Friday, August 31, 2007

The End

This weekend is Labor Day, the traditional end of the summer. That's doubly true for me, as I am a teacher and next week I will begin teaching and my son will start the second grade. Since I was 4 years old, I've been starting school in the month of September. I did that for 22 years as a student and I've been doing it for 14 years as a teacher. So in very real ways, this is both the end of the summer and the end of another year.

With the end of the summer, it seems fitting to reflect on just what the summer of 2007 has meant for my son. This was a summer of big accomplishments for my boy. First off, he learned to read in a confident way. He has been reading for over a year now, but this summer, it really clicked in a substantial, life-changing way. He took risks and sounded out new words and he saw how much more of the world is open to you when you can read. He began to read chapter books to himself. He calls that "reading in your brain" ------ no longer reading out loud to prove to your mama or your tutor that you can do it, but now reading to yourself.

I think that the leap in reading was fueled by another accomplishment: learning to ride his bike without training wheels. The bike is a world of freedom and speed for JT and proud doesn't even begin to describe this accomplishment. If you come to our home, you will be hauled outside to admire JT's bike and then you will be told sit on the front steps while he goes whizzing by you in a burst of speed.

The physical accomplishment really informed the mental accomplishment of reading. And the two came together beautifully. So I have enjoyed a summer filled with long bike rides and leisurely conversations on those rides. And then, when we come home, we can curl up on opposite sides of the sofa, each of us with a book in hand. And we can read together.

It's the end of the summer and that's always bittersweet. But with the mastery of these two skills, a whole new world is opening up for JT, a world ripe with possibility. A beginning, if you will. And that is a most happy thing.

Thursday, August 30, 2007

Real Life Conversations with JT

This conversation was enjoyed in the car on the way home from school today.

JT: That was funny Mama.

Mama: I am often funny.

JT: Yeah...........but sometimes you're not as funny as you think.

Mama: Really?

JT: You say things that are funny to you but not funny to a kid. So you make yourself laugh, but not me.

Mama: Guilty as charged son.

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

People in Glass Houses

There is an old phrase that "people who live in glass houses should not throw bricks." Fair enough and I consider myself properly warned.

But here is the real truth: people who live in houses with a lot of glass (and there are 29 windows in my home) should not have children. As part of the mama cleaning tsunami this month, I have been cleaning the windows. And nearly every window I see has the tiny greasy marks of a child's fingers. No matter how often I get out the newsprint and windex, there is always a smudge to be cleaned. It's enough to drive a mama crazy.

Or in my case, crazier.

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Crisis Aversion

I returned to work today, participating in meetings that are part of our efforts to get into fighting shape for the school year. It was great to see everyone and I always love free lunch, but by 3 pm I was ready to get home, see the kittens, and work out. All summer long, I've had my workout by 10 am in the morning, working up a sweat and then spending the rest of my day feeling virtuous via my endorphin high.

10 am today found me in a meeting. But no matter, I told myself, I would work out when I got home. As soon as I got into the house, I changed into my workout clothes, stretched my muscles, and hopped on the machine. I heard a slow buzz: low batteries. Oh no! Replacement batteries were installed but the machine had a hard time starting up and I feared it was broken. Visions of such a horror overwhelmed me and I stepped off the machine for a little deep breathing.

Once again rational, if not exactly calm, I checked things out. For the reasons I don't yet understand, the machine started right up and I had my joyous reward.

All praise the eliptical.

Monday, August 27, 2007

An Apple from the Family Tree

My sister's children have been taught to answer the telephone, a skill JT is not the least bit interested in mastering. So when I call the Sassafras Sister I'm liable to get one of my nephews on the phone. I like this but they are generally NOT AMUSED. My nephew C, with thick dark hair and big brown eyes, looks like a member of the Sassafras family, but that familiar face of his hides a whole other being. He's not particularly chatty, this young man, and this is always amusing to me because his mother and I are nothing but chatty.

Yesterday afternoon I phoned KO's house and C answered. I asked about the 4th grade, mentioning that my 4th grade teacher was my favorite ever. He wouldn't bite.

"Who is your teacher?" I asked.

"Mrs. O," C reported.

"How was the first week?" I inquired.

I got a one word response, "Fine."

Never one to give up, I threw out one more question, this one kind of sassy, "So you're planning to go back for another week?"

You could feel the "as if" response floating 2000 miles over the phone line, but C settled for a polite, quiet, "yes." He is not taken in by my nonsense.

KO reports that he was in the middle of reading Harry Potter and had to stop reading to answer the phone because his mother was busy. In fact, C is something of a voracious reader, which proves that he is very much one of us, quiet as he is.

Friday, August 24, 2007

Thoughts on Family

The prompt at Sunday Scribblings is "I get that sinking feeling...."

JT has been gearing up for the school year by learning to spell his last name and thinking about his family. Every school year begins with a discussion of who you are and it always starts with family. When you are the child of a broken family, that's an experience fraught with the prospect of pain. He drew a picture of his family the other day, a drawing that included me, his mama; JT (taller than his mama, which is a little closer to reality than I am prepared to acknowledge); and our cats, Tiger and Lucy. He showed me the picture, which included all of our names, carefully spelled beneath our image.

I am always sad to see this picture of our family because another person used to make these drawings and her absence in his depiction is just a sinking feeling for me. I am reminded of our failure to give JT what I believe he deserves, a two-parent household. And because I worry about his heart, I gently suggested that maybe he could include Lisa in his drawing.

"No," he said decisively. "She left and doesn't live in my house. She's not in my family."

This explains how he feels and I can't tell him that he is wrong. She did leave and he knows it. And it strikes me again that there is a whole lot of wisdom in my brown-eyed boy, probably more than Lisa ever expected.

Update: Thanks to everyone for the supportive comments. I feel very well-loved this Sunday afternoon and that's a really good thing.

My (Deeply Disturbed) Life

School starts in a couple of weeks, meaning I will be required to dress like a grown up (bye bye flip flops) and teach America's youth. So I am in preparation mode, getting myself organized for the grind that is being a working single mama.

I have uploaded a photo of the chaotic floor in my bedroom, where all my big back-to-school creative brain power is being deployed. What we have here is books, shoes, my laptop, and laundry. These are pretty much the four essential ingredients in my life. I sit on my big bed (see photo), and listen to NPR while I work on stuff for teaching. It's like college all over again in that the bed is the apex of all intellectual thought. The cats often join me though their agenda is somewhat different from mine and tense discussions are sometimes overheard.

And now I shall reveal my fool-proof system for the creation of quality lessons in American Government: I write down what I want to say; I fine-tune with relevant details. Then, and only then, I check what Lowi and Ginsburg say about said topic in their bible of an American Government book. If my lesson is less dull than Lowi and Ginsburg, it stays. If not, that's why the computer has that handy delete button. No one taught this method in teacher school (perhaps because I didn't actually go to teacher school) but I'm pretty freakin' sure that it will revolutionize American education.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Stop the Madness

Instructed by my sister and encouraged by friends tired of seeing me in clothes that have grown far too big for the new, slightly-improved me, I recently went on-line at e-bay to sell some of my old clothes. It's like a whole other world over there and I was intrigued. By now the clothes have sold and I should be done with e-bay. Yet I'm not. I'm fascinated by the whole place and I have a long list of things that I am "watching" but never intend to buy. Loads of Coach purses and Vera Bradley bags are on sale at e-bay and because I love both things, I'm watching some of them.

I collect some particular antique dishes, so I am watching some of them. I watched an $800 antique butter dish for a few days (no one sprung for it). And hey, I need a new rug for my living room, so I'm watching a carpet or two. In the meantime, I'm prowling my house for things to sell. The cats are nervous and JT is wondering just how I would write up an e-bay ad to sell him.......................

Hardly used 7 year old, mostly house- trained. Reads; rides bike; needs instruction in laundry and toilet cleaning. Cute, slightly smelly (but in a good way). Sassy. G@@d deal!

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Barack the House

Another entry in my presidential contenders series.

In 2004, when he was a candidate for the U.S. Senate, then Illinois House member Barack Obama gave an address to the Democratic National Convention. It was an impressive speech. I downloaded it on to my iTunes play list and I began to share it with my American Government students as an example of good political rhetoric. That fall Obama went on to win his Illinois Senate seat. And from the moment he hit the U.S. Senate, Obama's name has been on everyone's list of potential presidential contenders. So it's no surprise that 2007 finds Obama ranked among the first-tier candidates in the 2008 Democratic primary.

Why all the fuss?

For starters, there are his impressive credentials: he earned an undergraduate degree from Columbia University before he moved on to graduate from Harvard Law School. From there Obama went to Chicago where he met his wife and went to work as a community activist. Obama was elected to the Illinois state house at the age of 35 and since 2005 he's been in the U.S. Senate. He's African-American, with an immigrant father and a white mother. He represents an interesting and distinctly American life experience.

His views are generally mainstream, with a populist can-do rhetoric that evinces faith in the American promise. He's an articulate and impressive guy. But does he have what it takes to win the Democratic nomination?

Though he has sat for election on several occasions, the presidential nomination is actually the first competitive election Obama has faced. His earlier elections were unusual in that competition was virtually non-existent. In his 2004 Senate race, Obama's first opponent, Jack Ryan, self-destructed on his very own and was replaced by political lightening rod Alan Keyes. Obama reaped the reward of the GOP meltdown. This is important to understand because it enabled Obama to move himself toward the center and appeal to a diversity of Illinois interests. He can't do that in the 2008 race, which finds him needing to persuade first Democratic voters and then the national electorate. It's a different task and one Obama has never before faced.

In terms of policy positions, he isn't that distinct from Hilary Clinton or John Edwards, his fellow front-runners. The recent foreign policy snafu with Hilary was really a whole lot of smoke and mirrors emphasized by conventional media outlets that have grown tired of the endless debates about the same old things. Obama talks about needing better healthcare and education but he hasn't forwarded an actual plan. In a recent Iowa appearance, he commiserated with Iowans about the price of arugula at Whole Foods market, a mis-step that reveals him as something a little more elite than he likes to claim.

In the end, I think that Obama's task is harder than Clinton's or Edwards' because he is inexperienced, learning the ropes of a national campaign in some very bright lights. That inexperience is alluring to voters now, early on in an election featuring some very important issues of long-term importance in the United States. In 2008, we should be discussing some big questions: What are the long-term goals of American foreign policy? What should we do about the 46 million Americans who don't have health insurance? Is No Child Left Behind working or does public education need more radical reform? Is Social Security secure enough to manage the retirement of baby boomers and beyond? Do we need immigration reform? This list is already long and it's hardly exhaustive.

We can use some new faces and new ideas as we face these issues. And for this reason I think that Obama's candidacy is important. But in the end his inexperience will show. And as alluring as his new face is, voters in 2008 will look for familiar and experienced leaders. And Barack Obama doesn't make that cut.

Monday, August 20, 2007

Rethinking this Whole Grown-Up Thing

When I was about 10 years old, I began to actively yearn to be grown up. The freedom! The possibilities! The excitement!

But today I had one of those days that remind me being a grown-up is just so freaking over-rated. Ten years ago the prospect of freedom, possibilities, and excitement led me to plan a life with someone who has turned out to be so mean-spirited and unreliable as to utterly astound me. And now I'm living with the consequences of that dreamt-of adulthood freedom. And it sucks.

Not much to be done about it, of course, but to resign myself to this new version of my life.

When I was a little girl, my dad used to get up in the morning, jokingly raise his cup of coffee and announce, "hello world, you miserable place." My mother would admonish him and we'd all laugh.

It doesn't seem so funny today. Today it just seems painfully true.

Tuesday update: Thanks to everyone who let me know that they are with me in spirit. It meant a lot.

Sunday, August 19, 2007

The Cranky Customer

Often JT and I play a game we call Mama's Restaurant. The deal with this game is that I am the waiter and he is the customer ordering food. No matter how promptly I deliver the food, he is a cranky customer who finds a reason to dock my tip, often substantially. For example, yesterday's breakfast was sliced melon, bacon, and toast with a glass of chocolate milk and a glass of ice water. For reasons my customer would not outline, he refused to pay his bill ($70..........prices are high in this part of New Jersey), instead offering to pay me $60 and announcing that I provided "good bacon but bad service." At least I got the bacon right.

I have no idea why he's such an annoyed customer and I'm such a poor waitress. But that is how the game is played and when I suggest that we change it (maybe I could be a cranky waitress?) he rejects such notions. I guess that the customer is always right at Sassafras House.

Saturday, August 18, 2007

Real Life Conversations with the Sassafras Sister

KO: I am bummed because these shoes I ordered from Talbots aren't coming in.

Me: What do they look like?

KO: I am hesitant to tell you.

Me: Okay.............maybe try Zappos? They have lots of shoes and you can search by brand.

KO: Yeah. But I want to search by animal print. Can you search by animal print on Zappos?

Me: Oh boy.

Note to shoe shoppers: Yes, as it turns out you can search by animal print at Zappos. Yet another reason that America is either a great country or going down the tubes, depending on your point of view.

Friday, August 17, 2007

Dear Diary

The prompt over at Sunday Scribblings is "dear diary," a prompt that got me thinking about my first diary, a gift from my grandmother when I turned 10. When I explained to her that I had no idea what to write in that diary she told me to write down the weather if I had nothing else to note. So that's what I did for the first few weeks. And then, as I sat in my bed at night, I began to steadily record the details of my 5th grade life.

Grandma must have known me better than I knew myself. 30 years later I write in my journal nearly every day. What started out as the interesting activity of a bookish girl has become essential to my being. And these days, though I still have a journal stored in the drawer beside my bed, I mostly keep my journal on my computer. This blog is an outpouring of the habit. I also keep a garden variety composition book in my bag, for recording spur-of-the-moment thoughts and making lists. I spring for a new one at the start of every school year (the brand new '07-'08 edition is pictured here).

By now, I've written thousands of pages in my journal. I go back and re-read what I've written in years past and keep track of my (often secret) hopes and dreams by connecting with the history of my life. I'm recording my thoughts for myself, to remember my past and think about my future.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

The Logic of a 7 Year Old

Yesterday a friend joined the Sassafras Boy and me for an afternoon of sun, sand, and surf at the beach. On the way home JT announced, "My hair is crunchy and I have sand in my booty."

This was indeed true.......and I explained that it was salt in his hair that made it "crunchy." The sand needed no further explanation.

Two hours later, I suggested that it was time for a shower to wash out the sand and salt. The boy looked at me, incredulous, and asked, "why?"

As if that crunchy hair standing up on his head wasn't enough of an explanation.....and I won't even mention the sand.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Garden Bounty

It's time for something a bit more light-hearted. The flower and tomato season is heavily upon me and when I've been in the garden these last few weeks, I always walk away with a beautiful reward for my labors.

Summer is a beautiful thing.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

The '08 Chaos: Bill Richardson

Another in my series on 2008 presidential contenders.

When it comes to experience, Bill Richardson is the Democrat with the most diverse resume. Richardson grew up in Mexico City, the son of an American businessman and his Mexican-born wife. He came to the United States to attend high school and stayed on. But his sister Vesta chose to stay in Mexico, where she is a pediatrician. In this respect, Richardson is very much a 21st century American, with family in another country. He is fluent in Spanish. He's also conversant in all levels of government in both domestic policy and foreign affairs. Richardson has been the Governor of New Mexico since 2002; prior to that he served as the Secretary of Energy in the Clinton Administration, a post he assumed in late 1998. Clinton was a fan of Richardson, also tapping him to be the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations in 1996. And he came to the UN after 14 years as a Congressman from New Mexico specializing in Interior and Environmental policy issues.

Though he began the 2008 campaign as an intriguing third-tier candidate, Richardson has steadily climbed up the ladder. These days he's a solid second-tier candidate who is well-spoken and organized on the campaign trail, a man with a wealth of policy experience. He calls himself a New Progressive, and he means it, combining a Bill Clinton style centrism and fiscal responsibility with calls for social justice and help for the working families in the United States.

So what we have here is a capable, bi-lingual, multi-cultural candidate with political bona fides. And he's from New Mexico, one of America's newest swing states. Sounds to me like we should just give the dude the Democratic nomination and be done with it.

My 2008 presidential prospects essays have largely been explanations for why particular candidates won't get the nomination. By definition this project will eventually paint me into a corner because someone has to get the nomination for both parties. Bill Richardson is certainly well-qualified and, it would seem, well-suited to the job. But I don't think that he will be the Democratic candidate for the president in 2008. And, frankly, that's kind of a bummer.

My guess is that the juggernaut that is the Clinton and Obama media show will keep Richardson at the edge of this process, not quite the Cinderella of the ball but not the stepsister either. With any luck (and some good strategic advice), Clinton and Obama will realize that Richardson is a serious contender with some really good ideas. They will realize that he has the potential to tap immigrant America, no small resource in the 21st century. This recognition could get him tapped for the Vice Presidency or taken so seriously that he rises above the fray. For now, I'm not sure that we should count Richardson out of the picture yet. And for the sake of our national interest I hope that Clinton and Obama feel this way too.

Monday, August 13, 2007

Real Life Conversations with the Sassafras Sister

The backstory: It's the usual wide-ranging discussion that KO and I have on the phone, while cleaning our kitchens and telling our children, "Hey, I'm on the phone" (because the phone against our ear is not evidence enough of that fact):

Me: I pretty much prefer to pay when I'm on a date.

KO: That strikes me as a control thing for you.

Me (snidely): Me? Control issues? Never a problem for me, even after the partner debunked.

KO: This is where you just need to say "takes one to know one."

Me: Damn, wish I'd thought of that. That's going on the blog.

KO: It figures.

Sunday, August 12, 2007

Mommy-Blogger Envy

I am basically a mommy blogger (or, more accurately in my case, a mama blogger). I read a good number of other mommy bloggers and often laugh right along with them. Like most of the mommy bloggers I know, I aim for a combination of the snidely funny occasioned with a bit of sweetness and loads of admiration for the wonders of my child.

It's not exactly original, but it can be funny. Lately I've realized that one category of mommy blogging is largely out of my realm, that of the joy (and comfort) of parenting with someone you love by your side. I'm a single mama, meaning that the joys and burdens of parenting are mine alone to manage.

May I say for the record that I am positively green with envy when the rest of the mommy blogging world has the opportunity to hold the hand of their loved one while looking at the sweaty sleeping head of the child they are raising together?

I used to have that, too. I appreciated it every day that I had it. And I miss it terribly.

Saturday, August 11, 2007

Quality Time with My Fellow Citizens

The prompt over at Sunday Scribblings is goosebumps. I'm not a fan of scary things, so I tend to get my goosebumps from reality.

Remember the 1980s TV show Night Court? Remember how much fun that wacky assortment of people could be? Okay, if you're still with me, remember that was television. The real night court starts off pretty funny but then it gets scary and sad.

I know because I was recently at night court in Middlesex, New Jersey. For the first part of the evening, it's traffic court. Then its time for all the other petty offenders. I was there for a minor traffic offense (yippee for saying good bye to the nasty points) but, due to a paperwork fracas, my minor speeding violation wasn't dispensed until late in the game, so I had plenty of time to see and hear the madness of my fellow citizens.

There was the drunk woman who was in court on a charge of disorderly conduct and public urination. She was 55 if she was a day and she was totally lit, sitting in the back of the courtroom and commenting on everyone and everything and using language so foul that even I was shocked.

Now that's saying something.

There was the man who admitted that yes, he drives day workers to jobs and no, he doesn't have commercial insurance. "Why?" said the judge.

"Because it's too expensive," the man explained. The judge laughed. But that particular infraction carries a steep fine, so I'm guessing our driving friend will go and get some commercial insurance real quick like.

Next up: a mother and her teenage daughter in for assault. Both charged for hitting one another. The judge encouraged them to drop the charges ---- mutually ---- and see a family counselor. They agreed ---- begrudgingly ---- and then left through separate doors to collect their bail refunds. Bet they'll be back.

Most disturbing was the woman in for violation of her probation. For the 5th time. The judge told her it was a mandatory jail sentence. She said, "who will watch my kids?"

The judge said, "I gave you 7 days last week to get that taken care of."

"I'm still working that out," she said, nonplussed as if that wasn't her responsibility. And the judge sighed heavily, clearly feeling the burden of this job he performs and then he said, "I don't have any choice." So off she went in handcuffs while the police were dispatched to her home to get three children (10, 3, and 2......the judge asked) and take them to foster care.

At this point, it's just not funny anymore. And by now, my paperwork has been found and I'm all set to pay my fine and leave. And I'm really, really happy to come home to my 7 year old. But as I tucked him into bed, I started to worry again about that other woman's children. Where are they tonight? Do they have clean pajamas and a lovey to cuddle up against? Have they had supper and a story? Will someone smooth a hand over their brow and whisper, "I love you?"

I fear not. And that makes me really sad and scared for them in a way that lingers so that I can't quite shake it off.

Friday, August 10, 2007

Miss Read of Fairacre

In the past year, I've become a complete junkie for the books of Miss Read. The name is a pseudonym for Dora Saint, a prolific British writer who began writing novels in the mid-1950s and retired in the 1990s. Her books are part comedies of error, part character sketches, and part philosophy. The tone reminds me of Jane Austen. The style reminds me of a British cozy mystery. When trouble stirs, the characters typically retreat to the garden with a cup of tea and a pot of marmalade to go with their bread. All will inevitably be well.

Even the resident curmudgeon earns the sympathy of the intrepid Miss Read, our schoolteacher narrator in the Fairacre series. Miss Read is a single woman who relishes her status as a stereotypical spinster schoolmarm. She gently reminds the reader of the virtues of a small school where the teacher knows all the students and their families. And she enjoys all the seasons of country living, especially the warm lush summers of her Cotswold village.

I love everything about the books, especially Miss Read herself. For starters, she's whip smart about people. She's a little sarcastic and not-so-secretly sentimental and she works remarkably hard to succeed at her role in life. She's happy. I admire her strength and courage. She's one of a handful of fictional characters whom I long to meet. I'd give her a cup of tea with some fresh cookies and we'd settle in for a nice long chat.

Wednesday, August 08, 2007

What JT Knows

I've had occasion of late to think about being a parent and just what that means. Not to me, really, but rather to my son. What does JT know about me, his Mama?

He knows that Mama laughs when he laughs and that Mama hurts when he hurts.

He knows that Mama never gives up and she never gives in (unless it's giving in to a request for extra chocolate sauce......then she might give in).

He knows that Mama is good for fun (a bike ride every afternoon this summer? sounds good to me) and Mama takes care of business (beds are made, clothes are washed, supper is on the table, teeth are brushed, there's a bedtime story every night.......and so much more). And sometimes, Mama makes sure that taking care of business is fun.

He knows that Mama is truly interested in the things that fascinate him and that she always has time for his ideas, his hopes, and his dreams.

He knows that though she struggled mightily, Mama stayed in the fight. He knows that Mama loves him with every fiber of her being. He knows that he comes first. He knows that he's perfect just the way he is (though a bath now and then wouldn't hurt). And that Mama is always here for him.


Tuesday, August 07, 2007

On Biking

From my vacation journal, originally written on 7/14/07.

First as a child, and later as an adolescent, I associated riding my bike with independence and freedom. On my bike, I could go fast and as the wind whipped my ponytail, I would let my imagination take flight. In the 7th grade, I would go for a solitary bike ride after I got home from school, riding up country roads into the copper hills behind my home and then making the long circle back home. I can still see that view in my mind, clear as the days more than 25 years ago when I would take those rides. 7th grade wasn't a happy year for me (is it happy for anyone?) and my long after-school bike rides were a way of reclaiming myself from my mean-spirited 7th grade peers. I would dream of a future where being smart would finally pay-off.

This has been a bike-riding summer for us. JT and I took a bike-ride on our tag-along bike most days that we were camping. Sometimes the rides were short, sometimes longer. Sometimes we'd talk with one another and sometimes I'd daydream while JT talked to himself. I'd hear fragments of his internal conversation and in his voice, I'd hear my past. He loves the bike for the same reasons that I did. It makes him happy to ride along. He feels fast and powerful, just as I did as a child (and still do now). It's lovely to be able to give him this gift and to know how much it will mean to him over the years.

One day while I rode with him behind me, I wondered if he will one day ride with his own little boy or little girl behind him. Will they talk about the feel of the wind against their face, the beauty and quiet of the shady spot on the trail, or the number of the bunnies they can count in the hedgerows? I hope so because it's a gift I can confidently hand over to future generations. I love that element of being a parent ------ giving my child the gift of an experience that will bring him happy memories that he can share with his own child some day.

Monday, August 06, 2007

Heads Should Roll

The Congress closed up shop for August holidays last weekend, but not before debating continuation of the SCHIP program. This program provides federal aid to states so they can provide healthcare for poor children. One in five American children lives below the poverty line (!) and SCHIP is designed to help these kids get vaccinations and treatment for their illnesses. Seems like a noble goal to me.

The Congressional debate about renewing the program featured all sorts of members of Congress debating whether or not to continue the program. Brief pause for you to recover your breath. Yes, some people believe that the United States, one of the wealthiest countries in the world, the land of opportunity and all that, should not provide health insurance for poor kids. To which I say what the f%*k?

And some of these upstanding members of Congress want to make sure that no illegal aliens get help. Though a recent GAO study (that would be the Government Accounting Office) revealed that there is no problem with tiny illegal alien children working the system for free health care, Congress just wants to be sure.

I'd like to know exactly what kind of rational thinking draws the conclusion that needy children, citizen or not, should not receive healthcare. I'm asking a serious question here. Congress is on recess this month and they will be making visits to their home districts. SCHIP passed, by the way, but without any expansion funding, which will leave a good one-third of poor children without healthcare for the coming year. When your member of Congress invites you to ask a question, please ask them what they are doing for the children in this country. Because, honestly, it's not enough.

Sunday, August 05, 2007

Real Life Conversation, Worry Wart Edition

On Friday night, our friends Miss C and her fiance J came over for supper. While J was a good sport who endorsed a forced march of activities supervised by the young man of the house, Miss C and I talked and reviewed plans for her upcoming wedding.

Later in the evening, we all looked at the return postcards for that wedding. Miss C was fretting that the return address font was too small. She was working up a full-blown anxiety attack, when JT, no stranger to worrying women, intervened to help.

JT (looking at the postcard): It's fine. I can see all the letters and if I could read, I'd be able to read the words.

Anxieties dismissed.

Friday, August 03, 2007

Decision 2012: A Call for Primary Reform

While most of the news media is focused on the 2008 presidential primary elections, I've been thinking about 2012. The last few presidential cycles have featured primary contests held earlier and earlier (a phenomenon called front-loading). Various proposals for reform of the primary system abound. Most would feature a series of regional primaries, but all would allow the Iowa Caucus and the New Hampshire primary to start the ball rolling. There is no perfect reform of the primary process; certainly no system that will provide for every political eventuality. But I think that regional primaries is worth a try. And I also I think that it's time for Iowa and New Hampshire to step aside.

Both states claim that their long history of running early primary contests makes them ideally suited to start the process. I would argue otherwise, for a number of reasons. First of all, when it comes to long histories in the primary process, long is relative. The Iowa Caucus has been important in American presidential elections since 1976. New Hampshire can claim longer influence, since 1952. And while tradition is important, I would argue that this tradition is not worth preserving, especially in the presidential primary process, which has only been decisive in the election of American presidents since the 1970s. The very nature of primaries is for change to drive the dynamic.

Neither Iowa nor New Hampshire is representative of the United States. They are too white, too rural, and too parochial to adequately represent America. That alone should be enough to seal the deal.

The persistence of the Iowa Caucus has empowered the farm lobby to continue to exercise its iron grip on American politics. But America's farm subsidy program is just a colossal system of corporate welfare, benefiting giant companies like Cargill and ADM, not the family farmer. Family farms are no longer the foundation of America, let alone rural America, and we should quit pretending that this is the case. Yet another reason to end the Iowa and New Hampshire lock on being first.

The power of teacher's unions and the movement to retain local political control of schools in Iowa and New Hampshire is so great that no candidate will seriously discuss any of the education reforms these groups oppose. Public education may be working in Iowa and New Hampshire (by the way, I have strong suspicions about this claim, but that's a post for another day), but it is failing miserably elsewhere in the United States, most notably in the cities (of which there are none in Iowa and New Hampshire......and Des Moines does not count as a city). We need to have some meaningful discussions about fixing public education in the U.S. But that won't happen if candidates are forced to kow-tow to the educational hierarchy in these early primary states.

And how about poverty or health care reform? Iowa and New Hampshire have elderly populations covered by Medicare and both participate in Medicaid. But neither state has a population of uninsured with any level of empowerment; nor does the political culture of either state encourage such discussions. There is a problem with rural poverty in the United States, but it's not on the political agenda in either Iowa or New Hampshire. So poverty and health care reform won't make the national agenda.

I could go on. But the bottom line is that Iowa and New Hampshire have out-lived their usefulness as centers of presidential politics. It's time to recognize this reality and move on to a new system for selecting presidential contenders, one that gives all states a chance at exercising influence over this important decision.

A Confession

My radio, always turned to WYNC, the local public radio station, really annoyed me yesterday. During one of the daytime talk shows (Leonard Lopate, I think), there was an entire show devoted to the condemnation of SUVs.

Enough already. I drive an SUV. It's not a huge SUV, it's a mid-size SUV, equipped with a standard transmission (have I mentioned my contempt for the automatic transmission? I'll save that for another post). It makes 25 mpg around town (I'll bet that's at least as good as if not better than most sedans, minivans, trucks, or station wagons). And I'm weary of all this anti-SUV rubbish.

Certainly, people driving gas-guzzling cars is a national concern, and should be the topic of all sorts of radio shows and political debates. My first cars routinely made 35-40 mpg and I wish that my current car made better gas mileage. But just because I choose to drive an SUV doesn't make me evil (or any more evil than the rest of you). My SUV has room enough to carry three children comfortably (nice for those playdates for which 7 year olds are famous); there's room for groceries to be placed in the back without spilling all the bags in the trunk; I can haul bikes and yard equipment when the need arises. Come camping time, I put down part of the backseat and there's plenty of room for all of our camping supplies.

My previous car was a station wagon and I loved it. The current trusty steed has a bit more space than the wagon and is easier to get into and out of. Plus, it has a DVD player for the amusement of back-seat drivers. That's not a necessity in life, but it sure helps to ease the occasional long drive. In sum, I find that my trusty steed works well for my son and me. I assume that the cars everyone else chooses to drive work fine for them.........and it's actually none of my business anyway.

What is my business (and yours too), is having a real national discussion about transportation, automotive safety and quality, and fuel efficiency. Of course, it's a lot easier to just point fingers and blame SUV owners. But I'm over that.

Thursday, August 02, 2007

On Imagination

From my vacation journal, written on 7/14/07.

The other day my son announced to me that, "my imagination is as big as the universe." That is surely the truth.

JT and D, his camping playmate, developed three games that they played at our campsite. Each day, they'd spend a good chunk of their time playing Star Wars, Harry Potter, or Hunters. The first two games involve the assignment of characters and skills; the third is a game of routine: they'd gather things up for an imaginary camp, then build the camp, cope with the imaginary disaster that inevitably descends, then repeat the routine. At the beach, they claimed an abandoned boat, shoveling out the sand and imagining that they are sailing off on an ocean adventure.

Other than terms (the bad guy in the Harry Potter game is Draco Malfoy; in Star Wars it's Darth Vader), I don't hear or see an enormous difference in the games. Good guys always prevail. JT and D are always the heroes. They've dubbed the space behind our tents "the dark alley" and much of the big action of the camp games takes place there, away from the prying eyes of the adults.

I love the way that their light saber toys are incorporated into all of the games. I admire the manner in which their imagination transcends the real world. I am impressed at the way that they have organized their play. Though it may seem the same to me, each day the game is new to them. And I love the fact that their collective imagination takes them wherever they please. To my adult eyes and ears, this is the amazing wonder of childhood. Each day when they'd play, I'd spent a quiet moment eavesdropping on the game and for a moment, wishing that I could still play along.