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Friday, October 02, 2015

Mrs. Kain's Banned Book List

I taught third grade today, and the teacher left me a lesson plan that included reading "The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane" on it.

I left her a note (that I hope was gracious) that basically said: "NO! It is TOO SAD and I will cry and traumatize them!"

How could a story about a pampered china rabbit like Edward Tulane go wrong? SO MANY WAYS. When I told the kids I would not read it to them, one girl approached me privately and said, "I'm so glad, because the part is coming up where the girl starts coughing blood."

For GOODNESS' SAKE, isn't childhood hard enough without fictional sad toys and sick children?

Some books are just WAY TOO MUCH for my sensitive soul, and I'm not sure how anyone likes them, or learns something important from them.

Other books that I will not, under any circumstances, read to a class of children include:
* The Velveteen Rabbit
* A Day No Pigs Would Die
* Charlotte's Web
* Misty of Chicoteague
* Because of Winn-Dixie
* The Bridge to Terabithia
* Shiloh

My own children have learned not to ask me to read certain stories, and Gigi in particular gets a kick out of requesting the last chapter of "Misty..." Because sometimes I THINK I can get through it without crying, and I'm always wrong.

So no, I'm not reading "The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane," and instead we moved on to a story with NO ANIMALS OR TOYS!

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Sugar is the best part of school

Because of fun.
Recently, my girls' school district voted to ban food from the kids' birthday celebrations.

Although I respect the intention behind the ban on bringing in sweets to celebrate birthdays, I think it's a mistake to ban sugary celebrations altogether.

Sugar. Bad.
I have no delusions about sugar. It's not good for you. It may be responsible for many of society's woes. It would probably be ideal for all of us to adhere to the vegan raw diet that can change children's lives for the better, apparently.

But sugar tastes good, and it never tastes as good as it does when you're a child. And sugar never, ever tastes as good as when you're handed a cupcake in school to celebrate a classmate's birthday.

Our tribal ways
From an anthropological perspective, sugar has become an important substance through which human beings celebrate transitions. From birthday cakes to wedding cakes, we all gather 'round, lured by our collective desire to ingest processed sugar together, and we sing and blow out candles and get icing on our faces to demarcate new beginnings.

Since our children spend so many hours, some of them dreary, together with a class of children, it makes sense to mark birthday transitions together. Furthermore, I feel this should be celebrated, not with a brief "dance party," not by distributing pencils [eye roll], not by having your mom come in and read a book...

But in the way that Birdy celebrated her birthday when she turned six: Her classmates gathered in a ceremonial circle and I handed out a Krispy Kreme donut to each child (10 grams of sugar/donut), and they sang "Happy Birthday" to her while she blushed, then everyone ate and got sprinkles all over the playground pavement.

Are you crazy?
I'm not pro-sugar all of the time. My kids are educated about the empty calories of sugar, and they are limited to 9 grams of sugar per serving in their breakfast cereal.

"Don't bring us, we are 'too fun' erasers!"
When I told Chebbles about the outright ban on birthday sweets at school ("But you can distribute erasers, as long as they aren't FUN erasers."... I'm not making this up...), she said, "But having birthday treats is the best part of school."

And I totally agree with her. Now that I spend many of my days teaching in our local schools, I heartily concur that birthday treat distribution is absolutely the best part of school.

Sure, we have lots of fun reading together and doing spelling bees and collaborating as to how to solve Common Core math problems in the classroom, but when a parent shows up in the doorway with a box of treats for the class, there is nothing better that happens at school.

The new society
The school secretaries, who already have more than enough to do, are now also tasked with stopping sugar treats from reaching the classrooms. And teachers are scrambling to create meaningful celebrations to mark birthdays without the treats that usually marked these important transitions.

But most importantly, my own three kids are crestfallen. I'm not super-strict about sugar at home, in fact, when someone brings us chocolate chip cookies (which happens too often), I tell them to PLEASE eat as many as they can because I am powerless before a plate of chocolate chip cookies.

It just bums my kids out that the best part of school is now transformed into "non-fun" eraser distribution.

I just want us to be normal people about food. I want my kids to enjoy everything in moderation. And while their taste buds are young, I want them to enjoy sugary treats, at school, during birthday celebrations. Because that, my friends, is fun.

Monday, September 14, 2015

A Visit from the Goon Squad is Carver-esque poetry

I listened to the audiobook of "A Visit from the Goon Squad" by Jennifer Egan and I found it to be beautiful, labyrinthine tale of life in and around New York City (with a few visits to California).

It would detract from your experience of the book if I told you anything more about the structure or the characters, as it does best when it unfolds from nothing in front of you.

If you liked the movie "Short Cuts" and especially the Raymond Carver stories that inspired them, then "A Visit from the Goon Squad" is exactly up your alley.

This book is compelling, sad, and miraculous, and Jennifer Egan is an inspired writer. I'm glad to have found her!

Sunday, September 06, 2015

In which Billy Joel waves a flyswatter, and I swoon

Note: I am only sporadically posting to Shaken Mama right now as I'm working on an article for during my "writing time!"

I went to the Billy Joel concert in San Francisco last night.

Sure, he's 66, and he has no hair, and he can't jump around the stage like when I saw him during the Innocent Man tour.... and The Bridge tour... and the... anyway, you get the picture.

But he still brings his wonderful songs to life, and I enjoyed every single minute of the concert, singing along and soaking in the greatness of my musical idol.

Here are some highlights:

* He waved around a flyswatter when he was talking to the audience. Why? There are no bugs in San Francisco. Did someone hand it to him when he was walking on? I felt like we all should have been given Billy Joel-branded flyswatters to wave in the air along with him.

This is the playlist from the concert. He had a great time riffing on every San Francisco song he could think of. I wondered, idly, if he only played a minute of each of these songs because the lawyers for Jefferson Airplane, would come after him for royalties otherwise?

She not only NEVER AGES but she also plays the sax.
* Crystal Taliefero is an extremely talented musician. I've seen her perform with Billy Joel several times since 1989 and she HAS NOT AGED. We were laughing about how she was an essential, amazing part of every song. And just when you thought she couldn't do anything else amazing -- with her voice, with percussion, with her energy -- she would suddenly whip out an alto sax and create a trio of saxophones on the stage. This woman is incredible.

* The man seated next to us asked me and my friend, A., how we could possibly know all the words to Billy Joel's songs because "You are both TOO young!" And it was true, we were among the youngest people in the huge crowd packed into AT&T park, but I pride myself on knowing every damn word and nuance to every Billy Joel song (except River of Dreams, sorry), and A. said: "We learned it all from our dad."

* Billy Joel made a big deal out of being able to hit the high notes on "Innocent Man" (complete with a dramatic application of throat spray) last night but A. and I both noticed that he now sings it in a lower key. He used to sing it in a higher key, and bring along a vocalist to hit the "Innocent Man" high notes. This is evident, for example, on his USSR "Concert" album.

* His "from the archives" songs last night were "Vienna" and "Zanzibar." I like that he's just performing whatever the heck he wants, but I wish he would sing more obscure songs. If only so I could wow the people around me with my appropriately timed "air sax" along with Crystal Taliefero.

* He sang "Downeaster Alexa," a song which inappropriately cracks me up. It's also the song that played in the bar in Costa Rica at the moment I was making my friends listen to my synopsis of the Definitive Biography.

* Ultimately, each one of these songs still has the power to transport me. I just adore Billy Joel, his repertoire, his unstoppable band, and how real he is. SURE he still populates the first few rows with beautiful women, and I will forgive his roadies for not plucking me and my gorgeous friend A. from the gates and giving us front row tickets. THIS TIME. (The mildly attractive women they DID choose didn't know the lyrics anyway. THERE SHOULD BE A TEST.)

* I think I need to move to an apartment by Madison Square Garden so I can do this every month for the rest of either mine, Billy Joel's, or Crystal Taliefero's lives!

Monday, August 31, 2015


Who DOESN'T need this chair?
I love when I get a multiple-day sub assignment, when the kids and I can really get to know each other.

On my first day, one six-year-old fellow, we'll call him "L.," was calm and helpful in the classroom.

But this morning, he walked into the classroom all jacked up on... something. L. was climbing the walls, attempting flips on the Meeting Time rug and standing on his chair in a sort of "O Captain My Captain!" way.

"L!" I barked, bemused. "Exactly HOW much coffee did you drink this morning?"

He looked around at his classmates, stunned. "Mrs. Kain! I don't drink COFFEE!?"

"Ma'am, I've had too much coffee."
"Could have fooled me."

When L. started "playfully" slapping other children he promptly put himself in the "I Need a Break Chair."

He sat there for several minutes, banging his sneakers against the green stool under the chair, until he trusted himself to re-enter society.

Afterward, I heaped praise upon him for this classy move. "There are a lot of grown men who aren't wise enough to put themselves on the 'I Need a Break Chair.' And by the way, was it a regular coffee, or an espresso?"

"Mrs. KAIN! How many times do I have to tell you?"

"Until you 'fess us to how much coffee you drank, young man."

And for the rest of the day, whenever he caught my eye, I would mime drinking a cup of coffee, and point to him and he'd smile so huge that a black hole was formed inside of his dimple.

As a person who can be "naturally caffeinated" myself, I admire L's ability to rein himself in. I was fortunate enough to tell his father that when he picked up L. from school.

"Hey, L., is that your dad?" I yelled to him, hustling toward the car.

"Yeah, Mrs. Kain!"

"I gotta talk to him about letting you drink coffee."


"Sir, are you aware that your son drank a large amount of coffee before coming to school?"

And L. was jumping around outside the car and grinning. Then I congratulated his dad on having such a good kid.

"Oh, and I heard he ate a squid when he came to your office. He drew a whole story about it."

His Dad denies that squid was presented, much less eaten, but I have the crayon-colored pictures to prove it.

Then as I walked toward the parking lot, L. yelled after me, "I hope you teach me again, Mrs. Kain!"


Sunday, August 23, 2015

Boogers, tutus and boob chafe: 10 Things I've learned about running

Birdy clutches my running bible: The Terrible
and Wonderful Reasons Why I Run 
After running eight half marathons this year, I've picked up a few tips...

(1) Get rid of the boogers. The snot FLIES when you're running long distances. Sometimes you can do the thing where you hold one nostril, then blow downwind, but this can have sloppy results. I saw a lady running an ultra marathon who had a hanky tied to her Camelbak water, and she was my hero. I've started begging paper towels from every aid station on long runs. I feel 100% better each time after blowing my nose.

(2) Race karma is a thing. Go ahead and judge the person wearing the huge florescent tutu or T-shirt with a slogan you find cloying. Those runners will pass you and you deserve it. You are only capable of passing people while in a state of love and acceptance.
Judged tutu will pass you

(3) Run the shortest event of the race. If you want to run a half marathon, find a race that's a half/whole/ultra. If you run the half marathon in a race that's a 5k/10k/Half, it's freaking annoying. The 5k and 10k finishers eat all of the good food (and use the paper towels) like a hoard of locusts, and no one cheers on anyone coming in after 2 hours. Participating in a race with longer distances is inspiring, but most importantly: there is BETTER FOOD and you will get the first crack at it.

(4) Find a race organizer you like and stay faithful. I don't like overcrowded races (I inevitably fall), I don't like crappy food, and I don't like late starts and poorly marked trails. So I'm in currently love with Wolf Pack Events (Wolf himself let me blow my nose in his personal towel) and Pacific Coast Trail Runs (they lay out an aid station smorgasbord that I dream about).

(5) You have to train every time. I thought I could just mow through a flat half marathon today, after not running any long distances for three weeks. Har har har, my feet look like sloppy joes, and my muscles are seized up and sore as though I'd run an Olympic marathon. There is a huge difference between races that I've prepared for, using a training program, and races that I tried to jackhammer my way through. And that difference is misery.

(6) Do not run hung over. For me, this translates into drinking nothing alcoholic for the entire day before a race. Back in March, I ran 9am half marathon after drinking two whiskey drinks the night before (it was the school's parent party and that was the only free drink!), and it was a special feeling. It took me 3:30 to finish the course, and I was burping whiskey for the first six miles. A hiker wished me a "Good Afternoon" when I ran past him and I was shocked I'd run into the afternoon.

(7) Understand you are mentally impaired. I am as dumb as a rock for at least 2-3 hours after I finish a difficult race. I can't find my car, I am confused by my phone, I don't remember to eat. Now I just anticipate the idiocy and I'm less surprised by my inability to zipper my jacket properly.

(8) Every bra chafes. Maybe someone will tell me about a bra that doesn't chafe after 13.1 miles. But I've gotten used to bleeding a little between and below my breasts when I run a long distance.

(9) Research the food. I thought it was a "given" that every race provided gels, candy, and other snacks to half marathon runners along the way. So when I come across a "water only" station, I get a little violent. I literally yelled "SHIT!" when the innocent water station volunteers told me there was no food at a recent race. If I'd known about the lack of food, I (a) wouldn't have signed up, and (b) brought my own.

(10) The first part of the race always sucks, the last part is always awesome. I hate the first two miles of every half marathon. I hate myself for signing up for it, I hate my shoes, I hate the people in tutus (see: race karma), I hate the organizers who put up "Mile 1" sign like that's relevant. Then, usually after the first aid station, I start to perk up. By Mile 5 I'm thinking of ideas for upcoming Girl Scout meetings. By Mile 7 I want to stop and write a brilliant poem I've just composed. And by Mile 9 I'm probably a genius with my new business idea. Things can degrade into simple pain/strain sometime between Mile 10 and 13, but that last 0.1 mile makes me feel unstoppable

Now give me the medal and pass the Nutella, I've got a car to find. 

Saturday, August 22, 2015

"House of Echoes": an English novel from a Munich bookshop that still scares us 14 years later

Fourteen years ago, my sister and I were traveling in Germany and we had run out of books to read.

It wasn't easy back then to find good English novels in Germany, so when Emily and I came across "House of Echoes" in a Munich bookshop, we grabbed it and headed back to our hotel, where we read it out loud and spooked the hell out of each other.

The story revolves around a woman who had been adopted as a baby, and eventually discovers a heritage -- and a house -- with a few ghostly strings attached. Some of the ghosts at Belheddon Hall are kind of nice, and others... not so much. There is witchcraft, there are connections to a real king, and it has a juicy "Da Vinci Code"-esque feeling to it.

Emily and I have not forgotten "House of Echoes," and we like to continue to scare each other with the sing-song refrain that one of the ghosts utters throughout the book: "It was my Lady Katherine...." (You have to sing it in an airy, semi-threatening way.)

So when I read Kate Morton's "The Forgotten Garden" -- in which an adopted child returns to her ancestral home, you can imagine how much I had to leave the light on.

PS: I'll post more about "The Forgotten Garden" and its relatively benign ghosts, separately.

PPS: There is another popular "House of Echoes" book. Make sure to read the one by Barbara Erskine if you want to learn how ancient witches can bruise modern children. It costs $0.01 on Amazon so there's really no excuse not to read this "House of Echoes."

PPPS: Hey Emily: It was my Lady Katherine....