Monday, August 30, 2010

Dream: Tufts 10K for Women, redux

This summer I tried to get Big E to train for a one-mile fun run.  She liked the idea of the two of us running in a race together, but our training sessions were not as productive as I'd have hoped.  We'd lace up our sneakers, fill our water bottles, and head to the track.  After about a quarter of a lap, she'd stop dead, put her hands on her hips and glare, snarling, "You just want to make me run."

Pretty much, yeah...but I get it.  Running is good, forced running not so good. 

I don't shy from exercise.  My evening gym sessions are my Prozac and a jog through the park on a fall afternoon is a treat I look forward to all day, but a race is quite another story.  Recently, I tried to explain this to my husband, who delights in the organized competition of his weekly soccer games. 

"I think it all goes back to high school," I told him.  "There was the gun shot and then you're running through the woods and someone's right behind you, trying to catch you. I think that memory scarred me."

He cocked his head at me with incredulity and a trace of horror, "That happened to you?"

"Well," I explained, "That's basically how a cross country meet goes."

His eye roll told me that perhaps I had overstated my case, but something bad did happen to me in high school and it involved running ...and my mother.

When I was a sophomore, I was in the best shape of my life.  I was in my second year of running cross country and had yet to discover the boys or starvation diets that would mar subsequent seasons.  My mother, who had been a runner for as long as I could remember, asked me to join her in the Tufts 10K in Boston.  Since 6.4 miles was no big feat to me at that point, and (more to the point) since the few times I'd run with her since starting my cross country training I'd bounded off and left her safely in my dust, I agreed.

At the midway point of the race there was a turnaround that allowed those who were on the return leg the satisfaction of seeing the faces of all of those who could not keep up as they chugged on behind.  I can still see the flood of surprise and, I was sure at the time, elation that crossed my mother's face when she saw me plodding along the first leg as she made the return.

At the time, it filled my legs with cement and my head with excuses (untied shoelaces, crowded water stations...and on top of that I just wasn't in the mood).  Insult to injury came as I tried to redeem myself with a big finish.  I heard cheers from the crowd as I took off in a glamorous sprint.  And then I saw the inspiration for all those cheers: not 15-year-old me, but the sprightly octogenarian who finished just ahead of me.

And in October, I'm going to do it again. Maybe I'll have a triumphant day and redeem myself; though it's entirely possible, to my mother's immense credit, that she will beat me.  More importantly I'll prove to myself that if I keep my breath even and put foot in front of foot, I can get through it --and 20 years later, I hope I'll be old enough to appreciate the value in that.

Besides, I know I could so beat my 6-year-old in that fun run...if only she'd let me.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Eat: An experiment in breakfast cookies

August is a rough month.  I feel the new school year creeping up on me and I go through a few stages of madness.  The first stage involves aggressive merry-making, and somewhere between the stages that include compulsive shopping, short-temperedness and hyperventilating comes the baking.

The baking is a way to assuage my guilt a bit for the craziness that is about to descend upon the household as we all return to school and daycare.  Since mornings during the school year are a special kind of crazy around here, I thought I'd come up with a morning baked good that I could whip up on the weekend and give the kids for breakfast throughout the week.  They're fans of these Quaker Oats Breakfast Cookies that taste like they're made of sawdust and silly putty, so I figured I could invent a better version by healthying up my favorite unhealthy chocolate chip cookie.  Here's what I came up with:

Ingredients:
3/4 cup unbleached all-purpose flour
3/4 cup whole wheat flour
2 tablespoons of wheat germ
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, softened
1 cup fat-free vanilla flavored Greek yogurt
3/4 cup packed light-brown sugar
2 eggs
2 1/2 cups old-fashioned oats
7 ounces 70% cacao chocolate, coarsely chopped
1 cup finely grated zucchini

* I'm thinking a cup or so of chopped nuts would be a good addition, but they are strictly forbidden at both girls' schools and Little E eats her breakfast there.

1.  Preheat the oven to 350 and combine the flours, wheat germ, baking soda and salt in a medium bowl and whisk to combine them.

2.  Use a mixer to cream together the butter and sugar.  (A stand mixer works really well for this recipe.)  Add the yogurt, then the eggs and vanilla. 

3.  Gradually add the flour mixture and mix until just combined.  Then, add the oats, zucchini and chocolate chunks.

4.  Use an ice cream scoop to put 1/4 cupfuls of dough about two inches apart on a cookie sheet.  If you line the sheet with foil, you'll save yourself some clean-up time.

5.  Bake for about 20 minutes, gently flattening each cookie with a spatula halfway through the cooking time.

6.  Allow the finished cookie to cool for five minutes on the cookie sheet before removing them to a rack to cool completely.

The verdict:  Well, I hope that they're as healthy as they taste...but they're actually not bad --sort of a cookie-muffin hybrid.  Most importantly, both girls liked them and no one questioned the zucchini.  So, guilt assuaged for now and I even managed to get in some vegetables; though I must remember to wipe their mouths before they leave the house, lest I be left to scrape chocolate off Big E's face at the school door with only a finger nail and some saliva...
Thankfully, Little E's post-breakfast face will be her teacher's problem.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Play: Throwing caution to the wind

Last Friday night I had an adventure.  It involved a very small mini-van, some baby hamburgers, a petite pizza, just one Stella and a platter of shrunken pastries, and it had me clutching my (imaginary) pearls.

It started with an innocent plan to hit the mall with my good friend, owner of the (micro) mini van.  She and  I met about eight years ago when we were both teaching English at the same urban high school.  We've both since moved on from that school but continued to grow our friendship over shared dressing rooms at Ann Taylor Loft and margaritas.  She is someone whom I've always considered to be very much like me: we are both wives and mothers; we share similarly lefty political leanings; we have writerly aspirations; and, when we're together, we both get pretty giddy on just one drink.  On Friday night, though, she demonstrated for me our differences.

As we pulled away from my house, she proposed a change of plans.  Instead of going a few towns away to the mall, we could drive an extra 20 minutes or so and go into Boston for dinner.  It was a beautiful night and this was, of course, a totally reasonable idea.  I knew this, and yet as I smiled and agreed to the new plan, I felt myself silently panicking, clutching at my metaphorical pearls.  Only I don't wear pearls, because that's really not the image I like to portray...despite being exactly the kind of woman who gets a little short of breath when the mileage between my children and me increases (negligibly), when the time away from the family that I've blocked out for myself increases (slightly), when the evening I'd plotted in my mind changes (even for the better).

As she aggressively maneuvered through city traffic, she pointed out apartments she'd lived in, restaurants she'd eaten in, landmarks from her pre-minivan life.  She talked about buying a one-way ticket to Boston and starting out on her own after college, mixing pancake batter in a plastic bag because she didn't own a bowl.  I was in awe.

There was a time when I was spontaneous and free-wheeling.  After growing up in a tiny backwoods town and going to a small private high school filled with a group of teenagers more obedient than any I have since encountered, I went to college determined to be the girl who was up for anything.  By the end of freshman year all I had to show for it was pasty skin, some serious bloat, hefty overdraft fees and a GPA that hovered just above the lower threshold of the university's patience.  And so I grew cautious.

Ultimately, the caution with which I've lived has yielded the things I value most in my life: my children and my marriage.  But on Friday night I realized that it has also permeated my life beyond the point of necessity and that it's not something that I want to pass on to my girls.  While I don't want them to buy a one-way ticket to anywhere, ever, I do want them to understand that a summer night out in the city is a pleasure and not a reason for panic.

So, do stay tuned as I make a plan to work on learning how to sometimes deviate from the plan and thank you, friend, for the lesson.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Work: With my pink pen in my pocket

As the daughter of blue-collar parents who has spent her entire working life in public schools (save for a warehouse temp gig here and a maternity leave there), my perception of life in the corporate workforce is informed entirely by what  television has shown me.  And, oddly, the television show that has most influenced my vision is Melrose Place.

As such, when I fantasize about an office job, I see myself strutting into work in a perfectly tailored suit with a mid-thigh length skirt, three-inch heels, sexily tousled hair and a very important leather briefcase.  My desk would be a huge mahogany number, nearly bare except for a vase of fresh flowers.  I would eat lunch in a white-tablecloth restaurant and use the bathroom --whenever I wished!-- surrounded by pristine marble.  This is all pretty far from my reality.

Teaching  is a profession rife with sensible shoes, khaki pants and ponytails.  Grown ups (myself included) carry back packs.  Lunch is a 22-minute affair and the general aroma is less fresh cut lillies than teenage perspiration and Axe body spray.  It is not glamorous and paperwork abounds.  Every year, though I swear I won't, I spend a portion of my salary on supplies as basic as tissues and tape.  Oh, and it is fraught with power struggles from all angles, multiple highly charged interactions each day, and always looming budget cuts. 

And despite the grungy paper towel-less bathrooms, I am going back in a week.  My new pink pen is one reason why.

Along with gentle pats on the back, genuine concern and a sweetly personalized copy of the The Catcher in the Rye, the pen is one of the gifts I received from my students in response to a tough time I went through last year.  On the last day of school a student thrust a notebook paper card and a box containing a pink Cross pen onto my desk.  "I googled 'nice pens' and this is what I came up with," he said.  "I guess it's the best.  You better use it next year."

So I will return, to the less than glamorous surroundings, the uncertainty of my position, the trepidation that comes from leaving my own children to attend to others'.  But this year I will return with my pink pen in my pocket...even more important than a briefcase.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Dream: Doodling in the margins

School has always seeped into my dreamlife.  In high school I'd wake with a start after my history teacher handed me a stack of empty blue books and informed me that the exam was simply to write down every detail that I'd learned that year.  Naturally, I couln't even recall the spelling of my name.  Interestingly, though I'm now on the opposite end of that equation, my present day school dreams are eerily similar:  a student asks me what we've studied this semester and not only can I not remember so much as a single vocab word, but I'm not entirely sure that I've even shown up to work in the past few months.

I'm hoping that my new part-time schedule will decrease the frequency of these sorts of dreams, but not of my favorite kind of dreaming: the elaborate daydreams that have occupied my schooldays as long as I can remember. While in high school my daydreams filled my classtime and generally took me no further than my weekend plans, my grownup daydreaming is limited mainly to faculty meeting time but takes place on a grander scale.

My dreams are often outlandishly aspirational:  What if we sold the house and moved the family to Bali?   Sometimes they are practical: How can I reorganize the playroom so as not to look as if I'm preparing an audition tape for Hoarders?  A lot of times they are just musings:  Who knew that thinking about getting a pizza with my husband and kids would give me the same little flutter that I felt twenty years ago daydreaming about the boy who was taking me out on Friday night?   What they have in common is that they generally make it no further than some doodles in the margins of my meeting agenda; a plump, sappy heart sits here, a lone palm tree beckons there.

My plan this year is to take these daydreams out of the margins. I will put them in words, I will put them into the world and maybe I'll bring one or two of them into being.  I'm probably a few years from measuring for draperies in my Balinese villa, but I could hit up Ikea one of these days soon for some sensible storage options.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Eat: A food promise to my family

During our visit to the American Museum of Natural History this summer, I learned about how scientists study rock layers in order to learn more about changes in the Earth’s climate. I would submit that the same could be said of the various toy receptacles in our house.

Survey the strata of our toy boxes and bins (and, sadly, our glove compartments and center consoles) and you’ll find that the concentration of Happy Meal trinkets in a particular layer correlates directly to periods of unpleasant household climate. The army of Shrek Forever After figures occupying our playroom tells you all you really need to know of our May 2010.

I understand the potential impact of my fast food dependence on the work force, the food chain, the environment, and my children’s arteries. I’ve seen Supersize Me, read Fast Food Nation, even caught a re-run of Michael Pollan on Oprah recently.

However, I also subscribe to Food and Wine, never miss an episode of Top Chef and put Anthony Bourdain’s Medium Raw at the top of my summer reading list. In other words, it is their palates that I am most worried about. I cannot --will not-- raise children who consider stale nuggets of chicken paste to be the height of culinary achievement.

My promise is not to guarantee a steady diet of locally-sourced organics; I can’t do it. I can’t even say that I’ll never fall prey to the lure of a Happy Meal on a bad day. My promise is to make our meals a priority, to attempt to prepare tasty, interesting, nutritious foods from actual ingredients not concocted in a lab.

Failing all else, I promise not to allow our collection of movie-themed fast food freebies to outnumber my children’s monthly servings of vegetables. I’ll let you know how it goes.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Play: Having fun like it's our job

When people find out that my husband and I, both high school teachers, don’t work all summer, their responses range from envy to disdain. I understand the impulse to covet this arrangement; however, there are drawbacks. While those last couple of weeks in June are bliss and all of July is fabulous, there is the problem of August.

August is a time of confronting all of my failures for the year, of realizing that the to-do lists that I’ve been compiling since the previous September will likely remain undone. I can get over the lingering house projects –I mean, a little mold in the basement never hurt anyone, right? I can postpone my work plans –I’ve always created curriculum on the fly before. It is the children’s list that I will not allow a peaceful death. In August, we have fun like it’s our job.

August Fun is not the mellow, loosey-goosey fun of June and July that grows organically from long sunny days and weakly enforced bedtimes. August is about mandated, frantic, capital –F Fun. In the spirit of cross-that-off-the list, serious August Fun, we took the kids to the Boston Children’s Museum on Friday night and allowed them to run in the fountains on the Rose Kennedy Greenway (thus satisfying two promises from their list).

As is always the risk of August Fun, there was a casualty.  Our night ended with 6-year-old Big E wet and weepy after she bounded confidently into deceptively still fountain only to be drenched by its eruption and mortified by a burst of laughter from the crowd of onlookers. Little E, our three-year-old, was struck down by the curse of August Fun when we arose at dawn the next morning and marched off to the beach for a breakfast picnic, only to spill her milk and thus, apparently, ruin her entire morning. When we headed to another beach to have dinner and let the kids play on the lifeguard chair (cross it off the list), Big E managed to rub a handful of sand in her eye, thus forcing me to shelve my plan of crossing beachy Christmas card photos off of my list.

Here is the part where I should say that after all this Fun, I’m ready to go back to work, but I won’t….really, who would even believe that?


A note: Fountain incident aside, $1 Friday Nights at the Children's Museum offer an excellent opportunity for the mellow low-stakes sort of fun I plan to return to come September.  It is an excellent deal and worth checking out.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Work: So, it's kind of a long story...

Invariably, that’s how I introduce the story of the work crisis that ultimately inspired the life changes I hope to document in this blog. I always distrust a long story, and yet that’s what this is. I try to avoid talking about it, but in the interest of context I’ll try to fill you in as succinctly as possible.

It all starts in my principal’s office. He is telling me that due to budgetary considerations, someone must be cut from my department for the following school year and it will be me. It is my lack of commitment, he says, that makes me the most expendable member of the English Department. Sure, I do my job, he says, but I don’t stay late, or coach or sponsor activities; this, he says, is “a cloud.” Actually, I tell him, “this” is being a mother to two small children. He shrugs. I start mentally tallying the all of the times I have dosed the kids with Tylenol and sent them to school and daycare with my fingers crossed, of the missed first day of kindergarten drop off, or the weepy mornings when all I can say to stop the tears is “but I’m going to be late”. It is good, I realize, that I can’t be fired from my more important position for a lack of commitment.

For a month, I walk the halls and teach my classes as the living dead. Everyone knows my story but I put my head down and try to do my job with as much dignity as possible. Co-workers, students and parents are incredibly kind and supportive and still it sucks more than any other month I can remember. And then the principal summons me back to his office.

He has reconsidered. Not only will I not be let go, but I have the option of full or part time and regardless of my choice will be granted professional status, which will hugely increase my job security. I am calm, professional and completely flabbergasted. In the end, I opt to split the difference and take the part-time position.

So that’s the abridged version of the long story of what happened last year. The story of this year will, I hope, be different. I’m planning a story of balance: balancing my work as a teacher with my work as a mother and wife, offsetting all of that work with some serious play, finding time to indulge my love of cooking and eating and actually having enough time left over to sleep, and, of course, dream.