My goal for November, you might recall, was to get my house in order.
I have realized that that is a rather big task. I'm not making excuses here, just explaining. I have two children under five, a full-time job that I do with part-time daycare and a lot of late-nights grading papers, and plenty of other more fun (also read: easier) things to do when I'm home with the kids than sort papers or scrub walls.
In my first installment of "kick the clutter," I managed to clean up the top of the fridge, the extremely dangerous catch-all cabinet in the kitchen, and our walk-in closet. The good news is that all three of these spots, which have a tendency to catch clutter of all kinds, are still as pristine as they were three weeks ago when they were first declared clean.
I had grand plans to tackle the living room and dining room and family room, several other clutter catcher spots in the kitchen, AND my office this month. In my secret heart of hearts, I also wanted to bomb the tops of the dressers in our bedroom, clean out under the bed, and sort the linen closet. These, however, have proven to be part of the maniacal Bite Off More Than You Can Chewism that afflicts all members of my family.
It appears, you see, that everyone in our house WILL insist on wearing clothes every single day -- which someone then has to wash. And people keep getting hungry, which necessitates doing dishes daily. And so on. Basically, the business of living life seems to get in the way of cleaning. However, that is precisely how we got into this mess in the first place, and I swore to myself (and promised my sanity) that there would be improvements by the end of the month. So, although it's not quite as much as I'd hoped in my grand dream, here's the rest of what I accomplished this month:
1. The corner counter by the fridge. This handy spot tucked between fridge and microwave was long the home of the colander that held drying baby bottle parts. When we retired the bottles, we used it for sippy cup tops and snack pack cups. Basically, it has sat on our counter for nearly five years, completely unusable for draining spaghetti. And because there was already a cluttery object on that part of the counter, other cluttery things were drawn there as if by magical magnetic force, leading it generally to look like this. (Note the detritus threatening to jump off the microwave and swim freely in the rest of the mess.)
But now, it looks like this:
and it has for over a week now, so I have high hopes that it will stay a gleaming surface appropriate for food preparation. (Yes, that is a knife magnet on the wall. It looks scary, but it's much safer than having a drawer full of Chinese cleavers and good Japanese blades at toddler level.)
2. The Pile. I forgot to take any photos of The Pile before I sorted it this time, so I am using this photo from ten days ago. The Pile doesn't change, only morphs its shape slightly, so this is reasonably representative, although you need to imagine that there is no kleenex box there, and instead the Pile has grown to overtake that portion of the counter too.
This is the most heinous spot in the kitchen for gathering junk (art projects, bills to pay, handy prepaid plastic envelopes to recycle your old cell phones--if only we could find our old cell phones--small toys that need to be glued with that "special really really sticky glue that only grown-ups can use that can glue your fingers together," and so on). The Pile is my nemisis.
Right now, the spot where The Pile normally lives is completely clean. I just did it today, though. And I think I need to fill it with a plant or something else useful in order to discourage future piling. For now, ta da!
3. The dining room. It looked like this two weeks ago.
Now it looks like this.
The table is still expanded from a recent dinner party, but the costumes are all put away, as are the sewing projects, random clothes, and whatnots. It has stayed clean since the party was over last Saturday, so I count this as a success. (Except that I obviously need to vacuum again.)
4. The living room. There is still a play tent in one corner, an easel in another, and a puppet theater in a third. But until we have another room to house these large items, they have to live here. At least the clutter of objects that don't belong in this room (witness below) has been renovated.
I discovered when I was writing this post that apparently when I ran around the house taking photo proof of our horrifying untidiness, I neglected the living room floor in favor of the top of the china cabinet. Rest assured, however, that the two looked quite similar. As they do now. Only now, you can actually see the floor you are walking on and do not risk deep bruises on your feet from Geotrax parts.
5. The grand finale: My Office. This room is small and ostensibly lovely. I painted the walls a soothing soft lavendar, got a thick burgundy rug, and filled the shelves with my books when we first moved in. It is a downstairs room with a door that closes, though, and so it has long been the dumping ground for things we didn't want the little ones to get into (electronics or presents that needed to stay hidden) or that we didn't want company to see. One easy way of cleaning, we've found, is simply to sweep up all the detritus that accumulates in other rooms and dump it somewhere else. Which leaves my office generally looking like this:
Be horrified. It's horrifying. But before you get completely disgusted and think "how can anyone LIVE like that?" do recall that the whole point here is that this is a small room behind a closed door, which simply invites trouble.
It took me several days of hours of work each to kick the mess. I sorted through a mortifying quantity of paper, shredded the things that contained any important information, and bagged everything else. I made numerous trips down to the basement and up to our bedrooms to store things that really belong elsewhere in their proper places, and I organized the things that actually belong in my office. This is the pile of paper that is getting recycled:
I still have this small pile of things to file.
I have a stack of carefully selected children's art that I want to save and that lives under the table until I get a portfolio box for it.
And I have a small pile of boxes and items that are currently listed on eBay that are awaiting auctions' end to be shipped out.
But overall, the place is useable and comfortable, and I am pretty pleased with how it's turned out:
And I've made myself a promise that now that my children are old enough to know better than to try to climb the bookshelves, this door is staying opened at all times as an added incentive to keep this a lovely workspace instead of a dumping ground.
Now, for December's projects: the guest room and bathroom upstairs, which have to be finished before my parents arrive in three weeks, the filing and odds and ends to take care of in my office, and the toynado* in our family room that must come under control before more things arrive courtesy of the old guy in a red suit. At least now, I feel inspired to keep going.
*Props to BusyDad for inventing this excellent term, which describes (perhaps obviously) the state of one's family room floor after all the toys have been dumped out of all their boxes and stirred mightily by several preschoolers' hands.
Sunday, November 30, 2008
My goal for November, you might recall, was to get my house in order.
Friday, November 28, 2008
Photographers love the light an hour or so before dusk. When the shadows are lengthening and the sunlight softens, skin tones look beautiful, old buildings look magical, the world can turn into a gleaming rosy place.
Tonight on the way to some friends' house for dinner, I looked back over my shoulder in the car, and found myself gasping at the beauty behind me. The lowering sun was doing astonishing things to the landscape. Steel-grey clouds, mounded upon each other, hung low in the sky. Silhouetted against them were tall trees, bare of leaves, fine branches almost feathery in their supple thinness, and glowing pink with the light of the sun. The trunks near the earth sat in shadowy muted tones, hardly differentiated from the earth in its wintering cloak of drab. But the top two-thirds of every tree looked alive, blushing, sun-kissed as if lit from within. If the trees wore fiber-optic twigs, lit with peachy light, this would have been the effect -- so brilliant, so startling against the heavy, leaden sky.
180 degrees away, I could see the actual sun itself just sinking beneath the horizon. A line of trees along the crest of a hill stood sharply black against the backdrop of molten gold and orange and pink that was the sky. Light shone in gleaming streaks through breaks in the clouds.
We passed a cow. Large, placid, brown and white, she stood with her head down, munching the grass, oblivious to the splendor of the sky, to the torch-like pink trees flaring behind her like glowing sentinels, to the pure orange that tinged the edges of the clouds that kissed the earth. In spite of all this, she simply munched. Moving slowly across the dull field, seeking out her dinner, she neither knew nor cared that the vision of this sky, these trees, this magnificence moved me. She was not moved by anything beyond the call of her belly.
I could not help but wonder.
Would it really be possible to be a cow, standing amidst all this glory, and not notice? Could you really live on the land, be a part of the land, knowing the rhythm of days, the taste of winter on the grass, the smell of cold in the air, and be completely unaware of the magical light that splashed itself across the tops of trees on those rare perfect evenings when clouds and sunset and seasons conspired to create a canvas of perfection?
I want to think, NO. I want to think that it was a vista so wondrous that even a cow could not have ignored it. But then, she did have her back to the trees that glowed so magically pink against the billowing blue-grey clouds. And cows may be colorblind. And yet, even her munching, placid, disinterested, color-blind, bovine self surely must have felt the presence of such ethereally perfect beams of light.
Even a cow, I hope, must sense when it is in the presence of the extraordinary.
I know most people think of the song as the "Twelve Days of Christmas," but I'm here to tell you that when you go to my sister's house, it's twelve days of Thanksgiving...all rolled into one day. You WILL eat, and you will eat a lot.Here's what we got yesterday:
12 (Rock Band) drummers drumming
11 drinks for sipping
10 adults eating
9 wii players leaping
8 hours cooking
7 snacks a-beckoning
6 kids a-running
5 side dishes
4 kinds of pie
3 sets of plates
2 huge turkeys...
and a partridge in a pear tree
Okay, fine. You got me. There was no partridge in a pear tree. But all the rest is true (if you count appetizers on napkins as a third set of plates). I DARE you to eat two 20+ pound turkeys between that many (few) people. I also double-dog dare you to eat one that tasted better than the one they smoked over cherry wood on the grill.
Not to mention the home made cheese cake with oreo crust, sweet potato casserole, enormous vat of stuffing, and I can't even explain what all else she made in that giant kitchen of hers. There was a parade of happy children running back and forth in front of the archway door to the dining room, a passel of happy grown-ups lounging in front of the fire when they weren't ski jumping on the Wii or jamming to Rock Band, plenty of wine and beer, much laughter, and merriment galore.
It was a truly wonderful Thanksgiving, capped off by all the children spending a solid hour or more drawing pictures of colorful fish to tape in the inside of the currently empty 250-gallon aquarium, and one frantic search for a runaway dog that ended well after a (relatively) short 20 minutes.
I hope your family had as much hubbub and happiness as ours did yesterday.
Now I'm off for some leftovers...
Wednesday, November 26, 2008
In honor of the holiday, I've been making a mental list of all the things I'm thankful for -- and I thought I should probably write it down so I really remind myself of how lucky I am.
I am grateful that my children are happy and healthy and my husband and I are in love. I am thankful that we can afford our house payment, our heating bill, and our winter coats in this time when so many are struggling. I feel intense gratitude for my good friends, extended family, and colleagues, who look out for me, support me, and help keep me balanced.
And -- I would be lying if I pretended otherwise -- I am perhaps most thankful of all that Daughter has apparently potty trained her little self in three days flat. I am thankful that it's not taking her the six months of daily accidents that it took Son to figure this out. I am intensely grateful that she is so concerned that "we don't go pee pee in our kitty underpants...or poop" that I will apparently not have to make the most unpleasant of calls: do I try to salvage this pair or just throw it in the trash? I am delighted that she is fulfilled by hugs, high fives, and overly-enthusiastic statements of my pride in her, so that we haven't had to bother with sticker charts, promises of toys, or other nonsense to encourage her to sit on the potty. (Although the occasional Swedish fish as a reward hasn't hurt.) I am amazed that after weeks of showing nominal interest and only sporadic success at sitting on the potty, the decision Friday just to switch to underwear all the time (except while sleeping) simply happened. She put on underwear, I set the timer to remind us to check in, and that was that. No fussing. No accidents. No forgetting. Here we are six days later, and she's already telling me pretty reliably when she needs to go BEFORE it happens. She's been at school all day and come home in the same clothes I sent her in. It seems impossible to say this one week in, and yet, it seems my little one might be potty trained.
I know this may seem like a trite thing to be thankful for, but it was such a tremendous, laborious, agonizing (not to mention messy and stinky) affair with Son, that my gratitude for this almost knows no bounds.
This year, it really is true: I am thankful for family, friends, and the luck of my comfortable life.
But I'm super-duper thankful for the little things: their laughter, their crooked letters when they write their names, and the miracle of speedy potty training.
May you and yours have a wonderful, peaceful Thanksgiving.
Monday, November 24, 2008
I've decided I don't want to train for a triathlon.
I want to be a Rockette instead.
Now, I know I'm probably not quite tall enough for them (I say I'm 5'9" but I'm really only 5'8.5"), and I know that despite the high kicking I did as a drill team flag twirling dancer in high school half-time shows, I am not 1/4 of the dancer they are. But seriously, we just saw their "Christmas Spectacular" yesterday, and I am hooked. THAT is now what I want to be when I grow up.
The glamor. The shiny costumes. The mile-long legs. Seriously...don't you think that if it's possible to train for a triathlon, it's possible to train to be a Rockette? It just takes time and practice, right? And wouldn't it be awesome to have legs good enough to wear one of those flouncy little Santa dresses they wear?
Don't think I don't get that I would currently look better in the other Santa suit that appears in their show.
But here's the thing. The show was just so impressive, so gorgeous, so impeccable in every detail -- from the fact that all 24 of them in the kick line manage to kick to exactly the same height every time to the splendor of the costumes on the Three Wise Men and their entourage (which included either several camels or one that did a quick change a few times during the parade, but either way, Rockettes get serious props for traveling to Detroit with a camel) -- that it made me whistle softly under my breath and say, "oh, I wish I could dance like that."
Apparently I'm not alone in that wish. Every little girl who has ever donned tap shoes (which you know I have, but there's the reminder -->, just in case you forgot) dreamed of being a Rockette at some point in her life. I did when I was nine. But then, I had never really seen them in person. So here I am a little older than nine, and hoping perhaps there's still enough umph in my giddyup to learn to do what they can do.
Don't rain on my parade. (please)
If Meredith Viera can do it, so can I, don't you think? And isn't it good to have a really exciting dream?
Friday, November 21, 2008
As I think I have mentioned before, I come from a long and venerable family of over-extenders. If you ask us to "help" with the costumes for the school play, we will make custom-fitted Victorian dresses for all five of the Bennett daughters, and their mother and aunt, so that Pride and Prejudice looks really authentic. If we think, "Oh, wouldn't a puppet theater be a wonderful Christmas present! The kids would be so creative!" we spend hours online looking at plans, decide we know better than all of them, and then spend more hours with plywood, jigsaws, staple guns, and festive fabric to make something big enough for several children to walk into. If you ask us to bring treats for the Fall Festival party at school, we will make three dozen cookies in the shape of maple leaves and hand paint them with multi-colored icing to make them look like they are in the middle of turning. (Actually, that last one never happened, but it would have if only one of us had been asked to bring Fall Festival treats.)
So, it's probably no surprise that when I decided a month ago that I needed to get into shape, to kick my boring exercise routine up a notch, I didn't make myself a modest (read: reasonable) goal of getting to the gym at least four days a week instead of the three I was averaging.
Instead, I decided I was going to train for a triathlon. Obviously.
Having said that our family doens't do anything by halves, however, I'm about to make a liar out of myself. I'm really training for a half-triathlon. It has all three sports, but they aren't those crazy long distances of something like an Ironman. I haven't figured out yet which one I want to do this summer, but it will be sometime between May and August, and it will probably be a "sprint" length one, which means either a 1/4 mile or 1/2 mile swim, 11-12 miles of biking, and a 3.1 mile run. The "Olympic" length is twice that, with a mile swim, 25 mile bike, and 6.2 mile run. I am pretty sure that I could work myself up to the distances of the Olympic length triathlon over the course of the winter in each individual sport, but putting them together at that distance? Even this decendent from a long-line of Insane Takers-On of Too Much knows that is lunacy for me in the next six months.
Here's the thing, though. I downloaded a training plan (and then, of course, promptly modified it because of course, like the plans for building a puppet theater, I am sure I have a better idea). And I stuck to the plan well for two weeks. I gave myself a break in the sense that I counted four hours of heavy digging in the flower beds as a day of weight lifting one week, and three hours of raking and bagging leaves as cross-training another day. But in general, I started out really well. And then this past week? I have not been to the gym once. To be fair, I have been a little under the weather. But honestly, that's more an excuse than otherwise. I COULD have gone but lazed out.
I tried signing on to Mrs G's 5K plan, but if I don't have a set-in-stone deadline to meet, I'm not much good. So here's my proposal: I'm going to start a Triathlon Tracker in my sidebar, and every night, I'm going to update to say what I did that day. Mondays and Wednesdays are my days off (those are my long teaching days). The goal is to be at the gym a minimum of four days a week, with an ideal of five days. Anyone who wants to join me with a fitness goal for the next 10 weeks, leave me a comment telling me what you want to accomplish, and including a link to your blog. I'll make a list in the sidebar of everyone who's participating. Whenever you want me to update your entry in the list -- say, you reach a milestone, or you want to hold yourself accountable for sticking to a plan for a whole week, or whatever -- come back and leave me a new comment on the most recent post, or send me an email. I'll update your entries as often as you want me to. That will help keep me accountable for updating mine.
Periodically, I might even get crazy and host a little Mr. Linky so we can all pull together our posts and keep each other accountable. But I can't bite off too much at once, so that will be a "sometime in the future" (maybe every three or four weeks?) thing. We'll do this for ten weeks, then take stock and see if we all want to continue.
What do you think? Anyone want to do a triathlon in the summer? Or reach some other goal? Who's on board?
Thursday, November 20, 2008
This has been a crazy busy week, and I find that here I am at Thursday without even mentioning the highlight of my kids' November -- the circus last weekend. I haven't been to the circus since I was a very little girl, and I think I might have been more excited than they were beforehand because I had images in my mind of what I'd been missing all these years. My memories of the circus (apart from the endless hours I spent pretending to be a bare-back rider on our toy spring horse) are of lots of very beautiful women in sparkly costumes adorned with long flowing plumes. I don't know if these women ever really existed at the circus. It would certainly seem that long peacock tails and Las Vegas showgirl plumes don't make a whole lot of sense for a trapeze artists. But those are the women in my mind: spangled costumes with fluffy feathery tails and plumes on their heads, standing on top of cantering horses.
The bare-back rider was, of course, the only act not in the particular iteration of Ringling Brothers' Circus that we saw on Saturday.
But it's hard to argue with the grandeur of a performance that has traveled cross-country with ELEVEN elephants, ten tigers ("three white and seven orange," Son will tell you), half a dozen zebras, lots of horses, two large handfuls of dogs, and countless clowns. The Ringmaster had a voice as velvety as Patrick Stewart. The stilt walkers were enormous and funny. The acrobats amazing.
There was preshow fun -- performers of all kinds working in two small rings, and all of us able to mill around and get up close. We watched clowns walk on giant balls, acrobats do incredible things with giant piles of hula hoops, and an elephant paint a picture. I was thrilled to be so close to the beautiful giants.
Son's verdict? "They're kind of smelly."
One of the most stunning acts in the show was the sway poles. These are about 40 feet tall, and performers at the top of them are quite unafraid to hang upside down, swing towards each other, and generally astonish us with their bravery and agility.
My very favorite was the tiger tamer. Although the tricks he got them to do were pretty cool, for my money, the most impressive thing he did was before the act started. The spotlight was on the tight-rope walkers while the center ring was set up for the tigers. In the darkness, they erected the steel cage (something like a giant circular wall of chain mail) that kept tigers separated from the audience. Then they wheeled out the tigers, in containers that locked to each other to form a long tiger train. Soon, the center ring was filled with ten GIANT tigers -- plump, strong, tigers sitting each on their own stool. One tiger tamer in the middle of the ring, surrounded by ten tigers in the dark. By definition, standing in the middle of the ring, he couldn't see them all at once. But they didn't move a muscle. For a good five minutes, he murmured occasionally, moved slightly towards one tiger or another, and somehow managed to keep them all in order until the lights came up.
Why do I find this so impressive?
I only have two children, and I can't keep them sitting still and quiet for five minutes together EVER. And neither one of them weighs five hundred pounds or has razor sharp claws and teeth.
Son, of course, liked the clowns best. ("And the tigers. And the guys in that giant spinning wheel thing. And the elephants. And the horses. And the funny dogs...")
And as you know, clowning is serious business. Especially when your red nose is a little too big.
May you have some serious family fun yourselves this weekend.
Wednesday, November 19, 2008
The Suez Canal runs just over 100 miles, connecting the Mediterranean Sea to the Red Sea. It is a shipping lane of massive importance: fourteen percent of the world's shipping passes through it in a given year. Ships as large as 150,000 tons fully loaded pass through it on a regular basis, and there are even three locations on the canal that can accommodate them passing one another, so that two-way traffic is possible.
But the real reason it is so important, the reason that so many ships use it, is that this route is handy shortcut to the alternative route from Europe or the east coast of North America to points in Africa, India, and Asia. "Handy shortcut" is a laughable understatement. Here is the choice:
Do what Vasco de Gama did in 1497, and get to India from Europe (in his case, Portugal) by sailing all the way around the southern tip of Africa,
Or, take the short-cut through the Suez Canal. (See my dotted line.)
For some sense of scale, it used to take about six weeks for steam ships in the 19th century to go around Africa and up to India from England, and it took just less than three weeks for those same ships to make the journey once the Suez Canal was completed in 1869.
Let's pause here for a short aside dedicated to appreciating those intrepid Victorians on whose astonishing feats of construction -- laying telegraph wires across oceans, building complex systems of sewers and subways underneath already existing metropolises, engineering the Suez Canal -- made our modern world possible. All together now: "Thanks, Victorians."
Anyway. Today, it takes approximately fifteen hours to steam the length of the Suez Canal. The problem is, once you get out of the narrow strip of water (the Red Sea) that separates the continent of Africa from Saudi Arabia and Yemen, you enter the Gulf of Aden.
And in the Gulf of Aden, you have pirates.
No, not this kind of pirates.
They attack ships either with the intention of stealing their cargo, or kidnapping their crew and holding them for ransom, or some combination thereof. (The don't carry off the cargo; they kill the crew and carry off the whole ship.) They are astonishingly successful, despite their lack of Jolly Roger or "Arrrgh!" Then again, sub-machine guns and ruthlessness will go a long way. Piracy is becoming such a problem in the Gulf of Aden that shipping companies are talking about whether it might be better to revert back to the around-the-cape-of-Africa route.
I'm not even kidding. Pirates this week captured a super-tanker carrying $100 million worth of crude oil. It's a ship over 1000 feet long. The kind of insurance shippers have to take out to cover them for such incidents is taken out for select days of the journey, when the ship will be in the most dangerous waters. It costs roughly $10,000 per day. You can see why, if the pirates are getting bolder, their territory bigger, and more ships more vulnerable to attack, shipping companies might seriously considering changing their shipping route to require an addition three weeks of travel at a cost of $30,000 per day. At least that would save them both the insurance cost and the staff costs of increasing crew sizes, and it would take them out of the way from having hundreds of millions of dollars worth of cargo stolen.
This is a serious problem, and I certainly don't have any idea how to solve it. But it's got me thinking today about the patterns in the world, the "coming full circle" nature of things. Piracy, that scourge of the seas, was one reason that peopled want to move their cargo along shorter routes to minimize exposure. It "sidestepped" pirates, if you'll pardon the impossible metaphor of stepping around on the ocean, to suddenly shift to taking goods through the Suez Canal. And now, that very canal has become something like a funnel, feeding straight into the waiting jaws of rapacious pirates. Ironic, isn't it?
Suez Canal Map
Sailing around Cape of Good Hope
Building the Suez Canal
Tuesday, November 18, 2008
Eating "Chicken Soup with Stars,"with lots of tiny pasta stars, I tell Son that there are nearly as many stars in his bowl as there are in the Milky Way. "The Milky Way is..." I start to explain.
"I know," Son interrupts. "It's way up in the stars, and it's where we get milk. The Milky Way gives the milk to the cows...Well, actually, the astronauts go up in their rockets and GET the milk, and then they give it to the cows, and then the cows give it to us." He smiles, quite proud of his knowledge, and takes another bite of stars.
It may be a silly story, but there is something quite lovely to me about his fanciful idea that our milk comes from the stars. After all, it sort of looks like it could be true. And wouldn't that be a fun job? To be the astronaut responsible for making milk runs to the stars?
Sunday, November 16, 2008
It snowed today: fat, white, wet clumps of snow that created a fluffy fairy filling on all the bare tree branches. The roads were wet but not really slushy with this early snow, so we could largely just enjoy the view out our windows.
And go snow boot shopping. (A word to the wise, Kohl's is having a 50% off sale on boots right now.)
Daughter wanted pink, of course. That may seem like a no-brainer (after all, there are plenty of pink boots out there), but Mama is more picky. I insist on thick linings for warmth and water-resistant exteriors rather than that silly suede or fashion fabric stuff that half the toddler boots are made of. Honestly, she's not going to be wearing them for a fashion parade. She needs them to keep her warm and dry while playing in the snow. They are called SNOW boots, after all.
Also, pink itself was not my favorite color choice due to the rest of her winter ensemble, so I was trying to steer her away from the dark pepto-bismol pink boots that drew her eye like a moth to flame. I did manage to score a very pale pink boot for her, with a thick blacky rubbery sole -- sweet, servicable, and not too flashy.
Not too flashy is important considering that she currently has a bright lime green coat decorated with a zebra and a few small bits of red trim (Kooshies' crazy fun color scheme). Unfortunately, this coat is leftover from last year, and thus the matching snowpants no longer fit. So, she can either wear Son's hand-me-down red snow pants and look something like a Christmas elf who favors neon green over pine green. Or I can try to squeeze her into the plain black snow pants that are a bit bigger than the green ones but are still a bit small.
I priced new snowsuits and was horrified. (Last year's had come from a clearance rack the previous summer; Son has had hand-me-downs from friends in the past, and his current fantastic down-filled parka came from a consignment shop.) $75 for pants and coat sets that are only marginally cute and don't seem that warm to me, made from cheapish nylon fabric, was pretty common. Unbelievable.
So I think I might be trotting myself down to the consignment shop again soon, since I don't know that I can bear to put her in red pants, a bright neon lime green coat, powder pink-and-black boots, and a zebra striped hat every single day from now until the end of March. Also, the sleeves on the green coat are just barely long enough, which means that by late December they will be too short, which really matters when you are trying to keep snow out of toddler mittens every day at preschool.
To sum up the boot-shopping lesson: the excellent half-price Totes boots that we purchased for Daughter did not in fact save us $20 but have highlighted that we simply have yet to spend untold $ on the rest of her winter gear.
(Also, can we please pause here for a moment to add this up? Full-price snowsuit: $75. Full-price snow boots: $40. Hat and mittens: $10 each. Total to outfit a TWO YEAR OLD with necessary winter gear, new? $135. For items she will outgrow before they are anything like worn out. Is it any wonder that I favor consignment shops for coats and snow pants?)
But the real reason I started this post was to vent my spleen about shoe sizes.
Can someone please explain to me WHY on EARTH shoes run from toddler sizes 1-12, then start again at 1, and yet almost no manufacturer makes size 12 shoes????
Some makers do a 12 and a 13. Others do only a 12 before they go up to 1. But this is all only in theory. We went to three stores trying to buy boots for Son. And we weren't at the mall, either, so we had to load and unload two kids into complicated carseat buckles three times after crossing many parking lots in driving wind filled with thick wet swirling snow, which was less than my ideal way to spend the afternoon in the snow. Here is what happens when you go into a store to buy size 12 shoes or boots:
There are eight gazillion pairs of size 11. There are six frillion pairs of size 1. There are two lonely pairs of size 12. Both ugly. So ugly you can't even imagine that a person with eyes designed them. And there are three other mothers standing next to you, half forlorn, half angry, trying to decide whether to resign themselves to trying yet another store with their grumpy 4/5/6 year old or to hit you with said preschooler and grab the ugly ugly shoes out from under you before you and your grumpy preschooler can make off with one of the only two pairs in the entire store that will fit the four pairs of feet that need to buy that particular size right this minute.
Son is very picky about his footwear. There are some indefinable qualities of coolness that he applies to his decision about whether a shoe is worth trying on. Awesome retro lace-up shoes with side stripes reminiscent of old-style leather tennis shoes? He hated them. On the other hand, he also inexplicably rejected the Spiderman snow boots (a first). Such pickiness is particularly difficult when, as I say, there are almost no choices in his size to begin with.
We did finally manage to buy him snow boots (size 13; they're a little too big, but what could we do? There were no size 12s). He chose them largely on the basis of how stompy they were. He, obviously, needed boots that were good for stomping. I am just grateful that they met my prerequisites. But I despair of the fact that his everyday shoes are clearly showing signs of the hard wear that only preschoolers are capable of, and I will have to buy him some more soon. In size 12. Which doesn't exist. Except that 11 is too small and 1 is too big because it is TWO sizes bigger than 11.
Apparently, shoe makers think that all humans go through a Twilight Zone of life during which they do not need foot coverings of any kind and will then miraculously return from this alternate universe (where it is always hot summer and everyone lives on the beach) having grown two shoe sizes and now ready for the young adult size 1 shoe.
Somehow, I don't think Michigan in winter is the best time for that shoeless Twilight Zone of existence. And so, to the other desperate mothers standing next to me in whatever shoestore I try next, I offer my condolences. Because I will smile at you sympathetically, but unless you are shopping for something pink for your daughter in a size 12, I WILL beat you to anything size 12 in the store.
Friday, November 14, 2008
Having been roundly (and rightfully, I admit) chastised yesterday for not including pictures on my post about my children's efforts to dress themselves, I resolved that today I would not keep the joy to myself but would trot out the camera if the occasion warranted.
Thank goodness two-and-a-half year olds are utterly reliable in one regard -- their adherence to whimsy as a primary life principle.
This is today's outfit, which I promise I had no hand in choosing (though her brother did offer up the belt as an appropriate accessory):
I will say that the effect of layering black polka dots over multi-pink stripes was made quite perfect by the addition of the pink gros-grain ribbon belt. Something in the fleece circle skirt actually works remarkably well with the polka dot top and belt -- if Daughter were a 1950s carhop in a burger joint. I'm somewhat skeptical myself, about the choice of tights to go with this outfit; introducing blue and green into the color scheme is a bold move. But the crocs? They seem like a no-brainer.
"I'm a pretty princess!" she declared to me.
"Show me your outfit," I said.
We went through several pairs of tights today (we're potty training). I put her down for a nap and snuggled up with Son in my bed to watch a movie together on this rainy afternoon. Half an hour later, my door opens, and in walks Daughter, who says, a tone of distress in her voice, "Mama, I got messes."
Ya' think? (Please to note not only the clothes and hands, but the face and hair, as well.)
"It's cweam," she added helpfully.
I had to go downstairs to get the camera before I could clean her up. Partly because who could resist this picture? And partly because I really needed a place to laugh hysterically without her knowing. We do, after all, have strict rules against the wholesale massacre of pots of body lotion during naptime.
The net result of this carnage is, of course, that we have had to strip off half the fabulous outfit for washing. At least she had on enough layers that she's still warm and cozy in her pink striped shirt and brown tights with hearts to them.
Ah, the beauty of being a toddler...
Thursday, November 13, 2008
In a great milestone at our house, my children have been dressing themselves recently. Not just in the sense of putting on their own clothes. In fact, sometimes they still need help with that. But rather in the sense of CHOOSING their own clothes.
Tuesday's winning outfit:
Daughter: wearing capri-length leggings in light pink, lime green, orange, melon, and yellow -- a sprightly summertime pattern -- over which she layered a bright pink-and-white butterfly printed cotton knee-length skirt (not the same shade of pink as the leggings contained), and then a sweet pink hoodie, a girl-styled University of Wisconsin sweatshirt featuring a large white Bucky Badger on the front. And, of course, her signature braids. She's ever so fond of the braids lately.
Wednesday's winning outfit:
Son: who picked his new burgundy-and-white plaid button down shirt, then decided it felt "too wrinkly" on his skin, so he layered it over his sky blue long-sleeve t-shirt, and rounded out the outfit with bright red jeans-styled sweat pants that are adorned with Teenaged Mutant Ninja Turtles all around one cuff. Also? The pants are approximately 6" too short for him, but he refuses to give up this most adored clothing item given him by his grandparents, and so he pulled his white ribbed socks all the way up to his knees, in an effort to keep his shins warm against the morning's 38-degree temperatures.
Although somewhat insane as fashion choices go, there was something oddly compelling about both outfits.
I remember as an adolescent that one of my mother's phrases I secretly most delighted in was uttered in the mornings. She would eyeball me up and down, quizzically, eyebrows arched in judgment, and say simply, "SO. That's the outfit of the day, huh?" I always knew that when she said that, I'd managed a particularly good combination, one that my friends no doubt would whole-heartedly approve.
Apparently, my children are trying to show me that what goes around comes around. Only they're starting in preschool.
More power to them.
I can't wait to see what tomorrow's outfit brings.
Wednesday, November 12, 2008
I know I hardly ever talk about my (paid) work here, and yet here I am jumping in two feet first about to ignite a firestorm of controversy (or perhaps just a tempest in a teapot, depending on how many teachers are out there reading). Just so I'm clear from the get-go, here's the thesis of my argument in this post: I think "continuous self-assessment" of one's educational programs is an excellent thing in theory but a typically VILE thing in practice.
In theory, "Continuous Self-Assessment" basically means that as teachers (at whatever level from Kindergarten through University), we routinely ask ourselves:
"How did that class go today? How could it have gone better? What are the goals of this class/unit/program/major? How do my colleagues see these goals? Are there ways we could collaborate to make the learning experience better for students?" and so on.
In essence, it means -- and I think all good teachers would agree that this is a good thing -- that we remain purposefully self-conscious about our teaching methods and goals, that we try to be clear to students not just about what we want them to learn but about why, that we design assignments that push them to stretch their thinking, that we hope our classes will expand their worlds, that we think carefully about the skills and needs our students came in with and try to work with what we've got to enable them to learn more. And that we talk to each other a lot about the best ways to try to accomplish this in 75 minute blocks.
In practice, however, "assessment" tends to look like this:
"Have your students take this standardized, fill-in-the-bubble-dots test. If they do poorly on the test, you must suck as a teacher. Reflect on that.
Tell us what you'll do differently. Have them take the test again. If they still do poorly, you must be a really sucky teacher in an even suckier school system.
Know what sucks for you? We're taking away your local/state/federal funding, you stupid crappy teacher, you, and giving it to someone who is better at her job than you. Don't like it? Too bad. We're the Assessing Agency, and we have the power to crush you. Also, even though we aren't teachers, we definitely know what good teaching looks like when we see it -- and we can see from these test scores that it's not happening in your classroom."
Perhaps I over-simplify. (But not much.)
What this assessment process doesn't account for, of course, is that not all classrooms are created equal. Some of them are in wealthy districts where there are plenty of books, nice clean desks, and shiny scrubbed students who ate a good breakfast, will go home to a good dinner, and have parents who will hover over them until their homework is all done. Neatly. Others of them are in districts where teachers have to improvise dry erase boards by covering a wall in saran wrap, where there are two books for every five students (or out-of-date books, or broken books, or no books at all). They have students who have not grown up being told that education is important, or who have heard that message but have not seen it in action because their own parents cannot help them with their homework, or their friends think school is "lame." Some classrooms have 20 well-prepared students to one well-paid teacher. Others have 40 students with at least 20 different skill levels, one underpaid teacher with no assistant, no books, and (understandably) thinning patience.
Yet all these students in all these classrooms have to take the MEEP test in Michigan, which is the standardized test that determines whether Any Child is Being Left Behind. What are the consequences of becoming a "failing school" according to the No Child Left Behind legislation? The best explanation I've ever seen of this adopts a very useful metaphor, and so I reprint it here:
No Child Left Behind -- The Football Version
1. All teams must make the state playoffs and all MUST win the championship. Teams that do not win the championship will be on probation until it they are the champions, and coaches will be held accountable. If after two years they have not won the championship, their footballs and equipment will be taken away UNTIL they do win the championship.
2. All players will be expected to have the same football skills at the same time even if they do not have the same conditions or opportunities to practice on their own. NO exceptions will be made for lack of interest in football, lack of desire to perform athletically, or genetic abilities or disabilities of themselves or their parents. ALL PLAYERS WILL PLAY FOOTBALL AT A PROFICIENT LEVEL!
3. Talented players will be asked to work out on their own, without instruction. This is because the coaches will be using all their instructional time with the athletes who aren't interested in football, have limited athletic ability, or whose parents don't like football.
4. Games will be played year round, but statistics will only be kept in the 4th, 8th, and 11th games. It will create a New Age of Sports where every school is expected to have the same level of talent and all teams will reach the same minimum goals. If no team gets ahead, then no team gets left behind. If fans do not like this new law, they are encouraged to vote for vouchers, and support private teams that can screen out the non-athletes and prevent their players from having to play with bad football players.
Argue about the policy how you will, the above is certainly how most teachers feel it seems to work.
At the university level, assessment is coming too. It's not yet as dire as No Child Left Out of Football, but it's pretty bad. It results, for many schools, in contradictory policies and aims like these:
(1) We will be an open university and admit nearly everyone who applies, on the notion that all students deserve to be given a chance, and that many students who were never given the tools to succeed in elementary and secondary schools might excel once they are in an environment that nurtures them.
(2) This, of course, means that there will be students periodically who don't really belong in college, who do not have the skills, or the aptitude, or the background to excel in college, who will be in your classrooms. It is your job to help them succeed. If they do not succeed, you must be a bad teacher. If you are a bad teacher (as reflected by the fact that some of your graduates, for example, cannot pass the state exam that qualifies them to become elementary school teachers themselves), then you may lose your accreditation as an instution that certifies teachers.
Do you see the conundrum? At the acceptance end of the spectrum, we are being asked to be a university that welcomes almost everyone, regardless of skills, on the hopes of potential. At the graduation end of the spectrum, we are being asked to be an elite institution that only graduates superior students.
You can't really have it both ways.
Now, a university can make choices. If you're Harvard, you're elite in your acceptances, and hence your graduates pass tests with flying colors because you've preselected students who can succeed at such tests. If you're a small, regional college, you're welcoming in your acceptances, hoping your personal approach to teaching will help students who otherwise might never have a chance -- and many of them DO succeed because someone finally believed in them. But a few fail. They must. And that must be okay.
Unfortunately, it's not okay in the parlance of assessment where the assessment of teacher competence is the success of students on a standardized test.
Now imagine if you are a teacher in an elementary or secondary school, a public school that doesn't get to pick and choose students. You have to take everyone. It's the law. And despite the fact that they don't all have equal interests, aptitudes, strengths, you are supposed to MAKE them all fit into these tidy little bubble dot holes as if they are all so many nice little oval pegs, all just the same.
It's probably obvious by now that I'm in the middle of our accreditation assessment. What the process has taught me is that it is undeniably a good thing for us to talk to each other not just about what we do but about why. It is excellent to reevaluate our programs and courses, to modify not just our individual classroom moments but our overall educational goals as a literature faculty on the basis of many factors. However, I don't think one of those factors should be an Assessment Agency's sometimes misguided sense of what our "outcomes" should be. And I also don't think it's easy to quantify in numbers and charts whether teaching is successful.
And I really don't think that whether students pass a certain exam, or get certain grades, is a particularly good measure of how good a teacher is. I have known astonishingly lazy teachers who give easy multiple-choice tests and whose students nearly all end up with As, and I've known other teachers who work exceedingly hard to teach their students the difficult skills (and even more difficult arts) to being a good reader and writer, whose class average will be something like a low B. I would argue that the second teacher, the one whose students' grades are actually LOWER, is the one doing the better job by her students. But the Rules of Assessment would say otherwise.
Don't get me wrong here. I'm not saying there are no bad teachers in the US system. I'm not saying that teachers should not be held accountable in any way for accomplishing specific teaching goals and helping their students reach certain milestones.
But I am saying that just because I can boil my students' learning down to a score of 24.5 on elements 4.3.2 and 5.4.7 and 3.2.6 on the Assessment Rubric doesn't mean I'm a good teacher. It just means I've figured out how to play the assessment game.
And for my money, our educational system will only really be effective when we find ways to stop asking teachers to spend so much time figuring out how to play the assessment game and let them get down to the real business of teaching to their students' needs.
Tuesday, November 11, 2008
I've dubbed November "get myself together" month. Or something like that. Basically, I've decided that I'm tired of living in a state of nearly-sort-of-mostly-0kay. Whatever I call it, the point is that I've set myself exercising goals (more on that tomorrow) and house-cleaning goals in the hopes that by the end of the month, I'll be happier in my own skin and in my own home.
The clutter in my house has really been getting me down, and the apparent inability of anyone else to notice it is getting me downer. So I've been taking on small projects, one every other day or so, trying to chip away at the mess. It is astonishing how much junk a family of four can accumulate -- in expired coupons, artistic scribbles, tiny useless plastic toy bits, random cords for electronic gadgets, and so on. I've decided that we need to store properly the things we need to keep, purge the things we really don't need. My motto: toss it, donate it, sell it, I don't care which! Just make it go away.
Jill over at Caffeine Court is doing the same thing in her house in November, and she got all creative and decided to launch a little contest: show her your messes and your fixes, and she'll give a prize to whomever makes the biggest dent in the household chaos by month's end. I figure there's no better way to keep myself honest, and on track with the purging, than to post a few pictures occasionally. So, here's what I've done so far.
1. Cleared out the catch-all cupboard. (Like a junk drawer, except higher up, to keep toddlers safe.)
Here it is, empty of all but the wine glasses that belong there, and here's the pile of junk I pulled out of there. Look carefully, and you'll notice prescription and OTC medicines, matches, nails, cd cleaners, scissors, permanent markers, and all sorts of dangerous items, all stowed up there to be out of the way of curious toddler fingers. The problems were that (a) the toddler figured out how to drag over a chair and climb on it so she could reach everything on the bottom shelf; and (b) we couldn't find anything in the junk pile any more. Hardly surprising.
So I sorted, organized, and put everything away. I tossed old medications, moved prescriptions upstairs to our completely out of reach closet, took anything dangerous for child consumption and relocated it to the top shelf. Here's what it looks like now.
Bonus: Now we can actually find the tape, glue, and parking-meter change!
2. Cleared off the top of the fridge. It used to hold random candy, grill tools, grilling planks, toys once put in Time Out and forgotten, and lots of other mess. I forgot to take a before photo. But here's the after. The basket holds lunchbox items that really have no other home. Because it is small and tidy, it discourages us from tossing other junk up there.
Ahhh... much better! And Husband even did the work of scrubbing the yuk away.
3. Cleaned out our walk-in closet. Husband and I did this one together, and it took several hours on Saturday morning. Here's what it looked like before:
What a disaster. It stressed me out every time I had to get dressed. (Since that pretty much happens daily, this was a big deal for me.)
Here's how it looks now.
Oh, "walk-in closet" means you're supposed to have floor space to stand on. Now I get it. I even organized the shoes, winter-proofed the boots, and cleared up shelf space to add a small bin that will hold our long underwear and other seasonal items.
Even better than the breath of fresh air and feeling of accomplishment I get every time I walk in is the fact that we also managed to cull a HUGE bag full of gently-used clothes to donate, plus a bag of shoes. Here's what the Vietnam Veterans Association picked up yesterday.
And that doesn't even include the giant bag of junk we threw away. Or the $100 worth of items I've listed on eBay. Hooray for purging!
This week, my goals are to tackle the rest of the kitchen, the dining room and the other half of my office. (I did the first half last week, but it was such a big mess, that I'm leaving those photos for my grand finale.) Next week, we move on to the family room and the rest of our bedroom. By the end of the month, I'm hoping that all of our clutter zones are clutter free.
The best news is: the things we've already done seem to be staying clean. Husband is better about properly stowing both clean and dirty clothes ever since the closet got so clean that it's obvious if you just drop a dirty t-shirt on the floor. Ditto for me with the "danger" cupboard and the fridge top, which tended to be my "keep away" spots when busy with the kids.
I'm happy that I've managed to get the rest of the family in on the act to some degree. With everyone helping, things sometimes go faster and sometimes slower. You know how much "help" a 2.5 year old can be when you are trying to sweep, don't you? Now imagine you're sorting piles of clothes... But I think it's good that they are becoming more conscious of the messes they make and pitching in with the family clean-up. I know a month isn't a very long time to change a whole family's worth of bad habits, but we're trying...one cluttery pile at a time.
Did you know the circus is coming to Michigan this weekend? Ringling Brothers is coming to the Palace in Auburn Hills, for performances Wednesday, Thursday, Friday and Saturday. Yes, this week! (Well, to be accurate, I assume they arrive at least a day early. I can't imagine how long it must take to set up a circus, but I'm guessing it's not fast. :)
We're going this Saturday to the matinee performance. Son and Daughter are excited, though if I'm completely truthful, I'm probably even more excited than they are. I've only been to the circus once in my life, but when I was a child, I used to dream of being a bare-back rider or an acrobat. So I can't wait to relive the magic.
Here's the best part: if you want to get in on the action, I've got coupon codes for deep ticket discounts. As long as you order online (you can request to pick up your tickets at the Will Call window, for no extra charge), you can use the following codes: MOM gets you $10 children's tickets and MCC gets you 20% off your whole ticket order.
Here's the fine print:
The 20% off MCC code is valid for seats only $21.50 and below but is valid on all dates for performances;
The $10 off kids code is valid only for seats $21.50 and below and is only valid for the following shows: Thu 7:30pm, Fri 11am, Sat 11:30am, 7:30pm, Sun 5pm;
You can only use one discount or the other, so do the math to figure out which discount gets you a better deal.
If you have any trouble, you can call the box office at 248-377-0100 for help.
The tour schedule, with all the show times, is here. To buy your tickets online, go here.
Don't miss the magic!
Monday, November 10, 2008
On the radio this morning, as I was driving in to work, an announcer delivered the news that, "the first snow of the season is taking its toll on the morning commute, as accidents on major highways back up traffic..."
Now, if I lived in South Dakota, this would be hardly a surprising story, but at least a reasonable one. When the first snow of the season dumps 45" in one storm, you can be pretty sure that the morning commutes will be affected.
But this morning? In Southeast Michigan? Here's what it looks like. Imagine my neighborhood is a giant cake. Now imagine the baker of this enormous confection took out a mountain-sized shaker of powdered sugar and lightly dusted it over the cake. Then, along came the child of that baker, who stuck his finger on the cake and dragged it along the cake top to scoop up the sugar. Those finger streak-marks, the completely sugarless spots? Those are the roads today. They are s-l-i-g-h-t-l-y damp. Really, just as if a child had licked his finger before dipping into the sugar. The lawns and bushes are covered with a picturesque dusting of snow, just enough to be able to scoop up a few flakes in your mittens on the way to the car, but not enough to hide the grass itself. It's beautiful, and reminds me of why I love winter, but unless you are driving to work on the lawns of your neighbors, I can't imagine there isn't any snow under your tires at all, so how the snow could be affecting your morning commute is beyond me.
I have noticed this phenomenon in every wintery state I've ever lived in. The first time it snows is for drivers very much like the process of getting one's "sea legs" back must have been for sailors centuries ago. There's a short period of time where everything people once knew about the feeling (whether it's driving in snow or walking on the heaving deck of a ship) must be relearned by their muscles. And so, reactions times are off a bit. It makes no logical sense, of course. The vast majority of the people on the roads have driven in snow many times before. They know they live in a wintery state. And yet, there is that little bit of panic that attends the "first snow."
Will I brake in time?
What if I hit ice?
I'm just fine as a driver, but what about the other idiots on the road?
It's a funny quirk of human nature, I guess. Though I do wonder if this happens in places where it's REALLY snowy (like, say Alaska).
In supremely cheerful news, on the other hand, I saw gasoline for $1.99 a gallon yesterday. Whee!
Happy Start of Winter!
Friday, November 7, 2008
One year ago this week, this blog was born. It began as a way for me, my sister, and my friend, to keep each other accountable to our new exercise goal -- but as the holidays approached and our enthusiasm for exercise waned, it turned into a platform for recollections, for story-telling, for chronicling the antics of children, for pondering the strangeness and wonder that is this world we live in. It's been partly a private journal, partly an effort to knit myself into a larger community. Some things in my life have changed dramatically in the last year, others have changed hardly a whit.
* My house is still messier than I prefer. My office is still a disaster; the dining room table is still a landing spot for things that really have other homes where they belong. I have formed a resolution to make November my official "Reclaim My House from the Clutter" month, and I've been doing little projects nearly every day to that end. I think I will get braver and post occasional pictures (like Tara and Jill are doing), and I hope that THIS time the resolution to keep it that way once it's been cleaned up will stick. I hope.
* I see from reading back in my archives that this week last year, I was raking leaves and counting it as exercise -- which is precisely what I did yesterday. In the gorgeous sunshine of an Indian Summer afternoon, I raked enough leaves to fill five large trashcans packed tight. (I stood in them periodically to tamp the leaves down.) I'm only half done with the leaves in our yard, but I'm all out of cans, so now I have to go buy leaf bags today. Because, just like last year, my raking window is about to close. It's supposed to be damp and freezing this weekend. Some things never change.
* I have set myself a big new exercise goal for the month of November again. This one is even crazier than last time. It is my hope that crazier = more likely to succeed. Anyone want to train for a triathlon with me? Seriously. Details coming soon...
* On the big changes side of things: we have new neighbors! The abandoned, neglected, empty, sad-eyed house next door, the house that for the last five years has sent its sump pump water into our basement, its weed seeds into our yard, and its vibes of empty loneliness into my heart every time I looked at its blank windows, that house has owners! Real live people who are weeding and pruning, painting and carrying. Even more than that, they are NICE people. Neighborly, chatty people. I am delighted.
* My children have grown -- oh, how they have grown. They are more adept talkers, more dangerous climbers, more raucous spirits than they were a year ago. They never cease to amaze me with their comprehension and creativity. And loudness.
And another thing that has not changed, but has grown in such wonderful ways, is YOU. A year ago, the only people reading this blog were my sisters and a couple of close friends. Now, I've made new friends through it stretched all the way from Alaska to Florida. I want to thank you for stopping by here, for sharing your thoughts, for jumping into conversations, for inviting me back to your places for your stories. For giving of yourselves, and for encouraging me to do the same. I could never have imagined, when I started this blog, how many wonderful people I would encounter as a result of it, and I am truly grateful for all of you.
So on this "Blogiversary," I most want to say: thanks for reading and for sharing.
Have a wonderful weekend!
Thursday, November 6, 2008
When I was eight years old and in the fourth grade, and my parents were recently divorced, my father planned a trip to Williamsburg, VA and Washington D.C. for just the two of us. I still have an album full of photos of him looking impossibly young and me, ditto, with the addition of a truly hideous patchwork coat courtesy of 1978. We generally look happy and fascinated -- except for the photo of me sitting on the thin mattress on the floor of the "gaol," clearly imagining that this would not be a particularly nice place to sleep. The photos of us in the stocks, on the other hand?
But my favorite memento from this trip comes from even before we took the trip itself. My father had said to me, at some point in the planning stages, something along the lines of: "You know, the President lives in Washington, D.C., but he's from Georgia. Why don't you write to him and tell him we're coming, and see if he wants to have dinner with us while we're there?" I'm sure he meant it off-handedly, as a mini-lesson in politics rather than etiquette. But to the literal mind of a serious eight-year-old here was a suggestion well worth following up. And so I did. I wrote to President Carter, and told him that I was from Georgia just like him, and that I would be in Washington for a few days with my Daddy, and would he like to have dinner with us?
And do you know what?
I got a letter back.
Oh, yes I did.
A letter from the White House. On White House stationery. Addressed to ME. Eight-year-old me. It was the most exciting mail I had ever received. If I'm quite honest, I don't think any mail I've received in the 30 years since has been as thrilling in the moment as that small white envelope bearing the White House return address was thrilling in my hands. And although I did not save the envelope, I carefully stuck the letter itself into my scrapbook, so that I would never forget exactly what President Jimmy Carter had told his personal secretary to write to me when he unfortunately had to decline my invitation to dinner.
I was disappointed, of course, that he was too busy for dinner. (I have some vague recollection that I wrote in my letter to him that I knew he was a very busy man being President and all, but even Presidents have to eat, so perhaps he would like to eat with me.) But while I had hoped against hope that he might want to dine with us, I was somewhat mollified by the grandiosity of getting a real letter, signed by someone as important as the personal secretary to the President.
At least, that is how, in my heart, and with my naive eight-year-old sense of how communication worked, I read the following letter.
Clearly, in retrospect, this is a form letter. No one in her right mind would write, "The President is indeed grateful for your willingness to come in to talk with him in an effort to be helpful and woud like to see personally all who are now expressing this desire" to a fourth-grader. But at the time, I was convinced that the "Deputy Appointments Secretary" must have been at the President's right hand, scheduling every minute of his day, and taking dictations (though I couldn't have used that phrase) to write for him all the letters he was too busy to write for himself. I thought... No, I knew, that when Fran Voorde had "been asked to acknowledge" my "thoughtful letter," she had been personally asked to do so by President Carter himself, who was obviously touched by my thoughtfulness in remembering his hunger, but whose schedule was just too busy on the days I would be in town.
And so, it was easy to ignore the fact that she (who I'd never heard of) had signed the letter, and to understand that, truly, it was a letter from the great man himself.
I have been thinking about that letter a lot in the last few weeks, as I have been getting personalized emails from the Obama campaign. There is no doubt that they have used technology brilliantly. In collecting my zip code but not my street address, they implicitly told me that they would not be sending me wasteful paper mail but that they just wanted to know where their supporters were. At the same time, they garnered a vital piece of information that enabled them to tailor mass emails: I got detailed missives about what was going on in the Michigan campaign, notices of when they needed more volunteers to work at campaign stations located within 40 miles of my house, and personal-sounding emails from Michelle Obama about her hopes and dreams for the country, and for women, should her husband win.
Then, two nights ago, I got a short email from the great man himself.
Unlike every other email, whose return address was clearly that of a campaign staffer or Obama for America, or some other such entity, this one had as the sender simply Barack Obama. "Dear Andrea," the letter opened, and then it contained a short but eloquent message about how, before he took the stage to make his victory speech in Grant Park, he felt the need to reach out to all of his supporters who had gotten him this far, and so he was sending this personal email of thanks. It was signed simply, "Barack."
There is something in me -- the grown-up, I suppose -- that assumes that one of his aides crafted this email at his behest and that knows that it is not hard to send an email from "Barack Obama" without actually being Barack Obama.
But the child in me -- the one who thrilled to those typed words on White House stationery, the one who thought, "this means he really read my letter to him; this means he heard me, little old me" -- that part of me swelled with happiness at reading this personal email from Barack to Andrea.
I know he doesn't really know who I am. I know millions of other people received the email. But I also know that there is something incredibly potent in that gesture. Here is a man who is certainly far too busy to have dinner with a random constituent (or child) but who nonetheless takes the moment, the all-important moment, to stop and think, "I would not be here without those random constituents," and then writes, or delegates, or dictates, or gives the order, or whatever he has to do to ensure that his constituents will know he knows that.
It does not make him God-like, or any of the other hyperbolic things I've heard thrown around about him. But it does make him courteous, thoughtful, and a bit humble. It harkens back to past Presidencies, when there were "Deputy Assistant Somebodies" whose job it was to answer the President's mail, all of his mail, even when it came from an eight-year-old girl. It is the sort of gesture that makes an adult think, for one shining moment, "he heard me, little old me."
It has been a long long time since Americans felt their voices were being heard, and really listened to, by politicians.
I found myself reflecting yesterday on the power of this moment. It is easy to identify points in time where things "changed." Typically, it requires history to tell us this. Rarely, so rarely, we know without needing to be told. Our parents, who remember exactly where they were when John F. Kennedy Jr. was killed, knew at that moment that they were standing in history. We, who sobbed watching the Twin Towers fall, we knew. Yesterday, I heard a young man interviewed on the radio. "What's your name?" asked Michelle Norris, "and what are you holding in your hands?" "My name is Ray-Ray," he replied, "and I'm holding history in my hands." It was a newspaper, he said, with a "real handsome picture of Barack Obama" on the cover, and the simple, powerful headline "Mr. President."
Even though we know we are witnessing something monumental, it is so incredibly rare to know, without requiring the benefit of hindsight, that we are poised at the beginning of a new chapter in history. And yet here we are, holding history in our hands. Poised to write the future.
In fact, I met President Carter once upon a time. It was 1986, just long enough after his four years in the White House had proven him to be one of the most ineffectual Presidents in history that people were beginning to talk about how it looked as if he might turn out to be one of the best past-Presidents our country had ever known. I was part of a panel of high school students (there were four of us, I think; I have NO idea how I managed to make it onto this panel) who interviewed him in front of a packed crowd at Emory University for a one-hour PBS special.
I don't remember what questions I asked him, and although I have the video tape of the event, I am too mortified by my sixteen-year-old self to watch it. I do recall that I was the only panelist who managed to ask a second question before our time ran out, and that he shook my hand afterwards, and that I was too shy to look him full in the face, and that I was a little embarrassed for him because he was wearing so much stage makeup, and that my own hair was far too fluffy but my new dress was beautifully red and burnt orange.
I do love the nicely completed circle that is the story of the fourth-grade would-be dinner companion who became the eleventh-grade panelist on a television show with the very same President. It almost makes me brave enough to write a personal letter to the President Elect and hope against hope that I will get a reply.