Sunday, August 26, 2007

Personal Enrichment, More or Less

One of the school districts in our county has significantly more money than the others, and tends to be pretty impressed with itself. Maybe it's justified; maybe it's not. But they're the only district to offer community ed classes, and over the years the list has been pretty impressive. At least I've been impressed.

So when I opened up the Sunday paper this morning and found an insert from the school district titled "Adult and Community Education" and featuring an aerial photograph of the high school—golf course, football field, lake and all—I decided this would be my year to take a class.

The first section was Personal Enrichment. Sounds good. There's always room to be personally enriched, no? I scanned the course offerings . . . Driver Safety, Acrylic Painting, Art for Children, Watercolor Painting, How to Rubber Stamp (Uh...pick up stamp. Press on ink pad. Line up on paper. Push.), eBay for Beginners, Handmade Christmas Cards . . . and stopped at Adventures in Dreaming. Just as I thought: It was about lucid dreaming and other forms of dream work. Interesting. But I lost interest when I read the name of the instructor. Why would anyone call himself Thor the Barbarian? The other instructors had normal names like Demitrakapoulos and Piotkowski. I didn't think I wanted to take a class from someone named Thor. To me, Thor is the lovely longhaired German Shepherd who was part of our family in the 1970s. He was not a barbarian in any sense of the word.

I looked at the dates. The class would be given on Mondays beginning November 7 and ending November 19. Huh? One of those obviously is not a Monday. Maybe neither of them are Mondays. I moved on.

Latin Cooking, Herbs, Dog Obedience . . . hmmm . . . Thor the Barbarian is also teaching Bodybuilding. Christmas Quilting sounded nice, and I was relieved to see it was taught by someone named Smith. The course description said the student would learn how to make a beautiful Christmas quilted table runner for the holidays. I made one of those quite a few years ago, but still...then I read on: Students are required to bring a working sewing machine (those non-working models are a pain) and $100. That's one hell of an expensive table runner, especially when you have to make it yourself.

But Christmas Quilting was cheap compared to Beginning Pottery ($175), Inspection Mechanics Licensing ($175), and Planning Your Retirement (free, but you'll have to put up with telemarketers for the next 20 years).

The next course on the list was The Many Faces of Dracula. I'm sure that one will fill up quickly. Ditto a $50 course called Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Your E-mail.

Further down the list, I learned that Thor the Barbarian is also teaching A Guided Tour of the Underworld (he should know), Meet Your Power Animal, The Viking Runes, Spirit Communication, and three different courses on UFOs.

All this from the impressive school district.

I'm impressed . . . not.

Saturday, August 11, 2007

My Mother

It's not Mother's Day, but surely we think about our mothers more than once a year. I started thinking about mine this morning, and I haven't stopped.

My mom's name was Dorothy, but everybody called her Dotty. She was raised in what was then rural New Jersey, and always wanted to live in the country again. She and my dad were living in Greenwich Village when I was conceived, and then in an apartment in Queens near a tennis court. They were both excellent tennis players, but she was brilliant on the court.

She was brilliant off the court, too. People always spoke of her beauty, intelligence, artistic talent, and sense of fun. Oh, and her athleticism. She was only 5'3" and didn't look like an athlete, but she had perfect hand-eye coordination. My dad loved to wander into a softball game where they weren't known. The guys would be dismayed to find this young woman in their midst, my dad insisting they both wanted to join the game. The guys would stick her somewhere on the edges of the outfield—where she'd wow them by snagging every ball and throwing it home.

She had wanted to study art, but her parents asked her to make the sacrifice and go to work in an office in order to put her younger sister through nursing school. Later, as a self-taught artist, she worked briefly for Walt Disney, drawing panels for animation.

She made most of my clothes and also made me laugh. She was wonderfully funny, although I remember a time when the school administration didn't think so. The Mother's Club was putting on a variety show, and my mom had done all the posters and set design. She put together a "musical" act with several of her friends, all dressed as men in black baggy suits. They would "play" various fake instruments, a very serious bunch playing very serious music — until my mother's fly opened and a giant spider fell out. The school officials were not amused, and wouldn't let her do it.

She had a way of making everyone her friend. The old Chinese couple who lived down the block in an ancient, peeling house with a tangle of strange vegetation in back called her "Madame 3E" after our apartment number. They loved her. Today, I can easily imagine how enchanted she must have been with their exotic garden.

She took me on walks and pointed out the tiniest wildflowers growing in the grime under a railroad trestle. She showed me how to suck nectar out of honeysuckle. She moistened lentils held with cotton against the inside of a jar in the dark of my bedroom closet to show me how seeds sprout.

She loved being a mother, and wanted another baby. But she had a miscarriage when I was two, and another about six years later. A month after turning 38, she cleaned a rug one Saturday evening. She used a rug cleaner containing chlorinated hydrocarbons; they don't sell that stuff anymore. It was November, and the windows were closed. The next morning she woke early, became sick in the bathroom, collapsed, and died.

She was friends with just about everyone in our apartment building. No one could believe the news. I heard over and over, "Not Dotty!"

I was so young, but I wish I'd known to look for signs from her. I have no doubt she gave me many.

Sunday, August 05, 2007

Marine and Sandra

Yesterday afternoon I sat relaxing in a speedboat watching someone try waterskiing for the first time. Her name was Sandra, and waterskiing wasn't her only adventure: She had flown here from Paris last week, chaperoning ten French teenage exchange students on a three-week jaunt.

Marine, one of the students, is staying with my daughter and granddaughter. Sandra speaks perfect, almost unaccented English, but Marine is still learning. My daughter, granddaughter, and I are no help whatsoever. In typical American fashion, we speak only English—and not always perfectly.

I could never have been an exchange student. I would have loved to have gone to Europe, but only with my parents and at least two of my best friends. And maybe my French-speaking grandmother. Even recently, my idea of a big adventure was my weekend at Yale: three days in another state with 250 people I didn't know, all of whom spoke English.

I look at Marine and Sandra and wonder who is braver—the 16-year-old or the 20-something responsible for ten 16-year-olds?

Sandra's first attempt to get up on water skis ended within seconds. I learned to waterski in my twenties, too. It took me all afternoon. Poor Joe—over and over again he'd hit the throttle, and over and over again I'd bomb out. He suggested we go home and try another time. But I refused to leave the lake until I succeeded. It was embarrassing . . . the sun low in the sky, strangers on the shore (with thick New York accents) yelled, "You can do it, kid!!" Kid eventually did it.

Now Sandra is about to try for the second time. Chuck reminds her that the most important thing is not to bend your elbows, and Liz and I echo him: "Don't bend your elbows!" I wish I'd had this Greek chorus—indeed, this good teacher—30-odd years ago, when I was learning.

Liz and Marine are constantly firing digital cameras on either side of me. I feel as though I somehow got stuck in the middle of the paparazzi. "Okay!" Sandra calls from the water, her voice only somewhat tentative. Chuck hits the throttle, the boat surges forward—and Sandra is UP! I give her the most American of cheers: You go, girl!!