As a parent, I acknowledge that there are relatively few things I can actually control about my children. The limitation comes from my own desire for them to learn to chart their own course–to a certain extent–and my own sanity. One of the things I’ve chosen to focus on is food. I was a somewhat picky eater growing up and, as with many things with children, I didn’t want my kids to be that way. I also enjoy cooking, so figured I’d cook. Having three active boys and a triathlete for a husband, I had no idea what I was getting myself into. Though the food thing seems to have worked out as dinner at my cousin’s house ended up with my big boys having three helpings of salad (helped along by ranch) and polishing off the broccoli.

For the last two weeks, we’ve been kept in meals through the generosity of our village here in San Antonio, and far beyond. Sandwiches, chili, soup, casserole, and gift cards have meant I haven’t done much beyond making sandwiches for lunch and pouring cereal. In triage mode, we can revert to processed carbohydrates, which I supplement heavily with fresh fruit.

After getting our feet under us in the in-between house, though, I knew it was time to start restocking. I also wanted to restock. Because I’m committed to this food thing, I’m a bit out of sorts when not cooking, even as I sometimes grumble at my four hour Sunday kitchen shift.

When things are running normally, I do a Costco run about every 3 weeks and spend about $230, mostly food and some household supplies. Carbs (cereal, pasta, oatmeal, crackers), soy milk and other dairy, fresh fruit, meats (organic sausages, sandwich meat, organic gr beef), beans and rice, and frozen food (veggies, and veggie foods like spring rolls and burritos). And, of course, the school snacks. We’re always well-stocked at home because of sales, space, and my knowledge that we may have to push off the run for a week or two, and the prices are just that much better. That means we put a fair bit of our capital into having food around the house.

So how much did my restocking trip cost?

That does include glasses, pillows, and Pyrex storage containers, but otherwise it is food. And I spent about $200 at HEB the next day, when $100 is our normal weekend run. Baking powder, flour, sugars, more bananas (seriously, they eat easily 10 lbs a week [I can’t stand bananas]). Now I feel like we’re settled in because I can make food, though we’ve got folks signed up to bring food through this week and more offering. Though, as I consider diving back into the cooking, I’m confronted again by what we don’t have– a vegetable peeler was the realization as I went to peel carrots for my lunch. (I’m having cucumbers instead.)

The ability to drop $800 on mostly food in a weekend is an immense privilege. Seeing the line items for food on our contents inventory (more on that next week), means I’ll actually get a fair bit of that back. The fact that we can float $800 for food is also a blessing brought to us by friends’ and families’ generosity, and our general spendthriftness. And a privilege based on our knowledge that our jobs are relatively secure, our incomes won’t fluctuate wildly in the near future, and our general creditworthiness.

This weekend’s restocking is also one of the many moments I’ve had in this whole affair where I feel, viscerally, the reality of my privilege.  We have the insurance, cash, credit, and resources to buy a whole bunch of stuff–including rent for a new place to live–on short notice.  So, so many families don’t have that privilege.  We can even ride out the short term disaster this is wreaking on our finances, another privilege. 

Learn the rules?

I was playing with these cool blocks with my 8-year-old. He was making a horse stall and needed to expand it because the horse was crowded. But he got frustrated. These blocks only have one notch each, which is a very tangible design constraint. J could see what he wanted to do to expand the horse stall, but he couldn’t get the blocks to cooperate. If only they had all kinds of these… things [as he wiggles his fingers around a block, hoping the gesture communicates what lacks a word]. He persisted, talking the while, ked through it and, unsurprisingly, came up with a plan.

In reflecting on J’s experience with the constraints of these blocks, I was taken back to a Facebook conversation about this article. The author proposes a set of constraints that he would place on his students in a writing course. Basically, shrink whatever you write down into a sentence. He argues that these design constraints (my term, not his) would get to what’s most important and train students to be editors. The group of smart writing people I was talking with had varying takes on the idea, but seemed to coalesce around the notion that it would only be a useful exercise if the students chose it.

I won’t argue with either point. When I write, I’m often constrained by proposal or manuscript word limits. Occasionally I assign myself other constraints like time, form, or words. Self-imposed design constraints can be a very useful way to learn various skills that will serve a writer, designer, artist, musician, whatever, well.

Another way to think about these design constraints is through the lens of rules and grammar.  When I talk to teachers or preservice teachers about teaching writing, I hear variations on: “Students need to learn the rules before they break them.” I completely understand where this instinct comes from because the rules–what I’d call conventions or design/genre constrains–do matter, a lot.  Though they are far more dependent on audience, genre, and purpose than young writers are often taught in school.  This limitation is, in part, because standards often frame conventions as singular, not multifaceted.

For all these reasons, I resist the idea that the way to teach young people how to write is by teaching them isolated rules, and then thinking they’ll magically churn out perfect sentences, paragraphs, and essays. Pushing, pulling, experimenting with different design constraints, and testing them all out in the world on real audiences, that’s how the conventions begin to make sense and work.  Think of J playing with blocks, trying to make a horse stall, and talking his way into success.  Words or blocks– it’s all about the playing and experimenting.

To be of use

I’m not a hoarder, but I am a saver. If something can be of use, I tuck it away, probably with other objects like it, and wait for the moment when it is needed. I am constitutionally opposed to waste of almost all kinds–food, containers, paper, water. I attribute this trait to my first nanny, a farmer who grew her own food, raised chickens, and had a rubber band ball, string ball, and made cinnamon treats from the extra pie crust.

Yep, original 1950’s tile in the bathroom.

This ribbon was wrapped around the washcloths that I bought for the boys. Some woman in East Asia tied this blessed ribbon around a bunch of washcloths so they could be priced a bit higher. (Really, this is what I think to myself when I see this kind of packaging.)  And I can’t bring myself to throw it away.  It feels like disrespecting the time and energy–literally–that went into making it.  It’s a perfectly good ribbon that could find a host of uses.

At home, I have a ribbon box in my sewing closet. It’s exactly what you’d expect: a box filled with ribbons and other bits of trim that I’ve collected from shopping bags, packages, garments beyond repair or cleaning. And I sew just enough, usually gifty things, that bits of ribbon come in handy.  My box isn’t particularly big–the size of a shoebox–and ribbon gets cycled through it with enough regularity that I don’t feel the need to purge in the 10 years I’ve owned it.

So this ribbon presents me with a challenge. I don’t have my ribbon box.  I think it was salvaged, so I’ll get the ribbon back and will need to buy a new plastic box.  But right now I don’t have a ribbon box.  Do I buy a new one?  And then move it?  How much ribbon do I think I’ll end up with in four months?  These questions would be easier if I just got over it and threw stuff away, and I did for the first 10 days or so after the fire.  But now, after seeing dumpster load after dumpster load of stuff being hauled out of our house, that deep-seated conservationist is rousing and doesn’t want to throw the ribbon away.

And, if you’re interested, the title is inspired by a beautiful poem of the same name.  Hear Garrison read it here.

Stop with the damned sentence stems

In chapter 2 of To Kill a Mocking Bird, Scout feels _______ because ________.

Just stop. Really. Stop it. It’s enabling lazy thinking, poor engagement, and boredom. I’m bored even thinking about the imaginary potential of reading 160 of those sentences.

What about these…

  • I wonder…
  • What if…
  • Well, maybe…
  • I think…
  • I don’t understand…

These are sentence stems that ask students to think.  To dig into an idea.  To make visible their meanderings around a concept.  These are sentence stems that work for second grade, college, and me when I’m thinking about something.

Places and rituals

As much as I love to travel, I really am a homebody. I’m deeply attached to places and the rituals those places support. It’s the small things, like where the keys and shoes go, and the bigger things like making lunches and breakfast while chatting with the boys. And reading the paper with my coffee after they’ve gone to school.  I also love to putter around the house doing little projects and always putting things back in their place.  Fighting entropy.

Having moved into our in-between home–that’s the phrasing I’m using with the boys because what you call things matters–last night, the depth of what we’ve lost is sinking in a bit more. Some of it is the stuff–my spices!–but more of it are the rituals that we’ve crafted for the family. Those rituals are helter skelter right now and that’s proving challenging.

On the suggestion of a brilliant friend, we’ve taken to watching about 20 minutes of TV before bed as an incentive to get ready for bed. Sounds crazy, TV before bed, I know. But it turned out to work crazy well. We watch NOVA and my kids, who always like science, are absolutely enamored. I am too. Batteries, origami, geology, moving lighthouses: it doesn’t matter, but we’re entranced. It had become a great family bonding time in the midst of bedtime craziness. And we don’t have internet yet, so NOVA is on hold and that’s really sad to my big boys.

We’ll get that ritual back–though will need to buy a TV–and recreate and reimagine many more. But that takes a lot of energy, that is also focused on getting everything that we need in the house–pots and pans. While also not wanting to buy things we’ll get back–pots and pans. My inner conservationist refuses to buy stuff that we’ll only need for a little while, but I also don’t have tons of time to run over to Goodwill or Salvation Army.

And because I am a silver lining person–the shower in our in-between home is great. Hot water, lots of it.