Gallery Management

I’ve been pretty faithful about protecting and curating the figurines my kids have made over the years. I keep them on the shelf least likely to be jumped on by the cats.

In my new office I’ve added another shelf — the one I use to display greeting cards at art fairs. Right now it’s holding a different kind of greeting card, the kind you only get when a student says goodbye and lets you know, in the most colorful way possible, that your job mattered to someone.

Gallery 1 hasn’t changed much since Thing2 finished elementary school. Thing1’s recent creations all involve blocks of code that, while they bring plenty of tears to my eyes, are a little tougher to display. I curate it with the same zeal that the directors of the Louvre have for protecting the Mona Lisa.

The second gallery is evolving. Pieces in my classroom are already waiting to join it in June. It’s a different, evolving gallery, but it’s just as precious in its own way.

Feline Friday and The daily Zero K

In an apparent attempt to prove that the world would be better off run by members the next generation, the boys have been dragooning me — for my own good — into a very short ZeroK walk around the house every day since I’ve been sick. Thing1’s rationale is that there is nothing that even the smallest bit of exercise can’t make better, and each day there’s more evidence to prove him right.

The first day, the boys and I spent most of the first 10th of a mile trek reveling in each discovery of emerging spring green. The cats and dog cavorted around us, darting in and out of the woods after each other. The boys played catch with an old hacky-sack as we walked, occasionally giving Jim-Bob a chance to inspect it after a fumble.

The second day, the Big Guy decided to join us on our Zero K walk. The dog quickly took her place a few feet ahead of me, and the cats began their outdoor dance, darting in and out of the woods, pretending to stalk and then rub against the legs of their human prey.

By day 3, the Zero K was a family routine. The cats cavorted slightly less, opting to take the lead on our lap on the running trail I had worn around the house back when I was training for 10k’s and 12k’s in solitude.

Like the rest of the world, we’re self-isolating from the rest of the world — we have two people in high-risk categories, and I’m sick with respiratory illness. It could be a time of fear. Our communal walks, our Zero K’s through our cloister of mountains and trees have turned the next weeks of cocooning into an unexpected gift.

Sparkling Solitude

Someone on Facebook wryly observed that, unless you’re socially separating yourself in the Quarantine region of France happy, then you’re really only engaging in sparkling isolation.

I’ve had to segregate myself somewhat from my family since being diagnosed with pneumonia earlier this week. I’m still close enough, however, to be able sit for a few minutes in the cool crisp spring air on the deck.

The grass is slowly getting greener.

The cats and the dog are cavorting in the dappled sunlight.

And two housebound brothers who, by virtue of the wide range in their ages and recent, age-appropriate but painful geographic separations had begun moving in different directions, suddenly have nothing better to do than play a good game of catch and catching up with each other.

If that isn’t sparkling, I don’t know what it is.

Go Work, Young Man

One of the bonuses having lived with bipolar disorder for over 40 years is that you can see the signs of creeping depression in others. I see it in my students when they have trouble showing up to class for weeks at a time or sleep through most of their school day. I see it in myself when my energy level plummets despite having had plenty of sleep, and, at about 11 o’clock this morning, when I went to announce that pancakes were on the table, I saw it creeping over a still-sleeping Thing1.

The young man who takes most things in stride, who rarely admits to anything bothering him, has been quiet for the last two days since he came home for the semester. Some of the time has been spent texting friends that he won’t see you for a few months. Other moments have been spent looking for jobs that, because of the nationwide effort to socially isolate, won’t be available and, for him and his compromised immune system, are extremely bad ideas.

My first instinct is to S(Mother) him with love. To try to take away the sadness.

But that’s not what he needs.

Trying to get myself ready possible home working and needing more space for books, I’m organizing my study and art space again. The target destination for my desk and books hadn’t been repainted in over 13 years, so I made a coat of paint and some new flooring my project for the weekend.

The ache in my recovering foot, however, reminded me early in the morning that climbing on ladders and spending too much time rolling paint might not be such a great idea. Thing2 wandered into the office asking if he could help, and I suddenly realized I had a cheap workforce just waiting to be put to good use.

Since T1 was still in bed, I decided to let T2 (younger and hopefully less business savvy) do the collective bargaining for T1&T2 Handyman, Inc. I laid out my business proposition — The paint and, with a bit of supervision, lay down the floor, and we agreed on a price.

I texted “pancakes“ to T1 and then mentioned the job. Getting no answer I decided to climb the stairs to his room and drag him out of bed before the day was gone.

“Are you awake?” I asked.

Groan.

“Want pancakes?” I asked.

Another groan.

“How about doing a job today? I texted you about it earlier,” I said.

Suddenly I saw a little bit of movement under the covers. A muffled “what job?” could be heard.

I laid out the deal that T2 had negotiated for the two of them and got a verbal handshake from the senior partner before heading back downstairs for my breakfast. It took him 10 minutes to get dressed, load up his plate with pancakes and bacon, and head into my study to help T2 who was already painting.

He painted quietly for the first few minutes, ignoring his brother’s cheerful attempts to engage him in high minded debates about The Rise of Skywalker or the latest in video gaming furniture. It’s pretty tough, however, to stay detached when T2 is trying to be social with you, and soon they were chatting about the job and how they would spend their money. They had the room painted in less than an hour (T2 turned out to be a better negotiator than I gave him credit for) and were starting on the flooring almost before I could give them a quick tutorial on “measuring twice, cutting once.“

Thing1 commandeered the bringing in of the flooring from the car, perking up even more as he realized he was the only one of our trio who was strong enough do that particular job. As the day has worn on, he has chatted more, sounding more positive about the job outlook and asking what other projects he could do. And I realized that it isn’t just the money that he’s after.

For the last six months, living away from home, he’s been mostly independent. He’s done well in his classes and suddenly become an extrovert. He’s been tutoring and looking for jobs. He’s made plans for the next six months and the next six years. He’s been becoming a functioning and useful adult.

For the last two days, sequestered from society in the embryonic embrace of home, he’s been comfortable, but he hasn’t had as much opportunity to be useful. Right now I’m sitting in the living room having a snack to recover from the hard work of supervising my two young men and coming to terms with the fact what they are going to need over the next weeks is not to be protected.

They are going to need opportunities to be useful and a lot of them.

What Next?

This time last year, I was holding Thing1’s hand as he recovered from major surgery and navigating an unwanted gap year. I was still working at home, and Thing2 was still getting his feet wet in middle school. They were the center of my world and the center of my life, and I thought I knew who I was – a mom, writer and artist. The last twelve months, however, have changed all of that.

When I first started this blog seven years ago, I was a work-at-home-mom. The boys were 12 and 6 and, in addition to being the center of my world, were the centers of my days. At the time, the messes and chaotic rituals that go with raising creative kids in the country were endless sources of entertaining and, sometimes, heartbreaking, inspiration for post after post. Trying to preserve the moments, I got back to drawing/illustrating and then found my way to painting.

While Thing1 and Thing2 starred in many posts, I resisted making this a “mommy blog“ for reasons I couldn’t explain then but, after this year of change, I am starting to understand now.

I changed work venues and careers at the beginning of summer. Then Thing1 left for college after a summer of work. Thing2, a case study in extroversion, waded enthusiastically into the middle of middle school, and, while they are still the centers of my life and my heart, they are not always at the center of my day. Thing1 is carving out his own life. Thing2 is working his heart out to be better than his brother at everything. I’m getting to know them both as young adults, and it is an exhilarating experience. It’s also a confusing one.

The kids seem to be forging their identities almost effortlessly. I’ll always be a mom, but with each snip of the apron strings, my ‘mommy’ days seem to be slipping away. I’m still new enough at teaching to think of it as something I do and not yet as something I am, and that distinction has, over the last few months, repeatedly prompted a question about the other important part of my life of “What do I create?” Am I a writer who paints or an artist who writes?

With our family stories evolving away from the kitchen table near the wood stove, for the first time in seven years, I don’t know what to write. I don’t know what to paint. I even started taking internet personality tests (always a reliable source of wisdom), hoping the results would spur an obvious answer and direction.

Then a friend reminded me that an artist is an artist, regardless of the medium. That meant the answer was simply in getting back to creating again. The task, now, is to start with writing something – anything – every day.

I know he’s right.

I know that the act of creating will be the discovery of the next stage of life. So bear with me as I get my new bearings. All topics are on the table, and the journey has just begun.

Watching a Saturday Go By

Working weekends torpedoes your social life, and, when you work at home with most of your work friends in different cities or states your social opportunities are limited to begin with. I compound those factors with a relatively introverted personality — I had almost perfected the shut-in lifestyle before I decided to go back to school to keep my brain from atrophying. So when plans go awry, as they did this weekend, you really feel it. Feelings get spackled over and patched up, but I find what really puts a new coat of paint on the weekend is getting a glimpse of the people and things that make life – shut-in or out-and-aloud — worthwhile.

Thing2, a study in social-butterflying, had his Saturday calendar filled before I knew that someone’s kid had been dropped off. He and his bestie headed out to re-enact their favorite Star Wars battles in the muddy, snow speckled yard. It’s a warmer day – in the fifties, and the boys disappeared into the woods for awhile, reappearing to prove that they were still breathing but dirty, only when I rang the school bell that hangs outside our front door. Katy-the-Wonder-Dog waited for them to tire out and, when they took a break, sitting down on the stoop on the deck, she went over to them to add a few kisses to her social calendar.

I stopped working long enough to appreciate how sometimes just watching that part of the world go by is as satisfying as any day out.

Commando Parenting

I always said if any kid of mine where is the teeniest bit artistically inclined, I would encourage the heck out of that inclination. Thing2 is, and I do, but I swear that if there is a God up there, he or she has finely honed sense of humor.

I was a slob as a kid. I collected everything and threw away almost nothing. I had drawings on little scraps of paper and stole my mom‘s scissors for drawings and creations. She never expressly said she hoped I’d have a kid just like me, but I think in the back of her mind she must’ve known that it be a pretty good revenge.

She’s getting it.

Thing2’s room has gone from being inspirational to hazmat training ground. His creativity has gone high-tech, so boxes of pencils, markers, and half-filled sketchbooks share space with a DIY Recording studio where he swears he’s going to make animated films to make George Lucas drool. It’s also filled with empty popcorn bags and scraps of paper and – you guessed it – Mom’s stolen scissors.

I have drawn several lines in the sand to get him to clean it. Carefully delineated boundaries worked beautifully with Thing1, but, despite his volcanic colon, he can be pretty obsessive about keeping his space organized. It took only one full-scale clean out of his room to help him make the jump from messy tween to fastidious young adult.

One thing I’m finding about artistically-inclined offspring, however, is that simply bulldozing the room doesn’t get the point across. It just creates more canvas. So I’m taking a new tactic today.

As I carried out a little clutter control this morning in the rest of the house, I noted that my creative kid had left “his” iPad and ten-year-old computer in the living room, presumably after shooting footage for a fan-fiction movie he’s been scripting. The iPad is old, but it still works so it wasn’t going into that sty of a room where we might invent the first human to iPad virus. I decided to hide it in ours until the room gets clean.

Hiding precious objects gets rooms superficially clean quickly, but today I mean business. I want it actually clean. On my next trip back to the living room, I picked up the laptop to find a hiding place for it. I had almost passed his room when I thought of the perfect place. I went into his room and moved some of the carnage away from the bunkbed. I put the laptop in the safe little nook behind the bunkbed and then put the carnage back.

I figure about 4PM, I’ll either be up for parent of the year or getting a visit from child protective services — right after he hears he can the laptop back when he can find it.

Widgets and Wonders

The senior class graduates Saturday. The fifth grade, the elementary school’s senior class, celebrated their ‘moving up’ to middle school a few days earlier. Thing2’s graduation to the next step of his education was a huge milestone for us. It’s the first time in twelve years that we won’t have a child in elementary school. But it’s not only our perspective that made the afternoon unique.

The Big Guy and I each went to schools with thousands of kids. Graduation at mine lasted almost two hours because we had to wait for hundreds of kids to accept their diplomas. I knew the principal’s name, but I doubt he knew mine before he read it on the slip attached to my diploma. We were widgets, school was a factory.

At Thing2’s ceremony, there were songs. The music teacher handed out awards to the kids who had done chorus and band. The teachers from each 13-kid section handed out academic awards, and then, at the fifteen-minute mark, it was time to hand out the ‘diplomas’.

The principal started with a gentle reminder of the rehearsal instructions the kids had received earlier, producing a chorus of giggles from the risers behind her. She started to read out a name and the first boy climbed down to accept his certificate, but then she stopped.

“Wait a minute Mr. Smith,” she said, holding up her hand and seeming to wipe a speck of dust from her eye. The grinning boy froze, watching her as she stopped to tell the parents a story about his first day at preschool. It took less than thirty seconds, and the entire diploma handoff took less than thirty minutes for all thirty kids, even though, for most of them, the principal paused to recount a special moment or running joke.

Even for a small state like Vermont, we know our school system is on the very small side. It’s small enough that, despite ranking second in the state, there’s been a push from above for improved efficiency and lower costs by consolidating with other districts. Our district has strenuously resisted that push, and much of the resistance has focused on the school’s academic achievements. The district has also conducted more than one study to justify its existence financially.

It was Thing2’s commencement that reminded me that, in education, value can’t be determined solely by efficiency, or even scores.

The principal and teacher to student ratio won’t be any different on Saturday when Thing1 is climbing the risers. The high school principal has taught each of the kids, has coached many of them in little league, has been a presence in most of their lives for the last thirteen years. The teachers have been coaches, are parents of their classmates.

The whole ceremony, if history is any judge, will take 30-45 minutes. In those 45 minutes, however, will be packed thirteen years of phone calls and parent-teacher conferences, of field-trips and spur-of-the-moment meetings to talk over a parent’s concern, of newsletters and community service days, of nurses calling to make sure everything’s still alright, of teachers saying ‘he can do better’ because they absolutely believe that their students can. Those 45 minutes will be the result of thirteen years of creating young adults invested in a community that they know has invested in them. They will be the results of a community saw something more important than widgets.

It saw the future.

How to Raise a Parent


Thing2 is sitting across the couch from me right now tapping on an old laptop my parents bequeathed him when they upgraded theirs. He’s working on a project, talking through the lines as he taps and proving I know nothing about parenting.

I’ve worked in some sort of IT for the better part of the last 25 years. I’m the last person to tell a kid they shouldn’t play on a computer, but Thing1 got sucked into Minecraft in middle school, torpedoing his grades for over a year. It’s safe to say, the Big Guy and I are wary of Thing2 acquiring a tech addition.

Thing2 missed a fair amount of school this winter due to severe pain from inflamed lymph nodes. The pain intensified with each bout of flu or strep he contracted in the petrie dish of elementary school, and we were worried he would fall behind.

Most sick days he rested on the couch with an iPad or Harry Potter book while I worked on support tickets. I’d check during the day to make sure his latest YouTube obsession was PG-11, but for most of the day I let him take responsibility for his own amusement. They weren’t my finest parenting hours.

Thing1 got into video games about the same time, solely on the strength of his test scores, that he also got into a middle school accelerated program. He’d coasted through elementary school math, aptitude compensating for apathy. Except for mathy-science stuff, he needed serious prodding to stay on track.

When he started the more challenging program, I asked the program head how I could help him stay more organized. Her answer surprised me.

“I don’t want you to help him. He’ll learn to rise to expectations.”

So we took the hands-off approach. Bad report cards led to loss of privileges, but when he failed, he failed. When he did well, the success was his. That experience guided him like a river winnows out earth and rock to find the best route. It’s helped him learn to stand on his own two feet and, even if he stumbles, to keep trying.

I know telling the world that I let my kid spend two months playing on the iPad is inviting slings and arrows from parenting experts. Left to his own devices, however, Thing2 scurries from couch to boy-cave, moving laundry hampers and draping sheets over his top bunk to create a movie set between naps. The iPad was soon burgeoning with special effects app and ‘screen tests’. By the time he got back to school full time, he had written a script for a Star Wars fan video, complete with a mental cast list consisting of his classmates.

It’s almost Thing2’s turn to apply to that program, and, watching him create and rise to his own expectations, I’m pretty sure we’ll use the same approach. We’ll call it good parenting even though he’ll be doing most of the heavy lifting.

Cold Turkey with a side of Fries

Tomorrow is Another Diet

Most of my diets start out with the best intentions. The night before the diet, I intend to eat the best foods — and by best foods, I mean best tasting, not necessarily best for you — as I think about the foods that will or won’t be on the menu next to the chart of exercises I swear I’ll start on the same day. They usually end about 12 hours later, right about the time I congratulate myself for not hitting the snooze button at 5AM.

Day one of my breakup with solid food was only slightly different. It was Memorial Day. The Big Guy was working, but I wasn’t. I stayed up till three in the morning the night before finishing a novel and managed to sleep in until 8AM when Thing2 — fully apprised of Mommy’s diet plan for the day — came in to see if, like many holiday mornings — I would be exposing them to a balanced American diner breakfast starring sugar, fat, and more sugar. And salt.

“Is this a test?” I asked as I sat up.

Thing2 looked confused for a second and then grinned. “Oh yeah. It’s a test.” Then he disappeared, skipping down the hall to see if he could rope Thing1 into helping me get this diet nonsense out of the way bright and early. He reappeared its the unsurprising news that Thing1, whose autoimmune disorder has redefined dietary discipline over the last year, was uninterested in indulging. He thought I should stick with my plan, Thing2 reported.

“Yeah,” we both said at once.

I ended up getting Thing2 a new box of cereal and mixing my first shake for breakfast. A second shake at noon before Thing1 and I headed to the Kmart closing sale and I was feeling more than a little cocky.

The day was still young.

Shopping trips are usually like a pillow smothering my discipline. Whether I’m manic or depressed, shopping is the rush. Food is the opiate. Even scoring a purely functional $3 swimsuit for Thing1, whetted the appetite for the nearby drive-thru.

But, determined not to disappoint Thing1 who is a model of nutritional maturity, I drove past it.

We got home and promptly retreated to the sectional to enjoy the rest of the day off.

Then I saw a notification on Facebook about a petition that needed signing before Tuesday. I knew grabbing the keys, heading out for a drive to blow off steam that hadn’t had a chance to build up on a day off, would break the straw that broke my diet wagon’s wheels.

I grabbed them anyway.

I was driving to sign the petition. Really. And then I passed by the petitioner’s house. And fifteen minutes later the car pulling into a fast-food parking lot.

I knew I was disappointing Thing1 and Thing2. I knew the Big Guy would forgive. I knew I was disappointing myself and starting the best intentions all over again, the best being there would be a clean slate in the morning.

And still I ordered and indulged.

As I drove home, I debated if I should write about it. Should I tell the truth like a recalcitrant child when I got home? On one hand, why not? It wasn’t as if this was the first time I washed out of a diet. It probably won’t be the last.

Usually, however, this stage of the diet happens in secret. I say nothing and then next day I’m off it. No one says anything or even looks at me disapprovingly. But I know Thing1 worries his mom won’t be around for his college graduation. He worries I won’t be able to hike with him on his eighteenth birthday. I know I have some early signs of pre-diabetes, and the only ‘cure’ is control.

So I decided to be honest. On my blog and when I got home.

“I had fast food,” I said as soon as I got in the door.

“That’s okay,” said the Big Guy.

“I’ll start again,” I said as Thing1 said, “You can just start again. It’s a day off.”

Tonight I’m going through the intentions. I’m back on the wagon before I go to bed, and, with any luck, I’ll stay on tomorrow.

It won’t be the first battle that wasn’t won with a single skirmish.

Come Together


We weren’t late, but we weren’t early enough to Thing2’s band concert to have a good seat selection. The elementary school band is small, and I was surprised by the crowd.

The concert program revealed that the middle and high school bands would also be performing. It’s a small school system, so I was still surprised by the increasingly packed house. We’ve been to a lot of recitals and school concerts over the years, so I thought I knew what to expect.

I knew nothing.

The high school band played first. The elementary and middle schools bands sat in the first row of seats waiting their turn. Mr. Neeson, the band instructor, introduced the piece, a march that the high schoolers will also be performing at the Memorial Day parade in five days. He then called for and got a B-flat from the band before them their cue.

The first notes marched perfectly in unison, echoing through the tiny auditorium and daring the audience not to clap. The band, culled from all grades of the high school, handled changes in rhythm and key, and the Big Guy and I had to remind ourselves that we were listening to kids who weren’t old enough to vote carry on a fairly complex musical conversation.

They segued to a jazzier number, a ‘jam’, we were told, that was composed for the concert. The Big Guy and I gave each other the super-impressed look. Our jaws dropped as the students got up from their places and switched instruments.

“I don’t make each kid solo for a performance.” Mr Neeson turned around to talk to the parents for a moment. “I do require they all know how to improvise, to listen to and play with each other.” Then the music started again.

There are fewer than 400 kids in our entire school system and, from the outside, it may seem fairly homogenous. The reality is that our school sees multi-generation Vermonters and transplanted flat-landers, Trump fans, Bernie-or-busters, and everyone in between. There are kids who get new iPhones every year and kids who may get their only meal of the day at school.

There was no way to tell if the pianist was a liberal or the drummer is a libertarian. The only thing the audience knew for certain was that these kids had learned how to change their perspectives, see new points of view and express their individuality, creating rich, beautiful music instead of just noise.

More than once during the concert, the Big Guy and I told each other that Thing2 needs to be in band again. Thing2’s creative spark burns hot enough that he may very well propel himself into a creative life when he’s grown up — with or without a school program. The performances, however, melded into a beautiful example of how arts in the schools are about so much more than vocation or even avocation. We knew Thing2 loved band practice, but it was only when we saw him and his friends working together to make something wonderful, that we realized the music program was teaching him as much about life as it is theory and even creativity.

The high school band finished, and Thing2’s band took the stage. Mr. Neeson turned to the parents again.

“So how many of you are Beatles fans?” he asked. Every hand in the audience went up. He asked if we knew the chorus to the first song on the album Abbey Road and then enlisted us as backup singers.

The band had no singer, but as the first drum roll completed, I saw a few parents mouthing, “Here come old flat-top”. My eyes were damp as the next two lines reverberated, and by the time the band was playing “One thing I can tell you is you got to be free,” every parent in the room was ready to sing out,

“Come together, Right NOW!” And really mean it.

Strange Territory

The other Friday night, Thing2 had a school dance.  Thing1 went over to SuperGal’s house for a quiet pre-prom night hang out.  The Big Guy went to play music with his traditional music band at the Wayside Country Store. For a few minutes, work was finished, school was out and I was somehow alone.

Then at 6, Thing1 texted he was starting home early, so he and I went to a new food truck discovery in Cambridge, NY. We got back just before the Big Guy finished up his gig. Thing1 went to bed early as he has been these days with his hair-trigger colon still sapping his endurance.  The Big Guy and I suddenly had the giant sectional all to ourselves. I had to keep reminding myself that Thing2 was going a sleep over after the dance since, even with the TV turned up to 50, the silence blared, heralding a new era.

When I started this blog about 6 years ago, Thing1 was just starting to pull at the fraying edges of my apron strings.  This year, despite the needs created by an acute episode of his illness, he’s been shredding the one on his side. What I hadn’t expected — but should have — was that Thing2 would start chewing at his share of the strings at the same time.

I’m wearing my UMass Mom t-shirt as I write this. It’s my new apron. There are no strings on it. Like that apron, it’ll get a few tears on it over the next few years, and, hopefully it will have a companion when Thing2 flies the asylum in a few years.

The geography of our new lifestyle is similar to when we were double-income-no-kids (DINKS) even if the absence of money reminds us that no matter where our kids are, there it is. Still, penniless or not, it feels like we’re entering new territory.