Monday, September 24, 2012

This Is Going To Be a Good Day Charlie: Taking a Cue from the Astronauts

“This is going to be a good day, Charlie.”
Astronaut John Young said this to Charlie Duke while walking on the moon in April 1972.
I heard it a few weeks ago while watching an episode of the documentary “When We Left Earth: The NASA Missions."
Although Neil Armstrong had been in the news more, it was John Young’s phrase spoken during an Apollo 16 EVA that stuck in my head.
It wasn’t going to be a “super-duper” day or a “really dangerous” one.  It was going to be good. And with the force behind the voice—so confident and direct and undaunted by the exceptional situation at hand—one imaged it was.
I’ve developed a new fascination with the men on the moon.  It started with the news of Armstrong and an interest in revisiting what I had clearly never really learned about Apollo 11. But soon I found myself at a science center buying a book on the Original Seven, and then renting "The Right Stuff".  And deciding I’d never find my paperback from Mr. Warren’s high school English class, I ordered a new copy of Tom Wolfe’s classic.
If it’s fair to say our era is one in which information has replaced knowledge, these books and documentaries are about a process that stands in contrast.  Success came step-by-step with each mission developing levels of understanding that moved the next mission closer to a goal. And there’s the overwhelming display of competency and cool headed assessment and acceptance of risk.
That righteous right stuff.
Jim Lovell, speaking about heading up in Apollo 13 in the documentary said, “You know you’re sort of relaxed because there’re two things that are going to happen. Either it’s going to go as planned or something is going to go wrong.”
While I may have liked Young’s “This is going to be a good day Charlie,” comment delivered more than 200,000 miles from earth, he got more attention when he commanded the first Space Shuttle. His competent but less experienced crew member’s heart raced to 130 at lift off, while his stayed well lower. And yet, he said, "Anyone who sits on top of the largest hydrogen-oxygen fueled system in the world knowing they're going to light the bottom-and doesn't get a little worried--does not fully understand the situation."
 A person, especially one who doesn’t even like elevators, might ask, how did he and others remain calm?
An article by psychologist Stephen Benedict-Mason published in Psychology Today touched on part of an answer.
People who can remain cool when blasting off into space have a cerebral cortex that limits the amount of information their brains process during a launch. They are keenly aware of everything that needs to be monitored but all extraneous information, such as the myriad of things that might go wrong, are filtered out. Where the average person would experience sensory overload and panic, the professional pilot attends only to what is absolutely necessary.”
It is something deep and out of reach for my constitution. But I decided to let a tiny bit of astronaut mojo influence my interaction with my oldest.
The first day of second grade was approaching and she’d expressed a few worries about finding her class and making friends.
I said, “Listen kid. We’re going hook you up to a preclass simulator and I’m gonna toss some curve balls at you: a late teacher, fire drill, malfunctioning locker. Meanwhile, I’ll have your vitals monitored for any rise in heart rate or blood pressure.”
Not exactly.
I talked her through the day. I drew a map. I named all the kids in her class. We thought of a few buddies. I moved a bit away from my inclination to overprotect and a bit more towards preparation, game plan, and back-up plans.
Then when the time came I walked her down the hall and said what I’d rehearsed. 
“This is going to be a good day,Charlie.”
Except I didn’t call her Charlie.

Photo of John Young on the moon. Credit:

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Note to the Baby Sitter: Tips The Parenting Magazines Won't Tell You

The sitters of summer have officially fled, heading back to their autumnal fields of academia or, having earned their degrees, moved on to careers, graduate school or better ways of paying off their student loans. This means that if my husband and I want to leave the house—together—that it’s time to introduce a new batch of baby sitters to the ways of our family. Since I find it so hard to brush my teeth while writing out emergency contact numbers, I’ve planned ahead and created this little tip sheet. Feel free to modify this to suit your own needs.

Dear New Baby Sitter,

First of all welcome to our house. You are now responsible for the most important things in our lives so we hope you don’t screw up. As parents, we prefer to do that ourselves.

You may notice upon your arrival that we have a rather large golden retriever named Gilbert. He loves people and synthetic fiber, particularly North Face jackets. Because you’re in college, I assume you are wearing one. I recommend you keep it on a hanger.

You’ll also notice a small aquarium in our den. Yes, that’s a goldfish near the top of the water. Yes it is dead.

Moving on to the children, I think you’ll find them extremely helpful especially if you need the Wi-Fi password. Our youngest, in fact, has been known to hop on secure systems in Panera’s all over the country. Just give her an M&M cookie and an Ipad and you’re good to go.

Speaking of the Internet, it’s OK to let the four year old do a few computer games. When she asks you to help her get to “PBSKIDS-DOT-ORG” you’ll probably have no trouble. If she says, “No, no, the other PBS KIDS,” she means Nick Jr. and when she gets a bit peeved and says, “NO! The other PBS KIDS!” she means the Disney Jr. site, preferably a Doc McStuffins game. At some point my husband and I will explain to her the difference between public broadcasting and commercial television but we’re waiting for the congressional go-ahead.

The seven year old will probably want to play dress up. She has permission to use my old high heels because, first of all, she can walk better than I can in them, and second, they go with everything.

If there’s time and the weather’s good you can take everyone out in the backyard. The kids might play a little game they call “family” in which they pretend to be in the same family. I know it’s kind of funny, given that they are in fact in the same family, but I like to think of it as non-inventive creativity.

Dinner is prepared in the fridge. There’s one plate with a hot dog, cheese stick and some strawberries and another with a fillet of salmon teriyaki, steamed broccoli and organic rice pilaf. The kids will let you know who gets what. For the record, I love them equally; the hot dogs are nitrate free.

Help yourself to anything in the kitchen. I didn’t have time to go to the grocery store, but did just get back from our CSA. I’ve got at least 5 lbs of beets and 3 really dirty looking garlic bulbs in there. I know how boring dorm food can get so dig in!

When it’s time for bedtime, I’d recommend you recalibrate your expectations because it will probably not go well. I don’t want to make you think that’s it’s going to go badly, and I assume you’re not one to easily cry, but just know that it’s entirely possible for it to be one of the longer periods of the evening. Stay hydrated and you should be fine.

If the youngest wakes up and says she’s scared, you may have to turn off the nightlight. It can actually produce a shadow that bothers her. If she says she thinks Maleficent is in her closet, reassure her and then double check that her older sister hasn’t decided to try to terrify her.

Speaking of which, it probably goes without saying that even if you know the entire story of Ichabod Crane and the Headless Horsemen by heart, don’t recite it at bedtime. Stay clear of discussions of the Russian Revolution, Rasputin and any animated film version of Anastasia.

No candles, camp fires or scientific experiments. Don’t open the door, unless it’s us.

And if you have any problems just send me a text. I’m still a bit new to it, so I may reply with complete sentences and use standard spelling. I’m getting better at it “tho”.

Well, that’s it for now. You can see we’re a pretty typical family. And we're really glad you're here.

This is the latest in the series, Tips the Parenting Magazines Won't Tell You, an occassional satire.

Monday, September 10, 2012

Writer's Block

About a year ago I started a full time job and shortly after, with a New Jersey style earthquake, hurricane, night school, and grueling schedule, stopped writing my blog. I didn’t intend to stop cold turkey just as I hadn’t intended, two years before, to go at it full speed.

So why did I stop writing? Mostly because I had no time.

But there was also the issue of what I’d inevitably write about: either my experiences in my work day, which I deemed off limits, or the work/family tension that seemed so as well. It was too personal. Not too personal to reveal but too personal to feel universal.

That surprised me. So many moms work outside the home and I had done so myself on a part time schedule for years after my first child was born. This was different and I thought about my new situation in two contrasting themes.

First there was the Big Picture. Mayor Juli├ín Castro described generational progress in the United States last week as a relay race and, although my context is far different, I might borrow part of the idea.  If I’d been given a hard-earned baton of opportunity and education, I had a concern for what condition I left it in when I handed it off to my daughters.

There are many issues that relate to this Big view of things, but I didn’t have much steam to write about them. I was too busy speed packing lunches and wishing I could order milk from Amazon. 
And that brought me to the second theme; one about the specific and the ordinary that I’ll call The Small Stuff.
After weeks of consideration, I can report that we’ve decided to run the dishwasher at 7am instead of 11pm. Blog post to follow.
Help: My children’s spring break schedules do not align.
These were the details that seemed too personal to write about because they were trivial or boring or out of touch with the larger idea that being a grown up is just hard work—for everyone. And yet, you can’t leave a three year old home alone for 10 hours and assuming someone’s made dinner, it’s often useful to have a clean plate on which to eat it. The small stuff is not inconsequential.
But I couldn’t say which theme had the bigger influence on my thoughts or on our lives. It reminded me of the word my youngest invented when she was two years old. Instead of “No” or  “Yes” she’d say ne--yes.  It sounded Russian and she expressed it with emphatic indecision.
Eventually, I talked to a friend about it.
“What does it mean,” I asked, “if I encourage my girls to love school, and find a vocation they believe in, but don’t show them it’s possible to actually do it?”
 “This is just one situation,” she said.
I had no idea what she meant but I trusted her. She’d calmly helped me assemble my breast pump seven years before. I knew she understood complicated things at times when I was most perplexed.
After a few months, and the decision to not work full time this year, I have come to see her statement as the answer to my ne-yes.
It does not reconcile what I see as the Big and Small issues related to working outside the home, but it’s a link between them.  It goes back to my concern for the baton: what next?  If not for me, then for my girls and the people with whom they will one day, I imagine, form a partnership.
They might find themselves in situations that feel singular, despite their prevalence. They will have their one situations.
Their paths for career and family could depend on what balls they toss into the air for their particular juggling acts. It is a juggling, rather than a balancing act, as Lisa Belkin suggests. The Big and the Small make up the act and I might name some of the balls:  money, spouses, nature of work, incomes, desires, proximity to grandma’s house, luck, personalities, the economy, children’s ages, and perhaps my dream invention of a personal robot named Fred who has an indefatigable love of folding laundry.
I had been confused and unable to put my finger or my words on something because of a paradox. Working moms may be everywhere but no two situations are the same. If you swap out one ball, after all, the whole routine is different.
But that, according to my wise friend, is the good news.

PS- I am not sure I can contribute anything useful to the work/family discussion, but I wrote this to explain why writing seemed impossible. As a side note, because a reader asked, I’ll say that Ava’s sleep remarkably improved with our family’s new schedule last year.  In fact, no surprise to many of you with the right routine, the kids thrived.

Sunday, September 2, 2012

History Lesson

“This will be fun,” I said, opening the first page of our new bedtime story. My seven year old hopped into bed, her hair still wet from a bath.

“Get cozy,” I said tucking her in, “maybe tonight we’ll learn about the Federalist Papers!”

Alexander Hamilton was the theme that night, as he would be for several more, while we worked our way through a biography for kids written about the man on the ten dollar bill.  

My choice of book served a personal interest, a tactic I’d tried once before.

I know you like the Magic Tree House, but tonight we’ll be reading a recipe for corn relish in the Oprah Magazine Cookbook.”

Certainly a book on Alexander Hamilton provided more historical though less nutritional edification. My daughter was agreeable. I didn’t mention that my interest in Hamilton came after watching the miniseries on John Adams in which the second President was played by Paul Giamatti. In the presence of Hamilton, Giamatti’s Adams looked more like Chief Inspector Dreyfus when foiled by his nemesis Clouseau, than he did a cool head of state.  

I wanted to know more about this mysterious first Secretary of the Treasury.

As she does with all biographies, my daughter asked me to skip to the final chapter.  

“When did he die?” she asked.

Questions about life-cycles have replace the standard “Why?” inquisition of two years ago. Butterflies: four weeks. Alexander Hamilton: forty-nine years.

Then she pointed to one of the few illustrations in the book.

“Oh that,” I said, looking at the drawing, “would be Aaron Burr aiming a pistol at Hamilton’s torso.”

We headed back to chapter one.

There was much excitement to be had in the early chapters. Hamilton had a short childhood, one might say, and by the time he arrived in New York from St. Croix we respected his tenacity.

But this story was about hard choices.

My daughter contemplated the strategies of the Revolution:

“Of course the Patriots had to kill their cattle” she said after a description of folks doing just that on Long Island. “They couldn’t let the British get them.”

Later on, after a particularly vivid description of the Battle of Trenton:

“Hum. What do you think it sounded like when the bayonets crushed into the ribs of the Hessians?”

I missed recipes on Eggplant Parm.

Even the potentially dry section on the establishment of the federal treasury was spiced up with references to blackmail and an extramarital affair.

At long last, we got to the early morning duel in Weehawken.

Why did Hamilton choose the north side of the dueling ground so that the sun would be in his eyes? Why were the laws about dueling less strict in New Jersey than they were in New York? Why was Aaron Burr such a jerk?

“We don’t really want to use the word jerk,” I said.

She looked at me. Should I bring up the treason bit? He was acquitted. And I’m a little rusty on the Louisiana Purchase.

 “You know what? Right now you can call Aaron Burr a jerk. Just don’t use the word on the playground.”

I had my own questions about Burr but if there is a biography for kids about the man I will not be reading it to my daughter at bedtime.

I learned my lesson. Ulterior motives, in politics or parenting, can lead to trouble.

We’ve just finished Double Fudge by Judy Blume. And while it’s no corn relish, it was pretty good.

Painting of Alexander Hamilton by John Trumbull.
Still getting up to speed with all the changes to Blogger and Facebook in the past 12 months, but next up a post in which I write about not writing.