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.

Latest Spurts: Making crumbs a fashion statement and being old (or not; we don’t know)

February 15, 2019

By Ekta R. Garg

Enjoy these Spurts from the last few weeks, readers!

Last week as we drove to the kids’ art lesson, Ten started describing a book she’s reading at school in which a character experiences a strange phenomenon: the person hears something and sees colors.

“What is that called?” she says. “It starts with an ‘a’.”

“Synesthesia?” Twelve said after thinking about it a moment.

“Yeah, that’s it,” Ten said. She laughed. “I almost said anesthesia.”

“Um, no, that’s not it,” Twelve said. “That ends with an ‘a’.”

The girls and I shared a giggle.

“Oh, wait,” I said in the middle of our laughter, “we’ve solved the mystery! Now we know what Sleeping Beauty was suffering from!”

“Breaking news!” Ten said. “Sleeping Beauty suffered from long-term anesthesia!”

***

We arrived at art a little early, so we sat in the car outside the art teacher’s studio chatting. Doing this also gives the kids a chance to finish their after-school snacks. Sometimes we read aloud. Occasionally the silliness continues.

When Twelve finished her snack, I glanced at the clock and turned back toward the kids.

“All right, time to head out,” I said. Then I saw Twelve’s face.

“You’ve got crumbs in the corner of your mouth,” I told her.

She paused for a moment to lick the crumbs off. Then she looked at me, tilted her head in mock condescension, and did her best Valley Girl voice.

“Um, it’s a look,” she said. She even added a prissy scoff. A minute later my tween grinned at me, and I had to laugh back.

Yeah, crumbs on the face; sure, that’s a look.

***

This week the middle school is holding its spring dance (I know, it’s a little early to be labeling an event “spring,” but maybe it’s in a bid to be optimistic.) In Twelve and Ten’s school, the eighth graders plan the event—they pick the theme and put together the playlist for the evening. They also decide on the snacks and facilitate the entire dance from start to finish.

At the beginning of last week, the theme of the dance hadn’t been revealed yet so Twelve and Ten came up with their own ideas. They bandied about a few themes. Then Ten piped up with her favorite.

“They should make the theme anti-gravity!” Ten said.

A long pause filled the car.

“How would you even do an anti-gravity theme?” I asked.

“Cannons,” Twelve replied, quick on the uptake.

“Wait…what?”

“You shoot people out of cannons and hope for the best,” she said. “Each of them gets one suction cup, so they just make the most of it when we shoot them against the wall.”

“That’s…technically, that’s not anti-gravity.”

“It’s as close as we can get on Earth,” the girls reassured me.

I’m still trying to figure that one out.

***

Our current read-aloud book is the fifth volume in the Land of Stories series by Chris Colfer. Yesterday as we drove home, Twelve read a scene in which twins Alex and Connor argue. The sister and brother find themselves tied up back to back on a pirate ship, and Alex blames Connor for their predicament. At the end of their bickering, according to the narrative, each twin tries to pretend that the other isn’t there by giving one another the silent treatment.

“What, really?” Twelve asked, interrupting herself. “They’re, like, 15.”

She started reading again, but this time I interrupted her.

“When you’re 15, and you’re not speaking to your sister over something silly, I’ll remind you of this moment,” she said.

“Well, by that time I would have released her back into the wild anyway,” Twelve quipped.

I guess that’s one way of solving a problem.

***

The school administrators and kindergarten through fifth grade students are getting ready for their big musical production a couple of months from now. Ten isn’t overly thrilled with the idea of a show in general. While she enjoys being part of a group, she doesn’t necessarily enjoy performing.

Also, the fact that there’s a new music teacher this year and that Ten misses her old music teacher has a lot to do with this.

Last night as we talked at dinner, she described the progress of the show.

“We’re doing these songs from a show by, um, Gilbert and…”

She paused for a moment to think of the other name, which I already knew.

“Sullivan,” I said. “Of course.”

“Gilbert and Sullivan?” she repeated. “That’s right. No one’s ever heard of them.”

“I’ve heard of them,” I said.

“You have? How?”

“Because they’re Gilbert and Sullivan,” I said, a little mystified as to how to explain myself further.

“Well, no one else besides you has heard of them,” she said.

“No, I’m sure the other parents have heard of them,” I replied with a smile.

“Oh, so we’re doing oldies music,” Ten said with a hint of resignation.

“It’s not oldies music!” I said, mildly indignant. “We just celebrated my birthday. I’m forty, not a hundred and forty.”

She shrugged and went back to her dinner plate, nonplussed about her indirect comment on my age.

This morning, of course, I had to check, so I Googled Gilbert and Sullivan and the time when their collaboration was at its peak. Wouldn’t you know it, had I been 140, I would have fallen smack in the middle of the years of their partnership. I wonder what that says about the fact that I’ve heard them. :>

 

 

Latest Chart: All about growing up

February 8, 2019

By Ekta R. Garg

I’ve entered a whole new decade: 40. I think maybe, just maybe, I might be growing up. I know for a fact my girls are. In the last week, they’ve reminded me that time marches on for everyone.

One night as I went up to say good night, Ten asked me in the dark for the umpteenth time when her aunt (my sister) was going to get married.

“Hopefully soon,” I told her, kissing her on the head.

“I hope I marry a good man,” she said, her voice growing a little sleepy in the dark.

“I think you will,” I said.

“How do you know?”

“Because you’ve got a good heart, and you’re sweet and kind to people.”

She paused.

“I don’t think I want to have an arranged marriage.”

Hmm. This was new. Ten has mentioned marriage before—most notably in declaring to the family that she married her best friend’s dog—but never before has she announced a preference for how she might meet her future husband.

Of course, it was bedtime.

“Well, I don’t think you need to worry about it right now,” I told her. “You’ve got a long time before you have to think about it.”

She acquiesced pretty easily and burrowed deeper under her blanket.

In all honesty I don’t know what’s making her think of the topic of marriage these days. No doubt, though, that it’s on her mind. Two nights ago, after dinner, she stood up from her chair with a pronouncement.

“I’m going to marry a chef, and he’s going to make good food for me.”

I’m pretty sure she wasn’t commenting on the meal that night. The remark landed right in the middle of the countertop without any introduction or explanation. That’s Ten, though. I imagine the thoughts in her brain to be like those clouds streaming across the sky on a bright summer day. Blink, and they slip past before you realize it.

It’s their direction that intrigues me now. As I said, more and more it’s starting to sound like she’s doing some growing up. But she’s not the only one.

Twelve spent about a week-and-a-half in special sessions with the rest of the middle schoolers on topics related to relationships, the body, and (go ahead, cringe a little) reproductive health. Teachers conducted some sessions with the kids divided by genders and some with all the kids together. We received regular communication from the school about the nature of the assemblies and the gentle reminder to encourage our kids to talk to us.

Before either my husband or I could broach any subjects with Twelve, though, she came to us. The science teacher gave the students a list of questions and allowed the kids to pick a handful. Then they had to come home and interview parents using those questions.

“Mamma, I need to do my parent interview,” Twelve said more than once.

Before she could ask us her questions, though, we had to read a short packet of information. It offered suggestions on how to become “askable” parents—in other words, parents who kids would feel comfortable approaching about all sorts of amazingly embarrassing topics. The suggestions ranged from practicing saying body parts until we could say them without batting an eye to choosing the battles we really wanted to fight with our tweens.

(I wanted to ask whether doing the parent interview fell under the category of “choose your battles,” like choosing whether we even had to do it, but I didn’t think that applied.)

After we both read the information sheets, my husband and I followed Twelve to her bedroom earlier this week and sat down to listen to her questions. Thankfully, they weren’t too bad. They ran along the lines of things like, “When you were growing up, was the topic of reproductive health something you talked about with your parents or was it taboo?” and even as generic as, “What did you worry about when you were my age?”

My husband kept the tone of the talk light by joking around, teasing Twelve when she allegedly gave me more time to talk than him and “accusing” me of answering for him. In between his jibes, though, we answered Twelve’s questions. We talked about how parents in India took a much more conservative approach to the topics of the body and relationships and how talking about them in great detail amounted to a taboo. We also answered truthfully about how neither of us experimented with anything, both of us being good kids who followed the rules even into college when our parents couldn’t monitor our every move.

I took the opportunity to let Twelve know that she could come to me any time about anything.

“And if you don’t feel like talking face to face, you can always write me a note and leave it on my desk or my nightstand,” I said. “I can write back to you or come talk to you, whatever you want.”

“You can come to me too,” my husband added, “but don’t leave any notes on my nightstand. I don’t like clutter.”

Twelve rolled her eyes, but I could see a faint smile in her face too. We’d gotten through the interview, and no one had died of embarrassment or even been overly uncomfortable. In fact, Twelve’s ease with the questions and how she asked them amazed me.

I’m a 40-year-old woman, and I don’t know if I possess that kind of poise yet. But I guess that’s why I say I think I’m growing up. When I get there, I’ll be sure to let everyone—especially the kids—know.

Latest Spurts: Tubble sprots and the 90 percent

January 25, 2019

By Ekta R. Garg

Enjoy these Spurts from the last two weeks, readers!

Recently Ten outgrew her warm slippers. When we came back from Christmas break, I went on a small hunt to find her new ones. It took three trips to stores to find the right size, but I finally found a pair of fuzzy slippers that had one eye each on the tops of the feet. One eye was open; the other was shut in a wink.

On the day I found the slippers, I showed them to Ten after school.

“Wow, [Ten], those are really cute,” Twelve said.

Ten jumped on me with a bear hug. I caught Twelve’s eye over her sister’s head. Twelve’s expression had changed to one of mock terror.

“What did you do?” she mouthed.

What, like a pair of eyes looking up at you from a person’s feet isn’t cute?

***

Next week I turn 40. I’m still trying to process what that means, on a variety of levels. The Write Edge turns 9, and I’m excited about that. As far as my own birthday…again, still processing.

It’s a big birthday, and I’ve been aware for a while that plans are afoot to celebrate it. One day as I sat in my studio, I heard the opening notes of Michael Jackson’s Smooth Criminal on the cello. I grinned, because Smooth Criminal is one of my favorites by him.

Of course the birthday radar went up right away, but I didn’t want to embarrass Ten. I decided to take a different tack with her. I had no doubt she was excited to play the song, but I also figured out, from listening, that she was struggling with it a little bit.

Last week as we drove to her cello lesson, I suggested she talk to her teacher, Mr. S., about the harder parts.

“No, it’s fine,” she said. I could practically hear the confession in her tone about why she’d started practicing the song out of the blue. I didn’t press her.

On the way home, however, she said, “Okay, I can’t take it anymore.”

“What’s that?” I asked.

“Act surprised,” she said.

“I will,” I replied. “What are you talking about?”

“Di-Di and I are playing Smooth Criminal as a duet for your birthday,” she said, “but you’re not supposed to know.”

My smile, which she couldn’t see from behind me, came back.

“Act surprised,” she reminded me.

“Don’t worry, I will,” I promised.

“This is why I don’t like secrets and I don’t like surprises,” she said with resignation.

“I know. But now I can be excited for the song.”

And I am. I’ve listened to the girls practice together all week, and I can’t wait to hear the final product. I bet even MJ would have approved.

***

One day I went into Twelve’s room as they belted out the last few notes of the song during their practice session. I nodded my head and complimented them on their progress.

“Why don’t you go ahead and pack up your instruments and then just read the music together so you can look through the tubble sprots, uh, trouble spots,” I said.

Twelve giggled. She stood up and went right into theater mode.

“We’re going to make a speech before we play that night and say, ‘Ladies and gentlemen, we went through many tubble sprots with this song.’”

Ten laughed.

“Tubble sprots?” she repeated.

“Colored dots?” I said.

“Yes,” Twelve went on, continuing with her mock speech, “we went through many colored dots with this song.”

Colored dots, trouble spots, same difference.

***

Last night after dinner, Ten showed me the latest picture dragon picture she’s drawn. I complimented her on the piece. Twelve asked to see it next.

The picture shows a large red dragon in the middle of the page curled up with its tail coming around it in a circle. Below that are about eight or ten smaller dragons in similar positions, although Ten had colored all of them in different colors and given them different individual characteristics.

“I can name all of the classes of dragons on there,” Twelve announced.

“Really?” her sister challenged.

“Sure,” Twelve said, amusement lacing her voice at her sister’s obsession with dragons. “There’s striker class, tracker class, um…English class.”

Ten rolled her eyes and took the picture away from Twelve in a huff. She put the picture in her backpack and marched upstairs to get ready for bed. Twelve stifled a laugh.

“Is it really worth it to incite your sister’s rage?” I asked it.

“Ninety percent of the time, it’s hilarious,” she replied. “The other ten percent it’s annoying because she gets frustrated about little things. But, yeah, the other ninety percent? Hilarious.”

Glad to see she’s got such a good sense of humor about it all.