And Now For Something Completely Different

“Why does it say we’re having ‘Chaos Unleashed on Earth’ for dinner on Wednesday?” June asked. She was looking at the whiteboard on the fridge where I write the week’s dinner menus. And it did say “W: Chaos Unleashed on Earth” right after “M: Squash + Kale on Bowties,” and “T: Baked Eggs on Potato Hash.”

I explained we had a lot going on that night. Beth, Noah, and I had an appointment with a doctor in Bethesda to discuss whether to try a new medication for his ADHD—we’re still looking for the right drug and/or dose. I didn’t think we would get back until six at the earliest and then June had basketball practice at seven and I had book club at seven-thirty. So instead of a home-cooked meal that night, we were all going to eat various frozen foods.

Both kids looked at me silently, but skeptically. I asked if they thought calling a doctor’s appointment, basketball practice, and book club on the same afternoon and evening “chaos unleashed on earth” might be a bit of an exaggeration. Two heads nodded.

The point is…I am a creature of habit. Small changes seem like something completely different to me. Sometimes deviations from routine can be fun, though. We’ve had a few unusual days recently, and they all had something to recommend them.

Week 1

Wednesday: Veteran’s Day

On Veteran’s Day, Beth had the day off, June had a half-day, and Noah had a full day of school. The reason for the discrepancy is that K-8 teachers have parent-teacher conferences those afternoons. I’ve been going to these so long I didn’t realize they don’t do them in high school until I asked Beth whether we’d be trying to see Noah’s teachers before our appointment with June’s math teacher and she told me we wouldn’t be seeing them at all, which made the day simpler, though I do miss having that opportunity to touch base with his teachers on a one-to-one basis.

The kids left for school and we were left to our own devices in the morning, so Beth and I went to Busboys and Poets for breakfast. We saw another lesbian couple we know (moms to two elementary school-aged kids) come in as we were leaving. I guess it’s the lesbian-moms-briefly-without-kids hot spot in Takoma. Anyway, it was pleasant to have a mocha and an avocado omelet and uninterrupted adult conversation for breakfast instead of cereal and the newspaper, as is my usual habit.

In the afternoon, we went to see June’s math teacher, who explained what they were studying and told us nice things about June and gave us her report card. June had said earlier that she finds it nerve-wracking when she knows we’re talking to her teachers, so she was happy to hear it went well—not that we were expecting anything else. She just gets a little high strung sometimes.

As far as June was concerned, the big excitement of the day was the first basketball practice of the season. The Pandas’ coach, Mike, had decided to start practice early this year, in November instead of December. The Pandas had a 0-8 season last year, and he must have thought it would be nice to win a game or two. Not that the losing streak affected the team’s enthusiasm. Those girls have heart. It’s the Panda way.

Not counting Mike and his daughter Maggie, we were the first ones there, but soon the gym was ringing with the sound of running feet and shouting voices. I always enjoy basketball practice, partly for the opportunity to socialize with other moms, but also just to watch the girls. They always seem to be having fun and this was no exception. 

Thursday: The Day after Veteran’s Day

June had another half-day because it takes two days for teachers to get through all the conferences. I had an appointment for a mammogram in the city that I knew would eat up a good bit of the day, mostly in transit, so I arranged for her to go home with a friend and stay the whole afternoon, so I could get in a couple hours of work before Noah got home at four.

If I have a late morning or early afternoon appointment in the city I nearly always get lunch out so I tried a new (to me) rice/noodle bowl place. It’s the kind where you get a card with checklist of ingredients and you pick a certain number from different categories and then you get in line and hand it to them and they make it in front of you. I got buckwheat noodles in miso broth, with a fried egg, tofu, peanuts, seaweed, and other vegetables. It was really good.

For most of the five hours I was out of the house, I was binge-listening to a new NPR psychology podcast, Hidden Brain, which I recommend if you’re in need of a new podcast in your life. Other than the actual mammogram, the whole day was another pleasant change of pace.

Week 2

Monday: Sick Day

Nevertheless, I was looking forward to a week of the both kids being in school for five full days. We were two weeks into the third quarter and we’d had exactly four of those this year. So of course June woke up on Monday saying she felt sick and wanted to stay home.

She had no verifiable symptoms and I wasn’t sure she was really sick, but I let her stay home because I never want to send her to school when she says she’s sick and then have the school nurse call me and say she’s thrown up or something. Beth had an idea that she might have been nervous about a missing homework paper. She’d left it at Zoë’s house on Thursday and had been fretting about it ever since, even though she’d called Zoë, who had promised to bring it to school. I’m not sure if that was the problem or not, but that afternoon we checked and found out Zoë came through, giving the paper to their English teacher.

Anyway, she stayed in bed until 12:30, weakly requesting some chamomile tea and toast around 10:30. She seems to have figured out exactly how long she needs to stay in bed before I think walking her to school and back just isn’t worth it, because at lunchtime she was recovered, wanting lunch and cutting out fabric for a dress she wanted to make for one of her dolls.

The fact that June lays low and stays out of my way when she’s home sick means it’s no longer a lost day of work for me. I wrote some web copy about selenium and zinc, exercised, and even read a chapter of Daniel Deronda, which I’d be discussing at book club in two days. I did spend much of the afternoon with her, though, and, as always when something had to give, it was housework. I gave up plans to vacuum and sort through the masses of paper that continually drift onto the dining room table.

What I did instead was read two chapters of The Horse and His Boy to her and quiz her on the multiplication tables and on U.S. geography, as the qualifying test for GeoBowl was Wednesday. Since she was no longer feeling sick, I also had her practice her violin, finish her Native American diorama, and take the laundry down off the line. I kept her busy until dinner time. In exchange for letting her stay home when she requests it, I try to make sure sick days aren’t too appealing.

Wednesday: Chaos Unleashed on Earth

So, I bet you’re wondering how did that busy Wednesday go? It was fine. We got back from the doctor’s appointment at 5:50 (with a new prescription), heated up frozen lasagna, empanadas, and enchiladas and ate more or less at the same time. Beth and June left for practice around 6:45. I stayed at home until 7:25, which was cutting it close, because Noah was working on a 300-word opinion piece about American imperialism and I wanted to be there if he ran into a snag. But he’d written his introductory paragraph with no help by the time I left and for him that’s lightening speed so I was happy as I rode the bus (which came on time) to book club. I was only five minutes late.

I usually manage to remove myself from whatever I’m currently fretting about at book club. I think that’s part of why I find it so restorative—that and because it engages a part of my mind that used to get a lot more exercise—but I did occasionally wonder how Noah’s essay was coming as we discussed the psychological, sociological, and narrative elements of Daniel Deronda.

By the time I got home, around 9:20, Noah was in the bathroom in his pajamas, flossing. The essay was not finished but he was up against the word limit already. I offered to take a look at it and suggest cuts and he seemed open to that plan. Writing to word limits is something I do a lot these days, but he doesn’t always want to avail himself of my expertise. He was probably happy not to be told he had to go to bed with the essay unfinished, as it was twenty minutes past his bedtime.

We moved to the study. I told him to put in his required quotes before we started looking for places to cut. He did that while I perused Facebook. When he had all his points included, the essay was 360 words and had no conclusion. I started highlighting places where he could word things more succinctly and pretty soon he got into the swing of it and was finding them himself. A lot of the changes were actually improvements, but there were a few things I was sorry to see go. His quotes were pretty truncated and would have been more effective if he could have included more of them, but he got it down to 300 words, including a brief concluding sentence.

I help Noah with his homework frequently, everything from quizzing him on Spanish vocabulary, to reading to him (I’d read the one of the two required sources for the essay to him the night before), to helping him outline ideas or edit, to just being in the same room to make sure he’s attending to his work. Some of it I do just to make his life more manageable, but because he’s in a humanities program, some of it is actually fun for me. Anything to do writing usually falls into that camp.

He was in bed, paper printed, by 10:10. Beth and I go to bed very early, around 9:30 or 9:45 most nights, so she was already asleep. But what with all the mental stimulation of the evening, I was wide awake, so I took a melatonin tablet and stayed up another twenty minutes or so, so I wouldn’t end up tossing and turning in bed. And the chaotic day was over.

Monday is Beth’s birthday, which ushers in the holiday season for us. In the coming weeks, there will be a good deal more joyful chaos in our lives. I think I’m up for it.

The King and Queens of Halloween

Early Saturday afternoon, after gymnastics and a quick lunch, June was in the bathroom applying her corpse makeup. She was already in her corpse clothes, a long-sleeved black t-shirt and jeans from the thrift store she’d distressed the weekend before. Most of the holes were in the front of the clothes, though, and I was looking at her from the back. As a result, when I first saw her (without focusing on her gruesome-looking face), it felt as if I was catching a glimpse of June in high school or college, in her black top, skinny jeans, and ankle boots, putting the finishing touches on her makeup. This was a disconcerting vision, but Halloween is all about being unsettled, isn’t it?

I was actually kind of unsettled for the three weeks leading up to Halloween. It was for a happy reason. My sister was in China, picking up her newly adopted daughter and her business was temporarily closed. I had some small work projects to do and I picked up a big outside editing job so I had work, but not as much as usual and I was continually uncertain as to how I should be divvying up my time and spent a lot of time fretting about it, which made the extra free time feel less like leisure.

Worse still, very few of the big housework projects I had in mind, other than the usual cooking, cleaning and laundry, actually happened. I dealt with a drawer full of papers and cleaned most of the fridge, but I didn’t even finish that. I did read more than usual. I read an Agatha Christie mystery and Stephen King novel I somehow missed when it came out (Blaze). I got about of a third of the way through Daniel Deronda (which my book club is reading this fall) and I spent the last two hours of my furlough before June got home from school on Friday finishing Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, which seemed like an appropriate thing to do the day before Halloween.

Speaking of Halloween—this is a post about Halloween, so I suppose I should get back to Halloween—as I was watching June in the bathroom, we were all getting ready to leave for the Halloween parade. Noah’s Fiji Water bottle costume was so big we needed to go in shifts. Beth drove June and me to the Co-op parking lot where some carnival games were in progress and then she went back home for Noah.

June entered a contest to guess how many plastic spiders were in a jar and then she won a tiny checkers set with cardboard pieces in the shapes of pumpkins by throwing a football into a net with holes. Mostly, though, we wandered around, looking for people we knew. We found Keira, a fifth-grader from June’s school, who always has great costumes. This year she was a contortionist. She achieved this by covering her own legs with drapery and having fake legs bent over her shoulders. Then we met Grace (the witch from Wicked) and Lottie (Mozart), who in real life are two sisters June knows from years of drama camp. Lottie said, “June, I can’t look at your face. You are freaking me out.” I think this was exactly the reaction June had for been going for when she and Beth covered her face with peeling latex flesh and bloody wounds. It might have been especially satisfying because Lottie is two years older than June.

One of the parade officials announced the parade would start in fifteen minutes, which made me nervous because Beth and Noah hadn’t arrived yet and I didn’t want him to miss the judging. His water bottle costume was beautifully executed and he’d been working on it for several days, unlike last Halloween when he basically threw together his (still impressive) calculator costume in less than a day. Indulge me and take a close look at the details—the QTY line at the bottom of the front is one of my favorite parts, as is the whole back panel.

I caught sight of Noah shortly after the announcement. Shuffling along in the big blue box that covered most of his body, he was hard to miss. I directed him to the section of the street where teen and adults were supposed to stand. Luckily, it was right next to the nine-to-twelve area. Beth was parking the car, so she didn’t arrive until later, just in time to adjust the straps that attached June’s coffin to her back. Noah was having trouble keeping his lid on his head, so I was staying near him to balance it as needed.

Noah scoped out the competition and decided the motorized cupcake was the only real threat for Most Original. At first I thought it was a wheelchair costume, but when I looked more carefully at the wheels, they didn’t look like wheelchair wheels, so it might have been constructed over an ATV. In any case, the cupcake-on-wheels was getting a lot of attention. There was a zombie with a zombie dog, but I figured she was probably shooting for Scariest. A judge did complement Noah on his costume as she passed through the area and later a teenage girl ran up to him and said, “Fiji Water, I love you!”

“Do you think she’s a fan of Fiji Water or is she in love with you?” I asked him and he gave me an irritated look. (What’s the point of parenting a teen if you don’t embarrass him every now and then?)

There were photographers circulating, both journalists from the Takoma Voice and regular parade-goers. Both kids had their picture taken multiple times and June was interviewed. But the judges took June’s name and not Noah’s. In our experience, having a judge take your name doesn’t mean you’ve necessarily won (June’s was taken last year for instance and she didn’t win that year) but Noah’s never won without having had his name taken, and he’s won Most Original in his age group three times. I held out a sliver of hope, though, because I do remember a few times a winner being announced by costume only. It doesn’t happen often, though. Trust me, we are pretty close observers of the ways of this contest. It’s serious business to our kids. June’s been gunning for Scariest for a few years and so far, she had never won.

I don’t know if it was a desire to win that made her insistent on the gory makeup, or if it’s a developmental stage. At the a Halloween party at her friend Claire’s house the weekend before Halloween, Claire was a “psycho clown” and June’s friend Zoë was a “zombie triathlete” so maybe they are all just ready for scarier costumes. This does seem to happen at an earlier age than when I was a kid, though. And even as a fan of things scary, I’m not sure that acceleration is a good thing. The only thing I did to put the brakes on it, though, was not to offer to buy her a little wooden axe at the Takoma Park street festival two weeks ago. I saw it, thought it would be perfect for her costume, then wondered what I’d say if she asked for it. As I was thinking it over, she picked up a dagger from the same stand and pretended to fence with it, but then she just put it back and didn’t ask for either weapon and I didn’t suggest we buy them. I think having a weapon stuck in her mid-section would have been over the line for me…this year anyway.

Soon the judging was over and the parade started moving. We’d find out who won at the end of the route. Noah’s costume proved cumbersome to walk in, so sometimes he’d hike it up higher, which made walking easier but seeing impossible. I held his hand, which stuck out through a slot in the side of the box and told him when to slow down or stop to avoid trampling small children. When he got tired of not being able to see, he’d lower the costume again and walk more slowly. After a while he gave me the lid and I wore it on my head. I told him we were a group costume now. He was the bottle and I was the lid.

Once we got to the end of the route, the Grandsons, Jr. were playing. In between numbers, Rec Center employees announced the winners of the contest, starting with the four-and-unders. June and I went in search of a bathroom because we knew there would be at least one song between age groups and we both had to go.

We got back in time to hear the winners for the five-to-eight group. I have to say this particular set of judging was mystifying. A girl dressed as Hermione won Scariest. Hermione is many fine things, but scary is not one of them. A girl dressed as Katniss won Funniest. Again, Katniss is many fine things, but funny isn’t what comes to mind. Now we never saw Katniss so I allowed maybe it was a joke costume, maybe a cat with a bow and arrow or something. But then a Rubik’s cube won Most Original and I gave up any hope of things making sense for the poor five-to-eight year olds, one of whom was wearing a Montgomery County basketball league t-shirt and had half a basketball on her head, her face painted to resemble the rest of the ball, and was walking around with her head in a hoop with a backboard behind her. Clearly this child was robbed. But that’s how it goes sometimes.

We could only hope for better judging in the nine-to-twelve group. Scariest was announced first and it was June! They mangled her last name, but she didn’t care. She’d finally won! Beth looked relieved and said, “Thank God.” June’s been more gracious in recent years about Noah’s string of wins than she was when they were five and ten, but she’s seen him win several times and never won herself and they have at least the normal allotment of sibling rivalry, so she really wanted it. It helps that they’re never in the same age group and thus not in direct competition with each other, but still…

June went up to collect her bag of prizes (candy, pencils, a $10 gift certificate for Rec Department programs we can use for drama camp, etc.) A boy dressed as a ninja in a mechanized contraption along with dummies of the villain from Scream and a mummy with all three of them hooked up to each other to move in unison won Funniest and a girl in a shower stall won Most Original.

More songs, more waiting… Finally, they announced the teen and adult results. Scariest was predictably the zombie with zombie dog. Funniest went to the cupcake, which I thought might leave an opening for Noah to win Most Original after all. But it went to the lamppost from The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. None of us had even seen said lamppost, which was odd because the teen and adult area was not as crowded as some of the kids’ groups where it would be easy to miss someone.

Noah was disappointed, as were Beth and I for him, but he took it okay. He’s generally a pretty easy-going kid. I hope this doesn’t sound like favoritism because I don’t think it is, but I seem to feel his disappointments more keenly because of that. He’s the one who doesn’t ask for as much, so I want him to have those things he does want. But you win some and you lose some. That’s life. We all know that. And he takes satisfaction and pride in crafting his costumes for their own sake, even if he also likes the outside validation. (He ended up getting some of that by tweeting a picture of his costume to Fiji Water. They re-tweeted it and by the time he went to bed he had more than a dozen shares or re-tweets or something. I don’t really understand Twitter.)

We waited to see who won the group competition, out of curiosity, and because June’s friend Marisa’s family always enters that and they’ve had some spectacular costumes over the years. This year they were the “Atoms Family” according to a sign they carried. They were all in black clothes, with hula-hoops orbiting their bodies at various angles. They won Most Original. We exchanged congratulations with them, and headed home to 1) make some adjustments to Noah’s costume (trimming it for easier walking and making a chin strap for the lid), 2) watch It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown, 3) put the finishing touches (spotlights, fog machines, etc.) on our yard display and 4) to eat a supper of butternut squash ravioli and broccoli.

The kids left for trick-or-treating around 6:45. Last year they went with friends, but this year they decided to go together, which I thought was sweet. I stood on the porch watching the corpse and the water bottle go around the corner while I stayed behind to greet a few dozen trick-or-treaters. The first one came while we were still watching Charlie Brown. She was a tiny Princess Leia who was too shy to say either “Trick or Treat” or “thank you,” despite her father’s gentle reminders.

“I love what you’ve done with the place,” the dad said, gesturing to the skeleton and zombie emerging from the ground and all the ghosts, skeletons, etc., hanging from the trees and porch.

The kids were home and trading candy with each other by just after eight. Based on their walk around the neighborhood, Noah reported we were still “the king and queens of Halloween decoration.” Of some of our neighbors he said, “It’s like they don’t even take it seriously.”

The kids had today off school and June spent the day going from makeup violin lesson to first play date to second play date. When the second mom brought her home, she surveyed our yard and said, “You went all out.”

We go all out. We take it seriously. Don’t you worry about that.

March Madness

I don’t even know what to say about the last few weeks. The last week of February was difficult and the first week of March was worse.

The last Thursday of February Beth and June and I attended a memorial service for a forty-four-year-old woman who died of breast cancer. We did not know her well, but she was the mother of one of June’s preschool classmates, a girl who also played on a soccer team with June in first grade and on her basketball team from kindergarten to second grade. Grief would be too strong a word to use because we weren’t friends, but her death did make me very sad, for her not being able to see her children grow up, for her widowed husband, and most of all for her four girls, aged six to twelve.

And then there was the weather. In the space of two weeks school was cancelled on four days, not to mention a two-hour delay and an early dismissal. (That last one was scheduled, at least.) This brought us to seven cancellations for the year, three over what’s built into the school year. And even though the school district promised to make the days up this year, they’ve gone back on that and applied for a waiver from the state, which means my consolation prize of three days of uninterrupted work in mid-June might not come to pass either. We’ll see.

When a friend asked on Facebook why a few of us stay-at-home and work-at-home moms were complaining so bitterly about the days off, I answered:

It’s the disruption of trying to work with kids at home, it’s needing to decide which of the things other than work that I usually do that I am not going to do, it’s the loss of quiet time that’s important for me as an introvert, it’s the fact that I also lose the chance to recharge through exercise when the pool at PBES is closed or through socializing with other adults when basketball practice or my book club is cancelled…And this is unique to me, but it brings back my grief for my father because he died shortly before the big storms of 2010.

This is what I meant about my father. It doesn’t happen every time school is suddenly closed, but when we have a great many cancellations in quick succession, it often brings me back to the-world-is-spinning-out-of-control feeling I had in the winter of 2010, when the kids missed two and three weeks of school respectively. (June was in morning preschool then and if the school district had a two-hour delay, her whole day was cancelled.) The bulk of those storms happened the month after my dad died and it’s clear that these two events got cemented together in my mind in a way that makes me overreact to the real but honestly not dire inconvenience of having the kids at home on a workday. I understand it’s not quite rational but that doesn’t change it. Add some painful private difficulties to the mix and I haven’t been much fun lately.

But so far I haven’t had a day as bad as Saint Patrick’s Day last year (our tenth and last cancelled day that year). I spent that day mostly in bed, with the blinds drawn, listening to an audiobook–and to make matters worse, it a pretty bad audiobook. I was afraid all this winter of going back to that place and I thought I had around two weeks ago, on the first Monday of March.

We’d had an ice storm and school was cancelled. I’d woken at 5:45, sore all over from having spent two hours the previous afternoon chipping ice off our sidewalk, but at 9:00, I was still in bed and I hadn’t eaten breakfast. It wasn’t that I wasn’t hungry. Getting out of bed and getting myself something to eat just seemed too daunting. I finally did get up, though, by focusing on the goal of putting a load of laundry in the washer. I decided to get the newspaper while I was at it and bring it back to bed. When I went outside at first I thought it was raining, which was strange because it was a bright, sunny day. Then I noticed that when I wasn’t standing under a tree it wasn’t raining and I realized it was water dripping from the rapidly melting ice. It was such a strange phenomenon I called June outside and we walked all over the sunny, sparkly, ice-covered yard, looking at every twig and every tall weed outlined as if in glass and listening to the water patter on the frozen ground and the ice breaking and falling off the tree limbs and the shrubbery and the clothes line.

Startled out my lethargy, I decided to eat breakfast instead of going back to bed and told June I was going to the creek to do something and asked if she wanted to go. What was I going to do? Come and see, I said and then I went back to the front yard and filled the wheelbarrow. Noah, watching from the porch in his pajamas, guessed correctly. “Are you going to dump that in the creek?” he said.

June did come with me, half amused and half embarrassed, as I pushed the wheelbarrow a block from our house and then she watched, bemused, as I heaved the contents over the railing of the bridge. She told me I was “completely insane.” Perhaps, but I felt better enough to muddle through with my day and not to go completely off the rails when school was cancelled again on Thursday and Friday. Though when Beth took June to work with her on Friday I really wasn’t sure if she did it because June likes to go to work with her, or to give me a chance to work in a quieter house, or because she wanted to spare June from me because I was still in a pretty bad mood. She didn’t say and I didn’t ask.

On that day, after I finished working, I walked to the library to return a book and while cutting across the campus of the university near our house I saw ten robins crowded onto a strip of exposed grass and mud over what must have been a warm underground pipe. Two days later on the same campus, I saw two clumps of crocuses, yellow and purple, almost a month later than they usually emerge, but there nonetheless. And now, after a week of warm weather, we have crocuses in our yard, too, and hyacinth and daffodils poking their way out of the newly visible ground.

Over the course of last week, life slowly settled back into its usual groove. The kids went to school five days in a row. I swam on Sunday and had a book club meeting on Wednesday. June had a violin lesson, a Girl Scout meeting, a basketball practice, gymnastics class and a basketball game. Nothing was cancelled. Although I appreciate this normalcy, I still feel tender and exhausted. I have a mistrustful feeling about it, like I’m waiting for the other shoe to drop.

The change to Daylight Saving Time, which has seemed easier in recent years as the kids get older, seemed very hard this year. I’ve been tired all week, and I’m not the only one. On Friday night June put herself to bed, fully clothed and without telling us. I only discovered her fast asleep when I went to tell her to get ready for bed.

The Pandas’ last game was yesterday. They lost, which was not surprising as they lost every game this season. Their defense is pretty good and while four or five players are on the verge of becoming good offensive players, they have no one who can consistently score, and if you can’t score, you can’t win. Mike, their coach, has somehow remained positive and encouraging through all this, and for the most part the girls have been positive, too. I mean, look at the picture. It was taken right after the end of the last game. Do they look discouraged?

They’re eight and nine years old and while some of them want to win, some of them just want to have a good time. Plus they were on their way to an end-of-season party (graciously hosted by Talia’s family) and they were excited about that. They live more in the moment than I do. I know June was very solemn at the memorial service and sad at the death of her friend’s mother, but I don’t think it touched her too deeply. It’s harder for me now not to be touched by things like that, even when they’re peripheral to my life.

My book club is reading Anna Karenina and I found when I got up to the part when she confesses her affair to her husband, it seemed so much sadder to me than when I read it as a grad student. It was the whole situation–Alexei’s pain, the way he hides it (from himself and Anna), which leads her to read him as cold and uncaring, which makes her think she might as well tell him what he already half-suspects and desperately wants not to know for certain. I felt so sorry for both of them…I think I read more emotionally now, maybe because I’ve been out of academia for almost a decade and I no longer worry about being sufficiently detached and theoretical. Or it could just be that I’m middle-aged and I’ve seen more of life and what it does to people.

I don’t think I’ll end up throwing myself under a train any time soon, though. I have children to raise, after all, and daffodils coming up in my yard.

With What’s Available

I have been having trouble keeping the Ship of Steph from running aground recently. This is only one small example, but on Sunday afternoon when I was walking home from my weekly swim at Piney Branch Pool, I ran into my dissertation director and her partner (maybe wife now—I don’t know), another English professor, who was also on my committee. They also live in Takoma Park, a town of approximately 18,000 people, but oddly, I never see them. In the fifteen years since I got my Ph.d, I’ve seen the partner/wife once in a coffee shop, and the dissertation director…never. We had a brief, awkward conversation that left me feeling awash in feelings of failure and shame over the wreck of my academic career. It wasn’t their fault really, and I may even have been unintentionally rude to them in my brusqueness, but clearly even after nine and a half years out of the classroom and seven and a half years after I gave up on finding academic work (5/11/07), I am not completely over this loss.

I told two friends about this encounter; the first one works at the Folger Institute. Our older kids went to preschool together and for a long time I envied her job. Non-university-affiliated jobs for a Shakespearian are few and far between, so it seemed to me she’d hit the jackpot. Just now, she’s frustrated to be doing more work on the website and less scholarship and teaching than she’d like, so it was a shift of perspective for me to know the job I’d envied her for years was not perfect. On the flip side, the other person I told, a stay-at-home mom/blogger/part-time graduate student in library science, told me she was jealous of my job, because I work at home, writing, and get paid for it. Again, more perspective.

Then on Monday evening, June had a migraine and Noah was struggling with some middle school social drama I probably shouldn’t detail here and I just felt so sorry for both of them and in Noah’s case, helpless to do anything for him.  I at least know what to do when June has a headache. (Give her painkiller and anti-nausea medicine, put her to bed, hold her while she sobs, hold the basin and her hair when the anti-nausea medicine fails to work, stay with her until she’s almost asleep, then leave.)

But my moodiness, June’s headaches, and Noah’s being thirteen aside, I do have a positive story to tell you. Here goes:

The Halloween parade and costume contest was Saturday afternoon. On Friday afternoon, I wasn’t even sure Noah was going to be in it. Noah takes this contest very seriously, especially after he won in the most original category when he was ten (dressed as a newspaper, 11/1/11) and again when he was twelve (dressed as a SmarTrip, 10/28/13). This year, between being busy with school, and possibly more importantly, paralyzed by his desire to top last year’s costume, he didn’t even have any ideas yet. He just kept saying, “What could be better than a SmarTrip?” and I kept telling him it didn’t have to be better, it just had to be half-decent, and achievable with the available materials and time. He gets fixated sometimes, on the way he thinks things should be and can’t move forward with the way they are. Where do you think he gets that particular character trait? It’s a mystery.

Meanwhile, June’s costume was all set. She’s going as the girl from the ghost story who wears a green ribbon around her neck and when she takes it off her head falls off.  The previous weekend we’d gone to Value Village to buy her an old-fashioned looking second-hand black velour dress and some lace-up black boots and Target to get black tights and Jo-Ann’s to get some green ribbon.  June wanted to add some fake blood dripping out from underneath the ribbon to complete the effect (on the big day Beth managed to get a soaking-through-the ribbon look).

While I was waiting for the kids to come home from school Friday, I was thinking about the Halloween I was ten or so and dressed as a stick of Wrigley’s gum—a costume made of crepe paper and aluminum foil, which ripped almost as soon as I set out. I came home in tears and my mom thought for a few moments, and then left and came back with a rain slicker, an umbrella and a container of Morton’s salt. “You’re the Morton’s salt girl,” she said and Halloween was salvaged. I was thinking Noah might need a similar maternal miracle and wishing I could provide it.

But a little while after Noah came home, inspiration struck. He wanted to be a calculator. This seemed like a good idea. We had some large cardboard boxes he could cut up for a front and back panel. All he would need was some paint.  We called Beth and she offered to pick some up at the hardware store on the way home. In the meanwhile, he printed an image of a calculator, superimposed a grid on it, and then with June’s help, drew a grid on his cardboard. Next he sketched out the buttons, the display panel, etc. There are a lot of nice details, but my favorite is the number the calculator was displaying: 10.31.

By the time he went to bed the first coat of paint (dark gray, the background color) was applied.  It needed to dry before he could add other colors. In the morning he did a second coat and then did homework while that coat dried, and in the early afternoon, he applied the third and final coat.

He wasn’t ready yet when it was time to leave at one, so Beth drove June and me to the parade staging ground, where carnival games were in progress. The games were a new part of the festivities so it wasn’t clear when the contest and parade would start. Luckily, they went on long enough so that when Noah arrived around two, there was enough time to spare to watch his sister throw a ball at a pyramid of cans, and for them to stick their hands in boxes to feel “eyes” (grapes), “veins,” (spaghetti), etc. The jelly “guts” were so sticky when Noah put his hand in the “teeth” (dried beans) bin his hand came out with beans stuck all over it.

When it was time for the contestants to gather under the banners with their ages, June and I went to the seven and eight year old area and Noah and Beth went to teens and adults. We met up there with June’s friend Maggie, who was dressed as a leopard queen. She was wearing more leopard print items than I could count and a small tiara. Her face was masterfully painted as well. Noah wanted to know if she was queen of the leopards or a queen who just happened to be a leopard but we never got a straight answer. One of the judges asked June her name, which is a sign you are under consideration. I think this was the first year she’s been asked. The judge took Maggie’s name, too. (Last year Maggie won scariest for her zombie princess costume.)

While we were waiting to start marching June and I heard one of her peers say, “Daddy, I saw someone dressed as a calculator,” and I thought I saw a flash of annoyance cross June’s face, as if she was thinking, really, here in my area?

We walked with Maggie and her dad the rest of the route and met up with Beth and Noah at the end. Beth reported the judges had taken Noah’s name, too. A local band (one of Noah’s favorites, was playing while people milled around and waited for the contest results.

This was the first year the parade has been held in middle of the afternoon.  In the past it’s always been at dusk, which is spookier. We were all a little cranky about that, except June because it meant the parade didn’t conflict with her friend Claire’s Halloween party this year so she could attend both. Another advantage was that it was not freezing cold like last year. In fact, it was quite warm. June was actually hot in her black velour dress.

Finally the band took a rest while they announced contest results. A baby dressed as Ruth Bader Ginsburg won a prize, as did a preschooler dressed as a forest fire. In June’s age group, the leopard queen won most original (or maybe it was funniest) and scariest, the category June has decided is her goal, went to a Day of the Dead-style sugar skull.  June was very gracious, clapping for everyone who won and running over to offer her congratulations to Maggie.

Before they moved on to the nine-to-twelve group, the band played another song, as we waited rather impatiently.  When it was time to announce most original the announcer discovered the name was missing and said he’d come back to it.  I was hoping it would be Keira, a fourth grader from our bus stop who was dressed as a person tied to a rocket, with stuffed jeans-clad legs emerging from her waist as her real legs were hidden under the rocket’s flames. She won last year for her picnic table costume.

Teen to adult was next and when they announced the winners, Noah won for most original. June clapped and congratulated him. She has matured a lot since Noah first won a costume contest prize and she was jealous as could be, like a caricature of jealousy, really. Even so, we reminded her that Noah was ten and had worn a lot of very original costumes before his winning streak (three out of the past four years) started, so she shouldn’t be discouraged. The winner for most original in the nine-to-twelve group was finally confirmed and sure enough, it was the girl on the rocket.

We hung around to see who won the group costumes. Most original went to the family of one of June’s friends. They were dressed as a campsite (tent, can of bug spray, campfire, and s’more). Once we’d heard all the results, I bought Noah a Grandsons CD as a keepsake and we went to CVS to buy candy corn to eat during our next activity: pumpkin carving.

Later, while June attended Claire’s party, Beth, Noah and I ate Chinese takeout and I read him the first chapter of The Haunting of Hill House, one of my very favorite horror novels. It was a pleasant evening, one I will try to remember when I forget things don’t have to be perfect, just half-decent, and achievable with what’s available.