Monday, February 22, 2016

Anyone can be a Queen


I'm not one to post videos of my kids, but I was so delighted this morning when Petra redefined the Disney Queen. A friend gave her a Frozen Elsa doll. As I was fighting to unwrap it, she looked at the pictures on the back, one of Elsa and one of Kristoff. Pointing to Elsa she said, "Here's the princess", and pointing to Kristoff, the male hero, she said, "Here's the Queen." Can you believe I almost corrected her for a second? Just auto-pilot for a mom with a toddler learning new words everyday. But then I was like, wait, what? That's awesome! And I asked her to recreate it. I wish I'd caught the group of Wally's friends—3 boys and 1 girl—who all asked to be Queen in a game a few weeks ago. Yet as much as we might seem to embrace fluidity (maybe some of you remember the Boy in the Purple Tutu), I have to be honest and tell you that Wally now "hates" pink, recoils at princesses, and hasn't donned the tutu or anything like it in over a year. He did--at home--wear a kilt last St. Patty's Day, but there had been build up around it for years (that was something society would "allow") and in the end it felt somewhat perfunctory. Who knows why he now embraces and earlier defied his "proper" role. Who knows how much we influenced him, one way or the other. Complex stuff, but one recent question he posed to Petra I think worth posing more broadly: Why do so many girls want to be princesses instead of Queens?


Sunday, February 21, 2016

Chelsea Morning

The coffee is on...just knowing it's on sometimes is as or even more rewarding than actually drinking it. Same with the ceremony of opening a bottle of wine...the anticipation...

The sun is pouring in. 

A new Saturday. 

Can I write for a few minutes? Block out the sound of the new Garfield in one room and Paw Patrol in the other? Resist checking email. Resist checking on the presidential race. I have debated about letting the kids watch separate shows—it seems profligate, but on the other hand, the only viable option is to make Wally watch really simple shows, which he does often enough, but it doesn't seem fair to limit him entirely to those. 

 "You accidentally made the brown sugar melt too much," he says, handing his bowl of oatemal to me at the computer. Petra on the other hand prefers oatmeal totally plain, rivaling my dad in boot camp tendencies. 

Alex is heading to play soccer uptown with Brazilians. Today, they'll be happy. It's supposed to be near 60. He has tried to get others friends of ours interested. People say they are, but only one person ever joined him once.  

In an hour I'll take the kids to a park on the Brooklyn waterfront to meet a friend of mine from college, her husband and little girl (Petra's age). When your kids are far apart you often have one kid dangling a bit loose—it's easier if Wally is dangling loose, of course, but I feel more sorry for him. I remember my sister talking about her kids being the oldest kids in the playground. That was a while ago now. They were probably just around Wally's age, maybe even younger. I just looked back at the post. They were only 6 and 8! I guess it depends on what time of day you go, what playgrounds. In Park Slope where they live, the playgrounds don't seem as popular for older kids as they do here. Maybe people in that neighborhood in Brooklyn have more space, their own backyards, a short walk to Prospect Park...No but that indicates that the kids are likely playing or even--hopefully--outside, just somewhere else. Maybe they're fully booked up with activities. I get the sense that a lot of Park Slope kids are even busier than Manhattan kids, they're such a distilled bunch of hurried children, more homogenous in terms of socio-economic status. This Chelsea neighborhood is a real mix, which Park Slope used to be. Has anyone seen this new documentary about it? CLASS DIVIDE, it's called. 

That was as far as I got yesterday, on that new Saturday. Not as far as this forthcoming artist/writer whose blog I adore.  

Our friends in the end couldn't meet. I spent most of the morning picking up crap around the apartment and feeding various neighbors cats. Petra broke a petal bead flower at one neighbor's house, while I was cleaning up after the cat who can only walk with her front legs. I told the owner, by text, and tried to fix the petal-bead flower, which meant running out to get parchment paper (which Petra thought was a box of cookies because of the picture on it) and firing up my grandmother's iron, which I've never used and works surprisingly well, and trying to keep these teeny, tiny beads in place without a mold while keeping Petra screaming for cookies away from the hot iron. I wasn't able to fix it very well. But I think I might start ironing.

I did go jogging for the first time in months, pushing Petra in the stroller, she napped and I stopped and sat in the sun and worked on another intro for another book proposal on a pier near the Intrepid. What a beautiful, beautiful day. 

I thought about parents who are too strict and parents who are too indulgent and Wally's face when I saw he couldn't do the ipad first thing in the morning and how I almost immediately gave in to it! What a deprived child, who can only watch TV--his own show, practically whatever he wants--can't play on the ipad first thing. [I've noticed the ipad is so rewarding he'll wake up earlier to play it. He noticed it too, and told me as much.] 

Out by the river on the way back, half "jogging"/half walking, moderating an internal debate about which part of my body hurt the most, I saw a boy who lost his red balloon. Well, first I saw the red balloon go floating up into the sky and then I saw the mother yell at him, "You're almost 9 years old, get over it" and then I saw the child's stunned and defeated face. 

In the afternoon the kids played on the overflowing playground. 

Friday, February 19, 2016

My sister sent me this article with the single word "Bingo" attached. Please read it now. "Having it All Kinda Sucks" by Amy Westervelt. 

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

White Clouds

Did you see the link in the last post for the song Nuvole Bianche? I just realized I had the link buried under the wrong word and I don't think what I wrote will make any sense if you're not listening to the song. 

Saturday, February 13, 2016

The Perfect Enemy

Things I do visually don't come out well. I think I've mentioned that before on my blog or maybe it's just obvious from the lack of visuals and the overall atrocious design and layout. I've had many roommates with artistic flair, the ones who can casually throw a shawl over a lamp and somehow it's pretty and atmospheric whereas when I do it, its just a fire hazard. One friend of mine hangs her holiday cards along the top of the mirror with little clothespins and cutout snowflakes. And look at all these lovely displays. Meanwhile mine are all clumped together falling out of the glass frame of the "Breakfront" as my grandmother called it. China cabinet I guess is the more common name? Miriam always called it Breakfront—initial caps—(at least that's how it sounded) and still Alex doesn't know what it refers to and it's true it does sound more like something you'd encounter at the ocean on a stormy day. This particular Breakfront was purchased because it fit the punchbowl my grandmother already had, the punchbowl I bring out at every party. We could never get rid of the Breakfront, because then what would we do with the punchbowl?

For Wally's birthday last night I made these heart-shaped brownies and I thought they were visually stunning—at least compared to anything I've made before—but when I took a good look at them today I saw they were really highly flawed. You see Momspark made these:

while meanwhile here is mine, even on a nice plate:

And I'm totally not posting this so that people will write "That looks awesome Rach! Seriously, I like yours better than Spark Mom's because it's charming and real." Well I wouldn't mind that I guess, but I'm mainly posting it because lately I've been having this reaction in so many areas -- projects I do with the kids, home "design" if you could call it that, art journaling, pathetic, pathetic attempts at art journaling. I don't seem to have any natural aesthetic sensibilities and I can't execute things well, either. Plus there is just the everyday chaos of things that many mom blogs and pinterest pins don't show. Like what if I featured the Valentine brownie with this background? With the waffle Petra said she wanted then didn't eat, with the pens that shouldn't be in the kitchen, Wally's water bottle, the pacifier that hasn't been used in years and probably has mold. 

Then it certainly wouldn't Pinterest anybody. And part of me just wants to celebrate the mediocrity of these projects and recipes. To just revel in them, "The perfect is the enemy of the good"-style, to revel in being able to hold the perfect enemy at bay. I want to make a book of DIY kid projects that actually feature the incredibly messy, ripped up, over-glued, wrong colors, missing button projects kids make. 

Do any of you know SARK? Healing, empowering, personal journeys, transforming, creativity, angels invitations to love, incredibly hokey stuff, outrageously hokey. But before she became an enterprise, there was something about her honest colorful pouring forth of "I am me-ness" that I like. I can't say liked, because I didn't know it then. But it's some other kind of past tense, because I don't know if that authentic SARK is there anymore.

This morning I tried to handwrite in my journal and the kids kept interrupting so I found half-used notebooks in Wally's closet and ripped out the used pages and gave one to each. Petra made a giant messy pool of glitter glue you could swim in and Wally designed a video game with levels and rewards and booby traps. I tried so hard to just write. Write upside down, write in circles, draw a male tooth fairy (Wally's idea), write my way out of structures, even the loose, amorphous structure of a blog. Write my way out of the pressure of seminar papers, program evaluations, gift-book proposals. Remember what it was like just to create, not for anyone or for anything. I'd like to say it was freeing and stimulating and joyful, but it wasn't. 

There were so many interruptions -- Wally accidentally breaking the point of his color pencil, Petra needing her hand washed, the cat about to step on the glitter glue. This is impossible! I wanted to scream at many points. I put on beautiful meditative music. There were a bunch of ads. I was hungry, because of course I'd fed or attempted to feed the kids 3 breakfasts each (Petra reverted to her favorite, rice and beans) but hadn't eaten myself. My pan ran out. So grab another pen, right? Right. But it just felt like so many obstacles. The moment of standing up to grab the pen can throw off the whole equilibrium with a toddler, it really can. Then they're distracted, pulled away, needing, wanting, asking for, knocking over something else. How can one get in a flow state for all the good, creative work we want to do? You don't, at this stage. You don't expect to. You're ridiculous to expect to. Which is why these kinds of posts end with either a celebration of all the wonderful, exhausting creatively transforming chaos of kid-raising or else with some sort of pull-back wide camera angle or incidental scene or convo that seems to "capture" it. Or both. 

Like for example this song came on and Petra said, "Why is she sad? Make sure she's not sad." 

And I thought--okay, yes, yes, she gets that, she feels that, just from the music, we don't know what this woman is saying, we don't even know what language she's saying it in. We don't know who she is. We don't know who wrote the song. We don't know who else heard it and felt stunned, absolutely stunned, by the sunlight streaming in, by the chance to spend a morning with their little loud and wonderful souls. I can't finish any of my novels. I have 800 copies of my only "real" recording stored in my closet, in nyc, where you can't store anything. If people saw anything I drew they might say "Good job" thinking it was Petra who did it. But this woman singing! 

You can't just end the post there. That Petra felt the sadness of the song and that's somehow redemptive. 

Okay, I won't.

I want to say that lately I can't decide--should I really pursue writing? If I "really" pursue writing, then I should stop promoting books like Test Your Dog and Spanish Insults. But perhaps I still want to go down the narrow, craggy academic path. Or perhaps I'm happy with the sun pouring in and trying to write and draw outside the lines with Wally and Petra. Focus. What would say, if you had uninterrupted time?

Sky died November 17. 

First I wrote "Our dog Sky" but she wasn't our dog anymore. She was, but she wasn't. I was one of those terrible people who gave our dog away. But each step made sense. First it was just that my parents would care for her. Then by the time we realized they could not -6 months later after she'd destroyed their rugs and nearly wrecked the renovated house they were trying to sell and threatened to wreck the brand-new house they bought, the house they bought with the room for my grandmother that she didn't live to see, by that point we were living in a Manhattan apartment where Sky couldn't live. And where really, we told ourselves--and believed--she wouldn't be happy to live at that point. No space, walking around the streets tied up with no room to run. In Park Slope, one block from the park was one thing.

Manhattan with a baby. And it wasn't the house wrecking that made my parents give her up - they really couldn't walk her enough. My mom at that time could barely make it to the mailbox by herself and my dad was/still is working more than full time, more than anyone I know my age let alone his. Plus Sky was wild. Not to any of us--and she never bit or hurt anyone. But she was a pitbull and she was raised in her early years by a pack of wild Brazilians and no matter how many trainers I worked with and how many hours I spent with the clicker, there was a wildness that combined with her strength made it untenable. She was the sweetest, most loyal dog. Any day I would have trusted her with my life. I know my parents would too. And yet somehow we gave her away. We were so lucky that Michelle, the amazing, loving owner of the doggy daycare where she'd gone many times, agreed to take her. She and her partner had four other dogs and lived near the NH-border, with lots of land. Plus Sky got to go run agility courses at the doggy day care almost every day. It was an amazing life, a better life than we could have given her. Still I felt the burden of guilt and sadness for these past seven years. 

We visited her a bunch of times over the years -- mostly me, taking Wally and later both kids. The visits were heartbreaking, excruciating. My mom couldn't bear to see her, so we couldn't bring Sky back to their house. In summer, we went to a playground or field. In winter, we drove around. With Petra it got harder and harder to manage. Even this last visit, in August, a few months before she died, Sky was still strong enough to pull Wally over. That didn't stop him from running with her. I was lucky my dad came with us on that visit and it was the first time that didn't feel oppressively sad. I still don't know why. I don't know what the difference was. I actually think it was almost a relief that the owner didn't let us stray far from the daycare. Like it somehow let me off the hook. 

Wally sobbed when we told him Sky had died. We hadn't meant for him to hear when he did. He was on his way to a party on a Friday night. He still wanted to go, but he sobbed out in the hall and down the elevator and out in the weirdly-warm November streets and down the stairs onto the subway. I realized then that as sad as he was to lose Sky, to lose, to know that that's what we do in life, is lose what you love and eventually your life, but he was also sad because he'd never really had Sky that he could remember, only those first 6 months, and then only in stories and dreams. Maybe it had been worse, to be told, "Yes you have a dog" but to only have her in brief moments, always right about to leave. A dog is not something you have conceptually. So he sobbed for the dog he had and the dog he never had, the dog he had wanted so badly. What boy doesn't want a dog, doesn't beg for a dog, doesn't long for that kind of everyday companionship, the kind of loyalty that happens otherwise only in dreams? 

I'm not someone to go out and buy things to try to mask sadness. I'm not one to buy much at all, I would say I guess compared to others in my milieu or demographic. I think that's true, right? Just to give this some context. But the next day I agreed to go with Wally to find a Sky figurine and make a little memorial. We went to Michael's craft store and he bought a little cabin, a house for Sky he said, and some tape with dogs on it and a figurine that I realized later was a wolf. Of course I should have realized that from the way it was howling.

We came home and I thought we would carefully think about how we wanted the memorial to look, maybe paint the house Sky blue, maybe listen to "What a Wonderful World", maybe collage photos onto it. But no, taking after me, Wally impulsively decorated the house. He haphazardly lined the porch with the dog tape and added a dinosaur figure and put the wolf figure on top of the chimney. "Here is is," he said, obviously pleased. "Here's the Sky house and here's Sky on top, begging for life." 

"No, no, no" at first I almost said or said or just-in-time stopped myself from saying: Not begging for life. The messy, thrown-together memorial was one thing, but that's the wrong way to look at it. The ending was as perfect as one could hope for. Sky was fourteen years old. Really pretty old, for a dog. She lived a great life, a life any dog would be thrilled to live. She was born in the streets of East Harlem and grew up her first two years in a Victorian tilt-a-whirl house in New Jersey full of Brazilians and then for five years in a beautiful, light-filled apartment near the park in Brooklyn and later in Massachusetts surrounded by dogs and people who loved her. Loved her. And she got lost in that time! For two days! That was back in 2003. People thought for sure that was it, and look how long she lasted and how happy she was. 

But he said "Begging for life" and to him maybe that wasn't a sad thing or a desperate thing or something you want to hide or obscure or pretend didn't happen or make into a better picture or something easier to take and easier to accept. The howling wolf was a dog he'd lost and never really had, begging for life.

Begging for life. "A Dirge Without Music" by Edna St. Vincent Millay who was not resigned to death. And that lack of resignation is not necessarily something to fight against. Fighting to live is not noble at a certain point, we often think. At a certain point, when you've lived a good life, you agree to go peacefully. But that's not how Wally saw Sky in those final moments. She left her own perfect enemy, howling at the moon, begging for life, a testament to how much she loved it, and that is only because those imperfect, messy years on earth were so precious and in the end really, so few. 

Friday, February 12, 2016

Reading this to help me review for a French exam next week. The covers are all so pretty, n'est-ce pas? (I haven't spoken a word of French since I left Toulouse after a foreign study 20 years ago!) 
The real problem for American education has to do with poverty, not teachers. A crazy focus on testing and accountability has obscured the view. From David Denby in The New Yorker: 

"Teachers run from one testing regiment to another. But using the tests to evaluate teachers themselves has been questioned again and again by statistical experts as well as by critics of these programs. The heart of the criticism: the tests measure demographics (the class and wealth level of the students) more than teachers’ abilities." 

Read the full article "Stop Humiliating Teachers" here

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Test Your Dog not Your Kid

Testing is a hot topic among local parents today. Some accept it as a necessary evil, some tell me they appreciate the rigor (finding public school curriculum too watered-down), others enjoy the chance to find out how their child stacks up. 
As you can tell from my posts so far, I'm not a big fan of high-stakes testing; I think it detracts from real learning. (And I can't wait to read Vicki Abeles' new book Beyond Measure.) My own position is a bit murky, I guess, (like Jerry Mander owning a television?) as for the past several years I've worked with my father on evaluating education programs at local city schools, hoping to find significant impact in a field—arts and music—that's notoriously difficult to measure. Although the students themselves never find out the results of these tests, so perhaps I can deflect charges of hypocrisy. For fun, I've written these little books of tests for dogs (and they've so far, bizarrely, been my best platform for ranting against one-size-fits-all assessments). The "tests" are meant to be entertaining, and hopefully provide an afternoon or two of mental and physical stimulation for willing canine subjects. Here's the jacket for the upcoming U.S. Edition of the second book in the "series." It has already been released in paperback in the UK. The super-talented Chuck Gonzalez did the illustrations.

Here are three jackets from the first book. Which one do you like best? 

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Speed deep breathing

A blank sheet of paper. Or “New Post.” So often I don’t allow myself that luxury. Instead when I sit down at the computer—even to write, for myself, for fun—so often I first check my various email accounts including the Poets Out Loud email. Why? Hoping for that little distracting buzz of new email, a distraction, a reason why, oh yeah, that’s right, I actually can’t write right now because my supervisor asked me to update the website with the new prize winners’ bios. Or here’s the schedule from Wally’s school—let me check if they actually have Lunar New Year off. My sister asking about Amtrak tickets. She saw a deal offered. I don’t remember seeing any deal. Or a photo from a friend’s vacation. Davos—where is that? Everyone else in the email chain seems to know exactly where it is. Let me google it…on and on…down the rabbit hole. #1 tip on any list of “how to be productive” – don’t fall down that hole! I like the tip in this interview from Bridgid Schulte who wrote Overwhelmed. In this NPR interview she says, “That to-do list will never go away. If you have this if-then mentality, you'll never get to ‘then.’” She recommends picking one thing you want to accomplish in the morning and getting it done before you check email. It’s such good advice. Email just adds a million more to dos, obscuring the view of the most essential tasks.

So today, right now, for these few minutes, I’m just going to open the blank page and write.

This morning I grabbed an outdated new age/health magazine and read some advice on deep breathing. Just like advice about not falling into the email/endless clicking rabbit hole, the advice itself is simple and well known. Inhale, exhale. Take a long time doing it. Focus on your breath. Take longer to exhale than to inhale. Yadda yadda yadda. But I was in a rush, so literally as I read and brushed my teeth and searched for cat food (oh yeah—we now have a cat) I started breathing in and out fast so I could, until I burst out laughing.

Last night Wally stopped the toilet up accidentally after he made a toilet paper mummy of Petra and proceeded to flush all the tp down afterward. Petra destroyed a lipstick--that happens all the time, but this one got all of both our hands and the couch and it's still  on my hands, 24 hours later. I tried to take a picture to show -- all day people thought my hands were horribly chapped. The bathroom was flooded, lipstick stains everywhere, the kids dressed up in my clothes, really the only clean, respectable clothes in the house (pulling them all off their hangers). It was chaos, absolute chaos. And at one point I stupidly made a comment about this is why people give their kids ipads because lately it seems many of Wally's friends have ipads and he asks of course why he can't have one (it's not like he's even remotely deprived - he has vast but not unlimited access to Alex's on weekends). 

This morning I tried meditation for a few minutes with the kids before school. We watched the sun rising, tried Wally's own version of the sun salutation. Petra did somersaults.