Archive | December 2010

Welcome to Canada: Did you bring your Skates?

after a skate, a young couple takes in free samples of beer in a Toronto Brewery

This Christmas vacation, my family took a mini getaway to Toronto.  As an alternative to our New York City visits, we love exploring this cosmopolitan city to the North for its great restaurants, theatres, shopping, and museums. Going round and round on an outdoor skating rink in sub-zero (Celsius) temperatures we regret to say was the farthest thing from our minds.

Because our children go to sleep away camp north of Toronto, not only are we having fun getting to know Torontos’ sites but its people.  My daughter spent much of our visit not with us but  with the family of a friend she made from summer camp.  All arrangements were made over Skype through the girls and without one conversation between the adults. All directions were found via GPS. Welcome to long distance friendships in the 21st Century, I guess. 

We dropped Jolie off at her friend’s house and were greeted by the girl’s mother. In the small entryway of the house, we made some awkward chit-chat as the girls settled in for a weekend of catching up and shopping. When we mentioned that we were staying at the Westin Harbour Castle, the mom’s first reaction was:

“They have a lovely ice skating rink just a block from your hotel. Did you bring your skates?”

About a half hour later, the father came home after participating in the traditional Canadian Boxing Day, which is the equivalent to our Black Friday for shopping deals and sales. We were introduced and then his wife went down to the basement to get something from their pantry.

In another awkward introductory chit-chat, the father of my daughter’s friend independently asked us the same question:

“There is this great outdoor ice skating rink near your hotel. Did you bring your skates?”

Now, both my husband and I looked at each other with great amusement. We were struck that Canadians make the assumption that we actually – all of us – owned our own pair of skates. And there was this second assumption that – upon our arrival to this vast cosmopolitan city, the first thing we would want to do was skate.

Another inquiry of our skating habits was made as we were checking out of our hotel. As we waited with our luggage, the bellhop looked at me and my boys and asked me in his French Canadian accent: “Do your boys skate? Do they play ‘ockey?” I had to say no and I asked him why he asked.

He then pointed to a well dressed young man standing in the lobby. “Because, ma’am, that young man plays hockey for the Pittsburgh Penguins. He is only 20 and makes over 2 milion a yaear. So, your boys should liarn to play ‘ockey!”

Now, I am sorry to say that I did not recognize this young man, so this brush with fame was completely wasted on me. And I also appreciated this bellhop’s hope that my young sons held the athletic prowess to be hockey stars, but again he was sorely mistaken. I’m afraid, Canada, that we Americans are just not that into skating.

Or are we? Do you skate? And if so, do you own your own pair?

The First Christmas in 87 Years Without a Neighbor

No one lives here anymore, but a wreath was still placed upon the door

Do you believe that houses have feelings? I think they must. If they are old enough, and if they hold decades of family memories, of laughter and conversations and arguments, and now they are quiet, I think they must.

The house next door has got to feel very lonely this Christmas.  For the first time since it was built, in 1925, it stands empty. No tree. No family cooking dinner inside. No rush to open presents. Inside linger memories of 87 Christmases.  It must be waiting for the time it will once again be loved and lived in by another family.

My neighbor sadly passed away shortly before Thanksgiving.

The first time I met Charles “Bud” Strobel; he knocked on my door and politely asked if he could use my telephone. His was out of service, and he had to make an urgent phone call. At the time, Bud was a real estate attorney working on a house closing. At the time, Bud was 90 years old.

Bud lived to be 102.  Bud lived independently in the house that was his wife’s parent’s home for nearly all of those 102 years. He lived a life that set examples for us all to follow.  He always greeted us cheerfully from his walkway and bestowed other-era salutations to my children like “Hello chum!” and “How are you, my Huckleberry friend?”

Bud, according to his daughter’s beautifully written eulogy, was very athletic in college and throughout most of his life. Even into his nineties, my husband and I could see a sihlouette of him lifting small handweights through his bedroom curtain.  

No matter the season, he took daily walks around the neighborhood. Using a cane and a walker in recent years did not deter him from getting out for a stroll.  He drove his car until he reached his mid nineties. He always left the house dressed in khakis and cashmere sweaters to socialize with his friends at the Rochester Yacht Club.

One winter night, his daughter from South Carolina called me, worried that her dad was not answering his phone. Indeed, his car was not in the garage. It turns out that he was out for dinner at the yacht club with his “younger” friends who were in their 70s and 80s.

Bud loved the gardens around his house though he didn’t do much to care for them. That was his wife’s passion. After she died in 1997, her flowers and roses seemed to thrive on benign neglect.  

From her bed, as she lay dying, she watched the pink flowers of our crabapple tree bloom. Bud said seeing that tree bloom gave her great pleasure in her final days.

Each spring Bud came out of his house to mournfully gaze at the pink of the tree. We could only imagine he was thinking of his wife as the petals fell to make a pink carpet on the lawn.   

I never met Bud’s wife, as we moved here in 1999, the first family to move onto the block with kids in a generation. In some ways, like my gardening, Bud said I reminded him of his wife. He said that she and I were both “demon gardners.”

After the first year of tolerating these thorny barberry bushes that separated our properties,  I asked if he would be receptive to removing them and replace them with a perennial flower garden.

In his dry sense of humor, he quipped, “My mother-in-law planted those bushes decades ago. I’ve always disliked them. She’s long gone, so I can’t see why they can’t go now too!”

This narrow garden became a vehicle for many conversations between Bud and I in the summer. Each spring, he would come out of his house and ask me “Hey demon gardner, what are you going to plant this year?” And I would show him my bags of spring bulbs or the perrineals in pots I would plant.

I’m going to miss Bud.  He spent the last year of his live living down south near his daughter and he died peacefully there. 

The end of Bud’s life means the end of three generations, maybe four, who had memories in that home. Those memories, and the house that houses them, is a hefty bag to unload. Even now, that there is no one in the house, his daughters hung a wreath on the door before heading back south after Bud’s funeral.

Bud was a good neighbor and though I know I was busy with raising my kids for all the years we lived next door, I hope he thought we were good neighbors too.

I don’t know what is going to happen to the house. I don’t know how or when Bud’s family, who live in Texas and South Carolina, will return to Rochester to go through 87 years worth of stuff and put his house on the market. And, after 87 years, the house will need some love and TLC and a good hefty rennovation before it finds a buyer.

So, even though I’m not Christian, all I want for Christmas – for next Christmas – are new neighbors.

What you can learn from a Lizard Named Sue

seemingly fragile, anoles make quite resilient pets

This is the story of a lizard named Sue. Her given, formal name is Susan.

Why Susan? Susan the anole started her life as a 4th grade class biology project. My son’s science partner Sarah declared that this animal must have a name that started and ended with the names of her caretakers: Sarah and Nathan. Hence, the moniker Susan was bequeathed to this tiny, sometimes green, sometimes brown reptile.

Anoles are very delicate creatures. Adapting an anole is free, but the stuff that the anole needs to live is not. It needs a large glass tank and proper humidity and temperature levels that are maintained with a heat lamp and daily squirts of a water mister.  Within the tank, it needs a water dish and natural or artificial plants to hide within.

Then there is the strict diet anoles follow: Crickets. Live ones. Though the anole requires no walking or training, the anole owner must frequent the local pet store and bring these creaking creatures home in a plastic bag. 

The crickets are kept in a separate container, and must also be fed lettuce, potato peelings or other vegetable scraps. In other words, the anole owner has a little ecosystem going on.

Anoles, unlike fuzzy and loving puppies, are not fuzzy or loving. But unlike puppies, you can leave an anole by itself for a night or two if you give it a supply of crickets and put its light on a timer. 

One early spring weekend, my family decided to take an overnight road trip to Cleveland. Nathan threw some crickets in Susan’s tank and bid her farewell.

Unlike leaving a dog or a puppy, who become sad and traumatized when they are separated from their master for any length of time,  I don’t think Susan really noticed we would be gone.

We returned from a short but great trip to the city where the phrase Rock ‘n Roll was coined. At the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame Museum, we enjoyed looking at all the rock memorabilia and learning which musician inspired which musician in the attraction’s vast interactive database. In the special exhibit on Bruce Springsteen, viewing the original notebook where the Boss scribbled the lyrics to Thunder Road was almost a spiritual experience. 

We cheered on the Cleveland Indians and ate some great food in the Flats Arts district. We couldn’t wait to come home and tell Sue all about it.

Only, when we climbed the stairs to Nathan’s bedroom and peered inside Susan’s tank, either she had hidden herself extraordinarily well, or she had fled.

Now, if you scroll back up a bit, you will notice that my son had fed Susan some crickets. But, alas, he did not completely close up the screen on top of her tank.

Our lizard named Sue was gone. So tiny and capable of crawling into any crevice of the house, including our ventilation and/or plumbing system, all hope seemed lost.

Nathan went to bed devistated.

“Suzie, Sooooozzie!” he cried in his bed. He cried himself to sleep.

As I tried to sleep that night, I was simultaneously touched that a boy could care so much for a tiny creature and creeped out that it could be anywhere in the house and we would probably smell it before we found it.

Two weeks passed.

It was a quiet afternoon before the kids got home from school when I decided to do some deep cleaning in the boys’ bedroom. I had moved the large bookcase from the wall and was dusting behind it when, from the corner of my eye, I noticed that a small, plastic toy lizard had appeared.

Only this plastic lizard darted across the floor before my eyes.

Susan! She was alive. I was elated and completely spooked all at once. I threw a small toy bucket over the found creature and waited for my brave daughter to come home and pick it up and place it in it’s tank.

Back in her cage, we looked at Susan, and she looked a bit humiliated and, well – pissed off. Her vacation and her adventure were over.  She remains in her tank, now with a more securely fastened screened top, to this day.

Susan had lived on her own wits. She survived with no heat lamp or daily spritzes of water. And we guessed that she lived on the spiders and occasional ants that enter our house in the springtime.

So, what can we learn from a lizard named Sue?

  • when all hope is lost, miracles can still happen
  • Creatures, if left to their own devices, are very resourceful and resillient
  • Nature, if left alone, can survive, even in the wilds of a boy’s bedroom
  • anoles don’t read the manuals they come with and can live on pretty much any creature that creeps and crawls
  • you really don’t need all that many creature comforts to get by
  • Never miss out on an opportunity to break out of what ever cages that might hold you

I will not go quiet into that Kindle Light

I will not go quiet into that Kindle light.

I don’t ever see myself curling up with a Kindle, or a Nook, or any other e-book for that matter.

Kindle the eBook 2.0

I will not go quiet into that Kindle light.

I don’t ever see myself curling up with a Kindle, or a Nook, or any other e-book for that matter.

There has been so much news about books. The drop in the sale of physical books and the recent scanning of 5.2 billion books into digital form to study trends in culture and literature, as reported by the New York Times. According to a recent article in the Wall Street Journal, Barnes & Noble recently cited studies that suggest consumer spending on new physical books will fall to $19 billion in 2014 from $20.5 billion in 2009.

But books are more than carefully strung words. Books create communities and friendships. A book has physical attributes – the feel of its Tattered Cover, the texture of the dog-eared pages inside and the wonder about by whom the book has been previously held and read.

A few years ago, a friend of mine was making what she thought at the time a permanent move back to her home of Cape town South Africa. The trans-Atlantic container could only carry so much of her possessions, so she held a yard sale.

Among the precious things she agreed to part with was her vast collection of books. An avid reader, my friend always had a stack of books – from the library, finds at other yard sales or book sales – on her nightstand. From the pile of books that was spread on a blanket, I picked up “The Notebook” by Nicholas Sparks and offered her the asking price of a dollar. She refused to take money from me and instead, pressed the book into my hand, smiled, and just said “enjoy.”

So I took it home and read it. I’ll admit it wasn’t my favorite. But it was a book given to me by a friend, a friend I feared I would never see again short of a very long plane ride. So, the year she was away, I had her book on my shelf as a reminder of our friendship. I have given and received many previously enjoyed books, as a symbol of family and friendship. Before a family vacation, my doorbell rang and it was another friend, who, just because, wanted to give me a book to read on the beach. It was The Secret Life of Bees, by Sue Monk Kidd.

I have also given my books away to friends: like Sarah’s Key and Snow Flower and the Secret Fan to my mom, and A Thousand Splendid Suns to my dad.

Can you do that with a Kindle?

Now I know that e-books have their advantages: less trees are cut down to make and read books, less clutter in one’s home, ease of traveling with multiple books, instant gratification of downloading the latest book, and so on. But the clutter of books is legacies of family and friendships that our society will lose with the emerging popularity of the e-book. No, I fear that this next generation coming up, if predictions hold true and purchases of physical books will fall away to one more screen that we must stare at for information. Something will be lost.

Because of paper books, a multi-generation legacy of books rests in my house.

My grandparents lived in a tiny apartment in Bensonhurst Brooklyn for over 60 years. In the foyer, they had their treasured library. Into each book that was added to their collection – books like Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights, and fairy tales by Hans Christian Anderson- a seal was placed, saying that this book was part of the Library of Pauline and Milton Kasmere. Some of these books, with their spines embellished with fading gold lettering, are now propped on the bookshelves in my home. I hope that my kids will read these classics from the pages that their great-grandparents held, not an e-book.

In the future, what will we put on our bookshelves?

Now, call me a luddite, but I can go on about how much I like e-books, if only for sentimental reasons. I’d write more about my feelings and dislikes about e-books, but I am off to a book exchange at my son’s middle school – off to sort books that will be donated to a city Literacy project to share with inner city schools in Rochester.

Tell me, in the future, if physical books go away, will there be books to share and book exchanges to give away books?

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Ice Cubes in the Toilet and other Tips to make a Snow Day

Tonight, my kids will most likely go to bed wearing their pajamas inside out. The youngest will have tucked a spoon underneath his pillow.  My daughter told me that at middle school, the bets were already on at school today as to whether tomorrow would be a snow day. After all, that storm that slammed the midwest has now put Rochester in a “persistent band of lake effect snow.”  And here in Rochester, we may be getting 1-2 feet of this lake effect snow. All this snow, yet not a single weather report has used the word “storm” or “blizzard.” 

When my oldest children were very small, I feared that they would grow up without having a chance to play in the snow. Their first winters in New Jersey passed with hardly a flake.  Then, we moved to Rochester.

Moving to the snowiest metropolitan area in the lower 48 meant that we would have plenty of chances for snowball fights and snowman building. We also needed to adjust our perception of what constitutes a significant snowfall.

You see, we started our family in New Jersey, in the land of 2-inch snowfall snow days. One morning, when my daughter attended preschool at the Scotch Plains JCC, I bundled her up, along with her infant brother, to go to preschool. I traversed 2-inch snow-covered roads, only to find the building was closed.

Fast forward to a year later,  One morning, after a three-inch overnight snowfall, I actually called my daughter’s preschool – this time at the JCC of Greater Rochester – to see if it was open.

I think I heard the director silence a chuckle as she politely told me that schools here don’t close unless there is at least 18 inches of snow.

For schoolchildren and adults alike, nothing is more exciting than the possibility of a snow day.  And when I moved to Rochester, I thought that we would be having a lot of those days that are like gifts from God. Snow days are like God’s way of telling you to slow down, sleep in, stay warm, bake cookies. 

Well, the Rochester School District seems to care little about what God wants, because nary a snow day have we had since living up here in the snowbelt.

It’s been 11 years and my husband has yet to have a snow day from work. No, wait. The only “snow day” at his job had been in the summer. Why?  It wasn’t because of snow. Contrary to popular belief, it does NOT snow in Rochester in July.

It was a tree that fell on a transformer and blew the power out at his office.

So, on snowy days, my husband braves the snow. He plows himself out of the driveway in the dark of the morning, and then plows to get back in the driveway in the dark of the evening.

Rochesterians are very lucky to have the equipment it takes to fight against Old Man Winter.   Brighton tax dollars – more than half a million each year — are hard at work so in the early morning hours, I can hear the sounds of snowplows large and small clearing our roads and sidewalks.

So, before I go to bed tonight, I will check the forecast one more time. And if I hear those blessed three words “Brighton Schools Closed” on the radio tomorrow morning , I know will be too excited to go back to sleep.  

But I know school will be on tomorrow.

In spite of the spoons

and the inside-out pajamas.

and the ice cubes placed in the toilet.

Because, in reality, it’s just too early in the season to cancel school tomorrow. After all, technically, it is still Autumn.  And this is Rochester.

Remembering John – and James

Today marks the 30th anniversary of John Lennon’s death.

That day also ended my childhood and woke me up to the harsh realities of the world, realities that couldn’t be imagined away.

On December 8, 1980, I was in the 7th grade. I can’t remember when I started listening to the Beatles. My cousins were into them, and one of them won the Rubber Soul album (yes, not a CD, or a mp3 download, but a vinyl LP) from 101 CBS FM.   When playing cards or games at his grandmother’s apartment in Coney Island, if you made a move against him, he would break into lyrics from the song You Can’t Do That –  “I told you before — nooooo, you can’t to that!”

So I was well familiar with the Beatles by age 12, though maybe not who the individual Beatles were, or what John Lennon was all about.

I had just received my first radio alarm clock and my radio was tuned to an AM station 77 ABC – with  Don Imus in the morning. Don Imus spoofed everything and was always reporting fake news. So when I woke up on that dark December morning and heard that John Lennon was rushed to the hospital for a gunshot wound to the chest, I thought he might be joking. Sure, Imus, I thought, as I went downstairs to get my breakfast.

Then I went down to the kitchen and saw the news on TV – the pictures of Yoko Ono on her knees by the Emergency Room entrance and the announcement that John Lennon was dead.

That day also brings me thoughts of a classmate from the 7th grade. His name was James. I had a bit of a crush on James, though back then, in the brutality of junior high school, liking the wrong boy could get you teased to no end.

James was not exactly what other girls in the class thought of as cool or cute. He didn’t dress cool or act cool. He had thick unruly hair and thick glasses.

But what James  had going for him in my book was that he was SMART. Ahead-of-his-time smart.

For a seventh grader, he was certainly up on his politics. After all, what other seventh grader could write poetry that included references to Mohammed Ali as Cassius Clay or Ted Kennedy and the Chappaquiddick incident? What other seventh grader could argue with our social studies in defense of Richard Nixon when most of us barely knew what Watergate was at age 12? James made Nixon impersonations all the time. And he drew great political cartoons. His other idols: Walter Cronkite and Dan Rather of CBS News, a network where he swore he would someday be gainfully employed.

If James was born 20 years too late and had a fascination with the 60’s, his favorite band was of course – the Beatles. So on the morning of December 9, when the world found out that John Lennon was dead, there was an announcement in home room to observe a moment of silence for the slain musician.

At that moment, James did another mature thing that could have a seventh-grade boy drawn and quartered.  He cried. Right at his desk, right there in front of everyone.

Now, remember I had  a crush on James, who didn’t seem to care that I existed. Who made fun of me about as much as anyone else in the seventh grade. But I couldn’t bear to see him cry. So, seeing that he had no tissue, I got up out of my chair (which I think was against home room rules), crossed the room, put my hand on his shoulder, and offered him one.

“I’m so sorry,” I said.

He looked at me, took my tissue, and thanked me.

It truly was a Wonder Years moment that still remains an entry in my adolescent diary.

And now, 30 years later? I still miss John Lennon and wonder what more music he could have given us, what more he could have taught his son.

Now: my own kids love the Beatles. They sing and listen to their music. They have been to Strawberry Fields and have stood outside the Dakota.

Now: For a fifth grade biography project, Nathan, who is now 12,  found a book in the young adult section of the library that ironically was published three months before Lennon’s death.  To accompany the book report, we made a milk-jug headed John Lennon puppet, complete with the signature round framed glasses, long wavy hair and a New York T-Shirt. Nathan’s playing the guitar now, and I’m sure It Won’t Be Long until he will be asking for a Beatles song book.

And James? Last time I saw James – in person – was at an SAT prep class held at Wagner College back when we were in High School. The class was held at the student union, and one day, a Beatles cover band was playing in the cafe. James had a great time singing along.

I have seen James since, but on TV:  James is a news correspondent: though on FOX, not CBS.

A Small Chanukkah Miracle at Checkout Aisle Number Eight

IMG_5643.JPG

“Are you doing anything special this Hanukkah?”

I guess Steve the check-out cashier figured out I was Jewish. After all, from my grocery cart, I unloaded a bag of potatoes, onions, some Chanukkah napkins, blue and white M&Ms and a box of beeswax candles. 

“Not much,” I replied. “Just going to my son’s band concert tonight, and then down to New York City for a family occasion.” I didn’t want to say it was for a Bat Mitzvah. That’s just too complicated if you don’t know what a Bat Mitzvah is.

“Ooooh, New York City! That’s where they seriously get into Chanukkah! I mean, the big menorah displays, and the food — the matzah ball soup!  Even in the diners, they make French toast out of challah down in New York City,” he went on.

Now, you don’t have to be Jewish to love matzah ball soup or challah French toast. And, I am pretty sure, you can get challah French toast up here in Rochester.

But the sentimentality in his voice towards matzah ball soup, the way he so dreamily spoke of the menorahs as he scanned my clementines and sweet Mayan onions, I had to ask:

“Um, are you Jewish?”

Now, this is not a question I would ask a complete stranger. But around this time of year, when the enormity of Christmas seeps into every crevice of the American landscape, Jews have this desire to connect to one other, to stick together. Judaism as a topic of conversation is a subject that would be avoided by the most disenfranchised, unaffiliated Jew for most of the year. But talking about one’s Jewish identity in the face of Christmastime, is, like a plate of freshly fried potato latkes, on the table and up for grabs.  

At any other time of year, a suburban housewife and a 20something college kid working in a grocery store wouldn’t openly discuss being Jewish. But that night, right before the lighting of the first Chanukkah candle,  amidst the Christmas Muzak playing and the Christmas tree displays twinkling, it felt like the right time.

As he carefully bagged my groceries with the expertise only possessed by a Wegmans employee, Steven continued to tell me his plans for the Festival of Lights.

“Yeah, there’s this Chanukkah celebration thing going on at the University of Rochester tonight. From – you know – Hillel? I think I might check it out.  I haven’t gone to many Hillel events, but I think I should check it out.”

“Good for you!” I replied. This did my heart good. I told him that I worked for the Hillel – the organization that supports Jewish life on college campuses around the world –  a number of years back.  With so many negative statistics out there pointing out the demise of Jewish practice among today’s young American Jews,  Steven telling me of his plans to do something Jewish, to be with other Jews that night, just made me feel all warm inside.

Chanukkah is such a small holiday in importance on the Jewish calendar. But it celebrates something so big – the world’s first fight for religious freedom. It was the first time a people – though meek and small – said NO to an occupying power. Judah Maccabee and his brothers were the first who had the chutzpah — the balls, if you will — to say, NO! We will not stop being Jewish. We will not stop teaching our children how to be Jewish. You can put up statues of your idols, you can outlaw Jewish practice, you can threaten us, but we will survive.

And survive we did, and we have, in spite of history. And in spite of the dreary outlook for the American Jewish landscape, Steven, the college kid who worked at Wegmans, was going to go out of his way to celebrate Chanukkah, to celebrate being Jewish.

Happy Chanukkah to Steven and to all who celebrate freedom.

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