Morals and Basketball

December 5, 2007 - Leave a Response

The children of attentive parents receive moral instruction early and often. Whether the context is religious or secular, conservative or liberal, a firm grounding in right and wrong is the first step in growing humans who give to charity and return lost wallets. We started Sam with simple lessons: it is wrong to take other peoples’ toys, wrong to hit Tyler with the See N’ Say, and necessary to “share” whether you want to or not. As he grew into wider social circles and spent more time away from us, it was necessary to teach general good citizenship, such as the inclusion of “yucky” people in groups. After ten years, though, I still worried that once he was out of my sight, he forgot everything he had learned. Little boys are not known for their gentility, and are easily persuaded to participate in anything that looks like fun, from throwing crayon missiles to stomping ants.

Arriving early for volunteer work in Sam’s classroom, I saw a group of fifth graders playing basketball. They were on a blacktop court with two serious looking hoops. Each team had four members, and there were seven boys and one girl in all. Sam didn’t see me, and I enjoyed the opportunity to watch him when he was absorbed in his “work,” running complicated passing drills, high-fiving his teammates when they made a basket, and pounding up and down the black tar until his face was red with exertion. I was impressed that he knew enough to suggest a “pick and roll,” and admired the fastidiousness with which free throws followed fouls. These ten year olds had made rules, and followed them with no referee beyond their mutually agreed-upon sense of right and wrong.

As I walked towards the fence surrounding the court, I heard my son speaking to a smallish boy in a red ski jacket. “Max, we have to have even teams, and we already have four and four, so you can’t be on a team, you have to be a coach.” Max, apparently preferring to be in on the action, planted himself firmly at the base of a basket and began to yell. “That’s not fair!” he spat.
“Its Sam’s ball and he makes the rules” said Andrew.
“Yeah,” added Marcy. “Plus it wouldn’t be fair if one team had five and one team had four.” Max showed no signs that he was persuaded by this logic.

I looked around nervously for a teacher, or a playground monitor to mediate. There was no one, and Max continued stand beneath the basket and fume while the game whirred back into life. I wondered whether I should intervene, and considered what approach would be fairest. First, there was the issue of disciplining other peoples’ children. Did I have to confine my remarks to Sam’s behavior? Should I tell Sam that they should rotate in and out so Max could have a turn? Could I tell Max that he had to accept the rules because he had joined the game late?

As I considered my options, a second girl ran up to Sam from another part of the playground. I saw him nod, and heard him yell to Max that he could play now; the teams would be even. Max stepped away from the basket, swiped at his eyes and nose with his sleeve, and walked over to join his designated team. With no help from me, the drama had ended. As if nothing had happened, Max went to work guarding the unnaturally tall Kevin, and his team cheered him as he blocked a jump shot. I did not need to impose rules or to act as a referee on that blacktop, because the fifth grade morning recess basketball league had created a solid, fair and enviable moral universe. Perhaps we could learn a few things from them.


On Staying Home

October 16, 2007 - 2 Responses


If I am doing the right thing, my son will look back on his childhood and remember that I was a room parent and a soccer coach, and not that our curtains needed to be replaced for 5 years and we only ate out once a week. Maybe by the time he has a family of his own, our society will appreciate and support time spent raising children and caring for elderly parents as much as we appreciate and support time spent earning and spending money.

I am actually an attorney, and I should probably be working full time instead of sitting around writing blog entries. Every clue I get from the world around me points to the notion that I should be Earning to my Full Potential. If I earned a real salary, we could replace the living room curtains, buy groceries without keeping a running tab in the supermarket, and plan family vacations involving plane fares and hotels. Christmas could be lavish, Rob could pick out a new car instead of buying my parents’ used Hondas, and we would never sweat another emergency bill from the plumber, the vet or the mechanic.

As it is, I do legal consulting work for a firm about an hour away from here. I do not make as much money as I could, and I do not make enough money to make a significant financial contribution to the household. When I took my present “job” it was supposed to involve many more hours, much more work, and the ability to earn what I needed to earn while working at home. It would have been perfect, but apparently there just wasn’t as much work as the boss thought there was going to be; I work on a sort of freelance “feast or famine” basis.


Instead of vigorously looking for something outside the house that involves Serious Money, I have clung to the mantra that I “sort of have a job,” hoping that some day, beams of light will break through the clouds, and I will find myself, as promised, working 20 hours a week from home and bringing in enough cash to ease pressure on Rob and improve our quality of life. In the meantime, I have tried home-party sales work, selling on e-Bay, and making and selling crafts, to earn some money while being “allowed” to stay home and available to my child, my husband and my parents.

The truth is that I am not “really” working because we are willing to trade a pretty significant financial pinch so that I can be at home. I am certainly not idle; in an an average week I keep our house clean, our clothes washed and folded, our bills paid, our meals planned and cooked, Sam chauffered, our papers filed, and our medical appointments made and kept. I also spend as much time as possible with my parents, who are both in their 70s and live locally. I try to take a meal to them once or twice a week as well as being available to drive to and from medical appointments or spend serious chunks of time at the hospital when one of them is a patient. I am a PTA member and room parent, I have coached rec league soccer, and I am a member of several community organizations. Silly stuff? Maybe, but I see it as the grassroots work that makes the world go around; when done well and with intention, it is a blessing on everyone involved. I know that I will never reflect on my life and regret that I didn’t spend time with my son when he was young, or with my parents when they were elderly.

I know that there are millions of women who have no choice. They have no husbands, husbands who are out of work, husbands who don’t earn enough to support a family, and ex-husbands who pay inadequate support. I am aware that many of them would like the luxury of staying home to care for their children, and that their work is what puts food on the table and provides health care for their families. I am really just a pathetic, whining, excuse-making sponge. At least that’s how I see it in my darkest hours. There are women running to get their kids to school, get themselves to work, juggling day care, doctor visits, play practices, soccer practices, and homework sessions with three kids while I am a “stay at home mom” to one measly kid.


I also know that there are women who have to work not for financial reasons, but for reasons of sanity – they are passionate about their work, and/or they know that they would lose their minds if forced to stay home and arbitrate fights over Weebles and the last Cheerio. More power to them for knowing themselves well enough to make a decision about working that benefits them and their children. I also know that there are women who work not from strict financial necessity, but so that their families can have certain things like vacations, nice cars, or new carpet. Again, this (clearly) wouldn’t be my choice, but it is a valid life style that works for many families.

[Note: if this were actually published anywhere, I would anticipate a hailstorm of letters, and I could write them myself using the words “whining,” “out of touch,” “sexist” and “selfish.” I am lucky to have a husband who lets me stay home with our shredded curtains. I am discriminating against men by assuming that they should always have to work while women should get a choice. Don’t imagine for a moment that I don’t know those things.]

I don’t think women should have to work outside the home unless they (and their partners) have decided that it is the best thing for their family. I wish that our society had the ability to support single moms so that, if they chose to be at home during their childrens’ formative years, they could. I wish that we did not have laws that require the poorest women to go to work or to school, leaving their children in the substandard daycare they can afford with “vouchers”, in order to qualify for benefits that allow them to eat and receive medical care. I have never understood why we demonize “welfare mothers” and separate them from their children. Their children need their mothers’ time and attention far more than my son (who has every possible advantage) needs mine, but I am fortunate enough to have a choice.


I also wish that it was really acceptable for women to decide to stay home if they are financially able to do so. There are countless websites and articles in womens’ magazines on the topic of “work-at-home” opportunities, and about entrepreneurial moms who started businesses in their basements. That says to me that there are millions of women who really want to stay home and just be with their children and run their houses, and that they are desperately trying to find a way to do that. If having discretionary cash flow is less valuable to a family than having mom at home, why is that an unacceptable choice?

I’ll readily admit that there are countless women who manage to work and spend time with their kids and help their parents and support the community. My own mother worked and did all of those things. Since I have only this one life, though, it is my personal choice that to the greatest extent possible I am going to use my energy to “work” for the people I love. For as long as I possibly can, I choose to be available to have lunch with my mom when she’s sad, or to bake cupcakes for the 5th grade Halloween party, while throwing away J.Jill catalogues so I won’t be tempted to spend money. I would rather plan and cook from-scratch meals and eat in my kitchen than be at work all day and have the money to go out three nights a week. I would rather wear clothes from Target and pay to have my coats re-lined than miss school activities because I have to attend a client meeting.

I would like for the choices of all women concerning work to be respected and supported as long as those choices are in the best interests of their families.

On Reading

October 12, 2007 - 2 Responses


Even a cursory run through the digital cable directory makes it clear that there are many addictions beyond the usual drink, drugs, sex and food. One can also develop the need to shop, gamble, play computer games, surf the internet, exercise to the point of illness, get plastic surgery or engage in high-risk activities. Although I admit to a somewhat pathological relationship with food, my real addiction is, and always has been reading.

I taught myself to read before starting school, and it has been one of the greatest pleasures of my life. As a child I read greedily and constantly: Betsy Tacy and Tib, Little Women, The Five Little Peppers, Harriet The Spy, Pippi Longstocking, Little House on the Prairie, Heidi, Polyanna, The Little Princess, Nancy Drew, The Boxcar Children, Mrs. Piggle Wiggle, books about horses, books about orphans, books about magic, books about witches, books by Elizabeth Enright, C.S. Lewis and Madeleine L’Engle, cereal boxes, magazines, and (in desperation) my parents’ books.



I had to be reminded not to read at the dinner table, and my most common punishable infraction was not coming when called to empty the dishwasher or set the table because I needed “just a minute” to finish the chapter. Summer vacations required selection of books for the car, the location of a local library during summers in Maine, and of English-language bookstores (summers in Europe). To the extent that my family had a religion, it was reading; my parents read, my brother read (although he read the same things over and over again), my uncles and grandmothers read, and my parents friends read, discussed and lent books.

My best friend was also an avid reader, and we spent endless hours “playing” the books we had read. We knew kids who didn’t like to read, but they were of relatively little use to us – they could play with us if they wanted to, but we first had to explain the characters, the plot and the scenery to be imagined. How could someone play “Heidi” if they didn’t understand that Heidi was nice, Clara was not nice, and Peter was the dud role because he was a boy?


I was a happy English student throughout High School, enjoying Shakespeare, Norris and Dreiser as my friends groaned, and went on to be an English major, thus guaranteeing myself an excuse to read constantly for another four years. I developed a love for fiction and a suspicion of non-fiction, and a taste for poetry and dramas. Law School was a bad call for many reasons (about which more another day) but it was the only time it was actually difficult and tedious to read. Reading property law, unless you are an enthusiast is to “regular” reading as eating plain Ryvita is to eating a warm slice of homemade bread with butter melting on top. If I had finished my assigned reading, I rewarded myself with something light and entertaining, like The Shell Seekers.

When I was pregnant, I had to lie in a hospital bed for 7 weeks due to the inconvenient incompetence of my cervix. After a brief flirtation with The Home Shopping Network, I read. Constantly. Family and friends brought in bags of used mysteries, brand new novels, and books they had just finished and enjoyed, and I devoured them fro the minute I was awakened for a pill at 6:00 a.m. until I fell asleep, stopping only when there was an actual human being in my room who needed to speak to me. It was a splendid coping mechanism, and prevented me from going quite insane.


Had I suspected during all of those years of reading that my pleasure would some day be rationed, I might have enjoyed it even more. I certainly didn’t enjoy bed rest in the hospital, but viewed in hindsight as carte blanche to do absolutely nothing but read (and incubate) for nearly two months, it was a rare opportunity. I also look back fondly on my college habit of getting up on Sunday and reading the entire novel-to-be-discussed-on Monday in one long sitting. I now sneak reading in between work, household chores, volunteer activities, chauffering, cooking, family activities, and sleeping.

These days, there is always a pile of books somewhere waiting until I have time to read them, and a list of books waiting until I have time to get them so that they be added to the pile. I have a system for the order in which the pile is read: 7-day library books, then regular library books, the borrowed books, then my own books. Like breaking the glass in case of emergency, I make exceptions if I am very sad and need cheering up; under those circumstances I can pick whatever I want to read, out of order. I also have an expiration date policy: books that do not appeal to me when they come up in rotation (these are usually books that have been lent to me by someone who loved them) have to be returned to their source or given away, no matter how uncomfortable the necessary conversation. (“Thanks for lending me this book that you found life-changing, but it just looks really boring to me and I am choosing not to read it”).


Always in my pile? Cook books, collections of food writing, chef memoirs, and anything new by Anne LaMott, Alice Hoffman, Elizabeth George, or Jan Karon. Sometimes in my pile? The newest trendiest book club-by books (The Life of Pi, Peace Like a River), well-written chick lit (guilty pleasure I) and mysteries (guilty pleasure II), funny stuff (David Sedaris). Never in my pile: biographies (unless they are about chefs), romances, self-help, books about what’s wrong with America, my children, the public schools, the church or my eating habits, spy thrillers, historical fiction, books by Mitch Alblom, books by Nicholas Sparks or political tomes.

What I am dying to read: Animal, Vegetable, Miracle by Barbara Kingsolver, Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert, A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini and Home to Holly Springs by Jan Karon. Well, and the final Harry Potter. Maybe, if I can dust faster, cook smarter, nap less and say “no” to watching “Jeopardy,” I can get a fix in soon?