Archive for May, 2012

The other day I finally borrowed a big ladder from my dad to finish painting the trim on the high sections of the house (the lower regions have been done for over a year.) I managed to complete one side of the house with the big ladder, though it was not without peril. A Cape is a very adorable style of house, I think, until one contemplates painting all those dormers and odd angles. To paint the trim on the dormer, I had two options: crouch on a fairly terrifying ledge of pitched roof about a foot and a half wide, or brace my legs against the top rung of the ladder and lean out at an ill-advised angle and flail at the trim with a dripping brush. Five times I climbed the ladder and stood at the top, horrified by both prospects. The ladder clattering with my shaking legs, I five times climbed back down deciding that the trim really didn’t need to be “Spice Delight” after all. Finally, I elected to adopt the harrowing, lean-over-the-ladder technique, and was stabbing at a corner just out of reach… when the wasps came. As I stood frozen atop the ladder, and the wasps brushed against my arms and face on their way to scout nest sites, the smell of baking came wafting out of a downstairs window and up to my nose. Christophe was making bread.

Finally finished this side of the house. The harrowing bit is at the top right.

Although I feared for my life up there, and was suffering adrenal burnout from the prolonged stress of ladder top clinging, I was awash in gratitude to be painting a treacherous dormer while under siege by wasps instead of baking. Christophe had already made hummus and fried chick peas, and would go on to make a strawberry banana cake while I was out painting simply because the boys asked. When the boys ask me to bake, I usually point at something behind them and say, “Look! A Power Ranger!” and then run away. It interests me not at all, just like shopping for clothes or going to Target, or having a mani-pedi, or watching romantic comedies, or reading 50 Shades of Gray. I would much rather be almost dying while painting the house, or doing a bit of light plumbing, or hanging drywall.

My whole adult life, people have assumed I’m gay. Usually until they meet Christophe, but sometimes, it persists beyond that into a belief that I am just closeted and trying to pass for straight. This does not bother me, but it does puzzle me. Yes, I have very short hair, wear makeup not ever, care very little about what I’m wearing, and own fewer pairs of shoes than my husband. But how could that be it? None of that has any bearing on to whom I’m attracted, but merely on how I choose to present myself. I’ve been a tomboy nearly since birth. Any photos of me in a dress show me defeated, with red-rimmed eyes and a heavy pout. I only played with He-Man and Skeletor and Match-Box cars. If you meet a girl like that today, her mom is probably blogging about how her daughter will end up transgendered one day. And sure, it could be true, but it’s probably not. For a while, it looked like we were making long strides toward real gender equality, towards a day when the repair men would stop saying to me, “Now, when your husband comes home, you have him check this, ok?” Yeah, ok dude. But I own the tools in this house and my husband will be no help, I assure you. He’s the computer man. Not the home improvement man.

1981: When you were a kid first and a girl later. If you even thought about it.

I am grateful not to live in the 1950s, where I would have been a hopeless misfit. And I’m grateful that I can go paint while Christophe bakes the bread and the worst thing anyone says about it is “that’s weird.” But I wonder what would have happened to a girl like me if I’d had to grow up today. Inundated by pink Barbie makeup kits by age 3, helpless pretty pretty princess stories while still in utero, and impractical shoes ill equipped for tree climbing and swamp stomping before I could walk. I have no daughters, and sometimes I’m grateful for that–not having to try to swim against the pink tide. But I’ve got to raise my boys in this same world, and I’m hoping that when they see mom on a ladder and dad in the kitchen, they’ll remember it when someone tries to tell them girls are just for show.

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Setting off for Lonesome Lake: the last time Simon’s feet touched the ground for 1.6 miles.

This morning, after breaking camp at the Lafayette Place Campground in Franconia Notch, NH, I found myself unable to resist the little brown signs beside our campsite with yellow letters reading “Lonesome Lake Trail —>”

I’m a sucker for a —>, so, turning to Christophe, I asked if he was interested in a hike. His words said, “…yeeeess?” but his face said, “Please God no. Didn’t we just hike yesterday? How can I get out of this?” So, I let him off the hook and Malcolm, Simon and I followed the —>.

The trail was easy to start, and populated by only a few other hikers. Then came a series of switchbacks and steep climbs, and several obnoxious people long on expensive gear and short on fitness. Fortunately, I found my own fitness to be spectacular since becoming a runner, and I was easily up to the task of carrying 40 pounds of Simon on my shoulders for the duration of the trip. Malcolm strode up the incline like a natural, with only occasional stops for water and to tearfully sob, “I want to see Lonesome Lake, but I’m not sure I can!” He could. We made it up to Lonesome Lake Hut in about two hours.

The view of Franconia Ridge across the lake.

Here, let me pause to cite a few points of trail decorum:

1) While hiking, don’t play a radio in your backpack that everyone else can hear. Your music is probably crappy and is not why we climbed 1,000 feet up the side of a mountain.

2) Don’t let your poorly trained, unleashed dog steal some five year old’s only snack. It’s his only snack up here! (Nope, not Malcolm; I punched that dog in the throat when it lunged for our only snacks.)

Malcolm traverses a bog bridge.

Lonesome Lake is beautiful, especially the boggy areas on its far side, which you get to traverse via narrow bog bridges that kids love. We circumnavigated the lake and headed back down the way we came up. Malcolm took some serious diggers, gouging both his palms, but he rallied every time. We passed tons of people coming up (I advise you to hike to Lonesome early in the morning if you are a misanthrope like I am) and my heart swelled with pride as we approached the trail head again. I reached up to high five Simon (still on my shoulders) and then turned to Malcolm. He hesitated to raise his bandaged hand, saying, “Mom. This hike was not a complete success.” No? I asked him. “No. There was some whining on the way up.” Aside from this crushing failure, seen as only a first born child can see it, I felt parental exhilaration over our 4 hour tour.

The Gypsy Cafe in Lincoln, NH can serve your vegan and funkiness needs.

Feeling a great deal of hunger and the familiar heaviness in my legs that only comes from slogging up and down mountains, I stopped to get us lunch in Lincoln, NH at a place called Gypsy Cafe. The service was a bit sluggish at first, but the food was fresh and even friendly to us pseudo-vegans. Spicy corn cakes, hummus, baba ghanouj and olives for me and Simon; a tomato and lettuce sandwich for less daring Malcolm. Yet he’s already begging to go back. Must have been some mighty fine lettuce.

The Lonesome Lake/Gypsy Cafe combo would have been excellent as a day trip. But we were camping in the Whites for two days. So what did we do yesterday? That is a story for another time, and another blog post. Stay tuned.

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What Would Malcolm Eat? It’s apparently a pressing question among the pre-K set–I’ve heard from a couple friends now that their kids sit at the dinner table musing about whether or not Malcolm would eat this thing or that thing. Since we became exclusively herbivorous several months ago, Malcolm has adapted readily to the change. Simon, on the other hand, threatens to slaughter entire cities full of people when we tell him he can’t eat a hot dog. But he does that over just about everything; after all, he’s not even three yet.

So full of plants, he may actually be capable of photosynthesis.

Malcolm has embraced the change, asking at restaurants and friends’ houses, “Is this only plants? Because we only eat plants.” Malcolm leads a charmed life, mostly. He doesn’t have celiac disease, or autism, or even Asperger’s, or ADD or a weird religion, or English as a second language, or anything that would set him apart and alienate him from his peers. Except that we’re mostly vegan. Which is weirder to people than most weird religions. And while Malcolm rarely complains about missing out on pizza parties, or having to decline the ice cream at birthday parties, sometimes he gives me just the slightest indication that he knows he’s different.

The other day, as I was preparing some weirdo vegan supper (pasta with spinach and asparagus), he came running in from the den where he was watching Fetch! With Ruff Ruffman. “Mom!” he yelled breathlessly, “Shreya, that girl on Ruff? She’s a vegetarian!” And then he ran back to the t.v., his eyes wide, to watch this kindred spirit–a little Indian girl on PBS. After all, no amount of reassurance from parents can compete with an actual kid who’s a vegetarian too.

Malcolm is very open about our diet, volunteering the information to strangers. Today, we stopped by a plant/bake/book sale in nearby Brentwood, NH. A spry, wiry guy who looked to be about 55 years old assisted us with our plants. Malcolm informed him that we’re vegetarians, and I tensed, waiting for the usual New Hampshire guy response to news like this. But instead, the man crouched down next to Malcolm and began a monologue that was at times touching, and at times a little strange. As I remember it, it went something like this:

“You know buddy, I’ve been a vegetarian for fifty years. When I started pre-med, I changed my whole life. I stopped eating meat and ate cottage cheese instead. My friends called me The Cottage Cheese Man. My family made fun of me. Now, I’m seventy years old, and my doctor says I’ll be the healthiest man in the cemetery. Because we all have to die someday, but if you treat your body right, it’ll take care of you until the last moment of your life. And you know, after about forty years of being a vegetarian, my family finally came and apologized to me for making fun of me for so many years. Because they’d been burying my cousins, and they saw that what I was doing was the healthy thing to do. So you be a vegetarian, buddy, and you’ll be the healthiest guy around. That is, if you stay away from drinking, and drugs, and you get lots of exercise. And take care of your mom too. You do all that, and you’re going to have a great life.”

Malcolm endured this with his eyes cast down, but finally, a wide smile broke across his face, and he nodded and tucked his head under my arm, and we went home.

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Red letter week for Malcolm

After PirateBash2012, the excitement never abated and it now appears that we will be devoting the entire week to Malcolm, whose actual birthdate is May 16th. Yesterday, we went in to kindergarten screening. As I waited in the lobby watching Simon demonstrate ninja moves for the janitor, Malcolm was apparently “playing legos and writing just my name with a green marker.”

Then today, he had a cupcake luncheon with his Pre-K class, and tomorrow, he has cajoled me into taking him and his brother to see some inane movie matinee in honor of the precise date of his birth.

Malcolm, understated as usual, commemorates the start of the “run.”

But Sunday’s Malcolm focused event was the best for me. He joined me on the last leg of my Sunday evening run to my parents’ house for supper. The route traverses a bit of woods along Lake Gardner in Amesbury, MA, and has been a favorite trail of mine since my youth. As we set out at a very irregular pace, Malcolm adopted a signature move. Much as elite marathoners grab a cup of water, gulp it down, and then toss it aside, Malcolm, mid-stride, grabbed dandelion tufts, blew the seeds off, and then cast the stem dramatically away. Kid’s got flair.

As we left the meadow, the pace slackened considerably, and eventually we stopped entirely. It was time, Malcolm said, for the first of a series of short films. This was followed by parts two and three. All are very informative.

Malcolm seems unaware that he didn’t really do much running, and reports that he thinks he “will grow up to be a countryside runner.” A mom can hope.

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Yesterday was an action packed, swashbuckling thriller of an event in our backyard: the boys’ joint birthday party. They are not twins, but their birthdays are eight days apart, and there is no way on this great green Earth that I am throwing two birthday parties in the span of a month. I am fairly certain that this is something for which they will resent me later.

May birthdays are a luxury, what with being able to keep the children outside, preferably in a pen. If no pen is available, one can devise a treasure hunt to distract them. It’s pretty easy to do, and the kids seem to like it. I drew up a treasure map and then tore it into several pieces, each with a clue written on it. These clues were stashed in shoeboxes all around the yard, along with a bit of pirate’s booty (matchbox cars, little green army guys with parachutes, e.g.) The kids raced around finding the boxes marked “The Order of the Dead Hand,” one of which required tree climbing, and then, finally, were led to the ultimate treasure–a box full of candy stowed in the loft of our chicken coop. This was poured out from above onto a canvas dropcloth the kids stretched out to catch their plunder. It was a fine, New Hampshire-country-living take on the piñata, if you ask me.

Vet school gave me a lot of practice drawing bones.

Anticipating the massive trove of toys the boys would acquire through this double party, we didn’t get them any gifts outside the cake we ordered (I do NOT bake, though Jenny Ouellet of HippieCakes sure does!) and the treasure hunt supplies, as well as a few costume elements to lend a note of authenticity to our pirate garb. And these we acquired at one of our favorite thrift stores, Savers. Despite these measures of Yankee frugality, I was still facing my usual first world guilt at day’s end. I rarely struggle with the typical form of mommy guilt–does this juice have too much sugar? Is two hours (ok, six hours) of tv in one day too much? Is this the right preschool? Are they getting enough culturally enriching experiences? In a global sense, my kids are the most unbelievably overprivileged children imaginable. Through sheer luck, they were born white male citizens of the United States in a middle class household. Well, actually they were born into very nearly the One Percent, but then Christophe took this non-profit job…anyway, they have it all. They truly do. They are safe, they are warm in the winter, they have clothes with superheroes on them, and shoes that fit, and they get to go to school for free, and that school is only a mile away, and they are white, and they are boys. I don’t ever want them to feel guilty about what they have, or feel embarrassed by it. But I want them to grow up knowing that all those things they got by chance and by luck should never be confused with achievement. That, they’ll need to do themselves, with gratitude for what was given. Including a few gold doubloons in their pockets.

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Usually, when an elderly author dies, even one whose work I love, my reaction is something like, “Huh. I didn’t know he was still alive.” Not so with Maurice Sendak. I’ve been listening to his interviews, following his curmudgeonly public appearances for a couple years now, since my boys have developed their own fondness for his work.

I am grateful to Terri Gross for her remarkable interviews with Sendak over the course of thirty years; in their progression, you hear the bright, eager pitch of her voice mellow into something calmer and more self assured. You hear an elderly quaver and huskiness enter his. By the last time they spoke, last fall, the result was an interview that has brought me to tears each of three times I’ve listened to it. The interviews span nearly my entire life, and span the three readings I’ve given to his books. The first, vaguely, when they were read to me as a child. The second, when I read them to my little brother and smugly understood words like allegory. The third, to my own sons, after the mortal dread that comes with motherhood had settled in.

The first Sendak book I ever read to them was Brundibar, which is based on a children’s opera performed by orphans in the Terezin concentration camp. Like most of his work, it’s a story peopled by children on their own. All the grown-ups are at best feckless, and at worst, grotesque and cruel. As a child, this seemed thrilling–kids on their own! Having adventures! As a teenager, it seemed like vindication of my world view, adults being mostly tangential to my own inner dramas. As a parent, it now seems like prophecy. My boys will find me feckless and tangential for a time, and then one day, I will orphan them.

The things I love about Sendak’s books are the worst things: the anxiety, the dread, the casual assumption that the world is an indifferent place and half the people in it are out to get you. These always appealed to my nature, though I am no pessimist. And neither was Sendak. In that last interview, he said, “I have nothing now but praise for my life. I’m not unhappy. I cry a lot because I miss people. They die and I can’t stop them. They leave me and I love them more. … There are so many beautiful things in the world which I will have to leave when I die, but I’m ready, I’m ready, I’m ready.”

When we were reading the edition of The Nutcracker he illustrated, my boys asked over and over for me to open to the double page close-up of the Nutcracker’s distorted face, teeth bared. Repelled and compelled at once, they shrieked delightedly each time. That’s what Sendak and his books have taught me. You have to look at it. No matter how horrible, you have to look. When he knew his time was short, he gave perhaps the simplest assessment and advice possible, “I will cry my way all the way to the grave. Live your life, live your life, live your life.”

I hope his passage was easy, and I hope he didn’t suffer much. But his life made, if not beauty of suffering, then maybe something even more lasting. Something you have to look at. And by looking, you have to feel. And by feeling, you live.

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Last lecture: slide 1

Last week I was putting together my lecture notes for my final biology class of the semester. The topic being “Human Impacts on the Living World,” I covered forest fragmentation, invasive species, biodiversity loss, and the mother of them all, climate change. I know that people need to hear happy stories or they will become demoralized and say things like, “Whatever. Polar bears are drowning because of shrinking sea ice. Maybe they should stop eating so many seals and getting so fat and then they could swim better” (actual student quotation). So, to avoid such despair induced cynicism, I told them many happy stories of success, mostly relating to pollution regulation driven by bipartisan legislation during the Nixon years. The clean up of Boston Harbor is a shining example. But there is a thorny pollution issue that we still haven’t really done much about in this country: plastic.

Seriously? This is our best solution to excess packaging?

I make no claims to living a plastic-free lifestyle myself. Right here beside me, I have my reusable plastic Nalgene water bottle emblazoned with Obama stickers, like any good east coast liberal elite. It’s not all plastic that’s the problem necessarily, it’s all the plastic that gets made solely to be thrown away. Only about 5% of plastic grocery bags get recycled, and pretty much none of the plastic encasing toys, electronics and every other purchasable thing. And where does it end up? In every level of the water column out in the middle of every one of the world’s oceans. There’s a plastic particle to mimic the size, shape and color of every natural food source in the ocean, from microscopic plankton to giant jellyfish. And not surprisingly, animals eat this plastic. So sea turtles get guts full of clear plastic bags, and seabirds get gizzards full of bottle caps and fragmented detergent bottles. That ubiquitous recycling symbol of the three arrows in a perfect triangle would be less graphically appealing but more accurate if it were bristling with arrows shooting off in all directions showing all the waste we don’t reclaim, don’t recycle, and don’t reuse.

Europe’s Green Dot system has been quite a success.

So what do we do about it? If we’re Americans, apparently we develop a battery operated plastic contraption expressly designed to open hard plastic packaging on plastic items. If we’re Germans, however, we come up with a solution worth looking at. Back in the 90s, the European Union adopted the Packaging and Packaging Waste Directive. The Directive required manufacturers to assume responsibility for the packaging they produce throughout that packaging’s whole lifetime. Since this is a challenging task, it’s not surprising that a new, private, non-profit company sprang up in Germany to handle the reclamation, reuse and recycling of all that packaging waste on behalf of the producers. Producers pay a license fee to this company, and in return can feature the “Green Dot” emblem on their products. Green Dot participating companies pay a variable amount depending on the type of packaging, the weight, and the cost of recycling. So an incentive is built in for manufacturers to reduce packaging or shift to more readily recycled alternatives. Consumers can feel confident that a product featuring the Green Dot will not be contributing to the waste stream, but will be reclaimed into what is known as a closed loop economy. Not all of it can be recycled, but the idea behind reclamation is that the waste is responsibly disposed of, and doesn’t end up in a roadside ditch and then ultimately in the ocean.

While not through the Green Dot system alone, Germany still has an incredible recycling rate: 64% of their municipal solid waste is recycled or composted. Only 1% of it ends up in landfills. Compare that with us here in the U.S., recycling 34% of solid wastes. I don’t know why we’re so different from Europe in this respect. Maybe it’s that we have a big country, and it’s easier to believe that when you throw something out, it actually just disappears. But I think it has a lot to do with the attitude that if Europe does something, it’s got to be some liberal, pinko Commie idea, and here in America we eat steak all the time and throw our trash wherever we damn well please. But honestly, if Dick Nixon could create the EPA, how liberal can environmentalism really be? It’s non-partisan! And the Green Dot system didn’t crush Europe’s economy either, so don’t try that line. We can do it if we want to. But we have to want to.

Last Lecture: last slide

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The moose of Montshire.

Through the beneficence of our friends, Ali and Ben, we spent last weekend in the lakeside community of Eastman, NH. As our major outing, we ventured across the Connecticut River to Norwich, VT, home of the Montshire Museum of Science. This is a small museum, but with very engaging exhibits, especially the physics related ones. The true mark of a good science museum was evident all around–parents mesmerized by exhibits, ignoring their babies and smacking at the hands of their older kids when they try to play too. I, for one, spent 20 minutes trying to guide a foam ball through a maze using only air currents and ventilation patterns.

Had we more time and more agreeable children, we would certainly have explored the extensive trails around the museum and along the river, part of the Silvio O. Conte National Fish and Wildlife Refuge. The next best thing is mounting the steps to the museum’s tower to take in the commanding view.

Ben plays with the spin table; Baby Orli dangles.

The demographics in this part of New England are very consistent, and it generally appears that all the white people in this valley got caught in a flood of polar fleece and LL Bean moccasins. There is a certain Connecticut River Valley vibe common along most of its length, it seems, and distant as we were from Amherst, MA, I was instantly transported back there when we walked into the Co-op Food Store in Hanover. Something about the mingled smells of patchouli oil, fair trade coffee, and bulk quinoa, it must be.

I’m tempted to build some of these apparati for home use.

A fine weekend was had by all the Courchesnes. We relish these invitations to Eastman, so much thanks goes to the Sprecher-Wolves for letting us join them on this getaway.

Unfortunately, shortly after our return home, our bathroom sink suffered a catastrophic leakage event. As I write this, I am waiting for Christophe to return home from the hardware store with the new P trap I need for the fix. Having hacksawed off the old one, I detect septic smells seeping into the upstairs rooms. I am reminded anew of the joys of home ownership. At least I have my memories of Eastman.

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