Friday, November 26, 2010

No Place Like Home for the Holidays

It was one thing to move here by myself, and quite another to make it into something that feels like home for my 3rd grader. He's been slow to come around to possibly considering himself a New Yorker, and I've cautiously tried to give him time and new ways to engage with this turf --hence things like 14 hours on a bus for 8 hours in NYC. That may prove to have been one of the smartest things I've done lately, but that's a different story.

We're managing, though one of the things he doesn't articulate well is that he's afraid of being disloyal if he refers to New York as home. Really, though, what 8 year old does?

Our next big challenge is Christmas. Here or there? There or here? There are some serious logistics involved here, as any 8 year old boy can tell you. The house in Michigan is bigger, so there is more room for presents under the tree. The Michigan house also has a fireplace--very important for believers. On paper, it appears that the optimal location for the most loot is our house in Michigan.

On the other hand, Yuletide in New York means that there won't be the challenge of choosing what to take back and what to leave in Michigan due to car space. Further, since he is lobbying the Claus very hard for Clone Trooper reinforcements, the original troops are already in New York, and they do NOT travel well. Their armor makes them grumpy after a while. Not to mention, of course, his best friend down the street is in New York. I hear they've made plans for holiday nonsense.

Logistics aside, there are the emotional issues--he's only ever known Christmas in Michigan, and the routines and rituals we have there are familiar if a little weird. There will, of course, be new routines and rituals in New York. We just don't know yet what they are.

Unlike him, I know that those rituals will emerge, and we will adapt and embrace them whatever they turn out to be. Different friends will become a part of our extended family, and we'll add new decorations and dimensions to our celebrations. But I know these things because I'm older, and because I've moved many times both as a child and as an adult--and because I'm an adult, and because I have already learned these, I forget that I need to be patient as he filters through them and finds his own meanings.

I'm looking forward to our tree this year, wherever we put it, because it is an inviolable part of our ritual. It will mark our space as home and remind us that wherever we are, together, is right where we belong.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

The less-obvious

With Thanksgiving upon us, I thought it a good moment to stop and offer thanks. Like most people, I'm thankful for family, job, friends, a roof over my head and other things that belong in the "obvious blessings" category. This is not to belittle those in the least.

The tricky thing about thankfulness and blessings, though, is that they're often hidden behind less-than-shiny exteriors and topped with unpleasant-smelling things that aren't bows. I decided, for the sake of honesty and prose, to consider a few of these less-obvious things.

In no particular order:

  • My mother's insistence that my brother and I become, respectively, a truck driver and a hairdresser (her exact words were "beauty operator," harkening back to a time of rollers and Dippity-Do). Her reasoning was pretty smart actually--we'd both always be able to find work. I'm the disappointment; the family black sheep because I have a Master's Degree and am considering doctorate work. Realizing that roller sets weren't for me, I opted for a different path that I undertook knowing full well what it was going to cost.

  • And if I'm thankful for her well-intentioned advice, then I need to be thankful for the racial divide that was the cosmetology program at Cleveland High School. If I hadn't been the only Caucasian in the class, I probably would've stuck with the program and would now be working in a BoRics knockoff in a strip mall somewhere in America's heartland because, let's face it, I just wasn't that good at it.

  • Neighbors whom I detested back in our MI subdivision. If there's a poster-family for picking subdivisions populated by those with whom we have nothing in common (I really wanted to use the term "asshats" but didn't want to be confrontational), we're it. On the plus side, if it weren't for finally reaching my breaking point with their...differentness, I probably wouldn't be where I am--which fortunately is a place I expect to call home for a very long time.

  • A 15-year attempt to finish my BA which left me $20,000 in debt. I lived in Alaska fer cryin' out loud, more than a decade before anyone ever heard of Sarah Palin. How many of us get to say that?

  • The fact that I grew up working poor and a first-generation high school graduate because it means that I can budget, balance, beg and eventually qualify for a fellowship that paid for my MA in its entirety.

  • I'm also grateful for growing up poor because I can see keenly how very privileged my current space is and how slim the line is between the two.

  • And finally, I'm renting a house that is approximately 1/3 the size of one I own in Michigan. It's cramped, but in a place where there are boys and sidewalks and neighbors who engage with each other. We don't have a lot of our stuff here but what we do have, has value. This small space has required us to consider what matters and let go of what what doesn't. If that's not something to be thankful for, I don't know what is.

Friday, November 19, 2010


The hardest part about this solo parenting gig is that when I've had a rough week, my son has been forced into a rough week of his own.

I noticed this particularly keenly this week. Mine has been...challenging, which means that his has become that way. I don't know if it's my reduced patience that affects him, or if he picks up on my general sense of frustration, exhaustion and stress and mirrors it back, or more likely a combination of the two and quite possibly a little stress of his own. It's true that kids are resilient, but the guy has had a lot of change thrown at him in a short time so it's taken a bit to find his equilibrium.

Maybe it's just that time of year. I have several friends who are struggling through some things as well, and much of it compounded by having a lot of pre-holiday work that has to get done.

What then compounds things is that the stress and frustration become a kind of death spiral--I come home from work frustrated and unhappy, which gets transferred to my boy, which advances the spiral which feeds my displeasure which adds to his stress which turns me into a ball of angry, seething ick that I try to keep to myself but somehow spills over--and the descent into this very awful place continues for days until we're both just miserable.

Enter the TurkeyMum. Yes, the TurkeyMum. I picked up the boy from his after school program, needing to get to the grocery store because dinner options were pretty limited (as they can become when you don't get to the store).

We were both in our crabby places when we got to the market, and I was bracing myself for an escalation when we walked in, and there it was:

Yes, that's a mum all gussied up with pipecleaners and googly-eyes and glitter. At the store, we stopped in our crabby tracks and stared. Then we looked at each other and burst out laughing.

I don't know what we paid for TurkeyMum, and it really doesn't matter because now, when we're in the kitchen together, we both smile. And believe me, during a really challenging week when the frustration is rubbing off? Any smile is good.

It is much too easy to forget, at the end of the day or the week, no matter how awful it's been, that what matters is each other. TurkeyMum is a great, and silly, reminder.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

300 words explained (300 words)

Someone I know said recently that she's considering starting a blog, but didn't know if it would be narcissistic self-indulgence or worthwhile creative expression. My comment to her was that I do it because it makes me write, and that sometimes I stumble onto something that seems worth posting, and others I sort of cringe at what's out there--it's public but not necessarily publicized.

The 300 word posts are squarely in the "makes me write" category. Multiple creative writing teachers I've had over the years have required a daily or every-other-daily 300-word exercise. The goal of them is not unlike the goals we have as composition teachers--getting some words on the page that, eventually, may end up being something much more interesting and/or compelling.

Of course, a lot of the 300 word posts end up being like yesterdays, which was largely an exercise in typing. Those, I am typically tempted to not post because they are, as my students might say, full of fail. However, I post them because of those very same students--to show that we all write crap, nonsense and drivel from time to time. Writers write, I tell them; I never say that writers write brilliant work all the time, every time.

So, in a nutshell, the 300 word posts are intended as fodder, as an exercise in language, and as a commitment to myself and the craft of writing. Sometimes their purpose is to mark space and time--a "Kilroy was Here" of the digital age, perhaps. Now and then, something will emerge from them that I want to follow--a path into an idea I hadn't spent a lot of time with. Those moments always remind me of why I like writing the 300 word pieces. Times like now, though, those times when I'm busier than I'd like to be, they're more like verbal treadmills--good exercise, even though I don't like them very much.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Saying (300 words and not really finished or well-developed)

One of the hardest things about being a parent, about being a female, and about find one's place in a new society is learning how to say that scary little two-letter word. You know the one. Starts with "n" and ends in "owe." I think I've figured out why.

Let's start with the "mom" part. I have guilt. Guilt for moving him here, guilt for leaving him there last year, guilt because he's an awful lot like my and god help him that's not going to be easy, and guilt because, well, it's what I do. I know some moms without the guilt. Okay, I think I know some moms without some guilt--if they have it (and yeah, they probably do), they've managed to make it less visible to the outside world. Problem being, of course, that the guilt isn't doing anyone any favors, it just impels me to do more than I'm really capable of doing--if I'd been able to say the "n" word, we probably wouldn't be at this impasse.

And then there's the whole female thing. Maybe I'm wrong, but it seems to me that guilt is a largely feminized space; that women are more likely to harbor this vague-ish and somewhat nameless guilt that floats somewhere around our midsections. Seriously. It's why we apologize so much, even when we haven't done anything apology-worthy. I have, embarassingly enough, been known to reflexively apologize to chairs that were in my way. I haven't known many chairs to take offense, and even when they do they tend to be pretty quiet about it.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Tourista! (pt 1: 300 words)

I started the week with good intentions. I was going to meet my promise to myself to write 300 words/day even if they were about nothing more consequential than the NYSEG guys replacing the gas lines.

Things happen and in truth I did write more than 300 words on multiple days but they weren't posted here so it's not quite the same thing. So I'm calling it a par 2 and getting on with my writing.

Thursday, my boy and I spent a day in Manhattan, a first for both of us. We planned it as tourists--decided that we'd do all of the obligatory tourist things like wear mom jeans and white sneakers, and not think twice about it.

Well okay, I don't really own mom jeans or white sneakers but we did gawk like a couple of country rubes gone tada city. It's a little hard not to, frankly--stepping off the bus into Times Square was like landing on a whole 'nother planet. I joke about being all country and stuff, but I was born a city kid, and have spent substantial time in more than one--and so far, nothing compares to NYC.

Wardrobe aside, we did things like stare at the jumbotrons in Times Square, spend time on the 86th floor observation deck of the Empire State Building, eat street food, collect tchotchkes, find slices of NY-style pizza, hang out at FAO Schwarz and buy pashminas from a guy with a trunk. And while I didn't manage to have breakfast at Tiffany's, I did nosh on some pineapple chunks scammed from a smoothie guy on the corner.

I will confess that I was torn between terror and excitement at the prospect of this outing. Our local YMCA offered it as a one-day, round-trip bus ride. Seven hours to get there, eight hours to be there, seven hours to get back home. So in truth, we spent more time riding the bus than trudging down 7th Avenue. But 7th Ave. was a whole lot more interesting, especially after I learned how to wield my elbows like a pro. (Which is an entirely different post.)

You might think that after moving, alone, to this strange place I'd never heard of for a job I wasn't positive I could do effectively would make me pretty fearless. You'd be wrong. Which is, of course, why things like dragging my 8-year-old son to NYC for a day are good for me--they require squirming out of my ever-drifting comfort zone and remembering what it means to discover.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Military History. Or not. (300 words)

The salt dough was the easy part. My boy came home with instructions for making it, because his class is going to make 3-dimensional maps out of it. I gave him the recipe and supervised while he did it--and told him I was impressed and proud when he cleaned up after the process without any coaching or prompting from me.

Then he told me that his class has been working on some kind of program for our local veterans, a program that includes all of the elementary school singing the "Star Spangled Banner", among other things. So we worked on that together. Well, we worked on it without that bit about the ramparts--that's the optional stanza, right? And that multi-octave nonsense. Also optional, at least if I'm participating.

Just because we had to google the words doesn't mean we weren't earnest about it or that he isn't looking forward to the performance.

No, it was after this that things went south quickly. The boy mentioned that he likes the part about the bombs bursting in air, and somehow...somehow this led to a discussion about war.

Oh dear.

I'm not a big fan of war, mostly because I'm not a big fan of telling other people (or countries) how to live. I'm also not a big fan of people dying for a cause--especially when they didn't make the cause. There are, of course, exceptions. That bit about wanting to be independent is one of them. But when the boy said something about always winning wars, I really couldn't keep my mouth shut--there's revisionism and then there is halftruth based on censorship and "Oh crap, how do I explain something this complicated to an 8 year old when I don't even totally understand it myself."

Wait, I know what we need--more salt dough.

Further Magic (300 words)

I have friends; I make casual ones fairly easily. The ones that stick are a little harder for me because it means that I eventually have to pull down a brick or two and I'm real sorry if you had to see that mess.

But I was thinking about yesterday's 300 words about magic, and about the magic that grows from our new human relationships; how it enhances our lives and how, if we're really really lucky, that magic--and our lives--are enhanced by those we include in our circles.

There are four of us inside the closest circle of my life here. Three of us met on my first day here. The fourth came a bit later. But we are 4. We've spent some time playing with the archetypes of 4--horsemen of the apocalypse; seasons; my personal favorite, the Stooges (if you include Shemp); and finally, the elements. The elements proved irresistible when we started considering their characteristics and our own quirks.

I started to write about what makes each of us different, and how those differences are, in fact, manifested in ways that meet the elemental archetypes. But as I started my fingers in that direction, I realized it was too dense for a simple 300 words. So I will say only that I have been designated "air" because air is mercurial, not following any anticipated path. Unlike water, it isn't easily contained; unlike earth, it is not place-bound; and unlike fire, it does not demand change though it can be a destructive force.

There is, of course, much more to this. And there is much more to the discussion of magic. But right now, the magic I need most is in the kitchen because in the kitchen are my son, the cat and the dog, all wanting breakfast.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Pieces of Magic (300 words)

I suppose it is a uniquely American concept to believe that magic can only exist if it is evidenced by lightshows and fireworks. When we believe this, we lose the ability to see it where it really lives.

Recently, I had the pleasure of spending time with an old friend who does not live here in New York.We’ve been friends long enough that we can’t remember exactly how long it is, and we’re both married with children which kept us squarely in the realm of friendship. There was a moment, once, but it is long-past.

Here's the truth: I believe in the existence of magic. I believe it has the ability to transform us, to guide us, to remind us. It can be the source of our power or our greatest fear, and it rarely exists in thunderbolt flashes. Instead, it hides in our quiet corners, in those dark places we hope no one ever sees and, when we're lucky, our relationships.

Especially, I think, it’s those dark places and corners where the magic of old friendship lives. I had forgotten the simple pleasure of spending time with someone who knows me--at moments better than I think I know myself. And had forgotten the simple pleasure of chemistry--the kind that exists between people who know exactly who the other person is and likes them anyway.

This, I think, is the truest of all magics, the one that binds us. It lives in those old friends we can call after 20 years of silence, and the conversation picks up as though it was yesterday. It lives in the corners of our new relationships--those moments when we are at our absolute worst, and it turns out the company we’re keeping thinks we’re still okay. And it lives in the choices we made, and those we avoided. Hardly the flash and crack of the stage magician, and rarely as obvious. But always truer.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Sunday Morning, a Snapshot (300 words)

The clock tells me it is 6:45, the Sunday morning of our return to Eastern Time. My body says it is 7:45 and I have overslept even as I try to use this time as a gift of extra sleep.

Tight against my legs is Carlos the dog. He (and my snoring) have long since sent my spouse, who is here with us for a few days, to the couch. Carlos is fairly petite as Golden Retrievers go, but he's been gifted with a superpower that enables him to expand to fill all available space. Elastidog, I call him. Even as I cling to the edge of the bed, I can feel him stretching out, his spine arching along my side while his legs reach for the other edge. I can tell that he wants more space for his paws. He will not get it.

From my son's room, I hear the "pew pew pew" of laser fire, and the occasional yell of "clankers!" in a remarkably spot-on impression of the Australian-sounding clones from "Star Wars the Clone Wars." Star Wars dictates my life and provides the narrative track for his.

The occasional car cruises slowly by in the street and between them I can hear the birds, hear that they are still trying to get their cadres together for departure. It feels like they're leaving late this year, though I confess that I don't always register time in its true and static form (not that I'm a time traveller, but rather that I tend not to notice how and where it passes, only that it has. Yes, I'm hell on calendars).

I can tell that the clones are growing restless. Soon, they'll be bouncing on the bed, on my arms and head in a unified attempt to rush me out and into the the lurking morning. Mornings, whether they care to admit it or not, lurk. I will buy myself enough time to make and drink a cup of coffee, skim the NY Times for headlines and the magazine until, in a fit of indulgence, I will decide that I need, yes need, to find 300 words of my very own, just for the sake of the morning.

And then, because it is Sunday, I will make pancakes.