Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Sweet Relief

It was all Q’s idea.

Lately Q has been reading the Cupcake Diaries books, a series of stories about a set of middle-school girls (the Cupcake Club) learning to navigate increasingly complex friendships, and on the way coming to themselves. Most books involve the Cupcake Club baking for some special event, and when my lovely wife and I talked with Q and The Boy about how hurricane Sandy left so many lives in our area so precarious, Q suggested that we have a bake sale to raise money to help out. She could invite some friends over to help her make cupcakes and sell them in the lobby of our building. Great idea, we said. The Boy was on board right away, too, and offered to help with everything.

Q wanted to make the sign right away. She ran to her room and somehow came back with a five-foot stretch of paper. We pushed around ideas for while, and settled on calling the fundraiser “Sweet Relief”:

Note the cupcake parachute and biscotti rescue boat

Q asked her mom to contribute her signature (super-labor-intensive) apple-ginger biscotti, and she, of course, agreed. In working out a time for girls to come over for cupcake baking, several moms volunteered to bring sweets to sell and lent us pans to increase production. We were in business.

Baking day, we set out the pans and the ingredients for them (eggs that they each could crack), the sparkly bottles of sprinkles, and the cupcake liners with the classy pattern. Q taught her friends how to neatly pipe on the frosting using the equipment she received as a gift from her aunt who loves to bake and decorate. The girls made huge fun out of it all, along with some cupcakes, a few of which they ate themselves. As expected, Q’s mom eventually finished up after the girls, who couldn’t resist being seven-year-olds any longer, laughed their way into Q’s room to play.

The sale went even better than expected. Our building always supports these kinds of activities:  The building manager sent out an email about the fundraiser to all residents, and he lent us one of the building’s tables and tablecloths. Everyone contributed. One of the moms brought crazy amounts of cookies and brownies and cupcakes, which the girls sorted and arranged (and resorted and rearranged) shop-like on platters and plates. The Boy handled the money and the promotion — “I highly recommend the biscotti,” he’d say as people approached. The table of kids made customers of most residents, many of whom paid way more than they needed to. Some of the kids’ friends came by with their own wallets and purses.

After a couple of hours the inventory dwindled, as did the young girls’ attention. Q and her friends took a break to play at house, which I thought fitting given that they were raising money to help those who had lost theirs. The Boy stayed at the table through the end, including sweeping up with an older sister of one of Q’s friends, once we called the sale. Altogether they raised around $500. That morning we learned that a person who works in our building and who has helped us out many times lost his house and car in the flood. We decided to donate some of the money to his family and to let the rest be doubled by the company my wife works for.

As far as stories go, this really isn’t a very good one. It has nothing going for it apart from its truth: Q had a great idea, pure in its kindness and intent, and we executed it with selfless help and without surprise or drama. We confirmed the generosity of our friends and neighborhood, something that was not in question. Q gave no particular indication of dedicating her life to service from here on out; we saw no real transformations of any kind, in fact, which every good story requires. If anything, this post amounts to an extended expression of pride in Q and The Boy and — and, well, ourselves. Such things are usually, and totally, annoying.

We try, as all parents do, to encourage our kids to value the valuable and to find ways of releasing the unimportant’s grip on them. We struggle with this ourselves, always will, in no small part because the valuable does not often reveal itself. And when it does — as when so many lose so much of their lives so visibly and suddenly — the sense of duty accompanying it can paralyze and crush. It becomes easy to sympathize with Alvie Singer in Annie Hall, who says, “I can’t enjoy anything unless everyone is. If one guy is starving someplace, that puts a crimp in my evening.” New York and New Jersey were hit very hard by hurricane Sandy, sure, but Haiti was devastated. Why not another sale for them? Or for the street kids in Brazil who need no hurricane to have need, or the displaced in Afghanistan or Syria or Sudan or so many other places, or the homeless and forgotten in our own city? No amount of baking seems enough.

But here comes the story: Q and The Boy themselves came up with a way to help and made it happen. And they enjoyed themselves while doing it. They began to find, in a cupcake, a way to something larger than themselves, though even now no part of us can contain them.

Monday, October 15, 2012


Left with no soccer, tennis, or pretty much any other kid activity because of the Columbus Day holiday, we decided to do something other than go to brunch and regret not going anywhere. My lovely wife and I had talked for some time about a trip to Washington DC, given that our nation’s capital sits just a pinch away on the map and given that we have a hard time (and little history) with leisure. So we went to DC on what we called, just half-jokingly, a “learncation.”

Getting there proved absurdly easy: Amtrak runs from downtown New York (Penn Station) to Union Station, which sits (perpetually under construction) a few blocks behind the Capitol. The ride was a pleasant one; Q and The Boy especially liked the walk to the cafe car for pretzels as the train banked into corners, which felt like crossing a rope bridge in the wind. The free wifi was nice, too, when it worked.

Q and The Boy have been raised urban and feel at ease in cities, which makes cities easy. Besides, Q often gets car sick, so we usually opt for walking and public transportation over taxis and cars. (We chuckled at a chinaware foot in our hotel’s gift shop that read “I walked my feet off in Washington DC!” — the hotel we walked over a mile to from Union Station.) We ate in their Chinatown; we rode and compared public transportation. (The kids couldn’t believe that we had to wait 20 minutes for our Metro train and that at some stops the train lazed in the station for three whole minutes.) We also noted how the countdowns to cross DC streets started so much higher than in New York; 70 seconds seemed downright luxurious.

But we came for what only DC has. After checking into the hotel on Saturday, we walked down New York Ave. to the back of the White House and took pictures, like everyone else, of our president’s house. We circled around to the iconic front, and The Boy took some great shots of the lawn and fountain with my wife’s big camera while we talked loosely about Q’s moving into that place someday. After a little more walking around the White House area, we hit Georgetown, where we ate outside along the Potomac as the sun went out of session and jets etched the blue glass of the sky. An hour or so in the pool back at the hotel, and we were done for the day.

We kept the pace up over the next few days despite the rain and cold. We let the weather work itself out while we spent a good chunk of Sunday being amazed by the Smithsonian Air & Space Museum. We went to the Jefferson Memorial (which we end up calling, for some reason, “TJ’s Place”), and walked from there along the Tidal Basin up through the FDR and MLK Memorials, both big and heavy and more modern in design, to the Lincoln Memorial and the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.

That’s a lot of remembering. But the most memorable experience was visiting the Lincoln Memorial at night. The far west end of the Mall isn’t that well lit, and the cloud cover kept the sky from helping out. Everything was glossy in the wet dark. The Lincoln Memorial glowed gloriously, as did the Washington Monument, looking like an angel’s sword. The Reflecting Pool between the two structures made the sky and the ground a single thing. It was all by design, presumably — it’s called the “Reflecting Pool,” after all — but no less striking because of that, and that rectangle of water made clear why we use ‘reflecting’ to describe a kind of thinking. We all felt both small and a part of something larger than our largest selves.

That was the moment we came for. Q and The Boy, their minds already galloping forward, can now begin really grappling more with ideas. What is a government, and what does and should it do? What is democracy? What does it mean to be free (and enslaved)? What is a law and the rule of law? What obligations do Americans have to their nation (if any)? Ideas usually have facts and things as their biggest handles, so you go look at heavy buildings and statues, and you start learning the facts. Before the train home, you roll your suitcase past the Supreme Court building and the Capitol. You keep quizzing your kids on the three branches of government and their inhabitants until they reliably get it right.

We hope that they will, eventually, be able to take up these big ideas as ideas, and then look back through them at all the marble. We hope they see how this country, like DC, is such a hodgepodge of ideas — Greek, Roman, European, even an Egyptian-inspired obelisk visible from all points like an upturned nail. We hope that they can someday trace the fairly direct line from our cab driver to the Lincoln Memorial and the words cut on its wall. And we hope they will themselves pick up on the distance that can open up between these ideas and their instantiations, perhaps in the remarkable number of homeless people in the cold and rain, in the consistent differences between the drivers and riders of taxis and buses.

And so we begin by taking the train, standing under tall statues, reciting “legislative, executive, and judicial,” swimming in the hotel pool.

We begin by sitting in between the columns; we begin making columns of ourselves. And so we begin.

Saturday, September 22, 2012


Let’s talk about the weather.

The summer in New York seemed different this year, powerful in an old way. Most days the air sat thick and hot on us, the sky a lens held above us by a boy who hasn’t yet begun worrying about himself as cause.  And the storms. We look out from pretty high windows now, and we have a clean view north and west over and up the Hudson, which is where our weather comes from. Over and over we watched the ecstasy of meteorologists on the Weather Channel appreciating red running across the radar, the lines thick like wire once twisted up that someone gave up on trying to pull straight again. We watched the radar-red fronts menace in, watched the sky turn the color of a bruise. The heat made for huge thunderheads, easily ten times taller than anything in this city of tall buildings, including those two we remember being taller than they were. Many times we saw the clouds come down below the building tops and pretend to be ghosts chasing each other out to the ocean. It was all enough to make a person think up gods just to give them what they want.

I like watching weather from closer up, sure, but I still find myself missing the Western Kansas sky, the one that comes all the way down to you. I miss the weather talk, too.  Most conversations in the Midwest still begin and end with the forecast, even though few conversationalists these days are farmers whose livelihoods hinge on the character of the climate. To someone passing through, such talk probably comes across as casual and irrelevant, an avoidance of communication instead of a species of it. But it’s not hard to account for its persistence and prevalence: All that sky makes for storms that seem bigger than the planet. Fronts can be spotted easily 50 miles off, and though they always move faster than they look (as giant things do), they leave a fair amount of time for theory and speculation. And it’s more than theory. Kansans have learned to know the quickest ways to their basements. When they mention rain at the post office and the restaurant, it’s a form of the oldest and most basic social cement, like prairie dogs passing around a warning about a hawk.

But now fall. In New York the summer storms have gone in favor of darkening mornings that spin to clear sky blue. The poets got it wrong: Fall makes a poor stand-in for the onset of the end of something. To my mind, it’s hard to think clearly in the summer — to think at all really — but when the air cools, thoughts and what they’re about can become further apart. We locate our sleeves and begin wondering about our jackets; doubts about gods reroot. September brings back an interest in the inside of things.

What’s your weather like?

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Gone fishin'

Been away for a bit in the Midwest seeing lots of family. Be back when the fish stop biting and the ideas start doing same. I offer, mainly as distraction, the photo below of the license plate from my high-school car.

I offer and accept no apologies. Talk with you soon.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Father's Day Performance

The Boy working the keys with his best pal

Father’s Day this year began, as it should, with kid crafts (and not, as it shouldn’t, with broken arms).  The Boy took a cast-off ribbon he found in the park (award-bestowing culminations are happening everywhere and for everything these days) and affixed a paper “Best Dad in the World” medal of his own making.  Q built an elaborate paper card with four origami frogs each sitting on either a blue (for water) or green (lily pad) paper pop-up.  It was so elaborate, in fact, that she had to show me how to properly remove it from and return it to the handmade envelope.  My lovely wife got me an envelope too, but I was able to easily remove its contents, which were four tickets to the Blue Man Group, a show I’d been meaning to book for us for a while now.*  I gave myself a bike for the holiday, and after the initial giving, the kids and I went out for a ride while my lovely wife stayed in to make her killer apple-ginger biscotti.

The biscotti was for the kids’ music recital later that afternoon. Q and The Boy have been taking piano lessons since September, and their teacher puts on a show every other year in which each of his students, regardless of age and ability, performs a piece. Their teacher teaches a little differently, at least differently than how I learned. He doesn’t assign scales or finger exercises or pages of A Dozen a DayHe focuses mainly on getting his students to like piano (or guitar or whatever), which means having them set about learning songs right from the first lesson, and songs they already know and like.  Given Q and The Boy’s level, the selection has been fairly predictable:  “Hot Cross Buns,” “This Land Is Your Land,” “Happy Birthday,” but also “Yellow Submarine.”

Both kids have taken to the piano surprisingly quickly and well.  In the beginning, the teacher thought Q might be too young for a full half-hour lesson, but he, like most, underestimated Q’s ability to sit and focus.  She worked her way through several simple songs and went on to learning chords.  For the recital, she was to play a version of “Heart and Soul” with her left hand moving through the four-chord progression (C - A - F - G) while her right played the melody.  If the piano has clichés, this song is one of them, but it’s a little tougher to play than it sounds (no right-hand notes fall on the same beat as the F chord, e.g.).  Her teacher had a fair amount of faith in her to give her this song to play for her first public performance.

The Boy’s piece, a selection from “Spinning Song” by Albert Ellmenreich, was even more demanding. It’s a clever composition with several theme changes in just a few lines, difficult sounding and showy in the way that prompts parents to put up YouTube videos of their prodigies racing through it with feet swaying from the piano bench. The Boy mastered the notes pretty early (to his teacher’s surprise and delight), and he slowly increased the pace until he could put the parts together at a respectable clip.

They were both nervous about the recital in their own way.  The Boy had over-practiced.  His execution of his piece took on some quirks he couldn’t seem to get rid of, and he began to get bogged down on a chord change that he had been breezing through just days before.  These snags caused him to think about his playing, which is never a good thing to do with a muscle-memory task.  The morning of the recital we asked him to run through his song one last time, and his frustration foiled him such that he had to try to consciously remember the last few notes but simply couldn’t do so.  We had to make him leave the bench before he could convince himself that he couldn’t play that song — or any other — ever at all.  When it was Q’s turn for a run-through, however, she sat calmly at the keys and went first note to last without a single mistake.  After she skipped from the piano to dress up a little for the actual performance, we noticed her lunch sat on the table barely touched.

The recital was staged in a trim and neat United Methodist church in a little New Jersey town about 40 miles outside of the city.  The sanctuary had been converted a concert hall, and not much of the church’s usual function remained visible apart from the organ pipes making a silver fence along the back wall.  The teacher had a house band set up in front of the altar that included a full trap set, a Korg keyboard, a high-gloss grand piano, many microphones on their stands, and several guitars and bases corded to various amps.  We sat in the second pew mainly waiting for Q and The Boy to perform.  We all knew they were scheduled sometime toward the beginning, but we didn’t know exactly when.

Given the teacher’s style and mission, we weren’t surprised to hear covers of Bruno Mars, Coldplay, some evanescent pop numbers we’d heard but couldn’t name, and a whole bunch of Adele.**  About a half hour in, the teacher started to call up his youngest pupils.  There were odes to joy, a phrase or two from the Nutcracker, a “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star” and “This Land is Your Land.”

Then he called up Q.  She took her place at the grand piano, her white dress bettering the shine coming off the giant instrument, and I took my place closer up at the rail where parishioners kneel to video her.  I could see her arms quiver as she positioned her fingers over the correct keys to start her song.  Everything went well until she got a little lost right at the very end, but she managed to find her way out of her music with a solid C chord and then left the bench quickly to applause.  My wife and I know her well enough to read a bit of disappointment in her face.  The Boy was next.  I was a little worried he might not hold up if he made a mistake — but not too worried.  He’s the kind of person who tends to rise to whatever occasion, and he rose again there on the bench in the church.  He played smooth and clean, split a chord once but kept on going. At the very end he started to go back into the melody when he should have moved to the final lines, but he just stopped for a moment, started up again a bar back, and went right on out as he should have, no problem.  A smile began to arrive with the final notes and bloomed as he bowed just off the bench and then came back to us.  I was so, so proud of them both.

We all had trouble sitting for the entire two hours, especially the kids whose flood of adrenaline had crested and receded with their performance.  We snuck out to the fellowship hall between songs to get a head start on the cookies and fruit and punch brought by the families.  The church’s double front doors were propped open, and the day was small-town blue and clear, like the air had just been given up fresh from the grass.  All the kids, freed from anxiety and expectation, ate sweets and goofed with each other on the lush lawn, even tolerating a few pictures by and with the adults.

Both kids enjoyed the whole thing — or at least they said they did.  Q denies that she was nervous at all.  (She is so capable at so many things that she can struggle with admitting that she struggles sometimes.)  As we pulled away from the church for New York, Q said, “We’ll see this place next time.”  The Boy was already reading his book.

This is the paragraph where metaphors and analogies tend to arrive, and, admittedly, I’m tempted to use the kids’ recital to package being a father as a kind of performance.  Though to a playwright or musician, the whole world might seem a stage, it’s not.  Not really.  My family isn’t my audience (thank goodness, because tough crowd), and I don’t aim each day to put on a show in any useful sense of the term.  Much of the time I don’t know what I’m doing father wise other than trying to be decent, an approach that doesn’t seem up to the stakes involved.  Perhaps it’s because in some ways parenting — an embodiment of care so great and old — isn’t like another thing, which is why it’s more often a thing that other things are said to be like.

I do know that I prefer this kind of Father’s Day:  One where I get to see Q and The Boy reveal themselves and then come sit next to me, relieved and proud of themselves and altogether a little larger.  And then we have punch.

Happy Father’s Day, all.

*This is the kind of gift I prefer — viz., experience- as opposed to stuff-based.  I’ve also just been thinking about how the kids are now the right age for lots of shows and that we should start going more.  Like usual, my wife is ahead of me.

**I’m constantly surprised at how many slight t(w)een girls choose to sing Adele songs.  They likely don’t have the experience that fuels her music, but, more important, they must underestimate the size and power of her voice.  She’s got a huge, deep instrument.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

The Boy at 9

The Boy’s mom gets a hole in one with his birthday cake

This week was The Boy’s 9th birthday and everything that accompanies it.  He’s beginning to grow out of some kid rituals, and we’ve had to accommodate accordingly. He still wanted cupcakes brought to school, but he informed us that parents aren’t there when they’re passed around. Not long from now, he’ll probably be walking to school without us as well.

We’ve also tried to set our party expectations properly. We knew we again wanted to have something small, around 9-10 kids, but the past two years didn’t quite come off as expected. Experience has taught us that it is possible to get 10 girls to focus for an hour on fine-motor tasks, but with boys you can pretty much forget it. This time, my lovely wife and I tried to put ourselves in the minds of nine-year-old boys. I suggested we take everyone to a shooting range just across the river in New Jersey, with real guns and everything, but then I put myself in the minds of the parents of nine-year-old boys and thought better of it.* We started thinking about a laser tag party instead, and it turns out that a few of those laser tag/paintball/arcade places still exist, including one somewhere out in Queens. Still, though we didn’t need to worry about live ammunition, we nevertheless had to get the partygoers to and from a place we’ve never been to in a neighborhood we know nothing about.

Sadly, we abandoned the idea of the kids and guns altogether. My wife suggested, with the ease and excellence that always attends the obvious, that we just treat everyone to mini-golf at the pier close to our building, followed by pizza and cake at our apartment. Done and done.

It was the right choice. The afternoon was hot, the pier a busy runway for the sun, but the kids didn’t seem to care, or only pretended to care for the rich comedic potential. (We brought one of those fan/spray bottles that got passed around and used a lot.) I attempted to supervise with mixed but expected results. The kids are old enough to pretty much run themselves, and I only had to tell them every now and then to get off or out of something. Q was there, too, playing the course behind the bigger boys with her best friend (who happens to be the sister of The Boy’s best friend) and her best-friend’s younger brother. Everyone had fun easily, it seemed. As we made our way from the pier to our apartment, the boys were still free enough of self-consciousness to all link up in a line, arm over neck, a wave of noise and energy that never seemed capable of breaking.

My wife made a killer cake as always (see above). At first she wasn’t sure how to represent the golf theme, but after some Internet browsing and stumbling across a small tub of gel icing she was in business. It turned out remarkable in both look and taste:  a buttercreamed mini-golf hole that included a water hazard (gel icing), a crushed cookie sand trap, a windmill, a chocolate chip for a hole surrounded by gumball golf balls, and a flag that Q helped make from a lollipop stick and folded red foam.  The Boy called dibs on the windmill right away.

As their parents arrived, we sent kids away with a light-up foam stick** and a book.  Reactions to this party favor were telling. One kid asked if he could have two of everything before he heard what everything was. Another asked me what the goodie bag was long before we were giving them out, and his interest dissolved when he heard that reading was involved. The Boy’s best friend, however, said “Totally awesome!” when he saw the pile of books and “White Fang, yes! I wanted to read that!” when he was handed the one we had reserved for him alone. No need to wonder why they’re best friends.

Gifts usually reflect people’s perceptions of the recipient, and this year’s seemed pretty accurate. His friends mainly gave him gift cards for various bookstores or books outright, along with a few LEGO sets that The Boy clicked together in minutes instead of hours. (He’s a varsity-level brickman now.) We got him, among other things, a Swiss Army knife, because he can handle a thing capable of serious cutting and sawing (including oneself). His sister insisted on giving him a white bathrobe — totally her idea — which he loves to lounge in with a book after a bath.

He is no less a thing of wonder now than when he arrived early nine years ago, and perhaps even more so. Bits of him seemed set at the beginning — yearly photos from the beach show how he approaches the ocean from the same stance over the years, and his lean frame even now like a long shadow cast by his infant body — but much of him, of course, is still in the making. Thinkers are mediators and reveal themselves in being between. We take in the world, and it gets broken up and bits of it lodged in us and spun together and out again at new angles. The Boy has become a fascinating mediator in his own right, quick- and quirk-witted, expressive, drawn to the arcane and the encyclopedic.*** He cares about most things deeply, which can lead to disappointment (often in himself) but also to loyalty and value.  I have come to respect how he appreciates things.

At the end of his day, we went in to wish him good night, a wish no less genuine for being routine. He himself wasn’t ready to end the day just yet, and he slid over in his bed, patted the gap he just opened up, and said to his mom with an excellent mix of love and joke, “There’s always room for someone special.”  If she hadn’t wanted him to get some sleep, she would still be there now.

Happy birthday, son. We love you, and we’re proud of you.

*The minds of other parents, in any event. And, okay, 9 armed 9 year-olds may very well be a questionable idea. The Boy and I will have to go on our own in a few years; I trust him with a gun.
**Resembling a golf club, sort of. Party favors are a terrible idea and a pain but apparently pretty much unavoidable.
***Just ask him about Minecraft, e.g.

Monday, June 04, 2012

Going back out

I went back to playing basketball last weekend. It was the first time I’d been on the court (at least with other players) since I had to have myself repaired about eight months ago. Conditions were perfect. The buildings just south of the World Trade Center site have the height and spacing necessary to cast a shadow through the morning to keep us and the court cool. My wrist with the screw in it was stiff, always will be. But it’s my off hand, and my game self, even at this state and age, forgot about it (and the rest of me) fairly quickly. I even made a few shots.

More important, nothing happened. I didn’t break a bone or, worse, blow out a knee. I came back home that morning only tired and anticipating the deep aches that would (and did) wake up with me the next day.

Why did I go back? I certainly didn’t have to. My brother, who played college basketball and who is a little over two years older (and many degrees more fit) than I, has given up playing entirely to avoid the possibility of hurt. And despite expensive procedures going well and four-plus months of occupational therapy, the fall I took last May shaved about 20 degrees off my left hand’s range of motion. The pair of scars along the top and bottom of this hand look like an em dash and a red squiggly spell-check flag respectively — two familiar ways of signalling interruption and error. I do need regular exercise, sure, but I can get it with a lot less risk. (I could, you know, just walk around and stuff.)

I’m up early these days, have been for a while now, working more on my writing and on getting my writing out. I don’t have to do this either. I could undoubtedly use the extra sleep, and I’m probably well past the point where I should have started a serious writing career, whatever that means. Why struggle with learning the contours of a new profession — particularly one in radical flux — and inevitably subject myself to rejection?  It’s not as if I’m answering some kind of calling. If anything, I’ve become less invested in big-T Truths and more attentive to local facts and the way those facts sound when you say them out loud to yourself. Besides, I’ve got a job (if not a career), a great family, years worth of unread books, and Netflix instant available on several devices. I couldn’t be much more comfortable than I am at the moment.

Why these things and why now? Not sure, really. I do like the feel of the ball in my hand and the chance to be good in the game, even knowing that I’m now moving away from my best days with the sport.  In part, I want to show Q and The Boy how a life can be well lived, which means demonstrating how parts of oneself always remain elusive and unmade, and how loving and being loved can be a route to finding and making oneself.  Perhaps it’s also because the Hudson looks the most blue when lit by the morning sun, and that blue and the quiet house let me listen for good thoughts before the world’s great noise turns my head. Or maybe it’s just that I’m where I’ve always been — where we all are, I suppose — lodged at the slim waist of an hourglass in the middle of what’s to fall and what’s piling up. It’s hard to know when the whole thing has last been flipped. Better to look at both ends of the glass if you want to see the most sand.

Wednesday, May 09, 2012

Going up

“… your kids.”

He’s talking to me, I realize.  I take out my earbuds and pause the podcast I’m listening to. He sets down his grocery bags — one paper, one brought to the store. He bought more than he thought he would. 

“I’ve seen your kids lately.”

“Yep,” I say as I wrap the cord around my phone, use the occasion to look instead at my hands. I don’t recognize the guy.

“They’re really growing up,” he says.

We stop at a floor; a woman exits with no coat despite the afternoon drizzle. The weather this spring has been a puzzle.

“Sure are.”

The doors close, and the geometry of the remaining riders shifts, as it always does, into a triangle. He leans back against the elevator wall. Three buttons lit, I’m not sure which one is his. I begin to wonder whether he lives on an odd or even floor.

“Mine are now 17 and 24.”  He looks older to me as he says this; I notice his hair more gray than anything else, his glasses round and gold-framed, probably from several trends ago.

“Just 7 and almost 9,” I hear myself say. I’m curious at the unnecessary precision.

He smiles.  Another stop; the only other person exits, probably on the way to a dog that wants a walk.  Everyone but us seems to have a dog. I still can’t place him, but it’s a big building, and we’ve been here a long time.

“I don’t want to think of those numbers quite yet,” I say.  It occurs to me that I say “quite” a lot. Quite a lot, in fact. I give myself a moment to make and enjoy the joke to myself.

His floor, an even one.  He steps out and reaches back with a bag, the paper one, to hold the doors.  I can hear the high pitch that goes off when something interrupts the safety beam.

“You think when they’re older, you’re not there. They’re on their own.  You think you’re missing out on things. But it’s just different.”

“There’s always something new to be there for,” I say, trying to help him build his thought.

He pulls the bag and goes.

“I wish I could trade you,” he says from down the hall, mainly to himself.

The doors close. I'm alone. My floor is next.

Friday, April 27, 2012

Q = 7, or as clever as clever

Our daughter, Q, had her 7th birthday last Sunday. My lovely wife has, as usual, been working for weeks on parts for Q’s party, the theme of which this year is designing for dolls. The whole idea can be described as Extremely Girly, but all of us like to make and to encourage the making of things, even if that means inviting 8 girls over to make their 18"* dolls pretty.

And how they did prettify those dolls. We’ve found a guest list of around 10 or so manageable in our apartment, so we set and hit that target this year, too. My wife knows the fabric stores just south of Canal Street well, and she came back from one of them with a roll of elastic that she cut and sewed into rings. To those she tied strips of colored tulle (also bought in bulk at the fabric store and disassembled) to make great doll tutus in a variety of colors. She also ordered doll-sized plain-white t-shirts for each girl to decorate during the party with fabric markers and an iron-on flower positioned as each girl liked. My wife had their feet covered as well. Q asked each girl ahead of time about her footwear-color preference and made a list with the results, which we then used to cut craft-foam soles for sandals. During the party, the girls chose ribbon to loop over their doll’s feet, which my wife then hot-glued together with the foam. The girls could then affix sequins and other shiny ornaments to the ribbon to complete the bespoke shoes. Even the parting goody bags were for the dolls — little wrapping-paper shopping bags containing a miniature composition notebook and a toothpick pencil, all handmade and clever. Overall, the craftwork was basically insane in its tediousness, but the results (pictured above and below) truly amazed.

Note: To grasp scale, the pencils are made from toothpicks

At this age, the parties tend to be drop-off, and we kept the girls busy.  The Boy, who expertly helped make the tiny pencils, fled the house early to a series of friends places, and he made me swear that No Girls Be Allowed In His Room.**  Q more or less floated to the door when the bell rang, and the just-arrived guest then accompanied her to the door at the next bell, building the greeting with each newcomer.  Once they had all come, dolls in the crooks of their elbows or fastened into little carriers with cutouts for their faces, the girls set to work decorating their shirts.  My wife set up a hot-glue station on the far side of the room, which the girls took turns visiting while they waited for me to iron flowers onto their doll shirts.  I kept the snacks and drinks fresh; Q did the same with the overall atmosphere.  After the girls had made shirts and sandals and dressed their dolls in the new tutus, we had them all sit and eat.  Originally we thought we’d order pizza (like nearly every kid party ever), but we offered the group a choice between that and dumplings, and it was no contest.  And, man, can 9 seven-year-old girls put away the dumplings.

Then it was cake time. My wife now has a well-earned reputation, inside our house and out, for great birthday cakes. This year she made a two-layer lemon number with sky-blue frosting and purple-sugar accents. The only decoration (besides Q’s name and the requisite wish piped at the bottom) was a tiny feathered gown and handbag hung on a miniature clothesline. I know my wife thought it fell short of her best efforts, but I thought it was, like her, elegant and beautiful.

We asked the moms to come back a little before the party’s end for a doll fashion show.*** Once the audience was in place, we lined the girls up in our apartment’s hallway and put on some music. They took turns looping through the living room, showing off the clothes they just made as the adults clapped. The girls themselves wore big smiles of fun and a little embarrassment, but most of them wanted to do it again. Q had a great time, and we hope that everyone else did, too.

A. A. Milne’s poem “The End” from his collection Now We Are Six goes:
When I was One,
I had just begun.

When I was Two,
I was nearly new.

When I was Three,
I was hardly me.

When I was Four,
I was not much more.

When I was Five,
I was just alive.

But now I am six, Im as clever as clever.
So I think I'll be six now for ever and ever.
This poem is one of Q’s favorites, and mine too, but for different reasons. She likes the short, smart rhymes and the little story it tells that we can easily add on to as we walk to school or wonder about the bus.**** I like that, too, but also how Milne captures the way kids sometimes treat time as just another choice to be made while he himself participates in that choice. Milne calls the poem “The End” and hands it to his reader on the way out of the book, and in doing so gives the last line a type of truth, though Christopher Robin eventually left the nursery and the Hundred-Acre Wood and, ultimately, this earth. In a sense, then, Milne also wants his son to be six now for ever and ever. I understand the impulse.

That evening, after Q and The Boy had come down enough from the day to give in to the night, the house gets still. It’s been raining solid and hard all day, the storm knocking on all the windows at once, wanting in.  Quiet comes on, at first before it’s noticed, like a brush of breeze that stands out once the air goes calm. These are times when it’s hard to believe that quiet is like cold — an absence of something rather than a thing in itself. Outside, the Hudson River slows and smooths, then stops altogether, the ferries frozen at the tip of their wakes like brushstrokes. See a dog caught mid-bark just off the park, its owner in a swipe at his phone; the trees bent by the wind stay bent.  I can take this world and turn it, can find Q in every corner.  At her desk in her room in a book, then making lists with a pencil that needs sharpening.  Out front with her hands deep in the sand, looking to see if I’m looking at her.  On line for Italian ice from the man on Chambers Street who knows her well now, both of them wondering which flavor she wants this time.  Hanging upside down on a playground bar and showing someone how it’s done. Always everywhere there’s that face of hers, the one where she half-closes her eyes and half-smiles, meaning she’s seen through a joke or an attempt at a tease.

Q, asleep, exhaled.  The Hudson wrinkled itself back up, and the ferries aimed for their slips.  I thought I heard the dog finish its bark, but it was hard to tell over the rain.  

Happy birthday, Q.  Now you are seven, still as clever as clever.  We will love you forever and ever.

*I’m deliberately being general here.  American Girl used to own the 18"-doll category pretty much outright — every girl but Q brought one of these to the party — but some compelling newcomers have recently moved in on AG’s territory.  Q (now) has two Journey Girls dolls, which do look slightly different than American Girls, only noticeably so when the two get put side-by-side and a person really looks.  Other differences exist too, but they trigger thorny questions about class and feelings of inadequacy that can extend into adulthood, so I’ll stop right about here.
**Sorry, son.  I tried.  (Sort of.)
***Yes, I know, very girly.  But remember, they were showing off what they had created.
****We’ve decided that it should now go:  “When I was six / I learned some tricks. / But now that I’m seven, I’m as clever as clever…”  Now you try.

Thursday, March 29, 2012


My son participated in his third-grade Science Expo last week. Each third-grader was given a blank piece of cardboard and a stapled set of instructions. Students were to come up with their own questions, which they could answer by performing experiments, researching a topic, or giving a demonstration. They then would present their projects in a big poster session in the gym, where parents, teachers, and the other grades could walk through the rows of kids and ask about their work.

The Boy’s project came out of a short video I stumbled across in the usual Internet way of a guy out on his deck dropping magnets down a copper pipe. Like any good magician, he shows his audience the two pieces separately, and then performs the trick, exploding all expectations in the process. The magnet doesn’t stick to the pipe but instead tumbles softly down into his hand.  When it came time for The Boy to settle on his topic, he remembered the video right away and wanted to go looking for the explanation.

The short clip gave us a couple of leads — neodymium, eddy currents — so that’s where we started. The magnets were easy to get off the Internet, arriving in a couple of days in a clear plastic tube wrapped in warnings. The pipe was a lot less easy to come by, oddly enough. Lots of places in town would sell us a contractor’s standard ten-foot length, but we only wanted a foot or so. After much walking and asking around, we finally found a hardware supply in Chinatown with a manager who happily opened one of his own pipe-cutter packages to accommodate us.

Once outfitted, we went for replication. Would our own neodymium magnet float down our own copper tube? Check. Even having seen the video, The Boy and I found the result hypnotic, the pleasant clink of metal on metal, the lazy drift of the stack of magnets down into his waiting palm.

Explanations pair with questions, and The Boy compiled a list of them to answer in his presentation, including:
  • Why doesn’t the magnet stick to the copper tube?
  • Why does the magnet float down the tube?
  • Does the tube have to be made of copper for the magnet to float?
  • What is an eddy current?
The idea was that he would answer these questions on his poster, include a diagram picturing what’s going on that can’t be seen, and finish with a list of Fun Facts* about magnets.

We guided him a bit, but he did most of the heavy lifting research wise. Finding information for this kind of thing used to be difficult, but now the difficulty lies in sorting and understanding information. We googled magnet- and eddy-current-related phrases and turned up all sorts of videos and cryptic equations, along with pages of physics and industrial applications, and a few fairly simple explanations. The Boy took notes. We also actually went to our local library (nostalgia!) for age-appropriate books on magnets and magnet experiments, which proved to be a mother lode of Fun Facts.

You may very well be curious about answers to The Boy’s great questions, and though I don’t have my son’s showmanship, I’m happy to oblige with grade-appropriate answers. First off, copper is not ferritic, which means magnets aren’t attracted to it. But copper is an outstanding conductor, and that’s important here. A magnetic field moving through a conductor causes electric currents called eddy currents. All electric currents have their own magnetic fields.  So gravity pulling a strong magnet (in this case, four 1” x 1/8” neodymium stacked) down the conductor triggers eddy currents, which have their own magnetic fields that repel that falling magnet, just as the same poles of any two magnets repel. The eddy currents and their magnetic fields prove fairly weak (again, in this case), which means the magnet’s progress is only impeded and not arrested altogether.

Cool, right?

The Boy insisted (before we could) on writing the text of the poster himself, first translating his notes into an explanation on paper, and then typing everything up to be printed. We spent some serious time in font selection. My lovely wife helped him with the big center diagram, though it was his idea to have a foil-wrapped magnet popup in the center. He was proud of his work, and he had good right to be.

The day of the Expo, he carried his equipment and excitement to the gym himself. It opened to parents shortly after the morning bell rang, and my lovely wife and I flooded in with all the others to check everything out. We went by The Boy first, of course, and he was all set up and ready to perplex passersby with his “Magnet Mystery” (his poster’s title). He performed his demonstration for us just as he’d practiced — first asking what we thought would happen when he dropped the magnet down the copper tube, then asking for predictions about the same magnet going down a cardboard tube, then explaining all the forces at work that confounded those predictions. Q soon came by with a pack of her classmates (all grades visited throughout the day) to listen to her brother, and he enjoyed the audience. He was truly great.**

As were so many of the kids. We know lots of families now, and we took our time hearing The Boy’s friends tell us about mass and gravity, geysers, rainbows, penguins, great white sharks, milk carton turbines, and on and on. The girl set up right next to The Boy talked through a truly unsettling experiment on the effectiveness of soap v hand sanitizer, one that involved a UV flashlight that revealed the dirt on your hands right then and there. For my part, I managed to discomfit a kid with a nice display on color vision by asking her since different creatures have different color experience what she thought the real colors were.  “I dunno,” she said, looking up the aisle and anywhere else but at me.  Sometimes I wonder why I don’t end up eating all my meals alone.

Aristotle writes that all persons by nature desire to know.*** It can be an oppressive statement if you think about it — the need to explain nagging and persistent, like an itch. And there’s so much to be known. Spring bloomed suddenly, some afternoons have been pushing 70º already, and the early warmth and wet air have produced glorious morning fog.  Fog occurs when the ambient air reaches saturation, forming water droplets that reflect light, limiting visibility to at least 5/8 mile.  Copper: Chemical element name Cu; Atomic Number: 29; melting point: 1356.15K.  Celestial bodies lie in space like balls on a rubber sheet, curving space and time around them.  The body a machine, describable and flawed.  A second is equal to the duration of 9,192,631,770 periods of the radiation corresponding to the transition between the two hyperfine levels of the ground state of the caesium 133 atom. Consciousness is an instance of consciousness of. F = ma, except when it doesn’t.  The Boy is an isotope of my wife and I; the recipe for his making written in a billion proteins.  Q hums sweetly while brushing her teeth (though she’ll deny it) — this a fact like any other.

Anyhow, thanks to The Boy, at least one mystery is explained enough.

*Nearly every third grader’s poster included Fun Facts, where “Fun” means something like Related But Random and Interesting.  The science teacher probably suggested including them as a way to fill white space, which, given that this is likely the first public opportunity these kids had to present a poster, must have seemed positively Antarctic to most of them.
**Dare I say he was magnetic? I do dare say so, at least in a footnote.
***The opening line of his Metaphysics, usually translated as all men desire to know, but he’s dead enough to be forgiven this oversight. Also, perhaps no one better encapsulated this desire than Aristotle himself.

Friday, March 16, 2012

Body shop

I start my 22nd session of physical therapy, as I’ve started the 21 others, by paying upfront.  I pretty much have myself and pickup basketball to blame for my broken wrist and the surgery to right it, but many people coming here to come back from their injuries are in the middle of legally faulting someone else, and who knows when those suits will result in costs being covered, so they insist.

After I put the receipt with the others, I hang up my coat in the odd little closet* and go back to whichever of their two rooms has an open seat. This office specializes in hands, arms, and shoulders, and it’s nearly full, as always. Most people spend many weeks in physical therapy, and I recognize almost everyone. The Belgian high-school girl who hurt her finger playing varsity volleyball pokes neon-colored putty to work her grip. The two female cops sit together as usual, cracking each other up with cop-speak jokes and comparing workman’s comp attorneys. The young guy with two phones comes later, talking to a series of people while a therapist sends electricity through a muscle in his forearm. I haven’t seen the woman with the plastic-surgeon dad in a while, probably since she can get cortisone shots at will.  Once, after I had become a regular, I actually found myself saying to a stranger next to me whose shoulder was being unbandaged: “What are you in for?”

I find a place in the room where each seat has a wooden TV-dinner tray next to it, rickety as the limbs leaning on it, and with the obligatory lithograph of Eschers hands drawing each other to life, which almost makes literal sense given its context. The other room has old elementary-school desks for tables and a framed closeup from Michelangelo’s Sistene Chapel ceiling, the really famous part where God reaches out to Adam’s limp (injured?) hand. The entire place has an oppressive level of metaphor density.** The woman who works me over twice a week asks how my wrist feels, and I say “fine” because, like all questions of this sort, its answer is pure ornament. She’s good at juggling patients, has to be, and she lays a big blue bag of heat on my hand to loosen it up and returns to someone else in the other room.

Sessions are like getting your hair cut, only your hair is broken and it hurts. My therapist and I have been through so much small talk in two months that I have a fuller picture of her than most of my coworkers and neighbors. I know that she plays mahjong with her friends twice a month and that she picked up the game pretty quickly from her grandmother. I know that her husband is finishing up his MBA and has an enviable ease with foreign languages. (I know that his grandmother is a surly Holocaust survivor.)  They’re childless but thinking sometime maybe eventually. She’s left handed and is forever after whoever borrowed her special scissors. I know where she and her husband are each from originally and what they’ve done more or less every weekend for the last two-and-a-half months — something I no longer know about myself.

After she returns and removes the heat, I do some wrist curls with a 5 lb. weight, then squeeze an old gripper thing 30 times. Once I’ve limbered*** up a bit, my therapist bends my wrist. Hard. We do what she gamely calls a “strong stretch” that usually involves me looking away and down from the hurt while she applies her full body weight to my hand and aims for 90º flexion. I try the Zen thing of detaching myself from the material experience. I cycle through pictures in my head. My arm as cold dough that grows more pliable as its folded and rolled. A car door iced shut overnight finally coming free. An iron bar glowing orange on an anvil, throwing sparks at each hit, but taking shape. The Tin Man choked with rust, already with a heart but needing oil and an adventure to discover it.

The idea of physical or occupational therapy, the purpose, arises out of the fact that adults cannot be trusted to properly harm themselves after injury. Expertise is involved, too, of course — bodies can break in so many ways.**** Each of the three times the cast came off my son’s arm, he was unleashed back onto the baseball field and into the schoolyard and the swimming pool, without need for therapy. His body is a riot of growth, which helps with recovery from just about anything, and he (like most kids) can easily forget hurt. Adults, though, generally have vivid memories of pain and tend to convert it and anticipation of it into suffering. We quickly restrict or retire hurt limbs, which in turn leads our bodies to slowly give up on them. After I hurt my wrist back in May, I wrapped and iced and defended it for several weeks to give it time to heal itself, but time instead eroded my range of motion. And then the surgery and the pins and surgical screw and the nine-week cast all conspired to fix my hand straight.  Now it has to be bent further than I want it to if I want to come back.

The Zen thing doesn’t work. My wrist pops and smarts like hell but won’t stay past my best angle reached a few weeks ago. My PT reminds me, again, of how I came in, with flexion and extension of basically 0º, to make me feel better about where I can get to now, which is 50º and 60º respectively. It occurs to me that the old saying really should go, “Time fixes all wounds,” with ‘fix’ smuggling in all its senses.

All the effort going on in rooms makes them stuffy, and my PT cracks the window near my seat.  The days have gotten glorious, and I’m glad to welcome in the loud warm air of 57th Street. I think of Q and her classmates running in the schoolyard, waiting in the 60° morning for the bell, how they shed their coats and become their bodies.

We’re all done, she says.  See you next week.

*I’m fascinated by this closet, possibly unhealthily so. It seems to contain roughly twice the space of the waiting room it’s off of, and its bar is stocked with weirdly thick hangers, like bunch of taupe hotdogs bent into triangles.
**Example: The Michelangelo print is even from before the restoration, meaning it has visible cracks running across the arms of both God and Adam.
***One thing I learned while writing this: The word ‘limber’ does not, lexicographers apparently think, share the same origin as the word ‘limb’. According to The Oxford English Dictionary, ‘limb’ can be traced back to Old English’s lim, which means strong. The OED says that ‘limber’ probably entered the language much later (around the 16th or 17th century) and may have the word ‘limp’ as an ancestor. I know, right?
****The Wikipedia page on “physical therapy” makes for good reading. Assuming what’s there is mainly true, PTs in the U.S. were first called “reconstructive aides.” It says that the first American PT school was at Walter Reed Army Hospital in response to injuries incurred during World War I, and the first professional organization, founded in 1921, was called the “American Women’s Physical Therapy Association.” Though this approach to convalescence can be traced back to Hippocrates, modern physical therapy cut its teeth on war and polio, and was almost exclusively performed by women.

Friday, March 02, 2012

Data dumped on

(Photo by The Gates Foundation used under CC license)

I like to think the best of people. I try to start with the assumption that everyone believes, honestly, in what she considers good reasons for something, even if that something and those reasons turn out to be misguided about something extremely important.

The New York City Department of Education recently released performance rankings for 18,000 New York City public school teachers. In the New York Times’s summary: “The reports, which name teachers as well as their schools, rank teachers based on their students’ gains on the state’s math and English exams over five years and up until the 2009-10 school year.” In the report, each teacher (or set of teachers) receives a percentile ranking indicating whether the teacher is Low (0-5%), Below Average (6-25%), Average (25-75%), Above Average (75-95%), and High (95-100%).

Everyone pretty much agrees by now (or should at any rate) that performance on standardized tests reveals precious little about individual students and even less about their teachers. Here’s a simple example: Scores on a single test may be indicative of academic level (and, more tenuously, of teacher competence), but such scores may better represent inadequate breakfasts, wrong sides of beds gotten up on, bad pencil luck, and on and on and on. Not to mention the deep and abiding structural walls/ramps of economic strata and cultural pressures of family and community. Average scores may also vary widely across classes because, for very real example, one teacher’s students arrived day one better prepared than the other and therefore test as such. A teacher with the lower average score could in fact be “adding more value”* than his colleagues — his students could have scored far better due to his instruction than they would have without it, even if they ultimately scored lower than fourth graders a door or county over. In sum, standardized test scores could easily be the result of a galaxy of external factors that have nothing whatsoever to do with teacher potential and performance, which means they make an exceedingly poor metric for evaluating teachers in any real way.

At this point one could just jettison the whole project of trying to judge teachers (and perhaps even students) via standardized test scores, or one could try to evaluate the scores in a more sophisticated way. The NYC DOE and other places have gone for the latter, calculating the very personal percentages dumped last week via what’s called a “Value Added Model” (VAM). VAMs more generally are mathematical models designed to factor in (and therefore factor out) the swarm of influences on students to isolate the contribution of the teacher to student performance, thereby giving the “value added” by the instructor. A very (very) simple version of this is having students take an exam early on in the year to serve as benchmarks, testing them again later in the year, and then comparing scores to gauge improvement. VAMs try to account for all sorts of external factors so that the internal cause of student performance (viz., teaching) can be revealed. (For a great and extremely accessible primer on VAMs, see a paper by John Ewing in the May 2011 Notices of the American Mathematics Society.)

Not a bad idea if it works — this is me still trying to think the best of everybody — but it’s not at all clear that it does. As some have pointed out, the data collected is shot through with errors, from mis-attributed test scores to altogether absent data to sample sizes to small for the statistics they support (classes of 10 students, etc.). These kinds of error can perhaps be avoided with tighter reporting, assuming public schools have the funds and personnel to dedicate to that sort of thing.** The more troubling inaccuracy, though, is with the VAM itself. As you can tell from the examples just two paragraphs back, the factors contributing to student preparation and success prove exceedingly complex and quickly vexatious. The accuracy of VAMs hinge on our ability to sort the causally relevant from the irrelevant and the external causes of performance from internal ones. But how do we even go about knowing when we’ve sufficiently accounted for external factors and properly weighed them? How would we feel confident that the model is comprehensive enough to produce meaningful results about classroom performance that could be leaned heavily upon in tenure and promotion decisions? Again, not at all clear, at least not at this point. VAMs therefore turn out to be extra pernicious because they give the powerful but false impression that we’re talking directly and purely and with precision about how an individual teacher contributed to overall student learning. And this type of report will be used by the State of New York to formally evaluate teachers, which is, simply put, a travesty.

The NYC DOE apparently recognizes and admits*** the report's limitations by listing individual teacher scores with margins of error of 35 percentage points for math and 53 for English. Doing so, though, reveals the rankings as farce as well as travesty. Even a 35-point swing means a teacher rated dead average by the DOE’s model (a 50) could for all anyone knows be an Above Average 85 or a fireable Below Average 15. The swing is even more dramatic and therefore more risible for English scores. As commenters on various New York Times pieces quickly pointed out, metrics with this kind of error slack would be laughed right out of most anywhere else. Consider: “In 2012 Jeremy Lin had a field-goal percentage between 27 and 80%”; “Last year this fund had a rate of return of 9%, give or take 35%;” and, more pointedly, “Chancellor Dennis M. Walcott performed his duties somewhere around the Below Average or Average or Above average level,” etc., etc.

Look, I’m not one of those Teaching Is An Art Not A Science people. I’ve been working in higher education for around 15 years as an instructor and administrator. Colleges and universities have likewise been swept up in assessment mania, and I see and hear lots of resistance to attempts at evaluating what students gain by attending a particular institution. Push-back in many cases is warranted. But principled resistance — resistance to the idea of evaluating what you do in your classrooms as a teacher and/or a administrator — sells people and disciplines and institutions extremely short. A teacher of any sort should be able to say pretty explicitly what she wants students to learn skill- and content-wise, how she plans to get her students there, and how she will figure out whether they’ve made it.**** Assessing teaching and learning isn’t easy, of course, on any level, but it’s worth doing and doing well. The problem is, “well” most likely means either more individualized and extensive personal evaluations of students and their teachers (hyperlocal) or, if you like your tests standardized, more aggregate measurements of entire districts or systems looked at as aggregates à la Finland. Either way, “well” means not viewing the results as opportunities for punishment and reward. The NYC teacher data dumped last week doesn’t get close to assessing well: It’s too flawed, too personalized, too high-stakes, too susceptible to misunderstanding and misuse.

I could go on. I could speculate about why the NYC DOE and the state would distribute and base decisions this report, but that exercise always pushes me downhill into despair to the point where I begin to wonder exactly when we stopped being serious about important things. I’ll stare into these abysses on my own time.

I do, though, want to spend a little time here not understanding why the New York Times acted as it did. As the Times itself will tell you, the paper sued to obtain the teacher data and won, despite the protestations of the United Federation of Teachers. No problem there; the data being used to hire, fire, and promote public school teachers should be looked at by people other than those who hire and fire. However, the real story turned out to be the extent to which this data is flawed and misused. But the Times published the data itself anyway in an easily searchable form, thereby making it nearly effortless to gawk at the results that various of its writers wring hands over.

If the data is so bad and misleading, why publish it? Here’s the Times’s answer:
Why did SchoolBook decide to publish these evaluations?
The New York Times and WNYC, who jointly publish SchoolBook, believe that the public has the right to know how the Department of Education is evaluating our teachers. Since the value-added assessments were being used for tenure and other high-stakes decisions, we sued for access to the reports. While we share some critics’ concerns about the high margins of error and other flaws in the system, we believe it is our responsibility to provide the information, along with appropriate caveats and context, for readers to evaluate.
Sorry, but I don’t buy it. If Times writers and editors really did “share some critics' concerns” to the degree indicated by their treatment of this whole issue, they wouldn't have made it so simple to see the 36 given to your fifth-grader's teacher. The data could have been anonymized and/or excerpted for publication. As is, the concerns and caveats preclude any proper context for these results: I have no way of knowing whether the competence of my kids' teachers falls on the thick black error bar let alone where. Putting up a mechanism for teachers and the general public to respond doesn't help either; those kinds of things don't receive the same level of attention as the numbers themselves. In my more cynical moments, I begin to think that the actual context for the story involves the Times's pageview counters.

Teaching is good, hard work. I remain puzzled why we seem so determined to make being a teacher so difficult.

*Pardon the cringe-inducing quotes. **A yellow-bus sized assumption there, of course.
***I did have “pretends to recognize” and “sort of admits,” but I'm still trying to exude a generosity of spirit here.
****In many ways the problem for higher ed is more acute because college-level teaching involves somewhere around zero hours of required faculty development or teacher training, even though it's almost a theorem that research performance is inversely proportional to teaching ability. Lord knows I struggled early on in my classrooms, and I still find myself confounded sometimes. K-12 teachers at least have to go through education courses and student teach, say what you will about their training.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Who's to say

This was supposed to be a shortish piece about some observations my lovely wife and I had as to how our kids have been moving about their social landscape and how they feel about it.  I would bring up some of my young self’s experiences (good and bad) for relief and mention The Breakfast Club as a good but ultimately insufficient example of the rigidity and porousness of ways to be at school.* I would probably use parentheses too much and make some jokes in footnotes.

But the morning I was polishing things up,** The Boy came out of his night's sleep and sat with me at the laptop, as he often does. I took a moment to add to my coffee (as I often do), and he took the same moment to look over the screen.  It didn't take long for him to realize that I was writing about him and his school.  He didn’t seem moved one way or the other — I don’t think I had said anything that should have affected him one way or another.  Like I said, I don’t think this was the case.

Problem is, what I think may not be the end of it.  Though I have gone to some lengths to remain anonymous out here — this pseudonym and site are roughly as old as my daughter — I do now mention new posts on the social media.  For some Friends and Followers, 'Q' and 'The Boy' pick out people they know, people their kids know and see something like daily.***  Our kids’ friends don’t read, say, Facebook all that much yet (as far as we know), but their parents do, and for some subjects I might want to bring up and break down, my lovely wife convinced me that that’s enough to think twice.

Back when my wife and I were in junior high and high school,**** we, like everyone, worried about our parents saying something embarrassing about us.  The vectors of embarrassment, though, were few and transient.  One parent might mention something to another, who might mention it to another, who might mention it to his or her kid in school, and teasing would ensue.  Or some kid might get a hold of a note meant for someone else, passing it around from person to person until the paper and the jokes wore out, which usually didn't take that long.

Things could not be more different now. So much information about ourselves, from the trivial to the intimate, sits more or less permanently available, and the access to it constantly becomes easier and in younger and younger hands.  I’ve overheard many kids in my daughter’s first-grade class talking about how they now have their parent’s old phones, the ones with built-in wifi and apps that take only intuition to operate.  My son and his friends, only slightly older, already have expertise in Youtube and opinions about Facebook and Twitter.  And though its jokes may have already worn out, this note I’m passing you now can be shared with nearly everyone everywhere forever.

This is all to say that I’ve got some new considerations.  I’m not going to give up writing about Q and The Boy in this space and elsewhere. After all, my kids make up the most interesting part of my story right now.  I also reserve the right to embarrass them in the usual parent ways and to enjoy doing so.  But Q and The Boy are getting to the point where they deserve some control over their stories, especially those that hinge on how they feel. I’m going to try to let them write their most important parts. 

*Remind me someday to talk about the explosion of the nerd/brain social category.
**Yes, I polish these things before they go up. Don’t look at me that way.
***In other words, these folks think about them de re as opposed to de dicto, if you know what I mean (and believe in that sort of thing).
****You know, back when people called it “junior high.”

Friday, January 20, 2012


We go up Liberty Street (this choice perhaps deliberate, something America would totally do) to Greenwich, through sluices of concrete blocks to slow movement, to where a surprisingly small number of people point cameras at the construction. The entrance to the 9/11 memorial is laid out to process large crowds, but it’s cold and just after the holidays, and once we present our passes we’re directed past a nearly block-long zig and zag of ropes instead of through it. Everyone and everything tells us to KEEP PASSES OUT, which we do, and they are repeatedly checked. We follow the arrows down a tunnel made from white concrete barricades topped with blue-netted fence to a glass building. A young guard dual wielding hand-held lasers scans our passes. The building turns out to be an airport-style security checkpoint, so we squish our hats and puffy coats into the bins on top of our cameras and phones. We don’t have to remove our shoes, which is good because mine happen to be complicated. The detectors don’t find us or our stuff suspicious (no one really seems to be watching that closely anyway), and we spend an equal amount of time on the other side gearing back up. To exit we must show our passes, which we do, and then we follow more barricades and arrows pointing and making the path up to Ground Zero, this time right along the West Side Highway with New York in a hurry. A guard at the entrance to the memorial proper asks for our passes and, once satisfied that we belong there, waves us into the site.

Most of the area is still a promise, an idea slowly unfolding. The museum, looking like a chipped box sinking on one end, isn’t open yet, and cupping our hands on the glass reveals a deep and broad space with a long way to go. The new swamp oaks stand in place, but they have given up for the season. We all take pictures — The Boy already has his mother’s eye — and the wind searches for our bones through our clothes. I loved to look straight up at a twin tower from its base, the way eyes work bending the top back toward me. You would swear they were built on a dare. But the new main building, now thankfully referred to simply as 1 World Trade Center, doesn’t have a precarious thing about it. Its heavy base leads the eye to compress it, to hold it down. Perhaps when I can stand close in the finished plaza I will see things differently.

The waterfalls, however, are complete. I remember the fraught memorial design competition, and of the finalists, this one was not my choice.* I thought the emphasis on the tower footprints was too literal and heavy-handed, dwelling on the holes blown in lives and not the healing. Still, realized, they do make a powerful impression. Each is a sunk black box with water falling geometrically for about forty feet then pooling into a smaller square in the center. Lights run around the base edge of the pool, and the water coming down carries the light up into it, multiplying it in interesting ways. The names of the dead, so many names, have been cut into the black metal that frames the waterfalls. I pull out my phone and use the memorial’s web app to look up my wife’s law-school roommate. We locate his name near a corner of the north waterfall, and as the evening comes on we can see it glow from below. I have read that the sound of the water was designed to muffle the city and to promote contemplation. But when I close my eyes, the evenness of the roar conjures up airliners in flight — cruising, though, not accelerating, not approaching on a violent angle. Still, I assume this was not intended.

And contemplation does not bring comfort. Memorials can provide places to offload grief, but so much remains unfinished even now, ten years out from 9/11. My thoughts about the attacks, ruminated into neater shapes over the years, have begun to show their original ragged edges. The war in Afghanistan, becoming medieval in its duration and destruction, is somehow older than Q and The Boy. I remain mostly proud of my city, less so of my country that became a wildly flung fist. I don’t know what to do or to think about any of it.

After only a little while, the cold wins, and we go back through the barricades and out into New York to eat. Always go back to the body. We order burgers and fries just a few blocks over at a place we’ve been wanting to try, and we crack peanuts from their shells while we wait for the food to arrive. Construction and change are everywhere; this neighborhood can’t become itself fast enough.

Remember, but don’t let memories get in the way. Write down the names where they can be touched and traced. Yes, a pool, too, but a small one with its own shape. And leave the surface still so that it can borrow the blue of the sky, can reflect the rising buildings and the office workers on their lunch. Make the place easy to enter and cross. Invite the whole loud, living city here, on foot and by train. Remember why we dig graves so deep and cover them with earth.

Most of all, make people look up.

*I am, of course, precisely nobody.

Thursday, January 05, 2012

Giving season

My lovely wife and I have promised ourselves bigger gifts for some time now, but that promise has had a fair amount of give in it. We’ve talked about moving for a few years, either to a larger apartment in the city or to somewhere altogether different, perhaps even to a place with yards and cars and weeds thriving in the sidewalk cracks. But this giving season we finally made good: My wife, who tracks nearly every apartment in the city, saw a three-bedroom open up in our building (and price range). The rents drop in the winter, mainly because people don’t like to move in the cold and the middle of the school year. Neither the cold nor school presented issues for us, and the third bedroom presented opportunities.

It was all rather sudden. We looked at the apartment the Saturday night before Thanksgiving and decided the next day to take it. This year, unlike most, we had booked travel to Southern California to spend the holiday with my sister-in-law and her family. Our work and school schedules makes holiday travel tough, but they just moved into a new big house with lots of room for us and for new memories. We know what it’s like to have small kids while far from family, and there aren’t many opportunities to get my wife’s family together. We found ourselves packing what we could of everything else along with our suitcases before flying out on Monday.

Thanksgiving on the opposite coast, though quick, was just how it was supposed to be. We all made bits of the feast, the shared work in their large open kitchen the sweetest part of the meal. Q crafted most of the name cards, including one for my brother-in-law’s father who came for part of the time without telling his wife.* (After saying his thanks and goodbyes, he left the table, then came back to quickly slip the name card into his pocket.) We went to Sea World, and the kids eventually agreed to pose for pictures in a giant snow globe. Since we traveled both ways off-peak, the planes were empty enough for us each to have our own row. I give thanks for the visit.

We returned late Friday just after Thanksgiving to a half-boxed house. The new place had become ours while we were away, and we started taking things up, small cart by small cart, all weekend. The Boy began mourning the old place in earnest, which is understandable given it’s where we’ve spent the last eight-and-a-half years, including all of Q’s life and most of his.** My wrist was still fixing itself in a cast, and I wasn’t much help with the heavier stuff — we have an absurd number of books — but our building’s maintenance staff muscled the big items*** (and most of the small) up the padded service elevator into the new place. No moving truck, no layers of subcontractors between us and our destination. My wife spent moving day on the new floor unpacking and helping place the big things as they came in. Which meant that Q and The Boy left their shared space for school and came home to separate rooms that each looked as if they had been lived in for years.

We unpacked our traditions in the new place just as quickly. We determined the apartment’s natural spot for a Christmas tree (in the corner joint where the big windows meet), and strung our lights across the limbs and the jambs. My wife and I found fresh hiding places for the kids’ presents until they appeared under the tree disguised to be hefted and shook. We like to dedicate a good part of December to connecting with people, and we kept up with that, too. We spent Christmas Eve with our good friends and their daughters gloriously failing to build gingerbread houses, as we have for the past several Christmas Eves. We had new friends and their daughters over for my wife’s crème brûlée French toast, which is as French and good as it sounds. Q and the boy were like squatters in their friends’ home across the street.

The kids didn’t ask for much for Christmas, never do, and they deserve lots. We strove (like always) to find a rough mean between asking and deserving, and grandparents and aunts and uncles generously helped fill out our tree to the deserving point. Both Q and The Boy loved their new LEGO sets (Hagrid’s Hut and LEGO Architecture Falling Water respectively), the magnets maneuverable into surprising lattices, the books (including another volume of Calvin and Hobbes), the kits for making and spying, the obligatory but necessary winter clothes, and many other wonderful things. My parents gave my wife and I a box of Kansas barbecue, which we, reluctantly, shared with the kids. And we appreciated the familiar park and river from new directions and heights.

To give a gift is to entertain another’s beliefs and desires. We as a species do this so often and so well just making our way everyday, though, that I think we tend to forget the magic of it, and the difficulty. To give well — to give, as we say, a thoughtful gift — is to inhabit a whole mind as it is in motion and not as one pictures it. Now and again I still see Q and The Boy as they were when they fit easily on my shoulders and lap, even though these days The Boy and my wife can share shirts. I like to think of myself as still better described by what I have yet to do than by what I have done. All of these ideas have had to give.

My wife and I always find it difficult to give to ourselves, but with the new apartment we have more than promises this year. We live in the same building, but everything seems new enough to give us the change we needed. We’ve made a few promises, too, of course. We want to take the kids somewhere new, perhaps to Paris or London, or to where you can see right through the ocean to the sand. We could also use a new mattress and fewer broken bones. And I want to finally let go of at least one book and see where it lands. Might as well give it all a try.

Happy and Merry, everyone.

*Long story.
**His mourning consisted mainly of crying quietly in his old room’s closet with the accordion door closed. My lovely wife and I decided to take these moments as indicative of how much he enjoyed the place. And further confirmation that the boy is as subject to sentimentality as his father. He still hasn’t quite run to the end of his grief — or so he says while ensconced in his own room behind a sign reading “Boys Only: Enter & DIE!”