There are none of those “is-she-or-isn’t-she” pauses; no worries that they will make a mistake while identifying this bowling ball of a belly as a baby-in-the-making.
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Clearly, this woman is pregnant. Very.
Yes, we have entered the phase where fellow passengers on the airplane look at me nervously. Where some people look at me and smile and other people avert their eyes uncomfortably. And where everybody – everybody – asks whether we have a name yet.
I mean, some people don’t. But many do.
And we have learned, Husband and I, that no good can come from answering this question.
See, everyone went to school with someone with the same name you are pondering for your soon-to-be progeny. Usually it was the nasty kid or the evil girl or that guy they thought was up to no good behind the black fingernails and dark hooded sweatshirt. And they will jump to share this information. Because.... because.
Or maybe the name sounds to your friend/relative/person behind the Starbucks counter like it has, as one helpful barista informed me, a bad aura.
Or perhaps the inquirer will share the important factoid that every other child in her daughter’s class has that same name, and how she is quite glad that her child won’t need to have a last initial attached to her first name to distinguish her from all the other Sofias/Isabellas/Emmas out there. (No judgement call there, folks – just picked as examples the top names of 2011, as called by the Social Security Administration.)
Or they can respond like my mother.
“Hm,” she says weakly after we shared our most recent idea. “Have you thought about ‘Abigail?’ ”
Even when the reaction is positive it can still create nervousness.
“Oh, that’s a pretty name!” a few friends declared the other day.
But are they just being nice? I wondered. What if we decide to switch to a different name – will they think that we’ve done my baby daughter a lifelong disservice? And what would they think if I gave them my honest answer, that really we have no solid idea about what to name Two, and that we still don’t have a place set up for her to sleep?
And wait, why am I caring about what other people think, anyhow? Clearly I will be a bad mother if I can’t even model minimal resistance to peer pressure.
The nervous prenatal logic system spins.
Looking for advice and relief, I turned to the Internet. Helpful, always. But there is not much to be gained from even the BabyCenter website, which, unlike the more official Social Security Administration, has already released its top names of 2012, as reported by half a million users who decided to share this intimate detail with the web. BabyCenter also has compiled some “naming trends” to help out parents-to-be like me.
(There are also chat boards where you can run your name by perfect strangers. Because, you know, anonymous Internet users are a good target audience.)
I checked out the trends to see whether we were, I don’t know, current. And to maybe get a little bit of inspiration.
“50 shades of baby names!” sang the first headline.
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For now, I decided, we will simply continue to ponder in silence. And to smile when people ask about what name we have chosen for the bowling ball.
“Nothing definite,” I will respond. “Have any ideas yourself?”
The very idea of a teen flash mob is enough to send shivers through even the hippest of adults. Just think about it: Hundreds of adolescents, urged on by the forces of social media, gathering late at night, often with no real plan. Not exactly an environment for good judgement.
Indeed, take a glance at the news from the Mall of Louisiana. Last night, an apparent teen flash mob turned into a brawl in the food court – as well as a stampede and a police intervention that led to the mall's early closing.
And that’s only the latest example of scary teen flash mob incidents. Flash “robs” in Chicago, Philadelphia and elsewhere have gotten quite a lot of press over the past year, as have related brawls and random attacks.
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But it’s not all bad. Teens have also gathered to show off their spontaneous dance moves in support of everything and everybody from anti-bullying efforts, Canadian aboriginals and sexual assault victims. And because we like teenagers over here at Modern Parenthood (they’re exasperating sometimes, sure, but really, who else thinks of a square-dancing flash mob for downtown Seattle? Or turning Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” into political activism?) we thought we’d give you a sampling of our favorite, awesome, teen flash mobs over the past year.
You know, just to balance out the coverage.
Democracy and gospel
Early last year, about 60 homeless children and their parents interrupted a Washington, D.C. city government hearing to protest funding gaps in homeless services and affordable housing programs. They handed representatives hand-painted houses with the message “Kids Need Homes” and sang gospel songs.
An education thriller
Sacramento State University students joined together in a choreographed flash mob in support of California’s Proposition 30 – a proposal (that later passed) to raise income taxes on the state’s wealthiest citizens and increase the sales tax in order to fund education. They boogied to Michael Jackson’s “Thriller,” which really must be one of the top flash mob tunes around.
“This is kind of a way to reach out to students and a cooler way to show, ‘Hey, Prop. 30 is here and if you’re interested about it you can go research it,’ ” graduate student Allison McNamara, who helped organize and choreograph the event, told the student paper.
OK, so this isn’t teen-only event, but it involves enough young people that we just had to include it. The story of the little boy in East L.A. who built his own arcade out of cardboard boxes in the front of his dad’s auto parts store was one of 2011’s most heartwarming tales. And if you recall, the turning point of the story was all about a flash mob. Filmmaker Nirval Mullick invited people over social media to show up at Caine’s elaborate homemade arcade and make the little boy’s day – the result was a tear-jerking and sweet film that also went viral online.
In June, dozens of teens gathered in downtown Seattle, not to storm Nordstrom or 7-Eleven, but to.... square dance. Yup, square dance. As in do-si-do that partner. Admittedly, a number of the participants were in teen square dancing clubs, so it’s hard to know exactly how random was this random display of dancing. But the youtube video makes it look a lot more fun than it was during my middle-school camping trips ... and it seems from the footage that a bunch of adults walking by decide to join the fun.
The Rhode Island Coalition Against Domestic violence organized a flash mob dance in Providence to raise awareness about teen dating violence. The young women (and a few guys) danced to Gloria Gaynor’s “I will Survive,” which is almost as good as “Thriller” for these purposes, we say. Teen activists have participated in a slew of similar dances across the country, from Washington, D.C. to St. Louis, Missouri.
Why do we love it?
As much as I’ve enforced the “no TV” rule throughout Ellen’s childhood, I have to admit: I love the feeling of the Sunday-night ritual of getting Mom, Dad, Kid and Dog together on the couch, staring into the flat screen and sharing the tangle of angsts, glories, irritations, and loves of Downton for 60 minutes – as well as our own irritations when that 60 minutes is up. It’s like having our own cozy little tea time – only we’re dressed in pajamas and Queenie tends to bark when we get too unruly about the latest injustice to passive-aggressive Bates.
I revel in every moment from that rear-view Lab shot in the opening credits to the brutal cliffhanger closings and all the in-between of the fine cutlery of Maggie Smith’s one-liners, the copper pots and pans that make even English fare look good, and the desire to just reach out and touch someone (an encouraging cheek squeeze in the case of goofy servant Daisy, a firm pinch for middle-Crawley-daughter Edith, and a bear hug for butler Mr. Carson). And, I’m able to suspend disbelief (I’m talking to you New York Times critic Alessandra Stanley!) of the show being unrealistic treacle because ... I just want to. I even succumbed to Boston public television’s WGBH membership drive just to get that “Free Bates” T-shirt they were offering.
My husband considers the show just “a cracking-good old-fashioned soap opera of a story” that substitutes rich characters for the modern TV failsafe of video game action or cheap humor. And, like me, he likes his TV ritual and he likes it on Sunday nights – and rarely any other time – as a cozy family thing going back to “Bonanza” and “Disney’s Wonderful World of Color” and “Matlock” and “Murder She Wrote.”
We think this ritual is sinking in to another generation with Ellen because of Downton. And even with the slightly adult themes some parents have objected to in web chatter – such as the gay kiss in the first season between scheming Thomas the footman and a visiting duke – we both feel a lot happier sitting down with our daughter to watch an hour of parlor lit than “Glee” or “Gossip Girl.”
Ellen’s favorite character is Sybil “the rebellious sister who ran away for love,” she says. “Because she’s independent and unselfish.” But as romantic as her feelings are about that character, Ellen’s pretty unsentimental about the ritual her dad and I love. She says she’d be into Downton whether we watched it together or not. I’m just not sure, though, that she’d ever have been exposed to it without us – PBS isn’t her first stop when given free rein with the remote, and she claims there’s no discussion of the show among friends because she thinks no one her age has ever heard of it.
I called Martha Matlaw, a former middle school English teacher of Ellen’s whose love of good stories really inspires kids, to find out if her students are chattering about the third season opener this weekend, and she confirmed Ellen’s unscientific sense of it: The kids don’t seem to be talking about it. But, she discovered one student who watches with her family. So Ellen’s got company in 7th grader Gia Bond, whose favorite Downton denizen is also Sybil because “she’s so different from the other characters ... and [because] she wants to be a doctor.”
Gia’s mom, Erica, says the family watched the first season in “3-episode marathons” on Netflix because of all the buzz about it on Facebook, just like we did. And now they’re all waiting excitedly, just like us, for the 3rd season. Well, all except Gia’s little 8-year-old brother who doesn’t like it and goes to bed before they watch the show.
The Bonds sit together on the couch, just like us, and, says Gia, “if something upsets us we usually yell at the TV like it’s a baseball game.”
Even though Ellen and Gia think they’re outliers, I think there are a whole lot of families like us who’ll be on the couch Sunday, together, rooting for the good guys – “Free Bates!” – jeering at the bad guys, admiring the clothes and creating family memories around the electronic hearth for another generation. It’s all good.
My wife Judy and I generally don’t cotton to winter in Massachusetts, but this year we were actually looking forward to the first significant snowfall. We were eager to see how Albie, the half golden retriever, half yellow Lab we adopted in July, was going to react, seeing as how he came to us from Louisiana where snow is as rare as bipartisanship on Capitol Hill.
He didn’t disappoint. There’s nothing quite as amusing as watching an 80-pound dog bounce straight up in the air, all four feet well off the ground, rotate 180 degrees before landing, repeat the maneuver a half dozen times in rapid succession then plow his snout into a snow pile, roll over on his back, writhe around like Elvis for 60 seconds, pop up and then tear off like Secretariat across the nearby golf course. Yes, that first day or so was magic in a bottle. It was even about 30 degrees – not beach weather, but not “we need to go south now” weather, either. Tolerable, even pleasant, if you had a direct bead on the sun.
Now the reality of winter with a dog as energetic outside the house as he is mellow inside it is settling in. On a recent day, at about 8 a.m., when I wasn't feeling well, it was time to take Albie out for his morning constitutional. A year ago I’d have pulled the covers tight and closed my eyes for, say, another two days. Not an option anymore.
Before the snow came, Albie and I would cover five or six holes out on the golf course, explore three sand traps and two water hazards before heading home, but it was about 12 degrees when we went out that morning. We’d barely "played" one hole when I lost feeling in the tips of my fingers despite wearing the new gloves I got for my birthday. It didn’t help that the snow had covered the ground to a depth of about 8-10 inches because Albie, who prefers to poop in leaves or pine needles or on a downed branch, no longer had the cues, visual or olfactory, to guide him. Consequently, he seemed at a loss and it took him an awfully long time to decide on the perfect spot for a deposit. I used to think time stood still while waiting for my kids to fall asleep when they were little, but at least I could wait where it was warm. When it’s 12 degrees and there’s a stiff wind blowing from the north, time and water both freeze.
When we’d finally concluded the morning’s business, we started trudging back up the hill toward home and for a brief moment I considered the perplexing impulses of Admiral Byrd and other polar explorers, wondering how they endured week after week of numbing cold when they obviously had the leisure to be exploring, say, Polynesia. Eyes fixed straight ahead, with Albie on his leash a few strides behind, I sensed something odd was happening. I turned and saw Albie on an ice patch walking normally but losing a little bit of ground with each step. I can’t imagine what he makes of ice and how it undermines his sure-footedness.
Albie has his winter coat now, a much plusher, thicker version of the one he arrived with in July. Apparently, changes in the coat are triggered by hours of daylight, ensuring a light coat in summer and the rich, satiny soft one in winter. My question is whether he’s going to be too hot when we drive somewhere south of the 28th parallel to spend next winter chasing sandpipers instead of snowflakes.
This time of year a lot of lists are written. Unfortunately, many of the same goals keep appearing on these lists year after year. They often include things that need to be done around the house, home improvement or organization projects. In conducting stress-reduction workshops, I noticed how frequently people mentioned the perennial unfinished project list as a source of stress.
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Part of the problem in accomplishing the goal is that it appears at the top of the page. We often don't think about the fact that the item needs to be at the bottom of the page with dozens of steps preceding it. It's clearly not as simple as placing the item at the bottom of the page, but that act realizes the truth that the lack of accomplishment is not a character flaw, but a lack of planning. We are not just being lazy or procrastinating - more often we're missing a clear path to the goal.
This faulty thinking reminded me of a sampler I embroidered with the phrase, "Plan your work, then work your plan." Most people in the workshops had not really planned their work, even though they were making stabs at it.
From that observation I began including an activity in the stress-management workshops that focused on the process of planning one's work. It also recognized the importance of giving a name to all the little obstacles that are between the goal and its accomplishment. I titled the activity the yeah-but List and invited participants to work in pairs, but it is not a complicated exercise and can easily be done alone.
The directions are simple. First, write the goal at the bottom of a page, then start a series of yeah-but, all reasons that the specific task can't be done. Write each yeah-but down, working your way up to the top of the page by answering each yeah-but with another.
One participant shared her reappearing goal of getting the bathroom remodeled. It started with: "Get the bathroom redone." The first yabut: "Yeah-but I can't do that until I get the name of a good contractor." So, her partner wrote, "Get the name of a good contractor."
The next yabut: "Yeah-but I can't do that until I call my cousin's neighbor, she had a great outcome." And her partner wrote down, "Call my cousin's neighbor."
"Yeah-but I can't call her until I find the gardening book she loaned me." And her partner wrote down, "Find the gardening book."
The process continued with each yeah-but translated into a step. "Yeah-but I can't do that until I can get into the garage, where we stored all the books when we repainted the office. Yeah-but I can't do that until I get my son's car out of the way. Yeah-but I can't do that until I get the garage door fixed. Yeah-but I can't do that until I get the number of the garage-door installer."
The final step was, "Yeah-but I can't do that until I get online and find his number." The partner wrote down, "Get online and get the number!"
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When the exercise was done, the woman had a list of steps to get her started. Little did she realize when she began the exercise that her bathroom remodel hinged on the phone number of the garage-door installer.
I don't know if the woman ever got her bathroom remodeled. I do hope that she and the other participants gained a new strategy for chipping away at the annual list by understanding that most accomplishments happen through dozens of baby steps, formerly viewed as obstacles.
It’s the only developed country that doesn’t guarantee some form of paid leave to new moms, they say, and it’s one of only a very few even when you include impoverished and developing countries. One recent report, for instance, identified only four nations – the US, Swaziland, Liberia, and Papua New Guinea – that do not guarantee a new mom income while she stays home with her baby.
This is the sort of tidbit that makes the rounds via Facebook. (One recent meme “mapped” paid maternity leave, showing how many more weeks of paid leave Pakistan, South Africa, Mexico, and Venezuela give to new moms, compared with zero from the US.) It gets repeated as a given in debates and on social action websites such as Change.org.
So we wanted to find out – is it true? Is the US, globally, really all that bad when it comes to family leave policies?
It’s an important question. The lack of paid leave has major ripple effects. Although the US Family and Medical Leave Act guarantees eligible employees 12 weeks off after the birth of the child, it only covers a fraction of the US workforce, and does not require employers to pay the parent's salary. This means that many moms (and some dads) face the financial lose-lose of either giving up large amounts of income while they stay home with baby, or spending lots of money on high-priced infant day care.
Researchers have found that a new baby in the house is one of the top reasons for a “poverty spell,” when a family’s income dips below what is needed to pay for basic expenses. Some studies have also connected bankruptcy filings and foreclosures to moms or dads who take leave without pay after the birth of a child.
But does the US actually “lag behind,” as a number of advocates say?
If you have read Modern Parenthood before you know that we try to bring a critical eye to the oft-repeated conventional wisdom about families and parenting. We have questioned the massive anti-bullying trend sweeping the country’s schools, for instance. We raised some questions about the anti-sex trafficking movement. So we were certainly willing to debunk a myth here.
Except ... this one seems to be pretty right on. According to a number of reports, the US does seem to be out of step with other countries when it comes to maternity leave policy. (It also is one of the few countries that has not signed two international conventions on women’s rights that outline the importance of paid leave for new moms.)
The Project on Global Working Families, a joint venture by Harvard and McGill Universities, developed with the support of the Ford Foundation a “Work, Family, and Equity Index,” in which it evaluates policies such as parental leave, paid sick leave, work hours, and support for breastfeeding. Researchers scoured national labor codes and other laws, dug into the International Labour Organization’s database of global labor, social security and human-rights legislation, and reviewed dozens of secondary sources – all to try to piece together what can sometimes seem like an apple-orange comparison of different countries’ labor policies.
Of the 173 countries the researchers evaluated for policies around childbearing, they found that 169 offered moms guaranteed leave with income. (This is either because the government provides it, or because the government mandates employers to provide it.) Ninety-eight of those countries offer 14 or more weeks paid leave.
And dads aren’t left out. (At least not totally.) Sixty-six countries ensure that fathers receive or have a right to paid parental leave.
So what’s up with the US?
As anyone who followed this last presidential election knows all too well, we are a country resistant to “government meddling” – especially in areas that we have traditionally thought of as private. This gets even more virulent if you start messing around with business bottom lines, which would clearly be affected if the government required employers to pay women during maternity leave. (Not to mention the following complaints of non-parents who might wonder why they don’t get paid leave for some other sort of family obligation.)
Supporters of paid leave have counter arguments. They say that paid leave would result in improved employee retention, health and quality, and would more than offset the financial hit to the employer, or to the taxpayers.
But at this point, it’s not something the US federal government has been willing to legislate.
And if you look closer, the US might not be as bad, comparatively, as it seems. In many countries that seem to have cushy maternity leave, a huge percentage of women work in the informal sector. That means they don’t benefit from the policies. And in other countries – Somalia, for instance, which guarantees 14 to 25 weeks paid leave for new moms – the ability of government to enforce policies is sketchy, at best.
Still, there is growing pressure from US mom groups to revisit the issue of paid parental leave.
In the meantime, we'll envy Sweden.
There is a mafia in Oslo.
Members of the clan are fearless and prefer to do their work in broad daylight. They’re easy to spot, often travel in packs and can be aggressive when on the streets, yet no one dare respond to an “inadvertent” bump with anything but an apology. These mafia operatives don’t use traditional weapons but are harshly trained through methods of sleep deprivation and are not to be crossed.
They’re called the barnevognmafia.
Translated literally: child wagon mafia. The “operatives” I’m referring to are parents, mostly mothers enjoying their nearly year-long, fully paid maternity leave. I am a proud member of this clan.
Barnevogn is Norwegian for stroller and the ones here need a big name like that because they are enormous. Hefty tires for the snow, big seats with bulky canopies to keep kids warm in sub-zero temperatures, and they morph into mini-beds for their sleeping cargo. Mothers walk with an assumed ownership of the footpaths in Oslo because it’s the only way anyone will let you through with a hulking stroller that takes up half the sidewalk.
And yes, these super-colossal kid carriers work as weapons too – one quick turn and we’ll skin your shins with the front spoke of the stroller.
Our fashion of organized crime is to clog cafes with our baby bags and “child wagons.” Our kids whimper, whine and scream while we gab on with our fellow operatives because, like Sicilian mafiosi desensitized to violence, we can tune out our crying children. There’s always something wrong and we might as well talk a little louder and find out who is up to what.
We also part-take in another activity that makes onlookers, particularly of the male variety, uncomfortable. But hey, when a baby is hungry he’s hungry so nursing while sipping a latte at United Bakeries is part of the deal. It’s a useful method of (comical) intimidation that comes in handy if someone rolls their eyes when they see a mother stroll into a public space with a noise-polluting baby.
The barnevognmafia isn’t a real organization in Oslo but the existence of the term in the zeitgeist reflects the camaraderie that forms among parents. There is an inherent understanding of the trials of early parenthood: sleepless nights, tantrums, potty training…
The power parents have in Norway is what makes this place perfect for me at this time in my life. The amount of help the government provides young families has effectively set high social expectations for the community to do their part.
If a driver sees someone with a pram about to cross the street they come to a halting stop as if royalty is being carried through. Public transportation was built with oversized strollers in mind and locals are always on standby to help, whether it’s lifting it onto the tram or holding open a door. I’ve never been able to thank anyone because they run off before you even realize that you’ve been helped.
You can take your kids anywhere here and not only are they welcomed, but restaurants and museums have thought about how best to adapt to what kids need. I think this star treatment of young families is well deserved. Parenthood, while rewarding, is challenging and if society can do anything to help, it should.
And if you don’t agree: watch out. The barnevognmafia is everywhere and a clan member could unleash a screaming toddler during your romantic dinner just for the fun of it.
The Christian Science Monitor has assembled a diverse group of the best family and parenting bloggers out there. Our contributing and guest bloggers are not employed or directed by the Monitor, and the views expressed are the bloggers' own, as is responsibility for the content of their blogs. Saleha Mohsin blogs at Edge of the Arctic.
As a school principal, I’ve wrestled for years to find a satisfying expression of seasonal joy and inspiration while working in a diverse religious or irreligious community. What tradition can we all embrace at this time of year without making the moment fraught with conflict or overlap or over-sensitivity regarding individual religious tradition?
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The school concert last week was “the winter concert,” not even the holiday concert. Christmas, Hanukkah, New Years all blend as “winter vacation.” We balance the songs and music originating in different traditions in order to be inclusive — all good. The words of well wishing often catch in the utterance. “Merry Christmas,” said a fourth grader to her Jewish teacher. Ooops! “It’s OK to wish me Merry Christmas,” said her teacher! Language and religious traditions collide; graciousness and understanding trump the inadvertent over-sensitivities. We deal.
But I still seek the language we can all embrace, the words that staunch the hindrance we feel to reach beyond the murky clouds of unshared doctrine, liturgy, or tradition that inhibit our celebration. Where is an ecumenical, civil, secular liturgy and ritual we can all join? How do we unite in something soulful, beyond the commercialism that also permeates the season?
This is a precious moment in the calendar of the world’s religious traditions, as people and their villages have known and celebrated since the very beginning of settlement and stories. The oldest observance must be the death and birth of the year, the Winter solstice, the celebration of new life. Eventually the imagery came to convey the break through of inspiration and spirituality — as exemplified by light.
The season embraces our deepest inclination to cherish light and push back darkness; to celebrate family and friends around table and hearth; to make room for all things new and anticipate the longest day toward which we wend, the summer solstice at the opposite end of the celestial year.
For this season, in our family and in my schools, we have always shared Susan Cooper’s poem “The Shortest Day.” It alludes to the revels of this solstice and the global traditions we hail from, and also helps with the anticipation of the next solstice. The possibilities expand for each of us, as we allow them to adhere.
So the shortest day came,
and the year died,
And everywhere down the centuries
of the snow-white world
Came people singing, dancing,
To drive the dark away.
They lighted candles in the winter trees;
They hung their homes with evergreen;
They burned beseeching fires all night long
To keep the year alive.
And when the new year's sunshine blazed awake
They shouted, revelling.
Through all the frosty ages you can hear them
Echoing, behind us — listen!
All the long echoes sing the same delight,
This shortest day,
As promise wakens in the sleeping land;
They carol, feast, give thanks,
And dearly love their friends,
and hope for peace.
Can we all find ourselves in these lines?
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May your family’s holidays and vacation days be filled with this same delight, followed by New Year’s sunshine and revelry. And may we all experience the promise of peace and love and gratitude that the season is bound to awaken in us — regardless of where we as individuals think it comes from.
Todd R. Nelson is Head of School at The School in Rose Valley, PA.
The assignment for my seventh and eighth graders was to select one of Dylan Thomas’s topic sentences, each borrowed from a paragraph of his famous “A Child’s Christmas in Wales,” and use it to begin their own recollection of their local or familial holidays. We had read Thomas’s wonderful story, watched an excellent film version of it, and looked outside as the snow hushed Castine on Wednesday morning – inspiring writing weather, to be sure, for kids in a harbor town in the northern latitudes.
You could begin, “One Christmas was so much like another, in those years....” Or perhaps you preferred, “All the Christmases roll down toward the two-tongued sea....” I am fond of this one: “There are always Uncles at Christmas.” With such prompts, it was important to review two crucial writing rules: "Never let the facts get in the way of a good story." And "It’s all true, even if it never happened." It was time to stretch out and inhabit the feeling of the season in words, to don the mantle of Thomas and Wales and merge wolves in Wales with Castine with cherished candy, mittens, firemen and tipsy aunts.
“Bring out the tall tales now that we told by the fire,” wrote Thomas. And so we plunged our hands in and brought out the memory of the year Olivia and Jacey made the snow dog, instead of snowman, and named him Veggie Bob Dog, due to his broccoli eyes, cauliflower nose, and carrot mouth. On the same day they invented jelly snowballs. “You have to pack the snow together, and dig a little hole in it,” said Jacey – which tasted pretty disgusting, according to Olivia.
Christmas means movies: "Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory," "White Christmas," "The Nutcracker," or the ubiquitous "Grinch." Surely he is one of the salty, bitter tongues of the see of Christmas – the spoiler, the gift thief, and the humbug.
What about the uncles, or aunts, or visiting cousins; nonnies and nannies and oomas? One uncle lived in a tipi, with the ornaments and decorations hung from the poles inside. For one student, Christmas in California has a way of becoming cultural adventures for travelers from the East.
Any Maine forest-dweller knows that choosing exactly the right tree is “a very annoying, yet rewarding job.” With hundreds to choose from, it’s hard to detect “the perfect one for you, your family, and of course, your house.” Alex defined the rubric for choice: not “too tall, or too short; too narrow, or too wide; too wet, or too dry; too brown, or too green; too small, or too big; too many branches or too few; too saggy, or too lopsided.”
And once the tree is correctly placed, bringing the outside in, and turning the house inside out with the aroma of spruce or fir, the decorating begins. “I get the white, wooden snowflake,” writes Meredith, “and Sawyer gets the wooden moose that has a string attached to make its leg move when you pull it. We hang them on a different branch and go back to get the next ornaments. We hang up angels with newspaper for wings, Pillsbury dough men, cupcakes with shiny pink and green frosting and Minnie and Mickey Mouse bobble heads. Then, we grab our mugs and Dad puts another log in the fire and we sit back to play a few card games and enjoy our work.”
Who wants a useful present, “such as warm, fluffy hats, and soft, handmade scarves; socks and white T-shirts?” You can’t play with T-shirts, thought Gabriel. Uncle Ely to the rescue: “There appeared a blue Yamaha RC snowmobile, with batteries.” Think of all the mystery, majesty, and quasi-ecclesiastical authority in the phrase, “There appeared.” Game Boys we have heard on high, sweetly beeping all o’er Maine. What would Dylan Thomas say? “Years and years ago, when I was a boy, when there were remote-controlled, battery-operated Big Wheels in Wales….” It’s hard to hear the absence of the sound of snow filling the fir boughs above the mechanical whine and torque of the latest radio toy vehicle.
There are essential letters. “I was worried whether I had been clear enough in my letter to Santa,” wrote Madison. “I had asked for a Barbie Car. There was a lot at stake this Christmas, and it was my first letter to Santa. I was four.”
There are snow days, gifts of leisure time packaged and delivered with the actual raw materials of fantastic winter play. Not too many snow days, please, lest we find ourselves paying for them with school days in July – a high interest rate, to be sure. Just enough. “The huge snowdrifts from the plow make excellent forts,” wrote Meredith, “and the pile of snow at the bottom of the slide is soft and powdery from the dry wind and freezing air.” After a full day of such cold-pile jumping, “a hot cocoa with extra marshmallows and a peppermint stick” await inside.
And finally we all close our eyes with something like this favorite Christmas poem by Bill Watterson: “Tomorrow’s what I’m waiting for, but I can wait a little more.” We can all feel what it’s like to think, just before slumber, as Thomas did, “I could see the lights in the windows of all the other houses on our hill and hear the music rising from them up the long, steady falling night. I turned the gas down, I got into bed. I said some words to the close and holy darkness, and then I slept.”
And we can all hear the other tongue of the sea, lapping at the silken shore of memory and care. And there appeared peace.
‘Tis the season to hear of wise men following a star, and it got me to thinking about how to raise children to be wise and to reach for the stars. A recent weekend visit with a young chess player from Brooklyn and his Nigerian-born mother brought home the reality that in life, as in chess, you need both a strategic plan and someone to have your back.
After interviewing 16-year-old Oghenakpobo Efekoro (known as Pobo), the young star of the chess documentary "Brooklyn Castle," for this blog, I realized how much families here in Norfolk, Virginia would gain by meeting him and his mother, Christina Inuware. (I’m the founder of a little volunteer group that provides free chess learn & play sessions in our community called The Norfolk Initiative for Chess Excellence.) His story as a first-generation American with Nigerian parents, losing his father at age four and going down a dark road that only a board game and parental support could remove him from, is powerful.
The hitch was that we had to pay the plane fares, room and board for Pobo and his mom. We don’t have grants. We have chess sets, kids and free bagels from Yorgos Bageldashery. Airlines have yet to adopt the bagel currency system, so we had a problem.
Armed with video clips of our local children at community centers, libraries and schools trying to better themselves through chess, I sent emails out and asked for sponsors to give this holiday gift to our city.
And we received – big time. The Sheraton Waterside Hotel pledged full accommodations, two Board of Education members generated every kind of educational backup we could imagine, including a whole school for a learn and play event after the film screening and Q&A with Pobo at the theater. And Will Smith, a devoted chess player, paid the air fare for both Pobo and his mother Christiana from the Will and Jada Smith Family Foundation after I sent videos of our city’s children playing chess and made the case for how much more powerful the learning experience would be if Pobo were here to keep it real.
The Norfolk city manager funded movie tickets to all our Lambert's Point chess kids, while local businesses and residents chipped in to buy tickets for kids and their parents/guardians, teachers and mentors to see the film.
On Dec. 8, Pobo arrived at the Naro Cinema, where nearly all 500 seats were filled, and then went to Campostella Elementary School, a Title 1 school in a struggling section of the city, where he taught chess for hours. He gave them a role model of a sort they had never known – a young man, well over six feet one inch and built like a linebacker for the Giants, who speaks softly, laughs easily and can devastate a man of 40 in blitz chess on the clock that had them gasping and cheering like they were in the stands of the NFL on playoff day.
Seeing him and his mother together, the respectful give-and-take and how she, too, smiled easily and advised well showed where his strength came from.
We’re trying to renovate the old trolley train station in a very under-served section of town called Villa Heights to make a free chess and STEM center for kids, and the neighbors there decided to throw a farewell for Pobo and his mother. The head of the Civic League there presented Christina with a bouquet of flowers, saying, “We wanted to honor you for the way you have raised your son, because we all know how hard that is for a single parent and how much you had to do with his success.”
As I drove them to the airport for the flight home, Pobo said, “I’ve been to a lot of cities for this movie, but this was the first place where we saw an entire community just come together from all walks of life. This is what’s amazing and important. It’s about everyone coming together and when someone like Will and Jada Smith can reach out like that and just make it real for people... it’s something I’ll never forget in my lifetime.”