2014 and Change Happens

Well it’s 2014.  I know I drank deeply of alcohol infused liquids and shoved 2013 out the door this past week.  It was an extremely difficult year, but we all survived and by that I mean at least one of us would have been dead this past Christmas but for a rather random catching of a life threatening condition.  Getting what turned out to be very serious surgery and treatment, then starting recovery took up most of the year from late July to the present, and monitoring must continue for life.  But suffice to say I still have Husband, and am very grateful I do.

There were other horrible, shocking, and unbelievably trying events that occurred. This past year was one of the most depressing I have ever experienced, and it is no exaggeration to say toward the end I was not sure I had anything left in me to cope.  Maybe I’m still not sure, but I accept the false rituals of a new year to give me something to celebrate.

I got a new paper calendar (yes it may seem luddite-like, but it is tangible and won’t evaporate if batteries die) and filled in all the set dates of the new year.  I also started a to- do list, and already feel overwhelmed.  There are times having a family is a positive distraction, it makes me focus on the present (even if annoyingly so) and get on with things.  Money is tight, time is valuable, and the circle of people I know genuinely love me, love us, is considerably smaller.  I can’t say what the new year will bring.  I hope- my raggedy, worn thin, unreliable state of hope- that I find a job.  I hope Husband continues to recover well.  I hope our evil neighbors find something other to do than torment us.  I hope my children stay healthy and dodge the backward blockages of culture and curriculum at school.  I hope my extended family stays healthy and maintains a state of happiness.  I hope the citizens of this country start to pull their heads out and become civil.  I hope those with extreme wealth and privilege realize they don’t live in a bubble and must start taking responsibility for their lives and wealth.  I hope the people who let their cats run wild in my neighborhood keep them in, get them spayed or neutered, or get rid of them.  I hope the song birds come back to my neighborhood.  I hope the frogs, snakes, and newts do too.  I hope my garden is healthy this year.  I hope I can keep going, and have the energy to be a good mom, wife, daughter, relative, friend, and community member.  I hope we find a way, a path, a start to leaving this place.

I hope we are safe.  I hope we are healthy.  I hope we find moments of happiness and laughter.  I will do what I can so my hope is not in a vacuum, not static and passive.  I will live for as long as I am able.  I will try.  Welcome, 2014.  Another cycle around the sun, another 365 days.  The kids feet will continue to grow, gray hair will replace color, and what ever losses occur I hope they are small ones.  Happy New Year.

Halloween

Another October is upon us.  Of course those of us who think Halloween is the very best holiday of the year are thrilled (and simply without any of the guilt of Christmas or Easter, unless you count sneaking your kids tiny Twix from his booty pumpkin).  We have the big box of old costumes to play in, and the boys have been discussing what they want to dress up as for this Halloween since the last one came and went.  I never know what they are going to say, and it can deviate over the course of the ensuing months.  Yet, Segundo seemed to know with great conviction last winter that he absolutely HAD to be James Bond and asked every other week if I had gotten his “tuxedo” yet.

I am not such a fool as to show the entire Bond film collection to children under ten.  But for Christmas last year the family got all the Sean Connery Bonds on DVD and watched them over the course of several weekends.  They are just tame enough, just campy enough, not to be taken too seriously on the scare and sex and violence scales.

The allure of an adult spy with a wry sense of humor and lots of cool gadgets and cars is a no brainer; I was not surprised that Segundo (who is a wry and bright child) finds Bond so much fun.  Husband even joked that Segundo’s good female friend go as a Bond girl (something I do not think her progressive Mennonite parents would approve of).  A funny mental image, but I know Miss E would demand her own water pistol and think of herself more as an Emma Peel type (especially given her behavior at the boys last birthday party when she and Segundo played spies ALL day together).

The tiny tux was an easy Ebay find for under $30, and it included a shirt and slim bow tie.  The shoes are still hiding in some thrift store waiting for me to find them.  The water pistol is spray painted silver, and I hesitated at adding a small plastic martini glass- junking it up and going too far, no matter how momentarily cute.  Besides, the new Skyfall posters have no glasses (and thankfully no cigarettes like the old Connery posters).  Segundo is excited and is just waiting to transform.

Primo at first wanted to be Q from the Bond series, then changed his mind.  He figured it was too much like the mad scientist he went as last year.  After Thor came out on DVD, he was mesmerized.  Segundo cottoned to Captain America and Primo to Thor, as the super hero thing goes.  Their good friends took on Iron Man, Batman, and Spider Man, so all is well.  No competing duplicate heroes on play dates!  SO! One cheap Thor winged helmet and foam Thor hammer from Amazon, a red cape from the costume box, a breast plate from an old knight costume, black sweat pants, a long sleeved grey shirt I painted the lattice work black lines on, black rubber rain boots and viola! Mighty Thor for Primo!

We have been through a bee, dinosaur, ghost, cowboy, Frankenstein’s monster, Indiana Jones; a chef, robot, The Scarecrow (from Wizard of Oz), Dumbledore, The Man in the Yellow Hat (from Curious George), and mad scientist.  The boys have seen costumes on friends of juice boxes, a bag of candy, video game, etc. but they tend not to be interested in inanimate objects and go more for characters.  It is so fun to see them in any get up, but Halloween is special.  I think it is a time when we can take on alter egos, and feel brave (or naughty, or anything other than what we usually feel) and go out into the world.  I know I wish I could dress up with abandon again and just for a little while pretend.  It can get very weary being an adult, and I want to encourage my kids to use their imaginations to experiment with being whomever they can be and see how it feels, test those boundaries, and play out what it means to be “the good guy” and “the bad guy” in different, safe ways.

Schools don’t usually celebrate Halloween anymore, but have a “dress up day” some where in the weeks before Halloween as a concession to the holiday and the primal need for dress up play.  The boys will wear their costumes and have a trial run, getting home after school and gabbing loudly about who wore what.

I don’t go over the top decorating, and wish I had the energy to throw an old school Halloween party.  But again this year I’ll have to just enjoy giving out candy at the door and seeing all the wonderful children in costume.  I’ll put some scary music on the stereo and the pumpkins that the boys carved the week before will be lit (and maybe me too if I can grab a glass of wine), the plastic skeleton will hang from the tree out front and the fake headstone will poke through the front herb garden.  Husband will probably arrange to meet up with Other Dads down the street and walk the gang of kids from door to door.  Our neighborhood still revels in Halloween and people drive in from other neighborhoods to walk our streets.  Porches are decorated and lit, and streams of children run around noisily from five to nine p.m. going house to house.

People will stop and converse, neighbors touch base.  When the night is done and the kids are washing off any chocolate and make-up, the plastic pumpkins emptied and the goods sprawled on the kitchen table, I’ll walk out and extinguish the candles in the pumpkins outside (if the candles have not already melted out by then) and look at the sky.  Some years there has been a moon, some years just clouds.  A cool breeze usually blows, and bats flutter around streetlights to get at the last of the bugs.  Some teenagers will still be lurking around, the pre-driving years types; looking lost, caught between being a kid and being a full-on teen.

Yeah, I’ll sneak a Twix or a tiny Snickers and will quickly sort out the gum and odd candies from the loot and put it into our leftovers bowl for Husband to take to his students the next day.  The rest will get bagged and put into the pantry for the next several weeks’ worth of treats.

We will watch the Great Pumpkin Charlie Brown, and will have watched The Nightmare Before Christmas as part of our Halloween Eve ritual the night before.  The costumes will go into the dress up box, and discussions of what to go as next year will begin.

The holiday let down will happen, the decorations scooped up and taken to the basement the next day.   There will be a pause, the weather will get colder, and Thanksgiving will come and go.  The weekend after Thanksgiving the Christmas decorating begins, and Halloween will slide into memory again.

I adore the old Halloween decorations from the early twentieth century, and the old animated Disney Halloween films (easily visited on You Tube!).   The idea of carving a root vegetable (the original “pumpkin”) comes to mind every year, and jumping over a fire pit (but at my age it’s not a wise thing to do!); scaring away the fears that haunt us about the future, and making peace with our dead and the fear of death (I like the mashing up, the blurring that is occurring with the Latin Day of the Dead and Halloween).

Here comes fall, autumn, the harvest, the time of hunkering down and getting through the winter.  Happy Halloween out there, and if you get a chance- put on a costume and play.

Good

People say things like, “I am good at (fill in the blank. Playing piano, guitar, golf, typing, you name it)”.  A qualifier, such as “I worked really hard to learn it”, usually accompanies the statement; or, “I still have a lot to learn” or, “I could not have mastered it with out a mentor, a friend,” etc.  The point is most people will admit, even if just to intimate others, that they are good at something.  Yet never, never in my life in any book, media statement, casual conversation, overheard discussion, or drunken revelation have I ever heard anyone say, “I am a good parent”.  More to the point, “I am a good mother.”  Not a great mother, not a superior mother- no those would be value judgments that seem even more taboo.  Still, I have never heard anyone say that they are even just a good mom.  You think people might feel that way at some point.  But it seems they don’t.

I had to ask myself why.  Is it because we too readily conflate parenting with life, and no one would say, “I am good at life”, which is grammatically awkward at best, and conceptually infinite at worst.

Is it because we have no taught, explicit evaluation and assessment standards for parenting?  No ruler by which to explicitly judge others and ourselves?  Well, it’s true- there is no parent certification course required to have children (despite the shelves of books available claiming to instruct us).  But we do have standards. Oh, we do.  I hear people say all the time “I am a BAD parent”, or “I was a bad parent that day”, or “He/she is such a difficult/demanding/etc.=bad parent.”   So we have some type of internalized standards by which we judge ourselves and others, but it seems only to reflect a baseline and everything beneath it- very little over and above the baseline of adequacy, even though we may envy someone’s organization, another’s cleanliness, or still another’s patience with their children.

We only have our own parents and sometimes those of others who showed us what parenting is; we also have sound bite utopias from television, but that seems to enter in very little except to make us feel uneasily inadequate.

I have heard moms say “I am so glad I/we got through the diaper stage!” and they will also smile and talk about the achievements of their children, yet they do not willingly take any credit for such achievements, but will often take responsibility for the failures of their children (I/we did not work enough, did not get the right things to eat, enough sleep, read the right books, go to the right summer camps, etc.).

In the US, people usually are a little reticent to boast, or to take credit for their own accomplishments anyway.  Especially women, or so all the business-psych articles tell us.  We have precious little language for expressing our self-satisfaction, or our own goodness, much less understanding it.  Is it because pre-kids, we have only fantasies of what parenting is?  Being a mother is one of the most vilified as well as over-romanticized activities on the earth.  Reality is such a different story; there is a chasm between people we know who have kids and those who don’t and it seems so difficult to explain why.

What would happen if, as we lay down to sleep every night, as moms we reviewed our day and were willing to say to ourselves “I was a good mom today, and this is why I think so”, and be aware of the mistakes, consider them soberly, but move them to a different list?  What if we told people we know well when they were a good parent?  Told them we appreciated their example, to us and for our children?  And perhaps most difficult, what if we could accept the compliment for ourselves when someone, without manipulative intent and with sincerity, tells us the same?

I have been wrestling with a birthday that is a few years off and reviewing my life.  Right now, and I know it is partly the blues-  I can find little about which to feel good; little I can say “I was good at that” or, “I am good at that” about.  I am starting to wonder if this is what moving towards old age is about; realizing most of life if not all is in retrospect an area of gray.  The highs and lows sink and rise, but in summary fade to gray like the rest of time spent.  Not especially unique, not especially valorous, not especially successful, and sometimes completely failed, and hugely disappointing.  If this is true, I have the option of saying “Oh well” and finding things to make me happy on a smaller scale, on an everyday basis and just get on with it- or get depressed.  I think I’d rather work on trying to be a better parent, and hope I can someday feel good about it when I go to bed at night.  Oh, and tell others when I think they are good too.  Maybe someday, I can help my own children be parents and not have to fall back on the crap shoot that is the real-time learning curve they are/we are currently suffering through.

We only get one shot at raising our kids.  I want to try to make the best of it, warts and all.  But I also want to be good at it, and that is a whole different matter.

 

Burnt Toast and Black Jellybeans

Happy Zombie day, as a friend of mine puts it.  Or, as husband says, “Happy ovoid ovum spring fertility ritual day”, or “Happy Bunny day”.  I can’t do anything but laugh at what has become the most important Christian holiday, this mash up of powerful, ancient spring symbols with the death of a good man.  Why his death is so celebrated never ceases to amaze me.  This focus on death, torture, and possibly becoming a zombie (er, resurrected) and then trying to pass it off as sacrifice for the abstract evils of humanity does not wash for me.  There ARE some ideas attributed to him in the bible that make a lot of sense (By the way, the old testament ONLY makes sense if you consider food restrictions as ways not to die from food poisoning.  The rest is a crazy, contradictory non-narrative that makes little sense out of context).  But in sum, a good man bucked the system, said a lot of things that were solid common sense, may or may not have been insane, and lived his life to promote kindness, communal well being, and love.  Then he was consumed and destroyed by the very system he resisted, and has since been regurgitated again and again by every huckster and self-delusional promoter that has come around since he died.  Entire systems of social control have been built around the use and abuse of his life story.  I truly don’t think this is what he had in mind.

When I look at real sacrifices being made, I don’t see political, business, or religious leaders.  I see a lot of mothers and fathers working grinding, often bone mashing jobs to feed their families; these mothers and fathers doing their best to keep their families clothed, housed, educated, and fed.  Oh, yeah, and in most cases the process makes those around them aware that they are loved.  Reproducing at all is amazing, the choice to give over bodies, minds and lives to support and love new people, the ultimate spring symbol. 

It is in the everyday little deaths and sacrifices parents make that I see heroic spring.  Today I do not glorify the death of an admittedly good man who has been so misunderstood for so long, I witness the parents who continue to live, as best they can, promoting kindness, communal well being, and love.  Today let’s not forget when mothers choose to eat the piece of toast that was accidentally burned; or when fathers eat the black jelly beans children reject then proffer, chewing without a grimace.  Do not forget long nights, hard work, the moment by moment sacrifices that are made for families, and the sheer luck that for thousands of generations at least two people (and a host of others who took responsibility for children from birth) had to survive wars, famine, plague, and an assortment of horrors that we might exist today.

The darkness has abated for another year, and warmer weather has come.  The flowers bloom, and crops are planted.  Rejoice in the sun, hug your families however they are structured and populated.  Humanity continues, for better or worse.  Happy spring.  

Out-of-context parent quotes

(Note:  I’ll keep adding to this blog entry as time passes)

“Boys, the chicken is not a pillow to beat each other with”

“What about don’t-stick-your-finger-in-that do you not understand?”

“I’m sorry, I don’t know where his head is.  Look under the couch.”

“Why do you need an entire roll of tape to hang that up?”

“Why are there rocks in the bathtub?”

“What is that?”, “How did that get in here?”, “When did you do this?”, “Why did you do this?”

“No.  No.  No.  No. . .No.  I am not discussing Japanese theater, I said NO!”

 

Spheres of Influence

While aimlessly perusing the messy discount-discount get-rid-of-it-or-we-will aisle at a local store, my four year old and I came across six-inch Star Trek figures.  They had the Doctor (always a classic) , Mr. Sulu (smarty pants with surprise martial arts), and Mr. Checkov (the tech geek), good role models.  He asked politely if they could be his treat for being so good- adding, “One can be for my brother, and one for daddy too!”.  I had to laugh.  They had been marked down to two dollars each.  

Time out I thought.  I don’t want my kids to be random consumers, getting treats for no reason.  We have special days every once and a while when we do something fun, or get a treat (eating out, etc).  But what made this day special?  Husband recalls his mother making cakes for strange (Australia’s nationalization day) or made up days (national camping day).  My wonderful Aunt used to make baked Alaska for no particular reason than to make a day special.  Couldn’t we have a special treat day this day?  If it is spaced out by weeks from another?  January and February are good for that, weeks of cold with little celebration in them.  I dithered within myself.

The thing that got me was how well designed the toys were.  They were basically Barbies for boys.  Finely articulated, with accessories and expressive faces.  I have been greatly annoyed at the lack of male play figures in boy toys.  Ken is a joke, and GI Joe has come to resemble Rambo.  Not my idea of fun.  Even my eldest has remarked on the row upon row of neon pink isles in the Wal-Tar-K’s, stuffed with every variety of dolls imaginable; in contrast to the rag tag shelves for boys.  Finding these figures filled a niche.  I caved.

The great thing is they are still playing with these figures, long after we got them.  Like girls with their Barbies (except no hair to cut), the boys carry out scenarios with the figures.  These scenarios don’t always require guns, beating each other up, or other violence like we have come to expect from boys.  Science fiction can be good that way- lots of monsters, menacing entities, good and bad robots, and problem solving that does not necessarily involve killing something (they have become big fans of the most recent Dr. Who episodes as well, the main character of which refuses to carry a weapon- thank you Netflix).

Husband and I have been fans of the Sci-Fi genre as long as we can remember (not without discretion though).  We appreciate the late night humor of mid-century B films, the abysmal script dialogue of George Lucas, as well as the startling special effects of Avatar.  We also read the genre, and there are many well-written and prescient works from the last fifty years.  When it comes down to it, we enjoy the imaginative possibilities of science fiction to illuminate the condition of the human species, while often putting them in settings that are utterly surreal. 

I would much rather my boys explore the endless planets of Sci-Fi in their imaginations, play out their anxieties and issues using the tools of this genre than some pink hued and shopping bag dominated version of Mean Girls.   On the other hand, maybe that is just one of the worlds they choose to fly by, recognizing that they could stop and chat, but just don’t have time to do so.  Thereby making room for the Barbies (or Barberellas) in their reality, when the Barbies can’t seem to make room for them.

Play on little guys, and let me fly the space ship sometimes too, ok?

Connect the dots

I really enjoy statistics.  I studied stats under a very kind, bright man who was dogged in his love of seeking out statistical errors and finding mathematical problems in analyses.  I wish I had paid better attention in all the classes I had with him.  Simply put, statistics can be a way through a forest of data, a way to see how “best” to draw conclusions- how to connect the dots.

Present day data mining is a hot way to do the same thing.  Vast amounts of data stream through super computers and different sifting programs are constantly developed to connect the dots and help humans analyze and draw conclusions.  I find this pursuit fascinating.  Not only where data is drawn from, but also how it can be thrown together at any given moment with other (often seemingly disparate) data and voila!  Conclusions about how large groups of people or chemicals or systems behave can be made.  Are the conclusions always accurate?  Probably not (back to statistics- the probability issue).  But then the conclusions themselves get treated as data to be shifted, grouped, and analyzed. 

There is a micro level of such investigation I’ll call case study (also a formal term).  This is the science and art of seeing the big picture within the single case, thinking of a case as a somewhat self-contained system (good doctors frequently do this).  All the data that can be derived from looking deeply within what is often treated as a single data point- a single person, or even business, or family- can be amazing.

One thing we know about systems (I won’t credit the long list of popular books currently published on this topic), say the human body for instance: when a cycle of feeding off of itself to survive begins, the system is in the last stages of existence.  When the human body (as is the case with long term anorexics, and cancer patients) starts consuming it’s own muscles and flesh to survive, it will die not long after.

I do not think it is a stretch to apply this idea to economics.  Whether one looks at the macro level of systems, or the micro (single families and businesses), these systems have begun to feed off of themselves.  The structures that would allow for the solving of problems in creative ways, of offering relief for corrosive stressors, of shifting problematic function points, have all worn away.  The cycle of feeding upon core bones and muscles, the very things that drive the system(s), has begun.  It takes time for these tings to wear away, but wearing away they are.  There seems to be nothing to alleviate these processes, so the spinning within spinning of these cycles, the feedback loops they create, continues and grows in corrosive power as the micro systems interact at a macro level; and the macro level systems themselves are caught in the same corrosive cycles of core decay.

Is this pessimism?  Some might call it that.  Some still hope that an outside force, something called God, or the possibility of drift that creates a sudden set of alternatives not previously imagined or seen that can throw the health of a system into more positive order may happen.  This may be hope, it maybe foolishness born of desperation. 

Some would say this is the natural outcome of systems- this decay into chaos, and that at the furthest point out from organization, from order, when chaos is as crazy as it can get, systems start to reorganize again organically.  Maybe so.  But how much decay and dying has to happen first?  This is a question no economist, no social theorist, no statistics genius, no physicist, and no computer scientist can answer.

So as each of us has a brain, an elegant machine if you will who’s very design is to connect the dots, to make connections between data, input, and then experimentally react, then analyze the results making more data and input that creates new connections and makes stronger pre-existing ones; we try to problem solve and forecast in order to survive. 

Some of us throw those nets of possibilities so far, then connect dots so strangely that we create paranoid loops for ourselves, seeing only information that then shores up what we believe to be connections of the most “real” or true.  You know people like this; you have been tempted to think like this.  Some of these folks will say that everything they experience is due to God being angry, or chakras being out of whack, or a comic book boogie man pulling all the strings of power in the world; or aliens.  Fear is a powerful motivator, and when the complexity of everything individuals face is so overwhelming, the impulse to simplify kicks in, and to react.  Thus we connect dots, and draw conclusions.  Even when we may know better, the comfort of sometimes whackado conclusions and the simplicity of them temporarily puts a stop to the fear, the stress, and the overwhelming feelings of powerlessness we experience.

Then sometimes, even when we try to be as open minded as possible, when we know our own error rates for our conclusions, our own foibles, our own ignorance and holes in knowledge, when we try to see as broadly as we can, what we see can seem damning.  So many experts on climate, economics, and politics- they very people we trust to see broadly- are feeling powerless.  Their sense of desperation transfers to others, and they get pilloried for being pessimists or crazy when they may be doing the best they can while trying very hard not to be “Chicken Little”.

Imagine again connecting the dots.  Taking that huge box of lenses, and pulling one magnifying lens out.  A small one, which will show you only your family.  See all the dots- your current bank balance, your debts, your possessions, your needs, your wants, your strengths, your weaknesses.  This system overlaps other systems, the businesses you run or are employed by, schools, communities, states, nations, geographic regions, on and on so much so that if you try to use all the lenses to see, the information gets overwhelming.  You may use well-developed tools for analysis- borrow from those classes you have taken to help chunk the data, to help index and analyze. 

But if you are like me, you may still be feeling overwhelmed because of what you currently observe through any particular lens:  the knowledge that the system you observe, and the other systems overlapping it, seem to be feeding on themselves.  Businesses cooking books, cheating, lying, creating new rules that feed off of customers in ways that destroy healthy interaction and hide it in language to try to stave off the customers reaction.  Individuals selling off anything they can, cutting back in ways that “go to the bone”, or throwing “caution to the wind” (forgive the mixed metaphors) in anticipation of collapse.  Government at multiple levels reduced to corrupt self-preservation, or feeding off of core muscle to keep going.  I don’t see where these cycles of decay end, I only see consequences of the decay that provoke more decay, more chaos.

As a parent, I feel despair.  Where can we go?  What can we do?  What will be the best decisions- even on a micro level, day to day basis- to take care of my family?  I wish I could write off these feelings as just something all parents experience, or as some floating midlife crisis.  But as I connect the dots, I am starting to wonder if we need to plan for something bigger than laughing off stereotypical angst.  If the smart, educated people I trust (including my husband) are feeling the same way, and seeing the same things when they connect the dots, by taking them into consideration am I just reinforcing my own patterns of belief?  Or should we really be reconsidering the very foundations of where, who and what we are to better plan for the future?  I don’t know and it scares me.

I think if we are honest, all of us are scared.  No amount of knowledge, hope, or power seems to be able to change the course of current systems decay.  What happens now is both a topic of speculative fascination (game playing) as well as pessimistic reaction (greed, violence) and in some cases altruistic exhaustion (volunteering time or money we don’t have for causes that give us a feeling of having done good, or hope).

I hear people saying do the best you can right now.  It makes us feel like we have some control over the moment.  It’s not bad advice.  But now is always connected to later, and some of us can’t help connecting those dots.

Milestones

I dropped off my big boy at school today.  He has been in pre-school since he was two (two mornings a week, then three, then last year four afternoons).  I mean pre-school, not daycare.  University settings, educated staff, a curriculum, rich environment, that sort of thing.  This sweet, courageous, verbal little boy had his kindergarten doctor’s visit in late May, complete with eye and hearing exams and four monster shots.  The following day he had his introduction (along with all the other neighborhood rising kindergarteners) to the school he will be attending this fall.  But today was the start of “science camp”, a week long enrichment program that runs all day.  There are seven other kids in his class, all older than he is.  This boy who has always been big for his age, looked so small.  I made sure his teacher knew he was only a kindergartener, despite his size.  My child heard me and said “Yes, I am little that way.”  His teacher smiled and laughed.  She seemed to be a warm and fun, experienced woman.  I hope she is good to the kids.

When we arrived on time this morning, we entered the wrong door and were ushered into a separate cafeteria.  There were lots of kids in it, most of them minority children and several with obvious challenges.  I was most disturbed by the three little boys wearing large gold chains, flashing various hand signals to each other and laughing.  They were not deaf or mute, and I did not want to think what the signs meant.  A woman approached us and asked who we were, as it seemed obvious that we stuck out.  One, because my boy was the only one carrying a lunch box- a new, bright yellow cool-box.  Two, because he didn’t look like or dress like the other kids in the room (he in his green striped tee and khaki cargo shorts).  I asked if this was where the enrichment programs were meeting.  She laughed with what seemed like relief and hurriedly ushered us out the door, pointing to another building where other children and parents were streaming in.  We had mistakenly entered, I found out, the “summer school” for kids who needed “more preparation for this fall”. 

We found our way to the gymnasium and were greeted by another nice woman who pointed to the area where the K-2nd Science children were sitting.  My boy got his name tag and looked anxiously around.  He was not used to such a large crowd, and so many older children.  Teachers milled about collecting paperwork, parents were saying good byes and checking pick up times.  I looked down at my beautiful child, and told him it would be OK.  He asked if I was coming as his group stood up and formed a small line behind his teacher.  I told him no, that I could not come, but that I would pick him up later.  I watched him walk down the hall, as he turned to look back at me.  I waved.  Then they all filed into a classroom and were gone.

I walked out into the sunshine, feeling very alone.  I worried that he would be tired, that an all day program was new to him.  I worried that he would feel intimidated by the older kids.  I worried that he would feel dumb because he did not have the skills the older kids did.  I hoped I packed his lunch box correctly.  At my core, I felt like I had abandoned him.  It felt very similar to the day we left the hospital after he was born.  As we stood on the threshold of the doors, watching Husband drive up, I cried and whispered to him that this was the big world.  My little guy was once again joining the big world, in a new way.  I don’t believe for a minute that we have prepared him enough and I feel guilty.  I wonder if I will feel this way the rest of my life.

We visited private schools this spring, and ran the numbers.  We realized we could not afford private school and heck, no school was going to do the job we needed it to, and it would probably be better to channel the money into supplemental experiences and throw our luck in with the neighborhood, over-crowded, under-funded public school.  So we bite our nails, beat our chests at night after the kids are asleep, and try to be better parents.  My children truly are such amazing gifts to me.  They are kind, loving, funny boys and I live in fear of all the bad things that could happen to them, knowing how little control I have over life.  As a former educator, I also know that so much of learning is about the application of skills, determination, self-discipline, and opportunity.  Talent has little or nothing to do with learning.  After spending too many years mired in creativity and learning research, I came to the conclusion that R. Sternberg had it mostly right when he writes about practical intelligence, the social and cultural dimensions of achievement, and the role of self-discipline.  As a parent, the best I can do is help my kids learn everyday in small ways how to be a learner, and hope they cross apply those skills.

When I sent my little boy off today, I hoped he would have some coping and learning skills on board.  I also hoped he had a good teacher, and friendly co-students.

It’s a long road ahead, this school thing.  I don’t agree with all the rules, organization, or limits of the system here- and I’ll have to be creative in helping my kids find their way as they go.  Today was a new stage for all of us, and my little boy is one more step on his way to independence.  I miss him already.

Where’’s my dime bag of Garam Masala?

Have you ever seen two grown people searching feverishly for a small bag?  Calls of “Look in the pantry!”  “I did!”  “Look behind the backup flour and sugar!” and  “I DID ALREADY!” ring through the hall.  In our family, creating food is our central addiction.  Husband may say books are my dirty little secret, but I have dislodged many, many volumes from my stash since we met (don’t look too closely at the basement storage room, those boxes I can’t part with). 

The food processor, ice cream maker, and KitchenAid mixer are three of my favorite objects.  They do not sit on the counter to display any expertise, but are usually covered with schmutz, cords flung awry.  These are working tools; metal machines with big motors.  This is my version of Tool Time, and when seeing muscle machines I find myself drooling and muttering ‘Gruh, gruh”.  But I am not a cooking wimp, given to throwing any little spice into my coffee grinder.  I use the granite mortar and pestle as well, pounding and grinding, then mixing, cutting, and warming over a small flame (Toasting spices can be very effective, especially before pounding up).  It is not just the consumption of our creations, these infusions into our body chemistry that we enjoy.  Making food is a creative pursuit for us, and as Anthony Bourdain has said, an expression of love.  Love for a process, materials, and ultimately the experience of sharing a meal.  There is a reason “home food” is a term we associate with our mothers, fathers, aunts, and holidays.  It is an expression of simple pleasure, and of love.

We do not have an orderly kitchen, but usually a clean one- a distinction people who like to cook, or have small children understand completely.  The cycle of used dishes and pots is constant, and each new day brings cleanliness, clarity, creativity, then clutter.  The cycle of addiction is truly hard to break.

Part of the reason the West has food and appearance issues is the weird juncture of the love of food and the crappy food we are marketed, and subsequently buy.  The movement to buy food locally, and as organically as much as possible is one I applaud.  I never used to like red meat much, and did a simple comparison test recently.  Steaks of the same cut were purchased at almost even prices; one from the usual feed lot “finished”-cross country shipped- hormone stuffed-mega grocery chain bin, the other of the grass fed, pasture living, little drugs, recently butchered, organic variety courtesy of one of our local farmers market people.  Husband, the defacto grill cook, cooked them rather rare and slapped them on a plate with a slight dusting of salt and pepper.  I usually don’t like rare meat.  A few bites of each and it was clear:  the local, “happy cow” was significantly better.  I don’t like the metallic taste red meat has, and it was missing entirely from the happy cow.  The other steak was metallic tasting, and had a strange other flavor too.  I am told the manipulations animals go through in our modern “production” (from embryo to flesh stripping) cycles creates high levels of stress hormones in the flesh that do not taste good.  I believe it.

As a child we had a steady number of nine cows.  One a year was hauled off to the local butcher (and usually one of the cows had a calf to replace it) and in return we got the standard small white packages with scrawled writing to identify the parts.  The first bull Dad took away, Red, was a bit of a shock.  Try explaining to a six year old where one of her favorite animals went, and expect some surprise.  I did not speak to Dad for several days.  It didn’t help that I abhorred (and still do) liver.  After waiting for what seemed an eternity for a meal one day during one of my growth spurts, Dad sauntered into the living room with a hunk of cooked meat in his hand, greedily taking bites out of it.  “This is that bull you won’t eat.  Mmmmm.  Good steak. . .you want some?” He hands me down the hunk, and I took a big bite.  “Bleah!”  I spit the bite out yelling,” That wasn’t steak- that was liver!”  He and mom laughed about that for years.

We had a garden, and every year it was more of a circus than an orderly enterprise.  One year my previously urban mother planted rows and rows of melons, not realizing how they reproduced.  Most rotted in the field, or were stealthily stacked next to the doors of friends and neighbors.  One year all the corn fell over, and another year the onions all rotted.  By contrast, mom’s baked goods were never in doubt.  The granddaughter of a professional baker, she had picked up many of his ideas and skills.  Her recipes are sparse notes, missing the changes and footnotes she held in her head, like most cooks.  I have yet to have at any restaurant, bakery or home the equal of her cakes, pies, cookies, or especially, her éclairs.  No matter how poor we were, she could manage to whip up an amazing dessert.  It was as if, in the vast rural wasteland into which she found herself, she would create her own small, private oases of momentary bliss and offer them to us.  Her offering of love.  She wasn’t always good at saying it, but she could show it.  The battered red apple cookie jar was never empty, and now it sits proudly on my counter tempting my little boys with what lies hidden inside.  It had been my Grandmother’s, and she had given it to my mother.  Love can come in the most subtle of ways, and remain in memory through the tokens we live with.

Of course the abundance of food we have in the US is a double-edged sword. There are enough articles clogging the newspapers about obesity (but don’t look too closely at how the BMI index was created or how it’s used), and not enough about how to can veg and fruit, and eat locally.  When talking to a fresh young Coop-extension agent recently, he admitted he knew little to nothing about the local food movement in all it’s manifestations, or organic produce and meats.  Still worse, he came from a mega poultry and beef industry family in TX, and had learned nothing from his grand folks about the small doing, of raising food, processing it yourself, and keeping it.  I find his educated, empty mind a travesty, if not a waste of my tax dollars.

We are not foodies who seek out the truly exotic.  I get my highs from small things, like the basil fresh from my garden with my fresh red tomatoes (no cast iron tasteless rocks), or in winter the fresh rosemary that grows near the lavender bushes sprinkled on a locally obtained pork roast; or eating breakfast eggs from “happy” chickens, as our neighbor likes to call his crazy bug eating, free range dinosaurs.  We share our tools, our materials, and the results with our friends.  In kind, we have had the luck to taste real Korean fish stew, exquisite Japanese vegetable dishes, Thai carrot butterflies, a northern Indian curry, and other dishes I am not well versed in cooking, or know how to tweak myself.  This is love: taste, experience, creativity, community, memory.  Who wouldn’t do unusual things for love: satisfy the addiction for sensation; slake thirst and hunger, while having substantive human connections?  Remember that the next time the anonymous dealer who parades his wealth via TV ads entices you with the promise of crisp fries, or easy satiating.  With just a little more effort, you could have so much more.  One more trip to the local international food mart and I’ll replenish my supplies.  I’ll scrounge my change dishes and get that small bag, that magic that will help transform the daily habits of life into bliss.  Who needs big pharma or illicit drugs when we can cook?

 

The lure of a distant horn

As far back as I can remember I have enjoyed the sound of train horns at night.  On the farm as a child, the tracks ran on the far edge of our field, and the howl of the coyotes would often presage the rich sound of a train horn. Everywhere I have lived, I have heard these horns and found strange comfort in the sound.  As I sit in the calm and cold of my living room, I hear the horn from a train less than a mile away. 

I am told by my father that he took my great-grandfather to a central office in Kansas City where he had been ordered to turn in his gun and his badge from his days as a payroll guard on the trains.   The trains he worked ran the mining and lumber routes winding through southern Missouri, Northern Arkansas, Eastern OK and Kansas.  I was reminded of the old western films, where pay trains got held up, and men hopped off with hands in the air while the bad guys robbed them.  Most of this was a fiction, but guards on trains were not.  Great granddad cried as he slumped in the office chair, laying the items of his former self on the desk.  My father was embarrassed, and wished he could just jump up and grab the gun and badge, pull his grandfather along and leave.  It was one of the few times he says he ever saw the elder man broken.  Great granddad loved trains, and so did his son, my grandfather.  My grandfather had elaborate miniatures set up in his basement, and worked as a rail postal clerk, his dream job.  He died as an accident in the great train yards of Kansas City’s Union Station, during the height train travel and shipping.  I have often thought about all the blood, energy, and money that went into building the railroads of this country, how quickly they fell into disrepair, and how the rails are a viable means to again transport people and goods, in the face of a looming oil crisis. 

I can’t say I am obsessed with trains, but I am with the sound of the horns at night, and with travel.  I have what I like to call “itchy feet” (no relation to fungus).  It is a fascination with travel, the idea of travel, and the ever-pressing need to get out and go places.  I currently reside in a valley that is approx. 30 miles wideby 175 miles long.  It is hemmed in on one side by rows of mountains with 4,000 ft peaks, which take close to 7 hours to get through going west on narrow black top roads.  On the other, a single, long line of “mountains” barricades the valley, with peaks of about 3,000 ft. on average.  From there, the land quickly slides down into marshes, then to the Atlantic Ocean.  I have felt claustrophobic ever since I moved here.  The first year I back-roaded obsessively, coming to know the strange knots of roads that seemed to twist and turn without logic, always circling back into the valley.  I built knowledge of this geographic prison that rarely requires a map. Then, I got bored.  I traveled up into Pennsylvania, and into West Virginia.  It still seems like a very small region to me.

When we came here to find a place to live, we stayed in a KOA.  A nice woman and her family were in the pool with us and we asked if there was a grocery near by. “Oh yes!”  She replied, “The food line is just down the road” and proceeded to describe where the food line was.  I usually do not have trouble understanding people with accents, but I shot Husband a seriously perplexed look.  “Food line?”  I said.  “Yes-  foodline.  FOOD LINE!”  She smiled and said it louder as if I were either deaf or stupid.  Husband finally got it, “Oh! Food Lion!”  Grinning with relief and triumph that he had understood and I had not.  The woman just smiled and nodded (I thought to myself that Food Lion was one of the dumbest names for a grocery I had ever heard.  So too Price Chopper with the axe logo, and several other names, but that’s another essay about the identifying vagaries of regional stores.).  Later she asked where we were from, and said with pride that they always vacationed at the KOA’s around town, and that she had never been out of the COUNTY in her life. Yes, the county- not country. I clarified, believe me.  She was a nice woman, but honestly I can’t imagine never leaving the county.  Not by choice anyway.  Husband says my sense of direction is partly to blame for my itchy feet, as I don’t really fear any aspects of travel.  I take great joy in the packing-as-Tetris game, as well as the planning of a trip in such a way to leave room for random experience.  And yes, I have an excellent sense of direction.  Growing up my father used to backroad often, and say to me, “We are lost.  How do we get home?”.  We were never lost of course, but it was a good way to train a child to have a sense of direction and the skills needed to get around.

About 12 years ago on my first trip through the upper East Coast, I got off the highway at one point and wandered around a medium sized city and found a terrific restaurant in an out of the way place.  I was by myself for the entire trip, which took me up to Montreal, and through many cities.  Husband and I happened to be on a stretch of that same route a few years back, at a mealtime.  Without telling him, I pulled off as I had years ago and found a restaurant I had been to on the original trip.  No mistakes, but drove right to it through multiple back roads and turns.  Even I was surprised.  Dad has the same disease, and has made a competition out of trying to find a road I have not been on, then getting me to drive it with him.  He has yet to find a road I am not familiar with and it irks him to no end.  Worse, a couple of times I had not actually been on the road, but figured out where it was and what it connected to with enough accuracy that he was fooled.  No small feat in the always-curving roads (and changing names) of The Valley. 

Not that I don’t get “lost”, but as Husband assures me, lost is a relative term.  Lost for me is not quite being sure in a 5-mile radius of where I am.  I know the block so to speak, but not the detail within it. Hence, I can get to a point of reference pretty quickly by following my instincts and using my skills.  This happens when I am going someplace new, or after having studied maps. Husband still gets lost in our town.  People ask him for directions and he shrugs, saying, “Ask her”.  Or, he will try to tell someone he has a lousy sense of direction and they do not believe him.  He often has to explain the terror he feels when he gets a couple of miles out of town.  He has absolutely no mental map of where he is.  He tells me The Valley is especially difficult for him, and that he misses the Midwest, where he could count on the grid structure of roads.

We sorely miss the orderly squares of the Midwest, the big sky, the rich soils, and the deep rivers.  The spaces between villages and the loud, powerful thunderstorms that can rage for hours.  I did not indulge in drugs or other vices as a teenager, with the exception of driving.  I lived on my bicycle until I turned 16, and then I backroaded, completing ever more distant trips.  There are very few dirt roads or blacktops in an approximately 150-mile radius of my old hometown that I do not know intimately, having taken great pleasure in random stops for food at diners, noting unusual architecture or geography, and reveling in historical, arcane, and natural sites.

The valley we live in now gets very little snow, and almost no storms.  My husband and I lie on summer evenings and listen wistfully when a small electrical storm passes by, whispering shared memories of great storms we have known.  We also listen to the sound of the train horn as it makes regular passes, and silently hold one another’s hand.

My sons get out their wooden tracks and build routes, putting their tiny engines and cars on the track and pushing them along with “chug a chugs” and an occasional “whoo-woo”.  Trains maintain strong symbolism, a battered romance, and an enduring promise that is evident even to children.  My father took his mother and our family with him on a nostalgic train ride this past fall through West Virginia.  The train was a pastiche of various old trains, some cars from the 1930’s, some the 50’s, and some later.  We had a meal in the dining car (a salvaged early 50’s model), and then adjourned to a cheaply refurbished 1930’s deco car, with wavy seating looking out wide windows.  It was an interesting trip, and the two little boys enjoyed themselves very much. The static scrambled voice on the loud speaker gave historical information as we wound through a valley, and the mostly geriatric riders all smiled indulgently at the boys as they hooted and walked about the train.  I only caught the faintest echoes of what rail travel must have been like, as if some ghost from the past were just out of the corner of my peripheral vision, never quite coming into view.  This was not the train of my imagination, of family stories, or of the horns in the night.  This was more like the wooden track and cars my sons play with.  It offered little insight into what haunts me about the sound of the horn, or helping to cool the itch in my feet.  I know trains are a faulty business now, mostly shipping goods across country, and not without the usual scary bunch of train “hobos”.  Amtrak is a sorry excuse for rail travel, not the least because the heavily federally subsidized system offers tickets to non-citizens at half the cost for citizens.  When I pursued this issue with Amtrak, I was told, “Well if you went to Europe you would get cheap tickets”.  This in no way explains the expensive and non-rational ticket prices.  I had been looking into getting Dad a ticket to visit his sister in Washington State, and was shocked by what I found in the limited routes and outrageously expensive tickets.  He did not believe me at first, recalling when rail travel was like bus travel, and about as expensive.  “That was 50 years ago, Dad”  I said, also telling him it made no sense to me either.  Call or write your congresspersons, your senators, people.  This is a rip off, and the whole system needs to be developed.

I grew up with autos for travel, not the train. The early oil “crisis” of the 70’s created the cars I drove, and I avoided owning a car (and came to know Greyhound very well in college) for a long time, and did not need one when living in the city.  It was not until I turned 27 that I owned my first auto, and had that truck for 15 years before I gave it away.  It was my buddy, my trusted companion who got 35 mpg in town and up to 42 on the highway, and never failed me mechanically.  It was my turtle, with the camper shell and rolled up futon in back.  It was a Mazda B2200, the stealth bomber in which I never got a speeding ticket, and I miss it.

When I turned 30, I made a trip to New Orleans to give my first paper and explore the region.  Many trips else where and a few years later, I was invited by some friends who happened to be from the Nambe pueblo to come and stay for a while.  I took off in my pick-up and drove out.  After a long visit, I decided to continue west, winding through Flagstaff, down to Phoenix.  I entered at night, and when I got up in the morning and looked out the window I was convinced I had died and gone to hell- the landscape looked like something out of my old Catholic school catechism, some woodcut landscape Dante had imagined.  Then I wandered west to L.A., along the whole route visiting friends and relatives.  When I headed east again I camped in my truck, but for Vegas one evening, which was enough to last this woman for a lifetime.  The north rim of the Grand Canyon was a revelation, and the blacktops out of the Kaibab into Colorado are burned into my soul. I camped and followed the “million dollar highway”, then the back roads down into the high plains of Kansas, always behind a string of huge thunderstorms.  I regret not being able to do that again, but keep saying I will soon. Husband is an excellent wing-man and CAN read a map, and I miss the days when we traveled together to the upper Midwest, out to Colorado, down to Georgia, and other points U.S.  Our eldest even remembers hotel rooms, cabins, and tents, saying,“Let’s go somewhere” from time to time, spinning out tales about when we traveled with him.

The train horn sounds again, and I feel the call to get up, to go. But it is late, one of our tiny guys has the flu, and the house needs to be cleaned in order to remove the small blue engines from the floor to avoid the sure pain they will cause if I step on them.  Money is tight, and I console myself with the knowledge of a conference trip in the near future. “Goodbye” I find myself whispering to the train.  Good night moon, bye bye train, some other time.  These feet will have to itch just a little while longer.