Wednesday, November 30, 2016

November Book Report: America’s First Daughter

I began reading this America’s First Daughter at the start of November, as our own electoral madness came to its unhappy conclusion.  Written by two historians, Laura Kamoie and Stephanie Dray, the novel is the story of Patsy Jefferson Randolph, the oldest daughter of Thomas Jefferson.  Crafted from letters and the very well-known history of Thomas Jefferson, this story brings Patsy to life.  Patsy lived a long and rich life and her father was at the center of it all.  A brilliant woman born into a world that valued women mostly as mothers and ornaments, she carved an important life for herself.

No story of Jefferson is complete without delving into the enmity between the Jeffersonians and the Federalists.  The story of their conflict was  a reminder that our republic has never been one to hold only thoughtful political discussions.  We’ve withstood bitter name-calling and irrational arguments before, albeit without 24 hour cable news and Twitter, two features of modern political life that don’t seem to be helping us.

Patsy’s journey in life took her from Virginia society to Philadelphia and then London in Paris.  In Paris, she received an education and was witness to her father’s politics and the start of the French Revolution.  She returned to Virginia as a young woman and married into a prominent local family.  Even then, she mostly lived in her father’s world, serving as the mistress of Monticello and as the first lady during Thomas Jefferson’s presidency.

Patsy saw many important events in our nation’s history and the novel tells them from her point of view.  An educated and intelligent women at a time when women were confined to the world of home, Patsy understood the way in which women were limited in the 18th century.  I started the novel expecting to be reading it in the triumphant moment when I saw the first woman elected to my nation’s highest office.  I finished it aware that there remains a double standard for women in the 21st century.  That modern life is not as restrictive as Patsy’s world is notable, of course, but little comfort.

Monday, November 28, 2016

In the Thick of It

My life is lived according to the school calendar.  On that calendar, the weeks between Thanksgiving and the Christmas holidays are the most chaotically busy.  Because I am with children every day, as the December days pass, there is also energy generated by their excitement.  Holidays and two weeks off from school are at hand and the students can hardly wait.

The five days off for Thanksgiving were a breather that permitted me some time to relax and refresh for the coming juggernaut. And make no mistake: it is a juggernaut.  The next three weeks will feature a 7th grade field trip; extra evening events (7 over the next three weeks); wrestling practice (which never ends before 5:30 pm); and the schoolwork which signals the end of the first trimester.  All of it happens as the minutes of sunlight in the day steadily shrink.

It can be daunting.  For me, the remedy lies in the fact that it is December: the twinkling lights, the cheery Christmas decorations, the pretty packages, and the the traditions of the season delight me.  They are a calming balm in the chaos of the month.  That’s happy!

Sunday, November 27, 2016

Bad, Bad Santa

During my second or third Christmas as a single Mama, I was at home on a Saturday evening in December while JT was with his other mother.  By then, I had settled into routine for these weekends on my own, though I still felt bruised and was careful to avoid situations and circumstances which might trigger sadness.

On this evening, as the Christmas lights twinkled, I was putting together a Playmobil set that Santa would give JT.  I turned on the TV for companionship and settled on a movie entitled Bad Santa.  Just a few minutes into the film,  I knew it was not for me, at least not that year, while I was struggling mightily to keep living in hope.  I changed the channel but made a mental note that Bad Santa might amuse me if I had a different mindset.

Years later, and in a different mindset all together, T and I watched Bad Santa.  It’s crude and mean.  It’s also ridiculously funny.  It’s become a holiday tradition for T and I; not one that I am particularly proud of, mind you, but a tradition nonetheless.  This year, there is a Bad Santa 2 in the theaters.  And now you know where we went on Black Friday.

Saturday, November 26, 2016

Front Porch in November

Each month, I decorate the front porch to celebrate the month.  It is one of my favorite things to do and contemplating the months to come keeps me busy at craft and vintage shops, where I look around with an eye toward items for the porch.  There’s a section in my basement devoted to my collection of tablecloths, flags, and items for the porch.  Over the years, I’ve acquired enough things to have variety each year.

Come November, the jack-o-lantern tablecloth is replaced by a fall cloth.  Halloween pumpkins and mums become Thanksgiving pumpkins and mums.  

There is a flag to welcome the changing season..

And a wreath that my mom helped me make.

When we come home in the evening, the porch is welcoming and cheerful.  That’s happy!

Friday, November 25, 2016

12 Months of Miss Read: November

The backstory: At the start of 2016, I pulled out my very favorite Miss Read book, Village Centenary.  The novel is structured in months and each chapter explores a month in the year of a village school that is celebrating its 100th anniversary.  This year, my own school is celebrating its 250th anniversary and as we think of our past and look to our future, I thought that Miss Read would make a lovely companion for me.  For each month of 2016, I plan to read Miss Read’s reflection on the month.

Miss Read is a pseudonym for Dora Jessie Saint, an English author who wrote between 1955 and 1996.  Her novels were tales of every day life in small English towns.  Village Centenary is set in Fair Acre, an imaginary Cotswold community.  As is the case in nearly all of the Fair Acre novels, the novel is written in the first person and it is through our narrator, school teacher Miss Read, that the story unfolds.

Miss Read in November
Miss Read’s November sees the arrival of cooler fall weather.  Her month is filled with planning for her school’s 100th celebration, a December tea party following the performance of historical vignettes by her students.  Her mind is also on her school’s future.  As my school prepares to close out celebrations of our 250th year, the idea of the future has hold of me as well.  This shared fascination with the passage of time joins Miss Read and I together.

In at least one respect, as the mama of a 16 year old high school junior, the notion of the future always seems to be at hand.  There’s talk of college and standardized tests and planning, planning, planning.  The future looms large and can easily consume us.  In the midst of this chatter, it’s easy to lose sense of the moment.  There are times when I look at my son and struggle to reconcile the tall and strong young man with the chubby cheeked toddler and little boy whom he once was.  When he was first born, a friend told me that the nights were long but the years passed quickly.  These days, that truth is more apparent than ever.  I do my best to live in the moment, aware how quickly it will pass us by.

Professionally, time spent in the company of 6th and 7th graders is an all-together different reminder of the passage of time.  These kids do live in the moment, some times blissfully unaware of a future as close at hand as tomorrow.  At other times, their eye is on the prize of independence and freedom of high school and beyond.  They can be silly and wise in practically the same moment.  They are changing rapidly, a fact about which they sometimes seem blissfully unaware.  Practically overnight, their bodies and voices change, limbs grow longer, and brains grow more sophisticated.  The theme of middle school is persistent change.

Miss Read and I live our lives in the company of children and we genuinely like the work.  I think that our shared fondness for children and our similar sense of humor is why I like these books so much.  They are a ready companion whenever I need it.

Thursday, November 24, 2016


It is my Thanksgiving tradition to be thankful for the blessings in my life.  Though I experience a daily cringe as I hear about the developing Cheetoh Kleptocrat Administration, there is plenty about which I am so very thankful.

I am thankful for T and JT, who make me laugh, love me unconditionally, put up with my quirks, and eat my cooking.

I am thankful for my family, especially my parents and my sister and her family.  These are my people, the folks who speak my particular language of sarcasm, anxiety, and impatience.  I am blessed that they are in this world.

I am thankful for friends who are at hand to laugh (and cry), to look after me, and to make my world happy in untold ways. 

I am thankful for a job that I love, with students who challenge me to ensure that the world they will inherit is a better place.  These children make me smile and remind me that there is great hope present in this world.

I am thankful for my happy home, with it’s comfy beds and cat fur, front porch, stacks of books, my garden and trees, and all the things that make my house my home.

I am thankful that Hillary Clinton won the popular vote.  This fact reminds me that there are more of us than the adherents of the Cheetoh Kleptocrat.  I have a feeling this is going to matter more and more in the coming years.  For now, it reminds me that there is a 70 million large community of Americans who care about equality, justice, the climate, and all the things that matter to the future of this nation.

It’s nice to have a long list of blessings.  May your Thanksgiving be filled with the same!

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

A Bridge Too Far

The air freshener above the basement cat box always does some heavy lifting.  This month, I selected a scent entitled “Timeless Joy.”  

I try to bring an optimistic outlook to the world, but this may be a bridge too far.

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

It Still Feels Like a Sucker Punch

Like every other Democrat I know, I’m struggling to find my balance in the aftermath of the election.  It isn’t just my disappointment that a well-qualified woman lost to an ignorant, self-centered, big-mouth (though that is hard to swallow and proof of the enduring sexism in this nation.  It is the looming anxiety about how the ignorant big mouth will attempt to govern that causes me the most anxiety.  On election night, I told my anxious son that we would be okay and that our challenge moving forward would be to help those who would be actively harmed by a Trump Administration.

I believe that except it’s hard for me to define “okay” in a world in which many of my fellow citizens are afraid because of their race or their religion.  I hear NPR interviews —— tough question, quality journalism interviews —— with Trump advisors or active leaders of the white nationalist neo-Nazi movement and I am overcome with tearful anger; I am made physically ill by the hate-mongering offered in a cheerful voice.  That’s a far cry from okay.

Nearly two weeks in to an unthinkable electoral outcome, I still feel sick to my stomach.  Something tells me that will be my primary political emotion of the next four years.  I know there are leaders who will fight to move us in the right direction.  I know that I will continue to be outspoken.  I believe in the decency of the majority of us; the folks who cast ballots for Hillary Clinton.  I want (and need) to believe that the results of the popular vote demonstrate that there are millions of us ——  63 million; 1.7 million more than voted for Trump  ——- who will stand up and demand that we be a nation of justice and liberty for all.

For now, then, the plan is to be vigilant and take it one day at a time.  It feels like a very long four years are on the horizon.

Sunday, November 20, 2016

Real Life Conversations with T: Local Cuisine edition

The backstory: Last weekend, T and I were at Holmdel Park waiting for JT to run a cross country race.  This was a big race event and the food trucks were out.  T had a look at the options.

T:  We’re in New Jersey so yes, I think pulled pork is the right choice.

Me (laughing):  I think that Kansas City ruined you.

Pro-tip: Try the pizza; enjoy the Italian food.  But if BBQ is what you want, Jersey is not the place.

Saturday, November 19, 2016

Meanwhile, in Squirrel News

I am confident that the squirrels who live in my backyard get into my garden and help themselves to the fruit on my trees.  Despite this, I find them charming.  On occasion, I have been known to set out a snack for them.  I did this a few days ago, when I placed a rotting mini pumpkin on the back deck.  It took the squirrels longer than I expected to help themselves but on Thursday morning I looked out the window and saw this.

I was only able to make one more picture through the window before the squirrel took his pumpkin off for some private dining.  

That’s happy!

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Some Leaders with the Courage We Need

It’s been more than a week since Donald Trump won the Electoral College and became the president-elect.  I wake up every morning and my first thought is horror at this development.  With the exception of a seemingly conciliatory victory speech on the night of the election, the news has not been very hopeful.  A steady parade of Republican lobbyists have joined the chaotic and unprepared transition team, now headed by a virulently anti-gay Mike Pence, soon to be our nation’s vice-president.  The potential Supreme Court judges are unthinkably awful.  The choice of misogynist white nationalist Stephen Bannon as a lead presidential advisor is horrifying.  The steady-presence of Trump’s three spoiled and smug children acting as advisors is sickening.

I could go on but I won’t.

What we need is some good news.  In the midst of this mess, we do have leaders and thinkers who will hold the line, stand up to racism and hate, and otherwise show us a better path forward.  And so I offer this list of leaders with both the courage and perseverance to see us through the coming Trump Administration.

These folks are Democrats; my list isn't inclusive.  I'll have a Republican list out soon.  In the meantime, these people make me hopeful about the future.  

In the Senate:
Cory Booker of New Jersey
Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts
Bernie Sanders of Vermont
Kamala Harris of California(newly-elected)
Chris Murphy of Connecticut
Kirsten Gillibrand of New York
Charles Schumer of New York
Tim Kaine of Virginia
Tammy Duckworth of Illinois (newly-elected)
Richard Durbin of Illinois
Sherrod Brown of Ohio
Jeff Merkely of Oregon
Tom Carper of Delaware
Ron Wyden of Oregon
Mazie Hirono of Hawaii
Debbie Stabenow of Michigan
Chris Van Hollen of Maryland (newly-elected)

In the House of Representatives:
John Lewis of Georgia
Elijah Cummings of Maryland
Nancy Pelosi of California
Adam Schiff of California
Frank Pallone of New Jersey
Mike Honda of California

Some impressive Democratic governors:
Jerry Brown - California
Andrew Cuomo - New York
John Hickenlooper - Colorado
John Wisniewski, candidate for Governor in New Jersey

A few mayors not taking any nonsense:
Rahm Emanuel in Chicago
Eric Garcetti in LA
Bill de Blasio - NYC

This is by no means an exhaustive list; it is a nice place to turn if you need hope.  Follow these folks on Twitter; pay attention when they give interviews.  Check out their websites.  Support them.  Know that they have courage and both the ability and willingness to lead us in a better direction, one based in inclusive diversity.  Know also that they will stand up to racism, sexism, xenophobia, and anti-GLBT policies.  That’s gonna matter moving forward.  Liberals, we aren’t alone; not by a long shot.

Saturday, November 12, 2016

Living in Hope

In preparation for a post-election essay celebrating the outcome, I had collected an assortment of unflattering snippets and thoughts about Donald Trump.  I expected him to lose the election and these notions were going to help me to explain (and celebrate!) his defeat.  Obviously, events on the ground eclipsed my plans.

At first, I was at a loss to explain the election outcome.  As a political scientist who has been studying elections for the last 30 years, this was rather startling to me.  Politics is something that always I understand.  To be unsure of what had happened and especially why it had happened contributed to my anxiety about the outcome of the election.  On Friday, in a frustrated response to the panic I was reading on-line, I pointed out on Twitter that we still have a Constitution that protects our rights and enshrines the notion of three branches of government obligated to check and balance one another.  I was harassed by some folks who advised me to study the world and to understand constitutions.  They feel that ours is under attack. Those accusations didn’t make me angry as much as  they reminded me how fear fuels anger, resentment, and ignorance.  It also reinforced my sense of how scared Donald Trump makes people.

I am concerned about Donald Trump.  But I refuse to live in fear.

I do understand constitutions and their functions.  I know them well, having spent a nearly thirty year career learning and teaching about constitutions.  I know when constitutional democracies (real ones, not the pretend democracies set up by authoritarian states) are at risk.

We are not in that circumstance.

The United States has a robust constitution and a system built on rule of law.  It’s neither perfect nor impenetrable.  But it has endured for more than 200 years and in that time has always been used to expand rights.  The 2016 election of Donald Trump is unsettling.  But it is not evidence that the Constitution has unravelled.  As Americans, we should always be careful and vigilant to ensure that constitutional protections of our individual liberty endure.  That is the case no matter who wins elections.  The 2016 election outcome finds me vigilant and active.  But I am not in a panic.  It is up to every one of us to ensure that a risk to our constitutionally-protected liberty never materializes.
In the 2016 election, I listened to Donald Trump and I heard racism, bigotry, misogyny, and hate wrapped in an alarming level of ignorance.  I cast a ballot against those notions.

Many of my fellow voters (though not all or even most of them…..Hillary won the popular vote), heard the same Donald Trump that I heard.  I expect that some Trump voters heard the same ideas I heard, embraced them, and voted for the racism and bigotry.  But some of them heard the same Donald Trump that I heard and drew different conclusions.  I disagree with both set of the Trump voters.  But they are my fellow citizens and it is my obligation to understand them.

I do not expect Donald Trump, his policies, and his advisors to succeed in growing our economy or fixing our income inequality.  I reject his approach to immigration,  I am fearful of the damage his ideas would cause.   New Yorker writer Jelani Cobb repeated a Mark Twain quote that seems timely right now, Patriotism is supporting your country all the time, and your government when it deserves it.”  I was a patriot on Tuesday when I thought Hillary would win. I am a patriot today, though she lost the election.

Being a patriot means that I will remind myself of the privileges I have experienced in life and the obligations that they engender.   As a patriot, I will stand for the constitutional protections that are dear to us all.  I will be vigilant and stand up to racism, bigotry, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, and efforts to marginalize disabled people.   I will be an ally and a safe place for those who are afraid.  I will be brave in the face of ignorance, fear, and hate.  I will continue to speak my mind.  I will be careful and kind.  I will love my fellow citizens despite their frailties.  I will work tirelessly for the kind of policies I want our nation to adopt.

I refuse to live in fear.

I will live in hope.

Thursday, November 10, 2016

Dogwood Thursday: November 10

Like everyone I know, the events of election day have found me stunned and upset.  I’d say that I’m angry, but that emotion doesn’t really plumb the depths of my disappointment and anxiety about Tuesday’s outcome.  Like so many other people, I was convinced that Hillary would win on Tuesday.  As the electoral college map began to fill with support for Donald Trump, I spent at least a few hours simply not believing what I was seeing.  It wasn’t just that Hillary was losing (even typing that word hurts), it’s that she was losing to Donald Trump.  He’s hateful, ignorant, unprepared, undeserving…there is no end to the ways this man is not suited for the responsibilities of the presidency.  To watch a woman candidate whom I admire and respect lose to Donald Trump. It’s painful.  And, as Hillary said on Wednesday, it’s going to hurt for a while.

On Wednesday, having stayed up half the night to watch the disaster unfold, T and I headed to work and then numbly texted one another.  At one point she noted that the squirrels didn’t look any different.  I thought of that this morning as I stepped outside to make a picture of the dogwood tree.

All the leaves are now gone, so it looks different than last week.  But the trunk stands sturdy and the empty branches are ready for winter.  There’s a strength in that kind of endurance.  Like the squirrels, the dogwood is doing what needs to be done.  

I think there’s a lesson in that for me.  I can’t change the fact that Donald Trump is the president-elect.  But winning the electoral college as he did doesn’t change the fact that Hillary won the popular vote.   As of this writing, she has the edge by more than 330,000 votes.  It’s not going to make a difference about who is in power, but it makes a difference to me.  More of us voted for unity and being stronger together than the reverse. That’s a glimmer of hope in a very grey landscape.

But it is hope; sturdy, solid, I’ll be-here-tomorrow hope.  I always say that I live in hope and I mean it.  And should hope prove elusive, the dogwood is just outside the window, reminding me that sturdy hope trumps hate.

Tuesday, November 08, 2016

For Hope, History, and Hillary

I’ve repeated this story so many times before, that you’d think I could let it go, but I have waited a long time for this day and I am so excited about the history unfolding  before us on this day.  I was 16 years old in 1984 when Geraldine Ferraro was nominated as a vice presidential candidate.  That year, my mother told me, “You’ll see a women in the White House by the time you are 40.”

I turned 49 just a few days ago.

This morning I stood in line with my ballot and then I voted for a woman presidential candidate.  I am excited to send her to the White House.  

I took my 16 year old son into the voting booth with me and we cast that ballot together.  I’ve waited a long time to make this vote and the moment was so powerful and so full.  It’s made better by the fact that we made history in 2008 when we selected Barack Obama as president.  I was proud of my nation in 2008; I am just as proud now.  To think that we will have a swath of American presidents who broke barriers, who created an inclusive kind of hope……well that is some heady business.

This is America when it has the potential to be both good and great.  We are showing our children what it looks like when a diverse and tolerant nation rises to the challenges of the modern world.  When I was 16, I imagined that this vote would feel especially rich if I had a daughter.  But today I am reminded that it is our daughters and our sons who benefit from this historic change.  My son was 8 years old when Barack Obama was elected president; at 16 he will see the first woman enter the White House as president.  His world has been shaped by the notion that we are better and stronger because of our diversity.    That is the kind of greatness in which I believe.

We are with her.  I won’t go to bed tonight until I know that the rest of the nation is with us.

Sunday, November 06, 2016

November 6

Today, I turn 49 years old.  My last two weeks of feeling like death on a cracker make a birthday seem especially sweet.  In the past year, I’ve made peace with my need to wear glasses instead of contact lenses and generally embraced the fact that aging has its virtues.  Mine include grey hairs……lots of them.  But I like to think that I’m holding my own at 49.

My weekend has been a relaxing combination of time spent withT and JT, two of the nicest blessings in my life, and an assortment of the things I love most.  I had a couple of extra naps.  We went out to supper and watched some Longmire episodes on Netflix.  There were great presents from people who know me well and love me anyway.  I set out November decorations on my front porch, read a good book, and planted some tulip bulbs in anticipation of the coming spring.  There was chocolate cake.

In years past, my birthday has fallen on election day.   That’s always felt fitting and this year we’ll celebrate again on Tuesday.  I’m crossing my fingers and toes that it’s a celebration of a most hopeful sort.   I’m a patriot, a woman who named her only child after a president, a teacher of American history who still cries every year when I read the Declaration of Independence out loud with my students.  I know that my nation is not perfect but I believe in the promise of America.  We are a diverse people who can do great things when we work together.  As I head into my 50th year, I’d dearly love for it to be a year of working together in an America with hope as its central value.

Two more days.  Let's do right by one another, America.

Saturday, November 05, 2016

Halloween Memories

I love Halloween and the ways in which this evening feels magical as the light fades and children crunch through the leafy sidewalks dressed up as princesses and super heroes in pursuit of candy.   On Monday night, I distributed quite a bit of candy between coughing spells. I even let a couple of little boys use the bathroom (their mom was grateful).

For me, Halloween is about community and good old-fashioned fun.  Though I no-longer have a trick-or-treater of my own, the pleasure of doing our part by answering the door is plenty of fun.  To hear JT open the door, complement costumes, and distribute candy is a sweet reminder of some happy Halloweens he enjoyed.

Here’s to ghosts, goblins, princesses, witches, and candy!

Friday, November 04, 2016

On Light Posting

Last week, I was down-for-the-count with the flu. Because I work in a school, I always get a flu shot and I’d already had mine this year when the fever and chills took hold.  I felt like I’d been hit by a bus.  But, in typical Sassafras fashion, it took me three days to believe that I was actually sick and not just really tired and in need of a new mattress.  By then, I was no longer interested in leaving the sofa and it was too late to start Tamiflu.


The flu’s real specialty is the lingering illnesses it causes.  I was no exception.  A week in, just as the flu symptoms began to ease, I developed an impressive cough and sinus infection.  

Cue the antibiotics.

My lungs like to flirt with seasonal asthma and the flu hooked them up…….bring on the wheezing, bronchitis, and coughing now so severe that I couldn’t lay down at night. Daytime coughing spells featured the always exciting prospect that my gag reflex would kick in and I’d hurl.  Plus, my voice was weak and talking made me cough.  This is a problem when you consider my line of work.

Which is to say that things just got better and better.

Thursday, I hauled my wheezing carcass to the doctor for visit number three and acquired a dazzling array of treatments.  

By the end of Thursday, I felt better.  Codeine-laced cough syrup gave me a chance to sleep for more than an hour between coughs.  As of today, I am feeling better.  I still don’t have much of a voice (an irony I think we can all appreciate).  I remind myself that can’t last forever and I have every reason to believe I am on the mend.  That’s happy!

Thursday, November 03, 2016

Dogwood Thursday: November 3

Fall leaves continue to linger and my dogwood hasn’t yet finished its seasonal change.

The leaves that remain are all a lovely shade of rust.  As we await the time change, mornings around here are inky dark.  As the sun begins to peak over the horizon, it lights up the leaves of the dogwood, my happy morning greeting.

It’s been a lovely fall and I embrace the days warm enough for me to slip on flip flops and step outside, aware that colder days are on the horizon.

Tuesday, November 01, 2016

In the Backyard Neighborhood: November 1

The beauty of my once-a-month photo project is that by the time it comes to a close, the last picture of the year looks a great deal like the first picture of the year.    If feels like the project has come a full circle.  Seasons are like that and for me there is power in that sense of the infinite.

Sometimes, November 1st finds many leaves already down.  But not this year.  A lot of leaves have fallen in the last month, but plenty yet remain in my backyard, especially on the peach tree.  Up close, it’s apparent that they have begun to turn.

In the next month, likely in the next few weeks, these leaves will have fallen to the ground to join the growing collection.  November is one of those months that always ends on a different note than the one which brought it in, with big changes.  This November is no exception.  I’ll be a month older; the nation will have (hopefully) elected it’s first woman president.  By the time we get to Thanksgiving, I’m hopeful that we have a lot for which to be thankful.

The peach tree will be on my list.