Saturday, June 30, 2007

Book Review: Special Topics in Calamity Physics

I was drawn to this book, Special Topics in Calamity Physics, by Marisha Pessl, because of the title and, I admit abashedly, because of the cover. A look at the inside recommendations showed only blurbs from periodicals, and none from any author of merit. Despite this, I picked it up and I am really glad that I did. It is, all at once, fun, interesting, spell-binding, and thought-provoking. At the least, it is a game of "How Culturally Literate, Are You?"

When I first began reading this novel, I admit I was a little put off by all of the literary and cultural annotations. I almost put the book down. When I got to the heart of my reaction, I realized I was reacting with that emotion that hits all bibliophiles at some point: why can't I have thought of/written this? Once I got past my petty jealousy, I was too far gone in the novel to put it down.

The heroine, Blue Van Meer is reminiscent of Scout in To Kill a Mockingbird. She loves her father fiercely and is plucky and brave, but at the same time, vulnerable and sweet. In fact, Special Topics in Calamity Physics, reads like a classic bildungsroman or coming-of-age story. We cheer for Blue as she tackles yet another school, and begins to make friends. And while we are being charmed by this motherless genius, who is learning about the real world, we are being drawn into an exciting mystery which Pessl unravels deftly.

I very much recommend this novel. It is a high-brow romp of words and an exciting mystery.

Friday, June 29, 2007


My neighborhood is reeling from a horrific car accident. On a very busy thoroughfare (four lanes of traffic, two in each direction), someone saw a parking spot on the opposite side of the street. She decided to make a u-turn across three lanes of traffic, and failed to negotiate it. She slammed onto the sidewalk, critically injuring one and killing another (the details of the injuries are too awful to delineate here). The site of the accident is directly across from a municipal parking lot. This woman now has to live with the fact that at least one person is dead because she needed a parking spot.

Technically, the word careless means indifferent to the consequences. We use the word careless when we forget to pick up the dry-cleaning; or when a child forgets his assignment pad. I've called myself careless on those occasions when I have gone to the grocery store for milk, but walked out with $35.00 worth of groceries and no milk. In none of these examples, has the person been forgetful or lacking in the face of consequences. But the woman who caused the accident committed a traffic violation, willingly, because her needs were paramount. She needed a parking spot, and she was willing to risk a ticket to land it.

The horror is that she risked so much more. She risked people's lives. She was truly careless: she was indifferent to the consequences. Of course she couldn't envision that she would take a life, but when she failed to care about the consequences of crossing three lanes of traffic, illegally, she opened the door to the probability of random, indiscriminate consequences. And while she has to live with that fact for the rest of her life, I'll venture that the families of both of her victims are not consoled by that.

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Summer Vacation

The summer is a magical time for me. It is a time when I don't have to fight with three children to get up, get dressed, and get to school. It is a time when I don't automatically have to say no to playing another game of Candyland with my four-year-old, or to leaving the playground a little bit later. I can actually watch The Daily Show with my teenagers and talk about the thoughts it provokes in their maturing minds. In other words, I am blessed in the summer with being able to enjoy my children without having to worry about getting enough sleep, making appointments, and going to the office.

I know that this is a blessing and I cherish every moment of my time off. I realize that I am luckier than most to have the summer off, even if it means I don't drive a Lexus or summer in the Hamptons. Oh, but with every blessing comes an obligation: to appreciate it, to make the most of it. And so, I start out with some very lofty plans: my daughter and I will do lots of crafts and my boys and I will explore the city and listen to some of the many free concerts. I will market daily to avail myself of the freshest fruits and vegetables, and then prepare tasty and very healthy meals (not the processed "mother's helper's meals" I turn to when I am working). I will have tea with my mother several afternoons a week. We will read together as a family, and take walks after dinner. My apartment will be spic and span all of the time. These are just a few of the plans I make.

Plans, being what they are, are really just goals. For me, goals are healthy ways for me to stay sharp, keep moving, and grow. Even if not every goal is accomplished, a sincere setting of that goal is still good for my soul. So there are nights when I order a pizza, and we might just settle for an evening of cards or a bowl of popcorn and a movie. But we will do what we do together, mostly unhurried, and I will be conscious of the how precious our time together is.

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Living in the Moment

I just came back from my daughter's "Stepping Up" ceremony which heralds the leap from pre-K to Kindergarten. As I arrived, I saw balloons gracing the yard with "Congratulations" and "You Did It," and a table laden with donuts, cupcakes and juice boxes. Parents started to arrive with grandparents, older and younger siblings, and even aunts and uncles. Such a fuss!

And why not? When I considered how important each one of the "graduates" was to his or her family, and the effort that the nursery school and families had expended in marking this small milestone, I was overcome. I wished everyone in the world could feel all the love that was concentrated in a tiny school yard on an unassuming tree-lined street in Brooklyn. It was a wonderful moment when there was no need for synchronicity, or planetary alignment, or good luck. Love was all around and I was truly happy to be aware of it.

I don't always live in the moment. Truth be told, I probably worry about the future more than most people, and have to steel myself against languoring in the past. I am sure that there have been moments like today when I have missed all the beauty and meaning. But today, in that moment, I was present to the love I saw and I savored it.

Monday, June 25, 2007

My Love of Reading

I was very studious. I loved to read, I loved to learn and, appropriately enough, I became a teacher. I begin each term by telling my students that I am a "book freak." I hope that this appellation might make being an avid reader more acceptable to my very "cool-conscious" middle and high school students. It also helps to make a connection with those students in my classes who love books as much as I do. As summer break approaches I look forward, with something very akin to a dog salivating over hamburger meat, the books which I have stacked on my bedside table.

As a teacher, I have talked to my students about books I am reading, about the books they are reading, and I believe that I have led some reluctant readers to the joys of immersing oneself in the beauty of words with a well placed suggestion. I have not, however, enticed my boys and I deeply regret this. I have provided them with wonderful books and I have read to them. Neither of them are readers, although I secretly pray that their sister will be. My sorrow is that I have not been able to convey the excitement I feel when words are crafted into art, or the joy I can feel when a character is real and true, or the thrill of an intricate plot.

I can only hope that, for them, reading will be an acquired taste like full-bodied dry red wines or steamed lobster with drawn butter: delights I have enjoyed only since becoming an adult. And perhaps that is best. Starting to read avidly as adults, they will never know the irrational fear that they could read everything there is and have to live without something to read.

Sunday, June 24, 2007

The (sometimes) Dubious Joys of Raising Teens

I have always been a very hands-on mom. When my boys were little, their dad was always working, and so I tried to make up for that by doing things that I thought a “dad” would do. I took them trout fishing and hiking. I played in the woods with them and collected rocks. I bought them a bug box which we put bugs in, examined through the magnified cover, and then released into the wild. All of this despite the fact that I have always been a very “girlie girl.” At night, after they fell asleep, I would look at them and see angels: pink cheeks and curled fingers and hair as soft as whispers. No matter how tired they made me during the day, or how frantic with worry I might have been when they got lost in the clothes racks at the mall, I could have this peaceful reminder of how God had entrusted me with these innocent, beautiful beings.

Well, now they are teenagers who have absolutely no time for me. I have become stupid, out of touch, and a wet blanket. I stand in their way of freedom and fun. Daily, it seems, there is something to fight about because I refuse to take the path of least resistance. These fights can sometimes wear me out so much that I have nothing left. But it is so important to me that they know that in this very fickle world, their mom has values which she refuses to abandon to be popular. And since they go to bed long after I do, I no longer have that peaceful reminder of watching them while they sleep.

Enter my vivacious, perky and adorable four-year-old daughter. She puts me back in touch with the boys when they were the same age. I often hope that she puts the boys back in touch with the mom they thought was fun, clever, and cool. We are happiest as a family when we are marveling at her spirit and antics. In addition to all of the wonderful gifts she has brought to our family, she gives me the chance, right now, when I am flustered by all of the mistakes I seem to be making with her brothers, to slow down and cherish the warmth of a child curled up in my arms or the splendor of finding treasures on the sidewalk. I never paid attention when people told me that they grow up too fast, to enjoy them while they are young. I won’t make that mistake again.