Archive | April 2011

Stormy Weather Inspires Young Poet

I guess you can say I am a weather junkie.

I have been glued to the weather channel on this most historic night. I watched reports that this is the most tornado activity ever recorded in one night – ever.  The bottom of the screen flashed warnings at us for about 3 hours straight. When it started including warnings of sightings of “clouds with slight rotations,” I really started to freak.

There was even a tornado watch here in Western New York. This never happens. So, when the sky turned black and the winds picked up, I could have sworn I saw an unusual white vertical cloud above the trees, just in the horizon.  Then, the rain fell horizontally and it looked like a sandstorm of rain, I can’t describe it. But it was very weird. So, with dinner half eaten, I ordered the kids into the basement. I bet my daughter is texting all her friends about her crazy mom right about now.

It seems the worst has passed. A few leaks in the kitchen roof, but no other damage.

But, the storm produced – a poem, by my youngest.

Here it is:

It’s raining.
It’s pouring.
The lightening is roaring
The angels are bowling
The bowling balls are rolling
The flashing long, flying lightening worm in the sky
A baby giant in its dark, cloudy blanket
Trying not to burst out in raining tears and cry.

  Where were you on this dark and stormy night?

Country Mouse Visits City Mouse

lincoln093857-791911

we haven't changed in 20 years, we're still dancing!

The title of this post is somewhat inaccurate. Because Rochester is not the country, it is a city. But it is not New York City.   And calling this post “Former City Mouse living in Small City visits Big City Mouse,” just doesn’t have the same ring to it.

Whenever I go back “home” to the New York Metro area, I make my best effort to try to break away from both sides of the family to see at least one friend from my past life. This is not easy. There is first the six to seven-hour drive back to New York, crammed with kids and DVDs and suitcases, snacks and backpacks.  Then the juggling of arrangements with two families. Attempting to see friends who are flung all over the Metro area further complicates the logistics.  Sometimes, when I come in, I don’t bother to get in touch with old friends. It’s not that I don’t want to see people, it is just a recipe for disappointment.

But in the end, spending time with old friends is what my soul needs most. Even if the visit lasts no more than an hour or two.

So there I was this Passover, rushing out the door of my in-law’s house to catch a Long Island Railroad train meet a friend for lunch in the city.

Back before I was Transpantednorth, public transportation was a way of life. Now, we go most places by car and the only public transportation my kids know is the school bus. 

What great material public transportation provides for the writer: people watching, eavesdropping. Time to think.  Even on this trip, I had a great conversation with an older, retired CUNY professor about a Wall Street Journal article that discussed plans to turn the area around the Flatrion Building on 23rd St. into the country’s next high-tech “Silicon Alley.” That conversation led into a talk about the architect Frank Gehry with the professor and a mom sitting next to him who was taking her kids into the city to see The Adams Family on Broadway.

Sitting on a train affords you the opportunity to strike up such conversations with strangers. Would the same topics come up in the produce aisle at Wegmans? Probably not.

And after the LIRR, it was onto the NYC Subway. Ah, the subway!  To this day, I always have a Metro Card somewhere in my wallet, though I am nowhere within commuting distance to even 242nd Street, the northernmost subway station. And, if I did still commute by subway, I am sure it would get old very fast.  I now only ride a few times a year and it sends me reeling in nostalgia. Even the dank smell of the subway air, combined with the sounds of a musician playing a steel drum for a few coins or bills right there on the platform, makes me want to jump and scream for joy “Hey New York! I’m HOME!” And, if I know most New Yorkers, my outburst would barely bat a glance of attention. A true New Yorker rarely looks up from his newspaper — or now, his smartphone.

Nearly two hours later, I finally arrived at my friend’s apartment, the friend who had after so many years working and struggling had finally arrived as a true Upper West Side Manhattanite.  She lives in a beautiful doorman apartment with her new husband and their blended family. My college friend, the one who got nasty looks from our professor because she could not stop turning around to talk to me in class, the one who I helped kill a cockroach the size of a Volkswagen Beetle with a bottle of hairspray in her first Manhattan studio, now has a corner living room with a wrap-around curtain of glass that offers views of Broadway, Lincoln Center and a front row seat to the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. I am so proud.

Old friends like this can go for months at a time without speaking, but can pick up right where they left off. The last time I saw city mouse was December 2009 at my daughter’s Bat Mitzvah. The time before that was the summer before at her second wedding. Needless to say, we didn’t have much time at either of these occasions to catch up. But we sure did dance!

So this time? We sat in at her table that overlooked upper Broadway, drank some red wine from Spain and ate – Matzah Lasagna. Okay, the last part did not sound all that glamorous so what else  could we eat?

We talked. We talked about work and not working, kids who had crushes on Justin Beiber and kids who melted their $300 transition eyeglasses (more on that in another post).

Before I knew it, it was time to catch the train back to Long Island.  So, she walked me back to the 72nd station. On the way, we strolled in her Upper West Side neighborhood, a neighborhood that could have been mine, maybe with a similar career track,  if I would have been her roomate all those years ago instead of following my heart out to California. We walked through the Lincoln Center Plaza where she proudly pointed out the new patch of grass. This may be very exciting to city dwellers, but us country mice get to play in grass whenever we want!

We passed her old apartment building on W72nd street and also saw her very first apartment building, the one with the cockroach, the one I almost moved into almost 20 years earlier.

And on the train ride back to suburbia, staring at the stillframes the train makes of unsuspecting children playing in yards or workers unloading trucks onto loading docks, I wondered what life could have been like if I lived it as a Big City Mouse.

Taking a Blogging Break over Passover Break

Even though I’m back in “old country” Staten Island, that is, I feel a bit out of my element not being in my own space to have the space to blog.

For the next two days, it’s all about the Seders – cooking for them, helping to lead them, eating the fest…. and cleaning up. Definately not enough time to collect thoughts for another blog post.

But, I am sure the week will leave me with plenty of material. Stay tuned for photos from my latest visit back home, including updates from Ground Zero, eating in perhaps what is the country’s only Glatt Kosher Vegan Chinese restaurant, and an amazing US Ranger talk at the continent’s largest African Burial ground.

Happy Passover and Happy Easter!

Idea #95: the secret jazz pianist stylings of the janitor

hands_playing_piano

A few days ago, WordPress asked us to write about a rare, hidden talent no one knew we had.

I thought, why should we only blog about ourselves?  Who cares about reading about me all the time (except, maybe my mom)? Are bloggers really that narcasistic?

 So, I’m dedicating this post on hidden talents to the janitor at a local community center.

On Sunday evenings, as I hone my little-known rare talent (that will go unmentioned in this blog post),  I take breaks and wander the hallways of my community center. Not much else goes on in the building on Sunday evenings, so this little group I mingle with has the place to ourselves.

As I strolled in the lobby, I stopped in my tracks when I heard what I thought was a recording of Jazz piano music. It was coming from the darkened, empty senior lounge.

I peered in and it was not a recording, but the janitor. The  janitor with the wiry, stringy dirty blonde hair and thin drawn face. The janitor who looks like Shaggy from Scooby Doo. The janitor who carefully vacuums the lobby was seated at the grand piano in the corner of the room, playing the finest jazz piano I had ever heard without paying for a door cover charge and a two drink minimum.

I asked if I could come in and listen and he nodded to me wordlessly. I was in awe of his playing and told him so. I told him about the column I write and asked if I could intervew him for it, when, with an annoyed look on his face, he told me no. But, he did tell me his story.

He grew up down south and was a pretty serious musican. He was in a jazz group and had regular gigs. They were about to get a recording contract, but something – the pressure of playing before a crowd and the pressure of the music industry – made him snap inside.

Since moving up north, he tried to get his musical career off the ground again, but couldn’t shake the stage fright.

So, there he sits, after he cleans up after us, and plays piano in the dark.

Now, if we travel in the same circles, and after reading this, you may say “ooooooh, I know who she’s talking about! I never would have guessed he could play piano that well!”

But, gentle reader, I beg you not to bring this to his attention. Because he doesn’t want the attention.  Just, when you pass him by as you go for your workout or as you see him vacuuming up after a community event,  know that you are in the presence of a brilliant, but clandestine, musical genius.  

And never look past anyone or underestimate anyone’s talent based on the way they earn a paycheck.

Conversations with Playground Princesses

Today in Western New York it was one of those first spring days when it felt like spring – warm spring – was really here for good. Not only was no jacket required, but you could actually venture outside and feel gentle warmth and not bitter cold on bare arms and legs.

So, as soon as all our little students arrived at school, we raced outside to the playground.

Among the chirping of the robins was the falsetto operatic voices of some of our three and four-year-old girls.  They sang as they followed each other up and down the play equipment, down the slide and through the tunnel.

I had to ask what they were playing.

“It’s Princess Day!” One of them said.

So, what is on the agenda of Princess Day?

“We stayed in bed all morning, went on an acorn hunt, scrubbed the floor, went to the ball, and then we went to sleep.”

… .. Not bad. It’s all in a day’s work for the playground princesses.

The endangered “average” child. My thoughts on Race to Nowhere

Race-To-Nowhere

I started the evening at Rochester’s screening of the documentary “The Race to Nowhere” as a columnist hunting for my next big topic. Would this movie light a big enough spark to generate action in the towns I cover? Would this mobilize parents to put an end to the endless hours of homework?

The screening of this independent documentary was widely anticipated in Rochester. For weeks, as in the rest of the nation, Rochesterians have faced the grim news of deep cuts to school budgets. Increased class sizes. Cuts to Advanced Placement classes. Cuts to arts education, even at Rochester’s prestigious School of The Arts.

But this film was not about budget cuts. Or maybe it is. Maybe, the stories in this movie are the direct results of the mess our nation’s education system finds itself. Race to Nowhere is the product of cuts to funding in education: too many teachers forced to teach to the test, classes stripped away of anything creative, kids stripped away of their zest for life and the excitement of learning, replaced by the constant pressure to churn, absorb and perform.

Even though I got my ticket in advance, finding a seat was a challenge. The  lecture hall at Nazareth College was packed. But still more educators, students and  community members filed in to see a  film that is sparking heated discussions and stirring people to act and rethink the cost of constantly pushing our children to always excel, always succeed and NEVER take it easy. We are pushing them fast, according to the movie, to cheating, burnout, stress-related illnesses, and in the most extreme case, suicide.

The film, as our moderator cautioned, did take a very narrow focus on only the most stressed-out kids and teachers. I did not see any joy in these kids lives, and there had to be some point where these kids had a chance to kick back and enjoy, or maybe even once come home and bubble about something they learned in school.

I’m relieved to say that my kids still come home excited about at least some of the learning they do. How can you not get excited about creating a silent screen script as a way to learn about the 1920’s or learning about Beluga whales?

But, as I watched the movie, I felt the tension slowly rise in my throat.  I got emotionally caught up in the struggles of the kids and parents on the screen. My thoughts drifted to my own three kids, aged 14, 12 and 7:

……About a month ago, my daughter came home from school “stressed” that she only got an 86 in her latest math test. Only.

My daughter is in the 8th grade in the Brighton Central School District in the Rochester Area. It is one of the most competitive in the country. She’s been enrolled in accelerated math and science ever since the fifth grade.

And my illustrious academic  math career? I was never a good math student. I write. There are brilliant mathematicians and engineers who can barely weave together a paragraph. This is because we are wired differently, and that is okay.

So, I am pretty certain that in my New York City Public school, math classes were created for left-brained students like me. Just to shove enough math credits down our gullet to graduate.

So, hearing my daughter say “I only got an 86″ in an advanced math class, evoked little sympathy from mom. But, she wasn’t looking for sympathy. She was truly stressed.

“I HAVE to get AT least a 91 or higher in my next test, or else I’m out of the accelerated math program.”  Her emphasis was on “test” and not on learning a theory, or learning how to solve a problem.

I posed the possibility of failure to my brilliant daughter: “There may come a time in your academic life when you, no matter how hard you studied, might get a low grade on a test. A really low grade. What would happen, if you actually failed a test?”

“Fail?! No way. I’m never failing a test. Ever.” And she went back upstairs to study.

“Race To Nowhere” also talked about the overemphasis on Advanced Placement classes. My daughter is already talking about taking Advanced Placement classes at age 14. This is something that I didn’t think about until I was a junior in high school. I took AP English classes and AP biology classes because I was genuinely interested in them and wanted to take them. How it looked on a college application was only the second reason why I took them.

And for my daughter? It’s as if the last few months of eighth grade are already history. Onto looking good for the college application. Onto the next thing.

..My son, a sixth grader, comes home to discuss the Civil Rights Movement and the book, The Watsons go to Birmingham. He also threw himself into his optional science project and studied how airplanes fly. He is a voracious reader and absorbs books from authors like Stephen King, James Patterson, and Anthony Horowitz. With all this reading, he is capable of making excellent inferences and insights in class discussions. He is also in accelerated math and never throws his hands up in frustration because he doesn’t understand something.

Nathan’s downfall is that sometimes his completed homework fails to make it from his backpack, down the hallway, and into the teacher’s inbox. So, often, he is graded on missing homework assignments instead of his actual ability to think and solve problems while he is in class. And, like the movie pointed out to me, my nightly conversations with Nathan are not about what he learned, but what he has for homework, and did he do it, and can I see it? And our nights usually end up with him yelling at me to get off his back.

Lastly, the movie touched upon our society’s never-ending need to one-up our friends, family and neighbors with how much material wealth we gain.  Making money is the whole reason for working so hard in school, for accepting acceptance from only the top colleges, so one can be gainfully employed and making a LOT of money. That is success.

At seven, my youngest already understands this.

“Mom, are you successful?”

I think about this. I am happily married and have three healthy, beautiful though somewhat kooky children. I have three jobs that touch a lot of people’s lives in my community, though none pay enough that I could actually independently support myself. But, I have been there for my husband so he could be successful. In turn, for his success, I can be home for my kids after school to take them wherever they need to go: be it Bar Mitzvah lessons or orthodontist appointments.

But I know what my son is getting at…

“Let’s face it mom. The “Jonses” are both doctors and they have a pool and a hot tub and a really big house. And we don’t have a pool. And our house is not as big as theirs. So, they are more successful than you are.”

So, I ended the night not a trailblazing reporter, but a weepy parent with knots in my stomach. I was too much in a rush to get home to my kids, NOT to ask them about their homework, or what they got on their latest test, but to give them a hug and tell them to find time to enjoy life while they are still kids living under my roof.

Post # 84: I wish I could Play Guitar

some mommies let their babies grow up to be rock stars

To play an instrument, you have to devote years to practicing scales, learning finger or bow positions, developing your lips to get just that right tone (if you play brass or woodwind),  and studying theory.

You have to endure playing simple, nerdy songs like Hot Crossed Buns or Ode To Joy when what you really want to play is the latest song from The Plain White Tees. If you have an ear for music and those songs in your head don’t yet match your ability, it can be all the more frustrating.   

But everyone needs to start somewhere. You can’t just pick up a guitar and instantly become Bonnie Raitt or Jimmy Paige, and we all know that playing the Guitar Hero is not the real thing.

Unless…..

What if…. what if, after hearing the opening chords of  “Blackbird” by the Beatles, or “What It’s Like” by Everlast, I could just pick up a six-string, start strumming and sound  just like that?

So, if I could instantly download a skill into my brain and body ala Matrix style, it would be the ability to play a mean guitar.  No, not even a mean guitar. I’d be happy with knowing enough chords to be considered entertaining around a campfire.

I know the guitar is difficult. It takes more than having a garage and knowing a few chords for most to be really good at it. But playing guitar seems to be the most approachable, liberating instrument there is.  

The guitar is my son Nathan’s third instrument.  Back in the second grade, Nathan was gently fired by his piano teacher after less than two years of lessons. It’s not that he didn’t have an ear for music. He could plunk out a Rachmaninoff tune or the theme to Harry Potter with all its sharps and flats on one finger, but no one was going to tell him about correct hand positioning or posture at the keyboard, or what a C Major scale should sound like.

As she left our house the for last time, this demure woman in a stiff skirt and buttoned up blouse reassured me: “Don’t worry. He has the music inside him. He has to find the instrument he loves. And let him get a little older.”

Or, maybe it was the right teacher that hooks you to an instrument. Nathan is now on the threshold of his teen years. After four months of guitar lessons, Nathan is a little more receptive to taking direction from a guitar teacher than a piano teacher. But he still wants to play the guitar like Johnny Ramone. Now.

One day, Nathan comes into the kitchen.

“Mom, what does this sound like?”

Nathan breaks into a simple guitar riff, than bangs on his guitar quickly two times. As he plays, his brown eyes lock on me, eyebrows raised, mouth hanging open. An expression that reads, is this cool, or what?

“Of course I know what that is. It’s Blister in the Sun by the Violent Femmes!”

A little smile. “Yeah!”

Each week, we get treated to a mini jam session that is Nathan’s guitar lessons. Guitar teachers are a completely different animal than piano teachers. 

Tuesday nights go like this: as Nathan wolfs down some dinner straight after two hours of religious school instruction, the doorbell rings. It’s Nathan’s guitar teacher.  Nathan’s teacher can’t be more than 26. He works all day with at-risk youth. He has spiked short hair and a pierced tongue and one of those black plug earrings. Nathan’s guitar teacher is definitely not a piano teacher.

My husband has a very healthy, heterosexual admiration of this young man. Also a guitar-playing wannabe, he is in complete rock-star admiration as he listens to him warm up. Now, that’s what years of playing the guitar can sound like.  Once a week, for 30 minutes, we have in our midst, a real guitarist who is in a real rock band.

Nathan has a long way to the top if he wants to rock and roll. But he is getting there. He can play the basic chords to Hotel California and I can slowly sing each bar, as he searches for the next chord, as I make dinner. And, he knows – of course – a standard blues riff. And Louie Louie. And Tequila!

I still have to nudge him to practice what his teacher actually wants him to practice, which is Amazing Grace. And I have to wonder: Did Jimi Hendrix’s mother have to nudge him to practice? Or Eddie van Halen’s mom? Or .. did Eric Clapton’s mom bug him about cutting his nails before playing?

Probably not. But they probably didn’t want to play the guitar as badly as I do.

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