Friday, April 29, 2011

Work: The graduation speech I won't ever give

There is just over a month until graduation, and I stand before the students in my English 12 class gushing about the I-Search paper, our department-wide senior project.  You come up with your own question --about anything you want to know!  You tell your own story about where you looked for answers and what you found!  This paper is about you!  I'm selling it, but they aren't buying.

Because I really like every one of the 24 students in that class, I find all the lethargy and apathy, the heads resting on desks and fingers texting below desks, endearing rather than maddening.  My fondness for them may also explain why this year more than any other I've thought about my own senior year.

One vivid memory from those dwindling days is of sitting in my English class with an open copy of Light in August on my desk. It was just after lunch and the windows were open, the lights were dimmed, a mower hummed outside. Our desks were arranged in a circle that wrapped from where my teacher stood at his lecturn.  He rattled off analysis, and I mechanically entered into the margins gems like JC=Jesus Christ. 

When I sat down later to write my essay, all those notations may as well have been in Aramaic because, though years later I would strain to remember all my teacher had shared in order to pass it on to my own students, I hadn't really been in that classroom.  My head was gone from that place; it dwelled in the uncertainty of my prom plans, the dread I felt at the final pathetic death throes of my first serious relationship, the anxiety that oozed from my ridiculous need to keep secret my weekend job at McDonald's.  But mostly, I had moved on to college, which I just knew would be the answer to everything.

My students have moved on, too, but had I caught them back in January when they were still wholly present, I might have told them a couple things I learned when I was in their place. 

First, I could have told them that as much as they saw graduation as an escape, they would never fully leave here because this place would never fully leave them.  Despite the 10-hour drive, leaving home put no distance between me and the insecure high school girl who'd worried what her friends would think when her father pulled into the school parking lot seemingly jammed with Mercedes and picked her up in his rusted Ford Escort.  Yet, from my vantage point 500 miles away I was for the first time able to see that my parents' sweat and sacrifice was at least as responsible for my success as my note-taking and paperwriting and I cherish that to this day.

I could also have told my students not to cling too tightly to that mental image of college they've been chasing for the last four years. That day in English class I imagined college to be a beer-soaked bacchanal, and every weekend when I worked my secret job at McDonald's I'd bare the sighs and eye rolls of unappreciative customers by surreptitiously crushing their burgers as I bagged them and muttering under my breath Someday I will buy and sell you. 

In the end college was both so much less and so much more than I could have predicted.  There was, of course, beer, enough for a freshman 20, for a sagging GPA, and some situations dangerous enough to make me consider homeschooling my own girls for college. Truthfully, all that partying was a lot of fun at times, yet I know that in my dogged pursuit of the college experience promised me in movies and on tv I missed out on a lot of actual experiences.  And I never did end up buying or selling anybody; instead I met the man I would marry, convinced him to follow his heart and teach history to high schoolers instead of marching grimly into the world of business, and --to the surprise of the girl who zoned out in English-- decided that my own best fit was in the classroom.

Be open to anything, I could have told them, but make sure that you hold on to something.  Even as I write this, it sounds familiar, and it's possible that someone said it to me back then.  There was no shortage of advice.  My teachers, my parents, other people's parents, old men on scholarship boards, I recall them all telling me things that I could clearly see they considered very important.  I smiled politely, nodded gravely and listened to not one word, and for the same reason my students could care less about the I-Search: I already had the answer.

Even if I could break through my students' pre-graduation haze and force them to take heed, I wouldn't.  Right now, they all have the answer.

I really like them, and I want them to be able to enjoy that feeling for the few months it lasts.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Dream: Re-Entry

When you spend five days in the happiest place on earth, it can be tough to return to any of the other places on earth. 

During past visits to Disney World we rented a car and stayed off the property, allowing my cynical nature some breathing room amidst all of the unrelenting good cheer.  This time around, my mother-in-law organized the trip and went the total immersion route: we stayed at a Disney hotel where at least half of the television channels were Disney-affiliated, took Disney transportation to Disney parks everyday, and ate all of our meals at Disney restaurants. 

The full Disneyfication of our vacation caused me some pre-trip anxiety.  I packed for a four-night stay as if I were preparing for a month long exile on a desert island, wedging wet wipes, chewing gum, peanut butter crackers and clean underwear into every spare inch of suitcaseI wasn't entirely wrong to worry about surviving my Disney internment. Among other hazards, I faced incredibly long lines, an infestation love bugs --black flying bugs attached in coital, and a whole lot of togetherness with the in-laws.

But now that I'm back, I find myself struggling a bit more than anticipated with the re-entry.

Back at Disney we basked in days of uninterrupted sun and moved against a landscape of towering palms and lush mouse-themed topiaries.  Here in reality the blooming forsythia bushes do little to brighten the cold gray sky and salt-scarred lawn.

Back at Disney it seemed perfectly reasonable to make a meal of ice cream, while reality requires vegetables, and thus a whole lot more shopping, peeling, chopping, cajoling, insisting and sulking than a dish of soft serve.

In Disney World the vast range of body shapes and sizes --many on display in lycra spandex-- had me feeling pretty good about myself.  Here in reality, we have a scale.  And quantitative evidence to suggest that ice cream is not such a reasonable meal choice.

Back at Disney there were cheerful white-uniformed groundspeople to sweep up trash just as quickly as it could touch the ground and everyone smiled and called me princess.  Here in reality, Big E's friend hops into my back seat on the way to yesterday's Daisy Scouts meeting, looks around, cocks her head and announces, "My mom and dad like to vacuum their cars."

At Disney, I felt confident that there would be in our immediate vicinity at all times both one child and one adult behaving worse than all of the children and parents in our group.  And if the occasion were to arise that we had the worst behaved children in the immediate vicinity we could simply plunk them in our massive plastic rental stroller, part wheel barrow, part battering ram, and seek the solace of screeching children elsewhere.

Here in reality, when Little E flies into a clamorous rage while at the library to pick Big E up from her Daisy meeting, there is no possibility of retreat.  And when I smile apologetically at the sneering parents around me and offer, "We just got back from Disney World, so. . .", it sounds even more ridiculous out loud than it did in my head.

Back at Disney, they are building a new Fantasyland.  Here in reality, that sounds like exactly what I need.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Eat: Brownies, beyond the box

Until about seven years ago, I thought that the only way to make brownies was to start with the sack of brown powder provided by Duncan Hines and then follow the directions on the box. 

One day when I was feeling particularly adventurous, I decided to take on the herculean task of making brownies from scratch. Imagine my surprise when I used the Brownies Cockaigne recipe from The Joy of Cooking and realized it was just as easy as using a mix. I felt empowered, and to this day I credit that brownie-baking breakthrough for my determination to cook from scratch whenever possible.

As much as oatmeal chocolate chip cookies are my sentimental favorite, these brownies are easier to pull together on the spur of the moment, like Little E and I did to celebrate my finishing my grades on time.  These brownies are great for customization --bake them as mini cupcakes, frost them, top them with leftover Halloween candy.  This time we went the festive route with Cadbury's mini eggs.

Please know that if you're a cakey-brownie person, we have some fundamental differences and these may not be for you.

Brownies Beyond the Box
adapted from The Joy of Cooking

  • 4 oz. unsweetened chocolate
  • 1 stick of unsweetened butter
  • 2 cups of sugar
  • 1 teaspoon of vanilla
  • 4 eggs
  • 1 cup of all-purpose flour
  • 1 cup of chopped walnuts (optional)
Preheat the oven to 350 and prepare a 9 by 13 inch pan by lining it with foil that overhangs the edges on the ends. Give the flour a quick squirt of cooking spray for easy removal.

Chop the chocolate and cut the butter into chunks, placing all of it into a medium-sized microwave safe bowl.

Melt the butter and chocolate together by heating in 30 second intervals, stirring in between until they are fully combined.

Allow this mixture to cool until it is no longer hot --warm is okay, just not hot.

Add the sugar and vanilla and stir until combined.

Add the eggs and stir until they are fully incorporated into the chocolate and sugar.

Add the flour and stir until just combined.  Make sure that you don't see any lingering flour, but don't overmix it. 

Mix in nuts if you're using them, or just spread the batter into the prepared pan.  If you want to top with candy like we did, considering freezing it (like we didn't) so that it will hold its shape better.

Cook for about 25 minutes and check with a toothpick.  Remove them when the toothpick comes out clean.

Let the brownies sit in the pan for about five minutes and then use the foil overhang to remove them. Allow them to cool completely before removing the foil and cutting the brownies.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Play: The slippery slope from intention to reality

Even before I had children, I was an expert in child rearing.  No, especially before I had children, I was an expert in child rearing. Okay, okay.  Only before I had children was I an expert in child rearing.

Back in my mid-twenties, I had such plans for my hypothetical children.  They would wear gender neutral clothing and scorn television for playing happily with decor-friendly wooden toys.  Their interests would include sitting quietly in restaurants and waiting rooms, as well as eating whatever I served them.

There were a few things for which I, as a pretend mother, would simply not stand.  My children would never kick the back of airplane seat.  Not once.  Also, they wouldn't require portable DVD players because on long trips they would be content to play "I-Spy", or just gaze at the scenery, or --worst case scenario-- bliss out on Dramamine.  Also, we would never, ever become one of those Disney families that heads to the Magic Kingdom every vacation.  My hypothetical children and I would enjoy authentic experiences, and they would understand that there was more to life than their personal entertainment.


Ten years later, I have two actual flesh and blood children, who do on occasion speak above a whisper in public.  I also have a house full of sparkly pink tutus and a playroom full of plastic.  I know where to find an episode of Spongebob at any hour of the day and I've been known to hop up from the dinner table to make a pb&j (or to demand that my husband jump up and do it).  And we've been to Walt Disney World, um, a few times.

The first time seemed innocent enough. I mean every little girl does to Disney World at least once in her life, right?  Who knew it was a gateway to a much darker habit?

After my parents heard what a great time the girls had the first time, they sprang for a Disney trip for the whole family the following summer.

Fearful of turning into one of those families, my husband and I vowed that we would not return to Walt Disney World the following summer.  We booked a trip to Southern California and then, discovering a loophole in our oath, decided to spend our a couple of days, including our tenth anniversary, at Disneyland.

Incidentally, spending your milestone anniversary at a sweaty theme park with two tired kids is not as enchanting as it sounds.  However, the couple in front of us on the line for the Tomorrowland Speedway thought it was the height of romance. They were thirteen.

And tomorrow we will pack up our portable DVD players and board a plane to Orlando. Try as I might, it's likely that seatbacks will be kicked (apparently a hazard of child-sized legs).  This time the trip is a Christmas gift from my in-laws, and, I swear, the last visit for a very, very long while.

This summer we will, instead, head out on a road trip in search of that authentic experience my hypothetical children so appreciated.  Also, we will surprise the girls with a couple of nights in Orlando at the Nickelodeon Hotel, Little E's lifelong dream.  Please don't judge as harshly as 25-year-old me would.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Dream: All in a sigh

When I'm missing something, it always seems to turn up in the last place I look.

A couple of weeks ago, I brought Big E to the two-hour dress rehearsal for her skating show. I sat bundled in a parka on the grimy bleachers and pulled out a thick folder of essay drafts.  Amidst a swirl of giddy little girls, blaring show music and chatty moms, I tried hard to scour for comma splices and pronoun-antecedent agreement.

The mother of a boy in Big E's class settled in front of me. We'd both been spending our Thursday evenings in those bleachers since fall and we'd talked a few times.  I smiled and said hi but quickly turned back to my essays, fluffing the pile with dramatic flourish and hoping that this would discourage further conversation. 

My standoffishness wasn't just about my workload.  There was, first, the fact that I'm just not a chatter.  I hate making small talk; friendly chit-chat eludes me and I find myself awkwardly smiling and nodding, desperately searching for a polite exit. 

Also, if I'm really being honest, there was my not-so-generous assessment of her (which, I realize, reflects less flatteringly on me than on her). She spent a lot of time volunteering at the school and was, in my opinion, a little boastful about it.  She complained in a braggy way about all of her kids' activities, and though I would politely smile and nod, I would be inwardly rolling my eyes at her pride in overscheduling.  Then there was the way she'd suddenly get all shrill on her kids in a way that, while probably not permanently damaging, made me uncomfortable.  Oh, and there was her son's fauxhawk.  I mean, why do people try so hard to make their kids cool in the first grade?  Also, she had definitely said li-berry more than once.  So, I was a tad judgey...

I wielded my essays like a conversational shield, not biting when she asked if I was doing work, shrugging good-naturedly but without elaboration when she asked if I could really get anything done with all the racket.  But soon I found myself smiling and nodding through a detailed description of her daughter's costume for her dance recital, stealing glances down at my papers as I made polite noises during a recap of her son's hockey season.

Then we got to talking about pre-schools.  She told me that her son had spent two years in a private nursery school but that her daughter had attended the public pre-school at the elementary school, and I said something profound, like "Oh, really?"  She looked away and said very quickly, "Well, she has an IEP. So..."

And then I put down my pile of essays, because I knew that second of hesitation.  I had felt it myself earlier that week when we ran into a neighbor as I was signing out of the elementary school office after Little E's occupational therapy session.  Just as he cheerfully inquired whether we'd been helping out in Big E's classroom I'd faltered, feeling both protective of Little E and just too tired to explain.  When the secretary interrupted him with a question, I was relieved to let the moment pass.

I had spent the months since we'd had our concerns about Little E's underdeveloped motor skills confirmed agonizing over it from all angles, and no one, however well-meaning, had been able to say a thing that made me feel better.  People, trying to lessen my concerns, talked about Down Syndrome and disease, which made me feel petty and unappreciative.  Some advised second opinions, suggesting skepticism of our plan and making me feel an incompetent advocate.  Others tried to sympathize with stories that meant to parallel my experiences with Little E, but which only made me feel less understood for their dissimilarities.

I leaned forward then, and I told this mother in the bleachers that Little E had just been put on an IEP.  I hoped to hear from her that thing that I'd been looking for, whatever that was. 

Instead, she launched into a dizzying list of her daughter's struggles, an inventory that dwarfed my worries.  She inquired about our interventions and then ticked off all that she would be doing in our shoes --coins in Silly Putty, sticker mosaics, bead stringing --and I nodded feigning new interest at suggestions that I'd heard over and over in the past months. I tuned out as she started chronicling the expert opinions she'd sought on her daughter's behalf.  She was clearly not going to say whatever words I'd been looking for.

By the time she began to wind down, her daughter's group was on the ice.  She looked down to the far end of the rink, and concluded, "But, so...yeah."  Then she dropped her shoulders and sighed softly, never taking her eyes off her little girl, who was working in earnest to keep in line with the other skaters in her group.

For one crazy second I had to fight myself back from reaching out and grabbing hold of her hand.

That sigh was quiet but unequivocal validation of the mess of emotion I'd wallowed in for the past months: the uncertainty, the melancholy, the hope, the guilt, the worry, the loss, the frustration, the overwhelming love.  I felt it all there, whether she'd meant it or not.

I'd been looking for months, searching over and over in a sea of words.  And there it was, all in a sigh. 

Monday, April 11, 2011

Work: Slipping under

Third quarter grades are due on Wednesday and due to some very poor planning on my part, I find myself buried in essays, tests and reading logs.  Unlike my college years or even my pre-motherhood days of teaching, I cannot put the rest of my life on hold while I get my work done and I'm starting to feel like I'm slipping under without a breath.

In dealing with the stress, I initially turned to an old standby: simmering hostility.  I'm not proud to admit that yesterday I spent over an hour arguing with my husband about the sad state of his undershirt, which it seemed at the time, was a huge personal insult to me and an unflattering reflection of the state of our marriage.  Not a great day.

Today I went for a different approach.  I've been reading The Happiness Project by Gretchen Rubin.  Yes, it's been out forever and I'm still not sure whether it's annoying or worthwhile, but anything is better than stewing over undergarments so I am borrowing one of her "Twelve Commandments": Act the way you want to feel.

And so instead of acting like someone who wants to pluck out her eyes with a dull pencil rather than read one more analysis of the significance of water imagery in Annie John, I am acting as if grading stacks of essays as Little E climbs on me and insists that I be her mommy elephant is a truly relaxing way to spend an afternoon. 

Instead of indulging the anxiety I feel about getting these grades completed and entered on time, I am pretending that I'll have it done with time to spare.

Instead of hyperventilating at the thought of continuing to plan for and execute my classes and parent meetings in the midst of this, I am telling myself that this is more than manageable.

Instead of admitting to myself that I have no time to play on the Internet while 24 reading logs await, I am boldly writing a (rather weak) blog post.

I am acting the way I want to feel. Until Wednesday afternoon when it's all over and I admit to myself that I was really, truly slipping under.

Update: I have to admit, it actually worked: I finished even earlier than I'd hoped.  As it turns out, while acting as if I have it all under control may feel like a big effort, it is far less time-consuming than making everyone around me miserable.  I tried that trick again today when I set out for a three mile run but decided halfway through to act like someone who really loves a five-miler.  Sure, I gave up the act and called it a day at 4 1/2miles. But still...

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Eat: Faux-Summer Family Dinner Party

Spring has been a long time in coming and I have been eager.

I have been so eager, if fact, to doff my wool coat and heavy sweaters that I decided a while back to call an end to winter and simply start dressing for spring.  I was done with winter and figured that this mind over matter trick might be my only means of survival.

A couple of weeks ago I found myself out to dinner with a friend in Boston's South End and realized, as I huddled against a bone-chilling wind in a thin cotton jacket, jeans and sling back heels, that though I might be done with winter, it is not done with me. 

I could have folded just then, but instead I decided to double down, and I spent the next day preparing for my family a faux-summer dinner party complete with ribs, slaw, corn bread and this delicious ice cream pie from The Pioneer Woman.

I adapted the rib recipe from Dorrie Greenspan's Around My French Table, which has beautiful photographs and very manageable recipes (and which makes me want to plan a vacation immediately).  The Simple Slaw recipe is my own, and, alas, despite big plans of trying homemade skillet cornbread, I was convinced by my wise husband not to bite off more than I could chew, so the cornbread was from a mix.

Spareribs with Apricot Glaze and Cola

  • 1/3 cup apricot preserves
  • 1/3 cup orange juice
  • Juice of 1 lemon
  • 2 teaspoons Chinese five-spice powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon group ginger
  • Salt and pepper
  • About three pounds of spareribs, rack cut in two to fit in roasting pan
  • 1 cup of Coca-Cola

Preheat the oven to 350.

Heat the preserves and orange juice together for about a minute in the microwave.  Let this cool a bit and then add the lemon juice.

Create a rub for the ribs by combining the dry ingredients in a small bowl and apply to the ribs.  Believe me, I hate handling meat so intimately, but these ribs are worth a moment's unpleasantness.

Next, place the ribs in the roasting pan.  I lined it with foil for easier clean-up.  I also started the process a couple of hours early so that I could give the ribs some time to marinate in the glaze before cooking, as suggested in the cookbook.

Brush the glaze all over the ribs.  If you are marinating, cover the pan and let it sit in the refrigerator for a couple of hours.

When you are ready to cook the ribs, put a few tablespoons of water in the bottom of the pan.

Bake for 45 minutes, basting occasionally, then remove from the oven and brush with more of the glaze.  Add some more water to the pan before returning to the oven.

Bake for another 45 minutes, basting and glazing occasionally and adding water if the pan appears dry.

Remove from the oven and pour Coca-Cola all around the ribs and then return to the oven for another 30 minutes.  During this final half-hour you should baste frequently, about every 5 minutes.

Remove from the oven and allow them to rest a bit before serving.

Simple Slaw

  • 1 bag of pre-packaged cole slaw mix
  • 2 tablespoons apple cider vinegar
  • 1 tablespoon canola oil
  • 1 tablespoon dark brown sugar
  • salt and freshly ground pepper

Whisk together the vinegar, oil and sugar in the bottom of a large bowl.

Add the cole slaw mix and toss to coat.

Season with salt and pepper to taste.

Allow it to sit for at least 30 minutes or so.  I made mine as soon as I put the ribs in and let it sit on the counter for the whole two hours to allow the flavors to blend.

Before serving, re-toss the slaw and adjust the salt and pepper to taste.

Unmoved by my attempts to invoke summer, the girls decided that the dinner party would be for their imaginary friend Mr. Dog and his love, Tiffany.  They decorated the dining room accordingly.

Monday, April 4, 2011

Play: It was a very good day

Yesterday was one of those days.  No, not one of those.  It was the good kind, one of those where all of the parts, big and small, come together to make the kind of day that is so soaringly happy that you almost feel sad in knowing that most other days will not feel as good. 

It was the kind of day I dreamt of when motherhood was still hypothetical.

There were excited preparations.

There was family and rides on the same shoulders that held me aloft when I was four.
There was Big E's spring skating show and celebratory flowers.

There was Little E's very first signature (and her proud big sister's embellishment).

 There was Chinese take-out.

And there was homemade ice cream pie.

There was also my fortune cookie, which told me this: Don't be pushed by your problems.  Be led by your dreams. 

When Big E has a momentary slip in her skating routine I jump up and wait anxiously for her to get off the ice, afraid she'll be crushed.  I stay up nights and fret over my four-year-old's college prospects. 

But I dream of days like yesterday. 

Thanks to the good folks at Szechuan Taste for reminding me not to let my pursuit of these dream days be overshadowed by puzzling over my problems --big and small, real and imagined.