Crime and Punishment

Crime and Punishment


Thing1 is being punished.  He’s being really punished for the first time in recent memory.

For most of the last twelve years we’ve been pretty lucky.  For most of that time, he’s been good-natured and willing to follow the rules we set down.  Infractions occur of course, but for the most part, they’ve been small enough that an empty, humorous threat to send him to military school puts a stop to restaurant antics or begging.  When we do lay down the law, Thing1 usually plays the part of the gentle giant tolerating a well-meaning but misdirected mother and goes along.  He seems to understand that – even when he thinks we’re totally nuts – we’re on his side.

That all changed today, as the fallout from a less-than-stellar report card caused the first serious fissure in his faith in our good intentions.

All kids have an Achilles heel as individual as their personalities, and Thing1’s is his love of all things computer.  He has begun cracking open code on favorite games and spending hours Skyping with friends, gabbing about hardware and how to improve their favorite video game and which is the best OS for their purposes.  It is a hobby and avocation that could be come a vocation.  Now, however, it is bordering on addiction.  So, fifteen minutes after the Big Guy and I read the report card, we had an intervention and pulled the plug.

Our normally tolerant twelve-year-old reacted like any addict who was being cut off would.  He denied.  Then he rationalized – the report card, that is.  Then he protested.  And finally, grudgingly he accepted the reality that his computer time would be restricted to school work.

Grudging acceptance has now taken the form of the silent treatment.  He still obeys the easy rules without defiance.  Gone, however, is the good-natured demeanor.  Smiles are quickly extinguished when we make eye contact – even if we caused the smile.  From his room, we can occasionally hear muted muttering that tells us we hit that heel with perfect aim.

At first we did pat ourselves on the back for being such clever parents.  We felt guilty for about 10 seconds after we shutdown his favorite hobby, but, contrary to his belief, we’re not enjoying our victory.  I know he needs the consequences, but I hate seeing him unhappy.  I know there are things we can control in our own house and there things we can’t.  This is one of the things we’re supposed to control.  And while it hasn’t lead to happiness, it is giving me a bit of serenity in a way that I would never have thought possible when I was a teenager.

As the bearer of numerous crappy report cards, I was also the recipient of many groundings (pointless and redundant for Thing1 who lives in the middle of the woods) and privilege losses.  I remember the profound sense of betrayal when I lost a favorite social outlet.  Now, walking this mile in my parents’ moccasins, I’m finding yet another new understanding of their perspectives.  There’s no forgiveness, of course – there’s nothing to forgive when someone’s looking out for your future.  Instead, this is one of those moments when my mom and dad are getting a unexplained warm feeling in the back of their necks as their daughter writes that they were right about many things – even when it wasn’t fun to be right.

One Step Forward, One Look Back

One Step Forward, One Look Back

Down time in the middle of a weekday is almost unheard of for me, but, thanks to the State of Vermont, I get it once a week for eight weeks every winter.

For the last seven years, Thing1 (and now Thing2) have been getting out of school at noon through most of the winter so that they can enjoy the winter sports that bring so many tourists to our area. The younger kids skate; older kids get to ski, and the ski resorts get to train a new generation of instructors and winter sport ambassadors. It’s popular with parents because it’s a cheap alternative to indoor phys-ed, but it’s also an almost iron-clad excuse to leave work or other responsibilities for a few hours each week.

Siting in the warm room at our local skating rink is social and relaxing. I love to reconnect with people I only wave to in the school parking lot as I watch Thing2 glide from wall to wall more steadily each week. But, as relaxing as it is, every week, it also reminds me that, as firmly planted in the Vermont lifestyle as I have become, I have not completely let go of the city girl that left Boston 13 years ago.

Today the rink is deserted except for the few families from the elementary school. The kids flow in and out of the warm room, eating between lessons as parents, unconcerned about stranger danger watch and read and chatter.

For some reason, however, even surrounded by people I know, I still find myself falling into patterns of behavior that were once obligatory in the city and suburbs. I always keep my purse zipped and wrapped around me. When I go to the snack bar, I close any computers and bring things with me – and I can see the snack bar from my usual spot 15 feet away.

Some of my paranoia is founded in experience. A lack of vigilance at a Boston restaurant led to my wallet being stolen right out of my handbag and my guard being permanently alert from then on. Days like today, however, I have to stop my looking back from making me turn back.

I doubt that I will ever leave my door unlocked like many of our neighbors do, but today, surrounded by parents of schoolmates and kids that I know are (most of the time) well-behaved, I consciously made the decision to take a step forward. Thing1, now four inches taller than his mother (he keeps track) and a bottomless pit came in requesting a top-up for his snack. He had to run to his lesson, and, alone again, I got up. Without a backward glance I sauntered to the snack, leaving my fear on the table with my computer and my bag. As luck would have it, only one thing was missing when I got back, and it wasn’t the bag or the computer.

The Witching Hour

The Witching Hour

Witching Hour

Sometimes, after wrapping up the end of a day doing tech support while refereeing Thing1 and Thing2 as they try to avoid homework and chores by revving up for World War III, I take off.  It’s only a short escape, and in the summer, it’s still light, and I’ll drive along the Battenkill River, absorbing the sights and smells of Vermont as the pinkish-gold light of evening makes everything magical.  Now it’s winter, and my mini vacations tend to lead me to the local country store for an extended errand.

A few evenings ago I used a forgotten ingredient as my pretext for a quick break.  Most evenings the Mom of the Mom-and-Pop store is there, guiding her crew as they make closing preparations.  Traffic comes in fits and spurts, and I’ll usually grab my purchase and head to the large round, oil-cloth covered table at the back of the store by the deli to peruse one of the magazines strewn about and to chat with Mom who is also a close friend.

Most mornings this Round Table is surrounded by her Knights.  These (mostly) men of the town – retired or on their way to work – convene in shifts for a couple of hours every morning as they solve the world’s problems and discuss the deer population (which is just as heated as the politics).  The other night, however, the circle at the back of the store took on a distinctly less knightly aura.

At my bachelorette party umpteen years ago, an aunt told me, “It’s not the big things that’ll kill a marriage, it’s the little things that drive you crazy that will do it.”  It was one of those little things that had driven me to the store in search of potatoes that night.  It was my second ingredient trip in two hours and the third in two days, and when I sat down I was ready for some commiseration.  My friend took a break from her closing chores, and we began trading our anecdotes of marital merriment and madness.  We had just started to vent when a mutual friend joined us with her own war stories to share.  It wasn’t long before the chatting turned to laughter and the laughter to cackling, and I realized we’d become a coven.

As our laughter rose and my friend’s employees patiently waited out our hysteria till they could ask the boss for guidance, I remembered that gatherings like this might once been subversive enough to spark a witch trial or two.  A casual listener might have heard our conversation and thought we were plotting the downfall of men and marriage.  The reality is that, in seeking company for our momentary miseries, we each left our gathering actually appreciating our situations – married or not.  Our shrieks of laughter had fallen over me like stolen fairy dust, exorcising my exasperation over the little thing that had propelled me out of the house.  It was just the bit of magic I needed to get back and finish dinner with a smile.



Going Green

It’s 5:00 AM, and I’m just sitting down to work.  It’s going to snow today, so I opened the vents on our big black wood cookstove to get the embers from last night’s fire heating again.  The running of the stove has become a rhythm that’s as comforting as the heat itself, but it getting to this point has been an education.

A friend of mine is the co-owner of one of Vermont’s finest country stores.  On any given weekday morning, a thick circle of pickup trucks and cars surround it as contractors and carpoolers stop in for pastries, beverages and – if they have the time – some steaming hot politics.  Weekends are just as crowded, especially during ski and foliage seasons, and you can always hear the store’s owners giving directions as first time visitors absorb the atmosphere.  They chuckle at the jauntily decorated mannequin by the register and the plastic sign that reads, “If we don’t have it, you don’t need it.”  The owners manage to keep the place constantly smelling off fresh cookies or fried foods, and wide creaking wood floors complete the ambience.

The store’s welcoming atmosphere is why so many tourists, wandering the aisles, find themselves suddenly contemplating a move to Vermont.  They’ll start asking the locals and the proprietress about real estate or schools.  She always answers them honestly and good-naturedly, but she ends every Q&A with the same admonition, “Just do your homework.”

I was lucky enough to join a writing group with this woman and a few of her friends, and she and they became my first close friends in Vermont.  She was one of my many sounding boards as we began considering and then building an earth-sheltered, off-grid house.  She listened to our idea and my excitement, and, after encouraging me, put her hand on my arm and said very solemnly, “Just do your homework.”  So we did.

As we designed and planned and sub-contracted, I got to know every off-grid site on the web.  I acquired a three-foot high stack of magazines and books on everything from ‘High Thermal Mass Construction’ to ‘Heating Your Water with Your Woodstove.’  We had every issue of Back Home Magazine (a periodical for do-it-yourself off-gridders), and every time I met someone who was using solar hot water or solar panels, I ambushed them with a barrage of questions.

Almost a year after we broke ground, we moved in.  The walls were primer-ed and the rudimentary kitchen (which I later added to with tag sale cabinets) had only the bare necessities.  We had a pantry with no shelves, and were sweeping and mopping up dust for the first three weeks.  But the first day in the new house was a glorious, sunny June day, and we were overjoyed to see what we had hoped to see.  Our solar panels were charging the new batteries beautifully – even with our appliances plugged in.  We figured we had made our energy calculations accurately, and hugged each other.  Then the sun went down.

Suddenly the fridge we had brought from our old house made its presence known.  We watched the energy meter numbers plummet from the 30s to the minus 20s.  It didn’t take much calculating to realize that at this rate, our batteries would be sucked dry by morning.   We knew we didn’t want to keep our old fridge, but finances had kept us from buying the ultra-efficient one we wanted right away.  We also knew, however, the key to our success would be keeping our consumption low.  So it was off to the appliance store where we bought the least-consumptive fridge we could find. It was also the smallest fridge that could still be called a fridge, but it did the trick.

Again, we congratulated ourselves on our research and problem-solving, but we had just begun to scale the learning curve – and it was about to get steep.

One of the key components of our winter off-grid plan was our wood cookstove.  We had purchased it from a store that catered to the Amish community in Montana, and our plumber had installed water jackets in it for us.  These jackets would circulate water from our domestic tank to the stove using only the heat in the jacket water to propel it up and around the circuit.  The first day it was cold enough to have a fire without turning the house into a sauna, we lit one.  What we got was not a sauna, but a swimming pool.

About an hour into the first fire, we heard a roar from the back of the stove.  When the my husband (a.k.a the Big Guy) and I recovered from our shock, we went over to see what had happened and, as we stepped in a massive puddle, realized that the stove’s pressure safety valve had gone off, releasing the gallons of water that had heated to the boiling point.

This was not supposed to happen.  We had researched this thoroughly – we thought.  The Big Guy has an engineering background and, working with the plumber, quickly realized that our original calculations missed a variable when deciding where to put the stove.  Several weeks of cold showers later (we had to stop the water flowing to the stove) they re-installed the welded jackets and a small motor to propel the water.  The stove has given us a toasty house and piping hot showers for almost seven winters now.

Over the years, off-grid living has taught us a lot, but mostly it has taught us about ourselves.  Naturally, we have learned – as our friend still advises – to do our homework.  We have learned about the necessity of finding the delicate balance between principle and practicality.  We have learned how to make do and to do without.  We have learned patience.  But we have also learned that  the most fundamental education comes when you take the test, and while Life is pass or fail, as long as you’re still trying, you’re passing.  In any other venue we might be getting a strong C, but it’s a score we’re proud to post on our new super-efficient fridge.





Thing1 bestowed his first real smile on me when he was about six weeks old, and it was the most intoxicating thing I’d ever seen (This isn’t just my maternal bias talking either… Maybe just a little).

It didn’t take Thing1 long to figure out that his toothless smile could illicit the most effusive displays of adoration from family or friends or little old ladies on the train.  “He’s such a sunny boy,” our German neighbor would tell us in heavily accented English.  I’ll admit it – having people fawn over my firstborn like that, went to my head.  So, wanting to share what we’d created with the world, I sent a photo of him and his toothless grin to a modeling agency.  A few weeks later I got a reply from an agency in Albany (we had moved to Vermont by then) saying he was very cute, and how did we feel about driving to Boston or New York for jobs?

The Big Guy and I already knew how we felt about driving with Thing1 for trips longer than an hour (the Big Guy was already an expert on brands of hearing protection), and Thing1’s showbiz career ended before it began.  Seeing the man that Thing1 is becoming tells me we made the right decision.  He’s still my sunny boy, but, at twelve, he balks at any clothing that isn’t first and foremost comfortable (clean is optional), and he’s currently working on his entry for the Guinness Book’s Most Reluctant Snapshot subject.

Thing2 is another story.  He is just as sunny but his photo isn’t at an agency.  The only theatre he’s been a part of was a children’s workshop at our local community theatre and arts center, Hubbard Hall.  And, even though I long ago decided my being a Stage Mom wouldn’t work for our family, Thing2 has turned me into one.  It was a point he made decidedly last night when he came home from school.

It was the end of a short week, thanks to MLK day, and a traveling children’s theatre company was visiting Thing2’s school.  They were recruiting actors for an upcoming workshop and performance and hoped to inspire the kids with a makeup demonstration.  The makeup artist scanned the audience for potential victims, but Thing2 had already volunteered.

He was picked to be the second model and had some time to think of what he wanted.  A recent trip to Boston has turned him in to a style maven, and he was already dressed up in a button down shirt, tie and vest.  He wanted the creation to work with his outfit, and when the makeup artist suggested giving him a black-eye, Thing2 latched on to it.  He was still struggling to contain his delighted wriggling when he came home, determined to trick me into thinking he was really hurt.

The joke was just about worn out by dinner – he had come to each of us saying Thing1 had given him the black-eye – and I thought he might be tiring of his schtick.  But by dessert he had recharged – his marred eye twinkling with devilish delight as he dove into his watermelon.  I grabbed a quick pick, hoping preserving the scar in photos would be enough to convince him the show was over, and he needed to wash his face.   When his nighttime bathroom routine was over, however, he came back to the table with clean teeth, clean hands, and a face that had been scrubbed hard almost everywhere.  But not quite everywhere.

Thing2 wanted to save his scar to show his friends at basketball practice, and, as thrilled as we were at the idea of our child flaunting a fake black-eye in front of a rightly suspicious world, we gave in.  Like most of his characters and costumes, this will run its course, and he’ll be on to the next act before the weekend is over.  And, while I’m sure there will be a few shocked whispers when we walk into Bob’s Diner this morning, I am okay with that.

His commitment to his craft is my daily reminder to not let the fear of those whispers govern whether or not we live or half-live out our lives.  Thing2 instinctively seems to understand that the world is a stage, and he is ready to play on it, exploring as many parts as he can.  So now, to my surprise, I have become a stage mom, and it’s turning out to be quite the education.