but that’s my school: the mustang swan song

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Dad called with the news. “They’re closing your school.”

“No. Sierra Gardens? What? Why? No!”

(Sorry, Bears, Trees and Bruins, not that other school of mine you love to hate.)

“They voted… it will close next year.”

“I’m sorry, that’s sad,” John said sincerely when I told him the news, “I still get sad when we drive by my old school.”

John’s long abandoned elementary school is for sure, totally haunted. Lincoln Elementary, brick and forlorn, sits abandoned on the main road in the small Idaho town of his childhood, still sporting a reader board that now says “ead to you ids 20 mins a day.”

John’s high school moved somewhere else too, leaving the hallowed halls he once roamed to become a rock climbing gym or self storage center, or possibly both.

John’s were those cool “inside” schools of John Hughes movies with real cafeterias and giant lockers for winter coats; cool to California kids who were stuck eating outside and with classrooms that opened directly into all that sunshine instead of echoey hallways that probably smelled like sweat and old paper.

During our 15 years of marriage, I had not been terribly sensitive to the fact that those pieces of John’s youth had been summarily shuttered.

Of course I don’t like that my school is closing. Opened in 1957, Sierra Gardens has weathered a lot. Think of all those little Mustangs talking about Nixon, Kennedy, the Vietnam War, the civil rights movement, and astronauts landing on the moon. We heard about the Challenger disaster in the middle of class, and worried about Russians parachuting down onto the playground, like in Red Dawn.

Whoever voted to close it obviously didn’t scamper down to the creek’s edge, play kickball in the lower flats, or Chinese jumprope outside Room 20.  They didn’t wonder why the basketball courts were always covered in seagulls or  taste Doritos for the first time at their 3rd grade desk. They didn’t learn to spell stuff there, and read stuff, and write cursive without really understanding why a capital cursive Q looks like a 2. They didn’t know which drinking fountains would give barely a trickle or shoot you straight in the eye. They didn’t learn they hate math and love writing and that Shel Silverstein was a genius. They didn’t have a principal with a handlebar mustache or a first grade teacher named Mrs. Beaver.  They didn’t get to be the Student Body Secretary or dutifully wear their Mustang T-Shirt on Spirit Day, or make the friends that I made there.  Nope; because if they did, Sierra Gardens would be getting a historical registry number instead.

My friend Doug wrote a bit in his blog about the liability of being too sentimental; something of which I am terribly, terribly guilty. I am an advocate for change and progress, but a big sap at the same time, which makes for a lot of confusing feelings.

So while I will miss you, I will never forget you Sierra Gardens, even when you are a rock climbing gym or a collection of old building shells with two haunted portables; and I look forward to tapping into my unending supply of your stories to bore my children, and their children, and their children’s children far into the future.

I will not miss the bathrooms though. The bathrooms were gross.

*That photo up there gives you a peek at one corner of Sierra Gardens, circa 1985. That’s me in the grey jacket and the extra bangs cut specifically to cover  my surprisingly normal looking ears. Mostly though, it’s my amazing, quirky, smart, kind, funny, talented class and group of friends from Room 20, whom I am very proud to know then and now. I guess just like a church isn’t the building, a school isn’t either.

the forgotten art of looking around

It was a busy Friday, and I was stuck in one of the backwards-riding seats on BART, the Bay Area’s mid-century modern version of the subway. I looked longingly at my oversized satchel of reading material – five magazines, two regular books, a loaded Kindle, and the phone that keeps me linked in to every breaking world/national/state/local/entertainment/sports/finance/business/health/lifestyle/science/technology/opinion/home/travel/dining headline, allowing me to remain minimally informed on a maximum number of topics, and dangerously chatty at dinner parties.

This was the reading material I had thoughtfully prepared to get me through this train ride, two airport waits, two five hour flights, and no fewer than a dozen cappuccinos. I know well enough by now that if I were to read something while riding backwards on the train, it would be a throw-up extravaganza like that time in 8th grade, or like that other time in 8th grade. With 19 stops still to go, I couldn’t let that happen, I was wearing wool. If you are traveling alone though, it is just common courtesy to read, or pretend to read, otherwise you are the creeper who keeps engaging others in “accidental” eye contact. Alas, short of closing my eyes, falling asleep and waking up in the wrong county and relieved of my purse and suitcase – I was just going to have to look around.

Not long ago, I wrote a post about the value of boredom – but looking around, my friends, is not boring, which I keep somehow forgetting.

You think reading is entertaining? (Oh, it is! It IS entertaining, I love it) but people are REALLY entertaining; what they wear, what they say, and what they are reading.

The sky outside was perfectly blue, the couple to the left was deciding what they were having for dinner, and the guy behind me was suuuuper annoyed with another guy at his job who quite frankly, did sound awful. The girl in front of me had her scarf tied just so….it looked fresh and whimsical like it just happened to come out that way, but I knew she probably recruited a boy scout or sailor to tie it. I tried taking a mental picture to figure out the knot. I thought about taking an actual picture, but that was potentially more disconcerting than unwelcomed eye contact, which did eventually happen. A few feet away, there was an older gentleman also looking around, and after our eyes met, he did not look away, and then he strained his neck to continue not looking away. I decided that maybe I should look out at the blue sky again, and assume he was also nervous about motion sickness.

When you are defiantly not looking at your phone, you start to feel condescendingly sorry for the people who are glued to theirs.  That poor guy with the messenger bag – think of what he’s missing!

I tried sharing with John my window inspired euphoria – “I looked out the window today, and it was amazing!”

“Wow, what was out there?”

“I dunno – cars and people and stuff.”

I spent some more time with the window over the next few days — New York is a great place to do that. Whether you wake up and peek in the windows of another tall building across the way to the early bird who spins his chair while he talks on the phone, or simply watch pedestrians hustle by below, wrapped in winter layers not often seen in California, everybody looks like they are doing something more important than you ever will.

My dad worked in a tall building when I was a kid, and on one of those school in-service days, it was his turn to entertain me.  It wasn’t hard, I sat in his window and watched people wander up and down Sacramento’s Capitol Mall, visit the hot dog vendor, go to the bank, and wait for the bus.  I wrote a poem about what I saw, and recited it proudly to anyone who would listen – I think it included a rhyme for “briefcase.”

One of my all-time favorite movies is “Rear Window,” the premise of which is fascinating and terrifying – you just never know what you are going to see out there. I thought of this in our San Francisco apartment years ago when we were newlyweds, so full of excitement about what lay outside! It was not Grace Kelly or Jimmy Stewart  I found across the courtyard from our bedroom window however, but an elderly couple eating breakfast in their underwear, fully aware that I could see them.

Give it a whirl. When you are done reading this (and only then), look out the window. If you are outside, go inside, and look at the spot you were just sitting. Tell me it doesn’t blow your mind, a little bit, if you wait long enough.

But then again, I’m pretty sure this hobby could also be the telltale sign of an extreme extrovert. Do you know how hard it was not to ask the couple what they finally decided for to eat for dinner, or pick the brain of the jaunty scarf girl (who also had a phone with a screen so cracked, it was barely holding together – seriously, how did that happen?). Extroverts are energized by others, but if that extrovert is fully engaged in the world around them all the time, their head just might explode. Others are everywhere! There were the girls who worked together in Saks then ran into each other after four years! The lady that thought/hoped the Starbucks breakfast sandwich was a cheeseburger. The girl nervous about a job interview. A German tourist with laryngitis, a guy editing a proposal, the couple from Toronto (she was waaaaay taller than he was), the guy who dropped his dry cleaning in the street, and Karl from the shoe department who has bad knees too. Where does one even begin? It took copious amounts of hand-wringing and concentration not to start conversations with every single one of them. I did talk to Karl, however, and recommended insoles if he was going to be standing all day.

It might just be better to return to my headlines, and leave all these nice folks to go about their day without a nosy lady in a wool coat watching them from the window.



The top pic is from our hotel in Murray Hill. The left photo down here is from one of my seats at Starbucks, 40th & Lexington, NYC, and the right is a lady reading on the subway platform, caught through two windows as the train passes between us.

treasures

During a recent visit with my mom, she pulled out a book of “Treasures” that she and my uncle had unearthed. The album actually had “Treasures” emblazoned across the front in a font usually reserved for the words “Antique” or “Apothecary.” The album had not seen the light of day since before I was born. Inside were never-before-seen-by-me pictures of my grandparents as well as uncles, aunts, and cousins I had never met, though my mother refuses to believe it.

“That’s Dewey, Colleen, you know Uncle Dewey.”

“Not really.”

“Lucille?”

“Sorry.”

Everyone was dressed to the nines for each photo, even though they were usually standing in a dusty field. Our current photo albums are littered with our raggedy little group in pajamas, tearing into Christmas presents or doing dishes after Thanksgiving dinner, always with messy hair and half-closed eyes.

But there was my mother, with her perfectly round cherubic face and shiny ringlets, decked out in her Sunday best, walking around in that dusty field at nine months old. It was the Depression; kids didn’t enjoy the luxury of waiting until their first birthday to learn to walk.  Jacob was born during the technology boom. He rolled around, chubby and euphoric from the optimistic atmosphere of a modern day gold rush, lazily waiting until he was nearly 15 months before taking his first official step.

There were a few handwritten entries throughout the book, noteable things that had happened in the 1930’s and 40’s. “Your grandmother was very up-to-date on stars,” my dad said as I looked at him curiously, unaware of her interest in astronomy. He clarified, “she kept very close track of celebrity news.” Thank God, it’s hereditary. Who am I to fight my genetic predisposition to know exactly what Blake Lively’s or Ryan Goslings’s relationship status is at any given moment?

Toward the back of the book of Treasures, was a little newspaper clipping from Christmas, 1940, featuring unedited children’s notes to Santa.

My uncle’s note was first. He asked for candy and nuts, a big drum, slippers and a coloring book, and added a special request to Santa to please not forget their little brother. Then there was my mom, the big sister – a 5-year-old who asked for dishes, an ironing board, slippers, candy and nuts. I couldn’t believe it. This was very nearly the same list she’d rattled off my entire life, save for the new ironing board; that was just once a decade. She still loves ironing, and will proudly tell you how she was the victor of her high school’s home economics ironing contest. She eyes me suspiciously every time I tell her I don’t know where our iron is, or worse, if we even still own an iron.

“It’s the same list, mom, down to the candy and nuts,” I laughed, until I recalled my own trip to see Santa, nearly 30 years ago, that went something like this:

“And what would you like little girl?”

“A red purse.”

I had waited in line to meet Santa who was holding court in our town’s toy store. The purse I was referring to had a little buckle and a long strap that made it the perfect cross-body bag for the 7-year-old on the go.  It wasn’t bulky but had plenty of room for the necessities – Dr. Pepper flavored lip balm, gum, a hairbrush, three key chains with no keys, and no fewer than 11 pens.

A red purse has popped up on my list every few years since.

Meanwhile, two states away, my future husband Johnny and his little brother Mikey were propped up on the knee of their small-town Idaho Santa who greeted his guests at the auto parts store. That Santa may or may not have been failing Algebra while depending on the healing powers of Stridex to assist with his…youthful complexion. He also weighed about 120 pounds and hated his job.

John doesn’t remember what he asked for. He probably said “It’s ok, Santa. I really don’t want or need anything,” while wholeheartedly meaning it, frustrating the chestnuts out of Santa and solidifying his reputation as being nearly impossible to shop for. Not that I have any experience with, or am in any way also frustrated by that.

Our own boys have grown and changed over the past year. Zach’s desire to see Santa was not as urgent and his normally adorable wishlist of toys was replaced this year with a football video game. Jake has braces now and his feet are bigger than mine.  He surprised us all by putting some special, and crazy-hard-to-find basketball socks at the top of his list…SOCKS. (Nike Elites; heard of them? I hadn’t either. Some joker’s selling a $12 pair online for $52.) The rest of their lists don’t stray too far from there – if a Manning brother, a big league pitcher, or anyone on the Miami Heat endorses it, wears it, or plays with it, it’s likely on the list.

It’s not the stuff that overwhelms me; it’s what the stuff represents now. The boys are big, and they are getting bigger, just like I’m sure my Dad was less than thrilled that my one wish was a red purse so I could look like a Charlie’s Angel or Laura from “Remington Steele.” While we know the presents and the busyness aren’t the parts of Christmas that fortify us, they can perhaps stir up a memory or two, and cause us to pause and think and feel things – whether they are happy or sad or funny or wistful things.

But that’s not where we find our true joy, or peace, or promise of a new and brighter day. My prayer for you this Christmas is that in spite of all your stuff, your to-do lists, the baking you meant to do, and the half finished Christmas cards, that you find your Treasure, whatever that may be for you right now – peace, joy, or hope – and you pass it on. Merry Christmas, Happy Holidays, and a Joyous 2012 to you and yours!

i’m taking that

It represented months of stern discussion, a few tears, plenty of exasperation, and a smattering of time-outs (some for me, some for the boys) – but what we had collected was quite the impressive arsenal of kid weaponry.  Colorful plastic, wood, fabric, and foam. Pointy things, blunt things, long things and short things. Things that shoot, things that poke; but mostly things that whack, hit and pummel.

The pile started innocently enough with a foam dart gun. I don’t recall the exact circumstances that resulted in its confiscation, but likely someone was shot in the eye, and did not like it. It was taken away, and hoisted atop my lovely bedroom armoire where neither boy could reach. Then we added the padded bat (I believe someone was walloped and did not like it), a light saber and an Indiana Jones whip, then the other two light sabers and the other three padded bats. A football jersey made it up there at some point, followed by the football, and one out of two of the hockey sticks. There was a potato gun, three foam golf clubs, and the foam dart rifle that went straight from the original package to the pile, with nary a stop in between. The old western six-shooter actually took longer to be put up there than I thought it would. Within one week, Zach lost both of his chef knives – one from his basic kitchen set, the other a wooden cleaver from the sushi set.

The pile teetered as the gun barrels hung precariously off the edges of the armoire. ”Confiscation Station” was bursting at the seams.

“Mom, can I have the potato gun please? I need it for what I am doing.”

“Fine.” His brother was not home. I retrieved it easily, and handed it to Zachary. I knew exactly where it was in the pile because it was the first thing I saw every morning when I woke up.

Zach returned the potato gun when his mysterious potato-gun-necessitating activity was complete, and I placed it back in its spot, no questions asked.

Confiscation Station had become storage…and could easily pass as the gun locker for a deranged but adorable teddy bear, with a penchant for golf and baseball.

The boys eventually forgot about the stuff up there and focused on LEGOs and some made-up game that involved diving onto the couch and yelling at each other.

Hoping we could sneak it all back into place without re-piquing their interest, John and I quietly cleared out Confiscation Station. I woke up and cheerily surveyed the newly cleaned off, cleared out grown-up space that could now be left to collect dust in peace.

The knives were first to return, followed by the light sabers and the bats, and then finally the dart guns. We acquired two Disney swords that fit nicely in the crevices created by the Storm Trooper gun and the six-shooter.

Then I needed to have a place to keep things from the cat. Up went two half deflated balloons and a spool of curly ribbon.

I drove up to the house the other night, and our bedroom curtain was open just enough for the pile to be revealed in all its glory, perfectly framed by our outdoor Christmas lights.  I had never seen the pile from that angle before. It was architecturally and structurally impressive, sure, but it also looked like the window of a person sorely in need of some kind of intervention.

You might say, “They are boys! Let boys be boys!” or “Why do you have so many weapons in the first place?”

“Good points!” I would say back to you. They are boys, but I don’t think boys should get poked in the eye either, and tomorrow, when their arms are longer than they are today, their reach will extend beyond the “thiiiis close” distance to the TV/Window/my face/the cat/other faces they have enjoyed thus far.

We did not intend to accumulate so many weapons, it just happened. We didn’t head out one day on a stockpiling mission with an arsenal shopping list. They have grandparents, uncles and birthday parties, and moments at Target where I am weak and they have a gift card, and they do not like my suggestion of drawing paper or a new knit cap.

I dismantled the pile again after spying it through the window, but the contents have not been put back into the boys’ rooms. Instead, they have found a new home in the bin recently vacated by the Power Rangers, who though adored by young Jacob, have been (mercifully) ignored by Zach.

The spot is clear once more, just in time for Christmas.

*A potato gun IS pretty cool. You stick the barrel into a potato, and it takes out a little potato plug/bullet, that you can then shoot. Searching for and collecting the spent potato bullets will make you feel like a farmer AND a CSI.

the pot pie paradigm

When you live in California, or anywhere really, you can’t depend on the calendar to tell you when the season has changed.  You likely have your own little tell tale signs that it’s time to shift gears and jump into the next season with abandon. It’s officially Spring when I hear a lawnmower or an airplane through an open window. Summer is the first day I require an iced coffee to function. Winter is simple – sweatshirt, fuzzy socks, hot chocolate, staring at the Christmas Tree; rain, optional.

Fall however, is a little different. The Bay Area enjoys its most beautiful warm weather in September and October. The lazy days of summer are gone, but the realities of school and work and sports and responsibility are just… the worst. You like the idea of fall, but you can’t enjoy a moment of it…yet. Then one day it happens, the good part of autumn arrives. This week, the signs were everywhere; real fall is finally here.

  • Without explanation, a big fat, warty pumpkin showed up on our doorstep. Not the jack-o-lantern kind, but the harvesty cornucopia kind. Some autumnal fairy left it there (thank you, whoever you are). Until the moment it arrived, our entire 2011 pumpkin inventory consisted of the tiny souvenir pumpkin from Zach’s kindergarten field trip, and John’s sad matching chaperone pumpkin. If a mystery gourd doesn’t tell you something special’s afoot, I don’t know what does.
  • Dry leaves swirled dramatically around the parking lot as I hurried in from lunch, clutching close to me my brown corduroy blazer, the official jacket of fall. When the wind blows like that, no matter what building I hustle into, I announce, “It’s like ‘Something Wicked This Way Comes’ out there.” It’s weird enough to say that at the grocery store or the dentist, but you get really special looks at work yelling that something wicked is coming, especially when work is a church. I might need a new movie reference that says “it’s windy.” Nobody’s even seen “Something Wicked This Way Comes” in 25 years, including me.
  • The 6-year-old needs a new pair of slippers; he’s grown out of the firetruck pair, and his feet are now cold. The cat’s feet are also cold and she thinks she controls the heater. She sits on the grating and paws at it unsuccessfully for an hour or so until it finally kicks on, at which point she looks at me, as if to say, “you’re welcome.”
  • A hot cup of coffee is never far from my thoughts.

 “I need to finish this budget draft…then get a cup of coffee.”

“ Where did I leave my keys? Over there, by my coffee.”

“Someone put peppermint mocha creamer in the office fridge; best day ever.”

  • The moon on Wednesday was freakishly huge and hovered menacingly over the freeway and the hills, so close it looked like I could drive to it as fast as I could drive home. I never look directly at it; it knows I blame it for my crankiness, other people’s crankiness, sleepless kids and bad driving.
  • Monday is the day I will make my annual turkey, apple and sweet potato pot pie. No part of it comes from a box, hence the annual-ness of it. I am trying to get John to commit to a date for his annual apple cake.  They cannot be made on the same day, or my head will explode.
  • And then, to top it off: John picked up egg nog on the way home. It gets dark after lunch. I took an umbrella with me, and promptly left it in a restaurant. Twilight’s out in a few days (they’re vampires, so that’s fallish, and they sparkle, so it’s festive.) I think about ginger cookies almost as much as I think about coffee.

It seems people who know about gardening and growing things best understand the rhythms of the seasons. They talk to me about their bulbs or their tomatoes, eyeing the weather and their soil, and maybe an almanac. I nod, recognizing that yes, I have heard of bulbs and tomatoes, though I cannot tell you what grows from a bulb.

So, don’t let the mall tell you it’s time to feel like Christmas (because they’re trying, hard); it’s not up to them, it’s up to you. Your fall may not have even started yet.

the b word

“Don’t say that…it’s a terrible word.”

“It’s true though, I am.”

“When you say you’re bored, it implies that everyone around you is boring…that we lack the sparkling personalities needed to keep life interesting for you.”

“I don’t mean that, I just mean I’m bored.”

“Boring” had long been on my list of no-no words, since it had also been verboten in my own childhood home. My mother used to say, “only boring people get bored,” which I then repeated to my son as his knees were slung over the side of the chair.

“Jacob, this is the part where I am legally obligated to tell you that if you are so bored, I can certainly find you something to do. Math drills? Cleaning your room?”

“But those things are boring too.”

And so weighing his options, he picked up a magazine and dramatically put in front of his face blocking my view of his freckly, and likely still disinterested face.

I thought of him less than 24 hours later as I had the opportunity to sit and repeatedly wait for stuff. I waited in the car, staring lamely at my phone, poking away at solitaire, and re-reading news stories.

We waited in the bleachers for one baseball game to finish so Jacob’s could start. I did not know one kid on the field, which outweighed the fact that I normally enjoy baseball. I tried eavesdropping on the boys from the opposing team, who like Jacob, were waiting to take the field. They talked about something not interesting that happened at practice, and TV characters I didn’t know, so I chose to stare at the dirt, then the sky. I was suddenly so keenly aware of my boredom, that it became exciting. I dug around in my purse so I could make a note of what I wanted to think about, and maybe write about at some point in the future, “being bored.”

The initial excitement of my boredom was sullied once again by the less glamorous realities of actual boredom, as well as the glimmering hope of something to focus my attention on.

I threw myself into Jake’s game with abandon when it finally started.

But, as it ticked ever closer to the 3-hour mark, his team sitting 12 runs ahead, the familiar feeling was back. John had to leave for a church event, and I’d tried to send chipper text updates, “Jake stole home!” and then it was “Jake stole home….again.”  Zach scooted dramatically down the bench to sit next to another dad to talk about the 49ers. The moms in front of me were checking the processing speed on someone’s new iPhone 4S. When it was my turn to Google something, I didn’t want to leave the owner’s search history littered with my attempts at finally discovering where I’d seen the actress who plays Amy Poehler’s mom on “Parks & Recreation,” so I stuck with searching “baseball.”  Wow, the processing speed IS fast.

I handed the phone back, only to see that the game was still going. Zach came back over and graciously let me pick from the fabric of his pants the hundreds of thorny little stickers he’d acquired while retrieving a foul ball from the bushes. The people in the stands had eyed him jealously as he’d scampered off with a task. He’d taken his sweet time returning the ball to the official, undoubtedly prolonging the excitement of it all.

After every out, someone would inevitably ask, “Is that it? Is that the game? Are we done?” Sometimes it was a parent from the other team, and sometimes it was whatever kid was at first base. Sometimes that someone was me.

A few months ago, I read Stephen King’s brilliant “On Writing,” where he stressed the importance of allowing yourself to be bored. He would take long daily walks (that’s how he got hit by that car) and carry a newspaper or book with him that he would not read. His mind worked best when he was bored, creating stories that would go on to successfully give the world the creeps.

If boredom is simply our brain at work, imagining what it would it be like to be doing anything other than what we are actually doing at the moment, then all of us are likely bored most of the time. How we respond to boredom then, is critical.

You could complain about it – most certainly what teachers and parents, my mother included, find so terribly irksome.

You could get into mischief.  The stats cited on militaryschoolalternatives.com (I was NOT there for my own children – it just happened to come up when I did my lazy Internet research) show that roughly 50% of kids are likely to drink because of boredom. Same goes for adults. Frankly I thought it would be higher, but we have to trust the dedicated statisticians at militaryschoolalternatives.com.

You could do something important. Maybe you’ll get the idea for the next great American novel, or decide what to give the teachers this year at Christmas (always a stressful endeavor). Maybe you’ll give in and call your sister, figure out how to fix that thing at work, or finally remember that you need to buy stamps.

Be bored, but for Pete’s sake, if you’re sitting within conversation distance of me, don’t tell me your bored, it’s offensive.

*As our family settled in for the night after the game, I inadvertently proclaimed my distaste for something on television, by spelling to John that it was “b-o-r-i-n-g,” in front of Jacob who’s 11, and as it turns out, can totally spell words.

He leapt out of his chair, giddy with excitement. “A-ha!” he squealed, as he should. “I can totally think of things for you to do to not be so bored. Would you like to connect things, you know, like you do at work? Or do math drills, or connecting drills, you know…like for work?” His smile of redemption lasted all the way to bedtime.

**As I was writing this, I checked email no fewer than 10 times, entertainment news 3 times, and Facebook 5 times. I made two mugs of tea, and did a load of laundry. I stared out the window for a while, and thought about painting my nails. And then I stopped thinking about painting my nails, and painted my nails. I also completed my research: Pamela Reed is the woman in “Parks & Rec.” She played Arnold Schwarzeneggers’s partner in “Kindergarten Cop.” Now you can relax.

check please

Thanks to autumn, good ol’ fashioned check writing is alive and well: school donations, school photos, church camp, hot lunch, fall carnival, wrapping paper fundraisers, magazine fundraisers, cookie dough fundraisers, field trips, sports registration, class party contributions, and most recently, the kindergarten book order.

If you are not currently placing kids’ book orders, it’s likely the same company, and same process from when you were a kid (especially you, Gen X’ers.) It’s a little newspapery thing you get that looks like the Pennysaver, but it’s chock full of kids’ titles at great prices. Ring a bell? You may remember waiting anxiously for your own books to be delivered to class, and when the day finally came, you’d see what your friends got, and you’d look at what you got, and back to what they got. You’d realize that while your friend could look forward to happily thumbing through a nearly wordless print version of the latest greatest cartoon, you were saddled with a Caldecott or Newbery award winner. The gold seal on the front would give it away. Gold seal=serious=thinking.

I wrote out my check, tore it from the newly depleted checkbook, and handed it to our kindergartener to keep track of until he could deliver it.

“Can you please make sure to give this directly to your teacher? It’s a check.”

Blank stare.

“It’s like money.”

The blank stare was replaced by delight with a mildly alarming hint of scheming and wheel turning.

“It’s not money that you can do anything with. It’s a piece of paper that represents money.”

Blank stare followed by, “Why is USC on the envelope?”

“They sent me the envelope so I could send them a check too, for a donation.”

“Why aren’t you sending them the check then?”

“Um, we get a lot of those envelopes, and I will another day, but today it’s for the book order.”

“What book order?”

“I ordered you books from that piece of paper you brought home.”

“Wait…what?”

“I picked a couple of books for you from the paper, and then ordered them, and they need this check.”

“Let me see what you’re talking about,” he said, “I didn’t know about this.” Have you seen your own words and expressions mirrored back at you? It’s disconcerting.

I handed him the flimsy little catalog. He pointed directly to the Star Wars book on the front, “that one.”

“Yes, I saw that, but I don’t think it has words, and you’re learning to read words. Real words! Plus we have a lot of Star Wars books, both with and without words.”  I actually prefer the ones with just pictures, because then Zach doesn’t have to correct my pronunciation as I stumble over Padawan, and Luminara Unduli. (Oh, how I miss Luke.)

“Then that one.”

“The one about Mater?”

“Oh, that’s Mater? I guess not, I’m in kindergarten.”

“I thought this other one looked good – it said that it’s for both of us to read together – one part for you to read, and one part for me to read,” otherwise known as any book ever printed that has more than one sentence.

“Also, this Thanksgiving one,” I continued, trying to erase his skeptical look, “The turkey is looking for disguises. Sounds funny.”

Realizing the Star Wars portion of the discussion was over, he nodded and ran away with the check.

“Get it?” I called after him, “See, he needs disguises because he’s trying to escape Thanksgiving! He’s a turkey! On Thanksgiving! Funny!”

I thought it sounded funny, but once I said the plot out loud, I realized it was also kind of sad, and kind of gross, because next month, I will be eating a turkey who will have likely suffered the consequences of not having the resources to come up with adequate disguises.

We tucked the USC envelope with the carefully completed book order into his backpack. I’d been meticulous because I was thinking of the book order volunteer on the other end of this transaction. I had been the book order lady once, when our oldest was in pre-school. Talk about transactions and high finance…I was the book order person for the whole school! Everybody! 2-year-olds….3-year-olds….4-year- olds….all of them. That’s a lot of “Skeleton Hiccups,” “Brown Bear, Brown Bear…” and “Fancy Nancy. “

A USC football game would be humming along while I sat on our couch in our seminary apartment, sorting through checks and tallying the number of “If You Give a Pig A Pancake” from the order forms.

I’d shove an order form in front of John who was trying to learn Hebrew and watch football, “Hey, do you think this is a two? Or a seven? Do you think they want seven copies of ‘Pinkalicious?’ Two, definitely two. They paid for two. Good, I did not want to have to call them.” But inevitably, I would have to call, and my palms would sweat, because my half of the conversation would go something like this:

“Hi my name’s Colleen and I’m calling about your book order through the Children’s Center? Yes, you ordered from two different catalogs, so I’ll need two checks. Yes, two separate checks. The Dragonfly order form is different from the regular one…yes, I know, it’s complicated. So can I please get two new checks and I’ll give you this one back? I understand that’s three checks for two books totaling $8. I know, I’m sorry, listen, I didn’t make up this rule, but unfortunately, if you’d like me to fill this order for you, I’ll need two checks. No, I’m not threatening you…ok, it’s a dumb, dumb, ridiculous rule, there, I said it…so, you’ll send the checks tomorrow? With your 4-year-old? Perfect.”

the shrimp dumpling gang

Realizing we had a rare uninterrupted family day ahead of us, John hollered the magic words into the morning air to send the boys scrambling around the house for their shoes…  “DIM SUM!!”

There are just a couple of phrases that send them into such immediate action. The other is “How about a 5:00 bedtime, then, because that’s where you’re headed,” but the circumstances are usually less jovial, and my brow is likely furrowed.  But when we yell “dim sum,” they know what that means: “Today is special, we’re going to the city, find your shoes.”

Years ago, my college roommate, Liane took us to a Chinatown bakery, and bought a dozen shrimp dumplings for about $4. She doled them out when we emerged from the crowded closet sized storefront onto the bustling sidewalk.

Much as one would divide their histories into “before and after kids,” or “before and after the career change,” or “before and after I got a smart phone,” I have pre and post dim sum, marked by that first taste of shrimp dumpling on a crowded San Francisco street.  It squirted all over my awesome kid-sized Curious George T-shirt, ruining it forever – a small price to pay for dumpling shaped nirvana.  Perhaps it was also a sign that even as a pseudo hipster 20-something, it was time to stop wearing the kid-sized Curious George tee in public.

Before we knew it, our favorite San Francisco Saturdays as newlyweds were spent convincing the bakery lady that, yes we did want 42 shrimp dumplings and 2 Cokes so we could have lunch at the cold beach. Or when we were feeling fancy, we’d wait for the good stuff to be pushed by on a cart in a dim sum restaurant. There’s a tripe incident I don’t like to talk about, but if you have the opportunity to select your items from the cart, don’t put your face directly over the bamboo steamer basket when they open it. A tripe facial is not something one soon forgets.

Our Richmond District neighborhood that bordered what is considered by many to be San Francisco’s “New Chinatown,” still boasts Ton Kiang which is delicious and perfect if you can take off at 11:00 on a weekday and head that far down Geary Blvd., because then you can totally…probably… maybe get a table. For the bakery experience, we head to Good Luck Dim Sum. I don’t know how God feels when I do this, but when we venture here, I start praying for a parking space when we’re within a mile radius of the place.

But, alas, we usually end up at Hong Kong Lounge. It has pink awnings, and at some point within the last decade changed their name from the far classier Hong Kong Flower Lounge.  Now that the beautiful old theater where we saw “She’s All That,” is shuttered and forlorn, Hong Kong Lounge is that block’s reigning crown jewel. It sits between the old biker bar John ended up at when he locked himself out of the apartment, and the Ross Dress for Less where I went when it was my turn to lock myself out.

We moved away from the city years ago, but manage to find our way back on chilly days when we are feeling a little nostalgic, and a lot hungry.

We’ve dragged along dear friends like our seminary compadres, Megan & Harold and their kiddos. As we’d wait outside for our name to be called, our little children would press their faces against the glass to stare at the diners inside, or they would tuck their arms in their shirts and huddle together for warmth on the cold sidewalk.

“Stand up before someone tries to give you a dollar,” one of us would say, “Well, never mind, it’s ok, go ahead and stay there.”

Sometimes we come with our college buddy, Bouncer. When he’s there, the hurried wait staff takes a look at our order sheets, and asks us if we’re serious. We nod proudly, and take their doubt as a challenge. It’s delicious at first, then funny, then scary as we try to convince each other to “please, pretty please eat the last bun, they don’t think we can do it, and I cannot. I cannot do it, but I know you can.”

(If you go to the Hong Kong Lounge, whatever you do, don’t ask them to split the bill, because then it’s a whole thing, and every level of management gets involved, and your kids get really embarrassed.)

On this day, when our little foursome gets seated, I go all 1950’s and hand the menu/worksheet to John to make the selections on our behalf. Ordering is like a long and deliciously complicated word problem:

Two adults and two kids go for dim sum. There are three pork buns to a plate, and four shrimp dumplings. Shrimp and chive dumplings come six to a plate, as do potstickers. The 6-year old eats one half the pork buns as the 11-year old, but twice the potstickers. The mom will eat any shrimp dumpling that passes by if her fellow diners are not careful. The dad bats clean up, and assumes responsibility for the consumption of the ‘adventure plate’ if it is not liked by the rest of the group. What combination of plates should they order?”

John taps the tiny little pencil against the paper, and I can see his eyelid twitch with all that thinking.

I try to keep the boys from using their chopsticks to stab each other, poke themselves in the eye, or dig at that hole in the padding of their chair.

The waiter whisks the sheet off our table and John informs us our adventure plate will be the doughnut noodle roll, which arrives first.

Yup, there it is. Imagine you had a doughnut, then you rollllllled it up into a big rice noodle. The man poured brown stuff on it for us, and we debated whether it was syrup or soy sauce.  Three doughnut noodle rolls already cut in half. That’s six pieces. I’ll take one of those, and save room for the other stuff. (It was strangely good by the way, and the brown stuff was soy sauce.)

The shrimp goes fast & furious, and then come the potstickers and fried and  steamed pork buns.  “Darn, I meant puffs,” John mutters to himself, “I like the puffs with the shiny tops.” He notes it for next time, and we talk strategy and what we’ve learned for the future; one more order of shrimp dumplings, two fewer orders of pork buns.  John rethinks this by the time we walk out the door, “I don’t know,” he says, “I think I ate too much shrimp in my 20’s.”

The visit isn’t complete without us driving slowly by our old apartment, which looks exactly the same as it did 11 years ago, cracked glass front door and all. “There’s our old bank,” I say enthusiastically. Kids love seeing their parents’ old banks. “The hobby shop is still there! The card shop! The video café is gone, where we saw the guy lick the ketchup off the bottle, but they still have the poster up for ‘The Green Mile.'”

“Mom?”

“Yes, dear?” I look back at the boys who are blissfully staring out the window, their faces shiny from our feast.

“Can you please turn up the radio?”

If I had to be pick him being super pumped to see my old bank branch or excited to share a dim sum meal with us – I’ll take the doughnut noodle roll, thankyouverymuch.

*The restaurant above is actually yummy Ton Kiang, and I snapped that pic of Good Luck one day as we were probably looking for parking. That building there to the right is our old San Francisco apartment. That might be our former neighbor’s car. Wow, Gary & Linda – I’ll save them for another blog.

speaking….and other ways to embarrass a middle schooler

We are hot wing loving people, and we drove a good 20 miles this day to get them. We said, “Let’s celebrate Labor Day! And the end of a great summer! Tonight….we feast!” We didn’t say the feast part out loud, but I sure thought it.

With one week of middle school under his belt, Jake plopped down next to me at the restaurant table. Instead of getting to talk to my older kid’s face, however, I was granted access only to the back of his head. We were surrounded by no fewer than 30 televisions covering every possible surface in the new chain restaurant. I looked nervously at the giant projection screen hanging precariously above my head. Baseball, football, college football, high school football, what looked like Dr. Oz, and even America’s Funniest Home Videos blurred soundlessly together while music played in the background.

I didn’t harp on the boys about watching the TVs, there were just too many to ignore. I couldn’t help but watch either, just like everybody else in the crowded dining room. When you have that many people together staring at TVs from every possible angle – weird eye contact will inevitably happen. I was sure the guy with the ZZ Top Beard was looking at me because he assumed I was staring at his beard, which I was for a minute. But really, he was probably just watching whatever game was above our table, or at the very least, waiting for the screen to fall on me before my wings arrived.

A girl across the restaurant with a 60’s beehive also seemed to be looking at us. Either that or she was watching the same thing as ZZ, which seemed highly unlikely. No, she was definitely looking at me, and my utter lack of a beehive hairdo, for which I was now very self-conscious.

“Focus, people, focus.” John used his natural leadership skills to bring us all back to the task at hand – ordering wings. The menu was six pages long with an insert. There was a chart, and a graphic of a giant bottle of hot sauce with what looked to be dozens of different wing ordering variables.  There was the sauce side and the dry rub side. There was sweet on one end of the heat spectrum, a picture of flames on the other. We settled on a big platter of very exotic “medium.”

Exhausted from the hardest thinking I’d done all day, I settled back, and my ears perked up. I knew this song. I loved this song. “It’s Dead or Alive!” I yelped, “I don’t feel right saying the name of the song, because it’s not entirely appropriate… but it’s Dead or Alive…the band!” I girly clapped for unnecessary emphasis.

They all nodded.

“Eeeeee.”

“What?”

“Depeche Mode! It’s Depeche Mode.” I girly clapped again, because now it was a terrible habit.

The TVs may have been silent zombie-creating light boxes, but the stereo system was loud and clear, and apparently set to “80’s Stun.”

John took the little one to the restroom as I tried to explain to Jake the significance of Pat Benetar; “60% of her awesomeness must have been her haircut,” I said earnestly. I waved my hands around my head trying to pantomime the swoopiness of her feathering. He nodded again, and I took to my phone to find a picture.

When the guys returned to the table, I was flipping though my results from Googling “Pat Benatar Hair” images. I’ve Googled some stupid things, many of them twice, but this search was a first.

Jake looked at the photos, and then back to the bank of TVs, immediately guffawing at AFHV (when you are a fiercely loyal fan of crotch kicking, wedding-dance-gone-wrong, annoyed animal videos, you may also unapologetically call America’s Funniest Home Videos, AFHV), “Look at that cat. How does it do that?” he said, mystified. I looked around to find the screen with the crazy cat, and sucked in my breath when I spotted something awesome. I nudged Jake. “The woman directly behind you, has Pat Benatar’s exact haircut,” I whispered. He slyly looked over his shoulder, then looked to me, nodding in polite acknowledgement.

Another song came on that I recognized. I’d listened to it on my boombox in my room as a kid. “Catch Me I’m Falling.”  Who sang this? Who. Sang. This? I squirmed in my seat, uncomfortable in my not knowing.

My darling husband has many gifts, one of my favorites being his awe inspiring ability to immediately recognize and name the title and artist of songs; and not just any dumb ol’ songs, but 1980’s adult contemporary classics. The more obscure, the better. His childhood weekends were spent with Casey Kasem and the American Top 40. It’s obviously one of the top 3 reasons why I agreed to marry him.

“I can’t remember who sang this,” he admitted. Now he looked uncomfortable too.

“Stacey Q?” I guessed. Wait, she couldn’t have possibly had another song other than “Two of Hearts.” Back in the day, my friend Jenni and I preferred to call it, “Two Pop Tarts.” Hilarious.

John, sounding like Sherlock Homes, began his process of deduction, “This song was out at the same time as a Taylor Dayne song.”

“Is it Taylor Dayne?”

He looked at me like I was asking if he was Taylor Dayne.

“Um, no.”

“Ok, so most definitely not Taylor Dayne, and not Jody Watley…right?” I was grasping now.

The wings were here and my hands were saucy, but it was worth the risk.

“I’m so sorry everybody, I hate to do this, but I have to do this.” I took my phone out again and quickly found what I was looking for. “Pretty Poison? What? I’ve never heard of them.”

“Pretty Poison,” John said nodding solemnly, “Yup, that’s it. Man, I knew that.”

Jake looked at me expectantly, perhaps waiting to hear what the singer’s hair looked like, or where I was when I first heard that song, or maybe how Pretty Poison was the best band in the history of music and a major influence on artists he listens to, like B.o.B and One Republic.

I had nothing, so he quickly turned away in his seat, going back to his wings and AFHV.

Oh no. Was he….embarrassed? Annoyed? Both? It didn’t matter that nobody in this place, whether they had a Pat Benatar haircut or a ZZ Top beard, was paying attention to us. Well, beehive girl was, but I knew that nobody need be present for a tween to be embarrassed. He was a sweet kid, and was doing his best to humor me as I waxed poetic about the old timey music I grew up with. I scrapped my plans to use photos of my freshman dorm to illustrate the lesson One Hit Wonders: 90’s edition.

Alas, he is in middle school, and I now hold more potential for annoyance and embarrassment than I did just a week ago – a milestone for us both. I would let him eat his wings and watch his falling down videos in peace. Just wait ’til the day though, he’s eating medium wings with his kids and he gets excited for the Black Eyed Peas on the classic hits station, and he really wants them to appreciate how the lady at the next table looks exactly like Lady Gaga.

VISUAL AIDES

*The photo at the top is not the most flattering of me by any means, but somehow, I’m delighted by how delighted I look to be there.

*The middle photo is my freshman dorm room that I shared with my roommate Heidi. We actually SLEPT in there, in the midst of the chaos.Please note the EMF poster.

*The bottom photo is my far more refined sophomore room that I shared with Liane. No EMF poster, but I do see a poster for Ned’s Atomic Dustbin and L.A. Style, and that Johnny Depp movie they screened on campus, Benny & Joon. There is a rack of cassettes and cassingles AND a rack of CDs. Everything else, I would put up again today, Pearl Jam, The Cure, Depeche Mode, INXS, and the 34,000 photos I ripped out of magazines like Spin.

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will there be bears?

“Will there be bears?” I asked.

John shook his head and explained that they would be spending their boys’ night a few minutes from our old bearless suburb across the Bay, and probably 100 yards from the main road on which you can find a CVS and Round Table Pizza.

“Do you have everything?”

“Yes.”

“OK, well….be careful out there.”

“You be careful, and have fun. Don’t worry about trying to do too much, you can sleep for hours if you want to.”

John had provided the opportunity to go camping with them, and I was admittedly less than pleased. I think you could describe the look on his face as half confused, a quarter surprised, and a quarter not-at-all surprised as I explained that I was unhappy with the invitation because now I was put in the position of having to feel bad about saying no, and I would rather just not even be asked in the first place.  It made sense at the time.

My friend Margie has a cheeky little napkin hanging on the bulletin board in her kitchen that says, “I love not camping.” I point at it when we visit, and quote it often, and I quoted it again when he asked.

Oh how I want to want to camp. It seems to be a popular thing for people to do and the snacks would be right up my alley…I hear there’s often chocolate and marshmallows AND bacon.

But after realizing the weekend’s arrangements were likely best for everybody, I was excused from going, and from the jobs of monitoring stick usage, dirt abatement and maintaining a 40-foot perimeter around the campfire. The guys loaded up their tent and stove and other supplies I did not recognize. John pointed out the ingredients they left me on the counter for my own “in the house” s’mores, and headed off into the beautiful sunshiny weekend for a night in the wilderness.

We waved at each other enthusiastically and I dashed up the stairs, ready to tackle my list. Of course I had a list; I wanted to use this time wisely.

I had just under 24 hours and a few simple things to do:

  • Clean out and organize all rooms, closets, bookshelves, and areas that could possibly contain LEGO’s and/or baseballs
  • Fully prepare for the start of school, short of packing lunches two weeks in advance
  • Give self manicure and pedicure
  • Catch up on DVR’d shows (that, my friends, is a legitimate to-do)
  • Plan meals for the week, nay, the month
  • Read backlog of magazines
  • Return backlog of emails
  • Think about exercising
  • Finish reading The Help then go see The Help in the theater, and of course…
  • Re-start, finish, and finally fall in love with The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo

I am almost positive that I had NOT written:

  • Make and eat entire box of pasta salad
  • Run out of things to read on the Internet, because you have simply read it all
  • Don’t read any books at all– I mean it, NO books
  • Watch Hoarders, then feel yucky after
  • Watch romantic comedies until your eyes hurt, and feel way worse than you did after watching Hoarders
  • Argue with the cat about her incessantly stealing the drain things out of the sinks
  • Take picture of the cat with the drain things, because even though it’s so annoying, it’s kind of cute
  • Argue with the cat about her trying to remove the vent grate with her tiny little claws at 2:00 am, which unfortunately is shortly after you will finish watching a Drew Barrymore romantic comedy, and not one of her better ones.
  • Paint nails and allow to dry while laying motionless for the length of DVR’d Gossip Girl season finale
  • Rediscover long-dormant and impractical love of French house music
  • Use minimal math skills to evenly space out consumption of the three Hawaiian sweet rolls that are in the kitchen
  • Become overwhelmed at how many areas in house contain LEGO’s and/or baseballs

Though that is most certainly the list I did not write, it is the list I diligently completed while the boys were frivolously frolicking about in the woods.