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On My 9th Year of Teaching – Looking Back at Year 1 August 19, 2012

Posted by alwaysjan in Teaching.
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This week I’ll go back to school. It will be my 9th year working as a credentialed teacher in a public school.

I took the scenic route to becoming a teacher. I taught art in NYC. I worked as a substitute on and off. I was a District Intern with the Los Angeles Unified School District for 10 months teaching in a modified bilingual classroom. There was no toilet paper. The jello made the kids sick. My own sons were acting up. I quit and sold my blue pocket charts at a yard sale.

Two years later, I tried another alternative program to credentialing and was placed in a classroom of high risk 5th grade students. I didn’t have the experience at that time to deal with them. Every day after school the custodian would push his broom through my classroom and say, “These are bad kids, very bad kids.” The enrollment numbers were down, so I was first to go. After only 15 days in the classroom, I couldn’t leave fast enough as I was done – or more accurately, done in.

Yet, no matter how many times I decided I was DONE with teaching, I always returned. No sooner had I sold those blue pocket charts than I was out buying more. Ultimately, I realized that it’s when I’m in the classroom that I feel most alive.

In 2004, I finally earned my California Teaching Credential. I was 50 years old. What can I say? I’m a late bloomer.

Did you know that half of all teachers leave teaching within the first five years? Looking back, it’s a wonder I even made it through my first year. It’s a year still seared in my memory as no class in pedagogy could have prepared me for what was in store.

It was only the second week of school when the principal came to the door of my classroom. This was not a good sign. Had I filled out the attendance incorrectly? He led me to the office where I met the father of one of my students. The man, head in hands, was weeping.”She was just so stressed,” he kept saying. I wasn’t quite sure what this was about.

It was only the next day that we learned his wife had committed suicide by shooting herself in the garage. And the kids? They were still at home watching TV as he had told them their mother was at work. I’d never felt so at a loss for what to do/say in my life. Several days passed and the boy returned to school. I bought a heart-shaped pillow where he could sometimes rest back in the library when he felt sad.

A new boy, Ezekiel, joined our class. He was adorable and so smart that he’d skipped first grade. He immediately befriended the boy who’d lost his mother. I remember thinking, “This is a good thing” as they were both such bright and kind-hearted boys.

But after Thanksgiving, Ezekiel did not come back to school. Could he have gone on a trip to see relatives I wondered? Then came the call. He’d collapsed at home and was at the hospital on life support. Could the children pray for him? They did – with all the strength their little second-grade hearts could muster.

The next day the principal and I drove to the hospital to see this precious boy. When a child was pushed by us in the hall on a gurney, the principal asked, “Was that him?” I honestly didn’t know. I was used to seeing Ezekiel in his school uniform with those big sparkly eyes. The family was gathered. The mood was somber. He’d just collapsed one evening at home. It all happened in the blink of an eye.

Ezekiel was taken off life support the next day. Crisis counselors from the district descended on my classroom. I’d never felt so at a loss for what to do/say in my life. But the words eventually came to me. We wrote a poem. We talked about how someone is never really gone unless you forget them.

At Ezekiel’s funeral, his first grade teacher was the first to speak. I will never forget what she said.

“Teaching is a dangerous job because you can fall in love with other people’s children.”

That’s the truth. And so begins another year.

Photo Credit: Jan Marshall

Close to Home August 7, 2012

Posted by alwaysjan in Entertainment, Personal, Uncategorized.
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5 comments

As a child, I couldn’t for the life of me sell Girl Scout cookies. My next door neighbor, Mrs. Dodge, would buy two boxes from me every year and I suspect my mother called her ahead of time.

So, when my filmmaker husband asked me to blog about his film End of the Beginning because he’s looking to raise $23,000 via crowdfunding on Indiegogo, I visibly winced.

What can I say, filmmaking is his passion. The script is great (I know because I did the final edit.) and those involved are professionals of the highest caliber. Want to buy a cookie?

Check it out. Click End of the Beginning. Even only one box of cookies would help. Boxes of cookies start at $20.

As Summer Sets July 22, 2012

Posted by alwaysjan in Life, Personal.
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Idaho – This is where God lives.

There’s no denying it. The end of summer is in sight, especially since this year the first day of school has been moved up to August 20th. How can this be? I just emerged from my school-induced coma! My husband said I could become a professional sleeper, but I like to think of my inert state as similar to a medically induced coma. I’m allowing the swelling to go down, so my brain cells can regenerate.

It’s no secret that most visitors to my blog are seeking information on Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD). I don’t often write as much about school or my personal life. But there are times when I, too, need a respite. So please hear me out.

I feel the need to take stock in what I HAVE accomplished so far this summer. Mind you, it doesn’t help that I set the bar so low that I literally trip over it when I get out of bed. My summer mantra is “Things to do – get dressed by 2.”

1) I’ve watched the entire first season of Downton Abbey so I can hold up my end of the conversation in the Teacher’s Lounge. I did make the mistake of calling my husband “Carson.” I won’t make that mistake again.

2) I flew back to the Midwest to help my mother write a zillion thank you notes to friends and family who helped when my father died in early March. My sidekick was my niece, whose job it was to provide me with comic relief. Well done, Ali! While rummaging through drawers, I stumbled upon my report card from Second Grade. I was happy to see that I “read with comprehension.”

We ate at the wonderful Bluebird Cafe in Kansas City then wandered around the neighborhood. Cathy said that a lot of scenes from “The United States of Tara” were shot in this locale. What a find!

3) While back in the Midwest, I drove down to Kansas City to visit my college roommate, Cathy aka Catherine Sherman on my blogroll. She took me off to explore parts of Kansas City I never could have imagined. Way cool. Old friends are gold friends indeed.

4) At 1/2 Price Books in Omaha, I picked up two books, Olive Kitteridge and Year of WondersI read both. Olive Kitteridge is a collection of overlapping stories that revolve around a retired teacher living in a small town in Maine. Most of the characters would qualify for the senior discount, so when the going gets rough they cheer themselves up with the thought that if things get any worse, they can always commit suicide. Did I mention that this book won the Pulitzer Prize? Year of Wonders is set in the plague years in England. I highly recommend it.

5) We drove (with the younger kiddo) to Idaho to visit my husband’s family and celebrate his father’s 88th birthday. I haven’t done long haul driving in years, and our younger son was barred from driving my husband’s car, so it was just the two of us and all those Starbucks gift cards I received from students at the end of the year. The photo of the sunset was taken as we drove by McCammon, Idaho. All three of us had our iPhones out and then I remember asking, “Hey, who’s driving the car?!!!)

One of the musical chairs from the Extreme Makeover house made from the piano that was salvaged from the fire.

We stayed with my husband’s sister Jane in her Extreme Makeover house. She’s since opened a Montessori school, The Morningside House,  in her basement. My husband said when I saw it, he thought I was going to cry. There were actually TWO sinks and some newfangled things called electrical outlets.

6) While in Idaho we saw my oldest son and his girlfriend. We laughed so hard at the new Japanese restaurant, Sumisu, that the waitress declared that we were her Number One table for the night. It also helps that we Californians are accustomed to tipping 20 percent, whereas the local Mormons tend to only tip 10 percent. Is this what it feels like to be a “whale” in Las Vegas?

7) Having returned home, I’ve already (with a lot of help from my husband) repainted out bedroom in the same color that I loved in the Extreme Makeover house. It’s Sherwin Williams “Seascape.” When the guy told me how much the paint cost  (it was already mixed at that point) my jaw dropped. It must have flecks of gold in it!

Now that the end of Summer Vacation is in sight, I’m trying to make the most of every day. In no time at all, I’ll be sitting in the Teacher’s Lounge eating a partially defrosted Lean Cuisine. Up next is working on a picture book that I’ve had in mind for quite some time. I might have to start sleeping in my clothes so as to get a head start on each day.

Here’s to sitting out on the front porch and watching the world go by.

Photo Credits: Jan Marshall

1/4 of July June 13, 2012

Posted by alwaysjan in Travel.
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6 comments

A friend recently asked me about my family’s sojourn in Mexico. I told her I’d send a link to this post which I published in 2007. But, low and behold, it  had vanished! As in “Gone Baby Gone.” Fortunately, in my early days of blogging, I  printed out a copy of everything…just in case.  So here it is again in all of its “Old Glory.”

When I was a kid growing up in Omaha, the days leading up the 4th of July included a pilgrimage just outside the city limits to buy fireworks. These were piddly-ass fireworks by today’s standards; sparklers, snakes, pinwheels, pop-bottle rockets, and the real show stopper – the Roman candle. My brother always managed to secure some M80s and cherry bombs. These served to remind us that it WAS possible to blow your hand off with one of these babies.

Neighborhood families would pool their fireworks and put on a show. My father arrived carrying a length of a tin downspout to these gatherings, which did double duty as a poor man’s rocket launcher.

As kids, we were only allowed to play with the snakes and sparklers on our own. We wrote our names in the air, immune to the bacon-grease snap, snap, snapping on our arms. On July 5th, the air smelled vaguely like gunpowder and the driveway had black spots where the snakes that grown, writhed, then turned to ash.

The 4th of July I’m thinking about today though was spent in Nuevo Laredo, Mexico. We were desperately looking for Puente Numero Dos – Bridge Number Two, the only route, save wading crossing the Rio Grande, to get back into the U.S.

My family; husband Richard and sons, Taylor, 10, and Ian, 6, and I had moved to San Miguel de Allende, Mexico to escape the high cost of living in New York. We’d had a ridiculously fun time in Zihuataneo, Mexico a year before and Mexico and the ghost of Frido Kahlo beckoned. Never mind that we’d never actually set foot in San Miguel. Hey, I’d done the research.

“You mean you’re moving to NEW Mexico,” friends queried.  “No, Mexico!”  we replied rather enjoying the look of shock on their faces. We were ready for a change, and we were up for anything, short of moving to New Jersey. A sojourn in Mexico sounded exotic and the price was right.

San Miguel de Allende is a gorgeous colonial gem nestled in the mountains three hours north of Mexico City. It’s long been a mecca for artists and has an established colony of American expats, who are drawn by San Miguel’s beauty and cheap real estate.

I flew to San Miguel two weeks before the arrival of the troops. It was my job to secure the beachhead and lease a house. “Remember,” my husband implored. “Only rent a house that’s already furnished and has a telephone.”

Well, can you imagine what kind of house I rented?  Three floors stacked like a stucco layer cake. No furniture and no phone. It was the garage that was the deal maker. Richard and the boys were flying to Omaha so my parents could give us their 4-cylinder Oldsmobile Firenza station wagon. We hadn’t had  a car in 11 years so this was a BIG deal. We couldn’t park our new/old car on the street!

My family arrived. It was then I realized it wasn’t New York that made me feel stressed. It was my family. Not a good sign. The house I’d rented had recently been remodeled and all of the construction had stirred up the scorpions. Every time we took a shower, a scorpion climbed out of the drain. Just the anticipation of their appearance made the shower scene in “Psycho” seem G-rated. There were so many scorpions that I took to sleeping with a flashlight on and aimed at the ceiling. Just in case.

Four days after we’d moved in, the toilet on the second floor wouldn’t flush. We tied a dog leash to a bucket and lowered it into the cistern beneath the patio to get water while awaiting the eminent arrival of the “handyman.” We carried the bucket of water up two flights of stairs just so we could use the toilet. I was starting to feel like I lived in Africa – my life was starting to revolve around obtaining water. All I needed was a jar to transport it on my head.

I’d first been shown the house during siesta time, the only time of day it turned out that the aerobic studio across the street was not open. We were awakened at 6 a.m. each morning by a pulsating disco beat and a woman yelling, “Uno, dos, tres!”  They knocked off for siesta then continued until 10 p.m. Disco was still alive in San Miguel.

The burro next door began braying at the crack of dawn. This was followed by ten minutes of silence and then the braying started in earnest. We joked that it was the Mexican snooze alarm. And the coyote tethered to the roof on the other side of us howled at night. We laid awake in bed. Less than three weeks into our sojourn, we’d lapsed into severe culture shock. For the first time I uttered the “L word” – leave.

There was one small problem. I’d signed a two-year lease and our landlord, Pat, had no intention of letting us wriggle out of it. Pat was a widow from Michigan who’d retired to Mexico. She’d married a local attorney, a certain Sr. Caballero. Pat bore more than a passing resemblance to Marjorie Mane’s “Ma Kettle” character. Finally, we told Pat we needed to talk about our situation.  I’d paid first and last month’s rent plus a security/cleaning deposit, so I thought that just maybe, she’d let us off the hook.

Just in case she wanted to play hardball, I was the designated weeper. The trouble was, once I started crying, “I want to go home,” it was no longer an act. I really wanted to go home. Pat was unfazed. “You know what you need?” she said matter of factly. “You need to go to the corn roast over at the Presbyterian church and meet some nice folks.” She added that if we did try and break the lease, her husband, Sr. Caberro, would have our car impounded so we COULDN’T leave.

Panicking, I ran up to the U.S. Consulate to talk to Colonel Maher, an ex-CIA op, whom I’d met with once before. It was siesta time and the consulate was officially closed, but the shuttered windows to his office were open. I could see him sitting in the dark, feet up on his desk, and smoking a cigar. He looked like he was plotting to overthrow a mid-sized country.

I called to him and he came over to the window. I breathlessly explained our predicament. He listened attentively, chomping on the cigar before giving me his best legal advice.  “I know Sr. Cabellero,” he said. “He’s well connected. So my advice to you is to disappear.” The shutters snapped shut.

Now when I’d leased the house, we’d also inherited a maid, Lara, from the previous tenants. Lara was incredibly kind and was paid so little I would have felt guilty not to keep her on. We’d never had a maid before and I felt so awkward about having someone clean up after me that I walked around and helped her clean. Lara told me the previous tenants, two American women, had left suddenly in the middle of the night after only two months. A pattern was beginning to emerge..

We frantically began packing up the car with Lara’s help. Pat lived just up the street and had a clear view of our house so there was an air of urgency. All of the furniture I’d bought at the mercado would go to Lara, and all of the housewares as well. To my mind it was not much, but I came to realize that to Lara, it was the world.  We knew her husband had cancer and she was supporting an unknown number of children.

A relative of Lara’s arrived with a truck to cart off the furniture. Lara’s husband sat in the back of the truck, too weak to help. I wrote out a letter and in my broken Spanish bequeathed all of  our personal items to Lara as regalos, or gifts. Lara cried with happiness. Her children would sleep in beds for the first time that night. We kept one small side table with a hand carved top, which we tied to the top of the car.

When Richard and the boys had arrived three weeks earlier, the car was packed to the gills. Now I had to squeeze in, along with my luggage and a set of Mexican pottery that I couldn’t bear to leave behind. The car was essentially a low-rider heaving under the added weight. Richard took the hills out of town slowly. With every bump, we could hear the bottom of the car scrape against the cobblestoned street. We headed north. From time to time we looked in the rear view mirror, half expecting to see Sr. Caballero chasing us with a posse.

Richard was retracing the route he’s already driven to get to San Miguel, but for me this was uncharted terrain.  I was trying to take in the surreal landscape that is northern Mexico. In the middle of nowhere, a person would appear alongside of the road. We passed people who sold dried rattlesnake skins for a living. They lived in “houses” with organ cactus as walls.

The first night we stopped at motel that had never seen better days. When the guy at the front desk asked for our address, we mumbled something about being in transition. “Hippies!” he ascertained. This was the early 90s and the mere mention of “hippies” made me feel like we’d fallen through a rip in some time continuum. But, Taylor set him straight. “We’re homeless!” he announced.

The plan was to cross the border into Laredo, Texas. On the south side of the Rio Grande, lies the sprawling bastard child city that is Nuevo Laredo. It’s the equivilent to living on the wrong side of the tracks. Nuevo Laredo has been plagued by the kind of violence that accompanies drug trafficking. Wearing a badge is akin to wearing a target.

It was summer and the temperature hadn’t fallen below 100 for days. Even after the sun had finally set, there was no relief from the heat. When we finally saw the lights of Nuevo Laredo we cheered. In the distance, we could see the lights of Laredo, Texas – the promised land. All we had to do now was find Puente Numero Dos and we’d be home free. It was then that steam from the radiator began billowing out from the hood. We cursed the universe. Then cursed it some more. We pulled over and waited for the temperature gauge to go down then drove another mile. We stopped and repeated the ritual. It was slow going.

The boys’ survival instincts had obviously kicked in because they’d stopped talking altogether. They knew the next thing to blow was going to be mom or dad. Finally, we saw the sign; Puente Numero Dos.

A huge American flag waved on the Texas side of the bridge. I’d never felt such a surge of patriotism. That’s my flag! I felt like the character Sally Field played in, Not Without My Daughter after she’s recovered her kidnapped child and is running toward the American flag at the embassy.

Only 40 feet from the border, plumes of steam engulfed the car and we shut off the engine. I steered and Richard pushed. Slowly, we inched toward American soil. A U.S. Customs agent walked over to greet us. Never had English sounded so melodic. We stood there sweating and shell shocked. As the border agent checked our papers, we heard what sounded like a series of explosions. “What’s going on?” we asked.  The border agent looked at us, incredulously. “It’s the Fourth of July!“ he said. We looked up to see the sky filled with fireworks.  We didn’t care that they were red, white, and green.

We got the last room at La Quinta, only a stone’s throw from the bridge on the American side. Taylor walked into the room and promptly threw up. He then rinsed out his mouth (“Mom, can I drink the water now?”) and announced, “I’m hungry.  Can we go somewhere and eat?”  Richard took the boys to the Denny’s next door where they gorged on chicken-fried steak. Me, I laid on the bed in the air-conditioned room and turned on the TV. The sound of Ted Koppel’s voice was the sweetest lullaby I’d ever heard.

Steve Jobs – The Real Big Apple October 6, 2011

Posted by alwaysjan in Food for Thought, Personal.
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On Facebook, my “religion” is listed as “Apple – I bleed in six colors” I wasn’t always a “Mac person.” In the 1980s in NYC, I flailed away on a huge blah gray IBM trying to remember the alpha-numeric code that made it all happen – and not a lot happened at that time. The computer seemed like a glorified calculator and one step up from the IBM Selectric typewriter that allowed you to retype over misspelled words with that magic white correction tape. Now THAT was innovation!

When my neighbor showed me her new Apple computer with all of the excitement of a mother with her newborn, I was clueless. It was one of those early all-in-one chunk models, and I so didn’t get what this “computer for the rest of us” was all about. (To learn about the history of Apple – the logo, what a dogcow is, and lots of other weird facts, go to TAM (The Apple Museum).

But my husband, a film editor, quickly took to the the Mac. As I write this, I believe there are seven Apple computers under my roof. Add to those three iPhones and three iPods and you have my iHome (and to my thinking) a little bit of iHeaven.

I got fed up with the ancient PCs at my school – they were basically boat anchors with a cord. I instituted an Apple-only computer policy in my classroom as Apples will go the distance. Yes, we’ve got some funky bright blue and green ones donated, but I was able to upgrade the memory on these mules. They hum along even though they’re 100 plus in dog years. There’s no right click-left click in my room – that’s like goose-stepping to my artistic ears.

One of my favorite posts that I read on The Critical Thinker was Apple as a Religion, which was taken from The Varieties of Religious Experience: How Apple Stays Divine. I’d sing in the choir, but those who know me, know that when I sing, dogs howl.

It was only last weekend that I was  thinking of writing a post about Day of the Dead, or Dia de los Muertos. I remember thinking that if Steve Jobs HAD died, I’d put his picture on my ofrenda (alter). Then it occurred to me that if Steve Jobs were to die soon, one of my students could play him at the History Wax Museum for Open House. Now, I feel like the person who didn’t forward the chain letter, and so that’s why JFK was shot.

As the news was breaking earlier today, I came across the Gizmodo. Way cool. The ad people encouraged Jobs to do the voice over, but in the commercial that aired, Jobs opted for a voiceover by Richard Dreyfuss, so this is the version that didn’t air.


Steve Jobs was a true visionary, and he sure accomplished a hell of a lot for a guy who didn’t drink coffee.

Christmas is a Wrap January 2, 2011

Posted by alwaysjan in Entertainment, Holidays.
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As much as I love Christmas, once the lights come down and the decorations are carted back upstairs, I feel an overwhelming sense of relief.

Oh, the foot?  My son bought that one year for Halloween at the 99 Cent Store. It’s become a family tradition to put it in the foot of one of the boys’ Christmas stockings as a stocking stuffer. In my house, we’re big on traditions. These are the lasting memories that are the stuff of childhood (and later on – therapy).

Unfortunately, our annual tradition of going to see a really inappropriate movie on Christmas Eve was crushed when we showed up to see Rare Exports only to be told it didn’t start until Christmas Day.  In past years, movies have included  GremlinsDeuce Bigalo Male Gigolo, and Bad Santa. What can I say? I live with men. As much as my husband enjoys Love Actually, you can only watch it so many times. Ditto on It’s a Wonderful Life and A Christmas Story (though Darren McGavin’s character always reminded my husband of my father).

This year my friend Nora introduced me to The Bishop’s Wife which stars Cary Grant as an angel (think early George Clooney). The movie was released in 1947 when what a woman wanted most was a new hat. The coolest thing the angel does is make it so that the non-believer’s bottle of brandy automatically refill after it’s been poured. Now that’s the spirit of the season!

The day after Christmas we did make it to Rare Exports (Click Here to watch the trailer) to learn the story behind  the Real Santa Claus. It was actually a rather clever movie though it could kill tourism to Finland faster than you can say “dead reindeer.”

When Your Relative is a Pig April 10, 2010

Posted by alwaysjan in Personal.
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9 comments

In her Easter bonnet...

My sister-in-law Jane called from Idaho to tell how her seven year-old twins, Izzy and Kate, told their teacher they didn’t eat pork. When their teacher asked why, they replied, “Because our cousin Maisie is a pig.”  The teacher thought this was so imaginative, she shared it with Jane, who looked at her and with a straight face and replied, “Their cousin IS a pig.”

Of course, Jane then asked if we could dress Maisie up in some clothes and send a picture so the twins could take it for Show and Tell.  Yes, an outfit for a pig.  I added that to my very long “To Do” list.

By chance, our friend Nora was visiting from Chicago.  She’s hopelessly artsy and prone to flights of fancy. When she heard this story, I swear I saw her ears prick up.  “Maisie needs a hat,” Nora announced, as though this was the most sensible idea in the world.

With all the frills upon it.

The next day, Nora was “on it” though she returned home midday to measure the distance between Maisie’s ears.  Two days later, I found her sitting outside fashioning a hat from crepe paper and all the trimmings she’d purchased at Zinnia. There was a chill in the air, but compared to the the weather back in Chicago, it was downright balmy. While Nora fussed over the details, Maisie snoozed in the sun nearby. Every artist needs a muse.

Last week, I finally decided we had to get a shot of Maisie wearing THE hat. Working with a Plus Size model with an attitude is no walk in the park, but Maisie sees Project Runway in her future.  And I finally got to cross THAT off my “To Do” list.

Ultimately, this “project” made me thankful for all the crazy creative people in my life.  Those people, who without hesitation said,  “Their cousin IS a pig!” and “Maisie needs a hat.”  My hat’s off to them.

Adopting a Family for Christmas December 19, 2009

Posted by alwaysjan in Holidays.
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This year I adopted a family for the holidays at my school. Staff and parent volunteers worked tirelessly to deliver baskets to 80-plus families.

In the spirit of recycling, I came across the first story I ever had published and thought I’d reprint it.  Operation Santa Claus was appeared in Parents in December 1993.  When I reread the article, what jumped out was how my writing has evolved.  I’m inserting some original commentary in italics that was edited out.  My original piece wasn’t so saccharine. WARNING:  Reading this could induce a diabetic coma.  Always, Jan

Operation Santa Claus

Last year, as Christmas approached, I started wondering if this would be my son Taylor’s last Christmas as a believer.  After all, he was eight, and as a native new Yorker, he’s a born skeptic.

But my husband, Richard, and I had perpetuated the myth of Santa very well. Taylor and his five-year-old brother, Ian, wholeheartedly believed that a man who had a belly that shook like a bowl full of jelly parked his team of flying reindeer on the roof of our ten-story apartment building and popped down our chimney to deliver presents to us.  Each Christmas Eve, Santa wrote the boys a long letter in flowing script.  Each Christmas morning, the boys found the fireplace screen pushed aside and  large boot print in the soot, irrefutable proof that Santa did indeed exist.

I wanted to help Taylor – who spent hours working on his list for Santa, even attaching coupons in case there was a Toys “R” Us near the North Pole – begin to understand the joy of giving before he discovered the truth.  But how?

That’s when I heard about Operation Santa Claus.  Sixty-plus years ago, clerks at the New York City General Post Office knew that the letters addressed to Santa that they received would go unanswered.  So they dug into their own pockets to buy food and toys for the children. Eventually the public was invited to respond to the letters, and today many cities have similar programs.  I decided to enlist Taylor’s help.

I wandered around the crowded post office lobby until I found Santa’s official post-office box: a cardboard cutout of jolly old Saint Nick, and two long festively decorated tables that were laden with boxes of letters labeled “New York State” “New Jersey” and “Foreign,” as well as one box for each New York City borough.  I joined a dozen or so people who were busily sifting through the piles of letters.

There were many poignant stories.  One was from a needy mother asking for food and clothes for her children.  Another was from a special education teacher who asked for class supplies. After several minutes, I found the letter that touched my heart.  It was written by a child who lived in a New York City public housing project and began, “Dear Santa, I believe in you.”  I read on.

“I hope you and Mrs. Claus are fine and healthy.  I’ve been sick with asthma and that feels so bad.  My name is Maria, and I am almost 11 years old.  I have three brothers – Juan, age 16, Jose, age 15, and Carlos, age 9.  Carlos is handicapped, but I say to everyone that he is handicapable.

This year we all have been through a lot of scares and crying, including Mom, because Carlos has been very sick and in and out of the hospital.  He has a brain tumor and gets seizures. Our wish is for Carlos to get cured and to be able to walk, talk, and be normal.”

“Carlos and I share a room, and because he’s so sick, he still sleeps in a crib. So for Carlos, I wish a beautiful crib set – one with sheets and a pillow and curtains to match and a quilt.  He loves Mickey Mouse.”

“I would like an American Beauty Queen Barbie.  Juan and Jose would like some presents too. And can you also bring my mommy something?  She always gives to us and she never gets anything for herself.

“Thank you Santa.  I love you, Maria.”

A postal worker sitting behind the table smiled at me and said, “Did you find a letter?”  I nodded, and she handed me a form to sign.  I tucked Maria’s letter in my pocket and hummed Christmas musical all the way home.

Later that night, reality set in.  How could I afford gifts for other children when I could hardly afford them for my own?  (I have to admit, I wondered if maybe the letter was a scam – really, a brother with a brain tumor?) I considered returning the letter but instead let it sit in a drawer for several days.  Still ambivalent, I took a chance and shared it with Taylor.

He was shocked.  “How did you get Santa’s mail?” he queried.  I told him about Operation Santa Claus, but he still didn’t understand.  “Santa will bring Maria the presents she wants,” he said with conviction.

I took a deep breath but was surprised at how easily the words came out. “Making children happy at Christmas is too big a job for just one person to do, even Santa Claus,” I blurted. “Santa needs all the help he can get.”

Taylor went for the lure.  It was as though Santa himself had asked Taylor to be one of his elves.  We resolved that we would answer the letter.  But Christmas was only ten days away, and we had our work cut out for us.  We made a list of Maria’s requests.

The next day I went shopping for a Mickey Mouse crib set.  But even at a discount store, the set cost $45, well beyond our budget.  I called all my friends, but was unsuccessful in locating a used crib set.  I started to get discouraged.

Maria had included her phone number in her letter, so I nervously called her mom.  “You don’t know me,” I said, “But I’m a friend of Santa’s, and I’m calling about Maria’s letter to Santa Claus.”

There was a long silence.  Then Maria’s mom made the connection.  I was relieved to find her warm and friendly.

I was honest with Maria’s mom about our financial situation.  “Of all the people who could have picked your daughter’s letter, I’m afraid you’re stuck with us,” I apologized.  Maria’s mom assured me that any gift, no matter how small, would mean a great deal to Maria.

Sadly, Maria’s mom confirmed that Carlos had a brain tumor and she told me that he didn’t have long to live.  She also told me that Carlos loved to watch cartoons and that Maria had a tape player and liked music, which gave me some ideas.  Maria’s mom and I set a time on Christmas Eve for the package to be delivered.

The big day was only a week away, and Taylor stopped working on his “want” list to join me in a last-minute scavenger hunt.  This is what we found:

•  At the Salvation Army: a just-like-new Mickey Mouse T-shirt.  Paired with some bright red leggings, we had a pair of pajamas for Carlos.

• At home: two never-worn boys’ shirts, a Sesame Street book, and a video of classic Mickey Mouse cartoons.

• From Ian’s kindergarten teacher: an extra copy of a book-and-tape set called Las Navidades, which featured Christmas songs from Puerto Rico (where Maria’s family was from).

• From holiday visitors:  a large store-bought Italian cake, festively wrapped and decorated with Santa stickers, and homemade bread shaped like teddy bears.

• Finally I splurged and paid ten dollars for a video cassette tape of Home Alone.  I also bought some Christmas candy.  Behind the cash register was an enticing display of giant brass jingle bells dangling on red satin strings. “I’ll take four of those too,” I heard myself say.

The day before Christmas Eve, we needed one more item: a Barbie doll for Maria.  I was surprised when Taylor, who gags at the mere sight of a Barbie commercial, announced that he would help me choose one.  Our budget limited us to buying a special-edition Barbie made exclusively for a discount department store.

On the morning of December 24, we found an old corrugated plastic postal carton on the sidewalk in front of our apartment.  It looked very official, so we carried it inside and washed it in the bathtub.  Then we stenciled “To Maria” on one side and “From the North Pole” on the other.  We wrapped the loot in Christmas paper and tied it up with a red ribbon.

Midafternoon, I sat down to write Maria a letter.  I explained that I was fortunate to be one of Santa’s friends.  I told her that I wished with all my heart that Carlos would be better, but sometimes all the love, money, and prayers in the world couldn’t change what was destined to happen.  I also told her that Carlos was lucky to have such a loving sister, for there is no greater gift than love.  I remember crying as I signed the letter “Merry Christmas, Maria. From one of Santa’s many helpers.”

The sun was starting to sink low in the sky when we pulled on our coats. (The housing project was on the Lower East Side, and to be honest, I wanted to get in and out of that neighborhood before dark.) “Wait a minute,” yelled Taylor. “What about snow?  If a package came from the North Pole, it would have snow on it!” Needless to say, there was not an inch of snow in New York City.  So we made some by chiseling ice out of the freezer. We packed several large “snowballs” into a cup.  Finally we were ready.

Richard, Ian, Taylor, and I donned our jingle-bell necklaces and then raced out of our apartment building and down the subway steps.  As people heard us jingling, they turned their heads and smiled at us.

A short while later, we found Maria’s building – a drab institutional high-rise. Richard and Ian held the elevator door while Taylor and I tiptoed over to Maria’s front door and set the box down.  Taylor sprinkled “snow” on the package, and then he took off his necklace and hung it around the top of the package.  “She’ll love this,” he whispered.

We shook our jingle bells and banged on Maria’s door.  As soon as we heard footsteps, we ran for the elevator.  The apartment door opened, and Maria’s mother called out, “Thank you! Merry Christmas!”

Once outside, Taylor was ecstatic  We’d pulled it off! Maria would never expect.  “Next year,” announced Taylor, “I want to answer three letters!”

That night at home, we sat around a roaring fire and drank hot cocoa. Taylor and Ian carefully laid out nine carrots, one for each of Santa’s reindeer. Once the boys were asleep, Santa filled their stockings and placed the presents under the tree.

On Christmas morning, Taylor and Ian awoke to find the carrots gone and the fireplace screen pushed aside.  The same child who had sprinkled snow on Maria’s package carefully examined the boot print in the soot and proclaimed that it was, indeed, Santa’s.

I’m no longer worried about Taylor’s finding out the truth.  Whether he realized it or not, he already knows the biggest truth of the season.  It is better to give than to receive. I think he is going to make a terrific Santa.

Seeing Red June 5, 2009

Posted by alwaysjan in Personal.
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ginger

Better dead than red. That was my mother’s take on red hair. So it was my misfortune to have been born with red hair (as was my mother’s). There are gorgeous photos of my mother in college, but alas they’re all in black and white. So, there’s not even any hard evidence that my mother ever was a redhead.

My mother always felt that her red hair made her stand out, something she was loathe to do. As a child, I watched her mix the magic solution that changed her hair to a color that can best be called basic brown.

She mixed two shades of Nice ‘n Easy hair color to get just the right color for me. I called it “House Mouse Brown.” Can hair actually look beige?

Many people assume that with my red hair and green eyes, I must be of Irish ancestry. But my ancestors were from England, Wales, Scotland, and Germany. Scotland actually has the highest proportion of redheads with 13 percent having red hair and 40 percent possessing the recessive red hair gene. Even my father had reddish sideburns that emerged in middle age and remained red long after his hair started going gray.

While my hair was strawberry blond, my younger brother’s hair was carrot red. My mother tried to talk my brother into dying his hair too, but his defiant “stage” outlasted mine.

What I didn’t know (and what my mother didn’t tell me) was that for centuries “red hair was thought to be a mark of a beastly sexual desire and moral degeneration.” Hey, that’s me to a T!  To learn more, check out Redheads: Myths, Legends, and Famous Red Hair.

In college, I let my hair revert back to its natural color. And I finally quit trying to straighten my hair. I had a virtual mushroom cloud of golden red curls and, for the first time in my life, I was okay with my hair. In fact, I actually quite liked it.

My friend Lesley in England is a gorgeous cheeky redhead, and she’s joined a Facebook group called “Ginger – It’s not a hair colour, it’s an ethnicity and a way of life.” That’s where I got the photo above. I had fun reading through the group’s invitation to “live the ginger life.” (I’m still adjusting to this “ginger” thing.  It didn’t help that they did an entire episode on South Park on “gingers.”)

I keep my hair cut shorter now. I tell my hair stylist to think of my hair as a native shrub – low maintenance. There are entire weeks where I simply run my hands through my hair and that’s that.  But now I know – better red than dead!

Out of the ash
I rise with my red hair
And eat men like air.

Sylvia Plath

Leaving on a Jet Plane May 16, 2009

Posted by alwaysjan in Travel.
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jet

Forget what clothes I should pack. I’m too busy trying to figure out which cables, battery chargers, and atomic reactors I need to take to keep me and my Significant Other (Mac) up and running in England. Then there’s the cell phone and the digital camera…  So much for getting away from it all! If you’re feeling a tad envious that I’m jetting off, just reread Time Zone Zombie – Asleep at 30,000 Feet. Feel better now?

Photo Credit: Leaving on a jet plane by Aky B on Flickr.

London Calling May 9, 2009

Posted by alwaysjan in Life, Travel.
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picture-4

Screen shot of Lesley showing me her date book so I would pick a date.

I’m off to England, I’m off to see the queen!  No, not THAT old girl – my friend Lesley, a sassy redhead, who could teach the royals a thing or two about having a good time.

“You know this is all quite mad?” Lesley said as we chatted via SKYPE. But it wasn’t so much of a question as a statement of fact.

But some days, I think the whole world’s gone mad. Fortunately, I subscribe to the “Life is short, eat dessert first” school of thought. So, when I found out I got accepted to graduate school (See Masters of the Universe), I knew I needed to reward myself before I got bogged down with classes two nights a week for the next year. And since the classes start only four days after the last day of school in June, it had to be soon – before the end of school.

Lesley and I met via the internet less than two years ago. When she invited my husband and me to come to England to celebrate New Year’s Eve with her family in 2007, all of our friends thought we’d both gone quite mad. (See Thinking of England) But, we’re two crazy redheads, and yes, everything they say about redheads is true! I once read an interview with a man who’d lived to be 105. He said his secret to a long life was he stayed away from “wine, whiskey, and red-headed women.” Poor old sot!

After Lesley and her family spent two fabulous weeks with us last summer, we both worried it would be too long until we met again. So, I couldn’t believe it when she’d offered to pay half my airfare just to get me over there. I found a cheap enough flight, so I’m going on my own dime. I was able to sandwich (as in The Earl of…) the trip in between Testing and Open House, so I’ll only miss five days of school. The MANDATORY MEETING for grad school is May 15th. On May 16th, I’m outta here til May 25th.

We’re taking the train to London for a day to see the art at the Tate Modern and the National Gallery. The rest of the time, I’ll be blissfully enjoying English village life in Framlingham where we plan to sit out front of The Dancing Goat cafe each morning, have breakfast, and watch the world go by.

I’m still deciding whether to take my laptop along so I can blog from the UK. I’ve been known to get “the DTs” (Digital Tremors) when deprived access to the internet for too long. I’m SO not PC –  as in I don’t do PCs, so I might have to pack my Mac. Okay, I’m taking it. You should know that we redheads are prone to impulsive behavior, but we DO know how to have a good time.

Can’t help but add Mad World from one of my all-time favorite movies, Donnie Darko.

Pardon My Pig – Part 2 December 28, 2008

Posted by alwaysjan in Pets.
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s

Feel free to make a pig of yourself and read “Pardon My Pig – Part 1″ and “Halloween for Queen Porcine” first.  You’ll find these in Tags under Pets and Pigs.    

What’s that you say?  Keep in mind that’s my daughter you’re talking about. Okay, I admit that in “Pardon My Pig – Part 1,”  I used a picture of an adorable piglet, who Maisie once bore (boar?) a passing resemblance to.  But as you can see, she’s one big-boned gal.   

I tried to walk Maisie around the block once, but she doesn’t really walk – she ambles.  I took my eye off her for just a second and when I looked back, she had uprooted a neighbor’s mid-sized shrub and was carrying it her mouth.  First walk – last walk.

Maisie has since been confined to the backyard where she’s happy to lounge under the fig tree (waiting for a ripe fig to drop into her mouth, especially after she gives the tree a good nudge).  On a summer day you’ll find her lying out on the patio basking in the sun.  Sometimes my neighbor Stella, who’s originally from Greece, leaves a bag of fruit hanging over the fence for “the pork,” as she refers to Maisie.  I’m sure it’s just a language thing, but I did keep a watchful eye on “the pork” when I saw the Greeks had rented a large electric spit last Easter.  

Maisie escaped once.  I’d gone out for lunch with my friend Eunice and as we walked home we saw a small crowd gathered next to the power company’s right-of-way.  And what were they looking at?  My pig of course, who was nibbling tall grass and acting oh so nonchalant.  Eunice and I spent the next half hour “herding” Maisie down the alley with a big stick. Where’s a coolie hat when you need one?

When Maisie hit 100 pounds, the local vet would no longer see her (weight discrimination!) so we called Chris, the Mobile Vet, who’s way cool and makes house calls.  I know when he’s arrived because I can hear the whooshing sound of money flying out of our bank account.  The first time Chris came for a visit, he actually looked at us straight-faced and asked what kind of toys we had to keep Maisie intellectually stimulated.  I half expected him to tell us we needed to buy her a chess set.  I took notes. Chris suggested we plant strawberries so she could graze on them.  But after having seen the way she took that shrub out, roots and all, I opted to plant them above her grazing level.  

Chris also noted that Maisie’s hooves turned inward due to a genetic deformity, and said she could benefit from wearing some sort of orthopedic shoes.  And where would we buy orthopedic pig shoes?  Chris suggested that I could design them! I bought  a pair of  toddler’s sandals at Target and tried my best – really!   I’m afraid I’m no cobbler, so Maisie’s destined to be a hobbler. 

The visits from Chris to trim Maisie’s hooves (her “pig pedicure”) every six months were pricey.   Really, how hard could it be?  We’re real do-it-yourselfers, so I purchased some harrier clippers. (Think hedge clippers for horses.)  Now, to cut a pig’s hooves, you’ve got to first take them by surprise, then grab them by the back legs and flip them over on their back. One person holds them steady while they scream and moan, while the other does the clipping.  (You should know they’ve measured the decibel level of a pig squealing, and it’s right up there with the sound of a jet engine at take-off.) Chris and his assistant had made it look so easy.  Oh, the money we’d save!

We’d procrastinated long enough. We had to do IT.  Richard and I sat on the den floor with Maisie, who was already suspicious about our newfound interest in sitting on the floor beside her.   Every time Richard casually made a move to grab her, Maisie sprinted out of reach.  

Exasperated, I finally said, “Let’s just DO this!” at which point Richard lunged across the room and grabbed hold of Maisie’s hind legs.  How can I begin to describe what happened next?  For two minutes, Maisie ran figure eights around the den dragging Richard behind her as though he were some rodeo clown.  Richard finally let go and Maisie made a quick exit.  Richard was dazed and had a nasty rug burn on his face, but he couldn’t feel a thing cause we were both laughing so hard.  After that, we couldn’t call Chris fast enough.  Sometimes us do-it-yourselfers need to learn to delegate so we can focus on the really important stuff – like the strawberries.

Cockroach Confidential September 20, 2008

Posted by alwaysjan in Life.
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There were cockroaches everywhere. A biblical plague had descended on the Holy Land – the Holy Land being our overpriced New York City apartment. (Yes, I realize that using the word “holy” in the same sentence as “New York City” amounts to blasphemy.) The final straw came when we found them crawling in the cereal that my sons ate. Cereal killers! Drastic times call for drastic measures. We decided it was time to call in the professionals. Who you gonna call? – (No, not them) – Lady Killers!

I can’t remember how I found out about Lady Killers, but the woman on the phone assured me she could take care of “the problem.” I envisioned a highly-trained entomological exorcist who could banish these six-legged demons that had turned our lives into a living hell.

We’d exhausted the traditional “final solutions.” We’d already sprinkled crop circles of boric acid around the apartment, and all of the Roach Motels had vacancy signs. We’d taken to wiping down the kitchen counter hourly and keeping all food in tightly sealed plastic containers. It was like we were living in a bomb shelter and dipping into rations when we ate.

I eagerly awaited the arrival of the Lady Killer. So I was a bit taken aback when a dowdy, overweight woman arrived and introduced herself as Elaine. This was the Lady Killer? She had an unusually firm handshake. That’s when I realized the Lady Killers were not just ladies, they were lesbians. Talk about a niche market.

As Elaine regaled us with tales of the German Brown cockroach’s superpowers, I couldn’t help but be reminded of the crusty old shark hunter Robert Shaw played in Jaws. All she was missing was the bite out of her forearm. She informed us a cockroach could live off a single drop of grease in the air for a year. And just like those starving Russians during the Siege of Leningrad, cockroaches could survive by eating the glue from book bindings. We had an entire wall of books, which I now realized was a virtual Hometown Buffet.

From her purse, Elaine produced several unmarked plastic squeeze bottles containing a mysterious white powder. Boric acid?  “No,” she scoffed. She informed us that eating boric acid only made THEM stronger. To be honest, I was afraid to ask her what was in the bottles. Although Elaine assured us it was non-toxic to humans, where was the label? This was obviously some home brewed concoction. But we were desperate. Sometimes it’s best not to know.

For the next two hours, Elaine ransacked our apartment squirting the white powder into every nook and cranny. The entire time, we raptly listened as she detailed the down and dirty habits of the German army that had been occupying our apartment and holding us hostage. She informed us the reason THEY were inside the kitchen clock is that they liked the warmth, and it provided an excellent base camp to launch their expeditions. If I’m ever a contestant on Jeopardy, I can only hope that one of the categories is Cockroaches. I’ll take Cockroaches for $500 please!

We wrote out a check for a couple of hundred dollars and waited. Elaine had said it would take a week before we’d see results. My husband was convinced the white powder was plain old boric acid and the “wait a week” ploy was just to give Elaine time to cash the check. He of little faith.

After a week, THEY began dying. Within two weeks our apartment was roach-free (knock on wood!). The down side was that every time we opened a file cabinet or drawer, a plume of white powder would rise up, leaving traces of white powder on our face and hair. This was New York City in the 80s, so I’m sure our neighbors just thought we had a serious cocaine problem. Any New Yorker can tell you that’s not nearly as bad as a serious roach problem.

We didn’t see a cockroach for six blissful months. Six months may not seem like a long time. But after eight years of daily hand-to-hand combat, this was a dream come true vacation. I actually began to relax. We still kept all of the food in plastic containers; but I no longer swatted anything that moved in my peripheral vision, including my children.

After six months, the clock struck midnight and the spell was broken. The roaches began straggling back. So Elaine returned once again with the magic powder. By then, she knew the most intimate details of our lives – as she’d been through every drawer and cabinet in our apartment.

By the time we finally decided to leave New York City, the cockroaches were back in full force. If I had any second thoughts about our flight from the Holy Land, these were put to rest when I saw baby roaches crawling inside the digital display on the microwave oven. Gross! We waved the white surrender flag and were escorted safely out of the combat zone aka New York City.

We were excited to be moving to Mexico. Little did we know that a welcoming committee was already forming to greet us – of scorpions.

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