Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Of Stuffed Animals and Disappearances

A little over two years ago, when we first moved to this house, my then-partner announced that JT didn't need to have so many stuffed animals. She boxed up much of the herd and stored them in the basement never to be heard from again. JT would occasionally mention the missing stuffies, but soon he seemed to have forgotten about them. He was growing up and sought different toys to play with.

It was an odd decision on her part, but I didn't stop her. Now I think that she was preparing him for another kind of departure from his life. Like the disappearance of the stuffies, which was sudden and unwarranted, she just disappeared from his life one day last June. He was 6 years old. She came back a week later to explain that she was leaving for good. My son shed tears and asked why. She just shrugged. How can the breakup of a family ever be explained? I brought some of the stuffies back upstairs to his bedroom, to surround him with love to replace the loss that Lisa left in her wake.

Afterward, he would occasionally mention her. He would talk about things that we had done as a family. But, as with the disappearance of the stuffies, soon he quit asking about her. And soon after that, he began to reformulate his memories of our family of three to be memories of a family consisting of just he and I.

But here's the ironic part of the story. Since she left, Lisa has provided JT with a steady supply of stuffies. She's brought him the occasional stuffed animal and during some of her weekly visits she's taken him to Build-a-Bear where he has happily constructed new friends to join the herd. He brings them home and shows them to me. Then he introduces him to the herd. And the new stuffed beast then languishes there, sometimes invited to sleep with a growing boy, but mostly ignored.

Somehow I think that this is exactly the role that Lisa has in his life these days. He smiles when he sees her; she's a familiar friend just like the dusty stuffed monkey in the basket in his room. She's welcome for the hours they spend together. But though she may have once been essential, she's no longer a necessary part of his life. She's part of the past, growing further away every day.

Monday, July 30, 2007

Gardening Stock

I come from gardening stock. The neat, carefully weeded rows in the first picture on the right is my father's garden in California. As long as I can remember, he has planted a garden. From the late spring through the early fall, the produce pours in. Strawberries, carrots, tomatoes, asparagus, peppers and squash overflow his brown basket. Some years are better than others. Sometimes your two year old picks all of the strawberries in the early morning dew. Or, in a competition to get the biggest one, your daughters pull up more carrots then the family can eat in a week. I still recall the amazing taste of the popcorn that my dad grew when I was a teenager.

In the winter, my father puts the off-season to good use. Soil is churned and fertilizer is mixed in. He pours over the seed catalog and his copies of Organic Gardening (which he always calls Orgasmic Gardening). Plans are made for the next planting season. I hear tale that he's got plans for an avocado tree next year.

So I come by it naturally, though my garden isn't as tidy and careful as my father's. But it is a reflection of the things that I have been learning my whole life. I planted early this year, but we had a wet and cool spring and early summer. So it was just today, July 30, that my first tomato was ready. With my son by my side, I picked that tomato and a zucchini to go with it. And tonight we supped on a tradition being passed on.

Don't Tell Mom and Dad

I'm serious here, so if you can't keep your big mouth shut, read no further. A few weeks back, I received a speeding ticket. I was guilty and had richly earned the honor so I was polite when the policeman pulled me over. He wrote up the ticket and then advised me to come to court so that that the prosecutor could take away the points.

I had no earthly idea what the hell this meant, but I nodded as if I understood. The children riding in the back seat of my car looked sufficiently scared to death.

When I returned home (by then driving the speed limit and not a second faster), I did some reading. In NJ, you don't just get the ticket for your poor behavior but they assign points to your license and, if you accumulate enough, your license goes bye-bye. I was in NO danger of this, but even a few points will cause your insurance rates to go up. And I surely don't want that. So I made plans to go to court.

Since that day, every two-bit lawyer in the state has come out of the woodwork to mail me a nice letter offering to represent me in court. If it weren't for the fact that I receive a letter about this nearly every day, it would be funny. I've now come to believe that this whole process is just a big scam orchestrated by lawyers.

But, hey, I'm totally down with that if that means no points for me. So in a week or two, I'll set off for court, wearing my best good citizen expression and holding the hand of my charming seven year old, who will be freshly washed for his mama's court appearance (please keep your white trash comments to yourself). I am not above working it, since near as I can tell, that's the whole idea of the system anyway.

And this is New Jersey.

Sunday, July 29, 2007

The Barry Bonds Phenomenon

The prompt over at Sunday Scribblings is phenomenon, specifically what sort of things make other people excited that just don't get you all worked up. Mine is rather a guilty secret: I don't hate or revile Barry Bonds. If he breaks Hank Aaron's hitting record, I'll watch it on television. I'll probably think about what it takes to hit so many pitches in the major league. I'll listen to commentators indignantly announce that Bond's accomplishment is sullied by allegations that he used steroids. And then I'll change the channel.

I won't wring my hands and note the shame of Bonds using steroids to enhance his already phenomenal hitting power. I'm pretty sure that Bonds has used perfromance enhancement drugs. I think it's a shame, especially because he was a talented athlete without the enhancement. But I won't rant that the record must have an asterisk to note that he's a steroid user.

And it's not because I don't care. I don't think that athletes should use performance enhancement drugs. But I'm not surprised when people do so and I can hardly blame them. The fame and the money and the power generated by physical prowess; by a talent randomly handed to you by god, must sometimes be overwhelming. The combination of physical and mental strength required to be a good athlete is a rare one; hard to sustain over the years. How can we be surprised that some people look for a quicker road to athletic success?

In the end, whether he used drugs or not, Barry Bonds is an impressive athlete. One day, long after he's hit his last major league ball, he'll look in the mirror and have to answer his conscience. That's good enough for me.

Saturday, July 28, 2007

Real Life Conversations at the Beach

The scene: JT is playing with some kids at the water's edge. I'm sitting with my friend S, enjoying the breeze.

Me: JT's tan isn't as dark as that little boy next to him.

S: Probably because that kid is black.

Me: Well that explains it.

Friday, July 27, 2007

Lunatic Fringe?

Another offering in my occasional series on 2008 presidential candidates.

Republican presidential candidate Ron Paul is an interesting guy. In his 72 years, he's served in the Air Force, he's been a physician (an OB/GYN), and he's served in Congress three different times. The latest, taking office in 1997 as a member of the House from Texas, has given him an opportunity to generate more of a national presence . And this isn't Paul's first bid for the presidency; he ran as the Libertarian candidate for the White House in 1988.

Paul has received a lot of attention lately, mostly because of the web-based excitement he has generated. Though he's a third-tier Republican presidential candidate, his web-based fund-raising has been impressive, raising 2.4 million in the 1st and 2nd quarters of 2007. That's real money.

Added to his fund-raising prowess, Paul's Libertarian history that has gotten folks talking about him. In an era when the voting public is so clearly divided and independent voters may be calling the shots, a candidate like Paul, because of his 3rd party background, is seen as possibly appealing to independent voters.

My response? Whatever.

Paul is a fascinating guy but his political views are unusual, some might say a tad nutty. For example, though he voted against the war in Iraq and against the American Patriot Act (two positions that found him at odds with his current political party), he's also opposed to ANY American involvement overseas. A Paul Administration would get us out of the war in Iraq and, at the same time, we'd drop out of the WTO, NATO and the UN, and curtail all American involvement overseas. That's called isolationism and it was a dismal failure the last time we tried it, right before Hitler brought the world his brand of leadership. It was alliances that brought down Hitler (and communism). It is the lack of alliances that is costing us in Iraq today. I just don't see isolation as the answer.

On immigration, Paul proposes that we totally secure our borders, kick out all illegals, end new immigration, put a stop to talk of amnesty for current illegals living in the U.S. and (this is my personal favorite) bringing an end to birthright citizenship. That ought to show the world that we are the land of hope and opportunity.

Paul doesn't want the government involved in issues of personal liberty, opposing the movement for a national identity card and taking a stand against government interference with individual's financial and medical records. This might make him appealing to young voters who favor such positions. But Paul is also opposed to the right of a woman to obtain an abortion, arguing that isn't an individual right (placing him at odds with both Libertarians and most Independent voters).

In sum, Paul is wacky. And when he's not wacky, he's downright scary. And that's why the 2008 presidential cycle will find him sans the Republican nomination, a victim of his own lunacy.

Thursday, July 26, 2007

I'll Take One Progressive to Go

In the 1980s, when Ronald Reagan was the king of Republicans, he and other GOP leaders were remarkably successful at demonizing the word "Liberal." By 1988, the American public had come to have negative associations with the word, thinking it reflected a namby-pampy attitude toward both foreign policy and social issues. Liberals were blamed for the decline in American power in the world, for all manner of social problems, and for the failures of government. The word, and the ideas that is seemed to summarize, was decidedly out.

Bill Clinton, who was really a middle-of-the-road Democrat, didn't try to revive the idea. For one thing, he wasn't a Liberal in the sense of the Democratic leaders who had preceded him ----- Clinton was no Walter Mondale or Ted Kennedy. And, Democrats, just happy to be in the White House again, never really had a discussion of what they were or what they should be called. That meant that there was no real discussion of the ideology that informed their beliefs.

In a way, that was okay because we avoided the dreaded L-word. But it meant that we lacked a description of our guiding principles. Republicans called themselves Conservatives and this conveyed a range of ideas: limited government, fiscal responsibility, investment in traditional social values. But Democrats were just Democrats. And what did that mean?

Lately, I've heard the Democratic candidates for the presidency refer to themselves as Progressives. It's a nice substitute for Liberal, invoking the progressive reforms of the early 20th century; ones that created greater democracy and effective government. It's bi-partisan in a way that Liberal and Conservative are not. Progressives from back in the day were both Democrats and Republicans and they brought us such things as direct election of the U.S. Senate, child labor protection laws, the start of environmentalism, food and drug safety, the income tax (which really was a good thing, I promise), and perhaps most famously, progressives took on the power of large monopolist corporations.

It's fitting that Democrats have finally begun to define themselves, especially now when the nation seems so deeply troubled by who we are and what we believe in. We're fighting a so-called war on terror, with no notion of what kind of society we are defending. But if we can agree to be Progressives, then we will truly have something to defend. It's a way of thinking that looks forward, filled with the promise of making our collective national life better in very specific and meaningful ways.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

I've Got Myself a Bike-Rider

From my vacation journal, written on 7/11/07.

When I first became a single mama, I was seized with a host of fears and anxieties. I think that this is to be expected --- it's scary enough being a parent when there are two of you, let alone suddenly finding yourself a single parent, as I did one Friday night. I'm not really sure why, but I had a tendency to focus on the most irrational of my fears. Tops on that list was the fear that I would not be able to teach my son to ride his bike without training wheels. I spent hours worrying about this problem.

JT has wanted to ride without training wheels for the last year and a half, but he's been afraid to try. Fear of failure was too great for him to manage. He's always been tentative about trying new things. Having a parent suddenly walk out didn't help. But when you are a child, so many of your daily experiences are new things. Trying something new is unavoidable. With that in mind, last summer we mastered what we could and I tried to put my anxieties on the back burner. We attempted riding without the training wheels a few times. I'd run behind holding the back of the bike, giving advice and encouragement. But he was afraid and it didn't happen. The trainers stayed on the bike throughout the fall, winter, and spring.

In the intervening year, JT has grown more confident. He's learned to master reading and the razor scooter that A & M gave him for Christmas became a big favorite. He rode it all winter long, even in the cold. When the weather turned warm, he rode for hours, whizzing up and down the street, a blur of speeding boy. It gave him confidence in the power of his body, a very good thing.

At the end of June after we had returned from California, one afternoon I casually suggested that we remove the training wheels and practice riding his bike on the grass, where a fall would hurt less. To my surprise, he was willing to give it a try. So we took off the training wheels and brought the bike to the backyard. He had much better balancing skills and was nearly an instant success. We moved to the driveway and then to the front yard. He was riding without training wheels!

But he still couldn't start off without my hand to stabilize the back of the bike. So that was our task at the campground on our first Monday. There was a nice paved road ringing our campsite. He and I both knew that road could provide hours of bike-riding fun. But he'd need to start off on his own. We spent about 20 minutes practicing before he had mastered the skill. Now he can ride on his own, stopping and starting as he pleases. It's a beautiful thing to behold. As of this writing, he's already pedaled several miles around the campsite and we still have 9 more days of vacation.

It's somehow fitting that just as I complete my first year as a single mama (and have lived to tell the tale), JT has mastered a skill I worried I would be unable to teach him. Nearly every day, I still wonder why it is that Lisa left. I wish that I didn't have to be a parent alone. But every day of every week; month after month, with the immeasurable help and support of family and friends, I am raising this boy to be a strong, independent young man. And whether the task I face as a parent is little or big, I am beginning to believe that I can do it.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Tiger Rules

I finally figured out a reason to use the Photobooth application on my computer ------ to snap a picture of Tiger, sitting on my lap while I try to write. Tiger insists on this arrangement despite its discomfort for everyone involved. Why? Because he's a cat, that's why.

Bodies and Beaches

From my vacation journal, written on 7/8/07.

For as long as I can remember, I have had, at best, an ambivalent relationship with my body. At worst, I really hated my body. This led to the usual host of problems, as you might expect. When my partner first walked out on me last year, my immediate response was to retreat to my old set of comfortable anxieties about my body and assume that she left me because I wasn't thin and beautiful. I stopped eating, not by design, really, but because I simply could not eat. I picked up the pace on my eliptical trainer, sometimes running twice a day.

And miraculously, as I used my body more and more for tasks requiring strength (keeping up with the garden, hauling laundry up and down two flights of stairs, chasing a busy six year old, and, of course, the magical eliptical), I came to accept the body that I have. I don't have slim hips or slender thighs and I never will. Without the right sports bra, I am in danger of getting a black eye. But I am strong and sturdy. And my body gives me the power to do all the things that I need it to do. I can lift 60 pounds of boy and carry him upstairs when he falls asleep in the car. I can unload the groceries and carry heavy bags onto the front-porch without breaking a sweat. I can carry my book-laden school bag, laptop computer and lunch bag and run up the stairs at work (quicker than the teenagers anyway). I can easily peddle 6 miles with JT on the pull-behind bike. I can run 4 miles on the eliptical and enjoy the fact that I am hot and sweaty afterward. My body no longer feels like it's holding me back. It feels powerful.

But perhaps the greatest sign that I have come to accept my body came at the beach on the first Sunday of my vacation. We had ridden our bikes there and the time came to change into my swimsuit. There is no official place to do so at this beach and so I wiggled out of my shorts and t-shirt (and the steel sports bra) and changed right there in the open. Then, wearing my swimsuit, and with actual confidence in my body, I walked along the beach with the boys. I may not be the skinniest girl on the beach, but damn it, I can outrun some of those skinny girls. And I am strong.

I often joke in a self-deprecating manner that my body was built for comfort, not for speed. That's still basically the case. But now I like this body; I'm comfortable in it. After nearly 40 years in this skin, that's an unexpectedly delightful discovery.

Sunday, July 22, 2007

Shark Mom

From my vacation journal, written on 7/19/07.

On our last full day camping, we went to the bayside beach, where the water is warm and shallow. For me, it was a bittersweet day because I will soon return to my regular life, albeit the summer edition. And though it's been a year since I became a single parent, the challenge is still great. But this day was a day for fun. At this beach, the boys can walk far out in the water because there are long sandbars. The boys feel daring and fierce but I feel they are safe. And that there is a happy parenting combination.

As she does most days when the boys are in the water, my friend S swam out to play with them. They love to watch her swim in the ocean and they know that she will take them even further from the shore. Today she played that she was a shark come to get the boys and I could hear their screaming laughter as they swam away from the shark (though mostly they taunted her to come and get them).

When they weren't expecting it, I snuck in and played shark mom for a bit myself. To me, shark mom and any number of other made-up games are the essence of parenthood. One of my favorite childhood games was playing restaurant. My sister and I ran the show and served my father a lunch of deviled egg sandwiches. We made him order the sandwiches off of a hand-made menu that featured any number of exotic dishes. As I recall, he would order everything on the menu but for the egg salad, which he knew to be the only available item. That he played along with us made the game that much more thrilling. I want to be that kind of parent more often.

There are still six weeks of summer left before JT and I return to the school year. That life, though rewarding, is sometimes a grind. A single parent has to get the business of life taken care, with no expectation of help from a partner. Only when the lunches are packed and the laundry is (mostly) caught up, is there time to play games and have some laughter. That's when I get to play shark mom. I hope that next year I'll have more time to play those silly mama games. Because I think that they add up to a collection of happy childhood memories; the kind that will last my son a lifetime.

Thanks to my friend S and her son D for the inspiration, not to mention the shark mom game.

Vacation Journal

For the past two weeks, I've been out on the very tip of Cape Cod, camping with friends near Provincetown. We've done a lot of bike riding and swimming and plenty of relaxing. I read voraciously. The time to regroup got me thinking. Over the course of the vacation I wrote a few essays that I will be posting over the next few weeks. I'll post them with the date of the original writing at the end of each essay. Some are variations on themes that have frequented this blog; some are new ideas. Mostly they are thoughts about where life has taken me, especially in the past year, with some hopes for the future thrown in for good measure.

Saturday, July 07, 2007


One of the best things about summer is sliding through the water of a pool or the ocean and the sense of how quick and agile your body feels in that moment. I have loved that feeling since I first learned how to swim. This summer I've been teaching JT to pick up diving sticks, so that he learns to propel himself under water.

And that's really the thing I love most about the slippery feeling: it's powerful. It's a reminder of everything you can do. And just how fast you can do it.

Friday, July 06, 2007

Road Warriors

Taking a break from watching Harry Potter the boys discovered that nothing moves Friday afternoon traffic on I-95 like a little Lenny Kravitz.

Off to Camp

This afternoon, we head northward for two weeks of camping at the very tip of Cape Cod. We expect cool mornings, sea breezes, bike rides, camp meals at a family picnic table, playing games, trips to the beach, and lots and lots of fun with the R-K family. We'll be at the North Highlands Campground ----- the office phone is 508-487-1191, if you need to reach us.

We're expecting some big fun. The picture is one of the memories from last year. And here at Sassafras House we're looking forward to new memories and stories to tell. Fresh adventures and a lot of laughs are on the agenda.

Also, if we're really, really lucky, maybe the kids will let us tie them to a tree again.

What the F*&#?

Until Tony Snow wrote his USA Today editorial on the Bush pardon of Scooter Libby, I was willing to let it go. After all, the president's broad Constitutional power to pardon convicted offenders has been around since the dawn of time (or at least American government time). The power is broad, it's unfettered, and it's a bit of anomaly in our government of strict checks and balances. But for all that, (and yes, there's much to talk about in all that) it's a legitimate Constitutional power. Nearly every president has used it; almost all used it to pardon their cronies and friends.

That doesn't make the power right, of course, but it is political reality. I don't suppose that most anyone was surprised by the Libby pardon. I wasn't. No one else should have been.

But then Snow wrote in the USA Today, " [Bush] believes pardons and commutations should reflect a genuine determination to strengthen the rule of law and increase public faith in government."


That sort of reasoning is just shameful. Bush commuted Libby's sentence and he should own it, not offer up slimy, distasteful justifications for his actions. To me, that sentence shows how very little respect he has for the reasoning skills of the American public. Not to mention the "rule of law" and "public faith in government."

Thursday, July 05, 2007

Time Zone Management

Whenever JT and I come home after a visit out west, we find that our sleep patterns are a mess. We are awake until midnight and sleep in until 10 am. It's like we're teenagers, staying up until all hours of the night. After few days, this is no longer amusing and I begin the tedious process of getting JT back into the normal sleep pattern of a 7 year old.

He is not a willing accomplice to this project. So I invited our friend D to spend the night. D is a notorious early-riser so though we got to bed rather late on Tuesday night (around 10:30 pm), I just knew that we'd all be up with the sun. This would lend itself to a reasonable Wednesday night bedtime and more of a normal sleep pattern. Victory for Mama!

But you know what they say about the best-laid plans. D slept until 8:30 am yesterday, though JT was up by 7:30. No worries, I thought to myself. We're basically back on track. He had a full day yesterday, riding his scooter up and down the street with the other boys. There were some scraped knees and as he stood in the shower last night he reported that his feet were tired. He was fast-asleep by 9:30. I figured that he'd be up around 8 am.

Ha! It's 9:45 as I write and JT is still sawing logs. Soon I will send the kittens upstairs to roust him out. And now I'll need a Plan B for sleep management.

Wednesday, July 04, 2007

In Praise of Neighbors

Twice a year, in July and again in October, my neighborhood holds a block party. We shut the street to cars, meet in the middle, and share food and company. The kids enjoy the freedom of riding bikes and scooters in the street. The adults are reminded of what neighborhoods are about. We talk and catch up. We share our favorite foods. We connect.

I grew up in neighborhoods with this kind of feel. It seemed natural when I was a child; now it seems downright old-fashioned. People looked out for one another...and kept track of the kids. Lost pets were returned; cups of sugar were borrowed; fresh garden produce was shared (and even the zucchini was welcomed). When I moved here two years ago, I chose the house because the neighborhood had the look and feel of what I wanted: big trees, green yards, sidewalks, and front porches. It seemed like a place with good neighbors.

And looks did not deceive. These folks are terrific and always ready with a smile and a wave. J and A, who live two doors down, scrupulously maintain the yard of the elderly man next door. Come nor'easter time, the snow blower owners always help those of us equipped with just a shovel. D, the man with the beautiful garden across the street, came across the street with his wrench to help me remove the training wheels from JT's bike. G next door helped me remove the rusty old sprinkler from my hose when the time came for a new sprinkler. And in an act far beyond simply being neighborly, N replaced my faucet when it broke off. It was a tedious job requiring extraordinary patience and hours of his time.

All of these things are offered in the spirit of kindness and neighborliness that seems a bit old-fashioned in these days of busy lives and 4 car garages. But on Second Street twice a year we pause to appreciate and enjoy the neighborhood. And because we take that time, we are able to reap the rewards all year long.

So today I will toast my nation's independence and my neighborhood's dependence. And I will enjoy the laughter of kids with water balloons and bicycles and grown ups with extra tomatoes and a willingness to help out.
Plus, I will enjoy a neighborhood potluck featuring grilled hot dogs, cold beer, and sushi. Because, hey, I live in New Jersey and that's how we do it here.

Tuesday, July 03, 2007


The silver lining of the faucet suddenly breaking off is that it sends an AMAZING fountain of water across the kitchen. And so, for a very brief second, there was some real excitement in the air. Then I realized that having a functional sink is a very helpful tool in the kitchen. And this mess is going to cost me a couple hundred, not including the 75 cents I now owe the curse bowl, courtesy of this unexpected event.

And what's the deal with water and me, anyway?

Monday, July 02, 2007

Selective Hearing

Why is it that my son can remember every curse word I uttered while we were in California (31.......because damnit, he wants to make sure that I pay up the curse bowl), any number of embarrassing events in my life (including, but not limited too, that time that my underwire bra blew out on a wild ride at California Disney), and whether or not he had a fudgesicle in June of 2005 but he CANNOT remember to leave his grimy hands off the glass door in the living room. Despite it's conveniently located handle, he chooses to slide the door open with his hands on the glass. And when I remind him for the one millionth time NOT to do that he looks at me with a wounded look and says, "Mama, I'm just a little boy and it's hard to remember."