Dec 31, 2006

Between the Years

Between Christmas and New Year's is a magically suspended week. We celebrate with our children and remember our own childhoods. Yet while we revel in the present in light of the past, we also think about the future in a way only possible during this week. There is a spentness to this season; the Christmas tree is getting dryer, wrapping paper and ribbons can be found behind the sofa, and where is that gift certificate, anyway? Our waists are a tad wider. And we think, "Is this all?"

I met with two old friends near the MLA convention this past week. One of them, G., I have always envied. She has children and tenure at a decent school, a published book and another on the way. But. Her marriage is unraveling, destructively. viciously, and it is causing her to despair. And I am afraid for her. Please send your thoughts and prayers out to her . . . . My other friend who I met, H., is still single at 50, and has recently won a coveted short story prize, but is still waiting for her "break." She just learned that she has arthritis in her hips, and that her ex-fiance is married, with a child. Pray and think about her, too.

There is a point, somewhere in midlife, when you can run aground. Your mistakes catch up with you, the narrative of your life is stalled, you dread exposing your fears to anyone. At a certain point the seams in your soul start to show you that things aren't getting better and better, an endless spiral of success and happiness. Then, what do you? You've lost track of your oldest and best friends, or don't forgive them for something you no longer remember. You can't be as vulnerable to new friends as you would have been, because you don't want to appear needy.

Our culture doesn't give us a clear way to transcend our bodies or our fears, or any legitimate way to smash the success myth. We have to claw our way out of this one, full of grit and cussedness. We need to start praying, make art, teach someone to read, write a book, learn to give back, forgive those who have wronged us. We need to seek community, whether it's a church or synogogue or not. We cannot do this on our own.

In less than two years I will be 50. I know that raising children is extremely valuable, but I need something else that adds up to more than carpools, loaves of bread, and a blog. I know that I need to dedicate myself to writing, and I am working on some specific solutions that are too tentative to mention now. (Don't worry, this does not involve running away from home.) Dear readers, help me have the boldness to do this.

And may you face the challenges of the New Year with grit and cussedness.

Dec 18, 2006

Bicycles, Blintzes and Beeswax

Have you ever entered a place where you thought, "This is it. The center of the universe"? One of the first times I ever had this feeling was when I walked into Via Bicycle Shop, in Philly, back when it was on Pine St. To say that they sold used bicycles is to do the place a disservice. They sold magic vintage bicycles, from every decade of the 20th century. The proprietor, Mike, sported a handlebar mustache, and in every conceivable Center City parade rode a turn-of-20th-century bike with huge metals wheels. Naturally, he wore knickers.

Whenever I was in that shop, buying my red Schwinn from the late 1960s, or getting it fixed, I felt like I was part of something great. I was living in the center of my life, and the people who worked there were where they were meant to be. I soaked in the atmosphere, that smell of old metal and bike grease, and admired the elegant forms of the bicycles hanging from the ceiling and parked in rows. Thick fenders, fancy lights, unwieldy baskets, bikes with sidecars or three or four wheels, tandems, styles of all eras in one place-- a monument to innovation, creativity, and sometimes folly.

You have to discover these places by accident. That's one of the criteria. And they are rarely located in suburbs. One day years ago I was waiting for the clothes to dry at the laundromat six blocks from my apartment. (I only did my laundry every three weeks.) Bored and hungry, I wandered next door into what looked like a sandwich shop. It was no sandwich shop. It was the Jewish deli to end all your searching. A Jewish deli bursting with personality and the aroma of pastrami baking. Penn students, faculty and locals would wait in line for up to one hour for a heaping, juicy sandwich from this place. The two brothers who ran it, who have both since died, told creaky old jokes that started with "Did you hear the one about . . ." and passed out free slices of meat and cheese to their willingly captive audience.

This serendipity happens less to me now, maybe because I don't live in the city, which means I'm not wandering around on foot, not vulnerable to miracles. So once in a while I take the train to the city to "do some shopping." My current center of the universe is Reading Terminal Market. I went there last week on the train, and really did do Christmas shopping. I got a funky piece of kitchenware that I can't describe here because of Christmas secrecy, beeswax candles from the Amish beeswax shop, five lbs. of turkey thighs for a batch of chili ($2.59 a lb.!), ancho chili powder, and coffee from Old City Coffee (Balzac Blend, my favorite). And I met my hubby for lunch at 12th St. Cantina.

Above and beyond all that good stuff, I experienced the buzz of the place, where white, black, young, old, wealthy and not, all come together to shop, meet, and to absorb the sights and sounds. It's a place to come in from the cold, or to have your shoes shined. You can buy a fresh goose or a bag of pig's knuckles. You can find African jewelry and almost any cookbook in print. Not to mention the truest of Italian cannoli or the freshest, most buttery hot pretzels ever. Or, of course, the cheap, abundant, fresh flowers/fish/produce of every description.

Most of all, when you're at the Reading Terminal Market, you know that you are present in your own life, all your senses alive. And here you celebrate the richness of the world with perfect strangers. It's a distilled version of the city itself, the essence of its life, hope, and energy.

May you find your center of the universe this season.

Dec 13, 2006

The Dream Kitchen Google Search Award Ceremony

All in yesterday's and today's Google searches:

The Split Personality/Comma Splice Award goes to: "My Greek husband was nice, now he is horrible."

The Same Wavelength as Lauren Award: "scholastic 'book fair' junk."

The Kinky Award: "I put nail polish on him."

And finally, the Who Would Have Thought to Ask Award: "President Millard Fillmore favorite dishes."

Dec 12, 2006

The Newest New Math. Does Not Compute.

When I was a kid we had "New Math." Every September we learned about sets, from elementary up through high school, it seems. Jack's school has started a new curriculum, Everyday Mathematics. The whole school is doing it. The main idea seems to be that they keep spiraling back around to repeat concepts or teach them in a new way, the idea being that if the children don't get it the first time around they may the next time, etc. Jack's teacher, like all of the teachers, is learning the system just a few steps ahead of the kids.

Now Jack loves math. He begs to learn more. John has taught him to carry, but we learned at the teacher conference that in the Everyday Math curriculum the kids don't learn to carry. "They have a new algorithm for that," says the teacher. "I don't know what it is yet, but don't teach Jack to carry. He may get confused." Oops, too late.

Now we are trying to hammer out a Gifted IEP for Jack, and his teacher is too busy learning the new curriculum and making sure most kids get it to meet Jack's needs. At least she was honest, and I really can't blame her. So it looks like we'll be leaning on the Gifted Coordinator to pull him out and give him extra instruction? His teacher doesn't like the idea of Jack missing "the games" and not knowing how to play them in future years. (So what will they do with the new kids?) The Gifted Coordinator told me at our GIEP meeting yesterday that most gifted enrichment is "in the classroom." So--now what?

In my web trolling I found the Education Program for Gifted Youth out of Stanford that kids can do at their schools. His school has a computer lab and he's good at computers, so what's not to like? My plan is to suggest he do that two class periods a week during his regular math class, so he is challenged. I'll volunteer to help monitor. And there must be other gifted kids in 1st or 2nd grades (before the pullout begins) who could use something like this. But how to get in touch with the other parents? The Gifted Coordinator isn't allowed to give me those names, of course. As Pooh says, "Think, think, think."

In my casual conversations with parents, I'm surprised at how little people know about Gifted IEPs. They think have to wait until the end of 2nd grade for testing. Not so! It's your right to have your child tested in any grade, even kindergarten, at least in Pennsylvania. And the school is required to meet the educational needs of your child. The thing is that the school will try to fit the child into the existing curriculum and it's really up to the parent to come up with other ideas/force them to go out of their way for your child. Or take it to mediation. That's just the way it is. I'm memorizing the email and phone number of the Gifted Coordinator, practicing my pushiness, and hardening my soul.

Dec 9, 2006

Armenian Cholesterol Bombs Found in Delaware County

BROOMALL, PA: By the busy intersection of Rte.3 and Rte. 320, in the small suburb of Broomall, a store ironically called "Armenian Delight" (cash only, not enough parking) is quietly producing cheese boureg, tray by tray. Although cheese boureg may be found at various Armenian festivals throughout the country, Armenian Delight's cheese boureg is especially insidious because, says our tipster, "You can get them all year. They're always in the frozen food case, by the kafta and spanikopita. . ." she trailed off, rolling on her kitchen floor and groaning, holding her tummy with her greasy hands, flecks of phyllo around her mouth.

What makes this boureg so dangerous is that each layer of phyllo pastry is brushed with butter, and in the middle lies a generous layer of mozzarella and cheddar, with a little parsley for color. This glistening, melty bomb provided all too tempting for our tipster, who "really wants to lose 14 lbs," but "couldn't stop eating these things." Her five year-old ate several, which won't hurt him as he will burn it off just jumping up and down while brushing his teeth. The seven-year-old prefers Trader Joe's veggie corn dogs. (Go figure!)

It is believed this cholesterol invasion will only hurt residents of Delaware County, PA, mostly the quiet little community of Armenians in Broomall, who comprise most of the store's customer base. Our tipster drives out there for the salads (artichoke, bean, roasted vegetable) if she is having her book group over. She claims. Also, the hummus. The bhaba ghanoush. The "Armenian pizza" which is oddly without cheese. Not to mention the fresh halvah with pistachios, and, of course, all the nut-honey-phyllo bombs.

One solution to this problem would be to have more ethnic restaurants and take-out joints in Delaware County, to make it less likely for people to find the cheese boureg. Our reporters are tracking the rumor that there is a county-wide ban on Indian restaurants, but generous subsidies for hoagie shops.

Dec 7, 2006

Only if You're Southern Baptist

Will is all about winter now. If it's cold and someone says, "Winter has finally started," in that conventional conversation-making way, he will retort with "No it hasn't! It starts December 22!" When his teacher complimented him on his haircut, he clarified "This is my winter haircut." Yesterday I was driving him to school and he asked, "Do we go to church in the winter?" I said yes, and he followed up with "Does church go on forever?"

Dec 6, 2006

In Which I Accidentally Buy Steel Cut Oats

I don't know about you, but I'm unwilling to wait 30 minutes for a bowl of oatmeal. Many years ago I decided that five minutes was just right, and "quick" oatmeal is cheating. We all walk that fine line between perfection and pragmatism, right? So now I'm stuck with this cannister of teensy tough oatmeal pellets. I put some in the bread, which is now cooling. So we'll see whether we chip our teeth on these tough little Irish nuggets. The recipe for cooked oatmeal on the box is for four servings, because it really isn't worth the cooking time for any fewer. However, in our house we do not have four people willing to eat oatmeal for breakfast, alas. And the box admonishes us, "Steel cut oats are best prepared on the stovetop." And they know what we're thinking, and so they add, "Microwaving steel cut oats is not recommended." You just have to cook a mess o' these suckers, for a long time, no way around it.

Let me slice a piece of this bread. Wait right there. -Brief musical interlude- OK, I've had a few bites of steaming, crusty bread. It's chewy, and a little nutty and crunchy--it's a thumbs-up. It's going to be a good day.

Dec 4, 2006

Notes from the Overly Analytical Parenting Department

We sometimes read too much into what our children say. We analyze their words, turn them over, scrutinize their intentions. At least I think I hope that's what I'm doing when I contemplate what Will said to me at the playground a couple of weeks ago. Will had been balking at one of those poles you slide down from the top of the play apparatus, and I said "That Mommy over there said her daughter also has trouble sliding down the pole." Whereupon Will said, "Don't listen to what brown people say." I closed in on him in panic, "What do you mean? Why did you say that?" "They're from another country," he explained, and added "Let's go on the swings!" I persisted with "That lady is American, and even if she wasn't, we listen to everyone. No matter where they are from or what color they are. Because we're all in this together. Okay?" "Okay. Let's go on that thing that makes us dizzy."

I doubt he has ever heard anyone say anything like that, and I finally came to the conclusion that his comment was more related to his own insecurity about sliding down the pole. But isn't insecurity is where much racism comes from?

Yesterday the boys and I were taking our coats off in a little coatroom at church. The choir started to file by in their red robes (including John), and Will asked, in a loud voice,to everyone within earshot, "Where's the black guy?" Argh. I pulled him over. "Please don't refer to people that way." "Why not?" he asked. I really couldn't think of a reason, as it's a simple descriptive phrase. He clarified, "You know, the guy who wears black." He meant the choir director.

I'm tired.

Dec 1, 2006

The Scrap

Since my last post, our boys have turned five and seven. We've feasted and partied. The boys have spread their Hotwheels and Zoobs and Legos and new puzzles about the living room. Which, as you can tell, we actually live in. No wasted space around here.

For months I have had a scrap of paper stuck to the magnet board above my desk. It's a corner off an old typed letter, a thin gray clue to the past. I had found it last year among my grandmother's photographs, and thought it compelling enough to keep near me. I will copy each line here, exactly as it reads.

n had a
still bandaged.
because it was haeling
she has grown terribly
's a teaful bon voyage.
ve to all,

I left the two typos in. It was hard to make corrections on manual typewriters, and it seems that the writer was upset herself. I believe this letter was from my mother's grandmother, who died in 1956. I don't know who she can be writing about--a child? After her husband died, she lived with my grandmother's brother Fred and his wife in Seattle until her own death,so it's likely she would have written letters to my mother, in Pennsylvania. Now why did my Nana have this scrap, though? My mother lived with Nana and Papa for a few years in the 1950s before meeting my father, so maybe the letter just stayed with the house. Was it torn by accident? My instinct is that it wasn't, because it's a nicely rectangular shape for a tear. It looks like it was torn in half, the halves torn in half, the quarters torn in half, with this being one quarter of a quarter, or 1/16 of the original letter. But why? Were the words hurtful, accusing, or damaging in any way? Was the recipient(my mother?) ashamed by what she read?

I will never know, and now no one will know, because I'm the only person left with these dusty things and and half-memories and conjectures. I return the scrap to the bulletin board, which it shares with pictures of our friends' three adopted Asian daughters, a leaf print made by one of the boys, a sign that says "If I were the Mom I would wear blue-green nail polish.--Will," and a picture of Jack and Will at Dutch Wonderland riding a little yellow car.