Thursday, November 30, 2017

November Book Report: The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven

This year, my school has a teacher’s book club.  The book list looked promising, with some books I had read before and some books that had been on my radar and so I signed up.  This month’s book was The Lone Ranger and Tonoto Fistfight in Heaven, a collection of short stories written by Sherman Alexie, a writer who grew up on the Spokane Indian Reservation in western Washington.  

The book is a collection of short stories, some of which feature the same characters.  The stories are as much narratives as they are streams of consciousness.  The book was a quick read and some of the stories linger in their sadness, and I’ve welcomed the chance to think anew about Native American life in the United States.  Some of the stories put me in mind of the time I lived in Nebraska, where there were both Indian reservations and opportunities to experience Indian cultural events (oh, the fry bread!).  Alexie’s identity as an Indian is central to the stories and he both reflects on family life among members of his tribe and the larger social setting in which Native Americans travel, sometimes made to feel like foreigners in their own country, on their own land.

I was put in mind of an NPR series about what social service agencies have done to Indian families.  And this week, as the president used his bully pulpit to insult and demean Native tribes, Alexie’s stories felt more important than ever.  This slim volume was well-worth my time.  

Tuesday, November 28, 2017

Neither Great Nor Better

I’ve taught American history for many years.  These days, I teach 7th grade students.  7th graders are at an interesting point in adolescence, at the corner of young adulthood and childhood with both experiences on their minds.  They long for independence, but aren’t always sure what to do with it.  Their brains are moving fast and are occasionally beset by strong emotions that feel new and mysterious and, sometimes, overwhelming.  As each of them sorts out their identify and place in the world, they are sometimes unkind to one another (or themselves); at the same time, they are the first to point out unkindness in others.   It’s easy to underestimate the abilities and talents of 7th graders because they are prone to underestimating themselves.  But it would be foolish to do so because 7th graders are capable of understanding and communicating in sophisticated ways about complex ideas.  In this, they are an absolute wonder to teach because they are absorbing and learning so much.  I learn from them every day and I am aware that they are learning from us all the time.

I teach my 7th graders American history, from the period of colonial settlement in 1609 all the way to the Civil War.  We take on some very difficult topics as we explore these years.  We study the founders and wrap our minds around the philosophical origins of the American movement toward independence.  Together, we read the founding documents and explore the claims made in the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights.  We also explore the disappointing elements of the American story, including the lives and experiences of the Native tribes that were here when colonists arrived.  We talk about the origins of the “original sin” of slavery and we go to lengths to understand both the lives of enslaved people and the lasting legacy of the institution of slavery.

It is in the inequities and injustices of the American story that 7th graders step out of themselves to see both a world that was and a world that can be.  As we wrestle with a document that claims all men are created equal even as it excludes native tribes, enslaved people, and women, we come to understand the complexities and injustices present in the human story; in the American story.

My 7th graders know that painting all native tribes with the broad brush of the name of one of the more well-known Indians is both offensive and ignorant.  In fact, my 7th graders know the real story of Pocohantas.  They understand the complexities of her experience.  They know better than to objectify or dismiss tribal people because they know better than to objectify or dismiss anyone.  Like all of us, it does not make 7th graders better to live in a world where the president’s casual racism is the accepted and tolerated order of the day.  
Greatness comes from honoring one another’s accomplishments, from making an effort to stand outside one’s cultural experience to understand the experiences of others.  It comes from tolerance and empathy and kindness.  It comes from the daily effort to be better.  It comes from the struggle to give promise to the claim that “all men are created equal.”  And it should come from leaders who help us to do these things.

Monday, November 27, 2017

Fall Chores

The Thanksgiving weekend couldn’t have come at a better time for me.  It’s been a busy fall and I was a bit overdue for a few quiet days.  There was plenty of relaxation on the agenda and the whole family enjoyed some extra time to sleep in and spend some leisurely days.  The weather was exceedingly cooperative, with cool and mostly sunny days.  Yesterday, feeling refreshed, I set out to complete some Fall chores.

One of my tasks was to organize December decorations for the front porch.  Normally I wait for the first day of the new month to swap out the porch, but I am especially excited about the holidays this year.  The older I get, the more I see December as a month-long chance to enjoy sparkling lights and the smell of evergreen; a month of memories that reflect the passage of time and the sweetness of a child who believed in Santa far longer than I could have imagined.  Planning treats and surprises for loved ones is what makes December special to me and this month I welcome a few more days to celebrate.

In the backyard, raking leaves into the big paper bags the town picks up, gave me time to think about my holiday plans and to reflect with gratitude on the blessings in my world.  At one point, I paused to look up at the limbs of Old Man Tree.  Near the top I spied a nest, as likely to be a squirrel nest as anything else, and a reminder that this yard is home to creatures other than me.  It was a nice reminder that the world is a better place when we share with one another.  

That’s happy!

Friday, November 24, 2017

Food Friday: Cranberry Brie Turkey Panini

For me, one of the nicest things about Thanksgiving is the leftovers that can be turned into delicious meals.  My absolute favorite “leftover” is made using the turkey and cranberry sauce.  Behold the turkey, cranberry, brie panini sandwich.

For each sandwich, I spread two slices of bread with a thin amount of dijon mustard.

Then I add thin slices of brie cheese.

I add minced turkey.

Then I put a thin layer of cranberry sauce on the bread.  

The sandwich gets grilled on medium low so there is time for the heat to spread and melt the brie without burning the bread.

It’s delicious!

Thursday, November 23, 2017


Supper won’t be on the table until later this afternoon and this morning finds me organizing the day’s cooking plan.  Yesterday, I set the turkey to brine, put together a sweet potato casserole, and made our pumpkin pie.

I checked to ensure that we had a good supply of leftover containers at the ready.

This morning, while my coffee was brewing, I set the rolls to rise.

I mixed the cranberries with sugar, water, and orange peel and now cranberry sauce is cooling for our supper.

Right now I have a moment to pause and enjoy a few cups of coffee before the rest of the cooking gets started in earnest.  I’ve so very much for which to be thankful and the older I get, the more I value a reminder to stop and appreciate my many blessings.  

By the time this day is done, I’ll have made a cheese and relish tray, spiced warm apple cider, roasted a turkey, made mashed potatoes and gravy, steamed green beans, stirred together cornbread dressing, and whipped some cream for our pumpkin pie.  The dishwasher will have worked overtime and even so, the sink will still be filled with dishes.  But none of that matters as much as the pleasure of sitting at the table and sharing some laughter with the people I love.  I try to always be thankful for my blessings but today is always a welcome reminder to be pause and be grateful again.

Happy Thanksgiving, y’all!

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

The Next Season

JT started wrestling in 8th grade and I have since then come to realize that it’s as much a sport as it is a cult.  Our coaching staff is not of the old-school starve-yourself and sport-a-cauliflower ear variety, for which I’m enormously grateful.    In a state with a commitment to the sport, our team has a tradition of tough practices and an admirable team ethos.  Outside of practice, the team is closely-knit and there is a lot of laughter among the wrestlers.  It’s detracts from mat-burned faces, so I think that’s all to the good.

I’m told that there’s nothing like 6 minutes of grappling on the mat to show you what you’re made of.  As a mama who has watched her son battle through those 6 minutes, I’ve decided that I’ll let his example teach me the lesson.  Where cross country fans are a civilized cheer-everyone-on variety, wrestling has a more bloodthirsty fan base.  I’m gearing up to yell things like, “stuff the head” and looking forward to the inevitable moment of the season when T gives me a sidelong look as she sniffs the funky gym air and points out, “If you’d had a girl, we’d be watching basketball right now.”

Alas, we are wrestling moms instead.  Stuff the head!

Saturday, November 18, 2017


Last Sunday, I looked up and realized that the dogwood and Old Man Tree had dropped their remaining leaves.  There had been some windy days and that seemed to do the trick.

I took a pass through the yard with the mulching mower, a Fall chore that I always enjoy.

Elsewhere in my yard and neighborhood there are plenty of leaves yet to fall.  That means that plenty of raking remains.  The weather has been cool and this weekend a windy rainstorm is expected to pass through; that will likely set the stage for Fall to finish up its efforts.  Garden chores like this help me put the garden to rest and give me plenty of time to daydream about the next garden season.  

Bring on the seed catalogs!

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Reflections on a Nicer November

Listening to NPR this morning, I heard an interview with Joe Biden.  He’s written a book about his son Bo and in the media tour, plenty of journalists are asking him questions about the current political scene.  I was struck again by how much I miss civil, articulate, and thoughtful political discourse from leaders who wish to help us to be better.  Biden pointed out the danger of silence in the face of Nazi and KKK-supporters and called it out by noting that, “silence is complicity." At one point in the interview he notes that American influence and strength in the world is less about “the example of our power” and more about “the power of our example.”  It was refreshing and honest.  It was leadership.  Vice President Biden spoke of a nation I want to be part of; one that is aspirational in search of being better together.  

In last week’s election, New Jersey elected a Democrat as our next Governor.  His name is Phil Murphy.  He comes into office with a Lt. Governor named Sheila Oliver, New Jersey’s first African American in the position.  In this morning’s news, I learned that Murphy’s transition committees are majority woman and majority people of color.  Murphy is white, a former banker, and at the start I feel like we may very well have a thoughtful woke leader on hand.  In any case, it’s a promising beginning and I feel optimistic, a far cry from the sentiments that consumed me last November.

As I think about this year of Trump, I’m struck by the realization that things have been every bit as horrifying as I feared.  Trump had no honeymoon, but in all fairness he never made a single effort to govern as a leader with a tentative hold on the position.  Rather than acknowledge the reality that winning the Electoral College without securing a majority of the national vote placed him on thin ice, he bullied forward with slippery lies (looking at you, inaugural crowd claims) and an attachment to the bully side of the pulpit that show him to be small-minded, self-absorbed, and ignorant.

At every juncture, Trump has dodged responsibility, blaming the Obama Administration for all foreign policy challenges he faces and announcing that all policy failures belong to Congress.  He doesn’t understand even the most basic principles of our system of government and he doesn’t care to try to understand.  He’s made things uglier and meaner; his only skills are in self-aggrandizement and lying.  He uses those deceptions to attack everyone, including the media, and challenge the very idea that truth exists.

At 10 months in to his leadership, his presidential approval rating is the lowest of any president in the modern era.  It shows signs of sinking further.  As a nation, we are divided and wary, some of us furiously angry and others of us disheartened and afraid.  It doesn’t feel very great.

Last week’s elections in New Jersey and Virginia offer the prospect of much-needed hope; a semblance of measured reason in a sea of ugly tweets and lies.  I find myself clinging to them as we head into 2018 and the next electoral season.  There are signs that we understand the power of our example.  For ourselves and the world I sure hope that is the case.

Monday, November 13, 2017

Race Day

JT ran his final race of his Senior year Cross Country season on Saturday.  A week before, at the second to the last race of the year, I felt emotional.  I expected that his final race in our school’s uniform would be even more emotional.  He’s been at this school for 15 years and Cross Country was the first school uniform he ever wore.  At the time, as a 7th grader, he was proud to wear the school colors.  If anything, he’s even more proud today.  T and I headed out on a cool day to cheer him on.  The course is one of the hardest in the state and he ran all out.

He’s not the kind of kid to hold back as he approaches the finish line.

I knew the kid in red was getting passed.

At the finish line, JT was all in.

I was cheering like a lunatic but I didn’t cry.  It’s not that I’m not proud or emotional; I’m very proud and I think a lot about the next part of parenting, the part that features me sending my boy out into the world.  My boy is a committed runner and a good one.  Running has been an epiphany for him; he loves every element of the sport.  Running has fed his soul as well as his muscles; it’s taught him to value hard work and train for more than tomorrow’s event.  I love the fans and the crowds at a race and I expect that I will be cheering on this runner for a while to come.  For starters, he’s registered for a race in each of the next two weekends.  His college choices are all schools where he will be able to run competitively.  Next fall, I expect to be watching my boy run in a new school’s uniform.  I expect that I’ll be excited.  I know that I’ll be proud.  But mostly I'll be glad that he's found something he loves so very much.  That's happy!

Wednesday, November 08, 2017

Dogwood Wednesday: November 8

This Fall has been rather a quirky season.  After a cool start in September, warm weather settled in as if it planned to stay for a while.  Fall leaves made stately progress toward the inevitable seasonal change.  There are a good deal of leaves to be collected.

 Now that we’ve made the time change, I have the chance to see the dogwood in dim morning light.  Most of the leaves are gone; those that remain are deep red.  

It looks like the mulching mower, my rake, and I have some work to do this weekend.  But that’s the beauty of Fall, a last push of yard chores before a season of still and rest.  I expect to rake, put some bulbs in the ground, breath in the chilly air, and collect some bags of leaves for collection by my town.

I’ll also do plenty of daydreaming about next year’s garden season, because that’s how gardening goes. 

Tuesday, November 07, 2017

Front Porch in November

Right on schedule, my porch exchanged October for November and now we are ready to be thankful.  Pumpkins and mums remain the order of the day.

There’s a new flag for the month.

The crunch of leaves , the shortening hours of sunlight, and the chill of Fall have all taken hold around here  But the porch is a cozy welcome home each day.  

That’s happy!

Monday, November 06, 2017

That’s Happy! What Else?

A few weeks ago, I wrote about the mixed feelings that I have about turning 50.  This morning is the big day.  One of the nice things about being 50 is that I am both aware and grateful for the many blessings in my life.

I’ve declared a week’s worth of celebrations because I can.  Today, the celebration  began before dawn with a book from T and handmade card from JT.  There’s news of a surprise breakfast at work.  I’m starting off strong!

The rest of the day will include going out to supper and opening more presents with T and JT, the people who are the core of my daily world  This year, I treated myself to a present in the form of some Rifle Paper notecards and some books from Bas Bleu, two treats that are in perfect alignment with the bookworm girl I’ve been (and plan to be for my next half century).

I think that’s the best gift of being 50….the gift of knowing just who you are and being okay with your quirks and peculiarities.  Not just forgiving them but embracing them as the ingredients that make you who you are.  Like many women I know, I haven’t always been persuaded of my self-worth.  Having a child nearly 18 years ago involved making a pledge to myself to set aside those self-doubts so that they didn’t poison my child’s sense of his self-worth.  Often that’s been acting confident even when I didn’t believe in myself.  But all those years of a “fake it ’til you make it” approach have paid off and I’m glad of that.

The last 10 years have taught me that I must find hope and happiness where it is.  On my darkest days, I always look about to find a moment of grace.  Then I acknowledge it and value it.  From that point of view developed my habit of declaring things “that’s happy.”  I learned the phrase from a children’s book featuring a brother and sister set of bunnies.  The littlest one, Willa, says of all the good things in her day, “That’s happy!  What else?” I liked the idea that happiness could be everywhere and that we could still expect even more of it and so I embraced it for my own.  I find the happy things in my world and I declare it.

Today I have a family and a job that I love, a soft bed and a house that always feels like home, a celebration to enjoy, a good book to read.  I’m wearing shiny shoes and a terrific skirt I scored off the bargain rack.  There are presents, sweets, and flowers in my world.  I know that I am blessed beyond measure.  That’s happy!

What else?

Sunday, November 05, 2017

Real Life Conversations with T: 1970s edition

The backstory: While in Springfield, we stayed at a hotel across the street from a mall called “Riverdale Shops.”  T took one look at the sign, shook her fist, and announced…

T:  Riverdale!  If I see that Jughead motherfucker…….

I loved the Archie comic when I was a kid and T and I burst into laughter.  JT looked like kids look when their parents are hopelessly uncool.  So it was an all-around win.

Saturday, November 04, 2017

Real Life Conversations with T: Political Scandals edition

The backstory: There are a handful of towns in New Jersey with the same name and East, West, South, North, or South before the name (for example, near me there is North Plainfield, South Plainfield, Plainfield).  On the interstate, the exit for the towns are simply marked “The Plainfields”.  On today’s drive north to Springfield College ( a story for another day), there was a sign for Pecquannock.  I had a comment.

Me:  That sounds like the name of a town in New Jersey.  In which case, there’d be a North, South, and West Pecquannock and the sign would simply say “the Pecquannocks.”

T: Or it’s a place where a Kennedy could dump a body.

Me:  For when Chappaquiddick is full.

And then we laughed because that is the sort of thing that amuses us.

Friday, November 03, 2017

Fall Leaves & the Dogwood Tree

I've been posting pictures of my dogwood tree each Wednesday this fall and got a bit behind this week.  But I made the pictures right on schedule and when I was thinking about the tree, I was reminded of how much I love Fall leaves, always one of the best parts of fall.

We're at the point in the season when the leaves drop everywhere, landing on piles on the sidewalks and grass, making pretty, multi-colored pictures that are everywhere.  All season long, I keep my eyes peeled for leaves with particularly striking colors.  It’s a lovely past time that reminds me to enjoy all the beauty around me.

My dogwood tree encourages all this Fall daydreaming.  My daily admiration of the tree reminds me to stop and enjoy the moment.  

That’s happy! 

Thursday, November 02, 2017

Why Are You This Way?

I keep a seasonal closet and in true Sassafras form, declared the arrival of cold-weather clothing a few weeks ago.  This was clearly premature, but I was done with warm-weather clothes (except for flip flops, which can’t be worn to school, and therefore don’t play a part in this story).  Here and there, my cold weather choices have been appropriate; earlier this week, weather was cool enough to warrant the wearing of tights.

Yeah me.

But a warm up came last night and today and tomorrow will be in the 70s.  So I’m in search of things in my cold weather closet that won’t cause me to sweat.  I have a few choices, all of them in don’t f*ck with me black.  So that’s how I will face parent-teacher conferences in the next two days: a witch in black with a stunning array of grey hair.

It will perhaps be a comfort parents about to receive troubling information that I still have some worn out temporary Halloween tattoos on my hands.  Or perhaps they will conclude that I am the adult version of an occasionally-difficult 1st grader, a fair though unflattering reckoning of my character.

Today is scheduled to be 12-plus hours at school, the last four hours with a need for diplomacy, so those tattoos  may be the least of my problems.  Let’s go, Thursday!

Wednesday, November 01, 2017

Old Man Tree: November 1

Temps sank to 33 last night so an actual frost is just around the corner.  The trees around here have begun in earnest to turn colors; plenty have already fallen.  Old Man Tree takes his time to change over for the next season but the changeover is splendid.

Some leaves have fallen.  I will clean them up by mulching them with the mower.

There will be plenty more leaves for me to rake but I don't mind.  The view from the back deck is one of my favorite things about Sassafras House.  It never fails to please me and is a tonic in all seasons, a reminder to stop and admire all that Mother Nature provides.

That’s happy!