TBR List Declutter, Issue 39

Tangent: Physical Education

None of us had any clue what field handball was, and my children had never taken a P.E. class before, yet here we were on a sunny San Diego winter afternoon on a field in the bottom of a bowl made of hills all around.

We approached a woman holding a clipboard, clearly the person in charge. She greeted us marked the boxes on her sign-in form next to my children’s names.

“You’ll be in this group,” she said to my son. He looked up at me for assurance. I smiled and gave him a little nod. He turned and walked over to the group she’d indicated with a sweep of her hand.

The woman-in-charge looked at my daughter and hesitated. “The older kids are over there,” and she pointed at a group of teenage boys warming up across the field. “But if you feel more comfortable over here with the younger—”

“I’ll go over with the bigger kids,” my daughter said closing the gap between us and the group of boys before the facilitator could finish her sentence.

I set myself down at a nearby picnic table, took a deep breath, and tried not to think about the P.E. classes of my childhood: the time I complained, shaking with fear and indignation, to the principal about the gym teacher’s blatant sexism; always being chosen last for teams (it was always me and Anthony Wong, the two shortest kids in class); a classmate growling in my face until I dropped the basketball that had somehow found its way into my hands; the time two of the biggest boys ganged up during circle soccer and kicked the ball into the solar plexus of each of the smallest students, leaving us sucking air on the periphery while the student teacher leading the class looked on, oblivious. Or at least I choose to believe she was oblivious.

Now I looked on as my long-limbed nearly-thirteen-year-old jumped into the group of boys. She ran hard, chasing after the ball, and when she got it, ran harder still, evading the boys on her way to the goal. She wasn’t particularly skilled, but she was enthusiastic, fearless in a way I never expected from the girl who had hung back during soccer games, watching the other players in the scrum.

It reminded me of how she cowed the boys in physics class, asking and answering questions faster than any of them.

It reminded me of the disorientation I felt while holding her when she was a baby and watching her move her hand and for the first time recognizing that she was a being separate from me, moving through the world with my comfort and support but with her own will.

At the end of class she and her brother ran to me, red-cheeked and breathless, talking over one another while reaching for their water bottles. “I wish the class would never end!” my son exclaimed while my daughter proclaimed that it was the “best class ever!”

We walked to the car, my children strategizing for next week’s class, and me smiling at their joy and their strength and their headstrong individualism.

P.E. was a success.

Visual Interest:


Wondering what this is all about? Check out the introductory post.


Titles 491-510:

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Is That Me Yelling? by Rona Renner

Is That Me Yelling?: A Parent's Guide to Getting Your Kids to Cooperate Without Losing Your Cool
Is That Me Yelling?: A Parent’s Guide to Getting Your Kids to Cooperate Without Losing Your Cool by Rona Renner
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This was another book that called to me from the parenting shelves of the library, which are conveniently located for browsing with one eye while with the other eye I try to make sure my six-year-old doesn’t boss around the toddlers at the train table too much.

When we got it home, my ten-year-old began reading it first, as she does with most parenting books. And also as she does with most parenting books, she gave me advice based one what she’d read. Read More

Dept. of Speculation by Jenny Offill

Dept. of Speculation
Dept. of Speculation by Jenny Offill

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Dept. of Speculation is the August selection for the SBC online book club. To learn more about SBC or to join the conversation, visit the SBC page here at Imperfect Happiness or join our Goodreads Group.

The first half of this book is just delightful, with the anxiety and the angst and with the story told in little snippets. I relate to both the content and the scattered form. It’s like a pleasant reminiscence about early parenthood, and boy, isn’t it nice to be through those days? as the author and I sip from our respective glasses of wine.

And then comes the second half like a punch in the gut. Still a powerful way to tell a story, but it’s too real to be called “delightful.” It’s like one of my own nightmares put in book form.

Reading the second half reminded me of when I squirmed my way through the movie Before Midnight in which Julie Delpy argues with an awkwardly aging Ethan Hawke for two hours in a way that’s a little too familiar to me.

For the first time since I was in junior high, I’m reading contemporary books written for my age group—finally the GenX authors seem to be taking the place of the Boomers, perhaps because we’re finally entering midlife (or what used to be midlife since “midlife” is now supposed to be 60 or something as the Millennials and the Boomers conspire to squeeze us out of everything)—and although I’ve been eagerly anticipating this day, now I’m not sure that I want to read about the anxieties of those traversing with me the handful of years before and after 40. It’s too close. It gives me palpitations.

One of my favorite quotes from the book:

“But now it seems possible that the truth about getting older is that there are fewer and fewer things to make fun of until finally there is nothing you are sure you will never be.” (p 114)

Incidentally, this book would have been interesting told in little blog posts. I’m glad it’s a novel, but it would have worked as a serial blog, too.

View all my reviews

Pandora’s Homeschool

“Mom, did you say eighty thousand people died in one moment?” asked my daughter.

This afternoon, my children and I sat under the Tree of Knowledge, and they accepted with trust the apple I offered them: I read to them about how our country dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki and all of the people living in those cities.

“Mom, have they ever dropped atomic bombs on any other country?” my daughter asked.

“No, not in war. Not except for tests,” I said.

“Good. Because that was an awful thing to do.”

Before I started today’s lesson, their world-view didn’t include atomic weapons used to intentionally annihilate two cities and hundreds of thousands of human lives. This knowledge has shifted their perception of the world.

“Mom, I can’t wait until we learn about the Ancients again because even though they did lots of bad things to people, they couldn’t kill nearly so many people at once as people can in modern times.”

And because we homeschool, I’m the one who gets to tell them about Stalin’s purges and the Holocaust and atomic weapons. It’s a mixed blessing. I’m glad they’re hearing these things from me and that I get to be there to see them process the information, and I’m also grateful for the opportunity to look more deeply into these issues myself, but it’s difficult to tell them about these things. It’s difficult enough just to confront them myself.

Maybe I’m less like Eve and more like Pandora. With each lesson, I open the box a little more and let out into their world one more evil. And now I’m wondering, do I leave Hope inside the box? Or do I let it fly free and trust that it can hold its own out in the world and—even more—in the hearts of my children?

Chaos, Wonder and the Spiritual Adventure of Parenting, edited by Sarah Conover and Tracy Springberry

Even before I became pregnant with my first child, I began amassing baby care and parenting books. Unsure of myself as a parent, I sought solace in the opinions of others. Over the last decade, I’ve grown into my role as mother enough that I’ve given away most of the books I’d collected in those early uncertain years. Most days, I trust in my ability to doggy paddle through the waters of motherhood and make the best choices—or at least the best I can manage—for my children and my family. I do some spot-checking, looking back to trusted authors to borrow their faith in a parent’s abilities on those days when I feel the water at my chin and rising quickly, but mostly I feel competent enough to weather the fear on my own or with a phone call to a friend.

Now that I’ve left the parenting instruction manuals at thrift stores in three states, I’ve found myself yearning for a different sort of book. I find myself looking for a book that reflects the spiritual nature of my life as the mother of small humans, that recognizes the challenges and the joys as part of something that feels much larger than the decision about how much screen time my kids should have or the anxious moments scanning tiny print to make sure there are no hydrogenated oils in the store-bought cookies. Because I’m a UU and because I’ve had great luck finding the kinds of books that speak to me in the UUA bookstore, I aimed my browser in that direction and found Chaos, Wonder and the Spiritual Adventure of Parenting, which turned out to be just what I’ve been seeking.

Sarah Conover and Tracy Springberry join their essays with those of twenty-four other writers from a variety of faith traditions to tell stories of how parenthood has broken open their hearts, as Rosemary Bray McNatt puts it in her essay. Reading this anthology, I felt like I was in the presence of kindred spirits, surrounded by people who, though they come from very different backgrounds, face the same daily struggle I do of remaining sane in the face of the huge emotions our children bring to the surface.

Through their successes and failures, loves and losses, these fellow parents uncover more strength and love within them than they imagined was there. I especially love the stories about how the challenges of parenting has made these individuals more effective and patient in helping others outside their families. This is one of the fears I have—that the skills I’m developing at home with my children aren’t really transferrable to the adult-filled Outside World and once my children leave the nest I’ll be completely useless—and reading about those who’ve seen this whole thing through to the post-kids-at-home stage helps me feel less terrified for the future.

“How do we change our conditioned responses from the wounds inflicted by our families of origin so that we don’t harm our own children? Either parenting becomes our spiritual practice, or we bequeath the damage to another generation.” -Sarah Conover, from her essay, “Orthopraxy”

Read for the 2015 TBR challenge.

The Yearling by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings

Every night for three weeks, my nine-year-old and I snuggled together under a blanket, tea cups balanced on our laps. I read aloud in what my spouse says was a pretty good Southern accent and she read along silently over my shoulder.

After we’d finished the book and blown our noses and she’d talked a bit, I realized that she and I got different messages from the story. She loved it for the outdoors and the animals—both the cute baby animals raised by Fodder-Wing and Jody and the animals who threatened to kill them, directly or indirectly. When she cried, she cried because there was no clear right path for Jody to have followed. Should he have taken the fawn in or should he have left it? Neither seemed like a good plan in the end.

When I cried, I cried because as a parent, there’s no clear right path for raising my children. Penny, like many (most?) parents, tried to protect his son from the ills of his own childhood. He kept Jody from hard work and hunger, shielding him always from the ugly ways of people, a buffer between his son and reality. This spared Jody pain when he was young, but it left him unprepared for the life of an adult. The boy couldn’t read or write well or light a fire on his own or carry home a carcass after a hunt. Adulthood comes, though, whether we’re prepared for it or not. And so when I cried, it was in part for that remembered pain of crossing the threshold between childhood and adulthood and realizing there really was no magic to it after all, but it was even more for the constant and anticipated pain of knowing that no matter what I do for my children, they’re going to have to suffer in order to grow. I can’t get them out of that any more than I can get myself out of my own growing pains.

Even if I could keep them from feeling pain or sadness or fear as children, that would only leave them as adults with a sense of entitlement toward anything good in their lives and a sense of unfairness for any discomfort. They’d be as whiny as Jody was before his coming-of-age except they’d be trapped in it, perpetual children.

My take-home message from this book is that the way to help my children grow to be capable adults is to get them a wild animal to raise so it can betray them and so open their eyes to the betrayals they can expect from life every step of the way. Or since I live in the suburbs, maybe I can accomplish something similar by allowing them to make their own mistakes and feel their own embarrassment and fear and pain and just be there for them when it happens instead of trying to keep them from feeling it in the first place.

I think getting a fawn might be easier.

The Childhoods of Trees

Have you ever seen a partially or completely hollow tree, still quite leafy and alive? This is possible because [the tree’s] “veins” are in the outermost layer of the tree, just under the protective “skin” of bark. Every year, going through the cycle of generating new xylem, cambium tissue, and phloem, a tree adds a ring. The interior rings, literally relics from the tree’s sapling childhood, need not remain alive or intact for the overall plant to stand and survive. If they do, their role is supportive but not essential.

-Teri Dunn Chace in her article “Tree Work” from Sanctuary, Fall/Winter 2013-2014

CIMG1128My daughter has been learning about trees in her homeschool nature class the past month or so, and since I’ve been tagging along to the classes, I’ve been learning, too. Last week, the class investigated tree rings and tried to piece together what factors may have influenced the growth of the tree in years past. Apparently, there is a lot that will change a tree’s growth pattern without killing the tree. Was there a drought? A forest fire? An insect infestation? Was a house put up too near the tree in its youth, blocking the sun? Was a building or other obstacle taken down, allowing the tree more light and a boom in growth?

All of this is in the rings.

Certainly, not every tree survives every challenge, but it’s comforting to think how many live for hundreds of years, holding in their heartwood everything they’ve survived but often not showing these effects from the outside.

CIMG8648While I recognize that there is some risk in comparing human beings too closely to trees, I also find the comparison irresistible.  As a person who was once a child, I find the notion encouraging that a healthy childhood is “supportive but not essential” to a healthy adulthood. Each of us experiences different challenges of varying degrees and types, but there is a way to grow and be healthy despite these challenges.

As a mother of children, I find comfort in the idea that things will come into their lives that influence their physical, emotional, and spiritual growth, but none of this necessarily keeps them from becoming strong, healthy adults. This doesn’t mean that I shouldn’t protect my children as much as possible from harm but just that when bad things happen—which they inevitably will—they don’t automatically bar my children from healthy adulthoods.

This idea of the hidden childhoods of trees also helps me remember the wise words a friend once shared with me:

“Don’t judge your insides by someone else’s outsides.”

We can’t tell from the surface what relics are stored within.


Twenty-First Century Girl

I first became a Girl Scout more than 30 years ago. Each week, I walked through our northern California neighborhood to my Brownie meetings in my brown jumper, my beanie bobbie-pinned to my hair, a quarter in the dues pouch on my belt. Every year we would camp out and every year it would rain and we would complain about cleaning latrines, but we also sang silly songs, played silly games, and learned about native plants and how to build a fire even if the firewood’s wet. There was the year that it snowed while we were tent camping and when we got home, we found out that the Boy Scouts had gone home early and the Girl Scouts had stuck it out.

When we weren’t camping, my fellow Girl Scouts and I enjoyed doing service projects, hiking with naturalists, designing activities for younger girls, learning how to build an oven out of cardboard and tin foil, and taking trips to other states. Girl Scouts gave me my first chances to speak in public, and helped me see that being silly isn’t the worst thing that can happen to a person. Girl Scouts helped me experience what it means when women and girls stand by each other. In Girl Scouts I developed confidence in myself and leadership skills that have served me well in both my personal and professional life.

I have been a Girl Scout in four different states. I went through every level of Girl Scouts as a girl, and I always knew that, if I had a daughter, she would be a Girl Scout, too.

Now I’m in my second year as a leader with my daughter’s troop. In the years between my membership as a girl and my membership as a leader, Girl Scouts has made efforts to update the program to appeal to today’s girls.

Here’s what they came up with:


This is one of the incentives my daughter received for selling a certain number of candies, nuts, and magazine subscriptions during the Fall Product Sale. When I was a girl in the program, we didn’t have a Fall Product Sale, and the incentives we got for cookie sales were generally patches, animal-themed tchotchkes, logo t-shirts, and—for the really big sellers—credits to go on Girl Scout adventure trips.

Clearly, since I was a girl in the program the organization has realized that those kinds of things don’t motivate girls to sell stuff. So, they asked themselves, what do girls these days care about? What do the women leaders of tomorrow need more of?

Faced with such questions, the national organization came to a realization: nature is all around us.  I can look out my window right now and see ten or twelve birds at the feeder in my yard. Girls don’t need to have nature pointed out to them.

You know what’s not all around us? Shopping malls. There are squirrels hiding nuts all over my flower beds, but I have to drive almost two miles to get to the nearest shopping mall.

And shopping is awesome! Looking at ads, seeing the latest trends, choosing the outfit that will make us be noticed and popular and pretty. It’s what it means to be a woman in America!

This is a message our girls aren’t getting enough of from mainstream media. How are our girls going to know how great shopping is unless Girl Scouts points it out to them? Study after study shows that girls are severely deficient in positive messages about consumerism, and Girl Scouts is filling that void and helping our daughters develop a love of shopping from the age of five (the age that girls can join Girl Scouts nowadays). After all, who needs nature when you can shop?

And you know what else we can do? We can give the girls a pinewood derby, just like the Cub Scouts has. Only because everyone knows that girls don’t like building things we have to make it more appealing. I know! Let’s call it a “Powder Puff Derby”! Girls these days need to be reminded that they can do anything the boys can do as long as they do it cutely! (Double-bonus that it teaches them about cosmetics application. Goodness knows my daughter won’t be learning about that from me!)

Kudos to you, Girl Scouts, for leading my daughter and the rest of her generation boldly into the 21st century!

Classic Imperfect Happiness: Why I Don’t Care About Santa Claus

It’s less than a week until Christmas, I’m trying to finish reading two major works of classic literature by the end of the month, and I still haven’t finished knitting the apple hat that I started for my son in September when he asked for an apple hat.

I’m tired. And so, I’m recycling. Which is green so I’m also awesome. Awesomely tired. Or maybe tiredly awesome.

This is the post I wrote in 2011 about why we don’t do Santa at our house. I still agree with most of the things I wrote, and we still don’t do Santa. This year, my son once again wants to dress as Santa. He says he likes Santa’s belt. I have to admit, Santa really rocks a wide patent leather belt.


English: Santa Claus as illustrated in , v. 52...
Cover of Puck Magazine, December 1902, by Frank Nankivell Image via Wikipedia

Here’s the thing:

I could really care less about Santa Claus.

Sure, I’m still a little annoyed that my parents intentionally deceived me for so many years, commissioning personalized letters from Santa, leaving partially eaten cookies and carrots where we kids had left a snack for Santa on Christmas Eve, and even, when I was 10 and had chicken pox over Christmas, leaving a typed message from Santa himself in the typewriter I’d begged for.

“I know Santa has to be real,” I remember telling my mom, “because who else could have typed that message?”

When I finally figured out the truth (when I was twelve), I felt devastated. Not only had my parents practiced this elaborate deception for my whole life, I was clearly an idiot. In retrospect, it was so obvious. I was angry at my parents, but more than that, I was angry at myself for being so incredibly gullible.

I didn’t really trust my parents after that, which may or may not have happened without the big Santa letdown. After all, I was twelve. Every day I found new ways that my parents wronged me and new evidence to support my growing hypothesis that they were tyrannical imbeciles. (Over the past 20+ years, I discovered that they are merely, like the rest of us, human, which would likely have been just as big an affront to my 12-year-old self as what I actually believed.)

So, yes, while believing in Santa was magical and delightful until my faithful dog pulled the curtain aside and revealed that there was no magic at all, I didn’t and still don’t believe that the wedge it drove between me and my parents and the holiday itself was worth the temporary delight.

But I also recognize that most people don’t have such a personal grudge against the jolly bearded man in red. They have nothing but joyful memories of magical holidays and the satisfaction of gradually being let in on a grown-up truth at the proper time (usually before the age of 8 because about every other child in the United States is less gullible than I was). As a result, these people share the one-sided version of the Santa myth with their children. (I say one-sided because in general when someone shares a fiction, both they and the person they’re telling understand that it’s a fiction. With the Santa myth, only the parents know it’s a fiction. So, one-sided.) I don’t think this is bad. I think it just reflects a different perspective than mine.

These parents who “do” Santa place different weights on their values than I do. For me, whimsy is secondary to honesty and transparency. My kids and I play make-believe. We just all know it’s make-believe. Now, I know that I need to watch this because I have a tendency to let my kids in on more of the truth than they ought to know at their respective ages, but at the very least, I don’t feel comfortable introducing an intentional falsehood that they’ll eventually need to discover for what it is.

“Mommy, why do some parents lie to their kids about Santa Claus being real?” my daughter asked me as we were putting gifts under the tree the other day.

I don’t recall using the word “lie,” but it’s not really a surprise to me that my daughter interpreted the situation like this, given the way I’ve presented it.

“Well, honey,” I said, ” it’s not like it’s completely untrue. Around Christmas time, people like to think about how happy we feel to give presents and do nice things for each other. Kids like the story and their parents like seeing their children happy and surprised on Christmas morning.”

“I like the stories about the reindeer,” my daughter offered.

“Oh?” This is my stock answer when I’m not sure exactly where the conversation is going.

“I like Vixen the best because that’s what a female fox is called,” she continued. “What’s the largest number of kits a female fox can have in one litter?”

I don’t think that other people are doing their children a disservice by “doing” Santa. Nor do I think that I’m denying my children magic by being up-front about the fact that the story isn’t factual. My kids like getting presents, but they don’t ask for things for Christmas, and they don’t try to find out what they’re getting (although my daughter is really excited about being in on the secret of what her dad and brother are getting). I had a box of unwrapped presents sitting in the living room for weeks and they never sneaked a look. For them, at least for now, the magic doesn’t seem to be in the receiving but in all of the other exciting trappings of the season, like baking cookies and putting up the tree and driving around looking at Christmas lights and having Daddy home from work for his company’s annual shutdown.

My children know that the magic of giving is created by us for others and for us by those who love us. My children see magic in the movement of the clouds to reveal the sun. They hear the magic in a bird’s call and their own attempts to imitate it. They know the magic of confronting a challenge and, through hard work, surpassing it. They have plenty of magic in their lives. It feels unnecessary and maybe even a little dangerous to try to manufacture magic. What if I manufacture magic and deliver it right to them and they lose the knack of spotting the magic that exists everywhere already?

So, that’s why we don’t do Santa (or the Solstice Fairy or the Easter Bunny or any other mythical gift-giving creatures). And when my daughter reaches her teens and is pissed at me for denying her all of these things, I’ll deal with it then.

What myths and traditions do you have in your family? How do you inspire delight and whimsy in your children?

(For someone who doesn’t care about Santa, I sure have a lot to say about him.)

My Son’s First Sports Bra

CIMG2668I was organizing library books in my four-year-old’s room while he dressed for bed the other night. I looked up from my task. He gave me an odd little smile as he unbuttoned his shirt, and I noticed something unexpected.

“You’re wearing my sports bra,” I said.

Under his blue plaid shirt he wore the black sports bra I’d hung on a towel rack in my bathroom after my walk that morning.

“Yes,” he said. He seemed to be waiting to see what I’d do. Read More