Dispatch from the Beach

Photo from our second trip to Maine, with only one child. (We have no photos from our current trip!)

Photo from our second trip to Maine, with only one child. (We have no photos from our current trip!)

Our family spent this week in a rented house on the Maine coast, as we have for four of the past six summers (the two absences were due to the summer births of babies #2 and #4). By “our family,” I mean my husband and me, our four children, and my parents. Also with us — just down the road — are my mother’s sister, her two daughters (my cousins), their husbands, and their four combined children. Assorted family members visit us throughout the week. It’s a reunion of sorts, a vacation (of sorts), and a very fun time. Our daughters look forward to Maine all year. This trip is becoming a tradition, one that’s full of memories. The first time we came here, we were living in California and I was pregnant with our first child. A lot has changed in six years.

Now that we live in Vermont, Maine is a nice place to visit for two reasons. First, it has a seacoast, which landlocked Vermont does not. (This means that my husband spends a lot of time worried about waves and rip tides, which our daughters — experienced lake and pool swimmers — only encounter here.) Also, Maine is convenient; we can get here in about 5 hours, which includes an hour break for lunch. (In other words, we arrive before the battery dies on our portable DVD player.)

But now that we live in Vermont, I’ve also noticed that our Maine vacation seems a little backwards. You see, for most people a beach vacation entails “getting away from it all,” going somewhere with “a slower pace of life.” This was certainly true the two summers when we traveled to Maine from the San Francisco Bay Area. But now…now we live “away from it all.” Finding a location with “a slower pace of life” than our small town in Vermont would entail visiting a smaller town in Vermont.

These days, the Maine beach town that we’ve always visited seems bustling, over-developed, congested. It’s filled with tourists from fancy places like Boston and New Jersey. They drive fancy, fast cars, and they don’t stop when they see you waiting to cross the street.  Enormous new beach “cottages” are being constructed on every square foot of land. The only bookstore in town closed down and became the 57th tacky souvenir shop. And 30 minutes of our 5-hour drive to Maine are spent inching along in traffic on the three-mile stretch between the interstate and our rental house.

If it sounds like I’m cranky and complaining, I’m really not. Maine may no longer be the idyllic retreat that it once seemed, but it’s always fun to be somewhere other than home for a time. The beaches are beautiful. We get to visit with family whom we rarely see the rest of the year. Maine offers us new experiences and sights, like lighthouses and lobster boats and saltwater taffy (which, in one hilarious episode this summer, my oldest daughter tried, disliked, and then was unable to spit out. “It’h sthicky!” she cried, bent over the trashcan and clawing at her mouth.)

This particular summer, I’ve noticed something else backwards about our trip to Maine: For some strange reason, being at the beach brings out the best behavior in my daughters. For instance, our first morning here my two oldest girls woke up at the crack of dawn, as is their custom. But instead of bursting into our bedroom and demanding water or the toilet, I heard them walk quietly downstairs. Then I heard clanking noises, which immediately alarmed me. Surveying the situation from the top of the staircase, I saw that they’d gone downstairs, fetched one of the rental house’s games, set it up in the living room, and were now happily engaged in a round of “Connect 4.”

I tiptoed back to bed.

That might have been just a blip, a temporary foray into maturity. But after breakfast that same morning, my three oldest daughters slipped upstairs. Ten minutes later they emerged. They were dressed. Their hair was done. Their teeth were brushed. And, as they proudly showed us, they’d cleaned their rooms and made their beds. These are the very things that I spend an hour hounding them to do every morning back home.

“Girls,” I exclaimed, “I’m so proud of you! This is wonderful! But just tell me something: Why don’t you act this way when we’re at home?”

“Mommy, we’re on vacation!” one of my daughters replied, as if that explained it all.

And maybe it does.

 

Scrubbing the Blender

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Later this month, my husband Erick and I will celebrate a dozen years of marriage; we’ve spent almost 15 years of our lives as a couple.

Erick and I aren’t a particularly glamorous, romantic, or even interesting couple, but we did “meet cute;” we’d stand up pretty well alongside those couples in When Harry Met Sally… who tell the true stories of how they met.

You can read Erick’s version here.

I was his waitress.

Summer 1999. I was working at a now-defunct restaurant in Greenwich, Connecticut called “Organic Planet.” It was about as much of a hole-in-the-wall as you can get in Greenwich: a tiny space with about 8 tables, next to a vacuum cleaner repair shop on a nondescript street off of Greenwich’s main drag. But it dished up smoothies and tempeh salads to clientele like Tommy Hilfiger. The Tommy Hilfiger. (He was a very generous tipper.)

I had no previous waitressing experience, and was biding my time until I moved to New York City to begin a teaching job that fall. I figured everybody should waitress at least once in their lives, and that I’d probably learn a thing or two. As it turned out, I learned how to pronounce “quinoa,” and I met my future husband.

Erick was working (and often sleeping) at the Greenwich office of a hedge fund startup. The office’s air conditioning was turned off on the weekends, but Erick worked on the weekends and it was summer. So occasionally he’d bring his work to the air-conditioned, tofu scented paradise that was Organic Planet.

My first impression: “There’s a young, skinny Asian guy who seems nice and probably won’t try to hit on me. But why is he lugging around that huge stack of papers?”

Whenever Erick and I tell this story to others, he highlights his subtle strategy for wooing me. Throughout most of the summer, his plan of attack involved timing his arrival for 7:50 PM — Organic Planet closed at 8 — so that he could be the last customer in the place and therefore have more time to talk with me. He’d always order a banana smoothie.

It was only later, after we’d been dating a while, that he told me how precisely he’d orchestrated this. And I, in turn, told him how his plan had driven me nuts.

Because by 7:45, I’d figured that nobody else was going to come in and order a smoothie: Who drinks smoothies at 8 PM? I was anxious to close up shop and get home. So I’d clean the blender.

Cleaning the blender was one of the worst parts of waitressing. Most of the other dishes we’d just slide back to the dishwashing staff, but the blender station was up front, so cleaning it was the waitstaff’s responsibility. Blenders, as you may know, have multiple parts, including blades. Cleaning them involves disassembling the parts, scrubbing under and between the little blades, and then reassembling the whole thing.

As soon as I set the neatly scrubbed blender atop its base, in would walk Erick, asking for a smoothie.

As Erick and I told this story to some new friends last month, I realized that for years I’ve thought of this blender incident as just an amusing anecdote, a cute little detail, when actually it was an amazingly accurate preview of marriage. Because that feeling I had when Erick would ask me to make a smoothie using my just-cleaned blender — that feeling is one of the emotions I’ve felt most often throughout twelve years of marriage. Frustration. Vague annoyance. Martyrdom. Just when I get everything nice and tidy, you come in and make me mess it up again with your needs!

I’ve felt this way more than I’ve felt the soaring highs of early love, more than I’ve felt passion. And that’s not because I don’t love Erick, or because he’s an irritating person; on the contrary, I love him immensely, and he’s one of the least demanding people I’ve ever met.

I think that the “please make me a smoothie in your clean blender” feeling is all tangled up with what it means to have relationships with others. You don’t even have to be married to feel it: I feel it all the time towards my children. If I’m honest, I feel it every time the phone rings.

Because sometimes, at the end of a long day, you just want to sit on the couch eating popcorn and reading a good book, but your spouse wants to talk about their feelings or your day or the budget.

Sometimes, just when you think all the kids are napping (finally!) and you’re sitting down to write your next blog post, the bedroom door slams open and they come pounding down the hall screaming, “Mommy! Mommy!”

Sometimes, when you’re trying to cook dinner or get everyone out the door or call the dog in, the phone rings and it’s a friend who needs help or wants to chat.

Having your neat and tidy life messed up is a side effect of connection. And love is when you grit your teeth and usher in the mess.

When you lay down your book and talk to your spouse.

When you get up from your computer and tuck the kids back into bed.

When you pick up the phone.

When you toss bananas, yogurt, and ice into the blender that you just scrubbed.

If I seem to suggest that love usually entails frustration and teeth-gritting acts of service — well, I think that’s true. It’s what a dozen years of marriage, half of those years with children, have taught me.

But I wouldn’t give back a single one of those years. In fact, I’m probably more romantic than when I put on that white dress twelve years ago. I believe wholeheartedly in love. I believe that nothing has more power to change other people and ourselves for the better than dirtying our clean blenders because somebody else wants a smoothie.

Keeping the blender unsullied, keeping our lives neat and tidy, may sound like a good thing. It may even feel like a good thing, for a time. But after a while, you’re just a waitress sitting alone with a clean blender at closing time. And that sounds pretty sad to me.

Minibury Guest Post: Meet the Parent V

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I’m thrilled to introduce the subject of my latest “Meet the Parent!” profile for Minibury: my dear friend Caitlin Myers! This one includes an important announcement about the Adam Myers Memorial Fundraiser, so if you read nothing else, check out the details on that at the end. Click here to meet Caitlin!

My Summer By the Pool

“If you value your life, don’t do hockey,” they said.

I heard that advice from multiple parents after our family moved to Vermont. Never mind that our daughters were still too young to participate in organized sports, or that they’d never once displayed the slightest interest in or aptitude for hockey; the advice came unsolicited: “Hi, I’m Susie. Don’t let your kids play hockey!”

I believe the warnings against hockey stem from a combination of the heavy and expensive equipment, the rigorous practice schedule, and the hours of weekend travel to tournaments. But I can’t be sure, because I don’t know any hockey families personally — perhaps because they’re either in the throes of or recovering from hockey season.

Nobody warned me about swimming.

Click here to continue reading my latest “Faith in Vermont” column for The Addison Independent.

 

Lessons From This School Year

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As I sit at my computer to write this, there is exactly one more week of school in Addison County; when this column appears, my daughters will have been on summer vacation for approximately 15 hours. Between now and then there are picnics and potlucks and packing up. My oldest daughter’s Kindergarten will have “Move Up Day,” when she will meet her new First Grade teacher. My second daughter will participate in a preschool graduation ceremony, during which we will celebrate her ability to play, do crafts, and sit in a circle for 15 minutes. (Really, I see no need to continue her education.)

This year – our first in the Addison County public school system — has been a wonderful school year for our family. In August, we’ll send two daughters to public school, while their younger sister begins preschool; we’ve gotten our toes wet, and soon we’ll be wading in deep. So now seems like a good time to reflect on the valuable lessons our family has learned this school year.

Click here to continue reading my latest “Faith in Vermont” column in The Addison Independent.

Jumping the Fence

Photo by Campbell Gong

Photo by Campbell Gong

Our dog, Gracie, recently turned two years old. Age is not mellowing her. I often think of her as our fifth daughter, because, like the other Gong girls, she’s full of energy and a little tightly wound. Parenting Gracie is a lot like parenting our other daughters, as well; it’s trial and error, making appropriate adjustments for whatever irritating habit she’s developed in a given week.

Also, we love her a lot.

One of the ways that we allow Gracie to be herself and burn off her energy, while also maintaining boundaries to keep her safe, is by using an electric dog fence around our property. Because we live in the woods, this isn’t a fancy-schmancy suburban dog fence underneath our manicured lawn. We have no manicured lawn, so the dog fence is a wire that sits aboveground and runs around the perimeter of our yard (and our neighbor’s yard, since Gracie is best friends with their golden retriever).

When we let Gracie outside, we put a special collar on her. If she gets too close to the fence boundary, the collar beeps a warning. She’s learned that, if she goes through the fence, the collar will give her a brief but strong electric shock. (It’s uncomfortable but not cruel; I can tell you as someone who’s accidentally shocked myself with her collar).

Here’s the thing: Sometimes Gracie breaks through the fence. This is when she’s feeling particularly strong-willed about something, for instance; her dog friend next door breaks through the fence, or our family goes out for a walk without her, or she sees a squirrel, or just wants an adventure. So, she screws up her courage, gets a running start, yelps when she gets the shock, and then she’s free and clear!

Or so she thinks.

Because when Gracie jumps the fence, she may be free, but she’s not safe. There are cars and trucks out there that drive too quickly. There are (really and truly) bears and coyotes around these woods. There are hunters with guns. She has no experience taking care of herself, finding her own food. It’s not good for her to be outside the fence; that’s why we installed the fence to begin with.

But, here’s the funny thing: Often, when I’m actually trying to take Gracie out of our yard — on a walk, or to meet our daughter’s school bus — she refuses to come. She’s afraid she’ll get shocked. Even though she’s not wearing her collar, even though I’m leading her on a leash. She’ll dig in her heels, and I have to tug on the leash while attempting to reason with her: “It’s okay, Gracie. See, your collar isn’t on? No shock, okay?” Sometimes I have to pick her up — all 54 pounds of her — and carry her down the driveway.

We went through this just the other day, and it occurred to me: Oh my gosh, Gracie is JUST LIKE ME! 

I, like Gracie, have a screwed-up idea of what freedom is. I think we all do; my daughters certainly do. We assume that if something’s safe, then it isn’t really free. So we’ll gather up our courage, get a running start, and risk pain and punishment — an electric shock, a time out, a broken relationship — for the “freedom” to go play in traffic.

For the “freedom” to mingle with bears and coyotes and hunters.

For the “freedom” to be the boss of me!

On the other hand, whenever I’m being prompted to do something that I really should do, something that would be fun or soul-expanding — I tend to dig in my heels and fight against it. I’m afraid. Afraid of imagined harm that could befall me, the shock that might zap me.

I have the freedom to do these things, but I don’t trust that freedom. I don’t think I’ll be safe.

Examples of this kind of misguided inertia include: Picking up the phone to invite my child’s friend over to play (I know, I know — it’s completely irrational to be afraid that another parent will refuse to allow their child to play with mine…but it’s true). Writing a book, or even just submitting my writing to new outlets. Leaving my children in order to do something “selfish” like spend an afternoon alone or a night with friends.

The trick is knowing the difference between the safe and the stupid kinds of freedom. For Gracie, it seems simple: When somebody is leading you on a leash, do it; if nobody’s walking you down the driveway, stay in the yard. But when you’re the one wearing the collar, it’s a lot harder to discern whether you’re leading yourself or being led.

I don’t think there’s an easy solution to this conundrum. But I do suspect — and I might catch some flack for this — that we are smarter than dogs. Most of us, if we take a minute to reflect, can distinguish between playing in traffic and going for a stroll. And most of us, if we’re still and patient, can hear the warning beeps as we approach the safety fence — or feel a gentle tug at the end of the leash.

When we feel that tug, we should go. Because, unlike Gracie, it’s unlikely that someone else will pick us up and carry us over that fence.