Saturday, December 25, 2010

Best Gift

Two weeks ago Big Sis was working on something in her office, something she'd scramble to hide when I approached.  She rolled it up, wrapped it, labeled it from her to me, and placed it beneath the tree.

I opened her present this morning:  a kaleidoscope drawing of some of the special things we experienced together this year. 

She included representations of her soccer team that I "coached," the fairies we attracted to our backyard, the Jolly Rancher ornaments we made over Thanksgiving, and her second grade field trip to the pumpkin patch I chaperoned. 

Ultimately, time is what we crave most, despite all the items money can buy.  I remain convinced that the most valuable gifts we bestow upon one another are time and attention. 

My daughter's little present tells me she too recognizes and cherishes our time.  And she's wise enough to know that acknowledging and honoring our time together would be a most precious gift. 

If they weren't clear already, priorities for 2011 are even more obvious now. 

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Meaning

The holidays are here and so are the stresses and tensions of being joyful and grateful and reflective and excited about the new beginnings represented by the turn of the year. 

If your life is in order and you're simply marking traditions and time passing, it's safe to whine about the weather and items to accomplish on the to-do list before each holiday event and happening.  In this case, happiness abounds, particularly when you lift your head and count your blessings.

But if life has come skidding to a sudden halt or floats in limbo--if someone is in the hospital or far away, if you're losing your house or your marriage--then it could be the 22nd of December or the 3rd of January for all that date and time matter. 

I think about this sudden convergence of what truly matters when bad things happen.  I think about the cookies I'm baking and errands I'm running and cards I'm addressing and stamping and old friends I'm seeing and gifts I'm buying and making and bags I'm packing, and how luxurious all that is. 

I think of those for whom the holidays are on hold or not happening this year.  Or for whom they're different. 

We're out of school and removed from the tangible grief of our students for their classmate.  Removed from his name on our rosters and his family's home, not ten blocks from his math and English classes.  I am getting ready for Christmas.  But I am conscious that his family, cookies baking or not, holiday traditions maintaining or not, is still mourning.  Forever, in some measure.

The significance of the passing of a member of one's community is aply captured by an anonymous student who signed the butcher paper stretched on our cafeteria tables in the hours, days, and weeks after his death in honor of D, our lost classmate.   

Without the explicit permission from their author, I share these words.  They resonate.

I didn't know you.
I never met you, spoke to you, saw you.  But you were one of us.  A classmate.  A friend, a son, a person. 



The loss of any life is heartbreaking. 
Even though we never met.  Never talked.
Never waved at each other from across the hall. 
Never made a private joke about one of our teachers. 
Even though none of this happened between you and I, doesn't mean it didn't occur.  It doesn't make you unimportant in my eyes simply because I never met you.

I am so, so sorry.  Your life is lost,
and that is unbelievably sad.  And even
though I never met you, I'll miss you.  I'll
remember you.  You are important.  You
may be lost, but you will live on in
memory.  Memory of a smile.  An inside joke.
Your friends and family miss you,
and I'm sorry for their loss. 
Please be in peace,
wherever you are. 
Please stay in our memories. 
I never met you,
but I love you.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Present Previews

Before Wednesday's late-night wanderings through the aisles of Target, I had managed to do very little shopping for gifts, particularly for the girls. I had, however, found some handmade dolls' clothes at a craft fair a few weeks ago, thinking Santa might want to dress their American Girls in new duds for Christmas morning.

I was excited about those outfits, cute and unique. And I was proud that I had the beginnings of a plan for December 25.

Imagine my dismay when I walked through the front door after work on Monday evening and found the little garments on the dining room table. Husband looked at me sheepishly. Daughters gathered around me, hopefully.

"Hey, Mom! Are those for us???"

"AAAAAAHUUUUAURGGGH!" I clenched my fists and headed to the kitchen to express myself briefly and in less appropriate terms.

"I was afraid of that," Husband mumbled regretfully.

I could only be irritated with myself, as I had haphazardly stored the bag containing the presents on the floor beside our bed.  Not exactly hidden.  In their defense, the girls are a little young yet to be serious snoopers.

I was reminded, though, of the year my brother and I were caught trying to peek at Santa's stash in the wee hours of Christmas morning.

I must have been in fourth grade; it was the year I asked for a ten-speed. We lived in a tract home with a loft on the second floor overlooking the entryway and living room. Our bedrooms opened onto the loft. My brother and I, even when we had our own rooms, traditionally slept together on Christmas Eve. That night we hid flashlights in his bed so we could spy on the haul below from the loft above at the opportune time.

We waited and waited until our parents went to bed after Christmas preparations, till they securely shut their bedroom door to the left of the loft.

We made our move shortly thereafter. Flashlights pointed and hissing excited directives and warnings to each other, we crept out of my brother's bedroom and out onto the loft to peer over the edge and onto the bounty below.

Foiled!

Santa's minions had tucked the goods safely out of view in the dining room underneath the loft. We let out a collective sigh of disappointment and attempted one more neck-craning survey of the scene. Just as I was exclaiming to my little brother that I could swear my flashlight caught the glint of what could only be spokes of a ten-speed bicycle, my parents' door flew open and we were chased off to bed. Our flashlight beams, my parents claimed, swept the crack under their bedroom door and they thought we were robbers, stealing the presents.

Our disappointment was that we were not only sloppy "thieves," but thieves with no proper glimpse of what there was to steal, all hopes for wishes come true notwithstanding.

Suffice it to say, the ten-speed was a valid surprise the next morning.

I also recall the season years later when I deliberately peeked at my presents squirreled away in my parents' room.  The revelation was how I imagine the high of a powerful drug feels: the thrill of discovery and nervousness accompanying it was intense but short lived. My guilt and dismay at ruining my opportunity for genuine gratitude sustained itself past Christmas. That Christmas morning I kept hoping for something unexpected and was duly disappointed; there was no joy in knowing what I was getting before I actually got it.

But at some point in my life the excitement of anticipation switched from surrounding those gifts I might get to those I was giving.

Each year, there is a gift that absolutely hits the mark:  the one not asked for but which reveals the giver "gets" its recipient.  The one he doesn't know he wants, the one she thought didn't exist.  The one worked on, made, or found.  That kind of giving and getting is the Real Santa of Christmas. 

And those gifts are the secrets not to spoil and the "reveals" to protect.  My little girls' discovery on Monday reminds me to get my game on, to preserve the magic and excitement and wonder with a little more determination.

So, in that spirit:  Stay out of the trunk of my car, people!

Friday, December 17, 2010

A Little Bit of Love

Last night I gave Big Sis a stack of our holiday postcards so she could give them out to her teachers. I thought she'd simply sign her name, but I caught her writing out thoughtful notes to her "princible," P.E. coach, music teacher, and second grade, first grade, and kindergarten teachers too.

Heart, warmed:   

Monday, December 13, 2010

Blossoming Books

Our daughter has her own Piles o' Stuff accumulating. I'm a little concerned we're growing a hoarder. On Saturday she and her cousin broke the plastic tee into six pieces while hitting lemons off it in the backyard, and I directed them to throw it away. Big Sis responded in what's becoming a familiar refrain: "But, Mom, I could use the pieces for something."

For a while she had a candy wrapper collection. Her backpack...eeeeeek. I think we'll plan on cleaning it out over the holidays. Last time I peered inside, I found a morass of silly bands, pebbles, small coins, loose tissues, string, bottle caps, dried flowers, and pencil nubs and useless erasers. She has stashes of "treasures" just about everywhere I look.

The tower of books by her bedside became our latest challenge. She sleeps in a top bunk and stacks her readings and journals on the adjacent dresser. On more than one occasion her hill of books has tumbled over onto the head of an unwitting victim sitting on the carpet below. She knocks her water over weekly. 

I had heard somewhere the idea of mounting a window box to the side of a bunk bed to store books (and other trash), so this was our project tonight: 




Because no project I undertake is done properly, you will note that the window box ledge-bracket-thingies stick out a dangerous distance from the bottom of the window box. Not the right size box or brackets. Oh well; we installed it anyway. But placed it over the dresser so no one pokes an eye out.

I'll save the eye-poking for myself, for when I clean out another of her stashes and risk the wrath of Big Hoarder Sis.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

What's Cookin' This Christmas

Let's pretend you asked me what I wanted for Christmas.  I would reply that I have everything I want.  Which I do.  Especially considering I have my job, my healthy self and family members, my unforeclosed house, my amazing friends.

But then you would press me, and I would ask, "Okay, you mean, besides this?"

You would nod.  And for a moment I would think about how I wrote that post a year ago, and here we are a year later, carton of contentment and everything.  I will concede a little bit of longing.  But just a healthy dose, the curable kind. 

Tell me something tangible, something material you desire, you would prod. 

Okay.  Okay?  I'll tell you what I want.  I want another bedroom on this house.  And a half-bath.  Just one more toilet would make it so no one has to run outside for a Nature Pee during rush hour.  And if Santa wanted to throw in a jacuzzi tub with the deal, who am I to argue?

But Santa has other plans, it seems.  Santa, rumor has it, is giving us a new water heater this season. 

So not sexy, a new water heater!  No one will come by and comment on its color to justify the money spent.  There's just no bang for your buck on a new water heater.  It's an invisible expense. 

Nevertheless, if I had to choose between room addition and water heater, I'd have to go with the heater.  Invisible it may be, but under appreciated it is.

When I spent a year in Kenya, I lived in a very modern house almost the size of our current one and with a water heater.  The fact that I had to set an alarm each morning so I would wake in time to turn on the heater  so the water for my shower 1.5 hours later would be warm but not Too Hot, and the fact that I had to occasionally replace the propane tank that fueled my kitchen stove (much like we do for our barbecues) reminded me that gas lines and water heaters are too often taken for granted in our First World.  Most of my neighbors in Africa had neither. 

So we're gifting ourselves a new water heater, because we'd all be huddled in one bedroom after bathing in cold water without one.  And if going with the tankless water heater option means that we gain some cupboard space for at the very least, a broom, then Santa is our hero.

We'd also love to paint our kitchen cupboards--that is, with any funds leftover from the water heater allotment.  How likely are we to have funds leftover?   Not very likely.  It's more likely that our kids' play kitchen gets a remodel.

To that end, I am at Gearhead Mom again this week, reviewing the upgrade of our kids' play cafe.  Talk about bang for your buck:  a play kitchen is all play and no clean-up.  For the children, anyway!  You feed them while they pretend to be cooking and eating and serving others.  A brilliant investment.  Way cheaper than a room addition, a water heater, AND a coat of paint on your kitchen cabinets.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Stealth on a Shelf

Last year we adopted our own Elf on the Shelf.   "Icicle," who was a mere "Snowflake" (oops) last year, perches somewhere in our home to keep an eye on the kiddoes by day and then flies back to the North Pole each night with a report for Santa on our behavior.  She returns to a new spot in the house by dawn. 

She has a lot to remember, that elf.  Of course, there are the daily details of naughtiness (was it yesterday or today when Big Sis threatened Little Sis?  How many times did Little Sis say "NO!" to her mom?).  Then she has to remember to find a new secret yet conspicuous roost each morning.  How easy it is for her to accidentally wind up in that same comfortable nook she inhabited yesterday...

Our daughters aren't expressing concerns about Icicle witnessing their infractions and reporting them to Santa, nor does the elf's presence seem to deter misconduct.  The sisters are rather boldly confident in their positions as non-coal recipients. 

Me?  I am not so sure. 

Nevertheless, the daily hunt for Icicle is a first waking thought.  Where she'll be each morning, and whether or not she has the power to direct Big Sis to her missing iPod are pressing concerns (Big Sis has left her a note requesting this service).

And then there is the issue of her proximity to Little Sis. 

Big Sis sprung from the womb a lover of costumed characters and mall Santas.  At two years old, she ran through the gates of Disneyland and into the arms of a six-foot furry Tigger. 

Little Sis, on the other hand, is having none of it.  She's skeptical of strangers both costumed and plain and warms slowly even to family friends.  She loves fairies and elves, but Not In Her Room.  Meanwhile, Big Sis would like nothing more than to find Icicle snuggled under her covers one morning. 

Hence, it is an unspoken agreement that the girls' room is off limits to Icicle.  Little Sis is clear on the fact that no sleeping will occur if the elf's beady little eyes are focused on her. 

Fair enough. That leaves Icicle five other rooms from which to choose as she alights in our house each morning.  Big Sis sent Icicle this heads-up in the form of a note tucked info the elf's little arms the other night: 


Note the extent to which her compassion has its limits. 

Santa, if not the elf, is watching! 

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Sticky Stained Glass

Check out Gearhead Mom, where I am making "stained glass" ornaments out of Jolly Ranchers with the girls. 

Happy Sunday!

Friday, December 3, 2010

Trading Perspectives

Dinnertime was a battlefield this week (as I may have mentioned).  I waged war on Big Sis's aversion to locking her lips while chewing (AKA "smacking," as my own mother unaffectionately calls it), and she fired back on the quality of my cuisine.  Playing the "What Was the Best Part of Your Day?" game at mealtime had us all answering internally, Duh...not this dinner hour.

Big Sis has required some extra attention lately.  It comes in waves.  Sometimes, Husband and I look at each other with the unspoken high-five, the our-kids-are-so-darned-great (scratch wood) agreement.  Then we get our comeuppance.  We've added new responsibilities and requirements in this latest round of Reality Check with second grader.  Among them, Child Doesn't Eat Breakfast Till Rabbit Gets His Kibble, and Towel Meets Doorknob (Not Carpet). 

We have been harping; seven-year-old has been crying.

Meanwhile, this evening families, friends, and community members gathered on the beach and watched the sunset in memory of our student who passed away last week.  During the reception afterwards was an opportunity to share thoughts and memories of the young man we all miss.

His father spoke, taking deep gulps, his voice cracking. "I believe there will be ripples which will spread as a result of this tragedy. 

"I tried to emphasize the important things as I parented my son:  honesty, integrity, love, and loyalty.  He and his friends have taught me more about them this week. 

"His death has reminded me what's important, and what's not important. 

"To all the parents out there: stand like a rock on the big stuff, like honesty and integrity. Don't sweat the small stuff, like towels on the floor."

I thought about Big Sis.  About our new towel rule.  About my pursed lips at each bite she chewed with her mouth open.  About unhappy moments in our household this week.  I gulped too. 

"Your kid coming home with ears pierced and tattoos?"  He nodded at his son's friends.  "Those aren't deal breakers."

I went over to give our student's mom a hug before I left the memorial to head home to my family.  "I'll always remember you telling me," she gazed at me, "as he racked up the tardies, 'Let's keep this in perspective.'  And also, 'You know, he actually has a philosophical reason for being late.'"  She smiled, and I suddenly remembered my attendance conversation with her son and my follow-up conversation with her.  He had charmed me with his reasoning.  But he had also reminded me, Minder of Attendance, of what's important. 

And his mother and father reminded me how often it is easier for me to be understanding and forgiving of my students than of my own people.

Being on time can be important; eating politely can be important; being responsible for things, including towels and carpets, can be important. 

But being real, being loving, and being generous with one's time and one's energy are important, always.

That's the lesson he left his friends and family, and that's the lesson I took home tonight.

Thank you, D.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

The Last Supper

It's been a rough week for dinner in our household.  Perhaps I am a bit spoiled by my daughters' general enthusiasm for meals, even those including swiss chard, kale, and mushrooms.  I certainly didn't see the gag reflexes coming on Monday when I made stuffed chicken breasts with quinoa and spinach, and on Wednesday when we had meatballs with pineapple and rice.  The spinach wasn't like normal spinach, apparently.  And the meatballs were "too peppery."

The complaining, and sighing, and retching were a bit much for me last night.  I threatened to quit. 

"No more cooking," I declared. 

"I will serve only carrot sticks and sliced turkey from now on," I promised.

Ears perked up.  "Or how about macaroni and cheese?"  Big Sis suggested.  So Not Getting The Point.

This evening, as I headed home with both girls in the car, the inevitable question arose. 

"Mom, what are we having for dinner?" 

"Something you don't like."

Silence. 

And then, Little Sis:  "Mommy, I don't want to have something I don't like for dinner." 

"I want to have something I like." 

"Is there any leftover macaroni and cheese?"

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Got to Make the Morning Last

This morning we took the girls and dog for a hike.  We packed turkey sandwiches and PB&Js, sliced apples, and water, and set out to do something free.  And familyish.  And fun. 

Fun we had.  It was a delightful morning and a beautiful Southern California day.  Yellow leaves shimmied in the breeze; bird-sized bugs whizzed by; squirrels chattered.

Our daughters enjoyed each other's company, not always the rule these days.  They sang and skipped and giggled. 

In this photo, they're gently poking at a furry caterpillar crossing the path. 


We saw dozens of them, crawling at remarkable speed out of the meadow and onto the trail. 

Where were they going in such a hurry? we wondered. 

In contrast, our girls couldn't be rushed.  They moseyed along, kicking stones, sharing sticks, climbing on logs, pointing out flowers and holes in the ground. 

And we had nowhere to go, but where we were. 

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving morning.  It's quiet; only the pets and I are stirring.  Soon I'll head out on a run, thankful that my body is sturdy and compliant. 

I am thankful that we're having our family meal on Friday this year, and that we will continue our tradition of delivering student-made desserts to Christie's Place, a resource center for individuals and families afflicted with AIDS and/or HIV. 

I am thankful for our students.  They're baking desserts.  They're cheering one another at championship games

They're grieving. 

Yesterday they lost a peer.  We lost a student.  Not a former student, but a saw-you-on-Friday-and-I'll-see-you-on-Monday-in-your-usual-spot-on-the-quad current student. A young man whose furtive, defensive way of looking down when I greeted him was as familiar to me as his kind smile and Bob Marley tee shirt.

Have you ever watched a group of teenage boys mourn one of their own?  I hadn't, until yesterday.  A junior in high school, our friend grew up with a crew of boys since preschool, and some closest to him were with him at the accident. 

Their grief was powerful, difficult to describe.  As if enacting an ancient rite for which they had no model, no leadership, the boys--sixteen and seventeen-year-olds--tightened their circle and focused on taking care of one another and their friend's family. 

A teacher on her morning jog at the beach watched them surf their buddy's board out into the Pacific. They arrived at school together to retrieve a mosaic he was constructing and present it to his mother. When my husband and I visited the tree last night, they were huddled around it together, hoodies and beanies, candles burning, remembering. 

What emerged yesterday was that the young man we mourn for was the most loyal of friends.  His comrades honored this trait in a simple and meaningful way:  holding on to one another, forgiving one another, loving one another.

As I lay in bed this morning, just barely awake, I thought of the mother and father who rise today without their son. 

His parents, his siblings, and his inspiring circle of friends will be in my thoughts today as we celebrate all we have to be grateful for. 

Enjoy your family, friends. 

Monday, November 22, 2010

ReOrg Update

Don't get excited; the Pile of Denial is still intact. 

I tackled the freezer today, though, after some subtle hints from The Husband, and threw out some unidentifiable icebergs.  I also noted (from the back of the freezer) that hey, we don't need more sausage.  Also, we've got plenty o' flatbreads for pizza.  Let's go buy some tomato sauce and mozzarella already. 

I organized the items I salvaged into sections invisibly labeled "Meat," "Chicken," "Dessert," "Nuts," "Bread-like Stuff, Including Dough and Pie Crusts," "Fruits and Vegetables," and "Ice." 

This morning I had breakfast with a friend who organized her pantry around times of day:  "Breakfast" on the bottom shelf, with "Lunch," "Dinner," and "Dessert" ascending from there.  She explained that she and her Other Half were still working out the distinctions between "Lunch" and "Dinner" foodstuffs; he was often confused.

Her "Dessert," I noted, was closest to the heavens. 

"Or," my friend winked, "just out of reach."  

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Sticks and Stones

Before I became a vice principal, conflict made me extremely uncomfortable.  One of the times I remember feeling most scared in my whole life was at the roller rink when I was in fourth grade.  A fight broke out near the bathrooms and I cowered in a stall for a very long time. After that, I meekly tiptoed away from shouting, arguing, and confrontation.  I married a non-yeller on purpose. 

The first time an angry parent directed her furor at me the vice principal, I cried.  I am an easy crier, I will admit, but you might have cried too under these circumstances.  Some blows are low, below the belt, and some barely skim the top of your head.  This one cut deep.  But I can look back now and be grateful for the experience.  Under similar circumstances these days, I would hang tough. 

Part of my job is dealing with people.  I don't love that verb, "dealing"--it's like "tolerance"--not quite all the way to being real with other humans.  Most of my job, thankfully, is about "supporting," "guiding," "assisting," "empowering," and "reassuring."  Nevertheless, I have to deal with some people from time to time.  I am happy to report that most of them are strangers.  This is reassuring because if we can at least count on the people who know one another to respect one another...that's good.  That's a start. 

Last night a college sophomore tried to fight me.  I don't think I am exaggerating here, because he also nearly got into a fight with an innocent parent spectator at last night's championship game.  He was an alumnus and fan from The Other Team, The Rival Team.  The Team We Love to Hate. 

This contest goes back so far I sheepishly compare it to the Yale-Harvard rivalry:  one in which we ultimately (secretly, inwardly) concede grudging respect for the other institution.  There's a reason we go up against one another, and it's that we're both awesome at the same things, which are academics, and that particular sport which fuels the rivalry. 

So here we were at the championship game.  Expecting rain and dressing like someone almost on vacation, I sported fleece in our school's color, sweats, and a black wool hat acquired circa 1991.  The final game is an annual event between our high schools, so we could expect light-hearted taunting from either side.  Anticipating such, our Athletic Director and I positioned ourselves in the student cheering section. This year our crowd came somewhat subdued--no students in full green body paint, no signs taunting the refs or the private-school fans from the other side. 

But about one minute into the game a rival fan started taking on our section.  He wasn't outrageous, just obnoxious, turning to our students to comment loudly on every play.  When he began heckling our coach, though, I decided he could use a little intervention. 

"Hey, how about focusing on cheering for your team, and leave our coach alone?  This is going to be a great game, and we all want to enjoy it." 

He quickly stood up and over me, exerting his rights as a fan to say and do whatever he liked.  Who was I, anyway?  I didn't assert my office; I wasn't his vice principal, after all, and I am not, conveniently, Vice Principal of the World (frankly, I don't think my heart could take it; my hat is off to cops who deal with anonymous irrational people on a daily basis).  The Athletic Director and I plunked ourselves down at the edge of our section, right across the narrow aisle from our rivals and his seat, while he got a talking-to from an official.  We were now practically sitting next to each other, he and I, much to his chagrin. 

He continued to challenge our crowd, but it wasn't until he took me on personally that he earned his partial ejection.  While talking to my neighbor, I absentmindedly gave a few claps after a call against our side.  He stood above me me to ridicule my mistake, asking me if I understood what a five-yard penalty was, and was I stupid, etc.  I just shook my head ruefully and noted that his attention was misdirected and that he was making a fool of himself.  He didn't stop berating me; I had to tell him to back up and take his hands off of me at one point.  A league official finally intervened and removed him to an area behind the players. 

Our students, I am proud to say, had stayed classy, refusing to take his bait while his team continued to score against us.  I was able to sit quietly for the remainder of the game, taking deep breaths to compose myself and noting that my heartrate and blood pressure were coming down from the tenth floor.  It's scary when someone big gets in your face.  Someone college-sophomore-athlete big. 

When the game was over, he came back through our crowd en route to the exit.  He attempted to rile up one of our alums as he passed and I interceded just in time, urging him to move along.  He was none too happy to see me, offering a few more shots, including his parting one, "Get a new hat."  I should have responded with, "Next time wear a jacket that doesn't have your name on the sleeve, Genius."  I refrained.  Also, I thought of that snappy comeback later. 

We made sure our fans exited without incident, but he did not--he caused a near-fight in the parent section when he started swinging after someone accidentally jostled him.  He had to be escorted out by a cadre of friends and family members.

The Athletic Director and I congratulated and consoled our disappointed second-place players as we handed out medals and wished them a restful break.  One of the coaches came over to thank us.

Appraising my hat, he grinned.  "Thanks for your support tonight, Paddington!"

Moral of this story:  when friends and foes alike agree on the hat, I think it needs to go.  And it's definitely not worth fighting over.

Friday, November 19, 2010

List: Disclaimers

1. We didn't know we would still be living here nine years later.
2. I am the oldest of five siblings; he is the youngest of five siblings, and we are married.
3. My "clean" might not be your "clean."
4. I ran out of the real kind.
5. I don't measure the ingredients.
6. I am planning to own this car for, like, twelve years.
7. I am not doing this for the money.
8. We've gotten used to my salary.
9. I learned a lot from that experience.
10. We're just going to see what happens.
11. I might need it later.
12. Studies show dark chocolate, coffee, and red wine have health benefits.
13. First-borns are bossy by nature.
14. My first pregnancy changed that part of me (forever).
15. I am not a very private person.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

I Am What I Put in My Basket

I waited in the long line at the drug store patiently, clutching a pregnancy test and some toothpaste. When it was my turn the next available clerk beckoned me to her register. Recognizing my item, she exclaimed, "Congratulations!" I paused and laughed nervously. "If," she added, "you know, you get the outcome you desire."

Whoah there, Nellie. I'm pretty sure commenting on the merchandise, particularly personal products, is against the rules.

I've assumed over the years that there must be expectations laid out for clerks concerning the subject matter of their small talk as they ring up our items, having grown accustomed to prolonged silence and birds chirping as my personal items make their long journey down the conveyor belt while I fumble for my club card. I'm grateful that my box of ultra-super-plus tampons becomes the elephant in the room when I am spared comments ranging from the benign ("Stocking up, huh?") to the inappropriate/obvious ("Suffering from heavy flow, I see...").

Perhaps it is okay to inquire about recipes and food combinations, though, because cashiers have asked me, "Whatcha gonna do with this here pork butt?" and "Are you going to marinate your chicken with those limes?" I'm more than happy to swap cooking tips and have talked carnitas, curry, and kale smoothies with curious clerks.

Last night was our daughter's elementary school fundraiser at the new Fresh & Easy grocery store in our neighborhood. If you aren't familiar with "Stale & Difficult," as we in our small family jokingly dub it (they're not! Thanks for supporting our schools!), I would characterize it as similar to Trader Joe's--their specialty is fresh prepared meals. They keep prices down with self check-out and concrete floors.

Self check-out makes me slightly anxious (I fear that I am holding up the line) but Big Sis loves trips to F&E, where she can methodically scan each item. If there were only a keypad, I would be able to live out my childhood fantasy of working the cash register. With long fingernails. Clackety-clack-clack-clack. Ching.

Volunteering at Fresh & Easy on behalf of the school during Monday evening rush hour meant Big Sis got to do some sign twirling on the corner and I got to bag groceries. For these efforts, the store was offering our school 5% of donated receipts.

Bagging others' groceries permitted me to assess the contents of my neighbors' carts, sort and stash their groceries imposing my own organizational structure and underlying philosophy, and maintain an internal commentary on their purchases.

First of all, I have none of this three-items-per-plastic-bag and double-bagging nonsense. Whether or not you bring your own bags, I'm filling them up, within reason.

Cartons of eggs, for example, don't need their own separate sack; they can handle light fare like crackers and bags of lettuce stacked on top. I just let the customer know which bag is which so they don't use the egg bag to slam the car door.

I'm a little lazy: if I can't carry all my grocery bags from the car to the kitchen in one trip (and I am willing to cut circulation in fingers and arms to this end), then I want to leave some sacks in the car to retrieve later. Therefore, I would like my freezer and refrigerator items grouped unfailingly together. This strategy helps lazy grocery unpackers prioritize AND keeps cold groceries icy.

Only one guy asked me to double-bag his heavy sack. I am left wondering about others' intact eggs and whether or not I earned appreciation for separating goods by temperature.

I do know it was hard to stifle my commentary. Like when that gentleman sent one small single-serving prepackaged cup of caramel rice flan down the conveyor. Only one, really? A whole trip to the store for that? I admired his resolve and his restraint. And then mine, for not saying anything.

I wanted to high-five the couple who bought buffalo-chicken pasta in cream sauce. Never even heard of it! Good for you for finding it! Yum! (I think).

You want to buy something weird? I suggest buying a full cart of food. Strange stuff gets lost in there. If you purchase only two items and pig knuckles are one of them, you're asking for raised eyebrows. Okay, so Fresh & Easy doesn't sell pig knuckles. But what's up with the guy who chose diced red onions and frozen dessert? Was he sent to the store for the onions and then detoured for sweets? Just how essential were those onions? Intriguing.

I recall a writer friend feeling inspired to fashion a story around a grocery list she found on the ground in a supermarket parking lot. The contents of our cart provide a glimpse of our culture, our habits, and indulgences.

I have renewed admiration for the cashiers out there who respectfully stifle analysis of our items. One hour of withheld observations had me bursting with inappropriateness.

At the end of my shift I took a whirl around the store to restock our own fridge and pantry. Big Sis's school principal bagged our goods, refraining from commentary on individual items but noting that I had "some cool stuff in there."

Sweet. Thank you for shopping, Fer. You saved $5.46 this evening and your dignity, too.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Give a Way

I checked some of the blogs I regularly read today, and many of them are conspiring to give away a Windows Phone 7. There's a marketing scheme at work: Bloggers of Note are asking readers to respond to how they do more with less, and then there will be random drawings all over the internet. I don't have a Windows Phone, and even though it might seem, with all these giveaways, that my chances of winning one are better than ever, my guess is that in two weeks I will still be doing more with less smartphone.

I could also do more if I spent less of my time entering contests I don't usually win. And maybe I will do more if I don't have a Windows Phone to distract me. Look, folks! I have almost convinced myself I already won something!

Anyway, here on my blog, I don't have anything tangible to give away. Except my secrets, and you already have some of them. Here, I found one more.


Instead of a giveaway, I am going to give a Way. You know, a Way. A way to do more with less. It's only one way, mind you, and it's my way, so feel free to choose the highway.


A Way to Organize Your Canned Goods and Jars


You're really wishing I had a Windows Phone to give away now, aren't you? And, if you read a recent blog post of mine, you're also questioning if I have any authority to give away any organizational strategies.

But bear with me.

We've got a very small kitchen in our bungalow, with very little cupboard space, and because I like to store away my pots and pans and plates and bowls (and also because we have a LOT of bowls), we only have two shelves left for food. That is, if you don't count the top of the refrigerator, where we store cereal, flashlights, squinkies, and a picnic basket full of paper plates and plastic utensils.

I have to make good use of those two shelves, and I want to know where (right or left? Up high or down low?) to go deep for the can of diced olives. My good buddy once bought me a label maker, and after I giddily labeled various toy bins in the girls' room ("Plastic Littlest Pet Shops," "Plastic Goody Bag Loot My Kids Won't Let Me Throw Away," "Plastic Polly Pockets," "Plastic Polly Pocket Clothes," "Plastic Animals Which Are Not Pet Shops," "Unidentifiable Plastic Choking Hazards," and "Cars"), I labeled sections of the shelves in my wannabe pantry.

I only need four categories to make my food-finding life easier, it turns out: "Italian," "Mexican," "Asian," and "Beans." We buy a lot of beans in the cross-cuisine category: garbanzo beans go in curry, after all; garbanzo beans can feature in chili. Sometimes, garbanzo beans complement pasta.

I've got canned diced tomatoes in "Italian," and jars of green chile sauce to the right in "Mexican." Cans of pineapple and chutney go in "Asian," because they're for curries. Soup and cans of pumpkin and tuna go in the catch-all unlabeled section. I can handle only one of those "junk drawer" categories before chaos takes over.

So, if you come to my house, you can open the cupboard door, and say, "Fer, let's see you do something with 'Mexican' tonight." And I can hand you a margarita instead of the cascade of cans I would need you to juggle as I emptied the shelf for an elusive jar of refried beans.

It's not genius. It's not even that interesting to read about, my Way of Stereotyping Canned Goods.

And there's probably a smartphone app for it.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

The Heart of a Soldier

In my 12th grade English class, our AP Literature teacher taught a unit on Conrad's Heart of Darkness and the film Apocalypse Now. There are a number of lessons in high school which stuck with me--which struck me--but I distinctly recall my scalp prickling as my brain opened wide with that awesome ohmygoodnessIneverthoughtaboutitthatwaybefore epiphany as I watched Kurtz from Apocalypse Now demonstrate the contradictions inherent in being a good soldier.

When I taught AP Literature years later (and alongside my former teacher), I included that unit in my syllabus. My last year teaching English before becoming vice principal five years ago, I had a 6th-period 12th grade English class that was nearly all boys (except for two girls). Teaching seniors in the last period of the day was challenge enough; keeping these boys engaged through graduation was my ultimate aim. We read The Stranger before tackling Conrad and Coppola; when the movie Jarhead was released that year and the film's main Marine ("Swofford," played by Jake Gyllenhaal) carried a copy of Camus's existential novel, I gave them extra credit for explaining why that was apt.

Three years later I received an email from one of my students:

I really had an epiphany the other day when I was watching the movie FullMetal Jacket, because I realized that the character "Joker" is the epitome ofthe anti-hero that you tried so hard to get me and all the other thick skulled kids in the class to learn. I was in love with this dude's character. He had such an honest and caring way about him but with this kind of rebellious attitude. I remember your lecture returned to me when he sarcastically said to the interviewer "I wanted to see exotic Vietnam... the crown jewel of Southeast Asia. I wanted to meet interesting and stimulating people of an ancient culture... and kill them. I wanted to be the first kid on my block to get a confirmed kill!" I sat there and felt kind of dumb that I am just now grasping the concept of your lecture.

As this graduate wrote his email, several of his classmates from 6th period were deployed abroad, and since then, more have enlisted.

Heart of Darkness is not an easy novella to read, despite its relative brevity. The descriptions are thick and rich, and grow even more so as Marlow delves deeper into the Congo. Conrad was vilified for writing this racist work, for depicting colonized Africans as dehumanized "shapes." I viewed his novella as if it were a photograph, taken through the lens of the colonizer. The nature of the colonist's mission, of his role--subjugating others--requires that he views natives as lesser beings. Conrad's portrayal mocks the assumptions and vanities of Europeans as they set out to exploit the resources and peoples of "exotic" lands.

Coppola ingeniously connects the Vietnam War with the colonization of Africa and its inherent evils in Apocalypse Now, suggesting there is a "heart of darkness" at work in each episode in our history. Both Conrad and Coppola shrewdly recognize that the intriguing conflict here transcends the killing or the abuse required of colonization and war. The conflict they exploit is the one which arises from attempting to reconcile these "necessary" aspects of the institutions with attempts at civility and maintenance of "normal" life. Conrad ridicules the Company's accountant, who appears superficially preoccupied with immaculate and elegant dress. An unforgettable scene from Apocalypse Now is of troops surfing waves amidst defensive napalm blasts. The viewers are meant to question the appropriateness of each. Our discomfort lies between our desire for those following the directions of higher-ups to get their due, and the discordant setting. Why shouldn't the Accountant wear what he would back home? Why shouldn't the soldiers surf? Every working stiff deserves a break. And yet, in the background are naked folks, dying people.

My "aha" moment was this, an important reality check for a high-school senior who once spent hours punching studs into her sweatshirt in a peace-sign design and puff-painting the quote, "What if they held a war and no one came?" on the sleeve: All is not fair in love and war.

We're asking a lot of our service people.

We're expecting them to be prepared to kill, but not to massacre, or torture.

We're expecting them to recognize the "enemy," and distinguish who is not.

We're expecting them to put their lives on the line for their comrades, and for us, appropriately.

We're expecting them to believe in their mission, and represent it faithfully.

Meanwhile, they have time off on deployment, but it's not private, and they're held to higher standards than you and I: they're accountable for over indulgences and infidelities.

Both Conrad's and Coppola's works feature men who struggled with the line--the boundary--between appropriate and absurd, expected and unacceptable.

In the 12th grade I began to understand there were many shades of grey between purple hearts and dishonorable discharges, and that humans occupied that zone.

The heart of a soldier is heavy, I began to understand. What we need from those who serve on our behalves is so big and so unfathomable it inspires art, film, fiction. Most manage it with grace, and a courage and determination to return to us no worse for wear.

As Kate wrote so succinctly today, "I am oblivious." But not so oblivious to know that judging is dangerous. We, who so comfortably flip others off from the comfort of our cars, ought to wonder at what happens when the enemy we so easily vilify from afar is met by our young neighbors, my former students from down the block, overseas.

Hate that we have war; don't hate the soldier.

I am in awe, veterans. I have respect for all you are willing to face, all you have surmounted, and have yet to tackle.

I fear for a generation of vets whose wounds may not be visible. We ought not to ask what these young men and women have done for our country; ask instead what we must do for them. And for their families.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Fumbling Toward Forty: The Pile of Denial

It's tempting to treat or to view this upcoming milestone--turning 40--like New Year's, by making resolutions and vowing to myself a whole new lease on life. I've thought of a few ways to improve myself, like sign up for yoga. Try vegetarianism. Get up earlier and...get some stuff done. Quit shopping. Read a parenting book.

But that is not how I want to usher in my next decade. Because I can already see myself, next year: Forty years old, happily eating a hot dog and wearing a new shirt from Target after sleeping in on a Sunday (Corpse Pose, hey!) and then putting the kids in Time Out for the ninetieth time. While dragging around the ball and chain of all that was going to be different between age 39 and, well, a few months later. Honestly, I would just tear that ankle bracelet off and dare myself to track me down. 'Cause, really? Then what would I do? I'm so forgiving of myself that my threats would just make me shake my own head and then give myself a hug of understanding.

So it's nonsense for me to embark on that kind of mid-life metamorphosis. I know it from the olden days when I actually tried to turn on a dime and eat better and exercise more and save more money and be less snarky. Cold-turkey quests are quickly abandoned; I gotta ease into these things the lukewarm way. Such that they slowly but surely and despite me become part of me.

No grand pronouncements.

And yet, there's an area of self-loathing in my life. There's this thing I do, that whenever I love myself a little too much, I remind myself of it to keep myself honest and humble. I point to it with my best look of disdain and disappointment, and make myself actually feel guilty.

I think this proclivity is genetic, but that's no excuse. It's ugly; it attracts vermin; it results in unpaid bills. It's a damned shame, and I need help.

I'm a Piler.

You may not know this about me, because I hide it at work. I get things done; I mostly don't let people down.

But at home, I let it all hang out: corners askew, envelopes torn, pages marked and unread, The Pile of Denial threatens to overtake its desk.

You should be worried, friends. Your wedding invitation is in there. A letter I wrote you and never sent is lost in a sea of bills urging me to sign up for "paperless."

I'm not proud. The Denial part is Me convincing myself you don't need my RSVP; you already know I'm coming. It's Me hoping that just because I said on the phone I would send in my $25 pledge IMMEDIATELY, it doesn't truly matter if it's in this calendar year. It's Me swearing that I am going to read that article in that magazine, someday. SOON!

Dang it, why can't there be blizzards in San Diego??? When we were snowed in for a week in Washington, D.C. back in 1995, I got my ever-loving Affairs In Order. And it felt good.

But now, I need intervention. The Pile of Denial is why my car registration incurred a $150 late surcharge. It's why I don't have the discount coupon for LEGOLAND and will probably pay full price when we take Little Sis on Thursday. It's why I reprinted the directions to the pumpkin patch. It's why Big Sis's adorable drawing from kindergarten is a wrinkled, silver-fish-chomped-on mess.

How do you organize the paper influx? The mail? The kids' work? The magazines and catalogs? Is there hope for me by 40? This, my friends, is the last frontier in the battle for Me, Loving Myself Completely. In every other way I am perfect (OK, well, I thought I made a mistake once, but I was wrong.).

I'm taking suggestions. But no paper, please.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Longest Day of the Year

I was up at 6:30 AM this morning; make that 5:30, with a run with a friend scheduled for 7, which was really 8:00, the only reason that plan sounded like a good idea. I had 1.5 hours to caffeinate and get my groove on, far more time than customary.

The kids, including extraneous cousins spending the night, got up at 7, which would be like sleeping in, except it was actually 6. By the time I returned from my run at 8 AM, the cousins were fully revved. As I approached our block, I could hear one cousin repeatedly blowing a shrill whistle. This was when I hoped the neighbors acknowledged 8 AM this morning was really their 9 AM. Certainly that was the kids' way of thinking...they'd been up for two hours but seemingly hungry for three.

My conclusion about "falling back": we spend the day confused, and ravenous. Not to mention tired. Which is how you start the day, since you did not mean to get up one hour earlier than normal. If only all those wee-hour flights were scheduled for this day, the day half our clocks auto-reset themselves, and the rest only serve to make us late, early, or skeptical.

I ate scrambled eggs, a bagel with cream cheese, a twice-baked potato, a turkey/cheese/avocado wrap and a leftover piece of pizza: all before noon. The kids were right there with me. It's as if the Little Hand taking one giant step backward meant we all donated 1000 calories to some cosmic (but artificial) energy bank. I'm still waiting for interest on that investment.

We ate dinner at 6, which was more like 7 PM, and my whole house of living beings, including furry friends but excepting me, was sound asleep by 8. Which was really 9. Groundhog-Day us for one extra hour, and we can't take it; 25 hours of Sunday is too many.

I know I'll be wide awake at 5 tomorrow morning, urging myself to take advantage of my early wakefulness and go for a run, but I'll peek outside the window and decide it's still too dark.

Our attendance clerk is rubbing her hands with glee, imagining all the high school sleeper-inners accidentally arriving to school on time tomorrow. But I am betting they note the extra hour of sleep, roll back over and doze, and end up oversleeping.

Whatever, Time Change, you ruiner of soccer practices, last vestiges of summer, and daily routines. Give me my sunshine back.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Lazarus

I'm not really sure how to write about suicide. I've written a poem about it. And I've thought about suicide. Not seriously, but enough to add my fear of my own self and of finality to the hundred reasons why I will never keep a gun in the house. It's a pretty legitimate fear, I think: the fear of my own potential to harm myself or others. I believe I understand myself well, but when someone I know kills himself unexpectedly, I wonder. I wonder about the dark corners and alleyways the brain can wander into, all by itself. With no one but itself to talk to.

Right before heading in to teach a guest lesson to some 11th grade English classes today, I got the call from my husband that a former student had taken his life.

He was just home from serving in Iraq. We were excited he was safe, successful, that he had come so far, through hardships he faced earlier in his life. By all accounts he was happy, optimistic.

But what do we know?

My lesson was on Sylvia Plath, on her poetry, in particular "Lady Lazarus," in which Plath chronicles her three attempts at suicide. "Dying is an art," she writes, "I do it exceptionally well." Yet Plath, of course, lived to write this poem, barely: on her fourth attempt to take her own life, she succeeded. I dissected the piece with our students, admonishing them to characterize Plath as "mentally ill" versus "crazy." Depression, I reminded them, isn't crazy. Attempting to kill oneself three times may be. I honestly don't know.

Depression isn't glamorous; nor is suicide. And my audience was teenagers. I felt conscious of my language, of judgments I might imply. Sylvia Plath didn't enjoy the life she artfully documented. She was unequipped to fully cherish her children, acknowledge her own creative genius, keep on keeping on. Persevere, I wanted to implore these kids. Reach out.

It gets better, those who understand have been pleading.

Suicide, people say, is selfish, and horrible, and an untenable reality to leave loved ones. Several years ago a single mother killed herself in the midst of her daughter's senior year in my class, leaving a beautiful and creative young woman behind. What was she to do, we wondered? How could she balance her mother's supposed love for her with her mother's need to leave her behind?

I've concluded I cannot judge a parent whose pain is so deep she's willing to hurt her children. I can't fathom that pain, can't excuse it nor condemn it.

A high school classmate, a college classmate, my brother's best friend, my cousin: all ended their own lives.

Today, as when my cousin died, the details left me wondering. Maybe, I think, he didn't mean it. Maybe it was an accident--a gesture or a stunt, gone awry.

Now: the despair and confusion. Next, the sewing together of signs, the guilt, the should-haves and might-have-beens, the frustration and anger over losing a young, promising life.

How do we support the living under such circumstances? Already, on Facebook, I see his classmates and friends remembering, reaching out, resolving to stay connected with one another.

We resolve to talk about sadness and despondence. To listen. To trust our instincts, to risk being a nag when we're being shut out. To recognize signs in ourselves, to replace the burned-out bulbs or check the wiring.

We resolve to not allow the manner of death to overshadow the manner of his living. We resurrect the beauty.

Monday, November 1, 2010

Like a Drawer in a Dresser

Last night I watched a 20/20 episode chronicling three teens' battles with heroin addiction. I was reminded that not all my former students have found their way. One of the benefits of having worked in the same schools for more than a decade now, though, is that I have been around to see some phoenixes rise from their ashes.

A woman I now call friend had an inauspicious start as my middle school student. I helped her out of some tough spots in high school, and wrote this poem about her several years ago. We met for dinner in September and over Indian food reflected on how our lives have changed since the day our paths crossed. My life has intersected with the lives of many incredible and resilient people, and she is one of them.

(Note: this poem is a pantoum, a form in which lines are repeated in a pattern)

For You, M.

I forgot to tell you yesterday how it felt
When you went wheeling, wailing by
Slid into the ambulance like a drawer in a dresser
I cried; my body felt weightless and light

When you went wheeling, wailing by
I didn’t look; I didn’t think it was anyone I knew; later
I cried; my body felt weightless and light
The first time I remember forgetting myself

I didn’t look; I didn’t think it was anyone I knew; later
I wondered how I could ignore your desperation
The first time I remember forgetting myself
Concentrating on you concentrating on pain

I wondered how I could ignore your desperation
And how you could ignore my outstretched arms
Concentrating on you concentrating on pain
I watch you forgetting yourself

And how you could ignore my outstretched arms
Is a question not worth asking, as
I watch you forgetting yourself
Trembling, shaking, cold and anxious

Is a question not worth asking, as
Other things are more important
Trembling, shaking, cold, and anxious
I want to wrap my happiness and comfort around you

Other things are more important
Slid into the ambulance like a drawer in a dresser
I want to wrap my happiness and comfort around you
I forgot to tell you yesterday how it felt

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Waiting for This Moment to Be Free

I heard a coworker's pet had died. I told her I was sorry, and mentioned that we're feeling the mortality of our own aging pets.

"It was our bird," she shared. "I stepped on him."

Her confession conjured the guilt I've felt at our kids' sunburns; at my toddler's backward tumble, head on pavement, after propping her in a chair on a paved slope; at drops of blood and tears I induced trimming my daughters' infant fingernails.

But my friend wasn't clipping her parrot's wings. Charlie pooped in his cage but apparently lived everywhere else. He cruised from room to room; he perched in the trees above her and chattered with the wild birds as my friend gardened. The family's German Shepherd and he were fast friends, following each other around the house.

Charlie was hopping toward the living room, where my friend's son lay on the couch home sick from school, as she ran back into the house to grab something and caught him underfoot.

It was, ultimately, his freedom and his integration into the household which hastened his demise. Would she have had it any other way? I wondered out loud. No, she readily admitted, regretting the shoes she wore for her dash inside, shoes normally left at the door, shoes which added injury to the not-uncommon insult of accidentally "kicking" Charlie as he sprung about on the floor.

There's always that niggling detail, isn't there, which causes us to push the rewind button and mentally revisit the might-have-beens: the shoes which shouldn't have been on, the route which normally wouldn't be taken, the place we wouldn't normally be. These are the variables--the flapping wings of the butterfly--that sometimes seem to save our skins, too.

It hurts when we feel we've had a hand--or foot--in our loved ones' misfortune. "I brought you into this world, and I can take you out" isn't funny when you bought the stroller that strangled your infant. When you left your child in the car on a warm summer day. When your child drowns in the swimming pool. There's carelessness, and then there's chance, and there's bad confluence of events. There's "there but for fortune go I," because none of us is perfect, because none of us is the right kind of vigilant at the right time, all the time.

I have a fear of falling. It's a funky fear, related to a fear of heights, but based only on my potential to fall, and not how far: I avoid standing on stools, climbing fences, walking on wobbly surfaces, descending stairs. My falling phobia, thankfully, is met head-on by my determination to be tough. Nevertheless, my greatest challenge is not projecting my fear on my kids. I do my best to subdue cringeing, flinching, and gasps while I watch my daughters ride bikes, run headlong down the sidewalk, climb the monkey bars. I owe them that: to live. To be humans in our dangerous and unpredictable world.

I want to imbue them with common sense and self defense, but I know the freedoms we afford them may cause them harm, nonetheless: driving, traveling, dating. I admire the parents whose children require extra care--children with brittle bones, allergies, weak hearts--moms and dads who navigate the demilitarized zone between overprotecting and encouraging adventurous living.

Charlie was no caged bird. His little life was richer for it. And so is my friend's, with that parrot she let hop-fly in her midst, walking among the big people, living large.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Notes from the Clothing-Optional Hot Tubs

I spent the weekend on a writing retreat at Esalen, known for its alternative education programs, delectable food, and clothing-optional hot sulfur-spring baths on a bluff overlooking the Pacific.

I packed my bathing suit, aspiring to but unsure I possessed the body confidence to blithely fling a towel aside and dip, Godiva-esque, into a tub with other naked humans. I hadn't experienced communal coed nudity since college, since That Night in the Sauna. I was twenty years older now, twenty years less impetuous, twenty years less because-everybody-else-is-doing-it. Twenty years later, I was still, however, imbued with a healthy sense of Why The Hell Not.

One of my responsibilities as High School Vice Principal is enforcing the Dress Code. I blow the whistle on bra straps showing, necklines plunging, shorts shortening. I make daily judgments on the line between Acceptable and Distracting. Meanwhile, Hypocrisy's sniffing dog follows me everywhere I go, combing the alleyways of my public and private lives, peering into my glass and searching my closets for skeletons.

The Specter of Appropriateness asks me What if someone you know is in those tubs? What if you find out you're naked with the cousin of a student's mother's best friend?

I wonder.

And so my one-piece accompanies me to the baths, where a communal changing room opens to communal showers, nothing but air between us and the crashing waves. Nothing but air and water between the nude bathers passing in and out of the tubs, showers, and changing room.

A damp but fully clothed man exhorts me to consider laps in the pool up the hill before a soak in the baths. "It's the full experience!" he exclaims as I hang up my towel. The next step is for me to get undressed but I am unaccustomed to taking my clothes off mid-conversation with a strange man. He leaves, and I disrobe. Suddenly it seems a useless detour to squeeze myself into spandex.

Towel wrapped around me, I head out to the baths, a trio of hot tubs on tiers of a balcony like a shelf stuck in the side of the cliff. Fellow bathers nod and welcome me and this is how it goes: a glance up when someone new arrives, meaningful eye contact established, the occasional comment about the temperature of the water. Seating arrangements are adjusted; discourse resumes.

Torsos submerge and rise above the water line. It is hot; bodies perch on ledges and steps, feet dangling in the steaming pools.

I am naked. But my folds of flesh are normal, unremarkable, not the point.

Bathers laugh, debate, explain, introduce themselves, meditate, and swap stories. Near dinner time we disperse, agreeing to meet in the dining hall.

I return to the baths the next morning, straight from my bunk bed and down the muddy hill in my plaid flannel pajamas, not to be naked, but to talk with people as the sun rises over the mountains, as the surge sprays on the rocks, as intermittent rain leaves silvery droplets in our hair.

Sulfur stings the corners of my eyes and I see parts as eggplants, tomatoes, drumlins, gently-sloped volcanoes, pears suspended in nylon socks. Wrinkled figs, worn leather hacky sacks. Concentric circles of soft pink silver dollars, ruddy cork coasters, and deep-brown compact discs.

There are C-Section scars and acne scars, scratches and bruises and boils. There are bony legs and soft dimpled buttocks, hairy shoulders and foreskins.

But none of this is dirty. Our bodies, like words on this page, are bare, awaiting judgment, and there is none. Penis, vagina, and breast are all present, but I talk with my newfound friends as if they're wearing polo shirts, uniforms, khaki pants, caftans. What's always there and covered can speak for itself. Penis is an ordinary joe in the company of this man's eyes, one blue, one hazel, and his accounts of his wife's cancer. Breasts bob indifferently beneath this woman's auburn hair. Her voice is like a singer's.

At dinner I admire someone's scarf, covet a handbag, notice an unusual necklace. But no one is as beautiful as in the baths, where our bodies are stripped down to personalities, where what we say and how is most intriguing.

The rest of us is earth: salty spit, sweat, and tears immersed in steaming springs; blue eyes awash in grey skies; wrinkles and folds wobbling on ocean swells; soft parts draped on hard stone; hair sprouting like grass on the hillside; buff, pink, and brown skins soft as mud and sand.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Try Again

Developmental milestone! Big Sis has finally reached the age where she can tell us a funny story from her day at the dinner table and it's Actually Funny.

C'mon; you know what I mean. Her stories have been hilarious in the past, really they have. It's just that the comedic part for us has usually been our little narrator's telling of the tale, not so much the tale itself. On occasion, our inability to understand what could be so funny was funny, too.

But now? Now, we're in business. We can tell funny stories; she can tell funny stories; we can all chuckle, and Little Sis will catch up.

So last night, our daughter reported this scene from second grade:

There was some drama on the playground, someone got shoved, necessitating a class meeting on The Mat.

Students assembled on The Mat, while one classmate finished up a reading quiz on the computer nearby.

"Now, class, we need to be nice to one another," said the teacher.

"OOPS! WRONG ANSWER," chimed the robotic voice from the computerized reading program at just the right time.

(Second grade giggles)

"We really DO need to be nice to each other..."

"I'M SORRY; THERE'S A BETTER ANSWER."

(More titillation; teacher is losing her audience)

"Class, let's work on being NICE on the playground..."

"CORRECT! THAT'S RIGHT!"

Cheers all around, as teacher gets her point across AND student finally chooses a correct answer on her quiz!

Big Sis wiped tears from her eyes as she finished her story.

For the rest of the evening we found ourselves saying robotically to one another, "OOPS! WRONG ANSWER..." and then cracking up. Good times.

Monday, October 18, 2010

What's a Meta For?

Did I tell you I am treating myself to a writing retreat this weekend? I cannot wait. Actually, I can; I have some things I need to get done first, but come Friday morning I am flying away to be inspired. Just the anticipation of being inspired has me inspired.

Have I mentioned I am excited?

It's kind of an early fortieth birthday present to myself.

Poet Ellen Bass will be there leading workshops on writing poetry. I am particularly interested in the workshop on metaphors, as I have found apt analogies to be the seeds of most poems I've sprouted.

In honor of the fact that I have not written a poem in far too long, and in hopes that I will return from my weekend with words and ideas spilling from my well, I share an old poem.

I wrote it at a time when I recognized it was time to let go of a tired relationship.

Here's to metaphors!

Heels of Sand

Impotent waves fan over my feet
stretching and hovering across
unspoiled earth.
A pause—
pregnant with promise
awaiting the moment the sea grasps again
and firmament slips,
a dizzy inadvertent sliding
of all that’s solid.
I teeter on heels of sand,
stubbornly, and steadfast;
until I fall, and
you ebb
away

Monday, October 11, 2010

Fumbling Toward Forty: Onion Rings

On the eve of her seventh birthday, Big Sis mourned the passing of her years. "I really liked being six, Mom. I'm getting big. I'm going to miss the things I could do when I was little. There are already rides I'm not allowed to go on!"

This from our Small Fry who only recently hit the height requirement reached by her friends a year or more ago.

So I told her about the short story "Eleven" by Sandra Cisneros. Rachel, the protagonist, explains birthdays like this: "What they don’t understand...and what they never tell you is that when you’re eleven, you’re also ten, and nine, and eight, and seven, and six, and five, and four, and three, and two, and one. And when you wake up on your eleventh birthday you expect to feel eleven, but you don’t. You open your eyes and everything’s just like yesterday, only it’s today. And you don’t feel eleven at all. You feel like you’re still ten. And you are—underneath the year that makes you eleven."

I reminded her that she could still do and like the things she enjoyed when she was younger (Heck, she's playing with the same dang Polly Pockets from two years ago).

Rachel explains how we carry all our years inside: "...some days you might say something stupid, and that’s the part of you that’s still ten...you might need to sit on your mama’s lap because you’re scared, and that’s the part of you that’s five. And maybe one day when you’re all grown up maybe you will need to cry like if you’re three, and that’s okay."

I thereby validated my daughter's inner two-year-old, the alter ego who staged a throw-down about snacks after Saturday's soccer game.

But it occurred to me that Big Sis only has a few layers to access, and I have, well...39. Oh so many ages and stages to call upon for every occasion as I contemplate turning 40!

"Because the way you grow old is kind of like an onion or like the rings inside a tree trunk or like my little wooden dolls that fit one inside the other, each year inside the next one..."

Last week my inner-six-year-old matched wits with my actual living seven-year-old. Those are the moments we both need a Time Out.

The rare days when I fuss with my hair (while wondering why it's inexplicably thinning) and try out the styles sported by my fifteen-year-old clientele, I know I am being twelve, minus the woven-ribbon hair clips with dangling silk flowers.

When I cry from sheer frustration or exhaustion or for lack of a more meaningful response, I am brought right back to nine. When my father would ask me why I was crying and the best response I could summon was a warbling "I don't knoooooooooooooooooowwwww..."

My cynical and serious self is 24. That was when I cut my hair military-short and placed a tiny but effective chip on my shoulder.

When I rock sassy shoes and funky outfits, I am 27.

When I am worried, anxious, and giving myself a hard time, I feel thirteen, the age I had a brief romance with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder.

My prankster, semi-inappropriate self is nineteen, the self who pulled an all-nighter in college to stack cans outside a sleeping friend's dorm room door and then await the aluminum avalanche. This is the self that agrees to dance in the Homecoming Pep Rally.

Most of the time, I embrace my inner 32.

But I have high hopes, based on my hip, happy, and healthy mentors in their forties and beyond, that the best may be yet to come.

And I'm bringing all the other years and their alter egos into the next decade with me.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Kartoffel Salat

My grandmother died today.

My mother's mother, our last living grandparent. She suffered a stroke over a year ago and never regained her independence. It was a painful year for my mother and aunts, knowing their dignified mother was enduring her worst-case scenario, unable to speak, to move, to do.

But she is at peace, now.

Though she only met her a few times, Big Sis felt connected to her Oma. I had prepared her for the inevitable news when my mother shared last week that Grandma wasn't doing well. We looked at old family photos. My daughters loved seeing pictures of my mom as a young mother and of me with my Grandma and Grandpa one summer when I got to fly up to Washington State all by myself to visit them for a week.

Tonight, we sat on the couch and I told a few stories about Grandma.

Whenever she went to the bank, Grandma would ask for a handful of $2 bills. In every birthday card and during each visit, even as recently as a few years ago, Grandma would slip me some of those "rare" notes. I saved every single one, never daring to spend them. I showed Big Sis my stash and told her I hoped I could pass them on to my own grandchildren.

Grandma's house was always a squirrel's nest of cubbies with papers and forgotten treasures; bowls of odds and ends; shelves of ceramic animals, figurines, and dolls; and books and magazines with photos, letters, and to-do lists slipped between the pages. When we'd visit her house I would search through drawers for cool stuff. As long as I didn't move or throw anything away, she didn't mind. And occasionally she'd part with something I'd shown interest in: a ceramic seal, a little book of jokes or inspiring quotes, a game or puzzle.

Holiday boxes from Grandma were a combination of quirky toys and wonderful finds, dog treats and stuffed animals, and then an assortment of items she was just moving along: old but little-used kitchen utensils or dish towels with the tags still attached.

Grandma's penchant for saving things (including cans and cans of food in the trunk of her Jetta) led to an inevitable inclination to misplace items. Early on, I learned she blamed The Borrowers, a fictitious family of diminutive people living undetected in the homes of "big" humans. I became a fan of The Borrowers series; descriptions of the tiny folks' near escapes from discovery and their furniture fashioned from thimbles, paperclips, and buttons captured my imagination.

Grandma loved to be the hostess and serve meals, under which circumstances we were all pests in the kitchen, shooed away from underfoot. Wherever she was, at home or on a sailboat, she set up camp and became mistress of her domain. Her meals had main courses and side dishes, but she would invariably raid the refrigerator just before serving time to add small plates and dishes of garnishes, condiments, and random leftovers to an already-crowded table: cornichons, black olives, a small serving of yesterday's vegetables and the day before yesterday's potatoes.

She made the best potato salad, and I would beg her to make it for any occasion. It was in the traditional German style, warm, with bacon and vinegar. Kartoffel salat. My favorite term in German. Say it ten times fast. It's soothing to me, like hugging Grandma.

Grandma was short, and soft, and fun to hug, though she was a relatively tough woman. The best times were when you caught her off guard and made her laugh; under those circumstances her eyes truly twinkled.

Summers spent with my grandparents (and their dogs Tinker and Belle) are among my sweetest memories: romping in the backyard with my siblings and cousins and playing in the creek, boating around the San Juan Islands, picking berries, swimming in the lake, walks to Whatcom Falls Park.

Grandma and Grandpa. They were what grandparents should be to their grandchildren, and I was lucky.

I love you, Grandma.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Phallacy

On Friday afternoon I swung by the elementary school to pick up Big Sis and her two cousins and take them to the park in our neighborhood where the high school cross country team was running in a meet.

We arrived in plenty of time to position ourselves at the top of the big hill, where we joined a convergence of cones marking the course. There were a bunch of cones. Cones marking the course, and then about 40 more cones off to the side, arranged in a recognizable shape.

Before I could check myself, before I could put a cork in it, I exclaimed, "Well, looky there: a penis!"

This, my friends, is exactly the word you should use to get the immediate attention of three children between the ages of six and eight.

"Penis? PENIS? WHERE??"

I'm certain that my little cheering section would have been none the wiser had I not helpfully pointed out that the Rorschach of cones resembled a certain member. Artfully rendered, I might add, as it even included...ahem...

"Hey! Is this part over here the pee?" asked my nephew, noting a little "spray" of cones "shooting" from the "tip" of the cone "rocketship."

"Yes, the pee. That's right," I agreed, laughing and shaking my head and then enlisting their support in moving the carefully-placed cones, mostly to avoid the risk of my crew announcing to any and all passersby, including the runners, that here was a big old cone penis! Right along their path!

Nephew was particularly interested in this Freudian drama and its dismantling. "Do you think it was a boy or a girl who made this, Auntie?" he asked as he kicked over cones.

I had a 50% chance of getting that one right: heads or tails. Both sound suspicious.

What is it with the phallus, anyway? I alternate between annoyance, amusement, and puzzlement over the prevalence of penis pictures in public places and what appears to be the other gender's proclivity for producing them.

I've dealt with phallus artists in the vice principal's office. Students outline them in the sand on field trips to the beach, not-so-cleverly incorporate them into class project posters, draw them on bathroom walls, form them in duct tape on windows. They sculpt them from clay and carve them out of...well, wood. On Senior Prank Day, I've grown accustomed to looking for the penis depiction, often unrelated to the central theme, but inevitably rearing its...head.

What is it, exactly, that you are trying to say to us, oh male species?

I can tell you how I interpret those Nuts for Your Truck (by the way, after googling "car testicles," I learned that these are also variously known as "bumper nuts," "bulls balls," "truck balls," "car nuts," and "hitch balls"): when I notice that you have them on the back of your ride, you suggest to me that you, driving in your truck, are basically...a big dick.

Surprise me for once, will you? Hitch those nuts to a Smart Car.


It must be archetypal, this need to make the private part public. Perhaps it's a function of the Y chromosome that rather than doodling cubes or hearts or random squiggles, the hand just absentmindedly draws the penis.

I don't know.

But I know it's not a dying art, this penis portraiture.

By the way, penis made of cones, guys? Kind of redundant.

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Autumn Meal

This afternoon San Diego's uncharacteristically humid weather culminated in thunder-and-lightning storms.

Thunder and lightning! Very very frightening!

Particularly in San Diego, where even water falling from the sky constitutes a weather emergency.

I pretended that the rain did, in fact, cut the humidity, that it both looked AND felt like fall outside, and made an autumn soup of sorts:

Squash Ravioli in Broth with Spinach and Cannelini

32oz. chicken broth (I used the low-sodium variety)
2 C. water
A 16 oz. box of mini squash ravioli
1 T olive oil
Garlic
1 small onion, halved and sliced in narrow wedges
1 can cannelini (white) beans, rinsed
Bunch of fresh spinach, roughly chopped
Fresh chopped basil (or basil leaves)
Fresh parmesan cheese

Saute onion and garlic in olive oil in pot (you will use this pot to boil the ravioli, so medium-to-large size is best) till onion is translucent.
Add broth and water; gently boil as directed.
Lower heat.
Add spinach, beans, and basil and simmer.
Add salt and pepper to taste.

Sprinkle with parmesan cheese, and serve!

Monday, September 27, 2010

List: September is the Month...

1. ...when blog post seedlings, normally regularly tended to and watered, instead sprout, and then dry up due to neglect.

2. ...when "sleeping in" till 7:00 all summer makes waking up at 5:30 hurt real bad.

3. ...when summer and fall converge, and the simultaneous holding-onto-summer and cringing-at-the-onslaught-of-fall causes us whiplash as well as over scheduling. Because (waaaaah) we still want to sail and swim and ride the roller coaster after school, but we've got homework and soccer practice and meetings cramping our style.

4. ...when I forget to pay the bills. We are also happen to be refinancing our house, which means I am forgetting to sign important financial documents.

5. ...when I lose touch with friends. And with my husband. And with my keys, my cell phone, and my mind.

6. ...when I begin longing for cooler weather, shorter days, and Halloween decorations in neighbors' yards.

7. ...when the sight of Christmas decorations stresses me out.

8. ...when I spend Friday nights at the football field.

9. ...when I run for exercise less, and run ragged more.

10. ...when I "try to remember the kind of September/When life was slow and oh, so mellow"?

Yeah, I think I can't remember that.