18 April 2014

Words to Live By

The reason that you go to the Bronx Zoo is so that you can see tigers.

But the bug carousel might be the most whimsical thing ever.

Especially because it has signs that tell you only one rider per bug.

Because honestly? Two people cannot one bug ride.

15 April 2014

Black Dirt All Around

It was a long horrible winter, but finally, FINALLY, it seems like spring. Sunday, one of the daffodils bloomed.

And yesterday, when I got home from work, there were enough open that I cut a handful for the dinner table.

I am very thrilled to be getting my gardening on FINALLY. We had to sit out all of last year, due to the construction project on our house. Not only could I not do anything, there were beds near the house that just got trashed, and there's a whole area where we took down some gigantic threatening trees - all of this needs work. Let me tell you, there is nothing as much fun as opening up cardboard boxes and unpacking all manner of little mail order plants.

Except maybe going to the wholesale nursery with a "connection" and heaving pots of this and that onto a flatbed tractor. Yeah, that was pretty fun.

* * * * * * * *

About a month ago, I was walking through the Greenmarket, on my way into the office, and I happened upon a vending machine. In the market, parked right there between a table of will-winter-never-end turnips and a booth selling Hot Bread. This vending machine was just visiting though - it's not a permanent installation, though wouldn't there be something cunning about dropping a quarter in and getting out a beet or an apple? I digress. This particular vending machine was sponsored by Seeds of Change, and it had a twist that I've not seen before: it was twitter-enabled, so if you tweeted a particular code, it made the vending machine whirl and spit out a brown paper bag of seeds.

I was thrilled to walk off with three packs of seeds: lettuce, broccoli, and peppers. I promptly planted them, inside in little improvised greenhouses, and they sprouted! Yeah! Green thumb! Alas, the stinking rotten cats have nibbled most of the leaves off of the broccoli seedlings, sparing the lettuce. Feh.

* * * * * * * *

In addition to my ambitious and possibly overactive seed starting, the girl's been doing an after-school gardening program. She brought home a clever little homemade self watering pot, upcycled from a small plastic water bottle. The top was cut off and flipped over and into the bottom, and a chunk of sponge descends from the neck down into the water, wicking the water up into the dirt that some lettuce is planted in.

We are rich in dirt these days, rich indeed.

14 April 2014


Things get stuck in my craw sometimes. Like this sentence:

One of the strange, wonderful facts about many atheists is their eccentricity and intellectual omnivorousness.

It was in a basically interesting column in the New York Times, called "Spreading the Word on the Power of Atheism", about an atheist writer named S.T. Joshi.

But let's unpack that sentence. Is it strange to be intellectually omnivorous? Are atheists alone in being eccentric and/or intellectually omnivorous? Are atheists so peculiar, so unusual that they get to be pigeonholed, damning with faint praise? Oh, an atheist, how eccentric. Replace "atheist" in that sentence with Jew, or Mormon, or Unitarian Universalist. Or, let's get away from religion. Replace "atheist" with Angolan or Bulgarian or Canadian or Dominican. Oh how cute, another eccentric Bulgarian.

I know. The offending sentence is tempered by that pesky "one of the" and the punch-pulling "many". But still. Let's not tar all of the atheists with the same strange and wonderful brush.

Some of us are not eccentric.

07 April 2014

Double Farce, or Hyperbole

It so happens that I don't spend a lot of time in the car. I take the train to the city every day, but I'm walking distance from the train station, so even if I do get a ride, it's not long enough to even bother turning on the radio. And because I'd rather read on the train, I don't listen to podcasts - it's not possible to read one text and listen to another. I kind of like the idea of podcasts, but they just don't fit into my life.

Not so long ago, I went away for the weekend, alone. Alone in the car for two hours there and two hours back! And so, I loaded up the iPod with "my" music, along with a podcast of sorts, actually, an NPR broadcast of Selected Shorts, specifically a short story called Country Cooking from Central France: Roast Boned Rolled Stuffed Shoulder of Lamb (Farce Double) by one Harry Mathews.

Certainly, one can read this short story, read it to oneself while sitting in an overstuffed yet shabby but comfortable chair, parked in the sunshine with a cup of hand-harvested Darjeeling tea, from the highly regarded Sungma estate, to hand. In fact, I found the whole text on the internet; whether it belongs there is anyone's guess. You might visit Texas State University if you are entranced; you'll find the Farce Double nested deeply in postmodern literature:

But for a better experience of the Farce Double, I would urge you to go the extra step, for if the original roasting conditions will surely exceed your grasp, a description of them may clarify your goals.

Do not pass go. Do not wait to find out who does for him what mother never did for her son. The only possible way to experience the Farce Double is to listen to the late lamented Isaiah Sheffer read it, with aplomb and perfect timing. It is a joy.

Be careful whilst you drive, lest you run off the road when the tears come streaming down your cheeks from the laughing.

03 April 2014

Subway. Value added.

Sometimes there are musicians on the train. Not on the platform, but actually in the subway car. The usual suspects include a mariachi band, a blind accordion player, and the a capella doo-wop guys who only know Under the Boardwalk.

Not so long ago, two drummers showed up on the uptown #6, complete with folding stools: they meant business. The drums were djembes, I think – black, thigh high. They unfurled their stools and settled into the wide spot by the doors. Somehow, their beat beat, da dum dum entwined itself in and with the clackity clack of the wheels on the tracks. Together, it was glorious.

01 April 2014

Standardized Testing and Civil Disobedience

Every year, everywhere, there's back to school night. It's a chance to see the classroom, peer into your kid's desk, meet the other class parents, and hear what the teacher has to say. Last year, at the beginning of fourth grade, a parent asked about standardized tests. The teacher, a wonderful, caring veteran of many years said something that day that has stuck with me. She made it clear that because of the way the state ELA and math tests are administered, there's no feedback loop for the teacher. While, sometime after the children are no longer her students, she will know who got 1, 2, 3, or 4 on the exams, she doesn't know what kid got what question wrong, or that everyone in the class got question #37 wrong. Without that feedback, she has no way to improve on her teaching. Similarly, for the students (and their parents), the raw score labels the child a 1, 2, 3 or 4 and offers no information as to a child's strengths or weaknesses.

When the state tests rolled around last year, my child and my husband and I talked about the issues surrounding the tests, and about whether it made sense to have her refuse to take them. Last year, we were sheep: she took the test.

This year, she refused. And according to the conversation I had with the principal yesterday, she was the only child in her middle school to refuse.

There were many things we considered while making the decision that she would refuse the test. But what I kept coming back to was that issue raised by the fourth grade teacher: the lack of a feedback loop. If there's nothing to be learned from taking the test, then why take it?

Furthermore, we live in a high-performing district, and our child did well on the tests last year. If I were in a lousy district with a kid who tests badly, I'd be seen as wanting to avoid putting my child in an unhappy situation. But that's not it at all, and in fact, I think that the wealthy, well-performing districts should be leading the way in pushing for the kinds of education reforms that will help everyone.

To be sure, our small act of civil disobedience will not have much impact on our child, her teachers, or our district. But for us, it was the right thing to do.

If you are interested in some further reading, here are some pieces that helped us to make our decision. And yes, I made the ten year old read all of these. I wanted her to be conversant in the issues in case anyone asked her why she was reading a book in the guidance office instead of filling in ovals with a #2 pencil.

19 March 2014

Books and Movies, and Movies and Books, and People Too.

Last month, the girl's school had a book fair. Now that she's in middle school, it's a kid only event; parents don't get to come and supervise the picking of the books. We sent her off with $20 in her pocket* and she came home with two books - something forgettable a friend had liked, and The Fault in Our Stars. I'd read TFIOS last year, intrigued by the hype, and found it extraordinarily moving. I filed it away in my head thinking it would be a good book for her to read - in a few years. I asked her why she bought it. "Well, I saw the movie trailer, and then when I saw the book on the shelf, I thought I should read it, before the movie comes out." And read it she did. She plowed right through, and turned around and read it again immediately after, ditching the book jacket at some point, because it got in the way.

Her verdict? "Best book ever."

One day last week, she told me she wanted to see The Hunger Games, the first movie, not the new one. Every time she'd asked before, I'd told her she was too young. This time I told her she could watch the movie, but only if she read the book first. "Please can we go to the library right now?" Really, how could we say no? Your kid wants to go to the library, it's still open, you go. That was a Friday night - she'd finished it by Monday, and watched the movie when she was done with her homework on Monday. "What'd you think?" I asked. She told me that the book was better; "they left so much out"!

Me, I'm kind of indifferent to movies**. I generally don't like movies that get made from books because they leave so much out, and because they screw with my internal visualization of what the people and places look like. A good movie, to me, is one that transcends reality, with a visual sense all its own, but possessing a firm aura of plausibility. In general, I'd rather read a book. But over the weekend, with the girl at a slumber party and with a couple of passes to the local art house burning a hole in my pocket, we went to see The Grand Budapest Hotel. It's just about perfect. Ironic, lovely, odd, off-kilter, clever, and maybe quixotic too. There's no pretense to reality, it's full of throw away moments, and it's just delicious, complete in and of itself, no external reference needed or wanted, a world invented, genuine in its artifice. "A pastiche", said its director, Wes Anderson, full of pastry.

For the most part, books - fiction, that is - make their own worlds, and especially their own people. Recently, though, I went to a talk/interview/live on stage thing, with Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie talking with Damian Woetzel. She was on a book tour, talking about her book, Americanah, which recently came out in paperback (and last week won the National Book Critics Circle Award). I was only about 20% into the book when I saw her in person - and found that, like seeing a movie before you read the book, I couldn't help but put her - body, hair, speaking voice - right back into the book as Ifemelu, the book's main character. Oh, Damian asked her about that, "how much of you is in Ifemelu" and she dissembled, "it's fiction, it's not me, there's plenty of me in Obinze [the male protagonist]". But still - once I'd seen her, I couldn't put her out of my head. Incidentally, it's a great book. When they make the movie, she'll have to play herself, she said ironically***.

I think what it is is that I want everything in its own walled garden. Books are books, and movies are movies, and operas are operas, and let's just leave it at that.

*Tell me you're not going to be singing Thrift Shop for the rest of the day.

**Gratuitous aside: I thought Gravity was an enormous steaming pile of horse shit. Boring, pointless, implausible, and tedious. And the best book into movie ever? A Room With A View. They didn't leave anything out.

***Actually, Adiche has hinted that Lupita Nyong’o is going to play her in the (inevitable) movie.