Monday, April 30, 2012


At the end of any long day - but especially a long Monday - I think that we all deserve some wildflowers.

We need some wild columbine.
These May apples look awfully lovely.
And can I get a cheer for some buttercups?
That's happy!

Sunday, April 29, 2012

Vocab with T: Sharky

It was pretty easy to settle on sharky as this month's vocabulary lesson, if only because the current political landscape so easily lends itself to use of the word.  Sharky is just a re-organization of that old trope that "lawyers are sharks" and when you are a shark, you act sharky.  Just so we're clear, being clever alone is not being sharky.  But being a clever asshole, well, that makes you sharky.

Do you need some examples?

Newt Gingrich's every utterance is sharky.  Karl Rove's American Crossroads's produced adverts attacking Barack Obama for being too cool?  Sharky.  And we all have that one colleague whose every act is manipulative and self-serving….they are sharky.

It's useful to have a way to characterize these people that doesn't involve the volumes of profanity I usually use as reference point for the sharky among us.  This is a family blog after all.

Saturday, April 28, 2012


Recently, I made a visit to the Bowman's Hill Wildflower Preserve.  I'll have more to say in post near you soon.  But for now, on this cold spring morning, I offer you a lovely bluebell.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Life on the Corner of Bittersweet and Adolescence

The other day, a middle school teacher friend of mine announced that 7th grade is the low point of adolescence, combining a kid who's come to believe that his parents are the very height of stupidity with the angst and roller coaster emotions of puberty in full display. 

As the mother of a 6th grader, I was not delighted by this announcement.  Inexorably, JT is moving into the world of teenage status.  There are moments of glory in which I catch a glimpse of the man he will become and I rejoice in his sense of humor, his kind heart, and his strength.  But there are also moments of darkness, when his surly, dismissive tone frustrates and annoys me nearly as much as I have clearly annoyed him.

And then there are the days when the world of 12 collides with the past and the future all at once.  I experienced that on Tuesday, when we stopped at Michael's to get supplies for a school project (he's constructing a medieval village that he intends to populate with his Playmobil soldiers), hit Old Navy to get some shorts for school (the shorts season opens on May 1st and nothing in a kid's size fits the boy anymore).  Errands complete, we came home and with nary a mama's nag, he sat right down to complete some studying for a test later this week.  Work done, he went outside to play in the yard. Thirty minutes later, with $2 gripped in his hand, he shot through the house and off the front porch to catch the ice cream truck as it meandered through town.

He scored a Choco-Taco and came back inside with his bounty.   He had a mile-wide grin, one featuring the chubby cheeks of his past, the braces of his present, and the brown-eyed glint of his future.  In that moment, he was my baby; my boy; and my young man.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Sign of Our Continuing Decline

After years of using the same brand of, ahem, female protection, I recently realized that the tampon wrappers are printed with a combination of advice and cheering self-esteem mantras.  They're sort of a combination of bad Chinese fortune cookies (sans actual cookie) and the platitudes of a half-assed guidance counselor.  They're Fortune Tampons.

Among the useful tips:

"Mental attitude affects performance. You're a take-charge kind of girl!"

"Live fearlessly! Keep doing what you do."

"The score doesn't tell the whole story.   Go get 'em!"

"Go get em!   Reach for the finish line."

And then there is my personal favorite:  "Play hard always.  Go play. I've got your back." 

This particular line is meant to be comforting, I suppose.  But given the product in question, I fear it reveals an alarming lack of biological awareness.  Dear Playtex Sport Tampons: It's not my back I am worried about.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Real Life Conversations at School: Checking Out edition

The backstory: I teach an Advanced Placement Government course to 12th graders who are students in a school with grades running from pre-school to the 12th grade.  Each year, a select group of our graduates are receiving diplomas from the only school they've ever attended.  They first began pre-school here at the age of 3 and now, at the age of 18, they will leave for college.  That's a long time to be in one place and we call these kids "lifers."  Like every other AP Government student in the nation, my students will take their big test on May 15.  I must finish teaching all the course material before then (and I do) and after that test date, the class is on a slow slide to the end of the school year (the last day of classes for us is May 25).  The other day, the students wanted to know what we would be doing in class when the AP test was over.  Experience has taught me that I should be vague about this period of the course, mostly so that they have some incentive to show up and avoid checking out.

Me: "We'll do something that I think will be fun.  And whatever we do, you must at least pretend to care."

Student K: "Don't worry.  I've been doing that for 15 years."

It might be time for K to move on.

Monday, April 23, 2012

Dogwood Monday: Week 7

I am the sort of gardener who keeps a bucket list of plants and trees I'd like to have growing in my care.  One of the reasons I like my dogwood tree so much is because it's one of those trees I've always wanted to have in my care.  I don't remember them from my childhood in California, but dogwoods stood out the first spring I lived in Tennessee.  The white and pink blooms come out early down south and make a brave show in the changing colors of the spring woods.  I've never forgotten the beauty of my first southern spring and my dogwood is a reminder of that.
We had a heavy Nor'easter rain yesterday and so my dogwood is shown in watery sunlight this morning.  My tree is about done with its spring floral display and has turned its attention to the growth of big green leaves.
The hostas underneath the tree, lush displays themselves, look even lovelier with the dogwood blooms caught on their leaves.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Real Life Conversations at School: George Clooney edition

The backstory: In my American Government class, we were talking about fund-raising innovation and I mentioned a current Obama Campaign effort: donate money to the campaign and the operation will enter your name into a contest to attend an Obama event to be held at George Clooney's house.  You'd get to meet President Obama and Governor Mike Morris.  I am a fan of both men and I was pretty excited.  But one of the students found it unlikely that I was interested in George Clooney because, ahem, I play for the other team.  I was just about to respond when student R interjected.

Student R:  Have you seen the man?  He's beautiful!

For the record, Student R is a young man, tall, conservative in personal habits.  And yet one more reason to love my school.

Saturday, April 21, 2012


I didn't have a bad week, really.  But it was a very busy week and one that seemed to rather drag on.  On Friday afternoon, after a full day of teaching and yet another set of after-work errands, I found myself ready for an adult beverage.  I wanted a glass of wine.  I had earned a glass of wine.  I deserved a glass of wine.  I got a glass out of the cabinet and a chilled bottle was retrieved from the fridge.  Then I pawed around in the drawer looking for my corkscrew.  And this is what I found.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Gratutious Flowers

I cannot believe that it's only Thursday.  It's been a crazy, busy week but every day when I come home I am greeted by these vibrant, happy flowers.  They make me smile, no matter how much work remains to be done.
 I'll take it.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Real Life Conversations with T: Failure to Plan edition

The backstory:  A few weeks ago, T and I were at Wegmans, piling groceries in the cart according to my carefully constructed list when she suggested that I get a bag of cat food.  "No need," I said, "I'll be back here on Friday."  She gallantly tried again but I deferred, convinced that I wouldn't need kibble before a return engagement at the market.  The following weekend (wait for it), I ran out of kitty kibble on Easter Sunday and fretted about it all day while I was at T's house.  Later that night I drove home and then we spoke on the phone.

Me: I stopped at Rite Aid on the way home and bought some over-priced kitty kibble.

T:  Oh yeah?  Too bad those cats don't eat in a regular, predictable way.

And that comment was uttered in the dry, sarcastic fashion that I find so damned charming.

Monday, April 16, 2012

Dogwood Monday: Week 6

This week, the dogwood flowers are nice and large.
Last summer's hurricane felled a tree in my neighbor's yard.  That tree shaded a good deal of my driveway and was also much larger than the dogwood, so my tree was forced to grow in the shade.  Once the neighbor's tree was gone, the dogwood got to enjoy a lot more sunshine.
And the tree has taken advantage of the improved growing climate.  That's happy.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

By the Numbers

My friend N has 4 (yes, 4!) children and still finds time to blog.  A few days ago, after what seems to have been a particularly crazy week, she wrote a blog posting called "By the Numbers" in which she quantified her week.  I decided to plagiarize madly and do the same with my week.  So here is my by-the-numbers assessment of the week that was.

1: choir concert; parade attended; baseball game; lawn mowed; batch of cookies baked; garden planted!
2: toilets cleaned; fresh-sheeted beds
3: sinks cleaned; workouts completed
4: pitchers of ice tea consumed
5: blog postings written; suppers made
6: essays graded
7: items of clothing ironed; pots of coffee made
8: dishwashers emptied

It was busy but not exhausting, which sounds a bit like to dare to the universe.  I surely don't mean it that way!

Friday, April 13, 2012

Blooms, Blooms, Blooms

All over the garden, things are coming along.  The apple trees are blooming and getting ready for a healthy crop.
The pear tree is also in on the action.
I've got collections of pink tulips next to the unfurling hostas, all of them looking lovely in the backyard.
Even the iris bulbs, flowers which normally wait for late May, have taken part in the early warmth and made an appearance to join in the Spring celebration.
I look eagerly for the iris blooms; the bulbs are transplants from plants that originally grew in my great-grandmother's yard.  Their annual appearance in my yard feels like a garden blessing.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Rescue Cats

A few weeks ago, I read a terrific article in the NY Times magazine.  Melissa Fay Greene's story, "Wonder Dog" talked about the use of service dogs to help with disabled kids, including children with autism and other behavioral spectrum disorders.  It was a powerful story about our human need to love and and be loved and the ability of love to help struggling children and their families to find peace and comfort in their sometimes difficult lives.

In particular, there was a story of one child, a boy named Iyal, who was born in a Russian orphanage and adopted by an American family at the age of one.  As Iyal grew up, it became clear that he has a range of disorders resulting from fetal alcohol syndrome.  For Iyal and his family, a rescue dog named Chancer has been a godsend, providing comfort and relief to Iyal and his family.  "Wonder Dog" is amazing and well-worth your time.  It will make you grateful for the blessings in your own world, of course.  It will also remind you of the power of animals in our lives.  As for me, the story of Chancer got me thinking about my own pets, Tiger and Lucy.

The kittens came to our lives in 2006.  We got them on a sunny Friday in October, three months into the year in which JT and I were learning to manage the break-up of our family.  Tiger and Lucy were litter mates we adopted from a local animal shelter.  On the advice of several friends, we decided to get two kittens so that they would have one another's company when we were at school.  We each selected and named a kitten.  JT picked out Tiger and I found Lucy. They climbed right into the box and you can see the pride and excitement on my boy's face as we carried home the newest members of our family.
Once home, they settled right in as if they had known all along that they belonged with us. 
JT was always happy to wrangle them to sit on his lap.
He loved them to distraction, filling their bowls with kibble and water and talking excitedly about seeing them when we drove home from school each day.  By happy coincidence, Tiger, the kitten JT had selected, was the more cuddly of the two, always eager to be by JT's side and providing the sort of unconditional love that helped to heal his heart.
By Christmas of that year, we couldn't imagine life without these two creatures.
In ways inestimable, Tiger and Lucy made our home feel full and complete.  We'd watch them in the window as we drove off to school in the morning and they'd be waiting by the front door when they heard us arrive home in the afternoon.
 They'd join us for stories when it came time to tuck JT into bed each night.  They'd race up and down the stairs and make us laugh.  And then they would cuddle up in our laps whenever the opportunity arose.
In countless ways, they rescued us both in that hard year.  Nearly six years later, our hearts are healed but Tiger and Lucy are still a powerful reminder of the healing power of pets.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

All Squirrel, All the Time

T has a pet sugar glider by the name of Zip.  He is about what you'd expect from a pet named Zip: small, fast, sassy, and charming.  Sugar gliders are from Australia (yes, he speaks with an accent) and are a form of squirrel.
Around Sassafras House, we find squirrels rather charming.  In fact, it might be an unhealthy obsession.  Zip may feel that way, considering the fact that I got T a chocolate squirrel for Easter. 
I'm sure she won't take a bite while Zip is looking.

Monday, April 09, 2012

Dogwood Monday: Week 5

Five weeks into our early spring finds us awash in mild days and spring greenery.  In terms of duration, this is the most consistently pleasant spring I've experienced in New Jersey.  I'm getting ready to plant my vegetable and cut flower garden and we've enjoyed plenty of time outside.  All of my perennial plants are coming along.  But you're here for the dogwood and the news is good.  Half of the dogwood blooms opened up just in time for Easter.
The other half are hard at work and will likely open by next week.
It's like Mother Nature is using spring to help me to celebrate my happy heart.

Sunday, April 08, 2012

Easter Celebration

As has become our custom in the last few years, JT and I celebrated Easter on Good Friday.  There was a basket of treats:
Next up: a backyard hunt for candy-filled eggs.  The boy searched with great care, hopeful for a successful harvest.
Eggs were tucked in the most unexpected places.
The boy collected a whole bunch of eggs.
Then, he emptied them.  Most went in the bowl but a few fell right into his mouth.
Even accounting for immediate consumption, he enjoyed an admirable harvest.
Not a bad haul for a morning's work.  Happy Easter, everyone!

Friday, April 06, 2012

The Happy Clematis

Though my sister is convinced that bragging about the condition of my clematis vine sounds like I'm admitting to unclean personal habits, I can't resist writing about the clematis.  The climbing vine had a rough spring last year as early heat really hurt its growth.  I feared that the vine was dead forever.  But it's not!
And that's a most happy thing.

Thursday, April 05, 2012


This is the final week of the third quarter and I'm busy grading exams and homework assignments, getting my grade book up to speed, and writing comments for every student that I teach.  It's all due next week and I treat the deadline as hard and fast because it is hard and fast.  Alas, my students aren't always convinced of this fact.

The grading and deadlines have me thinking about the work that I assign my students and the meaning and value of those assignments.  I make it a point never to assign what I call "busy work" ----- assignments that I won't read and comment upon for the student who did the work.  This has been my policy as long as I've been in the classroom.  So a student working with me can be confident that I feel my assignments have meaning and value.  All of them are targeted to prepare students for tests and assignments in my class and also to guide them toward the skills and work habits required for success in college and life.

To that end, my assignments have due dates and are handed out at least a week in advance of the due date so that the student can plan to organize his or her time accordingly.  Homework handed in on time receives full credit for effort.  This is my way of rewarding the establishment of good work habits.    But the assignments are about more than a due date.  I place so much value on the assignments that I even accept late work for partial credit because the work is part of the preparation.

Students who submit too much late work are reminded that this isn't a functional habit for school or the work world beyond.   Despite the occasional request, I never offer extra credit because, as I explain to my classes, the real world sometimes rewards hard work but rarely offers extra credit.  And then I explain:  if you're a physician who flubs the job, your patient is sicker or dead and no amount of extra credit can fix that.  If you're an aeronautical engineer whose design is flawed, the airplane doesn't fly.  And if I don't get my grades submitted on time, my boss doesn't tell me not to sweat it.  He tells me I won't receive a contract for next year.

I sometimes fear that this message is lost on my students; that it feels hopelessly old-fashioned or that I am out of touch with the world outside of education.  This quarter in particular, the late work has really piled up.  In order to get my work completed on time, I had to establish a deadline for student submission of late work.  Even then, some students failed to comply.  It's just a few students out of my 75, but it's a persistent issue for me and will be a problem for them when they head off to college.  I'm gearing up to award the tardy students zero points for the late work.  I fear that I'm more worried about this than they are.   But it's the only way I know to get work organized and completed and I truly believe that learning effective work habits is the least I can do to prepare my students for life outside of the cocoon of family and school.

Yet I still fret.  What is fair?  What is the purpose of my classes?  How should that be accomplished? How do I help my students to achieve the elusive goal of preparation?

Tuesday, April 03, 2012

Tulip Tuesday

A few years ago, I planted a bunch of pink tulip bulbs.  As spring unfolds, I start to keep watch for the blooms of these particularly lovely flowers.  As of this week, one of the flowers has started to unfurl. That's happy.

Monday, April 02, 2012

Dogwood Monday: Week 4

Half of the dogwood tree in my backyard has sprouted its tiny flower blooms.  I expect that by next Monday's report, the rest of the tree will get in on the blooming action.
I love the way these blooms look so delicate even though I know dogwood is a lot stronger than it seems.  That element of spring ---- the appearance of delicacy but an undergirding of strength ---- is part of the great charm of season and yet another reason to welcome spring.

Sunday, April 01, 2012

April 1: Front Yard Flowerbed

This past week felt more like the usual spring weather in our neck of the woods, with cooler temperatures than the days we experienced earlier in the month.  We even enjoyed a few evenings of light spring rain and on Thursday there was a brief thunderstorm.  All over town, things are greening up.  My front yard flowerbed faces north, so it blooms a bit later in the season.  But everywhere I look, I see progress.  The yellow jonquils have bloomed.
The tulips are just a few steps behind.
The azalea bushes are coming along nicely.
The rose of Sharon tree is starting to green up.
The hostas are a lovely shade of green and are getting ready to unfurl.
This flowerbed is the first thing I see when I get home in the afternoon and each day I take a minute to check out the changes.  It's a welcome reminder to stop and enjoy the season.