Friday, September 21, 2007

Friday, September 14, 2007

The Late Neighbors

When we moved here 15 years ago, we admired their style. Though in their early 70s, the couple was preternatrually attractive. He was tall and thin, with cobalt blue eyes. She was tiny, bleached grey-blonde and perfectly turned out -- her mouth an artistic triumph of thoughtfully chosen lipstick over thin flesh. In fact, I was told she modeled still as "Grandmother of the Bride" or "Older Woman" in New York shows. Every time I saw her, she was wearing a St. John Knit suit (a cool $1000, if purchased on sale).

They have an interesting house -- modern. Like a house designed by a student of Frank Lloyd Wright it sits low on the lot, but it's one and a half stories and two distinct wings. In the backyard, maybe 100 yards from the house, is a freestanding square deck, lit from below with spotlights. There's terrific sculpture visible from that vantage point too -- a red metal structure that looks like an extended concertina, a smear of metallic yellos in another corner. (I saw it all while chasing our then-young and curious dog through all the yards in the neighborhood). Some days, I'd see him down at their springhouse, doing garden work. All in all, I remember thinking to myself: "This is so unlike most old people!"

When the lights are on you could see the bright colors of the interior, orange and metal and picture perfect 1950s style. Apparently, they've lived long enough for their views to come back in style.

We met them at neighborhood barbecues, or we'd see him walking their old cocker spaniel past our house for our dog to meet. He greeted our Samoyed as "Whitey!" and pet her happily. They drove a convertible in most weather, and my heart jumped whenever I saw them head out; she with a headscarf and glasses like a surviving Grace Kelly and he with a devilish gleam and their golf clubs in the backseat. I saw them and prayed, prayed, that my "sunset years" would look like theirs -- blessed with health and looks and fun.

Lately I've seen how much changes in time. About 10 years ago, the fire department had to be called when they put a not entirely extinguished cigarette in the kitchen garbage. Over the last year or two, I've seen him outside multiple times, dressed inappropriately for the weather, looking confused. I saw her once, looking for their dog, and the beautiful mouth was a slash of misapplied vermillion wax. She was hunched over and hysterical. I called their next door neighbors, who are durable, decent, interesting people a decade or so younger. They told me they were also worried, but that the couple's children were involved, and would step in. But I never saw them.

This Spring, on one of my early-morning perambulations, I found pages of their brokerage statements in front of their house and blown about for blocks. I tracked it all down, every page of it containing social security numbers and account information, gathered it up, put a rubber band on it and returned it with their morning Newspaper. I wonder if they noticed.

My husband saw him wandering aimlessly a few months ago about 10 blocks from home. He offered a ride home. The man accepted, and kept introducing himself to my husband, who said just once, "We've been neighbors for 15 years." He didn't remember. He still walks a dog (they seem to adopt elderly cockers) past our house, but has become afraid of Whitey, who is too beset by arthritis to get within 30 feet. He's cursed at us for not locking her up, and appears genuinely afraid. We didn't know what to do anymore -- I don't know the names of their children, I don't want to burden the neighbors, I don't want to insult them. But it's increasingly obvious they can't care for themselves.

Yesterday when I came home from work I saw some more papers strewn in a perfect arc from their neighbor's house to theirs. I stopped the car and gathered a manila folder and some stapled sheets. Clipped to the folder was a card of the Admissions Director of our newest area "Care Center." Its a gorgeous place, with first rate facilities and stunning views of the local Black Angus and sheep farm. On the one hand, I'm thrilled -- they need help and this is precisely the sort of place they belong, where other interesting people who are having difficulty congregate. But I know in my heart that as they approached the house, he (or she) threw the folder out the window, seeing its contents as the beginning of the end, the prison from which they will never escape. For these intelligent, free-spirited people, this very last part of their lives must be the worst. Their considerable beauty is gone, their bodies shrunken, their sanity and freedom on the run. They don't want to give up the afternoons in the convertible. I can't blame them.

Friday, September 07, 2007

I Hate My Job.

This is not unusual. I've hated a lot of jobs. What sucks is that I am a "Big Mahoff" and make a lot of money here. But the business' owner is a jerk. I call him Mr. "Dog with a Flashlight" because he chases each "bright shining object" without anything approaching an overall perspective or understanding. He's also passive aggressive and not bright. I used the word "waif" today in conversation and he asked me what it meant. He also tried to blame me last week for something someone else did. An evil, self-centered and altogether too rich little man.

Today he fired someone I like. Not for bad reasons, though not for particularly good reasons either. The guy is young, his wife is pregnant, and his undeniable screw-ups were not nearly as bad as a lot of other people in the business. This was all about "feeding the wolves" -- the people who kiss his ass who he knows are smarter than he. And who were jealous, and snarky about this fellow. At 6, I was asked to meet up for a drink. I thought we were drinking with the fired guy. Instead, it was an informal "celebration" -- at least I can find no other explanation. I am disgusted.

Send me your pie orders. I need out.

Thursday, September 06, 2007

An Homage to Claude Scales

Those of you who read Claude's engaging blog, Self-Absorbed Boomer (see link over there on the right), know of his dry wit, wry observations and exceptional photographs, particularly those of ships/boats/water things. They always inspire me and make me wish I were on a boat, wind behind, spinnaker up and headed for someplace with alcohol and crabs. The kind you eat.

The one I let run away but not fast enough was a sailor, and through him I got to both subsidize a boat on Cape Cod and learn how to sail (a little). For the latter, I thank him still. The former was just another in a litany of things I accepted because I thought it had to be. It didn't.

Anyway, since then, I've loved the way boats, but particularly sailboats, look. On our recent trip to da Vineyard, I had lots of opportunity, both from the ferry and the beach, to indulge. So these are for you, Claude:

Yep -- gratuituous sunset shot. But from a boat, heading back to Woods Hole. Someone tell me again why I don't live up there?

Tuesday, September 04, 2007

Vacation Love.

I was away from the office for more than 5 business days. I haven't done that since I gave birth 11 years ago, and to do it now felt illicit and wonderful. The weather repaid my sneaking around on my job by being gorgeous. 80 degree days, 60 degree nights, and a beach within walking distance. God, I hate to come back to sitting in my hovel, reading dry documents, engaging in the odd skirmish and trying to track down people who don't really want to talk to me.

Fortunately, I can be a real jerk sometimes, and the night I left work (having had a knockdown dragout with my boss in a very public way), I wrote a late email to all persons reminding them of their many obligations to the law and pointing out the SEC's enhanced budget for looking into them. Apparently, it created quite a stir and I was treated like a queen or anthrax on my return. Solitude is solace.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

Summer Camp

My daughter has been away for 2 weeks. Well, almost 2 weeks. She decided, back in the late Fall, that she wished to attend sleepaway camp for a limited time this year. She approached me with the proposition, and we agreed that if we could locate a suitable place with a reasonably short session, she could go.

We both assumed the short session was the way to go. For her part, she's really a Mommy's girl. As the de facto only child of "older" parents, you'd expect that. Her siblings are adults. She has a princess lifestyle -- a great school, a big room, her own bathroom, and working guilty parents. Her favorite words to us, to date, are "cuddle me." And we do. I still tuck her in at night. I wondered, seriously, if she was going to last more than a few days at camp. "Mom, I am perfectly capable of putting myself to bed. I just prefer if you do it." Putting me at ease.

We research, because that's what we do in this house. We find camps, get brochures and DVDs. After a few months, she tells me casually she would like to look up a camp she's heard about from some of her tennis friends. This is when I realize I've been had. She's wanted this camp all along, but thought she might need to get me used to the idea of her being away from me. (She has a way of doing this. She got me to buy her a cellphone by accepting my initial refusal with grace, and then finding a reason to call me from school or some practice on a borrowed phone every single school day for six months).

We look into it. It's perfect. On 600 acres in the mountains, an easy four-hour drive away all girls. An unbelievable staffer to camper ratio of 1 to 4. They have everything, but it's best known as a riding camp. Horses -- a hobby I fear to the bottom of my checkbook. Every kid rides every day, the camp raises its own horses, and new riders have their own instructor. The same price as other, tackier camps. They have a minimum session of 2 weeks, which my husband convinces me is better than the few tacky camps we can find with a 1 week minimum, because 1 week is insufficient to become homesick and get over it. I concede defeat, and think in a vague way about losing my little girl for 2 weeks.

We stayed calm about it for months. About 2 weeks before, I thought we should look at the packing list. From that point forward, my daughter took over. She took ownership of the project. I obtained a trunk, but she gathered the items on the list. She ironed in her name labels. She reminded me when we needed a few things to run out for them. She packed every item, beautifully. I am nearly superfluous. I've been had, again.

She was too excited to sleep the night before. She text messages her dad and me that she loves us and will miss us that night. (The camp disallows cell phones). She tells me she wanted us to have it in writing. We arrive at the place and it's more beautiful than pictures allow. You drive in past pastures with more horses in them than I've ever seen in one place. The mountains rise gently behind the pastures. The horses glisten -- healthier or more well cared for beasts I've never seen. The barns are gorgeous -- like Shaker carpentry -- all beautifully colored wood and well constructed. We park in the vast area separated into lacrosse fields/soccer fields/field hockey fields. Men come with trucks to take the luggage to her cabin (cause it's all color coded with the stickers we got.) Past the 4 lovely Har-Tru tennis courts and up a beautifully manicured path past rolling lawns to a post and beam welcome center. Counsellors with British accents direct the way to her cabin. Her dad takes her while I check in at the nurse's station. I meet the camp owner, who is, of course, a former Philadelphia lawyer. We talk shop and common connections.

After 15 minutes, I'm done. I go to the cabin. My daughter, who has made her bed 5 times in the last 5 years, has unpacked, selected a bunk, made it, and decorated around it. Her dad stands outside the small cabin. Her tennis friends, older and in larger digs, show up to make sure she's okay. She's trilling with excitement. They leave. The counsellor talks with us about her background (scenery design for theater) and then the girls are out front making decorations. Inside of another 15 minutes, we are forgotten. We tell her we may as well walk around and she says she'll stay with her unit. She's already absorbed. She kisses us warmly, we say we'll see her. She's thrilled to be in the world of no parental units at last.

The camp doesn't allow calls and restricts email, but encourages old-fashioned letter writing. We get a few missives: "first day was really really great. I'll need to buy stamps because of the 'left the stamps in car' tragidy." Next: "it's really hot, but somewhat better now, as I've managed to get for myself a portable fan." (Note the 19th century word order.) "MY horse's name is Sugar Pot. I really lvoe riding, and would like to do a special riding camp, or just ride now and again." Then: "I love you. But I've made tons of friends, and I've not been homesick at all." The sword to my heart. On the one hand, I'm thrilled she's so secure, on the other, I wonder why she doesn't miss me more.

Back at home, we pine for a day or so. Then go out to dinner, movies, have loud sex and play tennis at night. No sitters. Hmmmm. This is all so "pre-kid"! Still, the house is really empty, especially on weeknights. I begin to watch the Disney Channel, and wonder how High School Musical 2 is going to be.

Tomorrow, we go to fetch her, after we spend a night in a lovely B&B just down the road. I suspect I'm going to find a more mature person than the one who was already growing before my eyes. It's hard for both of us to let go of her young childhood, but we both know we have to. I hope, though, that when she sees us on Saturday, she'll have a chance to grab onto it again, at least for a minute.


We had the beautiful drive in mountains. The B&B is a late 18th century house, with some mid 19th century additions, on 23 acres with sheep, stocked ponds and the stereotpyical talkative retired hosts. We spend a night on the squeaky mattress and wait until we won't look like we are the very first people to arrive. We scamper to check her out, rush up the path to the cabin and catch her playing tether ball. She sees us and her face drops. "Can you leave and come back?" are her first words to us. Within a minute, she's sorry she said that, but she's still got to be pried from the doorway of the cabin. Her mood stank for the rest of the day. Only after a full night's sleep did we resume something like our old routine. But she's different. I sent away a little girl, and I got back a preteen. I'd be lying if I told you I wasn't terrified.

Friday, July 13, 2007

A Walk Around My Neighborhood

I've been walking 5 miles per day most days of the week since early May. If I get up at 5:30, I can feed the animals and walk and be back shortly after 7, before my daughter is even up for school or camp. It must be said that you never really see anything unless you've walked by it. The details of the landscape may strike you as pleasant, or dramatic, or neither in a car. On foot, the scale is different, the sight lines are different, the world is different. My 200 miles of walks around my neighborhood in the morning have given me an incredible appreciation for it. In fact, I've concluded that it is perfect. So perfect that I don't know why every community in the United States isn't set up the same way.

My street is above -- tall trees, dark, quiet. I leave it for a main road and come upon this:

This old mansion has been around since the early 19th century when it was built by a wealthy industrialist. There's a lot of old mansions in the neighborhood, but that's not what makes it perfect. Here's the place next door to the mansion:

Though large, this is not a single home. It's split in the center by a single wall. There are tons of these in my city. Taxes used to be assessed on a home's "frontage" and these "twins" permit both a lovely overall footprint and a yard. Here's some examples of other twins and rowhomes I pass on a typical walk:

Real estate comes in smaller packages also. There are attractive apartment buildings:

and even two high rises I don't have pictures of. There are subsidized townhouses as well. The more modest dwellings do tend to cluster within a block or two of our central village shopping district
where you can buy books, clothes, records, antiques, groceries, get your drycleaning done, go to restaurants or visit the hardware store.

As you get maybe 3 blocks from the center, the houses begin to grow a bit.

And grow a bit again:

And some more:

I love the sheer variety and beauty of the place. Houses are similar, but never exactly the same. Nor does the place have the studied look of the development -- 3 styles repeated ad nauseum. Also, one of the things I find appealing about the houses (and I haven't even included pictures of the largest and most awe-inspiring) is the lack of prominent garage doors. Having grown up before the car, the most you will find is a carriage house somewhere. I find that this improves the appearance of everyone's place enormously.

The economic diversity is also thrilling. There is literally, in this maybe 6 square mile area, housing for a wide type of need -- single person, small family, large family, rich, not so rich etc.

This didn't happen by accident. Many of the grander homes are constructed of local stone. The owners imported skilled masons from Europe, mostly Italy, to come to the neighborhood to do the work. The masons used the leftover materials to build their own homes in the same neighborhood. As businesses developed in the Village, workers started building and moving into nearby homes.

There's a hospital, a college, a golf course, a community center, parks, and public and private schools all within the boundaries of the place. All of it is breathtakingly lovely. That it is all technically within the limits of a big city is astonishing, and, sometimes, one of its major drawbacks.

The place is not without issues, of course. But I can't think of another place in the country with this kind of mix of housing, landscape, and "walkability." I fully hope to live here for a long, long while and to think more about why it is that new communities cannot seem to replicate this incredibly successful formula.

Thursday, May 31, 2007

The Amaryllis

The Amaryllis is a South American bloom with big, showy flowers, like a hooker on high heels during Carneval. So, of course, it has become associated in this country with Christmas. Flower companies attribute its popularity to the fact the bulb is easy to force, and if purchased around October, can bloom big and impressive by late December.

Here's what I think: before it blooms it looks like a penis. A big, long, engorged penis. I assume that is really what the South American grower first said: "Mio Dio, a penis -- the Godhead, the start! I'm thinking, Christmas, Diego." "Si, those dumb Yankees, we will kill their pointsettias!"

And so, they made headway (so to speak.) Except in my house. Oh, we've had the things from forever, but rarely manage to get them to bloom at Christmas. Usually, mid-January, early February, they come up.

But for the past few years, we have a Spring Fling Amaryllis. Two flowers we bought as kits years ago for our non-blooming Christmas pleasure. They didn't die, but they didn't bloom either. Until recently. In a few days, they grew 6 inches (no lie) and now they look like this:

Spring is here baby!

Wednesday, May 30, 2007

A Walk Around The Flowers

My husband likes to grow things. When we were seeking a house 15 years ago, he passed on many a lovely little place I was willing to buy because the yard was too small to allow for a "proper" amount of flower and vegetable growth. His gardening habits I viewed, originally, as odd but charming. Having grown up in a place where we only grew what we could eat, in a hardscrabble and not very interesting way, I was stunned by the variety of things that passed through my eyes and kitchen.

Salsify. A relative of the artichoke family, it grows in plants up to 6 feet tall. We had six plants, 36 running feet of vegetable. It's good with some butter or olive oil and garlic, but not that good. Tuscan kale. Long before it became a "glamour food," it was growing with abandon in our veggie garden. Brussel sprouts, various types of beans, pear and peach trees (fruit mostly consumed by the various species of rodents who live around here), salad mixes, broccoli rabe, and somewhere between 6 and 20 tomato plants at any given time. (All heirloom or other interesting varieties, because why grow anything you can buy in the grocery store for next to nothing when it's in season?)

So assiduous was he in tending the soil that one year, after a particularly harsh winter, he picked up some branches that had lain on the ice for months to use as tomato stakes. Organic farmer and all. By July, the branches had rooted, and bloomed, unable to resist that beautiful black soil. One was a magnolia, the other a cherry. They were a bitch to cut down, but the tomatoes did look good growing up against them.

I grew to love it all (or, at least tolerate it), but the flowers -- the flowers leave me breathless. I knew he was serious when we once received a personal phone call from Jackson & Perkiss, the superb rose house, in February some years back, asking if the Mister had done his spring rose-buying yet. "Damn it, how much are you spending on roses?" I cried. He shimmied away with his gin into the night. In June, I didn't care anymore. They were glorious.

5 or so years ago, we underwent a major renovation (a move out of the house for 6 months kind of renovation) so that our tumbledown ramshackle cottage could at last look as credible as the houses we passed up. The rose beds, the pride of the neighborhood, were plowed under in the service of construction. He went into a deep and longlasting gloom that only broke when we moved back in, and he started reseeding the lawn.

We've made some headway on the flowers. This time of year it's so fragrant and lovely here, I have a hard time going to work. I want to sit on the bench and watch them grow and see the petals fall and gather them up and watch some more. Coming soon:

The Christmas Penis and
A Walk Round My Neighborhood.

Monday, May 21, 2007

Conversation I Wish I Had At Work

Him: Did you ever find the necessary documents?

Me: No, you little jerk. I just sit in my office and write posts, I don't actually do work.

Him: I think I can hire a lawyer to get you what you need.

Me: I am a lawyer. What I need is an employee who's not an idiot, and who doesn't enter into transactions before he is aware of all the facts.

Him: No, I don't know him, but someone else involved in the deal once used him.

Me: Listen, I once screwed that guy on CNBC. Doesn't make either of us a frickin' expert on the topic, does it?

Him: I'm certain that the other side will sign whatever we want them to.

Me: Can't we just get them to sign for something that's true? I'd settle for that.

Him: I'm not going to debate this.

Me: Neither am I, you get me what you want, you pink, pampered, gone to paunch too young, floppy eared, rat-eyed, careless little moron or you can be fired.
N.B. I actually did say this, without the adjectives.

Him: That's not how we did it at my old firm.

Me: That would explain their persistent lack of assets and continuous regulatory difficulty, wouldn't it?

Him: Hmmm. Maybe you are right. I see the point.

Me: Darling. There is hope.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Whereupon I Express Outrage

No, not about internet people with NPD. This morning's New York Times and tons of other news outlets, reported on the Congressional testimony of Jim Comey, a well-known and respected Republican who served under John Ashcroft in the Attorney General's Office. While Ashcroft lay in his hospital bed, Gonzalez attempted to get him to sign a legal opinion reauthorizing the NSA's spying program, despite the announced decision of the AG's office that they would not in light of serious concerns about its use and administration. Comey's vivid testimony:

“And so I raced to the hospital room, entered. And Mrs. Ashcroft was standing by the hospital bed, Mr. Ashcroft was lying down in the bed, the room was darkened. And I immediately began speaking to him, trying to orient him as to time and place, and try to see if he could focus on what was happening, and it wasn’t clear to me that he could. He seemed pretty bad off . . . I tried to see if I could help him get oriented. As I said, it wasn’t clear that I had succeeded.

They greeted the attorney general very briefly. And then Mr. Gonzales began to discuss why they were there — to seek his approval . . . . And Attorney General Ashcroft then stunned me. He lifted his head off the pillow and in very strong terms expressed his view of the matter, rich in both substance and fact, which stunned me — drawn from the hour-long meeting we’d had a week earlier — and in very strong terms expressed himself, and then laid his head back down on the pillow, seemed spent, and said to them, But that doesn’t matter, because I’m not the attorney general . . . . There is the attorney general, and he pointed to me, and I was just to his left.”

The "They" are Andy Card and Gonzo.

Still today, this reprehensible Bush loyalist idiot remains the nation's Attorney General. This isn't about conservative points of view versus liberal ones. Comey and Ashcroft were and are true conservatives, but to their credit, they put their office, and constitutional concerns over skullduggery and Presidential ass-kissing. If he won't go, he must be impeached. Define "he" however you want.

Tuesday, May 01, 2007

Attack of the Helicopter Parents

Today on Best of the Fray, someone posted a link to this article describing a tool called Edline which permits parents to see a child's test scores and papers. The article is primarily about high schoolers and how their overinvolved parents have invaded the ability of those children to develop into adults by, in part, using this tool. I made the mistake of opining negatively on Best of the Fray. The helicopter parents have come out in force against me, though, using their need to be superior parents as their primary weapon: we CARE enough to monitor!

So, am I wrong? Crazy? Or do others see a problem here too? Hmmm. Let's see.

The term "helicopter parents" came into usage in the 1990s to describe late baby boomer parents who have become so involved in their children's lives, particularly in the educational context, that they have been unwilling to allow their children to learn from their own mistakes. I recall first reading about this some years ago, and thinking that this could not be a legitimate problem, since a genuine interest in one's child strikes me as preferable to none at all. But things have developed somewhat from there.

This kind of "hovering" parenting is common enough to warrant warning statements from the College Board, the entity responsible for administering the SATs. Individual colleges, like the University of New Hampshire have had to actually persuade parents to act normal: ie, to allow their children to grow up. Even elite schools have had to deal with parents showing up to sign up their children for classes, arguing about grades, and complaining about roomates. It doesn't stop there. Companies from Goldman Sachs to Ernst & Young have actually had to develop programs to deal with young people whose parents are now involved in their career choices.

Now, you may say this insane activity is all a far cry from merely wanting to know how the kids have done at school while they are still young. In theory, yes. Every parent of course wants to know how their young children are doing and how they can help them do better. But fewer and fewer, it seems, understand that their job is to raise adults, not children. So they increasingly try to insulate older children from having to deal with the consequences of their own actions by monitoring the activity intra-day. This is partly because getting a child successfully into and through college and then a job is viewed as a goal of the parent's . It starts early enough that some high schools have had to toss parents out of meetings, and some private schools have had to point out that they will expel the children if the parents become difficult.

And some people, like me, think that the Edline function is an ennabler of this behavior:

Even more potentially corrosive is Edline -- a hovering tool extraordinaire now used by Montgomery County schools. We are, on the one hand, mocked for being overly involved parents, and then given a code to log onto a Web site to view every test, quiz and piece of graded homework. We can watch every recalibration of our child's grade-point average, then e-mail the teachers to complain. Gone are the days when a kid could lose a physics test, then make up for the bad grade on the next go-around with no harm done -- and no parent the wiser. Edline feels a bit like spying (although compared with the proposal to tag truants with ankle bracelets in Prince George's County, it's probably relatively benign).

Susan Coll in the Washington Post.

Even a self-described "overly involved parent" Matt Johnon from Maryland has this to say about the program on his blog:

What strikes me as odd is that the reliance on technology has replaced a basic parenting skill, that of being personally involved in your child's lives. Programs like Edline display a couple of troubling traits. First, as Coll pointed out, Edline is like spying and displays a lack of trust in your child. As a youngster, did I decieve my parents a little about grades? Yes, as did we all. However, my parents were involved enough (and knew my teachers well enough to call them by their first names) that such deceptions didn't last long. I grew to trust that my parents would generally take me at my word and they in turn trusted me to tell the truth, all of us knowing that eventually the real truth would come out and my version had better be pretty close to reality, otherwise, no soccer. Edline says to kids, it doesn't matter what you say, we are going to check now, rather than hold you accountable later. Proponents may claim real time corrections are possible with the technology, but real time corrections don't serve the child well because the correction doesn't carry enough consequences to be real. As a child, if my version and reality didn't jibe come report card time, I could say sayonara to anything I liked; soccer, hanging out with my friends, swimming, the beach, everything would be gone. Those were real consequences, not a week's grounding for a bad test.

Second, Edline and other technology tools give the adults in a child's life the veneer of being involved, without actually getting their hands dirty. In a age when teachers and other education officials are begging parents to be invovled, providing a tool like Edline will not help. On the face of it, the tool seems a little hypocritical. Edline says to parents, here is a way for you to be "involved" in your kids' education without acutally bothering the teachers. The technology also gives the teacher an out, permitting them to post the hard numbers on a childs' education performance without posting anything qualitative about that child. Since most parents whose kids are going well are unlikely to question the teacher, the teacher also gets a pass from being involved in that child's life and for those students stuggling academically, it is a statistically good bet that the parents may not care enought to pester the teacher. Everyone but the child gets a free pass.

Third, and finally, technology is a tool, it should not be a substitute. I have often argued that people often look at technology as an end rather than a means to an end. Edline and these other techno-parenting tools prove my point. They are the bells and whistles to parenting, not a substitute for solid, personal parenting.

Gee, I guess I'm not the only one. Let me add one more nuance: the school environment is the place where the kid has the most control over his or her own destiny. It's a world designed by and for kids and in the very best of schools, the environment empowers them. In short, kids get to try out self-determination there in a way they can't at home because of the very nature of family life. When parents insert themselves into that world unnecessarily, they ruin it for their children. They've robbed those kids of the world they design daily in favor of the more familiar parental model. That strikes me as an incredible loss.

What amazes me most is that all these comments seem not to be self-evident. That people honestly think that they need to examine their own behavior if their child doesn't do well on a particular test. Really, are you kidding? At what point is it your kid's responsibility? Maybe not at 10, but certainly by 15, a kid ought to be capable of learning basic life skills.

I know we are all fumbling our way, essentially, through this very important task. If I had a child with behavioral or academic issues, I'd be grateful for this kind of tool. More generally, I think the desire to be aware of our children's life and impulses is on the whole a good one. Nevertheless, I believe that our children are better served by learning from their own conduct than from parental fiat.

Saturday, April 28, 2007

Conversation I Wish I Had This Evening

Him: Cough.

Him: Cough, cough. Clear throat.

Him: Cough, cough, cough, cough, ahem.

Me: Excuse me.

Him: Cough.

Me: Okay loser. I spent a lot on these subscriptions, this is my last concert of the year and if you cough one more time, I will take this dart gun from my handbag and blow poison into your jugular. Got it?

Him: Clear throat. Person next to Him: Cough. Four rows away: Clear throat, cough.

Me: Dear God, it's a friggin' tubercular outbreak. I wish you had died quietly at home instead of coming here tonight.

Them: Cough. Ahem. Sneeze. Cough.

Me: That's it. Next person who makes a nonmusical noise gets a plug in the orifice from which it emitted.

Beethoven violin concerto, interruptus. I hate coughers.

Thursday, April 26, 2007

Conversation I Wish I Had Today

Constrained by manners no more:

Her: "We had some drama in my house today."

Me: Who gives a shit, lady. I have a life and a job too.

Her: "G. got to the dentist 15 minutes late, and the dentist left!"

Me: Well, Hail Holy Queens. Probably on his way to buy earplugs and a hunting knife.

Her: "So he rescheduled. And the day he rescheduled for is a big school activity!"

Me: This qualifies as drama in your life? Jesus H. Christ, woman have an affair, smoke some dope, something.

Her: "Now he won't be able to pitch that day, and his sister is very disappointed."

Me: Gee, this means his team has an actual chance to win instead of chasing flies over the wall. And your daughter? I'm all for keeping them children and all, but get her brows waxed before Middle School. I'm telling you you'll help her life immensely.

Her: "Have a good night! Remember, if you can't make the pick-up, don't worry. I'll take your daughter back to our house and she can have dinner with us."

Me: Damn. That's nice. But my daughter really can't stand your whining lump of an incipient bully child. She's nice to her because other kids aren't. I'd like to keep her as far away from Miss Most Likely To Pierce Someone Else's Nipple as I can, thanks.

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Whereupon I Travel to Ellis Island

Field trips are a helluva lot better now that I'm not a child. My daughter's fourth-grade class took its annual field trip to Ellis Island and a bus full of parents came along. It was nice that they separated us from the children. We had coffee and donuts on the way up, margaritas on the way back, dancers and a band. The kids, on the other bus, had water and "99 Bottles of Beer on the Wall." Okay, maybe not entirely true, but close enough.

All but one of my grandparents were born in this country. Even when they were alive, none liked to talk about themselves or their parents' emigration. I don't believe they were motivated by modesty as much as by a desire to be seen as pure Americans whose loyalty wasn't challenged by Old World ties. Also, a surprising number of them detested some or all of the members of their family. My paternal grandfather, who emigrated from Ireland as a child, so despised his mother that he forbade his children and grandchildren from attending her funeral on pain of excommunication from the family. My maternal grandmother spent at least a few months in an orphanage where her grandmother banished her at birth for the crime of being a girl and therefore useless in the New World. Her mother cried until the old biddy relented. Naturally it was my grandmother who took care of that vicious old bat in her dotage.
This, plus the renaming of several branches of the family different things at Ellis Island (all those intake officers heard the names differently) makes tracing family roots pretty difficult.

Fortunately, we had an easier target for searching. My husband's mother emigrated to this country in the early 20th Century. Though she died several years ago, he did know that she came as a baby and he knew the name she used then: Basche, which she later Anglicized to Beatrice. He wasn't sure of the year, but my daughter and I assumed we could find her. We did. More on that later.

What struck me most about Ellis Island is how attractive it is. Sort of vaguely Eastern European (those turrets remind me of pictures I've seen of Moscow) and graciously proportioned, it sits serenely in the water, with the noble Statue of Liberty in the background. Fleeing pogroms, poverty and hellacious passages in steerage, people arriving with nothing but the clothes on their backs might indeed think they'd arrived somewhere better. When you arrive now as a tourist you watch a 28 minute film narrated by Gene Hackman which doesn't stint on the bad stuff (at least too much). Still, you can't help but think how promising it must have looked. Yes, to some extent you were treated like cattle. On the other hand, you were fed, perhaps briefly housed and then sent on your way to a new life.

Of course, the reason immigration became controlled in this way to begin with was essentially to prevent undesireables (read in the late 19th and 20th centuries as "Asians") from coming here in large numbers. So Ellis Island and its ilk are not all about the good. And people were rejected there, though in proportion fewer than 2% of all applicants. Partly this was due to the screening required by the steamer companies. The US required pre-screening of all passengers and those who failed at a U.S immigration point were returned at the expense of the steamship line. Who knows who was rejected and why at Rotterdam, Dublin, or any of the other many points of departure?

For a $5 donation you get 30 minutes on a computer at Ellis Island and the assistance of some historian/IT geek if required. We paid the money and found the dope on Bosche/Beatrice who arrived in August 1904 at the age of 6 months with her 20 year old mother, Riwlke. The town of their origin is reflected as Mariampol, which is currently in Latvia, though at the time of their emigration it was within Russia. (It also spent time in Poland, thereby becoming a true "immigrant town.") Riwilke's husband had paid for their passage. She had $7.50 in her pocket and an address in Brooklyn to go to.

I called my husband to tell him the details. He was thrilled except he claimed the date had to be wrong. No, I said, I was looking at the handwritten manifest and it showed the date as August 30, 1904. Turns out my mother-in-law routinely told people she had been born in 1910. Turns out she was actually older than my father-in-law, and that her story about being a very young child when her mother died in the influenza epidemic a few years later was false. She grew up on the North Fork of Long Island in pretty extreme poverty. After her mother died, her father essentially abandoned the 4 children to work and they raised themselves. In her adult life, as far as my husband was aware, she rarely spoke to or met her siblings. She refused to discuss any more of her background than that until the day she died. You can only find out so much from an old ship's registry.

Friday, April 06, 2007

Whereupon I Discuss Easter

Today is what is known on the Catholic calendar as Good Friday. This is arguably the holiest and certainly most solemn day in the Christian world as we recall the unlawful sentencing, torture and death of a deity at the hands of secular justice, as encouraged by religionists to whom said deity had become a threat.

Though I am but intermittently Catholic, I can't help but treat this day tenderly. I haven't seen The Passion of the Christ and I never will, notwithstanding what I understand to be good production values. Even if it is, as billed, an overstated blood bath, it does fulfill a purpose -- it shows us how a rational and interesting society becomes capable of horrific manipulation at the hands of a minority bent on preserving its privileges. By intimating that Jesus Christ existed for the purpose of obtaining dominion over Roman citizens, the minority successfully got Rome to wipe him out.

That lesson is as obvious as a flogging and a crown of thorns, so I won't belabor it. And despite my natural agnosticism, I wonder about the the more personal lessons of days like this. Are we really improved by suffering? I doubt it. If all lessons learned are best learned through avoidance, than B.F. Skinner is the the most learned man and best Christian of modern times. I prefer to think that this day is about celebrating the mortification of the flesh. Yes, we die. We all die. Mostly unjustly and not as the result of a full and fair process adjudicating our guilt or innocence. Even God dies because he has to -- because it is the essence of humanity. To leave with dignity as Christ reportedly did, despite efforts to label us: cancer victim, heart attack victim, homicide victim, crack addict, treasonous villain; that is what this day teaches. It is finished.

Monday, February 26, 2007

My Syntax

My syntax is
in disarray.
Verbs don't agree
and participles hang
dejected over lost

I lose meaning
by centimeters.
Rapid keystrokes
only hint at ideas now.

Am I confused or
just distracted?
Tired, frightened?
What's the excuse
for untethered

Evening falls and
so do my words.
Lost in a vacuum,
begging for one last

before darkness
falls and crushes them.
They can scream but
no one mourns mere
rearrangements of the

Friday, February 09, 2007

Whereupon I Express Random Thoughts

How did it happen that I fell for the people who live in my computer? It started simply enough. I read an article in a magazine online, clicked where it said to in order to read comments (like letters to the editor, I assumed) and started making comments myself. After some time I began to appreciate the differences among commenters. I saw similarities too. I had interesting discussions via keyboards.

After playing a version of Survivor with these new cool cyber-kids, I started hanging with them more. It became, in a way, dangerous. These relationships were more real than some of my "meat" ones and often more intense. Yes, yes, people role-play virtually. Over time, however, you see that is not prevalent. To the contrary, people appear truer to some elemental self online. Over time, characters emerge through words and shared stories and poems and giddy "virtual laughter." You recognize people by their writing, no matter what name they carry (unless, honestly, the writing is bland). We are somewhat more emotionally naked in this place, and we bond more quickly.

Maybe, the barriers are often down online precisely because we don't have to see each other in the morning. If I've been a bitch online I don't need to explain it over cofee. If I've been too arrogant, I don't need to meet them at the water cooler or at evaluation time. If I say something about a family member, they won't have an opportunity to approach that person and share that secret conclusion. We are bound simultaneously by an intimate knowledge of one another and the knowledge that our confidences pretty much can't be breached. Anonymity and intimacy. Who'd have thought it.

To me, this is not entirely satisyfing. Much as I adore these relationships, I need physical cues. Not just so I can process better by picking up on the clues you don't online (a headwave, the cast of the eyes, etc.) but because I believe in real social fabric and I think that even the most intense electronic interaction is not as genuine as it should be. We can shop online, watch movies alone, go to Church via cable. We don't engage in a lot of social normative behavior anymore outside of work and school. I crave that kind of real community for some reason. I think the world is better experienced together.

For these reasons, I have attended real life meetings of online personalities. I have never been disappointed by these. People I like online come delightfully to life. It's not that they are all so compelling physically: some people are, some aren't. It's all about the eyes. Intelligence, desire, art, creativity, interest, are all there. I've made some good friends through these meetings and by that I mean friends who exist outside of the box as well as in it.

At one of my last meetings, I met a woman I know as Isonomist. I'd known her virtually as an intelligent, cogent, sensible writer with a wry wit and a playful side. When I met her in person she was like that but moreso: genuinely lovely and charismatic and interesting.

Her 22 year old son died yesterday, a victim of leukemia. Though I followed all of his health issues only online, and I haven't seen her in months, and she was not even one of my "closer" virtual friends, this news has hit me harder than news about people I see more regularly. Why? well, of course it reflects the worst fear of all parents, but I've had people closer to me lose younger children. That was always sad and scary, but this has the acrid smell of devastation about it to me.

Maybe because while her fences were down I got to see so much more than I see in others. It feels so pornographic -- to know that you know someone's vulnerabilities and then watch them exploited. I'm ashamed of how much I think I know it devastated her. I've prayed more emotionally for her than for anyone I know. And I still wonder whether I'm a better or worse person for this. Am I elevating the cyber over the real? Have I at last given in to the notion that the cyber world is superior the meat one? I wish I knew. And I wish most fervently I could have examined the question in other circumstances.

Thursday, January 25, 2007

My Doppleganger

You know that old saying "everyone has a twin?" Well, okay, my grandmother used it. She didn't know DNA from RNA or about Father Mendel. She reacted only to seeing people in her community who were (to her knowledge) unrelated, yet who resembled one another. Given that her community consisted of Southern Italians who had emigrated from the same town, there were some large numbers of twins, and triplets, and so on. A town filled with brown-haired, brown-eyed, mid-size people. Then a precious few started marrying the Irish (their bosses in the mines). Same size, blue-eyed, fair-skinned. We used to think we were unique, we children of Aran and the Mediterranean. Though there were family resemblances, we fair-skinned light-eyed Mediterraneans looked different from one another, and from the surrounding groups who tended to marry one another only (the Slavs, the Polish, the Ukranians).

When I went to college, I met a guy with my rather unusual (for this part of the country) Irish last name. We looked nothing alike, but people assumed we were siblings. He was much hotter than my brother, but almost as dumb. But I did meet people with whom there were deeper connections.

One of the people I sometimes partied with, V., had a friend in the class behind us, M. We met at parties, at bars, the usual places. V and M were nice enough, smart enough, and we liked each other though we weren't in the same circles. We all graduated and went our separate ways, and I had no idea what either of them were doing.

3 years later, all 3 of us ended up working at the same large Philadelphia law firm 200 miles away from the college where we last met. V was a lawyer also, who'd gone to another law school, and M. was a paralegal in the Corporate Department. We had a joyful reunion and started hanging out together.

For what I thought was no good reason, people confused me with M. We were about the same size (though I weighed a lot less than she did at the time) and had the same hair color, cut similarly. Our names are similar, and we both had the Italian thing (but not, in her case, the Irish thing) going on. The differences ended there. She had brown eyes, I have blue-green-grey. I generally wore high heels and short skirts, she favored preppy long skirts and ballet flats. Anyway, I was routinely chased down the halls by people shouting her name. At the time, I assumed women were so scarce in law firms they thought we were all paralegals. It irritated me. But then she told me that people who knew her before they knew me called her by my name. She thought it was weird, but we chalked it up to the superficiality of the human race, scanning just a few pieces of information and finding an identical answer.

After about 5 years, due to the firm's financial deterioriation, we all went our separate ways. V. and I stayed close, because we'd bonded over lost and unrequited loves, the pack of birth control pills and the $20 bill we borrowed liberally from one another. M.'s crowd was mostly society wannabes, and though we always liked each other, we were just in different worlds. She moved to the other side of the City, and I didn't see her again for years, though our mutual good will was passed through V.

5 years after that, I ran into her again. She was shopping for maternity clothes. So was I. We laughed and hugged about the coincidence. I had heard she'd married a very devout Jew and converted. I'd married an athiest Jew in a civil ceremony. Both our husbands were older by at least a decade. We laughed about that too. After our babies were born (both girls, 2 weeks apart), we had lunch with V. We traded stories, all very similar. We chalked that up to baby developmental issues with which we were both then obsessed.

I didn't see her much after that. We ran into each other at the Orchestra once about 6 years later, where she and her husband sat in front of us. He had just run unsuccessfully for judge (we elect them in this burg.) He seemed sweet. I noticed that her husband and mine were about the same size, with the same coloring. They were both lawyers. I chalked it up to fate.

She'd had two other children since I'd last seen her. We shared genuine joy and talked about getting together. We never did. They lived downtown with 3 boisterous kids and we lived in Chestnut Hill. We all worked impossible schedules and had babysitting issues.

Then last summer, 6 years after our last run-in, I was sitting at our tennis and pool club watching my daughter swim. And she walked in with a bunch of kids. We greeted each other warmly. They had just moved a few blocks away and had joined. Our kids bonded in minutes and headed off to the pool together. Her younger daughter, 7, upon being introduced to me said "You look like my mommy." We freaked a little, but ignored it. If anything, we thought we looked less alike now. We chalked it up to kids' talk.

We started to catch up. Before they bought the house near the club, they had looked at the house across the street from us. My street has 4 houses on it. It is obscure, even to people who have lived in the neighborhood their whole lives. This was getting odder. During our conversation I looked down at her hand. Her engagement ring is a square Emerald with diamonds on each side. I grabbed her hand and pointed to mine. Two years ago, my husband bought me a ring, because I never really had an engagement ring. It's a square Emerald with diamonds on each side. The stones are about the same size on both rings. We say, simultaneously, "Oh My God!" and hit our heads with our hands.

Now we give ourselves over to whatever this string is between us. We start talking about our summer vacations. I told her generally we were going to Martha's Vineyard in August. Her husband talks about how he used to go there and what a great idea. I give him a website address to look for houses, but point out it's pretty late to look (it's now late June).

The following week I saw them at a swim meet (by now, the girls were both on the team). She thanked me for the website and told me they had booked a place. Turns out it's in the same town. And they are going the same week. And we have reservations on the same ferries back and forth.

Of course we run into them there, let the kids run around, play, ride the horses, have dinner. Everyone has a great time and we promise to get together again soon. We haven't. But then again, it seems we don't need to.

I can't say what this connection is exactly. It seems cosmic, that she and I should be tied in so many ways despite the passage of so many years, despite so many differences in background and approach. After our last meeting, we've stayed in closer touch. The relationship is easy. We talk freely and without any pretense. It's like having the sister who lives on the other side of the world who won't judge you. I admit to loving it.