale, I worked for the bookseller holding it. Not Scholastic. The evil company where dead birds used to turn up in our totes. We were a book wholesaler that sold stuff to libraries. When I first started working there, we only sold only children’s books, but the company increased in stupidity as it grew in size, and by the end we sold a little bit of everything. Which was kickass great in those semi-annual book sales, but lousy in every other way imaginable.

  So I was at least moderately angst ridden when Susie and I went to the Scholastic sale, because memories of that employer stir up some very bad ju-ju for me. And there are some things that all warehouse companies have alike. For instance, this one opened into a tiny office dwarfed by the enormous warehouse, where the loading bay doors were wide open and the smooth concrete floor started at shoulder height to those of us standing beside it outside in the parking lot. Talk about flashbacks. I can remember how those giant doors looked at my former employer’s, because the boss would hold these steak luncheons where the food was prepared by a catering company who set up shop in the back parking lot.

  A steak luncheon may sound like a great thing. It sure did to me when I started working there. Seriously, very few large companies offer any kind of perk like that, so I thought it was awesome that when the staff met its however-often-goals, the boss recognized and rewarded us. 

   Only he didn’t.

    The food came not with thanks and respect, but with expectations. You would eat it and be by-god-grateful about it. Heaven help the vegetarians who requested an alternative. Safari-man verbally attacked the requesters several times before some brave soul finally convinced him it was bad policy to alienate a third of his staff when the catering company didn’t have a problem providing an alternative. And the steaks themselves were chewy and overcooked, best eaten dipped in some kind of sauce. I became quickly disillusioned with the practice.

    But memories like that couldn’t deter me from a book sale. Especially not a warehouse book sale. And doubly-especially, a warehouse book sale where I got to help shape the holdings at my daughter’s school library.  All day long, I was making mental contrasts between Scholastic and my former place of work, though, with Scholastic coming out way ahead of the job from hell.  Even at the outset, things were different. The Scholastic office had, hanging on its wall, a note saying how many days the company had been accident free. It was over a year. Given that just about everything counts as an accident, that’s not half bad. Also given that my former employer’s warehouse was like an ongoing disaster,  I was duly impressed. It is doubtful that the accident-free record was even tracked at my previous job, and it was certainly not posted in the front office if it was.

 And the Scholastic warehouse was crammed with books. Far more than my former employer ever had in its warehouse at any given time, even though I’d say Scholastic’s warehouse took up less floor space. Now, I’ll agree readily that my former employer had to have room to DO more to the books than just ship them out. I worked in the cataloging department, where we created MARC records and printed out shelf tags with call numbers in the appropriate numbering system. We had to have a climate controlled environment with space for computers, printers, and desks. And the processing department had to have room to apply those tags, along with barcodes, color-coded stickers, Mylar jackets, and just about anything else the customer requested. But that did not account for the poor state of affairs in the inventory area.  It was always a mess down there, thanks in large part to the intake of items being organized along some incomprehensible guidelines that pretty much required a degree to interpret.

    And Scholastic’s books! Oh! They were all clean and in good condition. Not so my former employer. Books that hit the book sale at my former employer’s warehouse were always somewhat suspect, and even those that turned out to be flawless earned a degree of employee skepticism. We used to study the covers and flip through the pages for insects (living ones, not illustrations) before deciding to make even a cheap purchase.  At Scholastic, though, the books were under the constant supervision of a small cadre of volunteers who also worked for schools (not for Scholastic). Therefore, they stayed off of the ground and up on the shelves. They stayed clean and well placed. And the titles were recent releases, all on sale at phenomenal prices. Susie and I were shopping with money we earned at our own Scholastic book fair, so we couldn’t actually get a lot of the added discounts, but every dollar that we earn in a book fair is automatically doubled by Scholastic, so we were already getting a pretty good price.

   There were so many useful titles that Caroline’s school library needs. The library has recently been weeded, and a lot of older, abused books have been removed from the collection. Susie and I were able to snag some great science books and replace some classic fiction titles for the older and younger sets, in addition to adding a couple of series the library hadn’t previously held. We got a lot of books that will appeal to boys, which is really important since most of the school’s students are boys. (It’s a school for bright kids with special needs, and, as Susie put it, girls can have their pick, since there are so many more male than female students.) AND, we got our hands on books matching the themes given to us by the teachers and the volunteer librarian.  It was such a successful haul, and we had money left over at the end for the next book fair.  

   But the best part absolutely had to be the $25 book boxes. There was one section of the warehouse where we could fill these boxes with as many books as they would hold and still close, and Susie and I filled two of them. Susie and I added it up later, and figured out that for that $50, we got over $300 worth of books, and that’s figuring individual book prices at their lowest possible costs. It was probably more like $500 worth of books.  We had $30 hardbound coffee table sports books in there that will absolutely rock those kids’ worlds. We found Gary Paulsen, Jim Borgman, and a dozen others. There were books about Ancient Rome that matched next year’s social studies’ theme and animal books that go with just about any science unit. We were pumped. 

  And I kicked in $25 of my own dollars to buy a third box to donate to libraries decimated by the tornadoes.  Yes, Scholastic was that amazing. They were encouraging people to buy books to help recreate libraries eradicated back on April 27. They had tables of dollar books on hand especially to encourage people to do that, and I saw that I wasn’t the only one who had bought a $25 book box to support the cause. I’m sure the company will also be adding donations of its own to those made by warehouse sale shoppers.

   So, while I may not have been carted off to heaven in a golden chariot, I still got to enjoy some serious rapture today, and I cannot wait for Scholastic’s next sale. We won’t have quite so many book fair dollars to spend, but we’re still going to have an amazing time.

Treasure Island

   Well I made it. While I did not reach page fifty, I got through the end of chapter eight and thereby completed the material I had assigned myself for the week. Naturally, I got behind in my grading, and I came across potential blog topics just begging to be written daily. But I got my characters out of their conversation without bogging the plot down too much more, and ended with a chapter from the killer’s perspective. Whee! I can resume my blogging now, as The Bitch has been appeased. (Should I be at all concerned that her urgency turned out to stem almost entirely from desire to get to that “killer’s perspective” chapter? Nahhh.)

   Of the blog topics that presented themselves begging to be written in place of my novel for the last few days, the most compelling by far came from Caroline.  On a whim Monday night, I had told her to pick me a book from the ‘grown-up’ shelf. Now, that really means the anything-more-complex-than-picture-books shelf. She’s the one who calls it the grown-up shelf, because the books have lots of chapters and few or no pictures.

   I was expecting her to choose a Magic Tree House or Puppy Place volume, since she loves both series and knows the covers (and plots) by heart. (She has also read these to herself several times over and never seems to tire of them.) Instead, she brought me Treasure Island. “I’m ready now,” she said. I’m ready now. Woah.  It might have turned into a moment of profound connection, with our eyes meeting as I acknowledged this step towards adulthood. It could have become a moment of metaphor, where ‘I’m ready now”  became Caroline’s entire life-journey, condensed into a sentence.

   Instead, Sam stuck his head in between us. “I want a book wif pictuwes,” he said.

   “After Treasure Island” I told him.

   I felt a little guilty in the choice, not because Sam had to wait through a chapter before  Henry and Mudge could Get the Cold Shivers again, but because Treasure Island is Scott’s story. It’s what he read to Caroline in utero, and it’s what  his Dad read the Merriman kids when they were growing up. Caroline has even asked Papa Dave to read her Treasure Island before, but she hasn’t had the attention span for it. So when she brought it to me Monday, I wasn’t about to turn her down. If she was ready now, then I had to start now, because by tomorrow, she might be not-ready again.

   My Mom tried to read Treasure Island  to me when I was a kid, along with any number of other classics, but I wanted nothing doing. I don’t remember if I found the language off-putting, or if I thought it was too long, or if I just wasn’t into pirates, but I always turned her down for another day. Actually, I always flatly refused. And by the time I got to be an avid reader myself, I had no interest in the classics. I don’t know if it was “mother-block”, whereby I refused to read anything Mom suggested (except that I actually did read many things she suggested), or if I just thought Treasure Island was old and boring, but I never read it. Never even tried it. Unlike Dickens, whose works I periodically at least attempt to read, I had never picked up Treasure Island.  (For the Dickens record, I now finally enjoy A Christmas Carol, but can’t stand the rest. Someday, Charles, I will understand you, but we aren’t there yet.)

   But I knew Treasure Island was Scott’s favorite when I was pregnant with Caroline, and I wanted her to hear her Daddy’s voice while in the womb. So we would cuddle up, and every night he would read a chapter. We did the same thing with Winnie the Pooh. (Another one I wouldn’t touch in childhood, though, to my credit, Mom wouldn’t either.) And I discovered that I actually enjoyed the stories he read us. Quite a lot. Enough that Caroline and Sam have both been read Pooh multiple times outside the womb, and I feel a little thrill of hope every time we try Caroline on Treasure Island again, followed by a small letdown when she  turns out to still be too young. Or perhaps just not ready.

   But Monday was different. The girl knew what she was talking about. She was ready. And so, to a lesser degree was little brother. I only had to squawk at Sam twice, when normally an extended period of me not-reading-HIS-book produces outright belligerence on his part. I only read chapter one, but that was far more than either of them had been able to sit through previously, and by Tuesday, she was clamoring for more. And on Tuesday, Scott was home, his semester having culminated the day before (giving him a grand total of 3 days off before the summer term starts), so he could find out about The Reading.  To my relief, he is not upset with me, and he actually provides a good pair of fielding hands when Sam gets too bored.

  Caroline, though, is rapt.  I pause pretty often to break the story down for her. The language is difficult, with cutlasses, buccaneers, and luggars slicing, shooting at, and floating towards things respectively. And she’s got a problem with reading comprehension. She can commit an entire page to memory, but she struggles to then tell you what that page was about or draw any conclusions from it.

  Tonight, Dr. Livesey and Squire Trelawney were just opening the treasure map when, out of nowhere, Caroline announced, “ ‘I’ is a pronoun. A pronoun takes the place of a noun.”

  When Scott and I had finished smothering our delighted laughter, since pronouns are an abstract concept she’s been struggling with for a long time now, I asked her “OK, who does ‘I’ refer to here? Who is the ‘I’ in Treasure Island?”

  She screwed up her nose, thinking, then came out with, “Jim!”

  Brilliant! And this after she had also remembered an important plot detail: that Jim and his mother had already gone through “the captain’s” treasure chest in the previous chapter, which we read last night. And she had also already drawn the conclusion that it might be Dr. Livesey riding to the rescue when Dance and his men arrived on the scene, which required her to recall that the villagers had been persuaded to send someone for said magistrate in last night’s chapter. (We read two tonight, since it was Friday.)

  It’s so wonderful to watch Caroline’s ‘ready’ when she’s blasting forward with it. Tomorrow night, Jim and the doctor will head to Bristol to meet back up with the Squire and secure a ship and crew. I can’t wait until Caroline comes face to face with Long John Silver. She’s going to love it.

  Oh. And for a follow up? She wants us to read her Jules Verne’s Journey To the Center of the Earth. That’s another of my Mom’s favorites that I’ve been meaning to finally read. Looks like I’m about to get the chance.

Writer’s Block

  I’m completely stuck in my current novel.  The scene I’m on isn’t moving forward, and I can’t seem to just drop it and start the next chapter. I have a pretty good idea of what’s holding me back, too, and what I’d tell other people to help them fix it, but my own tips don’t seem to be getting my characters to actually speak to each other. On top of that, I’m coming up on a self imposed deadline on Friday to have the first fifty pages written, and this damned scene is bogging me down.

    Without going into too much detail, the main character needs to leave the hospital, get to a friend’s house, confront her controlling Mom, and come to terms with the realization that she’s underestimated her Dad. This one is a murder mystery, so there’s a killer out there, but I don’t think that’s my problem here. My real problem, in a nutshell, is that this scene is dull.

   It’s a draft. I know that if I can get the basics down, I can work out the “dull” later. But the dialogue at this point sounds like my internal monologues. It sounds like me working out plot details, with a lot of “As-you-know-Bob”ing and “Is she really that dumb” moments. As a reader, I hate those. As a writer, I loathe them. And, while I understand Anne Lamott’s advice about shitty drafts, and deliver it regularly to my comp students, I have a hell of a time applying it to myself.

    The Bitch is a control freak, and she’s just the worst of my personalities. Everybody else likes to be in charge, too. They all three go back through my manuscripts diddling with fixes instead of plowing ahead, even though they know I’ll be combing back through the whole thing later no matter what.

    And I’m not the sort of idiot who thinks the muse has to be present before I can finish a project.  I understand that writing is a process requiring “butt-in-chair” more than any other quality. (Though keyboarding skills help.) I’m perfectly willing to glue my ass to the seat in order to get this portion of my project put to death.  But I’m still struggling to get these two women to talk to each other plausibly.

    It’s the dialogue holding me up. I need the two characters to distinguish themselves from each other. Up until here, the speakers have all had pretty unique voices. The controlling Mom is kind of overwrought and melodramatic. The Dad is quiet and squeamish. The medical staff are all clinical with a good bedside manner. But I haven’t quite got a handle on the best friend yet, and she’s in danger of sounding too much like my protagonist.

    After much wrangling, I figured out the hook today, just now. The best friend is going to be the one who pushes the protagonist to realize that she’s underestimated her own Dad. So I think I can make the friend’s lines really contrast with the tone the protagonist uses in the narrative sections – this one is written largely in the first person – and thereby give each woman a distinct voice.

    But, with a boatload of essays to grade and precious little time this week between kid activities, it means something has to go. So. I’m going to have to hold the blog over my own head as a kind of carrot. “Get your work done and you can blog your success on Friday, Jessie.” That kind of thing. I’m not going to be posting Wednesday, or possibly even Thursday updates, because I am serious about my Friday deadline, and that means I’ve got to turn on my tunnel vision. I made good progress today doing some grading this morning and some writing this afternoon, and I’ll be doing the same tomorrow and probably Thursday as well.

    Mostly, this post is to let you know I haven’t quit the blog just because I’m dropping out of sight for a couple of days. It’s also an odd sort of way for me to work out what’s really holding this chapter up without assigning dumb dialogue to my characters. Hopefully, I won’t be returning for the next two days with more holdups that need thinking through. Hopefully, you’ll have radio silence from me and know that I’m turning some white screens black with ink.

    Wish me luck folks. I’ll see you Friday.

Pain yes, gain no

So I’ve been doing this workout thing, going to the gym six days a week and doing some other form of exercise on the seventh, even if it’s just walking. I hate walking. At the gym, I hit the cardio and weight machines like I know what I’m doing, and I take a class pretty much every weekday. I’ve joined a women’s wellness group where we encourage each other in our goals, and where we don’t have to set our sights on a specific level of weight loss. Personally, I’m measuring my progress in clothing sizes, and I refuse to step on a scale, but I seem to be making progress.

At some point, I’m supposed to have this attitude revolution whereby I begin to respect the importance of physical fitness in my life and want to become a healthier me. Or something like that. But the truth of the matter is that I’m only doing this because The Bitch says I have to. She says we’re going to the Y, and she makes me get on those damnable machines and put up with those people who teach the dance party classes. 

And she likes Pilates. She likes Pilates for God’s sake people! She’s a total hound for them. I only just learned how to pronounce the damned name five years ago. I always read it like Pontius’s last name (Pie-late) , but it turns out to be some California guru weirdo’s last name instead, and he said it Pih-lah-tee. At least twice every class I have to flop down on my face and rest, and The Bitch just picks us back up and off we go again.

Just about the only classes she doesn’t have to force me to attend are Yoga and Zumba. Yoga is nice. Sure, it’s a workout, but it’s peaceful. I sweat, but I’m never left gasping for breath, and I can work on balance and stability to fake myself out of thinking it’s exercise. There’s soft music playing at something like a normal speed, we take our time going through each pose, and the instructors are never pushing us to do too much. Pilates shares a lot with Yoga. In both, there are modifications for just about every pose, and nothing is designed to leave me injured.  But Pilates are designed to push. The instructor says things like “last eight sets” and “give me four more here”, as if these are easy achievements. Plus, there are these icky situps and pushups that my chest and abdomen hate. I’m supposed to lift from those abs for the up-sitting, but I struggle with that and have to be careful not to hurt my neck.  And the pushups endanger my breasts, because I’m likely to crash down on them when I run out of oomph in the middle of hoisting myself back into a plank. In contrast, Yoga doesn’t put my boobs in mortal danger (though one of these days I’m liable to suffocate in them ). It seems like every class, another tight muscle relaxes, and every maneuver is like a tiny massage.

There’s no pretending about Zumba. There’s nothing slow going on, and the class name could probably end at that first syllable “Zoom”.  I hated it the first few times I went, attending largely out of loyalty to Linda. But once I figured out to take off my shoes, I started liking the songs. And then I started loving the moves, which look flattering on just about any body type. And then, finally, I realized I adore the instructor, because Denisse isn’t a drill sergeant. She’s dancing. She’s telling us what the moves are, and offering modifications sometimes if we need them, but she’s not like those dance party people. There’s no need to browbeat us into submission, and even with the microphone on her head, it is difficult to hear her voice sometimes. I learn as much by watching her feet and the feet of the other, more-proficient than-Jessie students, and I seriously feel like I’m dancing. I can’t quite fake myself into believing it isn’t exercise, but it isn’t like when I’m throwing myself all over the floor in dance party building up a bad attitude to match my weight problems. Or like when I’m huffing along on the damned elliptical, too out of breath and angry to even read the book I brought along for distraction. For Zumba, I’m willing to be breathless and sore. In there, I can almost imagine the thrill the fitness nuts get from exercising.

I also had a good time with last week’s exercise  alternative, when we went biking at Callaway Gardens. This week’s alternative was fun, too. It started off dully, walking around the jogging path at Vaughn Rd. Park. But after that, I played with the kids, swinging and climbing beside them and huffing as I pumped them along on the ‘train’. Then, the four of us, Scott, the kids, and I, got on the four-way see-saw and stayed there for some twenty minutes. It was a durable piece of equipment to balance our grown up weight in addition to our kids’ blow-away-in-a-stiff-breeze bodies. And I can feel the workout in my inner thighs and calves, so I know I was moving that whole time.  It was excellent family bonding, too, always important.

Not that I’ll be converted to this regimen anytime soon. Just as soon as my decent Khaki’s fit again, The Bitch says I can pull back to a few times a week, and I’m taking her up on it. Because I hate exercise. And I hate exercise culture.

Treasure Chest

“I eawned my tweasuwe chest!”

This is how Sam wakes us up nearly every morning. It’s a huge improvement over “I SEE THE SUN. IT IS MOWNING TIME!” Although he was eighteen months old before he got there, once Sam started sleeping through the night, he was pretty good about it. For a year. Then, he discovered that his big boy bed was not the same kind of prison as his crib, that he could, in fact, bounce up and come find me at will. All. Night. Long. We tried several methods of stopping this, from the gentle “stand-at-the-door-and-wordlessly-return-him-to-bed” (he once jumped back up a hundred times, thought the whole thing was a game, and completely wore us down) to the slightly less polite lock-the-door-from-our-side (he just screamed –once for an hour), to the completely draconian unplugging-his-nightlight-routine (that one worked, but had to repeat it every single night, and we hated it.)

And then we found the solution completely by coincidence.

It actually started with some behavior problems Caroline was having. She was acting out in school and at home, forgetting to use her words and hitting, pinching, and sobbing instead.  She went so far as to yell at a teacher without even knowing why she had done it. (All the teacher did was say “OK class, go ahead and put down your pencils and markers so we can move on to spelling.” Caroline bellowed “NO! I WON’T” in response.) While we implemented consequences for these actions when needed, most of them were related to the autism and required a different approach. Besides, punishment-based parenting has never worked with Caroline. She has trouble making the connections between events in her life anyway, and so punishing her in response to a behavior just baffles her. All she really gets is that she’s disappointed us in some way.

Scott and I actually took a class in peaceful parenting a few years ago called “Redirecting Children’s Behavior”. I’ve since declared myself something of an unofficial spokesperson for the method, because it totally works. It’s absolutely filled with corny stupidity that makes me squirm and would have turned me off as a kid. But it’s also got a lot of fantastic ideas which, when stripped of the syrup, work extremely well for both Caroline and Sam. One of the points made in the class is that kids work harder for positive reinforcement than for negative reinforcement. There’s also a discussion of how positive reinforcement helps parents focus on the best parts of their children. Punishment based parenting is essentially negative reinforcement. The objective is to eliminate the negative rather than to increase the positive. The parent focuses on a negative behavior and then highlights it by punishing it. I’m not knocking it. I mean, putting up an umbrella in the rain is technically also negative reinforcement, but nobody is suggesting we all go get soaked in a storm. For some kids, Sam included, this method works well. However, there’s the danger of always looking for the negative when following this path.

And Caroline needs positive reinforcement. A lot of it.  RCB methods are based on the idea that kids want to do right and want to be part of a happy cooperative family. So parents try to encourage good behaviors so that they’ll repeat. For us, in this situation, that boiled down to the need for a reward system.  We didn’t really have to worry about over-rewarding Caroline, either. She has entitlement issues related to routines, not to behaviors. In other words, she’s not the kind of child who will expect the same reward every time she acts in a certain way. Thus,  if there is no challenge to behaving well, we can up the ante to include something new (a longer time period without problems, for instance) without much flak.

So we filled a treasure chest with dollar store junk and told the kids they could earn prizes for acting right. Since I couldn’t very well implement it with one kid and exclude the other, we included Sam in the process. We couldn’t figure out a way to make it totally positive, still haven’t as the matter of fact, but we do have the system set up so that we don’t seem to expect perfection and we reward them for continued good behavior.  Either or both of them can earn the treasure chest in a given period, and neither of their earnings potential is based on the other’s behavior. All they have to do is avoid getting three strikes in a given time period, and they know clearly what kind of behavior will get them strikes. Essentially, we’re rewarding them for being nice to each other and not driving us completely insane, both of which have been serious problem areas in our family.  [OK, so that second one is a stop-the-bad-behavior-thing. Whatever.]

In addition to helping with Caroline’s problems, it also helped Sam treat his sister better, and it has strengthened their already-fairly-hearty bond.  We’ve gotten to the point where they have to be well behaved all day (i.e., not get three strikes over the course of the day) to earn the treasure chest at bedtime.

At the same time as we were working this out during the day, Sam was getting more and more impossible at night. We were calling him “poptart” because he jumped out of that bed as often as a piece of bread in a toaster with broken springs.  And then, one morning, we told both kids, “If you stay in bed all night without getting up except to take yourself potty, you can earn a morning treasure chest visit.” Caroline already did this, but I was honestly just hoping it would encourage Sam to start trying. Just as in the daytime, we gave them three strikes, and I figured Sam would run through his fast the first few nights.

But it was like we’d thrown a switch. He immediately stopped playing bound-out-of-bed and started just going to sleep. He wants to earn that treasure chest.  We’ve modified Caroline’s requirements slightly. She already slept through the night. Indeed, she slept a little too well. Like her parents, Caroline is not a morning person, and she was waking up cranky and uncooperative every day. While sleeping through the night is a big deal for Sam,  it’s not much of an achievement for her.  So we adapted. She has to get up, eat quickly, and get dressed within a specific time period without getting  three strikes for dawdling or arguing in order to get her morning treasure chest.

And it works. For both of them. We’re no longer listening to hours long choruses of “I need you to fix my bed” and “I need anothuw dwink of watuw” at bedtime from Sam. Nor are we dealing with “I’m too busy sleeping to get out of bed right now!” from Caroline in the mornings. It’s not a perfect system, but it’s effective.

And like every other parent on earth, we’ve long since learned that parenting is all about the small victories and slow, steady, progress in the right direction.

Strawberry Jam

I made strawberry jam yesterday. Well, technically, my friend Linda made strawberry jam, and I helped. It was so much fun. SO much fun. We made and canned the jam (a process which technically involves jars), talking about a dozen other things the whole time. I felt so relaxed in her tiny kitchen, and I just wanted to make batch after batch and drag the project out for several hours.

 Some of my best childhood memories are of helping my Mom in the kitchen. She was the kind of parent who made her small assistants feel genuinely wanted, who always had a job that was just my size, even when she was doing something huge like canning vegetables.

Not that I was the world’s greatest helper, I’m sure. I had a tiny attention span and a tendency to walk away in the middle of tasks. But I still remember the feel of a tomato skin peeling easily away after boiling. Of dropping the skinned tomato into the jar while it was still so hot it was liable to  scald my fingers. I still remember waiting for those jar lids to “pop” and then flipping the uncooperative ones upside down to see if they could be coaxed into preservation that way.

Mom used a pressure canner, this giant metal pot best heated when balanced between the two back burners. The pressure part terrified me, since the much smaller pressure cooker had exploded on me as an infant. I was about a year old, still scooting, rather than walking, and I happened to be in front of the stove. Mom had walked away while letting the vegetable soup come up to pressure, but had forgotten it. She realized what she’d done in the instant before it exploded, spraying boiling liquid everywhere.

Somehow in that moment between realization and explosion, she got her body between me and the spray. She couldn’t have had a whole second, but she saved me. Here is what I remember. I remember standing naked in the bathtub while she held my scalded hand under the cold water. I remember how it burned. I remember her saying, over and over, “Just keep it under the water until it feels better.”

Here’s what I don’t remember.

Mom had second degree burns over half of her own body. She should have been in the hospital. One of our few family videos is from Christmas just after the pressure cooker explosion. You can see me scooting around on the floor, completely oblivious to the trauma of a few days prior. And you can see my Mom, swathed in bandages from the shoulder down. It was years before I realized that the whole time she was soothing me, holding my hand under the water and assuring me it would feel better, she must have been in agony herself. I remember that her voice was tight, maybe a little impatient, but I’m sure I didn’t understand why.

She was just that kind of parent.

I’m pretty sure I’d be able to throw myself in front of the blast for my own children. But someone else would have to soothe them after, because I’d be dealing with my own pain.

It just about killed Mom when she had to go back to work when I was eight, and she still grew this enormous vegetable garden that we ate from all summer. Well. I hated vegetables at that age, but I still helped her can them, and make jellies and jams, which I also refused to eat. It was the process I enjoyed, especially filling the jars. I loved to balance the tin canning funnel over the opening, then spoon in the contents, tap out the air bubbles, clap on the flat vacuum tops and screw on the lids. By the time I was twelve, I was even proficient at the “pressure” part of the equation, with only lingering fears that the hissing steam was about to spray all over me. (For the record, the danger starts once you put the pressure gauge on top, not while the steam is exhausting the air inside the pan.)

Linda doesn’t pressure can. She just boils the filled jars, but they still make that magical pop sound as the vacuum lid snaps out the last of the air. And yesterday, she let me hull, rinse, and puree the strawberries, using her Ninja motor-on-top blender. And she let me ladle the syrup into the canning funnel, hers blue plastic, on its way to being preserved as it gelled into strawberry jam. I felt like I was five years old again, working with Mom in the kitchen, creating something edible and lasting that we could pull out of the cabinet whenever it was needed.

It reminded me that I want to have a vegetable garden (even though I know I wouldn’t maintain it) and that I need to find an open U-pick for my kids before the strawberries have gone by this far South. Most of all, it reminded me that I loved growing up in the country, even though it would be very hard to coax me out of my city life now. Thanks for an awesome afternoon, Linda, and for promising to call me when the blueberries and peaches come in.

Jam Jars: Photo by Linda Myers