Imperfect Serenity

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Thursday, August 28, 2008


Still no time to write a review of that book, but here are a few photos of amazingly active whales in Massachusetts and the stunning scenery in Maine.

Trying to savor that summer feel back in Philadelphia.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

From the Road

A few interesting things have happened since I last posted. First, my computer died. Hard drive kaput. The good news is that it happened when we were preparing for a week of vacation, during which I wasn't going to use it anyway. I had just enough time to get it to my computer repair guy before leaving town, which is so much better than having it die nine days from now, when the kids go back to school, and I go back to writing.

The other good news is that we've had a wonderful family vacation. Highlights include visiting my half-sister, whom I didn't meet until my thirties, and having my kids meet the cousin they didn't know they had; taking a whale watch cruise with my sister and seeing fifteen whales, two of whom kept breaching; exploring the rocky, exquisite Maine coast; and sitting around the campfire as a family, talking, singing, and solving puzzles.

The Prius, which we kept impressively new-looking for several weeks, now has blue jimmies ground into the backseat and smells like week-old clams. Harry Potter fans who remember in book Seven when Hermione puts a spell on her purse to fit all their camping gear in it will have a picture of me packing nine-days of camping equipment into our small car. When we broke camp yesterday and got all the stuff reloaded, my son called it "a miracle."

On the Quaker front, the kids and I visited Amesbury meeting in Massachusetts on our way north and I am hoping to visit New Haven Meeting this morning before heading home, where I hope to retrieve my fixed computer, post pictures, and report on the very interesting book I've been reading. A teaser till next time...

Thursday, August 14, 2008

August Rush (not the film)

It’s August, the month where school seems to be rushing toward us in slow motion. This week we dug out the list of books my daughter was supposed to read over the summer and discovered that she has three “projects” due in less than three weeks, reflecting on three of the books on the list. Unfortunately, the two we had acquired (but not read) have both gone missing, including one from the library. In fact, we’ve spent quite a bit of time looking under the couch for materials from the library lately. It’s one of the hazards of having a summer where we did something different every single week. No routine, no organization. The good news is that I’m not as stressed as I used to get in August when the children were young, and I felt like I might die before nursery school resumed. Now, camp is over, and I will have no writing time until September. But I’ve learned that my creativity is waiting, not dying. September will come. I just need to enjoy this time when I get to be with my children full time. It's a blessing.

Of course, I have my moments. Yesterday I yelled at my kids when they didn’t respond after four polite requests to come eat their lunch. My daughter immediately started coughing—a red in the face, I can’t breathe because of my asthma cough, which she has had distressingly often lately. In fact, after years of having her asthma under control with medication, my daughter and I made our first middle of the night trip to the emergency room in what was technically, but barely, Saturday morning. She couldn’t catch her breath at home, but was fine by the time we got to the hospital, which meant we sat in the freezing waiting room for two hours, and finally got dismissed by a doctor after sunrise (which is when we suspect we lost one of the books). Since then she has been on increased medication and is doing much better, but is clearly not back to normal either. What struck me yesterday was how she coughed immediately after I yelled at her. I know that stress isn’t good for your body, including your breathing. And if I had thought about it, I would have known that being yelled at must be stressful. But seeing her physical response to my emotional state was startling, a very real example of words hurting.

I saw an amazing PBS special this spring, Unnatural Causes: Is Inequality Making us Sick? It talks about the stress caused by social inequality and how that stress affects the body. Based upon scientific research, it shows how the stress of the hospital CEO (who has lots of responsibility, but also lots of power) is actually less harmful to the body than the stress of the hospital janitor (who has to respond to everyone else’s demands without the power to refuse). It was quite compelling and made me think of all kinds of big social issues, but not my children. Yesterday I was suddenly hit with the fact that they, too, are pretty powerless, subject to the demands and moods of an unpredictable mother, who has more power to inflict stress on them than she usually realizes. August is usually a time for me to work on staying calm myself. This year I have an added reason.

Tuesday, August 05, 2008


Yesterday I stumbled on the book The Price of Privilege: How Parental Pressure and Material Advantage Are Creating a Generation of Disconnected and Unhappy Kids by Madeline Levine. This discovery came on the heels of Judith Warner's New York Times piece on $10,000summer camps where the counselors make the kids' beds. My daughter says she'd like to go to such a camp, and my son says I should pay him $5 for a five minute chore so he can buy a computer game. All of this just means it is time for another post about how hard it is to practice simplicity in a materialistic culture.

I haven't read all of Levine's book yet, but the gist seems to be that in her affluent community, and many others like it, children are given so much stuff that they feel empty when they discover that stuff can't make them happy. They also have parents so quick to jump in and solve their problems that they never learn self-reliance, a point that was echoed in an NPR piece last night about a camp where kids get to do truly dangerous things to counterbalance their normally over-protected lives. While our family is clearly not among the most egregious spoilers, all these authors trigger a few fears: Am I doing enough to protect my children from the materialism of our culture? Am I teaching them to be independent?

Recently another Quaker mother asked me what our policy was on video games. She was concerned that her son was being socially isolated by her stand against them and was considering getting him something. I ended up telling the whole long story of how my daughter wanted an iPod Nano (a subject that I've blogged about before, though I don't think I ever told the final resolution) and asked for it for moths and months to the point where she was leaving little notes on our pillows about it. Finally, remembering Sarah's blog comment about listening to our children's wants, we decided on a compromise. Our daughter had already promised not to listen to the iPod excessively or on high volume, so the remaining objection was cost. We agreed that she could buy an iPod Nano herself, but she had to earn at least half the money (rather than using gift money from family). We figured saving up for something you want is a valuable experience. And she did a great job. Not only did she save all her allowance (which we finally started paying as part of this process), she baked cookies on her own to sell on our sidewalk, cleaned part of the basement for an extra payment, and made little friendship bracelets to sell. (In what I found to be an amusing moment, a Friend at Yearly Meeting saw her making the bracelets and asked what worthy cause she was raising money for. My daughter confidently replied that she was raising money to buy an iPod Nano because her parents wouldn't buy her one.) She also did a great job researching prices on the Internet and finding a bargain. Since getting the iPod, she has done a good job of listening in moderation and at moderate volume. A parenting success story, except...

Because we allowed our daughter to save up for something she wanted, of course our son wanted to do the same, and he wanted a DS (a hand-held video game player that needs a $30 game to function). He also did a good job saving, and we found a game acceptable to everyone, but he has quickly mastered it and now wants more $30 games, which is why he is trying to swindle me out of $5 for a five minute chore, to shorten his wait for the next game. He talks about this quite a lot, which is really my biggest problem with it all. I don't want every conversation we have to be a negotiation. I find it quite exhausting, all this boundary setting. And now my daughter mentions a good friend just got a new cell phone, which I can't resist pointing out is what all the unhappy teenagers on the cover of Levine's book are holding.

Maybe I'm exaggerating the size of these questions in our family's life, but they seem to loom large sometimes. The number of pieces in the media recently suggests I'm not alone.

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