Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Fall Bouquet

Tomorrow is the first of October and fall seems to have taken firm hold of my world.  T treated me to another bouquet of flowers and the lovely colors spell fall with just a kiss of summer glory in the form of yellow roses.

That’s happy.

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Curbside Dump

I don’t know if this a thing elsewhere, but here in my New Jersey town things left at the curb are fair game for scrappers and recyclers.  Some of us leave things out for the garbage men to pick up, aware that the items may get grabbed first by the junkers.

Fair enough.

But more often, the items abandoned by the curb are too large to be picked up by the garbage man without an extra fee.  Some of my neighbors still leave these large, undesirable items on the curb, hoping that the junkers will pick them up.  Invariably, this array of discarded furniture is in very bad shape; abandoned for a reason.  Left curbside and exposed to the elements for days and then weeks on end, the items continue to decay and are less desirable then ever.  Sofas, chairs, tables, pressed wood shelves and desks, mattresses….I’ve seen every one of these things left at the curb for weeks at a time.

This scratched leather sofa and its torn cushions are in week two at the curb.  I’ve even seen the neighbor kids sitting on it.  A day or two seems forgivable, of course.  But I begin to grow weary and pray for rain, in the hopes the sofa will float away or embarrass its owners into leaving an extra $20 for the garbage men so that they will haul its carcass to the dump.

Monday, September 28, 2015

Garden Update: September 28

When four days pass without rain, I get up in the morning and turn on the sprinkler to nourish the garden.  As the days grow shorter and the nights grow colder, I feel like I am in a race against time.  But there are tomatoes yet to ripen.

And dahlias that can still be enjoyed.

So, despite all the signs that fall is here to stay, I live in hope and run that sprinkler one more time.

Sunday, September 27, 2015

Teaching Slavery: Grade 7 edition

In the New York Times magazine’s yearly edition on college education there was an essay by Edward F. Baptist entitled, “Teaching Slavery.”  I keep coming back to it, reflecting on my own teaching experiences these days.  In his essay, Baptist discusses the challenges of teaching slavery to today’s college students.  He characterizes his teaching experience in the last 25 years as the challenge to overcome “….a bubbling bowl of white resentment.”  

Baptist identifies the schools where he has taught undergraduates and allows that the passage of time and diversity of the classrooms makes a difference.  Things were better at the University of Miami than they were at the University of Pennsylvania.  These days, now teaching at Cornell University, Baptist writes that things are better than they were at Penn but still notes that, “Resentment of the topic of slavery hums at a relatively low volume…”

In one respect, I teach at the opposite end of the spectrum from Baptist.  He has college students and I teach 7th grade.  In another respect, our demographic is similar.  In terms of privilege, the students at my independent college prep school are likely as well off as the undergrads at a place like Cornell, perhaps even more so.  In terms of diversity, however, my classes are distinct from Cornell and look a great deal more like the nation as a whole.  In most of my diverse 7th grade classes, whites are not the majority.

Baptist’s lessons on slavery are likely building on the previous knowledge of the institution that his history students have acquired.  I’m at the other end of the spectrum, laying the foundation for that knowledge.  My 7th graders care a great deal about fairness and in this respect slavery is at first quite easy to introduce:  it’s so clearly unfair.  Of course, it’s more than that, and I don’t neglect the complexities.

I teach my 7th grade history students that studying history is the process of discovering more complete truths of the human experience.  When I introduce slavery to a room full of diverse faces I make very clear that none of us are slaves and none of us own slaves.  We know that such a thing is deeply wrong.  I explain that none of us are personally responsible for slavery in the United States, but that we are all living with its inheritance and as citizens are therefore responsible for understanding its complexities.  I emphasize that this is a collective enterprise.  I explain the introduction of slavery in the American colonies as a racist solution to the desire for cheap labor.  My students and I never forget that slavery was driven by racism.

Talking about such a horrifying topic with 12 and 13 year olds is sometimes a challenge.  The pain and discomfort of understanding slavery sometimes shows on their faces; I can be overwhelmed by that horror.   So I tell them this as well: there are moments of greatness in our history; there are moments of great disappointments.  Together, they make up who we are.  Our history is imperfect because people are flawed.  From this foundation, our self-knowledge moves forward.  We can work as a class to understand our nation.  Instead of resentment, we have community and the sense that it is our world to both understand and repair.

Friday, September 25, 2015

Ladies Who Lunch

JT loves himself a club sandwich.

I have to say that I find this amusing.  Every time I make him one, I remember the green seats on the white iron chairs at the Gottschalk’s Department Store lunch room of my youth.  I imagine JT joining the lunching ladies with their shoes that match their pocketbooks and tidy club sandwiches stacked on the glass plates.  He’ll be a bit of an anomaly with that crowd because when he’s hungry he has the table manners of a wolf.  But they’ll all enjoy the small talk.  And the club sandwiches will be delicious.

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Fall Flowers

Aware that I miss having home grown zinnias to arrange in bouquets each week, last week T brought me a lovely fall bouquet with sunflowers, dahlias, and roses.  

The flowers lasted more than a week, so on Sunday I had the chance to re-arrange them into two new bouquets.

That’s happy!

Monday, September 21, 2015

September 21: Garden Update

We’ve had a warmer and dryer than usual September and as I wait for the last of my tomatoes to ripen, I have watered my garden every 3 to 4 days.  These long drinks remind the tomatoes to finish the job at hand and keep the grass that surrounds the garden lush.

Saturday was warm and sunny; the sort of day that can persuade you that summer will never end.  But on Sunday, Mother Nature looked at her calendar, saw that “autumnal equinox” was close on the horizon, and sent us a cool breeze.  The temperature eventually rose just above 80.  But as the morning haze gave way to blue skies with fast-moving, fluffy, white clouds, it was clear that things had changed.

The breeze that blew all day rang bell chimes, ruffled dry leaves on the trees, and sent the leaves that have already fallen skidding across the lawn.  Fall has arrived, as the dogwood branches confirm.

The week’s forecast of days in the 70s and nights in the 50s means that the garden will have time to finish the work of the season.  But fall is at hand and soon enough warm garden tomatoes will give way to drooping leaves.  Dahlia bulbs will be dug up.  The garden will be raked and the season’s leaves will be spread around to mulch and fertilize the soil.  The work guided by this seasonal change is a reminder to pause and appreciate all of the seasons.  

Sunday, September 20, 2015

The Changing Pace of My Days

All summer long, I woke up to the morning’s sunlight and sat out on the front porch with a book and my cup of coffee.  The lazy mornings seemed to stretch endlessly.  I’d enjoy an extra chapter of a good book while my neighbors took leisurely walks with their dogs.  Cars that drove by didn’t seem in a hurry to be anywhere.  Long days with 15-plus hours of sunlight helped us relax and feel the luxury of summer.  As the summer wore on, my lazy mornings were less bright and I could see and feel that the sunlight was starting later and fading earlier.  

Though I work most of the summer, the start of school ensures that my days take on an all-together different pace.  I like the quiet of a longer morning but to steal those moments for myself means that I awaken at 5:30 am.  In September, that hour is still dark.  I don’t have time for 3 cups of coffee and endless page-turning on the front porch but the mornings are still warm, so I take my first cup of coffee outside.  It’s dark and I have to read a few pages by the light of the porch lamp.  I’m not the only person whose day has begun.  

Neighbors walk their dogs, but with purpose now.  Cars drive by in a hurry to get wherever it is they are going.  As the morning’s darkness fades and the sun rise ensures a growing sliver of light to brighten the day, I slip inside and move with a purpose myself: I turn on NPR and make breakfast, empty the dishwasher, feed the cats, read a few work e-mails, dry my hair, and get ready for work.  My long day has begun.

There is a Pam Houston essay (“Breaking the Ice”) in which she refers to the autumnal equinox as a day that induces, “….nothing but a flat-out panic that we are about to enter the long slide into darkness that feels like an annual survival test.”  I know that feeling; I sense that I am not alone on these dim September mornings when the world starts its hustle in the darkness.  By the end of next week, we’ll be down to 12 hours of light a day.  The minutes of sunlight will shrink in the months ahead.  Eventually, we’ll leave for school in the darkness and come home in that same dark.

I remind myself that soon enough December 21 will arrive and though it will be winter, the shorter daylight will gradually begin to lengthen.  The days and months on the calendar will slip by and March will arrive.  As Houston writes of the spring equinox, “…March 21 is the only truly joyful day: twelve hours of daylight and nothing but clear sailing ahead.”  I feel the same way.  Year after year, come fall I remind myself that Mother Nature marks time as she pleases; we’re all along for the ride but on the matter of daylight we are not in charge.

Friday, September 18, 2015

Season 2

JT had his first race of the cross country season on Wednesday afternoon.  We were enjoying a break from the humidity so though it was still rather warm, the weather was nice for a run, especially if you were the Mama cheer squad resting in the shade.  For an Upper School of 350 students, we’ve a fairly large cross country team.

JT likes running and he especially enjoys the strength and endurance that training for the sport provides.  He’s a good teammate and a terrific end-of-the-race sprinter, though he’s come to realize that he isn’t built like a runner and likely never will be.  Our school’s teams thrive on the combination of best athletes and good teammates and it’s a blessing that isn’t lost on my boy.  His favorite running mates are kids like him, in it for the training and the hope to best their personal times.

The JT I cheer on this season is bigger and stronger than he was last year.  In just a month of practice, he’s improved his race time by just under 4 minutes.  He’s proud of himself and just as excited by the teammates who have done even better than that.  That’s a testament to the coaches who make these team experiences so meaningful and a life lesson that will take him well past the 10th grade.

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

A Sniff of Fresh Air

After the last rainstorm blew through town, the temperatures and humidity dropped.  For the first time in several months, evening temperatures were low enough to warrant sleeping with the windows open.  It’s lovely to feel a cool breeze through the windows and awaken to the sounds outside.

I hear the breeze as the evening descends and the crickets and night creatures chirp as I fall asleep.  

During the day, the cats sit in the sills of the open windows and happily sniff the air.

Come the morning, the birds are chirping and when I step outside to see the sun rise the backyard looks magical in the light.  It’s shaping up to be a lovely fall.

Monday, September 14, 2015

Garden Update: September 14

We’ve had an unusually long spell of hot and dry weather and my yard looked painfully parched.

The end of last week brought some much-needed rain; more than 2 inches fell in a four-day period in my corner of New Jersey.  The yard greened up at once, as if it had been eagerly longing for a drink.

Despite the rain rescue, the dogwood is committed to fall.  That’s fitting as this week we have our first taste of overnight lows in the 50s.

Thanks to my sprinkler, the garden has been getting water all along but it’s still mid-September and that means that the growing season is coming to a close.  I’ll water until the first frost brings an end to the season.

After all, a few more tomatoes fresh off the vine are the best way to hold on to summer.

Sunday, September 13, 2015

On the Wonder of Grubby Hands

On Friday afternoon, I helped out a colleague by watching his children while he coached a tennis match.  I see these kids most everyday and enjoy their company.  It was the end of the first week of school and G and his sister P were ready for a little rest and relaxation.  G is a second grader and P is a 4 year old.  I love kids this age and had recently been feeling a little wistful that I no longer have a little one in my care.  I figured a few hours with G and P at the end of a tiring week would cure me of this desire.

No dice.

These two amused and engaged me and reminded me - again - that childhood is fleeting and wonderful.  We started our afternoon with a little ice cream and chatting about our day.  We tried nearly every bench at Sonic while Oreo Sonic blasts were consumed.  G told me that the best part of his day was earning two caught ya’ badges in the second grade (these are badges for good actions or behavior…..going beyond expectations) and they were a huge part of JT’s life when he was in second grade.  At one point that year, JT contemplated becoming a second grade teacher so that he could hand out caught ya’ badges himself.  Parker told me that the best part of her day was that I came to pick her up after school.

I was charmed, of course.

G asked me a lot of questions, including “how old are you?” and “why isn’t JT here?” At one point, he instructed me that we needed to do some more things that were fun. 

So we went to my house and checked out the backyard.  G and P visited my garden and when they asked, I let them pick a few tomatoes.

They liked the garden and stepped carefully through the plants, asking questions all the while.  Then P decided to eat the tomato she had just picked.

For the rest of the afternoon, we petted the cats and played with some of JT’s old toys. We had some fun with the monkeys in a barrel game.   G designed a scavenger hunt and while he was hiding things, P and I sat in the rocking chair on the front porch and sang songs to one another.  I lost the scavenger hunt (G helped P and under such circumstances, she smoked me).  We had grilled cheese for supper and watched a Muppets movie, P curled up against me and resting her head on my shoulder.

I surely know as much as the next mama about how much work is involved in the daily care required by small children.  When JT was younger I had plenty of afternoons just like the one I spent with P and G.  At the time, such opportunities seemed endless.  There would be many more afternoons of wonder and smiles; questions both silly and serious; laughter and cuddling.  But childhood doesn’t last forever.  There is much to be said about the charms of a 15-year old (and heaven knows, I’ve written of them here).  But I miss having a grubby little hand to hold. 

Friday, September 11, 2015


For the second year in a row, I started 7th grade History class with a “quiz.”  It’s really a series of questions for the students that are designed to give them a chance to tell me about themselves in a private and creative way.  They are 7th graders, the most self-absorbed creatures on the planet, and so they very much enjoy the chance to write about themselves.  I ask them what superpower they possess; I ask what them what their favorite thing to do is; I ask them where they most like to be and then I ask what place they’d like to visit.  I invite them to practice their autograph and then to identify something in history that they’d like to know more about.

7th graders are notoriously difficult and opinionated.  I often tell parents that if you survive 7th grade, you’ve made it through the hardest year.  Parents in the midst of the struggle nearly always respond with a nod of understanding.  7th graders are less difficult at school then they are at home because the adults at school, no matter how caring, won’t put up with the whining, sharp tongues, and quick frustration that their parents endure.  That’s not to say this middle school year is easy, more that its challenges are externalized and are shared by the whole 7th grade community: getting organized; learning to be kind to one another; practicing empathy; seeing beyond the self; learning to cope with adversity.

But the best part of the 7th grade is that underneath the gruff 13-year old exterior lies a maturing child who is increasingly capable of sophisticated thinking,  Bit-by-bit they begin to understand the complexity of the world and their place in it.  So even when things are difficult, the typical 7th grader has moments of self-less clarity.  It is this that I find most charming about 13 year olds.

Even so, for parents in the midst of the dark moments it is sometimes hard to see the light that is starting to shine.  So I suspect that they’ll be pleasantly surprised to learn that when asked, many of the 7th graders in my class identify home with family as their favorite place to be.  They wrote that they feel loved and happy there.   Perhaps it would surprise families to learn that many of them long to go to a new place in the company of family, the people with whom they most enjoy sharing adventures.

Some of them had “superpowers” that were touching.  The shortest child in the 7th grade identified his height as a superpower.  One of six twins in the grade told me that being born with another human being was his superpower.  Another explained that being able to laugh at anything was her superpower.  These are awfully astute observations and evidence of children who know they are blessed.

13 year-olds may be bigger, more opinionated, and more combative than 6 year-olds but their most super power is that there is still a lovely child inside.  I’m so glad that these 7th graders are mine to cultivate, enjoy, and sometimes bemoan.  Because my superpower is them.

Wednesday, September 09, 2015

Human Alarm Clock

Over the years, I’ve developed an uncanny ability to mark the passage of time.  Within a few minutes, I generally know the time.  Right now you’re thinking, “Look, I also learned to tell time,” but it’s not the same as reading a clock.  I know the time without a clock or watch at hand.

It’s not a particularly useful skill, but it is interesting.  And come morning, my internal clock knows what time to awaken.  Once school begins, I get up at 5:35 so that I can enjoy a more leisurely start to the day and get a bit of work completed in the morning.  Usually, it takes me a week or two to reset my internal clock.  But here it is day 2 of school and this morning I came awake just a few minutes before the clock went off.  I’m going to treat this is a positive sign for the school year.  It’s my super power.  

Or, you know, I’m weird.

Tuesday, September 08, 2015

Monday, September 07, 2015

Garden Update: September 7

The dry heat is taking its toll on the garden and though I am still picking a few tomatoes each week, it’s clear that we are nearing the end of the growing period.

I’m undecided about when I will call it a season.  Meteorological fall has begun but we’ve a few weeks until the official start of autumn.  The weather has been hot and dry.  I’ll keep watering at least through the calendar’s mark of fall.  After all, there are still some dahlias and tomatoes to enjoy.

In the meantime, the leaves have begun to turn, though temperatures remain unseasonably warm.  That’s the effect of a dry and hot month of August.  The trees can’t continue to sustain green growth in the midst of such hot, rainless days.

Though I’m not yet ready to say goodbye to summer, there is something pleasing about the garden at the end of the season.  School starts tomorrow and it’s time for our daily routine to resume. Transitions aren’t always easy for me but I know that a walk through my fading garden will provide grace when I need it in the days ahead.

That’s happy!

Sunday, September 06, 2015


When we make our annual California visit, I try to make pictures of JT and his cousins C and S.  This is often a challenge as JT prefers to never have his picture made. 

But C, my sister’s oldest boy, has learned not to resist the camera and he can wrangle the other two for some pictures.

Years ago, when JT and S were babies and C was just over 2, we took them to a photography studio for a picture of the threesome.  My mother had to wrangle C to stay in the scene while the babies fussed and ultimately blew a gasket.  We never did get a picture of the three of them that summer.  15 years later, they are more indulgent of the lady with the camera.

Friday, September 04, 2015

Real Life Conversations with JT: Fan Diagram edition

The backstory:  We are baseball fans of the old-fashioned sort, with complicated loyalties that can sometimes make things tricky.  We dislike the Cubs, because they are the traditional rivals of the St. Louis Cardinals, for whom our devotion is most reserved.  We dislike the Dodgers for a host of very good reasons that boil down to the fact that I am a born and bred northern California girl.  The other night the Dodgers were playing the Cubs.  I texted JT for guidance.

Me:  Cubs v. Dodgers.  Who do I cheer for?

JT:  The umpires.

Me:  Well said, son.

I followed instructions.

Thursday, September 03, 2015

One Bite Too Many

If I could only pick one photo to tell the story of my garden this summer, this would be it.  Grrrrrrr, little creatures.

Tuesday, September 01, 2015

September 1: Peach Tree

The peach harvest is long complete and August heat and absence of rain has all of my garden contemplating an early fall.  A few peach tree leaves have begun to turn.

The rest of the yard shares the peach tree’s sense that things are too dry for a lush fall.  This week's forecasted hazy and hot weather won't ease conditions.

A wet fall would aid in bringing color to the leaves but the longterm forecast doesn’t offer much hope on that front.  This week actually promises to be hotter than usual, just as I have less time to relax in the backyard.  This is perhaps fitting for days to be spent indoors getting ready for students to start classes, but I’m still sorry to see the summer end.