Thursday, February 28, 2008

Teaching 101

Finally, after three weeks of delays, I taught my first class last night. After I got all good and worked up before the first class was supposed to start, I read David Sedaris’s essay, “The Learning Curve” from Me Talk Pretty One Day, while waiting for an oil change and felt much better. If all else failed, I could always show taped episodes of One Life to Live. As I drove back to work, the sun came out, the snow started melting, and I actually started feeling OK, even a little excited about teaching. And then I got a message that they cancelled adult ed for the evening. Deflate. And then it snowed the next Wednesday. And the next week was February break. Then it snowed again Tuesday night, by which time I was feeling like the gods of the written word really did not want me messing around with their stuff. I made all my photo copies Tuesday and looked over my notes, not really expecting to teach again this week. But they did not cancel adult ed yesterday (I think they would have held classes if a freak winter hurricane came inland and drowned the entire county).

When I left the office last night, the panic started to rise again. I ate dinner at a local cafĂ©, read over my notes again (I really did make a lot of notes), feeling totally under-qualified and under-prepared. I got to the school an hour early, and as I walked in the front door, I felt that lurch in my stomach that I always feel upon entering a school (all these 17 years later!!) I found the adult ed office and turned in my paperwork. The adult ed director led me to the teacher’s lounge, where the class is held, telling me about how she has just been accepted to the MFA in writing program at USM. Which is what I should be doing—learning to write, not trying to teach it.

I spent the next hour cleaning about an inch of coffee goo off the surface of the table, arranging chairs a comfortable distance from each other, reading and rereading my notes, running to the bathroom and reviewing my class list. I have four students—three of whom I already knew. When they all arrived we introduced ourselves and talked about our expectations for the class. One student is a teacher, one a retired teacher and the other two seem to have taken extensive writing courses in the past. Not intimidating at all.

It went well—I think. I’m glad there are four students and not the ten I had originally envisioned. We have a range of mom-stages, from a new mom with a seven-month-old to a mom with three grownup-kids and a grandkid. They all seem really enthusiastic and I can’t wait to hear their stories. About halfway through the class my arms started shaking uncontrollably and I had to press them to my sides to keep them still. It was a little chilly in the room, but I think I was on the letdown from the adrenaline generated while panicking prior to class. Driving home, in the snow, I relived the class in my mind, dwelling on my weaknesses—I talked too much, and referred to my notes too much (all four single-spaced pages of them)—then I remembered that the goal of our class is to silence our inner writing critic, and that I should probably try to silence my inner teaching critic too, or at least give him the night off. As I neared home I realized I felt kind of good—energized. I think I may like this.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Six and Conflicted

Dinner table conversation last night:

M: CM got his parents to give him a dollar and now he has $100.

C: Has CM been saving for a long time?

M: No, he got $50 for Christmas. I should get $50 for Christmas.

C: Maybe you should ask Santa for cash next year.

M: Christmas isn’t about money.

* Update on yesterday’s post: This morning I took 13 CFLs (including one broken one—not sure where the other broken ones have got to) to a local hardware store for recycling. And I guess I forgot to mention why I was so worked up about broken lightbulbs—compact fluorescents contain small amounts of mercury vapor—mercury is a persistent, bioaccumulative neurotoxin. CFLs are still better than incandescents, in general, because they save energy and energy production (particularly coal burning) emits large amounts of mercury to the atmosphere. And in our solar-powered house, energy-hogging incandescents aren’t really an option. Still, check out the Maine DEP report to see their recommendations on what rooms they suggest avoiding CFL use and how to safely change, handle and clean up accidental breaks.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Toxic Home

When I got pregnant with M we lived in an apartment in the back of an 1832 Greek Revival mansion that was loaded with character and lead paint. Aside from the IQ-diminishing coatings on every surface, we knew we had to move out because it only had two small bedrooms, the second one being full of our extraneous junk, and we reached our front door by climbing a long, steep, dirty-ish staircase with sharp metal strips along each step. (I did not think about the danger of a kid falling out of especially high—because of high ceilings—second story windows, but that was because I had not lived with E and Z yet).

We looked around town for rentals, daydreamed over a mysterious estate house covered in vines (maybe we could be caretakers!) and even toured one house for sale. We gave up in despair after only a couple of rental tours—these houses were equally, if not more lead-paint infested than our current residence, they had nasty dirt basements and seemed to just radiate filth and toxins. I know it is generally not recommended to make major life decisions while under the influence of pregnancy hormones, but major life decision making we did. We toured some of C’s dad’s land in November, picked a site, designed our house over the winter (thinking only of how to stay cozy and warm—not how to enjoy the outdoors and avoid the bugs in summer) and broke ground in March.

M was born in May. We moved in in September of the following year, meaning M lived in the lead-paint apartment for 16 months—including all of those crawling, slobbering, hand-sucking months. I tried, for a while, to toss all his toys in the bathtub once a week and wet-mop the floors, but to be honest I’m not the greatest housekeeper on earth, and it all just kind of got away from me. He didn’t gnaw on the windowsills or anything, but it is really the dust—fine, fine particles of lead that settle on everything and find their way inside the mouths of mouthy toddlers—that is the issue with lead. We did have one disturbing incident when M dug a chunk of horsehair plaster out of the hallway wall and devoured it (seriously—this is the kid that wouldn’t eat any real food).

M’s blood lead level at 18 months was 7. The reference level is 10, so he was technically OK, but I’m of the school that no lead is good lead. I was happy to be in our new, clean, toxin-free house, with woodwork finished with natural waxes and oils, no lead in sight. But still, it’s hard to keep it that way.

Last Friday, as I was frantically trying to get ready for a weekend away—cooking, packing and attempting to clean all at the same time (nothing good comes from multi-tasking), I was sorting things out in the mudroom, noticed M’s gloves felt damp and handed them to E, telling him, “go put these on the tile in front of the woodstove.” Don’t ask me why I expected my not especially verbal two-year-old to comprehend the difference between “in front of” and “on top of,” but about 10 minutes later I noticed a kind of singe-ey smell and walked into the livingroom to see M’s gloves melting into two puddles on top of the stove. I snatched what was left of the gloves off the stove, threw them out the front door and tried scraping the remains of nylon, foam and vinyl (I’m sure it must have been vinyl) off the top of the stove with wood chips and a stainless steal scrubbie. I opened up a living room window and the front door and turned on the bathroom fan upstairs, hoping to vent the dioxin and god knows what other chemicals out into the atmosphere.

On a number of occasions, we have broken compact fluorescent bulbs in the house. Once one broke as C was changing the bulb in the kids’ room—while I was putting them to bed (fortunately all of the pieces stayed contained in the glass light cover). The other time, M knocked over a lamp, which I stood back up without noticing the bulb had broken until the next morning. I was able to convince C to not use the vacuum to clean it up, but he ignored me when I said to use something disposable, and instead used the mop, so I had to throw away the mop head. An agency in Maine has just created new guidelines for cleaning up fluorescent bulbs when they break. I wish I had had this information when the other breaks occurred (I think we still have a basement full of broken bulb parts), but I will make a copy of it to take home, so we can maintain that illusion of a toxic-free home.

P.S. Yesterday M wore some really thick fleece mittens that he has tearfully refused to wear all winter because he only likes gloves (which is why I had to buy the now-melted crappy Old Navy gloves). When he got home, he said, “How come these mittens stay dry on the inside?” Aaargh!!!

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

More Buy Nothing Birthday Presents

We're heading off for Mount Desert Island and our third birthday party of the year this weekend (the second was another one of M's classmates--we went with a bowling gift card for his gift). This time the birthday boy is the son of our friends, so I had to put a little more thought/effort into a gift. Also he's only turning two, so I'm not sure what he'd do with movie theater thickes. Oh, yeah, and they live three hours away, so picking up a gift card would be a bit of an ordeal.

So last night I made this little springtime fingerpuppet purse (the one on the right), from Martha Stewart Baby, Spring 2002. (I know it's a bit of a stretch to start thinking about spring in February, but last year we were Easter egg hunting in two feet of snow, so springtime here is really more of a state of mind than an actual season).

I made the one on the left for M when he was one, and in his purse stage. Not sure how much we've played with the puppets, but ML (mom of the birthday boy) is a teacher and probably a way more fun mom than me.

I had all of the materials on-hand (wool-blend felt that is much nicer to touch and work with than the acrylic stuff that I made M's out of). I started cutting out the pieces while the twins were taking a bath (C and M were off smelting--don't ask) and finished up at about the time the lunar eclipse peaked--about three hours, minus time spent getting kids ready for bed and a little break while I drank a cup of tea and perused the rest of the magazine. I'll sew on the faces and put the puppets together by hand on the drive up to MDI Friday. So maybe about two hours or less of hands-on work. I could have easily spent that much time driving to the toy store (25 min. each way) and obsessing about what toy would be well-liked by mom and kid, useful/used, not too damaging to the environment or to the people who made it, and neither too cheap nor too expensive. I think I'm liking this Buy Nothing Year. Now I just have to obsess about whether it would be tacky to tuck some "vintage" (i.e. used) Beatrix Potter books into the purse.

Pads for Education

Head on over to Crunchy Domestic Goddess to read this post about Proctor & Gamble's campaign to purportedly help girls in southern Africa stay in school by giving them free menstrual pads and the issues that have arisen among skeptics--sneaky marketing practice, what about the waste, what will girls do when the program dries up? And continue on to read about Goods 4 Girls which is an effort to provide reusable cloth pads. At the Goods 4 Girls site, you can find out how to donate these pads (either ones you make yourself, or ones you purchase from any number of vendors). I have been wanting to make a copy of one of my Luna Pads (which are really comfy and low-profile compared with other bulkier cloth pads, but which are also mega-expensive), so this might just give me the motivation to get off my tail and do it. It's nice to see a charity where you can give a product that (in theory) goes directly to a recipient, rather than sending money into a black hole.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

2000 Miles

This is Part Two of a multi-part post about grandparents. Part One appeared last week.

I am in Old Navy, staring dazedly at racks of tiny T-shirts and miniature socks. I am in that conflicted early stage of new-motherhood where my rapture for my infant is rivaled only by my desire to escape him. On the rare occasions that I do escape, I usually find myself forlornly roaming the baby aisles of nearby big-box stores—Barnes & Noble or TJ Maxx—my breasts aching at the sound of a baby’s cry, my eyes welling up at the sight of a sling-worn babe. Today I find myself at Old Navy, inspecting racks of baby clothes I neither need nor want, trying to reign in my urge to race home to my own baby. I notice a woman nearby, short, middle-aged with a blond bob. Her cart overflows with tiny pink garments. “My daughter just had a baby,” she gushes. Her delight in this first grandchild is apparent in her fully loaded cart, her ease with sharing her news with a total stranger and the sparkle in her eyes. She is practically jumping up and down.

I congratulate her and head out of the store, feeling more disconsolate than ever. Why can’t M have grandparents like her? My own mother’s excitement over her grandchild, while no doubt more reserved around strangers, is in keeping with this woman’s. The first thing she said to me when I told her I was pregnant was, “So when are you moving home?” I found this sentiment more irksome than comforting—did she really expect me to quit a job with health insurance and move cross-country to sleep on her living room floor with a new baby? Although she is not a big shopper, and doesn’t have the funds to fill a cart, like the woman I just met, she did immediately go to my sister’s house and the two proceeded to the nearest mall to pick out baby M’s first duds. She took a train from Colorado to Maine to come visit him when he was two weeks old, bearing the items she bought, along with hand-knit sweaters and her signature hand-made flannel baby nightgowns. My dad didn’t come along, needing to stay at home and work and take care of the other kids. Although not an effusive or sentimental person, I knew he would be happy in a new grandchild, and if I did live near them I could count on either or both for backup, support and childcare relief, as well as granparently love. But they live 2000 miles away.

C’s parents are another story. Since the moment we got married (and were no longer living in sin) his mother had been agitating for us to have a baby. I could not figure this out, since I had never seen her be anything but rude and unfeeling toward children. C said she had tears in her eyes when he told her I was pregnant. C’s dad, with whom I had barely exchanged a dozen civil words since our wedding, was suddenly very friendly with us both, and more than willing to give us whatever land we chose and help build our family abode. Father-in-Law and his girlfriend (Five) visited us in the hospital, and took pictures of M, but he refused to touch or hold the baby.

Mother-in-Law (One) visited us the day after we got home, bearing a six-pack of beer (“to help your milk come in”) and a fermented cantaloupe that fizzed when we cut into it. She had arrived while we were out for a walk around the block, and when I collapsed on the lawn in exhaustion and pain from having just pushed out a nine-pound baby three days earlier, she said, “What’s the matter? Your hemorrhoids bothering you?” Later I heard her say that it was probably due to the “drugs” I took (one worthless shot of staidol several hours into labor) that M was born with supraventricular tachycardia and had a heart rate of over 300. For his first several months of life, when Mother-in-Law did see M (I would make the effort, occasionally and take him to her house myself), she called him “It.” “Oh! It has blue eyes!” Finally I got so fed up I told C, “If your mother f*ing calls M ‘It’ one more time, she’s never going to see him again!”

For M’s first birthday, we borrowed a room at C’s work big enough to hold the various branches of the family hedge, allowing them to be in the same room without having to interact. For gifts, Mother-in-Law gave him a china tea set, an egg carton full of choking-hazard-sized Red Rose Tea figurines and a small rubber Elmer Fudd figurine, complete with shotgun. Father-in-Law gave him a wooden wagon that looked as if he thought of building it, and slapped it together, about half and hour before the party started.

When M was one-and-a-half, we were invited to Father-in-Law’s for Thanksgiving Dinner. M had a bad cold and coughed so hard he threw up on the drive there, then fell asleep. Inside, I laid him down on a couch to sleep it off. Five asked if I didn’t want to put something next to the couch in case he fell off. “No, that’s OK,” I said. “He sleeps on the couch at home all the time and rarely falls off.” Five minute’s later Five’s mother asked, “Do you want to put some pillows on the floor, in case he falls off?” Same reply. Another five minutes elapsed when Five’s sister, B commanded me to move the coffee table next to the couch, and arrange pillows so that M will not fall off. C brought M’s high chair in from the car. I scooted my own chair down the table to squeeze it in. When we sat down prior to dinner, Five’s mother pointed out that the place setting, now slightly overlapping the arm of my chair and the arm of the high chair, belonged to me. B sat down on my other side and directed me to move each item—fork, plate, napkin, knife, spoon and glass—over four inches so they were centered in front of my own chair. “There! Now you have a place setting.” M slept through dinner, rendering these arrangements unnecessary. Throughout the dinner, B told me about her son, the various schools he has attended and the various problems he has had and warned me that the worst thing you can do for a kid is teach him to read. Even if I had regained my composure at being bossed around all evening, and could think of anything to say in response, B did not stop talking long enough for me to say anything.

M woke up after dinner and, for the first time in his 18-month life, sat with this grandfather and ate two Clementines for dinner. Father-in-Law realized he was a walking, talking human being and took a sudden interest in him. For Christmas he got him a really nice wooden train set, and over the next couple of years, he and Five invited him on outings once a month or so. These were never kid-friendly events. Never did they say, “Can we take M to the park/children’s museum/indoor playground/etc,” or, better yet, “When would be a good time for us to take M to the (insert kid-friendly activity)?” They always took him to antique shows, or greenhouses or landscape businesses, always involving a lot of driving, and M riding in a backpack, without much kid-centered fun. But M was an adaptable baby and went along amiably. I always packed him a lunchbox full of snacks and drinks, and a full diaperbag, but when we picked him up at the end of the day, both the lunch box and the diaper would be full. Five had never had children, and Father-in-law had never been involved with his own, especially when they were that little. I tried to gently remind them that they had to ask M if he was hungry or thirsty—he would never say so himself—and that they should check his diaper at least every hour. To no avail. C ranted and raved and declared we should keep M away from them. Oddly, I had to be the conciliatory one, and suggested that we overlook the negligence in favor of M developing a relationship with at least one grandparent.

Over the years I have hatched several plans to get us moved closer to my own family, where we could count on dependable, reliable, responsible and safe baby sitters (my sisters, and even a few aunts, in addition to my parents), semi-normal holiday festivities and birthday parties, and no rotating grandmothers. In one scenario, I would attend law school in Colorado (the only graduate program I could think of that might actually lead to a job that paid more, not less, when I was done). This plan lasted approximately as long as it took me to read the LSAT Study Guide. In another, C would get a big carpentry gig, we would finish our basement, move my parents in for three or six or twelve months, my dad would work with C and my mom would provide full-time childcare. The many complications of this plan should be apparent to anyone with more sense than myself.

For now, we see the good grandparents once a year, at most. The other ones live just a couple of miles away. I did invite One over to watch the twins Monday while I went to the co-op breakdown for a few hours. When I came home, Z was crying and called her a “bad boy”--his strongest disapprobation--and E was asleep on the couch. She later told C that Z was mad because she had prevented them from taking the cushions off the couch to jump on it (a constant struggle). Having heard stories of her tying her own son (C’s brother) to a door or chair, or him crawling out of the apartment and down the street before she knew he was gone, I wonder. And I’ll keep scheming ways of getting my kids closer to the good grandparents.

You Melt My Heart

Happy Valen-Times!

Sunday, February 10, 2008


I had my second big challenge to the Buy Nothing Year this weekend--I spent Friday and Saturday in the Big City with three friends . On the way down, I stopped at a kids’ consignment store in a fancy part of town and picked up three pairs of sweatpants for M, thus staving off future morning complaints of, “Where are my sweatpants? My sweatpants have holes in them! I need new sweatpants!” I also found one pair of the same for the twins (girl clothes are a lot more fun--even at thrift stores) and a pair of almost-new shoes that should fit one of them in the next year or so.

Once in Portland, AA and I hung out in Starbucks (where I was able to use my birthday present from August--a Starbucks card my sister sent me--believe it or not, we live in the last corner of the universe that has no Starbucks) and met up with ML. From there we trolled just about every shop in the Old Port, ate a slightly disappointing dinner, and visited the Art Museumwhere we saw two really nice exhibitions--John Bisbee’s amazing nail sculptures and the photography of Lola Alvarez Bravo. We retired to the hotel to drink wine and eat cheese and chocolate, slept kid-free and got up late to do more of the same, meeting up with another friend, AM for lunch.

Despite snowy walking conditions, I had a really great time exploring, car-free and window shopping. ML is busy outfitting a new house so she managed to pick something up in the majority of stores we went into, freeing me of guilt about browsing without buying. It was actually quite liberating to look without any (internal) pressure to buy. The only thing I was really tempted buy, and would probably have bought (other than a patch that had a picture of a monster and said, “Me Love You”) was a Baby Bjorn potty chair that’s made of all one piece, so we could do away with the multi-part monstrosity we have, that collapses if you go near it and makes it nearly impossible to avoid getting pee on the floor.

As we left the city Saturday afternoon, I felt a general malaise settle over me. Maybe it was the drab gray sky hovering over the drab gray landscape. Maybe it was the nagging sense that I overpaid for the cookies I picked up at the bakery. I hoped it wasn’t the prospect of going home. The malaise deepened into melancholy when I got home and saw our driveway was still unplowed, our plow truck still broken down. I descended into despair upon entering the house and finding the twins sound asleep at 4 p.m.--they would be up until midnight--and as 5:00 approached and I realized that C, who seemed to have spent the entire afternoon baking cookies, had no intention of starting dinner.

Resentfully returning to my role as kitchen slave, I threw together a box of Annies macaroni and cheese and steamed some broccoli. Of course everyone had consumed cookies through the afternoon and would not touch a bite. Z refused his bath and crawled into a big cardboard box to sleep. Amazingly, he and E both fell right to sleep and I took a bath and crawled into bed, still depressed. What is the point of a weekend away, if you return to children even more demanding than they had been when you left?

Saturday morning after breakfast, I drove my car to the end of the driveway so I’d be able to get out after the nor’easter, and attempted to ski back, but the snow was clumpy and I mostly walked along on really tall skis. As I trudged through the snow, taking the long way around through the fields and woods, and then shoveled the deck, I realized that even though I’ve (mostly) done away with my desire for material possessions, desire is still making me unhappy--desire for a way of life that is not hindered by feet of snow (either a more salubrious climate, living in a place where we can walk everywhere, or being able to stay home and write eight hours a day); desire for a husband that is up at 4 a.m. and has the driveway plowed, the fire built and the pancakes made before we wake up; desire for kids that sleep through the night and don’t fight, melt down or demand; desire to live a million miles away from my in-laws, and a few miles closer to my own family. I’m not a Buddhist, but I’m starting to come around to the notion that desire (and aversion) is the cause of suffering. Now I just have to figure out what to do about it.

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Freaking Out

I am teaching my first writing class tonight and I am totally freaking out about it.

Over the last year or so, I--along with some of my friends and other women I know--have tried to get a writing group together, but we were never able to get the critical mass necessary to keep it going. So last fall I started thinking about advertising the group through adult ed, and then I ran across this book. “Hey, I want to take this class!” I thought. But because I don’t live in New Jersey, I figured, heck, why don’t I just teach it myself? So back in November I sent the course proposal forms to adult ed and then thought, “Uh-oh, what did I just do?”

But I had plenty of time to ignore it, and then I had some fun putting together my syllabus. Last week the adult ed director called to tell me there were only three people signed up from the class. I was disappointed in the way I had planned on being disappointed when the ultrasound would reveal that, after all, I was only carrying one baby, not two. “Aw, shucks. That would have been fun. Oh well, time to move on.” But there really were two babies, and the adult ed director called later that day to say they got another registration, and we would be good to go, if I just shortened each session.

This weekend I got to planning the class in earnest and developed a four-page outline for the first class. Yesterday I photocopied all my readings (inspiration) and assignments (invitations). Today I can’t breathe. I have a feeling three of the students (one is a friend of mine—and a reader of this blog—so she knows what she’s getting into) will walk into the classroom tonight and say, “First of all, you look like you’re twelve, so how do you have kids? And what have YOU written? And what have YOU published? And who do you think you are to think you can actually get paid to teach something you don’t know anything about???”

I had initially been heartened by the fact that Lisa Garrigues had not been writing long when she started teaching, and that her mentor, Natalie Goldberg, had not been writing long when she started teaching. But that is cold comfort now, on the eve of my debut. The other cold comfort is that right now it is snowing buckets (can it snow buckets—see my metaphors suck!) and class will probably be cancelled and I will have a whole nother week in which to panic.
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