We Need a Little Christmas

Friday: Christmas Eve Eve

We left for Blackwater Falls State Park (http://www.blackwaterfalls.com) on Saturday, the morning of Christmas Eve, and the day before was a whirl of activity. I’d finished my work for the week on Thursday so I could go to the dentist in the morning Friday and pack for the trip. Beth took off work early and she met me at Union Station as I was coming back from the dentist. We admired the big Christmas tree Norway sends to Washington every year and visited the model train display the kids, especially Noah, used to love when they were little. Then we had lunch at Shake Shack and headed home.

I mopped the kitchen floor and did a couple loads of laundry and when the kids got home I had Noah vacuum the dining and living room floors and everyone packed and we took June’s present to Megan’s house and picked up pizza to bring home. All this time there was a tree tied to the top of the car that had been there since Thursday. We were taking it to West Virginia. After dinner, the kids opened gifts from my mom and Beth’s brother Johnny and his wife Abby so we wouldn’t have to pack them. June got books from a series she’s reading and a new basketball and Noah got a gift certificate. “Merry Christmas Eve Eve,” I told June when she went to bed.

The last thing I did before collapsing into bed was to make gingerbread dough to take with us. We hadn’t had time to make any holiday sweets, what with the kids in school and Noah overloaded with homework until two days before Christmas. But I had another motive for baking the gingerbread at the cabin. Eighteen years ago, we spent Christmas in another cabin in the same park with Beth’s parents, her brother, her brother’s then girlfriend and now wife. Beth and I arrived first and made gingerbread before anyone else got there. To this day, Beth’s mom still talks about walking into the cabin and smelling the baking gingerbread and how happy it made her.

Christmas Eve

We left a little after ten and arrived around two-thirty with a stop for lunch at a very festively decorated little Italian restaurant with excellent garlic knots. We also went into the dollar store next to the restaurant, looking for cookie cutters because I’d forgotten to pack those. The man at the counter practically yelled, “Merry Christmas!” at us and I couldn’t tell if it was genuine merriment or political aggression. Maybe we looked like the “Happy Holidays” types. As it was I was just a little nervous about driving through rural Virginia and West Virginia with our “I’m With Her” magnet still on the car bumper. Anyway, they didn’t have any cookie cutters.

Check-in for the cabins was at four and we were hoping they’d be lenient about it because we were eager to set up the tree and get dinner started, but they weren’t, so we had to wait in the lobby of the lodge for an hour and a half. Fortunately, Beth’s mom arrived almost the same time we did, so we all sat around the gas fire and caught up with each other.

Once we got into the cabin, we unpacked and decorated the tree and put presents under it and adorned the mantle with boughs Beth trimmed off it. Then we had chili and cornbread YaYa made (she did most of the cooking while we were there and she fed us well). Then we watched Frosty the Snowman and one by one, we went to bed, ready for Christmas.

One my friends decorated her house for Christmas earlier than usual this year, saying “I’ve never needed Christmas more.” I had some trouble getting and staying in the spirit, but I kept trying and sometimes it worked. As I mentioned this was my second Christmas at Blackwater and it was Beth’s third (her family had Christmas in a cabin there the year she was nine). It seemed like a good year to get far away from everything.

Christmas

I told the kids they could open their stocking gifts at six at the earliest and to be “quiet as mice” until seven. The surprising thing is this worked. Noah slept until seven-thirty, so it was easy for him, but apparently, June opened her stocking at 6:25, right outside our door, so quietly that I thought the faint rustling I heard was Beth’s mom going to the bathroom. Later she told us “You wouldn’t even know I was a kid” from what was in the stocking—some mint tea she’d wanted at the tea shop in Rehoboth, a tin of mints, an orange, a spa cloth, some gloves, and some peppermint Hershey’s kisses.

The rest of us opened our stockings all together and then the rest of the gifts. June got the two things she wanted most, a 3D pen and a gift certificate to get her hair dyed. The pen came with a book of projects and she got busy with these right away. By the time we left, she was almost out of rods for it. She made a pair of eyeglass frames, earrings, a butterfly, a picture frame, and some red and white berries to transform a pine cutting into mistletoe, under which Beth and I were obliged to kiss. She also got clothes and a book/DVD set of Anne of Green Gables and I don’t remember what else.

Noah’s gifts were even more grown up than June’s—a set of flannel sheets, pajama bottoms, gift certificates and three loaves of bread from his favorite food catalog, to be delivered between now and February. The first loaf—cranberry-pecan arrived today.

I got several books, including a Shirley Jackson collection and a Shirley Jackson biography, my two favorite teas (hazelnut and black chocolate), plus lotion and soaps in many scents, and flower seeds. Beth got flavored sugars, basil-infused olive oil, her New Yorker subscription renewed, a gift certificate for a local coffee shop, and the new Springsteen memoir.

YaYa’s main gift was a Google Home. We spent a lot of the day making requests of it—to play the radio, set timers for cooking, even to flip a coin to settle a dispute between the children. She was quite pleased with it. She also got a Carly Simon memoir and a mug with deer on it and some soap with a cabin embossed on it to remind her of the cabin.

After we opened presents, I read to both kids, then everyone but Noah took a walk along the edge of the river canyon and by a half-frozen pond. The sides of the canyon were dotted with evergreens and bare gray trees and cut with a long waterfall on the far side.

It was peaceful by the pond—the ice was a dull silver; the open water was shiny. June wandered by the edge, breaking off little pieces of ice. The trail went on and we might have walked further, but YaYa had a not quite healed fractured toe and Beth was feeling ill. When we got back to the cabin, she went straight to bed while everyone else ate lunch and she stayed in bed all afternoon.

The kids and I made gingerbread cookies while she was asleep. In the absence of cookie cutters, we used glasses and knives and a pizza cutter, and the top of a Tupperware container to shape circles of various sizes, people, a caterpillar, the first initials of our names, and a smiley face as big as a dinner plate. We decorated with bits of hard candy, as I’d also forgotten the dried cranberries we usually use. But it was fun to improvise and I think the kids will remember this year’s cookies for a long time to come.

YaYa made spinach lasagna for dinner and Beth got up to eat, though she went back to bed while the rest of us watched Frosty Returns. And then Christmas Day was over.

Boxing Day

Beth was feeling better the next day, so after Noah did some pre-calculus and Spanish, we went out to lunch and then we went to see Blackwater Falls. It’s a 57-foot fall on the Blackwater River. There’s a boardwalk of steps that goes down to various viewing platforms. It was a warm day, in the fifties and sunny and some of us didn’t even wear jackets—but there was ice along the rocks near the bottom of the falls, and rapidly dripping ice along the rock walls to our side as we descended. The water going over the falls is stained brown from the tannin and very loud as it crashes to the bottom. It’s a mesmerizing sight.

Back at the cabin, Beth and Noah watched Revenge of the Sith (they’ve been making their way through all the Star Wars movies over the course of the past year or so) while YaYa took June swimming at the lodge pool and I wrote this.

Then Noah and I read Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe—a YA novel about growing up Latino and gay in the Southwest in the 1980s I highly recommend. While we read, he started to feel ill, so he skipped dinner, which was YaYa’s signature baked macaroni and cheese and spinach pies she buys from a Lebanese bakery in Wheeling.

Our dinner conversation turned for the first and only time on the trip to the sad and frightening moment we’re in politically. It came up because YaYa was talking about being in high school and she mentioned her civics class was called “Problems in Democracy.” It seems like a good title for Noah’s current AP Government class, though it’s called NSL Government (National, State, and Local Government), a somewhat less appealing course title. But then again, YaYa graduated from high school in 1961, right on the verge of the civil rights movement and the Vietnam War, so democracy had its own problems then, too, didn’t it? We turned our attention from our national nightmare to Nightmare Before Christmas, which YaYa, June and I watched until it was time for June to go to bed.

Some More Days

Noah still felt ill the next day and Beth had relapsed so he spent the day in bed, emerging around four o’clock for a banana and some toast—his only meal of the day, and she spent the day on the couch, making her way through the Springsteen memoir. YaYa took June back to the pool and they were gone for hours.

Around four-thirty, I went for a walk. It seemed like a good time for winter walk. I’d see the sunset and if I walked an hour, I’d be back before full dark. I set out along the road in front of the cabins, and returned via a cross-country ski trail behind them. It was a straight, narrow trail with yellow-brown grass and tall, slender, bare trees swaying in the wind on either side. The sky reddened and then darkened and clouds blew quickly across it. I stumbled on a playground near a picnic shelter, well, just swings, and I sat on one and swung for a while, with the lyrics from Suzanne Vega’s “Freeze Tag” going through my mind:

We go to the playground
In the wintertime
The sun is fading fast
Upon the slides into the past
Upon the swings of indecision
In the wintertime
Wintertime
Wintertime
We can only say yes now
To the sky, to the street, to the night
We can only say yes now
To the sky, to the street, to the night

There’s so much we’ll need to say no to in the coming months and years, loudly and repeatedly if we don’t want to lose our way as a country, but it’s also important to remember to say yes, too, to ourselves, and to each other. I’m still working on that.

Beth made tacos for dinner and June contributed a tiny piñata to each place setting. She made them out folded notebook paper and filled them with bits of ribbon candy. She drew designs on them I thought might be poinsettias or snowflakes, but she said they were just abstract decorations. After dinner, YaYa made drinking chocolate with condensed milk and whipping cream. June said it was “as think and rich as melted chocolate bars.” It’s a quote from the Polar Express, June’s favorite Christmas book. We drank it while we watched the rest of The Nightmare Before Christmas.

The next day, our last full day in the cabin, everyone woke up feeling well. Beth made pancakes for breakfast and all the womenfolk went for a hike, leaving Noah to soak in the bath and do some Government homework. (His teacher gave them a series of small assignments do over break and was perverse enough to call it an “advent calendar,” even though there was no chocolate involved and it started on Christmas Eve instead of ending then.)

We started with the Elakala Falls trail, which was about as much hiking as YaYa wanted to do, so we split up there and she went home while we tackled the Balanced Rock trail and then used the Shay Run trail to get back to the lodge where we’d parked the car.

It was cold when we set out—in the mid-twenties—but sunny and still so it didn’t feel too bad, though Beth and I both wished we’d thought to put on long johns under our jeans. The trails were surrounded with ferns, rocks covered with moss and lichen, evergreens of all sizes, including a lot of saplings growing quite close together, and towering rhododendron bushes, their leaves curled against the cold. There were icicles on the boulders and needle ice pushing up out of the ground all over. Beth was quite taken with these intricate crystal formations.

The water at Elakala Falls and in all the little creeks and runs was reddish brown with tannin and where the sun fell on it, it glowed. All along the Balanced Rock trail but especially near the end and at trail intersections, people had built cairns. June took pleasure in adding to them, and collecting icicles, and walking along a fallen log like a balance beam. The log was on the ground on one end and stuck in the fork of a tree on the other so it was inclined and slightly bouncy, making it a challenge, but she didn’t fall. And of course, at the end of the trail, we found the Balanced Rocks themselves, two boulders resting on each other.

After lunch, there was another expedition, YaYa and Beth took the kids tubing on artificial snow, while I stayed home to read. When everyone got home, Beth took the decorations off the tree and I read “Lamb to the Slaughter,” a Road Dalh story, to Noah. It’s about a woman who kills her husband with a frozen leg of lamb and then cooks it and serves it to the detectives who come to investigate. Apparently, his English teacher thought it would make cheery Christmas reading. (It’s actually a fun story, though I probably just wrecked it for you.)

We had noodles and cabbage with veggie sausage for dinner and then Beth and Noah took the denuded tree outside and came back to report the sky was full of stars—Orion, Cassiopeia, the Dippers, plus Mars and Venus.

Beth and June played a set of Christmas songs together on the violin and then Beth played “Silent Night” while June sang it. YaYa was a suitably appreciative audience. After Beth diagnosed and fixed a problem with the gas fire, we watched a little bit of Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town while June toasted marshmallows on said fire and we had more drinking chocolate.

The next day we checked out of the cabin and did a little shopping at the lodge gift shop. While we were there it started to snow hard after hours of sleet. It was the first real snow we’d seen the whole time we were there. The timing seemed cruel, as Beth loves snow and she loves Blackwater canyon. I suggested we stay, but we left, for fear the roads might get bad. Within twenty minutes we’d driven entirely out of the snow, though back at the park they were supposed to get six inches. (We did get a little snow squall of our own today in Takoma Park, but it only last a half hour or so and melted almost immediately.)

Despite illness and the lack of snow, we did spend time with each other and appreciated the natural beauty of one of Beth’s favorite places. I think we all got a little Christmas.

The Opposite of Terrible

It’s time for school concerts. Noah played in the winter band and jazz concert a couple weeks ago, and June’s school’s holiday sing was Monday.

Winter Band and Jazz Concert

Noah was a nervous wreck in the car on the way to the band concert. He’s been playing drums for six years and he’s not usually too worked up before concerts, but he’s in an advanced band in which he was placed because of a schedule conflict and he’s got a bit of an imposter complex about it. He said he thought the fact that he was so nervous would make it more likely he’d make mistakes.

I thought he might be right, but I told him even if he did make a mistake he’d be the one most likely to hear it, that all the sound the audience is taking in making it hard to hear individual errors. He wasn’t having it.

Noah took private lessons instead of playing in the band last year so this was our first high school band concert. At his school, they split the orchestra, band, and chorus concerts into three different nights. I thought this meant the concert might be shorter than a middle school concert. But there are five different bands at his high school, not counting the marching band, which I don’t think plays at concerts. Noah had attended the orchestra concert the week before and had gotten back later than I expected, so I wasn’t expecting a short night. A glance at the program confirmed that would be the case again.

June was with us, even though it would surely keep her up past her bedtime, because we don’t have a sitter any more now that Eleanor’s in college and we so seldom need one I never invested the time in finding a replacement. If June had her way I would have found her a ride to and from her school’s Reading Night, someone who would drop her off at our empty house when it was over. But even though she’s been staying home alone for years we didn’t feel quite right about having her alone in the house at night, so we made her come. She probably would have been excited about being out late if it wasn’t for the fact that she was missing something she wanted to do. But she was mature and didn’t complain too much. It might have helped that we bought her a brownie at the bake sale and I read to her from Cricket while they were setting the stage between groups.

Another way the concert was different from a middle school concert was the fact that we were in comfortable auditorium seats, the band was up on stage, and there were colored lights behind them that changed from blue to green to red. It was nicely done.

The Jazz Combo played first. This group consisted of two saxophonists, a pianist, a bass player, and a percussionist. Because it was such a small and talented group, there were plenty of opportunities for solos. My favorite piece was probably “Black Orpheus,” but they were all good.

As would happen with each band that followed, the teacher introduced members of the band who were in the school’s music honor society and those who had made the county honors bands, the all State bands, the All Eastern Bands, and the Honors Band of America. There were a lot of names to announce. The musicians at Noah’s school are an accomplished bunch.

Next up was the Jazz Ensemble. They had vocalists, a boy and a girl, for three of their five numbers, which interested June. I think she might have been imagining herself up on stage with a microphone and a big band backing her six or seven years hence.

Then the concert band played a few songs. One was one of those high concept band pieces with which you’re probably familiar if you’ve ever had a kid in band. It was called “The Great Locomotive Chase.” It was inspired by a Union raid on the railroad tracks in Georgia during the Civil War, and featured instruments that sounded like a train whistle and other sound effects. That was fun. June was starting to fade, though, and she alternated between leaning against me and Beth. I was tired, too, as I’d been up late keeping Noah on task the night before as he wrote an alternative ending to “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty.”

Symphonic Band (the intermediate band) was next. Noah’s going to play in this band next semester. It’s hard to fit in band with as many required classes as the CAP kids have, so this year they’ve just let him play whenever his schedule allowed, which we appreciate. Many kids in CAP just drop music and I’m glad he hasn’t had to do that, even though he had to skip a year.

At last, it was time for the Wind Ensemble, or the advanced band. I don’t know why they call it the Wind Ensemble when it’s not just wind instruments, but there you have it. Noah had told us what he was playing in each song ahead of time. We like to know because it’s usually impossible to see the percussionists all the way in the back. He’d also told me weeks ago he didn’t have any difficult parts, so I was surprised to hear the snare drum as the most prominent percussion sound in their first piece, “Matador.” This is a very fast song and he sounded fantastic, very precise. Beth and I exchanged happy, relieved looks over June, who muttered, “He probably made three little mistakes he’ll go on and on about.”

Noah played timpani in “Amazing Grace,” a smaller part, but I’m always glad whenever he gets some timpani experience because they didn’t have one at his middle school and it’s been an audition bane for him because of that. He played the bass drum and woodblocks capably in “Hebrides Suite” and the concert was over.

As we walked back to the car I asked him how he thought it went and he said, “okay” and later, “not terrible.” This for him nearly amounts to self-promotion. But he’s right. It wasn’t terrible. It was the opposite of terrible. I’m happy he held his own with challenging music and I hope he’ll be comfortable in Symphonic Band next semester. It was clear from the concert he doesn’t belong in the non-audition concert band, which was his first choice (because he hates to audition). But whatever band he plays in, I always enjoy hearing him perform.

Holiday Sing (and Electoral College March)

June sang and played violin at her school’s Holiday Sing once last Friday and twice on Monday. Last year she was in the chorus, but there was no chorus this year, so the whole fourth and fifth grade sang instead, preparing in their regular music class. The band and orchestra played, too.

June is having the opposite problem Noah’s having with music this year, and I think it’s a worse problem to have. Mr. G’s replacement isn’t as skilled at assessing the students’ skill and experience levels and coming up with appropriate lessons for everyone. This was Mr. G’s superpower.  Mr. B is basically treating them all like raw beginners. June says the fifth graders who just started to play last year are incredulous at how easy the music is and she’s been playing for almost three and a half years. Not surprisingly, there’s no advanced string ensemble this year.

So, we’d been considering having June drop out of orchestra after the January concert, but then we found out there wasn’t going to be a January concert this year so the timing is less clear. It’s hard to see the point of pulling her out of her science and Spanish class once a week if she’s not learning anything. But before we take that step, I wanted to address my concerns with Mr. B first. He did offer to give June some harder music and meet with her after school on Mondays, which was generous of him. But the first piece he gave her was “Frere Jacques,” so we still have the same underlying problem.

Meanwhile, to keep from losing ground, June’s been practicing songs from orchestra camp and last year’s orchestra selections, and she’s using online tutorials to learn new songs. She and Beth have also been practicing Christmas songs together in preparation for a joint performance for Beth’s mom at Christmas, which they are both enjoying. The obvious solution is to put her back into private lessons, but between Scouts, basketball, and voice lessons, she has enough on her plate without adding another item to her weekly calendar.

This year the Holiday Sing was the same day the Electoral College met. I’d noticed this coincidence ahead of time and I thought it might mar my enjoyment of the event. Sure enough, I was melancholy as I walked to June’s school.

Just two days earlier I’d taken another long walk, from the Washington Monument to the White House, as part of a rally and march to ask the electors to vote their conscience.

I told June I was going to a rally to ask the electors to vote their conscience and asked if she’d like to make me a poster. She considered. “Is it okay if it has glitter glue and sparkles?” 

“Yes.”

She was sold.

I told Noah where I was going and he said, “Why do you think that will work?”

“I don’t,” I said.
“Then why are you going?”
“Because sometimes you have to try even when it seems hopeless. That’s what we learn from Frodo and Sam, right?”
He gave me a half-skeptical, half-sad smile.

The march started at the Washington Monument and proceeded to the White House. Even though we’d had an ice storm that morning the day had warmed up considerably. The late afternoon light was a lovely pale gold. I wore my coat unbuttoned and even got a little overheated as I tried to keep up with the marchers, who on average were probably about twenty years younger than me and pretty well spread out in the street. The march was spirited, but sparse, as these things go. The signs were about all sorts of lefty issues, relevant I suppose because they were all issues affected by the election, but I would have preferred a narrower focus on our appeal to the electors.  At the end we were standing by the reviewing stands for the inaugural parade, which are under construction. This seemed to point out how little we could really do about it.

But when I got home, Beth had made a lasagna and Noah had made enough progress on his pre-calculus so we could read the last chapter of Return of the King after dinner. I felt I’d done what I could and it was comforting to be back home.

At June’s school before the Holiday Sing, I sat in a row of a few other mothers of June’s friends. The mom next to me and I discussed how neither of us was sad to be leaving elementary school behind at the end of the year and the state of instrumental music at the school. She seemed to agree with my assessment but I could tell from a look of mild surprise on her face, that I am considerably more worked up about this than she is. This had been happening to me every time I talk to someone about instrumental music. I guess I need to tone it down.

Anyway, I was pleasantly surprised when the band started to play “Jingle Bells” because they didn’t sound half bad, if a little morose because the tempo was so slow.  Their Hanukkah selection, “My Dreidel” was fine, too. I started to wonder if the orchestra would sound better than anticipated, once all the different instruments were playing at once, as opposed to June’s simple, repetitive piece of it that I’d been hearing at home. Sometimes that does happen. But when they played, it sounded more like an exercise for beginners than a song played by kids with over a year’s experience playing together. I was also having disgruntled thoughts about watching children fiddle while Rome burned.

Luckily, the singing part of the Holiday Sing was next. In this performance, the fifth grade sang a few songs alone and then there was a sing-along with the fourth-grade audience. Half the fifth grade (all that can fit) got up on risers and sang a traditional Puerto Rican Christmas song, followed by a spirited rendition of “Let it Snow.” There was a pause while the two halves of the fifth grade traded places and sang their songs.

I was sitting in exactly the wrong place to see June. The music teacher was blocking my view of her. But the teacher was swaying and the longer the concert went on the more pronounced her swaying became, so I could sometimes see brief flashes of my daughter. This was somewhat amusing.

They sang two songs alone and then it was time for an eight-song Kwanzaa/Hanukkah/Christmas sing-along set. Many of the songs were familiar from years past. There’s a Hanukkah song I’ve always liked called “In the Window,” and “Ocho Candelitas.” They shook things up a bit with the Christmas songs. No “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” or “Feliz Navidad,” which are perennial favorites. Among the new songs was “Mele Kalikimaka.” I’d like to think this Hawaiian-themed song might have been a tribute to our outgoing President, but who knows? At any rate, they don’t change the songs much and in my ten years of attending this concert I don’t think they ever sang it before. And then, my last Holiday Sing was over.

That night, doing the dishes, I was trying not to think about what had happened that day, that out of 306 electors who were supposed to vote for Trump, only two had the decency and temerity to consider his appalling words and actions and say no. I wasn’t expecting a different outcome—really I wasn’t—but if it had been even a dozen of them, I might have felt a little better about humanity.

As I pushed these thoughts away, I found myself humming that pretty Hanukkah song, so familiar from years of Holiday Sings. I’ve never heard it anywhere else. The experience of hearing children on the verge of their winter break, singing songs of joy for all these years has also been the opposite of terrible. Maybe I will miss it after all.

Postscript: Beth went to a march about a week ago as well, against the Muslim registry, and President Obama recently took steps to make that registry less likely. We are not powerless.

 

Beach Replenishment

Thanksgiving

It was a quiet drive to the beach. It usually is now that the kids disappear into their electronics on long drives. Beth and I didn’t have much to say and I was trying to keep my mind off current events. I made sure to admire the trees along the highway, past peak, but still pretty. But my thoughts inevitably wandered from nature and as we were exiting the Chesapeake Bay Bridge I realized I’d barely looked at the water and this is the loveliest part of the drive to Rehoboth.

We arrived at the house and ate a late lunch of sandwiches we’d picked up at the WaWa just outside town. June and I left around 2:30 to take a walk on the beach. It was a warm, sunny day. We’d brought hoodies in case it was windy on the beach, but we didn’t need them. June took her shoe and sock off her good foot and walked half-barefoot on the sand. She’s using crutches on and off since she stopped wearing the boot and I wasn’t sure how she’d do with them on the sand, but she got along decently.

We rambled back and forth between the beach and the boardwalk. I was happy to be moving, enjoying the mellow late November sun and the salt tang of the air. We ran into the family of a sixth-grade girl who was in the string ensemble at school with June last year. Her dad was on crutches, too, and we exchanged stories about why. By the time we left the beach at 3:45, the clouds were just touched with pink.

Back at the house the kids and I made our traditional apple-turkey table decorations, with a twist this year. June gave hers three heads and Noah’s had none. Then Beth and I finished cooking the dinner we’d started at home the previous day.

We feasted on a tofu roast, stuffed, mashed potatoes, sweet potatoes, mushroom gravy, Brussels sprouts, cranberry sauce, and rolls. We didn’t share what we’re thankful for as sometimes do at Thanksgiving dinner, but I thought about it as we ate. There’s plenty. We have each other, decent health, enough for our needs and many of our wants, like a house at the beach for Thanksgiving weekend.

We did the dishes and Beth made a fire. We sat in front of it and ate pumpkin pie, pecan pie, and apple tart. (I think everyone sampled two of the three desserts.)  Once June was in bed and Noah was soaking in the big, clawfoot tub and Beth had retreated to our bedroom to read, I called my mom, and we talked while I watched the fire die. 

Black Friday

We got off to a slow start on Friday. Noah slept in—I woke him at 9:15 and he either went right back to sleep or just stayed in bed. He didn’t make it down to breakfast until 10:15. Around 10:50, the rest of us left him doing pre-calculus at the dining room table and went to take a walk on the beach and boardwalk and then to start our Christmas shopping. Beth split off by herself a couple times. Mostly I was helping June do her shopping. Between Candy Kitchen, the tea and spice shop, the seashell shop, and the bookstore, she nearly finished it.

She wanted fries so we got some and sat on a bench on the boardwalk to eat them. We were right next to Santa’s house and we noticed there seemed to be a lull in the line so we got into it. The people in front of us were forcing an unwilling toddler to sit on Santa’s lap. He was crying and covering his eyes with his hands. They took pictures anyway. What is wrong with people? When it was June’s turn, I noticed Santa had a safety pin and I wondered if it was political, but it was on his pants, so maybe he just had a rip there.

The fries were just an appetizer. Next June and I had lunch at the Greene Turtle, which I patronize mainly for the view, so June thought it was logical to ask for a balcony seat. It was in the mid-fifties, not frigid but colder than I might think to eat a restaurant meal outside. I asked anyway. The manager was a little reluctant, but he seated us out there and we had the whole balcony to ourselves. The server said it was nice to step out of the overheated restaurant, but I tipped her 25% for having to go out of her way.

I got my usual off-season meal there—hot tea, fried mozzarella, and apple-pecan salad. June got pizza. It was fun looking down on the people strolling along the boardwalk and we had a great view of the beach. June started the crossword on her menu and was disappointed that the “large animal with one horn” was a rhinoceros and not a narwhal, which she though would more appropriate for a seaside eatery. Irritated, she switched over to the connect-the-dots of a sea turtle. (I didn’t bother telling her The Greene Turtle is a chain with non-beach locations.)

June wanted frozen custard next but I was a little chilled from eating on the balcony so it was easy to say no. We went back to the house where Noah was still doing homework. He didn’t want to go out shopping with me, so I read to June and we relaxed until it was time to leave for an early dinner at Grotto’s. We wanted to finish in time for the holiday sing-along and tree-lighting downtown. Our regular Grotto’s had a line so we went around the corner to the smaller one on the boardwalk. The kids were slightly disgruntled because it wasn’t decorated for Christmas like the big one and there’s no gelato there. So after we ate, we went back to the bigger location where Beth and Noah got take-out gelato and June and I assessed the Christmas trees decorated by Delaware charities and she chose to bestow the dollar I gave her on a local cancer charity’s tree.

The sing-along was much more crowded than two years ago, a year when it was bitterly cold and the only other time we’ve gone. Between not being able to get very close to the bandstand and the sound system only working intermittently we often couldn’t even make out what song the chorus was singing but eventually it got better and we could sing along. Noah hadn’t been that enthusiastic about attending this event so Beth and I were surprised and pleased when he started singing. I guess I haven’t heard his singing voice in a while because I was also surprised at how deep it is now.

I also learned I’m the only one in my family who knows the words to “Home for the Holidays” as I sang:

I met a man who lives in Tennessee
And he was headin’ for
Pennsylvania and some homemade pumpkin pie
From Pennsylvania folks are trav’lin’ down
To Dixie’s sunny shore
From Atlantic to Pacific, gee,
The traffic is terrific!

The songs were mostly secular (“Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” “Let it Snow,” etc.) until the very last one, “Angels We Have Heard on High” and then they lit the tree.

June and I got frozen custard to eat on the way home. (I was going to abstain but they had pumpkin-cinnamon, so what could I do?) Given the crowds, I was glad we’d walked instead of driving. I’m sure it was a massive traffic jam getting out of there.

June was pretty tuckered out from walking most of the day on her crutches but she managed to stay awake long enough to watch The Year Without a Santa Claus before she went to bed. After she was in bed I took a bubble bath in the big tub and read half an Alice Munro short story, which was the only reading I did on the whole trip.

Saturday

We had breakfast out, at Egg. We’re looking for a new go-to place for crepes, now that Gallery Espresso went out of business, after a brief stint out in Lewes under the name Paradigm. We all liked it, though June had been hoping to eat at the Boardwalk Plaza Hotel’s fancy Victorian-themed restaurant.

As Noah was already out of the house, he and I did some of his Christmas shopping, while Beth and June did the same. Later Noah returned to the house to work, and I met up with Beth and June, who’d been to see the Boardwalk Plaza Hotel’s Christmas decorations. The next thing on June’s agenda was for me to read to her in the lounge of the Sands Hotel. This is something we used to do when we stayed there or when we stayed in nearby hotels without lounges and we needed to give someone (usually Noah) some peace and quiet. As we had a whole house to spread out in, it never occurred to me we’d need to camp out at the Sands. But apparently, it’s a tradition now, so I brought Eleven Birthdays and read it to her in front of their Christmas tree.

I wanted to head back to the house for lunch and June wanted to eat lunch out so we compromised. Her first choice was Green Man, and mine was Grandpa Mac. I thought we were closer to Grandpa Mac, but I wasn’t sure, so I told her we’d eat at whichever one was closer. She agreed to the deal and I looked the addresses up on my phone. Sure enough, Grandpa Mac was closer, so I got to have baked mac and cheese with spinach for lunch and it was really good. While waited for our food and ate, we went over the test prep packet for the humanities magnet and I showed her how to make a graphic organizer and a web for the essay, as these are required and she’s never learned how to do that at school. That made me feel useful and pleasantly pedagogical.

It was mid-afternoon by the time June and I got home. I had the kids change into their Christmas outfits so we could do a Christmas card photo shoot on the beach. We got some nice pictures, which increases the chances that we’re actually doing a card. Noah looks solemn in all the shots because I’d said I might want to do a pensive-looking card, but June disregarded that suggestion and smiled.

I stayed on the beach after Beth and the kids left and walked south. I usually go north but there’s a beach replenishment project going on in the center of the beach that involves a lot of heavy machinery on the sand and a barge and a floating barrier out in the ocean. We walked by it many times over the course of the weekend and it was kind of fascinating to watch, but I wanted a quieter walk. The clouds were just starting to go pink. It was the time of day when the shadows in all the footprints and depressions in the sand get very sharp and the water is slate gray in places and silvery and illuminated with the last light of the day in others.

Shortly after I got back to the house we all left to see the light festival at Cape Henlopen State Park. It was a nice display, similar to the one we see in Oglebay most years, but smaller. They were also having a winter carnival in the Cape May-Lewes ferry parking lot, with live music and rides. We considered going up in the Ferris wheel but it was colder than the night before—in the mid-forties– and windy. I might have done it if I’d known for sure there would have been a view of the water, but we passed on it. There were also people ice-skating, or trying to, on a small rectangle of plastic.

Back at the house Beth made another fire and we ate a dinner of food from various restaurants and Thanksgiving leftovers in the living room while we watched Christmas is Here Again. It was a cozy end to the day.

Sunday

Beth made pumpkin pancakes, we packed up the house, and I took another short, solo walk on the beach. We drove to downtown Rehoboth where we did some more Christmas shopping and then June finally got to eat at her choice of restaurant, after having been overruled twice. She chose Green Man. I told everyone that the Green Man was a symbol of resistance during insurrections that followed the Norman Invasion, a fact I picked up from this book, which I read for my book club in September.

Over our lunch of sandwiches and smoothies I explained to everyone how the Green Man was a symbol of authentic pagan Englishness in opposition to French Catholicism and how some of the native laborers who built the Norman cathedrals, included Green Men in the decorations as a small act of rebellion.

The kids and I headed down to the beach one last time. Noah always puts his feet in the ocean for the number of waves that corresponds with the last two digits of the year whenever we leave the beach. He does it barefoot, no matter what the season. I do it, too, but with rain boots in the colder months. However, I’d left my boots in the car which was parked quite a distance away so I did it barefoot, too, but only for two waves. It was cold but not as cold as I thought it would be. June was sitting the ritual out because I didn’t want her to get her ankle brace wet, so I said I was doing the two, June the zero and Noah the sixteen in 2016.

June wanted to get her fortune told by the mechanical fortune teller on the boardwalk. I said no reflexively but then she suggested the fortune might contain a phrase I could use as a blog post title. I handed over the dollar. But, alas, Zoltar wasn’t working that day, so we didn’t get to see the future.

It was around three when we finally hit the road after a long stop at the outlets to buy the kids new fleece-lined crocs and shoes for their upcoming band and orchestra concerts and some clothes for June. This timing meant we got to the Chesapeake Bay at 4:45. The sky was burning, the water was shining and as we crossed it, I felt just slightly replenished, more ready to face the uncertain future and to keep making small acts of rebellion.

Fifty

During all the awful tumult of the post-election fallout, a good thing happened. Beth turned fifty. Her birthday usually comes right before Thanksgiving and this year it was the day before. Because of that, it often seems to usher in the holiday season for our family and Tuesday afternoon, as I was out getting a birthday card for her, I felt my heart lighten a little. We still have a lot to celebrate.

When Beth and I started dating, I had just turned twenty a couple months earlier and she was several months shy of twenty-one. We’ve spent our twenties, thirties, and forties together and now we’re embarking on our fifties. It’s a comforting thought, that we’re in this together, come what may.

Beth took her birthday off so we could cook and prepare for our Thanksgiving trip to the beach. (We’re renting a house in Rehoboth from Thursday to Sunday.) The kids had a half-day, so in the morning I took Beth out to La Mano and we got coffee and split a cranberry-orange scone. There were no seats available so we walked up to downtown Takoma and sat at the table outside Dolci Gelato, which wasn’t open yet, so it didn’t feel like we were squatting. It was a pretty day and the morning sun was warm enough so we didn’t feel cold.

From there we went to the hardware store, because Beth knows how to party on her birthday. No, seriously, it was birthday-related. ACE sent her a $10 coupon for her birthday and she bought twenty leaf bags with it. Then we drove to the library so I could return a book and get another one, but I forgot it doesn’t open until noon on Wednesdays, so we came home and puttered around the house. I worked a little and did laundry. Beth made cranberry sauce and mushroom gravy.

June got home around one and started to set up her gift for Beth—fifty origami cups she’d made over the last couple days, each with candy inside (miniature Reese’s peanut butter cups, Hershey’s kisses, or espresso caramels) arranged on the living room floor into the shape of the numerals 5 and 0. I’d told Beth ahead of time June’s gift was “showy and sweet” and Beth replied, “Just like June.”

It took longer to set this up than either June or I anticipated. We’d tested it on the living room carpet the day before to see if the cups would stand up when weighted down with candy and the our test cup did, but it turned out fifty of them were more of a challenge and they kept falling over. They were all shaped just a little differently and different kinds of candies weighed them differently as well. The Reese’s cups worked better than the kisses or the caramels. June also wanted them to touch each other, which she thought would help them support each other and I thought would lead to domino-like toppling. We were both right at different points in the endeavor. She ended up making the five, I made the zero, and since we had cups left over, she made an exclamation point.  Noah observed that depending on where you stood to view it, it could look like 50!, 105, or 501. Beth told June it was “magical.”

All Beth’s presents from us were food. I guess, given the circumstances, we all gravitated toward comfort food. Noah got her a set of dessert sauces—bittersweet chocolate, chocolate peanut butter, sea salt caramel, and dark chocolate sea salt. I got her two boxes of fancy crackers, two hunks of cheeses we’d never tried (Piave Vecchie and dry Jack), two baking mixes (brownies and molten chocolate cake), apple cider syrup, and pumpkin pancake and waffle mix.

After Beth opened her presents, I made brandied sweet potatoes and while they were in the oven, we headed back to the library and then to the grocery store to get a prescription. Noah was just finishing drumming when we got home, so I read most of Act Three of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child to both kids. They’re not often free at the same time, so reading this play has been slow going, but we’re all enjoying it.

Next I made Beth’s requested birthday dinner—breaded baked tofu sticks with curried tartar sauce, egg noodles, and homemade applesauce. For dessert, I made a chocolate cake with coffee frosting. I put it in the oven just before we sat down to dinner. About five minutes before it was supposed to come out of the oven, I realized I didn’t smell cake. Turns out I’d turned off the oven when I took the sweet potatoes out and I never turned it back on when I put the cake in. Luckily, it only needed to bake a half hour and by cooling it on the porch, I was able to get it frosted so we could all eat cake and ice cream before June’s bedtime.

A few days ago, I told Beth I was thinking of not doing a Christmas card this year. It just seemed like a lot of work and it was hard to imagine putting a smiling picture of us on the front of it or writing a cheerful letter about what we’ve been up to this past year. The annual card means more to me than to her, so I thought she might go along with the idea of taking a pass. Instead she looked surprised.

I said I wasn’t sure if it was just post-election depression and if I’d regret it later if we skipped a year. She asked if I’d thought it was too much work last year. I said no, so clearly it was post-election depression, but that the part I wasn’t sure about was whether I’d regret it or not. She gently suggested we take some pictures at the beach “just in case.” We discussed the possibility of sending a card with no letter, of taking a more pensive looking picture, of putting some political message on the card.

I’m still not sure what we’re going to do, but I think she handled it just right. If she’d said that we should do the card, I might have said it was pointless and started crying. If she’d said sure, let’s skip it this year, I probably would have cried, too, because that would mean it really was pointless. We’ve had our share of rough patches and misunderstandings over the years, but sometimes she knows just how to handle me. I guess twenty-nine years of experience comes in handy there. I’m lucky to have her in my life and I’m happy she’s been on Earth for fifty years.

I’ll close with this excerpt from Springsteen’s “All That Heaven Will Allow,” which Beth put on a mix tape she made for me when we were much, much younger.

Rain and storm and dark skies
Well now they don’t mean a thing
If you got a girl that loves you
And who wants to wear your ring
So c’mon mister trouble
We’ll make it through you somehow
We’ll fill this house with all the love
All that heaven will allow

Happy fiftieth birthday, sweetheart. I love you in good times and bad.

Brace Yourself

In a period of just nine days, Noah got his braces off, June got hers on, and she swapped her boot for an ankle brace.

June got her braces two years younger than Noah and she’ll be wearing them longer, and in two phases because she has more serious bite issues. Her teeth were sore for a while and she complained at dinner the first night she had them, “Noah is flaunting his braceless teeth at me.” But she got a lot of compliments on the teal color she chose and she said her friends at school told her she looks “adorable” with them, so there’s that. She’s supposed to brush after every meal now and a boy who saw her in the hallway with her toothbrush called her a nerd for brushing at school. I asked her if that upset her and she said no, “because I already didn’t like him.”

Today June got her boot off after wearing it for almost four weeks. She has a brace now she can wear with shoes. She’s a little wobbly on her feet and isn’t supposed to try to run for another three weeks, but it’s progress.

We are all also trying to brace ourselves for the upcoming change in administration. It’s not easy. It’s hard to know whether to be more appalled by the steady stream of horrifying appointments—a white supremacist as chief advisor, a climate change denier in charge of the transition at the EPA, an opponent of civil rights at the Justice Department—or the hate crimes committed by people who now feel emboldened.

You’re probably painfully aware that there’s been a spike in hate crimes nationally. Just in our little corner of the world, a Black Lives Matter sign at UCC church in Silver Spring that a friend of mine attends has been repeatedly vandalized. An Episcopal church in Silver Spring with a majority immigrant congregation had their sign advertising Spanish-language services defaced with the words “Trump Nation. Whites Only.”

And in more chilling examples, swastikas were drawn at a Bethesda middle school and at the French immersion elementary school a biracial friend of June’s attends, someone wrote “KILL KILL KILL BLACKS” on a restroom wall. Then last Friday a group of white nationalists were doing Nazi salutes at an Italian restaurant in Friendship Heights, a restaurant we frequent because it’s near the kids’ dentist. A boy who went to Noah’s preschool a year ahead of him and who’s now a junior at his high school heard about it on Twitter and got there in time for the protest.

When I went to book club about a week after the election, I expected to find the members in a variety of emotional states, from glum to energized to organize. It’s not a politically-focused book club, but it’s an older lefty crowd for the most part. I’m the youngest regularly attending member, at forty-nine. When I got arrived, there was no pre-discussion chatter, which is a little unusual. Everyone was silent until we started discussing our book, The Secret Chord. It’s historical fiction, based on the life of King David. The election never came up, which was also unusual. People often want to connect what we’re reading to current events and it’s hard to stop thinking about this particular event.

Once we’d finished and were preparing to leave, one man who’s fairly involved in local politics, said without preamble or explanation, “Does anyone have any reason be hopeful?”

There was a long silence. It seemed no one was going to say anything so I searched for something, even though I haven’t exactly been a ray of sunshine lately. I said the fact that we’d just read a book that takes place three thousand years ago might encourage us to take the long view. The story was full of betrayal and violence, based as it is on the Old Testament. But David’s tumultuous reign led to the more peaceful and just reign of his son Solomon. I didn’t say it that well at the time, but I wish I had because they were all so sad…

But as I read political discussions among liberals and progressives on Facebook, it’s hard to see the way forward. Did Trump win because he mined a deep seam of racism and misogyny in American culture? Or did Clinton lose because she didn’t focus on economic issues important to the white working class, who voted for Trump despite his hateful rhetoric and not because of it? (Although if that’s the case, it’s sobering to note that racism wasn’t a deal-breaker for big chunk of the electorate.) Or has the role of class been overstated here, given how many middle and upper class whites voted for Trump, in which case it might be about race after all. No one on the left seems to agree, which makes it hard to know how to proceed.

But are we really just going to argue about what to call the march on the day after the inauguration and whether we should be wearing safety pins or not? I hope not.
And speaking of safety pins, I found one on one of June’s shirts as I was hanging wash on the line last week. Somehow I didn’t notice it when she was wearing it. I’d explained briefly why some people were wearing them and she’d decided to wear one to school herself. I know people are divided on whether this is a helpful gesture or not, but I was moved that she took it upon herself to do it.

Something else that made me feel hopeful last week was the massive walkouts at local high schools. The week after the election, there were walkouts Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday in suburban Maryland and the District. These were mostly peaceful, but unfortunately violence broke out in Rockville when a kid in Trump hat confronted the crowd and was kicked and punched by protesters. I don’t condone or excuse that.

Here’s an article about the walkout at Noah’s school, where about a third of the student body walked out and a smaller group took to the streets.

Noah was at the orthodontist getting his braces off when the protest started but when he got back to school and discovered his English class empty—because every single kid had walked out—he went to the stadium to join them. He didn’t take part in the street protest. He’s not a natural rebel and he hates crowds, so I’m not surprised but I’m glad he participated in part of it and that his school’s walkout was peaceful. I’m proud of all the kids who go to his large, diverse school and their passion and commitment to social justice.

At each rally I go to (and so far I’ve been to two—one in Takoma and one in Silver Spring), Blair students have given speeches alongside religious leaders, local and federal government officials, school system administrators, and members of the police. These teenagers haven’t succumbed to despair, which helps pull me back from the brink when I get close.

For my part, I’ve signed petitions and picked up the phone although I absolutely hate making political phone calls. Last week I asked my mom and sister if in lieu of Christmas gifts we could all donate to progressive organizations and send each other cards to open on Christmas that say what organizations we chose. They both said yes and that made me feel good, like we could all dig a little deeper into our wallets now. It’s a small thing, but like Noah, I’m not a natural rebel. Maybe over the next several years, I will learn.

The Long Run

Election: Tuesday

June and I went out to lunch on Election Day. I was antsy and didn’t want to stay in the house all day, plus I had a check to deposit and she had to buy a birthday present for Megan, so we made an outing of it that ended with sandwiches and dessert at Capitol City Cheesecake.

I rubbed June’s back fondly as she finished her dessert and said, “This could be a historic day. You might remember this day forever…The election, not the cannoli,” I clarified and she laughed.

Well, now I hope she doesn’t remember.

We put her to bed at 8:30, her normal bedtime, but I was planning to wake her up as soon as Clinton won, to tell her the good news, that a woman was going to be President, and that a madman wasn’t.

Just before results starting coming in, I’d helped Noah hurriedly finish a short essay for his AP Government class by typing as he dictated it to me while pacing around his room and eating a taco—yes, like many of you, we decided to celebrate Taco Tuesday that night. It seemed funny at the time. (Beth also made chocolate chip cookies to commemorate the kerfuffle over Hillary’s comments about staying home and making cookies back in the day.) Noah was eating late because hadn’t come to the dinner table to eat with the rest of us because he wanted to finish his work in time to watch the results.

Beth, Noah, and I spent most of the evening huddled on our bed with the laptop, the iPad, and my phone, watching the results come in and reading our friends’ Facebook commentary. He gets up very early (5:45) so his official school day bedtime is 9:00, although more often than not he’s up later than that doing homework. I’d told him he could stay up until at least 9:30 and then we’d re-evaluate, because I thought it might be over by then.

As you know, it wasn’t over at 9:30. We all watched it unfold as most of you probably did, in stunned horror. By eleven, I was starting to shake. It felt like shivering with cold, but I wasn’t cold. And then I just didn’t want to watch any more. I might have if an end was in sight, but was clear by then it probably wasn’t going to be settled until the middle of the night so Beth and I went to bed and tried to sleep. I wanted to Noah to get some sleep, too, because he had two big assignments due Thursday and he’d need to be in good enough shape to work Wednesday, but he was fiercely insistent about staying up and it felt so huge, so important that we let him take the laptop to bed. He’s not sure what time he fell asleep—it was sometime during the long stretch of time when Trump had 244 electoral votes.

Aftermath: Wednesday to Saturday

I was up almost every hour during the night, checking the electoral vote count on my phone and being sick in the bathroom.  Beth didn’t sleep well either, but she got up before me so she had the job of telling June, who received the news with tears.

She wasn’t the only one crying. I cried on and off all morning. Beth said people were crying on the Metro. Noah said people were crying at school. The CAP kids could go to an optional meeting to process their feelings about the election during their first period. (Noah chose to remain in his Media class because he had some film editing to do and he preferred to keep his mind on that.) His school, which is large and very racially diverse, also had counselors available to speak to students during both lunch periods.

Wednesday was the one day that week I had a full day to work because the kids had Monday off for a teacher planning and grading day, Tuesday off for the election, and June’s school had half-days Thursday and Friday for parent-teacher conferences. But I was in no condition to write anything, so I read instead, catching up on a trade magazine I read for Sara so I can send her links to any relevant articles. It was something to do to keep my mind occupied.

Early in the afternoon I went to bed, fell asleep almost immediately, and slept deeply for an hour. That helped some. So did the long, hard hug Noah gave me when he got home from school. Beth and I often comment, sometimes jokingly, that he’s almost a man now, at fifteen and a half, but I actually felt it when his big, strong arms were around me. I felt a flash of hope, that he and his smart, caring peers might be able, eventually, to set right whatever goes wrong in the next four to eight years. It’s a lot to put on them, and I don’t absolve myself from trying, too, but the thought made me feel a trifle less hopeless.

I muddled through Thursday, working, sweeping the porch, cleaning the bathroom, cooking a green tomato, purple cabbage, and brown rice stew with the last of the garden tomatoes. It was difficult at times to convince myself that any of this was worth doing, but it felt marginally better than crying all day, so I did it.

Friday Beth had the day off work for Veterans’ Day and June was going to Megan’s after school so we had some time alone together, which was welcome. I didn’t work that day, but before Beth and I left on our lunch and movie date, I had a few things to do.

After June got on the school bus I removed the Clinton/Kaine sign from our fence and replaced it with a Black Lives Matter sign. I would have put it up earlier (and left the Clinton sign up longer) but we only had one set of rods. After that, I went through the drawer where I toss appeals from non-profits and decided to give to Planned Parenthood and the Environmental Defense Fund, for starters. I’ll be writing more checks later, but the idea of losing several years of action on climate change is particularly terrifying right now. My next step was to unfollow a couple people on Facebook. I don’t want to unfriend anyone, because my feed is almost entirely liberal as it is, and so many people never hearing each other’s voices might be part of what got us into this mess, but for now, I don’t need to hear any gloating. I’ll start following them again when I feel up to it.

We went for lunch at Eggspectations because there’s a lot of comfort food on the menu there. Beth got a veggie burger and a salad, I got butternut squash soup, and baked brie with apple slices, grapes, and raspberry sauce. We split a piece of pumpkin Smith Island cake. Then we went and saw Moonlight. If you’ve read the reviews and haven’t seen it yet, it’s as good as they say.

It was my first time out of the house since Tuesday. Previously Beth had urged me to go out, because as she said, “the world’s still out there.”

As we drove home, I said, “I guess there’s still good food and art.” And there is.

We picked up June from Megan’s house and brought her home so Noah could take her to her voice lesson while we went to a very positive parent-teacher conference with her English and social studies teacher. It left us thinking he’d write her a good recommendation for the humanities magnet. (She decided not to apply to the math/science magnet after all.) 

We swung by the book fair while we were at June’s school and bought a graphic novel June specifically asked us to buy her. While we were there, a mom who was President of the PTA for a long time told us she was going to work on connecting undocumented families at the school with immigration lawyers.

Late that afternoon, there was a rally at another local elementary school to support Takoma’s Muslim and immigrant population. I wanted to go, but June’ voice lesson conflicted with it, so Beth dropped me off at the rally by myself. It was important to me be there because I remember how comforting it was to go to the rally after the Pulse nightclub killings and how much it meant to me to see so many straight friends and neighbors there. I wanted to that pay that forward.

Here’s an article about the rally. I knew a lot of people there and it was good to see them. Some of the speeches were moving, and I teared up when I saw the kid, around June’s age, holding the hand-lettered sign that said, “We love you. We will fight for you! You are safe,” and two more holding cardboard studded with tiny colored lights to read “Love” and “Hope.” Beth and the kids arrived around 6:20, just as the rally was breaking up and we drove to Silver Spring for pizza and frozen yogurt.

On Saturday morning I had to wake Noah up at nine, after a near-record eleven hours’ sleep. He almost never sleeps this late and I hated to do it, but he had a lot of homework. An hour later he said he felt sick and decided to go back to bed. Eventually, I came into his room and read to him first from his Government textbook and then from Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, which he’s reading for English. And then he worked on the Works Cited for a group research project and felt well enough to get up and drum.

In the afternoon, June went to Megan’s carnival-themed birthday party, because in addition to good food, and art, there are still kids in the world and they are still getting older. In a few years, these turning-eleven girls will know more about the world than they do now, for good and for ill. It’s up to us to prepare them.

5K: Sunday

This morning, June completed the Girls on the Run 5K, walking the whole way. When we found out her ankle was fractured, we assumed she’d sit out the rest of the season, but she wanted to keep going to practices, at first just to watch, and then once she got the boot she started walking laps while her peers ran. When it came time for the practice 5K on the track at a local middle school, she surprised us again by saying she wanted to do it, and the real 5K, too. She was able to walk the practice 5K in about an hour and suffered no ill effects so we said she could walk the real one, too.

We arrived at the staging area, a mall parking lot, at 7:50 a.m., an hour and ten minutes before race time. It was a chilly morning. There was frost on the windshield of the car when we left and the temperature in Bethesda was just under freezing when we arrived. We visited some of the booths. June got temporary green dye sprayed on her hair at the “Happy Hair Station” and Beth bought her a pink satin cape at a merchandise booth. Then we waited for her teammates to arrive.

Adults who hadn’t seen each other since Tuesday exchanged condolences. Zoë’s mom, who is one of the team coaches, said of the event, “I need some girl power in the worst way.” So I wish I could say the event inspired me and filled me with hope. I was proud of June and her teammates, of course. How could I not be? They rock. But I had not slept well the night before and my mood had cratered again, and the loud music was making the headache I’d arrived with worse. I was glad when the race got underway and the parking lot cleared out.

The last time June did a 5K, I walked the route and Beth waited at the finish line. This time we swapped places. Beth and Megan both walked with June while the rest of the team ran.

I’d agreed to watch the sign and the balloons the girls would use to re-unite in a crowd of seven thousand people. The first runner from June’s school was back in about thirty-five minutes and the next one about ten minutes later. Then the rest of them started drifting back. I figured June would take at least an hour, so I headed to the finish line shortly before then.  After ten minutes or so I saw Megan and June go under the inflatable arch with their arms raised, and Beth walking just behind them. And then I did feel moved.

We went into the mall to use the bathrooms and get some food and hot beverages while we waited for the traffic jam of people trying to leave the race to clear. We ran into one of June’s friends who is now at another school and her mom in Starbucks. Her mom, who works in the civil rights division of the Department of Justice and who had run the race with her daughter, said, “I thought this would make me feel better, but it didn’t.”

I said, “Some things make me feel less bad, but nothing makes me feel good.” I guess less bad is a start, because we have a lot of work to do in the coming years and we can’t lose ourselves in despair. At least we have to try not to let that happen.

One of the things people often say they admire about Hillary Clinton is how she perseveres. I know someone else like that and I’m with her, and all her strong, capable, big-hearted friends, for the long run.

This is Halloween

Saturday: Halloween Parade 

Fifteen minutes before we need to leave for the Halloween parade is always a hectic time at our house and this year was no different. June’s costume had been pretty much finished for a week, but the paint was still damp on Noah’s. This is how it usually goes.

So at 12:30 on Saturday afternoon, Beth was spraying hairspray on June’s hair and teasing it into a mad scientist style, while I was cutting painted emojis out of poster board for Noah’s costume, carefully because the paint was still tacky. Meanwhile, Noah was using the paper cutter to cut up the business cards June was going to pass out along the route.

Maybe by now you’re wondering, what the kids were going as? June was the Tongue Twister, a character of her own invention. She wore a lab coat with tongue twisters and graphics of a tongue tied in knots on it. She had the aforementioned crazy hair and a big pair of glasses that distorted her eyes and she carried two wrenches in which she was twisting a rubber tongue. (Did you know you can order rubber tongues from the Internet? Now you do.)

Noah was a Samsung Galaxy 7 Note phone on fire. The flames are my favorite part of this costume and they were a group effort. Noah printed a model for tracing onto the poster board and he and June traced the shapes with pencil. Then he painted them with three layers of paint—yellow, then orange, then red. Then he and I cut them out and he and Beth glued them to the front of his costume with spray glue. Halloween inspires us to teamwork.

We had some Halloween-themed temporary tattoos, so though I wasn’t in costume, I got into the spirit by decorating my face with a witch, a vampire, and a ghost and the backs on my hands with a black cat and a mummy. Beth wore a necklace of plastic skulls that light up red, but it was too sunny for the lights to show. It was an unseasonably warm day. I was in a black turtleneck and a denim skirt with no tights or leggings and I was a little warm. I was glad June had opted for a camisole under her lab coat instead of a warmer shirt.

We got to the Co-op parking lot around 1:15, fifteen minutes after the festivities started. There’s usually a lot of milling around before the contestants divide into groups for the judges. June guessed how many plastic spiders were in a jar and played some games. Beth, Noah, and I people watched and waited for the contest to begin.

There were the usual adorable babies and toddlers in bee, lion, and bunny costumes. A boy who used to be in Kindermusic with June was either the Grim Reaper or a Dementor on a skateboard. A girl from her drama camp was the Phantom of the Opera and a girl from drama class was a Minecraft dragon. I think that’s what she was—neither of my kids has been much into Minecraft.

I saw an unusual number of zombies this year—including zombie cheerleaders, a zombie prom queen, and some standard zombies. There were also several individuals and groups, male and female, going as Ghostbusters. My favorite version of this had a baby in a white snow suit with a sailor hat and collar as The Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man, though I was a little afraid he or she was going to overheat in that get-up.

Noah thought his most serious competition for Most Original in the teen and adult category was the house from Up. The house wasn’t that detailed, though. Just cardboard rectangle and roof painted yellow.

It’s an election year so I expected some political costumes and there was both a Hillary Clinton (accompanied with Secret Service agents) and a Donald Trump in June’s age group. The girl dressed as Clinton had a photo of Clinton’s face blown up and held in front of her own face and she wore a pantsuit. The boy dressed as Trump had a “Make America Great” hat and a blazer on, and there was money sticking out of his blazer pocket. There was an adult Nasty Woman and a Basket Full of Deplorables, which I never saw but I heard about later from Beth and Noah. I’d predicted someone would do that, but Beth and Noah said it wasn’t done the way I would have guessed. It was a man with a basket attached to his rear. I would have preferred it as a group costume with multiple people in a big basket.

Speaking of group costumes there was a group of adults I think was going as decades. There was a flapper, Elvis, a hippie, etc. I liked that idea. People were walking around taking pictures of each other and both kids had their pictures taken by a representative from the Recreation Department and by strangers.

Around two it was time to divide by age. I went to march with June and the nine to twelve year olds and Beth went with Noah in the teen and adult area. Usually the judges circulating through the crowd only ask a few people’s names and if they ask yours there’s a good chance, but not a guarantee, that you’re going to win. It at least means you’re under consideration. But this year the nine-to-twelve judge was asking every kid’s name and it took a while for her to get them all down. Then later, once we were marching, she came back and asked June for her name again. June thought that was a good sign.

We marched to downtown Takoma and June did pretty well with her boot. When anyone commented on her costume, she handed them one of the business cards she had in her jacket pocket. They have a picture of her on the front and tongue twisters on the back and they say, “You’ll be tongue-tied by the time I’m finished.”

While we were waiting for the contest results to be announced, I commented to Beth, “It’s not too cold for gelato,” because we were standing right in front of Dolce Gelati. She didn’t care for any, but I bought some for myself and the kids.

As we were eating the gelato, June realized she didn’t have her tongue. I went back into the Dolce Gelati and downstairs to the bathroom in the basement where we’d just been but I couldn’t find it.  Shortly afterward, a friend of hers (the one dressed as the Phantom of the Opera) came up to us and said, “I found your tongue” and handed it to her. It was black from being on the ground, but she was glad to have it.

“That’s why it’s handy June knows everyone,” I said to Beth.

The Grandsons, a local band that always plays at this event, was up on stage playing. There’s usually a pretty long wait for the results, but sooner than I thought, they were announcing results for the four and unders, and then the five to eights, and then the nine to twelves, without pausing for music between results, as they often do.

In June’s age group, Most Original went to Hillary Clinton, which was a bit of a surprise as Presidential candidates in Presidential election years are not really unexpected. Consider this—in the Family Circus in the Sunday comics, Dolly was Clinton and Billy was Trump. I think we can all agree that it’s in the Family Circus, original is probably not the right characterization.

Scariest went to Donald Trump, another surprise because I didn’t think a contest run by a municipal government would go there. We waited for Funniest, because June had strategically tried to design a costume she thought could win any of those three categories. And they never announced it. They just took a break for a musical interlude before the teen and adult results.

Well, we were all sad for June because it was a good costume and she really wanted to win, as did Noah. For whatever reason, both kids have latched onto this contest and it means a lot to them. Nonetheless, she took it pretty well, even if she was surprised. I think after her name was taken a second time, she thought she had it in the bag. I’ll admit, I kind of thought she did, too.

After another song or two, they announced Most Original for teens and adults and it was one of the Ghostbusters. Scariest went to one of the zombies, a good one with a lot of elaborate makeup and Funniest was…the Samsung phone. The M.C. made a joke about asking him to stay away from the stage, but Noah went up and collected his prize, a $25 gift certificate for Busboys and Poets. He was happy to win, though I think he would have preferred Most Original. Unlike June, he has a clear preference for that category.

While we waited for Beth to fetch the car, Noah kept telling June the judging was really bad this year. I was touched by that because I didn’t feel that as her parents Beth and I could say too much about it or we’d be modeling poor sportsmanship. However, he was better positioned to comment on it, both as her brother and someone who had just won.

We headed home, made popcorn and watched It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown, because June had been wanting to do that. Then I read Serafina and the Twisted Staff to her, while Noah did some homework. Around six, we dropped June off at her friend Claire’s house for their annual Halloween party where she met friends dressed as an archer, a fallen angel, a vending machine. Once we’d dropped her off, Beth, Noah, and I went out to dinner at Noah’s favorite Italian restaurant.

Monday: Trick or Treat

Getting the kids out the door for trick-or-treating was nearly as rushed as getting to the parade. Right before it was time to leave, I realized I needed to do June’s hair because Beth wasn’t home yet, and the kids remembered I hadn’t gotten the Frankenstein’s Monster head candy bowl from the basement and we hadn’t set up either the little coffin with a skeleton and colored mist coming from it, or the bigger fog machine. I got the candy bowl and filled it and set Noah to work on the fog machines.

Plus, there were some Halloween decoration we never got around to putting the batteries in—despite June’s frequent reminders. And I never made a replacement Halloween playlist to play while waiting for trick-or-treaters.  Over the years I’ve made two of these, both of which got accidentally deleted for some reason.

The kids left around 6:40 with Noah was protesting it was too early and no one would be home and Beth and me telling them to go already because June was slow with her boot and he was slow in his costume and I wanted them home by eight because June would need to wash the hairspray out of her hair and he had undone homework.

I did the dinner dishes and waited by the door for trick-or-treaters. I heard one group making their way through the fog on the way to the door saying, “I forgot about this house,” so I guess we were decorated enough, even without all the batteries.

The kids came home a little after eight, and Megan came to the door around 8:20 while June was about to get in the bath, so she came to the door in a bath robe, with her crazy hair. Megan had called that afternoon to invite June to trick or treat with her, but between their more ambitious route and June’s ankle and Noah not having plans to go with anyone else, it seemed best not to change plans at the last minute.  We promised June they could go together next year, maybe without adults, if it was okay with Megan’s folks. June and Noah tried to hit Megan’s house while they were out but no one was home, so I’m glad they at least got to see each other, however briefly. Megan had on a Mexican dress and a Day of the Dead mask and skeleton tights. 

This is Halloween for us. We decorate the porch and the yard and carve pumpkins, the kids make costumes and march in the parade. Sometimes they win the contest and sometimes they don’t. They come home on Halloween night with bags full of sweets and plans for next year.

Of Pumpkins and Presidents

We live pretty near the Maryland/Virginia border but we don’t go to Virginia often. We’re more often in the District, where Beth works and where our doctors and dentists are. However, in the past week, we’ve visited our sister state twice, or at least June and I have.

1. Pumpkins

Late last Saturday afternoon we drove forty-five minutes to Potomac Vegetable Farm, our traditional source for jack-o-lantern pumpkins. There are certainly closer places we could get pumpkins or pumpkin farms with more bells and whistles in terms of activities, festivals, etc. But we started going to Potomac Vegetable Farm before the kids were born because the family of a friend of ours from college ran it, and now it’s a sacred tradition. We’ve only missed one year when we all had a stomach bug.

On the way there I noticed Northern Virginia is Clinton/Kaine country, if yard signs are any indication. And that’s good, because unlike reliably blue Maryland, Virginia is a swing state, or it often is, in a normal year. (It went for Obama twice, but Bush twice before that.) It’s looking pretty safe for Clinton at the moment.

Noah was working on the script and storyboard of his dystopian trailer before we left and it was hard to pull him away from it, but I’m glad he agreed to come because it turned into a pretty fun family outing. We picked out some decorative gourds and our jack-o-lanterns—I opted to go with a white pumpkin this year—took the traditional pumpkin farm photo of the kids, and stocked up on cider and fall produce. I got beets, squash, a sweet potato, and some late cherry tomatoes to cook with and Beth got a couple green tomatoes, which would supplement our garden tomatoes when she made her signature fried green tomatoes for dinner on Sunday.

From the farm, we headed to Sunflower, a vegetarian Chinese restaurant we’ve never tried before and which we all enjoyed. If you go, I recommend the fake shrimp. I also appreciated the owners’ commitment to sunflowers in the décor. There were real sunflowers growing outside the restaurant (dead now of course, but I’m sure it was pretty when they were in bloom) and sunflowers decorations everywhere you look inside.

As we finished our meal, we discussed dessert options. June’s been wanting to try bubble tea for a while now and Beth looked on her phone and found a (mostly) Asian dessert place nearby that carried it. June got mango and I got coconut and Beth and Noah went for chocolate cake and raspberry cheesecake respectively. As we drove home, sipping our sweet drinks and listening to Halloween music and catching glimpses of the enormous full moon that kept popping in and out of view, I felt deeply content. Over the next week, whenever I glimpsed the little pumpkin and yellow and green gourd on my desk, it kept reminding me of that pleasant day.

2. Presidents

Almost a week later, on Friday, I chaperoned a fifth grade field trip to Mount Vernon. I signed up because the last field trip I went on to Saint Mary’s City last spring was fun. But as happened last time, I didn’t really expect to be chosen because there are often more parents who want to chaperone trips than there are slots. But when June came home the next day with a form about a new online training about child abuse and neglect all school volunteers have to complete and I asked if I could wait to see if I was chosen before I did it, she said, “Oh, you’re in.”

So I did the training, and it was kind of annoying, because near the end I lost all my progress due to a computer glitch and then I had to start over. But I persevered and Friday morning found me at June’s school.

We almost didn’t go on the trip because on Wednesday at recess June twisted her ankle and on Thursday morning she still couldn’t put any weight on it, but she really wanted to go so we decided to give it a try.

We got a ride to school with Megan’s mom, who was dropping off her younger daughter. The buses left the school at 9:40 and crossed the Maryland/Virginia border about twenty minutes later. It was a pretty drive. The leaves are just starting to change and we passed the Washington Monument, National Airport, and drove through charming Old Town Alexandria with all its colonial architecture. I noticed some water birds in the Potomac. And then about 10:35 we arrived at Mount Vernon. As we disembarked from the bus, Zoë noticed the Clinton button on my backpack and said, “I like your button.”

Chaperones were allowed to wander with their groups until our tour of the mansion at 11:30. I was sharing a group of eight girls with the father of one of June’s friends, but it soon became clear June couldn’t keep up on her crutches, so I told him I was going to peel off with her so we could go at her pace. We made our way slowly toward the mansion, stopping to rest on benches and to read short bits of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows while her classmates went to explore the farm and gardens.

June was a trooper with the crutches, but she was getting tired and red-faced, so when we got to the mansion, I left her with her math teacher—I couldn’t find my co-chaperone or her social studies teacher—to go see if I could get a loaner wheelchair. In retrospect, I should have done this at the entrance, where they have more wheelchairs, but we were still trying to keep up with the group then and there was no time to stop and ask. They only had an adult size wheelchair at the mansion. The wheels were too far apart for June to comfortably maneuver it by herself but all we needed was some respite from walking for her and I could push her.

She rode in the wheelchair through the line to get into the mansion and then we stowed it outside because she wanted to go up to the second floor. During their reading about George Washington and his family she got especially interested in his step-granddaughter Nelly and she wanted to see her room, so she hopped up the stairs while I held the crutches.

There were a lot of school groups visiting that day (or maybe every day) and so they really hustle you through the house, but you can explore the out buildings at your leisure. We peeked into the smokehouse, the stables and carriage house, the storehouse, the clerk’s office, and the paint storage cellar. They used a lot of paint at Mount Vernon because even though the mansion looks like it’s made of stone, it’s really made of wood carved to look like masonry and painted with paint mixed with fine sand, to give it the glitter of mica in stone. Anyway, it needed frequent repainting. We got shooed away from the ice house because we’d gotten too close to a private tour group, so we never saw inside it.

Reading the signs, I noticed they almost never used the word “slave.” Instead it would say “enslaved gardeners,” “enslaved cooks,” “the enslaved population,” etc. It made me reflect on how this shifts the concept from slavery as a state which is continually forced on a person rather than a slave being something he or she inherently is.

I asked June what else she wanted to see and she said the Washingtons’ tomb so I pushed the wheelchair carefully down a pebbly hill to see George and Martha’s white marble sarcophaguses housed a big brick tomb that also houses the remains of other relatives as well. I would have liked to go see the slave memorial and the wharf but I was afraid of going even further downhill with the wheelchair. I learned later from the Mount Vernon website we were only fifty yards from the slave memorial at the time, but I didn’t know that, just what direction the signs said to go. It was hard pushing the chair back up the hill so when a passerby asked if he could help I accepted his offer. Thanks, stranger!

We peeked into a vegetable garden and an orchard on our way back to the museum but we didn’t go into them, as there were stairs. At the museum we toured exhibits about Washington’s childhood, the French and Indian War, and the Revolutionary War. It was nice to have a flat surface for the wheelchair. We didn’t have time to see the 4-D movie we later heard June’s classmates extol, but maybe we’ll go back some day.

We returned the wheelchair and re-joined June’s classmates for a late picnic lunch on the lawn near the driveway. As we ate the sky clouded over, the temperature dropped dramatically, a terrific wind kicked up, blowing leaves everywhere, and it started to sprinkle rain. By the time we were gathered to wait for the buses, it was raining in earnest. I helped June into her raincoat and urged her to go slowly on the wet pavement. (She’d fallen twice on wet restroom floors in the museum.)

We ran into traffic on the way home and there was a lot of water on the road the bus pushed up in sheets and the drive that took less than an hour getting there two hours and fifteen minutes getting back. We were an hour and twenty minutes late returning to school and the whole fifth grade missed their school buses. (Something similar happened on the way home from St. Mary’s last spring so I wasn’t surprised.) I’d been hoping to put June on her school bus and walk home by myself, but we got a ride with another chaperone. Thanks, Mindy!

During the bus ride, I asked June if she was glad she went and she said, “Yes. Are you?” I said I was glad to have gone and also to have been there to help her get around. “I wouldn’t have gone without you,” she said, leaning against me and resting her head on my shoulder. She was so tuckered out she actually fell asleep for fifteen minutes or so.

I have a piece of paper on which I jotted down these words, a quote from Washington, which were painted on the wall in the museum: “That the Government, though not absolutely perfect, is one of the best in the world, I have little doubt.”

Our democracy was far from perfect then, as I’m sure the enslaved population and many of the women would have attested, and it’s still far from perfect, but it’s gradually getting closer to fulfilling its promise and I think it’s quite a lot better than near-apocalyptic vision of one of the Presidential candidates. It was moving to visit the home of our first President near the end of the second term of our first African-American President and on the eve, I hope, of the first term of our first female President. It makes me wonder what other almost unimaginable changes will take place in my children’s lifetimes.

Visitation Day

Monday

Monday was Columbus Day and that means we spent the day at the kids’ schools. The schools all have open houses that day because many parents have the day off work, plus by that point the kids have been back to school for six weeks, more than half of a marking period, so everyone is or less back in the swing of the routine. We choose to visit Noah’s school in the morning, because that’s when he has his CAP classes and June’s in the afternoon because that’s when she has her only accelerated class (Math 5/6).

At we got out of the car in the high school parking lot, Noah said, “Are you sure you want to do this?” Yes, we did. I’ve always found these visits instructive, ever since the kids were in kindergarten. There’s no substitute for seeing your kids’ classes in action.

Normally Noah has most of his classes every other day, but so parents can see any class there are shortened versions of all nine periods on visitation day. (Doesn’t that make it sound as if the kids are in juvy? Or maybe expecting the Virgin Mary?).

We stayed for four periods—Journalism, Media Production, English, and AP Government. The lesson in Journalism was a discussion about interviewing sources—basically dos and don’ts and the reasons behind them. In Media Production, they were working on their biggest project for the fall—producing trailers for imaginary dystopian films. The teacher talked about the assignment for a while and then they broke into their groups to work on their proposals for the assignment. I occasionally approached his group, and hung around, trying to get close enough to hear but staying far away enough so he didn’t die of mortification. When I wandered away, I admired the posters from last year’s dystopian trailers on the wall.

In both of the next two periods there was a chance we’d see him present something, a speech and a skit, but we didn’t know if his turn would come while we were there, so there was a bit of suspense. The speeches in English were part of their unit on 1984. They had to write a short persuasive speech using ethos, pathos, logos, and at least three propaganda techniques. They’d drawn their topics from two piles of index cards, one of possible audiences and one of proposed actions. This resulted in some amusing combinations. Noah’s favorite was “Convince the RNC to buy tutus.” (Beth said she thought if someone told the RNC Donald Trump would disappear if they’d wear tutus, they’d all be sporting them.)

Noah’s assignment was to convince soccer moms in his school’s PTSA to join his high school’s (imaginary) painting club. We didn’t get to see him give it at school, though we’d both heard it at home—I thought he made especially good use of the slippery slope, by arguing that if moms didn’t spend quality time with their kids this way, the kids would do poorly in school and end up homeless. We did get to hear kids try to convince Santa’s elves to buy English textbooks, nudists to purchase juice with probiotics, single women to adopt cats, and business executives to shave their head to benefit children’s cancers. The kids were smart and funny—they knew how to keep it fun without losing sight of the assignment’s objectives.

In AP Government, the kids were presenting their mock campaign ads. Again, they’d been randomly assigned their candidates and ad formats. Noah’s group was doing what used to be called a “man on the street” ad for Clinton, though Noah said they call it “real people” now. This time we did get to see his group go. I thought Noah had the best line: “I pay my taxes. Hillary Clinton pays her taxes. I mean, that’s something we have in common.” His delivery and timing were just right. Most of the kids chose a skit format, as they hadn’t had much time to prepare their ads, but one group did a video for Johnson, with a student pretending to a little kid talking to his (real) father about the election.

We left Noah’s school around eleven and went to the Sears repair center to drop off our malfunctioning microwave, then out to lunch, and then home for just long enough to do the breakfast dishes and start some laundry and then to June’s school to see her math lesson.

June’s class has been working on multiplying and dividing fractions. The teacher went over a few problems on the Promethean board, covering both the mechanics of different ways to do the problems and also engaging the kids in discussion about why these methods work. Then the students broke into groups to rotate through activities.

June started on a laptop, doing an online review unit on multiplying three-digit numbers by two-digit numbers. Next she played a game with a boy, that involved drawing flat sticks with fraction multiplication problems written on them from a cylinder. They’d take turns solving the problems while other student checked their answers from an answer key. Each time a student correctly solved a problem, he or she would keep it and whoever had more sticks at the end won. The twist was some of the sticks said, “Zap” on them and if you drew that one, you lost all your accumulated sticks. Next June and six other students met with the teacher for small group instruction. The only activity she didn’t get to do was watching videos about multiplying and dividing fractions. The class seemed thoughtfully taught and the kids were engaged.

This was my last Columbus Day observing an elementary school class. Middle school is on the horizon. October is the month fifth graders have to decide if they are applying to any magnets and if so which ones. If June had her way she’d be applying to the performing arts magnet but it’s far away and there’s no bus provided, so we’ve regretfully ruled it out, as we did for Noah.

Of the schools she can apply to, June was adamant for a long time that she only wanted to apply to the humanities magnet Noah attended and not to the math and science one and we’d agreed that was fine. However, when her fourth grade PARCC scores came home last week and her math scores were higher than her reading and writing scores, I said, half-jokingly, “Are you sure you don’t want to apply?”

She surprised me by saying, “I don’t know. Maybe I will.” And later that day, she said she’d decided she would apply to both. I’m glad she’s keeping her options open. If she doesn’t get into either or chooses not to attend one, she’ll go to our home middle school, where she could continue in Spanish immersion. It’s only a quarter of the school day—two periods in Spanish and six in English– but that’s about how her school day breaks down now and it’s another good option to have. I think she could do well at any of those three schools.

Wednesday and Thursday

The kids had Wednesday off school for Yom Kippur and June started working on the application essay for the humanities magnet. As she did so, she spoke somewhat glumly of the odds of getting in (they expect 650 applications for the 100 spots available).  “Have some confidence,” Noah said. It was an odd, and touching, moment of role reversal for them.

We’ll be visiting all three middle schools this month, and going to current elementary school to hear a panel of alumni reporting back on each of the schools. The first information session was Thursday evening at the Humanities magnet. They divided the kids and parents up for separate presentations so I’m not sure what she heard, but it must have been very convincing, because when we were re-united she said, “I really want to go here.” We saw a lot of people we knew—I think there were at least five kids from her preschool class alone—not to mention kids she knows from elementary school and extracurricular activities.

It made the idea of June and her peers actually in middle school somewhat less theoretical and abstract. And if we needed any reminder we’re about to leave elementary school behind for good and have two kids in secondary school, this month will be a loud and clear one.

When We Grow Up

Three and half weeks ago, while we were still at the beach, I received the sound files and lyrics for the songs June needed to learn for her musical drama camp production of Matilda. But she was too busy having fun to practice much while we were on vacation. As tryouts were the first day of camp (a few days after our return), the day we left I urged her to listen to the songs in the car and sing along “for as long as you can stand it.” Little did I imagine she’d sing for nearly the whole drive home. She put a lot of heart into it, especially certain lines like, “If you’re little you can do a lot./You mustn’t let a little thing like little stop you.” I think she identified.

But there were other lines that resonated with me during the two weeks she was at camp and I was hearing a lot of them. Here’s a bit of “When I Grow Up,” I particularly like: “When I grow up/ I will be strong enough to carry all/the heavy things you have to haul/ around with you when you’re a grown-up.” There have been a lot of those things lately, haven’t there? Multiple high-profile police shootings, both police on civilians and vice versa, a terrorist attack in Nice and another one in Kabul, an attempted coup in Turkey and the Turkish government’s response to it, the shooting in Munich, and the truly alarming spectacle of the Republican National Convention.

I had more personal worries as well. It may seem small in light of national and international events, but our cat Matthew has lost weight and he passed some bloody stool and I went on the Internet and found it could be anything from constipation to cancer, and so for a while I was very worried about him. We took him to the vet twice and they palpated his belly, and took blood the first time and urine the second time. Everything came back normal, but one of the times I was at the vet’s office there was a father with two girls there collecting the body of their cat, who had been put to sleep during exploratory surgery for cancer, so it felt like a near miss indeed. And we’re still not sure what’s caused his symptoms, so I have some lingering unease, even though he’s acting normally.

Meanwhile, while June was at drama camp, Noah was home most of the time doing his summer school computer science assignments, as well as summer homework for pre-calculus and English, and helping me with housework and yardwork.

This year we let June walk to and from drama camp. She did this with another day camp nearer to the house last year, but this represented an expansion of her roaming range and it also involved crossing a slightly busier street than she’s ever crossed before. I took her to camp the first day because I needed to turn in a form, but that afternoon she came home red, sweaty, and proud of herself. About half the time, I ended up taking her on the bus in the mornings, but most afternoons she came home alone, sometimes buying herself a snack at a convenience store on the way.

Auditions were on the first day and for the first time in six summers of attending musical drama camp, June tried out for the main character. She had a reason for not doing this before. The camp director divides the main role up between various actors to spread the acting out more evenly across the group. Nonetheless, June prefers to own her role. But there wasn’t anyone except Matilda she really wanted to be, besides possibly Lavender, Matilda’s best friend. She found out on the second day she got the part. In fact, twelve of the twenty kids in her age group were playing Matilda. (In addition, there was a chorus of nine younger kids who sang along with June’s group but didn’t play individual parts. In the video, they’re the ones in the vests.)

The last few days of drama camp Beth was away for a several days at Netroots Nation in St. Louis. This conference was inconveniently timed because she wasn’t available to drive Noah to his summer school computer science midterm in Gaithersburg, she missed our twenty-ninth dating anniversary, and worst of all, she would miss Matilda.

Noah successfully took a cab to his midterm, which inexplicably turned out to be a mid-class review session and not the test they were told they would have. Then he found his way home on public transportation on an unfamiliar route (bus to train to bus). Even though he was irritated that there was no test and felt like the whole thing was a waste of half a Saturday, I thought it was a good life skills experience. As a kid with a non-driving parent, he’s had to be pretty self-sufficient about getting around, but the cab was a new twist.

As for the anniversary, Beth and I exchanged gifts after she got home, a couple days after she got home actually because she was pretty busy. Before she left on her trip, she told me she’d had a good idea for me and forgotten it, so I asked if she’d been planning to get my Birkenstocks resoled because they need it and she’s done that before. No, it wasn’t that, she said, while Noah stage-whispered, “Go with it.” She took his advice and gave me a card with before and after pictures of Birkenstock soles tucked inside. I got her some wind chimes she’d admired. My aunt Peggy got us some at the beach as well, so now we have two new sets on the porch.

On the day of the performance, we met June’s best friend Megan in the auditorium. She was going to watch the show and come home with us for an extended play date, which would start at our house and then switch to Megan’s house for a sleepover. Noah set up his video camera on his tripod and I reminded Megan, who kept up a pretty constant running commentary during the Frozen performance last year that she had to keep quiet because unlike last year, we were all sitting together and she was near the camera. Megan promised she would and she was true to her word. She whispered everything she had to say.

The first song was “Miracle,” in which a group of spoiled children sing “My mummy says I’m a miracle” and other expressions of parental overindulgence, to be contrasted with Matilda’s sadly singing, “My mummy says I’m a lousy little worm/My daddy says I’m a bore.” The kids were in different costumes, a ballerina and a soldier are called for in the lyrics, but for some reason June wore a dog costume. She was not able to offer much of an explanation for this, but I think it must have been meant to indicate a child whose whims are humored. The choreography in this number was more complicated and ambitious than they’ve tackled in previous years. In some of the other pieces they used parts of the Broadway choreography, but this was the camp director’s invention.

June had her solo in the first lines of the next song, “Naughty.” The camp director, Gretchen, complimented her after the show for “setting the tone” well in this song. Here’s a clip of the first two songs of the show.

For the rest of the show she was singing along with the group, with an occasional line of dialogue. June especially liked the part where they rode scooters up and down the aisles of the theater. The show was well done, as usual. This year the girl who really stole the show was one of the director’s daughters, who was playing Miss Trunchbull, the evil headmistress. Lottie really nailed that role.

This camp is always a highlight of June’s summer, but the kids’ artistic endeavors were not over. The next week Noah volunteered at a day camp at the kids’ old preschool and he filmed and edited a zombie movie there, with the campers as actors. It was unscripted and pretty much consisted of him filming their play. He played it for them on the last day and it was a hit. This is a link to the camp director Lesley’s blog post about the whole zombie experience. The movie is included in two parts.

That same week June was away at Girl Scout camp and the theme of her program was “Artistas,”so she came home with a lot of art, including a tie-dyed t-shirt, a lot of ceramics, and a bracelet she made for Megan.

It was her second year at sleep-away camp and it was considerably easier to drop her off and drive away, both for her and for us. I did miss her while she was gone, though, and I was happy to pick her up on Friday. We drove to camp straight from the settlement of our newly refinanced mortgage to beat the rush hour traffic and settled down to wait for pickup time in a nearby Starbucks. On the drive down through Southern Maryland, I noted a lot of flags at half-mast, and wondered if they were all down for the same reason and if so what it was—there are so many possibilities—and also observed the predominance of Trump yard signs with unease. (My friend Onika later informed me the flags were lowered for the police officers in Baton Rouge, there’s an official website you can check.)

We were there at five on the dot, and when they called June out of the dining hall where the girls were waiting, she barreled out to give us hugs. Her hair had been French-braided by a counselor, no mean feat given how short it is, and even better, the counselor managed to do it so that most of the faded blue and pink left in her hair from having it dyed two months ago was is contained in one of the braids. It was a cool effect.

On the drive home and at dinner—we stopped at Pizza Hut and then Rita’s for Italian ice and frozen custard—she told us about camp: she’d been canoeing and had done archery once each, they did an art project and swam every day. She’d been in the lowest swim group for the second year in a row, despite having taken swim lessons this spring to avoid this fate. She mostly liked the food, and tried Apple Jacks for the first time ever, but the vegetarian lasagna was worse than last year—it had eggplant instead of noodles! (Beth surmised it was doing double duty as the gluten-free option.) She learned the camp is inhabited by mermairies, mermaid/fairy hybrids who grant wishes. She made a wish (to find her missing swim bottoms) and it came true. She thought she might have spotted a mermairy’s head in the pond while canoeing. One of her best camp friends lives in Silver Spring and she got her phone number so they can have a play date. She missed us but she didn’t get homesick.

All in all, June was very happy with her camp experience and we are happy to have her back. Even if she’s grown up enough to spend a week away from us without much worry or fuss, it’s still good to have her home.