Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Slip Slidin' Away

“I know a man,

He came from my hometown.

He wore his passion for his woman like a thorny crown…”

Not the words to any lullaby you were raised with, are they? Me either. But for at least five years now this song has unfailingly gotten my daughter to fall asleep when nothing else would work.

My wife complains about how unfair it is that I can basically fall asleep whenever I want to. We will be talking in bed and at some point I will get tired enough and I will say, “I am going to sleep now.” And I do. Usually within two minutes of deciding to do so. She, on the other hand, needs to read a book or work on logic problems before she is able to set her day behind her and fall asleep.

Sadly, my daughter takes after her mother when it comes to falling asleep. The nightly process much more closely resembles some form of hand-to-hand combat between “awake” and “asleep” than an easy letting go for my poor girl. She has not yet read Dylan Thomas’s poetry, but it would not surprise me if his words strike a chord with her when she discovers him:

“Do not go gentle into that good night…”

I know Thomas’s words were about more than sleep. And as I sing Paul Simon’s words to “Slip Slidin’ Away” lately, they more often than not bring me to silent tears. I chose the song originally because I knew the words and it fit my limited range. I also liked the layer of meaning that using the song as a lullaby imparted to the lyrics. I truly wanted Isabel to slip slide off to sleep.

But now that she is almost ten and starting to develop more teenager-y tastes, I know that she is not always going to want me to lie down next to her and sing her a song to help her get to sleep. It is only a matter of time before she plugs in her earbuds and lets the Apple Corporation lull her to sleep. My time as her lullaby-singer is slip slidin’ away, too. Hell, she doesn’t know it yet, but SHE is slip slidin’ away from me—just like she is supposed to, I guess.

And on especially maudlin nights, as I finish up the last fading away lines of the song, I allow myself to look at the facts of the situation: Not only is Isabel sliding out of her childhood and away from me, but I am doing a little bit of slip slidin’ myself.

“Believe we’re gliding down the highway when in fact we’re slip slidin’ away…”

(Listen to the song.)

Friday, November 20, 2009

Wreckers of New Haven

The speed and efficiency with which the police and wreckers of New Haven move cars out of the way of the street sweepers is sometimes astounding. It has got to be the single most efficient operation in the city. I sometimes see ten or twelve tow trucks staging up over on James Street by Criscuolo Park. They are always accompanied by at least two New Haven Police Department cars and they move out with all the choreography and energy of a well-planned military operation.

I have witnessed the same precision and speed in the East Rock neighborhood, where I have seen ten cars ticketed and towed in under 30 minutes. It is truly impressive.

While I like clean streets and see the need for litter and leaves to be cleared away so storm drains can remain clear, I do have a major issue with the way the City of New Haven handles these towing operations. Others in New Haven have already reported on the woefully-inadequate posting of signs the day before these out-of-season street sweepings happen. I have often wondered how the companies that do the towing get the contracts (and thus, the spoils).

But neither the lack of notice nor the opportunity for corruption bothers me as much as the blatant and dangerous disregard for traffic laws shown by both the police and the wrecker convoys. I have not had my video camera handy when I have witnessed speeding through neighborhoods and running of stop signs, but I will be prepared next time and I will lodge formal complaints with the city and the state.

Until I catch these police-sanctioned and –led convoys on tape, doing 45 mph on the streets of East Rock, blowing through stop signs, I would like to know if anyone else has witnessed similar happenings. If so, please leave a comment here letting me know. Maybe we can affect some change somehow. I hope it will not take a bad car accident or a killed pedestrian to call attention to this problem.

The recent revelation that the officer involved in this June’s fatal crash in Milford was driving 94 mph and probably racing has made clear the potential serious repercussions of police sanctioned law-breaking. I want clean streets, but not at the cost of serious injury or death.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Going Half Hog

I went up to Portsmouth, New Hampshire last weekend for a half marathon. It was part of a commitment I made to myself last year that I would run a half marathon every three months until I die. (If you’re going to do something, you might as well go whole hog, right?) Since the promise, I have run the Missoula (MT) Half Marathon twice, the Monson (MA) Memorial Half Marathon, the LOCO Half at the Hamptons (NH), and Boston’s Run to Remember Half Marathon.

Sunday was a beautiful day, so as I waited for the race to start I sat outside stretching in the grass behind Portsmouth High School. After a while I noticed an older woman standing not so far away and, because talking to strangers does not come naturally to me, I made myself walk over and start a conversation with her. Her name was Nancy and she was running the Seacoast Half Marathon as the final leg in her goal to race a half marathon in each of the fifty United States.

We talked for twenty minutes and her story impressed the heck out of me. She didn’t once talk about her times or her pace. For her it was all about being in the race. My conversation with Nancy ended when we got the “ten minutes ‘til start” announcement. We wished each other luck and shortly after, I lost sight of Nancy. Based on the fire and zest for life she showed during our conversation, I am sure she finished and made good on her goal.

While I was running through Portsmouth, my wife, Erica, was jumping out of a perfectly good airplane three times. These jumps were part of a commitment she has made to get licensed to jump on her own anywhere, anytime. (Talk about whole hog.)

After the race, during the 200-mile drive home, I got to thinking about Nancy and about Erica and about going whole hog. And I made up my mind right there on the spot—right where I-95 gets onto I-495 up in the northeast corner of Massachusetts—that I am going to do the same as Nancy. I am going to run a half marathon in all 50 states. I can’t yet put a timeframe on the deal, but I am going to do it.

I have five states down already, if you include the full marathon I ran in Corning, New York in 2002. If you don’t count the Wineglass Marathon, then I have four states down and 46 to go. [I guess this is one of the many technical decisions I will have to make along the way. Nancy was explaining that several of her halfs went through more than one state. She had to decide if those races counted as one state or more. (She decided to count those multi-state races as only one state.)]

Well, what the heck? Here goes nothing. I hereby commit to running a half marathon in every state in the union before I die. So help me, God. I think I will call it going “half hog.” I will keep you posted.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Where The Wild Things Are

The heroine of the book I am currently reading out loud to my nine year-old daughter finds herself in an enormous outdoor arena with 23 other teenagers. She is part of a televised fight to the death, with the sole survivor winning food for his or her province for a year. It is a brutal story set in a brutal world. And my daughter can’t get enough. (Hunger Games)

The book I have just finished reading to my class of sixth graders features global flooding, the near-extinction of humanity, and a fight to survive against overwhelming odds. Many sympathetic characters die horrible deaths. It is certainly NOT the feel-good book of the year. And my students loved it. (Exodus)

The current debate about Spike Jonze’s film adaptation of Maurice Sendak’s 1963 classic Where The Wild Things Are has got me thinking about kids and just what is appropriate for them. Online message boards and stories on CNN and Yahoo News feature quotes from many parents who are shocked and horrified by the tantrums, tears, destruction, and just-plain emotional messiness of the film. Their reactions boil down to one complaint: This is NOT a kids’ movie.

I have no memory of any specific books I read before the age of twelve. The first book I can clearly remember reading is Richard Wright’s Native Son. It begins with a desperately poor family cowering in their apartment as the oldest son tries to kill a rat with a frying pan. This one scene opened my eyes, my brain, and my heart to books. It was harsh. It was violent. And it was real. Much more real and much more vital than any book I had read before Native Son.

Before reading Richard Wright’s novel I could not have told you what most books were lacking because I didn’t know. After those first 20 pages, it was immediately clear what was lacking in those other books: complexity.

The world is certainly not a simple place. And humans are certainly not simple creatures. We are a complex jumble of contradictory thoughts, wants, and emotions, and these competing forces can leave us roiling. Children are not exempt from the complexity that comes with having such large brains and such complicated and obscure motivations. Books and movies that reflect some of the messy truth of being human talk to me much more directly than books and movies that ignore or deny this truth.

And I am happy to find out that the same is true of my daughter. The books we read together now interest me as much as they interest her. Of course, there are some caveats. Children are different. They are individuals. Some children are deeply affected by images of cruelty, violence, cold-heartedness, and anger and the parents of these children need to exercise the “G” part of the PG movie rating. As parents, we know our own children far better than any movie- or video game- rating board.

I hope the release of, (and accompanying debate about), Where the Wild Things Are, motivates parents to take a more active role in guiding their children to books, movies, tv shows, and video games that are right for their kids. I will not be showing my daughter Pulp Fiction, (or even episodes of The Office), but if she wants to read a challenging work like To Kill a Mockingbird or Of Mice and Men, I will be right there with her, helping her make sense of some of the harder, darker elements.

In a recent interview with Newsweek magazine, Maurice Sendak, Spike Jonze, and writer Dave Eggers talked about the idea that some things are too scary for kids:

What do you say to parents who think the Wild Things film may be too scary?Sendak: I would tell them to go to hell. That's a question I will not tolerate.

Because kids can handle it?Sendak: If they can't handle it, go home. Or wet your pants. Do whatever you like. But it's not a question that can be answered.

Jonze: Dave, you want to field that one?

Eggers: The part about kids wetting their pants? Should kids wear diapers when they go to the movies? I think adults should wear diapers going to it, too. I think everyone should be prepared for any eventuality.

Sendak: I think you're right. This concentration on kids being scared, as though we as adults can't be scared. Of course we're scared. I'm scared of watching a TV show about vampires. I can't fall asleep. It never stops. We're grown-ups; we know better, but we're afraid.

Why is that important in art?Sendak: Because it's truth…

And with our guidance, kids can handle the truth.

Monday, October 5, 2009

What is a Team?

I went to a friend’s house yesterday to watch the Baltimore Ravens play the New England Patriots.  My friend “Joe” is a rabid Ravens fan and his reactions to the action on the screen certainly made the game that much more enjoyable for me.  In the end, the Ravens lost when one of their receivers, Mark Clayton, dropped a pass he should have caught at the eight-yard line with 30 seconds left in the game.  “Joe”, though not inconsolable, was somewhat distraught.

 Another friend asked him why he is so committed to his Ravens and “Joe” owned up to the fact that it was simply a matter of geography.  He happened to be born in the city where the Ravens play.  When pressed even just a little he will readily admit that proximity is not a rational reason to support a professional sports team. 

 I chose my favorite sports teams differently.  Way back in the early-mid 1970s I made a short list on a piece of paper.  The list consisted of four professional sports teams, all of them from Philadelphia.






 I asked my dad to name the rivals of the four teams on the list.  He told me the following:

 Los Angeles Dodgers

 Washington Redskins

 Boston Celtics

 New York Rangers

 That very day I adopted the four rivals as my new favorite teams.  And, 35 years later, three of the four are still my favorite teams.  (I have since stopped following professional hockey due to its over-resemblance to professional wrestling.)  When pressed even just a little I will readily admit that opposition to my family is also not a rational way to pick my favorite sports teams.

 I have lately been thinking about just what a sports team is.  The Dodgers, Redskins, and Celtics I like today are not the same Dodgers, Redskins, and Celtics I rooted for in 1977.  They have different owners, different coaches, and different players.  The only things the same are the names and Dodger stadium.  Yet, something of the teams I chose to like all those years ago is still there, somewhere, still keeping my loyalty.  What is it?  What is a sports team?

 What brought these thoughts on is a discussion I had with my wife, Erica, last week.  For the past three years Erica has captained a long-distance relay team called the Rosie Ruiz Fan Club.  The team was originally four people running the New Jersey Marathon as a team in May of 2007.  In its latest incarnation, it was twelve people running the 207-mile Reach the Beach long distance relay in New Hampshire.  In any given year the membership has little overlap with the year before.  Still, the Rosie Ruiz Fan Club is a team.  Even when it lies dormant for eight or nine or even ten months between races, the spirit of Rosie lives.

 My experience this year running for Rosie in New Hampshire has helped focus my answer to this “what is a team?” question.  It is not an answer I am fully satisfied with yet, but I am working on it.

 Here is what I got so far:  A team is a living feeling rooted in history, traditions, personal experiences, and commitment.  The Celtics, Dodgers, and Redskins have long, storied histories reaching back much farther than my memory.  I stepped into the story of each of these teams when I decided to follow them.  I earned my stripes as a fan of these teams when Larry Bird left and John Riggins retired and Steve Garvey stopped playing.  My teams all got bad for a while.  In some cases, very bad.  Yet, they are still my teams.  I didn’t pick new teams to follow; I suffered though with the old ones.

 New teams don’t have the history, traditions, and allegiances of established franchises.  New teams create them over time, game by game and season by season.   The Ravens are an interesting case in point to consider when asking this question, what is a team?  The Ravens moved to Baltimore from Cleveland.  Yet the owner who relocated his team was forced by the NFL to leave his team’s history and nickname behind to be used by an expansion team in 1999.

 Many of the very same personnel who comprised the Cleveland Browns in 1995 were the Baltimore Ravens in 1996, yet somehow they were not the same team.  The intangibles of history, traditions, memories, and allegiances were all left behind in Cleveland, to be assumed by an expansion team a few years later.  So, did the Cleveland Browns exist in the four-year period when there was no group of men playing under the mantle of the Browns?  To the fans of the Browns the answer is an obvious yes.

 It is an odd thing people do, choosing to give their hearts to a thing that is so hard to define.  Yet many of us do it willingly.  (Of course, many of us do it at an age when we are too young to really know what we are getting ourselves into.)  Still, I would bet a million dollars that if I were to ask “Joe” seconds after Mark Clayton dropped that pass yesterday on the eight-yard line if he ever once thought about dropping the Ravens and following another team he would laugh in my face.  The Ravens are his team.  Whatever that means.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Finding Change


            There is a screwtop plastic jar in my kitchen.  It is slowly filling with crusty pennies and sticky nickels and dirty dimes.  An occasional quarter makes it in, but that is rare.  The jar itself is something I bought near Faneuil Hall in Boston when I had my class there for a sleepover trip a couple of years ago.  I am not allowed to take such a trip without bringing something home for my daughter, and this jar was her present from that particular trip.

            The jar is the size and shape of the mason jars people use for canning, but this jar has a twist.  The lid has a slot for coins and a digital display screen that shows a running total of how much money is inside.  Right now the total reads $8.24.

            The reason many of the coins in the jar are dirty is they are all coins we have found out in the world.  Many were on the ground near parking meters, some were under vending machines, and a few were on the floor of the supermarket near the CoinStar machine.  They have all been found since June 18, 2009.  That was the day I walked by a few pennies on the ground and then wondered exactly how much money I was leaving laying around in a year.  I vowed to pick up every coin I would ordinarily have passed by for a full year and add them up.

            I told Erica and Isabel about my plan and enlisted their help.  I also made what now appears to be a foolish bet with Erica.  In those early, overly-optimistic days I thought we might be able to collect as much as $50.00 in a year.  She thought fifty dollars was a wildly high guess.  We bet a backrub.  If I had slowed down even just a little I could have done the math and realized that a total of fifty dollars would require an average daily find of fifteen cents.  It has been about one hundred days and we are averaging only 8.2 cents a day. 

            So, it looks like I will owe my lovely wife a backrub come next June.  But in the meantime and much to my surprise this exercise is teaching me something valuable.  And it doesn’t really have anything to do with coins. 


            Finding all this lost change requires focused attention on the world around me and a willingness to change course in response to what I observe.  I am finding these very same skills really valuable to my teaching.  This year is going well in my classroom and, (even though it may sound ridiculous), I partially attribute this success to my newfound hobby of coin collecting.  In order to find change, I have to remind myself to look—to pay attention.  Often I just walk without anything in mind but the destination.  But now that I am looking for change, I have to remember to actually look for change.  I have to exercise mental discipline.

            The same is true in my daily classroom interactions with my students.  In other years I have been so focused on the destination—the skill to be learned, the project to be completed, the work to be done—that I have blown right through some ripe opportunities to connect with my kids.  Once I started shifting my focus from the horizon to my more immediate environment, I found a lot more coins.  And once I lowered my gaze from the goal and focused more on the immediate messages my students were sending with their questions and their body language, the more I have felt able to really give them what they are needing.

            I am giving more of myself to each interaction with my students and the payoff has been enormous.  I am noticing more and learning more about them.  I imagine they are feeling more seen, more recognized, and better cared for.  There is a feeling in the room that hasn’t always been here in the past.

            Don’t get me wrong—I have never been an uncaring, strictly-business sort of teacher.  I like where I teach partly because of the administrative and parental expectation that I get to know my students well.  What has made this year different is that I have gotten to know my students well AND I have realized that every interaction is a chance to get to know them even better.  Every interaction every day is a chance to find something new about my students.  I am no longer, (at least so far this year), leaving money on the ground.  Once I began to see the value in those small moments, those minor revelations, and those tentative questions from my students it became clear to me just how immensely valuable all those pennies and nickels and dimes are in building real and authentic relationships with my kids.  And that is worth far more than fifty dollars.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Reach the Beach 2009

            I stood on the roadside, breathing steam into the starry night of Laconia, New Hampshire.  I was peering down the road, back the way we had just driven, looking for Tammy.  Runner after runner came up the hill, red lights blinking, headlights bobbing—more, or less--depending on the runner’s form and efficiency of stride.  They all looked equally like Tammy in the dark.  The headlights of the oncoming support vans were blinding, making it all the harder to spot my teammate.


            As runner after runner plodded or trudged or jogged or sprinted up the hill, a teammate would pop out of the crowd and take the team wristband, slapping it on his or her own arm and heading further down the road, further into the night.  But still no Tammy.


            I had met Tammy only 30 hours earlier at an Appleby’s in Lowell, Massachusetts and now here I was, wanting to see her more than any other human being on Earth.  Funny, what life does.  Just that morning she had been moving to loud club music as our team registered, and I kept expecting to see that same vibrant woman come dancing out of the darkness and into the transition zone with a big smile on her face.


            Which is why I didn’t recognize her for a moment, even when she stood five feet away yelling, “Where’s my runner?”  The woman calling in the floodlit roadside transition area was wrapped in some sort of white blanket or something. She was sweating and looking somewhat disoriented.  It was then that I saw our team number, 269, on the woman’s bib and realized this was Tammy standing right in front of me, eyes swiveling with increasing panic as she searched the crowd for me.


            “Here I am—I’m here,” I said as I squeezed out of the crowd and became myself to Tammy.  Right away her face cleared and she smiled and she was that same dancing-on-the-grass girl I had seen back in the morning on Cannon Mountain at the start of this craziness.  She handed me the wristband, I slapped it on, adjusted my head lamp, and trotted on up the road, in the same direction Tammy had been heading.


            “This craziness” is officially known as Reach the Beach 2009.  It is a team relay race that starts in the White Mountains of New Hampshire and ends 207 miles later in the sands of Hampton Beach, on the Atlantic Ocean.  The race has been run every year since 1999 and each year there are more teams running through the night and through the state.  There were more than 400 teams this year, including our team, the Rosie Ruiz Fan Club.


            Team Rosie has now run the race three times and we are building a small but dedicated fan base who mostly appreciate the humor of our name.  Rosie Ruiz is the woman who won the Boston Marathon a few years back by cheating and taking the subway for some of her miles.  We have adopted her likeness and name, if not her ethos.


            So, there I was at 2:30 a.m. running along the shoulder of Route 106 South, heading for Belmont High School, 4.3 miles away.  My running shorts and shirt were already damp from my previous leg, (a 7.2 mile, moderately hard run just before sunset the previous day), and I was shivering.  My vanmates and I had just woken up from our only sleep of the race—a two hour nap in an anonymous hotel room in Laconia—and my mind felt as addled as Tammy had looked at the end of her leg just moments before.  I really did not know how I was going to get through the next few miles of my life.


            So I did he only thing I could do while I tried to figure it out—I ran.  The cold air quickly went from adversary to friend and my muscles, already warmed up from my earlier run, settled me into a smooth, fluid stride without me having to even think about it.  It was a clear night and there were far more stars than I usually see in New Haven, Connecticut, where I live in my regular life.  But if I looked up at them too long I strayed off the shoulder or onto the road—neither of which is a good thing to do.  So I focused on the shoulder just ahead.


            My headlamp threw a blue-white circle of light onto the tar in front of me and that well-lit circle quickly became my world.  It mesmerized me and so I chased it. I wanted nothing more than to step into that circle, but as I followed, it receded.  I sped up a little, but so did the circle.  My legs and my breathing settled into a pace that felt good.  I was pushing myself, trying to give what I had without wasting myself for my final 6.8 mile leg still to come that afternoon.  By the end of the first mile I was in the best rhythm of my running life. 


            The feeling of moving smoothly through a three-dimensional space that suddenly seemed alive and filled with darkness and cold and life inflated me.  I felt bigger.  The layers of commentators that live in my head and my heart all shut up for a few miles and left me in peace and in that peace my body did what it wanted to do.


            And what it wanted to do was to run.  So I went after that little circle of light until the end of my leg, which seemed to come far too soon.  I truly believe I could have gone on for hours.  When Tammy called me out of that crowd 32 minutes earlier she somehow worked some magic.  When I stepped out onto the road to answer that question, “Where’s my runner?”, I feel like I stepped fully into who I am.  I am not the fastest runner on the team, nor will I ever be.  But when it is right—and it most certainly was right in New Hampshire this weekend—running fills me up and quiets me and makes me feel what it is to be fully in the moment in my own skin, doing what I need to be doing.




As a postscript for those who care about the details:  The Rosie Ruiz Fan Club ran 207 miles in 27 hours and 32 minutes--an average of 7 minutes 57 seconds per mile.  We came in 25th out of 127 teams in our division.  My average time per mile over my 19.2 miles of the race was exactly the same as the team's. 


Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Too Much Information

My daughter recently brought home a Leopard gecko from the pet store. (She named it “Cow.”) To be honest, I didn’t really care one way or the other about this new addition to our household. It didn’t seem like Cow’s presence would change my life in any appreciable way.

But now, ten days later, I find myself with an embarrassing problem.

You see, Leopard geckos are carnivores and they do best when fed live crickets. The crickets are easy enough to get from the local pet store. The problem is this: it is really fun watching Cow chase down, catch, and munch on these poor little hoppers. I spend far too much time squatting down by the ten-gallon tank, shaking out a couple of crickets, and then enjoying the show.

I didn’t really want to know this about myself.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Reach the Beach, 2009

            Two years ago this week I drove up to Hampton Beach, New Hampshire with my daughter so we could watch Erica and her eleven teammates finish their 200 mile Reach the Beach Relay Race.  I was not on the team because I had not been running much, due to two herniated discs in my lower back.  I was happy for them as they crossed the line as a group, but inside I felt entirely lame and left out.  I vowed in the van on the way home the next morning that I would work myself into the best shape of my life and then I would be in the race the next year, not clapping from the sidelines.

            Last September, I was indeed a member of the Rosie Ruiz Fan Club  relay team as my  teammate Aisling Colon crossed the finish line, bringing our team in in 28 hours, 23 minutes,  and some odd seconds. This was an hour faster than the year before, when the team ran an average 8 minutes and 33 seconds per mile for over 200 miles.

           It felt really good to be part of such a demanding undertaking—no sleep, no showers, no stopping for food—and it was so much fun that it ensured I would once again run the race this year.

            In the interim, I have decided I need to run a half marathon every three months in order to fight time’s and gravity’s ravages.  So, as this year’s Reach the Beach approaches, I am probably now in much better shape than I was for last year’s race.  And I am growing more and more excited day by day.  I just now finished a slow four-mile run as my daughter Isabel practiced her balance beam routine and her backflips and as I ran down the Farmington Canal trail for the hundredth time in the past year it struck me that one week from right NOW I will be running my first leg of the relay. 

It feels good to be excited about something.  It reminds me of the value of trying hard things with other people.  I will let you now how it goes when we get back next Sunday.


                                                     Rosie Ruiz Fan Club 2008

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Public Nuisance?

A few months ago I took out the swath of grass between the street and the curb and put in a raised garden bed.  It had been wasted space that just ended up looking shabby and I was tired of picking up other people's dogs' poop.  I thought some peas, beans, and zinnias might brighten up the space and provide us with some fresh vegetables. 
(This is how it looked back in June when we got the ticket)

The City of New Haven saw it differently and demanded that I remove the garden.  The penalty for failure to comply is a $100.00 fine for each citation.  So far I have only gotten the one citation and I have mostly just ignored it.  When I read the statute under which I was warned, the official charge said "Public Nuisance."  
Here is how the garden now looks, in all its glory.  In a city that is objectively not all that beautiful, is this really a public nuisance?

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Talking Schmidt

I was in the car with Isabel last week when we heard a story on the radio about Google CEO Eric Schmidt and his decision to step down from his post on the Board of Directors of Apple.  Over the years I have grown accustomed to translating NPR newspeak into language Isabel can better understand, and when I noticed her in the rearview mirror listening intently to the story I began to prepare a version of the story she could understand.

            Right on cue as the story ended Isabel opened her mouth, only it wasn’t to ask the question I thought she was going to ask.  Instead, she said, “Eric Schmidt’s name sounds like a bad word—like you could use it as a curse word.”  That sounded right to me and the two of us giggled our agreement about the Google executive’s last name.

            And then we created a game that has kept Isabel, Erica, and me busy and amused off and on for more than a week now.  It goes like this:

1)    Think of a saying, expression, or phrase that usually involves the word “shi*”

2)    Turn the word “shi*” into “Schmidt”

(NOTE:  Steps one and two are done silently, in your head.)

3)    Create a story or scenario designed to get the other people in the game to guess the phrase, saying, or expression.

For example, when the founder of Google has a couple of glasses of wine and then starts to get very philosophical, that would be “deep Schmidt.”

See how many of the following you can get:


1)    Eric Schmidt was sitting at an outdoor cafĂ© with his wife, enjoying a quiet lunch, when a childhood friend of his wife approached the two.  The friend went right to Wendy and the two dove right into a long conversation.  After a while, Wendy’s friend said to Wendy, “aren’t you going to introduce us?”


2)    Eric Schmidt leaves Google and devotes his life to quiet contemplation, good deeds, and selflessness.  The Catholic Church recognizes his goodness.


3)    Early one Tuesday Eric Schmidt stopped at his favorite coffee shop on the way to work and bought a double tall vanilla latte.  On Wednesday, Eric Schmidt did the exact same thing.


4)    Eric Schmidt’s brother bought him a jacket, but when Eric tried it on, it was VERY tight.  The jacket was ______ __ _______.


5)    As children, Eric and his three siblings were on the playground just as a huge game of kickball was being organized.  Two captains were named and they began choosing players one by one.  It became clear that one of the captains had something against the Schmidt children.  No matter what, this particular captain simply would NOT pick a Schmidt.


6)    Eric Schmidt shared a room with one of his brothers as a kid.  The room got very hot in the summer sometimes.  They had a window of unusual size and shape, so they could not put a window air conditioner in.  Instead, they had a large fan.  Once, it broke.  Eric unplugged it, got out his tool kit, took it apart, fixed a frayed wire, reassembled the fan, and STILL it did not work.  In frustration, he struck the uncooperative appliance.  Then it worked.


7)    In the Schmidt family there is Eric Schmidt, Wendy Schmidt, Eric Schmidt, Jr., Emily Schmidt, and their pet canine.



So, do you know your Schmidt?  If you think of any others, feel free to add them as a comment to this post.

Answers: She didn't know Schmidt, holy Schmidt, same Schmidt different day, full of schmidt, didn't take any Schmidt, Schmidt hit the fan, dog Schmidt

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Punch Buggy Red--NO Punchbacks

Sometimes while teaching or talking with friends I make reference to Bible stories.  When teaching Lord of the Flies to my fifth and sixth graders this year, I referred to Cain and Able.  Just recently I dropped an allusion to Lot’s wife leaving Sodom and Gomorrah into a conversation I was having with a well-educated friend.  In both cases, the references fell flat and the listeners were left with quizzical expressions.

Whenever this happens, I blame the parents.  (As a teacher I am more-than-inclined to place responsibility where it squarely belongs—with parents.)  So, when my daughter Isabel heard a reference to “slug bug” and got the same quizzical look on her face, I stepped right in and caught her up to speed.  I grew up in Delaware and we called the game “Punch Buggy.”  Erica grew up in Montana and she called it “Slug Bug.”  Whatever you call it, the rules seem to be pretty much the same across the country.

From what I can tell, the game has been played in America for at least 40 years.  If you know how to play, then just remember when we next see each other, I owe you a punch.  If you don’t know how to play, follow this link and get started.

Friday, July 24, 2009

They're Not Dead Yet

The Republican Party has a real problem.  Or, more accurately, THREE real problems.  The first is the Teabaggers. The second is the Birthers.  And the third is the response of some GOP Senators to the wise Latina nominated by President Obama to sit on the Supreme Court.  Each of the three is guaranteed to lose the party more of the moderate voters who decide this country’s elections.  Taken together, it becomes clear the Republican Party is headed for a twenty-year decline.

Politics can be very complex sometimes.  There are local issues, national issues, demographic trends, unforeseen crises, personal scandals, and many other factors to take into account.  But in the end, there is one foolproof strategy that will ensure your election 99* times out of 100.  That nearly-unbeatable strategy is to get more votes than the other person.

Often, you can get people to vote for you by being seen as honest, effective, competent, and informed.  If you are not well known, voters will look to your party affiliation for information about what kind of lawmaker or executive you would be.  When these moderate, unaffiliated voters step into the voting booth in November and see a big old “R” next to a candidate’s name, that affiliation is likely to work against that candidate.

The “teabaggers” (has there ever been a more unfortunate name for a political protest group?) are an embarrassingly rabid anti-tax group who don’t seem to understand that taxes pay for things that make life in America as great as it is.  Personally, I am glad there are air traffic controllers, food quality and cleanliness inspectors, the United States Armed Forces, the Internet, roads and bridges, and a million-and-one other services our taxes pay for.  Interestingly, the states with the highest ratio of federal tax dollars coming in also have the most active Teabagging groups.

These groups—comprised mostly of Republicans—do not put the most intelligent face on the party of Lincoln.

The “Birthers”, by comparison, make the “Teabaggers” look brilliant.  They believe that Barack Obama was born somewhere other than the United States and that he is Constitutionally ineligible to be the President.  They have begun to show up at events held by Republican politicians and shout out questions about President Obama’s birth certificate.   Again, the party comes across as less-than-rational when these vocal crazies grab the microphone.

Personally, I do not like the direction the Republican Party would like to lead America, so I give a cheer each time the Teabaggers and the Birthers spout off and make the news.  They serve to put an extreme face on a party that is pretty much leaderless.  In the wake of John McCain’s loss to Barack Obama, the Republican Party really has no identity.  Its members have nearly knocked themselves out running away from George W. Bush and his legacy.  (Sometimes I am reminded of cockroaches scrambling for cover when a light turns on.)  But they have not yet reformed under the banner of one obvious leader.

Sarah Palin, Newt Gingrich, Mitt Romney, Michael Steele, and Rush Limbaugh all claim the loyalty of one small faction of the party.  And it seems unlikely they will get their collective act together and offer much in the way of a unified, constructive party philosophy in time for the 2010 midterm elections or the 2012 Presidential contest.  So, in the meantime, the Republicans have become the Party of No.  They don’t yet know what they stand for, so they simply stand against anything President Obama and the Democrats propose.  Teabaggers?—against any taxes.  Birthers?—against Barack Obama himself.

Rich white male Republican Senators (like Tom Coburn, Jeff Sessions, Jon Kyle, and John Cornyn) made it clear in their questioning of Sonya Sotomayor that they are against the idea that a person’s experiences affect their judgment.  They are horrified by the thought of someone other than a white male passing judgment on the Constitution.  Do they really think that Samuel Alito, John Roberts, and Antonin Scalia don’t bring their own personal biases and experiences to their decisions on the Court? 

These Senators, with their confrontational tone and clear ignorance of human psychology, have hurt Republican efforts to court women and Hispanics.  If your base is shrinking and you have no plan, it doesn’t make much sense to antagonize potential voters, especially when the possibility of blocking Judge Sotomayor is nil.  Clearly those Republican Senators who scoffed at her impartiality care more about throwing red meat to their own conservative base back home in Texas, Arizona, Alabama, and Oklahoma than they do about expanding the appeal of their party.

Yes, the Republican Party has some problems.  And it wouldn’t surprise me at all if they wander the political wilderness for sixteen or twenty more years before they manage to pull their act together and capture both houses of Congress.  In the absence of real leadership, the most vocal wing takes the spotlight and the individual members care more about their own political survival than about strengthening the party.  The Republican Party is not dead, but it is certainly in for a long, slow convalescence.  I, for one, think they should take all the time they need--no need to hurry.


(*  see Gore v. Bush, 2000)

Monday, July 20, 2009

Hey Everyone--Look at ME.

            Recently, an old friend of mine from my Peace Corps days sent me a message through Facebook.  It was a guy I had not thought of very many times since we last saw each other in 1989, but one I liked very much.  His message had a link to some YouTube video photo albums of Yemen and I have watched both videos many times since I got the links last week.

            I also got to wondering where all of the old pictures of my time in Yemen were.  Being a master of organization, Erica knew exactly where to look.  They were in a shoebox in the closet in the craft room.  I truly didn’t even know we still had them   But I was glad we did.  After looking through the pile I was overcome by the urge to digitize and post the pictures here on my blog.  But then I had second thoughts—isn’t it presumptuous to think anyone would even care to see them?

            Combined with sites like YouTube and Google’s Blogger, Facebook allows for any level of self-revelation a person is willing to engage in.  Facebook’s popularity seems like a natural outgrowth for the generation who grew up with Gerry Springer and The Real World.  People seem to have lost the distinction between what is public and what is private, between what is important to share and what is merely self-indulgent.

            I see this instinct toward over-sharing with the status updates of my “friends” on Facebook.  They range from once-in-a-blue-moon updates—(things like “… is in Naples”)-- to almost real-time changes—(“…is pulling into the parking lot at Stop and Shop.”)  There are the intriguing updates (“…is mending light”), and the nowhere-near-intriguing-enough (“…is having an attack of diverticulitis.”)

I tend toward the less frequent, less personally revealing status updates, since I am a somewhat private person.  (And yet, even as I type that last sentence I know on some level I am not a private person at all since I keep a blog and I update my Facebook status at least three or four times a week.)

            Anyway, I think all of this is really just me talking myself into believing it is alright to post some pictures from Yemen simply because I want to. I am FULLY aware that posting these pictures is self-indulgent.  So, ignore all of this and just look at the pictures, if you care to.

Men making a deal in the Hodeidah qat market.

The straw hat section of the local market.

A fishing village on the Tihama--(the Red Sea coastal plain)--not far from my city, Hodeidah.

Some Yemeni men with their not-phallic-at-all daggers, called "jambiya".

Two of my students, (with their jambiyas).

Gas for the truck, water for the camels.

Cactus blossoms in the mountains.

An old man and his mule, waiting to be hired to carry something-anything-anywhere.

Remains of the city of Old Marib--built 2800 years ago and home to the Queen of Sheeba from the Bible.

A young shepherdess high above the amazing terraced mountainsides of Yemen.


Monday, July 13, 2009

Driving To Montana

This week I have been driving around Montana.  A lot.  Montana is an enormous state.  If you were to stand in the southeastern corner of Montana you would be closer to Texas than to the northwestern corner of Montana.  In the past few days I have driven 900 miles and not once left the state.  All of this driving has got me thinking back to that first time I drove into Montana in the summer of 1992.

In the summer of 1992 I was supposed to take a group of upper-middle class American teenagers to Kenya to do community service work in a Masai village not far from Masai Mara National Park.  I was thrilled at the idea.  I had only just recently returned from two years teaching in Yemen and I was itching to get back overseas. 

In the summers of 1990 and 1991 I had worked as a staff person for the same non-profit that was setting up the Kenya program.  It was called Visions, International and the people who ran the company were impressive in their sensitive approach to development work as well as their commitment to service learning.  When they called me early in 1992 about possibly leading a trip to Kenya I nearly jumped out of my skin.  I agreed in seconds and then spent the entire spring growing more and more excited.

But during the spring of 1992 Kenya was making a jarring and sometimes-violent switch from single-party rule to multi-party democracy.  When Kenya was in the news in the States it was always accompanied by pictures of sign-carrying, slogan-chanting crowds and soldiers dressed in riot gear.  As you might well imagine, these images were not a very effective recruiting tool for Visions-Kenya.  By the beginning of May it became clear that we would not have enough teenagers signed up to make a Kenya program viable.  The program was cancelled and I was deflated.

But then Joanne Pinaire, the director of Visions’ day-to-day operations and all-around amazing woman, called to offer that I direct a newly established program on the Northern Cheyenne Reservation in Montana, instead.  It would entail living in a tiny village called Birney in a remote corner of the reservation.  I would take 16 teenagers from New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut (mostly) to a place with 25 houses, no store, and no television and together we would build a playground from scratch on a one-acre space in the middle of town.

I had no experience with construction, no knowledge of the Northern Cheyenne Tribe, and no previous experience directing programs, so I immediately said “yes” to Joanne’s offer and quickly switched the setting of my daydreams from Kenya to Montana.


To get to Montana I first went to Boston to collect the sixteen-passenger vans that we would use to get around the reservation all summer.  Then I helped collect the staffers who would be working with me on the Northern Cheyenne Reservation, as well as those staffers who would be working on the other reservation programs in Montana.  In all, there were 24 of us driving in a caravan across the country.  It was my first cross-country drive and it was one heckuva good time.

Once we got to South Dakota the vastness of the West made itself clear to me.  It went on forever in rolling hills and rock outcroppings covered in grasses and sage.  But then we hit Montana and instead of one great undifferentiated expanse, elements of the landscape began to stand out.  The rocks grew red and the land began to speak to me.  It may have been the 70 hours spent in the van, but I don’t think so.  Something in the land of southeastern Montana touched something in me.  Though looking back, “touched” is the wrong word.  “Grabbed” is more accurate.  It somehow felt like I had come home to a place I had never been.

That summer went well, as did the following summers in Montana.  Each time the program ended, I would get back in the van and drive back to Boston.  And each time I did, Montana held onto more and more of what can only be called my soul.  Eventually I realized the stupidity of leaving Montana and when the Visions summer ended, I stayed.  I became a Montanan.

To make a long story short, a few years later I met my wife and our lives took us back to the Northeast—Ithaca and New Haven, specifically--where we have been for more than ten years.

This summer’s trip back to Montana to visit friends and family has made it clear to me that we need to move back here.  The land still talks to me like no other place has.  What brought me to Montana back in 1990s is still here and I am starting to worry that a very important part of who I am resides in Montana and stays here when I go back East.  I don’t want to end up like Lord Voldemort, with my soul split into pieces that live in far-flung places and leave me incomplete.

So, how to get back...?