Friday, October 19, 2007

What's in a Name?

Schools today look nothing like the schools I attended as a youngster. My elementary school was all dark wood interior, my mind's eye always sees it enshrouded in darkness. The classrooms were lighter, there were windows, but the main lobby and hallways were deeply-stained panels of a very ancient design. The stairs and bannister bore the same swirled moldings. The atmosphere was one of an old manor house in a horror movie.

The elementary school my son attends is decorated in bright primary colors. The floor is dotted with yellow, red and blue tiles placed here and there, somewhat haphazardly. There is light everywhere, the interior hallways are all brightly illuminated and those that encircle the building have windows all along the outside wall. Every door, wall and entranceway is decorated with the art of children. It is like a child's picture book.

And yet, there is still some vestigial rigidity in schools, even the brightly colored ones. For instance, The Boy has had little luck in convincing them to accept his new name. The Boy chooses new names often, he changes them the way some children change favorite cartoons.

We were shopping for refrigerators in Sears one evening when he suddenly decided we ought to call him "Harry". I had never considered Harry as a name for him before he was born but I had to admit that it certainly seemed to suit him and so I agreed to it straightaway. I wasn't as easy to convince when he changed his name to "Rico" a few months back, but once I told him it meant "rich" in Spanish, he was utterly delighted with his choice and there was no changing his mind.

We can't change his mind, but he often does and sometimes advises that I may still call him by his real name at home. He wants others to call him Rey Mysterio, but not his mom.

Oh yeah, that's his new name. Rey Mysterio. His best friend at school is a wrestling fan (more on my dismay about that at another time) and apparently Rey Mysterio is one of the top names in the wrestling book. We don't watch wrestling here, but his friends know all about it.

He insisted on having his new name written on a piece of paper to take to his teacher. Alas, the teacher told him that they can't call him Rey Mysterio in school, as he explained to me with a crestfallen face.

I don't relish calling him Rey Mysterio but I know the fad will last a few days only and he will be onto another name that he fancies more. I remember trying out names as a young girl, planning out what I would change it to when I went out on the stage. I think we all go through these phases, but in the end, most of us end up feeling most comfortable as ourselves.

Thank goodness. And no, I have no intention of telling him that Rey means "king" in Spanish. I want this to be a short phase.

Saturday, October 13, 2007

Sidewalk Dreams

A story in the news really caught my attention today, and not because it was shocking or grisly, it was just a little story about a little girl, drawing her dreams.

Natalie Shea is a first-grader in New York. At 6, her world is wide open, her dreams can be outrageous because childhood is the time for outrageous dreams and there is beauty to be found everywhere. Natalie is an artist.

Natalie shared her dreams with friends and neighbors by drawing a big blue flower in chalk on her front stoop. Her mother was understandably surprised when she received a notice informing her that she had 45 days to remove the "graffiti" or face a $300 fine. Some neighbor had complained.

At 6, Natalie showed she had more sense than the complaining grown-up who obviously has lost the ability to see the beauty around her.

"My mom got a ticket for graffiti, and it wasn't even graffiti," Natalie said. "It was art, very nice art."

Her mother didn't have to worry about the fine, because as the mean-spirited neighbor should have realized would happen, the chalk "graffiti" disappeared with the next rainstorm.

I have, on occasion, bought my children sidewalk chalk and I must admit, even helped them cover the driveway with drawings, sayings and (as the hippy in me came out) peace signs and words like "groovy". The sad thing is that I have also wondered if my landlord would come along and object because sometimes I wonder if he can see what is really drawn there.

It reminded me of a snatch of a song I wrote a long time ago, I may have been a teen at the time. It is only a snatch because for better or worse (probably better), I don't remember the rest of it.

When we were young
Our songs were unsung
And we wrote our secrets
on the sidewalk
But you know chalk
Doesn't last very long
and come the dawn
We'd lost ourselves in the pictures we'd drawn

I pity the neighbor whose sight is so shortened by time that he or she no longer remembers or understands the worlds contained in a child's chalk art. The world must be a bleak place indeed when you have given up on the dreams of the child you were.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Smile For The Camera - That way no one will recognize you

It's an important day for The Boy. Today is picture day at school. Time flies when you're stressed.

It seems that you just get all the supplies and wardrobe in order, work out the drop-off and pick-up schedules, remember which days are gym and require sneakers, which days are Library days so you can hunt down the borrowed book which is most likely residing under a bed or a couch cushion and as soon as you think you are ready to take one relaxed breath - it's picture day.

I can remember the long hours of thought and discussion that went into the choosing of an outfit for The Girl on picture day, but The Boy doesn't really seem to care. I think that's the best approach, anyway. Carefully planned color schemes to highlight their eyes and paying the extra fee for a custom background, retouching, framing and personalized monographing has not once proved to result in a better portrait. The color scheme you spent so much time choosing usually turns out to make the child look sallow or of alien origin, the strips on the shirt strobe, the carefully curled hair goes limp and ill-kempt and generally you get a very carefully planned and expensive fiasco. The best pictures happen when you missed reading that notice from school or your child used it to write out their birthday gift wish-list and you sent them to school looking just like themselves.

The Boy presents a few special problems of his own, I will admit. First, there's the haircut he gave himself just a few days before school started. This consisted of one very close chop just above the forehead, effectively removing any of that pesky hair that was falling into his face and annoying him, but also rendering a sort of swollen-brain syndrome look. The other scissor chops were placed in random spots on the sides and the back of his head. I made a valiant attempt to even it out as much as possible and it certainly helped to put a little gel on it and pretend he was supposed to look like a rock performer. It has grown a bit more, so I once again went at his head with scissors last night, leaving it all a bit more even, but definitely not stylish.

Then there are the photographic faces. He has two, and neither of them belong to him. As I sit here writing this I am looking at a picture taken by his teacher in class last year. He has both hands on his face pulling his skin and his eyelids in opposite directions. One eye appears to be rolled up into his head and the other is unnaturally wide open and staring. I know it's him because I recognize the Spiderman sweatshirt. His other photographic face is quite calm, studious and sweet. That's not him either.

In the end I settled for making sure he washed his face, brushed his teeth and wore clean clothes. I didn't tell him to smile or to sit still. I was afraid any sort of instructions might make the situation worse. I chose the plainest and cheapest of backgrounds and studiously avoided thinking about what color shirt would go best with it.

I have written out the hefty check to pay for these unseen portraits and await the resulting images with motherly pride and some well-learned trepidation. Oh, and The Girl? She's thirteen and believes that her mother is clueless so would never think of asking for my advice on her clothes and hair on picture day. Thank goodness. Teen attitude is good for something at least.

Monday, October 8, 2007

Life is a Puzzle

I have just finished my online jigsaw puzzle. Please give me a moment to congratulate myself. There, that should do it. Thank you. I won't be submitting my time or checking high scores because for me,it isn't about trying to be the fastest and the best. In fact, I don't think I could enjoy doing a jigsaw puzzle if the goal was to complete it blindingly fast, sliding pieces into place without error. A jigsaw is a slowly built masterpiece, a project, a hobby that both exercises the mind and soothes it at the same time, giving it a break from real world problems and replacing them with the problem of why this piece that has just the right tip of blue and stripe of white doesn't fit perfectly where it ought to. But jigsaws, like life, often don't make sense until you see the whole picture.

I learned to love jigsaw puzzles when I was a kid. On Sundays my parents would often travel to Maine or other parts equally distant to attend church or visit relatives and if we were lucky, my younger brother and I were allowed to stay home with the older siblings to watch over us. Often this privilege came with the obligation to clean the house, which we all happily agreed to. Surprisingly, we worked well together. Staying home meant no parental control over the stereo. The elder sister and brother took turns spinning records our parents would never allow to be played in their presence - The Beatles, Bob Dylan, The Beach Boys.

And when we were done scrubbing floors and folding laundry to our forbidden rock n' roll beats, my sister would spread a jigsaw puzzle across the dining room table. We could all sit and work on this wonder together. That was the time for my sister's quieter taste in music and we listened to Johnny Mathis , The Mama's and The Papa's and Neil Diamond. I learned the pleasure of the quiet pursuit of a dream - the dream pictured on the box. Many years later, when the elder siblings had grown and moved out, I could still be found on a winter's day, alone in my room with nothing but a stereo and a jigsaw puzzle.

Time moves on and life gets busy. A real jigsaw is large, takes up space and time and doesn't fit in. I have no extra table that can be devoted to such a project. Pieces are more than likely to go missing long before they are properly set into their places.

So, an online jigsaw puzzle has to do. They can be a pleasant way to while away time on the net but the experience is not complete. They lack that tactile pleasure, the fingering of a piece, the satisfaction of feeling it snap into the spot that your eye finally spied and that smug knowledge that your mental calculations of its parameters were unerring.

If you like jigsaw puzzles, there's a new one daily at and sometimes they can be nicely challenging, like the one that is in black and white and doesn't colorize until you fit the pieces into the right place. But, if you truly love jigsaw puzzles, I highly recommend a 1000 piece jigsaw puzzle spread out over a dining room table, with music on the stereo and preferably an assortment of family and friends to sing along with you as you explore the mystery of its construction and the quiet pursuit of a dream.

Friday, October 5, 2007

The Occasional Rant

Every news outlet is carrying the story: Prince William and his off-again, now on-again girlfriend, Kate Middleton, being chased by paparazzi just as the inquest into Princess Diana's death gets underway. A death that may be blamed in part on the relentless pursuit of the former royal by the paparazzi. But who is really to blame?

Skimming the headlines today I had to ask myself this question: Does the story make the news or does the news make the story? That is, are we reading the news or are we reading what the news media thinks we want to read?

As we hover our mouses over the page, scrolling past the stories of monks in peaceful protest being beated, tortured and killed and instead click on the video of Wills and Kate slipping into a black vehicle that will whisk them away into the night, who is deciding what is important? Make no mistake, the news media is a business and as such relies on advertising dollars - dollars that are commensurate with the audience that the page they are displayed on will bring in. That audience isn't some vast, nameless mass. It's you. It's me.

We bemoan the lack of good television and yet, they are only producing what they know we will watch. Our appetite for electronic voyeurism is never sated, so we have multiple Survivor-type series and Big Brother, talent shows and "real video", as well as endless spotlights on vapid celebrities of the entertainment world. It is the same on the internet. If we are really sick of hearing about Britney Spears, there is one solution. Don't click on that story about Spears just because they lure you in with headlines like "Brit's New Stripper Video". Vote with your click on the net, just as you vote via remote on your television.

Women complain that the media and the fashion industry serve up images of stick-thin models and air-brushed photos, presenting an ideal that the average woman can never attain. But we can't blame the media for these images, if we didn't want to see them then we would stop buying the magazines, watching the shows, reading the tabloids. Why is it that we never understand who is truly in power?

I keep writing about Dove, and their Real Women, Real Beauty campaign but I can't say enough good things about it. If you are fed up and sick of being compared to images of 12-year-old fashion models, then buy Dove products and support the campaign to use real women as role models for beauty and intelligence. Don't we believe that an intelligent woman can also be beautiful?

It isn't difficult to gather support for causes like global warming - people will quickly pledge to recycle their used paper napkins or some other equally ridiculous but symbolic gesture. Why can't we agree to improve the taste, intelligence, savvy and quality of our future society? Saving the earth will be of little use if our future belongs to a generation whose role-models are the cretins who appear on our TV screens and magazine covers.

We can do it. We can turn off "Dancing With the Stars" and watch PBS or the Discovery channel. We can walk past the tabloids on the newsstands and buy a copy of National Geographic. We can teach our children that character and integrity is more important than the opportune displaying of body parts - the recent hoopla over Vanessa Hudgens and the nude photos that she probably released herself just to increase her fame are a wonderful example of how not to behave. If we can take the right lessons to our children, can't we counteract the effects of the most superficial society in history?

I like to think we can.

Wednesday, October 3, 2007

The Longest Road

I was reading a blog the other day that chronicled the life of a typical office worker. The description of the long and tedious commute, occasionally made even less enjoyable by bottlenecked traffic and obnoxious drivers, made me once again congratulate myself for working so close to home. It was only after I began to calculate the time this commuter spent getting to work in another city and the time it takes me to get to work in my own town that I realized something incredible. His trip was shorter.

How could someone travel from the suburbs to the city amidst rush hour morning traffic and still get there ahead of me when I have to travel only a few short miles across town? The answer is quite simple. He's not a mother.

With all the talk about the juggling acts of working mothers, balancing career with home life and children, no one ever discusses the amount of work a mother has to do just to leave the house and actually get to work. A mother doesn't just have to get herself ready in the morning. There are children to get out of bed and ready for school, arguments to be had over clothes and shoes and the possible necessity of jackets, hats and gloves. There are backpack inspections to confirm that they all have the necessary snacks, juice boxes and lunches packed as well as bathing suits for the YMCA, and in the case of The Boy, some comfort items from home - a deck of Pokemon cards or the interesting rock he found outside yesterday. Then pencil in about 10 minutes for them to search for some missing item, make one more bathroom stop and try in vain to fake illness so they can stay home. If you are well practiced, these maneuvers can be accomplished in about 30-45 minutes - unless they are cranky, then count on an hour. Unless I am cranky, then we go whether they are ready or not.

When The Boy was in daycare and The Girl attended grade school, I left the house a full hour before I had to be at work. I picked up a co-worker, drove to the other side of town to drop The Boy off at daycare, drove in a diagonal direction across town to drop The Girl off at school and then swung around to where I began to finally head for work. The trip to the office that was "just down the street" took me 55 minutes and I had traveled 14 miles.

I think before we start analyzing how tired working mothers are at the end of a long work day, we need to assess how tired they are when they arrive at work only to start their second job of the day.