May the Best Man Win

And so we begin again- the 2013 fifth-grade ballroom dance team has been chosen.  After hours, days, weeks of after-school practices and lunchtime tryouts, fifty boys and girls sat in a crowded classroom on Friday afternoon to await the announcement- which twelve had been chosen to compete in New York City’s Colors of the Rainbow competition.  The entire fifth grade, over seventy children, had been trained in ballroom dances and was preparing to perform a showcase for the school and the parents.  It is one of the activities that makes our building stand out from the other three elementary schools in our district.  But beyond the training, we choose to participate in the optional competition part, and every year more kids try out for the team.  The fifth grade teacher who leads the practices is an amateur prize-winning competitor herself, who hopes to open up the world of competitive dancing to a new generation.  I am the sorry assistant coach who watches the team far surpass her lame dance moves after the first week. 

On Friday, we spent the first fifteen minutes of the meeting reiterating the facts: ”There are fifty of you; we only need twelve.  We had to choose not only the kids who showed the best current moves, but also who showed the most potential; who listened to criticism without falling apart and fixed the problems quickly; who would not bow under the tremendous pressure of dancing against ten other teams of fifth graders in front of an audience of hundreds of parents; who could take being judged and deal with the consequences; who could commit to daily after-school and weekend practices, often giving up other well-loved Spring sports.  If you were not chosen, it does not mean  you stink at dancing.  If you do not get onto the team, do not let this stop you from pursuing your love of dancing.  If you do not make the team, do not be mean to those who do- we need your spirit and your support as we go out there and face the other schools.  If you do make the team, do not think you are better than anyone else and do not act as if you are…”

After all of this, the principal calls the names.  As the first several names are called, the rest of the group cheers loudly for them.  But as the list progresses and it starts to sink in that the odds are growing smaller for the remaining kids, the cheers turn to a quieter clapping.  When the last name is called, only those kids with huge hearts are still applauding.  Then there is silence.  Then the tears begin.  Everyone is crying- those who made the team cry with joy; those who didn’t cry bitter tears; some who made the team cry for those who didn’t.  Oy, ten-year-olds.

And then the fallout begins: parents of children who didn’t make the team say their children were “utterly shattered.”  There should be follow-up meetings to soothe the children who didn’t make the team.  The competition has no place in the school at all; that it ruins a wonderful program for all of the children; that the children are too young to deal with such a blow to their psyches.  That this part of the program should be discontinued.

And all of this brings me to the topic for today’s blog posting: competition with children.  Is it a good thing or a destructive thing? Is it a natural part of growing up, or a part to be delayed and even done away with?  Is it necessary and if so, is it to be considered a necessary evil?

In order to answer this question, I have to defer to the experts: children.  Having been a kid-watcher for thirty years, I have learned many amazing things about people and the development of social groups.  Here is what I see: pecking order is a natural thing- every year in every group, there are leaders and followers. As much as I try to give each child an opportunity to take on both of these roles, it is an artifice, temporary, a trying on of a costume for fun.  I have come to see that even the smallest of children recognize the difference between the chooser and the choosee, the decider and the ones who deal with the decisions.  And here is something else I see: among the leaders with the strong personalities there is competition.  They thrive on it, live for it, die by it:  me first, me best, me now.   As much as I try to dull the sharp edge of “losing”, its sting cannot be mitigated.  When I say losing, this can be anything from not getting the toy you want to not being chosen to hold the door as the class walks to P.E. to not getting called on to share a thought or to answer the teacher’s question to not getting elected for Student Government.  The disappointment, anger, disbelief of not getting what you want causes the strong personalities to plan retaliation or to try even harder.  It causes the quieter ones to feel sad, left out, unimportant, unloved. 

And so the question remains- at what point in a child’s life should she first face competition?  When should he discover that life is not always fair?  Everyone gets a trophy for showing up.  Everyone’s mom or dad will fight for their kid to “make it”.  Everyone is wonderful at what they do and should be given praise to help develop self esteem and confidence.

Well here is a newsflash: not every kid is good at everything.  Yes, they can improve their ability with hard work, but I wonder if they will be willing to work hard for what they want if they have a false and empty type of self esteem based on mommy and daddy’s love and support.  How about we teach the children to deal with adversity, with failure, with “NO”?  How about we stop coddling the kids emotionally, and teach them how to comfort themselves, learn about their own strengths and weaknesses and get what they want by working towards it?  How about we let them develop self esteem by earning it- and if they don’t make the cut, how about we teach them to pick themselves up, dust themselves off, and find another way.  Persistence is one of the Habits of Mind that leads to success.  How about we give them a hug of empathy, share a story of similar hardship and help them get back on their feet?

I guess I feel that competition is a part of the human experience- an important part.  That winning and losing both teach us survival skills.  And that we cannot, as adults, protect children from disappointment without doing them serious damage.  And that we fail, as adults, when we don’t teach children that losing is an opportunity too.

So here we start again with the Colors of the Rainbow competition….Go team!

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Life’s Little Disappointments

And big ones too-life is full of them.  We make mistakes and the repercussions ripple on like the stone thrown in the lake;  sometimes for years and sometimes affecting lots of other people.  We make choices and follow paths, and make more choices and follow more paths.  Trajectories in our lives are mirages of our own inventing.  We feel regret and disillusionment with ourselves; we feel like losers.  Things seem like they are bad and getting worse.   And in the end, here is the truth:  none of it matters. 

 Easy words to say.  So I’ll say them again: none of it matters.  When we’re young and life stretches endlessly before us and the paths are a confusing jumbled maze, we follow one or the other and see where it leads.  Doors swing open or clang shut in our faces; and after a hurtful period, we dust ourselves off and start a new direction, lesson learned.  As we age and go through life’s stages, we tend to hang our hats on stuff…look where I came from, look where I am, look where I’m headed.  Smoke and mirrors.  It doesn’t matter how old you are, the doors still open and close and you still choose what to do next. 

What really matters is that you are living your life to its fullest potential.  That you do not allow others to push, guilt or humiliate you into doing something that is wrong for you.  That you do not buy into a set idea (who sets that anyway??) of success.  That you do not continue on the same path if it is going to hurt you even more.  In the end, at the end, you and only you can look back and hopefully say: what a ride. 

Maybe it’s the fact of being a child of holocaust survivors and refugees, but I do not take anything for granted: not my money, not my friendships and relationships, not my health.  I have been so fortunate to this point, even when I have struggled, that I can only be grateful, thankful and even a teeny bit proud.  I have been called callous, aloof, brave, strong, even recently, a rock star.  I love that!  It does not matter what others think of me, only what I think of myself (although the “rock star” comment may be an exception to that statement :)).  I believe myself to be smart, kind, generous and thoughtful; and a bit of a cockeyed-optimist, to quote a song from the show South Pacific.  Lots of choices over my life have taught me how to be this way.  Adversity is the best teacher; failure comes in a close second.  Attitudes that come from a deep place inside and  say,  “Well, that didn’t work.  What am I going to do now?” save us and open up the new doors.

What you do with your life, as far as a career, is not all of who you are.  I am a teacher- and I love it and do not see myself doing anything else for the next ten years.  It’s a HUGE part of me.  But, I am so much more.  Of course, wife and mother and daughter and sister and auntie; but as far as what else I love to do: writing, photography, travel, cooking, technology…just a few of the other things that define me in big ways.  My career pays the bills, there is no doubt about that.  And I depend on it to do so.  But my bills are of my own creation and I can change them at any time by changing what I do and how and where I do it.  I’m fortunate in that my career path, with minor side trips of my own design, has been steady.  Not all people are that lucky and some have to change gears even though they thought they were all set.  Our current economy and policies have done a lot of damage to good people who are just trying to follow their dreams.  And yet, to those people, I say again- do what you can to make things work or have a go at some new path.  Not easy to do, and lots of raw emotions to deal with, but honestly what choice do they have?  The serenity prayer reminds us to change what we can and accept what we can’t.

People choose the wrong partners, the wrong jobs, the wrong cars, the wrong homes, all the time.  Only when the wrongness becomes obvious (and this can take years)  does the person go:  Oh, shit.  Once that little ah-ha moment occurs, it’s up to each of us to figure out how to right ourselves.  Sometimes, like a car trying to get up a snowy hill (ahem), we have to put ourselves in reverse, back up  a bit, have a look around and go a different way.  Sometimes we have to call for help (ahem, again), or wait a while or turn completely around and find a completely different route.  I am still talking about life, but that analogy based on a recent occurrence in my own, seems pretty perfect.

When things look bad, remember Winston Churchill’s famous quote: “If you are going through hell, keep going.”  He also said, “Success is the ability to go from one failure to another with no loss of enthusiasm.”  Wise man!

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I Scream for Ice Cream

On this frigid, snow-covered Sunday morning, I’m singing the praises of ice cream. Yes, ice cream.  Even though I am sitting in front of a roaring fire in the fireplace eating steaming oatmeal, what is on my mind this morning is the creamy confection that is one of the few things I can actually and truthfully call a vice; A.K.A a potential personal problem- an addiction that could hurt me, which I know even as I’m gobbling it down.  I love ice cream, but it doesn’t love me or my intestines.  Some things are just worth the pain.

The reason I’m thinking about this is because last night, after enjoying a wonderful meal at Peking Duck House on Mott Street, we took a detour to the Chinatown Ice Cream Factory on Bayard.  I won’t tell you that if you are in this part of town, you should definitely stop in and sample everything.  I’m telling you to make a special trip to Chinatown just to go there and sample everything.  I was tempted beyond all reason by the red bean and green tea flavors, old favs, but was even more excited by the Zen Butter, Ginger and Taro flavors.  Our friend, who is obviously an expert on everything food (which we all acknowledge as we sit back and have her order our meals every time we go out) chose Black Sesame.  One spoonful and I was a junkie.  Can’t wait to go back.

Ice cream has always been a special part of my life.  Near the apartment where I grew up in Queens, there was a Dairy Queen, a Carvel’s, Eddie’s Sweet Shop, a Baskin’ Robbins and a Jahn’s Ice Cream Parlor, where every kid wanted her birthday party.  Every afternoon the Mr. Softee truck came singing around the neighborhood, competing with the Good Humor man’s happy bell-ringing. Even when money was a problem for us, our family would find a way to make ice cream happen as frequently as possible.  Not often enough for this kid, but that’s the way it was.  Mr. Softee Mickey Mouse chocolate dip, Baskin’ Robbins hard ice cream, Carvel bing cherry hot fudge sundaes- in my world ice cream has always been its own food group.

Another iconic New York City place to try is Max and Mina’s on Main Street in Flushing.  They make flavors on request and invite input and suggestions.  Among those flavors that patrons have requested are Merlot and Beer ( I haven’t tasted those, as I like to keep my vices separate), Potato Chip Fudge, Apple with Jalapeno Peppers and Graham Crackers, Boston Cream Pie Donut, and  Vanilla with Strawberries and Balsamic Vinegar. If these sound too off-the-wall, they also have normal flavors that are just as creamy and delicious.

Speaking of creamy, I’m going out on a limb and admitting I’m not a fan of Cold Stone.  The texture just isn’t perfect- it seems like they are trying too hard with the amazing menu choices of add-ins to spend the time to get the ice cream right.  Sorry if you’re a fan.  And no blog of mine about ice cream would be complete without singing the praises of Mad Martha’s and Ben & Bill’s on Martha’s Vineyard.  The lines out the door last well past midnight, and the wait is worth it.  Walk up to the counter in Mad Martha’s with a group of friends and “oink” and see what happens.  Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

When I was in college in the early 80’s, I had many jobs.  Born out of  hunger and the need to keep from being homeless, I did anything that paid.  When I found a job at a place called Eric’s Ice Cream  that made its own right in the back room, I thought I had found a temporary Nirvana.  The flavors were unique to Eric: oatmeal raisin cookie, peanut butter chocolate chip and cinnamon.  His current features include  Viagra chip (sprinkled with blue M&Ms) and an interesting concoction probably born out of necessity as he aged, Gentle Persuasion, made with oatmeal and prunes.  I guess Eric was and still is a man ahead of his time.  We newbies were trained to make each menu item using a scale for exact measuring.  Any  mistakes we made, even once we started serving customers, we had to eat.  For a junkie like me, this was not a problem.  I admit here and now to making many “mistakes” and happily paying the consequences.  But Eric knew what he was doing- even someone like me can’t eat enough ice cream to hurt a business once we have been “punished” in this way for a few weeks. 

When our kids were very small, we purchased a crank ice-cream maker.  What fun we had creating fresh treats to enjoy.  It’s not hard when you have five crankers to help make peach or strawberry ice cream after a trip to the orchards.  The reward far outweighed the effort.  In fact, making your own using a hand crank set-up makes you feel like you did a bit of a workout and earned your prize.  Whatever.  It’s all just an excuse to gobble ice cream as guilt-free as possible.

I don’t eat nearly as much ice cream as I used to.  Nor as much as I would like.  I have discovered the joys of frozen yogurt, which sounds much healthier,  tastes wonderful and doesn’t hate my intestines as much.  I have a new obsession with Frannie’s Goodies Shop fro-yo and spend several days a week choosing from the flavors and toppings to make something super yummy.  But last night I was reminded that although I love frozen yogurt, it’s not a substitute in any way for the creamy, sweet and flavorful delight of a high quality ice cream.  Dammit, now I want some.

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Life Got in the Way

So I kept trying to settle in and write a blog entry over the last two weeks.   Every time I did, something came up.  The weather (good and bad-skiing and ice storms; 60 degrees and flooding), the grad course I’m teaching, my other job, social activities, family stuff, you name it.  But I’m back, at least for the next half hour, so here goes.

It’s been a rough few weeks at school, mainly due to some virulent viruses that snuck in and took hold in a pretty frightening way.  At one point, we were sending home thirty to forty kids a day with high fevers and other flu symptoms. Most of the year, we send home one or two kids a week.  Some came back after a several days, only to relapse or come down with a vicious stomach ailment.  One little kindergartner came to school after a week-long bout with the flu and spent three healthy normal days only to wind up in the hospital with pneumonia.  Teachers were, and still are, out flat for days and even weeks; antibiotics for the after-flu effects are ineffectual.  Thank goodness things seem to be on the wane in our building, although the occurrences are still well above normal.  I’ve been fighting everything off so far, thanks to Airborne and ColdEze and Oscillococcinum and anything else I can think of.  I wash my hands and make the kids wash theirs constantly, and spray the entire room with Lysol every afternoon at three. So far, so good, fingers crossed.

I’ve been having lots of fun when I’m not working too.  Our ski weekend was perfection- great conditions, no lift lines, good weather.  We skied ‘til our legs were wobbly.   Last weekend we rocked out at the Capitol Theater to Pat Benatar and her crazy guitar-playing husband Neil Giraldo.  It is a small venue and they really personalized the performance and we danced like it was 1981. I’ve also been hanging with good friends after work and on weekends, burning the candle at both ends, as my mother has been telling me since I was fifteen years old.  Life’s for living…

My grad course is off to a good start, and we begin working with third graders as part of the field experience next Tuesday.  Other than a new grad student signing up literally at the last second, ticking me off since she missed the first two sessions during which we prepared for our lessons with the kids, everything is moving along well.  Shouldn’t you know that you have to register for a course to complete your requirements on time by the point in your life that you are in graduate school? It didn’t help her case that she tried to guilt me by saying it would delay her graduation if I did not let her take the course.  I always think: poor planning on your part does not constitute an emergency on mine.  But the powers that be said I had to let her in and so we will see how that goes.  I am looking forward to watching and guiding the interactions between the rookies and the kids. I hope the kids don’t give them too hard a time, but if they do, well that’s all part of the fun and  games.

Then there is the scary fact that it’s February already.  The school year is zooming by, as it always does. Wasn’t it yesterday that I was blogging about the beginning of this school year? In just two quick weeks, we will be relaxing on the beaches of Puerto Plata in the Dominican Republic for some recoup time, which we both badly need.  Having never been to the DR, I am looking forward to new experiences, blue-green water and white sand, icy drinks at sunset and everything else that goes with the deal.  I hope we get to snorkel; and maybe this time I will sign up for scuba lessons.  It doesn’t seem real right now, but I’m sure it will as soon as I get off the plane in 80 degree weather.  When we get back, it will almost be March.  Holy crap. 

I guess you can understand why I have not been a good blogger lately.  I promise to try harder to keep up with this part of my life,  since I enjoy it so much.  And there certainly is no lack of material to write about.  Crazy people in the world; crazy people in the government; crazy people in education; great places to explore; cool people to hang with; yummy restaurants to try;  so many topics, so little time.  Sigh.

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Hitting the Slopes

This morning we are heading up to Massachusetts for our first skiing of the season.  I can hardly contain myself as I imagine where I will be in just a few short hours.  I learned to ski at the age of 17, out west on Apache Tribal land on the Mogollon rim in Northern Arizona.  I got bit by the skiing bug hard.  Ever since then, it is my very favorite thing about winter- packing up the gear and heading to the mountains for some outdoor exercise, fresh air  and adventure.

 Strapping on the skis for the first time of the winter is always over-the-top exciting to me.  As I duck-walk sideways up the hill to join the lift line, my heart begins to race and the smile on my face is huge.   The beautiful white peaks, the whir of the ski lift, the energy of the other skiiers, the cold wind on my face; all come together and give me such a spiritual boost.  Even thinking about it this morning, while sitting at my kitchen counter eating oatmeal and typing this blog, I can feel my level of endorphins banging on my brain.

 When we had our brood of three, skiing was the last adult activity my husband and I could enjoy while leaving them with grandma for the day or overnight.  I know plenty of people strap skis on their three-year-olds; but that was not something we were prepared to do for several reasons.  The number one reason was the cost- one day of skiing, with lift tickets, rentals,  food and hotel room, could approach five hundred dollars.  We just didn’t have it.  And we knew that as soon as we got the kids started, they would get bit by the bug too and love it as much as we do.  Cost prohibitive to say the least.  But the second reason was that it was the last adult activity we could enjoy sans kiddies- and every couple with kids should have something just for them.   So we told the kids that we would take them when they were a bit older.

Our first foray onto the slopes with the kids did not go so well.  We stayed on the lower slopes to help them get their ski-legs and then put them right on the lift.  Our philosophy was “sink or swim”.  That worked for two of the three, but one of the girls just absolutely refused to listen to anything we said.  When she lay down on the mountain for the hundredth time having a hissy fit, I told her I would come back for her in the Spring when the snow melted.  Thank goodness one of the friends that was with us was a ski instructor who, in ten minutes, had her racing down the mountain like she was born to it.  I know for a fact that he did not have a magic wand, nor did he teach her anything that we hadn’t tried, but for some reason she was able to learn from him what she wouldn’t or couldn’t learn from us.  That wasn’t the only time I saw that kids don’t like to listen to their parents…

I also taught my older brother how to ski.   Same philosophy too.  We stayed on the bunny slopes until he could stand up, and then onto the lift.  He fell off the lift at the top of the mountain, got up, slid a few feet, fell on his back, got up, slid, fell…and this went on for quite a while as I skied next to him, coaching and encouraging him.  After about an hour of this, he became frustrated and began to verbally abuse me.  Big mistake.  I wished him luck and skied off down the mountain.   I didn’t see him again for hours and when I did, he had a big smile on his face and was on his fourth run.  He thanked me and told me leaving him alone on his back on the side of the mountain was the best thing I could have done.  Ha.  Guess I was born to teach.

We have been on slopes all over the country and in Canada.   The east coast of the United States has lots of ski mountains from Maryland on up to Maine.  Literally hundreds.  And they are great little mountains for day trips or a couple of days.  Vermont and New Hampshire offer some pretty good resorts. We also love Mont Tremblant near Montreal, a wonderful ski village with some nice slopes to enjoy.  But no ski resort on the east coast that I have been to compares to skiing out west.  Thirteen thousand foot peaks;  long gorgeous runs; short lift lines and terrific little mountain towns….now that is what I call skiing.  One day I hope to ski the Alps or head south in August to Chile or Argentina for some southern exposure.

For now, though, I am sitting here waiting for hubby to get done with his Saturday morning work load so we can pack up our gear in the truck and head north to the Berkshires.   I am ready- let’s hit the slopes! 

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Professing

I teach kindergarten. Little kids running all over the place soaking up new ideas, concepts, skills of all kinds. It’s great. But I also teach graduate school as an adjunct professor at a small private college. The program is designed for career-changers or young teachers who need that Master’s degree to even get their resumes on the pile. I usually take on instructing one or two courses each year, all within the literacy realm. I love sharing research, thoughts, ideas and practices about working with kids in a roomful of motivated, but often scared or clueless adults.

People think it’s funny that I teach both ends of the age spectrum, but who better to help new teachers find their way into their craft than someone who deals with it all on a daily basis? One of my biggest complaints about my own undergrad and grad education concerned the out-of-touch professors who didn’t know the daily issues facing teachers of that time. And my grad students get the real skinny on life in the “trenches” when I come racing in breathless and barely on time from yet another meeting on the latest initiatives to come down from on high, after spending the day trying to motivate little ones to learn something they have no interest in. It certainly is an eye-opener for those newbies, and I don’t hold back much.

The first year that I took on the role of professor was quite the learning curve. I dealt with everything from chronically late arrivers full of the damnedest excuses to a young grad student my daughters’ age fighting a returning cancer to an outright cheat. The phrase, “this is grad school, folks, not high school or even college,” did little to stem the complaints about the amount of work, my high expectations and my demand for participation in discussions. I was floored. The cheater was a second career woman in her early thirties, at that time a social worker for the city. She handed in a lesson plan that was so perfectly written, it didn’t sit well with me after reading the crap she had been giving me all semester. So I googled large pieces of her lesson and after just a few minutes I got a hit. She had printed it right off of the internet, slapped a cover page with her name on it and gave it to me. When it came time to do her oral presentation of the lesson, it was obvious she had not even bothered to read it beforehand. When I looked through her paper, I discovered that not only did she not edit the original teacher’s name out of the work; the teacher whose lesson she scarfed was a colleague of mine. Busted. On a lot of levels. Unfortunately for her future employer and students, that college (which I left after a couple of years due to disillusionment on my part) did not automatically fail or throw out cheaters. In fact, the woman told me with barely disguised rage that I was ruining her perfect 4.0. Incredible.

I quickly acclimated to my new role as college prof, realizing that I had a whole lot of academic freedom in designing my courses. That was all I needed to know. I have a field day putting together the syllabus, with a focus on practical application of research and helping these prospective teachers develop a repetoire and an understanding of learning and teaching. I get a lot of positive feedback at the end of the semester, even from those who complained about the work load. They know what’s good for them, and I hope they carry that philosophy with them into their own classrooms.

Last year I taught a course introducing the Writers’ Workshop model to my students. On my first day, I always do a survey to find out where the students’ interests in education lie so that I can customize and differentiate my instruction for them. I teach grad school the same way I teach kindergarten- no hypocrite here. When I later read the surveys of the fourteen students, I was taken aback by the levels they were hoping to teach. I had everything from pre-school teachers to grad professors, including elementary, middle and high school teachers. What a challenge for me! I loved it. I hope they did too.

In the past, over all of these years, I have given seminars, taught Teacher Center courses, and run workshops. In spite of a few negative experiences, including one where a colleague from my own school went off on me in front of a roomful of teachers, I truly enjoy working with adults who will soon be working with kids. In this way, I get to extend the reach of my teaching even more. Not only have I taught over five hundred little ones through the years, I now can exponentially reach thousands more through the careers of my grad students. How completely gratifying.

I am such a geek.

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Food, Glorious Food

Over the holidays, the kids were home and it was such a great time.  I honestly cannot name one specific thing we did that was so much fun it stands out.  Just being all together in the house at the same time trumps it all.  But there is one thing we did waaaay too much of:  eat.   We ate huge and gourmet breakfasts, lunches and dinners every day; midnight snacks, leftovers, desserts, candy, you name it.  We ate shameless amounts of food until we all complained of discomfort.   Disgusting.  One of the New Year’s Resolutions I made was to STOP eating like it was going out of style, and to work on working out again.  It’s only been a few days, but I feel pretty good about this.

So deciding to write about food is probably like dangling a cigarette in front of someone trying to quit.  I’m okay with it, though.  As I have said in previous posts, I do love food, even when I am not actually eating it.  And just because I acted like a glutton doesn’t mean I have no self-control.  Most of the year.  This blog posting was inspired by a photo a friend put on Facebook showing her dinner last night: two plates artfully decorated with gorgeous and carefully placed pieces of sushi special roles.  And my comment to her photo: “YUM” helped me choose my topic for today. 

I will taste anything once or twice before I judge its culinary value.  This is likely due to my father’s standard of making us try things ten times before we were allowed to say ewwwww.  Ten is a pretty big and arbitrary number to require, but it did the trick.  All of us kids are into trying new foods.  And I did the same to my own kids, who now eat any kind of cuisine that is placed before them.  I’m really really happy about that.  I always say I like a kid who eats.  While they were growing up, there were always extra kids at our dinner table who had no other place to go, and I always was happy when they actually ate what I made.  I was not one of those moms who made different foods for each palate at the table.  My kids were weaned onto a variety of foods and were expected to eat what I made or go to bed hungry. 

 When I go out to a restaurant, I try to order something I do not make at home.  This has become more challenging as I get older because if I really like what I order, I go out of  my way to learn to make it myself.  There really is nothing as fresh and good and healthy as homemade.   That being said, some types of food are just a pain to make, or the ingredients are so specialized that it gets expensive to make at home.  Lots of Asian cuisine falls into this category.  

Every day on my way home from work, I start to think about dinner.  That gives me about two hours to decide what I’m “hankering” for, get to the store to buy what I need, and then go home and prepare it.  Or it gives me time to convince my husband to go out or order in;  he’s pretty easy about all this, leaves it up to me.  Good man.   And every day I “hanker” for something completely different.  I have read that Americans suffer from more stomach and intestinal issues than people from most other countries, and that it is due to our varied diet.  I believe that may be true, but for me it comes down to a cost-benefit analysis.  And being that food is one of my life’s greatest pleasures, I’ll take the issues and keep on eating.  I love what we call “ethnic” food that much.  I guess this phrase means anything not meat and potatoes, or baked chicken and potatoes, or fish and potatoes.  But that even depends how you make the potatoes.  One of my childhood favs, thanks to my Oma, was stamppot, mashed potatoes with cabbage.  Mmmmmm. 

I love sushi.  No, scratch that. I crave sushi.   No, scratch that. I’m obsessed with sushi.  I actually at one point believed that there is something in sushi that is addictive.  I’ve had discussions with other like-minded people that think maybe it’s the pure, literally raw protein that my body demands.  Maybe it’s because it is so fresh and sweet, and some of the rolls have such a nice melding of flavors.  Whatever,  I could eat it every day.  I distinctly remember the first time I tried it.  It did not end well.  My brother convinced to me to put a shiny piece of raw fish into my mouth.  I’m not sure how he did that, because at that point in history, raw and uncooked foods were in the news causing all kinds of damage to people.  Previously, I loved the steak tartare my great-aunt Tante Kitty gave my for breakfast in Amsterdam.  So it’s not that I had a problem with raw.  But people were dying, man.  Somehow he convinced me to go for it and I did.  The taste was pretty good, once you got past the slightly slimy feel.  I ate more than I should have, as evidenced later by how much came back up.  All night long.  It was a very long time before I would try it again; almost ten years.  I’m not even sure why I did try again.  But now I can’t get enough.  And best thing for when you are sick: miso soup.  It trumps chicken soup, that famous Jewish penicillin.  Sorry, ma.

I love Indian food.  The heat, the succulent spices, the variety of textures, so yummy!  At the restaurants,  I order samosas, those fried pockets filled with spicy veggies;  and the saag, that amazing spinach dish; and a new discovery: biryani bowls, fried rice with all kinds of delish ingredients.  Indian food is a challenge to make at home, although I make a very good saag, and wonderful curry dishes pretty regularly.  I had to buy the spices for these dishes while on vacation in Jamaica.

I love Mexican food.  This is one of the easiest foods to make well, and one of the cheapest.  My children were weaned onto rice and beans at a very young age.  It irks me no end to pay too much money at a Mexican restaurant.  And when I do go out for Mexican, the test of a good restaurant is in the refried beans and the salsa.  I am very very picky about my Mexican.

I love Italian food too.  Italian is a cuisine that varies depending on its North or South origin.  It’s easy to make things like pizza or meatballs or chicken parm at home.  But veal scarpariello or penne vodka or fra diavolo; I’ll let someone else do the work.  Best place for Italian food in New York? Either Little Italy in lower Manhattan or Arthur Avenue in the Bronx.  No trip to the Bronx Zoo or the Botanical Gardens is complete without a meal on Arthur Avenue, followed by espresso and cannolis.

Chinese food is amazing!  Not the Americanized crap we order at the tiny take-out places that litter every corner.  But real Chinese food made in the kitchens of real Chinese women- unbelievable.  Best breakfast ever was a Sunday morning at the home of one of my oldest friends.  Broth with bowls and plates of add-ins so you could customize your own.  That hangover just went poof

A new fav cuisine: Korean.  There is a burdgeoning area of Manhattan, 32nd Street east of 6th Ave and spreading,  now known as Korea Town (“K-town” to us New Yawkers) that serves up this spicy and delectible repast 24 hours a day.  You can sing karaoke all night and stop in for a treat at any time.

There is Cuban, Spanish, French, Jamaican, Colombian, and Vietnamese.  I tasted Ethiopian food for the first time on Haight-Ashbury in San Francisco during a road trip a few years ago, and was delighted with the spongy bread used to pick up the piquant food out of the large shared bowl in the center of the table.  Of course our own country has its share of cuisines, not the least of which is from good ol’ N’awlins.  Po’ boys, crawfish, alligator on a stick,  and gumbo!  New England seafood;  Southern Fried chicken or biscuits and gravy; midwestern corn-fed pork.  So much food, so little time!

 I’m making myself hungry.  It’s only 9:30 in the morning, but I’m already thinking about dinner.  This is probably not a good thing, considering my New Year’s resolution.  Oh well, you only live once.  Might as well enjoy it!

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The Gift That Keeps on Giving

I love giving presents to people. I do! To me the look on someone’s face when they open my gift is worth the pain of searching for it or the time to make it. I’m not the type to pick random crap to wrap and give to someone I care about- I actually have this whole thing I do; a process that often takes more time than the actual shopping or creating. But it makes the entire experience more fun, interesting and worthy of my attention.

My secret begins with listening. When I am having a chat with someone I care about, my antenna is up for hints and clues about what the person would like to have or do that would make her/him feel loved, happy, appreciated, noticed and/or spoiled. Often the person has no idea that the words I hear start a germ of an idea for a future gift. I listen carefully all year long, logging possible ideas in my brain’s filing cabinet. People share their thoughts and desires through both words and actions, so I have honed my little detective skills by watching for ideas all the time. Some of my friends and family members who are reading this might be smiling, remembering a gift that showed just this amount of forethought and planning. Good- because I want them to feel the love.

Doing this also makes success easier because it gives me lots of time to keep my eyes open for just the right item, color, size, place, whatever I might need to make this happen. I feel a bit sneaky doing this, but I’m not beyond sneaky when it’s a means to a happy ending, so there! This all may sound a bit obsessive, but to me it’s a good way to show I care. I don’t know any other way to love than with my whole entire being. No apologies, either.

My family, as I was growing up, was big on lists. A month or so before a birthday or Chanukah, everyone sat down and wrote a list of what they wanted. The lists circulated through the family and items were checked off and purchased. This was harder to do before the computer was invented, as it led to a lot of clandestine phone calls and visits to avoid duplicate gifts and hurt feelings. Looking back, I see that this practice led to us getting exactly what we wanted, and it was done thoughtfully and in good spirit. But something about it doesn’t sit completely right with me. I mean, I do ask people outright for ideas, especially if my filing cabinet seems empty for that person or a coming event. I’m not against the idea. It just feels too much like when a colleague or acquaintance is “registered” at a store for a wedding or baby shower- a long list of items in a variety of price ranges that people pick from. You get what you want but how much thought is involved on the giver’s part? Not much. My favorite way to give to someone is to completely surprise that person, and hear something like “How did you know??” or “This is exactly what I wanted!” or a genuine reaction of laughter and a hug.

Gifts that I give to my loved ones are not always necessarily expensive. But they are always necessarily specific to that person and often specific to my relationship to that person. For mom, I try to make experiences happen that she will enjoy. I’m not beyond buying her a pretty sweater in her favorite color, but if I can get tickets to a ballet or Broadway Show, or spend a day walking around the city and stopping for lunch, or go to a day spa, or something that involves us passing time together, that’s a sure bet everytime to make her happy. For hubby, I often look for something that will help him enjoy his rare down time- tickets to a sporting event, a golf lesson with a professional, a bicycle, a television for the bedroom larger than a breadbox. The kids are pretty easy to buy for- they enjoy just about anything, but books, clothes, ski passes, gift certificates for favorite coffee places, grown-up toys such as electronics or art supplies, all seem very appreciated. Cash, which may seem cold as a gift, actually may be the best thing to give a teen or a twenty-something. Anything involving her dogs will move one of my friends- photo coasters, funny bumper stickers, dog toys they can enjoy together; but also things relating to the music she loves make her happy. For my rent-a-kid, field trips are the best gift: the beach, the Bronx Zoo, Central Park, a walk over the Brooklyn Bridge; every year she gets to choose her field trip and plan it. For other friends, I cook something special or make photo collages or books. These are two talents that I know will bring happiness and show that I care.

Gift-giving to me is somewhat of a responsibility. I want to get it just right. I always want to be thoughtful when choosing a present for someone, whether it is a colleague or my child. I want the receiver to feel pleased and special. I want the person to know that I didn’t just spend some of my hard-earned money, but also some of my precious time.

The fact that I take time to plan and think about gifts makes things hard sometimes. I get frustrated if I can’t come up with just the right thing. And I hate a work-Christmas party tradition called Yankee Trade that some of my colleagues seem to love. If you don’t know how this works, in a nutshell: everyone buys a gift at a certain price point (under $20 seems popular these days) and wraps it. Everyone takes a number from the hat. Number one opens a gift; number two opens a gift and if she doesn’t want it, can “trade” by exchanging it with number one’s gift , whether number one wants to or not. Number three opens a gift and can take away either of the others’ gifts; and so on to the last number, who can take away any gift opened before her. This sounds unfair to number one, until you remember that at the end, number one gets to pick from all of the opened gifts. So actually, it sucks to be number two. But it also sucks to have bought the gift that no one wants and that gets made fun of throughout the game. Especially for me because even when I don’t know who will wind up with the gift, I want them to be happy. This year I went to four stores to find one of those cozy “endless” scarves in a neutral color for the Yankee Trade. I found one but I wound up borrowing a gift bag that was distinctly non-Christmasy, and no one picked it until #19…out of twenty…which happened to be me…who really wanted an “endless” scarf in a neutral color. So in spite of the fact that my sad gift sat there being passed over while all the pretty packages were picked, this story had a happy ending after all.

I hope you loved all the gifts you received for the holidays! I am sure that someone put a lot of thought into them…

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‘Twas the Night Before…

…the night before the night before Christmas
And all around town
I drove like a madwoman,
knocking my list down.
The bank for some business-
some give and some take,
The grocery store for ingredients
for recipes to make.
The wine store to pick up
all that good cheer
for the friends and the family
that soon would be here.
A few last-minute gifts
I still needed to buy
at stores crowded with others
as last-minute as I.
Then to home I rushed
so that I could begin
the marathon that awaited,
that I hoped I would win.
The prepping and cleaning,
the cooking, the fixing,
the mopping and sweeping
The washing and mixing.
Beds to be made for
extra guests yet to come,
piles of gifts to be wrapped
one by one.
The tree, oh the tree,
is not even bought yet!
The decorations still boxed
in the attic with the light set.
SO much to do still,
SO much yet undone
the stress might kill me
in the name of fun.
So why do I sit here
at the keyboard instead
of getting started on the
enormous list in my head?
My brain is on freeze-frame,
my body on hold
until I slurp two cups of coffee
and gear up for the cold.
And then I will head out
and get ‘er all done,
and then we will have
the most wonderful fun.
So to all of you moms out there
in high anxiety gear,
let’s remember to take time
to be thankful this year
for all that we have,
and all of our blessings;
they’re the reason we’re frantic
with mental mind messings.
Please forgive all my liberties
with the onset and rime,
I am now truly out of time.
Off I go and I yell,
as I speed through the streets,
“Merry Christmas to all,
and save those receipts!”

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Candy House Day

On Friday afternoon, 16 sets of parents descended on my classroom to participate in an annual Kindergarten tradition: Candy House Day.  Created years ago as a part of our focus on holidays and celebrations,  it has evolved into something more; something that helped changed my attitude towards the event.  It has not, traditionally, been my favorite affair.

I am a tyrant for healthy foods in the classroom.  I have a reputation in the school community of being borderline-ridiculous in my demand to keep junk food out of my sphere; a well-deserved reputation, I admit openly.   When class parents offer to bring snacks, I send a list of acceptable fare: fruit, veggies, crackers, cheese, pretzels and the like.  I have a list on my first parent letter of September as well, of morning snacks that will be allowed to be consumed by my charges.  If a child brings in something not on the list, it will be saved for lunch.  All the tears in the world won’t sway me, as I dash off another copy of the snack letter to the parents and highlight the list of allowed contraband.  It’s all I can do to hold in a comment about the parents’ reading ability.  If parents send in cupcakes for a birthday,  the children eat them fifteen minutes before dismissal and then the families can deal with the sugar rush.  My own children never tasted a sweet until they were probably four or five.  I worked hard to develop their pallets towards a varied and healthy direction.

So to expect the junk food Scrooge to be thrilled to have bags and bags and BAGS of candy placed in front of my students goes against my grain at a cellular level.   Even though the “rules” of candy house specifically state that the children are not actually allowed to eat the candy (a rule I find unnecessarily torturous and cruel and another reason I’m not a fan of this day- I don’t like to torture kids), I caught at least one child with his cheeks stuffed full like a hamster.  His smile when he saw me looking could not cover his guilt even one iota.  Candy is a kids’ drug and this kid, like most, are unashamed addicts.

Another problem I have with this day is the fact that, each year, at least two or three students have no family member show up to help.  My mother or my husband will come in and be a rental dad or grandma, and I have teaching assistants who jump in happily; but you can’t fool a kid.  Everyone else has a mom, or dad or a big brother or a grandmother or sometimes all four that shows up for them.  It doesn’t help either when I tell these event orphans that I could almost never make it to my own children’s school events because I was working, and that I know how they feel.  Nothing can take away the loneliness and even shame as the other kids are yelling, “mom!”  “dad!” as each parents walks in, and no one shows up for you.  This falls under the “I can’t save the world” umbrella, but still it hurts.

Finally, it’s the absolute frantic mess and chaos created by the sheer number of bodies in the room, the bowls and plates full of stuff spilling on the floor, the kids running wild in the room while the parents watch and say nothing, and the families who forget to send in the requested supplies causing me to either run out and buy with my own money or force the responsible ones to share.  What’s to love about this day??

My friend and colleague helped me to see just what this day has become.  In a way, it saddens me to see it and to accept my new role.  I was venting to her after everyone had gone and the room was eerily quiet.  I told her how much I dislike this event and how making candy houses is something families should do together, the kind of thing we loved to do with our kids, and she said, “yeah but they don’t.”  Simple words that stopped me cold.   They made me think about the parents who had shown up that day; some of them I had never even met before in spite of the fact that we had already done a Thanksgiving Show and finished parent-teacher conferences.  I realized that most of those who showed up are working people who took the day off from jobs in the city to come spend forty-five precious moments with one of their kids.  I thought that Candy House Day would probably be one of the things these little ones would hold in their memories for a long time; how it made those children whose families did come feel special for a few minutes.   Mommy and me  or Daddy and me time that they likely do not get too often.  I remembered that, at my parent conferences when I suggested old-school board games as good gifts and good ways to spend time together, many of the responses showed that these adults had forgotten about such an activity.  So, in addition to all my other hats, I now don Family Time Maven.

While we were involved in this activity, covered to the elbows in frosting, the events were unfolding in Newtown, Connecticut, in a classroom that resembled ours in a town that was as just as small and tight-knit as ours.  News coverage was, at that point, very spotty and the story was changing every five minutes.  Parents, receiving AP pushes on their cell phones, were whispering bits to each other and to me, and it was all I could do to keep repeating, “not in front of the kids.” At one point, I left the class to go to the bathroom and struggled to keep my lunch down and to keep from crying.  As I write, two days later, more details about this unspeakable act of evil with no possible explanation are still developing.  And it has put my newest role in a perspective I wish I never needed to have.  Every second is precious; every stolen moment that families can spend together cannot be overvalued.  If that has to come during the school day at a function that I help perpetuate, so be it.  It’s a brave new world.

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