Monday, January 30, 2012

Dusting Off Poetry

A few months ago I joined the writing community She Writes. Truth be told, navigating another social media site isn't something that I long to extract out of each day, but the pull of the talent, comaraderie, and connections proved to be too much to turn away from. I check in a couple of times a week to find some beautiful new blogs I've never heard of, and eavesdrop on interesting discussions with writers in different circles (I've joined the Essay Writers and Mother Writers groups). One day I saw a call for poetry on a big-hearted website that I'd never heard of before, Everyday Poets. I decided, What the Hell, may as well dust off some old poetry and send it in. What could it hurt? I'm always trying to open new doors in my brain, shake things up, keep things fresh, and somewhere buried in the mess of all this is a long love affair with poetry.

So far, so good! I've had two poems accepted, the first one which ran yesterday (scroll to January 29th to read "My Neighbor"). My Neighbor was written years ago after my Chinese neighbor Chin Lee took an interest in my new family. She's very old, and still wears a Mao jacket. I can't converse with her in words-- we always mime, and hug, and squeeze each other's shoulders. She has adored Jamie since he was a baby, and used to do this thing which initially surprised me--  she took two fingers and slapped his little face repeatedly, but out of him emerged a big grin every single time. We have this connection of utter fondness, but I couldn't tell you much about her other that what I've observed on the street, in the hallway, and for brief glimpses years back, in her tiny studio apartment.

Chin Lee seemed to collect cans for a living, and visited a food bank weekly. Every time she'd return, she'd knock on my door and hand me boxes of crackers and cans of peaches and applesauce. She'd point to Jamie and make noises and smile and then point to the cans, and she'd aggressively push them into my hands, nodding her head. It was so nice, and I was so overwhelmed with new mom status, that often it would bring me to tears.

I couldn't stop thinking about her kindness, and the way we communicated without sharing the same language, and so who knows when, but a poem began to take shape in my mind and then came out, probably at some odd hour of the night. I've been so busy writing for a living, that I've ceased to entertain those more random thoughts that pull together before inextricably forming into a shape. Dusting off old poems from my hard drive has challenged me to see if I can reserve a small bit of my solitary thinking time to find those stories and word threads once again. I thank the editors at Everyday Poets for reigniting the tiny flame of validation I guess I needed to give myself the permission. I think I'll even carve out a small chunk of time to check out the Emily Dickinson exhibit at the Poets House before it leaves in a week or so.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Here Come The Bullies.

This didn't take long. I look at my Mom clock, and it says "Third grade." I consider the old adage "Boys will be boys", and think about how rough play has crossed ever so quietly into bullying territory, until it's so loud it can no longer be ignored. When I first begin examining my kids, say, toddler behavior, I worked to develop my own personal discipline philosophy. A refrain I ran into over and over again was the helpful "Label the action, not the child." So when I hear insults lobbed on the playground from child to child in very personal ways, it's painful to listen to, because the result of this cowardly violence is to attack one's self esteem and make them feel scared.

Take yesterday's "You're stupid!", and in case that wasn't heard, "You're of low-intelligence!", both of which were shouted at my kid by the pitiful ruffian. Forget for a moment that this couldn't be further from the truth; in this context I'll refrain from rattling off incredible grades and test scores that took my breath away, because that's irrelevant: it shouldn't matter either way. In this moment, my child's very character was being labeled in a way that's untrue and unfair. Sadly, I can only guess that the perpetrator's character is regularly debased by his parents. Maybe, or maybe not, one of them says that he is "of low intelligence", because which 8-year-old speaks like that anyway? Why else would cruelty slide off of his young tongue so easily?

Now what happens when the language becomes not just mean, but threatening? Take yesterday's, "If you say you're best friends with Jamie, then I'm going to hurt you!"

Having a conversation with the parents won't make any difference. I've seen their passivity on the playground more times that I can count. These parents allow their 8-year old to watch Friday the 13th films and World Wrestling Federation matches, and I have no idea what video games he's into. If they hear these slights tumble from his mouth, they'll tell him not to say those things, but there is no understood consequence for the behavior. It's accepted, plain and simple.

What should we do in this situation? We work hard to teach Jamie that he's not a victim; rather, the other child has a problem, and in fact we might feel sorry for this kid because clearly he's hearing this abusive language somewhere, whether it's inside the Wrestling ring or on the Disney Channel or out of his parent's mouths. We try to teach our kid to brush things off, to laugh in their faces, to try not to give it any notice... to not show them how much it bothers him... but doesn't he have the right to live in a safe world where his space isn't threatened like this?

For now, I hold my tongue on the school yard. After asking for advice from other parents, and reading articles on the topic, I've crafted a letter that I've sent to the school principal, his teacher, and have cc:d a school counselor who I know very well and trust implicitly. We'll see how this goes.

Let me add that when I posted about this on Facebook asking for advice from friends, I felt tempted to take the post down. If I'm being honest, I felt ashamed of not being able to solve it on my own and make it better. The Band-Aids don't work for these unseen Boo-boos that haunt him the most before he tries to close his eyes at night.  I'm working through this, trying to identify these feelings. I don't want to over think everything, but in the case of children and threats and violence, I don't think you can over react or over think.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Downton Rodent Abbey

We caved at Christmas and got Jamie a pet. Actually, we got him three pets, the Flying Roborovski Sisters. They are Masha (with the spot on her eye), Irena (with the more jagged lines on her back), and Olga (who wears a perfect gray diamond on her back). Roborovski Dwarf Hamsters are a revelation of cuteness. They run all night long on their hamster wheels, so much so that we had to replace the metal wheels in the picture above with the far more expensive "Silent Spinners." I didn't realize at the time that I'd bought the metal wheels with slotted rungs that they were a deathtrap to the Three Sisters. Their little feet could get caught in the rungs, and yikes! I don't even want to think about them getting crushed between the wheel and the metal stand. I thought my initial solution was pretty creative... the paper that you see covering the rungs is actually a thick-grade watercolor paper that I cut into strips and taped onto the inner perimeter. Perfect for making them safe, and easy to replace when they get a bit hamstered-out.

Why hamsters? Allergies, for one. Jamie's incredibly allergic to dogs and cats, though he's possibly growing out of it. They used to give him severe asthma attacks, and now he just gets rashes and welts on his face. Unless he has a cold, and then he still gets asthma. I have hope that he'll continue to age of this. So for him,  the hamsters are ideal because they live in a glass aquarium with a screened lid, so dander doesn't fly out of their cage when they dig and dig in their bedding for jewels like half-eaten sunflower seeds and wooden chew toys. They're too fast to hold and pet, but they'll run through your fingers and take little seeds from your hands. They're easy to travel with in our car (we travel with hamsters now!) and you don't have to walk them. They're very social, and three seems to be the perfect dynamic. They're so small (roughly 3 inches) that we figured 3 dwarfs equals one Teddy Bear hamster. When we first went to visit them at Petco, there were no less than 20 in the cage.  We studied them and were amused by their antics. They crawl all over each other, sit on their haunches when they eat, sleep on their backs and run back and forth and back and forth. They had only one hamster wheel, which is cruel, but I didn't understand that before bringing them home.

When I went back the next day to seal the deal, there were only three left! Strangely, Jim and I had agreed before I left that three was the magic number, and so I scooped up the lot. I brought home a little cage, and we decided it was far too small. They would survive, but a 20 gallon tank gives them more room to run and play, and now, they're quite at home. They love bits of raw cabbage and carrots, and paper towel holders which they promptly pull their nesting in for dark and comfy sleep before chewing holes through it. Fortunately, there's always another roll in the works for when they destroy these.

Their bad neighbors, the nocturnal house mice, taunt them at 9:00 p.m. every night. One will poke his little brown or gray head out from the stove, and run under the table to catch a piece of discarded rice or a random Cheerio. I used to have no reservations about putting out snap traps, and still will for household hygiene, but we're not teeming with them. There may be a couple at this point. Now I see them as the Butler and Footmen to the Royal Roborovski's. The "Upstairs" Sisters get to live in their mansion with their expensive toys, while the "Downstairs" mice have to huddle under the stove, scrounge for scraps, and fear for their lives. It's not quite as juicy as Downton Abbey, but it's a drama that unfolds in our home day by day.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

She Writes

A few weeks ago I was prompted to join She Writes by my friend and colleague Kathleen Sweeney. She Writes is a huge online community of (you guessed it) women who write everything from novels to poetry to essays. The number of members, to the best of my knowledge, hovers at 17,000. I've already met some interesting writers, and have joined a few groups: a mother writing group, and an essay writer's group. I've even traveled the road of submitting poetry after spotting a call for entries, and shock of shockers, two poems have been accepted, but more on that later.

I'm excited because today my She Writes blog entry about St. Mark's Bookstore being saved by the community of writers, readers, neighbors is their featured post. Click [here] to take a look. I cross-post many of my NYLF entries over there, but as this was a solicited blog entry I'm parking it over there exclusively...

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

We meet de Kooning

The abstract de Kooning that knocked him to his knees
Yesterday we hopped on the F train to hit MOMA for an hour or so before the Willem de Kooning retrospective leaves town in a few days. While I was happy to be able to use my New School ID to skip the entrance line, I was kicking myself for not making it up before the last rush. I'm not one of those people that can experience the full impact of a show when it's very, very crowded. Needless to say, the throngs of visitors made it challenging for Jamie, too. Back to the show!

I've never known much about de Kooning, except that he was from New York and painted abstracts. So I can't imagine a better way to experience a first solid encounter with the artist than with this sweeping retrospective, filled with over 200 pieces gathered from public institutions and private collectors around the world (thanks, David Geffen). Jamie's art teacher Scherezade Garcia, from the Parsons Pre-College Academy (don't you think they could come up with something less lofty to call an art class for 3rd-5th graders?), told me a emphatically and more than once that I should take Jamie to see the show.

Jamie's first New York Abstractionist painting
He's 8 years old, so it was as fun to spin around in circles and knock into people as it was to look at the painting "with four boobies!"  "Look, Mom, more boobies!" Sure enough, de Kooning's Woman series was there, and because I know nothing about his private life, they left me wondering what the story was behind the monster women in his life. Monstrous, twisted faces emerge from abstract nudes, all in a balanced cacophony of color, but nonetheless either frightening or comical, depending on the painting. The galleries kept opening up to other galleries, and when we entered the gallery with the abstracts from the mid-to-late 1960s, I felt I understood why Scherezade wanted Jamie to see the show. They're stunning, and I mean that in the true sense of the word, as it was literally difficult to pull my eyes from one painting to the next. I asked him what he thought about the last gallery, filled with his late paintings, suggesting to him that I thought they looked softer. "It's like he spent his life painting, and then he felt peaceful after he learned how to paint."

Back on the subway platform, we talked about the show, but it took awhile before he could stop using empty adjectives. "It was great... It was grand... It was wonderful..." Me: "But why was it wonderful?" "Because it was grand." "But what did you like about the paintings?" Jamie: "The boobies [insert 8-year-old boy laugh]." "But what else did you like about them?" [How annoying am I? Poor kid.] Finally: "He uses bigger brush strokes than Jackson Pollack, who just splashed the paint." That worked for me (sorry, Mr. Pollack), and made me especially grateful that we'd made the trek.