Monday, November 9, 2015

#Microblog Monday: Last Train Home

November is a month full of vacation days and half days at school: election day, Teacher's Convention, conferences, Thanksgiving.  As a working parent, I've resented November.  It requires juggling, finding care, trying to keep routines that we established back in September, knowing that it will all fall apart as we forget which day it is, and what special he has, and when his homework will be due.

But fall break at work this year fell on the same week as I.'s two day school week, so I decided to put aside my resentment to take a day off and take my son to New York.  I offered him the choice between the Cloisters and the MoMA.  He chose the MoMA.

My parents would take us into the city once or twice a year when I was growing up, and I remember it as a stressful (because it inevitably involved my parents fighting over parking and directions and plans) but magical adventure.  Once a year, we'd stand in line to see the windows decorated for Christmas, gaze in wonder at the tree at Rockefeller Center.  And some other time, if we were lucky, we'd get dressed up to get last-minute tickets to see a show.  My father, inexplicably, loved Broadway.

I discovered the museums myself, in high school, on class trips, and tried to go when I could throughout college, when I had access to the train.  I learned then to love the trip in almost as much as I loved the visit to the city itself: watching the neighborhoods change, imagining the lives of the people whose backyards opened onto the tracks.

When my son was old enough, I started to take him, too: to shows (for kids), to the Met, to the Museum of Natural History.  He loved trains as much as I did, and was always a delightful companion.

My daughter, who has less patience for long rides of any sort, and less interest in sitting still in a theater or contemplating any sort of display, made our trips the the city more complicated.  We take her along sometimes, but when we can, we go alone, just the two of us.

We arrived too early to get in to the MoMA, so we had a decadent hot chocolate and macaron breakfast at La Maison du Choclat, and then walked down towards Rockefeller Center, where to our delight, they were unloading the enormous Christmas tree from a tractor trailer with two cranes.  We gawked with the other tourists until we were too cold, and then continued our walk north back to the MoMA, where we spent the day marveling at the Picasso sculptures, and at the Applied Design exhibit, at objects where art and architecture collide.  We talked about art, and about cities, and about poverty and homelessness and the waste of so many plastic lunch bags in office buildings and the people whose job it was to put up Christmas decorations.

It couldn't have been more perfect.

On the way home, in the quiet car, gently swaying back and forth to the rhythm of the wheels on the tracks, I was reminded of a song I heard when I was sitting with my son in a cafe downtown five years ago, before his sister was born, when we used to go and get a bite to eat and watch the passersby.  On first listen, it sounds like a song describing two lovers on the last train home, but it turns out that the lyricist wrote it after a trip to New York with his mother, realizing for the first time that his mother would some day leave him, but somehow also holding time still, knowing that for the moment, that space together was enough.

I hope that someday, my son will hold on to moments like this, too, the moments when I'm exactly the parent I've always hoped I could be, when we're together on the last train home.

Not sure what #MicroblogMondays is?Read the inaugural post which explains the idea and how you can participate too.
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Thursday, November 5, 2015


I was making small talk with a student as he got up to leave my office, as I usually do at the end of advising conversations: bookending the visit with questions whose answers make both of us human, or diffuse the tension or anxiety that comes with vulnerability.  When I asked him what he was doing for the fall break, he mentioned he was catching up on sleep, watching movies, and that he might go into the City, which in these parts means "New York."  It's not an uncommon answer, especially for international students during their first year here.

"Oh, that'll be fun," I agreed.  "What do you think you'll see?"

"The museums, maybe the Guggenheim ... probably not Ground Zero, even though I'd like to go."

It was an exclusion that begged the question: "Why not?" I asked.

"It's not a place for brown people," he said, shaking his head slowly.  "We've done enough damage.  I wouldn't want to offend anyone."

It took me off guard.  My student is from Pakistan, but as far as I'm concerned, he has as much right to Ground Zero as anyone else.  He's a gentle soul.  He's disappointed by the current political situation in his home country.  No one would be able to tell he's any different from the 3 or 4 million other people with U.S. passports who are brown (this only counting Asian "brown").  I wanted him to feel like he could pay his respects, too, and honor those lost when the towers fell.  Because that's what it would be for him: honoring them.

I told him as much: "you're not responsible.  We know that.  That site belongs to you, too."

He was skeptical.  And as he left, I wished him a good adventure, knowing that he wouldn't venture anywhere near the southern tip of Manhattan.

It made me think about other incarnations of guilt-by-association, and wonder how we can even begin to heal if we can't even return to the site of our pain, to pay our respects to the dead.
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Monday, November 2, 2015

#Microblog Monday: Food for the Dead (Arborio Rice Pudding)

Our road was thick with cars this weekend, even after the hordes of Halloween revelers departed, leaving streets littered with candy wrappers.  On Sunday, I wondered momentarily about the traffic as we walked up the block to the farmer's market before I realized: of course. All Souls Day.

We joke about the Catholic church on our street, the weekly parade of speeding SUVs in a rush to be saved, and in a rush to get to brunch afterward (no offense to my Catholic readers intended: I believe that this behavior is a particular feature of the people who go to this church).  But truth be told, even though I left the church years ago, I sort of like the proximity of this one; walking past on Sundays, I think about my father, who would never miss a service, and the weekly ritual of mass, and the children's choir, and after-church trips to the park to see the zoo and ride the miniature railroad.

I remember All Souls Day as one of those hard-to-breathe holidays, not because it affected me emotionally, but because the air in the church was heavy with incense.  My father loved incense-laced holidays.  Though I liked the drama of the incense-swinging, to me, holding my pre-adolescent breath and hoping that the smoke would clear quickly, it seemed like an oppressive way to celebrate anything, or to remember the dead.

Years later, I learned that the Day of the Dead had been previously celebrated in Mexico during the summer, and was changed by the Spanish conquerors of Mexico to November in an effort to convert the indigenous people to their beliefs and get them to celebrate All Saints Day and All Souls Day. The contrast between the incense-filled Catholic church and the colorful outdoor parades and altars of Mexican culture couldn't be more striking.  During my years in LA, I loved the Day of the Dead celebrations, with their parades and music and stories and food.  Now, as a veteran of loss, I'm glad to see Day of the Dead celebrations becoming more common, given what I think is our cultural ineptitude at talking about death.  We need a better language for public grief, one that doesn't wave away the holes left behind by loved ones, but brings us together over them, and lets us speak their names.

As my children and I walked to the market yesterday, noting the creative parking jobs of the larger-than-usual-crowd, I told stories about my father, joked about how he'd disapprove of my not going to church, remembered him as a talented artist, told my son that he would have been proud to have a grandson that just might be interested in architecture.  And though I didn't build an altar, I imagine that his departed spirit would have appreciated this adaptation of arroz con leche, similar perhaps in flavor to atole left for the dead in Mexican celebrations, to fuel them for the journey ahead.

Arborio Rice Pudding

1/2 cup Arborio rice
4 cups milk
1/4 cup sugar
1/2 vanilla bean, split
3/4 teaspoon almond extract

In a large saucepan, place all the ingredients, except the almond extract.

Bring it to a gentle boil and then turn it down to a gentle simmer, stirring occasionally to keep it from sticking to the bottom, for about 30 to 40 minutes. Taste the rice to check for doneness. The rice should be very soft and plump.

Take the pudding off the heat and stir in the extract. Pour into dessert bowls and stir in some dried or fresh fruit. Serve immediately.

Not sure what #MicroblogMondays is?Read the inaugural post which explains the idea and how you can participate too.
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