Friday, September 24, 2004

Moving furniture around

We've just finished putting a new coat of paint on the walls and ceilings of our bathroom, kitchen and dining room. Where there had been a layer of griminess, miscellaneous crayon markings and splotches of dubious origins, there is now a bright, shiny new off-white gleam. Most of the furniture has been moved back to where it was but a few things have been deemed unnecessary or suitable for storage in the basement, and the placement of a few other things has been optimized to create a bit more spaciousness.

I have always loved the conscious redesign of living space. When I was in high school, my friend P was obsessed with rearranging his bedroom, at least once a month if not more frequently. I spent many hours on weekend evenings, listening to vinyl records and watching him moving furniture while waiting for our other friends. Once I moved out of my parents' house, I engaged in similar (though not as frequent) behavior. In addition to forcing one to pick up all the accumulated clutter, the process of moving furniture around forces one to think through the physical use, social implications and emotional meaning of each thing. It forces a bit of de-alienation from one's physical environment.

Tuesday, September 14, 2004

A little garlic

One of the benefits of being the adult who stays home with the kids and makes all the meals is that, when I feel up to it, I can make for myself one of the numerous meals that the kids would refuse to eat and H would eat only under duress.

Over the last couple of weeks this has primarily meant those wonderful summer dishes made with fresh ripe tomatoes — pasta tossed with diced, uncooked tomatoes and basil, tomato and mozarella salad, panzanella, and so forth.

But today, with the temperatures in the low 60s and the house still cool from the low of 40 degrees last night, I have fired up the oven for the first of the fall oven sandwiches. My favorite fall sandwich is roasted apples and onions with melted cheddar cheese, on pumpernickel bread, but today's lunch was an amalgam of various things that needed a home. A slice of sage bread and a slice of honey-oat bread, toasted and then topped with steamed collard greens and sliced Vidalia onions, sprinkled with some crushed almonds and topped with cheddar cheese, then melted in the oven for a few minutes.

But even more than the oven sandwiches I particularly enjoy in the fall, my favorite own-meal-at-home is garlic and egg soup for one: Mince some garlic, and sauté lightly in oil in a small saucepan for just a few minutes, until the garlic is turning lightly golden. Add any spices or herbs you fancy: cumin and paprika makes a nice combination, and minced fresh herbs are good here as well. Pour in one to one-and-a-half cups of stock or broth; add a splash of white wine if you've got it handy. Simmer the stock for 10-15 minutes to infuse the garlic flavor. While it is simmering, toast a slice of bread (I find this a good way to use up heels of bread that the kids won't eat). Crack an egg into the broth, and simmer another 2-3 minutes until the whites are set. Taste for seasoning, place the toast in a bowl, and pour the broth and poached egg over.

It is really astounding how a little garlic and a little care can turn an egg, a crust of bread and some leftover cooking water into a sumptuous meal.

Monday, September 13, 2004

First game

Yesterday was E's first soccer game. She is playing in a kindergarten league, which means that games consist of 30 minutes of ten 5- and 6-year-olds (five on each side) swarming around the soccer ball as it moves somewhat randomly up and down the field. E scored two goals, though one of them was an own goal. She was one of the most aggressive players on the field, and one of the few with a good sense of which direction her team was supposed to move the ball — except for a brief moment of confusion after the teams switched sides at halftime, which led to her enthusiastically scoring the own goal.

She probably benefits from being a bit older and larger than most of the other kids, and certainly from the fact that both her mom and dad have spent some time over the last couple of weeks playing with her at home. With her parents, she is uninterested in practicing passing or dribbling, free kicks or throw-ins, just aggressive one-on-one (which doesn't work as well for soccer as it does in basketball) up and down the backyard. I suppose it builds aggressiveness for a not-quite-six-year-old to have to try to get the ball away from an adult with some soccer-playing experience.

Adam Gopnik, in his fine book about raising an American child in Paris, Paris to the Moon, tries to understand the allure of soccer for the rest of the world, with its slow pace and low scores compared to North American sports like hockey and basketball. He comes to the conclusion that soccer is the most popular sport in the world because it reflects life — long periods of not much happening, punctuated by occasional bursts of glory. Soccer can be ambiguous — tied games are allowed to stand, there is no overtime or mandatory shoot-em-out to determine a winner at the end. And soccer, like life, is not fair. One can pretend that basketball is a meritocracy — even though the "better" team doesn't always win, the team that wins a particular game has usually played better during that game. But in soccer, one team can be much better, control the ball for 95% of the game but miss both of the chances it gets to score a goal, one shot not quite making it and glancing off the goal post and the other due to a lucky save by the other team's goalie. And then the other team gets one lucky break up the field, shoots the ball, the goalie doesn't quite gets his hands on it and it rolls into the goal, and the game is over, 1-0. The "worse" team gets its day of glory. Soccer's metaphysical teaching is the importance of celebrating any victory in a patently unfair world.

Growing up in the Midwest in the 1980s, playing soccer was considered only slightly less un-American than being a Communist. Not only did it subtly undermine American myths of meritocracy, it was also a sport that boys and girls played together! I remember attending, with my parents, one of the first organizing meetings for the voluntary soccer league which I played in for several years as a kid. It seemed almost furtive, held in the basement of the Unitarian church. We watched a video about the Brazilian soccer legend Pele. Compared to the ruthless and bland cultural hegemony of football, soccer seemed tantalizing and exotic.

The teams were divided up roughly by the elementary schools we attended, but my primarily working-class school couldn't come up with enough 9-year-olds to form a team, so we were merged with the overflow from the elementary school close to the university. That first season I was a bit player on a powerhouse team; we had the kids of international students on our team, and they knew how to play. We also had a lot of kids from middle-class homes, whose parents would practice with them in their backyards, and encourage them in playing this weird sport.

The next season, soccer had caught on enough that my elementary school had its own team. The whole season, not only did we not win a single game, I don't think we scored a single goal, until the very last game of the season. I wasn't a very athletic kid, but I was a little bit taller, a little bit older than many of the other kids in my league, and I had a father who practiced soccer with me in the backyard. The second half of the last game of the season, I came up from the midfield and kicked the ball into the other team's goal — our first goal of the season. We tied that game 1-1.

Scoring a lucky goal to tie a game: not a great American athletic story, but it was my greatest moment of athletic glory, and I enjoyed it for all it was worth.

Thursday, September 09, 2004

Love apples

There's only two things
that money can't buy:
True Love
and home-grown tomatoes

— Guy Clark

It has been a cool and rainy summer in Vermont, and while our tomatos grew large, they did not start ripening in large numbers until last week.

Vermont has a short growing season — our next-door neighbors were reminiscing the other day about one summer when they lost most of their garden to a killing frost on August 30th. I have been advised by some not to even attempt to grow anything in the nightshade family at all, and there is no particular reason for me to grow tomatoes, as I am the only one in the family who will eat them. I never buy tomato plants, but each year somehow end up with several.

The tomato plants we grew this year were abused as sproutlings; left unattended in the back of a truck for several hot, dry days on end, they were not looking very healthy when we received them. I doubted that our "live and let die" approach to gardening would do very well by them. Yet we have ended the summer, once again, with vast amounts of tomatoes.

This year we have a variety: one grape tomato plant and one that produces shocking neon-orange tomatoes, as well as a couple of the more traditional big round red tomato plants. When tomato plants were first brought to Europe from the "New World," they were considered poisonous but decorative plants (the leaves and stems are poisonous), but loved nonetheless.

This week I've been eating panzanella for lunch every other day, tossing grape tomatoes into tabbouleh with abandon, and topping all of my frequent Mexican dishes with a day-glo orange roasted-tomato salsa. Who needs money?

Friday, September 03, 2004

End of summer heartbreak

Since starting kindergarten on Wednesday, E has been a little on-edge emotionally. I think it might be because she is heading for the first heartbreak of her life.

For the past two years, E has been attending a preschool in the neighborhood, and over those two years grew to become inseparable from her best friend A. A lives around the corner from us, so playdates are easy to arrange. She has older siblings, and has clearly learned telephone use from them; the two of them (E and A) will call each other and spend hours on the phone, playing games like "guess if I'm holding my hand high or low." They hugged each other when they first saw each other in the morning, and when they had to leave preschool every day. In fact, they used to kiss as well, but somehow societal norms got to them; not only do they no longer kiss each other, but E will deny that they ever did.

All summer E had been looking forward to attending kindergarten, because four kids she already knew from her preschool were also going to be going to the elementary school right around the corner from us, including A. But last week, we got a note that because of a sudden increase in students enrolling in kindergarten, the school had decided to create a second kindergarten classroom. And it turned out that A and E will be in different classes.

There is certainly no shortage of cruel people in this world, who break others' hearts for sport. And hearts get broken because complicated emotional histories can make friends and lovers act in hurtful ways for reasons that they don't even understand. But sometimes hearts can be broken simply because a chance event, a bureaucratic decision or job opportunity, separates people.

While E says that she is glad to be in Mrs. C's class instead of Mrs. K's, because A has already been given homework by Mrs. K, I can also hear the slight edge of jealously in her voice when she reports the other news from A, that A has made friends in Mrs. K's class. Of course, E has also made friends in Mrs. C's class. And A is coming over to play this afternoon. But will "best friend" status be able to survive a full year of going to school with other potential best friends? I'm not counting on it.

Wednesday, September 01, 2004

Falling off cliffs

Today is the kids' first day of school. E is starting kindergarten, and S starts preschool at the YMCA. Since E is supposed to be there by 8:10 at the latest, we knew this would pose some serious challenges, as everyone in our family except S likes to sleep in.

We made out ok this morning, everyone more or less getting out of bed when the alarms went off at 6:30. We had prepared last night as if for some great trek - packing clothes, packing lunches and snacks, picking out outfits for the day and arranging them for the quickest possible getting-ready time.

I haven't been particularly worried about the start of school, at least not consciously, but I didn't sleep very well last night. I kept being woken up by strange dreams. We were taking the children mountain-climbing, not along the gentle trails through wooded foothills which might actually be reasonable for four- and six-year-olds, but up above the tree line. The "trail" was marked only by a series of cairns on the bald rock. We must have been climbing along a ridge of some sort, because there were sweeping, dramatic vistas to either side.

Perhaps we were climbing Long's Peak in Rocky Mountain National Park. Although I've never made this climb, I often have dreams about it. Part of the trail goes along the top of a sheer, 2000-foot precipice. In the dream that woke me up last night, S kept running up to the edges of this precipice and staring out.