Over time, we may come to understand what these gifts mean

Angel_smallThere is this great desire to be known. To be recognized for who one is. We need signals from the intimate world, from the people closest to us, that we have been observed and found out. And around Christmas time, we start to hope that the gifts will be those signals — that someone will unearth or make the item that will tell us we are known, and we are prized for who we are.

We know we are loved. But are we known? That we worry about in our heart of hearts.

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As I child, I always loved Christmas and looked forward to it each year. My sister Sally and I shared a room for a long time, and every Christmas Eve we would lie in our beds wriggling with delight over what Santa and the morning would bring. It was hard to sleep, and we would kick and bicycle our legs deliberately to get rid of the energy. In later years, after the dream of Santa was behind us, I still endowed Christmas with much hope — a great, great deal of it — even though my rational mind knew that, with knowledge, the magic had dissolved.

When I was about 14 or maybe older, I received from my parents the gift of an antique wicker chair and table that had come from my mother’s Aunt Gert’s house. The set had been dusted off, and my mother had sewn a new cushion set. Intellectually, I could tell this was a special gift. I said thank you, and even now I hope I outwardly seemed grateful and happy. I wasn’t happy, though. I don’t recall if there was something in particular I wanted, but it wasn’t a family hand-me-down. I was a teenager, so perhaps boots or clothes or a record player or hot rollers would have been more worth getting.

I don’t actually remember the nuances of what I felt beyond the shock of seeing the table and chair, around the corner from the living room, too big to be put under the tree. I have a mental snapshot of the moment, and in trying to stand there in the same place again, looking at the table and chair, all I feel is the force of my own self-control: try to be thankful, try to keep your cool, try to appreciate the meaning and effort that mum has put into this.

The effort to accept a gift that one doesn’t want is so great.

—–

I still have that chair and table. Many years ago, I updated the table, marbling the top, when I took a furniture-painting class. The chair has been professionally restored by a wicker man, who told me the chair is a classic, and he may have even named its style, but I don’t remember it. There is a little piece of wicker on the arm rest that has broken off, and I have put it aside, intending to glue it back.

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Fragments of a fall

It culminated in glory.

Ornament

Yesterday Grace and I strung the magnolia and arbor in the front yard with solar LED lights and some glitter balls and gold pine cones we bought last year. Fingers are crossed on the lights charging up today for a show tonight.

The glory, though, is the big final event for one of my favorite classes to work on at MIT, in mechanical engineering: 2.009 Product Engineering Processes. The name of the class might not arouse excitement — it could even evoke an image of a conveyor belt, which the word “processes” always does for me — but the experience of the class, students, and creativity does. Over the term, teams of 16+ students brainstorm, model, test, and prototype an innovative product. This year’s theme was “outdoors.” My two teams, Red and Silver, respectively developed a portable cookpot for campers heated by an exothermic chemical reaction (no flame!) and an innovative hand truck with treads to improve the ergonomics of delivering filled beer kegs from a parked truck to the basement storage areas of bars and restaurants.

If you are curious, you can watch the final presentations for Red’s Heatware and Silver’s Clydesdale by going to the course website (link) and clicking the links in the upper right corner.

Students don’t write formal reports in this class, although there are other writing tasks that I and other communication instructors can advise them on, such as surveys of potential customers and text for a product brochure. There are diverse presentations at milestone reviews that punctuate the development process, and we coach them on those. We also are members of the team, along with lab instructors, and that’s the best part — attending weekly meetings, lurking in the lab as they design and machine parts, and asking the kinds of questions that gets young people to think more critically about their original work. It’s socially rewarding too.

Red Team, Final Presentations, 12/10/2012 -- you didn't know MIT students were adorable, did you?

Red Team, 12/10/2012 — you didn’t know MIT students were this adorable, did you?

And the conclusion is like the last day of summer camp, or (as adults) the week-long writing or arts conference that you loved, and filled to the brim with every emotion: fatigue, worry, friendship, achievement, and anticipated loss. There is relief, but we do miss each other when it ends.

Way back in September, I had tried to schedule my semester to lighten my load for the final two or three weeks so I could give 100% to the product design class. I even jiggered the deadline for a final proposal in another class so that I could read them all before Thanksgiving. (I thought this would be good for the students, too.) That made November packed. Here’s an image of my at-home Homework Center, working alongside Lydia and Grace at the dining room table. It was a grind, but at least we were together.

Girlz_Homework

The autumn wasn’t all schoolwork. There was Thanksgiving at my sister Sally’s house with everyone. There was a wonderful, compressed trip to Orlando for a so-so conference and a few vacation days tacked on, which included a day at the Magic Kingdom and a day with the manatees in Crystal River (link). There was the cool fall day I replaced the rotted pieces on our kitchen porch, having gotten advice and help from the mechanical engineering lab director. Very satisfying labor and accomplishment.

Porch_fixed_550

And there were of course high points and engaged students in my other three classes, in biology, nuclear science engineering, and measurement and instrumentation for mechanical engineers.

Some things didn’t get done. There has been very little blogging or writing of any kind that wasn’t a review of student work. I made my peace with that as I was fixing and painting the porch over Thanksgiving weekend, and I realized that, to really do well at a task that is important to me, my motivation cannot be split across different ones. It only creates frustration, and not the productive kind, to be doing one thing and wishing you were actually doing another thing. I did think about writing — I wasn’t all “in the moment” — but it was without that inner torture of feeling as though time was slipping away. I said to myself, “I will come back to it.”

This happened also with skating. Some weeks I practiced only one time. Still, the lessons and progress continue. I recently signed up for a USFSA skills test on February 3rd, and I plan to skate at least three times per week over my winter break to get ready for it. I want there to be meaningful goals without anxiety or self abuse.

Recently, my friend Betsy and I were talking about our lives at midpoint, and what we have learned. We agreed that there is a kind of liberation to letting go the could-have-beens and to narrowing our focus on the parts of life most important to us. We recognize the limits within and without, and we see the tremendous space inside them, especially when the could-have-beens are carved away. I am parent and teacher first — maybe at my core I am a nurturer and steward of children and young people — and other strong interests often seem fitted to those or impossible without them. For example, three writing projects that are simmering on a back burner have something to do with children and the contraries of raising them. Central to my marriage to Jimmy is our shared devotion to, as well as shared burden of, parenting. (Interesting how devotion and burden are often intertwined.)

A couple of days after the December 10th final presentations for 2.009, that wonderful product design class, I went to its farewell dinner and talked to many students and staff. One student asked me if I had observed that the course professor had seemed choked up a bit when he was on stage during the students’ tribute to him, and if I had any thoughts why that might be. I couldn’t speak for the professor, but I did speak for myself and explained that, if you really love teaching, as I do, at some point during that night in particular there may be a moment when you think to yourself, “I have the best job on earth.” You see young people at their best, after weeks and weeks and weeks of work at times creative and at times tedious, and you feel great hope for the world. To be part of something greater than one’s self — so great it may even obscure one’s individual contribution — is transcendent. Tears leak out.

On December 15, Lydia hosted an outdoor skating party for about 100 students from the high school. Back in October I put the deposit down on my credit card and signed the liability paperwork, and she advertised it via Facebook, collected money from kids, and made the playlist. We bought a sheet cake. Jimmy and I were the only designated chaperones, although a couple of teachers came, too, and Eli and Grace also came along, and so did my brother-in-law and niece. I skated, of course, and secretly desired to act out my someday fantasy of being an ice rink guard. Lydia had cautioned me to be almost invisible and not to say anything. I bit my tongue therefore and resisted the temptation to give unsolicited tips to the absolute beginners.

It was not my night. It was theirs.

skaters, Brookline, Dec 15

skaters, Brookline, Dec 15

the three mighty Gutermans, Dec 15

the three mighty Gutermans, Dec 15

And now I’m back.

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Credit for Red Team photo goes to 2.009 Red Team, Fall ’12, courtesy of Brigitte Morales.

Sitting on my hands: parenting and self-restraint

Today is the second day of try-outs for a team that Grace really, really wants to be on. It’s volleyball, a sport she’s never played before.

Before the try-outs began, she asked the coach if she’d accept novice players, and the coach said, “Yes.” She’s willing to teach.

Still, Grace must demonstrate she has what it takes. I must confess that I have been very tempted to secretly influence the outcome. My persistent thought, all week, has been to email the coach (whom I’ve met) and make a persuasive and covert case for Grace. I imagine describing my daughter’s physical strength, desire, reliability, and team spiritedness. I have imagined striking a deal that goes like this: If you pick her for the team, I promise that we will do a lot of drills with her at home. We won’t let you down.

My tendency to over think is saving me, in this instance, from meddling. While I have written a perfect email in my head and fantasized Grace’s joy at being picked, I have also had a lengthy internal dialogue about the ultimate rightness of such parental “involvement.” The Jane who is all I WANT I WANT I WANT — and NOW! has been counseled by the Jane who takes the long view and is on the side of transparency and fairness. I also want the kids to incrementally grow in independence and self-advocacy, which means I have to sit on my hands a lot and not always prevent, not always fix.

There will be no Dear Coach email.

Yesterday, we helped Grace make sure she has the gear she needs for the second day of tryouts, and we bought our first volleyball. Jimmy spent some time in the backyard with her at dusk, with the outdoor lights on, catching balls that she served to him and throwing balls that she pounded back. At dinner, Grace described a message that she will say to the coach, on how much she wants to be on the team. Lydia advised Grace on some words she might add.

We can help our kids prepare for the contests of the world, which will be many. Much as I would like to, I cannot guarantee the outcome by my own efforts. I feel the temptation of trying to, though, so I resist mightily.

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Update (9.28.2012): Sad face. No volleyball team this year.

Flowers in the attic, toys in the basement

Grace had a gig this afternoon babysitting for two little boys, ages 5 and 1 years, who are children of our friend Ellen, a woman who babysat for Grace when she was a baby. It’s that whole circle of life thing.

We invited the boys here, so that Grace could have backup if needed. Today we’re just puttering around the house anyway; there are still about 10 days left to finish our summer chores before the season officially ends.

It was time to bring up some age-appropriate toys from the basement. The dollhouse and its residents and furnishings needed washing.  Good thing I soaped and rinsed them because most of those pieces ended up in a little mouth.

I did administer one timeout today, when the older boy took his brother’s pacifier and wouldn’t hand it back to me. That parental authority: I still have it. Jimmy let the older boy win at a complex card game with slippery rules, and the two of them bonded.

Young children keep going and going and going. I remember when Eli was little, Jimmy would once in a while hold the tv remote in his direction and mime trying to get him to stop for just one minute.

When the father picked the boys up at 5pm, I told him we got our exercise, two times over, today. “This is how they are until bedtime,” he replied. Honestly, I had forgotten.

Grace is resting. We’re still parents, and we have things to do.

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Suds by Jane; photographs by Jimmy and Grace; and dollhouse by Fisher Price.

Imagine the luck of her future second graders

Grace and I have been bitten by the organizing bug, and we are culling our collections. I took four boxes marked “Jane’s Junk” and got them down to one, and Grace has stripped her closet down to the essentials and tackled her desk drawers. Last night she came across a list made five years ago when she was in the second grade. Knowing I like to save the textual artifacts of childhood, Grace handed it to me. You can click on the thumbnail to see the scanned version in full size or read the transcript below.

From the handwriting, it looks like Jimmy and I took turns at dictation. I asked Grace, “What was this list for?”

She replied, “When I was in second grade and thinking about becoming a teacher, I thought it would be neat to be able to tell my second graders some day what I was like when I was their age.”

This is what she was like, as reported on November 15, 2007:

When Grace was in 2nd grade, she

  • was an artist
  • gave affection to all
  • swam on the JCC swim team
  • had experience as Ms. Aibel’s student and “teaching assistant”
  • could make her own French fries
  • watched Zoe 101
  • loved to snuggle
  • was a Brownie
  • had an electric toothbrush that played a song by Jesse McCartney
  • wore her hair in two braids every day
  • loved the comfort of yoga pants

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if Grace, or Eli or Lydia, became a teacher? Then there would be three generations of us: my father, my mother-in-law, I, and one of the kids. Now that would be a family legacy.

I feel so close to you right now

couples, outside the ICA, Boston, June 2008

Sometimes what you want is far away, a dream.

And sometimes everything you want is right next to you.

On Sunday, two days ago, the five of us traveled in our van to New Jersey to see the relatives there. As the children get older, it is rare that we are all together on a day that is not a holiday. We played a mix CD that Eli made; it might have been the one he called “Hedge Money” or the one called “Sky Mall Mix.” They’re both good.

The three of them are talkative. We eavesdrop and only occasionally interject. I had my notebook on my lap most of the way.

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Eli (almost 20) gives travel advice Lydia (age 16), who is headed to Vietnam and Cambodia next year: “There are going to be so many leeches there.”

Lydia disagrees: “Don’t you think I’ve already gone on the web to see what kinds of insects there are?” This does not surprise me. Lydia is thorough and always prepared.

Eli keeps insisting. Lydia says heatedly, “Eli, sometimes you try to act as if you know more about something than I do, when in fact I know more about it!” I wish I had her awareness and the guts to go with it when I was a teenager. Really, it took me until I was about 35 to even think what she said.

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Eli looks at a photo of Grace (age 12) on someone’s phone. He says to her, “You’re so hospitable. You’re going to make a great escort someday.”

Grace: “What’s an escort?”

—–

Eli has two more weeks to go at Otto, his summer employer, a new, upscale pizza place in Brookline. By now, with his hands and forearms covered with oven burns and knife nicks, he’s had it. He describes his quitting fantasy (don’t we all have them?): “If I were ever so mad at Otto that I was going to quit on the spot, I would take a bite of everything that was about to be served and be like ‘Fuck you, Otto,’ and walk out the door.” We laugh. Continue reading

Mother and daughter, hat makers

Today is Crazy Hat Day at the arts camp that Grace attends (and Lydia serves as counselor in training). Sure, a person could buy a hat, but the thrills of using a glue gun are too intense to resist. So Grace made a hat last night, after rummaging through the basement for both junk and glitter. By this morning, the glitter had set, and the hat could be touched. This is where I came in: I had to find and sew on, to a hat made of cardboard and foam rubber, ties that would hold it on her head. Ribbon or shoelaces wouldn’t work — something stretchy was needed. Fortunately, there are numerous uses for nylon stockings, beyond covering the legs, and they came in handy this time too. I took two black knee-highs and sewed them by hand to the foam underside of the brim. Voilá, a crazy hat that stays put.

The tortoise wins her race

I didn’t win the race; I won my race.

Lydia and I ran the B.A.A. 5K along with 6,000+ other runners, our second race this year and my second race ever.  On the train ride back to our car at 9:30am, having done what we each set out to do — Lydia improved her time and I ran the whole route without walking — Jimmy asked me if this race felt different than the first.

Yes, it did.

Before the race, Jane and Lydia contemplate the finish line.

I enjoyed this race more. There was only one hilly patch (near the State House), and my mental resources therefore were not focused on the stamina and positive self-talk needed to get up yet another one of the several hills in the South Boston 5K. My mind was free to think other thoughts.

After the start and as we were trotting up Boylston Street, I noticed a lot of women running past me in lululemon tanks with the ruffle down the back and several sporting lululemon running skirts.  What, by the way, is up with skirts on runners? Do they hide something? Does wearing one communicate a dichotomy in identity? I’m pretty; I’m strong. What’s wrong with simply I’m strong?

Lineup gathers on Boylston Street in front of the Boston Public Library.

Speaking of sartorial runners, before Lydia surged ahead I pointed her attention to another mother-and-daughter pair near us who were in full makeup, foundation included, with hair carefully blown dry.

All those overt beauties ran past me along with many other runners who were fast starters. My ego felt vulnerable in the first few blocks. I was determined to pace myself, and yet it’s a little disheartening to be passed by just about everyone. I had a talk with myself and bolstered the self-esteem. Continue reading