Monthly Archives: March 2021

Order of operations

Having several kids means that a great deal of negotiating and turn-taking is necessary for harmony to prevail over argumentation and disunion, which, as history has proven, are the precursors to dissension and secession. Since secession is out of the question (I hope) and dissension is undesirable, families must develop systems to ensure that everyone’s needs and desires feel heard and represented. It’s a fine balance, to be sure, but if household governance can land on a strategy that functions while still maintaining egalitarianism, a kind of managerial artwork is engendered there.

In our home, we have a few different rotations that occur simultaneously, and though this makes for a lot to remember, it creates an interesting coordination that seems very much like the movement of planets and moons. Here’s how it works: one kid chooses the game we play after dinner and then which audiovisual entertainment they will enjoy on Monday, the second kid selects the game and show on Tuesday, and the third kid makes the choices for Wednesday. They have to choose from a list of parent-approved games to ensure that the duration of play time doesn’t exceed fifteen or so minutes, and the show is always “the next episode” of whichever series they’ve previously chosen and are currently watching (they each have a different program going), and it must be no longer than thirty minutes in length (except on Saturdays). Because there are three children and seven days in a week, this rotation in practice means that when the next Monday rolls around, it’s not the same kid acting as evening cruise director. The Monday following, it’s yet a different kid’s turn to indulge his or her interests. This means that within the span of one week, each kid gets a turn twice–every third day–with Saturday being a special Bonus Day for one of them. On Saturdays, they’re allowed to watch an extra episode of the show slated for that date, depending on which kid’s night it is, bumping the screen time up to almost an hour as a special weekend treat. Each kid gets a Bonus Day on the third Saturday following his or her most recent Bonus Day, meaning that they all have to wait three weeks between times when the double-feature designation falls on their night.

Now add to this rotation a separate rotation: Brian and I take turns reading to the kids before bed, and since there are two of us, this means we have a “one night on, one night off” schedule. These rotations in tandem mean that the parent that reads this Friday won’t read next Friday but will the Friday following. So, because each kid has his or her choice night every third day, and each parent has his or her reading night every second day, every sixth day finds the same kid/parent combo (the common denominator of 1/3 and 1/2 is six, of course). However, since Saturdays have an exceptional rotation all their own, it so happens that the same kid/parent combination doesn’t recur until six weeks later (same common denominator, but this time we’re talking in weeks instead of days).

When I was a teacher and a student would ask, “Why do we have to learn math?” I would half-kiddingly answer, “So you can help your kids with their homework someday.” (This was before Singapore math became common core, obviously.) Now, if faced with the same question, I think my response would be, “So you can carefully calibrate the systems of organization in your future family to ensure a mathematically and logically unassailable method by which each member is judiciously given the power to make choices but also the forbearance to practice patience in proportions that have been deliberately considered and clearly defined in an effort to promote the congruity of togetherness and individuality.”

Calculus, as defined by Brittanica online, is “a branch of mathematics concerned with the calculation of instantaneous rates of change and the summation of infinitely many small factors to determine some whole.” This is basically the same definition of the word “parenting”. So if you want to be a parent when you grow up, kids, keep paying attention in math class. You’ll be doing more calculus than you can ever imagine.

Words do the trick

English is a notoriously difficult language to learn, in part due to its rampant irregularity in verb tenses, singular and plural forms, and spelling. As a person who has always been a good speller and passionate about all things linguistic, I find it an interesting challenge to have a child who struggles with even very simple spelling. She is motivated, though, and recently began practicing her list of “trick words” (words difficult to spell because they don’t follow the usual “rules” of phonetics and/or phonemics) in the afternoons while one brother practiced violin and the other “read” a Plants vs. Zombies graphic novel. One night, looking over her practice sheets, I felt inspired to use all 41 words in a writing exercise, and I ended up with a kind of a poem. The only additions I made to the list of words here are two articles (“a”) and one conjunction (“and”), plus some punctuation.

Trick Words

Away, animal night.
A place only eight knew:
full house both large
and used.


Something always goes against
every right: city, school, family.

Talk (answer). Walk (move). Know (use). Carry (change).
Done once…again…often…
pretty please
a different world shall pull together.

Only the words with a check mark to the left of them were on her list to practice.

Realism: a gallery

Finally, I have evidence that my kids actually do know how it feels to be an adult sometimes! They’ve created a series of still life artworks to express their understanding, and they leave these compositions around the house for me to discover as a way of saying, “I feel you, Mom.” Isn’t that sweet? I photograph these arrangements to prove how well they identify with the human condition, and I know you can relate to at least one, if not all, of the images in the series. Here are the four most recent installments:

P.J. Sparkles just cannot. She lies on the sofa and stares at the ceiling, only to see the smoke detector flashily flaunting its functional 9-volt battery like a social media feed filled with pictures of people looking well-rested and worry-free.
Corolle wasn’t prepared for how hard this would be. Tonight she’s on the bottle and asking not to be judged.
These girls remember taking baths back when they were in their twenties. It’s just not like that anymore.
Mr. Lemonhead, you are all of us.

Aren’t these kids thoughtful in their reflective creations? I’ve never felt so seen!

Kindergarten academics

It was time to go upstairs for bed, but Arlo was feeling inspired and asked politely to have a couple of minutes to finish a card he had started that day in Kindergarten. “I made the front of the card in Ms. Ashley’s class. It’s for you,” he said, sealing the deal, and since I had a few more dishes to do I agreed to let him stay downstairs to work. It was the sweetest scene: this boy sat there holding his pencil in his fist the way you’d hold a screwdriver, the way I’ve given up trying to reform, sounding out the words he was trying to write. I cut the water to listen because last time he’d written something that none of us, including him, could decipher, he flew into a fit of pique. I wanted him to feel confident and encouraged in learning to read and write, so I tuned in lest that unsavory situation recur. Here is the front of the card:

“To Mom”

And this is the message inside:

It says, and I’m really glad I paid attention while he was writing, “I am thankful for you because you do so much for us.” Well, my heart just about grew wings and flew me directly to a comfortable spot on cloud nine. Arlo frequently expresses gratitude, but he’d never written me a card like this! And what a likeness! My hair really does resemble that rendering most days! And I don’t know what’s in the pan I’m holding, but his depiction of the gas range is dead on.

“Arlo!” I said. “This makes me so happy! Thank you. I love it and will put it on the refrigerator so I can see it all the time. I wonder what gave you the idea to make a card like this for me!” He grabbed his stuffed animals and began dutifully trudging upstairs. “Ms. Ashley said we should,” he said. Oh. Well, there it is. Turns out his sweet gesture, while still sweet, was the fulfillment of an assignment his teacher had suggested they accomplish. I wanted to laugh for a second but then I had a very serious thought: this child is really good at homework. Cloud nine, I’m back! That note is definitely going on the fridge.

Buried treasure

I recently graduated from a 2009 Suburban (“The Dawn Treader”) to a 2017 Chrysler Pacifica (“Harriet the Chariot”)! Yes, I am now delighted to call myself the driver of a minivan. Honestly, I kind of detested the Suburban from the moment I drove it off the lot six years ago, and it continued to rankle for the remainder of its tenure as my mainstay vehicle. In the process of cleaning out the interior, I discovered among the contents of the console and glove box (former home to a mouse nest, but that’s another story) several artifacts, including a bag of M&Ms that had basically powderized, a key to my friend Becca’s house from that time I watered her plants while she was out of town a few years ago, a packet of pacifier wipes (my youngest child is five), mascara (who even WAS I?!), and this:

There’s so much to love about this. First of all, it’s written on a napkin, which is classic, in my husband’s perennial penmanship, including the zeros with the lines through them (a holdover from his time in the Coast Guard). Then there’s the fact that he dated it, which I deeply appreciate, especially considering that it happened to be our ninth wedding anniversary that day, providing context that otherwise would be lost on its future audience. But most of all, I love that this captures so precisely how kids think and emote and express: guilelessly, earnestly, unfettered by societal stigma or so-called norms, unafraid of causing offense or affronting decorum. It’s at once hilarious and profoundly innocent, and I’m keeping it forever. I look forward to showing it to Liam’s future spouse, if he wants and finds one, as an example of just how perfectly pure his mind was at the age of seven and two months and four days. That is, of course, if I last that long.

Something to talk about: little brothers

One-on-one conversations with a daughter:

  • 1. Context: Over a year ago, a family member treated Arlo to an afternoon of lavish enjoyment, including sweet treats and several toys and gifts. It was definitely a superfluity of generosity and money spent that resulted in his coming home with a bag full of things he didn’t need. Summerly was looking through it a few days later when it was just the two of us, and she remarked upon the excess.

Alison: “I know; it’s a lot. And it’s stuff he doesn’t need. But it’s just {family member}’s way of saying, ‘I love you.'”
Summerly: “Then why doesn’t she just say that?”

  • 2. Context: Arlo had had a rough week. He’d been the youngest one at full-day camp and the other kids hadn’t been especially deferential to his size and age while playing games like soccer and Ga-Ga Ball, and Arlo was feeling it. The Saturday following, he was a mess. He complained about nearly everything and was basically an exhausted raw nerve ending of emotion. Summerly, meanwhile, was as patient and kind and generous of spirit with him as she’s ever been, and he felt built up enough by bedtime to fall sweetly asleep. I’m convinced that wouldn’t have been the case if he’d had another day feeling generally “less” during activities, and all day I’d been expecting an epic evening meltdown. I credited Summerly for playing a vital role in preventing that eventuality, particularly because Arlo seeks interaction, validation, and recognition from his peers even more fiercely than he does from adults.

Alison: “Summerly, thank you for giving Arlo such a good day.”
Summerly: (nodding) “He needed it. And he was tired.”

  • 3. Context: A few weeks later, Arlo had another tough weekend. He’d slept poorly on Saturday night and gave us all a run for our money from the moment he awoke on Sunday until he finally fell asleep. I was getting over a kidney infection and feeling worn out by it, Brian had worked from home all day, and I thought the high emotions in the house had stressed everyone out.

Alison: “Summerly, thank you for being so patient with Arlo. I mean, today was pretty–” (nanosecond pause)
Summerly: (filling the nanosecond pause) “Joyful.”
Alison: (Stunned into silence. I’d been about to say “intense”.)

  • 4. Context: Brian had just bought the kids a new book, and they were excitedly flipping through it. The back cover featured images of a few other books, probably by the same publisher, and Arlo pointed them out, professing his desire to get them also. We told him that right now we’re going to enjoy the new book because everyone seems excited about the gift, which means they’re probably feeling grateful, and that’s a great feeling, and left it at that.

Summerly: “You know how Arlo said earlier that he wants those other books? I mean, we just got that new one.”
Alison: (suspecting that she wants those books, too, but knows it might sound greedy to say so) “Yeah. The thing is, it’s not coming from a place of ingratitude. He was definitely grateful; we could tell by his reaction to getting the book. It’s just that Arlo loves almost everything (well, except whatever I make for dinner). That’s just the way he is. He’s a gift kid–he loves receiving gifts but he also really loves giving them. Just like in the car today when you and he were eating the rest of the melts and Liam asked for one. Arlo only had a few left, but he was the one who shared first, AND he offered Liam one of the big ones. When he says he wants those books, he’s not asking us to buy them, exactly. At least, certainly, not right away. He’s just saying he wants them, and that’s ok. We don’t want him to constantly be asking us to get him thing after thing after thing, but we don’t want him to think it’s not ok to want something. Wanting is natural. And Arlo loves sharing his thoughts and ideas and feelings with us. Wanting is kind of a ‘thought-idea-feeling’ all in one, so it’s nice that he feels comfortable sharing it. When he’s older, he’ll probably learn to express his wanting in ways that might feel more considerate, or he’ll understand that timing is really important with stuff like this. Like, if he’s just gotten a gift and says he wants other things right away, the person who gave it to him might interpret that in a way Arlo didn’t intend, so we can help him understand this and be able to communicate clear gratitude before expressing wanting, or he can phrase it in a way as to avoid misunderstanding. Right now, he just loves so MUCH, and he’s still figuring out how to convey his wanting in sensitive ways.”
Summerly: “I know, I know. It’s sweet. But it’s hard.”

I’m telling you, I am SO excited to someday watch this girl mother her own children (if she wants them and is fortunate enough to then have them). I just know she’ll do a better job than I. What more can we hope for the future than that?

An acronym

Ever wonder how the word “boob” as slang for “breast” insinuated itself into the English language? I don’t know the real answer, but consider this:

Despite what people like Hugh Hefner would have us believe, I think the the main purpose of women’s breasts is to facilitate the feeding of newborns. Not all mothers breastfeed, of course, for a variety of reasons, but even those who choose formula or a hybrid model of “fed is best” would probably agree that the biological reason that women possess these anatomical features is to enshrine mammary glands, the purpose of which is to enable lactation.

Alongside this idea, consider the common initialism found on invitations to gatherings (remember those?) for “bring your own beverage”. We’re all familiar with it: BYOB. Now, I wonder: is it a coincidence that breastfeeding mothers can say, “We’ll bring our own beverages,”? In short, their response to the invitation to motherhood (if they both want one of these and also are fortunate enough to receive one at a time when it’s welcome) can be shortened to contain the tidy, singular, palindromic syllable of (I know, you already figured this out) BOOB.

If this were the case, the acronym “boob” would actually be a verbal phrase, and it would only be applicable to a first person plural subject. Its place in our language would no longer be as a noun; rather, it could become a slogan of unity for all women who get the side-eye from imbeciles when they’re nursing their babies in public. Like in Target that time, when I was tucked away at the most remote table in the cafe to feed Summerly, myself nursing a Chai Latte to give me the strength to finish shopping, and that guy whose body wasn’t fully tucked into his clothing either wrinkled his upper lip and rolled his eyes in my direction, I should have stood up, fist upraised, and incanted, “WE BOOB!”

“WE BOOB” could be the name of the next women’s movement to affirm our rights to nourish our children whenever and wherever is healthiest for them, in whatever way works best for us as parents. The power to choose breast over bottle or bottle over breast, or whichever other way we decide to nourish our babies without anyone batting an eye! The freedom to use those inestimably valuable methods at our disposal to ensure that our children’s growth is favored, regardless of what anyone else thinks or expresses to us! “WE BOOB” could serve as the rallying cry of solidarity for the next generation of mothers, an anthem so succinct it could fit on coffee mugs, bumper stickers, T-shirts…maybe even the La Leche League would get on board and fund a Kickstarter campaign!

Anyway, that’s what I was thinking about at 2:00 am.


In the process of designing our house before it was built, we amended the walk-in closet that runs along one side of the master bedroom to afford 40% to his space and 60% to my space, with a wall in between and separate doors on either end. I used to love my generously-portioned closet: the only space in the house that was ALL MINE. It was a place where I didn’t just keep my clothing but also hid gifts and stored special things that just didn’t have a sensible home, like the Ray-Ban sunglasses I don’t wear because I’m afraid of losing or damaging them and that decorative box with a magnetic lid that will surely be perfect for keeping something someday.

These past months, however, that little room has become an overwhelming place. I know I’m not alone in feeling a wave of emotions every time I walk inside my closet: uncertainty, sadness, frustration, and anxiety all bound and gagged and chained to the walls. I think about things I used to do in there, like take four dresses, still dangling from their hangers, and lay them on the bed while I tried on one after the other to see which I liked best for a certain occasion, and I’m stupefied. I used to open that wicker hamper and look through it to choose a shirt that would be just right for the kind of day I was going to have. Once upon a time I pulled a pair of jeans from the bottom of the stack to ensure that I didn’t rewear the same one I’d worn the last time I saw the people I was preparing to see. I actually used to touch the rows of skirts and dressy shirts hanging on the right wall and the fancier-than-everyday shoes in the organizer hanging over the door. The idea of doing these things again is bewildering.

Now, when I walk in the closet, I see the dresses and think: when will I? Will I even? What will that feel like? I see the pile of jeans and wonder at the number. There: the neatly-folded bathing suit cover-ups for the beach that I won’t need again this summer. There: the cornflower blue maid-of-honor dress I spent as much to have altered as I did on its purchase, a beautiful gossamer-to-the-ankle number with the strappy Jacob’s ladder crossback I was supposed to wear to watch my sister get married on May 2, 2020. There: Summerly’s flower girl dress that might not fit her when (if?) her aunt ever has the big wedding, and her never-worn jelly shoes I bought to complete the bridal-aisle ensemble, clear plastic with silver glitter and a kitten heel that can be set to light up upon footfall (fun for the after-dark dance floor!) that she’s probably already outgrown. There: a shapely glass bottle of perfume (Shalimar, a gift from my mother) that I’m afraid to even smell lest it cause me to weep with nostalgia; there: a vial of mascara so long unused it might as well be the slim femur of a very small dinosaur. The space is filled with ghosts, past ghosts and present ghosts and future ghosts, ghosts of a life that used to be and a life that isn’t now and a life to come that we can’t even conceptualize. It’s a museum full of exhibits, period pieces, items that remind us of how things were, of canceled plans, annulled events, missed opportunities. It’s a time capsule stamped with a boldfaced question mark begging, “Will these things belong in the afterworld? Will they stand this incredibly trying test of time? Will they once again be useful, phoenixes shaking the ashes of dust off their wingtips? Will they fit a way of life we can’t even imagine and yet know we’ll live to see? Or is this just a holding area, a lily-filled mortuary, embalmment before the tomb?”

Maybe I don’t like being in my closet anymore because it feels a little like a hospice, a little like a hostage situation, and a little like limbo in stark relief. Whoever coined the phrase “skeletons in the closet”, despite the idiom’s original meaning, couldn’t have known how accurately it represents this feeling. Perhaps these skeletons will become reanimated some day; perhaps they’ll regain sinew and skin, hearts once again tasting oxygen, faces exposed to sun and wind, light and sound, no longer inhabited by hollow hangers or inhabiting the claustrophobia of closeted neglect. Perhaps they’ll be liberated from a long hibernation, happily reunited with a life they recognize and are glad to see again. Time, that old friend tucked into every corner of the tiny room, will tell.

A note on the text: I wrote this two months ago. My first dose of the Pfizer vaccine is scheduled for tomorrow. So MANY THOUGHTS.

Cold case: coffee

Despite our cognitive understanding that multitasking is often the antagonist to productivity, we all find our attention fractured and divided more frequently than we’d like. The obvious effect of this is that we’re not fully focused on the simultaneity of tasks we undertake on a daily, if not hourly, basis, compromising singular functionality in favor of spreading our energies thinly over a multiplicity of tasks. This habitual practice has led countless people to misplace countless cups of coffee, and in our house we call these lost mugs “Daddy coffees” because Brian suffers more from the conundrum than I do (maybe because he drinks more coffee, or maybe because he’s not as natural a multitasker as I am, or maybe because, being more chipper than I am in the morning, he doesn’t clutch the handle of his mug with white-knuckled tenacity, as if for dear life).

I’ve lost mugs in the house many times, too, the most memorable of which ended up being found by Liam on top of the dryer after I’d levied a cash reward for its safe return several days after the search began. Daddy coffees routinely turn up in the microwave, in a kid’s bedroom, on a windowsill, or sometimes on the floor after our post-dinner game time. Maybe when we’re older and more in control of our faculties, we’ll possess a less fragmented frame of mind while enjoying a steaming mug of fresh coffee, all in one sitting, interrupted by no one, least of all ourselves. Maybe then we’ll remember fondly the process of scrubbing that familiar brown circle off the ceramic inside of a mug before putting it in the dishwasher, that telltale ring demarcating the upward edge of eight ounces of pristine caffeine abandoned amidst the uproar of life, grown cold in the wasteland of forgotten things, orphaned by our inability to be fully present with it still heating our hands.

One night, Brian poured himself a petite glass of Port after dinner (ah, the romance of a digestif! Sipping on a heady glass of fortified wine, perhaps while gazing at a sunset while comfortably reclined and engaged in an act as sinfully indulgent as, say, reading a book or doing a crossword puzzle or even taking in a film! Quelle fantaisies!). He put the dainty little port glass on the counter near’s Arlo’s spot at the kitchen island and then got distracted by who knows what sequence of events until Arlo sat down and noticed it. “Is this for me?” he asked, to which I said, “No, that’s a Daddy drink. Not for kids.” Brian overheard this conversation from the other room and added, “Yeah, that really IS a Daddy drink! It’s an adult beverage, but it’s also a drink I knew I’d put down somewhere and then couldn’t find it. A Daddy drink is like a Daddy coffee: I haven’t drunk it yet, but I port it!”

Well, at least it seems that he’d kept track of his coffee that day.

Alert: Easy Dinner Idea! Plus a preamble (sorry to string you along)

Remember that 48-pack of string cheese I bought at Costco back when Arlo liked it, only to have him declare it unpalatable about a day later? Well, I successfully used it on pizza, as I’ve mentioned, and continued to do so (pin this idea for Halloween: it makes great spiderweb pizzas! String it to make the web, then cut it into circles for spiders, add shorter strings for legs and black sesame seeds for eyes!). I thought we were down to fewer than a dozen of those cylindrical mozzarellas when Arlo said he’d try one again and, lo and behold, he liked it once more! So the next time I went to Costco, I bought another 48-pack, inwardly rejoicing that my campaign for getting Arlo to eat protein had just made a huge stride. When I went home, I put it away only to discover that there were still 24 left in the other bag. How had I missed that? I decided I’d just have to feed him string cheese at every possible opportunity. Now, you probably saw this coming, but guess what Arlo said he no longer liked later that afternoon?

Well, the challenge was obvious. I steeled my apron strings for the weeks ahead, a crusader on a mission to incorporate string cheese into every dinner until it was gone. Even though zero of my children would eat it cold out of the fridge (WHY NOT?! String cheese is so fun! It’s like cat’s cradle but with dairy), I thought they wouldn’t protest if it were heated, melted, and incorporated with other ingredients, as evidenced by the pizza experiments. So I strung it and mixed it with cheddar for quesadilla night, lined the inside of taco shells with it before baking and filling them, layered it on the refried beans spread on dough for Mexican pizza before topping with shredded chicken. I tucked it inside grilled cheese sandwiches and burritos, crisscrossed it into lasagna, stirred it into filling for twice-baked potatoes, folded it into omelets, and decorated the pastry bottom of a quiche with the now very familiar cream-colored strands. It slowly began to disappear from the refrigerator.

My favorite repurposed string cheese-centric meal is a take on mozzarella sticks (this preparation was better-received than when I tried making actual breadcrumb-coated mozzarella sticks in the air fryer). Here’s the recipe (if you can even call it that):

Ipzza Sticks (a.k.a. Inside-Out Pizza)


String cheese (duh), frozen
Pizza dough (however you like it: store-bought, homemade, from a mix, etc.)
Marinara or pizza sauce (again, however you like it: open a jar or start from scratch)
Pepperoni, fresh basil, garlic powder or other toppings/seasonings (optional)

Preheat the oven to 425 degrees with rack in center. Roll out the pizza dough and cut it into rectangles big enough to wrap around a piece of string cheese with an extra half an inch or so to allow for sealing. Remove cheese from freezer and, working quickly, wrap each in a piece of dough, sealing the edges of the dough very tightly to minimize the ooze factor and place on a greased cookie sheet. Bake for about 10 minutes, until dough begins to brown, but watch carefully and remove from oven as soon as any cheese begins to bubble out of a seam. Serve with marinara or pizza dipping sauce. Note: you can add pepperoni or basil leaves and any seasonings you like before rolling and sealing up these little logs.

Even the child who likes string cheese least of all, who normally wouldn’t so much as touch a shrink-wrapped tube of mozzarella if she could help it, made quick work of three Ipzza Sticks while rewatching a recording of the 2021 presidential inauguration speech. As Joe Biden said to the nation that day, “Don’t tell me things can’t change.” Right on, Mr. President.

Yes, that’s a backscratcher next to her napkin. No, she doesn’t use it as a fork.