Thursday, July 14, 2011

These Are a Few of My Favorite Things

I recently introduced my daughter to the movie The Sound of Music. Well, by introduced I mean I ordered it on Netflix and we watched half of it. (So far.) We've talked about getting it since I sometimes sing Do-Re,-Mi to her when she is going to bed and wanted her to hear Julie Andrews sing it. (Of course, the daring, heart-pounding escape from the Nazis might not make for the most restful bed-time thoughts, now that I think of it. But, like I said -- we haven't gotten to that part yet.)

In the meantime, the movie has made me think about that other sweet song, "These Are a Few of My Favorite Things."

With summer winding down here, I decided to compile this little list of a few of our favorite things in northern New Jersey.

Made With Love - downtown Jersey City. We adore this little gem of a bakery on Newark Ave. Last year, in fact, I threw a little dinner party for myself there (it was my birthday) and created my own, ultimate "Girls Night Out." The bakery uses all organic ingredients and everything tastes wonderful. This year I also ordered buttermilk scones for my daughter's class for a special event and the owner and head baker delivered them herself, fresh from the oven, right to the school! We are hoping someday they will introduce gluten-free products to their lineup, like this place.

Van Saun County Park - Paramus (tucked away off Route 3). This park has it all and is worth the drive from Jersey City or Hoboken. They have a beautiful old-fashioned carousel, a large zoo, an irresistable choo choo train that runs around the outside of the zoo, a large playground area -- and, wait for it: pony rides! It's awesome. This week my daughter is doing a "pony camp" there and it's been a lot of fun, especially today when she demonstrated her skills and trotted with a pony named Finn (with a counselor jogging alongside them.) You can easily spend a day here.

River view Park and Washington Heights Park - Palisade Ave., and Central Ave, respectively. We have to represent, since we live in the Heights! Both of these parks have been renovated. Riverview has spectacular views of Manhattan, room to run around and play soccer, and a nice sized playground. (The very steep slide here is a family favorite.) There's also a community garden tucked in one corner (near Ogden) which is definitely worth checking out. On Sundays there is a newly established Farmer's Market. Washington Park recently underwent a massive overhaul; it boasts all new tennis courts, a large area with picnic tables, and one of the biggest playgrounds anywhere -- including a small toddler area and a fun, large climbing structure that looks like a barn, plus plenty of slides. It's also got a big sprinkler park. We used to drive to Hoboken for sprinklers, but now we don't have to. Both parks have vibrant park associations.

The Clearview Cinema in Hoboken. Just down the viaduct running from Jersey City to the north end of Hoboken, this relatively new theater is convenient and usually has at least one kid movies playing.

The public libraries. The beautiful Main Library in Jersey City is a frequent stop for us, but did you know that Jersey City residents can get a special sticker added to their library card which gives us privileges to the Hoboken library? Both libraries are near parks, so it's an easy little outing to combine a trip to pick up books and play outside. Plus, the Hoboken library has a very large children's room which is fun to explore, especially if your kids have already checked out the kid's room in the Jersey City branch.

Thursday, June 2, 2011


This morning my six year old asked me when she would be old enough to walk to school by herself. She was watching two sisters walk ahead of her, towards the open doors of her school. "How come they get to walk to school by themselves?" she protested.

I pointed out that their mother was just across the street, following their progress with an eagle eye. She sighed and trudged ahead. I was thinking to myself - yeah, you can walk alone to school when you are walking across your college campus to class, sister! I mean, who wants to let their kids walk anywhere alone these days? Maybe if we lived in a tree-lined suburb where hoards of children filled the sidewalks, ambling to school together. But we live in a city and I drive her to school. She's free to play in our backyard, and sometimes to play in front of the house with the three children who live next door - but that's about it.

All of this got me thinking about the extraordinary amount of freedom I was given as a child -- I was a child who also grew up in the city. Sure, in retrospect, I think my parents were a bit too lenient, but those were different times. All that independence did however make me strong and street savvy and resourceful. I'd like to strike a balance with my daughter, but right now all I can muster is letting her play in front of the house, drawing with chalk on the sidewalk with the neighbor children, all the while knowing that if I'm not peering out of the window looking out for them, her grandmother is, or the the mom or dad or grandparents of the other children, will be.

My own solo traveling began at an early age. On Saturdays I would strap on my roller skates and leave our house to glide (if you can call rolling on those old metal wheels "gliding") to the PATH train station about 10 blocks away. From there I would get on a train to Greenwich Village and roller skate to a pantomime class. (Really.) I was probably in sixth or seventh grade, and all of my classmates also traveled alone, by subway usually, to our class.

Later I took the train in to go to other classes, like acting and voice. I had a key to our house and during the school week often came home for lunch by myself (sneaking a little TV time in, since no one was home). The really big trips entailed my mom driving me through the Lincoln Tunnel into the Port Authority, where she would wait with me until the Adriondack Trailways bus would pull up. Then I would board the bus and travel almost two hours north to Ulster County where my father lived in a rambling house by a lake.

I remember the first time I took the bus by myself - how my mom made sure that I sat in the front near the driver and how I talked his ear off the whole time. Eventually the ride became just another normal part of my routine, and I would do homework, watch the scenery and read.

One of the positive things that came out of this I suppose -- besides the aforementioned independence -- is a love for travel and a fearlessness to do it, alone. I'm not known in my family for fearlessness -- quite the opposite. When I left New York on a fellowship after graduate school that would take me near Russia, I planned some solo travel there. I also bought all sorts of insurance to get me home and get me medical evacuation if needed. My cousin's eyes grew wide as I reviewed my policies with him. So yeah, I'm not exactly a carefree person. (How many 20-somethings do you know that carry a travel policy for accidental amputation?)

The point is, I went on those trips -- and I did it my way. As summer approaches, I am about to take my daughter on her first international trip (OK, it's only Canada, but still!). I hope the journey fosters in her a lifelong desire for (considered and careful) adventure and exploration.

Now you'll have to excuse me as I'm overdue to call the Passport office.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Family Life: Just a snapshot

As mother's day approaches, I turn to one of my favorite photos. (Well, to be honest, it's one of my favorites that shows my daughter in a discreet way - because posting photos of her on the Internet is something I try generally to avoid.)

I love this image though, because she is running with such carefree joy and it was taken at a family gathering in Maine. She was too young to remember this trip, but old enough to really enjoy the gorgeous weather and landscape that surrounded us. The feel of the grass on her feet. The breeze on her skin as her cousins pushed her on an old wooden swing that hung from the rafters of the barn.

It also makes me think of the things that aren't pictured -- my mother, who was there with us, when she was healthy and not ravaged by the cancer she has been fighting now for more than a year. My disabled sister, who was there with us in Maine as well, walking with her cane, and caution and the help of our strapping cousins, down the green sloping lawn.

This year I think I'll frame this photo and hang it up, as a Mother's Day gift to myself. As a reminder of childhood joy, and family, and summer time.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Throwing Our Children Under the (School) Bus

There are a lot of ways I try to protect my child and when there's a good teachable moment, I take it. I've told her what to do if she ever gets separated from me and her dad. And yes, I've had discussions with her about how her body belongs to her and only her, and what to do if anyone ever touches her in an uncomfortable way, and what to do if anyone ever tries to lure her towards their car. I make her practice saying "No - get away from me! I don't know you," in a loud voice.

There are other ways to harm children though. And others ways a loud voice can come in handy.

Recently the schools superintendent in our district said -- publicly -- that the biggest problem in our under-performing Jersey City schools was "bad" girls.

I could feel my blood pressure rising. It's not just because I am the mother of a girl, or even that I was once a student in the Jersey City public schools. When Dr. Charles T. Epps put down the girls in our town, he put them all down and he told everyone, including them, that he thinks they can't succeed.

I would expect an educator to know how much words can hurt children. Our superintendent doesn't seem to be worried about this, and apparently, neither is the School Board which has not censured him, despite the fact that what he said was outrageous and unacceptable. Did I mention that the majority of the schools in this district are failing? Did I tell you about the complaints people have about the administration? Did I mention that our superintendent makes so much money he needs a special waiver from Gov. Christie - who has put a cap on superintendent's salaries in the Garden State - to keep collecting his paycheck?

Well, I got so incensed about the situation, I went to speak at the Board of Education meeting held recently. While I was there, I held up a picture of my six-year-old daughter, to let the Board and the administration know, we are talking about real students here, real girls - and no child should be told they are "bad" (or "dirty" or "nasty" - which Dr. Epps also called our students.)

None of our students should be told they are nasty; it sends a message that the adults at the helm of this huge educational system, the people in charge of their very education, don't believe in them. It throws every one of them under the bus.

Here's the good news: getting involved in this fight means I have made more of connection with the parents in my community - especially with some of the other mothers in this area. We aren't in this alone. All we need now are leaders who aren't afraid to stand up and lead. Lord knows if they won't, a pack of pissed off moms will.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

A Sister's Story

The critical care nurse did not mince her words with me: "Your sister is never going to wake up," she said. "You will never have another conversation with her."

I took a sharp inhale and nodded. On the cusp of turning 30, my beautiful, free-spirited and adventurous kid sister, Jorelle -- the woman who had traveled alone to Alaska, Peru and Australia, the woman who left New York after 9/11 "because every bone in my body was telling me to go" - was lying in a coma in the next room.

It was Valentine's Day, 2005, and she had left her boyfriend's house to drive on the winding roads that would lead to her dance class. The weather was bad, her car was old, and black ice sent her spinning into oncoming traffic. Except for stitches in her head and the constant hum of medical equipment, she looked normal when I first saw her in the hospital. Her small, powerful dancer's frame lay tucked beneath white blankets.

I leaned over the rail of her hospital bed, my breasts swollen with milk from nursing my newborn baby, and taped a small photo of her two-month old niece to the top of her bed. I held her hand. I told her to come back to us. Other days, I told her it was OK to leave. I was terrified she would remain forever in a vegetative state. I was terrified she would die. Family and friends came and went in a steady stream. My best friends talked with me on the phone daily. Girlfriends, cousins and sister-in-laws came to help with the baby.

One day we went to my sister's small apartment in a nearby town. I sat in her bedroom, collecting her journals (so no visitors could read them), fingering her clothes and the wonderful lampwork jewelery she had made from hand after learning how to create intricate glass beads. I was sure we would be coming back here to empty the apartment, that she would never escape the coma she lay in.

I looked down at my infant, asleep on the bed. I looked up at the wall, where my sister had hung inspirational quotes, black and white photographs, and then a small, ceramic plaque caught my eye. It said "Expect Miracles."

I stared at it for a long time, and in my mind I said "OK, Jorelle. OK."

Some six weeks later, my sister began to slowly emerge from the coma and fight to get her life back. That nurse had been wrong.

Her journey is a difficult one since she sustained a Traumatic Brain Injury. Usually you hear about TBI in the news these days because so many veterans are returning home from Iraq and Afghanistan with these life-changing injuries.

My sister struggles to walk and practices speech therapy nearly every day. Her stubborn resistance to using a wheelchair makes me want to tear my hair out sometimes, but I also admire her tremendously. What dancer wants to be told to sit in a chair?

How far my sister has come is astounding. How far she will go, no one knows. Since emerging from her coma, she has endured endless therapies and bottomless sadness.

But she has also done some incredible things, and been helped by some incredible people, including my mother. My sister has:

knitted me a scarf for Christmas

gone swimming in pools and the ocean

walked, on treadmills, sidewalks, wooden pathways, holding on to her walker with fierce determination

she has learned to sleep alone in her apartment at night

she has adopted a cat named Houdini

she has learned to get up in the morning and make coffee

she has faced her fears and gone for cognitive therapy

she has read all of the Twilight series books and together, we have seen almost all of the movies

she has written poems and journal entries, and kept up with her friends on email and now, Facebook

she has gone on a date

she has traveled to California and Canada and Maine and Texas with family members

she has played cards with her niece

she saw Ani Defranco live in concert with me

she has flirted

she has complained about the snow and gotten tan in the summer

she has choreographed and performed original dance pieces; she is working on a new performance now

she has smiled the biggest smile - the one I thought I would never see again - while performing her dance piece

she has done grocery shopping

she has agreed to work with certain caretakers and fired others

she goes to movie night with a group of her friends

she has cried and screamed, and she has laughed and laughed

she has marked, each year, the anniversary of her accident, now six years behind us

she has gone to the theater

she has cleaned her cat's pan

she has helped prepare family dinners

she has written us all cards and shopped or made gifts for everyone in the family

she has learned to navigate, alone, out of her house in a wheelchair, and down a long ramp that leads from the back of her apartment, out into the world

she hasn't given up...

And she has given me that small plaque - "Expect Miracles." It hangs today in the entry way of my home, so that I can see it every time I leave and every time I come home.

Since it's March -- Women's History Month -- it seems appropriate to honor and celebrate my sister, who inspires me. Even better, this month is her birthday. Did I tell you how much she likes chocolate cake?

(Image above: My mother and sister walking on a pier in Hoboken, NJ. Photo Credit: Theta Pavis.)

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

The Greatest Show on Girth

I can't remember the last time I went to the circus. Well, that isn't entirely true, since we've made several trips to the New Victory Theater in Manhattan, which frequently features international acts -- some of them small circuses.

(We once had a high wire walker come right past us while we sat in the balcony!)

What I'm talking about here is a good old-fashioned circus, three-rings and all. A circus with cotton candy and popcorn and $22 plastic toys that spin and light up for no reason. A circus with acrobats and elephants, tons of clowns and death-defying feats of amazing skill. (OK, we've also been to Cirque Du Soleil, but my husband makes fun of it.)

When Ringling Bros. invited us to check out their new act - Fully Charged we decided to go over to Newark's Prudential Center and see it. Our VIP passes gave us fantastic seats and special privileges, but even if we hadn't had all of that, I think it would have been a great time. The clowns alone were worth the price of admission. They weren't scary (although my daughter's friend who came along declined to shake their hands; he did however think it was funny when one of them sat on my lap)! The clowns were a delight. Pure, simple, silly magic - oh yeah, and they did also ride an enormous, over-sized ridiculous bike with out-size rubber tires that they could bounce off of.

But it wasn't the horses and miniature ponies, zebras, tigers or elephants that made my husband stop and sit up - no, that job went to Dimitriy Nadolinskiy and Ruslan Gilmulin, two "strong men" from Uzbekistan. The circus says they met when they were six year olds (the same age as my daughter and her friend). They each weigh more than 300 pounds and gobble up more than 7,000 calories a day. (And you thought your snack time was challenging!) Despite that, they lift each other into the air with ease -- turning and twirling huge utility poles (which have swings attached so four women in the show can hop on for a ride. Oh, and meanwhile, a clown rides on the top.) The circus says this astonishing maneuver is known as the Turning Towers of Power. The friends got the idea for this part of their act from watching Scottish Highland competitions where participants tossed tree trunks to demonstrate their enormous strength.

Later, as if that weren't enough, the pair came back out -- dressed in their Roman-style costumes, and took turns twirling each other - up and over, up and over, great, hulking, yet graceful acrobatic strongmen.

Only at the circus. It was a night none of us will soon forget.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

How Much is that Leek in the Window?

As a child, I often accompanied my father to the grocery store. It was fun, but I dreaded the checkout process. Everything would be bagged and we would be ready to go, but my father would stand at the end of the line reading the receipt like it was a legal contract; often he stopped to ask the cashier questions even though she was already trying to ring up the next customer.

I used to cringe and wish I could just disappear.

Oh, if only I had paid more attention to dad. Case in point - I recently planned to make a potato and leek soup with a recipe from an ancient New England soup cookbook my mother has. I went to the store, but did not realize that leeks are, apparently, very expensive these days. (Who worries about buying loose green vegetables? Organic chickens, yes, but greens!!!!???)

Before I knew it, I'd spent over $15 on leeks, which is clearly preposterous.

While I have been known to clip articles about financial budgeting, and own several books on financial matters (like this one, and my new favorite, this one) I cannot tell you honestly that I have a household budget. I tell myself that even though I don't have one, I have managed pretty well. But things need to change.

Except for a one-year period, I have handled the books here at home central for more than 10 years. While I may complain about it, the reality is -- I like having the power over the checkbook(s). Even though my husband is better with money.

After all, he is the one who made me face up to my credit card situation before we had a baby - and that means my credit score is better today (and I don't have a huge card with massive interest and balances on it, either). The benefits of having the power are that 1) he doesn't know when I buy something ridiculous (like $6 dollar window gel clings for Valentine's Day for my daughter) or expensive vitamins and REALLY expensive organic chickens and 2) I can always get out of bedtime battles with the kid by saying to him: "Honey, I have to go to the office and pay the bills." Then I check Facebook. (But then I do pay the bills. Seriously. Mostly on time.)

Now, you can tell from the above references that out of control spending is not really my problem - I don't splurge on things -- there just isn't enough cash flow to do that. Splurging for me is buying silly holiday decorations that will get thrown away, or buying the organic kale instead of regular, or sometimes getting a pedicure. But things add up -- especially when I go to places like Target.

But I don't have a flat screen television or an iPod or an iPad. Left to my own devices I will spend money on organic food, overpriced gluten-free snacks and plane tickets, before anything else. And maybe a massage. (And would a salon haircut be too much to ask?)

Still, despite careful spending, I don't have a budget. I tried doing it the old fashioned way more than once; you know, save all your receipts for a month and add everything up and you will know where your money is going.

Forget it.

I ended up with carefully calculated lists with which I essentially did nothing. We looked at how much we were spending at the grocery store and vowed to do better.

If anything, it has gotten worse. I shop where I go, so that means I shop where ever I have to take my kid (to school, to piano lessons, etc.) and these are not at the cheapest supermarkets in town although I try to stay away from here. (Gorgeous, but the prices are incredible, in my opinion.)

My husband is also better at shopping with an eye for bargains; for example -- on the rare occasions that he goes shopping for clothes, he only ever goes when there are sales and he brings coupons with him. (He is also a better cook, but due to his work hours he doesn't cook much and doesn't do much of the shopping, either.)

So, since it is January - I am making a few vows here -

1) I am going to buy Quicken and actually start tracking what we spend so we can pay off the one credit card hanging over our heads (before the zero percent interest deal runs out). I am good at spending, good at saving (a bit) and bad about paying down debt. I mean, we paid for our own wedding with over 200 guests! We should be able to get this under control, right?!

2) I am going to start looking at the grocery receipts BEFORE I leave the store. The leeks I bought at A & P were $2.99 a pound. Later that week my husband stopped at the local Korean grocer near our home and picked up a few more leeks for my mom for a different soup (can a family have an obsession with leeks? Apparently, we do) and they were $1.89 a pound there!

In late 2010, CNBC reported that food prices are expected to rise two to three percent in 2011, which is double the levels of 2010. They also said: "Meat prices are expected to rise up to 3.5 percent and dairy 5.5 percent." The pressure is on.

While researching for this post, I also found out that my constant treks to the supermarket are part of the problem and I am not alone in this -- which made me feel a lot better. This quote from an article on WalletPop sounds EXACTLY like what is happening to me:

"Did you know that half of all shoppers go to the grocery store three or four times a week and that more than half of all supermarket purchases are unplanned? It adds up: shoppers making a 'quick trip' to a store usually purchase 54 % more than they planned..."

It goes on to say that if you only go once a week you save something like $960 a year on things you would have bought as impulse buys!

So, I know I am not alone. Even my younger brother (who helps with cooking once a week since my mother is sick with cancer and we have a lot of communal dinners here) is constantly bemoaning the fact that one of us is always running to the store. I should say that part of the problem, I believe, is that none of us wants to eat the same thing each week. We are constantly trying new things out, which often requires exotic ingredients. Before she was sick, my mother was known within the family as a fabulous cook and she has four shoe boxes in her kitchen cupboard FILLED with spices (broken down by major categories, such as Sweet and Spicy, etc.).

But even she will run out of cardamom pods and her favorite homemade curry spice collection, eventually. We raid her supplies to cook for her, but we have to go to the store too.

(As a side note, I'd like to recommend watching the documentary Food Inc., only don't do what I did and watch it -- and then the next day go to the supermarket because you will find yourself paralyzed with indecision and end up spending your life savings on organic, gluten-free chicken nuggets and then you will have to peel the stickers off before your husband sees them. In the process you may damage the manicure you splurged on.)

Well - regardless - my last two fiscal vows for 2011 are:

3) I will try to do a better job of remembering to put my reusable shopping bags BACK into the car so I have them for the next trip.

4) I am not giving up the power I have over the household budgets; my husband doesn't want it anyway. But I am going to show him the Quicken sheets when they are done, so we can try to do a better job, together. Right after I update my status on Facebook.