Interaction Opportunities

Pretty often it happens that I read something about a way to live life (LOSE WEIGHT! ORGANIZE STUFF! BE SUCCESSFUL! BE HAPPY!), and I turn out to disagree with that particular route pretty thoroughly, and yet I end up getting something useful out of it anyway. For example, I read the whole Fly Lady cleaning system, and what I got out of that was:

1. When someone says “Just x minutes!,” it’s never actually just x minutes
2. Having a clean house is not that important to me
3. Bless or oppress?

It’s that third thing that has been the most helpful. I truly dislike the word AND concept of “bless” and so this expression is hard for me to even THINK, let alone SAY, and yet it has been very useful for figuring out what things to get rid of and what things to keep. “Does this item BLESS me or OPPRESS me?,” I think, wincingly, and then I figure out which category the possession falls into.

ANYWAY. I read some books about parenting teenagers, and for the most part I haven’t found that I go back to those books/concepts time and again or that I have revolutionized my parenting because of them—but I did get one major thing from them, which is that if your teenager chooses to engage with you, you should GO WITH IT. The gist of it is that teenagers are reluctant to share things with parents, and in many ways it is GOOD for them to be separating at this time—but that if they DO choose to interact, TAKE IT.

This seems so obvious, or it did to me when I read it. Yes, yes, if my child interacts with me, I should interact back. But then I got to the stage where what my child wanted to interact about was Violent Opinions About Russia, or Some TV Show I’m Not Interested In, and things didn’t click quite so hard. That’s when the book became useful to me: the child is choosing to interact with me, it does not matter WHAT he is choosing to interact about, that interaction is WORTH GRABBING.

This is why right now I am watching the first season of 24, even though it is too scary for me. It is also why I watched this video:

It didn’t appeal to me and it’s not the kind of thing I’d usually watch, but I’m glad that when Rob mentioned it, I immediately watched it. It’s not just that it’s good for the parent-child relationship, it’s also that teenagers find neat stuff.

Trees that Cross Property Lines

Do any of you know, from either study or experience, what the rules are about trees that cross property lines? For example, let’s say we have a tree that grows in our yard, but branches cross over the fence into our neighbor’s yard. Let’s say our neighbor dislikes the tree because it shades their yard and drops nuts/leaves (i.e., not because any branches appear dangerous or broken, or are threatening the fence). If our neighbor requests it, do we need to remove the branches that cross the fence? What if this means removing about a third of the tree? What if it means removing the entire tree? What if it is a very large and established tree, and it would be a shame to lose it? What if the situation actually involves multiple trees? What if having trees pruned/removed is expensive, WHICH IT IS?

I’m asking the question in two ways. One of them, of course, is legally: what MUST we do, legally? But I’m also asking from an ethical/neighborliness standpoint, for areas where the law lets us do what we want: what OUGHT we be willing to do, even if we don’t want to? For example, obviously I don’t want to pay $400 to have branches trimmed that aren’t bothering me (or in danger of falling), but since it’s OUR TREE and we OWN it, should I go ahead and do so even if I don’t legally have to?—things like that.

Human Error

Rob and Elizabeth and I were having lunch at Wendy’s the other day when my attention was caught by a conversation at a nearby table. “Uh! It’s the WRONG SANDWICH!” said a woman, with an incredulous half-laugh. She couldn’t even believe it. It was supposed to be the SPICY chicken, but THIS was the HOMESTYLE chicken! She looked around in real disbelief. How could this possibly have happened—and to HER?

(screen shot from

(screen shot from

This has got me thinking about what seems to me to be a very low tolerance for human error. The clerk rings something up wrong, and the customer treats the situation as if the clerk has deliberately attempted a criminal action, rather than as if the clerk has made a normal error, just one inaccurate move among tens of thousands of accurate ones. The clerk apologizes for the error and fixes it, and the customer doesn’t bend at all, and doesn’t say thank you at the end of the transaction, and leaves the store with very unpleasant body language. Or an item is ordered, and the wrong item arrives, and the customer cannot believe such a company could even stay in business. Employees who are not 100% error-free! How can this even happen in today’s world?

We know from our own personal experience that humans make mistakes, and they make them regularly. We might try to improve, especially if we notice we’re making the same mistake again and again, but in general we completely understand that we are 100% guaranteed to make at least occasional mistakes, and we feel (completely fairly) that other people should understand that about us and allow for it. It can’t be otherwise, literally CAN’T BE otherwise: we MUST make occasional errors. (And, of course, apologize and fix it when we do.) But when we encounter someone else’s mistakes, many of us are seriously appalled. It was the HOMESTYLE CHICKEN, if you can believe it!!! This means that an employee PICKED UP THE WRONG SANDWICH BY MISTAKE!!!

It isn’t that mistakes aren’t annoying, or inconveniencing: of course they are. It is annoying to me to have to mess with a return because someone else made a mistake and sent me the wrong thing. It is upsetting to me to be overcharged for an item because someone else made a mistake and didn’t apply my coupon. I hate having to go up to the counter to ask for the sandwich I should have gotten in the first place, and I HATE getting home and finding the salad dressing isn’t in the drive-through bag, I REALLY DO. It has an effect on my life, and it’s a negative one, and it feels so unfair to have it be SOMEONE ELSE’S FAULT. It wasn’t MY mistake, so why am I the one having to go to the effort to fix it? So unfair!

But this is an excellent area for allowing one’s own character to be improved by negative example: it’s so easy to feel outraged until you witness someone else being similarly outraged. When I ordered a used book, and the copy that arrived was paperback instead of hardcover, it was my first natural impulse to feel aggrieved. Look how little care has been taken to fill my order accurately! How inconsiderate! How thoughtless! And perhaps they are trying to RIP ME OFF!! In short: “Uh! It’s the WRONG book!!” But then I see someone making a huge fuss over a very similar mistake, and I can’t believe she doesn’t understand that every single human being in the world is going to make errors from time to time: that it is unavoidable, and that she is making her own share of errors that inconvenience/annoy/upset others.

It helps too to spend some time working in customer service, I think. Seeing people’s outsized reactions to one’s own (much easier to understand) errors can help a person stay empathetically pleasant when handling a transaction from the other side of the register. Rob doesn’t yet know it, but that woman’s incorrect chicken sandwich is what ensured him a retail job next summer.

Having Guests: Figuring Out Everyone’s Expectations

I’ve nearly forgotten what I was going to say/ask about the impending visit from Paul’s aunt/uncle. Fortunately, I ended that post with breadcrumbs: “With this post I’d intended to discuss the practical aspects of hosting/guesting: meals, activities, expectations, etc.”

The first difficult thing is that they have planned a 3-day visit in our area (as part of a longer road trip), and they are staying in a hotel 30 minutes from our house, and they haven’t made clear what percentage of the visit they intend to spend socializing with us. This visit could be anything from “We’re staying in a hotel for comfort/non-intrusiveness, but we will be at your house from breakfast until bedtime each day” (this was my mother-in-law’s style) to “We’ll be in the area as part of a larger trip, and would love to get together for coffee with you while we’re here.” I suspect it is somewhere in between—in fact, if I had to guess, I’d guess right in the middle: getting together for a good part of each day to do excursions and talk, perhaps sharing 1-2 meals each day. That’s my GUESS.

Thinking about this, I realized how much expectations enter into these things. There are visitors who expect the heads of household to give up their bed to the visitors, because visitors are supposed to get the best room/bed in the house; there are visitors who expect no such thing and would be horrified if it were offered. There are visitors who expect to have a fun and interesting schedule planned out for them, and there are visitors who expect to do their own planning and would be agitated if presented with pre-made plans. There are visitors who make lists of dietary requirements, and there are visitors who make their own eating arrangements.

Goodness! So much potential for ruffled feathers! Such things get SO much easier with repeated visits: by the time my mother-in-law died, I felt like I knew what she expected from a visit to us, and also which of those expectations I was willing to meet. It wasn’t fun, but it was familiar. With Paul’s aunt and uncle, I suspect this will be a one-time thing—but even if they end up making it a regular thing, THIS is still the FIRST one.

I think what I’m interested in discussing is, what would be YOUR expectations going into this, knowing what you know: i.e., that we don’t know them well, that they are in their 70s, that there are some potential resentments, that they are religious and from the midwest? What would you GUESS they would expect/want? What might you make sure you were prepared for? What might you specifically offer?

Some things, I might want to head off before they are issues. I loved Judith’s suggestion in the comments on the backstory post: she suggested saying, “Would you like me to find out the times of the services of churches around here so you can decide which one works best for you? We’re not part of a congregation here, but I hear the people at xyz church are very welcoming.” I might want to use this whole concept of laying out what we’re OFFERING.

In some cases, though, I’m not sure what I’m offering. Am I offering an open invitation for any meals they’d like to have with us? Possibly! Or possibly that would be quite stressful, especially since I don’t know their dietary situation. Am I offering to take them around and show them places? Welllll…it’s not that I’m not willing, it’s more that I don’t really…go places? or do things? So I’m not actually sure where I’d take them or what we’d do. I ordered a tourist manual from my own state, to help me out.

The other thing is that if they’re planning to take it easy and spend most of their time relaxing at their hotel and/or going out on nice drives or something, I don’t want to make THEM feel that MY expectations are for them to spend more time with us. Meanwhile, they may be sitting at their house thinking, “We don’t want to make them feel like they have to spend the whole three days with us…”/”We don’t want to make them feel like we came all that way and then ignored them.” Well. These things are a little tricky. It does help me to think that such things are probably ALWAYS tricky the first time, for EVERYONE: it’s not that I personally can’t read the minds of my guests while everyone else is having no trouble with it.

Also, it helps to know that I WILL get better at this with time and experience. The only guest we’ve had is my mother-in-law—but as we get used to entertaining a variety of guests (if we do indeed get used to that), we will start having Our Things: the recipe that stretches so well and makes good leftovers for the next day’s lunch; that nice walking trail; that fun little town with cute shopping; that great place for souvenirs; that beautiful drive with the great lunch place at the midpoint; etc.

One thing that did NOT help was the sudden horrified realization that even though they’re not staying with us, they will want to see our house. The INSIDE of our house. I wonder, if I cleaned every day for the next month until their arrival…

Doing Something

“I really advise talking to yourself less.” That is something I just said literally out loud, to myself.

Things are usually a little grim at the beginning of a school year, which is more surprising now that this means everyone leaves me alone for a big chunk of the day. I can picture Earlier Me looking at the situation with open-mouthed astonishment: “You have the house to yourself for HOURS A DAY and you are STILL mopey??”

It’s odd how difficult it can be to do the things that I KNOW will make me feel better. I finally got a start on it by making those things very, very small. Eat one baby carrot. Walk around the house one time. Take a vitamin. Drink a glass of water. Sit in the steps for a couple of minutes and look at the trees.

One of my relatively new techniques to fight off sad/bad feelings is to try to be interested in something, ANYTHING. It doesn’t have to be a BIG thing: it can be the “one baby carrot” of interest, which would be something like “look up one thing on Wikipedia.” In this case I managed to reel in a bigger interest, which is Jane Austen.

I’ve tried Jane Austen books several times over the years: they’re so famous, and it’s embarrassing to me that I get her confused with the Brontë sisters (I also get individual Brontë sisters confused with other Brontë sisters), and I like to be familiar with famous things so I don’t feel dumb when the subject comes up. But I just couldn’t slog through the books: so many commas! so many now-obscure social practices! such odd dialogue, heavy with meanings that completely elude me! They’re about 200 years old now, and even the sentence structure was hard to get used to.

What broke me through was watching the MOVIE Pride and Prejudice, and I think my only real motivation was seeing Colin Firth as Mr. Darcy. I found, though, that it opened the book RIGHT UP for me: the people making the movie are from the same time period as me, so they basically translate it into what I can understand: even when the dialogue is quoted verbatim, the delivery of the line by Colin Firth a modern speaker does wonders for comprehension. I added the annotated edition of the book to my wish list, because I thought that would give me even MORE translating/help, plus I wanted to know more about things like “I can tell by one character’s reaction that she was just insulted—but why was that insulting?” I didn’t READ the book after receiving/unwrapping it, but I did add it to the To Read shelf. (This is a practice Paul finds very frustrating. He thinks if I don’t read the book right away, it means I didn’t really want it. He is incorrect.)

Next, encouraged by Pride and Prejudice (and by Alan Rickman and Hugh Grant), I watched Sense and Sensibility. I liked that one TOO! I still hadn’t read the annotated copy of Pride and Prejudice, but I added the annotated copy of Sense and Sensibility to my wish list, and after the next gift-exchanging holiday it was mine.

The same pattern happened with Persuasion. (I’ve learned, incidentally, that there is HEATED CONTROVERSY about which movie versions of each book are Best. I found it boring and stressful to read the debates, so instead I chose which version to watch based on which actors I wanted to see.)

Several times, I thought about reading one of the three annotated books, but now it felt like it had been too long since I’d seen the movies. It became one of those things I’d get around to SOME day, but for the time being there was a certain layer of dust involved.

Back to the current situation. I was moping around in my nice quiet house, feeling extremely stupid for feeling sad. My goal was to lug myself out of it with the help of a new interest, but nothing seemed interesting and also I was battling that silly feeling that it had to be an enduring/consuming interest or else it wasn’t worth pursuing. My eye lit upon the little stack of books, and I felt a flicker. Grabbing that flicker and feeding it some tiny twigs, I looked up Jane Austen on Wikipedia to see which book she wrote first; it was Sense and Sensibility. I ordered the movie from Netflix, and yesterday I watched it. Then I started reading the annotated book, which so far is GREAT.

I think this may be the first time I’ve read an annotated book. I was familiar with them in general because Paul has a few of them, and it is nearly impossible not to keep commenting aloud while reading one. Apparently.

This is what an annotated book looks like:


On the left page, it is the original book, but with little numbers next to things. On the right page is a list of those same numbers, with comments. On this pair of pages, the comments include:

1. A definition for a word whose meaning has altered a bit in 200 years.

2. A remark about what will happen later, and how this relates to the way a character is described throughout the book. (Annotated books are best if you’re already familiar with the plot, because the annotations are FULL of spoilers.)

3. What a passage in the book indicates about a character’s temperament.

4. What another passage in the book indicates about another character’s temperament.

5. Another definition.

6. A picture of a barouche, which will be referred to on the next page with a further explanation of what owning a barouche would have signified at that time.


Other pages have included relevant information about Jane Austen’s own life; comments about what “gentleman-like” would have meant at that time; comments on how something represents Jane Austen’s earlier writing style and how she might have done it differently later; comments about other popular books/ideas of the time; comments about what a person would have meant by such a remark; etc. For the most part, I like to read the entire page of book, THEN look at the annotations for that page; otherwise, I feel like the children are still here, interrupting my reading every sentence or two. Sometimes I do look at an annotation mid-page, if curiosity trumps disruption, or if something is too confusing without it.

Anyway, I love it. It’s like being in school again, but only the parts I liked, no “compare and contrast” essays to write. And it feels pleasing to be learning something, even if I have to fight off “What FOR?” and “What’s the point?” feelings. Learning something is good for its OWN sake, but it’s hard to get out of the habit of thinking of it as “to get into college / to get a good job.”

Plus, one of the things that MOST makes me feel like kicking myself when I’m looking back on times I was bored, bored, bored (a summer in college where the courses left me with TONS of free time; my first pregnancy, when I was unemployed) is thinking about how many things I COULD HAVE DONE with all that spare time. “Learn a LANGUAGE or something,” I scold those former selves. “Finally get around to reading books you feel you ought to have read! Get a book on sketching, and give it a try! Get a book on a place you want to travel someday! Get a book that FINALLY helps you understand how Congress works! It doesn’t have to be The Funnest and Most Interesting Thing in the Whole World, it just has to be SOMETHING.” So it’s pleasing to be actually DOING something like that this time around.

One of the biggest unexpected upsides is having something to think about. When I was cooking dinner last night, I was thinking about the movie; when I was trying to get to sleep, I was thinking about the annotated book. I hadn’t realized how much of my thinking was “I feel icky/sad/bad” until it got replaced with other things, such as whether Hugh Grant was too cute to play Edward, or about the new-to-me definition of the word “sensibility,” or about how extremely well that one actor portrayed the awfulness of her character, or how well my embarrassing tendency to tear up over almost NOTHING would have fit in with the fashions of 200 years ago.

The Girl with All the Gifts

I just finished reading The Girl with All the Gifts by M.R. Carey, and I loved it.

(image from

(image from

I read it in part because I kept hearing about it, and I like to read such books early on, before I have to fight off the silly “I can’t read it now because it’s gotten too much fuss” impulse (“Oh, everyone who reads it loves it? Then I will not read it. I would hate to love a book, or to belong to a group of people who love something.” WHY DO THOSE FEELINGS HAPPEN). It’s post-apocalyptic fiction, which is a category I tend to like, and it’s also science fiction, which is a category I like when it hits that sweet spot between “too sciencey” and “female space-warrior in bikini armor.”

Joss Whedon liked it and wrote a quote for the back cover, if that persuades you one way or another.

I was sorry the book was over, but I was mostly satisfied with the ending. (I had a couple of questions that occurred to me afterward and left me feeling less satisfied, but I still loved the book overall.)

Helpful Advice; Reusable Bags; Gift Cards Already

I was searching online to see if it was okay to save part of a smoothie for the next day, and I found this answer: “lol who just has half a smoothie?? i just drink the whole thing.” LOL wow thanks for that helpful contribution.


Target has finally gotten me to switch to reusable bags, not through their 5-cents-per-reusable-bag discount, but by making their plastic bags crappier. I used to collect and treasure the Target bags because they were great as liners for small trash cans and for disposing of cat-box scoopage. But now they’re thin and cheap and frequently have little holes in them, so fine, I will use reusable shopping bags. But what to do about the litter box? BUYING plastic bags for that instead of reusing the ones I got from a store seems like going the wrong direction here, environmentally-speaking.


It is a little early for it, but yesterday I did the first installment of my annual gift-card plan. There are still more than fifteen weeks until Christmas, but last year I kept forgetting to get a card on each shopping trip and ended up having to go to Target the day before school vacation to buy several more cards, which kind of defeats the purpose of the plan. Also, I just added it up, and including bus drivers, elementary-school teachers, mail carrier, and karate/music teachers, I need thirteen gift cards, so I’m not actually early after all. Target doesn’t have the holiday-themed ones out yet, of course, but I get the bird one that has a lot of red and green and looks pleasantly non-specific-holidayish in December.

Brusque; Doomed

I am feeling a little upset and inclined to blow things out of proportion today. For example, I mailed a package at the post office, and the post office guy kept making brusque remarks to me (for example, I said, “Oh, hello, good morning! Can you tell me which form I should use if…” and he cut me off and said “Small one” abruptly and in an unfriendly tone of voice, and then turned around and walked away before I could ask my next question) and I managed to get my feelings hurt by it, which, why does this happen? Do he and I have the kind of relationship where I could view his brusqueness as a symbolic sign of underlying relationship issues? No. Is this clearly Not Personal? Yes. But it makes me feel bad, and makes ME want to make HIM feel bad. But instead I acted EVEN MORE polite and deferential, because THAT will show him.

I think one reason I’m feeling a little touchy is the book I just finished:

(photo from

(photo from

Life Drawing, by Robin Black. It just made me feel bad from beginning to end. Every emotion I felt while reading it was negative, and most of those feelings were cringing anticipation: the foreshadowing was so thick I started feeling teased and resentful. I nearly stopped reading it, just out of spite: “You want to draw this out as long as possible? I’ll show YOU: I can SKIP TO THE END, and you can’t do anything about it!” I ended up feeling yucky and wishing I HAD stopped reading it. It’s just, I remembered really liking If I Loved You, I Would Tell You This. Maybe I’m misremembering, or maybe that book was a different style, or maybe it’s that I like the dreary/suffering/doomed style better in short-story form.

September; Shopping Irritations; 24; Dumbing of Age

It is September! I love September. All of fall is still ahead of us. It’s the Friday afternoon of months. Well, it is for those of us who like fall best. For those of us who like summer best, it’s the Sunday afternoon of months. And for those of us who like winter best, it’s the Wednesday evening of months. For those of us who like spring best, it’s nothing.

At Target yesterday I impulse-bought a pack of cake-batter Chapstick. It tastes/smells remarkably like cake batter. It makes me want to eat cake.

I also impulse-bought a Russell Stover s’more, 50% off. It tasted remarkably like a s’more, and was even more difficult than a regular s’more to eat while driving. I mean, I assume it was, having never test-driven a regular s’more. I know the Russell Stover one was crumbly and I had to give up, and it seems like a regular s’more would be sticky and gooey but would at least mostly stay together because of that sticky/gooey situation. I wish I’d bought more than one.

I had a couple of irritating shopping things happen. One was a coupon for Purell that said it was 20% all the Purell in the order, but when I looked at the receipt later I saw it had only taken 20% off one of the four Purells I bought. Also, there were two boxes of Kleenex on a moderate clearance—something like $1.68 down from $2.39. Not a huge bargain, but the three youngests’ class lists all include two boxes of tissues, so I bought them. But they both rang up at $2.39, and I didn’t notice at the time. The clearance sticker is right on them, so I COULD bring them back and get the price adjusted, but I know I’m not going to.

I hate stuff like that. It’s not a big deal AT ALL, but I hate it. It does help a little that the notebook I bought for $3.50 rang up as $2.80.

The non-Henry kids and I are watching the first season of 24. That show is too scary for me. The twins are missing a lot of the subtle scary stuff, like what is happening to that girl after the bad guy takes her into a more private room. Rob, age 15, thinks it is the coolest show he has ever watched. I’m hoping some of the “danger to women” issues are sinking in—though there’s so much danger OVERALL, perhaps it will seem to him to be spread out evenly.

Speaking of which, Janeric recommended the comic strip Dumbing of Age in the comments section on the teaching Rob the situation with women post, and I’ve been reading it and I really like it. I tried to join the strip in progress, but gave up after half a dozen strips and started at the beginning instead. I’m tearing through them now to catch up, and have recommended it to Rob. It reminds me somewhat of Questionable Content, a comic strip Rob and I both like (it took me awhile to get into it, but he recommended it so strongly I persisted, and now I love it).

First-Day-of-School Clothes

Henry and I had a difference of opinion about his First Day of School outfit. My opinion was that the outfit should be one of his nicer ones: it didn’t have to include a vest and bow-tie, but maybe a solid-color polo shirt, for example, or a patterned button-down—but not a character t-shirt. Basically the same as a School Picture Day outfit. When I had to think out WHY this was my inclination, I came up with four reasons:

1. That’s what I remember from my own youth
2. The first day of school is Special, and we dress up a little for Special
3. Making a good first impression on the teacher
4. Looks nice in the photos I take at the bus stop and post on Facebook


Henry’s opinion was that the outfit should be one that expressed his interests. That is, he had the Exact Opposite idea: I was saying “collar shirt—or maybe even a solid-color t-shirt but definitely not a character t-shirt” and he was saying “definitely a character t-shirt, and the only question is WHICH character t-shirt.” When he had to think out WHY this was his inclination, he came up with two reasons:

1. Making a good first impression on his classmates
2. Communicating his interests to other children quickly and easily


I could have pulled “No, most days you can wear what you want, but I am the boss and we’re doing it my way for this one day” (this is what I do on Picture Day and Easter and Thanksgiving and Christmas and certain other occasions, if necessary), but we did it his way, because I could see his point. Also because he was quite nervous about the first day, and I thought a favorite shirt might help. Minecraft t-shirt it is.

When I was helping Edward pick out an outfit, then, I explained Henry’s philosophy and asked if Edward subscribed to the same one. I showed him the solid green polo shirt I would pick for him if it were up to me, and asked if instead he would like to choose something more like what he’d normally wear—more representative of his personality and interests. He said, “Yes, but, that shirt looks NORMAL to me.” Green polo shirt it is.

I wasn’t going to plan out Elizabeth’s outfit with her, because she has been highly opinionated about her clothes since infancy. But when I saw she had set aside velour pants, I suggested she might want something less warm in her non-air-conditioned classroom.

Rob is in 10th grade this year and William in 8th, so they’re on their own for clothing choices. I would say something if I thought their choices weren’t quite right—like, if they were wearing something stained or too small. But I don’t try to make them wear shirts with collars or anything like that.


I’m interested to know how you do things at your house with first-day-of-school outfits.