Friday, December 31, 2010


A few years ago, my friend Bradley perfected the one-word New Year's Resolution. He chose the word "move", not knowing where it would lead. Where it led him, a guy who never pictured himself as a homeowner, was into a Habitat for Humanity house where he still lives.

I adopted his approach, and haven't looked back.

The beauty of the one-word resolution is that we point ourselves in a general direction and then get out of the way because that single word creates a lot of space for the Universe to step in and do what needs doing. This is a little unnerving, really. Resolving to lose weight, to read more, or to remember to feed the fish are things we have the power to follow through on. Or not, as the case may often be, but either way we control them rather than the other way around.

2011 marks my third one-word resolution. The first, three New Years ago, was change. I didn't know how the year would end, but I was determined that it wouldn't be as it began. And it didn't--it started in Michigan, but ended in New York.

Last year, I opted for courage because mine often fails me at moments when I need it the most. What I discovered is that courage has many facets. It is about knowing when to speak up, when to push, when to watch failure without stepping in to fix it and, most challenging for me, knowing when to stand and fight even as I'd rather walk away.

This year's word had been eluding me. I tried on several, but ultimately discarded each of them for a variety of reasons. I've finally found it, though--movement. I won't explain how I ended up here, only that it feels right because it makes me just a little uneasy. I don't know what that means--movement--for this year. I don't expect it means that I'm leaving my now-beloved Finger Lakes, nor do I imagine it means anything so simple as get more exercise. All I'm sure of...let me try that again...I suspect that first and foremost it means don't get complacent.

Beyond this? Anything could happen.

Friday, December 24, 2010

The Carol of the Boxes

When I was growing up, at least during my younger years in Texas, the Foley's box was always the mark of a most excellent gift.

Christmas Eve always happened at my paternal grandmother's apartment. The grownups would sit at the dinette, smoking, drinking Wild Turkey, and gossiping about whichever uncle and his family who were on the outs that year. The honor always passed between my uncles Bill and Charles. One of them would be there with his wife and kids, the other, I always imagined, was at home sulking, hiding in his bedroom while his wife and kids sat glumly before the tree wishing they were with the rest of us.

As an adult, I still don't know the stories behind those years. But no matter. Regardless which uncle and family were present, there was always the ceremonious retreat to the bedroom. We younger kids were never invited, but in the later years, one of my older cousins was occasionally included.

What would happen is this: after enough cigarettes, Wild Turkey and gossip, my grandma would choose a co-conspirator (one of the wives or one of those female cousins), and after an interminably long time in the bedroom, out they would come. Boxes would be stacked higher than their heads, and their knees would sometimes buckle under the weight of bows, paper and ribbons.

The boxes would be distributed under the tree, and each of us children would wait, breathless, for the one with our name on it to be handed over. Was it the big one back in the corner? Or a tiny one that we couldn't quite see but that might, just might, have a birthstone ring in it?

The first gift was always given to one of the wives. She would carefully remove the ribbon, setting it aside for later, and gently slit the edge of the tape with one long, polished nail revealing, underneath the wrapping, a coveted Foley's box. An "oooh" would rise up from the room, followed by a collective murmur of "Foley's box." Whatever was inside, we knew, was going to be good.

Like most regional departments stores, Foley's has been consumed by Macy's. Perhaps a Macy's box would be received with the same kind of reverence, but I doubt it. Like so many other of our traditions--like cigarettes and Wild Turkey for our Christmas Eve celebration--it has changed as our family has grown and spread out. My sister is in Texas, my brother is in Missouri, I'm here in New York. But no matter where we are, or how we're spending the holiday, we will call each other and at some point during the conversation, one of us will say with just a hint of breathless reverence "remember the Foley's boxes?" The other will nod, though the nod won't be seen, and we'll be kids again, for the briefest of moments.

Whether you celebrate the Solstice, the Christ Mass, or another of the holy days that fill the season, here's wishing peace, happiness, and a Foley's box of your very own to you and yours.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Awkward Questions (300 words)

My son asks the most awkward questions. For example, this afternoon as we were heading home from school he says "Mom, if the baby's name was Jesus, why do people call him "Christ"?"

"That's his middle name" was the first thing that popped into my head but fortunately I had sense enough to keep that one to myself and simply admit that although it was a good question, I had no idea why Jesus is also known as Christ (and, if you were listening to Diane Rhem today, Buddha, Mohammed, and the Star of Bethlehem but those are things for another post by a religious scholar of some sort. I'm just a mom trying to answer an awkward question).

The Christmas holiday brings a lot of awkward questions. Some of them (what's a manger?), I can answer based on a childhood spent in church. Others (re: above) leave me clueless because the belief system that governs our household doesn't come with automatic answers. I can explain why we hang lights, have trees and give gifts, but the magic of light isn't quite what our cultura celebrates these days.

Also, I guess I'm a contrarian, because it doesn't bother me that they sing carols in my son's music class, and those carols include religious references.

I realized, earlier this season, that my kiddo has a completely different frame of reference than I did; that the nativity is not a story he knows forward and backward. He's never been a sheep, or listened to a high school Mary's plaintive "there's no room at the inn" or beheld a star in the night. And this makes me a little sad because, belief or no belief, there is a distinct cultural reference in the nativity story. When a friend invited us to see her choir perform in a church, the first thing my boy asked was "can we go there?" meaning into the church because somehow he has gotten it into his head that only the righteous are allowed inside.

On our very snowy drive home, he peppered me with more questions, like, "what's that about 3 wiseguys?" and "what was that one wo wo wo song?" ("Angels We Have Heard on High") and "Why didn't they just go to a different hotel?"

And I was inexorably sad because he genuinely didn't know the answers, and because I don't know how to thread the needle between explanation and acceptance, between narrative and doctrine.

On the plus side, however, this morning we discussed the Solstice and he did a classic 8-year-old boy raised-fist salute and said "Sun's back! Woo Hoo!!" Sounds to me like the beginning of a tradition.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Of Gingerbread and Tinsel

Now more than any other time (at least here in the dominantly Christian-thinking world), there are traditions to uphold. Home-baked cookies, hand-made teacher presents, tinsel, inflatable Santas, fresh trees and countless other expectations rattle around all month, making a mockery of any aplomb we...I...might typically have. In my world, past years have provided greater opportunities to bake more cookies than I knew what to do with, or decorate the house within an inch of its life.

This year is a bit more challenging. Part of the shift is that with the two of us here, I spend a larger percentage of my time doing things like dishes, laundry and general household maintenance; another is that I'm no longer a grad student or a stay-at-home parent who can readily carve out extra time to do these things. And the biggest change is that in an effort simplify my world, things like "more tinsel" have lost their meaning. All of this leads, as I've alluded to before, to figuring out what does have meaning.

There's a traditional cookie that I make--it comes from my spouse's grandmother's grandmother's mother. The dough for that is resting in the refrigerator. It has meaning.

As for the rest of the cookies--and there must be cookies--I have decided to return to the cookies of my childhood. Thank you, Sara Lee and Archway, for your sugar cookies. Already decorated with sprinkles and colored, glittery sugar, they taste like childhood. I had a working, single-parent mother and, curiously enough, don't look back on those store-baked holidays with anything but fond affection. Those cookies have meaning, too, but in an unexpected and slightly off-kilter (just like me, my family, my life) way.

I've baked gingerbread houses in the past--whipped out the royal icing, the gumdrops and the nonpareils. This year, I signed us up at the NYC Wine and Culinary Center where, for a reasonable(ish) fee, we get to join other families and decorate a gingerbread house that NYCWCC has already baked and assembled. It may not be quite the same as the ones I've baked, but I suspect it's still going to be a good memory to make and hold. When I mentioned it to my boy, his face lit up. I could promise that we'll bake one but honestly? The big day is 9 days from now. Instead of a decorated cookie, we'd be left with a broken promise. We don't need any more of those. Meaning.

So now, the tree has been put up, and there are some lights outside. I'm declaring myself finished, ready to prop up my feet, pour a glass of eggnog (with a bit of bourbon), watch "A Charlie Brown Christmas" and relax with people I love. Sounds like my kind of holiday. Meaningful, simple, and a reminder that for me at least, this holiday is about cycles, and renewals, and the return of hope, light and, if we're lucky, peace and sanity.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Writing Teacher Meets Mid-December

The semester starts to wind down, and my energy for writing gets subsumed by the papers that need comments, or the students who need tutoring, or the project that is due in 3 days. It's always like this.

So I took a minute to reflect on what I'd been writing in this space, and determined that the answer is "whatever." I have friends who write, and whose public writing spaces are focused, with a dedication to following a particular topic, idea or sequence. There is a gestalt to their body of work, and I have a bit of envy about that cohesion.

I, on the other hand, write about whatever has captured my interest at a given momennt. This is probably why I've always known better than to pursue a life as a real writer-who-(hopefully) gets-paid. I don't have the grim determination, focus or interest in pursuing a longer text, or a series of shorter texts that tilt on a particular theme. No, I like to write about whatever. What's more, or maybe worse, is that I rarely do more than a minimal proof-reading of the work prior to posting it. There have been a few exceptions-if I find I've stumbled on something that compels me to keep going, I will. Mostly, however, I don't.

All of that said, I find that blogging (or non-profit public writing as I tend to think of it) brings up interesting questions about audience. As a writing teacher, I spend buckets of time discussing audience. In an academic setting, that's pretty easy--the audience is either me, their peers, or some arbitrary audience I've named in the rhetorical situation of the assignment. Real-life, non-profit public writing (can we just call it RLNPW?) blows the assumption that audience is easily named right out of the proverbial water. According to google analytics, folks from such diverse places as Russia and the Netherlands find their way to this particular place on the web. (I have confusion about the why of this, but no matter.)

This idea of an audience beyond the classroom is suddenly of interest to me because, for next semester, I'm planning to require my first year writing students to practice RLNPW. Whom shall I tell them is reading, I wonder. I will, of course, and their peers. But we, potentially, are a very small percentage of the audience for that work.

What I'm curious about is this: how will the potential of a larger, anonymous, audience change the tenor of typical FYW journals? Or will it? It has been assumed by many academics that our milennials, so accustomed to a life fully lived on the public stage, are unable to see the value of the private. I know what my students' journals look like now; I'm curious to see what they look like at the end of May.

And I, as a participant, will continue doing what I do best--writing about whatever nonsense flits across my my mind. Enjoy (she says, quite tongue-in-cheekily).

Wednesday, December 1, 2010


As a writing teacher, one of the options available to me is something we call the "classification essay." If you're unaware of what this is,it is exactly what it sounds like: an essay in which a thing, or set of things, is classified according to what it is or is not. It's like sorting, for writers.

I never assign classification essays. It is much too easy to write them as binaries--a thing is/is not--and lose the nuance of what a thing truly is. Kind of like people really--we're liberals or conservatives, rich or poor, educated or foolish, rednecks or snobs. Kind of difficult to be a red-necked snob, really. They just don't go together according to our classification system.

Well, actually, they kind of do. It's just that we're so focused on classification that we don't recognize the gray zones of "moderate" or "plain old middle class." We've lost sight of this thing that we used to call "normal." Do we even remember what "normal" means? Isn't it that space between extremes? Of course, we now consider that person to be not normal so much as invisible.

A couple of things set me off recently. One was an ad for a show by a vegan feminist at Michigan State University--sponsored in part by the Womyn's Council. In truth, the term "womyn" lost it's charm for me somewhere around my sophomore year in college when I realized that it was just another, self-made way of fracturing the identities of half the population. Anyhow, the poster featured a model wearing a gown made of meat, and as near as I could tell from the rhetoric, the show is about some (perhaps imaginary) place where feminism, veganism, speciesism and T-Bone steaks converge. And what it made me wonder was this: at what point do we cease to be thinking individuals and become ideology shills? Do we know where our lines are anymore, or are we simply reacting, in knee-jerk fashion, to every affront, real or perceived, that comes along? I don't know about you, but I'm offense-exhausted to the point where I believe we need a word for it. Offenzausted? Overoffensensitive? Whatever it may be, what I'm really wondering is this: does hyper-reactionism ever take a night off to kick back and order a pizza(non-dairy and with a gluten-free crust, of course), have a beer and read a trashy novel just for fun?

I'm not taking potshots. I know and love various individuals who are feminists, who are vegans, who are unabashed rednecks, and who embody elements of all of these in one confused but lovable package. I do, truly. And one of the things I love most about them is that they defy the binary while remaining wholly true to themselves.

The other thing, in this binary nation, that set my teeth to grinding was the article in last week's Newsweek about food and class in America. I've been trying to tackle my own love/hate (there's that binary again) with food and foodie cultures here in this space, and the Newsweek piece (available here: cut to the heart of my thinking. Our relationship(s) with food have, especially for women, always existed on a scale of good-or-bad. Now, however, we are redefining what it means for food to be good or bad, and we are, in many ways, defining ourselves by our food choices. And of course, because we--or at least our media--find the rampant classist nature of humans so fascinating and prevalent, what we buy in the market has become the new symbol of class. I find this troubling.

And yet, even as I find it troubling, I recognize the truth in it and the ways that I am complicit in maintaining this binary. I tend, for example, to cringe at other people's box-laden grocery carts while feeling virtuous about my fresh asparagus. Surely this means I love my child more, or that I care more for his well-being than does the parent who serves Meaty Helper regularly. I've created this binary in my own image, with the largely subconscious motive of assuaging my own guilt about the choices I've made. Oh sure, I tore my family in half and dragged my poor child to New York--but look at how much I love him! I make him eat vegetables! (Vegetables covered in this nasty processed cheese sauce called "Wholly Queso", but no mind.)

And so I have to wonder if this is the real reason for our binaries--if we divide and classify so that we can find the ways in which we are "better than." And if this is true, it might give me just the faintest glimmer of hope that eventually, someday, our need for "better than" will soften and mellow into something just a little closer to "it's okay, just the way it is." Even better, what if, just what if, we stop judging ourselves by what goes into our grocery carts and onto our tables, or stop peremptorily labeling those with whom we share this tiny planet according to current trends? What if we make our choices based on personal belief and preference, rather than a desire to identify with the ideology of the day? What if, and I know this may be pushing the boundary a little too far, but what if Meaty Helper and organic eggs can coexist in the same kitchen, without shame?

What if.