In general, I think one of the best thing about having kids -- after the full-body, full-speed-ahead, gleefully-shouting hugs of greeting when one walks in the door from work -- is watching them learn. I don't mean necessarily the skills we work so hard to teach, though it is of course wonderful to see them learning to swim or to use a spoon without soiling yet another shirt. I am thinking more about the conceptual learning that seems to happen without overt teaching. The ah-ha! light-bulb moments when they suddenly grasp a new idea, or use a hard new word correctly in a sentence, or master an etiquette milestone without anyone reminding them about the appropriate relative positions for fingers, noses, and kleenex.
Son, at four-and-a-half, has been having a lot of these moments lately. After working for a long time to contain his jack-in-the-box eating style (in the chair, hop out of the chair, in the chair, hop out of the chair...), he has begun to sit for longer stretches at the table. It is apparently too much to ask of his energy level and enthusiasm to sit on his bottom, facing the same direction, without squirming or gesticulating wildly even once during a meal, but he is now remaining with at least one body part on the seat of the chair at all times until he's done with dinner. For a child who, not long ago, was completely incapable of sitting there and eating without multiple interruptions to go get a toy (though they're not allowed at the table), to hop up and down on one foot between bites, to go get a project he did at school to show it to us right now, and so on, this is a major accomplishment. And lo and behold! as he has begun to be able to sit(ish) in his chair throughout dinner, he has suddenly recalled unprompted a lesson we were working to instill a month or so ago. For the last several days, he has sat nicely in his chair throughout his whole meal, eaten all the food on his plate, looked up smiling and said, "May I please be excused?" and then waited until we said "Yes" before getting up from his chair.
I KNOW! I was outside looking for signs of the spaceship too. I wanted to ask the aliens who'd abducted him what they'd done with my real Son, or at least thank them for the one they returned to me. But so far, I haven't made contact. So, this is my public thank you to the universe: alien manners are much appreciated here at Chez MommyTime; please come back for Daughter as soon as she's old enough to see onto her plate without having to sit on her knees in the chair. m'kay? (We would, of course, like her returned to us with her Improved Mealtime Politeness Chip installed as well.)
In other news of revelations: A few weeks ago, Son was watching Shrek the Third for maybe the fourth time, and I swear the power of his epiphany would have recharged my laptop battery for a week if I could have harnessed it. There's a scene towards the end of the movie where a whole slew of fairy tale bad guys form a menacing circle around poor Prince Arthur. They move in for the attack, at the command of the evil ringleader Prince Charming (love that he's a villain, by the way), when Arthur speaks up and asks them what they're all doing. They respond that they're doing what they always do: being bad guys. He gives a rousing little speech about how they don't have to follow along just because they've always done so, blah blah blah, change the pattern, etc. etc. It's inspiring in a canned-obligatory-moral-lesson kind of way.
I was tuning out the moral when suddenly Son sat bolt upright in his chair, held up his index finger in that classic Eureka! pose, and said (and I wrote this down the moment he said it, so it's verbatim), "Hey-yy...wait a minute! He has a point there! Maybe the bad guys are simply too bad. Maybe they don't need to be so bad. Maybe they just only need to be bad to bad guys, and to good guys, they don't need to be bad at all."
Apart from nearly falling over myself trying not to laugh at "He has a point there!" I was delighted to see him apparently internalizing an important lesson about machismo and unwarranted violence. It has, of course, not much dimmed his enthusiasm for playing swords or building mouse traps for invisible mice (his latest victims), but I am heartened by his ability to articulate the notion that badness just for badness sake really might be misplaced and excessive.
On the language front, his favorite new word is voracious. He pronounces it four-racious, but he uses it correctly, though he hasn't quite mastered its superlatives. He told me on the way home from school recently, "I'm even more four-racious-er than I was yesterday, Mama." And he proceeded to list about three entrees and five side dishes he was hoping to eat when we got home.
He did eat very well that night. But what has me even happier is his apparently four-racious appetite for consuming knowledge. I can't wait to watch what he learns this week.
Monday, June 30, 2008
In general, I think one of the best thing about having kids -- after the full-body, full-speed-ahead, gleefully-shouting hugs of greeting when one walks in the door from work -- is watching them learn. I don't mean necessarily the skills we work so hard to teach, though it is of course wonderful to see them learning to swim or to use a spoon without soiling yet another shirt. I am thinking more about the conceptual learning that seems to happen without overt teaching. The ah-ha! light-bulb moments when they suddenly grasp a new idea, or use a hard new word correctly in a sentence, or master an etiquette milestone without anyone reminding them about the appropriate relative positions for fingers, noses, and kleenex.
Friday, June 27, 2008
I don't write much about my work on this blog, on purpose. Although I will never be able to leave my work at the office (there is always grading to do, a book to read, an article to write), I have enough workplace drama at work, so I prefer to keep this little sanctuary free of those stressors.
But lately, there's a topic that I just can't get away from, and I want to hear from you about it: Plagiarism.
It's an ugly word, and it's an ugly thing to find in student work. And, let me tell you, it is RAMPANT. Every semester, I have The Discussion with more than one student about why his or her work is unacceptable for the very simple reason that it is not in fact his or her work at all but the work of someone else being passed off as original for a grade.
Frankly, I find plagiarism to be among the very very worst kind of lies. I'll freely admit that lying about a homicide would be worse. And I'm not drama-queen enough to call plagiarism "intellectual murder," though I sort of wish I were. But here's what students don't get: when you copy down what someone else wrote and turn it in with your name on it as if you thought up that particular constellation of words and ideas yourself, you are doing damage in so many areas.
You deprive yourself of the education you are paying for by not doing the work the professor has designed as a way to help you with the learning process.
You forever tarnish your integrity in the eyes of the professor to whom you've handed the phony work. If you turn in a paper that I discover is plagiarized, I will google sentences and phrases out of every single thing you turn in for the rest of the term. I will be suspicious of every idea you voice, wondering where you actually read it or whether you could possibly have thought it up yourself. I will kick myself, if the plagiarized paper was not the first written work you turned in to me, for not noticing that you might have plagiarized in earlier papers, and I will wonder whether any good grades you have gotten not only from me but from any other professors I know are actually based on uncaught lies. I will find myself suspicious of your brains, concerned that they are not, in fact, yours. And YOU made me this suspicious.
You short-change your classmates because once I've got an instance of plagiarism in a class, I begin to worry and wonder about every eloquent turn of phrase I come across. I find myself double-checking for plagiarism in papers by students I know are smart because suddenly I wonder how much I really know about what goes on in any student's writing space late at night. And then, occasionally, I heave a giant sigh of sadness and regret that I am suspecting a student who in fact seems to be genuinely insightful.
You create a silent monster in your professors, a growing feeling of resentment that festers and threatens to take over every interaction between us. I am livid that you make me doubt not only your own mind but that of your classmates. I do not WANT to be suspicious of my students. I want them to be brilliant. I want to write in the margins of their papers comments like "how insightful" and "fascinating" and "what an original interpretation" and "this is very eloquent." I love it when I get to write that rare end-note after reading a paper where I tell a student that I've never thought of a text in this particular way before, or that I had always thought something, but that the student has opened my eyes to new ideas. I get all giddy when I get to ask a student for a clean copy of a particularly wonderful paper and permission to pass it on to other subsequent classes as an example.
And when a student kills that joy, that spirit of mutual discovery, that opportunity for the classroom to be a place in which teachers both convey information and learn from their students; when a student turns me from a facilitator into a policewoman, I become infuriated.
I have had incidents of plagiarism in the past year in everything from introductory survey courses for freshman to graduate seminars. With first-year-students, I am extremely stern, but I am also careful to pay close attention to the root causes of the problem: is the student overscheduled? Overwhelmed? Unsure how to quote sources properly? The last is pretty easy to spot because there are typically markers in the paper that suggest an effort to show that the ideas are not all the student's own, although there is a deplorable lack of quotation marks and page number references. That is an easy problem to solve and a teachable moment.
But when a student stands in my office and says he or she "did not mean to copy" something that is cut and pasted from Wikipedia in complete verbatim paragraphs, I get so angry that I start to shake. Such copying cannot be inadvertent. And to say to my face that it was only compounds the lie by insisting that a deliberate action of laziness, inconsiderateness, and stealing was somehow an accident. And if said assertion comes from a graduate student who has no excuse for not knowing better? Steam begins to pour out of my ears as we speak.
Apart from loosing the wrath that is MommyTime Indignant on such students (and failing them for the assignment), I do not know how to stem what seems to me to be a growing problem.
As students every year are more and more internet savvy, they seem more and more likely to turn to online sources for a quick fix. It's terrible that there are term-paper sites online where you can purchase papers--canned ones on popular novels, or, for more money, custom written ones with the requisite number of sources. But it's even more problematic that students have figured out that there is a wealth of information out there that is free and ripe for picking--and that they have no internal compass to help them see the vast difference between "reading up" on a topic (a skill I am already teaching my four-year-old) and passing off someone else's intellectual property as one's own.
My students are on average extremely hard-working, first generation to go to college, putting themselves through school types. The vast majority of them have a very clear idea of the value of an education and would never dream of plagiarizing a paper. They would give me a speech on how this was wasting their own money if I asked. But the ones who do plagiarize, a small-but- growing minority, don't tend to pay for papers (I think) because there is so much out there that is free. That, actually, makes it easier for me to catch plagiarism. If I google suspect phrases, almost always, the first 2-3 hits turns out to be the site from which they copied the text; whereas with a bought paper, I would have a harder time tracking down the original source.
Some of these online sites even allow you to indicate a writing level, so that the paper's style will not be suspiciously above that of the level of the course. But students who are willing to plagiarize tend not to realize that writers have styles and that if they drop a paragraph in here or there that reads as if it is publishable quality (because it was actually already published), I will notice the abrupt change in style from their writing.
Call me crazy, but I would so much rather read something slightly less eloquent that is the product of a student's own mind than read an article by a famous scholar (badly) passed off as student work.
I have had a few occasions of a particularly absurd incident in the online class I teach, where students copy things directly from my lecture notes into their papers or exams. As if I would not notice that the lectures that I wrote were being handed to me credited to being written by someone else! It takes guts to do something like that. Or a complete lack of logical functioning in the brain.
I am almost at my wits' end, though. What do I do about this? I write complex paper topics that require comparisons of texts, the turning in of drafts, and analyses of particular scenes, in an effort to ensure that there is no single source that would be copy-able that really answers the question. I have plagiarism statements with the university's policy clearly spelled out on my syllabi. Now I am starting to feel like at the beginning of every semester, I have to have The Talk with the entire class, complete with involuntary shaking of my body and quavering fury in my voice to make an impression. But that doesn't really seem like the way to meet a class on the first day and start things off in the spirit of intellectual inquiry and respectful discussion.
I know that this is a problem too, in Blogland, which is why I'm posting now. Some of you may have had experience with this. What would you do not just to address the problem after it happens (I have plenty of means at my disposal for that) but to help nip it in the bud before it starts? What I want is to receive fewer plagiarized papers in the first place, so that I can stop being suspicious every time something wonderfully written comes across my desk. I want to get back to that time -- not so long ago -- when I could revel in my students' successes instead of always having a niggling thought at the back of my mind, "What if this work is all a lie, and I just haven't found the original source yet?" That isn't fair to my students, and it's exhausting for me.
I signed up to be a teacher, not the police. I want my original job back.
If you are lucky enough to have a sun-filled yard, then your choices about what to plant are almost endless in the flower department. But if you have lots of glorious old trees, well, your air conditioning bill is a whole lot lower in summer. And your flower beds? They may look a little sparse. After years of gardening in homes that had beds that were much more shaded than otherwise, though, I've slowly gathered a list of flowers and plants that thrive in the dappled sunlight available in a bed at the foot of a tree. Some of them are well-known shade-lovers; others are simply surprisingly versatile.
Do keep in mind that my list is coming from a garden that is in zone 5b (or 6a, depending on whom you ask) and has plenty of moisture. If you are in a radically different climate, you will need to do some research of your own to seek shade-lovers. But don't discount the plants I list here. Look them up first. Many gardening books and websites will identify perennials as "hardy in zones..." and list a range which tells you whether the plant will come back bigger and better every year in your area too.
Bleeding heart -- leaves begin reddish when plant sprouts, turning green as they unfold; flowers last weeks; plants double in size every year, becoming 2 feet high eventually; dies back completely to the ground in fall.
Pictured here is a single plant that I've been growing for about three years; it is about two feet high and three feet across now; tucked at its base you can see both of the following:
Sweet woodruff -- pretty, low (approx. 4" tall) spreading plant with tiny white flowers that bloom most of the summer; makes a nice, easily controllable cover under taller plants; spreads slowly; and
Forget-me-not -- clear, tiny blue flowers on plants about 8" tall; forms clumps; self-sows and will spread slowly.
Columbine -- delicate green leaves somewhat heart-shaped; plant is about 8-10" tall, with flower spikes nearly double that height; flowers can be pale pink or blue or purple (see left); may take some time to establish, but self-seeds and spreads like a weed once it gets going.
Huechera (coral bells) -- broad, dark reddish or purplish leaves with a ruffled edge; comes in many varieties ranging from so lightly reddish as to be streaked with green to so dark purple as to be nearly black; some prefer more sun than others; tall delicate stems sport tiny bell shaped flowers in white or light coral pink; flowers in mid- to late-summer (mine still haven't flowered this year, as you can see).
Astilbe -- clumps of dark green leaves with tall feathery flowers atop long stems; flowers can range from white through pink to deep burgundy; clumps grow larger each year but do not otherwise seem to spread.
Hosta / Plantain lilies -- the standard fall-back for shade gardens is the boring variegated hosta with its striped green and white leaves and medium purple flowers; I'm not knocking it; I have plenty in my garden; but it comes in so many more interesting varieties, with deeply ribbed dark green leaves and trumpet-shaped white flowers (Plantain lilies), or heavy silvery grey leaves with white flowers, or a variegated one that's green and yellow (see left); forms clumps that enlarge slowly but can get extremely big eventually; useful because the foliage is lovely and lasts till fall, even though flowers die back long before that; foliage also comes out much later than many plants, so you can put hosta near things that die back very early (like tulips or daffodils that bloom before the leaves are fully on the trees), and then as those early plants are dying back, the hosta will stretch out to cover those spaces.
Lily of the Valley -- really the most wonderful smelling plant ever; spreads by sending out runners from its roots; it will beautifully fill in sections under trees where little else can grow because the tree roots are close to the surface; it's ugly brown as it sl-o-o-w-ly dies back, though, so it's worth planting next to something else that will distract the eye from that process.
Vinca (periwinkle) -- a ground cover that is amazingly resilient, and can thrive in sun as well as shade; the first year you plant/transplant it, it won't spread much; the second year, you'll have to beat it back with a rake; but the good news is: unlike ivy, it won't climb brickwork or trees, and it has extremely shallow small roots, so you just have to prune its ends or pull gently to keep it where you want it
Ferns of all types -- another fall back for shady places; while the "Boston" fern is the most recognizable type, there are lots of different kinds that, like hosta, will allow you to paint with foliage in interesting ways; many ferns are attractive from June-September.
And the best thing about gardening in the shade? You're less likely to get a sunburn while doing it.
For the rest of the Green Up Your Thumb series, see here:
Part 1: Planning
Part 2: Selecting Plants
Part 3: Laying out Flower Beds
Part 5: Maintenance (coming next)
Thursday, June 26, 2008
I am not a person who likes a rigid schedule. It's not that I can't make it to meetings (though I don't love a day filled with them) or that I lose my calendar (it's on the fridge). It's that I like my activities to last as long as I have the attention span, and then I like to move on. Some days, that means I want to write for eight hours straight; other days, I'm lucky if I stay focused for 20 minutes before getting up for a snack, to do the laundry, wash the dog, or partake of any other distraction available. But I am also a person who gets much more done under a deadline, who works best when there are multiple things that need doing, who tends to fritter away time when there is nothing pressing going on. It is no coincidence, I think, that I have done more professional writing, and gotten more work published, since I had kids than I did before.
As I face the long weeks of summer, and the short days of daycare (two per week), I have to figure out how to get my own research and writing done. Although professors are technically "off" during the summer, what that means is that we don't have to go to committee meetings, meet with students weekly about their theses, or teach classes. Instead, we have to do research. Our jobs (and, for many of us, our career satisfaction) depend on spending time in libraries and archives, in coffee shops reading books, in comfy desk chairs taking notes and writing. Without the articles and books, we do not get tenure or promotions. Or academic respect.
In the seven weeks since the regular semester was over, I have taught two sections of an online course (extra work for extra pay = college funds for Son and Daughter), done a lot of gardening, frequented the gym, spent a delightful week with my brother's family, immersed myself in blogs I love to read, built a cardboard racecar and canoe, played countless games with the kids, and caught one huge fish. These have been useful, satisfying, and in many cases relaxing ways to spend my time, and I feel like I've gotten a good break from the burn-out that can result from the frenetic schedule of the regular academic year.
But I have done not one ounce of research and writing work. The work I adore. The work I need to do for so many reasons, including feeling intellectually satisfied with the balance of my life.
I have been thinking lately about the times in the past when I have been most productive. One was when I was pregnant with Daughter, and I never want to have a schedule that demanding again. I got a tremendous amount done, but when the semester was over (she was born during the last week of classes), all I wanted to do was sleep for three months to recover -- and that doesn't even count the tiredness of having a brand new baby. The other most productive time in my life was when I was studying for my qualifying exams in graduate school. I would wake up, have breakfast and make coffee, and sip and read all morning till I started feeling stir crazy. Then I would go for a run, shower, have lunch, and read all afternoon. Near dinnertime, I would hop on my bike for a spin down to the terrace on the lake to meet friends for a beer, or I would make some phone calls, or do something else social. (Keep in mind, I had probably not spoken a single word all day long.) After dinner: more reading until bedtime.
I think the reason I got so much done that summer (I read 30 novels in a month -- Victorian novels, none of which were shorter than 400 pages, and many of which were longer -- plus had a month of poetry and a month of prose reading to do) is that I had a rhythm but not a schedule. I had a long-term goal of what I needed to accomplish over the 3 months, and I had a calendar of what needed to happen weekly, as well as daily goals. But, honestly, I did what I wanted to. If I really couldn't stand to read anymore, which happened the day I quit reading Bleak House, then I would go hiking or roller blade around the lake on the bike trail, or do something completely un-thinky. If I couldn't focus, I would change tracks. But my days had a lovely rhythm: eat - read - physical activity - eat - read - social activity - eat - read - sleep. It was a nice pattern that worked for me because I had no kids, no boyfriend, no obligations except to study incredibly hard and pass the exams so that I could start writing my dissertation.
I have come to the conclusion that I need to recapture that goal of having an established rhythm for my days. I obviously can't have that particular pattern any more, but I think I could get into a rhythm that would work for me and for my kids. We need a little structure. It is too easy to fritter away time, whether online or procrastinating over household tasks. I don't want the summer to disappear in a haze of errands run and clothes folded and moments snatched to read blogs. I want some chunks of time devoted to writing, others for reading. I want to be fully present while doing projects with my kids, rather than thinking constantly "I still have to pay the bills and check email." It will take me a little time to figure out a plan, but I'm going to do it tonight and even write it down. It will be general, and have room for the improvisation that is such a vital part of living one's very best life, but it is my hope that it will become a predictable rhythm for the kids, who also seem to thrive when they know what is coming next. Something like this might work:
eat - read - physical activity - eat - rest(kids)/write(mama) - chores - playtime/projects - eat - read - sleep
One could do worse than a life organized this way. Do your days have a rhythm?
Wednesday, June 25, 2008
Today it's launched! The online magazine you'll want to bookmark, subscribe to, read, submit to, and nibble on every single day. (And finally, for those of you who have been wondering, an explanation for that button in my sidebar!)
Collecting the best, magazine-quality content from blogs you love and blogs you'll love to meet, Blog Nosh Magazine will publish 3-5 posts a day on a wide range of topics. Everything from gardening to parenting an autistic child to technology to cooking to business to politics will show up in Blog Nosh. In the channels of Blog Nosh, you'll find writing that's eloquent, hilarious, informative, heart-warming, and provocative from people whose interests mesh with yours and whose perspective you'll be glad to read.
We have a large group of editors, broken up into the different Channels that comprise our primary topics. Editors will choose content, approach writers for pieces, and put together short bios to let you know more about the bloggers whose work you're reading. As you read what gets posted on Blog Nosh, we hope you'll enjoy great content, get to know the tastes of different editors and look forward to their latest picks, and meet some new bloggers you'll be delighted to add to your blogroll.
We also hope you will get involved. Blog Nosh republishes the very best of your archived posts, selectively providing a mix of styles and topics. If I read your blog regularly, it's a good bet that at some point, I'll approach you to ask if you are interested in republishing one of your best posts. I am editing on the Family Channel, and I'm always on the lookout for knockout posts on all aspects of family life. But while Editors will actively seek out content we remember resonated with us when we first read it, we'll also consider posts you want to self nominate.
You can increase your exposure and traffic, and become part of this great community of bloggers who are featured in Blog Nosh. If you have a post you think might be appropriate, check out Blog Nosh. If it's a Family post, email me and tell me about it. If it better suits another channel, or you're not sure, check out the Editors' page and meet the other Editors. Email whomever seems most appropriate, and offer up your post. There's an FAQ page with all the details you'll need about how to self-nominate.
And whether or not you want to see your work republished in Blog Nosh Magazine, I hope you'll check it out. It's fun, thoughtful, smart, timely, entertaining. In short, it's the perfect little nibble to go with your morning coffee. * nom nom nom nom * As Daugher says, "mmmm...BE-licious."
Tuesday, June 24, 2008
My sister-in-law has hair that is the stuff of which fairy tales were made. Thick and curly, it is many shades of blond – from pale straw, to golden honey, to wheaten. In the sun, it catches the light and looks almost like a halo. She has always had lovely hair, with its golden curls framing her face, but she has been letting it grow, and now it is waist-length. Although for convenience she often wears it up in complex twists and braids, when she lets it down the other day, I found myself catching my breath. I always thought the pre-Raphaelite painters were exaggerating.
Now I know better.
And this visit has got me thinking about hair. I'd been feeling rather dissatisfied by my own before she arrived. Mine is long (not as long as hers, though below my shoulder blades) and curly (though not as tightly curly as hers) and many shades of brown. I've gotten to the point too long past my last haircut where I just pull it up into a ponytail, or twist it up somehow, and ignore it. In short, I've been feeling like I have "mom hair" -- that attractively mussed twist on the back of my head that says to all the world "I have preschoolers and you're lucky I showered today; please don't expect a blow-out too."
I've been thinking I should cut it off pretty substantially, to my shoulders or so, just to give it some sense of style. But now that I see my sister-in-law's gorgeous very long hair, I wonder if it's possible for me to keep it long without inevitably looking too "Mom" about it.
So here's my question for you: how long do you find it easiest to keep your hair? How do you feel most attractive? What is the longest your hair can be without turning into "Mom" hair? And what should I do with mine that will be both easy to care for and not super-short?
Monday, June 23, 2008
It doesn't take much to have a good time when you have a house full of kids.
Over the weekend, we had a lot of fun getting muddy
hanging around in trees
and picking wildflowers.
Auntie very ingeniously packed costumes amongst the luggage, so this morning the boys have been playing superheroes (both have red capes, courtesy of Nana), and cowboys, and fire-fighters. Soon we're off for a fishing expedition. I'm not sure how poles with real hooks will work out with four little ones in the vicinity...but it should be an interesting experiment. If nothing else, we'll make some lasting memories.
Sunday, June 22, 2008
I've always loved candid photos of kids. I used to be able to get good shots with my old, manual-everything, film camera. But who can afford to take 100 pictures in film these days, then wait for developing, only to find out there are only two usable ones in the batch? Our point- and-shoot digital was getting me down because the lag time in focusing meant I was missing everything I wanted to capture. And so, finally, I got a d-SLR camera in April, and I've been taking hundreds of pictures a week since, trying to learn the ropes.
In this vein, OHmommy has a little challenge going on over at Classy Chaos. To help us all become better photographers, the first task she has set is to take pictures of our kids' heads, preferably from above. Here are my efforts. The first is a shot I took since she issued the challenge; the second I took last week, but it's by far the best recent head shot of Son, so I'm including it too.
If you want to try it yourself, it's a great experiment. Put up your photos, and be sure to link up on OHmommy's Mr. Linky so she can see them too.
Saturday, June 21, 2008
My brother, his wife, and their kids arrived last night. Son spent the whole day yesterday wistfully drifting around the house, waiting for his cowboy- and pirate-loving four-year-old boy cousin to arrive. (The Little Sister, he asserted, could play with Daughter.) "Will they be here soon?" "When are they coming?" At dinner he looked up from his plate, fork suspended in mid-air before his first bite, and said plaintively "But Cousin isn't here yet!" I promised they would arrive before bedtime.
When the knock finally came, Son ran shrieking through the house, "Cousin! Cousin! Cousin! Cousin!" to answer the door. They were instant friends, although they haven't seen each other in more than a year. Which, if you're four, is a quarter of your life, so we might have expected a little hesitation. But no. Immediate pals. They are inseparable.
At bedtime, I was reading stories to the two boys, one snuggled under the covers on either side of me, when they both laughed uproariously at something having to do with a small duck afraid to learn to swim. Son stopped mid-laugh, looked adoringly at his still-giggling cousin, and said earnestly, "I wish you could stay here FOREVER."
This is going to be a fun week.
Friday, June 20, 2008
Ahhh... Judith Shakespeare, that's who. If you're reading this in a reader, click on through to see the magic she's wrought. The whole place looks so wonderful that it makes me want to throw a martini party and invite everyone I know. As soon as I figure out how to send you a chocolate martini over the internet, I'll do it. In the meantime, here's to the magic of JudithShakes Designs and the oh-so-elegant new digs here at Mommy's Martini. Cheers!
Thank you Judith. A thousand thousand times!!
Lately I look around at all the gas guzzling cars that fill the great state of Michigan, and contemplate a summer of high energy costs, and try to think about all the things that I personally might do to help the planet out just a wee bit. Along these lines, it occurred to me the other day that one very nice way to save water would be to use the laundry water on my flower beds. I will admit, this was not entirely my own brilliant idea. I think I read it somewhere. Or heard the suggestion on the radio. Or dreamed it. I'm not sure. But here's the thing: it IS genius. I do, on average, ten loads of laundry a week on the "super-mega-large load" setting. I don't know how many gallons the washer takes to fill, but if you figure a tubfull for washing, another for rinsing, and that's 20 laundry tubs of water a week. That could sustain a whole lot of petunias.
It wouldn't be too difficult, either. My washer doesn't even drain into any permanent plumbing. It's got one of those old-fashioned black tubes that snakes out the back of the washer and hangs in the laundry tub into which it spits its contents. Now I'm wondering: could I rig up some kind of flexible hose to the end of that drain-pipe, and then poke the hose out the laundry room window, and attach a sprayer on the end, and water the flower beds at the end of every rinse cycle?
To be sure, this would be a little bit of a pain in the neck. It's hard enough to remember to put the laundry promptly into the dryer so that it doesn't get that old-gym-bag smell and have to be re-washed. So I can imagine that it might become somewhat inconvenient to have to run outside every time I hear a spin cycle start so that I can give the geraniums a drink before the pipe backs up and sprays water all over the inside of my laundry room...
I'll admit, there are a few kinks to work out in the plan. But isn't it a great idea?
And thinking of this excellent method of saving water (well, at least of recycling it; no one could accuse me of wasting much water on my garden, which I tend to leave to fend for itself against the heat of July, but there's really no reason to let so much useful water go to waste, now is there?)...anyway, thinking about all of this got me to thinking about the house we used to live in. Perhaps the loveliest house I will ever own in my life.
It was an old farmhouse, built in 1927. White clapboards on the outside, a Craftsman bungalow style with a porch across the whole front and a large double dormer on the second floor to create headroom for the main bedroom. Inside, oak floors gleamed from decades of polishing, and 10" wide wood trim glowed along the baseboards, the color of rich dark honey.
The house had plenty of quirks.
* Only one full bathroom, and that with a tub that stretched along the short wall under the eaves, so that you couldn't install a regular shower even if you wanted to, because you had to tilt your head to stand upright under the sloping ceiling.
* A second 1/4 bath downstairs. 1/4 rather than 1/2 because it was only a toilet, plunked unceremoniously into the center of what had once been the closet under the stairs. No sink. For that you had to go to the kitchen.
* A door to the backyard direct from the landing on the staircase to the basement, so that from the kitchen, you had to go partway down the basement stairs to let the dog in and out. (The benefit of this, however, was that Dog learned to knock on the screen door to be let in. Very handy. And so polite.)
* A separate key to unlock the door to every single room in the house. I spent a pleasant hour in the first week we moved in, walking from room to room with the box of old-fashioned keys, trying them in every lock, and leaving them where they belonged: one each for kitchen, study, main bedroom, bathroom, 1/4 bath, guest bedroom, main house door, and each of three closets. When I was done, I was left with one keyless closet and several leftover keys. Very mysterious.
* Plaster walls that were filled with the trunks of sapling trees for added insulation. (We know this because when we tried to install a wall-mounted microwave, the stud finder gizmo was telling us that the whole wall was studs, and we thought "stupid, cheap stud finder gizmo" until we started drilling into the wall and found it was filled with trees.)
* Fabulously bizarre pseudo-Chinese wallpaper from the 1920s on one dining room wall under the old-lady pink-and-silver cabbage roses we chose to remove when we first moved in.
The house had only 1400 square feet, but every inch of it was useable space. Large rooms opened directly into one another with none of the shenanigans of intervening hallways. It was on an acre and surrounded by 75-foot-tall maple trees, so that there were only a very few days in midsummer when we had to turn on the window air conditioners. It did have a railroad track running across the back edge of the property, used regularly by high-speed freight trains whose rumbling literally made the walls murmur and drowned out the sound of the television or a phone conversation. Details.
It also -- and lo! suddenly there was a segue! -- had two giant cisterns in the basement. Enormous rectangles of concrete, nearly 6 feet deep, these were originally designed as holding tanks for a system that caught rainwater runoff from the roof. There was even a simple motorized pump attached to a hose designed to allow you to use this water on your garden.
And this connection between today's need to be better to our planet and yesterday's house points out something that strikes me as an important fact. As we have "advanced" technologically, we have sadly forgotten things our great-grandparents knew were important. That conserving water was a good idea. That planting trees could keep a house cool. That energy (and vegetables) could be saved by centralizing a water source for washing and gardening. Those people back before air-conditioning and dishwashers and cell phones and the internet knew a thing or two more than we do about being nice to Mother Earth. These are lessons we would do well to recall.
If for no other reason than recalling them might keep me from having to run like a maniac in my pajamas while chewing a bite of waffle in order to water the garden when the spin cycle started. If only the house I lived in now had a cistern, I could just let that laundry water collect and then mosey on outside at my leisure to do right by the flowers once breakfast was over. What a wonderful
new old new idea.
Thursday, June 19, 2008
Son has a new swear word. It's, get ready for it....
That's right. Esther. As in the name. As in lovely bathing beauty film star of the 1940s and 50s, which might be the last time Esther was used as a name for an actual living child. (Esther Williams Photo Credit)
Son exclaimed this when the wing fell off his new motorcycle (yes, you read that correctly; more on that another day), "Oh, Esther!" Of course, I had to jump on the swear and ask him what he'd just said. But mostly because his pronunciation is "eF-ter," and I was more than a little concerned about what he might be trying to say. Here's the conversation that ensued:
Me: What did you say, honey?
Son: Oh, eF-ter!
Me: Where did you hear that word?
Son: [nonchalantly] It's Ethan's new name. [note: he pronounces Ethan ee-Fan, so I began to relax over what eF-ter might mean]
Me: [moving on to the next area of concern] Why is that Ethan's new name?
Son: [matter-of-factly] Because he screams like a girl.
We go out to the car, me mulling this over--on the one hand, reassured that my son's swear word is simply an old-fashioned girl's name, and on the other hand, not at all liking the notion that the kids at school have switched Ethan's name to Esther on the grounds that he "screams like a girl." I buckle the kids into their seats, contemplating what sort of discussion we need to have about gender stereotyping and ridicule and...my reverie pulls up short as I think, "Where the heck did those kids even HEAR the name Esther, let alone think to use that as the female version of Ethan?" So I ask.
Me: Where did you hear that name?
Son: From Miss Classy and Miss Ridicule. [not their real names] Ethan was screaming, and they said, "Ethan if you don't stop screaming like a girl, we're going to have to change your name to Esther." And then Son giggled.
Me: [thinking: %*&@$%#$^&*)!] saying: Oh, your teachers said it. Well...
And then I was silent. Stunned silent. I know, we've come a long way from the days when teachers used rulers across the backs of little hands to retain order, when Dunce caps were de rigeur for instilling a stronger work ethic in kids who weren't getting their lessons properly, when ridicule of all sorts was considered character building and a necessary part of education. And I know some people would argue that we have gotten to the point in education where the kids are ruling the classrooms and helicopter parents are making it impossible for teachers to accomplish anything productive because every single kid must be made to feel special at every single moment of the day.
But, really, am I being annoyingly politically correct when I feel a sense of outrage that a teacher actually told a FOUR year old in a preschool class that he was "screaming like a girl" and that if he didn't stop, they would have to change his name to a girl's name? The feminist in me is outraged: at his preschool, Son is learning that boys must be tough, only girls scream, and to "scream like a girl" is a sign of weakness that must be further insulted by changing one's name to a girl's name. The teacher in me is horrified: a teachable moment about indoor/outdoor voices or good ways to express extreme emotions becomes a moment of mockery on the basis of gender stereotypes. The parent in me is mortified: my child thinks it is funny to insult another child, and thinks that acting "like a girl" is the biggest insult available.
I don't know what to do. I don't want to be one of those helicopter parents who tells teachers how to run their classrooms. On the other hand, I work every single day at home to fight gender stereotypes, and I find the work increasingly harder as Son begins to adopt the notion that colors, toy preferences, appropriate playmates, and even ideas should be categorized by gender. And then here are his teachers blatantly supporting such stereotypes with a remark that clearly did not go unnoticed in the playground pecking order. Not to mention supporting the more general principle that ridicule is an appropriate response to any behavior, a notion that I find repellent for so many reasons. Kids can be cruel enough as it is without the teachers adding to the "merry-making"at one child's expense.
I don't know if I should say something to them (and if so, what exactly?). I plan to sit down with Son and explain to him why we do not say such things, even if other people do. He already understands that in different houses, people have different rules, that some mommies allow what I do not, and the reverse, so I think that we can have this conversation productively. But as for Miss Classy and Miss Ridicule? What would you do?
Wednesday, June 18, 2008
In Virginia Woolf's magnificent 1927 novel To the Lighthouse, Mrs. Ramsay is the mother of eight children, ranging in age from 17 to 6, and she spends her life thinking and working towards the happiness of others. She is a soothing, sociable, lovely mother, an indulgent wife, a thoughtful neighbor. She has aspirations to better the dairy system and improve the delivery of less expensive and more healthful milk -- but when she even alludes to these aloud, her whole family laughs at her over the dinner table. It is not intended (by them) to be the cruel laughter of derision, but rather the silvery tinkling laughter of those sharing a joke at no one's expense. But it nonetheless feels unbearably cruel to a reader who by this point in the novel understands Mrs. Ramsay's life of giving and giving and giving and sympathizes with her interest in doing something intellectually challenging. Of course, to the merry party gathered around her dinner table in 1927, there is nothing better she could possibly choose to do than manage such a glorious meal even on the wilds of the Scottish coast in their summer vacation home.
At one point, Mrs. Ramsay reflects on the value of the occasional moments she has to herself, which she characterizes as her time,
To be silent; to be alone. All the being and the doing, expansive, glittering, vocal, evaporated; and one shrunk, with a sense of solemnity, to being oneself, a wedge-shaped core of darkness, something invisible to others.I find this image incredibly powerful as a way to describe the life of a woman who lives almost exclusively for others: when she is alone, she shrinks to a small bit of darkness that no one else can see -- hiding, as it were, the very essence of her being from prying eyes by way of protecting that tiny scrap of self from being absorbed as well in the demands of "all the being and the doing."
Julie Pippert asks, in her query for the week, to what limits one would go for one's children. And I have to answer: apart from matters of life or death, I would stop well short of becoming Mrs. Ramsay. Although it may go without saying, I will say anyway that if life or health depended upon it, I would do anything for my children -- fight off a bear with my camera, travel halfway around the world to consult a doctor, sell all my stuff, donate a kidney, you name it.
On the other hand, when it comes to the day-to-day, to the wants as opposed to the needs, I draw the line of self-sacrifice somewhat closer. Because my children are still very young (4 and 2), and therefore prone to disaster, poor judgment, and all the harms that may befall children who cannot read or (in the case of Daughter) cannot even speak fluently, I do spend a tremendous amount of time watching out for them. I neglect working on my book to teach Son how to sew. (On Monday, he hand-stitched the seams on a cowboy vest for his teddy.) I neglect to put on make-up or dry my hair most mornings in favor of changing diapers or making breakfast. I choose dinner menus on the basis of least common denominators from whatever sliver of Venn diagram includes both their preschool tastes and my requirement that we all eat vegetables. I plan my daily schedule around naptimes and mealtimes and known melt-down triggers.
But I do not plan to do this forever.
I want my children to be independent, well-rounded, thinking creatures who can fend off their own looming boredom. I want them to be under-scheduled enough that they actually get bored occasionally. I want them to learn that intellectual curiosity is the key to a fascinating world -- and I want them to know how to look stuff up to find answers.
I understand that I will have to teach them these things. I take it as my job to guide them towards these skills, to foster their growth, to support them when they struggle. But, in fact, I do not think it is my job to keep them from failing at something. No one can be the fastest, smartest, mathest, writingest, buildingest, and coolest every single minute of the day. And that's an important lesson to learn too.
Even more, I think, it is important to learn that we are a family. And being a family means that we share many things -- laughter, vacations, a love of meatballs-and-macaroni-and-cheese, and responsibilities to each other. We owe each other a little private time every day. I must do the best I can to raise thoughtful, considerate, smart kids with reasonably good judgment, and then I must stand back and be willing to let them make some mistakes and learn something from them. They must let me help, guide and teach them, and they must let me stand back. As much as I have an obligation to help them learn, being part of a family means that as they get older and more capable of some independence, they will have an obligation to let me have some time for myself as well.
I think it is vitally important that they understand that Mama has needs too. Not that I will expect them to take over what are justifiably a parent's jobs at home, but that I will expect them to respect my own ambitions, my time, my dreams, just as I respect theirs. It will be a struggle, I can already see, to help them learn that they do not need me in the same room as them every single minute of the day, that I do not need to serve as a witness or bear affirmation to every successfully cooked air omelette. But I will stick to my feeling that they must learn this.
Because I see in Mrs. Ramsay's fate the net result of never teaching one's children the value of oneself as an individual. When, a hundred or so pages into the novel, after the summer is over and the house is boarded up, we learn the following (yes, the original is enclosed in [ ]), it is an incredible shock:
[Mr. Ramsay, stumbling along a passage one dark morning, stretched his arms out, but Mrs. Ramsay having died rather suddenly the night before, his arms, though stretched out, remained empty.]Her death is recorded as a dependent clause stuck in the middle of a parenthetic sentence whose subject is her husband. In short, Mrs. Ramsay has shrunk to such an infinitesimal wedge-shaped core of darkness that she has disappeared, and the only reason anyone even notices she is gone is that she is not there to catch them when they fall.
I do not need to be famous or wealthy, but I do need to be Somebody. A whole person. An individual. I need my children to need me, to love me, and to see the strength in standing next to me rather than attached to me. That will not happen for some years, I expect, as they slowly grow to a point where alone-time becomes valuable and important for them as well. But it is my hope that they will see through my example that while accolades may come and go, races may be won or lost, a Self is the one thing no one can take from you. Unless you allow that to happen. I do not want them ever to allow that to happen to themselves. And so I think I must show them how I can love them with my whole heart and at the same time not allow mothering to so consume me that I allow my own Self to disappear. I do not know exactly where I will draw the line in future, but I do know that wherever that line is, there will be a brightness, not a darkness, that demarcates it.
Tuesday, June 17, 2008
I'd like to talk about cartoons. I'll have plenty to say in a moment about the hideously "zany" antics of the geometric-headed shout-talkers that pass for cartoon children on most channels these days. But I want to start with the cartoons of my youth. I remember as a child getting off the bus and racing home for what we all called our "three o'clock snack." Occasionally, it was warm peanut butter cookies spread out on grocery bags that had been cut open to lay flat on every horizontal surface in the kitchen. Most often, what I recall was cinnamon graham crackers spread with strawberry jam. Oh, how I loved them. (I don't know that you could pay me to savor that combination now, but that's neither here nor there.)
On weekdays, we would take our snacks and retire to the family room to watch TV, which was most often Mr. Ed (everybody now: "a horse is a horse, of course, of course, but no one can talk to a horse, of course, that is, of course, unless the horse, is the faa-aaa-aaamous Mr. Ed") and Scooby Doo. We loved the mysteries The Gang encountered. And for reasons I cannot quite understand, we were always mystified -- even though the answer is always the carnival owner dressed up as a ___ [fill in the blank] using glow-in-the-dark paint.
We weren't allowed to watch TV all afternoon on school days, though, and so after an hour, we would lose ourselves in books or other games. But on Saturdays, well... Saturday morning cartoons were a ritual. This was before cartoons were on 24/7 on multiple channels. This was back when a WHOLE morning of cartoons was a luxury one awaited all week with nearly the same anticipation as a birthday, only gratifyingly more often. We were up early, and we would run into the family room and turn on the giant console TV (really, the box was bigger than the screen), and throw ourselves into our favorites:
Baggy Pants and the Nitwits
Hong Kong Phooey
We did dances to their theme music. We knew all the lyrics. We reveled in their plot lines. And when cartoons were over for the morning, we rehashed what we had seen. I don't recall actually playing that we were these characters, though, and I think this point is important, as you'll see in a minute.
One thing that amazes me, as I think back to these cartoons, is their sheer inanity. You will find no "real world" problem solving here. No playground crises navigated successfully, no modeling of positive behaviors, certainly no moral dilemmas about homework or friendship, no resolutions about truth-telling or sharing, no messages about those less fortunate, no enriching lessons of any kind, least of all foreign languages (witness the "chicka chung chicka chung chicka chicka chicka chung" portion of Hong Kong Phooey's theme song; seriously, if you're too young to remember this: the lyrics actually said that).
Instead, we spent hours watching an anthropomorphic dog, who worked as a janitor in a police station, jump into a filing cabinet at the first sign of crisis and emerge as his alter-Super-ego, the kung fu master Hong Kong Phooey. We laughed and laughed and laughed as Wile E. Coyote dynamited, stabbed, and flattened with an anvil himself because the Road Runner was too smart for his traps. Ditto the "poor putty tat" Sylvester who could not outwit Tweety to save his life. We believed that Wonder Woman flew an invisible plane, and we wanted a magic ring that would enable the three of us to be the Wonder Twins so that our power could "ACTIVATE! form of..." anything we wanted.
I can recall absolutely nothing about Baggy Pants and the Nitwits except a scrap of the theme music, so I had to look this one up (everything else comes straight from my memory as if I'd watched it yesterday). Apparently Baggy Pants was a 10-15 minute silent cartoon -- no talking, no laugh track, nothing -- in which a cat appropriated Charlie Chaplin's clothes and gags. Bizarre, right? Then, get this: the Nitwits half of this 30-minute show was based on a sketch from Laugh In where some homely woman gets hit on every episode by a old guy and then bonks him on the head with her purse. Except in the Nitwits, they were crime fighters. Obviously. That's so much more kid appropriate.
And now we come to the point of this rambling animated roll down memory lane: has anyone else noticed how offensive kids' shows have become in the process of becoming more "kid friendly" these days? I don't mean offensive to one's politics or social standards. I think it's pretty clear nothing beats Hong Kong Phooey for racial insensitivity, for example. I mean offensive to one's sensibilities, aesthetic and otherwise, and basic human being-ness. The cartoons on Noggin generally aside, most cartoons for kids seem to me to be characterized by the three v's: volume, violence, and vigor. Everything happens loud, fast, and with a maximum of crashing and burning.
And unlike the stylized violence of Elmer Fudd, Yosemite Sam, Wile E. Coyote, Sylvester, and Marvin the Martian, things actually die fiery deaths in kids' cartoons these days. Transformers and other robots shoot to kill. And shows without death and fire still have a kind of manic violence to their movements that I find frightening: kids shriek past one another at warp speed cackling with evil laughter. Although no one can deny that Loony Tunes cartoons are incredibly violent, the violence in today's cartoons seems to me to be so much more insidious, in large part because it is glorified rather than ridiculed. Violence made Elmer Fudd ridiculous. It makes Transformers powerful. That is a substantial shift in message that should not be ignored.
Even in many shows with no death and violence, I find there is no time to process anything: it's just one electrified image after another. Nothing is beautiful. Precious little is slow. Not one iota is subtle. Can you imagine a cartoon succeeding these days with no sounds?! My nerves feel all jangly after just a moment of these shows, which happens only occasionally as we are channel surfing. What must it do to dull the senses if one watches even an hour of such programming a day?
Perhaps most importantly, kids are the protagonists in many of these shows. Granted, most of the kids look like a speeded up version of a Picasso painting -- all hard angles and blue hair -- but nonetheless, they are recognizably kids, in school, facing kid dilemmas. (Well, kid dilemmas on speed, most of the time.) In all the cartoons I grew up watching, I can't think of a single character who was an elementary school kid. The Scooby Doo gang drove their own van, you may recall. Bad Guys and rescuing heroes were either grown-ups or talking animals -- neither of which were much close to our states of life. Perhaps, had I grown up with two brothers instead of two sisters, we would have tried to drop anvils on each other's heads from high places. But somehow, I don't think so. Whereas my son, if he sees even five minutes of one of the cartoons that runs on the Cartoon Network or any of the other verboten channels in our house, is a violent mess for an hour afterwards. And I think it's because so much of what happens contains child characters who are easier to want to emulate than are crazy coyotes.
Even Dora is not immune to this criticism. Okay, she's cute and multicultural and has good manners and can read a map, but SHE. SHOUTS. EVERYTHING. And SO. DO. MY. KIDS. when they are done watching her show.
I'm not going to go all "TV is evil" on you here. Nor all "things were better back in my day when we had to walk to school everyday in the snow, barefoot, uphill both ways." I just want to put it out there that I think there is much to be said for sensibility, aesthetics, and media that gives a brain a moment to think. Quiet every once in a while. Dialogue that one actually has to listen to in order to understand the plot line. Musical interludes, with no talking at all, that do not also contain the sound of gunfire.
The obvious solutions are not to watch TV, or to watch extremely selectively (again, Noggin gets high praise for most shows), which we do in our house. But I have to wax nostalgic a little for those supremely weird cartoons of my youth that contained not a single manic kid and never set my nerves a-jangling.
And now it's your turn. What do you remember about the cartoons you once watched? How would you compare them to the ones today?
Monday, June 16, 2008
Cowboy Tuff Leader named himself. But no one was going to argue with his name. He was, after all, the toughest cowboy in the Lower Peninsula. His favorite color was "cowboy orange." And even though he was tough, if you didn't know that there was such a color, or exactly what shade of orange it was, he would explain patiently to you that it was "as orange as the color of a cowboy's letters." He was nothing if not a deep and philosophical tough cowboy.
One day, Cowboy Tuff decided that, like all good cowboys, he needed a slingshot. And, of course, he needed a container to hold his ammunition. So he appropriated his Little Sister's sippy cup (he was a broad-minded cowboy who didn't condescend to critiquing useful tools just because they might seem anachronistic), filled it with wads of paper, and took to the range to defeat the notorious Bad Guys. Within moments, he had the Bad Guys in his sights and the technique perfected.
Despite the lengthening shadows and glare of the setting sun, they didn't stand a chance against his mighty slingshot prowess.
Celebratory dancing is of course a requisite part of any Cowboy's repertoire, especially after having defeated particularly BAD Bad guys. This is actually a tremendously tough skill to master, and not one that should be attempted lightly or by amateur cowboys. It involves coordination of many body parts, as well as facility with the nuances of music only discernible within one's own head. Cowboy Tuff wants you to know: You should not try this at home unless you have properly stowed both slingshot and ammunition first.
Fortunately for the less skilled on the range, Cowboy Tuff offers tutorials. They are free, and only require that you pay close attention to extensive monologues.
And stand back just a bit to make room for the talking hands. Which are, of course, the artistic side of tuff. Even cowboys need a little yin with their yang.
Saturday, June 14, 2008
Many many thanks to those of you who voted in the recent elections over at An Island Life, and to the lovely Kailani for dreaming up this little venture. Despite competition from many brains I would certainly characterize as bigger than mine, somehow Mommy's Martini has walked away with the prize for Brainiest! Whee! I probably should come up with something much more dignified to write than "Whee!" but right now I'm up to my eyeballs in kids with marbles and little toy crowns, so you'll have to bear with me.
I hope you all have great weekends with the fathers, grandfathers and significant others of your choice. As for me, I plan on spending a lot of time in the swimming pool. Wracking my brains trying to figure out how to post hilarious pictures of Son in a cowboy outfit in a way that seems even remotely intelligent. :) Happy Father's Day (tomorrow) -- and see you Monday!
Friday, June 13, 2008
One of my most vivid childhood memories is sitting in the dark, on the screened-in porch of my next-door-neighbor's house, and listening to the grown-ups talking. In the moist, heavy heat of a Georgia summer, the little ceiling fan on the porch would force a breeze, and the crickets would begin to chirp as night fell. The puffs of wind beyond the screens carried the faint scent of magnolia blossoms, and the asphalt twinkled with embedded sparkles in the pools of golden streetlamp light where hard-shelled Junebugs gathered. There was no light on the porch, so as to avoid attracting insects, and as the darkness gathered closer and enclosed our little room, I felt cocooned in an almost magical place.
We lived in a house on a horseshoe shaped block of homes that had been built for returning GIs after WWII. Every single house on our street had the same front bathroom (what had once been the only bathroom), with the identical pattern of black-and-white tile on the floor and walls. You know the pattern; it's very like the "retro" one you can buy at big box home DIY stores now, except there is something different, a bit glossier, and better, about the original. We all had the original.
These were small houses -- two front rooms, a kitchen, bath, two bedrooms -- that had been added onto over time so that by the time we lived there in the early 1980s, they all had a slightly different footprint. Except for three things: that central black-and-white bathroom, the wide front stoop, and the porch. Some houses (like ours) had enclosed the porch. But not next door.
The people next door were about 10 years older than our grandparents. Although we were taught to call the parents of most of our school friends Mr. and Mrs. Lastname, these grandparently souls next door were known simply at Teta (pronounced tee-tuh) and John. "Teta" was the lisping toddler pronunciation of her real name, Teresa. And as so many of the children on the street had grown up thinking of her as their local grandmother, they had stuck to calling her Teta even when they could speak better.
I don't remember talking much myself on her porch. At least, not after the darkness settled in. On summer nights, between the ages of about 11 and 14, I had few options for how to spend my time once the dinner dishes were done: read, play kick-the-can with the kids on the block, babysit for $1 an hour, or go sit on Teta's porch. We tended to call our games over once it got really dark; sometimes we would stay out talking till our parents called us in; sometimes the party would break up earlier. On any night with nothing else pressing going on, I would go to Teta's house before it got quite dark -- strategically early enough to get my favorite chair, a low wooden rocker.
We would talk, and she would tell me stories of her childhood growing up in Greenwood, Mississippi in the early 1920s. She had 10 (or 7?) brothers and sisters, the youngest of whom was called Hattie. Poor little Hattie was always getting into scrapes -- dared to swing on the trapeze they'd rigged in the attic, then left hanging there, stuck half upside down, while the rest of them trooped on to the next activity. I don't actually recall many of the specific stories she told, though I do recall her voice, the soft slight accent on some words, the exclamation of surprise that stood for any occasion that one might need a swear word, "Well, GAR-den SEED!" And I recall that as it got darker, Teta's porch door would squeak slightly when a neighbor opened it, then bang smartly shut thanks to its spring, while someone new settled down into a chair for a chat. Sometimes it was gardening. Or children. Or I don't know what else. I would sit in my corner in the dark and listen, loving the stories, the ritual, the sound of the door welcoming each new visitor with a wooden smack that reassuringly promised to keep out the bugs. I know that the woodwork holding the screens taut was painted white. I know that we (for I was not the only girl hunkered down there on the porch, though in my mind's eye, I am the one there most frequently) were occasionally allowed, if we called our mothers to ask permission first, to drink an ice-cold "co-cola" from a little glass bottle. I know that most women brought their own large tumblers filled with iced tea as they sauntered over to Teta's for a chat.
In my memory, there were only ever women on her porch. John took the little terrier, Barney, for a walk every evening, and saluted the talking ladies with a wave and a nod as he exited the house, but otherwise, we never saw him. Or any other husband or father that I recall.
This screened porch was a woman's sanctuary. A place to relax, tell stories, laugh, reminisce, soothe heartache, talk about the neighbors, plan parties. A place to connect.
In retrospect, I see that the magic I felt when I sat in that rocker sipping my drink was the simple magic of being part of a community. I knew everyone on the street, knew my way to their fridges and bathrooms, knew the best hiding spots in their yards, knew the names of their parents and the teachers of their kids. I knew whose door had won the decorating contest at Christmas and whose had been kicked at by "The Prowler." I knew the names and ages of every single one of the 30 odd kids who lived "around the block."
And I knew, when I sat in my favorite rocker on Teta's porch, that I would hear something that I did not already know. Something that I would be glad to know. Whether it was useful or merely funny, a curiosity or a necessity, I would learn something new every single night on her porch, at the same time that I was learning something very very old--the power of community.
As it turns summer here in Michigan, I miss those days immensely. Don't get me wrong; I have some dear and lovely friends who live both near and far, and I am beginning to knit myself into a new community online too. I can call my friends, and make lunch dates, and email, and have an occasional girls' night out. What I am missing is not love or the intimacy of good friends. What I miss is neighborliness. Having lived in my house for five years this summer, I can only tell you the names of families in four houses on my street. No one has a screened-in porch, much less an open door policy where neighbors just wander over, drinks in hand, and pull up a chair without an invitation. For on Teta's porch, an invitation would have been extended only to a stranger. The guest of a neighbor, for example, would have been politely offered the best chair (the big wooden rocker) as well as some sweet tea. Everyone else just pulled open the door and sat on what was available. The rules were simple: if Teta wasn't home, the door was latched; if she was, you came in, and you didn't expect her to serve you anything except some delightful talk.
Perhaps there are still neighborhoods like this. I like to think there are. I like to think that somewhere adolescent girls are knitting themselves into the fabric of womanhood through the simple power of presence and talking. Perhaps I am over romanticizing. But I do wish that my own daughter could grow up secure in the sanctity of the screened-in porch, surrounded by stories of love and work, sun-tea making and gardening, childhood and milestones, until the nights wove themselves together into a tapestry of shared experience.
Thursday, June 12, 2008
About a month ago, there appeared on a roadside near me, several dozen of those tall brown paper bags made for disposing of yard waste. They were located at the bottom of a steep hill on the side of an otherwise very busy road that is both thoroughfare and entrance to a number of subdivisions. I didn’t think much of the bags – except that there were an awful lot of them even given that it was Spring cleanup time. But then after bag pickup day, I noticed a wood chip path leading up the hill and into the trees. And a week or two after that, a simple, lovely sage green sign appeared at the bottom of the hill proclaiming…a cemetery.
Being a particularly
nosy curious sort, I of course had to venture over there with my camera. After all, if you discovered that there was a cemetery just a few blocks from your house, and up a short steep path into the woods, wouldn’t you want to check it out? Especially if, as the quiet sign explained clearly, it was “Long-Lost Cemetery. Established 1826.”
I arrived just as a pickup truck was parking on the shoulder of the road, a pickup that contained the parents of the high school boy who had chosen this as his Eagle Scout project. Somehow, I know not how, he had learned of this long-abandoned cemetery, the first burying ground our town ever had, and had determined to clean up the overgrown hillside and reestablish some sense of respectful marking for the souls interred there. He got over 100 volunteers to help him clear dozens of scrub trees, weeds, dead underbrush, stumps, and even some construction trash; he got a local branch of a big box store to donate trucks and wood chips to create the lovely pathways they constructed. He and his team not only cleared away decades of debris; they created a veritable sanctuary.
In. One. Day.
There are very few of the original tombstones left here now. Some, apparently, were taken by teenage vandals; some have disappeared to erosion and time. Most of the remains of those once interred here were moved to the still-functioning large local cemetery in 1956. Of the 49 people originally buried here between 1826 and 1886, it is unknown to me how many actually remain. It is certainly obvious that the tombstones no longer rest in their original spots – as this nonsensical arrangement of headstone supports makes clear.
But out of respect for the spot and the dead who may remain, the boy who dreamed up this project was careful not to have moved any of the stones, which all lie, or lean, or stand precisely where they were found. He was also sensitive, as the footer for this stone shows, to the value of the plants that were here…retaining all the gorgeous lily of the valley that clusters in fragrant protection around the crumbling markers. In fact, the plants that you see stretching in enormous swaths around the paths and under the trees in the photo above are all lily of the valley. And throughout the grounds, I spotted astilbe, and vinca, and iris, and other reminders that once, this was a tended place.
He installed a bench for sitting and contemplating, and had I not been a little self-conscious about seeming to gawk in front of his parents, I would have sat there myself for a good long while. It is the sort of place that invites solitude and quiet thought.
There are a few partial stones still readable, and after taking pictures of the lovely spot, I came home and started doing some research to see what else I could learn. There are, in fact, multiple sources of a “complete” list of all the people once buried here, with all the known details of their causes of death, as well as the inscriptions on their tombstones. There are inconsistencies in some of the entries, from one source to the next, such that one cannot tell the ages of some of those buried -- 3 years or 10? 1 year or 11? There is one toddler whose father is listed but whose birthdate is recorded in two places with a difference of 60-odd years.
Even with these discrepancies, it is possible to see some family trees begin to emerge from these lists online, just as it is possible to trace, even at the distance of 180 years, the lines of grief that etched inscriptions such as this into the gravestone of little Hiram Jerome Tibbits, aged nine.
In fact, it was the discovery of this cemetery, and my desire to learn more about it, that led me to the interesting story of how my town officially got its name (and dodged the moniker Poduk for good). I learned that the early settlers in the area, needing a burial place, had chosen this spot – not far from the Tibbits’s barn, as an ideal location. And indeed, given the prospect that standing on this hill would no doubt have provided to the surrounding land before the current crop of relatively young trees covered it, I can imagine that this was indeed an ideal, if windswept, vista on which to say goodbye to a loved one.
This spot no longer looks like a cemetery per se, although the Scout has done an admirable job in creating a memorial here. It is not a spot for doing rubbings of fascinating old stones or scanning tidy rows of quaintly carved headstones for amusing or anachronistic quotations. Instead, it is a place to wander the few short paths and think about the first brave souls who came west (yes, Michigan was not even a State when people were first buried here) to make a new life. I like imagining the stories they could tell of a time when it was still possible to walk to the town center from where I stood. Now a 50-mile-per-hour road makes that impossible. As do so many other things about our current culture.
I admire immensely the thoughtful treatment of the spot by a group of high school kids. It is so easy, I think, to write off any young generation for its wild irreverence, its resistance to convention or authority for mere resistance’s sake. And yet, here is a boy with enough of a sense of history, enough of a perspective outside himself, to choose to restore a proper level of respect to a spot long forgotten but once sacred to the lives of those who came before us. I salute the power of his gesture, a quiet one undertaken with no fanfare, no press coverage, no “Grand Opening.” I imagine the pioneer families who first homesteaded here, resilient with what would become known as a midwestern diligence and modesty, would do the same.
Wednesday, June 11, 2008
Kailani at An Island Life (great blog you should know) is hosting what she's calling the 2008 Bloggy Hoss Elections, giving out those superlative awards that yearbooks give out (Class Clown, Most Popular, and so on) -- and Mommy's Martini is in the running for Brainiest! Which proves beyond a doubt that I was not a cheerleader in high school. I'll bet you'll find lots of others of your faves in the running for other awards too. (Hi Foolery!) Though I'm sure someone much brainier will win (you will indeed find the word poo in my regular post for today, just below this notice), I would love it if I didn't come in dead last. Would you vote, please? To do so, you have to use the "Contact" tab on her page, and send her an email with your votes written in. You can see all the nominees and vote here. And even check out some new blogs in the process; she's got links to them all. Thanks.
And scroll on down for some real content for today. Including super-duper brainy photos of my refrigerator. Sweet.
I went bananas last Monday and cleaned out the fridge. REALLY cleaned it. As in removed and scrubbed shelves, grouped and organized contents. I discovered that we had seven open jars of jam, and eight salad dressings. I located three mustards (all different from each other) and three jars of olives (all green). So in the last ten days, we've eaten a lot of marinated things -- since, honestly, no one needs seven jars of jam at once. (Try apricot + orange marmalade + chunky ginger jam + soy sauce. Seriously.) I find myself smiling uncontrollably every time I open the fridge and view its pristine state, and I finally couldn't restrain myself from taking a photo of its shiny shiny clean.
And then I looked more closely and found this.
Yes, it's a Little People zebra and a tube of lip gloss with the lid off. I could guess how it got there, though I had no proof and no explanation.
Until yesterday, when I heard Daughter rummaging around in the fridge. "Sweetie, what are you doing in there?" I called out. "I put my sunglasses in fridgerator," she replied matter-of-factly as she firmly shut the door and walked into the family room empty handed. At least she's not adding half-used bottles of salad dressing.
In more "real" news, I read an article in Wondertime magazine that mentions in passing that there are pictographs in a French cave "that anthropologists have translated as saying: "Cro-Magnon man sucks!"" (See the article, which is all about potty talk, here.) I have spent an inordinate amount of time researching online, trying to find a source for this little gem of history. The well-known coexistence of Cro-Magnons and Neanderthals, and the subsequent die-off of the latter, makes this a great little joke -- the first known example of graffiti. A 20,000 year old Neanderthal tag, if you will. The only information I can find (and I can find reams of it) is about the wonderful Lascaux Caves and the Cro-Magnon paintings of animals they contain. A little article in Time describes these paintings of bison, mammoths, horses, and deer as "fire shadows" for their lifelike fleeting depictions (Photo credit). They are indeed glorious. But they don't really seem to me to indicate any kind of Cro-Magnon vs. Neanderthal dust-up. And frankly they make the very idea, which delighted me at first, now seem a little tawdry.
If that conflict were in my house, on the other hand, it would look like this.
I'm guessing kids have been doing this at each other for at least 20,000 years. Don't you think?