My first book has been released!

My first book has been released!
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Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Topsy Turvy Tiff (Update)

On May 26, 2011, I posted a blog about my retired neighbor’s Topsy Turvy Times.  To recap, in an effort to give her retired husband a hobby, my friend Rosie went with Henry to Walmart to buy a Topsy Turvy Tomato. For the price of $ 14.99, they would have all the tomatoes they could eat. That’s how the saga began.  Here is a quick summary of the events:

·         They realized that the Topsy Turvy doesn’t come with tomato plants. They headed back to Walmart to spend $30.00 on tomato plants.

·         Henry planted 15 pounds of tomatoes in the planter and then hung it outside on the balcony wall.  He realized there was not enough sun there for tomatoes. They went back to Walmart to buy a longer wrought iron plant hook for $10.00.

·         Henry drilled the balcony wall and hung the plant on the new hook.  Later in the day, he realized that half the container would always be against the wall and wouldn’t get any sun.  He decided it would be better if he built a stand for it. He drove to Home Depot to buy $20.00 worth of wood and $12.00 worth of screws.

·         He built a plant stand in the exact shape of the stick stand you would draw on a piece of paper if you were starting to play the Hangman word game. Henry was still unsatisfied.  He said, “You know, I can’t just keep this wood natural.” Henry ran to Home Depot to buy the best quart of white semi-gloss paint for $14.00.

·         Once Henry painted his plant stand bright white, he put it onto the balcony, hung his Topsy Turvy tomato plant.  But, all the next morning, Henry realized that his plant was only getting a few hours of sun a day. Henry took the wheels off Rosie’s favorite huge cactus plant and added them to his tomato stand.  This way, he could wheel the stand around all day to catch the sun for his Topsy Turvy tomatoes in various locations on the balcony.

·         After three days of peace, Henry called Rosie outside. He was red, sweaty and upset.  He noticed a round water stain on the floor of his balcony. Henry headed to Home Depot to buy a few 2” x 2” and 1” x 12” pieces of wood for $16.00.  He built a rectangular tray to catch the water that drips from the Topsy Turvy plant.

·         Henry was still unhappy because he didn’t want the new wooden tray, he just built, to get ruined by dripping water.  He ran into the kitchen pantry and grabbed one of Rosie’s favorite serving trays to put it onto the wooden tray he build to protect the wood from water stains.

·         When Henry invited me over to see the Topsy Turvy tomato. I said, “Henry, I hate to even say this, but the leaves on your tomato plants look shriveled.” He said, “You know, you’re right. I knew it too.”  He walked over to a small plastic tool cabinet and said, “I didn’t tell Rosie, but I went Walmart’s and bought this tomato food for $12.99.  I mix a ½ capful of food with a gallon of water.” I said, “Henry, Let me see that bottle.”  He passed me a yellow plastic bottle and after putting on my reading glasses, I read aloud, “Mix 1/3 cap of food with 2 gallons of water for 20 square feet of garden every 14 days. “Henry,” I added, “I think you’re killing your tomatoes with kindness.” Henry paused and stared, thinking hard. He walked around the plant stand once and said, “Rosie, get in the car.  I have to go to Walmart’s to get some new tomato plants.”

Well, recently when my husband came home from one of his food gathering expeditions, he mentioned that he ran into Henry and Rosie at Walmart.  Chuckling, he said, “Rosie and I couldn’t stop laughing. It turns out that the new tomato plants Henry planted in the Topsy Turvy Tomato stand were patio tomatoes.” My husband, an avid gardener, added, “Patio tomatoes are hybrids. The leaves are darker than most tomatoes. The fruit is much smaller and some consider the skin really tough.”  He continued describing how in the store Rosie was crossing her legs, trying not to pee her pants when she told my husband the update.  She said, ' Henry picked three tomatoes and put them on the table. 'That’s it?' I asked.  ‘They’re putrid!  I’m not eating those. You eat one first.’ Henry took one look at them and said, ‘I ain’t eatin that shit either!’  He picked up his three golf ball sized tomatoes and chucked them right into the trash. In the store, facing my husband, Rosie rolled her eyes behind Henry and used her pointer finger to make small circles around her right temple indicating that Henry was crazy. My husband chuckled again, “ When Henry turned around suddenly, Rosie stood like a statue and tried to look sad about Henry’s tomatoes."

A few moments later, when my husband saw Henry and Rosie in Walmart again near the cash registers, their moods had changed completely. Both of their faces were filled pride as they each pushed their own shopping cart as if they were baby carriages in which babies were nestled.  That’s because each cart, Rosie’s and Henry’s, contained one tall hearty new tomato plant sitting up straight in the toddler seat portion of the metal cart.  They delicately moved their tomato plants to the register and Henry pointed to his and said, “We’re starting from scratch.  We don’t want hybrid cars and we don’t want hybrid tomatoes!  These are normal!”

A week later, Henry and Rosie had a repair man in their condo to service their two central air conditioning units.  Henry, a former union tradesman, welcomed the opportunity to converse with another man who knew his way around a tool belt.  After the two men traded war stories, revealing their knowledge of complex cooling units,  the air conditioning service man mentioned that he spent some time after work in his garden.  With that, Henry invited the service man to step out onto his balcony for an exclusive private viewing of the Topsy Turvy Tomato stand.  After taking a step back to take in the six foot tall, bright white, hang man style, ornate Topsy Turvy Tomato stand-- with its custom-made humidity tray, the air conditioning man nodded his head and seemed quite impressed.  He said, “Henry, I can really appreciate the craftsmanship of this stand.  It’s outstanding work. ”  He paused, put his thumbs inside his tool belt and added, “I hate to tell you this, though…but the truth is that it’s WAY too late in the season to plant tomatoes.  They’ll never grow now.”

Rosie, who was standing just inside, behind the screen door listening, heard the air conditioning man’s comment and her shoulders sunk.  Without a word, she pushed the sliding glass door over to th side until it was fully closed, locked it, leaving the two men on the balcony. She left and went to the grocery store to buy a big juicy tomato to make herself a BLT for lunch.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Mucho Macho Men

Watching the Belmont Stakes and seeing a horse named Mucho Macho Man reminded me of a funny story that my husband told me.  Anyone who knows him would acknowledge that he is a big man with massive shoulders, developed in his early twenties, when he invested time in intensive body building.  Throughout his thirties and forties, he demonstrated his amazing athleticism and earned the nickname, “The Vacuum” because of how adeptly he fielded grounders as the short stop for the local softball team.  Meanwhile, well into his late forties, he was arguably the best racquetball player in our local tennis club-- where he spent every Friday night participating in a round robin league. 
He would dupe new players by walking onto the course wearing complex knee braces leading his opponent to think that he would be playing against a virtual cripple. Then, when my husband entered the court, his sheer size, although he is just 5 10, so let’s say… his notable width, pervaded the court.  He would position himself in such a way that a mere flick of his wrist would send his opponent scurrying after that blue ball, in every direction, until he was spent.  Dripping wet, the new player would shake hands and concede that my husband was, indeed, the best racquetball player in the club.
It’s true, that now that my husband is 65, some of his shoulders have sunk into a sloping belly, but he’s still an imposing figure.  With his dark black hair and beard, gold horn and pinkie ring, black Lincoln Continental and trunk, big enough for cement shoes and a body, he’s someone not to be messed-with.
That’s why I was surprised when he entered our condo dripping with sweat after leaving the cavernous underground garage in our building.   He heaved to catch his breath and was doing that dance little boys do when they have to go to the bathroom urgently.  At the same time, he was bending over laughing and laughing, unable to stop.  After visiting the bathroom, he resurfaced again, still bent over, holding his stomach, unable to control his laughter.
He eventually told me the story.   Our neighbor, Benny, and he were in the basement garage area talking.  Bennie is a former Wall Street trader that resembles Sean Connery, with his salt and pepper hair but with tough New York talk and city swagger.  Benny and my husband had the main building garage doors opened to let in the ocean breeze because they were both going to do projects in their respective garages.  While they chatted, my husband saw a spider enter the garage.  He said, “This spider was so big, it cast a shadow.  I swear to God.  It was walking towards us.”
 “Step on it, Bennie.”
Bennie jumped back and grimaced. “I’m not stepping on it.  I’m wearing sandals.  You step on it.”
My husband said, “No way, I’m not stepping on it either.  It’s too big. I’m not going near it!”
Like Batman seeing the Bat Signal and heading to the Bat Cave, Bennie’s tone turned ominous and he instructed, “Wait, here.”
He went to his individual garage with his unit number 207 on the outside in fake gold letters.
Like Bruce Wayne, he punched a secret code into his keypad.  His garage door opened, revealing his sky blue Mercedes convertible.   My husband waited, a little confused, as he heard the tweet of the key fob and soon Bennie pulled- out of the garage, moving his arm to push the button to roll down the front window.  He called my husband over to him, pointed to the tires, and said, “We’ll run him over!”
They both guffawed and then instantly took on the serious tone of former leaders of men with a mission.  My husband used his broad shoulders to take a position in between the car and the spider. He lifted both arms simultaneously like a member of a ground crew signaling a plane’s arrival at the gate.  He put his pointer fingers up and waived Benny forward.  The men’s eyes met and mirrored each other’s intense focus.
“To the left, Bennie, left.  A little more.  No, missed him.  Back up.  Back up now. Go back!”  Frank mumbled, “Get in the game, for Christ sake!  Concentrate.”
Bennie, who is a little hard of hearing, put his head out the window and asked, “Did we get him?”
“No!  We didn’t get him.  Come on!” Frank shook his head in frustration.  “No, we missed him.”
 My husband moved closer to Bennie than back.  “Try it again.  Finesse it!”
My husband took his position, spread his legs to give him extra balance, lifted up his arms and directed Bennie.  The wide Mercedes tire was eventually directly in front of the spider.
“Little more.  Little more. Go Right. Right.  Little More…  Got him!”
My husband’s feet left the floor as he and Bennie cheered.  They hooted as if the NY Giants had just scored a field goal to again win the Super Bowl.  My husband rushed up to the car and the two Olympians high fived.
“Good job,” Bennie shouted.  “That was teamwork!”
Bennie backed up his Mercedes passed his garage to the one for Unit 210.  Then, turned right and pulled his car into the garage.  He closed the garage using the keypad and said, “Hey that was a workout. I’m going to have a scotch to celebrate.” 
“See you later,” my husband said feeling content.  He headed up the steps instead of using the elevator to get to the second floor.  Midway up, he partially collapsed because the ridiculousness of it all hit him at once.  He just couldn’t stop laughing.  “I was laughing so hard I was afraid I wasn’t going to make it up here without peeing my pants.” 
His laughter was contagious so the two of us stood in the kitchen laughing as we haven’t had in a while.
Then, when my husband finally caught his breath and said, “Another job well done.  Time for a nap."

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Couples Credit?

As someone who was once employed by my spouse, I had lots of experience with him getting credit for what was actually my work.  If I wrote a grant, newsletter, or article for him, inevitably, he read it, paused, contemplated, grabbed a pen, and made one tiny swipe of his huge hand to add a comma.  He smiled, sat back in his high, burgundy-upholstered office chair and said, “That’s better.”  He looked over his glasses at me on the other side of his mahogany desk, as if I were a peon and added, “That comma made all the difference.” 
Instantly, the unfairness of it all simmered in my chest and I came close to erupting into an explosive argument, but I held my tongue.  After all, I reasoned that his organization paid me for my words, so they were now his.  But does the same rule apply in our personal relationship?
For a few years, my husband and I drove every Sunday from our home in PA to NJ to visit his mother in a nursing home.  Each time, we had the same argument.  All the way down Route 78, until we exited into the suburban town, I instructed, “Pull over.  We’re going to a bakery.  We’re bringing your Mom some pastries.”
“She doesn’t need any damn, pastries!  She gets all the food she needs.”
“You pull over right now.  We’re not going there empty-handed.  Where are your manners?  A few baked goods really make her day.  She can share them with her friends.”
“I’m not pulling over. You’ll be in there for a freaking half hour.”
“Pull over, now!”
Inevitably, I won.  I rushed into the bakery and pointed to various display cases filling one box with Italian cookies, another with brownies, and still another with a cheese Danish ring.  I fumbled through my wallet to pay and tip the lady in white because she responded to my anxiety and got everything ready so quickly.
I felt content and proud of myself as I carried the tower of white bakery boxes, tied with string, to the automatic glass door of the nursing home.  But, since I was unable to navigate ice and snow with my hands so filled with delights, my husband said, “Here, let me take those for you.”
 I relinquished the boxes, so that I could ensure that my Sunday best outfit was not covered with powdered sugar.   I brushed off my skirt and did my final primping as we walked down a maze of hallways.  Then, just as we entered my mother- in-law's room, where she waited facing the door in her wheel chair, my husband inched in front of me like a thundering race horse, nose to nose, with another at the finish line.  He’d lift up the three boxes slightly, with just a barely noticeable shrug of his shoulders, as if to say, “Lookee, here!”  Then, the celebration started.
His mother’s arms lifted towards the ceiling, in a Baptist Halleluiah gesture, and came back down as if folded in a prayer of Thanksgiving.  She put her eyes down for a moment and shook her praying hands forward and back.
“My a son, My a son.  Look what he brings me.  He’s such a good boy!  I’m the luckiest Momma on earth.  Come give me a hug.  Oh by the way…Hello to you.”
So what’s wrong with letting my husband look good in his mother’s eye? But what about when he does it with my own family?
When we lived in PA and had a pool, deck, hot tub, and volleyball court, our place was the spot to gather for Fourth of July and Memorial Weekend events.  My husband pushed a stocked shopping cart through BJ’s while I selected baby back ribs, flank steaks, and sausages.  All the while, he tagged along behind me mumbling swear words --that cleaned up a bit amounted to, “Throw a freaking hot dog on the goddamn grill!  Why do you have to get all this crap?  Because they're your brothers?”
After an amazing day of drinks, volleyball, swimming and incredible food, my brothers and sisters and their spouses lined up at the front door to say their goodbyes.  Each one passed me by, grabbed my husband’s hand in a hearty handshake, then rethought it, and wrapped theirs arms around his big shoulders in a grateful bear hug, and said, “My man, Frank, you throw the best parties!”
It’s one thing to be recognized for fine backyard grilling, but now that my husband has retired, his credit- seeking ways have penetrated other areas-- like the kitchen.  He would have never dreamed of getting involved there before.  As I rush from the refrigerator to the stove, putting the final touches on pot roast, stuffed cabbage, loin of pork or filet mignon, he has been known to enter the kitchen from the other doorway.  He waits until I’m in the dining room setting the table, he looks left, then right, to make sure the coast is clear, and stealthily adds a dash of pepper to whatever I’m cooking.  That’s it.  One dash of pepper. 
After guests take their first bite and I straighten my posture in my dining room chair preparing to be garnished with accolades, my husband clears his throat.  Just in time to interrupt the first tidbit of praise, he states, “Ya know, she’s a good cook, but I put the finishing touches on this dish with my secret formula.”

Amidst the “Ohhs and Ahhs” and “Delicious, Frank!” I fume.  What?  You’ve got to be kidding me?  All you did was add pepper-- which it didn’t even need, I might add!
The thing that I find most upsetting about this credit stealing conduct is that my husband has so many of his own talents to be recognized.  He has a PhD.  He was a successful Superintendent of Schools.  He can do any home repair.  He recently added crown molding to our living room and raised panel molding to our dining room.  He installed hanging lights above our kitchen counter—demonstrating electrical skill.  He’s even a better golfer.  Why does he need to take credit for my only skills, writing and cooking?
When couples recently visited our condo in Florida for an indoor Memorial Day barbecue, they were so impressed with how beautiful our tile floor looked. My husband had purchased beige grout stain online.  He spent an entire weekend, on his knees, applying the grout stain with a toothbrush into every dark line of our 1800 square foot condo that has tile in every single room.
As each guest asked about our floors, since grout lines are a big topic of discussion in our neck of the woods, I stepped in front of my husband and said, “It took me hours.  I rolled up and down the rooms in my office chair, leaning way over and painting every single line by hand, myself, with a tooth brush.  It was backbreaking work!”  I put on my best martyr face.
My guests were interested for all of one second.  One wife turned fully away from me, rubbing her hands together in anticipation, and said,
“I can’t wait to see what Frank made for dinner tonight.”

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Special Education?

After being out of the classroom for five years, I was excited when one of my school district clients asked if I would be willing to teach a one-night, technology-based writing class for adults.  I operated my own grant-writing consulting business for years and it was lonely work at times.  I welcomed the opportunity to briefly return to teaching to use my love of writing to try to build some confidence in those less thrilled about taking pen to paper. 
On my way to teach the evening class, I received a call from the Program Director advising me that in addition to 23 adults ranging in age from 24 to 76, there would be a professional signer in my class.  One of the mothers who registered for the class was deaf.  In accordance with ADA regulations, the district was providing someone to sign my words for this parent.  As a former English teacher, I was accustomed to accommodating special need students, but was still worried.  Even though I was “Teacher of the Year” and received outstanding evaluations, there was one glaring negative comment on every review:  This instructor must make every effort to slow her speech.
In order to soothe my own anxiety and to reassure the signer, I greeted her as soon as I entered the classroom.  I immediately warned her about my speech impediment and promised to make every effort to slow down.  I added, “Please know that it is a lifelong problem that won’t be corrected tonight, but I will work with you.” I smiled at Mrs. Eastwood, the deaf parent, and gave her the “Okay” sign.
My adult students filed into class in many different shapes and sizes.  There was an elderly couple that just purchased a computer and wanted to use it to write e-mails to their grandchildren.  There was another couple that hoped to help their 8th grade daughter write a better 5-paragraph essay.  There were several unemployed Moms and Dad there to learn to write a cover letter and a resume.  Certainly, these were too many topics to cover in two hours, but I planned on doing my best.
I began the class by distributing a questionnaire asking for personal information and a sentence or two about what each enrollee hoped to learn.  Then I spoke for about three minutes about writing, about how personal it was, about how it is used to assess educational level, skills, etc. I mentioned that it was a hands-on class and that we were going to actually be doing writing, and reviewing some of the most common errors that could be …
Suddenly I was interrupted by the signer raising her hand.  Mrs. Eastwood frowned.  The signer stated, “Mrs. Eastwood was looking down filling out the questionnaire, so she was not able to read your lips or watch my sign interpretation of your introduction.  Can you begin again?”
“Oh, sure…I guess… there are a few stragglers, just getting settled, I will start again.”  I repeated the intro the best I could, but it was not going as smoothly as before.  First, because the faces of the students looked as if they were saying “We heard this already!"  Secondly, because I knew I said it much better the first time.  I suddenly felt nervous and began stumbling.
I continued, “Tonight, we are going to begin with…..” 
I was interrupted again by the signer’s chubby hand. Mrs. Eastwood grimaced.  The signer stated, “Mrs. Eastwood says that you were a little fast and she is writing down everything that you say, so could you try it again a little slower.”
22 people sighed.
I responded rapidly, “Please…I assure you… there is nothing so important that I am going to say that needs to be taken down in note form.  This is a hands-on class that will allow you to …
I was immediately interrupted by the signer again.  “I’m sorry.  Mrs. Eastwood was getting to MS Word and was looking down.  She was not able to get that part.”
The class stared. I said, “Let’s just move on to our first practice assignment.”
The challenge was to see if participants could combine 5 simple sentences into one correct complex sentence.  Heads immediately bowed behind the computer monitors as some quickly started typing.  Others bit fingernails.  One or two called me over for help.
I asked participants to please raise their hands when they were done. I navigated the very large computer laboratory, going row by row, to see if any participants wanted to share their answers with the class.  I stopped here and suggested a comma; there and pointed out a run-on sentence.  I walked up and down the middle aisle saying “Good Job!” and “That’s perfect!” All across the room adults, returning to this world for the first time in years, were raising their hands feeling proud to share what they had written.
I eventually made my way back to the front of the room and was just about to ask for volunteers to share their work when…my field of vision was blocked by the signer’s hand waving furiously.   Mrs. Eastwood glared. 
The signer stated firmly, “Mrs. Eastwood requests that you stand in one place, facing the front of the room, without moving or turning your head.  Please just face front because she cannot read your lips if you are walking around or in the back of the room.”
Read my lips?  Then why do we need a signer?  I spoke as if I were a tape in very slow motion, “Are you asking me to stand perfectly still for the entire class period?”
Mrs. Eastwood nodded powerfully.
“You’ve got to be kidding me!  I am teaching 23 people here!”  I screamed on the inside.  On the outside, I said nothing.   I scanned the rest of the room, where my excited, renewed students were waving their hands and waiting for me to give them their moment in the sun.
“I’ll try my best.”  Then, within seconds, I rushed across the room for the first answer.   I bobbed and weaved up and down the rows for others.  I check sentences. I gave suggestions. I wrote on the board. I patted shoulders and arms. I gave smiles of support.  I laughed at jokes. I jumped forward, moved backward, waived my arms, shuffled my feet and gloried in the kinetic dance of interaction called teaching.
When it was over, I slumped into the black vinyl chair exhausted.  I had forgotten how physically draining it was to teach.  Still, I was quickly renewed as I flipped through the completed evaluation sheets. Of the 23 evaluations scoring my presentation on a scale of 1-5, 22 participants had scored the class either a “4” or “5” and added comments like “Extremely helpful.”  “Can we do a Part II?”  “The best class I ever had.” “You are so much fun!”
I felt proud and invigorated and actually missed the profession for one lengthy minute.  Then, I neared the end of the pile and there it was, the dreaded score, circled in red.  It was a “1” from Mrs. Eastwood.  She added, “This teacher was terrible.  She spoke too fast and failed to follow my commands.  She did not make reasonable accommodations for me.”
Believe it or not, I understood the frustration that made Mrs. Eastwood circle that “1” twice.  I did feel sympathy for her situation.  Yet, I knew that I could not have taught her classmates if I just stood still and gave no personal attention.  Was I unfair?
This question stayed with me as I drove home and recalled other recent discussions I had with superintendents about the special education situation in public schools.  I never really paid attention to the fairness of it all until it confronted me face to face on this night. 
For example, administrators again and again shared the alarming stories of the outrageous financial burden on school districts due to the placement of severely handicapped children in out-of- district settings.  One superintendent told me that his district had paid $107,000 per year for a severely handicapped child to be educated and transported.  In 8 years, the 14 year-old boy had learned to touch his eyebrow.  The district budgeted approximately $13,000 per year for other students.
I could truly empathize with the difficulties faced by the parent’s of severely handicapped children… just as I could imagine the pride the same parent must feel after witnessing any progress whatsoever.  But are we being fair?
I couldn’t help but wonder how well a highly intelligent child from our poorest cities would do in life if $107,000 were made available each year for him to be transported out of district to a top private school.  Or how advanced our nation would be if $107,000 was invested in every gifted and talented child each year.  Are we being fair to these children?  Are we letting sympathy for handicapped parents and children cloud our judgment?  Are we afraid to stand up and advocate for the other children in the room?
After a few weeks, I called the Program Director to offer to do a Part II to the writing class free of charge, since the parents found it helpful. The Program Director told me that the evening parent education program had to be cancelled.  Mrs. Eastwood had signed up for every night of the 12-week program.  The school did not have the budget to pay the signer $150 for 2 hours each night for two nights per week for 12 weeks.  So, they had to cancel the entire program or risk being sued for not making “reasonable” accommodation.