Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Assigned Reading

There's been a lot of talk about the aid that the federal government is providing to American automobile manufacturers. Like virtually everyone else, I have an opinion. But nothing brings home the reality of the situation as well as this terrific article published in the New York Times magazine last weekend. It will be assigned reading for all of my classes when I return to school in the fall.

You should read it as well.

Then send it to your friends and ask them to read it. I'll warn you now: author Jonathan Mahler isn't going to provide easy answers. But he will make you think with both your head and your heart. And it strikes me that at least a few more of us could use that combination as we approach the making of public policy.

Monday, June 29, 2009


I planted my garden as early as possible this year, in anticipation of an early tomato harvest. I was secretly hoping to bring a plate of sliced tomatoes to the neighborhood 4th of July block party. Then we had an unseasonably cool and wet June; a reminder to me that Mother Nature will not be hurried along.

A few weeks ago, the tomatoes began to bloom. One evening, I counted two and then three yellow flowers on my tomato plants; soon there were too many to count. Promising.

But the rain and the cool temperatures continued (I haven't had to water my garden with the sprinkler since late-May); my basil plants long for warmth; the peppers are puny. The zinnias are barely knee-high. Nothing is thirsty, but the absence of warmth shows. Sigh. I figured that I wouldn't enjoy cut flowers or a warm tomato sliced-fresh for the supper table until late July.

And then this weekend, in my daily walk through the garden, I saw two tiny green tomatoes.
The zinnias are about to deliver a flower.
The Jack-be-Little pumpkin vine is looking incredibly fertile.
The hydrangea has been busy.
This is what I love about gardening. You work and work (and that alone is satisfying) and then all that hard work begins to pay off. No matter how hard-earned it is, the pay off always feel sudden. One afternoon's walk in the garden reveals that things are coming along. And then the next day there are two tiny, green tomatoes on a plant.


Saturday, June 27, 2009

A Good Read

When I was in the 3rd grade, I started reading the Little House books. I was a late-blooming reader, and the Little House in the Big Woods was one of the first real books that I was able to truly read on my very own. I loved those books and read them all over and over. At times in my life, both happy and sad, returning to those books has brought me a deep and abiding pleasure.

When I gave birth to my son, I experienced a passing regret: he would never love the Little House books. I just assumed that the books would only appeal to a little girl.

I underestimated my 21st century boy.

In the 3rd grade, JT and his classmates read the Little House in the Big Woods and they learned about pioneers. They explored every corner of the pioneer world as they read that book. I came to JT's class every week and read Farmer Boy to the 3rd graders. That book is the only one in the Little House series that isn't about the Ingalls family. It's the story of Almanzo Wilder's childhood. As the book opens, Almanzo is 8 years old and attending school for the first time. Almanzo doesn't mind school, but what he really loves is life on the farm and the prospect of his own pony to train. Though the story takes place in the 1860s, it resounded with the 3rd graders, boys and girls alike.

JT and I talked often about Almanzo and Laura and the world in which they lived. Appropriately enough, this son of a history teacher is fascinated with history. Books with that theme engage his imagination and interest and provide fodder for many a conversation between the two of us.

Last week, JT discovered old Little House on the Prairie episodes on television and he recorded a few for us to watch. I remember the TV show (indeed, I was the target audience for that show), but it never captured my interest like the books. But JT was interested and we watched a few episodes of the show together. When I explained to him which parts of the show were real (the dreaded Nellie Olson, for example) and which weren't (Laura never ran away from home), he asked about the books.

I still have my collection of Little House books. And last week, I was delighted when JT set aside an enormous collection of Indiana Jones stories in favor of reading Little House on the Prairie. Within a chapter, he was hooked, chattering excitedly with me about packing the covered wagon to head west. We have since taken to reading the book together in the evening, taking turns reading out loud.

It is a deep and abiding pleasure for me to share these books with my boy. Last night, as we read about the Ingalls family building their home on the prairie, I was struck again at the rich detail of these stories. At the spirit and independence of a family who would set off seeking opportunity in a place distant from all that they knew. No matter how many times I read them, there is a familiar comfort to be found when I return to the fold of these stories that I have loved for nearly all of my life. And to now be sharing them with my child is even better than I had anticipated.

Friday, June 26, 2009

Life is a Beach

We've had a rather wet and cool month of June but on Thursday sun and heat was forecast. It seemed like a good idea to pack up the car and hit the beach.

Around here, that's called the shore, as in "I'm going down shore." We met my friend sb and had some quality time admiring the sound of the ocean rolling in. JT made some friends and they dug a large hole, the purpose of which was to.....well, let's just say that when you are nine years old, you don't need a reason to dig a hole.
And then the boys headed for some surf.
They caught the waves with the boy's boogie board and generally enjoyed the feel of the ocean.

It was a good day.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

The Trouble With Good

Every time my ex returns JT to my house, the house where he makes his home, this place that I work so very hard to maintain, as she walks back out the door she tells us, "have a good week." It's a throw-away line to fill the silence. Polite chit-chat.

Sometimes I wonder if she ever really thinks about the weeks that now shape my life with JT. Does she ever think about the life we had together? I miss that life and the happiness that I thought I had. I miss the companionship of a shared joke; the satisfaction I felt in raising a child together. I miss the history we had and the certainty of the future. I wish that I wasn't in this all by myself. I know that wishing doesn't make it hurt less or make the lies disappear. I know that wishing doesn't make it so.

And so, mostly, I try not to bother. But sometimes when she carelessly advises us to have a good week, I just want to say, "You have no idea." Because though it might look the same, my life these days is very, very different from what it used to be. This life is a daily reminder that I must look after my son; that I cannot fail him. That I must keep going. That I cannot give up.

Good would be so much easier.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

OMG, Don't Tell the Tech Guy About This

I'm guessing that it's the combination of the sunlight and the warmth of the computer that has Tiger feeling that this is a good idea.
Memo to Tiger: You need a new place for napping, my feline friend.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Healthcare Reform: The Business of Insurance

Before we can even talk about healthcare reform, it's vitally important that we understand how most healthcare insurance policies operate. Health insurance is a business and it works according to same principle as all insurance: The individual buys an insurance policy for a set amount of money and the policy is a protection against individual payment for a health calamity. For example, let's say that I pay for insurance in the amount of $500 a month. I could just place my $500 in the bank as a hedge against my need for healthcare. But instead I pay it to a company. For their part, the company promises to pay up if I get sick and require medical care.

The company is betting that I will be well and thus the amount I pay in premiums will not be used to keep me healthy. I am hedging against the fear that I will need more healthcare than I could otherwise afford.

Many of us find this arrangement morally dubious and it may very well be. But if you have insurance, whether it's with a not-for-profit or traditional business, that's the arrangement. You are betting that you might get sick, in which case the company will pay out money to get you well. The company is betting that you won't get sick and therefore they can hold the cash paid in premiums.

For obvious reasons, it's in your best interest to stay well. The company feels the same way, of course, because if you get sick it will cost them money. The company is looking to hold onto premiums. This, of course, is where the problems begin. The company prefers not to spend money on treatment; individuals hope that they won't need costly healthcare. But should the need arise, they expect to have their care covered; that's why they pay premiums in the first place.

Healthcare costs have not kept pace with inflation; not by a long shot. Whereas yearly inflation in the U.S. has typically been 1 – 3% per year, over the past 30 years, healthcare costs have risen as much as 5-15% per year. It doesn't take an accountant to figure out the problem. If we seek to ensure the entire nation within the framework of the current healthcare system, we will go bankrupt.

As this debate moves forward, we need to find ways to reduce the cost of healthcare. It may very well be easier said than done....and it will be the subject of my next post.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Extended Dancemix Playdate

JT's buddy D is the first playmate he met in New Jersey. There's about 18 months between them, so as they have patiently explained to me, they could be brothers. They are clearly good friends and yesterday D's mom delivered him unto us for a sleepover and playdate. We will return D this afternoon.

Between now and then, there will be a whole lot of playing. Yesterday, they put on their swimsuits and ran around the backyard.
All that running around can build up quite a hunger. So they scored a pizza and watched an episode of Wipeout.
(please pardon the fuzzy picture......I'm still learning how to use the camera....those of you still judging should try getting two boys to sit still and then get back to me)

And then they heard the ice cream truck in the neighborhood so they shot outdoors to score a treat. Apparently, that was a serious business.
And that was just last night. Who knows what today will bring?

Sunday, June 21, 2009

JT's Latest Installation

My friend P, who joined us for super the day this installation went up, wonders if it is JT's latest statement on deforestation in the Americas.
I can't say for sure, but I do think that the neighbors should continue to use caution when passing by our home.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

A Waiting Game

Early Friday morning, when the news revealed that Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei pronounced the results of the recent Iranian election "fair," I thought to myself that saying it's "fair" just doesn't make it so. But that's an historical lesson that more than one leader has had to experience before it gets learned.

Khamenei might be forgiven his somewhat foolish announcement if one considers it in context. He's certainly not the first Iranian leader to announce things are just fine only to find himself overtaken by events on the ground. That kind of hubris brought down the Shah of Iran in 1978. The next year, a false belief that things were just fine would eventually turn out the seemingly moderate leadership who replaced the Shah. By the end of the year, Iran went from one dictator (the Shah) to another (the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khomeini) and his system of constitutional theocracy. That's the system still in place In Iran today.

In my mind, the most instrumental lesson to be learned from the events of 30 years ago is that those changes didn't happen overnight. Over the course of 1979, a year best remembered in the United States for the dismal and demoralizing imprisonment of Americans in the U.S. embassy in Tehran, what had been a hopeful democratic movement was overtaken by a form of radical Islamic fundamentalism that has held sway in Iran ever since. Though we are loathe to recall, it was democracy that gave Iran it's peculiar political system. Sometimes, people make choices that are not good for them.

Until now.


The fact is that current Supreme Leader Khamenei and his government, headed now by President Ahmadinejad, may have both the will and the power to violently shut down the people who have taken to the streets to protest the results of the election. Or Iranian citizens who feel the election was dishonest and unfair, a people perhaps numbering the millions, may prevail. It's really to soon to tell.

The Obama Administration has to try and work with whatever government is in place in Iran. Whether or not the Americans view the Iranian government as a legitimate one is an interesting question, but it won't necessarily change the facts on the ground. If anything, what the Iranian resistance most needs right now is to be seen as a truly domestic insurrection, not as an agent of western pressures. That's a task best fulfilled by brave Iranians willing to take a risk on behalf of their own freedom.

And so we wait.

PS: Those of you interested in the role of social networking sites in the Iranian protests might be interested in this NPR interview with Ethan Zuckerman, who studies that very issue at Harvard's Berkman Center of Internet and Society. Fascinating.

PPS: And then there is Juan Cole, a first-rate scholar of the Middle East. Read him to make sense of events on the ground in Iran.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Well Armed

It's probably best not to wonder (or care) what the other mothers think of me when I unleash this particular boy at the park.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Gratuitous Garden Bragging

Above is one of three hydrangea bushes currently in my garden. I love these old-fashioned plants, but I've found that they can be a bit persnickety. This year, I hope that I've got the right balance of nutrients in their soil.

Now that I'm on summer vacation, I've been cleaning up all corners of the garden. The temperate weather has ensured that if it's not raining, JT and I spend most of our time outdoors. With the garden patch mulched and growing quite nicely (blooms have been sighted on the tomato plants), I've turned my attention to other sections of the yard. This corner has been cleared and weeded and is coming along nicely.
I can see that I'll have to get a plan for that bald spot in the lawn. That's the beauty of a garden: there always a project.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Gardening 101: Weeding, Fertilizing, & Caging the Garden

I'm a bit behind with this post but we've had a cool and wet spring and if gardening has taught me one thing, it's that Mother Nature will not be hurried along.

Garden maintenance requires weeding. And the vigilant gardener will be rewarded by stronger produce and neat and tidy garden rows. The trick is that the early plants and seeds must have time to sprout such that you can identify that which is a desired plant and that which must be removed.
My regular garden plan is to keep up with the weeds and be sure that plants are thriving and then to spread newspapers between the garden rows. I cover the newspapers with a layer of cedar mulch; typically I put down about an inch of mulch; enough to cover the newspapers and neaten the garden.
This year, we've had a lot of rain. Three times I weeded, with the expectation that I would lay down the mulch within a few days, only to be confronted by more rain. Newspapers and mulch in the rain is not fun and so I'd wait to put out the mulch, only to fall back into needing to weed. I repeated this pattern more often than I care to admit. But last weekend, I finally finished up the mulch job. Now there is plenty of tidy space for the growing pumpkins and squash.
Why mulch and newspapers? First and foremost, it's effective weed control. Controlling weeds means that the plants you want to grow will have more room and resources to thrive. So weeding is critical. Newspapers are organic and printed with soy ink. Soy is good for the soil and so as the newspapers decompose, they nourish the soil. Same with the wood chip mulch that I put down. Prior to decomposition, they'll keep the weed population in check and help to hold water, a handy notion as the summer weather turns up the heat. When the growing season is over, the newspapers and mulch can be turned back into the soil to nourish things over winter. It works for me.

I've also got most of my tomato plants caged up, to provide support for what I hope will be a lush crop of tomatoes. The cages also provide support for the plants when the rain pours down. My advice is that you put up the cages before the plants seem to need them. They cages seems to tower over the plants right now, but that won't last.
I've harvested some radishes and clipped some basil, oregano, and cilantro for cooking. That will tide me over until early next month when the garden will start to supplement my grocery supply. This week, I will plant a second round of carrots and beets, for harvest in late September. And, soon, there will be cut flowers from the zinnias.

Perhaps the best part of the garden at this stage is the daily growth. Most evenings, JT and I take a walk out back and to check out our garden's progress. I love that part of the day, sharing my pride in the growing plants with my growing boy.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Some Thoughts on Healthcare Reform

One of the things I like best about Americans is their ability to pull together and get things done. There are endless historical examples of Americans stepping up and taking care of one another (and sometimes the world). These stories of community sacrifice and individual heroism tell me Americans are good people.

I think that's why I've been so disappointed at my nation's inability to enact meaningful healthcare reform. We agree that 45 million of us lack insurance; another 25 million are under-insured. That number ticks up every year. Many of us agree that this is bad for our country; we certainly agree that sick people should be able to see a doctor. But when it comes time to figure out how to change this situation, our vulnerable solidarity breaks down, to be replaced by concerns about what reform would mean for individuals. Healthcare reform is a complicated matter and in the next few weeks I plan to write about some of those complications with an eye toward sorting out the Gordian Knot that surrounds the mess. I'll do this by explaining some of the issues in the debate.

First: a disclosure of where I stand. I am firmly among those who believe that healthcare should be a right for Americans. These days, my access to healthcare is provided via health insurance provided to me and my son by my employer. That's how most Americans have access to quality healthcare. I am not arrogant enough to believe that it's a right I should enjoy while millions of other people are left out. Especially since I understand that it's a massive tax break that helps to provide my insurance.

Those of us who have employer-provided insurance are enjoying an enormous benefit for which we do not pay a fair market price. If your employer pays for all of your insurance costs, that amount is a supplement to your salary worth anywhere from $5,000 - $12,000 per person covered, per year. If that amount came to you in a paycheck, you'd pay taxes on it. But when it comes to you in the form of health insurance, you pay no taxes on it. My employer pays part of my insurance premium (60%) and I pay the rest of it (40% of the premium). That 40% comes out of my income.....and I pay no taxes on that share of my income.

If I had no insurance and had to pay my own medical bills, it would come out of my after tax income. If I knew the tax laws, I'd know that I could create a Medical Savings Account for myself, and pay for my medical bills out of pre-tax income. But many people who don't have insurance are operating at the margins of the economy. These are families who are looking to just get by; not people who are able to utilize the benefits organized by the system.

Don't get me wrong: I don't want to pay taxes on my insurance benefit. But I know that government rules are subsidizing my healthcare, as they do for nearly all of the Americans who have health insurance. To believe that I deserve this tax and healthcare benefit, one paid for by all taxpayers, even those who don't have insurance, is to implicitly suggest that some people are not as deserving. When it comes to healthcare, that's just a ridiculous argument. As a nation, we'd be healthier (and perhaps happier?) if we all enjoyed access to healthcare. We need to find a way to accomplish this, for the good of one another and the good of our nation.

Next up: an explanation of healthcare inflation. I hope that you'll keep reading.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Household Happiness: Tea Pitcher

There is an old Southern saying that I've always loved: "Iced tea is the house wine of the South." In warm weather season, that's certainly true at my home. If it's warm enough to open the windows, then I know it's time for the tea pitcher to take its rightful space on the kitchen counter.

I have two tea pitchers and both have been with me for a while. Both are made of heavy stoneware, which means that they can handle warm or cold liquids. Both pitchers came into my possession nearly 20 years ago, when I was living in Nashville. This one matches the first set of dishes I owned, the Yorktown pattern by Pfalzcraft. My mother has a set of these dishes, so this pitcher reminds me of home.
My second pitcher is blue saltware pottery that is a fixture of Tennessee homes. It's made by Overcast Pottery. It reminds me of Nashville, the city I love best.
I make my iced tea the old-fashioned Southern way. I fill the kettle with cold water and then set it to boil on the stove. While the kettle comes to a boil, I tie three Red Rose brand tea bags together and drop them in the bottom of a clean pitcher.
When the water reaches a fast boil, I fill the pitcher half full and steep the tea for 15 minutes. If I am making sweet tea, I add a half cup of white sugar to the hot water and stir it in to the steeping tea.
After 15 minutes, I remove the tea bags and then fill the pitcher to full with a combination of ice and cold water.
Now that you know the secret, you should make yourself a pitcher of iced tea. But if that's too much trouble for you, just come on over to my house. There's always a fresh glass waiting.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

And Speaking of that Front Porch...

...things are coming along nicely. As soon as the sun shines around here there will be some painting and that's the last step in my porch improvement plan. But lest y'all think I'm lying about getting nothing done, I did tie a new ribbon on the front door wreath.
Coming to a front door near me very soon.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Mama's Boy

When JT received his report card this week, it came with the 4th grade summer reading list. We're big readers around here, so JT immediately combed his book shelves for the assigned book. The Mouse and the Motorcycle is a pretty good read. And there's no better place to read than the front porch on a summer evening.
Five chapters down.

Update: Jason asked what other books are on the list. Only The Mouse is required. But the recommended list had several books we are eager to try:

My Side of the Mountain by Jean Craighead George (I'll just go ahead and admit we've already read it)

The Borrowers by Mary Norton (also a book we've read and enjoyed)

Ghost Canoe by Will Hobbs

Baseball Fever by Johanna Hurwitz

Martin Bridge: Ready for Takeoff by Jessica Kerrin

And the Wayside School series by Louis Sachar

That ought to keep Jason busy for a least a week or two.

Friday, June 12, 2009

Pressing Ethical (and Hygiene) Dilemma

I know that many of you read that title and cringed. Some of you read that title and thought: only one ethical and hygiene dilemma in that household? I can't imagine.......

For the record, I do not consider the fact that I often don't manage to shower until after 4 pm a hygiene dilemma. The fact that JT and I have been known to lie about in our pajamas until well after noon is neither an ethical or hygiene dilemma.

That my sister manages to wash her hair less than a dozen times a calendar year, on a schedule determined by the relationship between the planets and the moon is odd. It is certainly a chemistry dilemma how she manages to look good despite this unorthodox approach. But it is not an ethical or hygiene dilemma....though perhaps I digress too much?

I suspect that today's dilemma is one familiar to parents everywhere (though some have enough decency to avoid proclaiming it to the Internet). Today's dilemma: I accidentally used my son's toothbrush.

Though I know I should probably be creeped out, I'm not. Mainly, I'm not grossed out because I grew that kid in my own body and delivered him to the world in the way that nature intended. If we can live with that undignified reality, then I assume we can just suck up the whole toothbrush deal.

But it did make me wonder. What do other mamas do when this happens to them? And then there was this thought: does this happen to other people? Or have I just proclaimed to the world just how freakishly weird I am?


Thursday, June 11, 2009

The Picture of Summer

There is just something about a bowl of fresh berries that says summer to me. Yum.

Tuesday, June 09, 2009

Unclear on the Concept

My local Wegmans, where I do all of my grocery shopping (in Jersey, the natives call this "food shopping") sent me a little flier advertising the fact that it's "Dairy Month" at the market. I've been invited to join the celebrations.
Okay, I'm down with that. Though, having carefully read my Michael Pollan, I am admittedly skeptical of claims that the super yogurt will give me thick glossy hair, firmer skin, and a smarter brain, not to mention lower blood pressure.......

But then I looked at the coupons for "dairy" food. That includes such tasty dairy products as...lemonade and non-dairy coffee creamer.
On the next page, Wegman's suggests some soy milk or my personal favorite, a tub of "I Can't Believe it's Not Butter" spread. Actually, and I hesitate to be so impolite, but I CAN quite easily believe it's not butter.

I think that the flier more properly should have advertised Food Sold in the Refrigerated Dairy Section month. Or perhaps Foods Masquerading as Dairy? I'll let the marketing people know I'm available.

Sunday, June 07, 2009

Real Life Conversations with JT: A Polite Decline

In the past few days, JT has been on an unparalleled eating frenzy. Every time I turn around, he's seeking a snack. On Saturday afternoon, this led to the following conversation:

Mama: Are you getting to grow or something?

JT: Maybe.

Mama: Because if that's the case, I have to respectfully request that you stop.

JT: No thank you.

Defiance, but polite defiance. The real issue here is that at this rate we're at T minus 12 months before the child is taller than me. And then what?

Saturday, June 06, 2009

Danger Zone

For the past few days, JT's sticks have been carefully arranged in the yard. It's not entirely clear what's going on here, but the neighbors should probably be concerned. For my part, I intend to placate the restless native with a steady supply of fudgsicles. Let's hope that it works.

Thursday, June 04, 2009


These boys first met when they were 3 years old. B's mom J and I decided that pre-K would be more fun if our boys already had a buddy. So we met at a park and when the boys saw some puddles from an earlier rainstorm, a permanent friendship was cemented in their mutual delight in playing in the mud. They have been fast friends ever since.

And it goes without saying that finding another mom who is okay with a muddy play date spells the start of sound adult friendship.

They are finishing the 3rd grade today. Earlier this week, B came home with us after school. When a rainstorm erupted, it seemed like a fine idea for B to borrow a swimsuit from JT so they could head outside to run in the storm, armed with sticks, loud voices, and their imaginations.
As they carried on and played outside, some cars drove by. Nearly everyone honked or otherwise acknowledged these crazy little boys with their wide grins, white bellies and tanned arms (I call it the Little League tan).
This year, as we've come to school with 9 year olds who grow bigger by the minute, J and I have bemoaned the fact that our little boys are growing up. Childhood seems to pass so fast. And yet, there is this: the laughter of an enduring friend who's been around as long as you can remember. One who's willing to run around in the warm rain, help you out of the trash bin (who thought that was a good idea?). And laugh and laugh and laugh.

Wednesday, June 03, 2009