Friday, April 25, 2008


Yesterday we missed what may have been the highlight of our son's year in high school sports. He is on a track team for the first time, a very different experience than playing on a soccer team. First off, there are probably 100 other students on the track team--a lot more than on the soccer team. Second, it's a whole new technique to learn. Yeah, there's a lot of running in soccer, but he is learning how to run a race. And while there are a few team events (like the four by four), it's mostly an individual sport.
I am still learning all the terms for the distance events that I never paid much attention to during the Olympics. I get the eye-rolling, head-shaking treatment when I mess up. "4x4" is the 400-meter relay (4-person team), "4" is the 400-meter race, "32" is the 3200-meter distance race, and "distance medley" is a crazy relay race where the first person runs 800 meters, the second runs 1600 meters, the third person runs 3200 meters, and the last person (the anchor) runs 400 meters. I'm sure I've got that wrong.
Anyway, at the track meet yesterday, our son was the anchor of the frosh/soph boys distance 4x4 (the sprinters have a different relay team). It was one of the last races of the meet, so all four schools' worth of track teams were hanging around watching. The varsity boys distance runners had already run their relay, so even they were cheering them on. My son's team was ahead by the time it was his turn to run, but around the 200-meter mark the other team's anchor began to pull ahead. "But I found something inside," our son said, and beat the other runner over the finish line. They won! And I missed it. I'm really really sorry I didn't get to see it. But on the other hand, it was pretty great to ask him how the meet went when he got home and hear him say, "Awesome." And get the blow by blow description of his win. Maybe that was even better than trying to share his moment when it happened.
He took the bus home from the meet. I think he is enjoying his independence.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Crazy Spring

These are wild spring days,
Strong wind stirring up bits
That get in my eyes and make me cry.
For my walk in the park, I am scarved and gloved and fleeced
In the bright sunshine.
The flowers are blooming ridiculously.
I stand and laugh at a cherry tree bursting with pink puff balls.
I stick my nose next to bees and photograph them for as long as I like
Because they are so busy, they have no time to buzz me off.
Walking with my mom in Tilden Park we hear a bird singing, ludicrously
Loud. It's a
Spotted Towhee, chest sticking out, stripes of orange
Calling aggressively to any female around.
Do we count?
Birds fly overhead with things trailing from their beaks.
A raven commands a stop sign.
The mockingbird dominates our neighborhood with his song.

Monday, April 14, 2008

The Middle School Band

This year I'm the band parent for our middle school band. We have lots of band families--nearly 200 of them--who work the carwash and the bake sales and send in checks and chaperone the field trips. They are great, and constantly surprise me with their generosity. But I'm the one who sends out all the emails, writes the fundraising letters, and coordinates with the band teacher. To be honest, it's more work than I thought it would be. But then it's something I support unequivocally. I have no mixed feelings about it. The band is great! Participating in band has been a huge part of both my sons' experience in middle school. And the band teacher gives 150 percent every day to his students, and often more.
On Friday, the band teacher took the advanced band, all 55 of them, down on a charter bus to a high school in San Mateo to play in the CMEA festival. There ended up just being three adults chaperoning: me, a woman whose son wasn't even in the advanced band but just wanted to help, and a stepmother of one of the band members who toted along her two-month-old baby in a snuggly. See what I mean about the generosity?
At the festival, the band played for judges who rated them and then gave them a mini-workshop on improving their performance of the pieces they had just played. The students were a little cowed walking through an unfamilar high school, and stared enviously at the swimming pool in the center of the suburban campus (as did I!). But once they started warming up they were their usual focused, distracted, wise-cracking, serious, giggling selves--in short, that whole mix of contradictions that middle schoolers are. The only mishap was the student who discovered he had brought the broken baritone horn and couldn't play. Their performance for the judges was crisp and energized, and they earned a unanimous superior rating. We were all proud.
I watched them get off the bus back at our school at the end of the day. They are all shapes and sizes, some midway through their growth spurts, some eagerly awaiting them. Long hair, short hair, short and pudgy, tall and awkward, sagging, too-short pants--it's all there. Mostly the girls are poised and seem several years ahead of the boys in maturity. (The important word here is "seem.") But each of them already looked a bit more mature than they had in the morning, getting on the bus. They looked like they had accomplished something and it felt pretty good.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

House Party

I'm not really a big entertainer, but I enjoyed giving this party today. It was for my sister, Rachel Norton, who is running for the Board of Education in San Francisco. Most of the work was beforehand, sending emails to invite people and following up. And they came! Even some honored guests like my mom and two aunts, who cannot vote for Rachel since they don't live in San Francisco but wanted to show their support. Rachel spoke about why she wants to serve on the board and fielded questions on different topics about the school district, the election, and even Prop A (a parcel tax to fund teacher salaries, coming up in June). She was articulate and relaxed, and her knowledge of the workings of the SFUSD is impressive. She's on her way!

Monday, April 7, 2008

The Intruder

Several days ago, I noticed that something was eating my sorrel. Huge bites out of the leaves had appeared overnight, and little black poops (entomologists call it "frass") speckled the leaves. I searched carefully for the culprit, but I found no one.
Then today I searched again, and found him! A cabbage looper. Except when I found him I didn't know he was a cabbage looper. I had my usual shudder at anything worm- or sluglike. (If it's a worm, I tell myself, "Good worm. Good worm.") My only thought was to rid my sorrel leaves of the intruder. I scraped him off the leaf onto a broken pot shard and then stopped. Was I going to kill him?
Last summer I was really into butterflies. I looked up a lot of butterflies and their caterpillars and marveled at the variety, even in my not-particularly-butterfly-hospitable city. I could not squash this caterpillar without at least finding out who he was.
A short search on the Internet revealed my sorrel-loving caterpillar to be a cabbage looper. They have legs only at the front and the back of their bodies, and move around like an inchworm, hence the name "looper." They eat just about everything, unlike, say, the pipevine swallowtail caterpillar, which only eats pipevine leaves. In fact, they are a serious pest for commercial vegetable crops. And they turn into a boring brown moth. But I just couldn't kill him. So I placed him in the front yard among the weeds, where he'll be sure to find something to eat. And now I can eat my sorrel.

Saturday, April 5, 2008

I Finally Finished It!

While we were waiting in the Denver Airport for three hours, and on the two-hour flight, I got a huge chunk read of Vikram Chandra's Sacred Games, and I finished it just yesterday. It felt like I had been reading the 900-page novel for months, away on a trip to India. I think I developed my biceps just lugging this book around the house. While I was reading it, I found myself absently repeating the Hindi swear words like maderchod and bhenchod (apologies to anyone who speaks Hindi) to myself since much of the dialogue is peppered with them (they mean pretty much what you think they mean). I found myself perking up at hearing any Indian-accented voice on the radio, and humming the songs from "Monsoon Wedding" to myself.
This is one of those books with a two-page list of characters at the beginning and a 16-page glossary at the end, as Chandra casually uses many Hindi, Punjabi, and other Indian language words throughout. But since half the words I looked up in the glossary weren't even included, I realized he wasn't really concerned with defining everything for non-Indian readers. In an interview with him on, he says he wanted to create the experience of being in a different culture, where you are surrounded by cultural references and brand names and slang you don't understand. Maybe this is why I really did feel immersed in the sounds, sights, smells, tastes and textures of India.
The book also refers to lots of classic Bollywood movies, and songs and lines from those movies, and a large part of the plot is about the film stars and starstruck film fans in India. I've never seen a Bollywood film. Chandra recommends a few to see in his interview (Pyaasa (Thirst, 1957); Kaagaz ke Phool ("Paper Flowers," 1959); Mughal-e-Azam ("The Great Mughal," 1960); Sholay ("Embers," 1975); Parinda ("Bird," 1989); Satya (1998); Lagaan ("Land Tax," 2001); Lage Raho Munnabha ("Keep at it, Munnabhai," 2006). Has anyone seen any of these?
The novel is about the rise and fall of a powerful Indian gangster, and is set after 9/11/01, although there are many flashbacks in time to the Partition and its aftermath, and a number of side plots. It's also about terrorism, the criminal underworld, the Pakistan/India conflict, corruption (especially in the Indian police), politics, poverty, religious faith, and the nature of love. What it's really about is the emptiness at the center of a boy who cannot go back home, who searches all his life to replace the father he lost, who ultimately cannot find happiness or satisfaction because of the emptiness inside.
You don't embark upon a journey like this lightly. But in addition to the small feeling of loss I feel after I read something that really captures me, I feel the satisfaction of having been halfway around the world and back inside the pages of a book.

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Back to Spring

We arrived back home from Colorado last weekend after midnight. So I had to wait until the next morning to visit my garden. The changes were dramatic, at least to me, since I usually go out into the backyard every morning to take a look at things. In a week, the blood-red Galactic lettuces had grown fluffy and full, big enough to begin harvesting.
The Swiss chard really took off, too. The sugar snap peas have definitively decided to live, even if they don't look exactly hardy yet. The radishes and carrots are doing their work underground, so no real big changes there. I love how the radishes are pushing themselves up out of the ground.
There's a single sweet pea flower, and several nasturtium seeds sprouted.
All the sunflowers sprouted, too. I'm taking a less hovering, more laissez-faire approach to my sunflowers this year. Last year I got a little too intense, hovering anxiously around them, putting upside down berry baskets over them, and rescuing and transplanting the runts. It was exhausting, although I loved the results. This year I'm watering them, but no more coddling.
Birdwise, there are a few starlings around trying to eat the last of the ivy berries, but mostly they are scared off by the mockingbird couple. I believe the mockingbirds have a nest in the ivy but they are canny, never perch together, and enter the ivy in a different place each time. The hummingbirds have gone, but there are a lot of purple finches in our eucalyptus in the mornings, and a scrub jay couple visits our yard, too.
This week in the New York Times there was an article about people with second homes who try to have gardens even though they can only garden on the weekends. When I first tried gardening I thought I could do that, but I've concluded it's not possible. At least, not when you are trying to grow vegetables, or lots of plants in pots, or start things from seeds. But the story I liked was the person who was so eager to see the state of her garden after being away for a week that she got her partner to shine the headlights of the car into the garden (it was dark when they arrived) so she could check on her babies.

On the Mountaintop

The most thrilling moment for me on our ski trip to Breckenridge last week was skidding down the ridge below the Peak 8 Imperial Express Superchair. At 12,840 ft., it's the highest chairlift in North America. I think it is the closest to going off a ski jump that I will ever come. The trail along the ridge turns sharply to the right, following the ridgeline, so in front of me was air and the town of Breckenridge spread out before me. The wind was blowing and my fingers were trembling and I decided it was more important to get down the mountain than to take a photo. (The photo above is from partway down the ridge, looking towards Peak 9.)

I'm not a big one for heights. Even sitting on the chairlift, I don't look down. But I couldn't go to Breckenridge and miss the highest ski lift in North America, so when the men in my family said it was time to brave the Imperial Express, I followed along. My sons are faster skiers than me, but so far I've been able to get down anything they can, even with a bit more form, thanks to my ski lessons as a teenager. Making it down this one filled me with adrenaline and counts as a personal triumph.

But on our last day of skiing, my older son and husband topped my moment. I was cross-country skiing with my dad, and my dad's wife and my younger son were home with a stomach bug that had churned through me and my older son earlier. The two intrepid ones took off their skis, hiked up from the Imperial Express into the "extreme terrain" area (double black diamond) at the summit of Peak 8, traversed the ridge toward Peak 9, and finally found what seemed to be the least gnarly chute down. In the photo above, it's the one right in front of that menacing black knob. They made it down. My son said--with a huge grin and glowing cheeks--he was the most scared he has ever been in his life. I think this time they crossed a line: they went somewhere that I won't follow.
On the summit (12,998 ft)