Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Bread and Berries

Treats of the day created in my daughter's favorite class, the one she says makes her week worthwhile. She wanted a college experience that would include the culinary arts without her having to go to culinary school. She got the best of both worlds, as she tends to do. 

House of Cards

"The greatest evil is not done in those sordid dens that Dickens loved to paint, but is conceived and ordered (moved, seconded, carried, and minuted) in clear, carpeted, warmed, well-lighted offices, by quiet men with white collars and cut fingernails and smooth-shaven cheeks who do not need to raise their voices." 

—C.S. Lewis

This quote arrived in my email in humble lines of type that sat below the sender's name and multiple degrees and titles and areas of expertise. This quote goes out to everyone this erudite man communicates with by email, which I think is his quietly shattering observation about the state of corporate and political affairs in America today. I don't mean to reduce the power of C.S. Lewis's words by applying them to a pop culture phenom, but the quote made me think immediately of the parched morality of the Netflix series, House of Cards, which of course includes steely-eyed women with white collars who do not raise their voices. If that show is any way suggestive of how the game is played in Congress, no wonder our president is so often accused of keeping his distance from that sordid den.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

On his game

I'm sitting here listening to my son in the next room talking to someone on the phone about his student loan. He wants to change his monthly payments to be income-based, and to find out if it is in fact true that EMTs and firefighters and others in the serving professions are able to qualify for loan forgiveness (they are, after making 120 payments that are income-based). My son makes very little right now, and actually qualifies for very low monthly payments, with no interest accruing, according to what the man on the other end of the line is telling him. I am very impressed with my boy, the way he handles himself, the clarity of his questions and the logic of his follow-ups, his seriousness of purpose yet conversational ease, and always his sense of responsibility to his commitments. It would be easy for me to say we'll just pay this for you for the time being, son, but he's taken it on with such integrity—the consolidating of the loans, the choosing of the payment plan, the endless paperwork and mailing documents in—and none of it is simple, this is the government after all, so it requires call upon call upon call to the various agencies, and call backs when the websites don't work as described, but slowly and surely he is making his way through. "What if my income increases before the year is up?" I just heard him ask. I love that he's planning for that, because it will increase, he will do well. It's how he sees his life unfolding and that is more than half of it. What a fine example he is for me.

Saturday, February 22, 2014

Bethesda Fountain

The snow in the city is melting away, the ground wet and shiny, the mounds of ice that line the walkways weeping underneath. I don't have much space in my head right now. My brain is trying to work it's way through a tangle, to find the perfect path through the labyrinth. That spot, the underpass by Bethesda Fountain with its storied winged angel in Central Park, has so many moods. This one struck me as a good metaphor for where I find myself at this moment. The climb may be slippery, the footfalls unsure, but here I go, an angel at my back.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

American Promise

I watched the Sundance prize-winning film American Promise and parts of it broke my heart. The documentary, by filmmakers Joe Brewster and Michele Stephenson, is about two Black boys who enroll in kindergarten at The Dalton School, a predominantly white Upper East Side private school, one of the wealthiest and most prestigious in the country. Over the next 13 years, Brewster and Stephenson, the parents of one of the boys, film their educational journey at the school, which turns out to be an alienating experience for both boys. One of them, a gentle artistic boy with dreadlocks named Seun, begins to struggle in middle school, is diagnosed as dyslexic, and ultimately leaves to attend the Benjamin Banneker School, an all-Black public school in Brooklyn with an excellent academic record. There he finds the support and cultural understanding he needs to begin to achieve. His best friend, Idris, stays at Dalton through high school, grappling with his dawning awareness of race and class, even as his parents fight assiduously to secure him.

At one point, an 11-year-old Idris asks his parents with wrenching sincerity whether his life at Dalton would be easier if he were White. Maybe then he wouldn't have to stand alone in the corner at school dances. His parents don't know how to answer him. "Is that what you think?" they ask him. Idris's voice has a plaintive edge, as if he really needs to grasp the truth of this, as if there will be some peace in understanding that it is his skin color—not him—that is part of making his experience at the school so isolating. "I'm not saying I want to be White," he tells his parents. "I just want to know. Would it be easier if I were?"

In the film, his parents never actually say, Well, yes, it would be much easier for you if you were White, and easier still if you were wealthy, but of course, the answer is obvious. And yet Idris, a thin, light-skinned Black boy with a delicate mien, fares better than the larger, darker-skinned, dreadlocked Seun. What struck me so forcefully as I watched the film was not so much the implicit bias in some of the school's dealings with the boys. There are no real villains here, only the entrenched and often unconscious prejudices born of the cultural stereotypes we marinate in day in day out by way of history and popular media. But what really struck me was the toll on the boys of being in that environment, where if the slings and arrows that pierced them daily were mostly invisible, the result was decidedly not. The boys went from being bright engaged laughing children in kindergarden, to being watchful, guarded young men, despite their parents' best and most loving efforts to shield them from the negative effects of being ever the outsider. It hurt my heart to see the veil come down over their eyes. Both boys eventually do enroll in colleges they are excited to attend: Idris at Occidental and Seun at State University of New York at Fredonia.

I sent my own children to private schools in New York City. I tried to spend some time beforehand watching how the Black children at the school moved in the space, whether there were enough of them so they wouldn't feel as if they had to single handedly represent, whether they felt comfortable and able to express themselves, or seemed to pull themselves in. But you can never really tell beforehand what the experience will be like. For my kids, it appears to have worked out mostly okay, though I did have to get very up front with my daughter's high school college counselor about her initially low expectations for my child. We did manage to get on the same page after that rather difficult but ultimately fruitful conversation. And once she got to know my girl better, it was all good. On the other hand, my son's college counselor at his Jesuit all-boys high school thought he walked on water, despite his good natured mischief and high jinks. I think that school was an excellent fit for him and his rather kinetic learning style. And both my kids were able to engage in a wide repertoire of extracurricular experiences because private schools are so resource rich. The playing field is not at all level.

My daughter's K-8 school was also perfect for her. It was founded on the teachings of Martin Luther King Jr., and the only history they ever learned there was of African Americans, the Civil Rights Movement, Native Americans, the Middle East and Africa. The founders reasoned the kids would get the traditional American and European history curriculum in high school, and they wanted them to have a larger context in which to place that learning. At a young age, our children became very critical thinkers in matters of race, class, gender and sexuality, and the historical contexts of each. Even though a slight majority of the kids at the school was White, and many were very wealthily, still the families who would choose such a school for their children were not the sort to buy into the society's usual divisive cultural narratives without questioning the underlying assumptions. The families in our daughter's class in particular became and remain even now very connected.

Even so, in high school, my children's social group was mostly Black. They still had good friends of all descriptions, but the ones they became closest to as teenagers tended to be kids of color. I think there is such a thing as body comfort, or seeing yourself positively reflected in another's eyes. Familiarity can be very comfortable to rest in, which is probably why my daughter and her middle school friends also stayed close, though my son's friends from his middle school years have mostly fallen away. I think it is my son who let it happen. They tried to stay in touch with him, but he was hard to pin down. His closest friends are still a kid from next door, a kid from high school and his camp friends, a United Nations of young people. And yet, his friends in college were mostly White, the fellow members of his track team, while my daughter's closest friends in college are mostly Black. She says, only half joking, "I went to the great White north and discovered the full expression of my Blackness."

I do think our children are generally less hung up on categories of race and class than we were at their age and still are. All the same, America in the age of Obama seems far more racially polarized than in the 1990s, when my kids were born and started school. Our children will always have to navigate that polarization, which means that when my daughter accepts an internship that could place her anywhere in the country, her mother still has to hold her breath and pray that she will be located in a part of the country that will be friendly. We're not close to post-racial yet.

In honor of Black history month, go read this post from Grady Doctor. It swelled my heart with pride and possibility for the future.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Lightness of Being

It was wonderful having my girl home for the weekend. There she is booking her bus ticket back to school. An hour later she was hugging us all, and heading out the door, pulling her bag behind her. Her competence and cheerfulness astound me. I once read a horoscope for her birth date. It said, "People marvel at your equanimity but the truth is, you're not deeply concerned." I take that to mean she doesn't get bogged down in the heaviness of life. She prefers to float above, shedding light and smiles and lifting hearts to meet hers.

My cousin is a lioness in winter

My cousin and her daughters drove up from Maryland to spend the weekend with us, and we went to see The Lion King on Broadway, which we had promised to take our girls to for years. It was a surprise for my nieces, and they were full of glee when the car pulled up in front of the theater and their lioness-hearted mother said, "Surprise!" They thought we were going shopping in Times Square. My nieces are doing well, the one who had the recent health challenge now recovered. She's still a little subdued, and gets overwhelmed easily, but with each passing day she plugged into the flow more, and smiled and laughed more, and we hugged her a lot and tried to keep the overstimulation and noisy criss-crossing of voices down and it was so good to have them all with us. My daughter came down from college for the weekend to go to the theater with us, and we all dived into a Friday Night Lights marathon at home, and had a grand old time together. I have to get back to work right now, but here is a pic of my cousin and me from the weekend. I'm a little distracted because I'm working on a project that is sort of kicking my ass, and I have to give all my attention right now to wrestling that big boy to the ground. I'll still be visiting your blogs but maybe not commenting as much for the next week or so. But please know I'm there.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Team Effort

The almost EMT

My husband is home today for president's day, and so is my son, a lovely mid-week respite. My son passed his state EMT certification practical on Monday night, so now it's just the written exam to take and he'll be fully fledged. The men just went downstairs to scrape the snow and ice off the car and break up the ice locking it into its parking spot, this despite the fact that 10 more inches of snow are expected tomorrow. They want to get ahead of it, they say. They don't want the new snowfall on top of the old. I love their manly camaraderie. Watching them together is one of my true joys.

Manly men

This camaraderie is not in any way new. When my son was an infant, as soon as his dad came through the door from work come evening, his volume would increase signifying his excitement to see his play buddy. Yesterday my husband (Instagram master!) posted that image of three generations of men. He was struck by the similarities in pictures of him with his dad, and in pictures of him with our son. These men all have the same name, too, which makes the second and third generations walk tall, because the first one set the bar very high in terms of character and goodness.

On the train

As for me, I went to D.C. and back yesterday for a project. I sat in a swanky conference room with nine other people and hammered out a survey instrument. Once the data is in, I will have to write the story in a way that does not make you want to go to sleep. I haven't figured out that part yet, but I loved being around that table with so many smart, opinionated people with an agenda that matches my own. I do love working in solitude at home, but I also love a team effort, especially one that forces me to think bigger, stretch myself, grow.

Ice floes outside Baltimore

Saturday, February 8, 2014

The Moments

My friend Leslie and I met for lunch as we often do on Saturday afternoons. We went to my favorite organic food restaurant, the one where my daughter worked as a hostess last summer, and I had my usual delicious bowl of butternut squash soup.

We sat is a glass corner, so the people-watching was spectacular as New Yorkers trundled by, huddled against the bitter cold. My friend had just entreated her son to button up his coat; this was just before she met up with me. So when a man walked by outside the restaurant in just sweater sleeves, she noted wryly that he could be friends with her son. Except this man was very unsteady on his feet, his hair in ill-groomed spikes, his eyes dazed and piercing at the same time. I held my breath as he stumbled across Amsterdam Avenue, oblivious to the cars swerving around him. 

He went into a Mom and Pop grocery store, and moments later he emerged, crossing the street again in that stumbling, unseeing way. Back on the sidewalk just outside from where we were sitting, he tossed an ice cream bar wrapper toward the trash can. He missed, but didn't notice. Right then a young woman who looked like a college kid, stepped onto the sidewalk and in one fluid motion she picked up his wrapper and deposited it where he'd intended. Our eyes met, I gave her a thumbs up, we smiled at each other broadly and she went on her way. It felt like such a New York moment, or maybe just a human moment facilitated by the shoulder-to-shoulder living we do in the city.  

Leslie and I had planned on seeing Dallas Buyers Club, but it was playing all the way downtown, and it was almost 5 p.m. by then, the witching hour when cabs change shifts and there are none to be found. As it was only getting colder and I wasn't feeling the train, we decided to just go home and regroup for the movie tomorrow. I arrived home as dusk was falling over the empty courtyard, the snow still packed in ridges after a string of 28-degree days. As I entered the heated lobby of our apartment building, I felt ridiculously happy to be so close to my bed. I dreamed of climbing in and getting warm under the covers.

Even the playground outside our window was devoid of all activity, the snow untouched. My husband and son were both home, my son asleep after a night out with friends last evening, my husband lying on the bed surfing on his laptop, and I greeted him gratefully, hung up my coat, kicked off my boots, and climbed into bed beside him. I read and napped, played a few levels of Candy Crush (so addictive), and woke up and read some more. Four hours later, I have just emerged. My son is awake and we are all watching couples figure skating soon to be followed by slope style snowboarding in Sochi. 

I found this sweet photo of my daughter and one of her best friends since first grade on Facebook. These young ladies, both Aries, are the daughters of the Taurus mothers from last Sunday's post, and we could not be happier at the simplicity and longevity of their friendship, which continues to deepen now that they are at the same college. 

All in all, I think I have successfully managed to stay in the moments of this day, resting in each one peaceably. I guess this is what is meant by being fully present in my life, at ease with what is. 

Some things are inherited

My husband posted this pic stitch on Instagram last night, with the comment, "Some things are inherited." Yep, that's me on the right (rocking multiple chins even then) and my son on the left as a tiny laughing genial three-month-old.

My darling man has been a little bitten by the Instagram bug, despite his previous avowed avoidance of all things social media. He claims he only made himself an Instagram account so he could follow his children and not have me constantly poking him in bed saying, "Did you see this?"and "What about this?" I suspect he first became intrigued back when our son dared to call me an Instagram slut for posting so often and, highly insulted, I deleted my account then slapped my forehead the second it was done and said, "Now why on earth did I pay an iota of attention to that boy?" at which point I had to begin all over again. 

Well, not only did my man master pic stitch last night to his children's everlasting delight ("Omg! is that my brother and my mother?!?" and "Mom, is that really us? That's crazy!"), but he also declared, as we were watching the Winter Olympics opening ceremony from Sochi, that he was going to post a selfie. "Noooo," I advised, as he was sprawled on the couch, no shirt, just shorts and we all looked decidedly homey, as if we had definitively retired for the evening. Our son said mildly, "Daddy's posting selfies now?" as his father, clearly pleased with himself, tapped away on the screen of his iPhone, finally announcing, "There! Posted!" With some trepidation, I went to see what he had posted and it was this:

That's a photo of him as a toddler, happily upside down, his dad with a firm grasp on his ankle. It might be his favorite photo of himself of all time, especially because he is smiling, so sure he is that his dad will  never let him fall. 

"Oh, that's adorable!" I told him as our son added, "But that's not a selfie, Dad. It's a throwback."

He'll get the hang of this social media thing, yet.

Friday, February 7, 2014

Picking my way

Sometimes, just acknowledging that a day was emotionally hard helps me release the pent-up despair (because that is what it feels like) and make peace with what is. The magic worked this time. Today has dawned a much better day. Responses to questions regarding a rather large and complex project I have been assigned have finally begun to appear, and slowly I am picking my way through, figuring it out.

But last evening, after yet another meeting at the outplacement agency that led to exactly nothing, I made my way home, frozen to the bone and utterly dejected about my prospects. The way forward was anything but clear. I was having an emotional storm, the fear swirling so hard that as I walked through my door, the tears were on my cheeks, my knees trembled, my breath caught and I found myself whispering in the dark empty hallway, "God, please show me how." I was glad there was no one home to see me. In that moment I felt broken. I knelt next to my bed and cried from the pure stress of it, the not knowing, the need to trust in what I cannot yet see.

I do know that I am incredibly lucky. My husband's job is secure, and he covers our health insurance, although affording life in New York City seriously takes two. Still, I know that if we were to really hit a wall, my mother would help. But I dare not count on that. My brother keeps saying that he does not know how much longer she has, that she is weakening, and I feel an urgency to fully secure myself and our family so that she can have an easy heart. She worries about us so.

Oh Lord, now I am crying again.

But I'm actually okay.

Thursday, February 6, 2014

Hard day


Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Boldness had genius, power and magic in it

Five hundred people at my former company got laid off today. Among them were ten people from my former magazine, two of them very dear friends, one of them the writer I had long worked with. There are now only four editors left at that magazine, and one assistant editor, plus the editor in chief and executive editor. Also the meagre art department and production crew and the business side of course. Down from a staff of more than seventy when I was first hired 19 years ago, before the media giant bought the little magazine that not only could, but did. I believe the media company that bought out the magazine a little more than a decade ago has been slowly choking the life out of the once-proud brand. I am angry all over again today. It feels like remembered trauma, like an actual blow to the gut, a pummeling in the chest area, I swear. And so deeply unfair. But I cannot live with such bile inside me; I have to process this and work it out of my system. This happened. It happened to me. And today it happened to 500 more people. And we move on.

I suppose if I hadn't been let go when I was last September, I would have missed another opportunity, one that practically fell into my lap on the Monday morning after the Friday the thirteenth when I was told my job had been eliminated. That would have been a shame, because I absolutely love the work I do for this publishing venture, and the writers I am able to work with. And last week, another opportunity came my way, one with it's share of complications, but still an excellent thing, and just in time to make me feel that perhaps we, my family and me, will be okay. I'm trying to notice that the universe sends me little clues along the way to tell me not to worry so much, to trust myself, to trust how events will unfold. And so I will put my shoulder to the wheel and press ahead, because this will either work out okay, or it will work out okay. I choose to believe I am blessed and that is all.

Here's a photo of one of my blessings, my son, fresh from his final exam last night for his EMT class, which he aced. All that is left are his clinicals and then the State certification exam. Last weekend, at the Armory where he was coaching his team in a meet, at which, by the way, his triple jumpers took first and second place medals, there was a booth set up to recruit for the FDNY, and so of course my son went over to them and he is now in the system, one step closer to his dream.

I am reminded of something the German philosopher Goethe is supposed to have said: Move and the universe moves with you. I think I quoted that in the very first post I ever did on this blog, way back in June of 2008. Here is the quote attributed to Goethe, though there is some question as to whether these words are actually his, as they have never been found in his original language.

“Until one is committed, there is hesitancy, the chance to draw back. Concerning all acts of initiative (and creation), there is one elementary truth, the ignorance of which kills countless ideas and splendid plans: that the moment one definitely commits oneself, then Providence moves too. All sorts of things occur to help one that would never otherwise have occurred. A whole stream of events issues from the decision, raising in one's favor all manner of unforeseen incidents and meetings and material assistance, which no man could have dreamed would have come his way. Whatever you can do, or dream you can do, begin it. Boldness has genius, power, and magic in it. Begin it now.”

That one's for you, my dear children. And for me too.

Sunday, February 2, 2014

Divine Reason

Sunday morning with a dear friend at a neighborhood institution

People sit and write for hours at a time, undisturbed

The pastries try hard, the atmosphere doesn't

Two Taurus mothers of Aries daughters

Across the street, the great unfinished Cathedral

Weathered murals decorate the outside

Logos, a good metaphor for the spirit of the morning.

Sunday morning selfie