May 24, 2006

Rhymes with Spring

Jack and Will, along with their classmates and the rest of their preschool/kindergarten, gave a concert yesterday under the trees in their schoolyard. The kindergarteners sang their own song, "Here Comes the Sun," but they were all together for the rest, including "Take Me Out to the Ball Game."Jack looked like he was being tortured, staring down grimly, barely opening his mouth, and sometimes chewing his cuticles. Will, on the other hand, smiled broadly when he sang, belting it out. Many of the girls bounced up and down wildly and gestured while singing, and some of the smallest children looked like they weren't sure where they were or what was expected of them. Others were hopelessly distracted by the crowd of families waving, videotaping and taking pictures. Then there are always a couple of inconsolable tots who need to be held by the teacher. Apparently, every child has their very own special Singing at the School Concert Personality. And the parents just watch helplessly as little Tyler picks his nose or Madison lifts her dress up over her tummy, again and again.

At the end, massive applause. The music teacher announced he was tired. You could hear the parents proclaiming "Great job!" to their children countless times. Because it was a great job, all things considered. And singing with your friends and looking out at a sea of admiring parents is the ultimate love feast. And then? Ice cream for all, much running around, indiscriminate yelling, and staying up a little past bedtime. In short, a perfect evening.

May 23, 2006

Tiggers Bounce

On Saturday we got to have our "Special Members' Preview" of Big Cat Falls, the new habitat at the Philadelphia Zoo. It's not quite all populated yet, but the lions, Amur tiger, and Amur leopard are there. The lions and Amur leopard have an uneasy relationship at this point, involving much pacing on the part of the leopard and stalking on the part of the lions. In one area, only a one-and-a-half-inch plexiglass window separates the people from the lions. It's not often that you get to see a 400-lb. lion ambling within inches of a toddler's chubby toes.The Amur tiger was sleeping, so we didn't get to see him much. They can weigh up to 650 lbs, and to cushion their jumping, their paws have very thick pads. We looked at a mold made from a huge paw, and were suitably impressed.

The elephants were agitated that day, as was the rhino. The elephants were spraying mud and hollering, and one picked up a log with its trunk. I was afraid it would throw it at the rhino and that it would hit us. The boys were squealing with excitement. The rhino kept hauling his bulk in and and out of his little pond over and over, with the elephant looking on and bellowing. It's as if the rhino was on a vigorous workout program, the elephant his relentless trainer.

The zoo was very crowded, though. We normally get there when they open at 9:30. This time we had to go to remote parking, a dusty uneven lot in Fairmount Park. Will immediately took a header, thereby covering himself in dirt with amazing efficiency. Usually it takes a few hours to get that dirty.

At the end we pedaled on the swan boats, Jack and me in one and John and Will in the other. We jostled with the other riders in the crowded lake, but could sometimes find a still, quiet inlet in which to watch the the laughing boaters, the begging geese, and the clear blue sky.

May 19, 2006

The Switched Cart Incident: A Morality Tale

Yesterday I was drifting through Target with a shopping list, accumulating a modest pile in my cart. Near the end of my perambulations I looked down to toss a nail brush in my cart. But the paper towels weren't my brand. I didn't need that many bars of soap. Hey! That's not my cart! If I had someone else's cart, then where was mine? I had just had it a minute earlier. I looked around me. Woman on a cell phone. Red-shirted Target employee taking inventory. Child demanding something loudly. All appeared innocent. I walked up and down the nearby aisles, nothing.

"This is really strange, but my cart disappeared. Someone must have taken mine and left theirs. . . . " I said to the Target lady, feeling a bit discombobulated and confused.

"I'll look for it," she said amiably. "What was in it?"

I paused. "What was in it?" I repeated dumbly, stalling. Glancing at my list, I saw "foaming hand soap."

"Um, foaming hand soap . . . ?" I murmured, lacking conviction. Other than the foaming hand soap, the truth was more like "Several miscellaneous cleaning products and plastic containers that weren't on my list, but that promised to make my life easier, my summer more bearable, and my demeanor more cheerful. But I have only a vague sense of what they were."

She said she'd look for my cart. I made a little show of looking some more, went back and just picked up the foaming hand soap to buy along with the nail brush. So, brave guerilla shoppers, the next time you stray from your list, ask yourself, "If my cart were lost, what would I run back and purchase?" And just get that.

May 18, 2006

Postcards from Exurbia

I just finished reading Rattled, a newly published satirical novel by Debra Galant. It's about the perils of living in a McMansion in the exurbs of Gloucester County, New Jersey. Ms. Galant wrote a column about New Jersey suburban life for the NYT for a few years, so many of the sociological details are excellent. The main character, Heather, is straight out of Desparate Housewives, a cross between Bree and Gabby. I wish she were portrayed a bit more sympathetically, but then I guess it wouldn't be straightforward satire. If you love to hate aquisitive SUV-owning McMansion dwellers and the developers who cater to their "needs" and cut every environmental corner, you'll find it delightful.

Delaware County, where I live, is so densely populated that we don't have room for exurbs, except for way out in the far west reaches, around the amorphouse area called Glen Mills. Somewhere around there, you hit Chester County, which is more known for McMansionitis and its accompanying Porsche and Mercedes dealerships. When we first moved here three years ago, I was innocently driving along Baltimore Pike way out in the country way past Media, into Concordville and it's little country inns and rolling hills and suddenly--wha . . . ?-- Williams-Sonoma, Talbot's, Eddie Bauer, Chico's, Pottery Parn, Pier One, Zagara's (now Foodsource), all in one shopping strip. But why?

Because somewhere out there, nestled in cul-de-sacs well hidden beyond the bustle of Baltimore Pike, crouch insatiable gigantic "homes" (they're never "houses") demanding to be filled with new stuff from these stores. I've never actually seen these places, mind you. I've just extrapolated their existence from the high-end stores and the slim women with fabulous highlighting jobs, designer track suits, deluxe strollers and immaculately dressed toddlers who frequent the stores. Some of Jack and Will's classmates live out there, but their birthday parties are, of course, never held at home.

Rattled is full of brand names, which seems to be a trend lately among a certain kind of satirical fiction. In these days of viral marketing and product placement, that sort of bothers me, even though the mention is only meant as a social indicator. Anyway, let's just say you'll not want to drool over that Restoration Hardware catalog after reading this book.

May 17, 2006

Retreat of the Laurens

Well, it's finally happened. The year 2005 was the first year since 1984 that "Lauren" was not one of the top twenty baby names in the U.S. I'm relieved, I suppose, but the damage has been done. It's funny because when I was a child, I was the only Lauren in every school I went to, without fail. And I attended nine different schools. People had difficulty remembering it and spelling it, so very often I was called Laura, Laureen, or Lorna. Few people complemented me on the name, either; it was just too unusual. For my birth year, 1958, there were lots of Lindas, Susans, Karens, and Barbaras. Only weird people gave their kids weird names.

Then in college there was a girl whose name was "Lauryn," like Lauryn Hill. Her mother had wanted her to be named Lauren, and the father wanted her to be named Katharine, so they "compromised" with "Lauryn." Not much of a compromise. Anyway, she was in my History of the English Language class, and having another student with my name was unsettling. I couldn't be completely sure, sometimes, who people were talking to. It used to be so easy.

Then the field was blown wide open in the 1980s. Vice President Bush's granddaughter was named Lauren and then it seemed that every few weeks in a supermarket I could hear a mother calling out, "Lauren, don't touch that!" "Come here this minute, Lauren!" It was years before I stopped jumping at these commands. Around this time people started telling me I had a beautiful name, and thus began a decade or so when I really loved my name because people loved my name. They were learning how to spell it, too, and now I hardly ever have to spell it for people.

Another thing has happened, though. Now it's not interesting to meet a Lauren. No spark of recognition, no conversation of "How did your parents come to name you Lauren?" No instantaneous bond forming. My name isn't special any more. Sure, it's a fine name, but, like Caitlyn and Jessica it's been beaten to death. My mother was looking for an unusual name on purpose, and she just happened to like the way it sounded. She got the idea, of course, from Lauren Bacall, but would get her knickers all in a twist every time my Dad would say, as a joke, that I was named "after" Lauren Bacall. "I did not name my daughter after a movie star," she would say, getting all snobby and huffy, the full Katharine Hepburn act.

Anyway, this means also that a number of people have both my first and last name. Thank goodness my middle name is so weird that only dead people have it.

May 16, 2006

Hey, Mommy Dude

On Saturday (not actually on Mother's Day) I found two cards propped outside the bathroom door, both addressing me as "Dude." As the Felicity Huffman character says to her son in Transamerica, "Stop calling me 'dude.'" Only I don't have the same reason to be sensitive about it. I remember that Anne Lamott's son called her "dude," too, so I'm in good company.

For Mother's Day, all I wanted was to plant my herb garden. So it's in, and bordered by all the stones I found in the back garden that must have been discarded when previous owners were installing the patio years ago. I have one each of the following: marjoram, dwarf gray sage, purple sage, French thyme, French tarragon, basil, cilantro, oregano, "hot and spicy" oregano, dill, catnip, parsley, and arugula. It rained buckets yesterday, not just water but hail as well, so I haven't planted any seeds yet. As far as seeds go, we've got sunflowers, scarlet runner beans, polar bear zinnias, nasturtiums, and marigolds.

We are now the proud owners of a rain barrel made from a whisky barrel. The flowers smell drunken, but we are conserving a teensy bit of water, anyway. It's more high maintenance than I thought. The filter gets clogged constantly with various tree droppings via the gutters, and I think it will need to be treated so the barrel doesn't fall apart in a few years. It fills up after about an hour of rain. But it's a conversation piece. Just remember, if you're a recovering alcoholic, no smelling my rain barrel.

May 11, 2006

Gender Bender at Preschool

Occasionally, I decide to polish my nails. Last week was one of those weeks, and Will begged to have his nails done, too.

Will: "I want red!"
Me: "I don't have red."
Will: What color is that?"
Me: "Teak rose."
Will: "I want teak rose!"
Jack asked, truly puzzled, "Why do you want to wear nail polish? Only girls wear that."
Will cried, "I want to! I want to!"
So I said, "Look, I'll give you a racing stripe on one nail." That will give him an acceptable explanation for the boys, should he need one.

So, that's what he's got, on his right index fingernail. Waiting for it to dry was more dramatic than one would think, with lots of "Oh, when will it be dry? It's not dry! Can I touch anything yet? What about now? Can I touch anything now?"

When asked later if anyone noticed his nail polish, Will replied that his friend Isaiah was "shocked."

May 10, 2006

What Could be Better Than Pancakes for Dinner?

Last night John had an accounting final. He stoked up for it by eating some blueberry pancakes that Will helped me make. After John left, the rest of us gobbled up the remaining ones. Pancakes are tricky. The heat on the griddle needs to be fairly high but not too high because you don't want raw insides. Inevitably the first pancake or two looks a little "special." But eventually I get it and they start looking browned and circular. I added a half cup of Trader Joe's frozen wild blueberries this time. We put pure maple syrup on them, which I suppose is decadent, but we do get it from a warehouse store, and don't use that much of it. Plus, life is short.

This recipe is my Nana's. She always made them in a low cast-iron griddle. I gave the griddle to my brother Dan because I couldn't use it on an electric range; it has a raised rim, so most of the pan doesn't touch the cooking surface. Her pancakes are the best, with their buttermilk tang. Will said, "I love Nana's pancakes! If she was alive, I would say '"I love your pancakes SO much.'"

Nana's Buttermilk Pancakes

2 cups flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon sugar
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
2 2/3 cups buttermilk
4 tablespoons melted butter
2 eggs

Sift dry ingredients together in a large bowl. Combine buttermilk, eggs, and melted butter in a smaller bowl and beat. Stir into dry ingredients, mixing enough to moisten.

Drop by large spoonfuls onto preheated, fairly hot pan or griddle (a drop of batter should sizzle). Flip over when small bubbles appear, and edges start to look dry.

May 9, 2006

Caitlin Flanagan on Reality TV

Caitlin Flanagan has been getting lots of press for her new book The Hell with All That: Loving and Loathing Our Inner Housewife, about how mothers should stay home with their children. Not just that, but how they should joyfully keep house. Ms. Flanagan has been accused, for good reason, of hypocrisy. You see, she writes all day, while her children are in school. She has had domestic help, for years, including a full-time nanny when her twins were babies. But she still claims the right to be called a "stay-at-home mom." I guess because she is mostly at home, and a mom. Ms. Flanagan freely admits, right in the book, that she has never changed a sheet. Let me repeat that. She has never changed a sheet. Was she never a 22-year-old living in a railroad apartment, maidless and husbandless? Was she never a college student? Plainly, this statement is hyperbole, no? . . . . Okay, maybe not.

At any rate, I believe she is perfectly aware that her idealization of the 1950s housewife can only be sustained at a distance, either through a mist of nostalgia or through intellectualizing the concept of "The Housewife."Ms. Flanagan is begging for a reality check. So I say she gets her own TV show, American Housewife. In it, she lives in her own house, but all her domestic help have been relieved of their jobs temporarily so they can create the laugh track. See Caitlin scrub the toilets, rotate a mattress, wash the windows, scrub vomit from the carpet. Can she singlehandedly prevent entropy from conquering her universe? She must do all this while working under a non-negotiable deadline for an article for The New Yorker, cooking from scratch every day, helping the children with their homework, and "putting out" for her husband several times a week (as Stephen Colbert so delicately puts her insistence that wives need to be more available) .Oh, and Martha Stewart and Cheryl Mendelsohn are coming over for dinner in a week.

Then, Ms. Flanagan, I'd be glad to hear what you have to say.

May 5, 2006

Rhubarb Days

It just isn't spring without rhubarb. I make two or three rhubarb pies or crisps every year at this time. Last year I also made a rhubarb coffee cake. This year I made two pies, one to take to my friend Jane's for dinner and one just for us. I didn't have quite enough rhubarb so I threw in some strawberries and blueberries. I use the recipe from the old Joy of Cooking for fresh berry pie, simplify and cheat a little and add tapioca. This is it:

4 cups chopped rhubarb
1/4 cup flour
1 cup sugar
juice of a lemon
2 tsp quick-cooking tapioca
two Pillsbury pie crusts (ha!)

Mix all this together gently with your hands (because I love to mix stuff with my hands!) until it all seems quite damp and well-mixed. Let it sit 15 minutes. Meantime, preheat oven to 450. Take out two Pillsbury pie crusts (ha!) and let them come to room temperature. Lay out the bottom crust and put filling in. Cut the other crust for the top into strips, and make a fake-out lattice crust by simply laying them on one way and then perpendicular to that. None of this business of actually weaving them. If you don't know what I mean, then just prick a bunch of holes in the crust and slap the thing on, smoothing out the sides or fluting them to make the crust look endearingly homemade. Bake at 450 for 10 minutes and then lower heat to 350 for 35-40 minutes.

There, you have one mighty fine rhubarb pie. Serve warm with vanilla ice cream. Looks lovely on a blue plate.

May 4, 2006

No Home in the World

Yesterday WHYY, our local public radio station, aired its morning call-in show, Radio Times, on the topic of homelessness. A man and a woman were being interviewed by the host, Marty Moss-Coane. They had both been drug addicts for years. By the grace of God and the perstistent intervention of relatives, they've been clean for a few years, and are now living on their own, and giving their time back to help the homeless.

While they talked, I scrubbed my kitchen floor. I thought about my brother David, who lost his life on the streets, despite all the advantages he started out with. Drugs and mental illness took over at several points, and homelessness struck three times. I've got to call in to that show, I thought. Where's a pencil? There was never a pencil to be found quite at the time Marty said the number, plus it was almost twelve, when the show would be over. She said, "We can take one more call. Here's Dan from Center Valley."

It was my other brother. He said, "I had a brother who went to college, trained for a career, and yet somehow ended up on the streets. When you see a homeless person, you have to realize that that person is someone's son or daughter, sister or brother, mom or dad." Later I emailed Dan to say how glad I was that he called in. He said, "I was on my way to Dad's when I called. I didn't expect to get through - just squeaked in under the wire! Needless to say, I needed a few minutes in the car to compose myself before I could go in to lunch, but I am so glad I got through."

Next time you are rushing down the street, whether it's to work, to lunch, or to run an errand, stop and say hello to the ones who live life on the margins. And--please--smile and look them in the eyes.