Downstairs, Downstairs


Last year we ditched our satellite dish in favor of a Roku.  We were tired of paying a huge monthly bill for a package full of channels we couldn’t watch with the kids, and most of our favorite shows were on Hulu or Netflix anyway.  One of my favorite aspects of Netfilx has been finding complete collections of old TV shows, and my latest guilty pleasure has been watching ‘Downton Abbey’ from end to end without waiting a week to see what happened.

I really love historic fiction, and I love the efforts the director and producers took with costumes and production when breathing life into their story of servants and their turn-of-the-last-century noble employers.  But, as the Big Guy reminded me, there was a predecessor to this series, and, as luck would have it, Netflix had it and I added it to my queue.

Upstairs, Downstairs first aired in the 1970s, and, while the costumes and sets were not nearly as painstakingly detailed and elaborate as its successors, but its simplicity sharpened the focus of this look at lives and livelihoods so completely determined by social class, and for some reason I couldn’t place right away I found myself hooked.  But, with the first few episodes playing out in the background as I was loading the last of the season harvest into the dehydrator, I began to suspect that one reason for the attraction was that our life is very much Downstairs, Downstairs with one significant difference.

The majority of the first show takes place downstairs, introducing us to the staff of an Edwardian house and to their newest member.  Each of the servants has their own degree of acceptance of the then current caste system, but what I found interesting was that whether or not a servant was portrayed as accepting of their status, without exception, they did except that their employers’ class was superior in every way.  That acceptance could be an expression of jealousy, resignation or ambition, but it was never questioned.

Now, I have come to accept that, absent a winning lottery ticket, our life will most likely be Downstairs, Downstairs for the duration.  Neither of us earns enough to find our way Upstairs.  But, even if we did hit the lottery, I’ve also come to realize that our material wants are pedestrian enough to ensure that  we will always be more comfortable having a wardrobe that consists of work jeans and good jeans for going out.  We will always be more comfortable in our unconventional house with its Early-American Garage Sale un-chic and its hodge-podge garden.  And we will always be more comfortable Downstairs.

Waiting to Exhale


Thing2 – Cheese, as he wants to be called these days when he doesn’t want to be called SuperDude or SpiderMan – is six.  He’s been six for all of two weeks, but he seems to understand that, as his birthday approached, we were crossing a divide – at least when it came to our bedtime routine.

Cheese co-slept with us while he was nursing, and, when he transitioned to his own bunk in the room he now shares with Thing1, his 12-year-old brother, I adopted the practice of lying down with him at bed time.  I did this with Thing1 for a short time, and it seemed to smooth out the rough spots as he became more independent.  With Cheese, however, at least one of my reasons for this routine was selfish.

Thing1 is already taller than I am, and, while he still needs hugs and comforting when he’s down, I still marvel at how quickly he went from my arms to my lap and then to the world at large.  I know it is going even more quickly with Cheese, and when he embraces his independence, this special time will be gone forever.  The next epoch will be just as special, but our quiet time at night gives me the chance to be mindful of this one – of his arms around my neck and of the melting of a smiling imp into a serene slumbering angel.

As his birthday approached, however, our routine became more and more brief – he doesn’t need help getting ready for bed.  Increasingly the routine consists of Thing1 and Cheese giggling as they brush and wash and bustle into their bunks.  They whisper their secrets in the dark and then, more often than not, snoring replaces the giggles before I have a chance to sit down for a snuggle.

This is as it should be, but five is not six, and even six still needs a snuggle some nights.  As we move closer to the divide, however, even our snuggle time has changed.  The giggling does not stop merely because Mom is there.  Often I spend as much time shushing as snuggling, and it is always at bedtime that I get to hear the newest phrase Thing1 has acquired ‘on the playground’ before dutifully passing it on to his brother.

It was when the first phrase of the evening emanated from the top bunk last night that I realized that I was about to be relegated to a role on the sidelines of the bedtime routine.  Thing1 was already giggling when I kissed him goodnight, and the grin on Cheese’s face should have been a clear sign that my presence could only amplify the silliness.  I had just wrapped Cheese in a hug as the first classic line floated down from the top bed:

“Beans, Beans, the magical fru -”

“That’s enough,” I interrupted before Cheese could learn any new poetry.  But Thing1 began again, and I could feel Cheese beginning to quake.

I shushed.  They giggled.  I shushed again, and quiet reigned.  But not for long.  This time, the line was a whisper, and I found myself working not to chuckle.  Cheese held his hand over his mouth, and I knew even the hint of a giggle from me would send them both over the edge.  So I held my breath.

Thing1 knew it was time to quit, and for a few minutes I only heard an occasional squeak as he suppressed a laugh.  Cheese quickly lost his fight with sleep, and I was finally able to breathe without a giggle and without contributing to more chaos.

I stood up and gave Thing1 another kiss on the head before heading back to the living room for grown-up time.  But as I walked out to the bright kitchen, I exhaled again and my smile faded.  I knew that the boys had begun adopting their own routine, without my help.

There will be more silliness and snickering from the bunk room, and we’ll chuckle as we listen to their whispering. They will become more independent in this routine, just as they have become during the day.  They are both a long way from true independence, but we are at the end of an era, and I think I am already missing it.

Home Alone – Almost


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I like to think my writing group met today – even though the advance of Hurricane Sandy kept attendance down to two of us.  We even managed to speak of writing a little bit and even about the logistics of blogging.  In reality, our mini-meeting was just a little bit of a day with the girls, and it was just what this gal needed.

I’ve been part of a writing group for the last five or six months – Hubbard Hall, a local community theatre and arts center in Cambridge, NY.  Led by author Jon Katz, I initially came to the workshop with specific ideas about what I wanted to write and what I wanted to learn.  I hoped that the year-long experience would be my long-coveted MFA in writing.  It has turned out to be so much more than that for so many reasons, and today’s get together highlighted that once again.

From an educational standpoint, the Writer’s Project at Hubbard Hall has been an awakening for all of us.  No longer do I call myself a wannabe artist or writer.  I am now simply on a creative journey that will hopefully last a lifetime.  And, as I read the posts of my comrades, I see the same exuberant embrace of this ideal permeating our increasingly tight-knit group.

That small, eclectic group of writers is the other, completely unanticipated, aspect of this project.  Our first meeting was pleasant and friendly, but I’m sure I wasn’t the only attendee who worried that my work might not measure up.  In the course of the last few months, however, this creative collective has conjured its own special magic.  Wielding encouragement and hope, constructive critiques and glowing reviews, we banish anxiety and trepidation everyday online.  Today, two of our number sat at a kitchen table and compared notes and shared the histories of our creative lives,  and we banished it again.  

The rest of the group was sorely missed, and we’ll meet again another weekend with the entire crowd.  Assembling even the tiniest fraction of this group, however, was invaluable to me not only because it was a chance to talk about our work.  For me, it was the first grown-up, face-to-face social activity I’d had in over a week of chauffeuring children to doctor’s offices and pharmacies when I wasn’t working at or setting the kitchen table.  For me, the few stolen hours at that same table chatting and snacking with a new friend was just what the defense I needed against the dulling monotony that lurks at the corners of my very domestic life.  

Sympathy for the Mousers

The second day into what should have been a one-day event, I have excavated and mouse-proofed every square inch of our pantry (at least it better be mouse proof).  I’m not one to go off the deep end (at least not when it comes to cleaning), but nothing irks me more than discovering evidence that the furry little freeloaders have managed to elude the cats and pilfer my pantry.

So as I excavated, I implemented every non-electric mouse trap and deterrent I could think of, and I began to feel a little like the Coyote planning and baiting his traps.  At first I giggled and pushed aside any worry that I am that nutty or obsessive in my pursuit of this prey, but as Thing 1 threatened to get a court order to stop my pantry-cleaning dance and the Big Guy volunteered to ferry Thing 2 to his play date, I started to wonder, are all these canisters and traps and deterrents a sign that I’m getting a little too close to the edge?

Or are they just a recognition that once in a while we should tip our hats to the rusticators of rodentia, the bad ol’ putty-tats, and admit that mousing is harder than it looks?

Yay Homework

It’s Sunday, which means it’s homework day around our house.  Every Sunday night we make the same resolution that it will be done on Friday, and every Sunday night we’re standing over Thing 1 with a whip, making sure the forgotten paper or book gets done.  Not this Sunday, however.

It’s Thing 1’s turn to design for the time-honored Egg Drop project (in which each student designs a container that will safely carry an egg from the top of the school roof or bleachers to the ground below),   With hardly any egging on from us (sorry, couldn’t resist), my seventh grade sit-in enthusiast has been designing, and dropping and redesigning his entry.  The excitement on his face has is well-worth the cost of an egg (or two), and all weekend, I’ve been wondering why all homework can’t be like this.

I know some of it is to prepare them for the drudgery of independent learning in the “real” world called college.  But, today, watching him be a scientist makes me wonder if there is a way to breathe some new life in to other assignments so that they can be historians, or writers, or creators for a weekend.  And mostly so they can see on a daily basis what we mean when we say learning is exciting.