Monthly Archives: October 2015

Shout-Outs

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As I was driving my daughter to school this morning, she was explaining to me the tradition of “Shout-Outs” instituted at the school a few years ago. My children have all gone to the same sweet elementary school in the rural outskirts of Charlottesville. With a student body of fewer than 250, the school is able to make community building a regular part of the curriculum, and they take this mission seriously. One Friday a month, a school-wide morning meeting is held during which students and faculty gather together in the gym to do a special greeting and a team-building activity. The fifth graders read out some announcements, and then the assembly concludes with “shout-outs,” which is when a few teachers take over the microphone to call out compliments that they’ve prepared in advance for a select group of kids.

“So give me an example of a shout-out,” I asked my daughter.

“Well, it’s usually something like, ‘Thank you for being kind,’ or ‘Thank you for helping the teacher.’ But, every single person is supposed to get at least one shout-out every year. One year, there was this kid, who I guess wasn’t, well…(there was a pause as she searched for a way to phrase it nicely)…the greatest and his shout-out was, ‘Thank you for putting the caps back on the pens!’ And another time it was, ‘Thank you for remembering to cover your mouth when you sneezed.'”

I started cackling like a demented witch.

“How about, ‘Thank you for remembering to wipe after you went to the bathroom?,'” I asked. “Or…’Thank you for not murdering a single person all last week?!'”

I began chortling and heaving in paroxyms of unseemly mirth. Tears began streaming from my eyes.

My daughter, who goes to a kind, nurturing school where they have a  shout-out for every single kid, even the ones who aren’t the greatest, solicitously asked me, “Mommy, are you ok?”

I was, but my behavior clearly revealed the fact that I went to a school that hadn’t capitalized on the civilizing influence of shout-outs.

Gordonsville

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This weekend’s story actually began last weekend when my friend Katherine and I took a day trip to visit The Market at Grelen, a garden shop, café, and event venue in picturesque Somerset, Virginia.

After pottering around the garden shop, we went to have lunch in Gordonsville, a little town located just a fifteen minute drive away.

Gordonsville has a cute downtown. Main Street is lined with pretty boutiques and restaurants:

We had lunch at Pomme:

…a French restaurant whose chef is the recipient of a Maîtres Cuisiniers de France, Toque d’Argent.

At this shop, which is actually called Painted at Poplar Haven, despite what the sign says:

I found this desk:

As per usual, I dithered about whether or not to buy it.

When we’d gone through all the shops, (it didn’t take long!), my friend tried to convince me to go to the Civil War Medical Museum. After she described the reenactment of a gruesome amputation she had seen when she had visited the last time, I announced that I’d rather go to the Gordonsville Street Festival instead.

The Street Festival was entertaining in its own way. There were tents for Ben Carson, pork rinds, catfish, tissue box covers, and Tupperware. One vendor was selling only cheesy, framed pictures of a blue-eyed Jesus. I couldn’t help but think of the story of a whip-cracking Jesus striding angrily into a temple and overturning tables and driving out money changers and people selling their wares…

That was last weekend. This Saturday, my family and I headed back to Gordonsville to buy the desk I had seen. My kids, who are far more sophisticated than I, are Civil War buffs and I knew they would appreciate the museum their philistine mother had eschewed in favor of the kettle-corn, fried chicken, tchotchke extravaganza that was the Gordonsville Street Festival.

The museum is located in the Exchange Hotel, an historic building on the National Register, where well-to-do passengers traveling on one of the two lines running through Gordonsville would stay while waiting for their next train.

During the Civil War, the hotel became a Receiving Hospital for wounded soldiers from both the Confederate and Union armies.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, there is a graveyard full of soldiers in the field behind the hotel.

In the Reconstruction period, the hotel became a Freedman’s Bureau for newly-freed slaves. It served as a school for children by day and for adults by night, a hospital, and a courtroom.

For me the most compelling exhibit in the museum was a gallery of some of the court cases that were heard during a period of time between 1865 and 1866. The brief summaries paint vivid vignettes of heartbreak and cruelty:

It was during this period when Gordonsville became known as the “Fried Chicken Capital of the World.” Freed slave women would walk along the tracks with baskets full of fried chicken balanced on top of their heads to sell to passengers through open train windows.

And here’s that desk that brought me back to Gordonsville in its new home in Charlottesville.

Life

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I got a message from this sweet friend today. She graduated last year and has launched into LIFE. We’ve tried to keep in touch, but I have missed talking to her in person every week and seeing her radiant smile. It had been awhile since we last corresponded, so in response to her message asking about my life, I gave her a brief, written snapshot of what’s been going on with me lately, and thought I’d share it here with some actual photos…

Hi there!

It’s always so lovely to hear from you!

All’s pretty good on my end…Happy to be in our new house,

especially now that the holes in the walls and ceilings are being patched and painted!

Biting my nails in anxiety, because our old house hasn’t sold yet…

Reliving the angst of high school through my 10th grader, who is overloaded with So. Much. Homework and over whose hunched figure I have to stand with a whip in one hand a red hot poker in the other until much too late every single night!

Sad that the kids are growing much too fast.

Glad to hold on a bit longer by decorating for Halloween and throwing a party for my 8th grader, who is now too old for trick-or-treating.

Too tired to do the stuff I really want and need to do – take care of the garden,

finish unpacking,

hang pictures,

write!

Cool plans? Well, the biggest thing on the horizon is Thanksgiving. I’m going to host my entire family (18 people in all), which is both terrifying and terribly exciting!

Happy and grateful for every single day, even when there are no cool plans to fill them. Missing you…

Xoxo

Picture Day

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Every year for a decade now, I have agonized over the gazillions of options for school portrait packages. Honestly? I don’t know why I order any at all. I think it’s mostly because I think my kids’ feelings might be hurt if I was the only parent who didn’t fork over my hard-earned money for what has to be the biggest mass fraud ever perpetrated on humanity. I hate school portraits. I hate the ghastly backgrounds. I hate the stiff, awkward smiles on my children’s faces. I hate the stress leading up to Picture Day. I hate the unhinged person I become when that dreaded day arrives.

On my oldest child’s very first Picture Day, I was in New York City with his baby sister, who was having surgery at a hospital there. My husband was manning the fort at home with our two boys. Between preparing lectures on the nature of tolerance and respect, getting one son to Kindergarten and arguing with policemen while trying to get another son to preschool, I suppose he didn’t have time to think through the serious implications of Picture Day. He was bewildered when a few weeks later I pulled the portrait package out of our son’s backpack and burst into tears when I saw the photo. My son was wearing a black sweatshirt and sweatpants, and his hair was uncombed. He was weirdly posed, cozying up to a fake rock.

What my husband had failed to appreciate is that Picture Day takes forethought and planning. It should go without saying that you have to pick the right pose in advance, (i.e. NOT the Hugging a Fake Rock Pose). But you also have to make sure your kid gets his hair cut about two weeks before the photo so that it’s not too shaggy, but not too short. You have to make sure the laundry has been done, so that the one portrait-worthy shirt your child owns is ready for wear. For at least the two days leading up to Picture Day, you have to put your child through his paces in Picture Day Smile Preparation Boot Camp to make sure he’ll “smile naturally!”

I was thrilled to discover that portraits could be retaken. I have made my long-suffering daughter retake her photo every single year except one. Now imagine how complicated it becomes when you have to juggle three Picture Days at three different schools. This year I lost track of when my middle schooler was having his picture taken, and it showed. I’m making him get his portrait retaken, because there was a conspicuous piece of lint in his hair and he was wearing a hoodie. (People! Have we learned nothing after all these years)?!

I think I’m being punished for being such a jerk about the portraits. This year on my daughter’s Picture Day, I painstakingly combed and styled her hair and we went through the usual lengthy and heated negotiations about the shirt she should wear. When she came home from school that day, she announced that the photographer hadn’t shown up, so Picture Day would be rescheduled for several weeks later. The girl is growing like a weed. In those few weeks she outgrew the shirt we had picked out for her. No matter! I bought her a new outfit to wear. Better still, she had never worn the shirt, so I knew there would be no stains on it!

She balked, but finally agreed to put on the outfit. She came stomping down the stairs with a grumpy look on her face.

“I don’t want to wear this! I HATE these sleeves. It’s too tight and it’s really itchy!”

I tried to be sympathetic…

“Yeah, whatever, Kid. You’re wearing it!”

When she came home after school that day, she headed straight up to her room to change.

“Whoa! Come back down here!” I said. I had hatched a plan to eliminate the need for a picture retake. “Let me take a few pictures of you in your cute outfit!”

I was surprised that she so readily acquiesced, but as we headed outside she said, “Is that because you know I’ll never ever wear this ever again?”

<Sigh>

Jungle Jenny’s Flying Menagerie

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Claire and I were chatting one day when she casually mentioned that her husband Lionel had been the pilot for an historic KLM flight in May 1949. He flew the largest shipment of animals ever to travel by air. My jaw dropped as she mentioned some details of the flight.

“Jungle Jenny was on board and she had to wrangle tigers that escaped from their cages…”

I was so intrigued by the story that she lent me her scrapbook filled with news clippings so that I could take notes for what I thought would make an amazing children’s story. I wrote many versions of the story, but was never satisfied with any of them. I wish I could have done the story more justice, but in honor of Claire and Captain Metz, I am posting one of the versions here: 

metzThis is the true story of a brave and adventurous girl named Genevieve, Jenny for short. When Jenny was just a little girl, her mother died and she was sent to live with friends of the family. Arthur and Marie had lost their own little daughter, and gladly welcomed Jenny into their own home.

From the outside, their house looked like any other. But Jenny was startled to hear strange noises as she stepped out of the car to see her new home for the first time. The noises grew louder as Arthur and Marie led her through the house and into their huge backyard. It was a zoo!

Arthur was an animal collector. He traveled far and wide to find animals for zoos and circuses all over the world. The animals lived in his backyard until it was time to go to their new homes.

Jenny grew up with no brothers or sisters, and no other playmates but the animals. She loved the monkeys and the elephants best. She would dress the monkeys in clothes she made herself, drape the elephants with ribbons, and pretend she had her own circus.

Jenny was happy, but she longed for one thing. Jenny dreamed about seeing the faraway places from where the animals had come. Every time her father packed his bags to leave on one of his trips, she begged him to take her along. She wanted to be an animal collector one day, just like him.

Now Arthur was a kind man, but an old-fashioned one. “It wouldn’t be proper for a young girl to be an animal collector,” he told Jenny. “When you’re old enough, you’ll get married to a nice boy and settle down.”

When Jenny got older, she had many marriage proposals, but she wasn’t ready to get married and settle down. She kept pleading with her father to take her on one of his voyages.

One day, her father announced with a grin: “Pack your bags, Jenny! For your twenty-first birthday, I’m taking you with me to India and Africa. But only if you promise to settle down and get married when we get back home.”

Jenny was delighted! She was ready to promise anything for her chance to see the world.

Jenny had hardly ever left her little hometown in New Jersey. She was dazzled by the sights and sounds of India and Africa. But it was a difficult and dangerous trip. They arrived in India in the middle of a war! They traveled more than a thousand miles through India trying to flee from danger.

Two train cars holding the animals they had collected were derailed. For weeks heavy floods brought all transportation to a standstill. Some of their shipments of animals got lost.

They finally sailed back home six months later with dozens of pythons and cobras, three hundred monkeys, more than a thousand birds, and a pair of elephants. Arthur was completely frazzled and utterly exhausted. He declared it the worst trip of his life. But for Jenny the dangers and near disasters had made for a thrilling adventure that had ended much too soon.

She had shown great courage throughout the difficult trip and thought her father would surely now see how helpful she could be to him in his work. What despair she felt when he reminded her of the promise she had made to gt married and settle down, and told her he would never take her on another trip again.

What could Jenny do? She became a secretary. Glumly, she filed papers all day long, daydreaming all the while about the adventures she had had.

Two years later Arthur was traveling in Singapore to collect a shipment for an animal dealer named Henry Trefflich, when he fell ill and died. Jenny called Mr. Trefflich to explain the sad news.

“I’m so sorry,” Mr. Trefflich said. “Your father was the best in the business. Who could possibly go to Singapore to collect those animals for me?” he wondered out loud.

“I’ll go!” Jenny blurted out. The very next week she was on a ship headed for Singapore.

During the long forty-two day voyage Jenny had plenty of time to worry about where she would stay in Singapore, how she would find the animals, how much she should pay for them, and how she would bring them back.

When she arrived, Jenny bought a motorcycle and headed to the animal market. She was the only woman there. At first, the dealers wouldn’t have anything to do with this young motorcyle-riding American girl.

One dealer tried to trick her by selling her a python that had just been fed. Snakes were sold by the foot, and the body of a snake that has just eaten is temporarily stretched out longer. With a shake of her head and a polite smile, Jenny said no.

The dealers soon realized Jenny couldn’t be fooled. They could see she was smart. They could see she understood animals. She was good at striking  bargain, but was always respectful and fair.  By the end of her time in Singapore, Jenny had become friends with everyone at the animal market.

Jenny sailed back to America with one hundred eighty-seven gibbons and Javanese monkeys, thirty-four pythons, a Malayan sun bear, and a very expensive baby orangutan she couldn’t resist buying at the last minute. She thought he looked like a bratty redhead! She dressed him in baby clothes to keep him warm. When Mr. Trefflich saw the orangutan, he was delighted. This rare ape would fetch a fortune.

“When can you start out again?” he asked. And so Jenny’s dream of being an animal collector came true!

On one of Jenny’s many voyages there was a terrible storm. In the middle of the night a cabin boy shook Jenny awake, crying, “Miss Jenny! A board fell and smashed the python’s crate open and now it’s missing!” Jenny and two cabin boys searched frantically for the one hundred seventy-five pound, twenty-seven foot python. The alarmed chattering of the monkeys soon told them where to look. The snake was curled up right next to their crate.

Now if there was one animal Jenny was frightened of, it was snakes. But Jenny knew she was the only one on board who could handle the python.

“Right, boys! I’ll grab the snake’s head so it can’t bite. As soon as I grab it, pull as hard as you can on its tail so it doesn’t squeeze my arm, OK?”

The cabin boys looked queasy with fear, but nodded their heads.

Jenny took a deep breath. In one sudden move, she caught the snake!

“Now, boys! Pull!” she cried.

“Boys?”

Jenny felt the snake coiling ever more tightly around her arm. She looked up and saw that she was alone. The frightened cabin boys had run away!

She lowered the snake down into a dark box and stroked his body to soothe him. The python finally let go of her arm and slithered into the box.

“Slam!” went the lid.

On another voyage, Jenny was transporting seven leopards. One was tame; the other six were wild. A boy cleaning the cages pulled up the door he thought held the tame leopard. He let out the wrong one!

Jenny tried to force the door back down, but the leopard managed to slip out. Angry at having been squashed by the door, he lunged at Jenny. She grabbed the fallen board and held it in front of her as a shield. The leopard’s mighty leap flung the board away and Jenny was knocked down. She raised her arm to protect herself. The leopard gnawed on Jenny’s arm and clawed at her with his paw. Fighting for her life, Jenny managed to flip over and lie on top of the leopard, pinning him under her own body. Jenny was in the hospital for weeks, and had to have several operations.

Now you might think that after such a terrifying encounter, Jenny would have retired, but that was not the kind of woman she was. Her greatest adventure was still ahead.

Mr. Trefflich decided to transport a large number of wild animals by airplane. It had never been tried before. It would cost twice as much, but a sea voyage of a month and a half would only take six days by plane. Jenny was back to work!

Twelve hundred animals were boarded onto the airplane. Two elephants were on either end of the fuselage. Three rows of crates held seven hundred twenty java monkeys, sixteen gibbons, five pigtail monkeys, a baby orangutan, a sun bear, forty hornbill birds, forty mynah birds, three pheasants, five king cobras, nine pythons, a krait snake, a binturong, four monitor lizards, two golden pumas, two black panthers…and three tigers.

In the main cabin with all the animals there was just one chair for Jenny. Captain Metz and his crew were glad to stay in the cockpit, well away from the wild animals.

On the third night after feeding the animals and cleaning their cages, Jenny set her broom aside, turned off the lights, and settled into her chair to sleep.

Suddenly she was woken up by the trumpeting of elephants and the screaming of monkeys. She turned on her flashlight and saw two pairs of lowing eyes peering out between rows of boxes. Another pair of eyes glowed from atop a crate containing terrified, shrieking gibbons. It was the tigers! They had chewed their way out of their crates.

The radio operator raised the alarm, “Captain! The tigers have escaped!”

The pilot chuckled at first, thinking it was a joke. He cracked open the door an gasped when he saw the tigers for himself. He quickly slammed the door shut and said, “We better leave it to Jenny.”

Jenny switched on the lights. She reached for her broom and waggled it at the two tigers slinking right toward her with their tails slowly swishing back and forth.

“Scat!” she cried. They looked scornfully at her and the broom and gave low rumbling growls. Certain they had shown this small creature who was in charge, they sauntered off to explore the rest of the plane. Jenny bravely followed right behind with nothing but her broom.

The third tiger noticed the hullabaloo and prepared to attach Jenny from his perch atop the monkeys’ cage. Jenny leaped up onto the crate and thrust the broom in his face.

The startled tiger jumped down, and now Jenny chased all three tigers through the plane.

They ran in a row, up and down the narrow aisles made by the stacked crates. Around and around they ran, to the alarmed chattering and frenzied screams of the animals watching from their crates. Jenny wondered if she would have to keep chasing those tigers all the way to New York.

Suddenly, as the tigers rounded the corner where one of the elephants stood, it let out a terrific trumpeting scream that shook the whole airplane! The tigers froze in their tracks.

“SMACK!” went the elephant’s trunk on the floor of the plane. The three astonished tigers nervously slunk back into their crate. Jenny grabbed a feeding tray and held it over the broken slats of the crate. She used her flashlight to pound some nails over the tray.

“Phew!” she sighed, wiping her brow. She turned to give a shaky wave to the cheering crew.

Just then the plane hit an air pocket. As it lurched, Jenny was flung against the crate holding the panthers. One reached out and bit her arm!

She cleaned and bandaged the wound, and then stood guard over the tigers all night long. Only four nails held the tray over the slats, and she was afraid the tigers might break loose again.

There were a few more hiccups as the plane continued its journey. The baby orangutan caught a cold. Two of the monkeys got loose. Six of the hornbills pecked their way out of the crate. The elephants broke their tethers a few times. And the pigtail monkeys and the mynahs argued fiercely all the way to New York. It was nothing Jenny couldn’t handle.

The long journey from the East Indies to New York finally ended on May 6, 1949. Jenny and her flying menagerie had made history. It was the largest shipment of animals ever to travel so far by air.

Bananas and peanuts were strewn along the ramp to lure the elephants out of the plane. Jenny walked alongside them down the gangplank, smiling and waving to the cheering crowd of reporters, photographers, and zookeepers who had gathered on the airfield to greet her.

Many newspapers and magazine articles were written about Jenny. One journalist nicknamed her “Jungle Jenny” and the name stuck. In zoos all over the country, elephants, orangutans, and yes: even tigers were named after Jenny. Movie directors invited her to Hollywood to act in movies, but Jenny was not interested. She was doing exactly what she had always wanted to do.

I failed preschool three times.

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Lately my thoughts have been with Claire, my daughter’s first preschool teacher and our dear neighbor, before she and her husband moved to California. We were so sad to hear that her husband passed away a couple weeks ago. We have been exchanging messages and reminiscing ever since.

Claire was a golden, luminous presence in our lives. A few mornings a week we would walk down to the cul de sac and up a steep hill to her “Little Sisters Preschool.” The four little girls who made up the neighborhood school were all little sisters and the youngest children in their families.

You had to cross a pretty little creek and a mossy lawn to get to the front door of Claire’s enchanted house. On one side of the house was a pond that her husband had lovingly dug by hand. It was full of lilies and goldfish and croaking frogs. On the other side were beautiful gardens. Fairy houses and other treasures were hidden along winding paths through tall trees.

The girls wandered the woods looking for fairies, they learned to sing songs of thanksgiving for the food they ate, and most importantly – they were loved.

Until then preschool had been highly problematic for us. “I guess we’re not good preschool parents,” I would say with a shrug to explain why we had switched schools so many times.

Towards the end of our oldest child’s first year of preschool, he began desperately crying the minute we pulled into the parking lot. It was a struggle to get him out of the car and into the school. Eventually, we discovered to our horror that his teacher had been harsh and unkind to him. We pulled him out immediately.

The next year we tried a co-op that had a reputation for cultivating a warm and nurturing environment. Because it was a co-op, all the parents helped out in the classroom a couple times a month. At the end of those two days every month, I would crawl home at noon with my head throbbing and collapse in a senseless heap. I still have PTSD from my multiple tours of duty at the woodworking station where two and three year olds would brandish real saws and joyfully pound nails into blocks of wood for hours on end.

On the days I didn’t co-op, I would dread the moment when I picked up my son and would be told in a gentle voice that “N had chosen not to make a paper-bag vest today.” The first time this happened, I said lightly, “Oh, that’s ok!” I quickly realized that this was the incorrect response when his teacher replied, “We think it’s important for him to participate in all of the activities.”

I may have failed out of two preschools, but at least I knew when to take my cue to leave. We enrolled my second son in a traditional drop-off preschool. It was a stressful time in our lives. Our daughter had just been born and was in and out of the hospital for months. After her first surgery in New York, my husband left us at the hospital to drive through the night with our young sons back to Virginia because he had to teach a class early the next morning. Running late for the class, he parked in an unauthorized spot to drop our son off at preschool. As he stepped out of the car, a policeman asked him to move his car and was unsympathetic to his plea to allow him to park for the two minutes it would take to bring our son into the building. My husband chose not to repark the car and told the officer to give him a ticket if he must. I was mortified to read the next preschool newsletter in which certain unnamed parents were firmly reminded to set a good example for young children by not arguing with policemen in their presence.

My husband was not the only one to be disgraced. I lived in fear of “getting the finger” from my son’s preschool teacher when I came to pick him up. As soon as she caught sight of me, she would beckon me over to her with the curve of a bony, exigent forefinger.

“Your son was very disappointed that he didn’t have three things that began with a ‘c’ for show and tell today.”

Oh, Lord! There were letters of the day, numbers of the day, and colors of the day! It was a daily nightmare! I would set a terrible example for my young charges as I frantically ransacked drawers, cursing the fact that we had no yellow clothes for “yellow day,”or six things that began with an “f,” or was it five things for “e” day?!

We had to fail out of three preschools before Claire and The Little Sisters Preschool came into our lives. I have always loved the Christian concept of Grace – the idea that you are granted love and mercy, not because of what you do, or who you are, but even despite your failures and shortcomings. Having Claire and Lionel in our lives was that kind of blessing. How lucky my daughter was to have that time with her…to build houses for fairies, to read The Story of Little Babaji, to picnic at Beaver Creek,…to be loved. Thank you, Claire. I think of you and Lionel with such love, admiration, and gratitude. We miss you both so much.