Thursday, January 31, 2013

Dear Week of January 28: You Suck

Warning: There is some serious first-world complaining about to follow.  Read at your own risk.

Monday found me teaching all five classes, including a sequence of three back-to-back classes of tired, overwhelmed students. I drove home from school in an icy slush  The roads themselves weren't icy, thank goodness.   But still.

Tuesday was yet another go round of all four of my classes.  Three of them were starting the exact same brand new lesson.  I am the sort of teacher who does not welcome repetition and keeping selective incorporation fresh three times in one day would tax the most patient of Supreme Court Justices (with the exception of Antonin Scalia, who opposes the nationalization of the Bill of Rights anyway…).  Gah.

The real sign of trouble between this week and me was Wednesday morning, when I awakened early for a 7:30 am meeting, came downstairs to begin the caffeination process, and pressed the refresh button at the National Weather Service website twice, convinced that it couldn't possibly only be Wednesday.

That night's storm brought enough anxiety that I spent most of the night lying awake in my bed, awaiting the darkness that would signal that our electricity was out.  This lights stayed on (thank you, Universe) and I slipped into an anxious sleep around 4 am only to enjoy dreams of driving a car suddenly without the ability to brake.  Not restful.

Today found me with nary a free period to prep lessons, grade papers, and otherwise be a teacher.  The afternoon left me with the sort of moral quandary I do not enjoy.  Bite me, Thursday.

I'm not optimistic about Friday so much as I resigned to it.  That it will signal the arrival of a weekend is cause for ever-so-slight optimism.  Don't fuck this up, Friday.

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Weather PTSD

Earlier this week was the three month anniversary of Hurricane Sandy's landfall in this region.  All week, my local public radio station, WNYC, has had stories about the storm and its continuing aftermath.  Down the street from my house, a home partially destroyed in the storm is finally being repaired.  In my neighborhood, recovery is happening.

Even so, there is evidence of the storm everywhere I look, from the stumps of downed trees to the piles of brush and brambles.  There are downed trees in the woods around me.  In the evening, as I turn on the lights with ease, I sometimes pause and remember the cold and darkness of those days last fall.

Last week, it was freezing cold.  This week, temperatures kept warming.  Yesterday, it was in the 50s and this morning we had a humid day with temps near 60.  My neighbors and I, bringing recycling bins in from the curb, stopped to enjoy a chat in the evening's unusual warmth.

As we agreed that the warmth felt lovely, R, a native to New Jersey, pointed out that this kind of warmth in the winter never ends well.  He's right, of course.  Right on cue, there are wind, flood, and hazardous weather warnings for the overnight.  A powerful cold front may bring us as much as 3 inches of rain in 12 hours, rain that can't possibly be absorbed by frozen ground.  It's expected to be accompanied by gusting winds of up to 60 mph.  There's yet another risk of power outages, both because of the threatening weather and because many of us are using power lines that are still awaiting permanent structural repairs from last fall's storm.   PSE&G, my amazing local utility, sent out tweets and e-mails to remind us of their emergency response measures.  I am charging my cell phone and the other electronics.  I filled my car with gas.  My emergency supplies are in order, as they always are these days.  I'm not expecting a problem, but neither am I ever inclined to take risks or take things for granted.  I am prepared.  And that is the residual effect of Hurricane Sandy, a kind of low-level vigilance that Mother Nature demands these days.

Thursday morning update: For a few hours in the middle of the night, the storm was quite windy (of the sustained 40 mph variety).  Naturally, that led to sleeplessness on my part.  But I awakened to a home with electricity, for which I was grateful.  Cable and internet are out and JT is not amused.  I am more sanguine and just glad that most of the storm is over.  This morning's winds are less fierce and the rain has mostly stopped, though winter has returned.  It was 58 degrees when I got up at 5:30 am; right now, at just after 8 am, it's 46 degrees.

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Dreaming of Spring

The last week around here has been especially cold, with overnight lows in the single digits and frigid days that don't rise above freezing.  Today brought the edge of a temporary warm front and when we walked outside to get in the car this morning, it was 38 degrees.  That's not exactly warm, of course, but both JT and I could sniff the mildness in the air.

It felt like Spring.

I like all the seasons and would be hard-pressed to pick a favorite.  But if I did, it might be spring.  Less frigid air, longer days, and sunlight make everything nicer.  And tonight, with the warmth lingering for another day, it seemed like a good time to thumb through my garden catalogs once again.  They arrive in the mail just after Christmas and help to make dark winter days a little bit brighter.  These four are among my favorites. 
I especially like the old-fashioned black and white illustrations in the R.H. Shumway catalog.
I imagine that if I planted seeds from Thompson & Morgan's English Seeds I'd have flowers just like Miss Read enjoys in Fairacre.
I plant radishes every spring and these, from John Scheepers Kitchen Garden Seeds catalog are looking pretty sweet.
I long for peppers as abundant as these from Territorial Seed Company.
Soon enough the seeds I have ordered will arrive and I'll be eager to start the garden.  Until then, well, a girl can dream.

Monday, January 28, 2013

Real Life Conversations with JT: The Future is Bright edition

The backstory: We talk a lot about politics and history around this place and JT has taken a real interest in certain topics, especially those having to do with equality.  Recent stories about violence against women have really set him off.  Driving home while listening the news the other day, he had some thoughts.

JT:  I'm really pretty feminist, you know, Mama.

Me:  Yes, son, I think you are.

JT:  Why do you think that is?

Me:  Well, you do have two moms.

JT: And two mom's girlfriends.  I think it must be all the women in my life.

I've always said that if a boy with two moms can't make a woman happy, I don't know who can.  Fellas, take note: my feminist son know how to charm the ladies.

Friday, January 25, 2013

Squirrel Appreciation Day

Though the rest of American neglected squirrels in the excitement of Monday's Inaugural celebrations, around here we did celebrate National Squirrel Appreciation Day.  I set out some treats for Pesky to enjoy.
Pesky eventually brought his lady friend to enjoy the largesse.  Tiger and Lucy eagerly watched, intrigued by the outdoor creatures.
Before the celebration was over, more than half a dozen squirrels had turned up to score a share of the snack action.  I couldn't get pictures of them because they are skittish and don't realize that I mean no harm.  
I've a soft spot for the creatures who live in my backyard, even if they do eat my garden and snack on my tulip bulbs.  There's got to be some good karma in that.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Radiator Phrenology

I grew up in a part of California where serious cold weather is rare.  And even when it is cold, it's a relative chill.  Temps in the 50s are not uncommon but freezing nights are unusual.  When the day is chilly in my part of the Golden State, we turn on the heater.

Heater sounds mild, and I suppose it is, since weather there is quite mild.  I've been out east in one state or another for more than 20 years.  Weather out here sometimes features real and lasting cold.  A heater will not do.  So Sassafras House has a furnace that propels steam through pipes in the basement and into radiators in every room of the house.  It looks like a serious enterprise, and it is.

I love this kind of heat, because it isn't dry and so my skin doesn't crack in the winter.  But steam radiators can be moody and since each radiator must bring warmth to a room, a persnickety radiator brings with it the prospect of chilly zones in the house.  Especially cold mornings like today (it was 9 degrees when I got up at 6 am) find me checking each radiator for warmth, like some sort of radiator phrenologist, laying her hands upon the radiator and willing the pipes to warm up.  
I listen carefully for the clanks and and hissing sounds that confirm all is well in the pipes that power the system.  And then I stroll the house to assess problems.
A radiator that isn't drawing can be adjusted, though this is a tricky business and often leaves me engaged in the radiator equivalent of robbing Peter to pay Paul.  Lately, the warmer radiator in my bedroom is rather nice.
On the other hand, the consequently colder bathroom radiator is not so nice when you exit the shower.
It's a tricky operation, this business of being a radiator phrenologist.  JT, born to a colder climate, is a native to the process of keeping the radiators happily steaming.  He can adjust the valves like he was born to this style of living, which I suppose he was.  And that always amuse his California Mama.

Monday, January 21, 2013

Making History, Round II

In 2009, I kept JT home from school to watch Barack Obama's inauguration.  It was a making history sort of day, and I wanted my boy to be a part of it.   That it was the first presidential inauguration he would remember was distinct in my mind.  I know that children develop a sense of government and political identity from the first president they remember and I wanted my son's memory and sense of the presidency to be of the nation's first African-American president.

That day felt exciting and full of promise.  In the four years of President Obama's first term, the progress made toward fulfilling the promise was palpable and real.  The Obama Administration has delivered on a range of issues that really matter to me.  From the Lily Ledbetter Fair Pay Act (the first bill President Obama signed into law) to his recent willingness to take on gun control, I am pleased with this president.  That's not to say that the work is done, or that things are perfect.  It's just that I feel we are making progress in the right direction.

On election day, as President Obama secured a well-deserved second term, I felt like I could actually breathe a sigh of relief.  I am not under the impression that the next four years will be easy.  There is plenty of unfinished business and dealing with the Tea Party tyrants in the House would challenge the most patient of leaders.  But that's what I value about President Obama: his willingness to express ideas, draft solutions, and get in the weeds.  The ways in which he patiently works to untie the knot that is the contemporary American political system demonstrates an enduring leadership that I greatly value.   He is a grown up and a man of ideas.  He is my son's vision of a president.  In that, I find great hope. 

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Greetings from Taking it Easy Land

I work out for a lot of reasons, but among the most important is the business of keeping a grip on my sanity.  It's not a firm grip or anything, but it is a finger or two.  So this week of no workouts has been a bit of a challenge on that front.

I've substituted some quiet meditation, lots of grading and two after-school-meetings.  Only one of these things actually helped to keep me on an even keel.  My hip is much, much better with only the occasional twinge to remind me of my advanced age.  The old Sassafras Mama would have been sneaking off to the gym with that little discomfort.  The new Sassafras Mama is still sufficiently terrified of screwing up her hip for life.

I think that's called being a grown up.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Inappropriate Elvis

Note: This post was written before the gym and I embarked upon our brief trial separation thanks to my wonky hip.

My gym has a juice bar and they sell smoothies billed as "healthy shakes."  At the start of each month, signs all over the gym proclaim the monthly shake special.  It usually has some sort of lame name (in December there was a Grinch shake).  I never buy the shakes and only half pay attention to the signs.

But this month, the shake special is "The Elvis."  I've a soft-spot for the King and when I saw the sign I immediately pictured my favor Elvis:  the one in the white jumpsuit, with the giant sparkling belt buckle, and wearing sunglasses indoors so that no one can see his by-then permanently dilated eyes.  It's the circa '70s Elvis, and he's anything but healthy.  No indeed, he's unhealthy Elvis; the Elvis who loaded up on codeine, Valium, morphine, and Demoral and then expired while sitting on the crapper at Graceland.

For obvious reasons, yet again I took a pass on the monthly shake.

Sunday, January 13, 2013


Those of you well-acquainted with me know that a certain relentlessness is one of my least-desirable traits.  I like to maintain standards and I won't go to bed until my to-do list is complete.  Were I the type to create manageable to-do lists, this might be a fine and even appealing personal feature.  Alas, I am not that person.  In fact, in a pinch, rather than adjust and reduce my standards I am prone to ratchet up my expectations.

So it was that last weekend my left hip felt a little sore, the kind of sore that women with 45 year-old hips might expect from life.  Years ago, a doctor had suggested that the soreness was likely bursitis.                                                                                                                            

When I felt the soreness this time around, I took note.  Then I concluded it wasn't sore enough for me to skip my regular trips to the gym.  So I ran my usual 5 miles on Saturday.  And I did that again on Sunday.  I took Monday off.  On Tuesday afternoon, when my hip ached in a more insistent fashion, I ordered the hip to quit complaining and I headed off to the gym.  Wednesday, when the hip grumbled even more, I ignored it and ran like the wind on my favorite elliptical.  To be fair, while I was on the elliptical my hip felt great.  It was only when I stopped running that the discomfort returned.

Thursday morning found me distinctly uncomfortable, with a sore left hip that no longer ached only when I walked upstairs.  Now it hurt when I walked at all.   When I tried to raise my leg to put on my tights that morning, I thought I might pass out the pain was so great.  Trying to get up a hill was excruciating.  Hmmm, I thought again.  Better make a doctor's appointment for next week and take it easy today.

T had been making that suggestion since Tuesday and so she gave me the thumbs up when I planned to take it easy on Thursday.  That "taking it easy" in my world entailed an afternoon of changing the sheets on two beds, washing and folding a couple loads of laundry, cleaning both bathrooms and making biscuits to go with the evening's supper may reflect a certain personality disorder on my part.

Thursday evening the pain in the hip made it impossible to find a comfortable position.  Walking hurt.  Standing hurt.  Sitting?  Painful.  When I finally fell into bed (a challenge because my bed is high off the floor), I couldn't find a comfortable way to sleep.  In fact, my hip hurt so much that I couldn't even roll over.  In the middle of the night, I hobbled to the bathroom and downed a truckload of ibuprofen.

Friday morning was rough, but I slowly crept to work (and my second floor classroom), called the doctor and kept up the ibuprofen.  After a miserable day of extreme discomfort, that afternoon I went to the doctor.  The pain I described alarmed her enough to fear that I had burst a bursa.  She ran a blood test to check for infection and then she threw in an X-ray to ensure that I hadn't fractured a bone.  Nothing burst or broken, I limped out the office with a serious anti-inflammatory prescription and orders to take it easy for the next 10 days.  No elliptical, no biking, no strenuous workouts, she ordered. 

I did so this weekend, likely because of T's help around the house as well as the fright I experienced on Friday.  The realization that I could barely walk, let alone walk up and down the stairs in my multi-story home with laundry facilities in the basement and a closet and playroom in the attic, was unsettling.  Add to that my second-story classroom in a building with no elevator and a job that demands the ability to be physically engaged and I was sufficiently scared this time around.  

It is to be hoped that at the ripe old age of 45 I can heed this advice for more than a weekend.  

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Winter Flowers

T gave me new slippers for Christmas and they have been a welcome addition to my winter days.
That's happy!

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Winter Light

Between the coming of winter solstice and the grey, cloudy weather, December was a dark and gloomy month around these parts.  On more than one occasion, I found myself standing in the front window of my house looking at the holiday lights at 4 pm and longing for sunlight instead.  I wanted extra light so much that I looked up sunrise and sunset times for the next few months and wrote a few on my calendar, mostly to remind myself that the darkness wouldn't last forever.

As if to make up for it's December shortcomings, Mother Nature has offered us a sunnier January.  That the amount of daylight is creeping upward by a few minutes each week certainly helps.  The older I get, the more I feel the power of  natural light and the outdoors.  Some years ago, I realized that right around February 1st there is enough light after supper for a walk outside to enjoy the sunset.  I'm aiming for that date now and I know that it's coming, just as surely as I know the sun will set at 4:59 this evening.

Tuesday, January 08, 2013

In Defense of Good Will

More than twenty years ago, Indiana Senator Richard Lugar, a Republican, spoke to a group of students about political partisanship and offered up the view that people can and should disagree vehemently.  But, the Senator said, as long as we are all "people of good will" the nation can always move beyond our disagreement toward compromises that lend themselves to successful governance.  I was among the students who heard that message many years ago.  At the time, I found the idea powerful.  In the years since I've never forgotten it.  These days, with partisan bickering the order of the day, it seems more fitting than ever.

For most of the years that I lived in Nebraska, Chuck Hagel was my Senator.  I never voted for him and with great regularity he took positions and cast Senate votes with which I disagreed.  Often, I sent him a letter to explain why he was wrong.  My letters were cordial and careful.  I never expected him to change his mind (and, to my knowledge, he never did).  But, in the spirit of good will, I shared my opinion with my Senator.  

Without fail, at every juncture, his staff responded to my communication with a gracious letter, thanking for me expressing my opinion, and encouraging me to continue to participate in the political discourse.  Over the years, I came to appreciate Senator Hagel's support of such discourse, even when our ideas were at odds.  And let's be clear: we were always at odds.

In the summer of 2002, as I was packing to leave Nebraska, I sent one last letter off to Senator Hagel.  I don't remember the issue, but I'm sure I was disagreeing with something he had said.  In that letter, I let the Senator's staff know that it would be my final communication as my family and I were moving to New Jersey.

When I arrived in New Jersey and got my phone hooked up, one of the first calls we received was from a staffer for Senator Hagel.  She had looked up my phone number and taken the time to call to express the Senator's best wishes for our life in our new home and his regret that my family and I had left Nebraska.  I have never forgotten that phone call, and the spirit that motivated it.  It was clear to me that the Senator was acting in the spirit of good will that I had long valued.

In the years since, I have continued to follow Senator Hagel's career.  When he came to question the wisdom of the Iraq war he had once supported, I respected his willingness to stand up and say as much.  Though I had never voted for him, I was sorry to see him leave the Senate.  I am delighted that President Obama has nominated Senator Hagel to be the nation's next Secretary of Defense.  I expect that Senator Hagel still has some views with which I disagree, but that's not really the point.  What is the point?  The point is that Senator Hagel is a man of good will.  I am confident that when he brings that skill to government service, we'll all benefit.  I hope the Senate confirms his nomination.

Sunday, January 06, 2013

Real Life Conversations with T: Kinky edition

The backstory: I have a weakness for the TLC "Sister Wives" program.  I could attempt to defend this viewing habit, but I won't.  In any case, while explaining to T that intended to watch the Sister Wives marathon last week, the conversation wondered off.

Me:  It's about polygamous straight people.  I don't know if there are any polygamous lesbians.  I've never heard of any.

T:  Oh honey, polygamous lesbians are called threesomes.

Note to TLC producers: I expect a finder's fee for this idea.

Saturday, January 05, 2013

Full Service Mama

Even though I only worked two days this past week, Friday night found me tired and ready to tuck into bed by 10 pm.  JT, who is either hardier than me or has the judgment of a 12 year old (or both), wanted to stay up to watch the second half of the Texas A&M-Oklahoma bowl game.  I gave him the thumb's up on this important task and he headed up to the playroom.  I set to snoring.

By the time he came downstairs to go to bed, I was asleep.  I woke up enough to dimly register that the toilet made an odd sound when JT flushed it.  Then I rolled over and fell back asleep.  At 4 am, I had to use that toilet and only after I flushed it did I remember the sound, which I was now hearing for a second time.   


I turned on the light and grabbed my glasses, prepared to shut off the water.  But the toilet didn't quite overflow, though it was clearly clogged.


Some people would leave such a problem to be solved in the daylight.  I am not some people. So I set out to solve the clog.  Step one involved diagnosing the extent of the problem.  I have a two-story home with a single soil pipe running out of the basement, so it was entirely possible that I had not one, but two clogged toilets, or, more accurately a clogged drain.  I headed to the downstairs toilet to see if it could be flushed.  It could, which led me to conclude that my problem was with the soil pipe between the first and second floor.  I made the trip to the basement to get the plunger and headed back up two flights of stairs, now accompanied by the cats, who like to supervise my work.  Three plunges later, my problem was solved.  As my plumber has taught me, I flushed the toilet several more times, to be sure the clog was truly removed.

Then the cats and I returned to bed, confident that we had earned the right to sleep in this morning.

Friday, January 04, 2013

The Snapping Point

Like so much of New Jersey, my school lost electricity during Hurricane Sandy.  We were closed for nine days.  When we finally returned I had only had my power back for two days.  In all of my classes, there were students whose lives still had not returned to normal.

Soon after we returned to classes, the school determined that we would make up eight of the nine days that we lost to the storm.  The decision was made quickly, at a time when parents were anxious about the time lost and before winter had begun.  We were assured that snow days would proceed as normal and that time lost to snow would not also be added to the schedule.

The give-back days started in November, when a day scheduled day for parent-teacher conferences was converted to a teaching day.  Two more days were  taken from Winter Break.  So we returned to classes yesterday instead of Monday, January 7, as originally planned.  

Not surprisingly, attendance was a bit lighter-than-normal, and we're all still a little sluggish.  When we broke in December, I sent my students home without work to complete, mindful that we were all rather exhausted.  Normally, I try not to have major tests or assignments in December, but this year, with four weeks of classes between Thanksgiving and Winter Break, and mindful of the time already lost, I did give some tests.  Grading that stack of exams over the Break confirmed my view that my students were more stressed out than usual.  I was glad that I had sent them home for rest in my class, though I know that policy was by no means uniform.

Though the kids had no work over the break, I had a truckload of tests and quizzes to grade.  It took me nearly three days to complete the work and was yet another reason to be glad of a roomy dining room table.
As I plan for the second semester of school, I'm mindful that in addition to continuing to catch up with teaching material lost to the storm, I need to be aware of students who remain a little more stressed than usual.  A new year feels like a new opportunity and it surely is that.  But we've five more vacation days yet to give back and I fear we'll all be strung so tight that we'll snap before the school year is over.


Wednesday, January 02, 2013

My Political Pipe Dreams

I have asked my government students to identify the big issues of 2013.  By big issues, I mean the issues that they believe our national leaders should deal with in the coming year.  The assignment was phrased as a personal one: my students could identify the issues that matter most to them or they could think beyond themselves to issues of national import.  By definition, this sort of assignment asks students to engage in a bit of a political pipe dream.  But they are young and should be idealistic, so I've no problem with that.

This is exactly the sort of thing that I think about all the time (scary, no?), so it seems fair for me to also participate in the assignment.  So I have made a political wish list for 2013.  Think of it as my New Year's Resolutions for Congress.  Mine is one part practical and two parts pipe dream.  I'll leave you to figure out which is which.

1.  Climate change: Real action on climate change, including conversations about our resource consumption habits and policies to change them, especially water conservation and oil and natural gas extraction.  As part of this, I'd like to see us commit to alternative energy development and use.

2.  Infrastructure improvement: An updated and modernized national electric grid, a commitment to national Internet access, significant road and bridge repairs.  This commitment would involve short-term costs in exchange for immediate job opportunities and long-term economic growth.

3.  Disaster preparedness: Now more than ever, a national conversation about disaster preparedness is in order. This is exactly the sort of thing that should accompany real action on climate change.  It could certainly facilitate policy proposals to enable progress in emergency planning.

4.  Gun control:  My list here is long.  Count me among those who would cheerfully vote to remove the Second Amendment from the Constitution.  Short of that, I'd like to see national bans on automatic weapons, national limits on bullet purchases, and vigorous background checks.  These solutions will not fully cure our violent nation, but they would be a start.  My greatest political fear at the moment is that none of it will materialize in the current political climate.

5.  Immigration:  At minimum, I'd like to see the Dream Act become law.  At maximum, I'd like broad amnesty for folks here illegally.  I have little hope for the latter, of course, but a girl can dream.

6.  Healthcare costs: A serious effort to come to terms with healthcare costs.  In all honesty, this is truly a pipe dream because the only reasonable solution on this front is establishing a national healthcare model, a sort of Cleveland Clinic writ large, and our nation is so unwilling to understand that this is our obvious solution.

I'm ending my list here, though there are many more issues I'd like our leaders to tackle.  But reality dictates that only a few big policy changes will move forward in a given year and I'm likely already over my limit.  Even so, these New Year's Resolutions made on behalf of Congress are a solid start on moving our nation in the direction I'd like to see us head.  

Okay, Congress, you've been given your marching orders.  Now get to work.

Tuesday, January 01, 2013

January 1: Front Yard Flowerbed

In 2012, I made a picture of the my front-yard flowerbed on the east side of my house for first day of every month.  This year, I'm going to make a picture of the bushes and bulbs on the other side of the house, to the northwest, on the right side of this picture.
 Planted here are a rhododendron, a lilac tree, some evergreen bushes, and hidden against the porch is a small hydrangea.  The lot of them are supplemented by tulip and daffodil bulbs that I put down this fall.  Those that weren't eaten by the local wildlife will provide a hopeful set of spring blooms.
This bed is a work in progress and this year I will document those changes on the first of each month in 2013.  It's front yard flowerbed, part II.