Sunday, December 31, 2006

Goodbye 2006

I can't say I am entirely sorry to see this year go. It's been rough with growing kids, health problems, and some big ticket, high stress changes in our family life.

Preparing for The Dark Lord's bar mitzvah was huge, of course, but so was adjusting to the boys' enrollment in a virtual charter school. A falling out with a longtime friend is still hurting like crazy. I began to develop health problems in the spring and was diagnosed with Graves' Disease in July. Happily, my naturopathic treatment is effective without side effects. My hair is even growing back!

On the parenting front, we keep wondering if we've made some huge mistakes as we often don't like what we're seeing in our growing boys. It's hard to know if we are being too critical or if we really did do something gravely wrong early on. The Princess, poor thing, will be subject to different expectations in the areas of courtesy, work ethic, and computer use. There's always that issue of faith in child raising ---we just have to believe, despite the often abundant evidence to the contrary, that they're gonna turn out OK.

Some of the high points of 2006:
  • The Bar Mitzvah of my oldest child
  • The first adult-only getaway weekend since The Spouse and I became parents in 1993
  • Having two dear friends move out of life-threatening health situations and come home
  • A couple of wonderful family-friendly concerts that we all enjoyed immensely (Fishtank Ensemble and Amadou & Mariam)
  • A family weekend at Rockaway with good friends
  • MonkeyBoy's role as a Munchkin in The Wizard of Oz
  • Both boys' performances in Much Ado About Nothing
  • Receiving a lovely new spinning wheel--a gift from my very generous knitting pals
  • A home cooked Indian meal
  • Attending the second weddings of a couple of dear friends whose divorce was really hard for me. They both seem so much happier in their new relationships.
  • The Democratic victories on Election Day--may they bring positive change in this country
  • Re-connecting with a friend after a rough spot earlier this year.
  • Finding my voice and starting this blog
To the few regular readers I have, and to those just happening by, I wish you a very happy new year and all good things in 2007!

Saturday, December 30, 2006

Guilty Pleasure

I probably shouldn't admit to this publicly because there are those who surely would think less of me, but I am a huge fan of Sacha Baron Cohen. I think his humor is absolutely brilliant precisely because of its offensive edginess. I know, I know, he's completely not PC and if nothing else, I should be offended on behalf of my students, but I can't help myself. He's just too funny.

I finally saw Borat accompanied by a good friend who laughed at least as loudly as I did. Believe me, I wouldn't have gone with just anyone. The film is an elaboration of the "Kazakh" journalist character from Da Ali G Show . While I feared that a full length feature might be too much of a good thing, it was just about right, nude wrestling scene notwithstanding. That I could have done without, but the rest was filled with the characteristic exposure of ignorance and prejudice of unwitting subjects for which Baron Cohen is famous. Just in case you think you're safe in a liberal oasis like my hometown, Borat shows that there are still plenty of anti-Semitic, homophobic, misogynistic racists out there in the US. It's not an easy film to watch but I found it wickedly brilliant nonetheless.

The biggest surprise for me--apart from actually recognizing a few words of Hebrew--was hearing a song from Time of the Gypsies, a 1988 Yugoslavian film which is surely one of my favorite movies of all time. It was an amazing musical choice for that point in the movie and I couldn't have been more surprised.

A Dinner to Keep the Cold Away

Many of us in this household are feeling not as well as we'd like. Maybe not sick but on the verge. This feeling always makes me crave hot, spicy food which my children generally refuse to eat. I came up with a good compromise dinner tonight which everyone enjoyed though I prepared things on the mild side and added liberal splashes of my beloved Crystal hot sauce to my food.

I was introduced to Cowboy Caviar by a certain homeschooling mother of three who lasted a couple of years in the damp Northwest before having the nerve to up and move her family back to Texas. I miss her a great deal, but at least she left me this tasty recipe to remember her by. My children are always delighted to eat a meal served on tortilla chips so I try not to ruin the fun by pointing out how very nutritious this is.

I am crazy for roasted green chiles. I regularly hit the farmers' market in late September, to stock up on my winter supply of chiles for the freezer. One of my favorite ways to enjoy them is in Creamy Green Chile Soup, which is basically a potato soup taken south. I make it on the mild side for The Picky Ones, but feel free to give it as much heat as you like.

The Dark Lord promises to top off this tasty meal with a Banana Chocolate Chip Cake which is extremely simple but always makes a good ending to dinner. Not a bad breakfast either.

MonkeyBoy later decided that he, too, would get in on the act and decided to make up a mess of Buckeyes, a delicious confection that hits the same spot as a peanut butter cup only much,much better because the ingredients are of far better quality. The kids love to make and eat them. Cleaning up afterwards, not so much but they're worth the mess.

Friday, December 29, 2006

Looking Ahead

John Edwards has finally announced his candidacy for president and I couldn't be more thrilled. I love this man because he talks about the issues dear to my heart and, in my opinion, of crucial importance for this country. He earns my vote with his strong support for universal health care and his commitment to ending poverty. And unlike some of my past favorites (Kucinich, Nader, Dean) I think he actually has a chance of winning in middle America. If the Clinton faction of the Democrats don't ruin him, anyway. If you don't know much about John Edwards, I encourage you to visit his website , take a look around, and see if he's someone you can support.

Here's a brief overview:

This campaign is about each of us taking responsibility for our country's future -- and ensuring America's greatness in the 21st century.

It is a campaign not just about what we can do in the White House -- but what we can do on the way.

We all must take responsibility and take action now to:

  • Provide moral leadership in the world
  • Strengthen our middle class and end poverty
  • Guarantee universal health care for every American
  • Lead the fight against global warming
  • Get America and other countries off our addiction to oil

If we want to live in a moral and just America tomorrow, we cannot wait until the next President is elected to begin to take action.

Tomorrow begins today. Join us.

Wednesday, December 27, 2006


My grandmother has started a wonderful, generous tradition of buying her great-grandchildren theater tickets for Chanukah which has allowed us to see a number of wonderful productions. Tonight we saw this year's gift: Biglittlethings put on by the fabulous Imago Theater.

From their own website: Defying classification, (Imago has) populated the stage with characters and beings such as comedic amphibians, acrobatic larvae, circus boulders, and metamorphosing humans in works which tantalize the senses, the intellect, and the passions. From adaptations of classics to excursions into vaudevillian existentialism, Imago's repertoire is as vast as the forms they shape. With commissions for stage, film, and television, Imago blurs the lines of the expected to break new ground, exploding performance boundaries yet maintaining humor and humanity.

We've seen this show twice now, as well as their wonderful Frogz a few times, both the school performance and the full length production. They really are hard to describe, but both shows are marvelous, engaging,and magical for all ages. I think the genius lies in the actors' ability to convey emotion through body language alone, without any dialogue, and while wearing marvelous (but static) masks. The costumes are brilliant and the music is fantastic. For anyone in Portland, or visiting (especially YOU Andy) you really need to get to one of these shows as they are truly phenomenal. Oh and....THANKS, Grandma!

Tuesday, December 26, 2006

An American Jewish Christmas

We took part in that most classic of American Jewish rituals yesterday: going to the movies. The male part of the family saw Eragon. Those who'd read the book declared it awful and he who hadn't read the book also declared it awful.

The Princess and I saw Happy Feet which I confess I enjoyed far more than I'd expected to, wildly improbable plot notwithstanding. The music was great and Robin Williams was brilliant. The Little Argentine Adelie penguins cracked me up.

The customary follow up to Christmas Day movies is a Chinese meal but I just wasn't up for the chemical hangover. Is there a decent Chinese restaurant in Portland that serves vegetarian dishes that are MSG free? In a variation on the tradition, The Spouse and I walked to the neighborhood Vietnamese market which was doing a brisk business. We stocked up on the makings for a good Thai-style vegetable curry served it with some vegetarian spring rolls. Not bad at all.

Sunday, December 24, 2006

The Trouble with Princesses

Not mine, of course, but the whole Princess schtick. As the mother of a young girl I've been no less susceptible than thousands of other parents though I've tried to at least keep it DIY and avoid the major brands but still.....

Peggy Orenstein wrote a great article in today's New York Times magazine entitled What's Wrong With Cinderella? that did a fine job of clarifying my vague but persistent discomfort with the whole pink-girly-princess-fairy-ballerina cult. She lays the blame for the whole thing squarely in the lap of the Disney corporation (no surprise there) but of course there are lots of other folks trying to jump on the bandwagon because there are millions to be made.

I've never liked my kids to be marketing tools, I've always tried to avoid the corporate logos and licensed characters on their clothing and, more importantly, in their play. But the stuff just creeps in, doesn't it? I've never had a Disney princess movie in the house, but my daughter seems to have a remarkable attraction to their trademarked faces on everything from library books to toothbrushes. Orenstein suggests that the current princess cult may in fact be a backlash against the gender-free childrearing practices of my childhood.

I admit that I still feel very much on shaky ground with this whole business of raising a daughter. Actually raising sons remains a baffling business, too, but they seemed immune to the princess thing and that's where my mind is this evening. I was delighted when I gave birth to a daughter to complete our family and honestly believed that raising her would be more or less the same experience I'd been through with her brothers, toilet training aside. Well, as we all know, parenting is about nothing so much as having our illusions shattered again and again, right? It's been so different and I'm sure it has to do with things beyond her gender, but I know that's a huge part of it. I noticed it right off with gifts. When the boys were born we were showered with gifts, many of which were books for them for later. Not one book did The Princess receive. Lots of pink clothes and a mountain of stuffed animals, but no books. These days she gets...clothes, dolls, and doll accessories, many of them handcrafted and quite lovely but stereotypical girl gifts nonetheless. Even my own choices of Chanukah gifts this year were ridiculously girly-- a flowered flannel nightgown (her "princess" gown), a hand knit hat in pinks and greens decorated with more flowers, and even a pop-up pink castle. Yikes. It all seemed so harmless but I guess I've been sucked in along with everyone else.

Her brothers are merciless in their scorn for her girly pursuits and they frequently try to redirect her to less wispy activities. She's gotten to the point of doing her dress up and dancing behind a closed bedroom door so they won't tease her which I find sad. No one ever told the boys that their beloved fire trucks and dinosaurs were "too boyish". We never tried to control their imaginative play and to see this now drives me crazy. Except there's a part of me that thinks like the boys--get over this girly thing already.

I wasn't much of girly girl. My one Barbie ended up with a severe and unflattering haircut and her knees destroyed after being bent backwards too many times. I built forts and drew ships. But I, too, had a thing for royalty as my inexplicable passion for Tudor England and the ups and downs of its rulers blossomed around 5th grade. I haven't gotten over that one as my current reading attests. So maybe there's something there.

Some would say it's all harmless, all good fun. But already she seems to worry about how she's dressed, whether or not she "looks pretty". We watched Little Miss Sunshine last night and it gave me a rather sobering image of just how far this sort of thing might go if left unchecked. And this is my main reservation about kindergarten. I think, unlike her brothers, she would actually love school. But I want her to grow up with the strength and confidence to be whatever she wants to be and I fear that school might knock that out of her pretty quickly as she is exposed to girl pop culture day in and day out. Still working on that decision for next year.

Meanwhile The Spouse and I keep talking about how ballerinas have to be strong and work hard, that smart and good is more important than pretty, that she can be whatever she can dream of being, all those good 1970's Marlo Thomas messages. I want her to grow up to be as tough as her brothers and stronger than Disney!

Friday, December 22, 2006

Wild Hair

So the boys finally talked me into letting them dye their hair. Wow. What a process--their thick, gorgeous dark hair needed hours of peroxide so the color would show up. I was worried about all the chemicals, of course, but this seemed not to matter in the least. And so I have one child with an aqua streak and another whose head positively glows magenta.

I did a few crazy things with my hair as a teen. Nothing major, but some odd cuts, some bleach, and lots of henna over the years. There were the tiny braids which I had visions of growing into dreadlocks (but my scalp got too itchy and I could stand it no longer). Luckily all of these were short lived. And I had a good friend who was a living cautionary tale about the dangers of hair abuse, so I kept things relatively simple. I wanted to shock, but not all that much. I guess I just wanted to be different, and to make my own decisions about my body. If it ticked off my parents, so much the better, but I don't think that was a driving force. However I wouldn't have done any of these things at home or have had my parents involved in the process.

The boys just wanted their hair dyed. It wasn't about proving anything, just an experiment and an adventure. And they were happy to have me there, fussing over the effect of chemicals on tender scalps, laughing at how silly they looked with dye on their heads. I kept wondering if this would be the end of this kind of body silliness or if this was just a beginning and we'd be moving into piercings and tattoos next. It's a new stage for me as a parent as I come to the realization that their bodies are, in fact, their bodies and not extensions of my own.

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

The Secret of Jewish Survival?

Could it be the requirement to eat fried foods in remembrance of the Chanukah miracle? Since I began living in Jewish time 10+ years ago, one of the things that changed for me was eating certain foods at certain times of year. Some of these foods are traditional for particular holidays (blintzes during Shavuot, for example or hamantaschen at Purim). Some things I've just associated with certain holidays all on my own. As Passover approaches, I always whip up a large batch of lemon curd to spread on my matzoh. The Torah, I'm fairly certain, says nothing on the subject of lemon curd but when faced with a week of matzoh we Jews do what we can to spice things up.

But Chanukah, falling as it does in the dark of winter, has so many lovely, high-calorie foods associated with it that one hardly knows where to start. Of course potato latkes slathered in sour cream are required for those of us with Ashkenazic blood. But honestly, a good latke is hard to find and every year I am subjected to some shameful specimens, some of which, it pains me to confess, have come from my own kitchen. Dairy foods are also traditional and I do make wonderful cheesecake and rugelach when I have patience.

Then there are doughnuts (aka bumuelos and sufganyot). Ah....doughnuts! Relegating this delicacy to once a year was hard but harder still was finding the perfect doughnut worth waiting for. I tried making my own in the cast iron skillet and ended up with dough that was torched on the outside, raw within, and my hands covered in oil burns. I resigned myself to a once yearly splurge at the local doughnut shop which was never as satisfying as one might hope.

Last year we were invited to a Chanukah party for all the kids in our synagogue's middle school. The hostess happily made doughnuts for the masses, enough to feed numerous growing boys and to send home bagged extras with all the guests. She was neither cranky nor exhausted by the end of this event, nor covered in burns, nor did her house reek of grease. She let me in on her secret: a deep fat fryer. She explained to me that this miracle of technology made the whole doughnut making process quite painless. She only used it once a year but she felt it was worth every penny. Needless to say I stewed around about this all year and went back and forth about the wisdom of such a purchase. As so often happens with me, good sense lost out completely to impulse and desire and I am now the proud owner of a Cool Daddy fryer. We are currently digesting the first batch of doughnuts and wondering why, exactly, deep-frying has such a bad reputation. I used an organic palm oil shortening, my house does not smell of grease, no burns, nada. Just a bunch of perfectly cooked doughnuts covered in cinnamon sugar and tasting just slightly of freshly grated nutmeg. Mmmmmmmm.......

An Inconvenient Truth

We finally watched it last night. Wow. Just a little bit sobering. Yes, there were a few too many shots of Al Gore looking wistful, but there was clear and solid information. After bad news and more bad news, Gore suggests that we actually can change things with guidance and leadership which made the film more powerful than depressing in the end.

I confess to having given the issue of climate change very little attention. Yes, I recycle and we signed up for alternative power and so on, but really, I've not done much and need to work harder and do more. Demanding that Congress take real action to solve the climate crisis seems like a good start.

Monday, December 18, 2006

Waiting for Snow

We're always waiting for snow around here and we're generally disappointed. Meanwhile we're contenting ourselves with making snowflakes where even a little kid isn't frustrated by cutting through all that paper.


Well, maybe miracle is a little strong, but I got 5 hours alone at home today, which is pretty much miraculous around here. I get to be alone driving to and from work and that's about it so this was a rare pleasure. I spent the time working on Chanukah gifts for the kids and was reminded , yet again, why I prefer knitting to sewing. It wasn't a particularly bad day with my sewing machine but nonetheless I ran out of thread, ripped out seams, and had the entire bobbin mechanism in pieces at one point. Give me sticks and string any day. The Princess now has a lovely nightgown in flowered flannel complete with bows and ruffles. MonkeyBoy and The Dark Lord may read this so no telling yet what's up my sleeve for those two.

Those two, I have to admit, are driving me bonkers. The Spouse just pointed out that we (the parents) are now experiencing our own "natural consequences"--by homeschooling these kids, by not forcing them to go to school or study anything they aren't interested in, what do you know, they really can't bothered to do much of anything if they aren't moved to do so. The Dark Lord so wanted to learn to play guitar and a number of generous people helped that wish come true. He's now studying with a first-class musician and finding that maybe he doesn't really want to work so hard after all. Aargh!

MonkeyBoy is refusing to do much of anything and, when asked, simply wants to know what his brother's been asked to do. Never any help without a fight these days. I was sure we'd have these wonderful, thoughtful, compassionate and conscientious kids by now but I'm still looking for them and trying to have faith that they're just a little late in arriving.

Shortly before leaving to take the kids out for the day, The Spouse came downstairs to find me dancing on my sewing table. He commented that I sure knew how to find the joy in little things. In reality I was trying to adjust an overhead work light while listening to some new (to me anyway) Manu Chao songs from a Mexican website I'd happened upon the other day. The music was great so, yeah, I was dancing. Given all the trouble we've been having with our boys (and the prospect of not having any for at least a couple of hours) I guess I was making the most of the moment. The funny thing was they hadn't been out too long before I began to miss them just a little bit.

Friday, December 15, 2006

Chag Sameach!

The Princess has been beside herself with excitement over the past few weeks and can hardly believe that finally finally Chanukah is here. What she doesn't yet know is that she'll be getting her very own ladybug menorah which she's been coveting for weeks. We begin our celebration this evening and I've been cooking non-stop for the last 24 hours: brownies and Meyer lemon sables for a bar mitzvah tomorrow, a cheese ball for tomorrow evening's Chanukah party, and tonight's dinner: challah, purple cabbage salad, a green salad, cheese sambusak (pastries with a spinach-feta filling), potato latkes with homemade applesauce and sour cream topped off with a marbled chocolate-orange cheesecake. Whew! Luckily for me, I wasn't alone in the kitchen. MonkeyBoy did a great job on the cabbage salad, and I got to visit with not one but two good friends who had warm drinks while I braided challah, sauteed spinach and occasionally even washed a dish. The weather was completely psycho--bright sun one minute and dark, icy skies the next. It's been a good day.

Chanukah, like so many winter holidays, is about light. There's fried food, the triumph of the underdog, and miracles too, but today I'm mostly thinking about the light. One of my oldest and dearest friends mentioned how the darkness and gloom this time of year really affects her. The sun gives her energy and makes her feel positive but the lack of light really seems to darken her days in more than in the obvious sense. I see these gloomy days as nothing so much as an excuse to drink rum-laced eggnog and knit, but I think I have a sense of the feeling she describes, though I don't seem to crave the sun in the same way. What lights up my life are all the dear ones who bless me with their presence: my kids, my dear friends, my sweetie, even my nutty-but-affectionate cat. On the eve of the holiday I find myself counting my blessings for I am indeed blessed. All this love and latkes, too. What's not to be happy about?

Thursday, December 14, 2006

Making, fixing, and the work of our hands

My brother-in-law (a dear fellow who we see far too infrequently) called today to let us know about an essay he'd just read. Shop Class as Soulcraft by Mathew B. Crawford was a slow read for me (tonight was the last night of term and I am tired) but I was glad to have taken the time to read it. In a nutshell, the author explores the devaluation of manual work over time.

A number of things came to mind as I read: all the times I've been happily knitting away in public, working on socks. Sweaters, scarves, and hats non-knitters get just fine. But socks? "You know, socks are pretty cheap and readily available. Why would you make your own?" Why indeed? Why make anything? Why make dinner when there's a supermarket down the street? Why plant a garden when there's a farmers' market every weekend? Why make boxers for my boys for Chanukah or chocolate truffles for my sweetie on Valentine's Day? Why the recycled sweater laptop sleeves or the chocolate drizzled candied orange slices with which I've been so busy of late? It's that I-made-it thrill and the ongoing delight of looking at something I made that works/fits/looks good. The extra special flavor of a meal well-cooked. Pride, accomplishment, competence--all those good things keep me happy.

This essay also made me think of my dad. Daddy, we all know, can fix anything. He understands how pretty much everything works and, while he's not the greatest at clear explanations, he'll fix it for you, guaranteed and all you really need to do is let him know that you're as tickled as he is about a job well done. I've always known this about him and until now just kind of thought it was one of many great things about my dad. Reading this article made me think about it differently--maybe Daddy's sense of competence is part of what makes him such a great guy in so many other ways. It's good for us to be good at things, not just from a fix-the-problem perspective but because it makes us feel good about ourselves. People who feel genuinely good about themselves usually manage to do good in the world.

At the end of the essay the author writes the following:

So what advice should one give to a young person? By all means, go to college. In fact, approach college in the spirit of craftsmanship, going deep into liberal arts and sciences. In the summers, learn a manual trade. You’re likely to be less damaged, and quite possibly better paid, as an independent tradesman than as a cubicle-dwelling tender of information systems. To heed such advice would require a certain contrarian streak, as it entails rejecting a life course mapped out by others as obligatory and inevitable.

I was tickled to read this because this was exactly the scenario I've long envisioned for my kids. Study whatever you want, develop passions and dig deep but also learn to do something useful because that skill may make be what allows all the rest to happen.

The best news I've read in quite a while

With all the tragic stories of people lost in the snow I've been reluctant to start my day with the newspaper. Much to my surprise, this morning I read that Senator Wyden is proposing a national health care plan, something I think this country desperately needs. We need to stop throwing money at Iraq an focus here at home, that's for sure. I remember the Clinton universal health care plan going down in flames and I honestly thought it would be much longer before the discussion started up again. I don't know if this is the best possibility for universal access to health care for all Americans but I am delighted that the discussion is taking place.

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

I love my job

For lots of reasons. I meet wonderful young people from all over the world, I play with language, I have the satisfaction of knowing I do work that useful and good. And I get to have really cool experiences like tonight's: my Somali student offered to decorate my hands. She gave me the simple one-color treatment and I think it was hair dye rather than henna but is this lovely or what? This is a young woman of 20 who is quite shy, quite unsure of her English, still trying to make sense of her new life in Oregon. A Muslim, she is covered from head to toe in modest fashion which highlights her smiling face and bright eyes. I was astounded at the carefree way in which she painted my hands--no templates, drawings, or guides. She applied the color with sure, confident movements covering my hands with the kind of simple floral patterns characteristic of so many styles of folk art. I envied her easy way with the dye and her instinctive sense of design. I can't stop looking at my hands--my own personal, portable works of art.

So....who am I anyway?

I'm a mother of three fine kids in Portland, Oregon and married to the man of my dreams. We homeschool the kids and generally do our best to keep all the balls in the air. I am also a part time ESL teacher at Portland Community College working with a wonderful group of young people from all over the world. I belong to a wonderful synagogue where my oldest son just became a bar mitzvah. I spend a great deal of time making things, dreaming of making things, and only cleaning house if I can't think of anything better to do.

About the name: Anyone who knows me will say that I'm a magpie--attracted to anything shiny, new, bright,and sparkly. Honestly I wanted to call the blog Magpie Mama but the name was taken. "Ima" is Mama in Hebrew.

It may be crazy

It may be crazy as anything to be jumping on the blog wagon in late 2006--hasn't everyone already said everything? But what the heck--so many of you are doing such wonderful things out there, connecting, making the world smaller in such a good way. Can I play, too?