Sunday, December 14, 2003

Asta, Oona and Me

It is a generally accepted fact among my friends that I am a certified nerd. I follow the National Scrabble Championship with the intensity most people reserve for the World Series. I have no clue who is playing in the Super Bowl next month; in fact the only reason I am even aware that this is football season is because the games pre-empt my nightly Jeopardy ritual on Mondays, which annoys me no end. But even my close friends might be surprised by the level of my obsession with crossword puzzles.

In college my roommate and I used to argue each week over who got to solve the puzzle in the back of the TV Guide. To tide myself over during the times when I lost the flip of the coin, I began attempting the dailies in the S.F. Chronicle Datebook. It was there that I became familiar with the basics of "crosswordese." I could barely find North America on a map, but soon learned to identify the EBRO, ODER and YSER rivers in a grid, as well as a number of other world landmarks from ETNA to the URALS. I mastered the subtle difference between OLEO and OLIO, and could even conjugate rudimentary Latin (okay, only the word “love” - as in “Amo, Amas, I love a lass”).

After I got married and moved back to the Bay Area, doing the Friday New York Times puzzle together with my dad became a key component of our Shabbat observance. We developed personal favorites among the various constructors, admiring the wide-open grids of Manny Nosowsky and the clever wordplay of Patrick Berry and Liz Gorski. Much to the irritation of the rest of our family, we began to pepper our conversations with phrases like “Please pass the EWER,” and “Alright already, I’ll empty the dishwasher, quit treating me like an ESNE!” From this, it was a short step to signing up for the NYT Crossword Puzzle Forum, installing AcrossLite on our computers, and eventually laying out the forty bucks to subscribe to the New York Times on the web, granting us access to new puzzles on the day they are published, rather than waiting a few weeks for them to appear in our local paper.

Sometimes my habit gets a little out of control, as when I spent a good part of our vacation in the Gold Country dragging my husband on a quest to find a working ADIT to photograph. And I’ll admit that I won’t win any parenting awards for my regular habit of plopping the kids in front of the TV, still in their pajamas with oatmeal-smeared faces, and forcing them to watch another round of “It’s a Wiggly Wiggly World” while I sneak off to Google the trickiest clues in the Saturday challenger. But doing the puzzles has enriched my life in many ways – and possibly staved off Alzheimer's in the process. For instance it was the constant mention of Nick and Nora Charles (and their little dog, Asta) that turned me on to the wonderful Thin Man movies, and I never would have picked up a delicious Perry Mason mystery if I hadn’t been so curious about the ever-present Erle Stanley Gardner. I even learned fun facts to show off at cocktail parties (that is, if I am ever invited to one). Who wouldn't be fascinated to know that Eugene O'Neill's daughter Oona later went on to marry Charlie Chaplin?

In at least one way, doing the puzzles has made me appear slightly less nerdy. When a new manger for the SF Giants was announced, I was gratified to see that the name was one I was deeply familiar with. “Oh yes, Felipe Alou!” I commented to my flabbergasted acquaintances. “Well that’s no surprise, seeing as how he and Matty and Jesus go WAY back with the team!” Turning my back on their gaping mouths, I took off to relax with the Sunday Times, where I like to tackle the puzzle while enjoying a cup of strong coffee and listening to the song stylings of the great "FIRST LADY OF SCAT" (Ella, that is).

Wednesday, December 10, 2003

Jealousy Is Not Pretty

To the casual observer, I was happily sipping Merlot and enjoying my rosemary-scented chicken, but on the inside I was in turmoil. Like a possesive girlfriend, I blanched each time I glanced at the podium and saw Ann Packer huddling close to Daniel Handler, their foreheads almost touching as they chatted companionably. In my fantasy I would be up there too, just flowing with pithy comments and observations worthy of the Algonquin Round Table.

When I was in grade school all of my classmates, even those who ignored me at lunch and picked me last for kickball teams, crowded around eagerly every time I read one of my stories aloud. I carried a notebook with me everywhere, gathering up material for the great novel I knew I would write one day. Instead I am reduced to spending $95 for the privlege of eating dried up poultry breast and waiting three hours in line for the chance to exchange a few words with Lemony Snicket, my former childhood chum. The only thing that made me feel MORE pathetic was actually meeting him and feeling obligated to mention our ridiculously ancient personal connection.

Because my association with Daniel is so miniscule, I actually feel far less envious of his success then I do with people I knew well in high school, or the offspring of my parents' friends whose grand houses and prestigious occupations I hear about repeatedly. Sure, when I first learned years ago that he was writing a novel, I rolled my eyes and said "him too?" But when I read Basic Eight for the first time I was blown away by his unique voice and dark, dry humor. And by the time the Series of Unfortunate Events hit it big, there was no point in being jealous - his talent and creativity was so far out of my league I couldn't even begin to compare myself to him. Daniel, I decided, deserved every bit of his success.

Okay, so I can never be another Lemony Snicket. But sometimes I can't help but to think that maybe - if I had been more disciplined, if I could have handled the rigors of an intensive creative arts major and my ego was not too fragile for the blunt criticism of writing workshops, then maybe I could have mined my life and family for a few laughs and moments of poignancy like Adair Lara, or been plucked out of obscurity on the basis of an uneven, yet compelling morality tale like Ann Packer. And then it would be ME up on the podium, chatting with my old pal Daniel while basking in admiration and graciously signing autographs.

I have to admit - I still cling to a persistent fantasy that someday I *will* write a funny, moving and true chronicle of my experiences raising a son with Down Syndrome. Sort of like Anne Lamott but with more chromosomes (and far less Jesus), or Expecting Adam without the trippy supernatural subtext. In the meantime I will continue to blog away in obscurity.

Swimming In the Mainstream

I soooo wanted to play hooky from Sunday School last week. I was exhausted by the very thought of getting the kids and myself up, dressed and fed, clearing a pathway through the house for the babysitter, gulping down a few swigs of coffee, and rushing to get to synagogue by 9:00 to spend a few hours surrounded by toddlers.

Every fiber of my being was screaming for me to pull the covers up over my head and stay in my lovely warm bed. But I made a commitment long ago that I would give Bug every possible opportunity to spend time and socialize with his peers, and to do what kids his age *should* be doing - going to camp, running around the park, learning how to swim and play soccer, and celebrating his Jewish heritage. It is not as easy as it sounds. My heart ties up in knots as I watch him approach other kids in the park with his sweet, trusting expression. I pray that they will accept him into their group for awhile - and they usually do - but I just dread the day that kids will turn him away because he looks a little different, because he can't run as fast or speak as clearly.

If I had my way I would never let Bug into the cold, cruel world - I'd much prefer to keep him at home where he is so loved and cherished, where his baby sister Bee follows him around squealing with laughter, where he can disco dance to ABBA and watch his beloved Muppet Movie and stomp in puddles in the yard and never have to deal with people's rude stares and pointed questions. At home nobody gives a damn about his extra chromosome - but it won't do Bug any favors to keep him sheltered forever. So last summer I gathered up my courage and sent him to JCC camp, where he ran happily off every morning to bake his own challah and climb on the monkey bars and finger paint and sing and dance with his friends. He even had kids who ate lunch with him every day. He fit in so well that I was surprised to learn that he is the first camper they have ever had who has Down Syndrome.

And that's why every other week, no matter how much I crave a lazy Sunday morning, I make sure we show up to Classroom 2 by 9:00 sharp. I stay with the class the whole time so I can pitch in when I need to. I am thrilled to see how well Bug follows along with the music and singing, even though much of it is in Hebrew. He loves to do the art projects, often getting completely covered in glitter, glue, yarn, stickers, confetti and fingerpaint. He sits down quietly for snack time and even knows the blessing over the bread (or, more typically, the graham crackers).

Of course he also has a tough time sitting still for story time, STRONGLY resists coming in from the playground after recess, and would often rather poke through the multiple bins of toys and puzzles then participate in whatever educational activity the teacher has planned. In this, he is no different from all the other 3 and 4 year olds in the class. Except that once again he is a pioneer - the only child with Down Syndrome in the entire congregation, and certainly the only disabled kid who is taking his rightful place in class with his peers.

Monday, December 08, 2003

Blog Pollution

I always swore I would never never keep a blog because my thoughts, philosophies and my life in general are so boring that no one in their right mind would ever want to read them. And I hope I'm right - that way, I can write about anyone and anything I want, secure in the knowledge that nobody is reading this anyway.

Plus, now that I have surfed each and every page of the internet, I need a new way to waste time at work while looking like I am studiously hunched over the keyboard. So, inspired by the brilliant blogging of my cubicle-mate Michelle and her talented sister Moosie I have decided to add my own contribution to the detrius cluttering up the internet.

But first I am going to lunch.