Susan's Blog

Wednesday, May 7, 2008


The tender parts of the day catch in my throat and press against my brain until I let them out.

Benj fell asleep on his book (Harry Potter 3) tonight. His still little face rested on his arm, the book open to the Dementors chapter. Dear little boy.

Benj felt that Link was “so sad,” because he’d been turned into an odd wood-like creature. I like that he was moved by Link’s sadness.

Natty sang “Drift Away,” today in music class and played the drum. He did not say a word most of this evening and I feel guilty that I know so little about what goes on with him, except for what’s in the notebook. Manufactured or real? Old, old feeling. A slight pain that resides behind my eyes, feeling like I’m abandoning him for not knowing.

I have so little to say about Max because there is just a lot of feeling. Worry that this is somehow not right, the distance. A man, at lightning speed.

I leaned against the big oak in the front yard listening to “You Only Live Twice,” by Natacha Atlas. I was resting after having raked out all the shrubs, cleaned up stones, trimmed dead branches, and spread new topsoil. The apple tree was in full bloom, dressed up in pale pink eyelet. I was tired and satisfied with the work I’d done.

Ice Cream for the Soul

One of the moms here is pretty sick, and undergoing heavy treatments. I always liked her, because she helped out at the school a lot, and she has two very nice daughters. I didn’t know what to think when I heard how serious her illness was. I just felt scared, and sad, thinking about how she must feel, about how she might be leaving her daughters soon. I have been watching her quietly, secretly, wanting to help somehow, make her feel okay. We aren’t really friends, though, so any overt offers might seem to be out of kilter, or all about the cancer. I don’t want it to be all about the cancer; I am interested in her and how she is getting along, all of which was triggered by the illness, but —

So today I saw her on the bench by the main staircase at pick-up, and I smiled at her and sat down. We talked about the Baby Bellies, which her daughter had tried out. The girls in that grade are having trouble with meanness, and I certainly have noticed this in that group. So her daughter did not really enjoy the class yesterday. I was not surprised to hear that.

I was feeling good talking to her and so I then asked straight out but warmly, “So, how are you doing with everything?” And she knew what I meant. Her face changed for a second, a flicker of something, and then she settled back into her usual warmth and smiles and said, “Okay, just want to get through this part, you know, have it be over.”

I knew. At least, I knew what I could know about this. Then she said, “I mean, what else can I do? Crawl away somewhere and not do anything about it?”

Then I understood. People were often implying that she was strong and somehow doing the right thing by having her treatments, when to her it looked like the only thing she could do. This is the way I feel about Nat. I am not brave, or a great mother, or special, or anything different from anybody else. I told her this, and it felt good that we both had pain to bear that was uniquely our own and yet which we could understand in the other. I do what I have to do. There is no choice. I take care of him. End of story. And I hate it when people ascribe greater strength or ability on my part. It just is. Mother, child.

And for this woman, her work to get well simply was. It was what she had to do. She said, “I was hoping today I could get my girls to just come and have some ice cream with me.”

It was such a hot and sunny day and that image just lifted me right up. I felt envious of her, that she lets herself just eat ice cream and that she has girls to do it with. “Ooh, that sounds good,” I said, and I’m sure I did not convey all that I felt.

But later on, after reading a few things on sites like, I got in my kitchen, I got out the Ben and Jerry’s Peanut Butter Cup and thought about that mom, and hoped she had managed to treat herself. I ate the entire pint and did not feel badly about it this time, because of her.


The entire Override ballot question passed! What a victory! In this economy! But the school families came out in droves and also convinced other citizens, many of whom are much older, and it passed by healthy margins in nearly every precinct. I had a good feeling that it would, but only the first part of the question, and not the World Language add-on. So when that piece also won, even in my fairly conservative precinct, I was overjoyed.

The 7-8p.m. part of Election Day is the best part. The sky is beginning to darken, and if you’re lucky, as we were, it is still warm enough to stand without your jacket. The last straggling voters trickle in, and you feel so bold because the end is in sight, that you really engage with them about how they ought to consider voting. You get to meet people you’ve never seen before. Where do they come from? The silent houses and apartments in your neighborhood.

There is such an excitement and dread as 8p.m. approaches. We pollworkers make our way over to the election room and wait for the warden to count the votes. We make lame jokes about anything at all, each one of us thinking about our goal for the evening. Some are town meeting members hoping to win, or top the ticket. Some are working for selectmen candidates and have been there all day. Some, like me, worked on the ballot questions. We cluster inside with our pens and pencils ready. Sometimes people burst out in a grin, sometimes they just wander away after hearing the results. Most everyone gets on a cell phone in the now-dark outside and calls in results to headquarters/the party.

I heard the incredible numbers and called in Precinct 5 results and went to the party, getting in touch with my best friend and arranging to meet there. Her precinct had won, too. It looked good.

Even the superintendent was there. So many old friends, and lots of young parents, too. Lots of hugging, screaming, and red faces and poll stories. Five minutes after I got there we all realized it had passed. Good old Brookline!

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Baby Bellies Outside!

Question: How many Baby Bellies does it take to put in a lightbulb?

Answer: It all depends on if you have enough snacks.

Today we had more than enough snacks. I brought graham crackers and goldfish, and one little girl brought in Starbursts. They went crazy over the snacks. I could barely get them back to class after the snack. We only had time for a tiny bit of practicing the grapevine. But they tried, God love ’em.

Before snack, we practiced the Misirlou a lot. I reminded them that I was not going to allow them to switch hip scarves and I also said I did not want to have to retie them a lot. So only two of them had problems this time. Interesting how that works. (Were my Baby Bellies spoiled before??)

We had class outside on the “plaza,” the paved courtyard near the basketball court, because it was sunny and because with Election Day going on, the Multi-Purpose room was taken over.

They did not like being outside, but I did. They groaned at the hot sun, and needed a lot of water breaks, but thankfully there is a water fountain just inside the doors. They also complained at the way the Extended Day classes were “staring” at them. Kids cannot bear to be stared at. It is just as bad as being bullied or teased, in Ben’s book (and, I suppose, the Baby Bellies’ book).

“But you are performers,” I said. “It’s great to have an audience!” It sure made me feel more enthusiastic. I even got out my zills and started zilling while they practiced their Basic Egyptian hip walks. These were my new zills from Turquoise International. Just beautiful, like a bell.

I didn’t bring enough veils, though, so some had to use hip scarves or just pretend. I snapped at one or two of them who were rude, like when one of them corrected how I pronounced another girl’s name. “Don’t correct me,” I said. And when another asked “When is snack,” for the tenth time, I said, “Don’t ask me that again.” It was pretty great, having them listen to me and actually practice the piece instead of chasing each other around. I wasn’t mean, I was just annoyed now and then, and then sunny right away, like I always am. C’est moi.

They are really getting the Basic Egyptian, for the most part. That and the way they hold themselves seems to be improving. What a delight to see them pay attention to posture, arms, and now where they place their feet! How I love those Baby Bellies, even when I’m mad at them. Now I understand that the nature of a Baby Belly is to complain and pout and try to get attention. It is the Little Diva in them. It’s what, in the end, will make them beautiful dancers.

Local Political Zoology

No matter what I say about how I hate local politics, I am a diehard Brookline pol. Especially on the local election day, which is today. There is nothing like Election day in early May, where no matter where I go in town, I run into people I know carrying signs, wearing buttons, and handing out flyers. There is a lot of hugging and hand-shaking. It is friendly, neighborly, and a really great example of grass-roots democracy.

People gather at the schools or fire stations or public housing, where all sixteen (# corrected) of our precincts are housed. No matter what side of the issues you are on, on Election day you stand with everyone involved, and you shmooze. Election day is a giant Yenta-Convention, a total Schmoozefest. Those in the know realize that they must stand at the polls all day long and work for every single vote, or be sure they have coverage in each precinct.

In my precinct there are people who are staunchly “conservative,” which in Brookline, Massachusetts probably does not come near to meaning what it means in, say, Midwestern United States or Arizona. (Note that my observations are strictly from a generally non-conservative person’s viewpoint. I am fascinated with the Other Side, and I sometimes find myself with them, because I try to vote in a non-knee-jerk fashion.) Here, “conservative” generally means you are probably reluctant to raise taxes, and will require a year of studying an issue and then the blessing of the Board of Selectmen and the Advisory Committee before you will consider voting for that sort of change. The stuff that you vote readily for are things like new building developments, unless they happen to be in your own back yard. I am not trying to be nasty here; I am only stating my perspective as someone who has been in Brookline politics for lo, these past ten years.

There are also the strange political animal called “Moderates,” which to me are the equivalent of lukewarm bathwater. I don’t think I’ve ever been moderate in anything. I say choose a side and run with it! If you’re wrong, admit that, smile, and move on. (dot org)

Those who qualify as “liberal” often prefer the term “progressive,” and I don’t know why. I love being allied with the Classical Liberals of Enlightenment and 1776 fame. John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, Jean-Jacques Rousseau (Social Contract), Ben Franklin (who founded my alma mater, and place where I met Ned, the University of Pennsylvania, by the way) and Peter the Great (who founded St. Petersburg) were Classical Liberals. Personal foibles aside, these were great men who came up with some pretty great ideas, or at least stole from others some pretty great ideas and made them even better.

In Brookline, however, you don’t need to build a city or a university to be a great liberal. You probably need to be on Brookline PAX, (for “peace”) which is largely a throwback, aging hippie, venerable old pro-peace, pro-labor, pro-affordable housing and diversity, pro-ACLU, and anti-trans fats-and-SUVs establishment. I am on their board, and though I do not agree with much of what they do, (though I own a Volvo, it is an SUV) I appreciate their hard-working idealism. PAX forces Brookline to be the best it can possibly be. Being born of two hippies, (my father introduced me to the Beatles and listened to the soundtrack of Hair when I was a little kid) I have a soft spot for the idealism of the ’60’s, and for the socialism of my grandparents (my grandfather’s family were union organizers way back when). We are Classic New York Jewish Liberals and proud of it.

The Brookline conservatives force the PAXils (my term) to be more pragmatic, to hone their arguments and harness their statistics. And the PAXils force the conservatives to rise above their pocketbooks and think about the greater good. And on Election day, the best of both is brought out as they wrangle for the tiny percentage of voters who straggle into the polls until 8 p.m. At 8 p.m., I will be the one to tally up the votes for the Override, and I hope to God both parts of it passes, otherwise some pretty serious, ugly cuts are on their way to my beautiful town.

Making Peace With Editors

My agent has begun to negotiate with my publisher about my second autism book. This book has been a torturous process, with one proposal submitted a year ago, which Shambhala had accepted, but which I then scrapped. A large reason I scrapped the project was that I have been inhabiting my own sinister amusement park for some time now, riding the old Emotional Roller Coaster and also the Crisis in a Coffee Cup until I get sick. I joke about it now, but it is a real problem, and I have been doing a lot to manage it but nothing happens overnight. Thank God for Ned, who literally always presents me with a shoulder to cry on. He lies down on the bed and silently extends his left arm, inviting me to come over and cling. He has had many wet, eye-liner stained shirts, my poor darling.

The other reason I passed on that project was more mundane: it wasn’t exactly the right one. It was too broad a topic (all special needs) and yet, too narrow (could have been all parents). In publishing, you have to get the niche just right or the marketing team balks or you find you are either overwhelmed or bored.

So I worked on my novel, Dirt: A Story of Gardening, Mothering, and a Midlife Crisis, and got that just right in the mean time. (I love Dirt! It is one of my all-time favorite books, right up there with Women About Town, A Curious Incident, and War and Peace.) A different agent is shopping Dirt around right now, so any day… Then I found, a few months ago, just the right focus for the second autism book, as well as some resolution for my own poor head, and now the newest version of Autism Book II is coming to be. I wanted to call it Notes from the (Autism) Underground, but they don’t like that so once again I will be Making Peace with editors. Believe me, that is a far better place to be than without a project at all.

Monday, May 5, 2008

Sneak Preview of the Party

The party. Wow.

It was just beautiful. I don’t know if I’ve ever organized an event that went so smoothly. But more than that, I feel like I was really able to help my parents enjoy themselves. I got my mom to book a massage with me the day before. I went with Mom and Dad to pick up the flowers. And if there was something Laura and I couldn’t do, Ned, John (Laura’s husband), or Max did it. I even forgot the dongle that connects the Mac to the projector (for Laura’s slide show about my parents and their family and friends over the past 60 years). Max, John, and Ned figured out how to play the file anyway!! Thank God for geeks who are sweethearts.

I honed my speech and then pretty much jumped off from it when it came time to deliver it, so it was natural and relaxed. I feel that I broke the ice, got people laughing, and encouraged others to stand up and say a few (or sometimes more than a few!) words. Laura’s slideshow was achingly sweet and beautiful. She dug deep in many ways, coming up with choice old photos of Mom and Dad when they were dating at 15, our grandparents as young parents, the two of us as little girls, and growing up, and then our own children in all of our favorite places. I could have watched it again and again.

Bob — the rabbi who married Ned and me as well as Laura and John, and who bar mitzvahed Nat, and who attended Mom and Dad’s wedding as a date to Marcia, Mom’s junior high best friend — gave a wonderful toast, and Marcia, his ex-wife and still dear friend, also gave one! Dad and Mom’s friend Dennis, who is like an uncle to Laura and me, and also their newer friend Steve, plus Dad’s sister Rhoda, and alot of others gave interesting speeches from very different perspectives. Check here to get more ideas on how to make your event a success.

My boys had a great time with their cousins. Nat had a happy look on his beautiful face and all three of my sons allowed me to dress them up in colorful stuff from JCrew.

I have to make a real Tabblo for the family but I am pasting in some of my favorites.

Friday, May 2, 2008

To a Half-Century of Love


This weekend we are traveling to my childhood home in Connecticut to celebrate my parents’ 50th wedding anniversary. Laura and I have organized the party, and invited over 100 guests from all parts of my parents’ long life together. Yesterday I bought all new clothes for my four men, and I’ve been running around trying to pull together a decent look for me.

The biggest effort so far, however, has gone into the toast I want to make for them. I have never been this stymied before. I have gone through five drafts trying to get the right tone, capture the feel of my parents’ relationship, all within a 4 minute speech.

I am sharing with you what I will read on Sunday:

What makes a marriage last half a century? I only have an inkling, being in my 24th year of marriage myself. I can’t think of Mom and Dad that way, as 50-year-marriage veterans, however. They’re just Mom and Dad. Two fixtures in my life, a unit that has always functioned pretty much the same way. They sometimes feel like interchangeable parts, even though they are so different from one another.

As a kid, I could never get away with playing one off against the other. If Mom said “No,” there was no running to Dad for the Yes. Even if they were in different rooms, or one at work and one home, they would somehow know. Like there was a telepathy, a sixth or sick sense of what was going on in the family. Or “What does Mommy say?” would be the first thing out of Dad’s mouth. Maybe that’s the key: Loyalty to each other.

My parents took that loyalty and tweaked it to its most intense, almost neurotic level. If Dad wanted us to do some incredibly ridiculous, slay-this-dragon and then climb seven mountains kind of chore, Mom would back him up. Dad has a specific idea of how each job was to be done, and if you tried to take short cuts like scattering the grass clippings around instead of making piles and collecting them up with the wheelbarrow, he would know and you would have to redo it. One time he told me to count all the logs in a cord of wood that had just been delivered. “I want to make sure the guy gave me the right amount,” he said. But I was a teenager. I thought he was kidding. I thought this was insane. No pointing appealing to Mom. She’d roll her eyes about Dad but — Later on he asked me how many and I had make up a number. To this day I think Dad is annoyed that I didn’t really count the logs! Mom thinks the whole thing’s funny and crazy, but I can tell that she also deep down believes I should have really counted them.

There you have it: Loyalty to your mate. And it worked both ways. Sometime in my teenage years I started hanging out in the kitchen with Mom while she made dinner. Mom was into healthy, ethnic eating long before it was fashionable. I would watch and help while she concocted some wild, exotic kind of meal, so excited and optimistic about keeping us healthy food while exposing us to unusual things. The high point of those days was when Mom made a dish she claimed was African, called “Babootie,” which somehow contained both banana and hamburger meat. Dad – though he hates eating most kinds of beef — knew what it meant to Mom to take care of us this way, and so he would breathe down our necks making sure we would eat it and be kind to our mother about it.

In many ways, this is also about how a family works. Mom and Dad figured it out as they went along, like we all do. But to Laura and me, it appeared pretty seamless. Every summer they took us on a fantastic vacation: four times we went on long cross-country camping trips out West. Other times we’d go to Maine or the Cape or Montauk, depending on our age and level of adolescent crankiness. One year my parents planned a new trip, to Nova Scotia. Laura and I were okay enough with it, and we listened one night as Dad laid out the trip to us. But suddenly Dad stopped and said, “Hey. Do we really want to do this?” We looked at each other. We looked at him. No, we kind of didn’t. “So how about if we go Out West again instead?” Dad asked. We didn’t even have to stop and think. The next thing I knew, the Nova Scotia trip had been scrapped and we were going Out West again! Just like that. I loved the spontaneity, the youthful impulsiveness of that moment.

Whatever we did, it felt magical. I can say that with all honesty. The unfolding of the country’s terrain as we crossed into states we’d only read about was nothing short of breathtaking. But equally enchanting and sweet was the comfort of returning year after year to the soft sands and shining skies of Cape Cod. Wherever we went, Mom and Dad really seemed to have everything under control, from keeping grizzlies out of our camp site to teaching us how to jump the waves at the Cape, to grilling new boyfriends and setting our curfews. And from walking us down the aisle to walking around with each new baby. Mom’s soft eyes and big heart and Dad’s jokes and confidence cradled us and led us safely through the years as a family.

Mom and Dad’s working as yin and yang together did not stop at our childhood. I’ll never forget when I told Mom and Dad about Nat’s diagnosis. My world was threatening to come apart. What did this mean, I wondered, about us, about Nat? But Dad simply said, “Well, he’s still our Nat.” And Mom went out and bought up every developmental toy and engaging book she could lay her hands on, and to this day she sends me every article that was ever written on autism, including my own!

You know, I think that there’s one more bit of marriage wisdom that is strictly and completely Mel and Shelly: When all else fails, laugh. I asked Mom the other day what was one major ingredient to their particular 5-Decade Layer cake and she said, “I try to keep the peace.” Then, without missing a beat, she added, “Though Dad would disagree. ” And she laughed her Shelly laugh.

Then I asked Dad what he thought was the key to 50 years of marriage. “That long already?” He asked. Then he added, with his voice all soft and squooshy, “The love in her heart. She is just such a lovely person.”

Well, here’s to you, Mom and Dad. May you have another 50 for new adventures, cords of wood, strange dinners, and laughs, together!

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