Friday, August 29, 2008

Kindergarten Assignment

My baby heads off to her new fancy private school in the woods on Tuesday. I've attended the back-to-school info session, am halfway through purchasing the essentials (backpack, water bottle, etc.), and don't know which of us is more excited! My excitement, of course, is tinged with melancholy: it's almost certain that I will never again have my own snuggly, warm, chubby two-year-old, or three-year-old, and that our family of two is pretty much what I have. And I'm accepting it, finally.

One of my assignments is to identify 5 words that I think characterize or explain my daughter and will help her teachers get to know her. I'm enjoying this exercise, largely because it gives me opportunities to reflect on what an awesome little girl I have the good luck to raise, and because I can ask my friends to suggest equally laudatory terms.

So far, I am considering the following:

1. Agreeable; cooperative; adaptable--something that conveys her essential willingness, even eagerness, to participate in whatever activity is going on, and her cheerful good nature in the face of most obstacles.

2. Enthusiastic; inquisitive; curious: these words attempt to get at her lust for knowledge--how refrigerators, taste buds, and the internal combustion engine work; why the sun comes up in the east, not the west; why children don't drive cars; etc.

3. Generous: she almost always offers to share what she has, even if it's a special treat (like a piece of candy). She goes out of her way to get her teachers to wrap up whatever food she makes at school so she can bring me some.

4. Focused; determined; autonomous: She identifies things she'd like to do, and does them. If she's interested, she persists, and she generally does a lot of tasks without much help.

5. Cheerful. She's a happy, sunny, generally even-tempered little girl, who seems much more optimistic about life in general than her father or I ever was, even at age 5.

Now I just have to pick five of them....


Saturday, August 23, 2008

Queens never negotiate

(Or so says the license-plate holder I saw yesterday. I suspect that Elizabeths I and II, among others, would disagree, but I like the sentiment. I have a notepad that says, "It's good to be queen.")

Joe Biden, huh? I'm going to need to process that one for a little while.


Tuesday, August 19, 2008


I just had a phone call that despite being number 130 on the waiting list, my daughter has been offered a place in our local Suzuki piano program. On one hand, I'm thrilled--while I grew up being a snob about the "mechanical" quality of Suzuki (and while I'm still a wee bit skeptical of what seem to me to be its exaggerated demands), I've been really impressed by how it allows very young students to play real music, and to develop excellent touch and dynamics very early on (my friend's 6 year old has a much more nuanced style than I ever had). And my daughter has been asking for lessons for almost a year now. And I am in the midst of pretty major repairs on our 100 year old upright piano, that should make it playable and then some. On the other hand, I'm feeling more than frantic about returning to teaching, finishing the impossible article, figuring out what the commute and parent responsibilities are at my daughter's new school, and financing private school, Saturday Chinese and Chinese dance lessons (which will involve 5 different performances throughout the year), and her ongoing ballet classes. I'm already too busy and too broke, and the thought of two piano lessons each week (one group and one private) plus daily practicing that I have to enforce is more than a little daunting.

Plus, I realize that she is only 5, and that it's not as though her musical ability--if she has any--will evaporate if I choose to wait until she's 7 or even--gasp!--eight before signing her up. By then, I'll have tenure, and my fantasy about post-tenure life is that even though I'll be just as insanely busy, I won't be so perpetually anxious. (Those of you who know my IRL know that's a forlorn hope).

I just read this article about what sounds like a terrific book. As I've said before, if I still had my husband, I like to think my daughter would be in our local public school, and we would be among those committing to our community and working to improve our neighborhood schools (or, at least, those of the next-closest neighborhood!) And I am trying (not very successfully) to keep my own ego out of my choices for her, knowing at the same time that I want her to appreciate many of the things I appreciate (music, art, reading) as well as the things to which she is already drawn (insects! volcanoes! astronomy! gardening!) It's hard when there is only one of her, and one of me. I want to give her the activities I wanted to have had, and don't have my husband's voice of sanity and restraint. I suspect he'd tell me to wait on the piano lessons. Maybe I should listen to him.

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Thursday, August 14, 2008

Joke's on me...

I have now discovered that the anonymous anthology on which I am constructing half of my article's argument was, most likely, authored not by author A, but, in fact, by author B. In some ways, this will make the comparison to author C easier....but Puh-lease. (To be fair, I have been continuing to check on the provenance of the text, since such a blunder would be more than humiliating--it would probably be immediately and catastrophically fatal, if one can actually DIE from being laughed at.

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Not much

Today I scrambled around madly to get to the grocery store, and then to go buy a new booster seat for the carpooling (rather than making my daughter lug hers in and out of school, I found one of the 1/2 boosters so we can leave it in their car. I'm hoping they will do the same, so that we don't have to move seats around every day). I even managed to take my own bags with me to mega-grocery store, which usually puts my groceries in about a zillion chintzy plastic bags that rip so easily they are not even fit for scooping poop. But today I wheeled on up and announced, blithely, "Oh, I have some bags with me." This did not bring joy to the checker's heart. He was already tossing stuff pell-mell into the chintzy pre-placed plastic bag, and even though I told him to "leave that--I have more than will fit in what I brought," he gave me a surly look and proceeded to slowly and v-e-r-y d-e-l-i-b-e-r-a-t-e-l-y remove every item and repack it in my motley collection of bags, and then to call for back-up because, presumably, it was so very taxing to use 4 large canvas bags rather than the 19 flimsy plastic ones. Other west coast cities have legislated bans or fines on plastic bags, but here in mid-sized, blue-collar regional city, such measures are considered foolish liberal coddling, at best, and a serious infringement of one's civil rights, at worst. (Remember, article 3 or whatever it is--right after the free standing militia, we have the right to waste plastic products. Is this a great country, or what?)

In a lot of ways, I like this town better than my former urban, liberal paradise. In general, daily encounters are friendlier--the service-industry folks around here have been at their jobs a long time, and are firmly entrenched in the community. I see the grocery checkers and mail carriers with their kids at the Y, run into campus colleagues at nearly every restaurant or farmer's market, and get a smile or hello from almost everyone we pass on the street. At least ten houses in my neighborhood are inhabited by local police, firefighters, sheriff's deputies, etc. But there's a certain entrenched defensiveness around here about that nefarious "liberal agenda"--you know, crazy stuff like not driving souped up trucks that sit on huge tires 8 feet above the ground; or neutering pets and keeping dogs indoors, rather than chaining them outside to bark all hours of the day and night; to recycling the numerous items that can be recycled (like a lot of cities, our recycling bins our free, and we pay for garbage pick-up. My next-door neighbors seem not to have gotten the memo: last week they put out plastic garbage bags *filled* with empty cans and bottles from their recent bbq. It was all I could do not to a) move it all to their recycling; b) leave them a nasty note; c) call the eco-police on their lazy, ignorant asses [hyperbole alert! I realize they may come from a more primitive planet where the resources are never renewable...].

I wonder if grocery clerks are like HMO doctors in that they have a certain time limit per order, and a minimum number of orders per day? If so, my heavily laden cart and persnickety bag requests probably do seem like the workings of an unjust universe.

Last word on the subject: these are the most beautiful grocery bags in the world, and they are eco-friendly, tall enough for all your stuff not to fall out, and produced by the aunt of a friend of mine. Go forth and purchase, y'all! These bags actually look good floating around in your car, instead of those grungy co-op-style canvas, the puny local-NPR-affiliate swag, or the lurid brand-advertising ones.

* * *

My daughter and I are reading James and the Giant Peach, which is the "everyone reads" choice for her new school. Frankly, I think she's too young to appreciate its subtle word play, ghoulish humor, and fantasticalness, but she's enjoying it--and so am I. She is fascinated by the fact that centipedes don't necessarily have 100 feet, and by the fact that "centi" means 100 and "ped" means foot. This morning, I blew her mind by telling her there were also things called millipedes. I'm really going to miss being the star of her universe and the funniest, smartest person she knows. But it was good while I lasted!

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Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Hatin' on the Hype

My Sinophilia is reaching embarrassing proportions. Would it be too much to describe myself as "Chinese-American" (that's a joke--I'm about as white as it's possible for even an Irish-extracted lass to be). How cheesy is it that I teared up while watching the Chinese men receive their gold medals for gymnastics, and while watching footage of the young man who found and returned a ring lost by one of the U.S. beach volleyball players? I think it's good for my daughter if I am excited about and interested in things that are Chinese, but I do realize that it can easily become one more arena of maternal embarrassment (hers, not mine), and that it smacks of all kinds of racism, fetishism, exoticism, etc.

On the other hand, I think my response is appropriate giving the freaking hype on American TV, where it's "All (and only) US, All the Time." Seriously: I had to watch the oddly charming Canadian affiliate to get to see most of the men's gymnastics team final, and there was nary a word in the local paper, since all the coverage was of Michael Phelps. I am not trying to diss American athletes--they are a talented group of folks, who have worked hard. But it's been a shock to see the Canadians cover the games without all that jingoism and "America first" crap. It was fascinating to hear their completely invisible announcers describe the strengths and weaknesses of each gymnast, without pretending that the American team was genuinely a contender for the top medals. They were generous about each athlete's strength, measured yet fair about his weaknesses, and said things like "this young man is holding up beautifully under the pressure." Not only that, but they showed almost all of the rotations, not just the top three scorers or the "western" teams, as is so often the case with U.S. coverage.

In general, I've been pleased by the generosity of most of the U.S. announcers toward our hosts. The world seems to realize how much these games matter to China--the spectacle, as well as the competition--and to respect the effort that has gone into them. But please, folks, a little more breadth in the coverage would be great. And did I mention that the Canadian coverage has far, far fewer commercial interruptions? I don't want to become one of those "bash the U.S. and love on Canada" liberals, and I can already anticipate the jokes about how the Canadians don't have enough viable participants to warrant the kind of hypernational coverage the U.S. demands, but a little perspective would be nice. I'm just sayin'.

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Monday, August 11, 2008

Gray, gray day

Warning: this is not going to be a post of sweetness, light, or cute things my daughter did (although there are some). It's a gray day, which matches my mood.

1. I had to (as in, felt compelled to, not as in, was forced to) stop this morning to move a dead cat out of the middle of the busy street my daughter's Chinese program is on. We passed it on our way to school, and I sort of hoped it would either have been moved out of traffic, found by its owner, or even smushed into cat paste that I would no longer feel capable of moving. No such luck. So I stopped the car, scooped up the poor cat, trying NOT to look at its injuries. (Just like I'm trying not to recount those injuries to you, now, especially the grotesque aspect that is stuck in my head right now. Why is it that we feel such a strong urge to share something particularly horrific, as though by making other people see what we have seen, our own burden of it is lightened?). Two guys in some kind of commercial truck stopped and held up traffic while I moved it, and gave me a thumbs-up, which I hope was for moving the cat--not because they thought I had killed it. A collar but no tag. Not a great start to the day.

2. I am delighted that this chubby kitty has found a home. But WTF, people? Note the final quote from the shelter director: "Thousands of people from as far away as London and California called to inquire about adopting the cat, Harr said. Unfortunately, she said no one who contacted the shelter was interested in adopting any of the more than 200 other cats and kittens in the shelter's care." This depresses the hell out of me. Not one person wanted a pet, instead of a curiosity piece?

3. Working at home today, while the piano repairs get underway. I am slightly cheered by the fact that a) when all is said, done, tuned, and paid for, I will have a piano worth playing; b) it looks like existing casters can be made to work, saving me a couple hundred dollars off a bill that skyrocketed when the tuner found some cracks in the sound board and some keys that are missing something essential to making them play.

But all in all, not a happy morning in Dorcasina-land. And now, back to my dreaded article.

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Friday, August 8, 2008

The battle is no easier today. The amount of inertia one lousy project can generate is amazing, y'know? How can I have so little gumption, discipline, energy, motivation, enthusiasm, etc., etc., etc.?

To scare myself straight, here's my to-do list for the duration of the month, with appended progress reports:

1. Overdue book review (due one week ago; book is 400 dense pages, unread).Revised to add: I guess it's two weeks late. I just got the reminder. My bad.
2. Long, long, long overdue article draft. Multiple missed deadlines. The first theoretical sections are a mess, and much of the "examples" section remains un-drafted.
3. Article 2 interruptus; I got stuck earlier in my sabbatical, which is why I put it aside in favor of what now serves as Article 1, above. I know it's something of a mess, but I don't remember exactly how bad it was.
4. Plan and prep day-long orientation session, using new materials. I have now missed the deadline for having those materials printed for me, so I also have to copy them.
5. Prepare syllabus, coursepack, and daily class plans for freshman course. Plan and schedule exciting extra-curricular activities "to enrich their learning environment." (Parents, the "enriched learning environment," and my attendance at it, is why you might choose to pay 40K for your beloved offspring to attend my school, not one of the excellent public universities for 8-10K. That's per year, btw.)
6. Prepare syllabus, coursepack, and daily class plans for intro-for-majors course. Of course, since I ordered my books late, I can't do this ahead of time, because I won't have pagination for the daily reading assignments until my desk copies arrive. The curse of the procrastinatory and under-prepared.
7. Prepare syllabus, coursepack, and daily class plans for senior seminar. See item 6, above. Note that items 6 & & do not involve extracurricular enrichment, per se. Thank the gods for small favors.
8. Complete fictionalized account of my sabbatical activities--the scholarly kind--to justify the time off and large amounts of travel money my university has invested in me.
9. Call someone about the rotting outer doors on my house, before they give way.Beg, borrow, or steal money to pay for major piano repair. Beg, borrow, or steal money to pay for it.
11. Arrange carpool for daughter's new, expensive school.
12. Host and entertain lovely friend from graduate school.
13. Host and entertain--and exploit--mother during her visit.
14. Attend numerous back-to-school functions, most of which take many hours that could be used for items 1-8, and only 2 of which promise to include alcohol.
15. Lose 20 pounds and arrange to look stylish and professional every day.
16. Write tenure, promotion, or evaluation letters for 4 colleagues.
17. Keep child, dog, cats, and bunny fed, exercised, and healthy.
18. Try to return enough phone calls and invitations that my friends and family don't utterly disown me.
19. Do something, for the love of god about my overgrown yard and bushes.

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Thursday, August 7, 2008


How do you spell "ambivalence" in Chinese? As this article suggests, those of us with children from China have a particular stake in the impending Olympics--and for once, it's not the gymnastics! My daughter is spending the summer in a Chinese program. She's learning songs, counting, writing, basic communication, painting, dance, and a bit of martial arts. She's hanging out with a lot of little girls who look like her, who have families like hers (i.e., white parents, or a single mom), and getting to know some absolutely lovely and loving women who were raised in China. This kind of exposure is something I have always wanted to give her, and I feel lucky to have a great program that is amazingly close to our house! And they serve lunch! (Other mothers will know exactly what I mean when I speak of the tyranny of the home-packed lunchbox).

Logically enough, the program is using the Olympic games to help the kids learn a bit about Chinese culture, both traditional and contemporary. This involves lots of logos, coloring, and 5 odd little mascot creatures that are sort of the Chinese Olympic equivalent of "Hello, kitty."(China is waaaaaay into capitalism, y'know). All this is fine. My daughter comes home and says, "Ni hao, Mama" (hello) and "xie-xie" (thank you), and announces at various times, apropos of nothing, that it is great to be "Chinese AND American."

At the same time, my in-box is filling up with anti-China propaganda--the U.S. should boycott the games; Bush is chastising China for its human rights violations; progressives want me to sign another petition for Tibet; etc. I am well aware that China is not above reproach. It's environmental and social policies are screwed up--my daughter is living proof of some of that. But I am surprisingly hesitant to criticize my, shall we say, "adoptive" country. Whereas the U.S. has had every opportunity--and the freedom, money, resources--to become a leader in these areas, China has not. And in those circumstances, given the desperate poverty many, many Chinese people still live in, I think we need to approach China's troubling aspects with delicacy, not brute force. Plus, as a country that relishes the death penalty, tolerates indescribable carnage from its guns, and bullies (or worse) sovereign nations in pursuit of our unsustainable (and I don't mean not-eco-friendly; I mean "will destroy the planet" unsustainable) and obscene lifestyle of consumption, I kind think we should be cleaning up our own house before throwing stones at the neighbors.

Selfishly, too, I worry that the fragile relationship between the U.S. and China will continue to decrease international adoptions there, and will resign even more thousands and thousands of children to bleak lives in orphanages--or worse. Those orphans are likely to be undereducated and, perhaps worse, undersocialized, so that when they age out of the system, they are incapable of meaningful relationships, productive work, or, I fear, happiness. So even when I wish the Chinese wouldn't hurt their own people just to "save face," I still wish our politicians--especially our idiot lame-duck president--would shut up. I don't want the Olympics to be an excuse to bash China, or to confirm our own anxieties about how the U.S. is still "the greatest" by denigrating their efforts at improving. I don't want my daughter's newfound pride in her heritage to be met with hostility, jingoism, and scorn.

Yes, China's human rights abuses need to be addressed (umm...can you say, "Gitmo"?) But let's not embarrass them right now, or try to bully them, just because we can. For my daughter's sake.

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Hostage update: Day 233

I am still held captive by the article that refused to die, gel, or even coagulate into something of both substance and structure. It seems we have been together, this ever-growing, bloated, over-written and under-thought sheaf of words and I, for all of time--as though I had spent lifetimes here, tinkering with its dangling modifiers and turgid prose, transplanting its misplaced paragraphs and repetitive ideas. I am becoming an academic cliche, now: the professor who is always and has always been "working on" something that will never see the light of day. My essay has assumed vampirean qualities that merely confirm the banality of my ideas: it sucks the life-blood from me; it rises in the night, haunting my fevered dreams; it is dead yet will not die. More prosaically, the best resists my best efforts to streamline, organize, and condense its mass into something smart, concise, and...dare I say it?...interesting.

Yet we struggle on for another day. If my metaphors weren't already so atrociously entangled, I'd belabor the whole thing further with some references to Sisyphus and his stone, and how every day when I sit down and look this damn thing over it seems bigger, less manageable, and, scariest of all, less worthy of all this effort!

I hear a local farm has an opening for an egg gatherer. I think perhaps I should consider a career change.

Shhh--my captor approaches!


Wednesday, August 6, 2008

"Re-gain Original Man of Stem!"

That's the title of today's sex spam. I confess it made me laugh.

Panic is setting in--my sabbatical is effectively over, and, of course, I have various unfinished tasks (like, um, the TWO articles I had delusions of completing), house projects that I no longer have time or money for, and, of course, the impending arrival of my bright, shiny, eager new students, who will demand things like textbooks, course readers, and syllabi. As always, I'm not sure how I will manage. I feel as though I wasted a lot of my sabbatical; without a frantic schedule like the one I usually have, I fall pretty quickly into the doldrums. I wish I took myself seriously to stick to my ambitious diet and exercise programs, or my writing regimen. In retrospect, I feel like I have accomplished so little during a time when I could have done so much...I kind of always feel like that, I guess. I keep thinking I will grow out of this, or that someone will create a magic pill that will give me more gumption--or allow me to be easier on myself. Somehow my extra pounds, failure to cook vegetarian meals every day, overgrown hedges, peeling paint, and long-postponed projects (wedding album? Unpacking the basement and second floor of our house? doctor's appointment? window cleaning? re-balancing the washer? helping my daughter read more? cancelling cable and working in the evenings? mending?) become evidence of sloth and moral turpitude. But without the accompanying self-loathing, I fear I would get nothing done at all. Everything feels overwhelming. And yes, this probably sounds like depression. But it's pretty much the way I have felt my entire life--motivated only by fear of my own inadequacy or by hyper-exaggerated expectations of how great things will be if only I can...

Time to shut down the pity party. The damn article is not going to write itself--at least, it has shown no signs of doing so thus far.


Friday, August 1, 2008

Product placement

Unlike everyone else out there, of course, I thought I would always be young. One of the casualties of my husband's illness and death was my own sense of perpetual youth--oh, sure, it would have died on its own, but losing him finally stripped me (or, perhaps, freed me?) of my sense that I was not yet grown up, that I still had most of my life before me, and that I had innumerable possible lives. And, of course, having a child is a pretty big wake-up call to mortality, and to the real meaning of permanent obligation.

But in the last year, I have started to be aware of how old I look. Like most women in what I choose to think of as the prime of life (a fantasy I can cling to only by considering those in their 30s as "young"), I weigh considerably more than I did in my hotter days, due to a slowing metabolism, but also to giving up the miles of walking I had always done as a waitress. I don't mind the lines around my eyes, or mouth, or even the grey hair, except for its tendency to stick up like little wires. But I have that kind of super-fair skin that is prone to redness, sun damage and (say it!) age spots. When I was a girl, I remember advertisements for something called "Porcelana fade cream," designed to bleach (?) away age spots on the hands. Do they even still make it? It's not in my drugstore. But I hate the way the backs of my hands look simultaneously wrinkled and sort of puffy, and the "freckles" that no longer look youthfully frecklish. My hands look like my mother's hands--like they've done lots of laundry, loads of dishes, plenty of careless and inefficient digging around in the dirt (since I hesitate to call my occasional forays into planting stuff and then letting it die "gardening"). And the wrinkly/saggy skin right under my eyes--not the "laugh lines" at the corner of my eyes, but an encroaching crepe-iness that gives me a perpetually tired look.

So here's the come-to-Jesus consumer testimonial: NEUTROGENA.

Yeah, I love their sunscreen.

And now I am here, selflessly promoting this hand cream and this eye cream.

We now return to our regularly scheduled program of aging gracefully.

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