Thursday, November 30, 2006

13 things that put the Q. in Quirky

No self-respecting art blog would be complete without a copy of Vincent Van Gogh’s Irises. I’ve always seen the single white iris as a self-portrait of the artist – a lonely man, alienated by his genius and mental illness. But his uniqueness also made him beautiful and made his artistic vision of the world priceless. I think that kind of individuality is worth emulating.

So today’s Thursday Thirteen – in honor of Vincent – lists 9 ways I have tried to stand out from the crowd plus 4 ways that my kids are carrying on the tradition.

1. I often sign my name “Julie Q.” This started when I was young and I felt deprived by my parents’ politically incorrect tradition of giving their daughters no middle names because they would get them when they got married. (Ask my 2 unmarried sisters how much they love this tradition.)

2. For a few years growing up, I also eliminated the “e” from the end of my name because there were far too many other Julies around. I confess, I occasionally even dotted the i with a cute circle that (in retrospect) was a little too large for common decency. I strongly deny any vicious rumors that I ever made the dot into a heart.

3. I have no white walls in my home. We’ve got yellow, two shades of green, a kind of pinkish-brown speckle, a paint color called “camel-spit,” and in the boys’ room sky-blue with clouds and green hills with a huge freight train that runs across the base of three walls. I’m sure if we ever tried to sell this house, the realtor would walk through and shake her head, “Good grief woman, have you never heard of neutrals?” But I like it this way. Color makes me happy.

4. I grew up in a family of polyglots which literally means many tongues but thankfully here means speakers of many languages. We sing “O Tanenbaum” in German, “I am a Child of God” in Chinese, “Un elefante” in Spanish, and an odd little song in Guaraní called “Wasington,” which we chant while passing rolled up socks around in a circle. I’m assuming this is somewhat unique, but you never know.

5. I have a blog. I named it something strange enough that I have to put a glossary in my sidebar.

6. At my Junior High, it was the height of coolness to own an Izod™ shirt. To be authentic, these shirts had to have an official Izod insignia alligator on the left side and be purchased in the mall at Copper Rivet for the exorbitant price of $12. Just to be different (and perhaps also because I couldn’t afford to keep up with the trend), I found a knit material with tiny, bright pink alligators all over it and made my own shirt. My motto: “If you can’t join ‘em, outsew ‘em.”

7. Our family celebrates Groundhog day. Every year on February 2, my husband and the kids and I watch the movie Groundhog Day and wax nostalgic about our visit to Punxsutawney, PA. I’ve suggested many times that GD should be a national holiday, but for some reason my bill never makes it out of the Senate committee hearings. Darn those politicians.

8. My all-time favorite movie – Sense and Sensibility – isn’t all that unusual since lots of people like Jane Austen. But my 2nd favorite movie is Harold and Maude – a dark comedy made in 1971 about a young man who drives a hearse, stages suicides to get his mother’s attention and falls in love with an 79 year-old flower child. Weird enough? My friend Tara and I have hosted a couple of Harold and Maude parties where we served food from the movie and decorated the place with sunflowers. And cleavers. And a severed arm. (You need to see this movie).

9. During each of the past few years we have homeschooled our kids in one form or another. This means we stand out from our neighbors. But we also do a kind of dual enrollment arrangement where the kids attend public school for part of the day. This means we stand out from our homeschool friends, who see us as less than fully converted to the cause. Maybe I just have a hard time making up my mind. Or maybe not. I’ll have to think about that one.

+ 1. You thought I was joking when I said that Ethan once wanted to be Hoover Dam for Halloween? We take the creative costume thing very seriously.

+ 2. McKay went through a phase where he insisted on wearing turtlenecks every day. For an entire year. Fall, winter, spring and summer. We humored him on his one and I bought a whole bunch of turtlenecks because he was the middle child and needed a way to assert his independence. When I’m looking through old family photos I can always date the ones from that year by what McKay is wearing.

+ 3. My 5 year old son Gabriel has more quirkiness in his little finger than I have in my whole body. The other night at dinner he befriended his biscuit and refused to eat little “Indoors,” and instead made him a bed in a Tupperware container. Gabie then made us put Indoors up on top of the fridge out of harm’s way. This was because the last time we had biscuits, Gabriel also made a new friend who sadly met his demise when a bouncy ball knocked him from the counter to the floor where he crumbled, as biscuits and sometimes friendships do.

+ 4. Admittedly it’s difficult for a 6-month old baby to distinguish herself. But so far Nora has shown an amazing aptitude at making dolphin noises. I don’t speak dolphin so I’m not sure if her vocabulary is particularly eloquent or not. But I suspect she’s going to be a poet. Either that or a yoga instructor.

Well that's my list, but I have one more side note. It makes me sad when on the first day of a new semester I ask my students to tell me something unusual about themselves and a few say they can’t think of anything. I’m hoping this is just because they go blank under pressure, not because they don’t feel unique. I think everyone needs to be quirky in some way or another.

Monday, November 27, 2006

The foot bone’s connected to the whine bone

Random musings from broken foot land…

When I first hurt my foot I was pretty sure it was broken. First clue: the loud crack I heard as I fell. I’m lying on the ground looking up at the garage ceiling thinking “Huh. That didn’t sound so good.” So then I drag myself into the house and start crawling around trying to decide what to do. Gabriel, who can tell something is wrong (since his mom doesn’t crawl around on her hands and knees very often), offers to get me the preschoolers’ panacea – a bandaid. When I tell him “No thanks kiddo, I think it might be something a bandaid can’t fix.” He shrugs and says, “Well then can I ride on your back like a horsie?”

I have proven the adage that “even when all your kids are grown, you never get to retire from being a parent.” When I decided to go to the doctor and my husband was still stuck at work, who did I call? My Mommy and Daddy. They swooped in to rescue me. Dad drove and stayed with me for two hours at the InstaCare (a misnomer if ever there was one). My mom stayed at my house with the kids and disobeyed my strict instructions to not clean anything and did the dishes and swept the floor while I was gone. My parents are awesome.

The doctor looked no older than 16 and really did nothing to earn what I’m sure was a huge “day after Thanksgiving wish I were golfing but am stuck at an after-hours clinic” fee. All Doogie Howser did was squeeze my foot in various places and ask if it hurt. I take it back, he did have to apply that tricky Medical School Lesson #1674: yelp of pain = injured spot. The real diagnosis came from the x-ray lab technician, and the actual splinting of the foot was done by the medical assistant with the lowest degree. Heck, I could have saved them all that trouble and just gone with my mother’s verdict. When she first arrived, she took one look at the odd protrusion on the side of my foot and said “You broke your fifth metatarsal.” She knew this because she had broken the same bone many years before. But she was tripping up the steps from her garage not down them so don’t go suggesting “like mother like daughter.”

I had no idea my universe was so 5th-metatarsal-centric. Suddenly I feel completely helpless. I can hobble around on crutches but I can’t carry anything – not even my baby. So I have to boss my husband and kids around (even more than usual) and tell them to “fetch this” and “go get me that.” Ethan has requested an increase in his slave wages. I’m even calling in favors from neighbors since I can’t drive. I never realized my life was so precariously balanced on the pinpoint of my own agility. To mix metaphors, I was like an Imperial crewmember on the Death Star, oblivious to the fact that one well-placed torpedo could cause the whole shebang to self destruct.

I am getting tired of telling people that I broke my foot making bread. And they don’t believe me when I say “The Olympic speed skating trials didn’t go too well.” So I’m taking nominations for a new explanation. Any suggestions?

Saturday, November 25, 2006

Very black Friday

Seeing as how November is National Family Bread Baking Month and all, yesterday I finally gave in to the tremendous peer pressure and got around to making some whole wheat bread. Baking some "staff of life" always makes me feel ultra domestic and transports me to the 19th century. Well, almost.

In Millet’s homey charcoal drawing of a peasant woman baking bread, he used all earth tones to show her closeness to nature. With sleeves rolled up, her hair wrapped, and shoulders stooped, she focuses on the activity that will save her family from starvation. I’m sure my bread making process was much like hers…..with a few minor exceptions:

Millet’s 19th century peasant woman did not have packaged dry yeast, or powdered lecithin from the health food store. Or canola oil in a bottle. Or honey in a plastic bear. Or fine grained salt. Or warm water from the tap. (Yes, that pretty much covers every single ingredient).

She had to fire up her own oven and work some kind of serious peasant magic to figure out the right temperature. I had to push a few buttons.

I can almost guarantee that she didn’t have an electric wheat grinder in her garage.

I am positive that if she did have a wheat grinder in her garage, she wouldn’t have slipped on the concrete steps on her way out and fractured her foot.

Clearly 21st century bread making is a far more hazardous activity. From now on I shall leave it to the professionals.

Friday, November 24, 2006


Today’s post is dedicated to my cool brother Steve, who is way funnier than I am and has his own blog but is too busy running his company to update it. He was also my first reader and still checks my blog daily so everybody say hello to Steve *wave*. It was also Steve who gave me a gallery guide from the Goya section of the Prado Museum – a guide that has proven to be unexpectedly useful today.

So 2006 was an on year for Thanksgiving which means the relatives from my father’s side reuned from far and near to Price, Utah for some feasting, mingling and hoop shooting. We made a big enough group to fill the gymnasium of the church reserved by Aunt Weezer for the occasion. After the consumption of much traditional Thanksgiving fare, we constructed a huge folding-chair circle and commenced the family introductions. Ethel and Elton (aren’t those the greatest grandparent names ever?) had only four children so that part is easy. And I know all their grandchildren (my cousins) because we grew up together. But I get completely lost when we get to the greats and the great greats who seem to be multiplying at exponential rates. Thus the need for introductions.

Each family took a turn introducing their kids and giving a short update of the year’s accomplishments. After one cousin shared a bit too much embarrassing personal information about her grown daughter’s recent weight loss (40 inches, JumpSnap Diet, going to be on an infomercial for being a big loser, “hello? Mom please sit down!”) my brother Steve suggested we start working on Dad’s family-intro. spiel for next time.
“We’ve had a busy year. My oldest son Jim couldn’t be here but sends his regards from the al-Qaeda training caves. My #2 son Scott is here, thanks to his parole officer extending the radius of his ankle-bracelet range. Speaking of parole, Anne is finally out of the mental hospital and the great news is that her lithium doses have been reduced for at least two of her personalities. My wife is also doing well at the cocaine rehab clinic. My daughter Julie has lost 40 inches using an experimental new weight-loss method from Mexico involving tapeworms so we’re really excited about that….”

We could have gone on, but that’s where the tryptophan wore off and a massive game of speed basketball began. Oh well. We have a full two years to perfect it.

Speaking of less-than-flattering family portraits, here’s one from Francisco Goya of the Royal Family of Charles IV. Or as one writer described it “the corner baker and his wife after winning the lottery.” Perhaps Charles’ own family intro. spiel would have gone something like this:
“I would like to welcome everybody to the on year at the Spanish court. I’ve got my three sons here with me today, all of whom bear a strange resemblance to my wife’s lover Prime Minister Godoy. My oldest, Ferdinand is in a gifted program in the Madrid School District where he is plotting the eventual overthrow of my reign, so we’re really proud of him. My wife Queen Maria Luisa of the beak nose finds time between running my government, sleeping with my ministers, and watching her weight after 14 pregnancies to sew sparkly medals onto my suits. Two of my homely daughters have married their cousins, but then so did I, so what can you do?
Today we have with us my sister-in-law Maria Josefa who has recovered nicely from that raging case of syphilis but is growing a hairy brown map of Gibraltar on her face. And the lady with the twisted neck? We’re not sure who she is but she was dressed up nice so we thought we’d bring her along.”

Do you think they played hoops in the royal gymnasium afterwards?

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Thursday Thirteen the Thanksgiving Thedition

13 little things around my house that I am grateful for

1. The coolest tool Pampered Chef ever made.

2. Legos. Okay, so I have a love/hate relationship with these vacuum hors d'oeuvres. My sons, however, adore the stuff. Their gratitude takes the form of a perpetual shrine to Ole Kirk Christiansen on the floor of their room.

3. The small miracle that is running water. [New benefit to blogging: forces me to scrub kitchen faucet for photo op].

4. My watch. Because it's nice to know exactly how exactly how late I am.

5. The fifth food group.

6. Souvenirs/memories from Spain. (Yes I did notice the strategically-placed polka dots. Who could miss them?)

7. My lone defense against the demon drums of Isengard pounding in my head.

8. McKay'’s freckles. Aren't they adorable?

9. Baker's yeast -- a true testament to human ingenuity. Ancient Egyptian dude: "Hey some freaky living creatures from the air have landed in my flatbread dough and are making it bubble and froth. Gee, I think I'll bake it and eat it."

10. Modern tooth care. People used to scrub their teeth with sand! (Oh, wait, let me take a look at the toothpaste ingredients. Hydrated Silica? Hmmmm.)

11. This ring. (And the tall handsome guy who gave it to me).

12. Four children, some of whom aren't so little any more.

13. My digital camera. I wanted to take a picture of it, but was faced with a one-hand-clapping Zen quandary. How does one photograph the photograph-izer?

I could have used a mirror, I suppose. Duh. Why didn't I think of that sooner?

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

The (broken) windmills of my mind

(Author’s note: apparently every post this week is going to involve Ethan. I didn’t intend it this way, but it’s funny how things work out. I should consider taking turns with each child. I do have four of them, so I could cover the month nicely with one per week. Something to think about…).

Ethan came into my room early this morning to tell me about a bad dream. George Bush was at our house with a construction crew in hopes of earning our vote through the old “home repair campaign strategy.” (Nice try George). The crew had just chopped down three of the giant old pine trees in our yard and replaced them with an elm. (Isn’t this SO like politicians?) Anyway, in the middle of his story, Ethan stopped and with a horrified look on his face, suddenly remembered that there was a test today to determine his school’s Knowledge Bowl teams.

“No big deal,” I assured him. “I’ll help you study during breakfast and I’ll rearrange the carpool and everything will be fine.” Then I began a mighty search for the Knowledge Bowl study guide, a search which took me through the various rooms of the house, the perpetual pile o' stuff on the kitchen counter, and the school-paper graveyard that is Ethan’s backpack. In the process I came across a note reminding parents that the deadline for applying to next year’s Junior High gifted program was November 13. As in the November 13 that was LAST WEEK. Now this was a big deal. A Very Big Deal.

I had never seen this note before, and more to the point, I had never seen the initial application that had apparently been distributed weeks before. Now the horrified look on Ethan’s face turned to tears and I felt like doing a little crying myself. It wasn’t so much the missed deadline that depressed him and frustrated me, but the pattern of forgetfulness that plagues Ethan’s young life. He is a very bright child, but he feels dumb sometimes because he can’t seem to keep track of things. Ask him anything about naval warfare or the engineering of bridges and he could write you a dissertation, but as for scout meetings, homework, and important notes that could impact his future, these bits of information just don’t stay tacked to the cluttered bulletin board that is his brain.

I am uniquely qualified to empathize with Ethan because I have the same problem. I am hopelessly scatterbrained. Ask anyone who knows me and they will nod their much more organized heads in agreement. Over the years I have learned to cope with my limitations. When I am running errands and planning to stop at the library, I get in the car and put the overdue books on my lap so I can’t miss them. When students ask me for a copy of something, I tell them “When I get home and I walk in the door and am attacked by my children who all need something at once, I will forget. I promise. So you must email me your request” (not that emails can’t be lost too, but I do better). My brain-of-steel husband keeps track of garbage day and does all the bills and car maintenance (I seriously have not filled up the car with gas more than twice in the last five years). And when I want to remember something, I stick post-it notes to my mirror, or the door, or my forehead. Notes like “Do not forget the baby” and stuff like that.

But Ethan has not developed the coping skills that I’ve acquired over a lifetime of hazardous brain lapses. It’s hard on him and I worry about his self-esteem on days like today. (By the way, I called the School District office and all will be forgiven and I can turn in the application late. The director of the gifted program said, “I guess 6th graders don’t make the best messengers.” She deals with her fair share of cluttered minds.)

Most art is focused on a single scene or idea so I feel it doesn’t do enough to express the complex, multi-layered nature of human thought. Perhaps stream-of-consciousness writing and atonal modern music do a better job. But here’s a work that comes close. It’s a photomontage by the inventor of photomontage -- Hannah Höch. The actual title -- (are you ready for this?) Cut with the Kitchen Knife Dada through the Last Weimar Beer-Belly Epoch of Germany -- reflects the absurdity and political satire that marked the Dada art movement. But in many ways, I think the images and specifically the combination of images – the gears and wheels, the random words, the scattered glimpses of people, places, and events -- make a true portrait of the artist’s mind. All of these things have been cut into fragments and then pieced back together in an arbitrary jumble that makes sense only to the artist herself.

My favorite detail: even Albert Einstein had a lot on his mind (apparently insects and train chassis). But now that I think about it, wasn’t Einstein a poor student and notoriously absent minded? I need to remember to tell Ethan this when he gets home from school.

Now where did I put those post-it notes?

Monday, November 20, 2006

What good is a blog...

...if you can't use it to show off your kids' artwork?

Today I will share with you a work from my favorite living artist: Ethan, the Younger (1995 - present).

Salt Lake City (pencil on paper ca. last week)

(click to enlarge)

Note the subtle use of linearity, a feature reminiscent of another artist of urban scenes, Edward Hopper. Rectangles and grids dominate the cityscape but are tempered by the more organic motif of arches that rise above the freeway, adorn the temple, and crown the “Billions and billions served” sign. Ethan’s style is characterized by fine attention to details such as windshield wipers on the car at the light and the concrete beams holding up the freeway. His finest detail, however is the juxtaposition of McDonald’s – symbol of human appetites – with the monument to spiritual ascension that is the Salt Lake Temple. He’s a genius.

Just for the sake of comparison, here’s something I drew when I was about his age.

Princess Wendy (crayon on paper ca. 1980)

Obviously, when I carried the Artist Gene it was recessive. Also, I apparently used to hang out with royalty. Who knew?

Saturday, November 18, 2006

Der Struwwelblog

It’s time for another edition of “Children’s books unsuitable for children.” This one is brought to you by my brother Scott (a.k.a. “He of the amazing memory”). Scott reminded me of a collection of stories called "Der Struwwelpeter" that my father used to read to us in the original German. Remarkably warped, these are cautionary tales meant to scare children into obedience, proper behavior and good hygiene. Think Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle joins the Gestapo. They don’t need much commentary, so just sit back and let the experience of it wash over you like a wave. A very very twisted wave.

Highlights from "Der Struwwelpeter"

Messy-head-Peter demonstrates what happens to little boys who do not comb their hair or trim their nails.
In an act of curiosity reminiscent of our monkey friend George, Pauline plays with matches and burns herself to a crisp. (I love the touching detail of her weeping cats next to the pile of ashes and empty little shoes).

Augustus refuses to eat his soup and wastes away to nothing. Note to self: read this story to my picky eaters on a daily basis until appetites improve.

As evidence that A.D.D. existed in the 19th century, Johnny Head-in-Air isn’t paying attention to where he’s going and he winds up swimming with the fishes.

And the piece de resistance (or whatever is the German equivalent): Konrad is cured from his thumb-sucking habit through a most…um…effective method. Beware the tall tailor with giant scissors.

My brother claims we begged Dad to read us these stories. I do not remember this. But then again, I have (through years of extensive therapy no doubt) managed to block out the entire book. My sister Kathy (a.k.a. “She of the one-time thumb sucking habit”) however, was traumatized for life.

(To see the whole text, go here or here)

Why I hope the Cougars win today

Renoir, Girls at the Piano

Boys at the Piano

Today Ethan and McKay performed their duets in the annual Music Federation Festival. McKay (who had easier pieces and practices more) scored a “Superior.” He was cool as a cucumber. Even when his duet partner Emily had a rocky start and stopped playing, McKay put his arm around her and said in his most soothing 8-year-old-parent voice “It’s okay. We’ll start again, but you’ve just got to do your best and keep going.” I think he deserved extra marks from the judges for sweetness.

Ethan and his partner (who are both busy with schoolwork and scouts and other things besides practicing) scored an “Excellent.” Despite attempts by their teacher to talk them out of it, they had picked a very difficult version of Pachelbel’s “Canon” – a song that everybody knows and loves. Unfortunately, this means that everybody also can tell when it’s being played with wrong notes, of which there were, sadly, quite a few today. But I was proud of Ethan. He just keep playing, and despite a few rough stretches (who knew Pachelbel was experimenting with dissonance so early?) they made it to the final chord which they hit correctly and simultaneously and we all breathed a collective sigh of relief. Ethan was a bit bummed out. But it was nothing that a trip to the football game with Dad shouldn’t fix. Go team.

Friday, November 17, 2006

From the deep end of the carpool

If you are obscenely rich, I apologize in advance for this post. I really don’t mean to offend you. Much.

My son Ethan is a 6th grader in a *brag alert* gifted program across town. When I drive him to school, we pass through two different construction projects. The contrast between the two strikes me as symbolic. But then I’m a Humanities nerd, so everything strikes me as symbolic.

1st patch of construction

Ethan’s school is located in a very wealthy neighborhood (did I mention this is far far away from us?) near the golf course. Workers with bobcats and cement mixers have been busy for weeks doing some kind of shoulder work along the route we take through Posh-ville. This week, we finally discovered the purpose of this project. Our hard-earned tax dollars are being poured into concrete peninsulas that jut out into the road. Judging by the orange markings in the center of the road, an island will soon follow. As far as I can tell, these man-made geographic features serve no other purpose than to deter traffic. Ethan took the words right out of my mouth when he voiced his opinion of the whole thing: “The obscenely rich have far too much sway in local politics.”

Yes, he always talks like this (which is why he’s in a gifted program to begin with). And yes, he has clearly inherited the dominant Cynic Gene from both parents. Poor child.

2nd patch of construction

On the way home we pass through a bigger construction project along a very busy road in the process of being widened. In an ironic reversal of the “narrowing” going on just a few blocks away, all of the houses on the north side of the road have been condemned and are, one by one, being bulldozed into oblivion. Every day, the kids watch carefully as we pass to see if there are any new vacant lots that weren’t there the day before. The homes still standing bear the signs of the terminally ill – the cracked driveways, the worn paint, the broken windows, and the grass and trees that have not been watered for months because why bother when the end was near. It’s hard not to feel sorry for the houses and the people who lived in them. They both lost the battle. Am I the only one who thinks if these had been larger, fancier homes they wouldn’t have seemed so expendable?

Thursday, November 16, 2006

Photos not taken

I was looking at various pictures of trick-or-treat candy posted on blogs last month and thinking that when I was growing up nobody ever would have bothered to take photographs of that. The costumes sure, but not the candy. It was just too mundane to waste film on. But I wish I had a picture of my childhood candy hauls. I wish I had pictures of a lot of things.

13 photographs I wish I had taken when I had the chance

1. Our Halloween candy spread out all over the floor.

2. My Mom pregnant. She had 11 babies. This means she was pregnant for more than 8 years of her life. How is it possible we have very few pictures of that?

3. Ditto for (discreet) pictures of my mother nursing her babies.

4. Or me nursing my babies for that matter. I guess it’s not too late for that one.

5. My friend in High School who could stack 7 Oreos in his mouth. Nobody believes me when I tell them this. Dang I wish I had some photographic evidence.

6. Me, swinging upside down on the uneven parallel bars formed by the branches of my parents’ apple tree. I was going to be the next Nadia Comaneci. That tree is gone now. And let’s just say I’m a little…less flexible.

7. My old piano teacher. I want to know if her beehive hairdo was as tall and shellac-ed as I remember it. How did she sleep at night?

8. The various cars I rode in or have driven that have since gone to that great parking lot in the sky – the yellow Dasher with the gaping hole in the floor, the family Stationwagon before it died an ignoble death at the driveup window at Arctic Circle, and the VW Vanagon in which I had to take my first driving test (and flunked because I could not parallel park the mammoth, stickshift beast).

9. More than one (!) picture of us standing in front of the World Trade Center when Ken and I visited New York in 1992.

10. The orchards that used to be all around our house but have now become houses and shopping plazas (one of which is called “The Orchards” as if that makes up for ripping out all those trees. Sure, let’s fill in the Grand Canyon but we’ll replace it with a resort called “The Canyon” to compensate.)

11. “Before” photos of the first house Ken and I bought. We did the whole Extreme Home Makeover, but without the bulldozers, Ty Pennington, or loads of volunteers with cash. We took lots of pictures after we were done, but guess who forgot to take pictures before we started.

12. When the Olympics came to Utah in 2002, I took a few shots of the torch. That’s it. The torch. As if I couldn’t go online and find 800 other pictures of the torch that look just like mine. Why didn’t I take pictures of the massive sea of bodies that flooded our state for 2 weeks – the festive throngs of visitors who filled every nook, cranny and overpriced hotel room in Salt Lake Valley? Oh yeah, maybe it’s because we were home watching it all on TV.

13. I wish I had pictures of certain rooms where I’ve spent lots of time over the years – the primary room in the church where I first learned to sing “Give Said the Little Stream,” the choir room in my old High School where we’d go to sluff class (sorry Mom), the cafeteria at Penn State where they made the world’s best provolone tuna melts. The images of these places in my mind are all a bit fuzzy around the edges. But nobody bothers to take pictures of rooms. We’re too busy living in them.

If you want to leave your own “photo not taken” in the comments, I’d love to hear what you have to say. Or just wave hello. That’s fine too.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Cheaters never prosper (I wish)

Caravaggio The Cardcheats

I was up late last night grading quizzes and trying not to lose my faith in the next generation. I came across several examples of blatant plagiarism, something that always surprises me, then depresses me and then makes me just plain mad. There’s a scene in a movie (I’m a bit sleep deprived so I can’t remember which one – is it Family Man?) where an angel is pretending to be a clerk at a convenience store and he deliberately gives someone back too much change just to see what he’ll do. The person glances at the money, realizes that it is too much, and then pockets the bills and walks out of the store. The angel says something along the lines of “They are willing to sell their souls so cheaply.” That’s how I feel when I find a student cheating. Why sell your integrity for a grade on a piece of paper? It’s not worth the exchange.

As much as I’d love to spend the morning ranting (and quoting statistics) about what I fear is a rampant trend, I’ve decided instead to take the high road and find a way to make a profit from it. I’m preparing a book proposal for the first edition of Cheating for Dummies. And this book really will be for dummies since the smart ones never cheat, or if they do, they are good at it and certainly don’t need my advice.

How to cheat – stupid style

1. Avoid attending class as much as possible, flunk the midterm, and prove yourself incapable of stringing together a complete sentence on any of the first assignments. Then on your next quiz be sure to steal a few juicy lines like “The sublime natural world, embraced by Romanticism as a source of unrestrained emotional experience for the individual, initially offers characters the possibility of spiritual renewal.” Your teacher is so vain that she will actually think your sudden transformation from Bart Simpson into John Steinbeck is due to her expert tutelage.

2. By all means, if you’re going to risk your academic standing and embrace the dangerous, adrenalin-filled life of a plagiarizer, do it on a little bitty quiz that is worth 8 points.

3. Don’t bother with creativity when it comes to picking your internet sources. Go straight to Your teacher will never think of looking there.

4. If you have an assignment to read a 15 page short story, save yourself all that trouble. Hunt for a while until you find a good synopsis online, then read the 8 web pages that summarize the plot, the 6 that discuss characterization, and the 3 that suggest themes and symbols. Cut and paste the phrases you like and spend some time deleting the ?extra characters^* that websites use now to make online plagiarism more difficult to detect. Take a few minutes to add some deliberate typos to throw off the scent. Then turn in your paper with one hand and use the other to pat yourself on the back for doing things the easy way.

5. If you have an assignment to write a 3 page response to a campus production of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, no one will ever suspect you stayed home to watch Lost if you turn in a 10 page single-spaced biography of Shakespeare. Close enough.

6. If you are going to copy your roommate’s answers, be sure to sit right next to her in class so when you pass in your assignments, yours will be right after hers. This will never give you away since your teacher will be grading at 2am and will not notice the word-for-word identical answers. Either that or she will attribute them to a case of déjà vu.

7. When caught, play dumb (as indeed you are). Practice saying this line with a straight face: “Oh, so you use that ultra picky definition of plagiarism? I thought plagiarism was only when you beat another student unconscious on your way to class and steal their paper so you can pass it off as your own. It’s just an simple difference of opinion.”

Hmmm. Perhaps I need to cool off a bit before I head to class – you know, calm down, take a deep breath, and wipe the venom from my fangs.

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Can I put "be a mom" on my calendar too?

Gabriel’s 5th birthday is coming up and he noticed yesterday that the momentous occasion had not yet been marked on the family calendar (not that we could possibly forget since he has been talking about it for weeks, of course). So Gabie gets me a pen, walks me over to the calendar, points to the square, and says, “Write ‘Gabriel’s Birthday’ right here.” I dutifully comply. Then he notices that it’s a day of the week when I go up to campus to teach in the evening. He says, “Now write ‘stay home from class’ right there.”

My heart cracks a little and I say, “Honey, I can’t miss class. I’m the professor. I have to be there.”

“But how are we going to have cake and ice cream? When are we going to open presents?”

“We’ll do all of that when I get home.” I say, knowing full well that I don’t get home until nearly 9pm. “We’ll have a late night party.”

“Just stay home. Tell your students it’s my birthday.”

I’m sure they’d understand (and probably shout for joy) but there’s just no way I can cancel class. How do I explain to him that as much as I love him, if we don’t cover Freud and Kafka that night, we won’t get to the Harlem Renaissance and Jazz the next night….and so on for the rest of the semester. I teach with a tight schedule and I never miss class. The last time I missed class was.....let me think….oh yeah, 5 years ago when I gave birth to Gabriel. And even then I had a substitute all arranged. And I probably would have only missed one day except for that whole “cord around his neck, unexpected c-section” thing. Hmmm, it seems Gabriel is always trying to get me out of teaching.

I’ve taught on various birthdays, Valentine’s Day, Halloween, my anniversary, parent-teacher conference nights, and most recently while Ethan was getting his arrow-of-light award in cub scouts. It’s strange that since I am home with my kids during the day I don’t usually think of myself as a “working mom.” But then my son reminds me that I am.
Berthe Morisot,
Julie Morisot and her nurse
My favorite impressionist artist, Berthe Morisot, somehow managed to balance motherhood with a successful career as a painter. It’s rare in the history of art to see a woman who painted professionally but also seemed so attached to her family. I’ve always loved Berthe Morisot’s art and admired her balancing act. But it just dawned on me that she cheated. The evidence is in her paintings. You see servants and maids and the nanny who holds the docile daughter for mommy to paint. Well of course she had time to develop her talent! Give me a slew of helpers and I’ll bet I could paint just as well. Or at least I could be the world’s greatest teacher. Or at the very least I'd have a clean house. So Berthe’s balancing act isn’t quite so impressive to me now. I want to see how she’d do on that tightrope without a net.

Monday, November 13, 2006

Happy Birthday Sis

10 things I love about my sister Kathy

1. If there were a World’s Championship Boggle tournament, my sister would smear everybody. When we play at family parties, it’s a contest to see who comes in 2nd because everybody already knows Kathy will win by about a zillion points.

2. She’s the only person I know who could find a way to use the “Oh, let’s learn the zones, the zones the zones, the zones of the open sea” song from Finding Nemo in her master’s thesis. And she managed to make it sound scholarly.

3. She rescued me from an otherwise terrifying experience of class registration my freshman year in High School. When all the science classes were full, she walked me over to Mr. Marty Monson’s table and talked him into signing me up for AP Biology. Thanks to her recommendation (and her reputation as a brain) he let me be the first ever freshman to take the class – and later the first to get a 5 on the test.

4. Kathy puts up with my self-centeredness and would never judge me for making a list about her into a brag session about my High School test scores.

5. I can chart my life by the sewing projects Kathy has helped me with. She resuscitated my stuffed gonk for Junior High Home Ec. class, stayed up late the night before a date dance to finish my turquoise drop-waist dress, altered my wedding gown, helped me turn the maternity pants I was sewing from 747 wing covers into something I could actually wear, and spent HOURS ironing triangles for the border of Ethan’s first quilt. I expect a handmade polyester mumu from her the day I enter the nursing home.

6. She has adopted 3 wonderful children – Kyra, Shadow and Holly. She takes good care of them, co-sleeps with them, is very protective of them and comes to their defense if anyone says something to hurt their feelings. She saved Shadow from an abusive home and turned him from a barking juvenile delinquent into a loving puppy dog. Literally.

7. She also forgives me for being allergic to her youngest child and she vacuums up cat dander before I come to visit.

8. Kathy gives my kids the greatest presents even though I only give her kids the occasional chew toy. When you ask any of my boys who’s their favorite aunt, they will yell, “Aunt Kathy!” This is in no way due to the brainwashing and careful coaching they have received since birth.

9. One of my most vivid memories from youth is the day Kathy and Teri took me with them on a late-night jaunt to Arctic Circle for shakes. While parked in the drive-up window, our stationwagon – the car that put the “old” in Oldsmobile – decided it had had enough of this cruel world and burst into flames. I will never forget standing on the curb with my melting ice cream, watching smoke billow from under the hood as every fire engine and police car in the county arrived to witness the scene. I also remember Kathy tugging the hems of her jeans over her toes in case anyone noticed that she had been driving with bare feet. I’ve always thought this bit of information might prove to be useful, but she’s no longer embarrassed by it. So much for my blackmail scheme.

10. Kathy is a High School teacher who has touched thousands of young lives. She is more than a teacher to these students – she’s a mentor, score-keeper, spiritual advisor, chaperone, crisis hotline, one-woman cheer squad, foster mother, and friend. There’s no way to measure how far her influence has carried and will continue to carry in their lives.

Oh and she is also an amazing teacher. That’s the part she actually gets paid for.

Next year I'll have to do 100 things because I've got plenty more. I love you Kathy.

Saturday, November 11, 2006

moms love to give advice

I was all set to write about how I made whole wheat bread today, but then I came across Mary's challenge to suggest advice for someone preparing for motherhood. So I changed my mind and put some thought into this list instead. What a relief! Now I don’t have to bother making bread.

10 pieces of advice I wish I had been given before I had children.

1. Sometimes in the middle of the night, when you are cleaning throw-up off the carpet from a sick child who almost, but not quite, made it to the bathroom, don’t be surprised if you think: “80% of motherhood is about bodily fluids -- vomit, spitup, drool, messy diapers, pee around the toilet, runny noses, blood, and tears.” In the light of day you may be willing to lower the percentage in your estimate. But not by much.

2. All those crazy pregnancy symptoms are in fact preparing you to empathize more with your baby when it arrives. At least this was the case with mine:

the urge to eat all the time
the feeling that I was exhausted but couldn’t fall asleep
the gas and indigestion (when I wished that someone could throw me over their shoulder and give me a good burping)
those times I got a cursed case of the hiccups that. would. not. go. away.
the tendency to cry for no good reason
the need to be held more

3. Read to your child every day – even if it is just one short book. When I’m reading to my kids, I can feel for a brief moment that despite all my failings, right now – as I turn these pages – I am doing something right.

4. Never brag about your children to your neighbors.

5. Never complain about your children to your neighbors either.

6. For that matter, never complain about your neighbors in front of your children.
(I learned all three of these the hard way)

7. Clean clothes are overrated.

8. You know those people in books who say nursing is easy and, if you’re doing it correctly, will never be painful? They are lying. This is coming from a veteran breastfeeder here. With every child, those first few weeks were real toe-curlers. I would still say nursing is worth every minute, but I just wish I had known what to expect.

9. The fancier the toy, the less likelihood it will be played with. The best investment we ever made was a sandbox.

10. Read every parenting book you can get your hands on. Then don’t be afraid to follow your instincts about what is right for each child. I believe every mother is uniquely suited to meet the needs of her own children. When I tuck my kids in at night, I tell them “If I could choose from all the children in all the world, I’d pick you.” Hopefully they feel the same way about their mom

Friday, November 10, 2006

To be read while humming “Taps”

I am sorry to announce that at 12:55 pm on November 9, 2006, my well-worn and much beloved copy of Roget’s College Thesaurus fell upon the tile floor and split in two. Please join me in a moment of silence.

I have known for some time that my Roget’s days were numbered on this earth (as it has been shedding random pages), but I was still emotionally unprepared for the loss. The fatal split occurred between pages 300 and 301, forever exposing the words: irate, irksome and irreparable as well as ironically and invincible. Coincidence? I think not.

I purchased the paperback thesaurus along with a big stack of textbooks my very first semester of college. It has been with me ever since – through countless term papers, a 125-page thesis and most recently a slew of blog entries. A truer writing companion I could not hope to find. Never once did it criticize my verbosity or mock my fear of redundancy – a fear so great I could not write an essay without searching several times through its nuanced pages.

Oh sure, I’ve tried other thesauruses (thesauri?...thesaurae?). I even once bought a deluxe hardbound edition. But they were always organized according to some foreign code known only to the secret society of thesaurus editors. I always returned – contrite and apologetic – to my little red Roget. Online versions leave me wanting. And the built-in synonyms feature in MS Word is just plain pitiful, a word which – according to what is now the Volume II half of my old Roget’s Thesaurus – is akin to deplorable, wretched, lamentable, piteous, and paltry.

Bear with me as I may be inconsolable for a few days while I work through the grieving process. In the meantime, I will end with a few words of farewell to my loyal friend: goodbye, so long, Godspeed, shalom, adios, till we meet again, sayonara, and adieu.

Thursday, November 09, 2006

An autumn rant

It’s that time of year again. The leaves have turned golden and crisp and are cascading gently down to the chilled ground below. The smells of autumn – damp earth and smoke from wood-burning fireplaces – fill the air. And on the campus where I teach, it’s time to get out those high powered blowers so the grounds crew can blast the leaves out of the trees onto waiting tarps and haul them away. Mother nature is apparently too slow for us.

The word “landscaped” does not begin to accurately describe my college campus. Rather, it is manicured, exfoliated, and lacquered. Leaf blowers abound. Three times a year, thousands of flowering plants – in full bloom – are ripped from their beds to be replaced with the next season’s offerings. Wide cement walkways stretch out at perfectly straight angles between the buildings. There are a few remaining patches of grass, but even these are neatly-trimmed pristine carpets, frequently cordoned off with little ropes and signs that say “please keep off the grass.” Sure it’s impressive, and practical and tidy this way. And I’ve heard the argument that that this continual pruning and primping gives jobs to hundreds of students in need of income. But really it’s all quite depressing and in my humble, please-don’t-fire-me-for-lambasting-our-sacred-lawns opinion, very un-natural.

Call me crazy and buy me a pair of Birkenstocks, but I prefer the un-tamed
University Park campus of Penn State. Many years worth of students have formed dirt paths between the buildings – paths that have worn through grass and branched off in random places and skirted the roots of tremendous sycamore trees. Perhaps I have a romanticized view of my visits there as a graduate student, but I remember seeing squirrels slide down from trunks to dart across the steps of the library.

I have never seen a squirrel on my current campus. The occasional guide dog, maybe. But no pot guts or chipmunks, and now that I think of it, very few birds. Oh I take it back – there are some ducks in the botany pond. But I’m sad about the sterilized feel of campus. And I’m sad that when they finished the new Humanities building 2 years ago, they didn’t even bother with the pretense of the grass-that-must-not-be-walked-upon. They filled the whole quad in front with concrete pavers.

My well-groomed campus reminds me a bit of the trees in Rococo paintings. The trees are always lush, excessively detailed, and incredibly beautiful. But they are also highly artificial and defy all laws of nature, including gravity. In Fragonard’s Swing for example, the leaves form elegant, billowing clusters that perfectly frame the action below. The branches twist their way out of the pale green puffs – perfectly formed, but just scraggly enough to be picturesque and knobby enough to hold the rope to the swing. It’s all quite pretty and idyllic. And *sigh* fake.

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

The ticket to a good night's sleep

A Works for me Wednesday tip

I have such great news that I honestly want to sing Hallelujah from the rooftops but I’ll content myself with posting it on my blog instead: my 4 year old is finally staying in bed at night! Let me just explain that this has been a long time coming and I’m so happy with the solution that I have to share it just in case it’s not a fluke and it might actually work for others.

The problem: We did the whole “evening routine” approach with the brushing of teeth and the telling of stories and the saying of prayers and the tucking of covers. We did the “putting him to bed early” approach and the “letting him stay up a little later” approach. We pleaded and praised and bribed and ignored and threatened. And Gabriel would still come out of bed roughly 100 times a night. He always needed just one more glass of water or one more kiss or one more hang-upside-down-off-the-couch session. This went on for months. And I must say, Gabriel is an adorable, sweet-natured child, but at 10 or 11 or 12 pm, even the cuteness was wearing a bit thin. (Did I put this euphemistically enough? What I really want to admit is that I was ready to SCREAM! with frustration).

The solution: In one of my favorite books – Unconditional Parenting – Alfie Kohn suggests that instead of focusing on “undesirable behavior” we ought to think about what the child needs. So I finally asked myself the obvious question: What does Gabriel need? And guess what? The answer was not a glass of water. Gabriel has been recently displaced as the youngest child by his attention-magnet sister and what he really needs is more time with his mom and dad. Yeah, I know you probably all saw that WAY before me and you don’t even live in my house. I’m pretty slow sometimes.

So we tried a new approach. Gabriel gets 3 “tickets” in the evening when he is tucked in bed. They are actually plastic rings but we call them tickets because he can exchange them one at a time if he wants to come out for any reason. If he keeps any tickets by staying in bed, in the morning he can trade them in – each ticket is worth one book with mom.

It’s simple and has worked like a charm for 2 weeks now. The first night, Gabriel didn’t even step out of the room once. I walked around the whole evening holding my breath and smiling in a kind of surreal stupor. In the morning, Gabriel walked into the kitchen rubbing his eyes with one hand and holding out the 3 rings with the other – ready for his stories. Now how cute is that?

To see more Works for me Wednesday ideas visit Shannon at Rocks in my Dryer.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Read me the one about the monkey in peril again Mom

Gabriel came home from preschool today quite concerned. As part of their unit on dinosaurs, his class had watched Land Before Time (and while I could dedicate this post to the “HUH? Why are they spending time watching a movie in preschool when as far as I’m concerned the purpose of preschool is to assuage my guilt for not doing enough crafts and singing cute songs with my son and not for them to put in a video which is something I could do perfectly well at home and pocket the $55 a month” question, that is not actually where I’m headed here).

Gabriel was somewhat traumatized by the scene where Littlefoot’s mother is killed by a Tyrannosaurus Rex. “Why did the T-rex have to be so mean?” he kept asking me. No manner of “It’s just a movie” or “That’s the way of nature” logic seemed to smooth the ruffles in his little empathetic heart. He finally swore his eternal hatred of all T-rexes EVER and has since moved on to other things. But I’m still thinking about the movie, and I’ve decided that it fits on my growing list of children’s things that are not appropriate for children. Scary carnivores who eat people’s mothers = bad.

We bought Gabriel this Little Encyclopedia of Animals because it had a big picture of a panda on the cover and Gabriel is, well, there’s no word strong enough to describe his adoration of pandas. We were all somewhat disappointed when an immediate search of the book yielded only one small picture of a panda, but Gabriel sat right down and insisted I read him the caption....

What??? Let’s just say I wish the fool editors of this book could have seen the horrified look on Gabriel’s face. Don’t these people have kids?

Topping my list of stories inappropriate for children are the books (and we own every one) about that ever inquisitive monkey Curious George. Why my children, without fail, have each gone through a period of George worship I do not know. Because when you really stop to examine the stories, they are more than a little bit disturbing.

Observe: indigenous baby animal is kidnapped from his native Africa and shipped to America where he is adopted by Madonna a nameless yellow-hatted man who then puts him behind bars in a zoo. So far so good. Then George is left unsupervised on numerous occasions and when he manages to flood the house, swallow puzzle pieces, or break his leg while falling from a fire escape, he is “rescued” by the absentee parent and called a naughty little monkey.

Just look at all the useful lessons my children have learned from George:

Smoking a pipe can be a relaxing evening activity.

Caustic household chemicals make for colorful indoor puddles.

As long as you have a squeegee and a bucket tied to your waist, it’s okay to dangle outside the windows of a 20 story building.

Lifejackets are for sissies.

You won’t get electrocuted if you walk fast enough.

And last but not least, if you find a strange bottle, be sure to pull off the cork and take a good whiff so you can have happy thoughts and see dancing stars before you pass out.