Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Books I Read in 2008

I love talking about books. I really do. But I will caution you in advance: The books I managed to read this year were an uninspiring lot overall. Some good ones, even great ones, sure. But, looking back, not as many as I'd have hoped. Maybe that's because most of my actual sitting-in-my-house reading time was spent on books for my synagogue's book club, and as anyone who does the book club thing knows, those are more often hit and miss than the books you choose for yourself.

But, hey. They're also a lot more fun, for the same reason. You just never know what's behind that next cover when you're not the one doing the deciding.

And on that note...


1. Strange Bedpersons by Jennifer Crusie: I like series romances. They are fun, and they are relaxing, and they remind me of my grandma, who used to lend me all her Harlequins and Silhouettes when she finished reading them, because they were fine for me to read even if I was ten years old, and who talked about them with me, and even once took me to a fan luncheon to meet a Real Live Harlequin Author. It was awesome. Anyway...most of the time, I don't bother even listing the dozen or so that I read in a typical year, because they take half a day, and what is there to say? But I'm going to own up to a couple from this month, because they were sent to me by the folks at Harlequin, as part of some “get three books free if you try our book club” deal. And one of the romances was an early one by Jennifer Crusie, when what she wrote was romance rather than chick lit. Now, I have to say, Crusie can write really, really, really likeable almost nobody I’ve ever read. It’s fluff, but it’s fun fluff. This book did make me wonder about something though...about how romance and erotica and everything in between really ‘works.’ Because this was supposed to be a romance novel—obviously, coming from Harlequin or one of its other brands—and it has some serious sex scenes, but they were...not at all a turn-on. On the other hand, I’ve read some truly awful series romances—bad writing, bad characterizations, bad everything—that were nonetheless steamy. What’s the diff? I need to think about this more...

2. Just for Kicks by Susan Andersen: This was the second of the three books, and it, too, was fun. And steamier than Crusie’s, though not as well written. Case in point? (For the record, I couldn't face reading the third--some kind of historical romance, which is just Not My Thing--and gave it away to Goodwill.)

3. Stuart: A Life Backwards by Alexander Masters: Hoo boy. That’s a rough read. Excellent book, incredibly ambitious. But sometimes I just don’t want to know, and as I read through Stuart’s life, I began to dread more and more the ‘beginning’ I knew was coming. This was somebody’s boy, and it all just went wrong. And worse yet, there was a lot in him to mourn when it did go wrong.

4. The Zookeeper’s Wife by Diane Ackerman: I read this for my temple book club and, well, I shouldn't even list this, to be honest, because I only got through half of it, or maybe less, before the club met. And I'm never going to finish it because I just didn't...I don't know. I didn't get it maybe. Or maybe it's just that memoirs are so prominent these days that a biography like this--written by someone who never met the people in question--just feels so distant. And fictional. I mean, I would read these details or thoughts or occurrences and know that there was no way Ackerman could truly know this to be true, and that put me off. I think I would have prefered it if it were presented as truly fictional. Or maybe not.


5. Life of Pi by Yann Martel: I already wrote a blog entry about this, but in short, it was really good. And wow. And I’m a sucky book critic.

6. Anne of Green Gables by Lucy Maud Montgomery (with Em): We loved this to pieces. To pieces. I'd have thought it might be too 'young' for Em...not the language, which is plenty mature, but the whole sweetness and lightness of it. But not at all. We are now officially Ann Fans.

7. Atonement by Ian McEwan: Someday I'll write a whole long blog entry about how the one kind of story I just cannot abide--in books, in movies, on TV--are stories in which everything hinges on a misunderstanding, or a piece of information withheld. And that entry will explain why, although this was clearly a masterfully written book, I got about halfway through and had to stop reading. It was making me so uncomfortable that picking it up to continue reading resulted in my becoming physically ill. No book is worth that. I don't think...


8. Triangle by Katharine Weber: A fictional story about (though that ‘about’ should be in quotes, because it’s not, not really about) the Triangle Shirtwaist fire of 1911. I read this for my temple book club, Just, no. Why so much? Why so ambitious? Why so ploddingly plotted...or, rather, ploddingly overplotted. Why so many parts that go nowhere? Why no characters that feel even slightly real? Seriously. Just no. Which is a pity, because it’s not that it’s bad. It’s just that it’ good.


9. Lamb by Christoper Moore: Funny. Interesting. And probably way more so to people who actually know ANYTHING about Christ's early life. Which I do not. Because I am only just catching up on the key points in my own religion, people! I'll get to it. But in the meantime, I'm going to carry Chris Moore's version of the story in my head for a while, and smile when I think about it.

10. Kira-Kira by Cynthia Kadohata: Emily read this in maybe two days, and she's not usually a won't-put-the-book-down kind of kid. (Though she's since done the same with the entire Twilight series, swallowing it basically whole. Oy.) Then she told me I had to read it, too. It's a beautiful book on its own, 'juvenile' or 'young adult' or whatever it's supposed to be aside. I was glad I read it.

11. Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen: I read this for my book club, too. And enjoyed it. It was fun. It was well plotted. It wasn't especially innovative or anything, but it didn't need to be to be a just plain old good book.

12. The Maytrees by Annie Dillard: I would like to read it again, just so that I could mark the lines that stopped my heart with their earnestness and beauty and truth. I really would like to read it again...if I'd had the faintest idea what the hell it was about the first time I read it. All I know is that it was depressing, and yet sweet, and yet annoying.


13. My Most Excellent Year by Steve Kluger (with Em): A disclaimer, first. This is my brother-in-law's book. It's a young adult book, but it's also not. It's an everyone book. There's a young character in it who is based on N, and there are stories in it that come from Em, and there's a character named after me...two, actually...and I've read it a few times in its various draft forms, and of course I'm going to love it, because of all that. And yet I can still say with certainty that even if it weren't my brother-in-law's book, I'd have enjoyed it immensely. Because you can't not. It's that kind of book.


14. Fluke by Christopher Moore: He can’t write a bad book, and they’re all totally enjoyable. But if I had to say that one wasn’t my absolute fave, it would be this one, which just got a little too...bad sci fi for my tastes.

15. Miriam’s Kitchen by Elizabeth Ehrlich: An interesting memoir made even more interesting to me because, while my own sort of Jewish journey isn't taking me anywhere near becoming kosher, my feelings about my journey are similar to Elizabeth's. Plus, you can't really go wrong with a book that ends most chapters with some yummy sounding recipes.


16. A History of Love by Nicole Krauss: This was intriguingly written, and it was ambitious, and it was unusual. And it was good. Better than I'd expected it to be when I started it. It lost me in the end a bit--there were twists I'm not sure I followed, threads that still felt tangled when I'd closed the book--but it was still good, for all that. I was impressed.


18. The Shiniest Jewel by Marian Henley: This was a graphic novel/memoir about an adoption sent to me by a publisher that wanted me to review it on my blog There wasn’t much to say. I was underwhelmed. So I never bothered to review it, and now I'm sure nobody will ever send me another book to review for them, and there goes my career as a book reviewer. Sigh.


19. Shiksa Goddess by Wendy Wasserstein: Read this for my book club. I know this isn't going to be a popular opinion, but...I don't think she's a very good prose writer. I don't think playwrights always are. These essays truly underwhelmed me. Even the ones that were supposed to break my heart. I mean, those were better than some of the other more reporterly stuff, but still. I just couldn't find anything to rave about. My book club compatriots disagreed with me. Strongly, in some cases. So...there you go. Just one woman's opinion.

20. In The Image by Dara Horn: Read this for my book club, too. Hmm. This one REALLY lost me in the end with a flight of fancy that just...turned me off. So much so that I think it tainted my opinion of the rest of the book, which I had been enjoying. Not loving, not eating up, not melding with, nothing like that. But I'd been enjoying it. Until I was knocked entirely off kilter by its bizarre finish, and left wondering if I'd ultimately wasted my time. (Some of my book club compatriots disagreed with me strongly about this one, too. That's why book clubs are so much fun.)


NADA. Sad, no?


21. Certain Girls by Jennifer Weiner: Read this for my book club. (See a pattern here?) I found it a littel bit trite. I'm not a big Weiner fan, though. And while I didn't dislike it (like I did some of her other books, notably Goodnight Moon and Little Earthquakes), I just didn't find anything to write home about. And so I'll stop writing home about it now.

22. Flirting with Pride and Prejudice edited by Jennifer Crusie: Some of these essays were fun. Some of them had some insight. But some of them were kind of insipid, too. Still, time spent thinking about Jane Austen's work is never time spent badly.

23. Outwitting History: The Amazing Adventures of a Man Who Rescued a Million Yiddish Books by Aaron Lansky: The last of the book club reads for this year. I had very low expectations for this book, thinking it would be pedantic and preachy and some other p words I'm too lazy to come up with right now. I was very wrong. It was fun, and gossipy, and interesting, and it made me want to go out and find some Yiddish books to read. Even though my Yiddish is limited to less than a dozen words, most of them relating to body parts.


24. Anne of Avonlea by Lucy Maud Montgomery (read with Em): Nothing will ever beat the joy of discovering Anne in Anne of Green Gables, but we still loved this book.

25. The Inheritance of Loss by Kiran Desai: Too often, the circumstances surrounding the reading of a book influences your opinion of that book. Two of my all-time-favorite books (Marquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude and Morrison's Beloved) were books I read in a single weekend when I was, sick-sick...stuck in bed with a high fever and aches and pains and needing SOMETHING to distract me. Would I have liked them as much if I'd started them, as I did The Inheritance of Loss, on an airplane trip in mid-summer, then put them down for a couple of months while I read book-club books, then picked them up again only to get distracted by something else? Would I have liked them as much if it was only in the last third of the book that I actually read more than a few dozen pages in a row without reading another book in between? All of which is to say...I really, really was impressed with The Inheritance of Loss. I think that, had I read it like a book is meant to be read--in one more-or-less solid go, without huge gaps of time during which other plots got stuck in my head--it may have made even more of an emotional impression. Nonetheless, it's a definite recommend. Not a bad way to wrap up the year. Not a bad way at all.

Monday, December 29, 2008

Books I Heard in 2008

So earlier this year I said I was going to do my book lists and comments throughout the year, so as not to inundate you all at the end of the year. (Inundate you, bore you to's one and the same, really.) Apparently, however, I lied. I think I did manage to put up one list of books, but then never did it again.

And now, here it is, days from the new year, and I haven't posted in AGES, and even though I have the next week off of work, I have a freelance project to do, and I need to catch up on all the household chores I don't have time to do now that I work in an office, and my brain hurts too much to think of topics to blog about. come the books!

First up, the books I listened to on my iPod. All of 'em in one batch, some with very little in the way of commentary. Because, like I said, if my brain hurts too much to blog about funny things my kids say or stupid things I do, then it's certainly not up to the job of remembering what all these books were about. So if I didn't write up an in-depth commentary at the time, 'taint gonna happen now.

Like I said, I've already written about the first five, so they're without comment. After that, it's catch as catch can:


1. Baker Towers by Jennifer Haigh

2. Notes from a Small Island by Bill Bryson


3. The Weight of Water by Anita Shreve

4. The View from Castle Rock by Alice Munro

5. True North by Jim Harrison


6. In a Sunburned Country by Bill Bryson: Not his best. Not his funniest. But even at his not-best and not-funniest, he’s still wonderful.

7. Moll Flanders by Daniel Defoe: Hmm. Not sure this was as great as I'd assumed it would be. Or maybe just not sure I liked it as much as I'd assumed I would.

8. Peony in Love by Lisa See: Mel. Oh. Dra. Ma. Oy vey.

9. Black Swan Green by David Mitchell: Painfully brilliant. Wonderfully brilliant. Brilliantly brilliant.


10. Returning to Earth by Jim Harrison: Revisiting characters from other books in other situations is risky. This was totally worth it.

11. The Memory Keeper’s Daughter by Kim Edwards: I thought this was a pretty mediocre book. But while she tied up the action in neat and annoying bows, she let many of the characters live and/or die without recognizing their flaws or uncovering truths, and that pleased me somewhat.


12. A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini: He seems to relish long descriptions of appalling violence, and that doesn’t work for me. His plots were obvious; there was hardly a surprise in there. And yet, I really loved these characters. And the very last line in the book made every single hair on my body stand on end. So it was worth it.

13. Blink by Malcolm Gladwell: Really fascinating book. I often go out of my way not to read nonfiction, especially nonfiction with any kind of science slant, because that's what I do for a living, and reading that sort of thing often feels too much like work. But this was fun, and fascinating, and diverting. I see why it made the splash it did.


14. Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe: Sad and beautiful. Resonated even today. A bit of the too-tidy ending syndrome going on, but I probably would have been dissatisfied without everything coming together in the end.

15. Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte: Wha? Huh? This was considered good once? People liked this book...and still do? They maybe found something redeeming about it, about a SINGLE ONE of its characters? I DO NOT GET IT.


16. On Chesil Beach by Ian McEwan: This was good. Even very good, though also sad and more than a little frustrating. What I may have liked most about it, though, was the interview with McEwan at the end of the audiobook, where he explains why he only tells the “what happened next” story for one of the two main characters, and where he talks about various unspoken subplots. I love that kind of thing.

17. Double Bind by Chris Bohjalian: [WARNING: POTENTIAL SPOILER] The very second I heard the “doctor’s reports” and realized that they were genderless and undated, I knew what the ‘surprise’ at the end of this book was going to be, and I began hating it right then and there. I never really stopped, even though there were a few twists I didn't see coming.

18. The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz: Wow. Wao. This may be the best book I'll read all year. It's certainly the best one to date.


19. The Tipping Point by Malcolm Gladwell: Even better than Blink.

20. The Love Wife by Gish Jen: Eh. Felt contrived. Didn't much care for any of the characters. But it held me, and it made me think, and it caught me by surprise now and again, so...I can't really complain.

21. Identical Strangers by Elyse Schein and Paula Bernstein: A memoir of twins separated at birth and reunited as adults. Fascinating story, but it loses something along the way: Steam? Focus? Something.


22. Body Surfing by Anita Shreeve: I didn’t like ANY of these characters. Mostly because they were just that...characters. Calling them two-dimensional might give them credit for one more dimension than is actually deserved.

23. Harvesting the Heart by Jodi Picoult: I have GOT to stop reading books by these same old same old ‘bestselling’ authors. They just aren’t especially good. This one had its occasional moments, but it also had some of the most egregious errors of fact I’ve ever read in a novel before, and I really wanted bad things to happen to most of the main characters at various points, because they were all so...stupid/misguided/trite/mean-spirited.


24. gods in Alabama by Joshilyn Jackson: Wow. She is really good. By all rights, I should have hated this book; I’m not a fan of murders and suspense and issues that could be easily resolved if people would just TALK to one another. Plus, I am so very much not a southern girl, which should have made the whole mindset pretty alien to me. And yet I loved it from word one, all the way through to the end. Not a perfect book, but a perfectly wonderful experience with a book.

25. Confessions of a Jane Austen Addict by Laurie Viera Rigler: What in the world made me think this was anything but trash fiction? Because it had Jane Austen in the title? Fun, frothy, and yet...HATED the main character in ANY incarnation, that self-centered little twit.

26. Unaccustomed Earth by Jhumpa Lahiri: God, she’s so good. Not a clunker in the bunch, though there were, as always, stories I liked better than others. The title story took my breath away.

27. In Defense of Food by Michael Pollan: I loved him wholeheartedly before I listened to this book and got scolded by him and told how stupid and deluded I times using facts and/or logic that don't really hold up. Still, his main ideas are solid, if he wasn’t so obnoxious about them. (And I’m a convert; imagine how the non-converts feel.)


28. The Interruption of Everything by Terry McMillan: Ooooh, didn't you just want to SMACK the husband? Not a great book, not even an especially good one, but smooth and gossipy enough to make it fun.

29. The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde: I had no idea. This book wasn't at ALL about what I thought it was about. Which was wonderful. Because what it really was about was so much more interesting than a painting that grows old while its subject stays young. Haunting stuff.

30. The Nineteenth Wife by David Ebershoff: Gee, think Ebershoff has a problem with polygamy? Not that I don’t. Just that...this couldn’t have been a more thoroughly laser-focused novel if he’d tried. And it was long. Not like there wasn’t ROOM to consider other themes. I mean, he has at least one gay main character, and that makes barely a blip in the plot.


31. Grace (Eventually) by Anne Lamott: Not as good as the first two books of faith-ish essays. But I still think she can write the pants off most folks.

32. The Plot Against America by Philip Roth: Antisemitism. Lindbergh as President. An alternative history for the United States. It was chilling and mundane and disturbing. And hard, in the end, to figure out just what had gone on, and who was right and who was wrong and who the real villains were (well, aside from Hitler). Which is pretty impressive in a novel about Nazis.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

A Postscript, In Emails

From: N's Teacher
To: TC

By the way, N did say his poem for the class after lunch today. : )

From: TC
To: Baroy

See below, from N's teacher. It brought tears to my eyes. I'm not sure whether they're happy or sad.

From: Baroy
To: TC

A little of both.

12 Words

After the poetry recital, I sat in my car and cried--full of self-pity--for about 15 minutes.

All over 12 words. The 12 words in the poem N had been assigned for the class recital. The 12 words he just couldn't being himself to step up to the microphone and say to the assembled parents. The 12 words he had practiced dozens of times at home, full of expression and excitement, but which he had told us...and his teacher had told us...he hadn't yet been able to practice in front of the class. Which meant it was unlikely he would manage to pull it together for the recital. Which he indeed did not do.

He also did not recite either of the two class poems along with his 19 classmates, instead standing stock-still, mouth clamped shut, twisting his hands compulsively, as the rest of the kids said the words in unison. When I asked him why after--as he came over for a hug, just like the rest of the kids did to their parents, if they were there--he said it was because he was too nervous. "I needed to just take deep breaths," he said.

When I'd asked him over the past week whether he'd managed to do his poem for the class, he'd shook his head every time. Yesterday, he told me, "They all keep saying, 'N, just say it.' They have too much pressure on me."

It's not like I didn't know what was coming today. So why the tears?

Because I could see he was sad, and a little afraid we'd be mad at him, though he kept insisting he was fine. Because most of the time, he 'passes' more or less seamlessly, but this time he was the sore thumb, the only kid out of 20 who hid his face in hands, pulled up his pants legs to scratch at his knees while the other kids recited, kept shrugging his shoulders every time one of his classmates would look at him as if to prompt him to keep up with the class.

Because I think he knew it, and was a little bit embarrassed.

Because--and this is the hardest part for me to admit out loud--I, too, was embarrassed...mostly because all this took place in front of the other parents, most of whom I do not know, most of whom do not know him. All of whom had to have 'seen.'

And because--and this is the hardest part for me to deal with in general--Baroy was so visibly shaken by this, angry even, though it wasn't clear at whom he was directing it. He gave N a fierce hug when he came over to us, but then proceded to vent to--no, to be honest, it was at--me as we left the school. Where I tend to spend too much time looking at and worrying over the 'differences' in N, Baroy tends to spend way too little time acknowledging them. Today he couldn't pretend there is no difference between his son and the rest of the kids, and he wanted an answer, a something-to-do, to make sure it doesn't happen again. And because I didn't agree with his off-the-top-of-his-head, man-like, needing-to-DO-something-right-NOW solutions, he got angry with me, and we snapped at each other, and something that should have brought us together left us stalking off in separate directions, him to head home, me to head to my car and drive to work. But only after crying for a while, wondering whether we'll ever figure out what N really needs, wondering whether--even if we do--we'll be able to get it for him, wondering if I can forgive myself for letting the presence of the other parents get to me, wondering if I am the only person with a 'special needs' kid who can't seem to get on the same page as her husband. Feeling generally sorry for myself. Feeling pathetic. Being pathetic.

All over 12 words.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Fire on the Mountain!

Friday night I was planning on going to Shabbat services because of a special panel discussion they were planning for afterwards. Em was at a sleepover, Baroy uninterested. But N was dying to come with me, especially after hearing that his friend Zach would be there. This was a potential problem; I had planned some Chanukah and Christmas shopping, and didn't want to drag him along. So Zach's Mom (I'll call her ZM) told me I should drop him at her house--she lives right up the block from the synagogue--and she'd feed him dinner and bring him down to services when they came down.

We drove out there at around 5:30, and I parked the car by the temple and decided to walk up to ZM's house. It was while we were walking that I suddenly noticed something very...well, damn. I'm not sure how to describe it. It looked like an entire section of the ridgeline of the mountains north of us was being backlit. The mountains were outlined in the thinnest of lines of white, white, WHITE light. I would have assumed it actually WAS being backlit by a spotlight or something if I hadn't known that it was an uninhabited area...and if it wasn't such an obviously wide swath of ridgeland.

It was strange. Despite the whole Judaism thing--my increasing interest in theology and even to some degree in the concepts and practices of faith--I am still not very much of a touchy feely 'spiritual' person. (It's actually one of the things I always thought more or less precluded me from being involved in religion...a belief about which my rabbi and others have disabused me over the last few years.) And yet, here I was, walking past my synagogue and watching what I could only describe to myself as some sort of holy light emanating from the ridge. I actually shivered, and pointed it out to N, who was more or less unimpressed.

When we got to ZM's house, I asked her to come outside with me. I wanted her to see what I'd seen, to get her take on it. We had to walk a few houses south of hers to get a view of it, and what we saw alarmed her. What had previously been a thin line of light was now bluging right in the middle, flickering even, spreading as we watched. There were billowing white clouds of smoke above the flickering area, lit up and flickering a bit as well.

"I think that's a fire," ZM said. And while that's not what I'd seen at first, I saw it now. How could I have missed it? Flickering. Smoke. Growing in size.

We returned quickly to her house, wondering whether we should bother calling the fire department, assuming a fire that large would have already prompted many calls from panicked homeowners closer to the site. We decided ZM should call the local fire department--not 911, just the regular number--to see if it had already been reported.

The woman who answered said that no, nobody had called this in yet, and we were puzzled. Really? Could we possibly have been the first? We told her the firemen could come by ZM's house if they wanted on their way up the mountain, so we could show them the area where the fire was, but that it was pretty obvious; they really couldn't miss it. Then we bundled up N and Zach and went back outside to wait, walking down the few houses to where the ridge could be seen. "Funny how we're not smelling any smoke," ZM mused as we turned around, looking up at the rideline to find...

The moon.

The MOON. Which had just risen. Against a white fluffly cloud Not smoke. CLOUD.

"Oooookay. I'll tell them not to come then," said the clearly unamused fire department operator, when ZM called back, somehow managing to choke out an apology around the laughter.

"Oy," I said, wiping the tears from my eyes when we finally stopped giggling.

"Oy indeed," ZM said, setting us both off again.

A few hours later, during the panel discussion...after a disastrous attempt on my part to trap a cricket that had somehow made it into the social hall and jumped onto our table, an attempt that resulted instead in the cricket hopping onto several other people, making each of them scream in turn and totally disrupting the entire proceedings...ZM leaned over to me and said, "Well, that was embarrassing."

"Please," I said. "We called the fire department tonight to report the MOON. Nothing else can touch that."

I do have to say, though, that ZM's helpless, doubled-over laugh-weeping--and the many, many heads it turned--as a result of that comment came pretty darned close.

[Amusing postscript: When I got home Friday night, I logged onto Twitter to find a tweet from one of the women I follow, who lives near me. The tweet said, "biggest full moon of the year. go out and enjoy."

I immediately emailed DZ. "So, see? It was unusually big! And probably extra HOT, too. THAT is why we had to call the fire department on it. I feel much better now."]

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

How Bad Is It Out There? Soooooo Bad.

It's just terrifying, isn't it? The way the world is imploding? Or is it just those of us in the world of publishing and such?

All I know is, each time I send out a press release to our list of media contacts, I get back a good half-dozen new bouncebacks that say something along the lines of, "I no longer work for Big Important Newspaper/Small Important Newspaper/Interesting Magazine. You can now reach me at Some University PR Office/the Local Burger King/the Unemployment Office."

But it's not even safe here in the ivory tower. We've been getting dispatches from the university's president telling us about the hits to the endowment we've taken, and the fears about promised gifts, the money for which may no longer exist in this stock market. Not to mention that there will be fewer gifts coming in in the future, and who knows what's going to happen to all the other sorts of funding we receive?

There are, these missives state uncategorically, going to have to be cuts. Nobody's saying yet what those cuts will be, and how deep, and where. But they will happen. And here I am, just three months into this job and with three months left on probation--which means they could let me go without paying me an extra cent, any time they want, for no reason at all. So, yeah. A little worried here.

Which of course has led me to look around for ways to soften the blow, if it comes. It'd be a huge blow, this being our only source of income. But if I could know that there are places to scurry off to, or if I could start gathering freelance jobs now--god knows my income alone isn't enough for us as it is, Baroy's freelance income is pretty minimal right now, and I've been too busy to search for freelance work to add to it--then I might feel a little less like throwing up 24 hours a day.

So off I went to ProBlogger to see what might be out there for an enterprising not-so-young blogger like me. And there was nothing...well, maybe pennies-a-post stuff that I would qualify for, but really. What is wrong with me? What am I doing wrong? I mean, so many people make Big Bucks out there in the blogging world. Why can't I find even Little Bucks (as opposed to little pennies)? And yet, I can't. I feel like an outsider in a field--writing, I mean--where I used to be a Big Fish. It's upsetting from an ego perspective, and terrifying from a "what happens if I'm laid off" perspective.

So then off I went to my old friend MediaBistro, to see what sorts of traditional freelance gigs might be in the offing, or even what sorts of jobs are out there, either here or in New York, should worst come to worst. And what I saw made me almost literally gasp out loud. Back in the day, when I'd go look there, I'd be depressed because out of the 1600 to 2000-plus job listings they'd have, only a small handful would be SoCal based. But now...omigod. Look in the left hand column of that link. As of this writing, there are 664 jobs posted TOTAL. Literally less than a third of what I normally would find there. If that isn't a sign of a media apocalypse, I don't know what is.

And, as I was saying to Kristen earlier today, it seems like all this economic illness is getting into people's bloodstreams. Every day, it seems, I have another friend telling me about her cancer diagnosis, her parent's imminent demise, the loss of a baby, the end of a marriage. It just feels ugly out there. Ugly and mean and scary. And whereas in years past I would have been able, at least, to tell myself that that's just my screwed-up neurotransmitters speaking, that's not the case these days. Right now, it's ugly, mean, scary...and real. Very, very real.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

The No-Time-For-An-Update Update

Em had an initially Very Disappointing Day today, wherein her soccer team lost its second playoff game in these double-elimination playoffs, ending their (really wonderful for many reasons) season. At the end of the game she was told by her coach that she had apparently missed the cutoff for the all-star league by just a couple of girls; he wasn't at the 'draft' because he was coaching their game, but the report he got didn't include her name.

So it was a double thrill when Coach D called tonight (and left a message on Baroy's cell, AND emailed Baroy as well) to tell Em that she had indeed made the team, and was she interested in playing for him during the All-Star season?

You could have read the fine print on a contract using the glow of delight from her face. Me, I was kind of looking forward to being done with soccer for the year. But I can't begrudge her this. She so loves playing this game, and to be singled out as an all-star, after being the highest-ranked of the younger half of the team...Like I said, I can't begrudge.

Go, All-Stars!

I went to a short adult-ed class at my synagogue this morning, where we talked about Chanukah and its meaning and how to make it more meaningful, etc. At the end, I asked my rabbi about the whole new book thing, and it's official: I need to let it go.

Well, that's giving myself a little too little in the way of credit. What he actually said to me, in short, was that it was perfectly reasonable for agencies/groups/organizations to ask for new and unwrapped toys and even books. But he also said that it was perfectly reasonable for me to respond to that by saying, "In that case, I don't have anything to give you," and to go off and find a group that would be happy to take what I have to offer. And, most importantly, he said that while, yes, there is this commandment to give tzedakah (a Hebrew word which both does and doesn't mean charity), there is no commandment that says I have to give tzedakah to my school district's Healthy Start program. If what I have or want to give does not match up with what they need, I should move on. I shouldn't resent them, but neither should I feel badly for not doing it their way.

And so that's what I'm going to do. I'm going to let it go. I'm even going to try not to make a big (OK, bigger) deal over why I'm not giving to this specific toy and book drive. I'm just not going to give, and I'm going to try really, really hard not to assume that I'm being looked at as a cheap Jew for not giving. I will, instead, bring my gently used books to the places my rabbi suggested today, and if I am asked by anyone at school, I will say that I've already done my charitable giving for the holiday season and leave it at that.

Or, at least, that's the plan.

Now, if I can only stop myself from snarling at the gay-hating evangelical Salvation Army crews outside every single frigging supermarket in the world right now, I'll be damned near eligible for sainthood. If Jews had saints, I mean. And if saints were allowed to curse like sailors.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

It's That Time Again!

Yup. Just sent off my first Scrooge-like letter of the year. I'm startin' early!

Before I get into the specifics, let's take a little trip down memory lane, shall we? Do you all remember last year, when I was all pissed off about demands for new and unwrapped toys? (It's the second half of that post that's relevant here.) And how, even after I'd thought about it, I still didn't entirely buy the argument? (And for the record, the really cool Tasmanian-devil-playing-golf shirt I found at Goodwill is STILL one of N's favorite pieces of clothing. So screw you all. And I say that with love.)

So, guess how I greeted the flyer that came home with the kids from school today...the one that read, in part:
Your donations of new toys and books will let these children and their families know that our community cares about them.
The flyer goes on to mention how the toys AND BOOKS have to be new at least four more times. Each time with the word in bold, and sometimes underlined.

And so, just moments ago, I emailed the woman on the PTA board with me who is in charge of this program for our school:
Hi, Woman On PTA Board With Me:

I was wondering if you perhaps had a contact at Our District's Healthy Start regarding the holiday book and toy drive. I wanted to pass along my disappointment at the idea that we're only allowed to give to our community if we're willing to spend money--the implication that only people who have extra money these days care about their community. I sort of understand why they care so much that toys be new...but books? Does a crease in the spine of a book really devalue it so much? Why would you turn away used books?

Maybe I'm just touchy on this subject because those tough economic times are pretty much everywhere, and it's been ages since I have bought my kids a book that wasn't used (from Local Kids' Consignment Store, or the library, or Goodwill)...and I don't think there's anything wrong with that.

Anyway, I shouldn't be dumping this on you, and I doubt that one cranky, stressed-out parent's opinion is really going to make a difference to the folks down at the district office, but I feel like I need to share it with them. So, if you could point me in the right direction...


When I indicated, just a few days ago, that I wasn't planning on rejoining the PTA board next year, that I feel like I need to step back a bit, take a break after SIX YEARS of doing this, one or two people told me how disappointed they were. I didn't buy it; I'm pretty sure they're secretly planning a We're Rid of TC party. But after this? I'm thinking there's going to be an open bar.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Let Go

I've been doing this for well over 20 years now, this writing for money thing. And yet, the moment of letting go remains terrifying for me.

It happens every single time. I finish an article, a book, a press release. I put it into an email for an editor to look at, or a scientist to review; I post it on a website for the world to read. And then, with almost as much inevitability as my next breath, comes the panic.

Sometimes it's brief--a blip, an extra heartbeat, maybe a catch in my throat. Sometimes, though, it nips at me for hours, on and off. Today's was a true nipper. I sent off a press release to the scientists about whom I was writing, asking for their changes and comments. It was a good release, I was sure of it. Well, not sure. Fairly sure. As sure as I ever am.

But then, half an hour or so passed, and the doubt started creeping in. I rarely hear back quickly; scientists are busy doing science, most of the time, and it often takes hours for them to be in a place where they're ready and able to review a document. But surely--my brain hissed at me--one time, the delay will mean more than that. One time, my brain said, it will be because they hate what you've written, think you're an idiot. One time, it will be because you got it all wrong, misunderstood the entire study. Who do you think you are, anyway? Like you couldn't get it wrong? Like you're so smart?

And just like that, the panic set in. It followed me on a walk to a restaurant to meet with a writer; it jabbed at me while we ate, then followed me back to my office. Where there were no emails in my inbox from the scientists in question. And so it jabbed away some more while I tried to do some other tasks...jab, jab, jab...until I finally gave in and contrived an excuse to email them again, asking if they'd received my initial mail, you know how these campus email servers are, just wanted to check, no pressure, no rush.

And received a response within an hour telling me what a great job I'd done on the release, how there were only a couple of very small changes, thanks for all your work.

So dumb. So unnecessary. So classic me.

Last night was the worst, though. I'd posted a press release online--a release already approved by several scientists, as well as gone over by some copy editors. It was after midnight--I'd needed to get it up on the site asap for reasons that are too boring and complicated to go into--and I was working on my laptop, in bed, ready to roll over and go to sleep once this task was done. All I did was copy, paste, fill in a form, and push a 'submit' button.

But as soon as that was done, the terror swooped in. As planned, I'd put the laptop on the night table, turned off the light, and slid under the covers. And then my heart started to pound. What if I'd pushed the wrong button, posted it in the wrong place? Surely, somewhere in that release was a mistake, a big mistake, a life-altering error, something I was bound to regret. In a release. A press release. About subduction zones. (No, it's not only you. The panic made no sense to me either. But, of course, that defines panic, that non sense.)

I timed it. It took more than 45 minutes for my heart to stop thudding, for my finger and cheeks to stop tingling, for my chest to loosen up. I was asleep within minutes, after that.

This is what I love doing, mind you. I love writing. I love learning about all sorts of really cool scientific findings and then telling other people why they're really cool. I'm good at it. I know it in my heart, my gut.

Now someone just needs to convince my brain.

Friday, November 28, 2008

The World's Saddest Pumpkin Cake

Last year, it just slid out of the very cool bundt pan with hardly a shake. This year, not so much...

The icing didn't do a lot to disguise the issues...

(Re: The sign. Moaning to Baroy about what had happened to the cake, I said, "It tastes awesome, but I can't just serve it without comment! I can't have people thinking I meant for it to look like this! I need like a sign or something..." This is what I came back to a little later. Baroy cracks me up. It's why I keep him. Well, one of the reasons.)

And for those of you who follow me on Twitter (I'm tinycoconut there, fyi), here's an extra photo of the done-two-hours-too-soon turkey in its Who-Framed-Roger-Rabbit swaddling:

Thanks, Butterball Turkey Talk Line! It stayed perfectly hot, and was still awesomely juicy! (Which is probably also thanks to Alton Brown and his now tried-and-true brining technique...Yes, I know brining is 'out' these days, but I'm sticking with it, 'cause I love the way the turkey turns out.)

Monday, November 24, 2008

Not Just a Jew

So there's this guy in my office, and really, he's very very nice, and I feel mean for complaining about him, but...

Oy. If he doesn't leave me alone with the Kosher stuff, I'm going to kill him!

I'm mean. I really am. I know he's just trying to be nice, to find some kind of common ground. Or not-common ground, because he's not Jewish. Insteady, I guess he's trying to find something to talk about with me. Some kind of more personal connection than the weather. It's so sweet of him to try. But I really am going to kill him.

It all dates back to when I took a couple of days off for the Jewish holidays. Soon thereafter, he started pulling me aside when he saw me getting coffee (which is right next to his office).

"Hey, TC, did you know that they have a Kosher kitchen on campus?"

Oh, really? I had no idea. How interesting. I mean, I'm not Kosher,'s nice to know that they try. Thanks for telling me.

"TC, some day we should go over to the LunchPlace and I'll show you where the Kosher kitchen is!"

That would be really cool. I mean, like I said, I don't keep Kosher, but, sure, I guess...

"TC, did you see that the Kosher kitchen is sponsoring a dinner Friday night? You should think about going so you could meet other Jewish people from the campus!"

Yeah, well, thanks, but I have to get home and feed the kids, and did I mention, I'm not Kosher, and...

"Hey, TC, come look at the photos I took at the Kosher dinner on Friday night. I have some questions to ask you about the whole Kosher thing. I mean, why did they blahblahblah and when they blabidyblah, why did they bleedledeedoo..."

I do not know. I DO NOT KNOW. I am not Kosher. Not Kosher! NOT! KOSHER!

You know, there's an African American woman in my office as well, and I've noticed lately that there is another coworker of ours who, every time she goes by this woman's office, stops to talk about Obama. It's, well...embarrassing is what it is. Awkward. I wonder where it comes from?

And I wonder whether I'll go directly to hell for being so mean about someone who is just trying to be nice...or whether I'll stop off at the Kosher kitchen first?

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Snooping and Kvelling

Em knows that she has no expectation of privacy online, and in particular in her email account.* She's 11, for one thing, and she's gotten in trouble on the computer in the past, for another. So every month or so I log in to her account and check on what's come in--and gone out--just to be sure everything's OK. Just a couple of emails, here and there. I'm in, I check, I'm out. Well, most of the time.

We were taking a walk this evening, and she mentioned to me an incident that had happened at lunch, where some of her friends were joking about a boy in her class. This boy is on the spectrum--my guess would be somewhere just slightly south of high-functioning autism--and Em has been in his class for the past three years. She said that her friends were ragging on him during lunch, and she--as she always has, to give credit where credit is due--had told them to cut it out. Apparently, though, this time she took some flack for it and--as she told me during our walk--she thought that was especially unfair. Then she mentioned that she'd emailed one of the friends, a more-or-less innocent bystander to the talk, to try to tell her side of the story.

And so I decided that tonight would be one of the nights I'd do a little checking in her email. Because, really. I just had to see what she'd written. Sue me. And then sue me again, because I'm about to share a small part of it with you:
C says that I should lighten up and just have fun and that he doesn't know that they make fun of him but thats my point! He's just like any of us he's just a little more special.
Just a little more special. I think I know someone else that applies to as well.

What a kid.

*Yes, I know that expectation of non-privacy probably doesn't extend to my blog as well. Too bad. This should be the worst thing I ever do to her--invade her privacy so that I can tell everyone how wonderful she is.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Stupid and Unreliable

Today I had my first bad day at my new job. Not unremittingly bad or anything. Just...stuff that went wrong. Problems that cropped up that I had to deal with. (All of which, happily, was interspersed with the becoming-usual fun or interesting stuff, like talking with one Very Famous Scientist and making him laugh, and doing an interview with a couple of earthquake researchers that was so fascinating it made me feel--not for the first time--like I really am getting away with something here, getting these one-on-one fascinating graduate-level lectures not only for free, but for PAY.)

Still, there was the bad. And, for some reason, it really hung on today. Most days, at most jobs, I can just shake myself free of the annoyance at the end of the day. Maybe I'll trot it out later in the evening as a story to make Baroy laugh or commiserate with me or something, but by then I've let it go. Not today. It stayed with me on the way to pick up Em and N at religious school, it stayed with me as I drove them home, it stayed with me during a PTA meeting after I dropped them at home, it stayed with me while I studied with N for his social studies test tomorrow, and while I put Em to bed and lay down with her for a while.

It was then, lying in the dark listening to my daughter's breath grow deep and regular, that it hit me why. Why it was sticking with me. Because the badness of today had to do with mistakes made by other people at other institutions. People whose mistakes are making me look stupid and unreliable.

In my line of work, reliability is key. I have to be trusted, or the information I'm giving people will be rejected out of hand. And the mistakes made today could very well put that reputation for trustworthiness at risk. (Yes, I'm probably being melodramatic. It's one day, one bit of faulty info. But, like I said, it's been a stickily bad day.) Even though this incident was So Very Much Not My Fault, there's still the fact that my name is at the top of a piece of paper distributed to a large number of people...and there's also still the fact that what is said on that paper is, in some ways, a lie.

But, worse yet, is that these mistakes also made me look stupid. They were mistakes I never would have made, if it were within my power not to have made them. (Yes, I know that's convoluted, but it's the best I can do here. Work with me.)

This is what cuts right to my very core. If there's anything I simply cannot abide, it's being made to look stupid. Because I'm not. There are a lot of things I do in my professional life that are less than exemplary, but I'm not dumb. And being made to SEEM dumb, to APPEAR dumb, when it wasn't even me BEING dumb...urgh. And so, with each email I had to send out ("I apolgize for the error, but...") I died a little inside. And that's why now, a good six or eight hour later, it's still smarting. I'll get over it. But damn. I just want to scream: I'm smart! Not like everybody says... like dumb...*

*Fifty points if you didn't even hesitate before being able to name the movie from which those last two lines came from. Not that it's that hard. I don't have that boy gene, the one that enables you to quote obscure lines from every movie you've ever seen. I can remember about seven lines, from about five movies, those being two of them. When it comes to movie quotes, I'm will happily admit to being stupid.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Mother of the Year...For Reals

What you think to yourself when your son announces how urgently he has to pee, despite the fact that you reminded him to go 37 times before getting into the car: Fraggamaggafriggamurgh. And also, would it be really wrong to strangle him just for a few seconds? Yeah, I guess it would.

What you say out loud when your son announced how urgently he has to pee, despite the fact that you reminded him to go 37 times before getting into the car: I reminded you to go 37 times before getting into the car. [Big sigh.] Let me know when you can't hold it any more.

What you do when he tells you, four seconds later, that he can't hold it any more: Pull over to the side of the rush-hour-trafficky freeway, sigh very deeply several times in a row, roll down your window, take the top off your travel coffee mug, pour out the leftover coffee, and silently hand the mug to your son.

What your son does when you do this: Stare at you blankly.

What your daughter does when you do this: Stare at you in absolute horror.

What you do when they stare at you: Tell your son in a very grim voice to get it over with already. Tell your daughter that it's one of the benefits of being a boy, and that if she needs to go, she's shit out of luck. And yes, you use those very words.

What you do when your son finishes peeing in your travel coffee mug: Put the cap back on the top, put the mug in the cup holder, rejoin the barely moving traffic.

What you hear from the seat behind you: Your son, sighing deeply, and saying, "Oh, that is SO much better." Your daughter, in a high squeaky voice, repeating over and over again, "Ew. Ew. Ew."

What you do when you finally pull into the driveway of your home: Turn around to both children and say, "Throughout the rest of your lives, whenever you are pissed at me and thinking that I don't love you, that I don't care about you, that I am selfish or mean or whatever...I want you to think back to this very moment, the moment I ALLOWED YOU TO PEE IN MY COFFEE MUG, and take it all back."

What they do in response: Giggle. And then nod. And then get out of the car as fast as they possibly can, running into the house screaming, "Dad, guess what Mom did...!"

What you do with the travel coffee mug: Consider burning it. Then, take it into the house, pour its contents into the toilet, turn on the hot water in the kitchen sink, pour a capful of bleach into the mug, and leave it there with the near-boiling water running into it for 15 minutes. The next three times you run a load through the dishwasher, the mug will be in there. And from then on, every time you make your morning coffee, think about how you deserve a reward. No. A fucking MEDAL, you deserve.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Hope and Hate

I took Em and N with me last night to vote, and let N push the ink votey thingy down in the hole for Obama, while Em got the privilege of voting against Prop 8. Both were given "I Voted" stickers, and both left the polling place absolutely ebullient, though N confessed to me that even though he'd voted for Obama in his class election and in the voting booth on my behalf, he sort of wished McCain would win.

"Why?" I asked.

"Because his name is easier to say than Aback Abama," he admitted. And that, my friends, is Example 875 of Why I Want To Eat That Child Up With a Spoon. (And why he still needs that speech therapy, too.)

Later, after watching Obama's acceptance speech, Em emailed her Uncle S. "Hey. Obama just won!!!! N and I went to help Mommy vote and N got to punch in the president and I got to say NO TO PROP 8!!!!!!!!!!!" And, later in the email, "This is the first election that I was actually able to understand it and able to appreciate it! We made history!!! And I was alive to see and make it! I am just so excited I can't put it into words!!!"

And THAT, my friends, is Example 1,242 of Why I Want to Grow Up to Be Just Like My Daughter. We made history, indeed.

Sadly, like me, she visibly deflated this morning when she heard about Prop 8. "I don't understand," she said. "How could that be?"

"I don't know, honey," I said. Because I don't.

"You look sad," she said.

"I am," I admitted.

"Are you still happy about Obama, though?" she asked anxiously.

"Of course I am," I replied reassuringly. She'd already heard back from her Uncle about how his plans to move to Boston are now firmer than ever after last night's proposition vote, and I think she really needed permission to still feel excited about what had happened, instead of only sad.

And it was true. I'm very happy about Obama. I'm just not as hopeful as I was just a few hours ago.

It's hard to feel hopeful
in the face of hate.

Monday, November 3, 2008

Shameful Advertising

I've been too busy, too distracted, too...elsewhere to post these past few days. Haven't even visited this site to check on my stats, which tells you something. But I'm here now...because of something I saw on someone else's site.

It was the site of a friend of mine, someone I've known for years...or, rather, someone I thought I knew. But then, today, when I went to her site, there it was...a "Vote Yes on Prop 8" ad from Google Adsense.

I was, to be honest, a little bit sickened. I've tried to stay away from talking politics here, because it just never ends well. But working to defeat Prop 8 means a lot to me, and I'm not shy about saying so. In the same way that I don't think marriage should be based on sexual preference, I don't think that roundly and soundly rejecting Prop 8 needs to be based on sexual preference, either. I can be straight and think that a movement to legislate the way in which two people are allowed express their love and commitment to each other is hateful and discriminatory...and I do. I find the whole "Yes on 8" movement deeply, personally, upsetting and offensive. And while I've made some version of peace with those friends who I know disagree with me, this person wasn't one of them. I thought we were of like minds on this. I thought I knew her. Seeing that ad on her site unsettled me. It threw me off. It made me...well, it made me angry. I kept having imaginary conversations with her in my head, challenging her to go and tell our mutual friends--our mutual gay friends--why their relationship is any less real, any less worthy of being made 'official'--than mine or hers. I was pissed.

It took a while for me to start to wonder if maybe I was missing something. Nah, couldn't be. I mean, I have Adsense on my blog, too, and all it took was a click of a button when I first signed up to tell them that I didn't want any Republican political ads on my blog. Why didn't she do the same? Didn't she realize that this would be the end result...that her site could be used to promote the very things she fights against? How could she be so...stu...

Uh oh. Oh, no. No. Nonononono. It couldn't be. Could it? Could the fact that the Prop 8 issue in California isn't a straightforward Republican versus Democrat issue mean that it wasn't covered by that checkbox in my original agreement with Google?

Yes. Yes, that's precisely what it did mean. Because there it was, in all its offensive glory, the moral equivalent of me walking into my synagogue with a swastika on my arm. An ad, on my blog, urging people to "protect marriage."

Oh, god. I feel sick.

So, here and now, is my official apology: If you're a Californian and you have been to this site in the last few days...and if when you were here you saw this absolutely-contrary-to-everything-I-believe-in ad...and if seeing it upset you, angered you, made you begin to reconsider what you thought you knew about me--as it did when I saw it on my friend's site--I apologize. It's my responsibility to watch for these things...It's my blog, and I'm the one who chose to start putting ads on it. The good news is that I can also pull those ads. Google AdSense has been removed from my blog, and it will not be returning.

I can't wait for this all to be over. There's just way too much ugliness mixed in with all that hope.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Breaking News, Via Text Message

Baroy: They just had to pick partners in golf. N grabbed a kid and told him they were partners.

Me: Get OUT of here!

Baroy: The kid's name is C.

Me: How old is he?

Baroy: About the same age. N just got 10 points, as did C, then walked over to C, slapped his hand and said, "Way to go, Dude!"

Me: That is not my son! Where did my son go?

Baroy: C and N just won the little contest. Coach is impressed by the way he hits out of the sand.

Me: Whoever this pod N is, make sure you bring him home, not the old one.

Baroy: He's also volunteering to do things.

Baroy again: I could probably leave and he wouldn't even notice.

You know, there's progress, and then there's not even fathomable behavior. Not running behind Baroy or the coach's legs when another child asked to team up with him would have been progress. Going up to one of the bigger kids, one of the 13 or 14 year old kids and asking to be their partner would have been big progress. But this? Taking the initative with a PEER? Seriously? I don't get it. Where does this stuff COME from? And how can I make sure it sticks around?

I always thought golf would be good for him, but I never thought it would do THIS. I am literally sitting here with tears in my eyes as each text message comes in.

That kid. That incredible kid. He really CAN do anything.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Yes. YES.

Had a quick check-in conference with N's teacher who--you have no reason to remember if you're not as obsessed with the education of my son as I am--was out from mid-September until mid-October. We looked at his reading and his writing and his math, and where he is in all of it, and she told us a little about the ways in which he is making sure his needs are met in the classroom. (SO glad to hear that he's a total pest at times...and I mean that sincerely. And no, those aren't the words she used. But they're the ones she meant.)

She also showed us some of his tests, and how he had TANKED on them, and then how she had taken him aside and had him retake them with her next to him, telling him what needed doing in each section, though requiring him to do the reading/answering on his own, and how he came pretty darned close to acing them at that point. Or at least the parts of them that she could get him to do before he shut down. (When he's done, he's DONE--that's something that anyone who has EVER worked with this child knows. He's nice about it; he's a cooperative kid. But when he's hit his stopping point, you just can't get anything else useful out of him.)

And then she made my year by leaning back in her chair and saying, "This is why I'm not at all concerned about whether he's learning the material, because I think it's obvious he is. My concerns are about how he is or isn't able to show us what he's learned."

Yes. Yesyesyes. Exactly. Yes. Not slow, just not always able to prove that in a quantifiable way.

Now if we could just figure out how we get him over that barrier...because it's not exactly a recipe for academic success.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Too Many Sons and Daughters

My volunteer work at our synagogue this year has shifted from my much-hated role as PTA president to a much-more-fitting role as editor of our monthly newsletter. I enjoy it, on the whole. I like being the one to gather up all the photos from our events; I like hearing about what's coming up next month. I like the lists of birthdays and anniversaries; I like compiling lists of people to thank for all the work they put into this potluck or that dinner dance. I especially like putting the (very) occasional bar or bat mitzvah on the cover. (As I've said, we're a VERY small congregation; the bar mitzvah I'll be attending in the morning is the last one we'll celebrate until May or June of 2010...and will kick off a relative flood of them, five in less than six months, which will include my own Em's special day.)

But each month, there's one part of the job that makes me pause and, usually, sigh: the list of yahrzeits for that month. The list I publish is just a series of names, each after a date on the Roman calendar. Because the yahrzeits themselves are calculated based on the date of death on a Jewish calendar, they change each year, and having a published list of when a specific yahrzeit falls is a huge help, a true mitzvah.

But when I get the list, it has more information than that. Mainly, it has a notation to let the user know who in our congregation "belongs to" the person to be remembered. And, again, because we're such a small congregation, nine times out of ten, I can picture the person who will be standing and reciting the Mourner's Kaddish that week. More often than not, I know them well enough to hug or kiss them when I see them--though, since I've only been at this synagogue for a little over three years, I rarely know the person who has passed. Still, it makes me more than a little melancholy to think, "Oh, A always has such a hard time when it's time for her husband's yahrzeit," or "I remember B talking about his father during Lunch and Learn one week; I wonder how long he's been gone?"

Worst, though, are months like this month, when in addition to the "aunt of"s and the "father of"s and the "grandmother of"s there are an ungodly [unfunny pun intended] number of "daughter of"s and "son of"s. Again, these are people I know well--but not well enough to know when they lost a child, or how it happened, or what sorts of holes it left. It makes me want to cry to think that, sometime in the middle of next month, Rachael and her husband are going to say kaddish for their son, that Trudy is going to say kaddish for a daughter I had no idea she had. I wonder if, for them, it helps or it hurts to have to observe this annual, ritual, mourning. And I try not to image what it would feel like if it were me.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Wine and Bylaws

Every couple of years, the PTA at the elementary school needs to update its bylaws. The process is positively byzantine, with regulations up the hoohah. Among the arbitrary requirements is that the updating be done by a committee of five...even though it's essentially a task for two people, three at most.

And so last night five of us board members gathered at the home of Em's kindy teacher--who's been on the PTA for more than a decade, even though her boys left the school a few years back--to slog through the changes and questions. Or, rather, three of us slogged through the changes and questions while the other two cut a couple of hundred ribbons for Red Ribbon Week.

I love meetings at KT's house--not just because it's close to mine, but because her husband is adorable and he always greets us with good wine poured into brandy snifters.

It took two snifters-full to get through the bylaws last night. Today, my head aches. But hey. Whatever gets you through the night, right?

Frankly, it wasn't that bad. By the end of the session, we'd mostly degenerated into gossiping and laughing. And laughing and gossiping. And did I mention the wine...and the fact that my friend M, our PTA president, was our designated driver? So there was laughing and gossiping and DRINKING...which then led to more laughing and gossiping.

At one point, M asked me how the job was going.

"I'll tell you guys what I tell everyone," I said. "I love the work; I hate working."

"I hear you," said M, who is a resource teacher at a different school from the one our kids attend.

"I just hate not being there after school," I went on. "I hate not being able to grab the teachers to ask them a quick question. I hate not being able to go into the classrooms and volunteer on a weekly basis. I hate not picking N up from speech so I can check on how he's doing. I hate not running into Mrs. Computer Lab Teacher to find out what's going on in her room." My voice was rising into a whine as I went on...and on. Finally, I said, without realizing what I was saying until it had been said, "I just hate...not being able to micromanage my children's lives!"

[I'd like to say that the laughter that followed was the biggest laugh of the night, but that would be lying. It was big, and it was long, and there was much wiping of tears from eyes, especially mine. But it wasn't the biggest laugh. What was the biggest laugh was when we had somehow wandered into talking about hand sanitizers and the hygiene hypothesis, and KT began talking about the kids in her kindy class this year.

"All I can tell you is that these kids will come up to me and say, 'Mrs. KT, will you hold my hand?' And I'm all 'No way! You spend half your time with that finger up your nose...and the other half with your hand down in your pants. Forget it!'"

Ah, snifters of wine. My truth serum of choice.]

Monday, October 20, 2008

Old Jewish Ladies

I spent the entire weekend celebrating Sukkot. Friday night we had a pizza party with a group of friends in our host's sukkah, and stayed out much too late, considering Em and Baroy had an early soccer game the next morning. Saturday night we were invited to have dinner with our synagogue's cantor and his wife in their sukkah. Again, we stayed out much too late, considering Em and N had religious school in the morning.

Sunday afternoon, after religious school, I went back to Cantor Bob's sukkah, where I had lunch along with the rest of the synagogue's book club, and discussed our latest read. From there, I went back to the synagogue to help set up for our big Sukkot dinner; Baroy and the kids joined me soon thereafter. Luckily, that dinner was over by 8, though I stayed to help clean up and didn't get home until 9:30.

If it's possible to overdose on Judaism, this weekend would have done it.

As I was setting out dishes of hummus and olives on the tables, Rachael grabbed me by the arm and essentially spun me around. It's sometimes hard to tell the ages of old Jewish ladies, I've found, either because their sheer indomitable will (and weekly visits to the beauty salon) keeps them looking the same year after year, or because, conversely, they are simply so old looking already, it's impossible to see any further aging. Rachael is very much in the former category, but I've got to figure she's closing in on 80, if she's not already there. So the force with which she grabbed me shocked me.

"You need to stop losing weight," she said, getting right in my face. "You need to EAT."

"Oh, trust me, Rachael," I laughed. "I eat."

"I don't like it," she muttered. "You're getting too thin. Promise me you'll EAT."

"I promise, I promise," I said, holding up my hands. (For the record, after losing close to 20 pounds over about a year's time--due entirely to having stopped taking psychiatric meds and due not at ALL to anything I've done about my diet--I haven't lost a pound in months. And, seriously? I'm not that thin. I'm not overweight any more, but I'm definitely not skinny. Still, you know how old Jewish ladies are. And if you don't...they're like Rachael. Almost every single one of them is like Rachael.)

"Good girl," she said, and reached up and pinched my cheek, then laid a kiss on it. "But I'll be watching you, just in case."

When N. returned from the desert table with cookies and a bunch of grapes, he stopped by our table.

"Mommy, who was that old lady who kissed me on the head?"

I laughed. "N, you're going to have to be more specific than that. You just described about half the people in this room."

"The lady. The one with red in her shirt." I was shaking my head. "She kissed me on the head and said I should give you one of my cookies. She said I should make sure you eat. You eat, don't you?"

"Rachael," I said, laughing. "That would have been Rachael."

As we were putting away the last of the salt shakers and bundling up the linen tablecloths for the laundry service to pick up, Sue grabbed me and pulled me into the kitchen, where she had a Vons bag tied up on the counter.

"This is for you. Leftovers," she said. "For all your help."

"Don't we want to give these to [name of homeless shelter we support]?"

"We have plenty of food boxed up for them," she said, waving me off. "I want you to have this. You need to eat."

I laughed. Hard. "Did Rachael put you up to this?" I asked.

Sue looked genuinely puzzled. "No. I just think you're looking too thin lately. Why would Rachael ask me to talk to you?"

"Never mind," I said, giving her a hug and a kiss on the cheek and taking my bag without further argument.

There is no escaping the old Jewish ladies. Not that I really want to.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

I Don't Know Why I Was Thinking About This

I'm not always the most practical, logical person. And so, when it comes to the sorts of things that most people are just sort of born knowing, I often need a little help...a guide to the mundane, if you will. In other words, I have this tendency to take practical advice--good, practical advice--and adopt it. And when I say adopt, I mean...

When I was maybe 14 or 15 years old my mother started allowing me to buy my own clothes. When I asked her for advice on what is considered a 'good price' on something, and she rattled off a list of prices, ending with, "and never pay more than $40 for a skirt."

About 15 years later, I was starting a new job, and I needed some professional-looking clothes. After a long day shopping, I came home utterly discouraged. Talking to my mother on the phone that night, I said, "I saw a lot of really nice stuff, but it was so expensive! Like there was this one blue skirt that would have been PERFECT, but it was almost $70!"

"So? That's not so bad for a skirt. Why didn't you buy it?" she asked.

I was stunned. "Because YOU told me never to pay more than $40 for a skirt!" I protested.

My mother sounded genuinely confused. "I did? When did I say that?"

Um. Um. "1979?" I replied.

Is it any wonder that the only place I feel comfortable shopping these days is Goodwill?

I have a similar story regarding gasoline. Because I didn't start driving until I was 29 years old (loooong story that can be shortened to this: I'm crazy! You knew that!), I had to ask for advice on a lot of stuff that teenagers normally absorb just from hanging out with their friends. For instance: Does it make a difference which brand of gasoline I use? Absolutely, said my friend Ro, to whom I went with all questions auto-related. Chevron is the best gasoline, bar none. OK, I said, and proceeded to fill my tank with Chevron...and only Chevron.

That was all well and good for that time, because I was living in an apartment with a Chevron station on the corner, and working in a building with a Chevron station less than two blocks away.

A couple of years ago, Ro--who, in the intervening years had moved back to New York--was out visiting. We were in my car, and I was low on gas. I had passed at least three gas stations when Ro finally asked, "Where are you going?"

"To the Chevron station," I said. "It's a few miles away, but there aren't any in my neighborhood."

She looked at me like...well, like I was as insane as I clearly was.

"Hold on!" I protested. "YOU are the one who told me that Chevron was the best gasoline!"

"That's true," she admitted. "But that was at least a decade ago! And you're ALLOWED to use other types of gasoline! Especially if you're on fumes and the nearest station is five miles away!"

I can? I can go to the Shell station down the block? It was an actual epiphany. I was 40 years old, and it had never even OCCURRED to me that it was OK to go against Ro's original edict.

Nowadays, I still hit the Chevron station when I'm nearby, but sometimes I use Shell, and sometimes I use Mobil, and sometimes--you might want to be sitting for this--I fill up on Arco. I KNOW. I am a gasoline REBEL.

Hey. At least I can laugh at myself, right? Someone has to.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

And the Award for Best Actress...

N and I were watching Who Framed Roger Rabbit during our "date night" last night, while Baroy and Em went to see a play at our friends' theater. Jessica Rabbit sauntered out onto the stage in all her "I'm just drawn that way" glory. N's eyes grew wide. Stifling a laugh, I asked him, "Why do you think all the men are watching her like that?"

Not taking his eyes off the screen, he replied, "Because she's beautiful." Tiny pause. "And a good actress."

Yes, honey. I'm sure that's it. It's the acting.

Friday, October 10, 2008

Deep Thinkers

N turned to Baroy during N's golf lesson on Wednesday and suddenly asked, "Is God dead?"

Baroy, thrown, hesitated, then replied, "You know, N, that's a question that gets asked more often than you'd think on a golf course."

Em, who is 11, decided she wanted to try to fast on Yom Kippur this year; she isn't actually 'commanded' to fast until after her Bat Mitzvah (and wouldn't have been 'permitted' to fast until the age of 9), but I wasn't going to stand in her way. I set a few ground rules: She wouldn't start until morning (since her soccer practice Wednesday night meant eating dinner after the fast officially started), no pushing it if she felt sick (rather than just hungry), and no fasting from liquids (i.e., she was to take sips of water if and when she felt particularly thirsty).

After the family service ended at around noon, Baroy got ready to take N home for the afternoon; I like to stay for some of the other services, and I also find it much easier to fast (or, rather, not to cheat) if I'm around a bunch of other people who are doing the same. Since Em's friend Sass was sticking around as well (her mom--one of my good friends--feels the same way I do), Em decided she too would avoid the temptations of home and stay with me. She went with Sass to the park while I went to the Yizkor and Musaf services, then came back to find me and a tiny handful of people hanging out in the office and chatting. She joined us for a little bit, then went with me to the unique service our synagogue has before we do the Mincha service. (Just for the record, we do an alternate Torah reading from the one mentioned in that article.) They call it a "healing" service, but what it is is a guided meditation--led by J, one of our congregants--built around some Judaic concept. (This time it was the word neshamah, which can mean both 'soul' and 'breath.')

And so, Em not only did her first fast, but she did her first guided meditation...and she loved every minute of it, falling so under the spell of J's voice (not hard to do; he has the absolute perfect voice and delivery for that sort of thing) that she actually drifted off a few times.

After that, it was easy for her; she walked in and out of the sanctuary during Mincha, then joined me again when Baroy and Noah arrived for the final service, the Neilah service, at the conclusion of which our rabbi always does a really lovely blessing over all the congregation's children, who gather up on the bima and who then join in on the concluding blowing of the shofar. Always gives me chills.

And then it was time to break the fast with orange juice (when WILL I learn to just SIP the juice and not gulp it down, sending my body into near shock with the sudden onrush of sugar after 25 hours of nothingness?) and challah. Em drank a bit, ate a piece of challah, and then proceeded to brag to every adult she could buttonhole for thirty seconds about how she'd done her first fast. And they all ooohed and aaahed over her until you practically could have READ by her, she was glowing so brightly.

I stood by, watched, and smiled, so very proud of my girl. Every year, at the Kol Nidre service that sort of 'kicks off' Yom Kippur, our rabbi talks about how many Jews will wish each other an "easy" fast, but that what he wishes us all is a meaningful fast...because, otherwise, why do it at all? Em had a meaningful fast, something I never had--or, frankly, really attempted--until I was in my 40s.

Then we went home and stuffed ourselves with carry-out fried chicken and potato chips. After all, we'd earned it. Especially Em.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Paralyzed by Paradox

I want to do the right thing. I want to save the world, the environment, my children's health. But I just don't know how.

I start with such good intentions, and I charge head first into the fray. And then I just...stop. Paralyzed. By paradox.

Take sugar, for instance. No, really. Take it. Because dealing with The Sugar Issue is bugging the shit out of me.

[Of course, I'm full of it. Because if I could just eschew all sweeteners, period, I'd be in great shape. But I like sweet stuff. Not the way lots of other people do, but I like it. And my kids? Like many, they live for it. And thus, into the fray I go.]

So: Sugar is bad. Especially white sugar: it's highly processed, a gateway to diabetes, blahblahblah. But what about brown sugar? What about raw sugar? How do those compare?

High fructose corn syrup? I know it's awful, awful stuff. But in the exceptionally long hierarchy of awful, awful stuff, where does it fall? Above white sugar? Below? Above artificial sweeteners? Below?

And what about artificial sweeteners? Definitely way up there on the Awful Stuff Ladder. I think. Maybe. Definitely bad for me, since they make me crazy, so that's an easy call. But what about my kids? What, especially, about my kid who struggles with weight and may indeed be at higher risk for diabetes? What do I put on or in her food?

Honey? Where does it fall on the scale?

Agave nectar? I've started seeing bits and pieces that point out it's not as good for you as you might think.

What about stevia? What's the deal with stevia, anyway? Healthy? Not? Can I use it in anything other than coffee? And do I want to? Because...what is that godawful bitter taste it seems to add to everything I put it in?

And that's only the beginning. I tried finding links to all the stuff I was mentioning above, and in 90 percent of the cases, I couldn't find a single objective article to point to, to even begin to sort it out.

In the end, what this means is that it's impossible to take all my good intentions, walk into a supermarket and think, "This is what is good for us; this is what is good for the environment; this is what I will buy." And so, with every purchase comes the guilt, and with the guilt comes the desire to just throw your hands up in the air and say, "Screw it. If it's going to be this impossible--if there's no way to win--I might as well just give them what they want." (Which in N's case would be huge buckets full of white sugar...and a spoon.)

And don't even get me started on local versus organic, paper versus plastic, disposable plates filling the landfills versus using water and energy and detergents to wash dishes every night, whether mercury-based CFCs really ARE the best thing for our environment, which type of fish to buy and whether it should be wild or farm-raised...

I hate uncertainty. I hate this.

Monday, October 6, 2008

Remedial Brilliance

When I sent the kids' teachers notes telling them about the upcoming Jewish holidays and the days the kids would be missing class, Em's teacher replied immediately, telling me not to worry, that he'd get her caught up either before or after, and oh, by the way, could we maybe set up an appointment to talk about Em's math grade, and could we be sure to take a long look at the unit exam he was sending home that day, because he has a feeling she's not quite 'getting it.'

I rechecked the 'from' line, thinking maybe I'd inadvertently switched over to N's teacher's response. Because, you know, it doesn't take long to notice N's issues, and I could easily see his teacher wanting to nip a problem in the bud, after less than a month. But no. It was Em's teacher, all right. How...unprecedented.

Em went into this year hoping for this teacher, but she's become less and less enamored of him over this first month of school. Lately, she had taken to telling me, "Mr. M hates me," which is something she has never ever said about a teacher before. I know this man somewhat, and that just didn't feel right to me, but I was willing to reserve judgment; Em's pretty emotionally perceptive, and I didn't want to pooh-pooh her feelings without strong evidence to the contrary.

I have that now.

When the three of us* sat down last Thursday morning Mr. M put her first math unit test in front of us and said, "This is unacceptable." You could see Em's head start to droop. But then he basically laid it out for us like this: Em is too smart to be getting a 2** on a test. Period. She's really very smart, he said, over and over. Very verbal. Very mature. Well liked. Great to have in class. Participates actively and frequently. One of the best writers he has this year.

Then why is he doing this for one not-even-failing grade? He gave it to Em straight: He wants her in the top tracks in middle school, where she belongs. And to put her there, he needs to work with her to nip this in the bud. "You don't belong with the riffraff," he said. "If I have anything to say about it, you're not going to wind up there. You're just too bright."

In other words, all "your child is failing" conferences should sound like this one. In fact, when we left the classroom, sending N off to his section of the playground to meet up with the second graders, Em walked with us to the gate leading off campus. After I had kissed and hugged her, I took her shoulders and said, "So, it's official now. The next time I hear you talk about Mr. M hating you, I'm laughing in your face."

And she grinned, though reluctantly. "Yeah," she said. "I guess I have to agree with that one."

There are consequences, of course. He wants her in his 'remedial' math class, which meets for half an hour before school once a week. He made a point of telling her that she would be well above the rest of the kids in that class, and that he might even use her as a sort of peer tutor; he made a point of telling her that it was mostly so that he could provide her with just a smidge more math instruction, and especially one-on-one math instruction, which is hard to do when you're the teacher of a class of 37 students. Still, when I sent her off to this 'special class' last Friday, her body language screamed, "I don't want to do this. I can't believe I have to do this."

Oh, who am I trying to kid? She actually said that.

And I have to agree. This is a child who is not only exceptional in many ways, but knows she is. That's not egotism; it's truth. She doesn't trumpet it, she just internalizes it. It's not that she thinks she's smarter than other kids, because in general she's not; that's not where her gifts lie. Academically, she looks and sounds--and is--very much the typical bright-but-not-at-all-gifted kid. But the rest of her--the curiosity, the enthusiasm and, most of all the overall maturity level, her so-called EQ--are so far above the pale that it's among the gifted kids where she best fits in terms of her peer group.

But then there's this. This problem, this class. And this is telling her something very different. It's telling her that she belongs with the kids who struggle, the one who are not making the grade. It's telling her that there's something wrong with her that needs fixing. She's too smart not to notice such an apparent contradiction to what she's been told along along about her abilities. You can 'peer tutor' and 'my special assistant' her all you want, but she knows what this class is, and that's painful for her.

And, frankly, for me. It's taken me four days to write this post, because I can't quite find the right tone. It's a lot like how I felt after getting back N's IQ scores: I can see that there's an issue that needs dealing with, and at the same time I don't want anyone--especially Em--to think that I am buying that this issue is as bad as it's been presented to us. In other words, this remedial class? To me, it's the antibiotic she has to take to stop a minor infection from becoming a raging infection, and if I have to hold her down and pinch her nose to make her take her medicine, I'll do it. Because I do think that the extra instruction will be good for her, in the long term.

It had better be good for her. Because I also know that all Em sees right now is that I'm holding her down and forcing this down her throat. And that's going to take its toll, too.

*When I set up the appointment, the teacher asked us to be sure to bring Em along. He wanted her to be 'in' on the conversation, part of the solution, responsible for her own success, etc. He wanted her to know we weren't talking about her behind her back. "I keep telling them they're big kids now, about to go to middle school," he said to us during our meeting. "I keep telling them that, academically at least, their childhood is over." [I managed somehow not to scream, "Shut up, shut up, shut up!" when he said that. I think that was big of me.] I'm glad she was there, though; I don't think she would have fully believed me if I'd told her how much he thinks of her secondhand.

**She got a 74% on the test, which translates to a 2 in our school's grading system; 4 means exceeds grade level expectations, 3 means meets grade level expectations, 2 means approaching grade level expectations, 1 means not at grade level.

Monday, September 29, 2008

You Won't Get Any Debate From Me

I spent most of my weekend saying 'no.' No, I'm not going to watch the debates. No, I'm not watching the debates. No, I didn't watch the debates. No, I don't really care what happened in the debates.

I have very strong political views. Very. They wouldn't generally seem all that strong if you were to talk to me in person, probably, because Baroy's extremism way eclipses anything I could come up with, and I usually end up just walking away. Still, inside, I care a great deal.

Which is why I don't watch--or even get--the debates. Not for me, at least. When there are a few core things you care about deeply, it's pretty easy to choose a candidate--you choose the person who aligns most closely with your core values. In other words, I know who I'm voting for this year. In fact, there's never been a second's doubt about who I'm voting for this year, and even if there had been, the addition of a person into the race who doesn't believe in evolution would have taken care of that.

Debates are about persuasion, or that's what they're supposed to be. But there's no persuading me. I know what I need to know. The 'other side' doesn't speak for or to me. So why would I want to sit there and hear what they have to say about the ways in which they would hypothetically screw me if they were elected to office? As the last eight years have taught, there will be plenty of time for me to find out how they screw me in reality if they are indeed elected. And I'm almost-but-not-quite equally uninterested in hearing what 'my side' has to say; again, it's hypothetical. Get elected, and then show me what you can or can't do. Until then, I've heard all I need to hear to be comfortable casting my vote the way I will.

And so I stayed far, far from the TV on Friday, and I'll do so again and again until it's all over. Baroy will force-feed me tidbits of information about who said what about what was said until I want to--or do--scream at him to leave me alone. But I'm not going to watch. Because I know already. I know. I'm unpersuadable.

Are you?

Thursday, September 25, 2008

The Worst Thing About My New Job

My office is actually in the renovated garage (or maybe carriage house; it's hard to tell) of an old home. That's a good thing; I like working in what feels more like a home than an industrial complex.

There are only about 10 of us in this little outbuilding, back behind the main public relations office (which is in the ACTUAL former house, with various staff members occupying rooms that were clearly once used as dens, living rooms, bedrooms, even a sunroom). That's a good thing, too; I like being part of a small, insular group, and I like being able to shout out my door to my coworkers when I run into a problem.

But here's the bad thing. Here, in fact is the worst thing about my new job: Our little renovated garage has a little one-person bathroom. That little one-person bathroom shares a wall with my boss's office. And that wall? Has no soundproofing. At all.

Now, that's bad enough under normal circumstances: I've been in his office when someone is using that bathroom, and...oh, dear. There's just so much that's wrong with knowing quite that much about the bathroom sounds your colleagues make, y'know?

But now imagine heading toward that bathroom and hearing someone call to your boss, "Hey, J, CNN's on line one for you."

Yeeeeeah. I'd rather explode than be responsible for Christiane Amanpour overhearing anything even vaguely resembling the sound of tinkling. (OK, OK, the chances that it was Christiane Amanpour on the phone are slim to none. But still. Ew.)

I like this job, but it might just kill me.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Pious Boy

Em and N were arguing mildly about I-didn't-care-what when all of a sudden I heard Em gasp. "Mom!" she called to me, outrage in her voice. "N just flipped me off!"

I turned to my tiny, grinning, angelic-faced son. "EXCUSE ME?" I boomed. He stopped smiling.
"What did you just do to your sister?"

"I just did this," he said, extending his middle finger upwards, his other miniature digits curving in toward his palm.

"And what do you think that means?" I said, gathering up my strength for the screaming that was about to begin.

Without missing a beat, and without a trace of irony, he replied: "It means I'm pointing up to God in heaven."