Sunday, February 28, 2010

Pleasant rediscoveries

I've recently rediscovered a few things that delight me. I love when that happens.

Painting. A couple of months, maybe more, had passed since I'd attempted to paint anything. There wasn't time, there wasn't inspiration, the blizzard's natural lighting was poor, and then so much time went by that I began to psych myself out of actually doing it. I'd find a momentary opportunity and I'd start to get ready, but then laundry would beckon, or I'd realize I had nothing for dinner, or I'd look at the clock and notice I really only had about 40 minutes and that's not nearly enough time to gather supplies and prepare the easel and—you get the idea. Maybe you do this, too, especially with pastimes you love that can be intimidating after long absences. But then, I did it: I forced myself to grab the measly window of time, to get out the paints, to dive in. And now, the gourd family portrait is finally complete. Aaaahhhhh. Painting.

Shortening. The thick, stiff, white stuff that looks like lard. The totally unnatural substance that was every housewife's necessity, every baker's dream until the words saturated fat and trans fat and olive oil and margarine began to cloud people's perception of the stuff. I had sworn off shortening years ago, embracing butter for all baking needs and making no excuses for the heart-clogging properties it brought with it. I was not about to let shortening into my home, because it didn't go bad, ever! And then I read online that it doesn't even attract bugs or flies! And I couldn't begin to explain the process of partial or complete hydrogenization, so anything created by that process could not live in my kitchen. And yet, years later, it was still on the shelves, and had not yet killed anyone. I relented recently, because a cookie recipe I wanted to try called for the nasty, white, flavorless stuff. I bought some. I baked the cookies. Whoa. The cookies were fluffy. They were soft and chewy yet crisp on the outside. They were divine. It had to be the shortening. Now the can of it that I bought is half-empty. Why did I stay away so long? All those good old-fashioned bakeries can't be wrong. Just wait until I use it to make icing...!

Hoods on coats. They rock. Now that I'm old, I don't care quite as much as I used to about whether my appearance is pleasing to others. Now, in winter, I just slap the giant, oversized hood of my coat atop my head, and step out into the dizziest blizzard with no fears of sticky hairspray head. Feeding the birds in a storm? Not a problem with my huge hood head. Rushing into the office through yet another snow shower, sporting just-styled hair? No worries, mate—just don the hood and tread onward. Best of all, I can't lose the darned thing like I do umbrellas, because the wonderful hood is attached to the coat or jacket it adorns (sort of my like my proverbial head which, thankfully, is attached and therefore cannot be left somewhere inappropriate or misplaced in a hurried shuffle). And hoods look so perfect with tall boots, which are also fabulous... but I've already waxed poetic about one item of winter gear, and that's enough.

Good friends and neighbors. I forget their utmost importance until times of need arise. My folks have had a rough couple of weeks; their offspring and various family members rally around them and do their best, which is great—but some good pals and caring neighbors of theirs recently stepped up to the plate and hit a home run or two or five. Convenient rides, big snow plows, and just plain helpful hands have all been proffered and very much appreciated. It's one of the positive things about hardships: the stress reveals not just cracks, but also partners and supporters. I need to appreciate those people more, and also work on being one of them whenever I can.

Have you had any great rediscoveries lately?

Thursday, February 25, 2010

A silly little rhyme from a sweet, silly little boy

How can I bottle up the unutterably dear little kid that my son has become? I don't want him to age. Not for a long time, anyway.

In the past few weeks, he has suddenly turned into a very touchy-feely kid; he has always been pretty affectionate, but now much of his loving attention is focused on my hair. He likes to pet it, pull it into ponytail shapes, detangle it for me (albeit painfully sometimes). When we're reading together, I'll feel someone fixing a strand...and there he'll be, small fingers entwined, looking sheepishly at me when I stop reading to see what he's up to. "I'm almost done," he'll say as he works to pull out a lock that is wrapped around and under another, or to tame a stray strand that's sticking up. When he pulls too hard, I make him stop. But if I'm not militant about his keeping hands to himself, he's back at it within a few minutes. I don't know if he's even aware he's doing it half of the time.

(He's touchy-feely with his dad, too; I've noticed lots of embracing, climbing, kissing and wrestling of late.)

A recent, memorable moment came one morning this week. My little guy stopped me in mid-play and told me to listen while he said a poem for me—one that he'd obviously learned outside our home...

(No worries, readers: this blog is almost always rated G.)

Here is what he recited to me:
Mommy and Marcus are in a tree

That's it—that was the poem. Then he stopped, partly because he didn't know what letter came next, and partly because I had burst out laughing hysterically. He was laughing too, and then he realized his own mistake and said, "H-U-G! Hug!" which made the entire event that much more hilarious and precious. We cracked up for a good minute together. I praised him for spelling the word right, then put the word into action; I hugged him and kissed his little cheek until he was chiding me: "Mom, stop!"

Sometimes he'll say, "I love you so much I want to hug you," and then when I grab him and squeeze him, he says, "Mom, not that much!" His latest trick is to tell me he loves me so much he wants to pull my arm off, or my leg, or whatever he can think of yanking on that will pain me, and then he shows me how much he loves me by doing what he said he'd do. It's ludicrous. (Of course, then it becomes increasingly annoying and I have to put a stop to it.)

But all these small exchanges are really sweet, and I want to write them down so that years from now, when I have forgotten this period of time, I can revisit my little verbal snapshots and recall the lovable bundle of boy who's sharing my home for this season.

P.S. He learned the rhyme from the PBS show "Arthur." I figured it out when we saw the rerun.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

No one is KISSing these days

warning: rant to follow, which may or may not be caused by the fact that I had to pick up my son's kindergarten registration papers this week

KISS stands for Keep It Simple, Stupid. I think I learned that approach to delivering information while I was teaching school years ago, and by golly, it continues to be more useful every day. When I remember to keep it simple, I am never sorry. People have short attention spans that grow shorter every day, they are accustomed to quick changes of pace and lots of pretty graphics and shallow information... we've all been groomed of late to be ADHD, it seems. So keeping information simple just makes sense.

But honestly, I always thought that keeping it simple just made sense. Why do more than necessary? Why confuse people when you needn't? Although I've been out of the field of education until recently, now I find myself on the fringes of that whole strange world of imparting knowledge—and I am so disappointed in the way it has plummeted since I left.

In the hoity-toity districts north of our fair city, now there is often no lower option that pre-algebra in 7th grade. Huh?! Are all the 7th graders of the area ready for pre-algebra in 7th grade? I think not. Was I? Doubtful, although I must have been introduced to the concepts at that age all those years ago because I was, indeed, taking algebra in 8th grade. Which led to my near-demise in 9th grade geometry...but that's another story. Seriously, though, it's not just the higher maths that are being pushed. I have recently assisted at least five 9th and 10th graders in nearby school districts, all of them average students, all of them saddled with full-tilt research papers that include rubrics and point breakdowns and lists of requirements that I honestly feel are more appropriate for honors English juniors and seniors, if that.

People. Our public education systems stink. We are falling behind every other modern country I can think of. Yet we insist on pushing our students harder, faster, sooner than before. It's not working. Just because you call every student gifted will not make it so. Even worse, this push for higher-level thinking at an earlier age has resulted in the near-abandonment of the basics. Apparently, the basics are just not flashy enough for us to press upon many students. Times tables? Pshaw. Just use your calculator. Subject-verb agreement? That's why we have Microsoft Word, isn't it?! And spelling... don't even get me started.

I feel sick when I attempt to help a student with the basics and see how that student has slipped through the cracks. I am equally sick as I walk a kid who doesn't know a run-on sentence when it slaps him to maneuver his awkward, fumbling way through a research paper full of citations and defenses. Where is the KISS method these days? Why are we teaching advanced MLA research methods to 9th graders who are barely passing their classes? Why must the entire world be groomed for college? What is wrong with trades, with labor, with jobs that will NEVER require any serious knowledge of algebraic substitutions and pi and a works cited page and gerunds?

We are all getting so damned clever that no one knows how to tie his shoes, let alone read a clock with a face, and it's making me want to retreat to a homestead in Alaska.

When I taught English, so long ago, I was encouraged by my district to attend the annual Pennsylvania state writing assessment scoring seminars. I forget the actual title of those assemblies, but they were filled with local PA English teachers who had volunteered to come assess real writing samples of students. We were all gathered together, then taught a 6-point scoring rubric, and lastly we graded papers. And we graded more papers. Then, we graded some papers. But my point is this: the vast majority of the time, we all agreed within one point on the appropriate score for a given writing sample. We'd been taught how to do it, we applied the knowledge, and we all could identify "good" writing. We knew when the piece was effective, when it had succeeded. We did not require fancy grading systems or long, drawn-out explanations of what we should identify as high quality. We came to recognize it very quickly, all of us. There was by and large agreement. We knew with very little training when the writing worked and when it didn't.

So, why all the complications now? Why the complexities? Most of the students I see would benefit greatly from a huge helping of common sense in their teachers. Most of these kids today need to know how to figure out the most basic mathematical problem, percentages, division problems. They need to be able to express themselves on paper, clearly and concisely. They need to learn clarity and the value of a well-turned, grammatically correct phrase. They would benefit greatly from more practice making a simple point, an opinion even, with accuracy and skill. They would be better for having learned to crack a book instead of searching endlessly through feeble online resources. Few will ever require the ridiculous level of detail and pomp that is already being asked of them in their first year of high school.

For goodness sake, what is wrong with people? I want America to be smart and educated, too—but mostly I want the kids today to be able to hold a conversation without a *!?#@ cell phone in their hands. It would be a bonus if their end of the conversation made sense and consisted of lucid thoughts expressed in complete sentences.

I'm not down on the kids, honestly. I think we've steered them wrong by pushing them to do too much, too soon. Let's start with tying shoes, then move onto clocks that are round, and after that we'll divvy up pieces of pizza and talk about fractions. We must, we simply must, give these children of ours a real foundation for learning—the type of learning that will enable logical problem-solving when they grow up.

Because then, you see, they'll have to figure out a way to pay that fool Obama's bill.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Thankfulness is a choice

Instead of: Lord, please get this snow out of my world before I have some sort of S.A.D.-related breakdown that may or may not require heavy doses of valium.
I'm working on: Lord, I am thankful we have heat, and food, and warm clothes, and running water that is hot when we need it to be. Which leads me to—

Instead of: Lord, why why WHY did the #@*?!& water heater have to break now? Now?!
I'll try to say: Lord, thank you that we have the cash to buy a new water heater. And thank you that it broke in between snowfalls, and that there was a place for Mr. Waterheater to park. Thanks, too, that our last few service calls for fridge and dryer have both resulted in very affordable fixes rather than replacements. We've dodged a few bullets; I guess we were due. 13 years seems like a fair life for a water heater.

Instead of: Lord, why did you let my car get stuck on the hill to my house the other night?! Why did I have to go through that horrible, sliding moment where I temporarily blocked the entire road because my vehicle was sideways? And me in a skirt and dress boots?
I'm sincerely saying: Lord, thank you so much that you sent the salt truck up the road past me at just that moment when I'd given up and was climbing out of my car. Thank you for the encouragement from the driver, who gave me extra helpings of salt in front and behind my little buggy and told me to try again, that I'd make it this time. Thank you that even though I wanted to slap him at that moment, he was right. I did.

Instead of: Lord, why did this boy at work wait until the last minute to start working on such a huge research paper? Why does the teacher think this level of detail is necessary? Why couldn't he start on time? Why does he have to be here on my day to leave early?
I can remember to say: Lord, thank you for helping this poor kid get out of the hospital in time to finish the last 9-week period; thanks that his teachers were understanding and let him out of some of the smaller busywork. Thank you that he's feeling better, that the cold weather isn't making his joints ache as much as usual, that the intestinal issue seems to be getting better since that surgery. Thank you that he feels well enough to go eat dinner when he leaves here—because, as you know, many days he isn't even hungry. Thank you, Lord, that I have good health; please help me not take it for granted.

Instead of: wahh-wahh-why me?
Say this: Thanks. Truly. Thank you, Lord. You didn't forget about me. And Lord, please help all those less fortunate than I am. There are so, so many.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Two young men

The 2010 Vancouver Olympics have, at this point, left two deep impressions on my soul: The startlingly dangerous nature of many of the sports, and the lyrical beauty of the human body when it has been encouraged to express itself physically.

When I watched the opening ceremonies, I was really amazed by all of it; as creepy as I found Beijing's multitudes of simultaneous posings, I was enthralled by the use of technology and props used in 2010 to transport the viewer to the grandeur of Canada, to the mountains, to Vancouver itself, back in time and forward again. Above it all, both literally and in my opinion as well, there was an aerialist suspended by barely visible lines; he ran, and danced, and soared over blowing grasses to the perfect accompaniment of Joni Mitchell. I was absolutely transfixed by the grace and glory of that young fellow who "flew." I've looked for more information about the guy (Thomas Saulgrain,) have searched for a clip online, trying in vain to find the full segment; sadly, I've uncovered only bits and pieces amidst collections of musical highlights from that opening ceremony. I'll keep looking, because I really long to see him fly again. I want to hold onto that feeling that it's possible. I want to see his natural, fluid movements and see the wonder on his face. He was a spectacular performer; I wish I had that sort of presence in any area of my life. Sheer beauty.

And then. In stark, horrible contrast, there is that poor Georgian son who also flew, on an icy track, too icy most think, and he flew too fast. As much as the aerialist defied the limitations of the human body (albeit with fine, thin wires,) the memory of Nodar and that speeding sled hold us all firmly on this rough, terrestrial ball by reminding us of the fragility of life. His loss, his awful death, reminds us all of the delicate nature of even the most tuned, practiced, prepared body. A young man, practically a boy, he had family at home that he'd talked to the day before his passing. He began the last moments of his life looking down the length of his own prone form just before it betrayed him. Someone's child, someone's friend, someone's neighbor. Snatched away instantly. He, unlike that other boy, was not permitted to fly.

There they both are, stuck in my mind; one offers a respite from the horror of the other, yet the horror cannot be denied; it keeps me where I need to spend most of my days—planted on the ground, taking precautions, being careful. Perhaps it's because I spend so many of my days firmly grounded in reality that I cling with such steadfastness to that other young man, suspended over the golden grass, touching down only when he chooses.

Did I mention how much I liked the opening ceremony, at least what I was able to stay awake to see? Did I mention how bummed I was that my little boy couldn't even make it through the parade of nations and missed all the best parts? Even the big boy at my house missed the best parts for sleeping. A shame.

Stay warm, dream of soaring, and measure your risks with care.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Big snow, little mind

Regarding the photo: Picnic, anyone? Pretty, isn't it. If I were Swedish or Norwegian or from one of those other crazy cultures where people embrace this stuff, I might be sitting out there next to a fire, drinking grog, or glog, or whatever hot drink they drink. No, thank you.


Perhaps you, like me, don't think about the ridiculous bulk of white that an 18- or 20-inch snowfall amounts to. Perhaps, like me, you can even walk in it, fall in it, watch your child struggle to get out of it, observe a neighborhood team shoveling event to precede the Olympic Games, and still not get it that 18 or 20 inches is an absurd snowfall.

Perhaps you, like me, were a simpleton and decided to venture out today.

Perhaps you also had house fever, and a sweet little child coughing insistently on you, and too many sporting events happening now and looming later today; perhaps the walls were closing in on you, too.

I forgot, you see, that all those inches of snow have to be displaced somewhere. I failed to observe that I had to exit the garage through a silly-small space between piles of snow as high as my head. I didn't consider that, as the piled snow melts slowly, it creates mounds of slush—slush that creeps onto the once-somewhat-cleared roadways. I suddenly recalled the lurching sensation I get in my stomach when my car slides along with a mind all its own, how small and vulnerable I feel when I am surrounded by much larger, more capable vehicles.

My little sedan held its own, and I got where I was going (which, honestly, was mostly just OUT). I even got home again; thankfully, the hill to our home was bare. (I wouldn't have attempted the trip if it hadn't been.) But as I pulled back into the driveway, I thanked God repeatedly that I don't live in northwestern PA anymore, where this type of madness is a much more regular occurrence.

I won't be heading out again today, thanks for asking. I found my common sense and put it firmly back on my head as soon as I got back home safely.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Friendly reminder for confused consumers of the world

I guess you could say that working at a nonprofit has embittered me just a tiny bit.

Not that I was the slightest bit bitter before I started—aHEM.

The following things are true necessities in life:
• food (this is not to imply necessarily tasty, varied, or healthy food—just food to sustain life, mind you)
• shelter (this involves any shelter, of course, although permanent shelter of some sort is desirable, as opposed to collapsible cardboard shelters or structures composed of straw, which may or may not come down in a storm or in the face of a windy wolf)
• clothing (this translates to any sort of remotely comfortable covering for your body, but does not in any way mean that said covering should be name-brand or fashionable or even properly sized)

On the flip side...

The following things are deemed by little old bitter me as unnecessary for life, meaning that lack thereof will not cause quick or even slow death:
• cell telephones (even an older, non-camera-phone model is still considered a luxury by many and lack of said phone will not cause harm to the phone-less person)
• fancy-schmancy fingernails that are made of acrylic or some other artificial substance and have been applied in a salon or any particular place where people sport those fashionable, stylin' surgeon's masks (plain old stubby nails are nothing to be ashamed of)
• cable television (until the 1950s, people survived quite admirably on a no-TV diet and they seemed to function just fine, thank-you-very-much, so I am pretty certain that lack of television will not cause any serious ailments and that money spent on foolish amounts of channels could and should instead be directed to payments for the aforementioned necessities)
• toys (for small OR big OR REALLY BIG people) such as video games, technological gadgets, or similarly silly accoutrements
• pretty, new, giant (or—for that matter—old, ancient, decrepit) vehicles (especially when residents live within walking distance of bus stops)
• lovely, spacious, new homes for which the resident cannot make appropriately large payments
• shiny, impressive furnishings for spacious, new homes
• restaurant food (and yes, this means A N Y restaurant, but especially those that feature real cloth napkins and actual glass dishware—because, you see, it is ALWAYS cheaper, and healthier as well, to shop wisely for raw food and to cook one's own meals)

I am getting rather weary of hearing about how people have no money for services, yet show up for appointments with new phones, beautifully manicured nails, and perfectly coiffed, highlighted, or "extended" hair. Driving recent models of gas-guzzling vehicles. On their way to go have dinner. (Remember when having dinner used to mean dining at home? And "going out" to dinner meant dining away from home, and was reserved for special occasions?)

How is the world did we get so royally confused about priorities in this goofy country? Where is the exit? Where, I ask you?