Thursday, December 31, 2009

Aught Not to be Repeated

I have some mixed thoughts about what I'm about to write, but the fact is that I am happy to say goodbye to the which I mean the years 2000-2009.  My feelings are mixed because the year 2000 saw the birth of my son; a day that is most surely the finest in my life.  2002 saw me start the job I have now, at a school I find enormously fulfilling, both personally and professionally.  2005 landed me the house I still call home.  On that May day when my family and I received the key, it was my dream house.  Today, if I recall that day's happiness, I feel like a fool.  But the home remains a house that I love, a place that I am enormously grateful to call my home.

The good events from the decade are not small things and on a daily basis I appreciate my blessings.  But in other ways, the aughts were years with some profound disappointments, a feeling that my life and I were broken, and a sadness and heartbreak that I wouldn't care to experience again.  Where I once felt that I led a charmed life, sometime in 2006 that charm broke into a million pieces.  I have yet to pull it together.

On balance, I am happy to welcome a new decade.  Good riddance to bad rubbish and all that.  I wouldn't say that I'm optimistic about the next ten years. But I have a plan.  Earlier this month, I received a small talisman reminding me to "believe in yourself." I plan to keep that reminder at hand in 2010.  And given the last few years of this life of mine, that's a pretty big step.

So here's hoping that 2010 is the start of a better decade.

Wednesday, December 30, 2009


The end of the month is fast approaching and so it's time for December's most notable remarks. There aren't that many this month.  But though the trove is small, it is quite rich.

I have a class distinguished by its proclivity to bring take-out to class while we discuss the ins-and-outs of American government. So it is that our discussions of bureaucracy are accompanied by the smells of Thai food, or whatever constitutes the take-out du jour. From this group, two notable comments were delivered in the month of December:
"What I look for in a girl is the smell of bacon on her hands."
"Have you ever noticed that McDonald's has an aftertaste of shame?"

Come the new year, this class can expect that the bar is high.

At my school, most students are enrolled in a study hall. As a rule, that's a place where a student may sign out providing he or she has kept all of their course grades over C-. If you are staying in study hall, by definition, you don't fall into this category. The idea is that a student should use study hall to, ahem, study. But that version of reality seemed to be lost on Student X who signed in to study hall one afternoon and then promptly asked me: "Can I go get a pillow from the lounge? I need a nap."

I raised my eyebrow at this request and then let it go. The need for sleep is not to be trifled with. But I wanted to ask: "haven't you been sleeping through class?"

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Garden Porn

Each year, November brings me garden catalogs from the small nursery companies that form the foundation of my garden planting.  This year was no exception and, as I have for the past few years, I set aside those catalogs for the quiet days between Christmas and New Year's Day.  Frequently, I pour myself a hot cup of tea and I look over those catalogs, dreaming of seeds for spring planting.  Winter has only just begun and a cold wind is blowing.  But I am planning for spring.

It's my collection of garden porn.

I will spend the next few weeks looking through the catalogs, marking potential favorites, and dreaming of garden abundance.  By the end of January, I will make my final selections.  My parents gave me some zinnia seeds for Christmas (carousel and candy cane...two of my absolute favorites). I've already stored them in my seed basket.  The rest of the seeds and bulbs will arrive in March, usually on a dreadful, cold, wet day.  I will set them aside and wait patiently for the promising signs of early spring: days getting just a tad longer, a breeze that feels a bit less icy, some chirping early morning birds.  By then, my much-reviewed catalogs will be looking a little dog-eared.  I'll tear out the pages with the details I need to know (are those the 8 inch stubby carrots or the longer, thinner ones?), draw up a plan,  fire up the garden tiller, and get ready for the pleasures of watching my plants flourish.

Monday, December 28, 2009

The Kindness of Strangers

Yesterday morning, listening to Morning Edition, I heard a story about the need to register more bone marrow donors, especially potential mixed-race donors.  The interview was with the mother of a little girl named Maya.  Maya is a four-year-old mixed race child (her mother is from her India; her father is of European ancestry).  This story about her need for a donor was a powerful reminder that the advances of the most amazing of sciences, in this case a bone marrow transplant to treat cancer, still rest upon the kindness of strangers.

I have been on the bone marrow registry for eleven years.  I got on the registry when a colleague's son was diagnosed with cancer and needed a bone marrow transplant.  When a child is diagnosed with cancer, there is a feeling of powerlessness that takes hold.  Parents, people devoted to the protection of their young, are suddenly faced with a threat well-beyond their ability to vanquish.  John's cancer diagnosis galvanized our small town; many of us waited in line for the blood draw that would place us on the registry. 

Every few months, I get a newsletter from the registry that confirms my address.  Without doubt, if I am ever called upon to donate, I will step forward to help.  There are 7 billion people in this world; 300 million of them in the United States.  The National Bone Marrow Donor Registry has just 13 million people on the list.  A few more kind strangers would certainly help. 

Sunday, December 27, 2009

The Small Things

In my mind,  the happiness of Christmas is most underscored in the attention to details that make the holiday special.  In JT's world, that is the beauty of a Christmas stocking.  Earlier this year, he announced that his Christmas stocking is so terrific because Santa "just knows my mind" and leaves the perfect treats tucked into his stocking.  Among those treats this year was a tiny little cat, just the sort of treat that Santa knew would make my boy most happy.

My sister surprised me with a luxurious black cashmere sweater.  It's a bit more (!) valuable than a tiny little cat,  but like the cat the gift came from KO's attention to detail (she knew I longed for such a sweater) and will be that much more-cherished for that reason.  My mom sent me a copy of Sarah Vowell's The Wordy Shipmates, a book she knew I wanted because we heard an NPR interview with the author while my folks were visiting earlier this year.

For snacks before Christmas supper, I made fried pickles for my friend T, because she loves them.

And her partner S made carrot-ginger soup for our supper, because I love that.  And I love it so much that I lapped up my bowl before I remembered to take a photo. 

JT and I gave S a poetry book that I knew she would like because that's the beauty of the small things, they are a happy version of that old adage "what goes around, comes around."

Friday, December 25, 2009

Politically Incorrect Christmas

JT (and Tiger) got their first look at the Christmas booty at a very civilized 7:45 am.

Santa delivered the boy an impressive array of treats and the Egyptian section of the Playmobil catalog.  As I write, the boy is busily decoding his new pyramid and its many secret compartments. He's got a herd of camels, a substantial cache of weapons (including his first scimitar), any number of dangerous-looking swarthy characters, and his very own mummy. When Grandma and Grandpa phoned,  Grandpa suggested that JT have a look for Osama bin Laden, but as I recall it's Saudi Arabia and not Egypt who has unclean hands on that front.  In any case, we don't think that Homeland Security should be called in.  Yet.

In pursuit of my organic gardening ways, I scored a salad spinner and a warm yellow countertop composting bin for Christmas.  My sister, apparently fearful that I'm about to join a commune, countered the granola offerings with a six-pack of glittery lip gloss and a black cashmere cardigan sweater (the latter straight off my life list).  So I am all set for a variety of circumstances in 2010.

The cats scored some catnip and a heaping bowl of kibble.  There will be a formidable Christmas feast come the afternoon.  In the meantime, I feel that a bit of reading (I got Sarah Vowell's The Wordy Shipmates) and a nap are in order. 

Merry Christmas to all!

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Real Life Conversations with JT: Empire Edition

The backstory: On Tuesday, JT and I set off to check out one more venue for the Prom (don't ask).  As we headed up the hill and through the lovely winter woods, in a particularly posh part of New Jersey, the houses got larger and larger.  Suddenly we came up on the house pictured below (photo by JT).  The house is enormous - can't see the other side for the curve of the earth enormous - and comes complete with its own gated entry and a brand-new fancy brick wall to keep the riff-raff out.

Mama:  Good Lord.  That's a big house.

JT: That's not just a house Mama.  It's an empire.

We spent the rest of the afternoon engaged in idle speculation about who would live in such a house.  For his part, JT feels a staff would be necessary, lest he get lost hiking to the kitchen in search of a snack.  As for myself, I'm wary of the number of toilets that must be cleaned. Word is that empires don't clean themselves.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Sled While the Snow Shines

This past weekend's snow was the first of the season and JT, apparently unwilling to believe that winter has only just begun, is determined to enjoy every last minute of the snow.  I'm amused by this development because past experience has shown me that sometime around the end of February, JT will declare that winter is OVER and he's ready for swimming weather.  Spring's primary utility for JT is the fact that it's the only highway to get to summer.

But it's not February yet and in the meantime JT is a sledding machine.  Wet snowy mittens, cold feet, and fading light be damned...JT will slide down the hill for as long as I will let him.

Monday, we went sledding at our school, skimming down the steep hill onto the glittering untouched field below. 


 It was a beautiful day and, tucked behind the field house at school, the wind didn't bother us a bit. We were the only people there and we sledded for two hours, until I declared that the jig was up (mostly because he had to get home in time to warm up and change into shorts for basketball camp).

On Tuesday, we headed south to scoop up JT's buddy D and sled down the long hills in his neck of the woods.   D's mama S talked me right through her busy town, and we ignored the warnings to park the seld transport vehicle at the edge of a most impressive hill.

These hills had to be shared with other similarly-minded kids, but the boys didn't mind, occasionally shouting "look out" as they whizzed down the well-trodden paths, sometimes edging a little too close to the icy creek for a mama's comfort. 

S took a few screaming runs down the hill. 

And as dusk descended, the boys paused for shorter and shorter periods at the top of the hill, knowing that the clock was ticking.

We got back to D's house to find that D's mom T had the hot cocoa and mulled cider ready.  As we wrapped our cold hands around the hot mugs the boys laughed and chattered, reviewing the best runs down the hill. I conclude from this that truncated runs and wipeouts are as much fun as sliding just to the edge of the icy creek (while your mama shouts "be careful").

Happy winter!

Monday, December 21, 2009


JT and I did some sledding today and tomorrow I will post lots and lots of photos of sledding success.  But the best sledding photos are the ones where JT and his sled part ways.  They are the best because, of course, the boy comes up from the snow laughing the sort of rolling laughter that makes being a parent worthwhile.

Without any further ado, may I present the major wipeout.  It began innocently enough, halfway down the hill when someone's slick nylon snowsuit proved more aerodynamic then his sled:

And it ended, as these things often do, with a face full of snow:

Though you needn't fear that he lost his mojo; seconds later our hero headed back up the hill:

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Snow Report

If you paid any attention to the world in the last 24 hours, you likely heard a news report or two about the impending snow doom headed for the northeastern United States.  JT was ready for action and he climbed out of bed at 7:30 am yesterday morning, gunning for some snow.  Five hours later, when flakes had yet to materialize, he had aged into a bitter 9 year old, grousing about the tax dollars he tosses to those lame forecasters  at the National Weather Service.

I assured him that the snow was coming, but he stomped up to his playroom to work through his aggravation via some sort of pirate-cowboy--Indian-Viking-Romans home invasion.

At 2 pm, the flakes began to fall.  And for the next 16 hours they continued to fall.  Last night, when we went for our traditional evening walk in the snow, there was a bitter wind and 4-5 inches of snow already on the ground. 

Totals in the news vary but this morning's snow plower's confab on the front sidewalk in my neighborhood came to an agreement that we got somewhere between 8-10 inches of snow, with drifts up to two feet in some corners of the yard.

JT is in a snowy white heaven.  This morning, fortified by french toast, bacon, and a pot of coffee, I fired up the snow blower and joined my snow blowing neighbors in clearing the neighborhood sidewalks and driveways.  JT slid down the hill in the front yard, made countless snow angels, and then made snow balls for our epic backyard snow fight.  I swept snow off the front porch and enjoyed the picture perfect effects of the snowfall.

Then we came inside, stripped down to our long johns and drank some hot tea. Within the hour, I expect that a certain young man will head back outside for round II of snow play.   I have a feeling that the radiators will be looking like this for the next few days.

Saturday, December 19, 2009


JT stomped downstairs this morning with an announcement: "Since we are on vacation, there is only one rule: There are no rules.  And sometimes we don't even follow that rule."

Anarchy has been declared.  Lest you call the authorities, be assured it is the anarchy of Christmas cookies for breakfast, pajamas until noon, watching Christmas holiday TV shows at all hours of the day, naps, hours of leisurely book reading, and extended dance mix card games.

December is always a crazy, busy affair and this month the twelfth month seemed determined to truly excel at this dubious distinction.  Every day this week, as I reluctantly awakened in the chilly dark, I lay in my warm, soft, flannel bed for an extra minute, counting the days until winter break and summoning the energy needed to face one more day.  It got harder each morning.

But this morning was different.  I came awake in the same fuzzy condition as every other morning this week, but I felt a glorious sense of leisure descend over me.  A major snow is forecast to fall upon us in the next few hours, a wintery reminder that the relaxation season has arrived.  We plan to run out and grab some groceries soon (a snowstorm is much more enjoyable if one is confident the hot cocoa supplies won't fall short).  But that's the only mandate of the day. 

It is a glorious freedom.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

In the Ironic Zone

I live with cats and that means that all parts of the home are to be considered cat territory.  On occasion, Tiger and Lucy allow me to join them in the bed located in my bedroom, but it is understood that I am a guest and this is their home.

On occasion, the cats can create havoc with items we'd prefer they not play with.  When this happens, we seize the item in question and try again to secure it from the paws of doom.  There is just one spot in our home where the cats cannot get at something.  That tiny safe square is at the top of the bannister on corner of the staircase.  JT and I call it the "kitty-free zone."

This week, JT got a tiny cat figure in his advent calendar.  He immediately placed it in the kitty-free zone.....because we have a deep sense of irony around here.

As it turned out, the tiny cat in the kitty-free zone seemed to bother Tiger and Lucy as well; they paced up and down the stairs convinced that an injustice had been perpetrated.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Household Happiness: Carved Wood Snowmen

Last spring, I wrote about the hand-carved wooden bunnies I collected when I lived in Nebraska.  I have a collection of snowmen carved by the same artist.

When a certain young man was little, the snowmen were stored on a shelf high enough to protect them from childlike (over) enthusiasm.  These days, the real danger comes from our four-legged friends, as can be seen in this up-close photo of my favorite snowman, removed from the shelf and placed on the dining room table to have his picture made.  Tiger was interested.

Come December, the five snowmen take their rightful place on the mantel shelf, a reminder of  happy Christmases past and a promise of at least a few Christmas surprises for the future.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Happy Packages

One of the things I enjoy the most is wrapping up pretty packages.  All year long, I collect paper, ribbons, and tags for Christmas packages.  I prefer simple designs on my wrapping paper and I like boldly colored ribbons and bakery twine.  I wrap lots of packages in brown parcel paper; it's a lovely background for fancy ribbons and it's useful all year long.  Etsy gift guides are essential to this process.

Pictured here are some of the packages I wrapped for JT's advent calendar.  They are a big part of making the month special for JT and that makes it happy for me.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Pesky Returns

Regular readers will recall that there is a very sassy squirrel who lives in my backyard, where he regularly taunts my cats and generally lolls about on the back deck.  For some time now, he has helped himself to my neighbor's trash, bringing the best items back to my yard for a wildlife buffet.

On Monday, Pesky hit the mother lode: frozen carrots, which he carefully stored in a cubby in the tree.  I know the carrots aren't mine, because I don't buy bags of frozen veggies.  And I know they aren't JT's because he doesn't eat veggies, frozen or otherwise.  The cats don't store extra food in the it must be Pesky who is responsible for this development.

Though I felt bad about it, I cancelled Pesky's gravy train by collecting all of his trash and disposing of it.  Then I stood on the back deck and issued a stern warning to Pesky and his friends: no more garbage in my back yard.  In the chilly silence that followed, I'm pretty convinced that Pesky flipped me the bird.

Wednesday, December 09, 2009

Family Politics

Each year, I ask my American Government students to engage in a little personal history research.  The assignment is to talk with members of their family about their political memories.   Individuals often receive their first political cues from their families and so the project serves the purpose of personalizing my students' understanding of the political socialization process.

It's also a nice way to urge my students, all of them seniors about to head off to college, to talk with the grown-ups in their life.  In my class, I treat them as citizens; as full-fledged members of the polity.  I want them to see themselves this way and I want them to engage the adults they love and respect as fellow citizens.  I know from experience that these conversations can be enlightening.  Students learn that their loved ones lived through real political events.  In a school like mine, with an incredibly diverse population, those political events can represent a variety of experiences in a range of other countries.  My students have talked with family members who fled oppression, who lost loved ones in wars, who came to the United States in search of opportunity.  Europe, Asia, Africa, North and South America all turn up in these projects.  The project also encourages the students to understand their family's history.  And since we read one another's projects, we are also learning from one another.

Even before my own family imploded, I was careful to take account of the many different ways families could be constructed.  I never assign the students to talk with Mom and Dad.  Instead, I asked them to talk with "the folks"; "aunts and uncles in name"; "your parents"; and sometimes I'd say "the people who give you lunch money and the car keys."  I word it this way for lots and lots of reasons.  When I first began to make the assignment I was careful of language because my own child had a non-traditional family; one composed of two moms.  I knew that other children came from similarly different families.  And whether a child has two moms (or none), lives with adoptive parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles, single parents or step-parents, I want to recognize and value the many ways our families can be organized.

When I became a single parent, I was more aware then ever of the ways in which talk about family could be loaded for children from non-traditional homes.  I experienced first-hand the pain it causes a child when he has to discuss his family and he's unsure just how to explain the fact that he only lives with his Mama now, because his Mommy left.

I've gotten so used to being inclusive in my language about families, that I am taken aback when others are not so careful.  This year, my son's class is involved in a project about family history.  JT has been at this school since he was three and he has never experienced an untoward comment about his non-traditional family.  I am proud of that fact.  But when he was assigned to fill-in a family tree, it caused problems.  First, there was the place to list his father.  He doesn't have one.  So we carefully crossed-out father and wrote "Mommy" instead.  That same assignment asked for a family picture, no small request for a child whose parents are no longer friends with one another.  Should he use a picture from the time when his family was intact?  Should he leave the space blank?  Both notions are painful for a 9 year old.  JT chose a sensible solution: he simply drew a very small picture of the three of us, with me on one side and my ex on the other and a tiny little boy bridging that gap.   JT has classmates with parents who have died.  It couldn't have been easy for any of those children (or the adults who care for them) to include a family picture.  It seems to me that a more more inclusive family tree would be less gendered in its language and would include a space for family pictures, in plural, thus letting each child (and the adults who love them) determine who should be included.

Later this week, the students will reveal their projects and share them with one another and their families.  It's a day designed to understand and celebrate their heritage and their families.  I'll be there, of course.  I can't speak for everyone, but I know that I will be careful to recognize that for some families, this day of celebration is also bittersweet.

Monday, December 07, 2009

Philosopher in Chief

Things have been crazy busy at my house and when I look at the calendar of events that lie ahead for the month, it's clear that busy will continue to be our theme.

JT and I spent some of our weekend trying to rest and refuel for the week ahead.  We decorated our Christmas tree, we played some games, we read some stories to one another, JT played outside.  But we also had less restful activities on our agenda (the endless piles of laundry, JT's homework, bathrooms to clean, groceries to buy, cat boxes to get the idea). 

This morning, as we piled our things in the car to face the first day of the week, I found myself wondering if the boy had  gotten enough downtime over the weekend.  He's got a bit of a stuffy nose; had his brain and body rested enough?  Was he ready for the week ahead?  I wasn't sure.

When we arrived at school, we paused in my classroom to review the list of things we need to do today.  And in that moment, JT sat on my lap and said, "You know, Mama, when I think about the whole world and me in it; me with this whole life of my own to live.  And millions of people just like me but not really like me at all.  It's just amazing to think about."

It fair took my breath away.  I'm still not sure that we're ready for the week ahead.  But I am sure that if I just follow his lead, the boy is ready for the life ahead.  This week, that will do quite nicely.

Sunday, December 06, 2009

Tis the Season

On Friday evening, JT and I headed out to fetch our Christmas tree.  He loves this part of the season and we walked up and down the rows of trees, checking out our options, breathing in the pine air, and generally getting very excited.  Dozens of trees were reviewed; sizes were estimated.  Then we finally settled on our tree.  We loaded it into the car to drive it away.  We came home and placed it in the Christmas tree stand and set it out on the porch to shake out over night.

Yesterday, we brought the tree inside and set it in its usual corner.  Tiger and Lucy, who spend their lives indoors, are like junkies when they see and smell the tree.  We know the drill and set out to hang the lights and ornaments, carefully leaving off the most fragile ornaments and leaving decorations light on the bottom third of the tree.  The cats stalk about as we decorate the tree, claiming it for themselves and eager for that moment when we will leave them alone with the tree.

When we head upstairs for stories and bed, Tiger and Lucy join us as usual.  They don't want to miss their share of story-hour petting.  Then the lights go out and quiet descends.  As I lie in bed in the silence, I can hear the cats walk down stairs.  They plan to have their way with the tree.

I've learned my lesson and the tree is securely tied to the stair railing; it can't be pulled over.  So Tiger and Lucy must be content to victimize the ornaments.  And when I came downstairs this morning, the evidence was undeniable; nearly a dozen ornaments could be found strewn about the floor. The cats walked around my ankles while I checked out the damage, as if they are blameless in the carnage on the floor.  They have no idea what happened to that Santa in the coner.  The reindeer probably flew off the tree himself.  The shiny tin candy canes?  Those must have blown off in the storm.  It's a shame, really, what happened to that nice tree.  But they'd like some kibble, please.

Friday, December 04, 2009

Elite, My Ass

I spent the day at the annual History teacher's conference at Princeton University.  The day featured a handful of notable historians talking about their latest projects.  As always, it was interesting and engaging; just the sort of thing that makes me really like what I do for a living.

But I must admit that I spent a good part of the day distracted by fear of personal injury.  The lectures occur in a large, old hall at the university; an auditorium called McCosh Hall.  The hall has lovely old wood student desks.  I sat on the north side of the hall and, as one might expect in a old building, the floor had a bit of a tilt.  Just enough of a tilt that sitting in the smooth wood desk meant a constant struggle to keep from sliding south on that slick chair and landing right on my bootie on the wood floor, where I would surely come across a splinter.

Next year, I'm wearing a velcro skirt.

Thursday, December 03, 2009


Today, I took some students to a conference for the empowerment of young women.  Girls from all over central New Jersey attended workshops on topics like cultural identity, body image, dating issues, and gender equity.....basically your standard Girl Power sort of fare.

My students enjoyed the sessions and we had some interesting discussions.  But I will admit that I was a bit taken aback when a young woman from another school rushed over to her friends at their table and yelled: "Why didn't you tell me there is a cute emo boy in the lobby?"

I believe she failed to absorb some of the nuances of the empowerment workshops.

Wednesday, December 02, 2009

Real Life Conversations with JT: Manly Men edition

The backstory:  JT and I are driving home, having a conversation about Santa is watching, it being the month of December and all that.  Suddenly, JT bursts forth with an impressively loud burp.

Mama:  Dude!  Santa is watching.

JT:  I know.  But Santa is a man and he understands what men must do.

Good to know.  I think.

Tuesday, December 01, 2009

December 1st: Hostas

It's hard to believe that this tired, dry bed was once lushly green.  But it was, just a few months ago.

Now the last of the drying stems are preparing to blow away in the next chill wind.  And the garden is beginning its winter rest.

Like most gardeners I know, I've got a growing stack of seed catalogs by the side of the bed.  And as I settle into my flannel nest at night I thumb through the pictures, in search of the perfect tomato; the striped zinnia which will look best in my vases; the cutest of the jack-be-little pumpkins.  And as the cold settles in, I console myself with the thought that it won't be long before I can start digging in the dirt.