Saturday, June 27, 2009

First Day of Summer with My Kids...

...and the verdict is: BORING.

Or so says a letter our five-year-old wrote to me and taped to the water cooler this evening:

I am not Happy today but maybe I will be Happy soon. This morning was Boring the Birthday Party was sad or when I was watching Mamma Mia that was bad.

Of course I had high hopes for today, my debut into summer. Husband working, it would be just me and the girls and we would have fun, FUN, FUN! My plan was to take them to the pool--the cool pool with the beach entry and mushroom fountain.

But first, I needed to make cupcakes. That was boring, apparently, even though daughters helped me measure and stir and got to lick the spoons. And then I needed to take them to my sister-in-law's pre-pole-dancing-lesson birthday lunch party. Because her cousins had been dispatched elsewhere and she and her little sister were the only kids in attendance, the party was, despite food she loves and even CUPCAKES, sad to our little first grader.

Things went downhill as soon as we left my sister-in-law's house...whining, fighting, and general unpleasantness paired with sloppy parental response encapsulated in The Threat: We will not go to the pool if you don't behave.

Now, nine times out of ten (nine times out of ten, I am inaccurately using that tired cliche), when I threaten my children, I also recognize that if their bad behavior can be attributed to Utter Exhaustion, they are virtually powerless to control it. And when my kids are Tired and Unpleasant, I both feel bad about delivering on my threats but also know that Tired and Unpleasant People don't belong wherever we were going in the first place, like the pool.

Unless, of course, they take a nap.

So I hopefully employed the weak nap strategy called Video on Mama's Bed. Which means, kids choose a movie (Mamma Mia, really? Here we go again...), we all lie down, and I hope they fall asleep while I fall asleep reading my book or magazine.

Once in a while it works (four times out of ten?), and there is peace in the valley. But sometimes, the whole notion of curing distemper explodes, crashing and burning into Worse Than Where We Were Before. So it did today, with the girls kicking each other and then ramping up their constant repositioning into near-throwing of themselves onto the bed. Over and over again.

So I snapped that movie off mid-cheesy-Pierce-Brosnan ballad and declared that we would NOT be going to the pool.

At which point, sniffling daughter retreated to her Craft Corner to write me her note, complete with the key on the back to the faces she drew:

We're going to work on some "Yayy! Happy" days ahead.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Top of the World

Back in 2001, one of my favorite magazines, The Utne Reader, had some of their their staffers make Greatest Hits lists, which were meant to be all inclusive: events, songs, albums, works of art, phenomena, people, etc. I used that idea to formulate my own Top Ten list once and then, as a creative writing assignment, asked my students to do the same.

At the top of my Greatest Hits List are summer Boston Pops Symphony Concerts at Tanglewood in Massachusetts. I remember the summer Arthur Fiedler conducted and my parents brought sleeping bags for us; my brother and I snuggled under the stars to music that filled the night air, cozy and content in that deep-down-in-your-soul kind of way. It's not just outdoor summer concerts which top my list, but the Family Togetherness as well--memories which as a parent I hope we are creating for our own kids.

Once in a while, I get close to some of the magical moments I felt as a child. Tonight I went to the Three Girls and Their Buddy concert (with two of my buddies, natch) at Humphrey's outdoor venue on the bay (my season opener, if you will, since I have tickets to two more concerts there this summer: Joan Baez and The Indigo Girls--duh!).

The highlight of the concert was Patty Griffin singing "Top of the World." Her earnest face, sweet voice, and aching lyrics inspired silent reverence from the crowd. The best I can do to recreate the moment is offer this clip of Patty performing the haunting song last year:

"Everyone's singing; we just want to be heard..."

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Least Common Denominator

Sometimes I read my old writing and cringe. Sometimes I read my old writing and it feels a little foreign, like, what an interesting word choice, Fer.

Here's an untitled poem I wrote in November 2002:

There’s something worth cultivating in this
post-season soil we sift through
for a sign,
a principle,
a basis for our labor.

Fingers scratching stone and seashells,
pottery shards, loamy chunks of clay,
we’re unearthing secrets,
sorting revelations.

What we’ve come for—
our least common denominator—
must be this seed,
nestled among
the neatly designated rows of what should be
and the furrows
of chance

Monday, June 15, 2009

A Piece of My Mind...*gulp*

Today was a pretty fine day, all things considered. There was grumpiness at work, but I was able to escape to attend our kindergartner's farewell performance, which was a hoot. Sixty almost-first-graders were assembled on stage for a repertoire of songs, wiggling and poking one another until it was time to trill. When I saw our daughter's teacher lug in the record player, I thought, Rad. There's some tradition at work here.

Tradition probably also included the left half of kindergartners on stage being one whole verse ahead of their peers to the right, like they were singing in the round. Only not quite.

Later that evening, we celebrated the last day of school by taking over a neighborhood Italian restaurant: five families, fourteen children. The joint had bay windows that jutted out into the sidewalk, and our kids danced on those "stages," catching passersby off guard with what looked like a little innocent version of Amsterdam's Red Light District.

We took home two tired but jubilant, ice-cream-sticky children who were nearing meltdown. Just as we had shushed the three-year-old for what we hoped was the final time, the doorbell rang. Our SUPER LOUD doorbell. Which makes the dog bark madly. Which makes my ears ring. We've even taped over it to discourage zealous solicitors, but they are the only ones who actually push the damn button.

"Who IS that?" I hissed to my husband. "Seriously. I am going to go give Whoever It Is a piece of my mind!" I marched off to the door to sweet friend waiting on the doorstep with a bag of her famously delicious chocolate chip cookies. Still warm.

This would be the same sweet friend who called me once while we were at our daughter's Elementary School Open House, and I answered the phone and said, "Hey, can I call you back? We're in the middle of a school function." "Sure," she replied.

I found out later she was in the parking lot of Trader Joe's, bleeding. She had dropped a glass jug of water onto her foot. She needed help right there in the parking lot, and she needed help picking up her children, since she would be a while. But I was busy. You know, at a school function. Too busy to find out why she even called.

I learned an important lesson from my friend that night, which is: Always find out why they're calling. And then, if you don't like the sight of blood, explain that you're busy.


But seriously.

Now my sweet friend has taught me another lesson, which I believe the Bible told me so once upon a time (Hebrews 13:2): Be careful how you treat strangers, or you might be entertaining angels unawares (bearing cookies).

So, thank you, my angel friend: a timely reminder for patience and benefit of the doubt.

As for the three-year-old, let's hope we're not tempted to offer her to the next non-cookie-offering, doorbell-ringing salesperson.

Monday, June 8, 2009

Playing Possum

When some friends moved to our neighborhood from the coastal area of Northern California, they frequently commented on how "urban" our part of the city is, what with the occasional drug deal, sirens, and police helicopters flying overhead. Mostly on their street, of course, one block away from our placid thruway.

If this is The Big City, though, no one told the animals. Undaunted by any metropolitan characterization of our habitat, the critters have been around this year. We've had the skunks, twice; ants, too many times; bees, (see "ants"); a dead rat who appeared to have fallen to his doom from our palm tree; raccoons making a crime scene of our fish pond; and coyote sightings in the canyon. It's been enough of a zoo around our house that I'd even like to challenge my former neighbors, who have moved back to "the country," to a Wildlife Encounters Match. How many ailing opossum have transformed your front yard into a convalescent home, huh? How many dead rodents have inspired lectures on the Circle of Life? And by the way, dolphins which you can spot diving in the Pacific waves from your bedroom window do not count.

Our latest animal adventures began last Saturday morning, when I spotted a spreadeagled squirrel lying in the middle of the road smack (ha! punny!) dab in front of our house. We have a huge pine tree in our front yard which serves as a Squirrel Condominium Complex, so it's not inconceivable that rodent dramas would play out, such as high-speed chases along the length of our roof, strange squirrel mating rituals, and the occasional tragic accident. And it's possible a fed-up Mother squirrel, who had Just About Enough of her children's whining, decided to stomp across the street for a happy-hour glass of wine with the neighboring mommy squirrel across the street. I've made that journey myself, but I haven't been hit by a car en route, thankfully.

My children and I examined the sad squirrel, who suffered from a bloodied face and one popped-out eye. We discussed what happens to dead things (decomposition, burial, cremation), and what the circumstances of that particular squirrel might be (note: I did not offer up the Happy Hour scenario above). For lack of a) the guts (haha! Another pun!), and b) a plan, I opted to leave the squirrel right there, after pointedly showing it to my neighbor as passing cars drove over it slowly. The next time we looked out the front window for a Roadkill Check, it was gone. I figured someone called Animal Services.

But the next morning, as my husband went back and forth to the car with gear for work, he noticed the squirrel in the former resting place of the rat: beneath the palm.

"Did you see the dead squirrel?" he whispered so the children wouldn't hear.

"What dead squirrel?" I asked. "WAIT. Another dead squirrel?" He brought me out to show me the little corpse, which had the familiar flayed-out limbs and extruding eye of yesterday's squirrel.

"It was dead in the middle of the street on Saturday," I explained to my husband," and there's no way it walked over to our tree or a passing car chipped it onto our property."

So someone tossed it into our yard, thank you very much.

My husband left for work.

Then he came right back, running inside with a similar whispery breathlessness, pointing to the patch of curbside space where the car had been parked in front of our driveway. There was something smallish and furry huddling there.

"What is it?" I hissed.

"It's a possum!" my husband exclaimed. "I'm not sure if I ran it over or scared it or must have been hiding under the car..."

We went outside for a closer look. The possum looked stunned, with a little dried blood on its head, drool leaking out of his mouth, and a certain feebleness about him that was both disconcerting, mildly cute, and suggestive of imminent death.

I called Animal Services to inform them that we had both a dead squirrel and an injured possum on our hands. Then I brought the girls out and we spent some time staring at the fairly immobile creature. They eventually grew tired of the actionless performance and drifted into the house to play. I sat on the curb, waited for Animal Services, and updated my Facebook Status.

Gradually, the possum began turning his head and surveying the scene. He appeared to be pondering a foray into the street, which I silently warned him against. And then, inexplicably, he stood up and began ambling toward our driveway gate. Hmmm, where are you going, Little Fella, thought I, as I imagined him moving permanently into our backyard. But finding our gate closed, he discovered a dark damp spot beneath a bush under our front window and settled down for a diurnal nap. Thinking he looked comfy and unlikely to bust any new moves, I slipped into the house for a quick shower and told the kids to get me if Animal Services came.

But they didn't come. And we needed to get on with our day. So I wrote a note describing the locations of the fauna needing attention on our property and duct-taped it to the front of the house: Over here, injured possum. Over there, dead squirrel. Unsmiley face.

We came home from many hours at the beach to find the sign, the squirrel, and the possum exactly where they were. And a message on the machine from Animal Services saying they couldn't find our house. I called them back.

Ms. Animal Services arrived and promptly told me dead squirrels were our business, not hers, and that dumping the rodent in the trashcan was an appropriate burial.

She inspected the possum, still curled up but willing to lift its head when poked.

"Oh yeah," she nodded. "It has distemper. See it trembling?"

Pictures of Old Yeller popped into my mind. "You mean rabies?" I asked.

"No, distemper."

Right, I agreed, thinking, I don't know what that is, exactly, and, that diagnosis might apply on occasion to Yours Truly.

"I'm going to euthanize him right here," she informed me. "In case that makes you uncomfortable..."

I shook my head. "Nope; I feel sorry for the little guy, but he shouldn't suffer any longer."

She threw a towel over our adopted invalid, pinned him firmly to the ground with what looked like trash pincers, and with a sort-of-free hand, pulled out a syringe. She attempted to yank off the top of the syringe with her teeth. Only it wasn't the top; it was the plunger part. I watched Deadly Euthanasia Stuff drip down the side of her face, and thought, Lady, please don't euthanize yourself here.

"Oops," she mumbled, "I hope I have enough left for this guy..."

And then it was over: injection complete, deceased towel-enshrouded possum in trash bag, farewell to Animal Services.

As for the dead squirrel, I surmised she would fit quite nicely in that there trash bag, and there was room in the Animal Services Truck.

But instead, I put her disposal on the "honey do" list for tomorrow.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Prankly, my dear...

It's that time of the school year when we're just hoping to make it to graduation safely, unscathed. It's not a downhill slide; it's a sprint to the abrupt finish, with the Powderpuff Pep Rally (not without its own controversy last year) and Football Game tomorrow, and Prom on Saturday. It would be super nice if everyone had fun and no one got hurt or in trouble.

The week started on Monday morning with the annual Senior Prank. Students strung the entire campus quad with yarn, creating a web that prevented teachers and students from reaching and opening classroom doors and buildings. A number of seniors pitched tents on our grassy knoll and spent the night. They plugged a portable fridge into an outlet on the quad and had just finished eating the pancakes they fried up for breakfast on a camp stove when we arrived.

The Senior Prank is a tradition stretching back to who-knows-how-far back. Last week we read in the paper of another local high school's prank, in which students were apprehended and cited by police as they moved desks and furniture out to the football field to spell out "2009." Our own school's Prank History has its dark chapter, when students painted not only The Rock, but some newly constructed buildings on campus. Students responsible paid serious consequences, and the specter of that event hangs over each year's prank planning.

But we've reached a place with our student body where there's mutual respect. And some mutual understanding that fun can be had without high costs if certain lines aren't crossed. So we take the risk of not condemning the very possibility of pranks, and students take on the task of containing their pranks within reasonable boundaries. And policing one another.

And police each other they did, this year. As students were cleaning up--cutting yarn and reeling it in--one student shared, "You know, Ms. M., it may not look like it, but we had pretty strict regulations for this prank." She pointed to some toilet paper hanging from tall tree branches. "See that? We told the people doing that to knock it off. TP was NOT part of our prank."

Later, as a staff member and I surveyed the campus from her classroom door, marveling at how little evidence remained from the capers of the evening before, I mentioned that the students had apparently made rules for the prank. "I know," she enigmatically proclaimed, "Like no blow-up dolls!"

Huh, I thought. Blow-up dolls have actually figured prominently in pranks my own friends have played on each other...Ahem.

And lo and behold, near the end of the day, when the last tents had been unpitched (and the students sleeping in one during 5th period were chased off to class), we discovered a blow-up doll in a trash can on the edge of campus. A terrible-looking one, with pigtails. Some kids actually made their classmates throw it away, I couldn't help admiring.

It's hard to explain, but that pretty much made my day. Cute kids. With a lot of heart and soul. I'm going to miss this senior class.