Latest Chart: Christmas wishes

December 25, 2020

By Ekta R. Garg

In a year full of so much strife, pain, and loss, it seems like a luxury to have a day of joy and laughter. Yet today has been just that. In the movie version of 2020, Christmas this year has been the part of the film that offers a respite after the buildup of drama. It’s been a day full of the idyllic scenes that make the Hallmark Channel so famous.

We’ve had the copious presents under the tree; some of them were practical items (sweatshirts) and others were indulgences (a Harry Potter bracelet for Fourteen; a hoodie with Megan Rapinoe and Alex Morgan on it for Twelve.) We’ve spent the afternoon playing board games that involved loud protests about when it counts for someone to yell “Uno!” and bursts of giggles about ridiculous clues given during Taboo. We’ve even shared some Christmas chocolate, an occasional treat and indulgence indeed.

This week leading up to Christmas Day has had its fair share of typical holiday moments too. We decided on the day the kids’ break started that we’d watch a movie every single day. To combat drawn-out discussions about what to watch, each family member got to choose three movies and write the names on individual slips. Every day, we’ve taken turns drawing the slips and have dutifully sat to watch one another’s choices amid groans and grins (depending on how much we liked that day’s feature film.) By the end of break, we will have watched 15 movies—a marathon that is a record for us.

Fourteen put her best acting skills to use for the past three weeks, insisting that I must have been the one to place a mystery gift under the tree when she knew very well it was her dad who put it there. (In fact, she was the one who wrapped it for him.) She demanded on a daily basis that I “confess” to being the Secret Santa, even going so far as to say I could “confide” in her and that we didn’t have to tell anyone else that I’d done so. In this house, she’d easily win an Oscar for her pitch perfect performance. Not once did she drop the character of “impetuous, impatient teenager wanting answers immediately.”

In a burst of bravery, Twelve decided to ask her friend group what pictures they’d like her to draw for them as Christmas presents. She ended up drawing 11 pictures, and they ran the gamut from How to Train Your Dragon characters to snowy scenes of a home in winter. She wanted to do a good job, and she began working on the pictures in late November. With online school keeping her busy, she finished the pictures last weekend. We decided the best way to make sure the pictures got to all her friends on time was to hand deliver them. The excitement Twelve experienced in seeing her friends face to face at a social distance in the last two days totally eclipsed her embarrassment in sharing her drawings with everyone.

My own contribution to this holiday break has been challenging myself with a variety of new and fun meals to make. I’ve spent more than my fair share of hours planning, cooking, and washing dishes afterward. It’s been a delight, though, to hear the sighs of pleasure at the table and the demands that I replicate the meal of the moment. More than once, Fourteen has said, “Make more right now.”

In this week and especially on a day like today, it’s easy to forget the challenges we’ve experienced this year. Is that okay? I don’t know. My husband and I have spent most days this year trying to guide, coach, goad, chide, encourage, and, on occasion, reprimand the kids as they’ve encountered the unexpected. We’ve talked multiple times about how we’re living through a historical event and how reading about history in an article or watching a documentary about it is much easier. Even today FaceTime and phone calls reminded us how we’re separated from our extended family because of the pandemic.

Yet, after this year, today seems like a full dose of normalcy. The kind that doesn’t need a follow-up dose three weeks later. It’s allowed us to exhale and smile with relief afterward.

The new year is a week away. We have no idea what 2021 will bring us. After this year, I think we’ve all learned to make the most of days like today. The days when we can treasure one another from start to finish.

Maybe that’s one of the lessons we’re meant to learn from the pandemic; maybe we won’t rush through the precious moments so much anymore. We’ll live through every moment—really live through it, as opposed to styling it or capturing it or rushing through it. We’ll live the moments and create the memories we keep talking about. The kind of memories filmmakers rely on for inspiration in their blockbusters.

I hope you all experienced peace and love today. I hope the new year brings you prosperity and good health. More than anything, I hope 2021 brings you moments to remember.

Brand new Chart: Being grateful

November 28, 2020

By Ekta R. Garg

Although 2020 has felt like one really long weekend, we’ve actually managed to turn this Thanksgiving break into a long weekend that feels…well, like a vacation.

**For the first time ever, I didn’t cook the entire Thanksgiving dinner all by myself. Fourteen’s mashed potatoes, pecan pie, and cornbread muffins hit sweet spots for me (literally and figuratively.) I think these were easily my favorite items this year. And it was fun to share the kitchen space with her, both of us moving around one another with ease as we each focused on different elements. We spent quite a bit of time ribbing one another about our individual dishes but had the satisfaction of watching the entire family enjoy our efforts at the end.

**We’ve found a show we can binge as a family that everyone loves. When it first premiered in 2018, I was the sole fan of “New Amsterdam.” My husband and I watched “The Blacklist” for a while; it included Ryan Eggold in the cast, and Eggold is the star of “New Amsterdam.” However, I was intrigued by the medical show mostly because of NBC’s decision to include veteran Bollywood actor Anupam Kher in the cast. I started watching the show for him but fell in love with the entire premise and, especially, the fact that it’s a mostly clean show. We’re not spending all of our time watching people bed hop and/or moan and whine about their relationships.

One day Fourteen and Twelve came into our room as I caught up on the latest episode and some ironing, and they parked on our bed to watch with me. Since then the entire family has gotten into the show, and thanks to Peacock (NBC’s streaming service) we get to see all the adventures of Dr. Max Goodwin and Co. from the beginning. At the rate we’re going, we’ll be all caught up by the end of the weekend…just in time to agonize about when the show will return in 2021 (production stalled due to COVID.)

**Schedules are laid back. Fourteen had a take-home math exam that she finished up earlier in the week, but other than that we’ve all been operating on a much more relaxed timeline. School will be back in session in less than 48 hours, but it feels like the holiday season has actually begun and that has me thinking about yummy meals for Christmas break and trying to go into stealth mode as I order presents and hide them.

**The agenda for today and tomorrow is to set up the Christmas tree and all of our decorations, one of the most normal things we’ll do this year. We won’t be traveling for the holidays; for the first time in years we won’t see extended family in person. But we’re not thinking about all that today. Today the biggest decisions will be what ornaments go where on our lovely tree and whether we want to be brave and set up a second tree this year.

For the first time in a long time, moments of true normalcy have descended on us in this Thanksgiving break. We’ve laughed; we’ve squabbled. We’ve teased one another and shared with one another. The pandemic is still a major issue, and we’re reminded of that often but the bursts of every-day moments are refreshing.

There’s no telling what next year’s Thanksgiving will look like. We’ve talked with family members about getting together and making all of 2020 fade like a nightmare. But in all honesty, this year’s Thanksgiving break has had its perks too. And for that I’m truly grateful.

Latest Chart: Where efficiency meets embarrassment

October 30, 2020

By Ekta R. Garg

Parents of teens and tweens everywhere, congratulate me. I’ve managed to embarrass both of my children with a single act. And all it took was saying yes to an opportunity.

More than two years ago, a magazine started in our part of town that’s meant for the residents here. It’s not for the entire town, mind you. Nor does it go to the sister town that’s a stone’s throw away. It’s just meant for a couple of dozen neighborhoods as well as the apartment complexes around us.

The magazine shares news of our local library, my book reviews, and information about local events. The main feature article every month, though, is a family from around here. The family appears on the cover and on the multi-page spread inside. You get softball information like favorite hobbies and vacations taken as well as what jobs the main couple hold and where the kids go to school.

Since my book reviews have been appearing in the magazine for a while now, I have occasional contact with the main feature writer and the publisher. In the middle of the summer, the publisher and I chatted on the phone about a variety of topics related to the magazine: how to add varied content, for example. I have a master’s degree in magazine publishing, so for me this conversation was a natural fit.

And, truly, it was kind of like coming home. I’m deeply grateful for all the amazing writing/editing/publishing opportunities I’ve been given and continue to get through the years, but I miss working with a team on a longstanding imprint. There’s something inherently satisfying about putting together a publication that is well-edited, well-written, and engages its target audience, and doing it on a regular cycle.

We talked in broad terms about what kind of contributions I might be able to make to the magazine but left it open-ended for now. Then, at some point in that conversation, the publisher asked me if our family would like to be the feature family for an upcoming issue. I said yes without batting an eye. After all, the magazine, as I said, is strictly local, and it doesn’t even go to everyone here in the area.

My father-in-law is generally happy to go along with whatever the majority of the family does, but I knew the magazine story might be a little bit of a hard sell to my husband. He works hard and is proud of all he’s accomplished, but he doesn’t like a lot of attention for it. Twelve is exactly the same way. Despite the deep drive she possesses to work on her art, she’s ultimately conflicted about sharing it.

On an intellectual level, she loves the idea of people seeing what she’s created. Emotionally and psychologically—and, let’s be honest, physically—she squirms whenever she gets compliments for her art. It makes her visibly uncomfortable. Like any creative person, she wants to be recognized but she doesn’t want the applause or the overflow of compliments.

I’m still not sure how that squares away in real life, but in her brain it does.

I figured that Fourteen might be a little fidgety with it all, because her hair or outfit might not cooperate on the day of the photo shoot, and she seemed a little embarrassed that something we get in the mail regularly would now feature her and her family. Her embarrassment was the vague sort that most teens feel, though, so I didn’t pay it much mind. I thought the photo shoot itself would be enough to buoy her spirits.

On the day of the shoot, before the photographer arrived at our house, I heard plenty of groaning and complaining.

“Why do we have to do this again?”

“Why can’t I just wear what I’m wearing?”

“How long is this going to take?”

“It’s too windy out there; we’ll all blow away. Oh, well, I guess we can’t take the pictures!”

“We’re going to look dumb standing in front of our house getting our pictures taken.”

“I hope no one sees us out there when the photographer comes.”

“Why do we have to wear long sleeves? It’s so hot outside!”

(The easy answer to that one, by the way, is that magazines are always planning two to three issues out. The photographer was taking pictures of us at the end of the summer for the November issue; we had to look fall’ish to fit the other content in the magazine.)

“I have a headache.”

“My face looks terrible.”

And on and on.

The photographer surprised all of us by finishing her work in about 15 minutes. I was a little surprised, and worried, that the pictures wouldn’t turn out. Everyone else ran inside the house in glee, happy to be done with the whole thing.

When it came time to provide content for the story about our family, no one seemed interesting in answering the questions the writer sent me. I shrugged and answered them myself. Soon enough, the magazine story became “out of sight, out of mind.”

Weeks later (as in, earlier this month,) the publisher let me know the issues had been printed and volunteered to drop off copies. He came, and we chatted some more about the magazine. He also complimented me on the pictures, which made me even more eager to see them. They turned out incredibly well, and I knew our extended family would be excited.

The immediate family, however…

“We’re on the cover?” Twelve exclaimed when she came home from school.

“That’s the whole point of this,” I explained patiently.

Groans filled the air above us.

A day or so later, I sent the publisher an email to thank him for taking the time to come drop the magazine copies at our house. In his response he complimented me again on the pictures and story and mentioned the November issue would “drop” into mailboxes within a day or so.

I figured it was best not to say anything about that; while we were showing our copy to my family on FaceTime, I let slip that thousands of homes would be getting it. My parents and sister were delighted. The exclamations of everyone on this side of the screen could have made it crack.

That was all before our friends start getting the magazine, of course.

“People at the hospital have been texting me all day,” my husband said with mild chagrin the day after it came in the mail.

“I made the mistake of mentioning it to my friends on our chat, and now they’re going to go ask their parents about it,” Fourteen said, covering her face with a hand. “My outfit is amazing, but my expression is horrible.”

Twelve came home from school in a huff. “A sixth grader was complimenting me on how our house looks. You did this, Mamma. You.”

Yes, I did this. I’ve always prided myself on efficiency in my tasks, and I managed to embarrass almost everyone in the family in one fell swoop. I think I can say my job as mom of teen and tween is accomplished for this month.

It’s so nice when minimal effort yields maximum result.

Latest Chart: Trying to be brave

August 28, 2020

By Ekta R. Garg

And so it begins.

We’ve now been through a whole week of school. Like so many of you, my husband and I discussed what to do about sending the kids back. We watched the news. We read and reread the emails from our schools and tried to parse additional meaning from the lines on our screens.

In the end, after weighing all of the information on hand, we decided to send the kids to school in person.

I mentioned to my nephew a week or so ago that this was the hardest decision we’d ever had to make as parents. Some hard decisions you know will come: letting them drive; helping them through the teen years. Holding them up when someone breaks their hearts or they experience any kind of bias or they get passed over for an opportunity. Becoming a parent, as all of you who have children well know, flips on a switch the day we bring them home from the hospital. Some parts of our minds are constantly evaluating, weighing circumstances, and bringing information and opinions and emotions into place when the time for those decisions come.

No one, though, could have ever expected this: trying to decide whether going back to school—school, for goodness sakes; a basic human activity—would threaten our children in such an unbiased way. As we’ve heard time and again, the virus doesn’t discriminate between class, gender, ethnicity, location. It just invades your spaces and leaves you irrevocably changed.

***

Given that my husband is a physician, we talk a lot about health in our house. The pandemic has given us a chance to talk even more about it than usual. It also lends a “tough it out” kind of tenor to conversations. Can’t go to the movies? Tough it out. Can’t see your friends closer than 6 feet? Tough it out.

And, up until this week, the same applied for school.

But we opted, yes, to send them in person. Whatever the consequences of that decision, we’ll bear them. We’ll answer questions. And we’ll be washing our hands a lot as we do so.

***

This small return to normalcy has helped the mood around the house, despite the “straight out of a movie” circumstances. Twelve can’t identify the new students in her grade because she doesn’t know what they look like due to the masks. Fourteen is in high school now and can’t easily identify anyone either; her school took a hybrid approach this week, doing three days online and two in person, so she got to see some faces. Not everyone turned their screens on for online school, so she knows voices. Even voices sound different behind masks, though.

And yet, the mood has improved around here. And my day has become as elastic as saltwater taffy. When everyone was home all the time, the days felt like they would stretch for hours longer than they actually did. We’d deal cards with a lackluster flip of our hands or stare at the TV with glassy eyes, our gazes drifting to the clocks and letting resignation settle in that we still had ample time before the next meal or bedtime.

Now that I have some semblance of a routine back, the days are stretching again except in the other direction. I sit down at my computer and get involved in a project then look at the clock. I’m always surprised by how much time has passed and even more surprised by what I accomplished. “What? It’s only 9:15? And I’ve still got the whole school day to go? I can turn on a video and work out and then get back to my desk!”

Time is definitely a bizarre thing. We talk about losing it and saving it, but it always fascinates me how we’re living in it, right now. We’re living through a pandemic and a return to something that looks like our regular lives in the same moments. We’re planning for the future and reminiscing about the past and wondering if our present will look like either.

***

If it isn’t obvious already, my thoughts are scattered from the first week of school.

I’d forgotten, almost, what morning pickups and afternoon drop-offs looked like, and now we’re back to two schools so that complicates the beginning and end of every school day for me. I worry when I see the kids approach the doors of their buildings and I see teachers, also in masks, thermometers in hand, using them like permission scanners to let kids walk through the doors behind them. I restrain from hugging my children right after they come home, forcing myself to wait until they change out of their clothes for the day, which is hard because I’m a believer in the positive emotional tsunami that is hugging.

We’re back to normal, and yet we’re not.

Parenting is about contradictions, and never is that more true than in our current age. We worried about gun violence and cyberbullying. Now we worry about COVID too. Our heads turn in sharp angles when we hear someone sniffling or a person mentions a headache. We watch the news and hear the stories about the families who have lost their children to this terrible virus, and we want to hold our own a little tighter even as they squirm to be free.

So we arm them with masks and hand sanitizer and yoga mats six feet long so they space out when they sit outside for lunch. We try to ignore that winter will come and send everyone indoors and that the flu might not be the flu, or it might, or it might not. We push away the guilt of wanting the kids to go back to school so we can return to what we were doing before the pandemic hit without wondering if our kids will lean on a table with an open hand and then contract this illness.

***

Parenting is also about bravery. Of arming our kids with the tools they need to live in the world and make their mark on it. It sounds nice enough to say, an inspirational meme to pass around on social media or to tack up on your computer. Often, though, we forget the definition of bravery until we’re forced to live it: being brave means that even when you’re terrified, you go ahead anyway.

So maybe this is an exercise in bravery, this sending them back to school. Maybe getting up every day and going through their routines and the extra effort of arming themselves with protection—“Don’t forget your mask.” “I won’t.” “Did you wash your hands?” “Yes, Mamma.”—will allow them to take deep breaths and move forward. Maybe it will reinforce for them, in a way much bigger than memes can, that our most immense challenges are the ones that sear courage into our souls and hearts.

Maybe, by the time all of this is over, we’ll be fireproof towards these types of challenges.

And so it begins.

Newest Chart: Moving the needle one hash mark at a time

July 31, 2020

By Ekta R. Garg

Late last night, when the girls had brushed their teeth and were settling into their beds, I went to Twelve’s room to say good night. In the dark, she scooted to a sitting position.

“Mamma, I have an idea.”

“Okay,” I said.

“Sit down,” she said, patting her bed. “This might take a while.”

Earlier in the evening we’d watched President Obama’s eulogy at the funeral service of civil rights activist John Lewis. In his trademark style, President Obama inspired us and made us believe that we have it within us to be the change we want to see in the world. His challenge reminded us, too, that what we have right now is what we get. This life, this summer, this opportunity to be with one another.

I don’t know for sure if his speech spurred Twelve to her “idea.” Maybe it was the spirit of inclusion and togetherness that John Lewis fought so hard for every day of his life. Maybe it was, as she told us last night, just the boredom of summer break.

I suspect it was all of those things and more. Her idea boiled down to this: she was requesting that we spend one day a week unplugged. No phones; no devices; no computers. Minimal TV. Just our family spending time together.

Twelve’s assertion was that she spent part of her day bored. She didn’t know what to do with herself in her room if she wasn’t on her iPad talking to friends or reading borrowed books through our local library’s app. She thought we all spent too much time on our devices and wanted us to change that. It would take care of the boredom and bring us that much closer together.

The comment about her boredom caught me off guard at first. Before summer break, we drew up a list of academic tasks for the girls each week this summer, but we also made sure to keep the mood and pace light. When she made the comment about being bored in her room, my first instinct was to ask whether what we’d designed for her and Fourteen for “summer homework” wasn’t enough. Then, in my mind, I took a step back and thought about her tone and mood.

The pandemic has brought so much change to our lives. Much of it has been challenging and frustrating. So much of it has been confusing. But there have been a few slivers of daylight in this darkness we’re all fighting.

I’ve seen changes in Twelve; good changes. Back in the spring, almost a month into lockdown, my husband and I saw Twelve’s frustration level mount by leaps and bounds. For once, we couldn’t offer her any concrete answers about a life event. We’ve got scores of stories about people’s kindness or lack thereof, the challenges that come in school or college, or what it means to move from one job (or part of the country) to another.

But this? None of us have lived through a pandemic before. We were still trying to process what it meant for us as people. How on earth were we equipped to provide that information to others, particularly those most dependent on us?

The pandemic doesn’t care about race or creed or politics; it also doesn’t care about parenting challenges.

We decided to go back to a tried-and-tested method for Twelve. We asked her to pull out a notebook and start keeping a journal to record her feelings. Any time she felt sad or angry, she had to write about it. At the very minimum, she had to write in the journal two to three times a week.

At the time, we didn’t specify that she had to share the journal with us, but after we told her to start writing in it the notebook began appearing on our dresser with regularity. Now, as I leaf back through it, I can see the changes in glacial movements.

“Today I feel pretty average,” she wrote as the opening line to her first entry in April. She concluded the entry with, “I miss [school]. I miss hugging my friends.”

Later in the month, she used the journal to vent. When a friend of a friend requested Twelve’s email (without any of us, including Twelve, knowing about it,) the child started emailing Twelve with enthusiasm. Twelve answered her notes with minimum patience, and at the end of April, she started her entry with the title: “4th Graders: Why do they like ‘big kids?’” After spending several lines ranting about constant notifications, she ended the entry with, “Aside from being grumpy about [them,] I’m okay. Monday is a fresh start to a new week.”

She continued to write about tests and friends and missing out on playing soccer for the park district’s team. One continuous theme, however, was the boredom she felt. In all honesty, if I had to pick between a bored child and a perpetually angry one, I’d pick bored any day of the week and twice on Sunday.

In between the lines about being bored, though, Twelve’s tone started to change. She mentioned things she was excited about: her big sister’s birthday and getting to share animal facts with family members over Zoom. And the “I’m bored” comments have started to morph more into “Today was an okay day” kind of comments.

The needle has begun to move one hash mark at a time.

Last night, then, when she mentioned her new plan to combat boredom, she used the words in a completely different tone. Gone was the whining and the narrow-focused attitude that plagues tweens and teens. In its place was a matter-of-fact approach. She didn’t have anything to entertain her in her room, so she decided to find a solution.

From the time the girls were too young to understand the words, I’ve made them repeat a particular sentence after me: Smart girls find a way to fix the problem. As they got older, I forced them to parrot it back like a call-and-response—“Smart girls do what?” I’d demand, and one or both would roll their eyes and intone, with flat words, “Find a way to fix the problem,” the syllables words drawn out to indicate how utterly sick and tired they were of having to repeat the adage.

Maybe, though, all of that call-and-response, that drumming it into their heads is actually coming back to us. Maybe they’re starting to fix the problems, not just throw complaints at them. Twelve still has moments of getting worked up over something, but if she can find a way to fix problems during a pandemic then maybe—just maybe—we can say something good came out of it after all.

 

 

Latest Chart: If you do the crime…

June 14, 2019

By Ekta R. Garg

Bailiff: “All rise. The Twelfth Court of Parenthood is now in session. The honorable Judge So Ciety presiding.”

Judge: “You may be seated. Bailiff, please swear in the jury.”

Bailiff: “Please raise your right hand. Do you solemnly swear or affirm that you will read this case and render a true verdict and a fair sentence as to this defendant?”

Jury: “…”

Bailiff: “Your honor, I do believe the medium used for this case today may prevent the jury from affirming their intention.”

Judge: “That’s fine. Unless there are any negative statements expressed in the comments section below, we’ll proceed with the assumption that the jury will agree with the verdict reached. Bailiff, please announce the case for today.”

Bailiff: “The case for today is the People versus Ekta Garg. The crime alleged: bribery for keeping her children quiet about enduring a chamber music workshop in the second week of June.”

Judge: “Is the prosecution ready?”

Prosecuting attorney stands: “Ready, your honor.”

Judge: “Is the defense ready? Ms. Garg, do you not have a defense attorney? You know that under our judicial system, you’re entitled to one and that one will be provided if you cannot secure your own.”

Defendant: “I realize that, your honor, and thank you. I just think I’m able to present my own defense in this case.”

Judge: “Well, then, let the case begin with the prosecution.”

Prosecutor stands, buttons jacket: “Yes, your honor. The prosecution calls Ekta Garg, mother of Twelve and Ten.”

Defendant walks across courtroom, enters witness box.

Bailiff approaches: “Do you swear to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help you God?”

Defendant: “I do.”

Prosecutor approaches the witness stand: “Ms. Garg, did you sign your children up for a chamber music workshop earlier this year?”

Defendant: “I did, yes.”

Prosecutor: “And why did you do that?”

Defendant: “My younger daughter’s cello teacher had been asking us for a couple of years to sign the girls up for the workshop. He thought it would be a good experience for them.”

Prosecutor: “And are you in the habit of following parenting advice from people not the parents of your children?”

Defendant: “Objection.”

Judge: “…”

Defendant: “…”

Judge: “Ms. Garg, you have to explain why you’re objecting to the prosecution’s question.”

Defendant: “Oh, um…well, I didn’t like his tone.”

Judge: “You didn’t…like…his tone? That’s not even a real objection.”

Prosecutor: “It’s okay, your honor, I’ll rephrase. Ms. Garg, when making decisions for your children, do you give any weight to the advice from others?”

Defendant considers the question: “Sometimes. If I think that person has good intentions.”

Prosecutor: “Uh huh. And you thought that the cello teacher of your daughter, Ten, had good intentions when suggesting this chamber music workshop.”

Defendant: “Yes.”

Prosecutor: “Did you know when you signed your daughters up for the workshop that it was six hours long every day for five days a week?”

Defendant: “I did, yes.”

Prosecutor: “Yet you signed them up anyway. You didn’t think thirty hours of music instruction was excessive?”

Defendant shrugs: “I was going based off what Mr. S. recommended. I had no idea that they would be doing nothing but music for five of the six hours a day.”

Prosecutor: “Ms. Garg, what was your daughters’ reaction on the morning of the first day of the workshop?”

Defendant: “Twelve kept saying, ‘I don’t want to go to this camp. I don’t want to go to this camp.’ Ten said, ‘I know it’ll probably be horrible, but I’m still a little optimistic.’”

Prosecutor: “Do your daughters normally protest so vociferously when you sign them up for things?”

Defendant: “Well, no. In fact, Twelve’s the one who is usually pretty easy going. She’s more of an optimist, so she usually finds something good to say about activities and such. I was actually expecting the opposite from the two of them—that Twelve would say she was optimistic and Ten would keep whining about not going.”

Prosecutor: “And do you often put your children in situations that cause them to whine?”

Defendant: “Objection. I know this one; it’s leading the witness.”

Judge: “Sustained.”

Prosecutor: “I’ll rephrase. Ms. Garg, when you picked the girls up after the workshop, were they still protesting?”

Defendant squirms: “Well, no. Actually, they didn’t talk. At all.”

Prosecutor: “I see. Did you try to ask them about their day, see what they might be thinking?”

Defendant: “I always do. In fact, I usually do it both going to an activity and coming home. Like that morning, I’d told them that I was going to offer them a bribe if they stopped complaining—”

Prosecutor: “No further questions, your honor. This witness has just admitted her guilt in court. The prosecution rests.”

Prosecutor walks back to table, unbuttons jacket, sits down.

Defendant: “No, wait! I didn’t mean bribe as in I was going to do something illegal or make them do something illegal. It’s more of a trade. You know, the kind where you give kids something to make them happy so that they’re more likely to do it again.”

Judge: “Ms. Garg, that’s what we call a Pavlovian response. Or, as the prosecutor pointed out, a bribe.”

Defendant shakes head: “You don’t get it. My daughters are incredibly smart and well-read. If I offered them something without naming it for what it was, they’d call me out on it. I figured I’d just get ahead of the situation and tell them upfront that I was bribing them.”

Judge: “If you were so convinced that this music workshop was such a good idea, why did you need to bribe them in the first place? Why not tell them, as confident parents usually do, that they don’t have a choice? A ‘you get what you get, and you don’t throw a fit’ sort of thing?”

Defendant sighs: “Because, your honor, about ninety-five percent of the time, that’s exactly the response I give them. They pout and complain and, yes, even whine, about stuff, and my husband and I stand firm. But this music workshop was the first time they were doing anything like this, and I recognized that it was a major challenge for both girls. They’re really good kids, and I told them that, but I also wanted to show them my appreciation in actions for their willingness to endure it.”

Judge leans in, curious: “So what bribes, or trades as it were, did you offer them?”

Defendant: “Well, in the last couple of months each of the girls had asked for a specific book. My first thought was that I would get them the books for their birthdays, but then I decided it might be nice to surprise them on the first day of this workshop when they came home. And originally that was all I was going to do.”

Judge: “Then what happened?”

Defendant: “When they came home that day, they were both kind of frustrated with themselves for struggling with the music as well as tired. Playing instruments for hours at a stretch without much of a break is a huge task, especially for kids who only practice those instruments, at the most, thirty minutes a day.”

Judge: “Wait, your girls practice every day?”

Defendant nods: “Sometimes they miss a day, you know, during the school year if they’ve got a lot of homework or something. We try to space out practice time so that it doesn’t overwhelm them. I’d say during school they practice four days a week, but during the summer it has to be every single day.”

Judge: “Including the days of the workshop?”

Defendant shakes head: “We gave them the week off. When they came home, they were allowed to just take it easy. I didn’t even make them do their summer math homework.”

Prosecutor, from table: “That’s actually pretty nice.”

Judge: “You said you had only planned to use the books as a bribe. What happened to change that?”

Defendant: “On the second day when they came home, they both looked pretty dejected and Twelve complained that her shoulder hurt from holding up the violin for so many hours. I went into the pantry to get ingredients to start making dinner and saw some jellybeans there and grabbed a few. I hid them in my hands and told the girls each to pick a hand, and they saw the jellybeans and were happy. They started smiling again. That’s when I got the idea to get them little things during the week. Only to make them happy, your honor. It wasn’t for any other reason.”

Judge: “And what other items did you use to bribe your daughters, Ms. Garg?”

Defendant counting on her fingers: “Let’s see: two plushy mini pillows, Hershey’s candy bars, and lunch from Panera.”

Prosecutor, from table: “What did they get from Panera?”

Judge peering over his glasses at prosecution: “How is that relevant to the case, counselor?”

Prosecutor shrugs: “It’s almost lunchtime, and I’m hungry.”

Judge rolls eyes: “So, Ms. Garg, you contend that these weren’t bribes, because your children knew exactly what you were doing, is that correct?”

Defendant nods: “That’s correct, your honor.”

Judge: “And you were only doing it to make your children happy?”

Defendant: “Correct. Like I said, they’re pretty good kids. Once in a while, I like to give them little treats for that reason. It’s not too often, but it makes them happy. When they’re happy, I’m happy.”

Judge looking at prosecutor’s table: “Sounds like you were right to say the case is closed, counselor. In fact, I find that the case should be dropped altogether.”

Prosecutor jumps to feet: “But, your honor—”

Judge: “The only thing the defendant has done is try to take a challenging situation and make her children happy as they got through it. Can you really argue that’s a bad thing?”

Prosecutor: “But, your honor, she admitted to the crime!”

Judge shakes head: “The only crime I see here is a mother going overboard to be a good mom. I hereby declare this case dismissed.”

Judge bangs gavel: “Court is adjourned.”

Defendant: “One last thing, your honor?”

Judge: “What is it, Ms. Garg?”

Defendant: “I’m kind of hungry too. How about Panera?”

Judge to prosecutor: “Counselor?”

Prosecutor sighs: “Oh, all right. But only if I can get their mac and cheese.”

Latest Spurts: Calling the Avengers and testing perfume

May 24, 2019

By Ekta R. Garg

Enjoy these Spurts from the last month, readers!

Driving home from music one day, Twelve and I heard a commercial for a company called Scentbird that sends a customer custom-picked scents. The DJ talked about what a hefty investment a perfume is and how choosing one without knowing its scent may not go well because a person may not like what they bought.

“Isn’t why they have…?” I said.

“Testers,” Twelve added, finishing my sentence and shaking her head. “That’s what the testers are for.”

As we continued listening to the ad, we heard the company name again: “Scentbird”.

“I never thought of birds being aromatic in any way,” I said to Twelve.

“Baby chicks stink,” she said. “That doesn’t exactly bode well for their company, does it?”

***

Earlier this week as we left school, Twelve asked, “Are we going to be in town for July 31?”

“Um, no,” I said, “why?”

“Because that’s Harry’s birthday.”

I frowned a little. She didn’t have any friends in school or outside of it named Harry. Did she actually mean—

“Who?” I asked.

“Harry,” she said. “Harry Potter.”

Just as I tried to come up with a response, she added, “June 5 is Draco’s birthday.”

“That’s the one I would celebrate,” Ten piped up from the back. “I wouldn’t celebrate Harry’s. Actually, I would celebrate it but as a funeral.”

“Such a Dursley,” Twelve said with a shake of her head, referring to Harry’s horrible aunt and uncle in the books.

I guess it beats Twelve having an unusual attachment to a teenybopper celebrity. Or, you know. Draco Malfoy.

***

With school wrapping up this week, the kids were deep in the throes of signing yearbooks. Both Ten and Twelve have been signing books of one another’s friends. Ten described her thought process behind signing the yearbook of one of Twelve’s BFFs who also participates in the same youth theater group as Twelve.

“I wanted to write ‘I enjoy watching you on and off stage’ in N.’s yearbook,” Ten explained, “but I thought that would be a little creepy.”

“N., I love watching you sleep at night,” Twelve said in a sickly sweet voice. “I just come right up to your bedroom window.”

We all laughed, open-hearted and open-mouthed, with me doubling over the steering wheel as we waited at a stoplight.

“I love the new pajamas,” Twelve went on, and her sister bounced in the seat behind her in an effort to control her laughter.

“Are those new bed sheets?” I chimed in.

Just then a man in a tattered t-shirt and with green hair crossed the street in front of the car, and we laughed even harder. It’s a good thing he didn’t see us. We probably looked strange, a mother and two girls cracking up at a red light.

***

Since beginning work in earnest on my novel at the beginning of my month, I’ve talked more about it with the kids. I first shared the story idea with them last year on a family trip to Niagara Falls. In the last year, as I’ve gained more clarity about the book, I’ve talked about it in more concrete terms and ideas with the girls; they in turn have asked questions and offered their own suggestions for the story.

Not all of the ideas are viable.

Ten asked me about the main climax, and I explained a little about the fictional kingdom of Linden that I’ve created and the fight between the king and his enemy.

“You should just have one of the Avengers come in and flatten the whole kingdom,” she said.

“But…but what about the good guys?” I said. “We don’t want to kill everybody.”

“Oh, it’s fine,” Ten said with a wave of her hand. “You don’t need them. The Avengers. That’s what you need.”

I sputtered through the beginning of an explanation about not being able to publish unsolicited fan fiction, but she ignored me.

Later, as Twelve asked me whether I’d solved a particular story problem, Ten inserted herself (in this case literally by sticking her head between her sister and me) and asked, “Is this going to get published all over the world?”

“Um, I hope so,” I said.

“Is it going to sell a million copies?”

“I hope so.”

“Are you going to have a bunch of authors saying good stuff about it on the cover?”

“Um, I hope so.”

She considered my answers. “All righty then.”

Maybe it’s as simple as that.

All righty then.

Newest Spurts: Recovering (or not) from grief and moving out (or not) for college

April 26, 2019

By Ekta R. Garg

Enjoy these Spurts from the last month, readers!

During a recent weekend, as I moved around in the kitchen to make lunch, I went between the stove and the kitchen counter several times. Ten meandered into the traffic pattern I’d established. Because this child of mine is just a touch accident-prone, I try to steer clear of her when there’s hot liquid or over-sized pans involved.

“Move,” I said as she crossed my path yet again. “Out.”

She moseyed to the end of the counter and watched with an impish grin as I came to put dishes down.

“But, Mamma,” she said, innocence personified, “I can’t do that until college.”

It took me a moment to understand what she meant, and when I did I realized I didn’t have a good enough response.

These kids, I tell you. They’re getting the better of me every single week.

***

On Monday Ten came downstairs humming snatches of the song Don’t Stop Believing by the 1980s group Journey.

“What made you think of that song?” I asked her as I made sandwiches for lunches.

“It’s my go-to song when I have no other song in my head,” she said.

Oh. I didn’t know we were supposed to have certain songs for those times. You know, when we don’t have other songs on a loop in our brains.

***

A few weeks ago as I drove Ten to a friend’s house, we talked about people living to old age.

“Bade Papa was 97 when he died,” I said about my maternal grandfather who just passed away in November; I almost managed to get through the sentence without a hitch.

My daughter sat in silence for a beat.

“How are you doing with all that?” she asked.

“With what?”

“You know, the fact that he…died. Are you better?”

I suppressed a sigh. “I don’t think it’s necessarily something you get better from. Grief is more like something you learn to live with over time. You just get used to it being a part of your life, and you learn to accept every day that that person isn’t there anymore.”

“I know how that feels,” she said evenly.

I knew she was thinking about her beloved third grade teacher who moved away at the end of that school year. The teacher left because of an incredible job opportunity for her husband, but Ten treated the entire situation almost as if it were a bigger finality. And though she’s adjusted to the idea that Mrs. B. no longer lives in town, she still misses her with a ferocity that she expresses at the most unexpected times. I’m glad she’s learning to manage her feelings better, but I still hate that she had to endure saying goodbye to someone she loves.

***

In recent weeks, Ten’s love-hate relationship with her cello has mellowed out to something between the two extremes. Maybe it’s because she spends all of her highest and lowest emotions on the soccer field and comes home more able to look at life even-keeled. Maybe she’s actually starting to admit that she likes the cello more than she ever let on. (I’m kind of hoping for the latter, although I realize the former is the likelier scenario.)

Earlier today when I picked up the kids from school, we pulled out of the parking lot and headed in the director of the cello teacher’s studio. The kids chatted about what they’d done in school. Ten had a mini field trip where she learned survival techniques (the “light-a-fire-from-scratch/use-a-compass-to-figure-out-where-you’re-going” kind.) Twelve spent part of the day walking the school grounds with her classmates as they picked up stray trash.

“I think I’m deaf in one ear, it was so windy today,” she said, tugging on her earlobe a bit.

I agreed. Temperatures here in Central Illinois have increased to a lovely spring-like mid-60s, but when the wind speeds hit 30 mph, even that 65-degree weather can feel chilly. Not to mention the difficulty in performing simple tasks, like keeping a hat on your head or even walking down the street.

“You know, I’m kind of looking forward to the cello recital tomorrow,” Ten said out of the blue.

I did a double-take and sneaked a glance to my right at Twelve; she looked just as startled.

“That’s good,” I said in a mild tone. “What’s making you look forward to it?”

She mentioned the name of a piece that some of the kids would be playing in a group, and I voiced some inconsequential agreement.

“I definitely think I’m going deaf in one ear now,” Twelve murmured.

Neither of us said anything more to Ten about it. We both know that to make a “big deal” about any of her thoughts will only incite a defensive response. But it’s nice, like I said, to know that she’s slowly coming around to the cello. A good life, I believe, includes a variety of experiences, and this could be part of Ten’s mix.

Latest Spurts: Total bias and tricking the Starbucks baristas

March 22, 2019

By Ekta R. Garg

Enjoy these Spurts from the last couple of weeks, readers!

The funny instances of Starbucks baristas misspelling and mispronouncing names have been well documented on social media. When Twelve and her classmates went on a field trip recently, they had some free time after lunch and went into Starbucks. Twelve and her friends thought it would be fun to give the baristas fake names, and she gave the name “Sunny.”

“They spelled it with a Y instead of an I, but that’s okay,” she told us afterward in describing the encounter.

“It was a fake name!” I exclaimed. “What does it matter how they spell it?”

She looked at me in mock horror. “It matters!”

I just shook my head.

“I bet at Starbucks they ask people to spell stuff, and if they get it right, Starbucks is like, ‘Um, no,’” she replied. “I could work at Starbucks, but my spelling is too good.”

As a former spelling bee champ, I have to say that I don’t think spelling well is ever a bad thing.

***

Every summer the kids attend a variety of half-day camps. They’ve done everything from a Harry Potter-themed camp to one that allows them to use the public transportation in our town to explore our little city. The whole purpose of enrolling the kids in these activities is to expose them to different ideas and topics, help them meet new friends, and keep them out of one another’s hair.

The fact that they stay out of my hair for half a day is just a perk.

Of course, all this sounds great in theory. What it amounts to in reality is me negotiating what camps the kids should and can do every summer. They enjoy the activities their school offers and often insist they just want to stick with school stuff. We’re fortunate to live in a town that offers a myriad of options. With the university here, the choices for older kids get really interesting. Then there’s other schools, the YMCA, and even the park district.

This year, we wanted the kids to try something in addition to a school camp; of course, a discussion ensued on this issue.

My husband and I spent about 15 minutes talking to the girls about the value and virtue of trying new things. We reminded them that they were privileged to have all these options; neither of us had ever gotten to explore in this way. They could make new friends and stretch their current skills.

When we all came to an agreement about what camps they would do, Twelve leaned toward me.

“That was a looong talk,” she said.

“Oh, sweetie, guess what?” I said. “They only get longer as you get older.”

She inhaled long and deep; maybe the threat of long talks will be enough to keep her from doing stuff that would require them in the future.

***

Every year for Valentine’s Day, I get the girls a little gift. I started doing this several years ago in an active bid to make the day special for them. I also thought it would be nice for us to share the day; in a few years, they’ll be out of the house but I want them to have a non-birthday/non-Christmas holiday to anticipate with delight.

This year, since both girls needed new bathrobes, I bought them each one. I was quite proud of the fact that I found both of them on clearance and that Twelve’s came in a plushy lavender color (and purple is her favorite color, so double win there.) Ten’s was red, a leftover from the Christmas season, so it has white stars on it.

It also has a hood with bear ears.

Ever since receiving the bathrobe, she’s “transformed” into a bear. Or some human-animal hybrid version. So our bear doesn’t hibernate, but she does speak in some weird gibberish that’s supposed to be bear language.

It doesn’t help that Twelve has gotten into the act wholeheartedly. She’s begun addressing Ten exclusively as Bear. Many of the silly little impromptu games they create involve Bear doing something. Twelve will even climb up the stairs halfway and pat her legs, the same way you’d do for a pet.

“Come on, Bear!” she calls to Ten. “Come on!”

Ten then proceeds to climb up the stairs bear-style: on all fours.

Sometimes, though, Twelve’s tween self comes through; this happened last week when she accused me of being responsible for “creating” the bear.

“It’s all your fault,” she said. “You bought her the bear suit.”

“No, I bought her a bathrobe,” I said. “You encouraged her by all the stuff you do. You’ve practically turned into her bear trainer!”

Twelve shook her head. “Nope. You bought the bear suit. It’s your fault.”

But, really, can it be my fault after all?

***

Twelve’s theater group has been working hard on a Beatles medley that will soon go “on tour” around our town. In addition to the medley, though, they’re also going to play some theater games for the entertainment of the audience. Because of the need to think on their feet, the theater director suggested the kids come and take part in a family-friendly improv night in their little theater. They go on right before a small improv group that graciously gave up their earlier start time so the kids could get some more improv practice in. At the end of their improv sessions, the adult improv actors get on stage and do a few fun games with the kids.

By the time their semester ends, the kids will have had four opportunities to work with the adult improv actors. Because of her dance commitments, Twelve couldn’t attend the first two improv nights. Last week, however, she finally got her chance.

We were thoroughly entertained by Twelve and the other child actors. Improv is a tough skill to master; it requires coming up with a response and then enacting it convincingly in performance mode, all within a matter of seconds. While all the kids we watched that night have done excellent jobs in the various plays and other rehearsed performances, it became obvious as their hour-long show progressed that some of the kids were much better at improv than others.

When we came home that night, I leaned in toward Twelve in conspiratorial fashion.

“Can I tell you a secret?” I said.

“What?” she asked as she pulled off her boots in the mudroom.

“I thought you were the best one on stage.”

She grinned at me. “You have to say that.”

“Well, maybe, but I also really believe it.”

She shook her head good-naturedly at my bias, but, hey, what can I say? I am biased. I’ve got a budding improv star right under my own roof.

Latest Chart: To worry or…that’s it

March 8, 2019

By Ekta R. Garg

Last week just before Twelve and Ten got out of the car in the morning for school, I reminded them to be careful on the sidewalk. We’d had overnight subzero temperatures for several days followed by a little bit of melting during the daylight hours. That meant slick walkways.

“Be careful!” I called again as Twelve opened the door.

“Don’t worry, Mamma,” Ten said, scooting from her spot behind me to the door on her sister’s side.

“I’m your mom, it’s my job to worry,” I replied.

“I know,” she said, “but don’t worry so much.”

I smiled and waved, but I couldn’t help shaking my head on the way home. Not worry so much? That’s like asking a person not to breathe. I’m a parent, after all. Worrying comes as naturally as coordinating playdates.

Don’t worry. (Imagine me scoffing.) Sure. Easy enough for her to say.

From the moment we give birth to our children, mothers worry. No one warns us ahead of time, by the way, that we’ll feel this way. We hear all the adages about how quickly children grow up, we get advice on diaper rash creams or what pediatrician knows how to be warm and fuzzy. But no one tells us, “When you have that child, you’re signing up for a lifetime of worry.”

Of course I worry. Those of you readers who are also parents know what I’m talking about. We can turn worrying into an art form if we want.

When they were little, I worried about (seemingly) little things. When I dropped Twelve off at preschool for the first time, I worried about whether she’d spend the day crying. I also worried about what it meant if she didn’t miss me at all.

When, at the age of 3 months old, Ten got a terrible cold, I worried about her being able to breathe. I worried about the breathing thing even when she was well; admittedly, one of the main reasons I insisted her crib stay in our room for so long was because I’d heard somewhere that doing so could possibly prevent SIDS.

As they’ve gotten older, I’ve started worrying about other things. Early this morning, Twelve left with all the other middle schoolers to go to Chicago for a day-long field trip. While I didn’t, by any means, spend the day wringing my hands, a tiny part of me in the back of my brain worried about the safety of the bus, of the safety of the kids as they attended a play and then later went for lunch in groups.

After school today, Ten had her weekly cello lesson. My husband suggested I drop her off and he’d pick her up and bring her home. As I watched Ten get out of the car and walk into her teacher’s music studio, I worried about what might happen if a terrible person tried to snatch her. This, despite the fact that if I drop the kids off anywhere and will be leaving them (and not sitting and waiting for them to finish,) I always watch them walk inside and wait for the door to shut behind them before I drive away.

I’m a writer; I guess you could say I have an overactive imagination.

I worry about their futures. When Ten complains about taking cello lessons, I worry that she’ll grow up nurturing a bit of resentment against us for forcing her to stick with it. Then I worry that if we cave and let her quit, she’ll learn to manipulate a situation in her favor. I worry she won’t learn how to follow through, that she’ll bounce from one hobby to another, from one job to another, that she’ll never commit to anything.

Did I mention my brain kicks into overload sometimes?

I know some of these worries are silly. Some people say worrying is a way for a Type A personality to complain that s/he can’t control a situation. I think it’s about concern that the girls grow up happy, healthy, well-adjusted, confident young women.

Oh, yeah. They’re girls who will grow up to be women. Another thing to worry about. Being a woman. Do I really need to list all the worries I associate with that?

Like most parents, I’ve learned to wrestle my worry into manageable blocks of time. So on that morning, when Ten told me not to worry about her or her sister slipping and falling a head or breaking a bone on the ice, I took a moment on the way home to acknowledge my concern and then put it aside. The girls aren’t toddlers; they don’t rush headlong into a building without regard for the ground beneath them.

It helped that I drop them off about 15 feet from the front door of the school. And that the school is only a mile away from our house. And that I work from home, so if anything happens to either of the kids I can drop everything and run to them.

Worry? Who, me? Eh, not so much. Or too much. Or…something.