Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Funky Sleeper

I stop into my boys' room before I go to bed some nights to see them asleep. They're so cute when they sleep, and they look younger than they are. It makes the parental love swell. I wrote a poem about it that I don't like very much. It's the third-grade rhyme scheme and the sentimentality. I can't do much about the sentimentality - it's in my nature - but these couplets are a drumbeat.

A sight to make a father weep:

two boys, so innocent, asleep.
In slumber, they look so secure
I wish that I could be as sure
That every night they will be there

safe, relaxed and free of care.
Their hearts so tender certainly

will break a time or two or three,
and I can't stop that happening.
I can, though, stand here now and sing
a lullaby, a hymn that I
would love to have them dreaming by.

These fleeting nights, I must not miss.
I pause just now to plant a kiss.
Too soon these boys will grow away.
I'll stop here nightly anyway.

I wasn't really planning to post that. Really, I just wanted an excuse to post this picture of how I found Charlie sleeping last night, with his wrists resting on the headboard of his new bunk bed. You can't make this stuff up.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Friday, October 22, 2010

CSA Fatigue

From Memorial Day to Thanksgiving, we get a weekly crate from a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) farm. Actually one crate has proven too much for our family, so we share a crate with our neighbors. We really love it, and we're happy that this model has allowed our farmers to survive and (I think) thrive. Planning and executing meals based on what comes in the crate each week changes our cooking for the better. It challenges us to get out of our routine and try new things and reconnect to what's local and seasonal. None of that is news to many of you.

That wonderful challenge, though, starts to wear out its welcome by oh, 5 months into the season of the crates. We try to take advantage of the freshness of the produce we receive. Sometimes, it's a race to use items before they get a head-start on composting (in our fridge). A few years ago, we had so many stir fries, I got so I didn't think I could eat another. Of late we've roasted more vegetables, which I cannot bring myself to complain about. And yet...and now, I just kind of yearn for a casserole, made from mostly shelf-stable ingredients. I know I could whip up one heck of a veggie lasagna, but I want my familiar version. I also wouldn't mind some homemade mac & cheese.

I only have one more month to tough it out, and by January, I'll be missing the colorful abundance of the crate. They do offer winter boxes...

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

My worst week ever - Part 2

Herewith, part 2 of an experiment in longer form writing. If you need to catch the beginning of the story of my Worst Week ever, you can read part 1 here.

I’ve never thought of it this way before, but I should also have seen coming the second calamity to befall my worst week ever. That September, my English teacher asked if anyone wanted to volunteer on a presidential campaign. She knew the Pittsburgh campaign manager for (dahnt-dunt-dah!) Michael Dukakis, and they were recruiting volunteers. I and the rest of my classmates sat staring blankly until she continued that anyone who volunteered would get out of school early on Tuesdays until election day. Sign me up! I’m a - what’s it? - Democrat!

My house was kind of an apolitical zone. My parents considered whom they voted for a private matter, even from their own children. I never knew who my parents supported in any election, and despite asking point blank, never was told for whom they’d voted. We didn’t sit around chewing over policy issues or arguing positions either. The political scene simply didn’t permeate the walls of our house. This is the kind of background one needs in order to volunteer to campaign for one of the least successful presidential candidates of the 20th century.

For a few months of Tuesdays leading up to the election, I’d leave school in the afternoon and go down to campaign headquarters for a few hours. They put me to work stuffing mailings, combing through lists and manning the reception desk. When I think about it now, it served as a great introduction to how offices work and how to behave in that environment. Beyond that, though, I can't claim that the experience sparked a political awakening. I never got really clear on Dukakis's platform and had trouble defending him or my work on his campaign to my knowledgeable Republican friend. When election day neared, the campaign asked if I’d want to go door-to-door for Dukakis to get out the vote. That sounded like a whole day off school, so I signed up.

Election day fell, of course, on the Tuesday of my Worst Week Ever. When I reported to the campaign office, they paired me up with another high school student, Jennifer Brick from Wall, Pennsylvania. No joke. I now know that Wall is a community in the formerly industrial Monongahela Valley southeast of Pittsburgh. At the time, I thought this cuteish, professional-looking blond had made up her name and her city. Probably, I entertained notions that fate had brought my jilted self together with a fellow political crusader at just the right time. All in all, though, I’d have to say (apologies!) that she was just another Brick in the Wall.

A window onto why Dukakis and Bentsen did not sweep into office in 1988: the local organizers sent two kids from the suburbs to door-knock in public housing in Pittsburgh’s Hill District. On a very chilly morning, we went in and out of three-story public housing complexes knocking on apartment doors and saying “Victory ‘88, Dukakis Bentsen”. Because mostly, we knocked, said that and stood there looking at closed doors, the rest of our script remains hazy in my memory. I think we encouraged people to vote, informed them of their polling place and offered to arrange a ride if they needed it. We likely also had talking points about how Michael Dukakis was going to lead this country into a brand new day. Mostly, what we were selling, they weren’t buying.

With Salvation Army officers as parents, I interacted regularly with poor people. Pickups in the church van were a staple of Sunday mornings - driving around town picking up those who could not easily get to church. By 15, I possessed a keen awareness that the less fortunate are all around and among us. There lies a great void, however, between honking the horn at the curb in front of someone’s subsidized apartment and going inside. In fact, when one of my assigned doors opened on election day, I stood facing a woman from our congregation. It made sense that someone with her persistent health problems, slight mental illness and low IQ might live in public housing, but I’d never contemplated where she went after church. She did not vote for Dukakis or anyone else in the 1988 election. At other doors, we heard children’s voices and no adult voices. Good for them that they didn’t open the door, not even for our hopeful message of Victory.

Aside from coming face to face with people in poverty, I also remember the relentlessness of walking outside in the cold between entryways and then into a blast of unregulated heat. The stairways were so hot that in many places, people had opened the windows. While too much heat beats too little, the wasteful extreme of it seemed like another indignity heaped upon this group of potential voters. The alternation of fire and ice made Jennifer and me physically miserable, which only harmonized with the spirit-sapping effects of of our fellow citizens’ persistent indifference.

When we’d canvassed our entire assigned area, we returned to the polling place at which we’d been dropped off and awaited our ride back to campaign headquarters. And awaited and awaited and awaited. A second window into the failure of the Dukakis campaign: when they had two sharp tack political operatives like J. Brick and me on their hands, they left us stranded at the meeting place for an hour in the middle of the day. When they finally did get us back - cold-sweating and hungry - to the campaign office, they fed us something and sent us back out to introduce more citizens to the coming Victory.

As you know, the Dukakis-Bentsen ticket took nine states and the District of Columbia. They barely squeaked out Massachusetts, Dukakis’s home state. All my hard work down the drain.

When your girlfriend dumps you to start the week and then your presidential candidate flames out that badly on Tuesday, one would think the only direction the week could go is up. But one might be wrong. I did have a nice weekend event to look forward to, and there was some clothes shopping to do. Marshall’s, here we come!

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Sunday Haiku: Just sayin'

When a mom is out
with her kids, you never hear
her called "Mrs. Dad".

Friday, October 15, 2010

What's da sitsty?

At this time of year, Teddy, like all of us, contemplates the weather when getting dressed. His question now, is typically: "Is it a short-sleeve day or a long-sleeve day?" It wasn't that long ago, though, that he asked "what's da sitsty?" meaning "what's the high temperature for today?". He must have distilled this question from hearing a high in the 60s on weather reports in the spring.

It's bittersweet to have him asking an understandable and answerable question like short versus long sleeves. It shows that he's more prepared now to communicate and function in the wider world than he was just a few months ago. But it also shows how fast he's growing up and shedding his younger, cuter patterns. It's our job to help our kids grow up this way, but I sometimes have trouble greeting the signs of success in that endeavor with open arms.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

My worst week ever: part 1

This post is the first installment of a little experiment in longer form writing on my blog. If I told you this whole story in one post, it would be too long for the Internet, and you would stop reading after the third paragraph. So, I'm breaking it up into about three installments.

In order to tell the story of the worst week of my life, I’m going to have to tell you an awful lot about what came before that week to put it in context. I’ll dole that history out in small chunks as necessary.

To this point in my life, I’d have to say that I had my worst week ever as a teenager. Knock wood it stays that way. It started with what turned out to be an ominous letter and ended with me in the hospital.

Although The Week started Sunday November 6, 1988, a letter I received on the previous Thursday, the 3rd should have tipped me off. I was 15 when this bad week rolled in. Remember letters? Remember no email and text messages and facebook status updates? I moved around a lot growing up, and I had friends who didn’t live very close. Long distance calling actually cost enough money that people budgeted long-distance phone time with some care and precision. In my house, that took the form of a brief fatherly lecture, delivered often: “The telephone is a tool for communication.” Loosely translated, this meant “get off the phone”. So we wrote letters. We sat down and devoted time to composing sentences and paragraphs long-hand to one another. They were filled with newsy bits and formulaic liturgical filler (“Hope you are doing well”...”Say Hi to your mom and them.”) Sometimes, we communicated about seriously important or emotional things in this format that enabled us to express deep thoughts without interruption.

That Thursday, I got a letter from the girl/woman I was dating. I don’t merely plunk “woman’ into that sentence because it’s how people who attended college in the ‘90s refer to females of all ages. The person I was dating actually
was a woman. We’d worked at camp together the prior summer when I was 14 and she was 18. She was my older sister’s co-counselor. That fall, while I toiled away at my sophomore year in high school, she was a 45-minute drive north at college. Over time, my impression of that situation/relationship evolved from “this is awesome” to “that was creepy”. Anyway, the letter contained a lit fuse of a sentence that I should have been able to interpret by age 15: “We need to talk on Sunday after church.” The other thing about letters is that their transmission created lag time. So although I didn’t know what we “needed to talk” about, I did carry a certain dread through the weekend.

I dug this woman, and it thrilled me to talk about my college girlfriend at school. We went on my first ever proper date. She picked me up in her black Datsun 210, and we saw the movie Dominick & Eugene - set and filmed in Pittsburgh - in Pittsburgh! I wore a shirt that I loved but which my school friends called “the garage sale shirt”. It was a button down with fleur-de-lis coats of arms all over it. Yes, it was the late ‘80s. Yes, I got it at Marshall’s. In an odd twist, my wife went on
her first date one month later at that same theater with her high school boyfriend.

Anyway, Sunday rolled around, and we walked off to the most private place we could find after the service, a short staircase in an upstairs hallway, and she broke up with me. Despite the letter and the age difference, it came as quite a surprise. Maybe I’d hoped she was just going to request that I not wear the garage sale shirt on future dates. I took it pretty hard. And I didn’t know the half of what was coming.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Sunday Haiku: Feminine Influence

If you want your man
to keep his facial hair, say:
"I kind of like it."

NB: no one said that sentence on the one day I rocked the stache.

Friday, October 8, 2010


In August, when Paige's grandmother died, we lost the last living grandparent either of us had. Martha Smith was a grand lady. She kept house, home and three daughters together during her husband George's Navy career. Growing up, my mother-in-law moved 18 times before leaving home (a record that makes my traumatic childhood of 7 Salvation Army moves sound amateur). Her ability to maintain a lovely home while on the move that much really impresses me. By the time I met her, when I was in college, she was a playful grand dame who loved to dance and play tennis and was never without a book. When dining out with her, we all knew she would order a perfect Manhattan on the rocks with an olive and a glass of ice on the side; she would spoon the extra ice cubes into the drink in a slow rhythm to dilute it, talking and laughing and enjoying (enduring?) George's madcap personality

When "Mama" passed, our kids lost their last great grandparent. I never had any living great grandparents; they had 3 until two years ago and one until they were 8 and 4. Charlie is named for Martha's father, Charles Mathis.

Of all that happened in a weekend of family memorial gathering late last month, I suspect I'll remember one moment the most. The priest led us outside after a short service. We processed around one end of the church to a memorial garden in the church yard with the urn of Mama's ashes. After a short liturgy and the recitation of a poem by Paige's cousin, Mama's daughters took turns spreading some of her ashes. The sheer physicality of it surprised me; it's always so graceful and ethereal in the movies. These ashes required a few healthy whomps on the bottom of the urn to free up clumps. Next, Paige's brother and cousins took turns, one representative from each family in their generation. Realizing that Charlie was the oldest great grandchild present, I whispered "Do you want to spread some?" He immediately answered that he did.

Paige accompanied him to step forward and take the urn. With an appropriate seriousness, he followed in the footsteps of his uncle and second cousins and grandmother and great aunts, spreading his great grandmother's ashes. Charlie is a sentimental person who loves all the branches of his family very deeply. It made me proud and happy to see him so ready and willing to participate in an irreplaceable ritual.

In fond memory of Martha Mathis Smith, 1923-2010

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

I'll Show you Mine if You Show me Yours

My list of podcasts, of course. What did you think I was talking about?

Occasionally, a Facebook status update gives me a peek at the podcasts to which my friends listen. In general, though, podcasts make me feel like an audience of one. I'm sure others listen to the same ones I do or good ones I should know about, but I have little way of knowing. So, I'll bare my MP3 soul in hopes that you'll share your podcast playlist in the comments.

[Editor's note: podcast is not in blogspot's spell check dictionary. Nor is Facebook or playlist. Nor, I should add, is blogspot. Natch.]

Breaking them down into categories, I'll cover the vegetables first (good for me and informative), then move to the fruit (good for me, but tasty and zesty, too), and finally to dessert (brain candy).
Informative, good-for-me Podcasts
NPR's Planet Money - The Economy, Explained. They do a really good job breaking down what's been happening in the economic crisis and the signs of recovery. It's economics for the common listener. Participation by the team that produces This American Life ensures that this is story-driven and character-focused. Some of the players from the dear departed Bryant Park Project work on this show, giving it a refreshing irreverence. 20-30 minute episodes, twice a week.
American Public Media's Marketplace Tech Report - A few weeks ago, this podcast changed its name from Future Tense to (yawn) Marketplace Tech Report. It also recently replaced its founding host, Jon Gordon with the equally likable John Moe. Only Johns need apply to host a quick look at the world of technology from new devices to privacy policy hi jinks to security threats. 5 minutes, 3-4 per week.
Brainstuff from How Stuff Works - The improbably named Marshall Brain takes listeners through a quick but thorough explanation of various things supposedly populated by listener questions. I remember "How does bulletproof glass work?" He hasn't taken on my question "Why do many children who start out blond end up having darker hair in later life?" HSW reminds me of a 5-minute lecture from my Uncle Larry, an engineer who does seem to know how everything works. 5 minutes, 3-4 per week.

Infotainment, Glad-I-heard-that Podcasts:
NPR's Fresh Air - Wow, can that Terry Gross interview. And now the others she uses for relief some days can, too. I love hearing Fresh Air on the radio, but often can't listen to the whole thing or join it half way and have trouble understanding what they're talking about. Now, if I don't catch it on the radio, I get it here. Fresh Air gets so TV-heavy when the new season starts, which is a bit of a bummer for one who watches TV only rarely, but overall the show produces such a terrific mix of news, entertainment and literature coverage. 1 hour on the air magically becomes 45 minutes on a podcast, daily.
NPR's This American Life - Quite possibly the best radio show ever made. Hear that, Murrow? Ever. Each show collects stories on a selected theme, mixing mostly true stories of the memoirish variety with short fiction that fits the theme. Creating 50 shows as good as this would be an accomplishment. Over 400 is simply staggering. I would have put this in the straight entertainment category, but I do learn important things listening to This American Life. 1 hour, occasionally posting reruns.
Kunstlercast - James Kunstler wrote Geography of Nowhere and several other books - non-fiction and a novel series - that focus on how suburbs are evil and the car-based world has to be going away. For the podcast, a lackey/former graduate student named Duncan Crary interviews Jim about his crazy worldview. I agree with most of his analysis of what works in older urban development and what doesn't work in the suburbs; I just feel like the way he packages this stuff often makes him sound nuts. Oh, and he uses bad language, which gives this totally straightforward and informative podcast the "Explicit" tag in iTunes. 20-40 minutes, about weekly.
Freakonomics Radio - The concept that was a great NY Times magazine article and became a pretty good book and has become a movie (!) also produces a half-hearted podcast that attempts to explain - through rogue economics - the hidden side of everything. Steven Levitt's mind works in fascinating ways, but whoever had this idea can't get enough Levitt to the subscribers for this medium. If they did it, this podcast would be better than the best parts of Planet Money and Brainstuff; it's a shame they lack the discipline to achieve that. They last posted at the World Cup. 20 minutes, when they feel like it.
NTEN Podcast - The Nonprofit Technology Network, a professional organization to which I belong, puts up a poor-audio podcast about once every never. They do a ton of good stuff, and this may just stretch a small staff's resources too thin. 1 hour, 10 minutes, 2-3 times a year.
NPR's Storycorps - Well-produced true stories from real people. 5 minutes, weekly.

Getting long here, so I'll speed up for the brain candy.

Entertainment Podcasts for Savoring and LOLing
ESPN's the BS Report - Bill Simmons calls his friends from college and LA and Boston and talks sports and pop culture in a mesmerizing way. 1 hour, 2-3 times a week.
The Moth - True stories, told live on stage without notes. Captivating from the funny to the touching. This is the podcast I save until I really want a treat. 15 minutes, once a week.
Dial-a-Stranger - Listeners submit open-ended questions (e.g. "Tell me about when someone saved your life"), and the hosts call a random listener (who has supplied his/her number) and ask them one of these questions. Zen-like interviews. I was on Episode 93, Baseball Angst. Yes, they called me. Hoo wa. 15 minutes, once a month when they're not overwhelmed.
The Absolute Peach - A couple of English guys chatting about everything and nothing in a way that's totally entertaining. Lots of inside jokes and references. Warning, if you start, you'll want to go back to the first of six series and listen to every one. They answered a question I posted on their facebook page on a recent episode. Yup. I'm everywhere. 1 hour, weekly.
The Pod F. Tompkast - Paul F. Tompkins just started this, and it's not for everyone. It's not always for me. Mostly, I think it's for my friend Jason H., who has a very similar sense of humor to PFT. Sometimes, I wish he would just get on with that and other times, I am practically (but not literally), ROTFL. 1 hour, bi-weekly or whatever.
Ricky Gervais - Mostly video casts, so I don't have time to consume them. Gervais is that English guy from the real Office and all the other squirm-worthy humorous content he produces. 2-10 minutes, monthly.

OK, if you're still reading and alive, let me know what's in your ears.