Oct 24, 2014

Nine Coaches Waiting by Mary Stewart

If you want me to read a book, just tell me it's a cross between Jane Eyre and Rebecca. Suspense? Mystery? Romance? Gothic ambiance? Sign me up. Please.

When Linda Martin arrives at the Château Valmy, she is greeted with austere, but kind, hospitality. She is to be the new governess to Philippe de Valmy, a nine-year-old boy who recently lost his parents in a tragic accident. He is the heir to the Château Valmy, but his Uncle Léon and Aunt Heloise have long been the caretakers of the estate. Soon after her arrival, strange things begin happening--a shot in the woods, a crumbling balustrade--and Linda is determined to protect her charge at any cost, all while wondering where the handsome Raoul fits in this dark plot. 

I mentioned this book on my reading list for October. At the time, I hadn't read it yet, so I didn't know for sure if it would be a good book for fall (and incidentally, I decided to save Greenglass House, also on the list, because after I picked it up, there just seemed to be too much of winter and the holidays in it to suit my reading mood). But now that I've finished it, let me tell you that if you like your fall reading flavored with suspense and danger (oh yeah, and elegant estates as well), then this book is perfect for the season (even though it's actually set in the spring).
I'd never read anything by Mary Stewart before (although one of Mike's cousins had recommended her to me on several different occasions), and now I'm wishing I didn't already have a half dozen other books checked out from the library waiting to be read because I would love to go out right this minute and pick up The Crystal Cave or The Moonspinners. I found her writing really engaging (my one complaint was that she tended to bump up against the superlative quite a bit, which made every event, even the more mild ones, feel intense).

One of my favorite descriptions was of Monsieur Florimond, a famous designer who the family knows well: "He wore his conventional, superbly cut clothes with all the delicate care one might accord to an old beach towel. His pockets bulged comfortably in every direction, and there was a cigar ash on his lapel. He was clutching what looked like a folio-society reprint in one large hand, and gestured with it lavishly to underscore some story he was telling Madame de Valmy." Florimond was probably my favorite of the secondary characters.

I thought about writing this whole review without alluding to important details to the plot, but I couldn't do it. So if you plan on reading this book, read no further! I repeat, stop. reading. now. Go to the library and get the book instead.
I've thought a lot about the genre of suspense since finishing this book and what makes a novel suspenseful. Obviously the situation and setting both contribute. Midway through the book, you know without a doubt there's a plot against Philippe for his life; just the idea that someone wants a little nine-year-old boy dead instantly ramps up the terror.

But it's more than that. In this particular book, once everything is finally revealed and settled out, the reader discovers (along with Linda) that for most of the day, Philippe wasn't in nearly as much immediate danger as Linda suspected. After I finished, I felt a teensy bit let down, and it took me a minute to realize it was because I felt a little annoyed about my pounding heart over nothing. (Okay, not nothing. The danger and evil were real, just not as lurking-around-every-corner as I was led to believe.)

But then (sorry to drag you along through my whole thought process), I thought, But Linda didn't know. She had to go with her gut instinct, and honestly, even though the level of danger all but disappeared by mid-morning, if she hadn't stolen away with Philippe in the middle of the night, real tragedy might have occurred. Because the story's being told from Linda's point of view, her fear becomes the reader's fear. I only had as much knowledge as she did, and I was scared right along with her. 

Speaking of fear, I loved this line: "I suppose a rabbit stays still while death stalks it just because it is hoping against hope that this is not death."

So I came to the conclusion that the actual risk means little in a suspense novel. It's all about how the characters perceive their own safety and security because if they feel threatened, then the reader will too (although, in this case, I definitely think there were a few blatant implications made to lead the reader astray).

Written in the 1950's, Nine Coaches Waiting also provides an interesting commentary on the times. Linda Martin herself is a strong female lead who risks her own security to provide safety for a little boy. She stands up for herself and doesn't hesitate to break the rules. At one point, after promising Berthe that she won't go to the police, she says, "I didn't let the promise Berthe had blackmailed from me weigh with me for a second; being a woman, I put common sense in front of an illusory 'honor,' and I'd have broken a thousand promises without a qualm if by doing so I could save Philippe."

But the other female characters are not so bold. Madame de Valmy is on the fringes of a complete mental collapse by the end of the book because she has been manipulated and used by her husband. And it appears that even Linda does not have the highest regard for the other members of her sex because when William Blake asks her who Berthe is, she says:"Oh, nobody. Just one of the nobodies who get hurt the most when wicked men start to carve life up to suit themselves."

Before I wrap this up, I just have to write a few words about Raoul de Valmy. I honestly wanted to like William Blake more than him. If it were me, I know I'd rather have kindhearted William than passionate Raoul. But try as I might, I couldn't actually make myself cheer for William. Raoul (tall, dark, and handsome) was so stereotypical, I begged myself to dislike him, but I couldn't. Against my better judgement, I was very happy with the way things ended up. Not practical, but very romantic.

While Nine Coaches Waiting didn't trump Jane Eyre or Rebecca, it was a delicious mix of suspense and romance, and I thoroughly enjoyed every minute of it.

Oct 22, 2014

Review x 2: The Trouble With Magic and Hank the Cowdog

The boys and I recently finished a couple of books. They weren't standout stories by any means, but I wanted to write about them anyway.

1. The Trouble With Magic by Ruth Chew
Erica at What Do We Do All Day recently posted a list of 12+ Books for Kids Not Ready for Harry Potter. She included Ruth Chew's books on the list, and they looked like something my kids would like, so I checked out The Trouble with Magic. On further investigation, I realized that I'd actually read several of her books when I was a kid (Summer Magic and The Witch at the Window among them). Many of them have recently been re-released with new covers, which is why I didn't recognize them right off.

This particular story is about two siblings (Barbara and Rick) whose parents are conveniently away the same weekend they accidentally release a wizard from a bottle (yes, a wizard--not a genie). The wizard (named Harrison Peabody) uses his umbrella to perform magic, which means he can only do it when it's raining. Needless to say, this results in a lot of trouble because the weather can be a little unpredictable.

Personally, I didn't love this book. For one thing, Harrison Peabody creeped me out--not because he was actually creepy but because, fantasy or not, I didn't like it that two children were being asked to hide and care for an adult.

For another, the story had no depth. The children met the wizard, had a few mishaps with magic, fixed what they could, and then Harry went off to traumatize other children left. As far as chapter books go, it is on the young end, which might be why it felt a little bland, but I've read enough books at that level to know that it's not impossible to write a good story for the nine and under crowd. So yeah, a little disappointing.

That said, my kids liked it quite a bit (especially the parts with George, the sea monster), and I didn't hate it so much that I wouldn't read another one by Ruth Chew. (And I definitely didn't hate it so much that I won't urge my kids to read the rest of her books on their own.)

2. The Original Adventures of Hank the Cowdog by John R. Erickson
I have this distinct memory of myself as an eight-year-old, wrapped up in my pink quillow (that's a quilt that can turn into a pillow, for those of you who were never privileged to own one), sitting on top of the heater vent in the little corner created between the couch and the loveseat, (a habit I acquired young) and reading, Hank the Cowdog. It's a sweet, happy memory--one that I longed to recreate for my kids.

And so I checked out Hank the Cowdog.

. . . I should have stuck with pink quillows and heater vents and left Hank out of it.

In short, Hank is a cowdog and the Head of Ranch Security. One morning, he wakes up to find there's been a murder overnight: a chicken is dead, and he's determined to find out who did it. 

Why didn't I like it? Let me count the ways:
  1. Hank is rude. ("Idiot," "Stupid," and "Dumb" are among his favorite insults.)
  2. Hank has a potty mouth. (I talked about how much I dislike this type of talking in this review. There was a lot of editing on my end, yes there was.)
  3. It is violent. (There is an epic fight at the end, and I was disturbed by how much they said, "I'm going to kill you" and "You're going to die" and talked about tearing out each other's throats. I'm grateful it didn't give my children nightmares.)
  4. They get drunk and engage in other obnoxious and disreputable habits. All the characters are all-around, horrible role models. 
  5. When it wasn't any of the above, it was super cheesy with lots of slap-stick humor and idioms that went right over my kids' heads.
So you're probably wondering why I read the whole thing.

Because my kids loved it. So embarrassing to admit, but it's true. I begged them to let me stop reading it, but they were so excited to find out what happened. In between readings, they talked about it: "Remember when Hank and Drover were teasing Bruno, and his owner came out of the store, and they laid down and pretended they were asleep? Wasn't that so funny?" And the night we finished it, Aaron said to me, "Wasn't that such a good book?" I was completely honest and told him I didn't like it at all, but I was glad he enjoyed it.

The only thing I liked about the book (and it's really taking a lot of effort on my part to come up with anything) was the voice I used for Missy the coyote. I really nailed it, if I do say so myself.

What do you think? Am I being too harsh on poor Hank? Which books have you muscled your way through because your kids liked them?

Oct 20, 2014

I Just Got a Whole Lot Smarter

Last week I left the Dark Ages.

I bought a smartphone.

I went from this:

to this:

Even though I didn't get an iPhone 6, it was still quite the major upgrade, as you can see.

For years, I prided myself on not needing a smartphone. In fact, as recently as six months ago, my little phone with its pull-out keyboard and horrible camera and no internet capabilities suited me just fine.

When I read Tsh Oxenreider's thoughts from Notes From a Blue Bike, they rang true for me: "I was a late adapter to the smartphone phenomenon [She got her first one in October 2012. What does that make me two years later?]; I found them a colossal waste of money and brain cells. People honestly need to carry around their computers in their pants? I can live without that. I'm civilized."

My thoughts exactly.

But then little things started to bug me: I'd be at the zoo with my kids, and I couldn't take a picture of them next to the lions. Mike and I would be out on a date, and we couldn't look up restaurant ratings. I'd go to send a text to someone and be reminded again that my inbox was 98 percent full, even though I had just cleaned it out two weeks before.

What's more, it began to be a social inconvenience. Friends would text me a picture, and my phone couldn't receive it because it was too big. I'd be out shopping with someone and couldn't pull up an address or a coupon. I'd be scheduling a play date but couldn't look at my calendar to see if we were free on Monday afternoon. (Not to mention that people felt a little awkward when I pulled out my dinosaur so I could add them as a contact . . . except for my little five-year-old piano student who saw my phone laying on the piano one day and said, "That is the coolest phone I've ever seen!" in the same way you might say, "That is the coolest typewriter I've ever seen.")

This holding out until the last possible moment is nothing new for me. I was a late arrival to the cell phone party. My freshman year of college, I called my parents every few days from my dorm phone with a calling card. When I finally got a phone, I can remember rationing my minutes, finding out which service all my friends used, and limiting my calls until after 9:00 at night (when minutes were free). Pretty soon after that, I was the only one not texting. Even though my phone could receive texts, I never opened them because extra fees would be charged if I did. I had to constantly remind people, "I don't open texts. Please call instead." But eventually, the inconvenience grew to be too much, and I finally caved (which, for an introvert like me, was definitely a good thing since I much prefer texting to calling).

Over the last few months, I have felt the same nudging irritation I felt before. I only knew of one of my friends who still used a dumb phone, and honestly, one of the reasons I kept holding out was because I would think, If Jen can do this, so can I. But then, a couple of months ago, even Jen showed up to book club with a smartphone, and I knew it was finally time (plus, I had secured the bragging rights of resisting the pull of the smartphone longer than she did . . . as if that's anything to brag about).

Since getting the phone last week, I've been rather like a kid at Christmastime. I delight in badgering Siri with questions. I gape when I take a picture and it identifies where I am. I thrill at the simplicity of downloading a podcast and listening to it instantly. Even though they've been around for years, I am newly amazed at what this tiny little device can do for me.

Last Wednesday, I was shopping at Michaels. I was there to purchase a jar of mod podge. The cost was $8.99, and it wasn't on sale. I wish I'd remembered to bring a coupon, I thought. Bing! Light bulb went off. I reached into my back pocket for my phone, pulled up a 40-percent off coupon, and waited nervously in line. Act casual, I told myself. "I have a coupon," I told the cashier and showed him my phone. I watched in breathless anticipation as he scanned the bar code. $3.60 saved, just like that. "Thank you," I said demurely. It took all my self-control not to click my heels as I walked out the doors. I'd only had that phone for two days, and it was already saving me money!

Oct 17, 2014

Strong Mothers, Strong Sons: Lessons Mothers Need to Raise Extraordinary Men by Meg Meeker, M.D.

A couple of years ago, my dad told me about a book he was reading called Strong Fathers, Strong Daughters. He liked it so much and was learning so many good things from it that he was even having monthly discussions about it with another father. It sounded fantastic, but seeing as how I'm not a father nor do I have any daughters, I didn't feel a strong pull to read it.

But then earlier this year, I saw that Dr. Meeker had just written another book called Strong Mothers, Strong Sons.

And that was something I could get behind.

This book explores it all: from babyhood to adulthood, Dr. Meeker talks about every stage and transition as well as the broader picture of what mothering sons looks like. There's a chapter about how to make your home a safe place where your son can learn how to express himself, make good choices, and live responsibly (and actually, this idea of home = mom = love permeates the entire book). Another chapter gives suggestions for how you as a mom can help him connect and form a lasting relationship with his dad. There's also a chapter about the importance of letting go and how to do it appropriately when he's a toddler, a teenager, and an adult. 

By the time I finished reading it, my book looked like this:

So to say that I found value in it would be an understatement.

I'm pretty vocal (both in real life and online) about how much I love having boys. I think part of the reason I'm so vocal about it is that, as someone who began motherhood thinking I'd like to have all girls, to this day I'm still surprised with how satisfied, happy, and absolutely content I am with all boys. (See, On Having Four Boys for more about how much I love having only sons). It's not just that they're my own flesh and blood (although that certainly helps); it's also that I find their interests and personalities so fascinating and entertaining (and so wildly different from my own).

But one thing that I've said all along is that while I love having little boys, I'm terrified for them to grow up: I feel inadequate to deal with the struggles and temptations of boys. I worry that once they hit puberty they'll stop talking to me. And okay, if I'm being totally honest, I'm jealous of the girl each one will fall in love with someday who will steal all their affection and leave me the despised mother-in-law. (Incidentally, I have no grounds for this belief since I happen to love my mother-in-law and have never felt the least resentment from her for marrying her son.)

I regret to say, this book basically confirmed all those fears, BUT it also gave me tools for how to deal with those important transitions and gave me hope that many of the painful parts of adolescence are necessary to raise a kind, successful, and confident man.

One of the things I wasn't expecting (but that was a pleasant surprise) was the religious undertone of the book. There's even a chapter called "If God Wore Lipstick, He'd Wear Your Shade," which focuses on a mother's impact and influence on her son's spirituality. While I didn't agree with all of Dr. Meeker's beliefs, I agreed with this idea that mothers need to be firm in their own testimonies so that as their sons navigate the tricky waters of belief, they'll have a rock to lean on. The following quote is one of the many that I bookmarked:
"The best way a mother can teach her son to have hope is to lead by example. When you are down and feel that the future looks dark, you can articulate to your son, regardless of his age, that you have faith that things will ultimately work out well. This is far easier if you have a religious faith. If you do, you can hold on to a belief that God is real, that He is good and that He can be trusted with your life. Faith allows you to keep hope more concrete because it helps you put your trust for your future into the hands of a more powerful being than yourself."
On a similar note, I also loved Dr. Meeker's thoughts about how having a strong core belief helps our sons (and daughters too) in those unavoidable moments when we, as parents, fail. It helps them to know that even though we might not be perfect, there is Someone who is and that even though we might make mistakes, there is Someone who won't. Even though I still have young children, I can see how helping them have confidence and trust in Someone other than myself would really empower them.

At one point, Dr. Meeker said that in those moments when we're failing and unsure of what to do, we can tell our sons that we need to pray and seek guidance from God. And then she said this: "Then ask your son to pray for you, just as you pray for him." For some reason, that was really eye-opening. I'd never thought to ask my children to pray for me during those times when I'm struggling to be patient, but I can see how this would be a really good thing, especially for my four-year-old who currently thinks I don't do anything right.

Another thing I really appreciated was the conversational tone of the book. Even though Dr. Meeker is a pediatrician and draws heavily on her experience with patients for much of the book, she is also a mom (of three daughters and one son). Of course she spoke from a professional viewpoint, but for much of the book, she just spoke as a mom . . . a mom who, just like myself, has made mistakes and worried and been afraid. I loved that she was able to write from both sides. It made the whole book much more authentic and made me trust what she had to say.

While I found all of the practical tips very helpful (and I will surely be revisiting the chapter titled, "Sex on the Brain and What My Mom Says" again and again in the the next 20 years), it was the overall message of unconditional love that really impacted me. Dr. Meeker said, ". . . our sons want to know--need to know--that if they did nothing else for the rest of their lives but sat in a closet, we would adore them."

I can't even tell you how many times I have thought about the importance of unconditional love over the last four months (the length of time it took me to read and think about and digest this entire book). It's safe to say it has changed the way that I parent.

Of course, if you'd asked me a year ago, "Should you (and do you) love your children unconditionally?" I would have said yes. Of course yes! That's an easy question in theory, but I don't think my actions fully reflected this belief. My kids are still young enough they're not even capable of making any really big mistakes yet, but I think I was still subconsciously withholding my love from them when they'd throw a tantrum or hit each other. In the last few months, that has changed. Now, even when they're having a complete meltdown at the zoo and screaming about how much they dislike me (that may or may not have happened this week), I try to still let them know (either through words or gestures or both) that I still love them.

I want them to know that they could have a dozen tantrums at the zoo and make me look like the worst mom on the planet, but that that love isn't going anywhere. It doesn't matter what they do or say, I will always, always, always love them for the simple reason that they are my sons. It doesn't mean that I won't teach them or discipline them or guide them. But if in the end, they don't heed any of my efforts, that love will still be there. It isn't tied to any action or accomplishment. It just is.

Yes, I loved this book. Yes, I hope I remember how to talk to them when they're angry or encourage them when things go badly. But if I end up forgetting all the details and only remember the importance of love, it will be enough.

Many, many thanks to Random House for a copy of this book. All opinions are entirely my own.

Oct 15, 2014

KidPages: Stuck by Oliver Jeffers

It's my turn to teach preschool next week, and I still haven't decided which picture book to base our lesson on. However, in my search for the perfect book (our theme for next week is space if you have any good suggestions!), I stumbled across an old favorite: Stuck by Oliver Jeffers.

I know I'm not alone in my admiration for Oliver Jeffers' work, and this one might well be my very favorite (although he has a new one out this year (Once Upon an Alphabet) that I'm dying to take a look at).

It's about a boy named Floyd who is spending a carefree day flying his kite when he steers it a little too close to a tree and, as kites often do, it gets stuck. So Floyd does the only thing he can think of: he throws his shoe at it to knock it loose. But that gets stuck, too. Without giving it much thought, Floyd begins chucking anything he can get his hands on up into the tree: a bucket of paint, a ladder, a chair. And they all get stuck. Gradually, the items being launched get bigger and more and more ridiculous until there is no more room left in the tree, and then . . . well, you'll have to read it to find out what happens.

The story travels from the likely (what kid hasn't thrown something--be it kite, ball, or frisbee--and gotten it stuck?) to the far-fetched (a kitchen sink? really?) to the truly unbelievable (I'm going to draw the line at the blue whale). Because it begins with such an ordinary event, the subtle transition to the absolutely ridiculous is all the more hilarious: a cat is pretty funny, but the mailman? Now that's funny

The illustrations, which look like they've been lifted from a sketchbook and then enhanced with color and detail, are wonderfully original. Who would have thought you could fit a house, a big boat, and a lighthouse, along with a dozen and more other things, into a tree? My kids are amazed every time we read this book: no, there's no way, no possible way, that's going into the tree! whoa, I never would have believed it . . . It's quite the feat of imagination and skill to get that many objects into one tree.

This is one of those books I can read to my kids again and again and never complain about because it's funny, it's not too long, and the pictures give a little more each time.

P.S. Check out this fun video of Oliver Jeffers himself reading this book:

P.P.S. And, to be inspired by other people much more creative than me, take a look at this adorable dress inspired by the book, complete with detachable items.

P.P.P.S. Have you read this book before? What's the craziest thing you (or your kids) have gotten stuck in an unreachable place?

Oct 13, 2014

Current Obsession: Puzzles

We have a new obsession around here: It's PUZZLES (as in, the jigsaw variety).

Back in June when we made our summer goals, you might remember that they were broken down into three categories: educational, practical, and fun. In the fun department, the boys decided to improve their puzzle skills.

We took their current abilities and upped them just a little. Bradley's skills had been restricted to puzzles within a frame, so he made the goal to complete a 24-piece free standing puzzle. Maxwell went with a 100-piece puzzle. And Aaron's goal was to complete a 200-piece puzzle.

It helped that, coinciding perfectly with these goals, my mom came out for a visit to help with baby Clark and took the boys to the store and let them pick out a 24-piece, 100-piece, and 200-piece puzzle, respectively. Nothing like a brand-new dragon puzzle to provide a little motivation.

Within a couple of weeks, all three of them had completed their puzzle goals. But the puzzle frenzy didn't stop. They took apart their puzzles and did them again. Then they took them apart and did them again. And again. And again.

They dug out all our old, forgotten puzzles and put them together. Aaron's birthday came mid-summer, and he received four puzzles as gifts. We visited my parents in Colorado and borrowed another stack.

And still the frenzy continued.

About a month ago, Bradley's skills began to improve rapidly. He was getting bored with his 24-piece options and so branched out to 48-pieces. Then he got bored with those and tried one with 60-pieces. Then he did one with 100-pieces. And finally, just last weekend, he completed a 200-piece puzzle. All by himself. I was kind of in shock.

(As a side note, my mom has long bragged about my younger brother doing a 200-piece puzzle when he was two years old. I was kind of hoping Bradley would knock him from his pedestal, but alas, Bradley turned three two weeks before doing a 200-piece puzzle. My brother's fame is safe. (At least until Clark gets a little older . . . ))

Anyway, the only person that hasn't jumped fully on the puzzle bandwagon is Mike . . . until last night, that is.

Earlier in the week, I found a 500-piece puzzle at Saver's. It was mint in the box and depicted an adorable autumn/Halloween scene--perfect for this time of year. I thought it would be fun for us to put together as a family.

Truth be told, I became a little addicted to it. It was just so relaxing to kneel on the floor and look for matching patterns and shapes. Mike laughed at me every time he saw me snapping pieces together . . . especially when there weren't any children in sight.

But then, last night after the kids were in bed, I sat down to do it, and pretty soon Mike came over and put in one piece, and then another, and before he even knew what was happening, he'd felt the magnetic pull of "just one more piece." He couldn't stop, and neither could I, and we conquered that 500-piece puzzle. Just the two of us. It was so much fun. He claims it was just because he wanted his wife back, but I know better.

At the beginning of the summer, I thought the puzzle obsession would just be a phase that would end after the boys became bored with their new puzzles. But now we're four months in, and I can't tell that it's ending anytime soon. (If anything's going to end it, it's going to be Clark. Once he starts moving, I highly doubt he's going to let us keep a puzzle out on the coffee table without disturbing it.)

It's not uncommon for us to have one or two puzzles in progress with two or three more waiting "on deck" under the table. The boys love putting one together while I read aloud to them in the evening, and it's also a great quiet time activity.  Once they've finished a hard one, they like to take apart one corner or several rows on an edge and do them again. It's the activity that just keeps on giving, and I hope it never stops.

Any other puzzle lovers out there? How do you incorporate this activity into your daily life? Do you have a specific spot in your home set aside for puzzles-in-progress? Which brands do you like the best? With Christmas just around the corner, I'm going to start stocking up . . . don't tell Mike!

Oct 10, 2014

On Saying the Wrong Thing (and Maybe the Right Thing, Too)

As someone who is perpetually terrified of saying the wrong thing, you'd think I'd be grateful for lists such as, "10 Things Not to Say to [pregnant women, new moms, infertile couples, grieving friends, breastfeeding moms, single acquaintances, etc. etc. etc.]. But no. Rather, they increase my anxiety: if there are that many things I can't say to that many different people, then what can I say and to whom?

Has the old adage of "If you can't say something nice, don't say nothin' at all" been condensed to "Don't Say Anything"?

I'm seeing these types of lists and advice posts more and more frequently, and every time I do, I cringe just a little. I have to wonder: In eliminating all the questions, advice, and comments that might be taken the wrong way, are we silencing the very words which might bind us together and deepen our connections with one another?

An obvious response to this would be, Just make sure you're saying kind words. However, the thing about these lists is that, taken one at a time, most of the off-limit comments are not truly mean.

It may be true that if you ask a new mom how her new baby is sleeping at night, she might take offense. Perhaps she only got a combined total of thirty minutes of sleep the night before, and she's sure your question is really your way of rubbing in the fact that your baby slept through the night at two weeks old. So if you follow the advice to never bring up a baby's sleeping habits around a new mom, you won't run the risk of offending her. But then again, if you avoid the topic, you will most certainly miss the opportunity to let her cry her exhausted tears on your sympathetic shoulder. And if I had to choose, I'd say the latter is the greater tragedy.

Mike has an abundance of aunts (seriously, who wouldn't want an abundance of aunts?!), all of them kind and experienced and wonderfully wise. One time one of them said (and I'm paraphrasing) that we have to be willing to talk about the weaknesses that make us feel vulnerable because that's how we connect with one another. And that's true. But in my opinion, it is equally important to ask the questions or offer the words that make us feel vulnerable. It's hard, but sometimes we have to risk saying the wrong thing in order to ever say the right thing.

Of course I've received my fair share of comments that seemed tactless, thoughtless, or even rude. For the sake of illustration,  I'll give one small example, one that (happily for you) isn't steeped in too much emotional drama:

Aaron started first grade this year. He's going to a different elementary school than the one we're zoned for. During the past several months, I've had friends, neighbors, and family members ask me where Aaron is going to school, and when I tell them, they're always very curious about our decision. Consequently, I always feel like I have to add a dozen justifications for why he is going to that school instead of the one in our neighborhood.

Maybe I should write a post: 10 Things Not to Say to a Mom Who Has Just Spent an Entire Year Trying to Decide What To Do For Her Six-Year-Old Son's Education. Because sometimes, I admit, I've felt a little defensive.

But if I wrote that post, and if you read it, and if you applied everything you read and avoided the subject of education completely, I would truly be missing out--on the chance to hear another perspective, to hash out my doubts and insecurities, and to discover commonalities. And I wouldn't miss out on that for the world.

Okay, one more example. Yesterday I looked out on the backyard to find that Maxwell had turned on the hose. Again. All summer long, he's been turning it on, getting himself all wet, and leaving it running until I discover it many hours later. I've told him again and again that he can't turn it on without asking me. So I informed him that he'd have to go inside. And he proceeded to run away. Of course. He ran into the front yard, and our neighbor, who was watching, laughed and said, "He'll be grown up before you know it."

I'm pretty sure that comment is on all of the 10 Things Not to Say to a Mom of a Four-Year-Old lists, especially if you've never had a to deal with a four-year-old of your own. But oh, I'm so glad Kristy obviously hadn't read or applied that advice. If she'd made some safe comment about the beautiful weather or just pretended not to see me, I know I wouldn't have had any reason to smile in that moment. And sometimes, a little smile to diffuse the tension can go a long way.

Of course there are some things you should never say to new moms or old dads or anyone else, but I would hope you wouldn't need a list to know what those things are. And the truth is, the kinds of people who like to make mean-spirited comments are going to make them regardless of a list being out there that says that they shouldn't.

In the end, we're just imperfect people making imperfect connections. So please, ask me about my baby's sleep patterns or my children's education. Remind me that small ones grow up too fast and that life is too short. I'll do the same, and together we'll strengthen those life-saving, life-giving, and live-enriching ties.
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