Monday, July 8, 2013

The Joys of Summer.

I don’t mean to brag or anything, but the view from the windows of our high-floor corner apartment in downtown Brooklyn are probably some of the best in NYC. We don’t live in Manhattan, so we get to gaze upon it. The skyscrapers are like mountains with little red blinky lights on top, but they are all nestled in together in a palette of urban colors and textures and heights. If you connected all the blinky lights, and stuck them on a staff, it might make a song.

In front of the skyline are two leafy parks (seriously, I’m not trying to brag). One of the parks, named for Walt Whitman, who also gazed upon Manhattan, sits between a federal courthouse and the Office of Emergency Management (OEM). It was here that FEMA trucks hung out during Sandy, it was from here that Bloomberg gave updates about the state of Staten Island, and the Rockaways, which were underwater, or on fire. In the parking lot there are often yellow trucks reminding us to be ready New York, get your bottled water, and cash, and dried fruit. Walt Whitman Park got renovated as part of some nifty deal when the buildings were updated. At the time, nothing was better for my young boy than watching diggers create a park outside his window.

The park has tables for OEM lunchers and any law clerks allowed outside during the day. And it has a fountain. Basically, a circle of 5 or 6 jets of water shoot out from the ground and the water runs down into a grate around the perimeter, carrying leaves and water balloons and band aids along with it. If you are 4 or 5, the best thing to do is to wait for the water to go off, stand or sit directly on the spout, and wait for another kid to go turn it back on. I myself have not tried this yet. If you are younger, the best thing to do is to steal a bigger kid’s bucket and go fill it with discarded band aids. Both of these things, and all the other things that go on at the fountain, are glorious.

OK, I confess, there is also a very busy street outside our window (I didn’t say the view was perfect). It’s loud in the summer, when the windows are open, and New Yorkers with double lives emerge to ride their motorcycles by our home. But now, during the day when the sprinklers are on, there is something else—sheer joy. My Stepmom once said she loved to close her eyes at a busy beach because it had a happy sound. It’s the combination of squealing and surf. So maybe here we have cars and skyscrapers instead of surf, but the beauty of New York is its ability to bring the emotion of a person into high relief.

Sunday, May 26, 2013

On (the oozing blob of) Writing, Part 2.

I am untrusting and risk-averse. Part of the writing process makes me a little short of breath in a panicked way, like when you think you left your iPhone somewhere in Ikea. Or when you have that dream that you have an exam but haven’t studied (nerd alert!). I get this anxiety not just because I have to write slowly like a worm composting dirt (see Part 1), but even then, when I finally get something down (on paper? On screen?) I am finding that the best writing comes out when I have no idea where I am going when I begin to write. I sit down thinking I’m going to write some awesome essay about some joy of motherhood and end up reflecting on being the fat kid in the dance recital. This lack of control can make a prudent, planning person completely insane. It’s like guess and check (which, oddly, I am more than happy to use to figure out any math problem). It just seems so risky to go through this exercise to figure out if there is a story there and where, exactly, it is. But I guess writers are people who are willing to be frustrated on the off chance that there is something there, one day, and it grabs hold of them. If they hadn’t looked, they never would have found it. But there are also many writers who looked back there and found nothing decent, I think.

Now I find myself wondering what other things in my life I might avoid because I don’t know the outcome. Not little stuff like Kimchi or Gorgonzola crackers, I mean big, terrifying stuff, like trying a new job, or taking an improv class, or quietly writing alone in my apartment. My system of not leaving things to chance has worked out pretty well for me up to now. Why change it? But then little piranhas of curiosity start attacking. What stories might be behind that curtain? And will I die a horrible death if I look back there and nothing comes out? Probably not. The worst that can happen is that I wasted a half-hour of my life having heart palpitations while trying to write nothing, think nothing and plan nothing so I can write something and be surprised.

So, in case you were wondering, this is a summary of my writing life. It is an infuriating and risky slow ooze to potentially nowhere, except when it leads me to somewhere.

Want some cookies?

Monday, May 13, 2013

On Writing, Part 1.

Recently, I decided to set aside 30 minutes a day to sit in front of my computer and give myself some time to let any stewing stories come out. So on the days when I am not too tired, or forget, or decide to look for a real job, I sit down, and note the time (I try to keep myself to 30 minutes). I am discovering that if the stories and writing come out at all during that time, they come as a drip. I am not a writer with a churning mass of stories. Things seem to come to my brain in packets. Like, I get a little packet, write the words from it, then have to wait for the next packet of info to arrive before the words come out. OK, next packet please.

Stop. Think.
(That was the entire last packet.)

I think I used to write down words right away because I was afraid I would forget them if I let them sit around and dust off completely. I am now starting to trust that I will not forget the important, brilliant things I think of. Or if I do, I will remember them. Or maybe I am just a tired mom who will not only forget the brilliant thoughts, but forget that I thought them in the first place, thus releasing myself from regret that I didn’t write them down immediately! Any of these is fine.

Sometimes I sit for 25 minutes and then write for 5 when something occurs to me. The process of writing is so much not-writing. And the not-writing part of writing is so not concrete—there is no finger clacking or progress. And I dislike and distrust things that are all in my head. So I write crap when I should be doing the not-writing part of writing.

But the not-writing part is not just not-writing. It is, oddly enough, not-thinking. Thinking seems to kill the things that are burbling up to the surface. So really writing involves not-writing and not-thinking, for long periods of time. It sounds so easy.

Here is my new exercise: I will sit, not-write and not-think. Something will occur to me (I hope). I will not write it down right away. I will wait until it is urgent that I write it down. Perhaps then I will know it is worth writing down. Some timer will go off – “ding!”—and it will emerge as a fully-formed thought loaf.

Or maybe I will just go make cookies.

Friday, May 10, 2013

The DAP Mystery.

My son getting ready to start kindergarten has gotten me thinking about my own kindergarten experience. I find that while I have brief flashes of memories from preschool on a farm in Iowa (feeding the animals, climbing on the empty propane tank, making Thanksgiving hats as either an Indian or Pilgrim—I was an Indian, and I was pissed) I have many more solid memories of kindergarten. I have a sense of who I was in kindergarten, who I was becoming, what that period of life meant for me. And I’m hoping that perhaps now that my son is entering kindergarten, his experience will shed some light on mysteries from my own kindergarten experience. Like the mystery of “DAP.”

DAP* was a unit in kindergarten, like finger painting or gluing toothpicks on construction paper. It was a “floor activity” rather than a “table activity” and an “individual activity” rather than a “group activity.” It was an individual floor activity where each child picked a basket of dumpable objects, small things like balls and bottle caps. Well, actually, the only basket I can remember was the basket full of Barbie accessories. There were lots of different baskets, but only one Barbie basket. So DAP Lesson #1: position yourself to be the girl who gets the Barbie accessories.

Anyway, in DAP you picked or were assigned your basket. You found a spot on the rug not near any other kids. Then you dumped out your basket. I was pretty OK until this point. It was the next 18 minutes that mystified me. I had no idea what to do with the junk in the basket. I looked around at the other kids for ideas. Their stuff was spread out. So I spread mine out. I remember thinking that if I just had the Barbie stuff I would know what to do. Hello—imaginative play! But inexplicably there was no actual Barbie with the Barbie stuff. Just accessories. DAP Lesson #2: learn to deal with disappointment; and DAP Lesson #3: accessories do not a person make.

I’m not sure if we had DAP all year, but I’m guessing we did because how could they tell if we had mastered the skills it was supposed to teach and moved us on to something else (like actually playing Barbie)? So I spent 20 minutes a day for a year dumping out baskets, moving the stuff around so it looked like I knew what I was doing, and then cleaning it all up nicely and not fighting over the Barbie purses.

I went to law school. A good one, and I also practiced at a big fancy law firm. I took the New York State Bar Exam. I parent two young children, at least one of whom made it to kindergarten. I owe some of this to DAP. I have no idea what the other kids learned—probably math skills, or spatial reasoning, or architecture. What I learned was how to look like you knew what you were doing. Years later, in college, a friend asked if she could borrow my notes from a seminar we had both attended. It was boring. I told her that actually I didn’t take very many notes, and generally have very little idea what the seminar was about. She looked surprised. But you looked like you were really paying attention, she said. Aha! DAP! I learned that in DAP! (With these skills I feel I would also excel in careers in sales, clinical psychology, or politics.)

I’m sure they have DAP or its equivalent at PS8. I hope my son is smart and creative enough to figure out the developmentally appropriate lessons. But if nothing else, I sort of hope he learns DAP Lesson #4: fake it and smile.

*I am now informed that DAP stands for “Developmentally Appropriate Practice,” which means about as much to me as an adult as it would have as a kindergartener. Personally, I would go with "Dump and Pretend."

Sunday, March 31, 2013

The Katherine Index (Easter Edition)

The only part of Harper’s Magazine I ever seem to get around to reading is the index. It is informative, funny, and short. I thought about what I would be like, if I were an index:

Number of pastel Rolos I ate while walking from the drug store to the toy store: 9
Number of times I grazed something with the stroller wheel while trying to unwrap a Rolo: 2
Number of mini bunnies advertised to be in a bag of Russell Stover mini bunnies: 60
Actual number: 69
Average age of research assistants in bunny counting project: 2.5
Margin of error: large
Number of dozens of eggs dyed by our family: 2
Average time spent decorating each egg when doing this with a 4-year-old boy: 11 seconds
Number of hard-boiled eggs we consumed on Easter Eve: 7
Karl’s pre-Easter cholesterol level: 211
Number of eggs hidden in our apartment by the Easter Bunny: 10
Number of eggs found in our apartment by our son: we are pretty sure 10, but it was hard to keep track
Number of hours after waking that the 4-year-old ate nothing but candy: 4
Approximate number of peep-themed hats we saw at the Easter Parade: 6
Approximate number of peep-show-themed costumes we saw: 1
Price of a pretzel in Midtown: $3
Price of a pretzel in Brooklyn Heights: $2
Price of a pretzel in Downtown Brooklyn: $1
Number of days until Halloween: 213

Saturday, February 23, 2013


Bohumil Shimek, in case you haven’t heard of him, was a botanist from Iowa who collected specimens of “vascular plants, bryophytes, lichens, fungi and slime molds” from all over Iowa and meticulously cataloged them for us future generations. He loved the ecolocy of the prairie, and observed and reported the transitions of the Iowa prairie over a 50-year period. Additionally, he has two land snails named in his honor, Discus shimekii and Helicodiscus shimeki.

My elementary school, in Iowa City, was named for Dr. Shimek. It had a prairie at the edge of the playground. The playground also included what I remember as huge expanses of grass, though as an adult they might appear slightly less expansive (have you ever seen a toilet in an elementary school? They are tiny!). In one corner of the grass there was an asphalt kickball field, next to which was a bed of gravel, which I suspect was meant to cushion our falls as we hung upside-down from the parallel bars. The entire playground was surrounded by woods. We were told never to go in the woods at recess, and I don’t remember anyone ever trying to.

Yesterday I registered by son for Kindergarten at P.S. 8, Brooklyn, NYC. The playground does not have any prairie, woods, grass, gravel, parallel bars, or expanses. That doesn’t mean it isn’t an adequate playground.  My son just needs to be somewhere he can run really fast. It will be perfect for him. But I had a startling moment where I realized my children’s lives will not be the same as mine. Of course they won’t. My son will go look at art instead of look for animal tracks. He will ride the subway to field trips. He will learn about how they built the Brooklyn Bridge, the Empire State, and the Verrazano Narrows, a suspension bridge whose towers are farther apart at the top than at the bottom because of the curvature of the earth.

In my elementary school the fire department would burn the prairie every year, to encourage new growth. I think my son will learn this lesson, even though he might not see a prairie burn. And as for Bohumil, he watched his prairie shift and change, and over time was probably surprised once or twice at what he observed in the transition. Sort of like waking up one day and realizing you have drifted away from those prairies and snails, to Brooklyn, where your kids will run and play.

Monday, February 18, 2013


Tonight we discovered that the iPhone has an app that can change the TV channel, like a remote. We require this service, because our 1-year-old put the remote in some remote place (ha!) and she is sleeping so we can’t ask her about it. Also she can’t talk. I am tremendously thankful that my telephone offers this service. However, this got me thinking about how many other amazing problems it could solve, so here is a preliminary list of helpful things the iPhone needs to do in the future:

-Detect and kill head lice
-Identify the purpose of life
-Keep track of how many Girl Scout Cookies I have eaten
-Hand wash all the plastics that might contain BPA so I can’t put them in the dishwasher
-Test dish detergent for environmental toxins
-Improve bad breath
-Warn me of asteroids (does it already do this? Please someone tell me.)
-Similarly, warn me if a plane is about to crash anywhere near me
-Warn me if the plane I am on is about to crash (ideally I would not have to pay $7 for plane WiFi for this service)
-Wax eyebrows
-Test cakes for doneness
-Make crepes
-Predict when the spot I'm standing on will be underwater due to sea level rise
-Fold fitted sheets
-Something about my upper arms
-And, finally, find the remote