Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Science Fair

Click on the strip to see it larger. Then go to FrankandFrank for more.

Sometimes precisely what I need falls in my lap with such simplicity, I nearly allow myself a twinge of some mystical feeling. The kindergarten science fair is tonight and wouldn't you know it, the pear seed that we planted a month ago decides to sprout this morning, beautifully formed, two round leaflets reaching up like arms in praise. But that's not precisely what I need, although it is appreciated, because even its green sparkle cannot entice Mia to take the baby pear tree and her sister sprouts to the fair. Because my daughter has her incomprehensible heart set on displaying the photos she took of a plastic tomato, a green-striped spoon and a fuzzy-ball chick. Her hypothesis: Do things look larger when you are closer?

There is something very powerful about perception and perspective buried under my worry. It's growing and reaching for the surface and the warmth of the sun.

Last night I lost faith when the sun went down, although Randy bellowed with delight at the cardboard display Mia and I had fashioned. Once Mia was asleep and I couldn't hear her sweet chirping voice anymore, I cried with a panicky kind of fatigue, imagining "that looks like it took five minutes" and the kind Science Specials teacher's disappointment and my lackadaisical parenting laid bare and pinned up on a cardboard display board for all to see.

"I'm sorry you're embarrassed," said Randy. "Go to bed."

"I'm not embarrassed," I said, wiping my tears. "I just wish I was the kind of mother who could break the process down to baby steps and teach them to my child. I wish I could give her that kind of experience."

"Montessori is all about letting the child take the lead. We know she's brilliant. This is just not her thing. You're tired. Go to bed," he said and I did.

This morning with the extra early sun I got up in time to take a walk before breakfast and once the babysitter came and whisked little Nora away to the library, Mia and I had an hour or so of time together. We used the Elmer's glue nozzle to paint funny glue smiles on the back of her photos and squished them against the cardboard.

"The science fair isn't important," she said, her eyes on the gluey grin she was squeezing out.

"Did someone tell you that?" I asked her.

"No," she replied. "School is important, but not the science fair."

We took a break and I read her the FrankandFrank book. There's one cartoon per each 2 inch by 16 inch page. When we turned to the Science story, I sighed with relief.

Because she wouldn't wear tights this morning, I sent her out in the backyard in her short socks and her winter coat so she would feel the chill and ask for something warmer.

"Go all the way to the back of the backyard and then come back and tell me if you saw a bunny." My plan was to ask her about what she had observed with her eyes, to combine my tights trick with a small lesson about the concept of "observation." I watched her tinker around the backyard, such her mother's daughter. My instructions were forgotten as she stood a piece of discarded trellis on its end, just to let go and watch it fall. I went out to join her and we finished decorating the fairy garden under the elm, rescuing the rain-soaked storage box from under a bush where it had blown when I got distracted from this task a couple of weeks ago. The sun was warm enough.

Back inside, she sat on my lap and I read her a book about artists and how they create perspective with line, light and color. About half way through, she sighed and asked me to just turn the pages and show her the pictures. We did until the doorbell rang for carpool.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009


Just back from a quick weekend trip to KC, without kids. Nothing like a little trip into the past for gaining perspective on what you've got. I come back grateful for my new little family. Aunt Ruth had outpatient surgery on Friday - by Saturday morning she was her chipper self. She made poppyseed muffins on Sunday morning and I drove her to church.

And here are my two latest posts on Chicago Moms Blog, "Late" and "Damn Kids."

The kindergarten science fair is Wednesday - we'll need to come up with some kind of hypothesis to support the photos Mia took of a spoon, a tomato and a googly-eyed chick.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Quotes of the Week

Fuddy-Duddies With Better Taste

John Cepek, national president of Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays:

"I think there's a learning curve in getting people to come to terms with full equality for gays and lesbians. You have to put them in a situation where they can see what's happening, see the good effects. There will be no great changes in life in Illinois. We'll just be creating a larger population of boring, middle-class, married fuddy-duddies."

Life Imitates A Hollywood Movie

Vice Admiral Bill Gortney, commander of U.S. Forces Central Command, on the Navy SEALs snipers who shot and killed three pirates.

"We pay a lot for their training. We got a good return on their investment."

Worst Musical Rhyme in Years...but that's kind of the point

Weezer - Troublemaker:

"I'm gonna be a star and people will crane necks/To get a glimpse of me and see if I am having sex."

A Tiny Edible Nest of Easter Cookies

Bunny, egg and chick. Say it with me, "Awwwwwww!" Yummy, too.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

How to Break into Spring

Reflect how the verbs "spring" and "break" sound suitably ebullient yet destructive enough for the joyous and heart-breaking season where your weeks of patience can be crushed again by snow on the crocuses and bitter wind whipping through your light coat.

Take two days to pack up for the short trip to the borrowed downtown apartment, even schlepping the kindergartner's Science Fair plants. Still forget your glasses, the more comfortable shoes for the girls and all the Easter morning surprises you thought you were so conscientious for stocking up on weeks ago.

Pack two poetry books (Mary Oliver and Jorie Graham) because it is National Poetry Month after all, and poetry should be just the right weight for a week without the childless afternoons school affords. End up reading the New Yorker reviews (West Side Story and God of Carnage) and US magazine instead, leading to a violent attack of schadenfreude giggles at Lindsay Lohan's latest sorrows.

Abandon the ambitious plan to visit a new museum every day for the more reasonable schedule of one morning at Day Frog, and a bus ride to Harold Washington Library. Wonder at the old school approach of a children's library with no puzzles, toys or comfy floor pillows. Imagine that.

Sigh at the email from the sitter canceling again.

Cajole the four year old to hike across the street to Walgreen's to buy a packet of dye despite your best intentions of going the natural way with coffee, cabbage and beet dyes. Marvel at the simple pleasure of egg dying and the miracle of nothing spilled on the rug.

Work with Daddy, with uneven results, at convincing the girls that they will enjoy a video of Yellow Submarine. Take pictures of their slack-jawed faces as they watch the Blue Meanies. Love that they ask to watch it again, this time the whole thing, the next day. Jump on the Flashback Express because you haven't seen this one since you were a kid. Days later, thrill to your six year old warbling "He's a real nowhere man" sweetly off key.

Skip splitting up the family so the older girl can see Mary Poppins with Mommy in favor of sticking together to another trip to Navy Pier. Swell with pride at the girls' talents in the inventor's room of the Children's Museum. Take the girls on their first el trail ride to Comiskey, sorry, US Cellular to see a single inning of the Sox vs. Minnesota. Marvel that your lone inning before the chill does you in happened to be a thrilling one with multiple walks and a line drive single with the bases loaded.

Stay up way too late cramming jelly beans into plastic eggs halves that don't want to snap back together. Don't mind the task since The Ten Commandments, one of your favorite holiday traditions, is on. Consider a couture runway show of cute little separates based on the dresses Ramses wears. Giggle at the campy dialogue ("Beauty is but a curse to our women!" "You lost him when he went in search of his God; I lost him when he found Him!") and overwrought acting. Fall for Yul Brenner all over again; unbelievably admire Vincent Price.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

from "An Excuse For Not Returning the Visit of a Friend"

by Mei-Yao Ch'en
translated by Kenneth Rexroth

...They hang on my clothes
And follow my every step.
I can't get any farther
Than the door. I am afraid
I will never make it to your house.

from Songs of Love, Moon, & Wind: Poems from the Chinese, published by New Directions

This is my Spring Break this week. No complaints, really, but no escape either, except for tomorrow when Randy will take the girls for a couple of hours in the morning so I can run and get the Easter surprises.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Between 22 and 70

When we walked into the party an hour late ("It's in your blood," laughed Uncle Jon), everyone was seated for dinner and the only table left with space for four was in the corner where Twinkles the clown had set up shop.

The clown table turned out to be the perfect place for us at Uncle Sid's 70th birthday party, where we could spread out and not worry about mess nor the girls' preschool version of manners, which included dining on bread, butter, and cake, hiding behind our backs when introduced and begging to leave after Twinkles drove away.

Hiring a clown for the children is just the kind of thoughtful touch my uncle Sid is known for. The fifth kid of seven, he has always been the cutup of the family. He's bigger than life, with a booming laugh that usually dissolves into ticklish giggles, a generous spirit, and an enduring tenderness beneath his teasing. He'd visit when we were kids, reciting his football player "drain bramage" routine with a helmet perched high on his head, cracking us all up, making a wine glass at the Thanksgiving table magically ting without touching it, chasing us kids with his camera. His radio commercials for the jewelry business he named after his sons played on Steve Dahl's show in the 90's and I always loved to hear his rich voice "This is Sid Fey!"

At his 70th party he still tears everyone up and laughs hale and hearty as his back becomes littered with the nametags friends leave with him as they hug.

And hugs were in abundance (Aunt Susan came all the way from Colorado!) as I did the rounds of the room, getting news from cousins (Eric and Kathleen are expecting Sid's third grandchild!) and laughing at old photos of Sid being Sid (jaunty sideburns, plaid sportcoats and magic tricks.)

Uncle Jon asks after my brother and I share the happy news of his daughter, my niece Maggie's 22nd birthday Monday. Our happy wishes for her will need to be long distance all the way to South Africa where Mags is working with AIDS orphans before her graduation with a pre-med degree from Mizzou in May. From Cape Town, she sends tales of culture shock and loveable hordes of children, of safaris and wine tours. Her photos show her after her climb to the top of Table Mountain, stretching her arms over the city and the view of the sea. In another set of pictures, she holds the same pose, opening her arms as she bungee dives from the third highest bridge in the world. Even in still images, the pictures of her flight are breathtaking. She doesn't flinch, holds her body in a perfect posture of Christ, her sacrifice to the air and the sensation.

She is twenty-two, having the spring of a lifetime, six weeks she will never forget. And an entire life before her as well.

A twenty-two year old who can't be stopped, a vibrant seventy-year old. And between them, a life halted too early at fifty two.

Before we left for Sid's party, I received the news of the death of an old friend. Although he taught at the high school where my children will go to school, merely a mile from our house, I first met Greg Harris in New York City. We were taking a summer film seminar at NYU in the summer of 1997. The course, taught by the great Cynthia Lucia, was a primer for high school teachers in media, film and literature courses. John Golden, Mary Christel and Ellen Kruger, who all went on to write books on the teaching of film, were colleagues in the Tisch School of the Arts screening room. Greg was taking the course as prep for creating and proposing a new senior film course at New Trier; the Catholic school where I taught had, ahem, a far less stringent approval process for my little film course.

Spend five minutes with Greg and you got his powerful warmth, his intelligence, his vibrancy. Spectacularly kind. So funny. His part in classroom debates amped the intellectual level; his presence at a table guaranteed a good time.

It was a memorable three weeks. Besides Cindy's brilliant lectures, the engrossing film curriculum and the lively class discussions, we had Manhattan in glorious summer. Greg and I and some classmates hiked up to the Cloisters one Saturday to see the Unicorn Tapestries, Spaulding Grey interviewed strangers in front of an enormous outdoor crowd in Brooklyn's Prospect Park. Brad Pitt was filming Meet Joe Black in the Park Slope Armory; Post headlines screamed the surreal tragedy of Versace's murder. I saw Janet McTeer in A Doll's House and Mary-Louise Parker and David Morse in How I Learned to Drive. I called an old college friend for drinks; we met up at his office in the World Trade Center.

Greg called me about a year later to invite me to create a presentation with him for the upcoming National Council of Teachers of English conference in Denver. We worked together after school for months on "What Makes a Film Art: Designing and Teaching a High School Film Study Course." Yes, Power Point.

Our plan: Greg would speak on researching, designing and defending his new film studies course; I would offer some classroom ideas about "reading sound" to "overcome the supremacy of the image in film studies." Working with Greg was such a pleasure and an intellectual adventure; he was continually supportive, full of great ideas and encouragement. He spoke of his students with respect, generosity and love - his life work, after all, was for them.

By Denver, we had our projected Powerpoint slides, video clips and handouts. A capacity crowd, probably 200 teachers or so. They bellowed with laughter at the kitschy promotional video Randy had cut to entice kids to sign up for my course and laughed again at my comparison of teachers to Toto, pulling away the curtains to show the workings of The Man behind. It was exhilarating. We felt like rock stars.

Greg and I presented at NCTE again in Baltimore in 2001. I would hear news of him through mutual friends, but I think the last time I saw him was in Indianapolis in 2004 where we served together on the organization's Commission on Media. His warmth and humor were high points during the conference when I was beginning to understand that teaching while pregnant and with a toddler at home was not working for me.

This post is sounding more me than Greg, but I have to chalk it up to his incredible personality - Greg had such a talent for making people feel good. His flame was bright and sustaining.

My heart breaks for Jay, Greg's partner of 32 years. I mourn for his students too, but I'm so happy so many of them were able to learn from him.

Here were some of Greg's ideas about the teaching of film from our Denver presentation:

Films provide an outstanding way to meaningfully address diversity and issues of student safety. And films can dramatically help students address our common humanity. In an adaptation from the New Trier English department goals: "From the richness of ideas explored in the study of film, students can recognize and empathize with human experience and gain understanding of the enduring power of the human mind and spirit."

Some of the "rich ideas" that I explore with students include: Questions of justice and truth - by examining the fluidity of truth and the inherent flaws in memory in Reversal of Fortune. The far reaches and consequences of romantic obsession in Vertigo. Confronting our fear and mistrust of what we don't understand and exploring the question - do people come into our lives for a purpose? - through the study of Gods and Monsters.

Bill Condon's Academy Award winning film Gods and Monsters, I believe, will endure as a classic of our time. The film sensitively portrays James Whale, director of the Frankenstein and Bride of Frankenstein films, in the days before his death. It is a film about, among other things, what is monstrous? What is human? It is certainly not a stretch to link Condon's fundamental questions with Gardner's Grendel or Macbeth for that matter. The film can challenge student's stereotypes and force the issue of our common humanity -- issues that transcend sexual orientation, class and education.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Artwork By My Firstborn Who Is Six and A Half Today

A date.


Spaceman. The sun is at the lower right. I suspect his eyes are red because he is looking at the glory of Mars.

Robin detail.