Another Writer in the Family

When I was looking for positive things about February in my last post, I forgot an obvious one.  A week ago, June’s afternoon class had a publishing party, to showcase the kids’ second quarter writing. I’d been to the first quarter one in November, so I knew what to expect. Each child has a collection of writing on his or her desk and kids and parents travel through the classroom, read the papers, leave compliments on a sheet provided for this purpose, and then everyone eats. At the last party, being a former writing teacher, I took my responsibility seriously and tried to leave substantive comments on each child’s work. Being a well-trained middle-class mom, I also brought juice boxes.

This time June wanted us to up our game a little, so we brought grocery store cupcakes.  And Beth was able to take off work early, so we were both there, although I arrived ten minutes late and Beth got there about hallway through the festivities. I got right to work circulating around the room and reading. There were factual essays about snow and re-imagined or original fairy tales on display. Because I was late and there was less time for reading and commenting than at the last publishing party, I probably only read work from half the students in the class of sixteen, but I got a good sense of what they’d been working on last quarter.

The reason we were on a tighter schedule was that there was a new activity. The kids had illustrated their stories using a computer animation program and these were projected onto a screen while recordings of the kids reading their work played. Or that was the idea anyway. In practice the recordings were so soft as to be completely inaudible, except for the occasional word or two that could be heard, in isolation and sometimes rather loudly. (And whenever that happened the kids would laugh in surprise so it was hard to catch even that word or two.) I couldn’t even follow the stories I’d just read. I think if I’d been the teacher I would have ditched this plan and had the kids read their papers aloud, but we sat politely and clapped at the end of each story as if we’d heard it. June’s was last, and miraculously the audio worked fine. We could hear the whole story.  The class laughed again at this turn of the events, but Ms. K shushed them and we listened.

Most of June’s classmates had opted for the alter-a-fairy-tale approach, so there was the story of the three little sharks (who tell the wolf they won’t let him in, not by the hair of their finny, fin fins) and the Gingerbread Fish, who swims away from an ever-growing mob of pursuing sea creatures. June went the original story route, however. I wish I had a copy of the story so I could tell it in more detail, but it’s still at school. Here’s the gist:

A boy discovers the condiments in his refrigerator are alive and move around at night. He writes a story about it for school but the teacher throws it in the recycling bin because it was supposed to be a non-fiction piece and she doesn’t believe that it actually happened. Then, seized with doubt, she breaks into his house at night, and observes the phenomenon herself, fainting in surprise when she sees it. Back at school she plucks the story from the recycling and displays it on the wall. And then somehow the teacher ends up dying of injuries sustained during her fall when she fainted. The story ends, “And they all lived happily ever after, except Ms. K.”  Yes, she did use her teacher’s real name in this story. Now the class was laughing all over again and repeating June’s final line to each other.

I told Ms. K she’d been a good sport about being killed off in June’s story, but she didn’t seem to mind.  “June’s writing is amazing,” she told me.

In the car on the way home June said she didn’t like it when people were laughing at the beginning of the story but I said I didn’t think they were laughing at her, that they were just surprised that the sound was working.  She didn’t say she minded people laughing at the end. I think she recognized that as admiration for the funny ending.

June brought home a lot of language arts homework this week, some of it routine like alphabetization practice and a worksheet on contractions. But what caught our attention was a series of sentences using her spelling words, which she opted to string into a story, and a rather dramatic one at that. There’s an excerpt in the photo. Our run-away favorite line is, “But if you weighed my sorrow it would be 1,009 pounds.” (The point of the spelling lesson was ie/ei words, if you couldn’t guess.)

But her dramatic streak is not limited to her school writing. On Monday she made arrangements on the bus to shoot hoops with a fourth grader who lives down the block. It would have been quite the social coup, but the girl never came.  June waited for her on the porch for a long time. It wasn’t until the next day that I found the notes she made while waiting. “Strange sounds, windy, no sign of A., getting dark early.” All it was missing was howling wolves getting nearer and nearer…

When I quoted this on Facebook, one of my friends commented that we had “another writer in the family.”  She comes by it honestly. We are a family of writers. Beth’s the online communications director of her union. My father was a newspaper, magazine, and eventually web site editor; my sister and I work together as copywriters; I was once an English professor, and from the time I was a kid into my early twenties, I used to write fiction.  I have recently been thinking of giving it another try. There’s a contest run by Browse-About Books in Rehoboth I want to enter.  The stories have to take place on the Rehoboth boardwalk. So far, though, I don’t have any good ideas, so we’ll see. Meanwhile, Noah and his classmates are amusing themselves by writing a collaborative story online. It’s a version of The Hunger Games, but with themselves as characters. He’s participating even though he hasn’t read the books yet.

Of course, Noah has been writing for school, too. He had a two-page paper about Mauritania due on Thursday for an ongoing unit on Africa. They had a celebration called Africa Fest that day with food and music. For Africa Fest, he had to make a trifold poster with two other students, make a model of a Mauritanian artifact (he chose a stringed instrument called an ardin) and write the paper (a demographic and historical overview of the country).

It was a straightforward assignment, with a series of factual questions to research and answer.  It wouldn’t have been too stressful except he’d neglected to work much on it, focused as he was on his product liability documentary, and even though he is a good writer, any kind of writing is slow for him. He didn’t get to the paper the weekend before it was due, because of other assignments and then on Tuesday night he didn’t feel well and couldn’t work productively, so Wednesday afternoon found him with the research done, but only three sentences written.

This seemed like a completely impossible situation, because the artifact wasn’t made yet either. I advised him to skip algebra homework as well as practicing his drums and to focus only on Africa Fest assignments. He decided to start with the instrument, which took until after dinner to construct, but came out pretty well. It’s the kind of thing he does well. He wasn’t completely satisfied with it, though. He thought it would be better if it actually played music.

It was seven by the time he started on the paper.  Beth and I had consulted in private about whether there was any chance he could produce a passing paper in the time he had and if maybe he should just take the failing grade and do his math instead, but he wanted to try. It did seem a shame to let all the research go to waste.

He ended up staying up until almost midnight and working on it some more in the morning but he did finish. Beth and I normally go to bed around 9:30 since the alarm goes off at 5:45, but I stayed up with him until 10:45, sitting with him in the study, mostly reading a magazine, feeding him the next question he needed to answer whenever he finished one, and making sure he didn’t get sidetracked or spend too much time on any given question. Once the paper was written and it was just the Works Cited left, I went to bed, leaving him at the computer. I think I see a lot of all-nighters in his future as a college student.

But the good news is now that IDRP and National History Day and Africa Fest, all of which kind of ran into each other, are over (well, almost over—he still has to finish reading Things Fall Apart, write a speech about Mauritania, and write a comparison paragraph about colonialism in Mauritania and Angola this weekend) but once they are all over, there might be a bit of a lull before the next big thing, which is a Shakespeare unit.  He’s not sure when that starts but he doesn’t have any assignments for it yet. I worry about the time it will take him to read the plays, but I also think it could be a lot of fun.  Chances are I will read along with him, for what family of writers could resist that?

Leap Year

Yesterday morning, after snuggling between Beth and me in bed for a while, June wanted me to read Are You My Mother? to her. I said I needed to use the bathroom first.  When I came back, June was reading it to Beth.  I thought she might tire after a page or two and hand it to me to finish, but she read the whole book.  All sixty-four pages as she pointed out repeatedly, until she flipped to the last page, saw it was an illustration and scrupulously amended her count to sixty-three pages. Her reading was fluent at times, halting at others.  She got tripped up on predictable words like “could” and “right.”  It is never so clear that English pronunciation makes no sense at all as when you have a new reader.

So I guess it’s official. June’s a reader now.  (And she’s not content with picture books either. She’s been trying to read Pippi Longstocking for the past few weeks, at the rate of about a page a day, and with questionable comprehension.)

She’s also a writer. Over the course of the school year she’s had the same homework assignment many times: Draw a picture of something that starts with a given letter and write a sentence about it.  Then a few weeks ago, Señora T upped the ante. The new assignment was: Draw something that starts with the letter Q and write two or more sentences about it.  Well, June latched right onto the “or more” part.  She wrote: “El quetzal es un pajaro. El quetzal puede volar. El quetzal es muchos colores.” (“The quetzal is a bird. The quetzal can fly. The quetzal is many colors.”)  Then pointed out she’d written three sentences and in case I hadn’t noticed, she informed me, “Three is more than two.” About a week later she got the same assignment for the letter Z and three sentences about carrots followed. On the back of booklet of coloring pages about parts of a snowman, she wrote the following impromptu composition, which was not assigned: “El invierno es divertido. mi mama no le gusta el nieve. mi otro mama si le gusta el nieve.” (“Winter is fun. my mom doesn’t like the snow. my other mom does like the snow.”) She drew a picture of the three of us in the snow, Beth and June smiling, me frowning.  For this she received a star next to the smiley face that denotes completed work.  The star is for extra effort.  But my favorite piece of recent writing is her essay on ancient Egypt.  This wasn’t schoolwork– she did it at home, after I read her a book on the topic. If you click on the photo it will enlarge.

Some years are almost magic when you’re raising kids.  The year from one to two is a favorite of mine.  At the beginning, you have a baby who maybe knows a few words and doesn’t walk and at the end you have a running, jumping, climbing chatterbox.  When Noah was around two one of the teachers at his day care asked another if he spoke in sentences yet and his teacher answered, “He speaks in paragraphs.” Both of my kids have been pretty much like that.  The kindergarten year is another notable one.  This is what my kids do that year: they start going to school full time, they acquire a life that’s separate from me, they learn to speak Spanish, and they learn to read in English and Spanish.  The Spanish immersion program at June’s school is full-day in kindergarten (it switches to half-day in first grade) so she is not receiving any formal instruction in reading in English, but it doesn’t seem to matter.  Being taught to read in another language seemed to flip the switch for her just as it did for Noah, in both cases right before their sixth birthdays. Kindergarten is a year of leaps.

June’s learning things outside of school, too.  Basketball is over, and June never became one of the more skilled players on her team, which finished the season with a 0-8 record. But she did improve and as competitive as she is sometimes, she seems satisfied with that. She made her only basket of the season in practice last Friday night and she was stoked.  (And I missed it because I glanced away while talking to another mom!) Her yoga teacher is full of praise for how “focused” and “serious” she is and June can do a pretty impressive split now. She’s recently taught herself how to pump on the swings and doesn’t even need a starting push any more.

I knew she could do this because Beth took June to the playground over the weekend and she mentioned it, but I got to see it firsthand yesterday. We stopped at the playground for about twenty minutes on our way home from yoga.  I went to sit on a bench and started digging through the papers in her backpack while she went down the slides.  Then I glanced up and saw her on the swing, sailing through air, her legs in their pink leggings pointed toward the sky.  I hadn’t even noticed her get on the swing.

She can also jump rope.  They were doing a jump-roping fundraiser for the American Heart Association at her school and they focused on it for a few weeks in gym class leading up to it, and while she still gets tangled up in the rope, she gets more and more jumps completed in between the tangles. And now it’s one of her favorite things to do right before she gets on the school bus in the morning or after school.

Noah is teaching her to multiply, with half decent results. She clearly understands the concept even if her execution of it is shaky.  She’s also learning to tell jokes that make sense.  On the way to basketball practice every Friday evening for the last eight weeks, we got a ride with her coach Mike and there were usually at least three Pandas in the minivan.  They usually told jokes all the way there. Here is June’s new favorite, which she learned from Maggie:

Knock, knock.
Who’s there?
Interrupting Cow
Interrupting Cow Wh…
MOO!

June turned her calendar page to March this morning, even though she knew it was still February.  She’s gotten into the habit of crossing off the days but often she gets impatient and crosses off a day before it’s actually over.  That’s my girl, always looking ahead, always taking the next leap forward.

The June Club

On Saturday morning we were having breakfast at the Galleria Espresso in Rehoboth Beach. There’s a place in the restaurant where two mirrored walls come together. The kids love this corner because if you sit there you can see multiple images of yourself. They call these assemblies of images, “The Noah Club” and “The June Club.” Noah had his turn first and June was impatient for hers, so she ended up with a much longer turn while the rest of us ate our pancakes and crepes. At one point all the members of the June Club were exclaiming over how funny it was that they all looked exactly alike. June’s self-amusing like that.

We were in Rehoboth for our annual Christmas shopping weekend, a family tradition that has multiple benefits: we get away from the distractions of home and chores and focus on our shopping while supporting actual brick and mortar stores and a local economy (if not our own), June gets to visit the one true Santa in his house on the boardwalk, and I get a little much needed off-season beach time to tide me over until spring break.

So I walked on the beach at night and the kids and I built whole villages of sand castles during the cold, windy days. June decorated hers with carefully chosen pebbles and shells and Noah smashed his with the bottom of his bucket as soon as they were built. When they tired of this, they buried treasure (more shells and pebbles) and marked the spot with an X. June cried when Noah buried what she claims were prettier shells than she’ll ever be able to find again and they couldn’t find them, but then she got over it and they were burying treasure again. On Saturday June and I were on the beach at 7:35 with the last pink of the sunrise and both kids and I were there at 4:25 with the first pink of the sunset. We got a good bit of shopping done, too.

The weekend was pleasant, but unremarkable to the point that I don’t have much more to say about it. I think this has a lot to do with June being in the Santa sweet spot. She’s old enough not to be afraid to sit in his lap any more (having conquered that fear last year) and too young to be skeptical and full of angst about it like Noah was in first grade (see 12/10/07). So there wasn’t much Santa-related drama. After breakfast on Saturday June found a mermaid doll at Browse About Books (http://www.browseaboutbooks.com/), fell in love with it and insisted Beth take a picture on her phone in case Santa needed photographic evidence, but he didn’t. That afternoon, she clambered happily into his lap and told him she wanted the “McKenna Mermaid doll” (http://www.amazon.com/Groovy-Girl-122080-MacKenna-Mermaid/dp/B001R59PX0) and he seemed to know what she meant. It was all very satisfactory.

Life is pretty satisfactory for June these days. She loves kindergarten, loves riding the bus, loves the rhythms and routines of school. She looks forward to her turns as line leader and door closer, and keeps careful count of her tiger paws. She’s learning to read and working very hard at it. Because Spanish is more phonetic than English she can sound words out better in Spanish, but she’s more likely to know what they mean in English. I’ve watched her switching back and forth from English to Spanish books and back again as she struggles to find something she can read by herself. She is this close, able to read quite of a lot of words, but not quite fluent enough to sit down and really read a book. The contrast with Noah at this age is striking. He learned to read in kindergarten, too, a little later in the year, but seemingly without effort. One day he couldn’t read and the next day he could. June’s more of a step-by-step learner. That’s why Noah was a sight words reader and she’s a phonics-based reader. Either way, it’s a joy to watch, even if we do have to read a lot of words as she points to them, over and over and asks what they say. Do you know how many words there are out there in the world? There never seem to be quite as many as when you have a child who’s on the verge of reading.

I volunteered in June’s class on Tuesday. When I came in the door her face lit up and for a while she had trouble concentrating on her work because she kept glancing up at me, at the table where I sat date-stamping homework papers and putting them in the kids’ folders and cubbies and folding and stapling coloring sheets into little booklets. Of course that’s why I go, to see her excitement at having me there, and also for the chance to spy on a bit of her school day as I relieve the teacher of some of her clerical duties. Señora T read two books, and gave a short lesson on ordinal numbers (the kids had to line up, five to a line and then the remaining children had to say who was primero, segundo, tercero—first, second, third, etc.) First they did it in order, and then she started mixing it up. There was also a short grammar lesson on the topic of “¿Que es una oración?” (“What is a sentence?”) and a free play period. June was at the stencil table, filling in a sprinkling of stars at the top of her page for a night scene. Other kids drew (one of June’s friends presented her with a drawing of a Christmas tree) or painted, or did puzzles, or played with blocks or toy cars or pretend food in the supermarket area. There was an injury when food went flying and I had to escort a girl to the nurse’s office with a scratch on her nose.

When school let out June asked if we could play on the playground before walking home and she showed me how she can go all the way across the monkey bars now. She’s been working on this all year, devoting many of her recess periods to mastering this particular piece of playground equipment. At the beginning of the year she tried the bigger set (the one she fell off) but she has since switched over to the smaller set, which is more her size, and she can indeed go all the way across. I watched her do it again and again.

It reminded me of something that happened over Thanksgiving weekend. We were at a playground in Wheeling, with Beth’s mom, three of her aunts and two of her cousins. This playground is well known to both kids, but they had a new piece of equipment June had never encountered before. It consisted of four chains, strung on a wooden frame. There were plastic handles on the sides, but June wanted to walk all the way across without falling and without holding on. Over and over she tried, and over and over she fell.

“I am going to keep on doing this until I don’t fall,” she told me, and I thought, oh no, how are we going to leave this playground because I didn’t think she could really do it. Well, you know how this story ends, right? She kept on doing it until she didn’t fall, and then she did it a few more times for good measure.

Five pushing six is a magical age, full of challenges to master, words to read and monkey bar and chain bridges to cross. It’s a good time to be a member of the June Club.

A Is For Alphabet

On Wednesday morning I was toweling June off after a bath and she noticed my shirt in the bathroom mirror. “You have letters on your shirt,” she observed.

The shirt said, “Feel the Power: VOTE.” I got it back in the early 90s when I worked for Project Vote (http://projectvote.org/?gclid=COWA_PW90JkCFR4hnAodPEgwvQ). “VOTE” is the largest word on it.

“Do you see a V?” I asked June. She pointed to the V. “How about an E?” She pointed to the E. We went through all the letters in “VOTE” and she got them all right. In the past several weeks June has become intensely interested in letters. She doesn’t know all of them yet (maybe 75%), but she’s learning more all the time and she can recognize her own name. She is always asking us what letters begin various words and what sounds they make. The wooden alphabet puzzle she inherited from Noah has become a favorite toy. She’s taking the first wobbly steps of literacy and it’s exciting to watch.

So I read a lot of alphabet books to her these days. Luckily we have quite a few, though ABC: A Family Alphabet Book (http://www.proudparenting.com/node/309) is a favorite. Reading these books over and over (and reaching the twenty-six month anniversary of this blog) has inspired me to make an alphabet of our lives over the past twenty-six months. Most of the pictures have appeared in the blog already, but a few are new. A lot has changed since I started writing here, both for our family and for our country. June has turned one, two and three. She’s learned to walk and talk and started school. Noah has turned six and seven and he seems bound and determined to turn eight next month, despite my protests that he can’t possibly be that old. He overcame a difficult kindergarten year, learned to read and stopped believing in Santa Claus. He’s now thriving in second grade. Since I started writing a woman came tantalizingly close to winning the Democratic nomination for President and an African-American won the Presidency (and the world economy imploded, but let’s not dwell on that).

Here are some snapshots of our lives during these times:

A is for Alphabet

Here’s June playing with her alphabet puzzle on Saturday morning.

B is for Baby

She and I were at a coffee house and she was cruising around and around a low table, eating bits of Fig Newton I handed her every time she passed by. She paused every now and then to remove the sugar packets from their container and scatter them across the table and floor and then she replaced them. As she reached the corner of the table closest to me, she let go and stood, swiveled on her feet to face me and smiled, as if she was going to do something dramatic. I waited, holding my breath, thinking this was the moment. Then she chickened out, dropped to her knees and crawled to me. I don’t know when she will walk any more than when Noah will start having an easier time in school. It could be months from now or right around the corner. (April 25, 2007).

June took her first steps about a week later. Noah’s school troubles cleared up when he started first grade with more sympathetic teachers.

C is for Cherry Blossoms

We went to see the cherry blossoms on Friday and it was…challenging. June had been very cranky for almost a week. She’d been sick the weekend before and at first we thought that was the reason but by Friday she’d been better for several days so I’m not sure what was up with her. Anyway, she wailed in the car, she whimpered in the stroller and when she was walking she kept tugging on my arm, wanting me to go in another direction. At one point she darted under a chain and headed straight for the Tidal Basin before Beth dashed off to capture her. Anyway, the blossoms were gorgeous and afterwards we went out for really excellent pizza in the city that made me wish we still lived there. June threw fits in the restaurant, too.

D is for Duck

Once we were back on land, the guide let Noah pass out the souvenir quackers (duck-bill shaped noisemakers) and instructed everyone to quack “Happy Birthday” to him. It wasn’t quite recognizable as “Happy Birthday” but it was impressively noisy. (May 4, 2008)


E is for Election

The transition from Obama-land to McCain-land was not subtle. Either that or I missed it while I dozed briefly as June napped in her car seat and Noah watched downloaded episodes of his favorite shows on Beth’s phone. Before I closed my eyes there were Obama-Biden signs everywhere. When I opened them it was nothing but McCain-Palin as far as the eye could see, including those annoying ones that say “Country First.”

When I commented on the shift, Noah looked out the window long enough to spot one. “That’s the first McCain sign I’ve seen in my whole life,” he noted.(November 5, 2008)

F is for Friends

Jim is one of a handful of people in my life who bridge past and present. We lived down the hall from each other our first year of college and we were roommates the next year. We were living in a student-run co-operative dorm where co-ed rooms were possible with a little administrative subterfuge. The summer after sophomore year, when I fell in love with Beth, Jim and I were living together again and he was the one who urged me to kiss her while I was agonizing over the decision. Even if we had no more history than that together, I’d be forever in his debt. (February 26, 2009)

G is for Gabriel

Gabriel is usually known as the Caterpillar on this blog. He’s a sweet, affectionate, well-loved boy, who will be three in July. His moms are hoping to adopt a younger sibling for him. They are looking for an African-American or biracial baby. Here is their webiste: www.emmyandbethadopt.com. Please visit if you think you can help.

H is for Hug

As we were getting ready to leave the house to go vote later that morning, I found Noah and June in a spontaneous embrace. “Hug!” June announced.

“Take a picture, Mommy!” Noah suggested.

I went for the camera, thinking it likely June would have wriggled out of his arms before I got back. But when I returned, they were still at it.(February 14, 2008)

I is for Ice Cream

It wasn’t a perfect day, but fairy tales aren’t perfect either. They just have happy endings. Here’s ours: And then the queen and the prince and the princess had ice cream. The End. (July 18, 2008)

 

J is for Jump

At 5:30, I could hear Noah singing out in the yard as I poured orange jack-o-lantern lollipops into a bowl….I brought the bowl outside and set it down on the round table on the porch. Noah and June were playing in a pile of leaves under the dogwood while Beth watched. (October 31, 2007)

 

K is for King

This was the first headshot of Noah that appeared on the blog. It was taken in December 2006 at the Children’s Museum in Wheeling, West Virginia.

L is for Liberty

We caught the last ferry of the day, the 3:40, and sat on the top level, for the view and so I wouldn’t get seasick. After a scenic (and very windy) ride we arrived at the statue. She’s impressively large in person and really quite beautiful. We admired her and walked around the island. We paid a quarter for Noah to look through the telescope at the harbor, and then we got back in line for the 4:45 ferry. On the way back we opted for the heated lower level. We shared a warm soft pretzel, and Noah got a pair of Statue of Liberty sunglasses, much coveted by a little boy sitting near us. (December 27. 2007)

M is for Moms

Clearly he was paying attention at Kids’ Camp because he knew exactly what to put on such a sign. He instructed me to write, “I Heart My Moms!” and to fill in the heart with rainbow stripes. As a finishing touch, he decided the point of the exclamation point should be heart-shaped. (June 9, 2007)

N is for Nest
It turns out four adults to two children is about the right ratio for me to spend an almost perfect day at the beach. Noah and I arrived around nine, and had built just enough sand castles and played just long enough in the water to be looking at each other and wondering “what next?” when my mom arrived and he had a fresh playmate. He found a hole someone else had dug and spent a lot of time jumping into it. Later it was a nest and Mom was a bird laying eggs they made out of balls of wet sand. (August 25, 2007)

O is for Ocean

He’d been quite taken with the idea that he was “the only one in the whole world” who knew both my “versary” gift to her and hers to me. He kept the secrets faithfully, only letting slip that he thought Beth’s gift to me was better. “But they’re both good,” he added diplomatically. This piqued my curiosity since Beth had hinted she would make up for her absence on the actual day of our anniversary through the gift. Inside a store bought card with a picture of a falling star on it was a card she and Noah made on the computer. It had a photo of the house where I lived during the summer of 1987 on the front and the Rehoboth boardwalk on the inside. “We’re leaving Friday afternoon for Rehoboth Beach,” it said. (July 22, 2007)

P is for Princess
June wore a dress with a black velvet top and a puffy, gold satin skirt that a friend of Ya Ya’s bought for her. Ya Ya said she looked just like a doll. Beth’s brother Johnny and I both said, independently of each other, that she looked like the Infanta Margarita in this painting (http://www.artchive.com/meninas.htm). In either case, doll or princess, it was a new look for her. (November 23, 2007)

Q is for Queer

We went to our favorite Mexican restaurant that night to celebrate twenty years with spinach enchiladas and virgin mango daiquiris. (July 22, 2007)

R is for Redhead
The snow was dry and powdery, useless for snowballs or snowmen, and just barely serviceable for sledding. He went down the hill a few more times, then bored of it. We took turns dragging June around the yard. She was tranquil, but not as enamored with it as the last time. (February 7, 2007)

This is from my very first blog entry. June’s hair turned blonde the following summer.

S is for Santa

Noah seemed happy and satisfied with his visit to Santa. But as soon as we left the little house, he asked if it was possible that the person he’d seen was just someone in costume pretending to be Santa. We allowed that this might be the case. Beth pointed out that Santa couldn’t be everywhere at once so maybe he needed some helpers to visit with children and find out what they wanted. Probably, they would send an email to Santa with the requests. “But he just asked my name. Why didn’t he ask my address?” Noah was suddenly alarmed at the possibility that his information would be incompletely conveyed to Santa. (December 10, 2007)

T is for Train
Just around the time I reached the tricky part of the operation, spooning the batter onto the griddle and making sure none of the pancakes burned while I was distracted by something else, they both wanted my attention at once.

Noah had tired of his magazine and said, “What should I do?”

June wanted to know if I could “play train tracks?”

“Maybe Noah can play train tracks with you,” I suggested. I only gave this idea about a 25% chance of succeeding, but you have to try. Much to my surprise, Noah took June’s hand and they walked into the living room. He repaired a track I had built earlier in the day and they took turns running the trains over it, looking startlingly like two full-fledged kids playing together.(March 23, 2008)

U is for Underpants

This was the headshot of Noah when he was in first grade. If you remember the photo and thought he was wearing a bandana on his head, those are underpants. Beth took it on their mother-son camping trip in September 2007.

V is for Valentine
Noah dug around in his bag and pulled out a card. “Here,” he said, handing me the funniest valentine I’ve ever received. There’s a snowman lying on its side on the front with the words “Love you to death!” written in crayon. Inside it says, “OOPS! I guess I loved you to much!” Like mother, like son is all I have to say about that. Also this– it was the perfect Friday the 13th valentine. (February 13, 2009)

W is for Wizard

The last day of spirit week was “Put on Your Thinking Cap” day so after some careful consideration, he put on his wizard hat. (March 9, 2007)

X is for Xylophone

You were expecting something else? I took this picture on Thursday.

Y is for Yard

After Noah ate breakfast, brushed his teeth and got dressed, it was time to bounce. Along with the hopping ball, we bought Noah his own personal bouncy castle for vestibular stimulation, deep pressure on his joints, oh, and fun, too. He loves it. We’ll see if it helps organize and focus him the way the occupational therapist says it will, but in the meantime he’s using it several times a day. When possible, we try for a bouncing session before Beth takes him to camp. (July 10, 2007)

Z is for Zeitgeist

Next we moved inside to carve our jack o’ lanterns, or in Beth’s and my case, our Barack o’ lanterns (http://yeswecarve.com). (October 26, 2008)

I can’t claim this blog consistently captures the national zeitgeist, but if you have or once had elementary-school or preschool-age kids, or if you live in Takoma Park or its environs, or if you’re gay, lesbian or bisexual, I hope you sometimes find a little of yourself reflected in it. Thanks for reading.

The Super Readers

Noah stepped off the bus this afternoon and with a big smile, but no comment, handed me his third consecutive all-smiley-faces weekly behavior report from Señorita M’s class.  I noticed a sticker on his shirt that depicted a bespectacled worm.  “What’s that?” I asked him, although I had a pretty good guess.

“It means I could go to the party,” he said.

“Oh right, the summer homework party was today,” I said, pretending to have forgotten.  “How was it?”

“Good,” he said, and described the sundae he’d created: chocolate, vanilla and strawberry ice cream with butterscotch sauce.  We sat down on the porch and he showed me his party booty: a certificate of achievement, a bookmark and a pencil that says, “Books are Magic.”  I asked how many kids from his class attended and he said only two or three, which surprised me.  Many of the kids of the kids in the Spanish immersion program remind me of Noah—whip smart, slightly nerdy, with academically inclined parents.  I wondered if he just wasn’t paying attention to who was there.  He can be oblivious to things like that.

We didn’t linger on the porch because his new favorite television show is on at 3:30, only ten minutes after the bus arrives.  It’s called Super Why (http://pbskids.org/superwhy/index.html) and Beth, who has only watched one episode on the computer, declared it “the most tedious show ever.”  I’ve watched several episodes, and while slightly more tolerant, I have to admit it is a bit slow.  It’s about a quartet of superheroes, the Super Readers, who solve everyday problems using “Alphabet Power,” “Word Power,” “Spelling Power,” and “The Power to Read.”  Because the characters are all operating at different levels of literacy, I imagine it was designed to be viewed by children of different ages, say preschoolers to kids in the early elementary grades.  Most of it is well below Noah’s level, but for reasons we do not fully understand, it has captured his imagination.

While Noah was watching television, I put June down for a later than usual afternoon nap.  She’s been resisting one or both naps most days now for a few weeks and I am coming to the reluctant recognition that I need to eliminate her morning nap because when she does take it, her afternoon nap starts so late that she has trouble getting to sleep at night. (One night she lay in her bed chanting “No way! No way! No way!”as I tried to get her to sleep.)  It’s not a convenient time for this transition.  I have been working about five hours a week since mid-August, doing some research for my sister, Sara, otherwise known as Word Girl (www.wordgirl.biz/), a freelance writer specializing in nutrition and natural foods.  My involvement with her current project is set to end at the end of the month, after which I will begin a few weeks of scoring the essay portion of the SAT.  So naps are precious now.  But June didn’t get that memo and we will be trying napless mornings starting Monday.  Today, though, I had to let her take that second nap because she’d been up since ten and I just didn’t see her making it until bedtime without melting down.

June fell asleep just as Noah’s show was ending. He asked if he could play a computer game, then have me read to him when he finished.  I agreed, and settled onto the couch with a big pile of printouts about the detoxification powers of various foods to read and highlight.  I was just getting to the one on Asian green leaf vegetables when he came in with a copy of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.  We read several chapters, ending with the one in which Mike Teavee gets shrunk by the television rays and the Oompa Loompas sing this song about television:

…IT ROTS THE SENSES IN THE HEAD!
IT KILLS IMAGINATION DEAD!
IT CLOGS AND CLUTTERS UP THE MIND!
IT MAKES A CHILD SO DULL AND BLIND
HE CAN NO LONGER UNDERSTAND
A FANTASY, A FAIRYLAND!
HIS BRAIN BECOMES AS SOFT AS CHEESE!
HIS POWERS OF THINKING RUST AND FREEZE!
HE CANNOT THINK—HE ONLY SEES!

‘All right,’ you’ll cry, ‘All right,’ you’ll say,
‘But if we take the set away,
What shall we do to entertain
Our darling children? Please explain!’
We’ll answer this by asking you,
‘What used the darling ones to do?
‘How used they keep themselves contented
Before this monster was invented?’
Have you forgotten? Don’t you know?
We’ll say it very loud and slow:
THEY..USED…TO,,,READ! They’d READ and READ
AND READ and READ, and then proceed
To READ some more. Great Scott!  Gadzooks!
One half their life was reading books!
The nursery shelves held books galore!
Books cluttered up the nursery floor!
And in the bedroom, by the bed,
More books were waiting to be read…

Well, I thought to myself, this sounds like a pretty good description of our house, even if Noah does watch an hour of PBS most days, plus the occasional dvd.  It doesn’t have to be either/or, though if it did, we’d be setting TV set out on the curb without a second thought.  [Aside: There’s an interesting pro/con set of essays about television and children in the current issue of Brain Child, my very favorite parenting magazine (www.brainchildmag.com/). Sadly, the article itself is not available on their site, but it’s worth a look anyway if you’re interested in other essays on parenting.]

I flipped through the remaining pages of the book and glanced at the clock.  “Well, we only have two chapters left, but I think we need to stop so I can make dinn—“

Noah’s wails cut me off.  “WE READ TOO MUCH!” he cried.  He was so upset he needed to express it physically, so he started to jump up and down on the bed (where we’d relocated when June woke up from her nap) yelling “WE READ TOO MUCH!” over and over and sobbing.  June regarded him with mild curiosity.

I had no idea why he was upset and it took a while to get it out of him, but it turned out to have to do with his reading log.  He’s supposed to read or be read to at least fifteen minutes a day, Mondays through Thursdays, as part of his Language Arts homework and we have to keep a record of what he reads.  I didn’t think this would pose much of a problem, since we read much more than that, albeit more irregularly (an hour or more one day, ten minutes the next) and we’d kept a similar log for his summer reading homework. If anything, I thought the discipline of daily reading might be good for Noah.  It has caused him a lot of anxiety, however.  At first, after a class discussion about how they should not read the same books over and over all year, he thought he couldn’t read chapter books because they take more than a day to finish and he would need to enter the same book more than once.  At our meeting with Ms. C last week, she assured us this was not the case, and Noah should feel free to use chapter books and enter them in the log as long as it took to finish them.  Later Noah worried that he wasn’t supposed to read more than fifteen minutes each day, but I convinced him it was fifteen minutes or more, and more was fine.  His current meltdown was a combination of both worries.  A year seems like such an interminable stretch of time to a six year old that he was afraid he would run out of books he likes before the year was out so he’d meant to make Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (“a book I like so much”) last longer.  And here it was, less than a week after we’d started it and it was almost over.  He’d gotten carried away in the pleasure of the text and forgotten to hoard it.  And to make matters worse, we’d done it on a Friday, which doesn’t even count for the reading log!  He was inconsolable.  I tried to wrap my mind around this problem, considering the irony that Noah’s reading homework was discouraging him from reading.

I jumped in with a long list of books he’s already read and likes that we could re-read for the log, as well as books he’s never read that I’ve been meaning to share with him.  I assured him he could live a long, long life and never read all the good books in the world.  I offered myself up as an example, a forty-year-old ex-academic with a PhD in literature and a long mental to-read list.  Gradually, he began to calm down and went to play on the computer.

I made salads and popped a frozen pizza in the oven.  Beth came home earlier than expected, and shortly after I heard the door open, I heard Noah sobbing again in the study.  I came in and sat on the floor.  “WE READ TOO MUCH,” he cried to Beth.  We went through the same conversation we’d just had, with some variations.  Beth’s contribution was to offer to write Ms. C an email, asking if we could have some flexibility with the log, writing down reading we actually did on the weekend on Monday for instance.  We worked out a plan of the next few books we’d read, and we promised not to read any more of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory until Monday.

As Beth and I did the dinner dishes, she noted we hadn’t seen June in a while.  “She’s in the living room,” I said.  I’d seen her go in there and I could hear papers rustling.  I figured she was turning the pages of a book.  I knew I should check and see if it was a library book or one of Noah’s favorites since she’s not really supposed to handle paper-paged books unsupervised, but she was quiet and Beth and I were having an actual conversation, so I decided to let her be.  When Beth started Noah’s bath, I went in to check on her and found the pile of hundreds of pages of printouts of articles on detoxification I’d left on the end table scattered all over the couch and the living room floor.  June had a pencil in one hand and was happily scribbling on one of the pages.

I carried a loudly protesting June to the bathroom and shut her in there with Beth and Noah while I picked up the papers and tried to get them back in order, but I quickly gave up on it and dumped the pile on top of my dresser.  Beth suggested that I take the advice I frequently give to Noah and not leave things I don’t want June getting into where she can reach them.  She took a bit too much pleasure in this suggestion, if you ask me.

After Noah’s bath, we watched an episode of Fraggle Rock, (http://www.fragglerocker.com/info/info.asp) a 1980s Jim Henson cable show we’d ordered from Netflix about some subterranean muppet-like creatures who live in another world, connected to ours by a hole in the baseboard of an old man’s house.  As soon as June saw we were going to turn on the TV, she grabbed the old remote control with the batteries removed that we’ve designated as hers, and she hopped up onto the couch.  Noah joined her, holding the actual working remote.

I watched them, both entranced as the theme song played:

Dance your cares away, 

Worry’s for another day.

Let the music play,
Down at Fraggle Rock.

(www.lyricsondemand.com/tvthemes/fragglerocklyrics.html)

I don’t think it will turn their brains to cheese.  I hope not.  I know they, especially Noah, use TV like grownups do, to relax and escape, and even to explore those fantasies and fairylands Roald Dahl extols.  When the show was over, Noah asked plaintively, “Why did we read too much?” but he was calm, his lament just a faint echo of his earlier ones.

Sure enough, I paid for June’s late afternoon nap with a wakeful baby at bedtime. Cramped and stiff, I lay with her in the toddler bed, setting her back down every time she popped up, stroking her hair and back, singing her favorite bedtime songs:

Juney, Juney, give me your answer true,
I’m half crazy all for the love of you.

After we’d both tired of singing, we listened to one of her musical crib toys and watched the revolving images of birds and bugs it projected on the ceiling of the dimly lit room.  When it finished, she sat up for the umpteenth time and suggested an alternative activity.  “Book?” she said hopefully.

On Turning Forty

“I don’t think we’ve consulted you on your cake,” Beth called from another room a few days ago. June was fussing and I only caught about every other syllable. I had to think a while to re-construct what she might have said.

“You said consult and not insult, right?” I said.

“Yes,” she said, laughing.

“So it’s not going to say ‘Over the Hill’ on it or anything?”

“No.” She was still laughing.

I turned forty today. Somehow those birthdays that end in zero lead to introspection and a little prickliness. Well, maybe not all of them. I don’t remember much soul-searching at my tenth birthday, though I do remember a pretty cool cake decorated like a pirate chest. (My mom made great birthday cakes.) And my twentieth birthday was mainly memorable for a surprise party my friend and sophomore-year roommate Jim threw for me. He kept it surprising by throwing it four months before my actual birthday. I’d been complaining about how my mid-May birthday was always during reading period or finals and how I wished it was during the January term at Oberlin when everyone was taking just one class and actually had the time to go to a party. So four months to the day before my birthday, I had my party. There were balloons; there were presents; there was cake. He even contacted my mom and got her to send me a card. It was one the nicest things anyone has ever done for me.

I don’t remember what Beth and I did for my thirtieth birthday, probably something that seemed unremarkable at the time (like dinner and a movie by ourselves) that would be an almost unthinkable luxury these days. What I do remember is how miserable I was to be turning thirty. I was mired in the dissertation-writing process, a year into it and all I’d done was write and rewrite the prospectus four times. My committee finally and grudgingly allowed me to start on the introduction after the fourth draft, but my confidence was pretty low by that point. Meanwhile, I’d decided I definitely wanted children a few years earlier but Beth was unsure and between her ambivalence and my academic paralysis, it seemed like it was never going to happen. I started haunting websites for moms and lurking on pregnancy message boards. To make matters worse, it was clear by that point that Beth and I were going to fall short of our goal of visiting all fifty states by our tenth anniversary that July. I felt like my life was going nowhere.

Fast forward ten years. I accomplished most of the unfinished business of my twenties in my thirties. I received my Ph.d at thirty-two, had my first child at almost thirty-four, visited the last state (Alaska) with Beth and Noah at thirty-eight, and had my last child at almost thirty-nine. So what’s left? It’s looking almost certain that the academic career for which I suffered through the Ph.d is just not going to happen. I spent the first two years of the last decade as a graduate student, the next two as an underpaid adjunct, the next four as a decently compensated but never secure “full-time temporary” assistant professor and the last two years unemployed (aside from the business of raising my kids). I’ve been on the market for a steady teaching job about half of that time. I don’t know if it’s turning forty or the dwindling response to the applications I send out, but I’m starting to feel for the first time that it’s time to call it quits, not in a year or six months if things don’t look up, but now. In a way it’s a relief, like getting off a merry-go-round that’s been making you sick for some time, but still, I step off with a heavy heart. The horses were so pretty and it always seemed like they really were going to go somewhere someday.

This leaves me somewhat adrift. I loved teaching freshman writing seminars at GW and it will be hard to think of something I would find as fulfilling. But some time before June gets on that big yellow bus I will need to come up with a Plan B. For now the work of being the primary caregiver to an aspiring toddler and an active kindergartener is overwhelming enough to keep me from thinking too deeply about it. Every now and then I pick up an academic odd job (tutoring a grad student writing a seminar paper, editing a chapter of a dissertation, scoring the written portion of the SAT) but mostly I am mommy. And while there’s real psychic danger to living too much through your kids, I think more about their accomplishments these days than my own. Noah is reading in two languages now, having learned to read in Spanish at school and how to read in English largely on his own (assisted a bit by the twenty or so episodes of The Electric Company we watched this winter and spring). June has learned two baby signs (cheese and shoes), is up to about ten spoken words, and as of a few days ago, she’s walking! She took her first step a little over a week ago. Over the next few days she would take more and more at a time. Then on Wednesday afternoon, while we were waiting for Noah at drama, she started to experiment, taking a step forward, then one to the side, one backwards, etc. It was almost like watching a dance (a careful, wobbly sort of dance). Then she sat down, stood immediately back up and took nine steps straight to me, ending by hurling herself into my arms. I laughed out loud and hugged her tightly, whispering, “I am so proud of you, Juney.” It was a moment of unalloyed joy for both of us.

Beth is six months older than me so she has scouted out the territory of our forties a bit for me. Right before her birthday, our gynecologist told her that when you turn forty you start to fall apart. Sure enough the day after she turned forty she had a gallbladder attack. She had it out in January and since then she’s had a lot of complicated dental work done. Right on schedule, I am having my first crown later this month. Other than that, though, I haven’t noticed much physical deterioration. The gray at my hairline is a bit more pronounced and in a certain light I can see tiny wrinkles on the backs of my hands, but overall I am holding up pretty well.

We went out for pizza tonight. Noah was not as badly behaved as he was last week at the Thai restaurant but I can’t say he was well behaved. June was restless in her high chair so I took her out and from then on it was a struggle to keep her from grabbing everything off the table while she was on my lap or eating off the floor while she was crawling under the table. My forty-year-old self thought somewhat nostalgically of the birthday dinner my thirty-year-old self must have had. Unmemorable though it was, I’m reasonably sure no one at the table cried and Beth and I must have finished quite a few sentences in a row. Even so, I know how my thirty-year-old self would have cherished a glimpse of this future, these children, however frustrating and imperfect. There was a woman at the next table over eating with her children. The oldest looked about ten and the youngest four or five. There was no one crying or whining and everyone stayed in his or her seat. Both my thirty-year-old self and my forty-year-old self looked on with interest, wondering what forty-four will bring.