Monday, January 28, 2013

Getting Schooled

Last night, I dreamt I was at my daughter’s high school, was in class but didn’t know the schedule and didn’t have the right books. The teacher gave me a zero.

A day later, I brought my son to take an entrance exam for high school. Another mom confided that she had dreamt the night before that she had looked at her watch and it was 15 minutes before the test was supposed to start – her son’s test – and they were nowhere near the testing site.

I know a surprising number of women who are full-time volunteers at their children’s schools.

I know moms who keep track of their children’s high-school assignments, have their own set of their child’s textbooks and do the readings and work themselves, so that they can tutor their children on that day’s lessons at night.

Others, of course – many others – hire tutors.

My son had to take yet another test, the OLSAT, for high school. (He had to take four different standardized tests, all told.) When we got the OLSAT results back, there was no explanation of what they meant, just a number, so I Googled “OLSAT” and discovered it is often used in the application process for gifted and talented programs at public schools. Therefore, a bustling industry of test-prep tutors has sprung up, for kids as young as 3.

Why has K-12 education become such a gauntlet? Why have schools become so much more about measuring, sorting and rejecting kids than about educating kids? Shouldn’t they be about teaching kids, who, by definition, are not completely formed people, who, by definition, have a lot to learn, who, by definition, are works in progress, works that – oh, I don’t know – the schools should be willing to work on? Shouldn’t the focus be on teaching all kids?

What a nightmare.

Saturday, January 26, 2013

When Words Don’t Fit

My mother likes to talk when doing a jigsaw puzzle. “I need a piece that is this certain shade of pink on the left with just a little of this blue on the bottom corner and it needs to have two ‘innies’ and one ‘outie,’” she’ll say.

And suddenly I won't be able to think about the puzzle because of the words in the air.

And I'm complaining about doing puzzles with MY mom?
© Assignments | Stock Free Images &Dreamstime Stock Photos
On the other hand, sometimes, usually when I’ve walked away from the puzzle for a while and come back, I will pick up a piece without thinking about it and snap it into place in a part of the puzzle that I hadn’t even been looking at.

How does that work?

I think it’s a different kind of intelligence we all have, one that doesn’t use words. Because it doesn’t talk to us in our heads, we’re most often not aware that it’s there.  It almost feels like there is a whole other person, a mute person, inside our heads with us.

Have you ever been driving and suddenly realize that you’ve been lost in thought, but you’ve been driving just fine? The mute person’s doing it.

We may all have a nonverbal as well as a verbal intelligence in our heads, but sometimes I try to use the wrong one. Like my mom with a jigsaw puzzle, I try to use verbal thinking when nonverbal would be better. My mom tells me that, when I was little, I couldn’t jump. I’d stand there and think really hard about it, but my feet wouldn’t leave the ground.

You know what? I think that mute part is like a quiet person at a party. Instead of overwhelming her with chatter, I'll try follow her lead sometimes. 

Friday, January 25, 2013

Negatively Charged

Some parents like being authority figures. They like it too much.

These are the parents who boast of their elaborate system of rules and punishments, as if their kid was a recruit in basic training and not a child living in a family.

When their children’s grades start to slip, they take away privileges, come down on the kids with punishments, rather than asking the very simple question, of both child and teacher, “What seems to be the problem? Why is this child struggling?” I have never understood the impulse, when a child starts failing in school, for some parents to act as if their child is doing it on purpose, solely to anger them. Who would do that: fail, publicly, in front of adults and peers, on purpose?
These are the parents who say, “My house, my rules” or “My way or the highway,” which is a threat to toss a child out of the only home they know, a threat to the very security of their lives. You see a wisp of this when parents of young children say, “OK, bye, I’m leaving you,” when their preschooler doesn’t immediately follow them -- and the child runs after them wailing.

And when their child tries to tell them that they are being too strict, these are the parents who don’t listen, don’t ponder if there’s truth in what their child says, just respond, smugly, “Good, that means I am doing my job.”

I am reminded of the Stanford Prison Experiment where people were randomly divided into “prisoners” and “guards,” and the guards, and even the psychologist himself, got so carried away with their authority over the prisoners that the experiment had to be stopped.

Do parents need to worry about this aspect of human nature in themselves?

I think so.

Saturday, January 19, 2013

Dogs Really Are Zen

I once read, somewhere, the suggestion that you should meditate while walking your dog. The idea is that you just follow your dog around, focusing on what your dog focuses on, to practice mindfulness, of being, as dogs are so good at being, in the here and now.

I have to admit that my dog isn’t good at Zen dog walking, given that she loves to pull, throwing herself against the resistance of collar and leash with a happy relish, as if she were competing in the Iditarod.

And before you tell me I should train her to walk properly on a leash, I have. She knows. She can do a perfect heel, nose at my knee, watching me closely in order to drop to a sit as soon as I stop, but she’ll do it only if she knows I have treats in my pocket.

Lola is smart and sweet-tempered but she lacks that intense desire to please that some dogs have. I tell my husband she’s more psychologically healthy than those needy dogs. He rolls his eyes.

But she does stay, happily, in the present moment, taking obvious pleasure every day in some very ordinary things, which is why I like having her around so much … 

Friday, January 18, 2013

“Look Like You’re Looking for Candy”

Can you spot the iPad?
That’s what my grandmother used to say, when she sent us down to the basement to get her some ingredient from the freezer or the shelves down there.

She simply wanted what she wanted without having to go down herself. And she really didn’t want you to come back empty-handed and say you couldn’t find it.

But she was teaching a valuable life skill.

Neither my teen-aged kids nor my husband can ever find anything.

They’re all smart, but none of them seem to grasp a simple concept: if you’re looking for something, that something might be behind or under something else. You might have to move things around to see.

This morning, my husband was looking for his iPad. He asked us, a bit testily, what we did with it. He “looked” where it might be. He didn’t find it.

Just now, I saw it: on the counter where he said he looked. There was a magazine on top of it. But it was visible.

I have a hiding spot in the kitchen for snacks that everybody loves but which are for the kids’ lunches. I hesitate to call it a hiding spot. I simply put the snacks in a drawer or a cabinet and then put something on top of or in front of them.

Poof! Like magic, they disappear.

Both husband and kids claim they have “torn the kitchen apart,” looking.

My husband says, when he can’t find something, he hesitates to ask me because I will look where he just did and find it. (And I have been known to be snarky about that.)

I would tell them to look like they’re looking for candy, but with those snacks, they are looking for candy.

Monday, January 14, 2013

I Hate To Play Catch

© Danijelm 
Stock Free Images
&Dreamstime Stock Photos

We have neighbors – a father, a mother and a boy of about eight – who play catch. They play catch all the time.

Pull out of the driveway in the morning: oh, there they are, playing catch. Return in the afternoon or evening: oh, they’re playing catch. 7 am on a weekend morning, out there playing freaking catch.

My husband and kids say, “So, why does that irritate you?” I don’t know, but it does.

Maybe it’s jealousy. On the rare occasions when we have set out to play catch, my family is pretty pathetic at it. We underthrow. We overthrow. We miss a catch and end up chasing a rolling ball down the street. We squabble. We complain about the heat or the cold or how the sun’s in our eyes. We wander off. Hell, even our dog won’t fetch more than three or four times in a row before she’s like, “Enough of this shit.”

This family is very good at playing catch, never missing, just back and forth and back and forth, nice and easy, like a metronome.

Yeah, yeah, yeah, playing catch is good for developing hand-eye coordination. And sit-ups are good for developing abdominals. Doesn’t mean it’s fun or that you’re going to see me out in the yard doing hour after hour of it.

Maybe I’m a terrible mother. My kids are never going to get in the 10,000 hours, or seven years,of practicing catch, so they won’t become exceptionally good at … oh, I don’t know, playing catch.

Hopefully, we’ll survive.

Friday, January 11, 2013

The Power of Being Faceless

When I saw the “2nd Skin Full-Body Stretch Jumpsuits” in the supermarket, I knew I had to buy some. I was sure that my husband and kids would want to wear them too, on Halloween, to answer the door.

Wouldn’t it be funny, when a trick-or-treater rang the bell, that the door was opened by a family of these colorful space aliens?

My family said no. They said we’d scare the little kids.

They said this after I put one of the suits on and started following them around the house. Not speaking, I would examine them closely, reach out a single index finger to touch them, smell them. Even though they knew it was me, husband and teenagers would visibly squirm until they couldn’t stand it anymore and then they’d yell, “Stop it! It’s so creepy!”

That was a lot of fun.

I did wear my suit on Halloween. I would stay back from the door and just wave or do a Dr. Spock “Live Long and Prosper” salute. My son, who was dressed as a mad scientist, would tell the kids, “Don’t mind that. It's just one of my experiments: one of my failed experiments.”

When the kids were small, my husband wanted to dress like a gorilla for one of their birthday parties. The suit we rented was very realistic. I thought it would scare the kids. We decided to show our kids the suit – very carefully, “See? Daddy’s going to put on the head now” – and ask what they thought. They regarded their father/gorilla very seriously, reached out their little hands to touch the fur and then shook their heads no when asked if they wanted Daddy to pretend to be a gorilla for their party.

Oh, well. Too bad.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

The Christmas Tree is Down

The denuded tree.

“This year, can we take the Christmas tree down before it gets weird?” asked my husband.

I never realized I was odd about Christmas trees.

Growing up, I always asked if it could stay up at least until my birthday, which is January 2nd.

When I asked my neighbor, she said they always take theirs down on January 6th, which is Epiphany, the 12th day of Christmas, when the Three Wise Men visited the Christ child. (Shouldn’t you take your tree down on January 7th, the day after the last day of Christmas?)

Some people think it’s bad luck to leave your Christmas tree up past New Year’s.

Others take theirs down the day after Christmas. Wow. Harsh.

I just took mine down today, which is about usual for me, and I’ve always thought I was being reasonable if I got it down less than two weeks into the New Year.

Apparently, I am an outlier, though. According to an online poll done by The Today Show on NBC, 76% of the responders had theirs down by January 6th and another 15% took theirs down on December 26th.

Come to think of it, I guess I should have been tipped off by the fact that, every year, I miss the garbage men’s scheduled pick-up of Christmas trees.

Why do I wait?

Well, one, I am not generally an enthusiastic chore-doer.

And, two, there is perhaps nothing as forlorn as the sight of a discarded Christmas tree. 

Unless, of course, it is a desiccated Christmas tree still in my living room in February.

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

All Education Should Be Special Education

My 17-year-old daughter is dyslexic.

We knew something was up by the time she was two. She didn’t learn the words for things as easily as other kids. By the time she was five, we were looking for alternative schools for her.

We did this with a lot of trepidation.

Her kindergarten teacher, seeing that, said gently, “Everyone is afraid to look at special-ed schools, but when you see them, you will find yourself thinking, ‘Every child should have an education like this.’”

She was right.

Schools that specialize in learning differences –my daughter went to two private ones, in two different states, with her brother joining her at the second -- are the warmest, happiest schools I have ever seen. And my kids were happy and confident even as they worked hard there.

The biggest difference? The student/teacher ratio is usually around 7 to 1. When your child’s teachers work with just seven kids, they know each one. It is a true personal relationship.

And working with such a small group, outside the mainstream of how school is supposed to be, these teachers can teach the child in front of them. A twelve-year-old who doesn’t know how to read? No problem. They will start where the child is. By the same token, they can accelerate when warranted. Though my son is dysgraphic, meaning he cannot pick up a pencil and write legibly, his teachers at this school saw his math abilities and started moving faster; he was ahead of grade level when he left. His teachers had the autonomy to give their students whatever they needed: no red tape, no delays and no worry about standardized test scores.

It is, indeed, the educational experience every child should have.

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Kolaches Are Cool

One of the best discoveries I’ve made since moving to Texas is kolaches.

Kolaches are bready pastries that can be filled with a variety of things. I like the savory ones, filled with combinations of scrambled egg, potato, cheese, bacon, sausage. There are sweet and specialty ones as well. They were brought to Texas by Czech settlers. The Kolache Factory is a chain, with some locations in other cities, that was founded here in Houston in 1982. Our supermarket makes them too.

Think “breakfast taco,” but with a better tasting wrapper that doesn’t fall apart when you eat it.

But while I like them SO MUCH, it seems no one else is as impressed. I was recently in what looked like a brand-new Kolache Factory. It had booths and even a seating area of stuffed chairs, a la Starbucks, it was on a busy Houston street (Westheimer), it was lunchtime – and it was absolutely empty except for me.

Honestly, the Kolache Factories cause some of the problem themselves. I was surprised by how nice this one was. More often, they look like fast-food restaurants – and not nice fast-food places either. Think of what you’d see at a highway rest stop.

And they keep odd hours. My son is always up for a kolache. However, the store near his school is only open until 11 am. And most of the others, according to the website, close by 2 pm.

Meanwhile, I never even knew that my local supermarket made its own kolaches until it dawned on me to ask and then the lady behind the counter told me, “But you’ve gotta get here early. We sell out before 7 am.”


If they could give me a latte with my kolache, I might never leave.

Monday, January 7, 2013

Some Purple Prose

When my daughter was small, she always wanted to know what my favorite color was – and she wouldn’t take “I like all colors” or “It depends” as an answer, although both answers are correct.

In case you didn't believe me
 about the purple mouth wash.
Note my towel is purple too.
If I have to have one color as my favorite, I’ll go with the color I always end up choosing, unconsciously, whether for  a pair of socks, a new bowl for the kitchen, or even, recently, a new bottle of mouth wash. 


For me, purple is really a family of colors, ranging from light bluish pink to dark reddish blue. These are the colors I (and my mother and my sister) invariably gravitate toward. People who know us refer to this range as “Ursin Purple,” as in “I knew you’d pick that one ‘cause it’s Ursin Purple.”

When it comes to favorite colors, my theory is that people like colors they look good in.

Once, living in a new neighborhood, I wandered into a local department store, looking for work clothes. All of the women’s clothes were gold or olive green. These are not good colors for me, a white person with green eyes and a slight gold tinge to my skin. When I wear them, I look like I should lie down because it’s clear that I am sick and might vomit at any second.

Then, I noticed the mannequins in the store. Though they were stylized, they had kind of African features. Then I noticed everyone else in the store, customers and clerks, were African-American.

Ohhhh … My skin tone wasn’t the one the buyer had in mind.

By the way, I also like that my favorite color is kind of goofy, the favorite of little kids, ancient royalty and the gypsy punk band, Gogol Bordello.

Saturday, January 5, 2013

When You Can't Just Look on the Bright Side

My husband says my family has a genius for worrying.

On the theory that it’s always the thing that you least expect that gets you, we consciously try to expect everything. The idea is, if we think of (and worry about) every possible bad thing that might happen, then they won’t happen.

A shortcut I used to do: I’d always gravely intone “Be careful” when someone headed out the door, even if it was just to the grocery store.
I used to do this, until my husband pleaded with me to stop.
Because it makes you feel CRAZY.
Plus, of course, it doesn’t work. Eventually, somewhere, sometime, something is going to get you.
Many studies tell us we should try to be optimists. Optimists live longer, have fewer health problems, stronger hearts, more robust immune systems, more life satisfaction … blah, blah, blah.
But other studies show that, when asked to assess a situation, pessimists are more accurate than optimists– and the most accurate assessments of all come from depressed people.
That sucks.
There is one person in my family who isn’t anxious, my father.  He’s also well-acquainted with reality.
Here’s how he once summed up his beliefs: “I don’t understand the universe. I think human minds may not be able to comprehend the universe. But even though pain and suffering and death exist, I believe the universe is good, not evil, and that we will get to see that in the end.”
He told me this just after learning he had cancer.
How can you think optimistically if optimism doesn’t seem so realistic? Maybe you don’t clamp down and try to control everything. Maybe you let go and trust.

Thursday, January 3, 2013

Chit Chat

I am not particularly good at small talk, but I have been working on it and watching other people do it and I’ve discovered a few tricks.

My husband, a very good chatter, simply walks up to a stranger at a cocktail party, introduces himself and asks, “So how do you know the host?” This works like a charm.

My husband, however, is the same guy who invited me to a party at his apartment and proceeded to introduce me to the group as “Shirley.” Which leads me to my next two discoveries:

One: I was always so afraid of getting someone’s name wrong that I’d be afraid to use it even if I was fairly sure of it. However, I am never offended when someone gets my name wrong, so why was I so worried?

Two: People talk having trouble remembering names but in my experience, the problem isn’t remembering, it’s knowing the person’s name correctly in the first place. So, when I first meet someone, I immediately repeat their name to make sure I’ve got it right. And if they correct me, I keep repeating it until I’m saying it to their satisfaction.

Once I’ve got someone’s name, I use it -- a lot – in that first conversation.

Speaking of conversations, I’ve discovered that listeners are a lot more rare than talkers. So, instead of thinking about what I might say, I try to focus on getting the other person to talk. That can be tricky because you are working in real time, formulating a question based on what they’ve just said. But it can be a fun challenge.

Some people are more challenging than others, though. I still have to work out the last part of successful cocktail-party chit-chat: moving on when it’s not working.

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Texas Talk

I am a Yankee.

From my first visit to Texas, I have been struck by how differently people communicate here.

“Texas Talk” is flowery, an elaborate exchanging of compliments. It is indirect. Because people don’t say what they mean, they can end up in situations none of them want. This actually has a name: the Abilene paradox.

People are compelled to chat here. When I am walking my dog, people have stopped their cars to say, “That sure is a purty dog.”

Texans are driven to connect. They will ask you questions until they can say something like “Oh! Your husband went to the same elementary school as my cousin.” This makes them happy.

Of course, New Yorkers are famous for their way of speaking – or rather, not speaking. Duane Reade cashiers, in particular, can process an entire transaction without speaking to, or even looking at, you.

I watched a recent Texas transplant in an Upper West Side coffee shop: she was asking each of her children what they wanted and was attempting to charm the guy behind the counter. You could almost see the steam coming out his ears. The line was backing up behind her. But this same guy had my order ready every morning as my son and I walked in. And once, when my husband, a more experienced Texan transplant, quickly said he liked the music playing, there was a CD of that music on my tray the next morning.

It’s not that New Yorkers won’t help. Ask for directions on the street and you will soon have a cluster around you, arguing over what the best route is, confusing you entirely.

In a densely populated environment, not always talking is the polite thing, while in a spread-out one, connecting is.

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Hidey-Hole Houses

Real-estate agents talk about “curb appeal,” the importance of a house looking good from the street. They speak of this as a good thing.

You know Sirius Black’s house in the Harry Potter books, how, if you didn’t know the house was there (and you didn’t know the secret of the spell on the house), you wouldn’t see it?

That’s what I want in a house.

I love what I think of as “hidey-hole houses,” houses or apartments that you’d never know were there.

There is a short dead-end street in the museum district in Houston. There are about six old, beautiful houses, crammed together, on that street, which you’d never know about if you didn’t stumble upon them. I love that.

They’ve been torn down now, but at my kids’ old school, if you continued down what looked like a short driveway, past the dumpsters, you’d turn into a little garden courtyard, ringed with apartments where some of the teachers lived. I love that.

I’ve heard, though I can find no trace of it on the internet, that there’s a private house, hidden on the grounds of the New York Botanical Garden. Wouldn’t that be cool?

One time, I was driving in a pick-up truck with my husband and my father-in-law on a ranch in the Hill Country in Texas. We passed an old, broken-down, abandoned house that looked over a creek, off a dirt road about eight miles from the nearest real road. I said I’d love to live in that house. My husband and his father looked at me as if I’d suddenly started speaking in tongues. But, hey, if I could get internet access and Fedex deliveries there, I’d be golden.

I might even invite you over some day.