Friday, December 28, 2007

The Globalization of Family

RAWALPINDI, PakistanEnraged crowds rioted across Pakistan and hopes for democracy hung by a thread after Benazir Bhutto was gunned down Thursday as she waved to supporters from the sunroof of her armored vehicle.

The news came just as Michael and I were in cleaning mode -- Kelly, Brian and the kids would be here any time and CNN was on in the background. The story was updated -- the last photo before she was shot displayed -- appropriate experts were consulted (Guiliani???), I believed she was pro democracy and I'm not so sure that the corporate interests that support her incumbent opponent are. After all, Pakistan is a major go-to place for cheap labor for the war profiteers.

Meantime, the van full of Weists arrives. Excited hugs, stories about what Santa brought, how long the drive from D.C. and who gets the bathroom first. In between cold drinks and family talk, the Bhutto story stays on in the background. Even after CNN is replaced by the Wii for a couple of quick bowling games, the grownups continue to talk about the former prime minister's rise in power, who was most corrupt, the failure of the incumbent to provide protection. We watch as each pundit warns of new dangers in our neighborhoods on the flip side of the world due to her assassination. In my neighborhood? The only Pakistani I know I bought milk from that very morning and he seems a most pleasant man. Recent arrival. We laughed because neither of us could figure out the price of a pack of gum and I agreed to come back later, thereby negotiating an on the spot chewing gum deferment.

What news did people greet one another with before the news was globalized? Did we only have Aunt Mildred's operation and Cousin Jack's infidelities to jabber about as the guests settled in? Seasoned of course with pinches of weather and travel times. Instant access to global news has not only impacted how we do business, it's changed the way we welcome one another, "Did you hear . . .?"

It's possible such disconnected greetings may not be all bad -- being met with "Oh, I guess you really have put on weight," as my tactless father said to me one time reaching out to pat my belly and plummeting my precarious self esteem and 8 years of therapy to that scary place in the basement populated by dragons, where the furnace growls and the water tank spits fire. It took weeks and another full year of therapy to drag myself up from that darkness. And then there was the time he arrived apparently having bragged up my haphazard housekeeping to his fiance Baby Blue Betty for the whole trip. From Florida to Ohio, that's a long damned trip. Unfortunately his final climactic revelation was to be whipping open my front door to my home's usually chaos. But this visit coincided quite nicely with my introduction to Mighty Maids.
When Dad, who was a Grand Master of I Told You So, discovered there was no evidence to back up his case (the Mighty Maids had even sorted out my silverware drawer, a final disappointment), he shrunk down into my too soft sofa, glowering, without even taking off his hat, Baby Blue sitting beside him like a cheer leader at half time and me wondering if I could still find my spoons in those neat little stacks. Dad's planned conversation starter foiled, the three of us sat staring uncomfortably at the heightened patina of the freshly excavated coffee table. An assassination might have come in handy in that case, and it's entirely possible one or more was contemplated. It was 20 years ago, who remembers these things.

But this case is different. We all like each other. I want to know everything that is happening in their world, with the stuttered, word twists unique to 2-4-8 year olds. Then we can talk about the business of the rest of the planet.
So, two things to remember: I intend to become quicker on that red button on the remote when family pulls in the drive, I also have to be conscious that family news (Thomas' latest new word, Danny's domination in video bowling and Ben's latest achievements on his basketball team) gets its due. More than equal billing with the global news. Family always deserves premium space.
And an always reminder that in the midst of any crisis -- be that a remote tragedy as today's, a health crisis, or economic crisis - - it is the store of moments of undistracted joy we absorb through family connections that will steady us all.

Saturday, December 22, 2007

The Story of Stuff

Last night Michael and I were up at the mall (again?) and he remarked, "isn't it amazing how this season just gets people to go out and buy stuff? Look at this place." And it is. I'm a victim myself. Stuff. Lots of it. Piled in the aisles, marked up and marked down. Shoppers elbow to elbow sniffing around for bargains. Occasionally and more recently, this is really beginning to nag at me. And I admit to being a lifelong shopper, a just in case, you never know what you'll find, store cruiser. But my visceral discomfort is disrupting my natural internal browser -- I can't even look around with guilt free pleasure any more.

I wrote a poem, Don't Bury Me on Brookpark Road, sometime in 2001 after the President told us to go shopping after 9/11. Excerpt:

When I’ve punched the snooze button for the last time,
I don’t want to wind up pew-wedged between the honk and wheeze
of Mr. Donut and Mr. Muffler, across from the pawn shop,
marooned at the crossroads of more. More billboards, more tacos,
more mattresses, nail shops and temporary stops on this path to the land fill for
rental cars, wastebaskets, and girls baring a** for more.
More cat beds, more tennis racket teddy bear welcome signs,
collectible designed for ease in obsolescence.

When the non-transferable terms on my desk drawer
of lifetime warranties run out, don’t plant me beside this
hurried stream of humanity, its pace accelerating frantically
as it tapers into the purchase of today at crazy low prices, guaranteed to satisfy
(for six months or ten thousand miles whichever is lower) . . .

Which is a pathetic place to be in life -- not buried on Brookpark Road, but walking around the mall mentally quoting myself from five years ago wondering why I haven't been heeding my own words. Which reminded me of this little 20 minute video that I stumbled across, that is so succinct and precise, it is a poem in and of itself.

There are a lot of amazing observations in the video, but the one that smacked me the most firmly is how happiness goes down as advertising goes up. It is as if our entire media culture is producing generations of malcontents. I'm a poet, so I was born a malcontent, but I hate to see the rest of the planet pushed in the same direction. What fun is that?

Well, apparently, not much if the commercials for antidepressants are to be believed. They are almost as scary as their warning labels. Michael point out one drug advertisement to me the other day that lists "urge to gamble" as a possible side effect.

I think we all must have this affliction -- we are all gambling wildly with our futures every time we buy more of this stuff. The other day we walked into Walgreens to get a prescription and up and down aisles of stuff that no one needs. I mean no one. Plastic flowers, flashing greeting cards, synthetic garlands, all harvested from -- where? All going where?

My new year's resolution is going to be to think harder about purchasing stuff. I'm going to write that down and tuck it in the same pocket as my credit card. We'll see if that works better than just feeling guilty.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Emerick Elementary

Not just any elementary, Emmerick is my grandson Ben's school, in fact that's his head right under the first O in Holbrook. I had a great time. First, the kids all knew my name (thanks to librarian Elizabeth and all the teachers) and a lot of ground work by the PTO, Cheryl, Marcy and my daughter Kelly. Thank you thank you.

I don't think that I was too embarrassing for Ben -- I refrained from any public displays of affection and only called him Benny once. He seemed okay with the visit.

Kelly talks to schools all over the country and arranges my school visits and book sales, but this is the first time she had ever run the book sale herself. "That's a lot of work!" was her assessment (and it always is). From now on she is going to recommend that TWO PTO moms run the book sale, particularly if they are also running car pools!

But, getting back to the great time part of the day -- what nice kids -- and responsive! It was fun to meet Ben's friends and have lunch with him. I had the opportunity to write with the fourth graders and the teachers were all very involved, writing with the kids and coaching them along. They had been working on color poems and were anxious to share some of those (lucky me).

Tomorrow I drive back to Cleveland and the weather is looking a bit threatening. Hoping that the mountains of PA treat me with as much kindness as the students and faculty of Emerick!

Friday, December 07, 2007

Holiday Wishes

This morning I played around with a photo from Kelly's new camera (above), thinking about last weekend. I had Katie's two oldest, Stephie and Scottie, on Saturday. I needed to buy a filter for the fridge at Sears and pay a bill at Penney's. You don't have to know my mall to know that these stores lay at opposite ends of the shopping maze. It's like that everywhere, and the playground for the kids is right in the middle. Talk about taking kids into a candy store -- try the mall at holiday time. "Can we build a bear, buy a Webkin, this Mickey the size of Godzilla?" How can they resist? People get advanced degrees in how to drive kids into a feeding frenzy, the goal being to turn them into credit addicts before they can multiply and divide. How early do you explain to kids that those build-a-bears were made by kids their age, kids who were denied schooling and sunshine for their pleasure. If our bright eyed kids are too tender to know this, what about the tenderness of the faceless others? Do I always have to be a wet blanket on fun? Am I just a wet blanket? I stood there in the mall holding Stephie and Scottie's hands, both of them holding slurpies in the other and just said, "no, no, no," conflict raging inside of me. How much to you tell them? When?

Years ago I wrote a Christmas poem that is entirely too sentimental to ever publish. But I'm going to put it up here as we all head into another weekend of shopping. CNN will be charting our progress on Monday, weighing it against last year's binge, a report card for all the high cost marketing degreed.

December comes.
I non-stop-shop.
To guard against a yuletide flop.
When all the gifts I give go back.
I sigh. But, hey –
who’s keeping track?
What do you give to those who have?
Computers, bikes and skates –
Enough sweaters to warm Cleveland,
DVDs and tapes.
Sneakers, games and books,
magazines and jeans.
What could Christmas bring
that’s well within my means?

What if I give you patience
the next time you get stressed?
What if I say, okay,
I know you did your best.
The next time you fall short,
what if I lend a hand?
Or if things get confused,
I help you make a plan.

The next time you act smart,
what if I try to learn.
If my gift is kindness,
would that be returned?
sara holbrook
copyright 1995 all rights reserved

Monday, December 03, 2007

Worm Food

Last July I bought an indoor worm composting system from Worm Firm. Not just any worms, mind you, red wigglers, the Rolls Royce of worms. And fat and juicy looking squirmlies they are. It quickly became apparent that we had so many kitchen scraps, we would need two bins, so I bought another. We feed the worms veggie and fruit scraps, no pasta, meat or bread. Worm Firm, I should say, is owned by Michael's ex-wife and her husband Jonnie, both Brits and much more eco-conscientious than I will ever be.

So, after 6 months, it has now come time to harvest the worms. Or really, to harvest the worm castings and save the worms to garbage down more garbage. Or really really, to harvest the worm poop, which is what a casting is. Before you run to grab a clothes pin for the nose, be aware, this process doesn't smell. I mean, I've been pawing through worm poop for the past hour (in rubber gloves, mind you). At first I was one finger at a time tentative, but before long, I just dug right in.

The harvesting process means to turn the worms out on a plastic sheet, angle a goose neck lamp down at one corner and all the worms will gravitate towards the heat. Then you scoop up the squirming worm ball and transfer it to new shredded newspaper bedding with some veggie scraps, apple cores, coffee grounds and enough of their old castings to make them feel at home. Most of the worms followed the crowd within an hour, some however obviously have ODC tendencies and were reluctant to move toward the light. The little baby worms were (naturally) rebellious and happy to be left behind to party hearty with their baby friends unsupervised.

At first I was exasperated, stupid worms. I started to transfer them one at a time. And then this kind of calm realization came over me that you just can't rush nature. That even though this task was on my to do list for today, it might take more than one day for the worms to migrate.

Here's what else I've learned: Worms love watermelon and cantaloupe, they can dispose of the rinds in a matter of days. Teamwork. Avocado skins, not so much. Peanut shells, not at all. They want to make nests in the corn cobs, and if you don't pulverize the egg shells, they nest in those too. Apple peels go quickly, onions not so fast, leeks they have little taste for. And all of our kitchen scraps, piles of it, tupperware bin full every other day or so, has been reduced to maybe a bucketful of what looks like peat. Very rich peat. In the process of their munching, they produce something called "worm tea" which is the best fertilizer there is. I put that liquid gold in milk cartons for the flowers.

So, when I complete this harvesting, I'm going to put the castings outside so that the dirt can get a taste of Cleveland winter and will be ready for the garden in the spring. There are a lot of other things I suppose I could have done with my afternoon, but I have to say, playing in the dirt, smelling it, feeling it between my fingers while the icy winds were blowing outside, was not only a comfort, but a lesson in the patience of nature.