The Neighborhood 

It’s 5:30 Friday evening. I got home a little early, changed clothes, and poured myself a glass of wine. The temperature outside has been in the 60s the past couple of days, so I turned off the air-conditioner and opened some windows.

I live in the top two floors of a row of two-over-two townhomes. All the units have garages which back to central parking, around a treed, grassy island.

From my open dining room window, I hear little kids ramming around with what sound like plastic wheeled toys. (Parents, you know that sound!) I hear a mom. From this distance, she sounds like the muffled mumbles of any adult in the classic Charlie brown cartoons. The children are shrieking with glee, yelling rules at each other for whatever game they are making up in the moment. As all good suburban cul-de-sac kids do, they occasionally bellow the warning, CAAAAARRRRRR!

These sounds transport me back almost 20 years, when I had two small kids. When the boys were very little, we lived in a townhouse community, smaller, but not unlike the one I’m living in now. Instead of out back, the parking and island were in the center, viewable from the fronts of the houses. If enough adults stood guard, the kids could ride their large plastic wheeled vehicles around the island.

It was in this way that we met most of our neighbors in the community where we first lived, and again when we moved to a more expansive suburb. Now, some evenings when I drive my car into the parking area, I see orange cones set up, and those signs that say “children at play”, and adults standing around, sharing a beverage, while they keep one eye on the posse of children. I remember the drill: one parent would take a turn, giving the other one a spell, and promise to run the children, hard, until they were tired. This was in an effort to ensure an early (or at least timely), drama-free bedtime. Our measure of success was the low bar of “safe and happy” on those nights and anything beyond that, with regard to the kids, was gravy.

I mostly feel happy that the days of large plastic wheel toys and shrieking children are behind me, but I would be lying if I didn’t add that the sounds I’m hearing now make me the tiniest bit wistful. My little boys were just so cute. And fun! Exhausting too. But remarkable. They were (and are still) a source of pride and joy.

There is a sense of community that parents of similarly aged children develop. I don’t have that connection with any of my current neighbors. Now, I am (probably?) that scary old lady who smiles a little too broadly, and is a little too forthcoming with the unsolicited advice.

When we were in the thick of it, I could barely imagine a day when I wouldn’t find Hot Wheels cars and LEGO blocks and empty chip bags and Capri Sun pouches all over my house. But now here I am, with a 7th grader who needs no toys, rides a “big boy” bike to school, and even puts most of his trash into the garbage cans in the house. His older brothers spend more time now at their dad’s house than at mine, but I see them regularly, and we have completely adult conversations. And occasionally drink a beer together! (What?!)

I remember as my kids were growing up, thinking how each stage is the best, as you get to it. All the stages are special for unique reasons, but the one I was in at the moment always seemed the best to me. Little kids, like the ones I hear shrieking right now, can be exhausting, but their smiles and joy are completely genuine. My favorite age range is still from 7 to 11, but I’m still really enjoying Eli even as an adolescent in middle school. (But I will readily accept your prayers for us both.)

Yes, my life has changed significantly over the past two decades, and I’ve been through many stages. But in this moment, I can say with certainty, as I look ahead to all that awaits, that this is, without a doubt, the best stage yet.

Orion is a-Risin’

Tonight, on a cold February night, Peezer had to work on part of his multi-day assignment on a president of his choice. For reasons too numerous to list here, I just was not up to helping him. Fortunately, his Dad was. And in exchange, I happily donned coat and hat and gloves to walk Mac – usually Curt's job, typically something I avoid, but I was eager for the trade tonight.

So the dog and I are walking up the road to the clearing where the power lines run through. I looked up and I saw A SHOOTING STAR! – and also Orion. And I can never see Orion in the winter sky without remembering 5th/6th grade in Mrs. Cameron's class in "the Annex" at Millerstown Elementary School – we had what seemed like lots and lots of time (which I anticipated and loved) devoted to music education – and when she would take requests, the song "Orion" was in heavy rotation. (And so were "Lemon Tree" and "There's a Hole In My Bucket" – both of which make me want to gouge out my eardrums to this day. But ORION!) She was an excellent pianist (I'm sure she still is), and we gathered 'round the piano a couple times a week and sang: 

        Orion is a-Risin' 

You can see his stars a-blazin' in the middle of the clear-eyed country sky

And it's never too surprisin'

That the sky is still amazin' way out here where nothin' hides it from my eyes

CHORUS

Sleepin' outside in a bag as a kid seems like the best thing that I ever did

Ohhhhh

Chasin' the shadows and the tracks in the snow, don't ya know…..

The day is gettin' colder

And I really start to wonder why they're cloudin' all the country skies to gray

The world is gettin' older

You can hear it in the thunder and the rain might come and chase us all away

CHORUS

Ohhhh

The moon is on the wane

And it looks like it might rain or maybe snow

How are we to stay here

If there's no room left to play here or to grow

Don't ya know, don't ya know

I didn't appreciate the lyrics then, though they have stuck in my brain as a perpetual earworm since the early 1980s, but I see now that they were about growing up in the country, which I did, and appreciating the wide open spaces we were fortunate to have – spaces that enabled us to see the night sky in all its expansive vibrance.

God, I was so blessed.

So I'm here in the suburbs and I'm walking the dog, looking up at the stars and humming my 35+ year earworm, relishing in the shooting star that was surely placed there JUST FOR ME, and I start thinking about Peezer, at home working on some poster about President Kennedy, and how last night he was tooting his clarinet at his school's winter concert:

  Band concert 2-9-15
And you know what? That group of fourth graders, who began playing those instruments just four months ago, who get about 30 minutes A WEEK in instrumental music instruction (seriously, how can anyone possibly think that's enough??) – they played several recognizable melodies. As a group. TOGETHER. And whenever a group of ANY AGE HUMANS performs any kind of music together – even if it's a bunch of out-of-tune woodwinds – IT'S MAGICAL.

MUSIC. What a blessing. 

Whether it's "Hot Cross Buns" on the (flat) Clarinet (I guess they tune in middle school?), or "Orion" in my head by a bunch of farm kids in the 1980s, or The Steel Wheels in 2015 (Roots / bluegrass by this band of guys that just has my heart lately), music is a universal language… and so are the stars, and maybe presidential homework isn't, or maybe it is, but February, which I really have come to dread in the past decade – maybe February is not actually the worst month after all. All things considered.

 

Family-Life Apprenticeship Now Available

UNIQUE OPPORTUNITY for high school junior or senior, male or female! Gain invaluable first-hand insight and learn about basic life skills as you observe one family’s experience through their “A Day In The Life” Program. Applicants for this unpaid, 17-hour-a-day apprenticeship must be mentally acute, physically strong, tenacious, persistent, patient, cool under pressure, articulate, unselfish, and masters at multi-tasking. Examples of what you’ll experience in this rigorous position:

TIME MANAGEMENT (6:45 – 8:45 am). Start the day off by allowing yourself one 9-minute snooze cycle (optional) while you listen to make sure both high-school kids have woken up and showered. Drink one cup of coffee, pour a second, shower, pack a healthy lunch for a kid, make your bed, badger that kid to wake up, create and blend a fruit smoothie, coax the kid out of bed to drink the smoothie, place the packed lunch into the kid’s backpack, along with his agenda and homework folder (remember to sign off on the agenda), put that smoothie in a to-go cup for the kid, return to your coffee but realize it’s cold now, make sure the kid is wearing shoes (matching), apply makeup (females only), make sure you’re wearing shoes (matching), inventory contents of your work briefcase to ensure it’s properly stocked with today’s client files and office keys, laptop and power supply, device chargers, feminine supplies, and an umbrella. Given time constraints, you will have to decide whether to pack yourself a lunch. Now put some smoothie into a to-go cup for yourself, and weigh how much it matters if the kid brushes his teeth and/or wears a sweatshirt today as you rush out the house (remember to lock the door!) to make the school bus. Make sure you have your glasses, car keys, iPhone, and Metro card with you. Check the weather.

SHIFTING FOCUS / CALENDAR MANAGEMENT (8:48 am – 5:00 pm) After lovingly waving goodbye to the school bus, it’s time to shift to Work Mode. Take a moment to remember what day it is and where you’re supposed to be: Must you be at a client’s office today? If so, in which city? Or is it a telecommuting day? If the former, commute. On the subway, you have a choice of doing work or a crossword. If it’s a telecommuting day, go back home, unpack your roller bag, and subtract points because you spent time doing unnecessary things earlier. Set up your laptop in the home office and get to work immediately. Regardless of work site, you will hone your ability to focus as you concentrate on work for today’s client while constantly being interrupted by other client requests and/or resisting the temptation to check Facebook and/or nap do laundry or vacuum the stairs. Try to remember to eat some lunch and don’t forget to stay hydrated! Hope that you don’t see the school nurse’s office phone come up on your caller ID. Remember to schedule little breaks throughout the day so you don’t strain your eyes or develop carpal tunnel syndrome and/or a DVT. At 3:45 pm, check in with the older brother to make sure he met his younger brother at the school bus (if telecommuting, meet the kid yourself at the school bus). Females only: If it’s “that time of the month” you’ll also need to remember to change your tampon. (Consider setting alerts on your phone so you don’t forget.) If it’s a commuting day, you must drop everything, whether you’re done or not, by 5pm so you can pack up your bag and head home. Use the commute time to gradually shift focus away from work and back to the family. Enjoy this brief respite before your second shift begins.

PRIORITIZATION, PERSISTENCE, SELFLESSNESS (6:15pm – 11pm) Upon arrival at home, you will be bombarded with requests from three kids, a dog and two cats. Remain calm. Don’t change clothes; make dinner for the humans. Interrupt dinner prep to shuttle one teenager to Taekwondo, while you send texts to the other teenager to determine where he is and when he’ll be home. During the Taekwondo hour, drop a prescription at the pharmacy, then go home, open your laptop and schedule the youngest kid for 7 weeks of summer camp (including logistics, forms, and coming up with payments) and one session of spring rec-league baseball clinic. Load the dishwasher, wash out the coffee maker, then go pick up the Taekwondo kid. Come back home; feed the pets. Then realize the grocery list has reached critical mass, so get the youngest kid started on his homework, then leave the Taekwondo kid in charge (have you heard from the oldest one yet? Where IS HE?) while you make a third trip out for groceries, then hit the drive through pharmacy window to pick up those prescriptions. Return home, put groceries away, and make sure the youngest kid is in bed by 9:30. Decide how much it matters if he brushes his teeth (answer: IT ALWAYS MATTERS, but he will always fight it). Try to recall when his last shower was; if you can’t remember, he needs a shower. Negotiate. If there is laundry in process, keep it going so it doesn’t start to stink. (Extra points for folding.) Scoop out the cat’s litter box and ask a kid to walk the dog. Did you ever eat dinner? Eat now if you forgot to earlier. After one bite, the oldest teenager will appear and ask if it’s too late for a haircut, so instead of finally spending 30 minutes on a yoga video, agree that he really does look shaggy, break out the home barber kit and buzz him with a #3 and take advantage of having him seated in one place to talk about graduation activities, whether he needs a tux for prom, and has he completed his college registration. Midway through the haircut, the other teenager will need instructions on how the new vacuum cleaner works because it's 10pm and a perfect time to vacuum his room (but hey, he's vacuuming his room). Throughout the evening you will use caller ID to screen multiple incoming calls, most of which will be telemarketers. Realize it’s going on 11; brush and floss, wash your face (optional), and roll into bed. Don’t forget to set your alarm so you can do it all again tomorrow.

DISCLAIMER: This is only a sample description. Actual activities may vary depending upon the needs of others. It assumes there are no unexpected events, including but not limited to illness (human or animal), compound fractures, teenage crises, liquid spills, pet vomit, broken vehicles, broken appliances, tax filing deadlines, business travel, severe weather, or power outages. It also assumes you are the sole adult in charge (activities are easier when there are two adults). Imagine your spouse is out for the evening for whatever reason, or maybe you’re a single parent. Regardless, the Apprentice will shadow one adult as they adeptly manage the needs and activities associated with working full-time and raising three kids.

FINAL EXAM: In order to receive full credit for the apprenticeship, the successful candidate will be able to repeatedly put others’ needs before his/her own and use tools such as spreadsheets, extensive checklists and calendar reminders to track and prioritize hundreds of tasks daily, gaining experience in both short-term tactics and big-picture strategy. The Apprentice will have gained sufficient insight into a typical suburban family’s life that he/she will both look forward to this for themselves, but not be in any rush to get there.