The Rockwood Files: Once upon a story

rockwood files colorBy Gwen Rockwood, newspaper columnist and mama of 3

Just when I thought the machines had truly taken over and that kids’ attention spans had shrunk down to the time it takes to download an app, something wonderful happened.

books-441866_640My 12-year-old son had birthday money burning a hole in his pocket, and he asked if we could go to the bookstore to spend it. Immensely grateful that it was the bookstore and not the arcade, I said an enthusiastic yes. Any excuse to go to the bookstore is a good one. His brother and sister wanted to go, too, so off we went.

I love the bookstore. It’s good for a writer’s soul. Writing is a solitary experience, which is ironic because writers who spend too much time inside their own heads are prone to despair. “Why the heck am I doing this? Nobody wants to read this stuff. This is ridiculous, just stringing these words together, trying to make sense from this jumble of thoughts. Why didn’t I learn a more useful, marketable skill? Like computer programming or transmission repair. Nobody wants stories anymore. They’re too busy with tweets, posts and likes. They want something simple and quick.”

But at the bookstore, I walked down aisle after aisle of books that were neither simple nor quick to produce or to read. The range of topics is immense – everything from ancestry to zombie novels. I scanned the colorful rows of book spines and thought about all those despairing writers – toiling away alone somewhere, stopping occasionally to berate themselves for being too queasy to have gone to med school or too bad at algebra to have become an engineer. Wondering why they feel compelled to write a story that people might never even read.

Somehow, they beat back their own neurosis and the seemingly impossible odds of getting a book published, and they filled this expansive store with books. And despite the 24-hour buffet of daily distractions from social media, YouTube, the App Store, Netflix and so many others, people still show up here in search of stories.

The kids and I drifted in different directions, finding each other now and then so we could hold up a book and say “Look at this one!” Finally, we each narrowed down our book choices and headed for check-out.

But the true magic happened on the way home. As soon as I started the car, the three kids reached into the plastic bag and fished out the book they’d just chosen. They couldn’t wait. Those books were like hot fries from the drive-through, and the temptation to reach in and consume one was too strong to ignore.

The car ride home was as silent as it has ever been – broken only by the sound of our own breathing, pages turning, and the rhythmic click of the car’s blinker. It was serene, and it renewed my faith in the power of stories.

The kids’ book bliss also reminded me to be grateful. Because I might not be any good at math or be able to diagnose appendicitis, but occasionally I’m able to write down a good story – one that reading bookmakes someone feel a moment of joy. And that’s something – a little piece of magic.

We live in an increasingly complex world – one that practically screams for our attention in dozens of different ways – but we’re still hard-wired to seek out stories. We crave them, like hot waffle fries on the car ride home.

Despite all the digital clutter out there, thank God we still gravitate to something as powerful and simple as “Once upon a time…”

gwen-headshot-2014Gwen Rockwood is a mom to three great kids, wife to one cool guy, a newspaper columnist and co-owner of To read previously published installments of The Rockwood Files, click here. To check out Gwen’s book, “Reporting Live from the Laundry Pile: The Rockwood Files Collection,” click HERE.

The Rockwood Files: Kid Withdrawal

rockwood files colorBy Gwen Rockwood, newspaper columnist and mama of 3

ducklingLast night I slept better than I have in a week. There was no sleeping pill involved. No meditation. No hot bubble bath or glass of wine. All I needed was the peace of knowing my ducklings are back home where they belong.

For seven days, two of my three kids were at summer camp – their first trip away from home and parents for an extended time. For weeks, they’d been counting down the days until camp started. I told myself that the ease with which they left me behind was a good thing – proof we’re raising independent kids who don’t need mommy around all the time.

They went to an “old-school” summer camp – the kind with bunk beds for sleeping, a creek for swimming, horses for riding and games for playing. Much to their surprise, the kids not only survived but thrived during their week without a TV screen, a smartphone, an app or a YouTube channel. They were gloriously unplugged and free to make memories.

What I wasn’t prepared for, however, was my own case of kid withdrawal. Spoiled by our overly connected world, I felt a little lost without the ability to check on the kids. No phone calls. No thumbs up emojiFaceTime. No emails. No texts. Not even a thumbs-up emoji to let me know all was well.

With no information to prove otherwise, a mother’s mind meanders to dark places at night. “I wonder what they’ve been eating. Are they eating anything? Wonder if they’re having fun on the camp-out in the woods. Are there bears in those woods? Or wolves? I hope the adults check the woods for predators. Of course they do. They know what they’re doing. But what if they forget to do a head-count and accidentally leave my kid in the woods? Lost! Alone! With the bears! And wolves! Stop it. You’re being ridiculous, and you need to go to sleep. Wonder if they’re sleeping well or if they’re just lying there, restless and miserable. Speaking of restless and miserable, maybe I should turn on the TV so I’ll stop thinking about my hungry, sleepless children surrounded by wolves.”

Friends tried to help me see the bright side of the situation. Two less people to feed for a week. Less mess to clean up. No sibling arguments.

I knew they were right. But I couldn’t help feeling that the house was possibly a bit too quiet. Too still. Sure, there was less to do but also less to laugh about. We had fewer hugs and were short on smiles.

But then Saturday morning, when those cabin doors opened and our campers emerged, I was smiling so hard I had face cramps. I scooped up my youngest and hugged her to me before passing her over to Tom who was in dire need of a kid fix, too. Then we spotted her older brother and gathered him in a group hug.

On the way home, we heard stories about swimming, rock climbing, laser tag, horses, running games and a thrilling ride down a zip line. They were well-fed, had slept fine all week and were tan from their days in the sun. They were also happy to get back home, though not nearly as happy as I was to have them here.

emoji sleepingCamp week taught me that absence does indeed make the heart grow fonder, but it can also turn a paranoid parent into an insomniac. That night, with the Earth back on its axis and the kids in their beds, I fell asleep in record time.

Welcome home, ducklings. We missed you.

gwen-headshot-2014Gwen Rockwood is a mom to three great kids, wife to one cool guy, a newspaper columnist and co-owner of To read previously published installments of The Rockwood Files, click here. To check out Gwen’s book, “Reporting Live from the Laundry Pile: The Rockwood Files Collection,” click HERE.

The Rockwood Files: None of the above

rockwood files colorBy Gwen Rockwood, newspaper columnist and mama of 3

Dear Kids,

You asked me the other day what I thought of the stuff we see on the news about the presidential race. As someone who makes a living with words, this is hard for me to say: I just don’t know. This time around, the words fail me.

I imagine this must be how you guys feel when you’re in school and you have to take a hard test. You know how sometimes you get a test question that has multiple choices, but none of them seem quite right? Option A doesn’t really fit and Option B sounds crazy, so you go with Option C, which says “none of the above.” On tests, sometimes “none of the above” is the right answer. The teacher includes that type of question to make sure you’re not easily fooled by misleading options.

standardized test 2The problem for grown-ups right now is that we have no Option C, even though there are plenty of us who would circle that one if we could.

What’s worse is that, every time we watch the news, I wonder if this whole thing is a trick question and there really is no right answer. Part of me keeps waiting for someone to interrupt the news broadcast and say, “Gotcha! We were just kidding!” Because I’d feel better if this election cycle was just a bad practical joke that went on too long.

I also feel ashamed because you kids probably thought grown-ups were emotionally mature, thoughtful people who don’t lower themselves to the kind of jerky behavior you see on playgrounds or in school cafeterias. We were supposed to be above all of that, having outgrown it sometime after middle school.

But now you’re old enough to watch the news, and you see that even the people applying for the most important job in the nation do bone-headed, ugly things almost daily. I wouldn’t blame you for feeling profoundly disappointed. I feel it, too.

Part of me wishes this whole thing was just some dumb reality show. If it were, we could shake our heads, roll our eyes and change the channel. It wouldn’t have any real bearing on our lives. What scares me most is how much it really does matter.

white-house-516052_640You know what’s crazy? We mothers are supposed to want our kids to aspire to be President one day. But I don’t know if I’d even want that life for you. The path to get there seems so crowded with pain, lies, sabotage and outright treachery. I wish I didn’t feel that way. I wish there was someone in the race who made public service look like the inspiring, selfless, honorable act that it is.

I’m trying not to be so disillusioned about it. As I told you the other day, the best thing we can do is pray about it – pray that the right person comes into power and that he or she is guided by God.

I do know one thing. Being your mother will ultimately help me decide what to do when it’s time to vote. If a candidate behaves in a way that makes me cringe and pray that my children never act that way, the decision gets easier. I can’t stomach the thought of someone fundamentally unkind being the leader of the free world.

This is a hard question, kids. Some are calling it the “best of two bad choices.” All I know for sure is that a lot of us are still wishing, hoping and praying for an Option C.

gwen-headshot-2014Gwen Rockwood is a mom to three great kids, wife to one cool guy, a newspaper columnist and co-owner of To read previously published installments of The Rockwood Files, click here. To check out Gwen’s book, “Reporting Live from the Laundry Pile: The Rockwood Files Collection,” click HERE.

The Rockwood Files: Swat Team of Clean

By Gwen Rockwood, newspaper columnist and mama of 3

Wednesday will be a good day. Because by early afternoon, the kitchen and bathroom counters will be clean, the floors shiny and there’ll be fresh vacuum cleaner tracks throughout the house. Every other Wednesday by 2 p.m., life is good and orderly and smells like lemons. It’s wonderful.

But before that happens, I’ve got to clean up around here. Why? Because the house cleaners are coming!

Tom always thinks I’m nuts when I get up Wednesday morning and fly into my pre-cleaning routine before our bi-weekly Swat Team of Clean arrives. But women understand the two reasons why we clean right before the house cleaners come:

  1. Because we don’t want the house cleaners to think we’re slobs.
  2. Because the cleaners will be able to clean more thoroughly if they’re not dodging our clutter.

That last one is the only good reason to pre-clean before the cleaners come, but the truth is that the first reason has a lot more to do with it. I’m not sure why women worry about whether or not our house cleaners think we’re slobs, but we do. If I asked our housekeeper about it, I imagine she’d say she rather likes the job security slobs provide. Dirty houses have allowed her to build her own successful business.

After I got married 14 years ago, I never thought I’d have a house cleaning service. I assumed I could do it all myself and worried that, if I didn’t, Martha Stewart would show up at our door with a judgmental stare and revoke my “good homemaker” card.

But after our first two kids were born, I was barely keeping up with laundry, housework and writing deadlines. I was driving myself crazy trying to get it all done. When I got pregnant with our third child and was put on partial bed rest, I finally ripped off the Supermom cape and hired Diana, the house-cleaning savior who swooped into our lives and showed me what I’d been missing.

For the first few months that Diana and her crew came to clean, I felt terribly guilty about it. Part of me wanted to follow her around apologizing for the glob of toothpaste dried onto the kids’ sink or the apple juice that had made the kitchen floor sticky.

But over time I learned to let go of the guilt and instead appreciate how great it was to have the whole house cleaned in a few hours’ time instead of the week it would have taken me to do those same things on my own.

By the time my due date arrived, I was officially in love with my house cleaners. They were like my own magical fairies who flew in to make everything beautiful again.

Shortly after our third baby was born and bed rest was over, Tom asked if we should discontinue the house cleaning service. I laughed – a good, hard laugh – and told him we could discontinue it as long as he promised to take over the round-the-clock breastfeeding I was doing. He saw it my way after that.

Of course, having a house cleaning service does add another expense to the budget. Many people decide to deal with a little domestic dirt or clean it themselves rather than pay that fee. But I’ve decided that, as nice as a newer car might be, I’d rather skip the car payment and keep the cleaners. The sense of calm I get from the gleaming floors makes it worth it.

Now I better get busy straightening up around here. The house cleaners are coming and this place is a mess.


Burn, baby, burn: Homework inferno

rockwood files colorBy Gwen Rockwood, newspaper columnist and mama of 3

My kids’ education just went up in smoke – again. Friday was their last day in school, so this weekend we held the annual End-of-School Bonfire. Other than Christmas and birthdays, it’s the one day of the year the kids look forward to most.

We stumbled upon this idea last spring. Tom was using a burn barrel to burn some twigs and leaves and suggested the kids toss in the piles of math worksheets and spelling tests they’d stacked on the kitchen table after the last day of the school year.

fireShocked, the kids looked at him for confirmation. “Really? We can burn our school papers?”

Tom shrugged his shoulders. “I don’t see why not. You already learned that stuff, right?”

The kids nodded furiously.

“Okay, then pitch it into the fire.”

They hooted and hollered as they retrieved their school papers and sprinted to the burn barrel with nine months of knowledge tucked under their arms. One by one, they crumpled up papers and shot them into the barrel, clapping wildly as book reports and algebra worksheets disappeared into a fine, educated smoke.

One of the neighborhood kids caught wind of the situation and asked if he, too, could pitch his papers into the fire. Why not, we said? So he ran home and came back with a backpack full of work to keep the fire going.

It didn’t take long before one of the kids wisely observed that the only thing that would make a homework-burning bonfire better would be the ability to roast marshmallows while your science project faces its fiery fate. The other kids agreed with gusto, and soon we were using wire clothes hangers to stab fluffy marshmallows and thrust them over the flames.

This year, at least two weeks before school ended, the kids were already asking about the next bonfire. Knowing it was coming helped get them through those last whiny weeks of school, when everyone had grown weary from early mornings and standardized tests.

smores photoDuring a recent trip to the grocery store, the youngest of the three kids asked if we could go ahead and buy the marshmallows, Hershey bars and graham crackers so we’d be ready for the end-of-school bonfire. Proof that our school system truly is teaching our kids a thing or two, she not only showed the ability to plan ahead, she also had the good sense to hide the chocolate bars from her older brothers so the s’mores ingredients wouldn’t disappear before the bonfire began. Smart kid.

When I picked them up from the last day of school, they climbed into the car, happily toting backpacks full of completed papers and graded tests. They showed me the stash of papers that would soon turn into a burn barrel inferno – bright orange flames licking the crumpled edges of vocabulary tests and American history study guides.

We kept the books, of course, and any folders that can be used again in the fall but the rest was tossed into our impromptu incinerator.

Huddled around it were our three kids and neighborhood friends, too – all of them gleeful for summer break, hopped up on s’mores and wide-eyed as they watched the flames do a celebratory dance for summer.

So if you detected the faint hint of smoke in the air last weekend, it wasn’t steaks on the grill. It was just the Rockwood children’s collective knowledge going up in smoke yet again. It was the smell of decimals and mixed numbers, longitude and latitude, conjunctions and proper nouns. The kids call it the smell of freedom.

Hello there, Summer. We’ve been expecting you.

gwen-headshot-2014Gwen Rockwood is a mom to three great kids, wife to one cool guy, a newspaper columnist and co-owner of To read previously published installments of The Rockwood Files, click here. To check out Gwen’s book, “Reporting Live from the Laundry Pile: The Rockwood Files Collection,” click HERE.