Monday, March 31, 2008

Night School

I have been teaching Charlie's Sunday School class at church this past month. We have a potential 27 two-and-a-half-year-olds that could show up on any given Sunday. We usually have about 19 or so in the class. One of my helpers brings in an extra folding table and we have to take chairs from the classroom down the hall. The tiny, windowless room is wild with toddlers.

I have some experience with teaching. My first teaching job ever was teaching high school English in night school in downtown Chicago. Most of the students were there because prison or having a baby had gotten in the way of their high school career. I had one student who was a grandmother at the age of 26, just four years older than me at the time. I was hired to take the place of another teacher, so I inherited his curriculum. He was teaching them Beloved by Toni Morrison. (!) I had struggled to comprehend this book in my college Women's Lit classes. I couldn't believe I was going to have to try to teach it to people who could barely put a sentence together. I had a very full classroom then too--I will never forget standing in front of them, wearing my best adult costume, trying my hardest to connect. I must've smiled a lot. One time a student asked me, apropos of nothing, mid-lecture, "Ms. Hailey, why are you always smiling?" Was it because I was nervous? I think I might be a nervous smiler. But I think it might have been because I was happy. What a strange place to find yourself feeling happy. It felt a little like being in one of those dreams where you find out that you are the star of the play and you haven't been to any of the rehearsals...and opening night is in about five minutes...and it's Shakespeare. But somehow, instead of totally humiliating myself, I was enjoying myself. It turned out I had something to say to them about Beloved and I enjoyed hearing their thoughts on the book as well. They wrote poems about growing up in their crazy neighborhoods and going to parties in the projects. They tried to get me to go to the movies with them. I taught them how to diagram sentences. We used to play a game that I invented where they had to identify the part of speech of each word in a sentence. It's a really fun game, I promise.

In Charlie's class I am probably doing a lot of smiling too. I get nervous, just like I did before when I was teaching night school. I know it's silly to be nervous in front of two-year-olds, but I am just silly that way. Much like my night school students, Charlie and his classmates wear their emotions on their sleeves. Some of them will enter the room crying, their mother or father reluctantly handing them off to me like a bundle of raw humanity. Here, they're saying, take this incredibly sad, scared little person and teach them about God. I get nervous that I'll forget the plot of whatever Bible story I'm supposed to be talking about. Did they eat fish before or after Jesus showed up? Which side of the boat were the apostles supposed to cast their nets again? Mostly I feel nervous because I feel even less qualified to teach about the Bible than I did about Beloved. I worry that these two-year-olds will see that I am not a perfect Christian or a perfect anything for that matter. I have more doubts than I'd care to admit. My version of prayer all too often ends up sounding more like I am dictating a letter to God. Dear God, no, strike that, Dear Heavenly Father, no, God, is better I think... we'll stick with "God." I feel like I am learning right along with my young students. I am reading some of these stories for what I know is not the first time, but it feels like the first time they are really registering in a lot of ways. I'm basically in the church equivalent of night school. I'm not sure how I ended up being such a slow learner in this area, but here I am. I was raised going to Sunday School my whole life, but for some reason it didn't really take for a long time. I think some people are more porous than others and they just soak up religion and God and all that stuff the first time it is presented to them. This is a weird analogy, but here it is anyway. When I give Emma and Charlie a bath and I wash their hair, I can pour one pitcher of water over Charlie's head and his whole head is wet instantly. Something about his hair just grabs on to the water and soaks it up. With Emma I have to keep pouring it on over and over again. It's like her hair has some sort of waterproof coating on it that just repels wetness. I think I'm like Emma's hair in that way. The pitcher has been poured over my head a million times and it's finally sinking in.

When I was teaching night school I would take the el home to my apartment after class was over. I can remember walking the few blocks from my stop to my building and more often than not there was snow on the ground. I would see my footsteps in the snow and look back at the trail they were leaving behind and think to myself, I make a difference, my life has meaning. Each footstep seemed to take me closer to the person I wanted to become. There have been a lot of footsteps leading me to where I am now, and I think I'm getting closer with each one.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Dirty Laundry

Confession time...are you ready? I hate doing laundry. And it hates me. I can't seem to ever get to the bottom of our giant McBride Family Laundry Hamper. I thought by consolidating our family's laundry into one hamper that it would somehow help me keep tabs on the laundry situation, but no dice. The pile in the hamper just seems to stay at about the same level no matter how much I slave away at my two nemeses: the washing machine and the dryer. Why do I hate doing laundry? In these modern times of indoor plumbing and Downy balls, it is like the easiest thing in the world to do. It's almost space age, like a flying car or something...just throw in some dirty clothes with a little magic powder, push a button and, forty minutes later you have clean clothes! I remember my mom telling me a story about a friend of her mother's who was the first person my mom ever met who owned a dishwasher. My mom and her mother stood in this woman's kitchen as she walked them through the process of loading the dishes, pouring in the soap and voila! Clean dishes. "You still have to put them away though," my grandmother's friend sighed. And that's the thing with laundry that I have the biggest problem with. The putting away part. The putting away part generally drags on way too long at my house. It can go on until there is a new week's worth of laundry to put away or until a guest comes over who might venture deep enough into our house to witness my piles of laundry. Guests are great motivators to me. Guests to my house probably think I am the type of person who puts her laundry away...and puts the newspapers in the recycling bin before they have somehow piled up to be taller than Charlie...and vacuums the horrible place under the table where the kids eat their meals. I have everyone fooled!

While we're on the subject of things that get on my nerves, does anyone else with young children get sick of constantly feeding them, or is it just me? It's been about 4 1/2 years of being a mom and I am still amazed at the amount of time I spend doling out food, cleaning up food off the floor and table, washing dishes, going to the grocery store for more food and washing the food stains off of clothes. I'm not even counting all the time I spend "discussing" what kinds of foods are acceptable for breakfast, snack 1, lunch, snack 2, and dinner(i.e. why we can't have m&m's for every meal).

Does anyone have some super organized plan for keeping their house clean and their clothes clean and their kids fed? If so, I don't know if I can be friends with you anymore. Ha. Ha.'s 4:09 p.m. The kids are pouring all of their toys in their suitcases in preparation for the pretend vacation they're singing about right now. From the sounds of things they'll be needing a lot of spoons and Lincoln Logs on this vacation. Looks like I have just enough time to pop in a load of laundry, clean up after snack #2 and start cooking dinner.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

For the truly bored

I was doing my Easter basket internet research the other day when I stumbled across some really crazy Playmobil play are some pictures of the ones I found particularly esoteric:

Children with Guinea Pigs

Vending Machine

Polar Researcher with Sled

Here are some other situations that are specific enough, yet also universal enough to create Playmobil play sets out of (in my opinion):

Dentist's Office Waiting Room Play Set (Complete with clipboard for filling out new insurance information!)
State Vehicle Inspection Waiting Line play set (Wait in line just like Mom and Dad!)
Spring Cleaning Play Set (Your child will have a blast deciding which items go to Goodwill and which ones get sold on ebay!)
Mommy's Getting Highlights play set (Free with purchase: "Babysitting Daddy!")

Got any of your own ideas? I could start a list to send to Playmobil and make us all rich!!

Saturday, March 15, 2008

Read any good books lately?

I am proud to say that my kids love books. I used to worry that I would somehow fail to pass on my love of reading to them when, as babies, they preferred to sit on or chew books rather than look at them. All the parenting books and the commercials on PBS Kids were telling me that I needed to be reading to my kids for 30 minutes a day. I just hoped that somehow the magic of reading was being absorbed osmotically as they teethed away on Are You My Mother? Yesterday I walked in on the above scenario and was so proud that Emma was passing on her love of reading to the Bitty Twins. Charlie went to sleep reading Go Dog Go the other night. He was lying on his tummy, his footed-jammie feet crossed in the air, holding a flashlight and studying the pages. Scenes like that make my heart melt. I'm sure people who are good at sports probably get that feeling when they see their preschooler throw a ball or make a slam dunk or whatever it is you do in sports. I get that feeling when I see my kids reading. I can't wait for them to decode the mysterious markings on the pages and figure out how all those black lines create whole worlds for them to explore. Then they will really be hooked.

I have to admit, while I love to read, I'm a terrifically slow reader. Since kids have come into my life I am like beyond slow. I think it's because I read like a writer, or maybe more like an English teacher...reading every sentence as though I wrote it, questioning punctuation and tense along the way. I've never been one of those people who can just breeze through a book, put it down and have no idea what happened. I unwrap each sentence like it's a little gift from the author to me. This is great and all, but it is not great for getting through books while kids are fake skateboarding and having princess weddings around you. I generally only get the time to read after kids have gone to bed in the hour or two I have to myself which is also the allotted time slot for watching TV with Brandon, talking to Brandon, cleaning up the most offensive areas of our house, catching up on emails, writing my blog, writing my novel, and staring at a blank wall while no one talks to me or asks me for milk. I am an introvert and I need my staring at a blank wall time or I get cranky.

So, anyway, this is my elaborate, guilty way of telling you that I have barely read any of Atonement. I fully intend to read it, but poor Atonement has been having to wait in line behind my reading of other things, like my writing group buddy Brooke's fabulous manuscript, a book called Letter from Point Clear (which I recommend), and now the latest tool of procrastination has been Jennifer Weiner's Little Earthquakes, which is a very fast (even for me) read about new motherhood. I am reading it ostensibly to get ideas for my own writing, but really I'm reading it because I just love the Mom/chick lit genre. I'm not ashamed to admit it. So, anyway, poor little Ian McEwan has been patiently waiting in line and his turn is coming, but I think I need some kind of a deadline to help me. When should we schedule our little book discussion? Want to say six weeks from now? That would be April 26thish. Sound good?

If you're looking for new books for your kids to read, here's a cool tool from Scholastic...Write in a title of a book that your kids are currently loving and then click on the Bookalike button and it will find similar books at the same reading level. For example I typed in "Thomas the Tank Engine" and here's what it came up with. Pretty neat.

Monday, March 10, 2008

What's Your Thing?

Lately Emma has been asking people what their "thing" is. As in: Mommy, is writing stories your thing? Well, yes, I say to her. It is. If by "my thing" you mean that it's the thing that I inexplicably feel compelled to do even though it makes me want to tear my hair out with frustration and doubt and the realizations of my own shortcomings. Emma says that her thing is drawing pictures. And Charlie's thing is playing with cars. Somehow I don't think they're as tortured by their things as I am by mine.

I don't think I've mentioned the fact that I had to trash the novel I'd been working on off and on for the past four years. Yep. I haven't much wanted to talk about it because it sucks. I had been writing away on it happily, thinking things were just fine, imagining the movie stars that would play my characters in the movie version, the dress I would wear to the Oscars, etc., etc. (because everyone knows that writing a book is your ticket into the Oscars--at least it is in my fantasy) and then I looked up from what I was doing, printed the whole thing out, put it in a classy green notebook and realized something: The story really started on p. 135 or so and I had only written about, oh, 137 pages. It's like if I had been sewing a dress and I was so hung up on the details of the lace trim that I didn't realize I had accidentally sewn three-and-a-half arms and a tail.

So now I am working on a new story and it's pretty exciting (in that tedious, scary, staring-at-blank-screen way). I mourned my old story and my old characters for about a day or so and now I'm on to the new characters and their problems. For a little while there, this new story was like a rebound relationship and I was obsessed with it. I wanted to talk about it all the time to anyone who would listen (i.e., Brandon) and everything I encountered somehow related back to me and my story.

Now, I've been dating this story for a few months and I see it for what it is: a fun project that provides just enough angst to keep me interested. I guess that's the definition of what my "thing" is. So, what does that say about me?

Today Emma had an "Author's Tea" at her school. All the children read the books that they "wrote" and illustrated. It was hilarious to hear their stories. They were all variations on the same theme: Snow. Emma's story was great, but the pictures were amazing. Drawing pictures really is her thing. I hope her thing brings her a less complicated joy than my thing brings me. Some of the kids were too shy to sit in the chair at the front of the room while their story was being read, or they buried their face in their hands and twisted their body away from the small crowd of parents and students. Emma sat at the front of the room, enjoying every minute of the limelight. Could she be more different from me?

Brandon and I share many things in common and one of those is our love of mountain-climbing documentaries. Surprised? I can't get enough of the harrowing stories of people making their way to the summit. I have no desire to actually do this myself, but it is so exciting to watch others do it in the comfort of your living room while snuggling with your husband under a warm blanket. Somehow Tivo knew we loved mountain climbing shows even though we had never explicitly told him that we loved mountain climbing shows. Tivo kindly started recording Everest about a month ago and we have been hooked ever since. Everest is a reality show/documentary that follows a few teams of mountain climbers as they attempt to climb Mt. Everest (you probably could've figured that one out on your own). It is truly crazy what these men go through to get to the top of this mountain. One guy loses the tips of all his fingers and toes to frost bite; another guy attempts to climb on prosthetic legs. They make the final summit attempt in the middle of the night in 40-below temperatures. They cannot breathe on their own and the air is so thin it is known as the "death zone." When the sun finally comes up, the sky is the deep-blue hue that tells you they are close to leaving the earth's atmosphere. They are way up there. And when they get to the top, they're only allowed to be there for about 15 minutes or so because the climb down is even harder than the climb up and they're running out of oxygen. But when they are up there it must be like getting a taste of what Heaven is like. The camera pans the view from the top of the mountain and it is all mountains plunging through clouds as far as the eye can see; the extreme beauty of nature is almost scary it's so breathtaking. I imagine it is a moment where God feels like a tangible thing. Like you could just reach out and touch him. It is a view on the world that many are willing to die for. Now, to compare writing to climbing Mt. Everest is a little lame. The closest I come to the "death zone" when writing is getting low blood sugar in the middle of writing a pivotal scene. But, I do think that I share a little of the same neurosis with the Everest guys. I understand that some things are worth suffering for. As a writer I am constantly working and struggling to get to that perfect view...that version of the world that both reflects and exceeds my own. I am a long, long way from getting there. I am like below base camp. I'm still in the airport, with a huge backpack, my power bars and all my North Face gear. But, I'm excited to make the journey. I know it will be worth it. I guess that's what makes it my thing.

Wednesday, March 5, 2008


Did you see this article about "Momnesia" in USA Today? Here's the article in a nutshell: Moms tend to be forgetful. This is probably due to the fact that they this is the really cutting edge part...sleep deprived! I know, you really needed USA Today to point that out to you, didn't you? The other reason you may have a case of the old "mom brain" is because of hypervigilance--our mommy superpower that enables us to hear the baby crying in the middle of the night while our husband sleeps peacefully. USA Today says that moms are using all their brain power that used to be reserved for, say, remembering what year it is, for things more crucial to their child's survival. In my case, all the brain storage space that used to be taken up with remembering how to do simple addition and subtraction is now being used to remember how to tell Gordon, Edward and Thomas the Tank Engine apart. Sometimes I panic when someone asks me how old I am because I honestly can't remember. The other day I couldn't remember my parents' zip code for the life of me and it's not like they moved recently. They've lived in the same house since I was five. But I have developed new skills. Yesterday I was cooking a new recipe for dinner, doing laundry and talking to my sister on the phone all at the same time. After dinner I took the kids upstairs for their bath and managed to fold several loads of laundry and clean the bathroom while supervising them. My husband came home from work in the middle of all this productivity and informed me that despite my ability to multi-task like a pro, I had neglected to close the front door of our house. Oops.

I propose that USA Today get their crack team of researchers to work discovering the causes behind all kinds of mom behavior. For starters they could get to the bottom of why moms don't get to take showers every day,why we fall asleep watching Netflix DVDs and why we love to wear sweatpants. I think the world deserves to have the answers to those mom questions and many more.

Got any Momnesia moments or other Mom-disorders to share? I'd love to hear them!