On 2013 reading (or any) challenges: Give up or make a final push?

Due to a (ahem) mathematical error I committed myself to reading 50 books this year. It’s not a small goal for me, especially since I apparently only read 10 books the year before.

I started 2013 with a bang and at one point was several books ahead of schedule. Then since the summer it’s been all downhill.

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Now, I’ve tried to play with this a little, by taking the total number of pages read (conveniently calculated for you by Goodreads) and dividing it by 300 (pages), my personal definition of what constitutes one book. When I do that I come out slightly ahead at 37 books (thank you, East of Eden and The Book Thief).

Well, a couple of weeks ago I was 15 books behind even with the manipulation of page numbers, and I was pretty much ready to give up even trying. It’s sort of like watching those final few minutes of a basketball game where a team is behind 5 or 6 points and there are 2 minutes left on the clock. Some teams will still scramble for I don’t know what, while other teams will give up and end up further behind in a pathetic display of utter hopelessness. I have to say I can relate to the latter.

Then I posed the question to my 9-year-old, who blazes through several tomes of Rick Riordan a month: “What should I do?”

His response: “Of course you should go for it!”

I was thinking that I am entering the busiest part of my work season and the majority of my books are 300 pages or longer, not to mention that I am only doing this for myself and none of it is even required.

“At least TRY and get as close to 50 as you can. You’ll feel really good satisfaction if you can get near 50.”

Why did it not occur to me that I could at least shoot for 48 or 45 or something? Anything in the forties would signify an achievement. And did I forget how exhilarating it can feel to “win”? Actually, the answer would be yes…I think it’s been several years since I “achieved” anything (my first publication) but that’s another story for another time.

“Pick good, short books. That’s what I would do.”

Seriously, I should consult with my child more often on life matters.

That evening, I went through my shelves and picked out the slimmest books I have. I’d like to think that this is not cheating, because all the books on my shelves are books on my to-read list; I’m just relying on my crunch players right now, and benching Leo Tolstoy and the like until next year. My end-of-the-year contenders include:

Memory: A Novel, by Philippe Grimbert

Holidays on Ice, by David Sedaris

Interpreter of Maladies, by Jhumpa Lahiri

A Separate Peace, by John Knowles

The Buddha in the Attic, by Julie Otsuka

All My Darling Daughters [manga], by Fumi Yoshinaga

The Gifts of Imperfection, by Brene Brown

Darkness Visible, by William Styron

Traveling Mercies, by Anne Lamott

These, added to my current reads, should get me close to 50.

So how do I actually get all of this accomplished? My boy says,

“I think you should only spend 60 minutes on your blog. Whatever time you usually spend over that should go into reading.”


“You spend too much time on Facebook. Cut that time down to 40 minutes a day…no, 30 minutes. Thirty minutes at most, and use the rest of the time to read.”

Indeed, I waste a lot of time on the internet. That is why I often don’t start reading until 11 at night, at which point it takes me two minutes to read the same sentence five times.

When I first poked around at all these various reading challenges I noticed how nice everyone was about it. “50 is simply a goal; of course how much you end up reading is up to you.” It’s nice and understanding and forgiving, but it also lets me off the hook too easily. I’m thinking that if I set a goal, I should do what I can to attain it. I won’t kill myself over it – it’s not like my career or my future is resting on the number of books I complete this year – but by definition a challenge isn’t supposed to be easy, and it’s supposed to be more than what I can normally do comfortably. I will push myself, precisely because this is just for me.

How are you doing on your reading or other challenges? How do you motivate yourself to reach your personal goals?

How to grieve a public tragedy

I wasn’t happy with my post on Tuesday, the one in which I’d written about Boston.*

All of it was true – the way Fred asked me how I’d felt, the way he gave me permission to feel bad, the deep, deep indebtedness and pain that I feel toward the city that gave me life. But I wrote it all from a place of self-consciousness. I held back. I put up a front. I thought, the only way people will come to read this piece is if I tell them it’s not a depressing piece. I fenced in my emotions and plagiarized the optimism and fortitude that I’d read about and already seen in so many people.

The thing is, I don’t know how to grieve. I don’t know how to grieve for a public tragedy and for one in which I don’t have any direct connection to the actual victims or survivors. But it hurts, and it hurts me in a way that is different from the Oklahoma bombing and even the 911 attacks. It hurts so badly because it happened to a place that I see as my second mother.

And I didn’t know what to do with my feelings. Of course, I called my parents and talked to my brother briefly. Max got it all in stereo. Fred got the abbreviated PG version. Close girlfriends and I exchanged very short messages. But really, what can you say? A good friend of mine offered to talk. But she’s busy, and I couldn’t imagine dialing her up while she is trying to juggle school pick-up and grocery shopping just to make her listen to dead silence occasionally punctuated by a sob in the background. No, at this time I probably needed to be alone…to be alone and yet not all by myself. So I went to Facebook. It is there that I learned of the explosions in the first place as well as found an instant gathering of friends, including childhood friends in Boston.

Grieving on Facebook made me feel better until it did not. And I’d go in this cycle over and over and be too stupid to just sign off. It’s an easy place to grieve. You can identify those who feel the same as you do and, through mutual sadness and anger and bewilderment, you find company. But not everyone meets you there; in fact, the majority doesn’t, or some do, but sporadically. You try to control yourself and only update your emotional state twice a day, and you think you are helping the public by sharing articles that offer newsworthy updates or some eloquent meditation on what has happened, swearing, to God, that this “must-read” will be the last (for the day, anyway). You do this because for you it’s cathartic, and because, you hope, it might bait some friends to come over and make you feel less alone. But slowly, you fear, your Facebook friends are tuning you out. Or perhaps they’re so consumed by their own grief that they cannot deal with Facebook. Or perhaps they don’t know what to say. Regardless, you are left back where you started: What do you do with your feelings?

It all happens in such vastness. It isn’t our grandmother dying, where there’s a place we can all go to and feel connected. When large, distant tragedies hit we shed tears with our hands clasped over our mouths across state lines, across oceans and we want to hold someone’s hand and yet so many times we are doing this in front of a screen. During Sandy Hook and Boston I wanted to reach out and hold more than just my husband and my son. I wanted more but I didn’t know where I could find these other hands. Maybe the reason I’ve turned to Facebook is because when so many invisible people are hurt, I need to go to the biggest place I can find.

And with vastness comes diversity. I have learned, through Sandy Hook and now through Boston, that we all deal with and process our feelings so differently, and yet how we do it impacts how others around us can cope. There’s the person who can’t stop talking about it and the person who wants to shut it all out. Put them together in a common space, like Facebook or a house, and no one’s needs get met.

When no one talks then it can be easy, at least for me, to assume that everyone else is moving on. Everyone is coping, and everyone is doing what she needs to do to not let a couple of bombs get in the way of Being There for her children. Many girlfriends say to me that they just turn off the news; it is too upsetting and they just turn it off. I allow myself to believe that they can do this because they are made of better maternal fiber than I – that in times of crisis and down-to-your-knees emotion they still have the mental clarity and wherewithal to carry out their priorities.

On the day after the bombing I blogged about Boston and then I failed to make dinner. Max had to take Fred to his after school activity, and I told him that I couldn’t cook. I just couldn’t. Because cooking would mean going to the supermarket and going to the supermarket would mean getting showered and getting dressed. I’ll change to go out for dinner, but before that I couldn’t.

And things continued like this. My body started to feel heavy, like I was on the verge of catching the flu. My head, neck and shoulders ached. Fred asked to do something with me and I said no. At night I scolded him, longer and more harshly than was necessary, because he was slow to get into bed. Rather than talking back, he just clamped his hands over his ears. Yet still, before he drifted off to sleep, he reached for my hand as he always does, and whispered with his lips brushing my cheek as he never fails to do, “I love you too, too much.” He is a third-grader, just like the little boy who died. I got to hear my son tell me that he loves me; Martin’s parents never will.

Yes, I hated myself at that point.

After Fred drifted peacefully to sleep – a privilege I realize I can no longer take for granted – I opened my computer, and I read my friend Alexandra’s blog post When Your Heart Tells You to Stop. She talked about her day after the bombing. It was uncannily similar to mine. She could barely cook. She’d walked out of the auto shop forgetting to pay for the work done on her car. She was unsettled and unfocused and hurting.

It wasn’t just me.

It isn’t just me.

It is because of Alexandra’s post that I can feel, let alone write all of this. Before it I was bombarded in every direction by Fred Rogers’ quote, the one about how in bad and scary times we should always look to the ones who help. There were messages galore about looking on the bright side and being resilient and bouncing back and having hope, and that became the message I believed I needed to feel and to own, right away. We Americans are very strong and very forward thinking and very optimistic. I take so much pride in that, but on the first day and even on the second, I just wasn’t there yet. I couldn’t race my emotions through. Call me slow but for the life of me I couldn’t muster up the strength to move on, no matter how many people, it seemed, were already on that other side. How those people got there so fast, I don’t know. Maybe they are wired differently. Maybe they found all the right support. Maybe they turned off all the news. For me on those first few days, I just needed to hurt, to say, This Sucks, and to have people tell me, I know.

*I’ve since edited my post Boston from Tuesday, because I owe it at least that. I’m happy with it now.

Slowing down

Any given morning in the life of us will look something like this:

Fred, please hurry up and eat.

Fred, more eating and less talking please.

Fred, we’ve got 8 minutes before we have to leave for school and you still have to brush your teeth.

Fred, I SAID, straight to the bathroom – no detouring, no touching any toys, no nothing! Just brush. your. teeth!

Fred, you have no sense of urgency whatsoever! COME ON!

We don’t quite know what exactly goes on inside our 8 year-old’s head while we are shouting to get him to move a little faster so he isn’t late for school, for taekwondo, for piano, for the dentist, even for the play date he had been waiting a whole week for. His first grade teacher once said to us, “He’s bright so he has a lot on his mind,” and ever since then I’ve been tacking his absent-mindedness to his intellect to make myself feel better, until my mother told me to stop making excuses for him.

And so Max and I have buckled down this week to try and find some no-crying-no-yelling-no-fuss solution to teach Fred the tools to watch and manage his time better.

And then a thought came to me. While Fred does need to learn to be more mindful of time, maybe many times he is moving at a pace that is perfectly normal and healthy for an 8 year-old – indeed, for an adult. It is Max and I who are going at 80 miles an hour, not because it is good but because it is how we have been trained to move all our adult lives – to wolf down lunches, multi-task, rush to meetings, meet multiple deadlines, and catch trains. We then become frustrated when Fred is simply moving at the speed limit.

Fred’s got a tight schedule, between school, after school care, dinner, taekwondo and homework. I have things scheduled like the military because we have to move with that kind of precision. There is no room to stop or look or touch or think. You just need to go go go. And Fred resists. He moves in slow motion. Maybe because he’s spacy, or maybe because he’s protesting, and he’s tired.

Last night Max and I made a plan to micromanage less and to entrust Fred with more autonomy to manage his morning and evening routines. We would encourage him to look at the clock and make his own schedule of how he plans to finish his tasks by a certain time.

At the same time, we took a cue from Fred, and decided to take him out of his after school care. We’d put him in there since kindergarten because both Max and I have to work, but he is now old enough to not need it (Max and I work out of our house). He’ll come straight home after school, and have time to do his homework without rushing and rest and play outside.

This morning was the first day of our “project,” and Fred got to school 10 minutes earlier than usual. He managed this even after taking a couple of minutes before putting his jacket on to literally just look at a new toy he’d just received. “I just want to look at and touch my Beyblade before I go,” he’d said. His new Beyblade is a rare gold spinning top, and he held it in his hands just a couple of inches from his face, admiring and stroking it before gently putting it down on his desk to head to the car. A week ago I would have blown my top and told him to get into the car already. Today, I’m taking a cue from him, and hoping that I can slow down enough to notice what really matters.

Raising a reader

When Fred was 3 or 4 I’d read a New York Times article about the crisis of boys and reading – how boys are not reading, and how this puts them at risk for dropping out of school and heading into a whole host of adult problems. I remember feeling pretty smug at the time, because my preschooler just loved reading, thank you very much, almost as much as he loved eating vegetables.

And as many mothers of older children know, in time we learn to eat our humble pie.

Like many mothers who are privileged enough to do so, I’ve filled our house with children’s books from the time that little stick turned pink. I began reading to Fred almost from Day 1, knowing that even the newest of infants can begin to understand and process language even if they can’t yet verbally communicate.

Fred loved books, and he loved being read to and flipping through books on his own. This is instinctive, I thought, human. Boy or girl, what child doesn’t love color and pictures and a good story?

As he got a little older I saw that Fred was the stereotypical little boy who could barely sit still, a boy who preferred creating over absorbing, doing over reflecting. Then I realized this was the daytime Fred; by nightfall he became a reader. No matter how tired he was he wouldn’t be able to sleep without having cracked open a book first. It became a ritual as necessary as bathing. And trying to get him to close his book and turn off the light was the one fight I welcomed and was often willing to lose.

I would also talk my books with him and take him to library book sales with me. He was only too happy to oblige, somehow loving being a part of my adult reading world. He’d ask me questions like, “Is the girl with the dragon tattoo the same girl who played with fire?” He’d beg me to retell novels like The Hunger Games, and I’d struggle to abridge them to Rated G versions.

But then one day I messed up.

Last year in the second grade he became fascinated with The Mysterious Benedict Society. A complex 5th grade level book about a dangerous mission undertaken by 4 gifted children, it was not an easy read for this 7 year old who’d only just learned to speak and read English a few years before, but he loved it and we read it together night after night, chipping away at the 400+ page book, stopping every once in a while to go over unfamiliar vocabulary or expressions. How proud I was the day he gestured to take the book from me saying, “Mommy, I want to try reading this. Let’s take turns.” And so we did, and a few days later he said, “Mommy, I want to take this to school to read.”

He came home that day, beaming that he had read 30 pages.

“30 pages?! Did you understand what you read? Can you tell me what happened?”

I drilled him all evening, and he responded with, “I guess…sort of…I guess I sort of understood everything.”

Overnight my pride turned into panic. Reading is not about finishing a certain number of pages or trying to look grown up. I wanted to make sure he enjoyed reading, that he was getting as much out of the stories as he could.

The next morning I noticed that he’d taken The Mysterious Benedict Society out of his backpack.

“Aren’t you going to take the book to school?” I asked.

“Nah…” Fred responded.

“Why not?”

“Because I don’t want to have you asking and asking me what happens in the story.”

I told a veteran mom friend about what had happened and she reassured me that I can quickly get him back. But deep down I knew what I had done. Since that evening Fred never again picked up The Mysterious Benedict Society on his own.

And so last summer I saw him slowly sinking into that hole I’d read about in the NYT article five years ago. Whenever we went to the library he’d head straight to the DVD section or the computers. Whenever I asked him to get a book he’d borrow manga. Whenever I suggested certain chapter books he would complain that there were too many words. My heart was breaking. Eight years it took me to build up a reader, and in the space of an evening I had managed to dismantle his passion for books and his confidence to read.

That summer I began googling “boys and reading” and looking through library books with titles like How to Get Your Child to Love Reading. I read all the old advice again: Fill your home with books; read to your child; have the men in your house read in front of your son; accept all kinds of reading material, from cereal boxes to comics to magazines, and don’t criticize.

Don’t criticize.

And so I – we (I’d enlisted Max’s help as the male role model) – started again from the beginning.

Then one day we were at the library, and for some reason Fred pulled off the shelf the first book in the Warriors series, the intricate story of a clan of cats that wrestles with such hefty themes as loyalty, ambition, individuality and identity.

“Lily reads these,” he said, referring to a friend whom he finds excruciatingly annoying but who is famed for reading 400 pages a week.

We started the book together that night, and we both became hooked. Then Fred made me swear to keep all of it a secret, because boys don’t read about “cute animals.” I countered that he should be proud to read anything he wants, and that besides, these cats fight. Fred reconsidered.

By September, Fred was well into the series. He started telling his classmates about the books, and one by one hooked the others onto them. By the end of the month his class was divided into cat clans with his classmates each named after a cat character.

These days, I worry about Fred getting enough sleep. While he cooperates about lights off at night, he is often up at 6:30 if not earlier to read. He reads at the breakfast table and in the car and he begs me to ask him questions about what he’s read. And this time, I ask questions to talk rather than to test. This precious world with his books and characters and distant places? It is his, and may no one ever take this refuge away from him.

Tell me about your reading life with your children. Have you had struggles? How do you keep your children loving to read?

Accepting calm

I’ve been doing something this year that I’ve never been able to do:  I’ve been saying No.

No to a well established business that its retiring owner has asked and asked me to take over.

No to the additional clients who ask to work with me.

It’s not that I’m not working, but I’ve been persuaded (by Max) to think about my stress level. Do I really want to go where I have been going all these past years? With mixed feelings, I’ve reduced my work load and instead delegated some of it to our staff.

But saying no comes at a price, quite literally.

I – we – lose income. How much exactly Max hasn’t yet calculated. But it’s not insignificant, especially during a year when my medical bills are sky high given my recent surgery. And we have other bills. And childcare and piano and martial arts lessons. And retirement and college to save for.

In a typical year I would be so busy right now I wouldn’t be writing this post. I wouldn’t be Christmas shopping. I wouldn’t be cooking. I wouldn’t be cleaning. I wouldn’t be sleeping 7 deep hours straight. Instead I have been spending chunks of entire days reading and writing; keeping the house reasonably tidy and clean; and making dinner in time to eat by 5:30 p.m. I even cooked on Thanksgiving for the first time since we moved back to the States, and I have been able to heal my broken ankle completely. Something feels different and thereby discomforting: I feel I am not busy enough.

It doesn’t feel “right” because neither work nor domestic life is stressful right now. It is the first time in the eight years since I became a parent and business owner that I can say this. We launched our business when Fred was a year old, and we did so without childcare. Max and I would trade off back then, and I’d either get up at 4 a.m. to do client work before Fred woke up, or work until 3 a.m. after he fell asleep. Stress was the air I breathed, and now I can’t recognize what it is that I’m enveloped in. Is it peace? Calm? Sanity? It doesn’t feel right.

Ironic, isn’t it, that once I have achieved the balance and quality of life that I have been working toward all these years, I find myself feeling as though I am cheating.

As a mother there is an odd unspoken pressure to groan about lack of sleep and lack of hours in a day. While it is hardly enjoyable to be constantly frenetic, it is frenetic that we (seem to) strive to be, because somehow that means we are being capable and useful and necessary. And to be anything less than crazy busy seems to be anything less than necessary.

I am so used to – since high school! – living constantly on a cliff’s edge that being on the brink of falling – and yet not falling – had become the ideal state to be. Suffering is the sign that I have pushed myself as far as I can go. The success of my son and my clients are my badges of honor and my own sleeplessness and anxiety are my battle scars. That is how it has always been.

But this new air…maybe it’s doing something to me. Because aside from the guilt, I have to admit I am feeling pretty good. At this place far from the edge of my cliff I hear no pounding of my heart, feel no sweating of my palms. At this distance from the precipice I find it easier to smile, to laugh, to notice, to feel, to soften, to love. I have decelerated from a blur to a human being. Maybe this is in fact useful, because maybe this is what my family needs: a mother who is present, a wife who pays attention, a woman who is happy. Perhaps I have not failed after all. Perhaps I may have even succeeded.

How crazy busy are you? Have you found calm in your life? If so, how did you do it and was it hard to accept?

Birthday Parties

We’re throwing Fred’s sixth birthday party this weekend, and the other day Max and I did a mad scramble for a birthday cake. Work deadlines, a very bad cold and just life in general got in the way, and before I knew it it was Wednesday, 4 days before the party and a month too late for most custom birthday cake orders!

There is, of course, the safe and reliable Costco, which I am definitely not above (especially seeing that is where the juice and fruit for the party will be coming from). But we did Costco last year, and the selection was small…and Fred has been asking year after year for a COOL birthday cake, COOL as in race cars or Bakugan (and not prissy balloons) adorning a 3-inch layer of dyed sugar.

Our compromise: Whole Foods. They do custom cakes on 3-5 days’ notice and they use only natural ingredients. The sticker price was a bit of a shock after Costco but I’ll pay anything for my child not to ingest blue and black sugar.

The other shock (and you’d think I’d know better by now, having done this a second year) is how much everything adds up, how awfully similar this feels to planning a wedding.


Weather considerations.

Right day and time. 

Advanced booking.

Guest List.

If we invite this person then we’d have to invite the whole clique but we only like this person.

Invitations, using an imperfect contact list with email addresses for some parents and telephone numbers for others.

Party favors.

Paper supplies and utensils.




Driving and parking instructions.

Following up on RSVPs: Why hasn’t she responded? Does she not like my child?

Thank you notes, that we will insist Fred handwrite.

But unlike a wedding, there is no pressure (from the guest of honor) to do this again the following year. Because as primitive and immature as young minds are, they will remember their birthdays, they will remember the existence of a past elaborate party that commemorated that birthday, and they will expect it to happen again. Fred, for example, already began planning his 6th birthday party the afternoon of his 5th birthday party. And he has been asking “When’s it gonna be March?” since June. He finally stopped asking when he figured out how to read the calendar himself, and what followed was a day-by-day countdown to March. This past Monday, the day after February 28, was a big day in our household.

Now, not every parent throws a party for his/her kids. Some rotate through the siblings or rotate through the years. Some years they have a quiet home party, other years they will do something bigger with friends. Finances dictate the decision for some, while time or discipline decides it for others. For me personally it is hard to hold back, hard to say no. As extravagant as it seems to bring so much attention to this one day, I realize that Fred’s birthday is as much a celebration of his birth as it is the anniversary of the day I became a mother and the three of us became a family.

Follow-up to 40 Trumps 4 (aka the Struggles of a Don’t-Wannabe-Helicopter Mom)

So after about 3 pretty good semi-complaint-free weeks in the Chinese program Fred’s pleas to put him back in his former after school program came back Monday, in stereo. What made it worse this time is that he stated a concrete and legitimate reason for “hating Chinese school” (the space issue) and his teacher confirmed Monday his lack of motivation: “Fred didn’t do any work today. He said, ‘I hate Chinese.'”

Despite the fact that his teacher considered this behavior “unusual”, Fred’s griping confirmed my nagging doubts that maybe he should be having more fun, that he should have a bigger and better space in which to run around. It’s been a month and he still remembers the other program. Okay, I told Max…maybe we need to consider taking Fred out at the end of the month. I don’t want Fred to be unhappy and neither Max nor I want him to begin associating language learning with torture.

So flash forward 23.5 hours and I decide to pick Fred up 30 minutes earlier than usual in order to minimize his misery.

I step into the large room that is Fred’s – and 60 other children’s – classroom. His jacket and the various contents of his backpack are strewn on the table that belongs to his class, but Fred is nowhere to be found. I walk around, scanning the small faces of other Asian boys with closely cropped hair. Fred almost literally bounces out of the boys’ room, smiling widely.

“Hey Fred. Let’s go.” I make my way to the table to grab his stuff.


“What do you mean, no? I thought you’d want to go home.”

“No! Not yet!” 

And with that he took off, racing to his table where he sat down with three other classmates and began to shout out Chinese poem after Chinese poem from his textbook. As one of the few kids who doesn’t speak Chinese at home, and the one child who enrolled a full semester late,  Fred had trouble keeping up, his lips working hard to synchronize with the fluent rhythms of the other three girls. But there is one poem about the months of the year that he loves, because he knows this one by heart: Yi yue da, er yue shiao… 

“Mommy, let me read this to you!”

And so he did, for the next 50 minutes at the school, on the car ride home, on our short walk to and from the mailbox, and in the kitchen when we got home for his dad to hear. Today, in a rare moment of cooperation, he even got on the phone when his grandmother called and recited proudly (albeitly nervously) to her the poem.

Had I ever pulled Fred out, I would have missed that look of pride on his face when he realized he had accomplished something pretty significant. I don’t have any false hopes that he will become fluent in Chinese. If nothing else, I’d be ecstatic if he walked away from Chinese school feeling just a little more capable and confident than he did the first time he stepped foot in the class.

How do I know when my child’s truly miserable, and I’m pushing him too much? How do I know when it’s better to have him stick with something so that he’d learn the meaning of perseverance and commitment? I had shot off 2 emails to my friend K. in the last 36 hours. “I’m pulling Fred out.” “I’m keeping him in.” K. is the one who reminded me that 40 trumps 4. Today I reminded myself that no one ever loves anything 100% 100% of the time…and that is okay.