Friday, November 30, 2007

13 Weeks

Thirteen weeks ago today, as the summer drew to a close, JT broke his leg. Today, the final cast was removed. We both feel lighter tonight.

The drive to JT's doctor's office follows the path of the Raritan River in western New Jersey. When we first went to Dr. T's office, it was a drive through the green woods, thick with foliage. The air outside was still warm; warm enough for the air conditioner in the car. JT carried his leg and its new white cast gingerly, suddenly dependent on me in a way he hadn't been for the last few years. We were both learning to manage the crutches and the immobility of a broken leg. The prospect of weeks and weeks with his leg in a cast hung heavy in the humid air.

Four weeks later, autumn was starting to emerge. The weather had cooled enough to roll down the windows as we drove through the woods. The trees were still heavy with green foliage now preparing to turn. By then, JT was a whiz with his crutches, swinging himself out of the car before I could get to his side. The four-week-old white cast was showing the wear of life with a seven year old; the heel had unraveled and it had a funky smell. The cast was removed for x-rays that afternoon. The bones were healing. That Friday, we left the doctor's office with a new bright red walking cast around his leg. It was solid and heavy to protect his fragile healing bones.

Another four weeks passed and as we drove to the doctor, the trees along the river were vibrantly red, yellow, and orange. The woods were cool now, preparing for the coming cold. We both had on long sleeves and JT had exchanged his shorts for long pants. The heavy red cast had served its purpose and was – literally – ripe. It was removed for yet another set of x-rays. This time, he received an air cast. Now we could see his knee. The removable cast led to greater mobility. And, for the first time in 8 weeks, JT could bathe without the hassle of wrapping his leg in heavy blue plastic. That night, he positively luxuriated in the bathtub, soaking for nearly two hours.

Five weeks later, this afternoon we once again headed through the woods in Flemington. The trees have lost their leaves and we could see the ducks skimming along the river. The air cast has been coming off for bathing and the occasional leg stretch and he confidently removed it to show off his healing leg. The x-ray once again brought good news. The tibia has healed and it takes a careful eye to see where the breaks once were. The air cast has done its service and is no longer necessary. As JT slipped a sneaker on his foot, a foot that hasn't worn a sneaker in 13 weeks, he announced to his healed leg, "you're back in business."

There are some restrictions remaining ----- no jumping, running, or pivoting for another 4 weeks. Dr. T says this might be harder than we think ------ boys like to try out their new bones, she says. But we plan to take it easy until that final x-ray informs us that the healing really is complete.

Thirteen weeks ago, on the second night after he broke his leg, JT and I both cried ourselves to sleep. That night, as JT found the pain unbearable and I tended him alone, I felt unlucky and afraid. I was scared for my boy and frightened for us. In my first year as a single mama, I had come to depend on his independence. The cast altered that. He could no longer dress himself or get up and down the stairs. Bathing was a chore. It took two trips to get things to the car for school. I was overwhelmed. But I should have remembered what a remarkable child my son is. He took it all in stride and demonstrated a resilience and patience that I will admire for the rest of my life. Slowly, but surely, JT regained his independence and his ability to move around. We adjusted to the new demands. We even came to make jokes about the broken leg. Tonight, I realize that like the new bone growth in his leg, we two are stronger than ever.

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Did I Win?

Please see the grilled cheese update posted at the original posting.

Did I win?

I didn't just win, I grilled them.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Real Life Conversations at School: Dining Advice

The backstory: My 6th period class (seniors) is returning from a lunch outing. A student is being teased for having eaten all of the pizza crusts while out to lunch. He defends himself.......

T: Of course I ate the crusts. It's like Native Americans with the don't waste any of the pizza.

Advice to live by.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Grilled Cheese Duke Out

Last week, a student in my 3rd period class suggested that he makes the best grilled cheese sandwiches ever. Never one to shirk the prospect of competition, I took issue with his claim, suggesting that in a grilled cheese contest, I would win.

And thus was born our grilled cheese showdown. Three students and I competed. When I went to work, one student announced that I cook like a mom (good to know). And just the specter of high school boys cooking made my day. Lest you worry, there was a curriculum tie-in: we voted on the best grilled cheese, using a three different ballots, to illustrate the power of choice and the framing of that choice.

But all of that is just so much academic nonsense, as far the class was concerned. Today was about the cheese.

Update: The ballots have not been counted, as I am saving that for an in-class exercise. It will likely be completed tomorrow and I will post the results. No hanging chads or voter fraud issues, just that old enemy of teachers everywhere: not enough time.

Also, seriously, how could you doubt that I would kick some booty? This is truly my sort of contest.

Update II:Update: We used three ballots to choose our grilled cheese winner. Ballot #1 asked voters to select 1 winner from 4 candidates; Ballot #2 asked voters to select 2 winners from the list of 4 candidates; and Ballot #3 asked voters to rank the candidates in order of voter preference.

I'm happy to say that I won all three ballots..........though to be fair, I've been making grilled cheese sandwiches longer than these children have been alive. I'd have no excuse if I had lost.

Monday, November 26, 2007

Real Life Conversations with JT: Lunch Box edition

The backstory: my son, god bless his little brown head, is the world's pickiest eater. Basically, his food preferences boil down to the childhood trifecta: pizza, chicken fingers, and spaghetti. It's a diet bound to cause scurvy but he doesn't care. The situation being what it is, it's hard to pack the child lunch. But I persevere because, well.......there's no one else around to handle this particular task and he and I both feel the need to pretend he eats food and doesn't just live on kitchen fumes.

Lately, his lunch box contains a bottle of water, a piece of fruit (the same piece can be recycled all week long......he'll never eat it), a fruit roll-up, yogurt, homemade boursin cheese with crackers (JT calls it white cheese), and some sort of dessert. The crackers and cheese are usually a hit and, since I make it with cream cheese, I like to believe that this means he is getting some dairy food in his diet. Things are that bad.

Today, the cheese and crackers came home uneaten. I started an investigation.

Mama: Sweetie, why didn't you eat your white cheese and crackers?

JT: The crackers looked different.
Note: The crackers were different than the ones I packed last week..........though they are a brand he has eaten for most all of his life; it's not like I was trying some sort of undercover move to get health food into his belly.

Mama: Did you try the crackers?

JT: Noooooooooooooooooooooo (said in a tone of voice which suggested that the ziploc bag may have contained crackers or might very well have had crushed glass but either way it wasn't going to pass by his lips).

I give up.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

America in Decline

Microwave popcorn is a frequent after-school snack at Sassafras House. It's quick to make and goes well with a side of second grade homework. The other afternoon, as the popcorn popped, I had a look at the box that it came in.

As you can clearly see, the box reads "Pops up Faster." Has America been languishing for hours in front of the microwave, waiting for its freshly popped corn? Was waiting 4 minutes for microwave popcorn costing us endless hours of national productivity time? How long did America wait for a solution to this pressing national crisis?

Seriously? When we no longer can find the time to wait 4 minutes for a bag of microwave popcorn, we deserve the fate that we get. That's all I'm saying.

Saturday, November 24, 2007

Misspent Youth

I spend my days in teenage America, and I enjoy their company. The teens I'm with are an admittedly elite crowd ----- prep school students ----- and I'm always surprised when I see teens misbehaving or otherwise seeming threatening, because that's not really the behavior of the teenagers with whom I'm acquainted.

But many teens do seem threatening, even for those of us who routinely look beyond the whacked out haircuts, skimpy clothes, multiple piercings and such. In fact, I often find myself asking (rhetorically, of course), "where are their parents?" I did not have a misspent youth; mostly I didn't think of mis-spending my youth because my parents had rules and expectations and I didn't want to disappoint them or the other adults in my life. Within limits, they treated me like the adult that I was becoming. Within limits, I behaved myself (we'll just go ahead and forget about those times I ditched class in the 12th grade). I cut up in college, of course, but I generally avoided big trouble. The prompt "misspent youth" from Sunday Scribblings has set me to thinking about how it is that young people successfully transition to adulthood.

Now that I am with teens all the time, I see the need that young people have to be rebellious. How else is a teen to establish a sense of sovereignty but to draw boundaries ---- both stark and small---- between the lives of her parents and her own burgeoning independence? I want to be sure that the young people I know can exercise their independence in a way that gives them freedom without courting danger (or at least not too much danger). I want them to appreciate the adults in their lives, not rebel against them just for the sake of rebelling.

For that reason, I treat my students seriously. Their hopes and dreams must be given succor, not dismissed or laughed at. The adults in my world who took me seriously ensured that I took myself seriously as I made the transition to adulthood. And now I'm doing my part to keep that cycle going, so that the teenagers in my world find that I give them the room to maneuver and express their independence. I want them to safely express their youth, and to take the risks that lead to a happy adulthood.

Friday, November 23, 2007

Thanksgiving Leftovers?

The Thanksgiving holiday signals the eating season, and so I think the day calls for another recipe. This time, it's to help you with all those leftovers in your fridge.

Though my status as a citizen will surely be reviewed once I admit it, I'm not a big fan of turkey. Neither am I a big fan of wasted food. So roasting a big ole' turkey and dealing with the leftovers is just not my idea of Thanksgiving fun. This year, I avoided the whole turkey. I know what you're thinking, but no one at my house went hungry. There was ham, corn muffins and biscuits (homemade!), corn, green bean casserole, cornbread dressing, whipped sweet potatoes (don't get me started on the apostasy that is baked sweet potatoes with marshmallows), fresh cranberry sauce (no cans at my house), macaroni and cheese, cherry pie with vanilla ice cream, and potato soufflé. The soufflé is made with mashed potatoes, which might very well be sitting in the fridge at your house. Don't just heat up those leftover potatoes in the microwave (I'm talking to you, KO). Make something really yummy with them.

Potato Soufflé
(also known as Yummy Potatoes........thanks for the recipe, Mom)

2 cups of hot mashed potatoes
1 package of cream cheese, softened
1 small chopped onion
2 eggs, beaten
2 tablespoons flour
salt & pepper to taste
1 can french fried onions (6 ounce size)

Get out the mixer and whip together everything but the french fried onions. Gently mix those in and then put the whole mess into a greased baking dish. Bake for 35 minutes at 350 degrees.

Happy eating!

Update: I've just received a call from the Sassafras Sister........she's a bit bent out of shape because it would seem that the recipe for the potatoes listed above is sourced to her husband (known around here as Uncle M). So apologies to Uncle M for not giving him the credit that he is due, not just for the potato recipe but also for putting up with the Sassafras Family in the first place. Take a bow, Uncle M. You've earned it.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Happy Thanksgiving

In honor of the holiday, I'm posting one of the recipes that makes my family's holiday table a special place. I make two batches of corn muffins for Thanksgiving ---- one for breaking up and turning into cornbread dressing (I make that batch the night before). And the second is for eating with Thanksgiving supper.

Stacy's Corn Muffins
1 ¼ cup flour
¾ cup corn meal ----- I use yellow corn meal, but white is also fine
¼ cup plus 2 tablespoons white sugar
2 tsp baking powder
½ tsp salt
1 cup low fat milk (I use 1%; non-fat also works well)
¼ cup vegetable oil
1 egg, beaten

Heat oven to 400 degrees. Grease a muffin tin (the recipe will make 9 small muffins or 6 large muffins) or an 8 or 9-inch pan if you prefer corn bread. Combine dry ingredients in a bowl. Stir in milk, oil, and egg, mixing just until dry ingredients are moistened. Pour batter into prepared pan. Bake 20 to 25 minutes, until the edges of the bread are turning slightly brown and a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean.

Serve with plenty of butter and honey.

Happy eating and happy Thanksgiving!

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Not Quite Jersey Born, but Clearly Jersey Bred

Note to non-Jersey readers: E-Z Pass is an electronic system to pay tolls on the NJ Turnpike and other toll-roads and bridge crossings up and down the east coast. You can see an E-Z Pass in the window of many cars in New Jersey and I have one in the window of my trusty steed.

Today, JT was playing in his playroom, with his pirate ships lined up to cross under a bridge to the other side of the playroom. But there is a delay he tells would seem that one of the pirate captains does not have his E-Z Pass on board the ship.

The boy has been in New Jersey too long.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Old School Fun

JT and I got our Thanksgiving holiday off to a good start this evening. We watched the Charlie Brown Thanksgiving special. The program is just as I remembered it from my own childhood. JT was amused.........recalling that Lucy is an unreliable ball-holder, and laughing at Snoopy the dog in his go-round with the beach chair.

And I was reminded that one of the best things about being a parent is the pleasure of sharing my own childhood pleasures with my son.

Monday, November 19, 2007

Land of Dull Buildings

Though there is plenty of beautiful architecture in Washington D.C., it's also true that sometimes the buildings miss the architectural mark and call out with a Soviet-styled elegance. Add to that the fact that some of the buildings are also engaged in some pretty dull-sounding business, and you have the makings for some smart-mouthed commentary.

Whatever goes on in the Frances Perkins Department of Labor building just can't be much fun. From the looks of it, this building has never cut loose on a Friday night. And the Bureau of Labor Statistics? A nice-looking building but .....yawn.

Anyone for the Association of Counties? What kind of Saturday night fun do the counties scare up? Not surprisingly, the National Association of Realtors, has a brand-spanking new building.........I trust they've got a fixed-rate mortgage.

And here is the J. Edgar Hoover FBI building, with JT standing in front. This building looks like the perfect place to press record and monitor the phone conversations spy of your fellow Americans. Anyone care for a heaping serving of denial of habeus corpus? Some waterboarding? This building can make that happen.

Thanks to my colleague sw, who got the ball rolling on this particular game.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Ten Random Facts About Me

A while back, I was tagged for a meme by my friend s over at The deal here is that I must identify random facts about me. I'm trying for random facts that most people don't know about me and thus it's taken me a while to complete this list. So here goes:

1. I have the straightest hair on the planet (go ahead and insert your own joke here), but when the weather is humid two curls form at the nape of my neck. I've always longed for curly hair and I rather enjoy those curls.

2. Though my home is (compulsively?) neat and tidy, my desk at work is often a hellacious mess. I often try to remedy this situation, but have little success. On the other hand, I can usually locate what I need, so maybe it's no cause for concern.

3. I love corn tortillas, which I consider to the most perfect food. I would happily eat a meal of freshly fried corn tortillas (with salt.....lots of it) and avocado. It gives me no end of happiness that JT also loves corn tortillas.

4. I make excellent homemade corn muffins and biscuits. In fact, I'm prepared to throw down and assert that no one makes biscuits and corn muffins as good as mine.

5. Though I like to go shopping at malls, I mostly prefer to buy my clothes from catalogs on line. I think this is what happens when you've lived in rural Nebraska for 8 years (read: no decent shopping unless you drive 100 miles).

6. I have had a subscription to Newsweek since I was 14 years old and asked my parents to get one for me. I often wonder what my poor parents must have thought when their generally disagreeable teenage daughter announced her desire to read Newsweek. But they ponied up and then read the magazine so that I would have my own little Newsweek reader's group. Thanks mom and dad.

7. I lived in Tennessee for five years and it is the first place that I truly experienced all four seasons. I loved the Volunteer State and, given the opportunity, I'd go back there in a New York minute.

8. I like scarves, mittens, hats, and gloves.......all the accoutrements of cold weather. I'm always in search of just one more toasty item to add to my collection. I think that it's because I grew up in California, with little need for cold weather gear and so I think such things are exotic.

9. I make really tasty homemade popcorn. Hot, salty, and fresh it's just unbeatable. I learned to do it from my father, the only person whose popcorn is better than mine.

10. I almost always include a joke or two on tests, homework assignments and quizzes. It's like a tiny secret treat for my classes. One year, a student saved all the jokes and made them into a picture frame collage for me. It's one of the best teacher gifts I've ever received.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

I Carry

The prompt over at Sunday Scribblings is "I carry." I've been thinking about the prompt for the whole of the day; thinking about how to write about the item that immediately came to mind when I saw the prompt.

For more years than I can remember, I've worn a necklace with a heart-shaped locket. The locket has space for two pictures. When I first began to wear the necklace, I had a picture of the Tennessee woods inside the locket. Ten years ago this fall, I put a picture of my then-partner in the locket. When JT was born, I placed a small picture of him next to her. In that tiny heart were small photos of the two people whom I loved the most. JT liked to open the locket to check for the pictures. When he was small, he would say "baby" and "mommy." It always made me smile.

18 months ago, when my ex left our home for good, I removed her picture from my locket. Though the tiny JT remained, still worn next to my heart, my boy seemed to mourn the now-empty space as much as I did. He would open the locket, look at the empty space, and then quietly snap the little heart shut. One Sunday when she came to pick him up for their weekly visit, he told her that I had taken her picture out of my locket. It was as if he wanted her to understand just what her absence meant. We three were silent for a moment and then I quietly told him, "she knows that her picture is gone from my locket."

JT still snaps open the locket to admire his chubby-cheeked baby self. But that incident last summer was the last time he mentioned that he used to share the locket space with someone else. He speaks less and less of his other mom as a steady presence in his life. Sometimes I wonder if he'll even remember that she was once a daily feature of our life. And so I carry that in my heart as well ---- an enduring sadness for what he lost when she left.

Friday, November 16, 2007

Caity Spoon Hands

It has become the annual tradition that we sample the fancy dessert menu at the hotel restaurant. Tonight C took the prize for the most impressive dessert (bananas foster) and so we gave her all the desserts and dubbed her Caity Spoon Hands.

The desserts were yummy too.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Live from D.C.

A fellow teacher and I are in the nation's capitol with 31 teenagers and my 7 year old. We're here so the teenagers can compete in a Model Congress competition. We're within walking distance of the actual Congress and tonight the president was speaking at Union Station, just down the road from our hotel. Tomorrow morning, the students gathered here will hear a keynote address by Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia. And I have to say that though I'm no political fan of Scalia, I'm pretty excited to hear him speak to the crowd of liberal teenagers.

But back at the hotel, JT has found his new calling: Guitar Hero. Suffice it to say that the video game is instantly alluring to the boy. And all those hours spent listening to Eric Clapton in his mama's car have perfectly prepared him for his future as a rock star.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Real Life Conversations in Class

Student E: Do you realize that the assignment says to look for the answers in chapter 14? Because you're reading chapter 13.

Student M: Does it matter?

Teacher Sassafras: Not if you don't care what grade you receive.

Sometimes, I just can't help myself.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Nation-Building, Democracy and Pakistan

In 2000, when he was first running for the presidency then-Governor George W. Bush expressed contempt for Democrats and their willingness to intervene in other countries and engage in the business of nation-building. Under his watch, the United States would not be engaged in nation-building he famously announced.

We are reaping the rewards of that line of thinking today. In the aftermath of September 11, the Bush Administration was no longer worried about interfering in the business of other nations. In fact, when it came to the Middle East, we were actively engaged in the management of individual states. From the removal of Saddam Hussein in Iraq to our insistence on free elections in the Palestinian territories, the US has been encouraging the façade of democracy, without any real sense of what that means.

Democracy isn't the problem, of course, it's the single-minded pursuit of the trappings of democracy in places that have yet to build the foundation for such a system. So elections in the Palestinian territory created a morass of political confusion with power now marginally in the hands of the Hamas party, folks about whom we have reservations. In Iraq, elections have handed us a so-called power-sharing government that may exist on paper but does not exist in deed. The political system there is on the verge of collapse.

And in the last two weeks, Pakistan, a nation that passes for an American ally in the region, has slipped from a quasi-democracy ruled by a President who is also the head of the armed forces, into a state with the equivalent of martial law. The opposition has been temporarily shushed; President Musharaff may shut it down entirely.

All of this places the Bush Administration in a tricky position. Pakistan has been a bulwark against Al-Queda in Afghanistan, and when they haven't been as helpful as America would like, at least they haven't shut us out. They oppose the Taliban in Afghanistan and so do we. So while Musharaff has been less than democratic in the last five years, we have been silent. Now that Musharaff is no longer pretending to be democratic, the United States is in a pinch. A destabilized, nuclear Pakistan is not a good thing. Pakistan in the hands of the military is probably better than Pakistan in the hands of militants.

But it all gives lie to now-President Bush's claim that the United States stands up for democracy all over the world. And it points up the hubris of a Bush Administration swollen with foolish ideas about how we can promote democracy without engaging in the business of nation-building. Democracy is a good system, with a proved track record of generating peaceful, prosperous states. But it doesn't just appear and it isn't the effect of willpower and the brash insistence of the American president.

Note to President Bush: Wishing doesn't make it so.

Monday, November 12, 2007

Real Life Conversations Between JT and Tiger

The backstory: I'm running his Sunday night bath while JT strips down in his bedroom. Tiger the cat joins the festivities.

JT: Tiger?

Tiger: Meow.

JT: Tiger, have you ever heard of toothpaste? Because your breath could use some.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Left, Right and In-Between

I teach American Government to high school seniors. At 17 and 18 years of age, they are on the cusp of adulthood, getting ready to attend college, and starting to envision their lives as independent beings. My course is a combination of content (we talk about the three branches of government, Constitutional rights, political behavior and more.....your standard American Government fare). We also spend a good deal of time discussing current events, for which I liberally use Newsweek, NPR, and the New York Times to guide our discussions. If it's in the news, we'll be talking about it in class.

I've been teaching this class at the college and high school level for more than 15 years, and the inclusion of current events makes the course new each year. I grew up in a politically inclined household and I still remember how excited I was to vote for the first time. I felt informed and ready to pull that lever. That's the goal I have for my students: I want them to be well-informed and thoughtful voters, excited to participate in the democratic process. To that end, I treat them that way. I take their opinions and questions seriously, and I make sure that they have the opportunity to fill in the gaps in their knowledge while they are figuring out their ideology.

But I don't train them to think like me. At the beginning of class each year I always joke that if I need to brainwash somebody, JT exists for that purpose (though those of you who are acquainted with the boy know just how unlikely that is). I tell them that my goal is to help them become a better citizen, not a clone of me. In pursuit of that goal, I address the issues like a political scientist, and we explore all sides of a topic . Then, if they ask, I tell them what I believe. Finally I remind them again that their job is to think for themselves, to follow their instincts and decide where they stand. Left, right, or in between, it doesn't matter to me what they think. But it matters very much that they think; that they take up the mantle of citizenship by asking where they stand and what they believe.

As a result, my class is a microcosm of views. There are idealist progressives, independent-minded libertarians, social conservatives and any other view you can think of. For nine months they sit in my classroom and they listen to one another, they listen to me, they ask critical questions of the world. And then they walk out into the world, better informed and ready to take up the mantle of citizenship.

Saturday, November 10, 2007

A Book I Love

My friend E, who is a full-fledged adult, has recently begun to read the Laura Ingalls Wilder Little House series of books for the first time. I envy her that opportunity: to read those stories for the very first time. Those books meant everything to me as a child. I read them over and over again. As an adult, I've re-read the stories. If I had to identify one set of books that influenced my life the most, it might very well be those Little House stories.

They opened up the world of American history to me. Even today, when I teach about the Homestead Act, I make reference to the experiences of the Ingalls and thousands of others who came out west after the Civil War, looking for opportunity. My first winter in Nebraska, I was able to fully appreciate the harsh beauty of the prairie landscape that Laura had written about in her stories. And I never plant my spring garden that I don't recall the stories of the Ingalls enjoying the produce of their garden, with its spring lettuce and fresh tomatoes.

The books inspired me to read as a little girl struggling to master the task; I wanted to know what would happen to Laura and her family. As an adult, I've always appreciated the lessons I first learned from those beautifully written stories. I think that JT and I will pick up The Little House in the Big Woods when we finish our current book. I bet he'll love them as much as I do.

Friday, November 09, 2007

Real Life Conversations with JT: Elderly Edition

The backstory: Its' the morning after my 40th birthday. JT and I are driving to school and he has some advice for me as I start my 41st year of life.

JT: You're 40 now. You'll probably need a cane and some help walking around.

Mama: Really? You think it's that serious?

JT: Oh yeah. And now that you're elderly, you probably should give up working every day.

Because staying at home with that child of mine would be less taxing than a day spent with teenagers?

Thursday, November 08, 2007

In the Drink

I don't have photos ------ and I can't tell you how bummed I am about that ----- but earlier tonight Lucy the cat was on the edge of the bathtub, supervising our boy as he washed and created a deadly whirlpool for his old-school bath-time friend Elmo. JT and I discussed whether it was safe for Lucy to be on the edge of the tub, but she didn't care what we advised.

Naturally, she fell right in the bubble-filled tub. There was an exciting moment or two in the tub before she clawed her way out and then went yowling down the stairs, completely indignant at her swim.

Tiger, JT and mama laughed. Lucy is still not amused and won't make eye contact with me.

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Vocabulary Lessons with JT

JT has recently discovered that if he uses big words, it will make adults laugh. Always one to exploit such a situation, he uses every opportunity to demonstrate his impressive vocabulary. Often, he has just a little bit of knowledge about the word he's employing; just enough to make its use funny. On other occasions, he amends a word he knows to make it more helpful in the expression of his thoughts.

Thus, the other day he told me today that the fun-sized Butterfinger candy bar I ate after he took a bite and rejected it was "unsanitary."

But that was nothing compared to his characterization of some of the candy in his Halloween bin as "un-useless." Meaning, I believe, that he's planning to consume that candy and I needn't worry about his unsanitary leftovers.

Tuesday, November 06, 2007


Today is my 40th birthday. I've generally been the optimistic sort and part of the challenge of the last year and a half of my life has been recovering from the loss of my optimism. I think that things are better. At this point, I'm still hopeful that I can regain my former sense that I lead a charmed life. Charmed or not, I know that I have been blessed. So today, as I turn 40, it seems like a good time to make a list of a few of the things that I am grateful to have in my life. I'll pick four things, one for every decade I've been around.

I am grateful for my son. He makes me laugh and shows me every day what it means to love without caution or reservation. In just 7 years and more often then he can possibly know, he has made me feel strong. His absolute faith in me gives me faith in myself. He has shown me the power of hope and joy. For years, I dreamt about being a parent. Never in my wildest imagination did I understand how wonderful it would be. I feel incredibly lucky to have him.

I have been blessed by wonderful friends and a terrific family (yes, I'm talking to all of you). These are the sort of people who will laugh and cry with me; people who will come to my rescue and remind me to be strong.; people who believe in me even when I've lost faith in myself. When you live miles away from your family, it's a scary thing to wake up as a single parent. But distance has meant nothing to my family, who has rescued me time and time again. And my friends both near and far have pitched in to be a second family for JT and me. It's a support system of enviable power and I am so grateful for it.

I am grateful to have a job that I love in a place that feels like home. My colleagues and my students are an amazing group of people. I feel very lucky to be here with my son in this school (that's 3rd period with the surprise birthday cake they brought to class today).

Finally, I am grateful for my house. It's a lovely house filled with things that I love. I think that it has the vibe of a happy home. From the moment I stood on the front porch, I wanted it to live in this house. It's my home and my center in every sense and from the messy playroom to the heap of laundry in the basement, I love it.

When I look at this list, I feel profoundly lucky. And that's a very happy thing to feel.

Monday, November 05, 2007

In Which Last Night's Insomnia Proves a Problem

I didn't sleep much last night and generally that's no way to begin the week. Today it proved a particular challenge while I was teaching ancient Chinese history to my freshman in the morning. I was explaining that peasants built earthen dikes around the Huang He River to protect their crops from periodic floods.

And I write dike on the board.

And (you can see this coming, can't you?) yes, I spell it dyke.


I quickly fix the spelling error and make my standard joke: I need spellcheck for the chalkboard. The class doesn't seem to notice, though I fear they were just being kind.

Several hours later, I'm still embarrassed.

Sunday, November 04, 2007

Real Life Conversations with JT

The backstory: A friend and I are off to the grocery store on Saturday afternoon, JT in tow. JT would prefer to be at home, playing, but that option was rejected. The drive over to Wegmans convinces me that it may be a less than relaxing shopping expedition. So in the parking lot I decide to make my behavioral expectations clear up front.

Mama: I hope that you're going to behave yourself when we're in the store.

JT (in exhausted, sighing tone, as if this is a situation well beyond his control): Me too.

Naturally, the grown ups in the car burst into laughter. And at least I could consider myself warned as we headed into the store.

Saturday, November 03, 2007

"Collecting for Unicyle"

Growing up in California, the idea of the Unicef box for Halloween was an exotic east coast thing, featured in Judy Blume books, but never part of my world. So when I moved to New Jersey and saw the boxes on Halloween, I was delighted.

In the past few years, JT and I have undertaken projects to make him aware of the fact that not all children live in prosperity and plenty. We collect clothes to donate to the school clothing drive, we packed a backpack for kids displaced by Katrina, we donate a new toy to the toys-for-tots drive. I want him to be aware of an obligation to help make the world a better place.

These lessons made this year a perfect opportunity for JT to carry a Unicef box on Halloween. And he was eager participant, glad to help out. He was particularly inspired by the graphics on the box which noted that 6 cents would provide water for a thirsty kid and a $1 would immunize a kid against measles. He wanted to do his part.

Talkative as he usually his, JT has often been a reticent trick-or-treater. He's there for the candy, thank you, and conversation is optional. But when he and his buddy D went out with their Unicef boxes on Halloween, it seemed to unleash his rhetorical and fund-raising talents, and he would work it at the door, raising up the box and saying, "collecting for Unicycle." Happily, people understood what he meant, though it amused T and me, waiting back on the street. We wondered if "Unicycle" was a lesser-known charity for retired or down-on-their luck clowns.

This afternoon, we plan to cash in our Unicef change and submit the donation. I've promised to match what he has earned. And we'll both feel good for having done a little something to make the world a little better for children who aren't as lucky as JT.

Friday, November 02, 2007

Raised Right

There is an old-fashioned southern phrase that I'm fond of, the idea that a child has been "raised right." Being raised right means lots of things ---- a child who is polite has been raised right; a child who does the right thing even when there is no grown up around to make it happen has been raised right. A child who is raised right knows the right thing to say and do.

Most of my decisions as a parent are driven by this goal: ensuring that JT is raised right. In pursuit of that, I have recently made the decision to carefully expose JT to the news.

Yes, that's right, my 7 year old is a news consumer. He listens to NPR with me. Frankly, there are some topics that I'm not quite ready to explain and so I'll turn off those stories. But we listen to the news each day. In my Government classes, I teach all about political socialization. I know that if I want my child to share my values, I must expose him to those values and explain why I believe the things that I believe. Politically active parents, people who encouraged me to express an opinion and join in political discussions, raised me. I'm seeking to recreate that experience for my child.

So he listens and we talk. I've had reason to explain the war in Iraq and why I think it's a bad idea; that George W. Bush isn't evil but he is wrong; that sometimes people hurt their own children; that in some places children are hungry. In short, my son is learning about the world.

Last Tuesday, I reaped my first reward for these lessons. We were listening to the news; to a story about states requiring that registered voters bring a driver's license to the polls. The story was about who is most adversely affected by these Republican-sponsored laws ---- poor, elderly, and minority voters.

When the story ended, before I could say a thing, my son said to me, "That's not fair, Mama. Some people don't have a driver's license and they won't be able to vote. What if they don't know how to drive or are too old to drive? What if they don't have money for a car? That's not fair."

He's right, of course. And he doesn't know the half of it: that voter ID laws such as these are designed to suppress voter turnout. That the voters who are suppressed are often Democrats and that Republicans raise the specter of vote fraud to justify these laws even though no credible study in the nation believes we have a problem with fraud. My 7 year old didn't need to know those facts. He understood enough to see unfairness and call it as he saw it.

I daresay he's being raised right.

Thursday, November 01, 2007

November 1st

On the first of each month, I'm taking pictures of and writing about the big tree in my backyard.

To judge from the grass, many of the tree's leaves have fallen.

But when you look up into the branches, you see a wholly different picture. A tree this old is slow to lose its leaves. Though some have turned gold and fallen, many green leaves remain. It looks like I will be raking for at least a few more weeks. But that's okay. I like the way that the tree slowly prepares for the coming winter, as if to remind me, "hey, what's the hurry?"