Monday, May 24, 2010

Life in 3D

So my girls had their first 3D experience.

Shrek -- The Final Chapter.

They. Loved. It.

I. Loved. It.

The big seats at Rave folded around their tiny bodies. The big glasses overtook their faces. The floating objects made them weave and bob like Larry Holmes in a fresh round.

And all I did was watch as Shrek experiences his epiphany, one which made me cry. Not once. Not twice. But three times. Three times I wept over the tale of a green ogre. Frustration and monotony caused him to forget the importance of children, of family, of friends. The message, rather simple, hit not only me, but others taller than four feet, I'm certain.

My girls, however, were not as perceptive. They were just thrilled to sit in their own row, with their own snacks, with their Waldo glasses. And I was thrilled to just watch them in the process.

At the risk of being cliche, the experience was priceless.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Farewell, Toddlerhood

It is written that toddlers are babies ranging from one year to four years. After tonight, my toddler officially joins the ranks of childhood. Cinco en Mayo.

It is with conflict that we jointly cross this five-year milestone. For one, I welcome the opportunity to know that the last of my small brood will enter the realm of public education, come September. But in another breath, I think about how this, the autumn of my life, continues to change colors. The greens begin to yellow so slightly, and people around me know that I do not embrace aging with welcome arms. Thus, this transition marks yet another change in my journey--accepting that my baby begins her own new passage.

Today we had a modest celebration for her, and I watched as Kendall commanded the room, as she does have a strong, independent spirit. She is the kid who everyone follows at preschool, at the playground, in the 'hood. She is the card, the tease, the muse. Funk and spunk, full of spitfire and wit well beyond the toddler years. Yet she seems troubled at times, not sure if she wants to be like the big girls or remain the baby.

In the early evening, after everyone had left, I asked her if I could take her picture as she cheered in her new uniform, pom-poms by her side, long blonde mane swept into a shiny pony.


No? Why?

"Because I said no."

This did not go over well with me, to be honest. I pulled the adult card, ordered her to smile as I held the camera.

Instead, she pouted. I repeated my request. Soon, pouting led to tears that led to downright weeping.

She yelled at me. I yelled back.

Ugly, it got.

Soon, my veiled threats became every child's penance: Time out.

After a few minutes of listening to her cry, I sat down in front of this mini-me, asked if she knew why she was there. I tried to listen to her, but I could not concentrate on her words. For in the background, the Bose speakers spewed forth the extremely moving "Doretta's Dream" from Puccini's La Rondine. The piece, an extremely moving composition, tugs deeply at one's emotional core. It is one of unrequited love and defeat. And so all I noticed were her cornflower blue eyes rain tears of disappointment that slid down round, reddened cheeks that still spoke to me: baby.

Her small nose twitched and her lips quivered.

I heard no words except the last two: "Hug me."

And so I embraced that child, this girl who would still be a toddler for another 12 hours, and told her how much I loved her. She continued to cry as I began. She is the quirky, brilliant squirrel who is the constant center of attention, the one who keeps me young despite the angry calendar. I hugged her until "Doretta's Dream" ended--and I wished for her to pursue the ones that lie ahead, to chase what makes you happy no matter how difficult some dreams may appear.

Happy Birthday, Keni Jane. You will always be my baby, no matter what year we're in.

Saturday, May 8, 2010

Cavy culture - an oxymoronic moment

Today I stumbled upon a most unusual subculture in downtown Bear Swamp. And for the moment, I felt as though some mysterious force suddenly plucked me from the suburbs and teleported me to a one-toothed town in Kentucky.

Before me bustled dozens of women and men in flannel shirts and bad hairstyles, humming along to Kenny Chesney and buzzing about the shiny coat on that studly Peruvian: “Honestly, what does she use to get such a sheen…”

Here I had been, knocking around the flea market outside in search of designer herbs for my garden when I spotted a small crowd of people milling inside the park building. To think I had almost missed this cabal of nervous pageant moms and dads, quite unlike any I had ever seen on television. Their contestants, however, didn’t seem to feel the same pressure. Instead, they quietly chewed on kibble, scurried in circles, squealed at one another.

Welcome to the world of cavy pageants.

You know, cavies—the South American rodent of sturdy body, referred to by the civilized world as “guinea pigs.” Basically, a second cousin to the rat. Owners doted on their animals, which were kept in coops atop tables. Some had a handful of critters; others appeared to bring along a dozen or more.

Now, I’m not trying to be too judgmental here, but how can one resist? I watched in silent shock as owners primped their pets to go head-to-head for “rosettes,” small fancy ribbons in numerous categories: Silkie. Teddy. Satin. Silky Satin. Teddy Satin. Silkie wearing a Satin Teddy. Honestly, it sounded like a salacious Victoria’s Secret trunk show, but only with fashion-deprived women in polyester blends from Kohl’s.

If your guinea pig took top honors—Best in Show—you could walk away with 75 bucks and a camping chair. Heck, if your “youth” pig captured Best in Show, you not only pocketed 60 bucks, but a large Hershey kiss.

The pigs also battled it out in costume categories, dressing up as their favorite historical person, athlete, or fantasy character. (Hats were optional.)

But no, organizers from the Mid-Atlantic Cavy Breeders Association (yes, it's authentic) couldn’t just stop there. As if costumes on big hamsters weren’t enough.

No. The true and elusive top honor was Sexiest Sow, the pageant highlight in which grown men and women primped and groomed their female adults to exude sex appeal. Just picture it: some bootylicious critter ba-donk wiggling down the runway… Funny how I always thought French lingerie ranked pretty high on the scale of sultriness. Silly rabbit.

As I looked around, I shot a few pictures for proof and wondered if the woman wearing a tiara and crisp sash would bestow the honors on the medalists. Soon, I headed back outside to scour for diverse basils and treasures from the past. Granted, some people may think I’m just as foolish with my time and my financial investment in antiques.

But at least I wasn’t wearing flannel or dressing a 16-ounce furball in it either. Heck, the pigs deserve some dignity, too.

Friday, May 7, 2010

My friends are my estate

“To forget one’s purpose is the commonest form of stupidity.” Nietzsche


Everyone has a purpose, a charge for his or her existence. Many of us know our intentions in the Big Picture. We may not know each and every single aspect of why we walk this Earth, but we have the wherewithal to figure out at least parts of it—if we so care to invest the time to deeply contemplate it. Sometimes I question certain aspects of my purpose; however, I remain steadfast in the majority of my aim.

But within recent months, one part of my charge became compromised when a cherished friendship ended rather abruptly. Friendships, after all, nurture my spirit, for I believe that relationships with others allow us to extend ourselves, to learn more about the human spirit, to grow in a dynamic fashion through the experiences of others.

So when this friendship dissolved, I handled it in a most difficult manner. It took several weeks of conversations, of chance encounters, of emotional emails before we quietly threw in the towel. It was nothing short of devastating, for this was someone with whom I had logged many miles.

We had shared stories of troubled relationships, work complications, growing children, family dysfunctions. And surrounding oneself with people who “get” you is a comforting thing.

Halcyon days they were—until a conflict arose.

The conflict itself doesn’t matter. All that mattered was that my friendship was gone, and the void seemed vast.

But recently, another chance encounter allowed me to try to heal the wound caused by my ego and miscommunication. And I simply said: “I miss you. I really do.”

It sounded corny at the time, I guess, because I kind of ran up and just uttered it.

Yet within a day, I got an email: “Do you want to go to lunch?” And now, a few weeks later, we will try to pick up where we left off as if nothing happened. That is more than fine with me because I highly value my friends, as much as I cherish my family. My friendships greatly define who I am as a woman. They are a part of my purpose, and with this friendship, I forgot that.

Nietzsche would agree: Allowing myself to lose this friend was, indeed, a sign of stupidity. And I don’t associate with stupid. I associate myself with folks who are dynamic, educated, driven, independent, focused--people I get, people who get me.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Yin and Yang

Let’s face it: I’ve never been a B-cup. Ever. Well, maybe in middle school. But no matter how much weight I lose, even when I’ve worn a size 2, I am always able to stretch a sweater like Dolly’s little sister. Blame genetics.

So imagine my surprise when the technician at my cardiologist’s office told me on Wednesday that for my stress test, I would need to sprint on the treadmill for as long as possible, at a 10 percent incline. In a hospital gown. And braless.

A hospital gown? OK, it’s not running tights and a tank. So, fine.

Braless? Well, that’s another story.

What were the girls to do?

Honestly, I laughed when I heard this news. Surely, you jest…

Nope. She was serious.

Running. Uphill. For as long as my body would allow. Well, I can run for four to five hours. Certainly, not sprint that long, but I can keep going and going.

But braless? In an unsightly, flapping gown?

Well, I had to do what I had to do. And so I mounted the treadmill, a belt of wires attached to my chest to monitor my heart rate. Soon, the belt began to spin. Faster. Faster. The technician wanted to know: could I run faster?


Nearly 90 percent of my body could. Breathing? Check. Legs? Check? Form? Check. Unfortunately, it was the other 10 percent that just couldn’t keep up. Yin and Yang.

First, I compressed my left arm across my chest and used the right one to balance myself. Then, I switched. I kept this up for roughly 10 minutes of an 8-minute mile. Eventually, I ran with one hand cradling each cup to prevent injury to the rest of my body. You never know what can happen when you allow restricted body parts to fly and be free.

After a while, however, I needed to keep up with the belt, which was now at an advanced pace. And I needed to let go so that I could use both arms to balance my stride. I lasted for about 30 seconds. The noise alone—which was audible to my audience of two—was too damn embarrassing for even me. And I’ve done some really cringeworthy things. The pain of flying C’s was simply too unnatural for civilization.

I. Must. Stop. Now.

The technician asked: “Why, are you tired?”

No. But they are.

And so I stopped.

My heart rate had exceeded 180 beats per minute, which was the goal. I hopped off and someone immediately took my blood pressure: 110/67. Sweet. The images on the screen? Looked like everything was still beating in my ticker.

The only pain: the throbbing of Yin and Yang who felt as though someone threw them inside of the dryer with a pair of sneakers. Thumpety-thumpety-thump. Still, as I got dressed, I focused on the importance of my visit rather than a temporary busting of my bust.

For as Buddha said: "To keep the body in good health is a duty; otherwise, we shall not be able to keep our mind strong and clear.” Strong and clear. Is there any other way? Not in this temple.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

The whole tooth and nothing but the tooth

Four kids shape my life. They span two decades.

Two of them are independent. Two are not--and won't be until I hit the end of my next decade.

And as tiring as my little squirrels can be, I realize they are a gift to me, a late-in-life treasure that keeps me younger than most women my age. This is not to say that giving birth in your 40s automatically makes you younger at heart. But personally, as self-serving as this sounds, I can confidently say that my lifestyle and my outlook (and perhaps good genetics) keep me looking far younger than most women my age, and even those who have yet to even hit 40.

So my littlest gem, who turns 5 this month, hit a milestone this week that made me reflect on how lucky I am to have them.

It was a lost tooth.

I knew it was loose, for Keni boasted about this bottom tooth's ability to bend completely forward and backward. She'd push it 90 degrees forward, then wiggle it all the way back. I, of course, could hardly watch, since I do have a weak stomach and all. So at dinner this week, she marveled: "My tooth! It's out..."

And sure enough, there it sat in the palm of her chubby hand. She gushed a broad smile as blood slowly oozed from the tiny hole in her gum.

There it was: my baby lost her first tooth.

"What's gonna happen now?" she asked.

"Your big teeth are getting ready to come in," I told her.

She inquired: "Do they come out, too?"

"Nope. They're your final teeth, your second set," I answered.

Big teeth. Little girl. Toddlerhood is gone, I silently mused.

That night, we had a big production, hiding the tooth beneath her pillow. She asked for "a hundred dollars, please. No, a thousand dollars."

How about a hundred pennies?

"Yeah, yeah! A hundred pennies!"

And within an hour, the tooth fairy descended from her enamel mansion in the sky, floating into Keni's room and withdrawing the little tooth. In its place, she forked over a dollar.

The next morning, Keni awoke at her usual 6 a.m.

She reached under her pillow for the money, a frantic search for the jackpot.

"A buck? Just a buck?"

With her feigned disappointment, she started to chuckle: "Look, it has George Washington on it." (As compared to other U.S. dollar bills which have Elvis surrounded by laurels.)

She thought about her future purchases, one of which was a gift for Mother's Day.

I assured her. There was no need, for the best gifts in life cannot be bought--no matter how much cash the tooth fairy drops. The best gifts are the people in our lives. And we can reap the rewards of these gifts by showing them how much we appreciate them for who they are now and who they might become in the future, whether they are 5 or 50 or somewhere in between.

Here's to some beautiful Peppermint Chiclet teeth, my little squirrel.

Saturday, May 1, 2010

Queen of Sh!t to leave the building

As the trying months of winter descended, my mentor revealed an idea that she had been deliberating.

“I’m seriously thinking about leaving,” she entertained over the telephone. “I might retire.”

“Retire?” I chuckled, my voice rising partly out of amusement, largely out of disbelief. “You’re too young to retire.”

“No, really,” she replied. “We need to look at the money. Can I afford to leave?”

Her tone revealed a sense of seriousness.

Would the season, indeed, change so soon?

Knowing that Marcy could possibly say goodbye to the classroom just was not fathomable to me. After all, she is clearly the person who most shaped my personal philosophy on public education.

Granted, teachers enter the field with their own tenets of how instruction can and should be delivered. However, for the lucky ones, that tenet changes when we cross paths with people who end up molding our own beliefs, making us more dynamic, better cross-trained professionals. This happens when we encounter people who exhibit qualities that we wish to embrace, to embody in our quest to improve our students and ourselves.

And for the past 10 years, the person I so wish to emulate has been Marcy.

When we first met in 2000, my world had just changed personally and professionally. I was still coping with a shattered engagement to a talented writer. Depression owned me. Add that to the fact that I had just left behind the newsroom, my home away from home for nearly 15 years. I had not yet kicked the habits that journalism can nurture: lots of crowing, lots of coffee, lots of cursing. I left behind the familiar comforts of a daily deadline in a busy newsroom of writers and shooters to embark on this new career, tackling the daily stresses of 100-plus high school students in a district with socio-economic factors that weren’t pretty.

An easy transition it wasn't.

And then the bombshell hit when I joined this new venture: I discovered that a stunning, sophisticated former homecoming queen with a penchant for Talbot’s and fine wine agreed to mentor me, a newbie struggling with a serious caffeine withdrawal, a truck driver’s mouth, and bad shoes. Within the first two days or so, I probably shocked her with my constant colloquialism: “This place is a clusterf@ck.” I said it as if I was talking about the weather. But that’s what happens when you’re been breast-fed by gritty editors and jaded writers. Profanity becomes your dialect.

That first year, she scared me like no editor had ever done. Little did I know it, but a few others feared her as well. Confident, articulate, well spoken, and well bred, she wore these reading glasses over which she could peer at me with furrowed brow. For the first few months, I grew worried that this was never going to work. She didn’t like me, I figured. But I would make the best of it.

Within time, however, something happened.

I started to get her, and she started to get me. And that was it. I dubbed her the Queen of Sh!t, my moniker for a woman who rises above all others. It's a phrase I use sparingly.

For the next nine years, my mentor became one of my dearest friends, a woman who I now trust with my life, a woman who works harder than any other teacher I know, a woman who had three approaches to getting kids to reach for the bar: “Rigor, rigor, rigor.” It didn’t take long for me to hang on to her every word, as I still do.

Over time, Marcy’s ability to appreciate strong prose, engaging poetry, and beautiful photography (taken from her talented eye) made me realize how alike we are—an idea I would have never envisioned.

As a teacher, I’ve had frank conversations with students who had Marcy as a teacher. Many say they were scared of her. Why? She made them work, she expected them to work, she demanded their best. She didn’t give grades. They earned them. But what do they all say? That she was the one English teacher who made them learn the most, who best equipped them for college, and for that they were thankful.

And now, now that she has finally made her decision to leave behind Salinger and Shakespeare and SAT prep, my heart grows heavy. For as this chapter of hers closes, the world of education will lose a truly talented, dynamic, and knowledgeable spirit, a person who never settled for mediocrity, for ineptitude, for short cuts that compromised high standards. I cannot fathom how many hundreds of young people she touched. But to me, the fact that I was privy to have her touch my life makes me just as rich as those kids.

Last month, I cried to her on the phone about how I felt Freedom was losing one of its best educators. But as she chooses a greener path, I realized that as long as I command a classroom, she will be right there next to me for I carry so many of her qualities with me. The following day, as I prepared to administer a vocabulary quiz to my kids, I repeated one of her favorite phrases: “Assume the position.”

My professional goal is to do just that. Assume the position. I can do this by emulating the Queen of Sh!t as best as possible, a woman for whom I have the highest respect.