Summer in the (Little) City

I don’t like summer. There. I said it. I keep trying to like it. After all, who doesn’t like summer? I’ve had better luck learning to like November.

The reasons are obvious. I wilt in the heat, and fully melt in humidity. I could happily do without anything over 82 degrees. I spent most of our unbearable July in a state of panic over global warming and the increasing electric bill. I don’t like sunscreen or bug spray. I really don’t like bugs. My old house, with the damp basement, smells musty. We have a neighborhood skunk who likes to make her presence known on a regular basis.

While I see plenty of bugs and varmints, I rarely see anyone I actually like. Everyone disappears. I’ll go weeks without seeing favorite people who I usually see a few times a week in non-summer. I can walk through Northampton on a Saturday night and not see anyone I know—it’s like the usual denizens have all been replaced by people from Connecticut.

Each year, the ever-changing schedule of summer nearly breaks me. Not unlike a toddler, I like a consistent schedule and the academic year accommodates me nicely. Summer means camps that change every few weeks, with new morning prep, new carpools, and wildly varying schedules. And then there are the weeks with no camp, but we won’t speak of that.

I might enjoy doing many summer things—music festivals, historic sites, parades, amusement parks—if it weren’t for the aforementioned heat. Scratch that. I don’t like amusement parks in any weather.

And don’t get me started on everyone’s Facebook posts from places I’d like to be. By mid-August I begin contemplating blocking half my friends.

I feel extensive summer guilt about all the things I’m not doing. I’m not taking jaunts to the shore, or even a nearby pond. Because, oh, it smacks of effort. I’m not hiking (I prefer that in the fall when it’s not so buggy), and not canoeing/kayaking/sailing. (See “effort” above). I’m not camping at the Cape, or in Maine, or actually, anywhere.

I don’t even like iced coffee all that much.

Summers greatest disappointment: we like to think it will be like the summers of our youth—carefree, open ended, lazy, full of reading and beach trips. It will never be that again.

“Quit complaining and tell us what you do like,” I hear you say. Fortunately, even for an inveterate summudgeon, there are things that do redeem summer, especially here in my little city. They are, in no particular order:

June’s explosion of roses. The magical few weeks when the lilacs are in bloom. The stunning pink lilies in my garden. We went away in early July one year and missed them. We’re not allowed to do that again.

Our CSA farm. In June, I think it is the greatest thing in the world. All this wonderful produce? All for me? By October, it’s just one more thing to deal with. But there is always a point, standing in a field at the end of the day, when the air has cooled and there is no child whining, when I’m picking sugar snap peas or green beans, and I can’t imagine anything better.

Eating things from my backyard. I didn’t grow up with vegetable gardens, so I haven’t lost the thrill of walking into my backyard and clipping some basil or picking some cherry tomatoes. My husband does most (OK, all) of the gardening, and he doesn’t believe in structured vegetable gardens. He plants wherever it makes sense, so the melons are around the side of the house, the cherry tomatoes along the fence, the sugar snap peas on the other side of the yard. Since I don’t plant the vegetables, I never quite know what growing. It’s nice to discover that the vine growing on the deck is actually cucumbers. Right now I’m eating fresh cukes like candy, and I’m both delighted and appalled at their tiny prickly spines.

The light. When I think of childhood summers, my first thought is almost always to the quality of light in the evening—coming home from the beach or after playing at a friend’s house all day. That’s still the same.

Early morning. I’ll admit that I rarely see it. Even if awake, I barely see it (I’m not a morning person). But when circumstances dictate that I’m up and out before 8, there’s a bonus: the quiet, the coolness, the potential.

Walking to Herrell’s Ice Cream, standing in line, eating Burnt Sugar and Butter while sitting on the wall across the street, and watching all the people from Connecticut walk by. Or Go Berry when I’m feeling yogurty. Really, this is our primary summer activity: some variation on going downtown and looking at people.

Going outside in my pajamas at 11:00 p.m. to watch the International Space Station fly over, and catching a shooting star while I’m at it.

Hanging out with friends on a deck somewhere, in the early evening, with a vodka tonic.

Each year, there is a moment, usually in mid-August, when my feed is littered with photos from Cape Cod and Maine, I’ve just driven the carpool to Deerfield, and a car goes by with kayaks on the roof, and I hit bottom. That’s when I calmly smack myself in the head and remind myself that I live year-round where I used to vacation. I may not travel often to wonderful places, but I do get to live in one.

Lillies-July2011

Our very own July 4th fireworks.

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Choosing our Neighborhood School

It’s nice to have a blog when the local paper chooses not to publish the op/ed guest column you submit. I wrote this in response to a rather heated newspaper debate about our area’s charter schools and the financial impact they have on Northampton’s traditional public schools. I’m not going to get into that debate here. However, many of those who wrote columns and letters defending charter schools were quick to assert that non-charter schools are mediocre, and implied that given the opportunity, charters are always the better choice. With 10 years of experience in Northampton’s schools, I can say without reservation that they are excellent, and the first choice for many families. 

Bridge Street School's Fifth Grade Graduation

Bridge Street School’s Fifth Grade Graduation

Ten years ago, in the spring of 2003, we were offered a spot for our 5-year-old son at the Hilltown Charter School after having been on the waitlist for several weeks. We received the letter on a Friday and had to respond by Monday. We agonized. Rumors were spreading that the Northampton School Committee was going to cut art, music, and gym from the elementary schools, but we also had every reason to believe that Bridge Street School, five houses away, would be great for our son. After much exploration, we saw that there was no evidence that he’d get a better education at Hilltown or a worse education at Bridge Street, and at the local school, we’d be remaining in our community. We turned down the space at Hilltown.

A decade later, my younger son is graduating from Bridge Street School, and it’s been an excellent run. Certainly, it hasn’t been perfect: no school is without its weaknesses, and constant budget cuts compound these. However, my sons have been happy socially and challenged academically. Their quirks—the long hair they had for several years, their nutty imaginations—have been embraced. Their teachers have been excellent: patient, creative, and inspiring. My older son, for whom we passed up the spot at Hilltown, entered 9th grade at Northampton High School this year, and hit the ground running, excelling in a schedule made up of mostly honors classes. Clearly the foundation he received at BSS and JFK is strong. Although we had choices for his high school education, we chose the school in his community, with an extremely diverse student base, and classes like Honors Art and AP Physics.

Without a doubt, the greatest gift that the Northampton’s public schools have given my family is its very diverse community. As we like to say, it’s a Richard Scarry world. My kids’ friends come from affluent families, from families struggling to get by, and from families staying at Grace House until they get on their feet. Their friends include kids who are academically high achieving and kids for whom even reading is a challenge. Their friends are those who find it easy to follow the rules and those with significant behavior problems. To them, all of these kids are simply their friends. What matters is whether they’re fun, whether they’re kind, or whether they’re into Doctor Who, Modest Mouse, and Rick Riordan’s books.

As my little guy has finished his last year at Bridge Street, my husband and I have been working on the 5th grade yearbook and graduation slide show. I’ve spent the last three months walking around the school with a camera in my hand and a lump in my throat. Today, as I wandered the halls trying to find the last few staff members to photograph, I asked myself if I regret the decision we made a decade ago? The answer is an easy one: Not for a minute.

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The Village Nark

NoNarking

It takes a village to nark on each other’s kids.

Ever since we were able to buy a home within walking distance to downtown Northampton, I’ve anticipated with mixed emotions the time when my kids would eventually be out and about on their own. I loved the fact that they would be able to get downtown by foot and wouldn’t be dependent on rides. I didn’t love the fact that they would ever be out of my sight.

Fortunately, in this little city, that’s not such a problem, because the eyes are everywhere.

So far, no one has ever narked on Chuck for questionable behavior, but I always get reports from friends when they see him. They are often delighted that he seems to know who they are. I feel the same way when the teens I know prove to be aware of my existence.

I, however, have been narking on my friends’ kids for years. Often, it is innocent:

“Hey, I saw Artie walking down King Street toward Stop and Shop.
“What? He’s not supposed to do that!”
“Whoops. Sorry Artie.”

Sometimes I’m not sure whether I should nark, so I take an oblique approach. When I saw a friend’s son biking without a helmet, I posted on Facebook: “If you saw a friend’s child biking down Elm Street without a helmet, would you tell them.” Conveniently, the offending teen’s mom was the first to respond with: “I’d want to know.” I told her. Hopefully she didn’t reveal her source.

Last week, on the first warmish spring day, I looked out my window too see a friend’s daughter biking through the cemetery. At first I thought it was a rather odd woman pertly biking on a child’s bike with a big flowered basket, not unlike Miss Gulch in The Wizard of Oz. This would not be out of the realm of possibility in Northampton. Then I realized it was just a very pert child, one I knew. This led to another inadvertent narking.

- Is your child biking around the cemetery?
- Are they biking? I told them they could go to the cemetery together. I didn’t want them biking in it. Do you only see one??
- Oh jeez – am I narking on them? Now I see two.
- I appreciate the narking.

What followed was a hilarious thread about biking in cemeteries, gravestones shaped like penises, and how glad we are that everyone is looking out for our kids. For the record, these girls were wearing their helmets.

Sometimes the little city network is good just for keeping track of the kids. A year ago, on a Friday afternoon, I realized that I had no idea where Chuck was. He had walked from the middle school to downtown Florence, a village within the city limits of Northampton (or DT Floho, as he called it at the time). As usual, he wasn’t answering his cell phone, most likely because it was out of battery power. I mused on Facebook that I wished I had a tracking device implanted on him so I could trace him. Within minutes, a friend posted that she had just seen him walking down her street, which told me where he was and where he was going.

’Round here, we don’t need tracking devices or, apparently, cell phone battery power. We just need the village.

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Challah and Grape Juice

I loved Chuck’s preschool. It was exactly like mine—the nursery school at the synagogue. They learned the same Hebrew words and songs that we did, learned about the same holidays, and every Friday they celebrated Shabbat with challah and grape juice. There are few food combinations more perfect than challah and grape juice.

The preschool could have been a little more diverse—OK, a lot more diverse—and it retained remnants of the old days when most families didn’t have two working parents: they closed at 3:00 p.m. every day, at noon on Fridays, and there was no school in the summer. When the fall Jewish holidays fell on weekdays, it seemed like the kids missed school every other day. But it was a warm community with many of our favorite families. They brought us meals when Ted was born; I still remember every single one.

The fact that our kids’ first day of preschool was September 11, 2001 may or may not have contributed to the closeness of the group. We dropped off our kids that morning, thinking that leaving our babies with others for the first time was the most significant pain we’d face that day. At dismissal three hours later, the parents—most of whom came to Northampton from New York City—were red-eyed and in shock, whispering with each other and trying not to broadcast their trauma to the kids.

We followed with two academic years of playdates, field trips, crafts, and plenty of challah and grape juice. When they were ready for kindergarten, the kids went in many different directions. Some went to the local Jewish day school, others scattered to the various elementary schools in town. It’s a small city, so we’d see each other often, but only a few continued to be regular parts of our lives.

Last week, at a parent’s meeting at the high school, I realized that most of the preschool parents were in the room. With the exception of a few kids, all of our children are back in school together for 9th grade. We haven’t aged a day, but oy, those kids got old. They aren’t all close friends, but there is no doubt that the connections are still there. You can see it especially when they gather together every Friday morning in the high school’s cafeteria for challah and grape juice.

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Oh! Costco!

Sometimes I have to leave Northampton to buy things. Like tires. You can get tires in Northampton, but we joined Costco to get deals on things like that. So sometimes we have to drag ourselves down I-91.

Costco and I have a good, respectful relationship and they have a good corporate reputation. Nonetheless, the following is how every single trip to Costco plays out in my head.

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Gosh the people who work here are nice. And not even in a pasted-on smile kind of way.

Cool biz, I can transfer our family videos to DVD here! Gotta remember to do that.

Look at all these great deals up front. Fred needs a new jacket—maybe I should call him about this one. And hey, my cell phone even works in here.

Damn, if we ever need a new TV, we’re buying it here.

Look at all these appliances. Maybe I should finally replace the microwave. Eh, I’ll wait a little longer.

I LOVE this place!

Wow, those folding tables are inexpensive. We need a folding table, don’t we?

I wonder if I can lift that package of batteries.

Ooh, the food. Oh, the giant chocolate cake. Oh the gargantuan pies. Samples!

Nom nom nom.

Maybe I should buy lots of this food and stock up until the end of time. Too overwhelming, too overwhelming, too overwhelming. Keep moving.

Those blueberries aren’t local, are they?

How can anyone find room in their house for that much toilet paper?

I could never use that much food.

Why does anyone need these giant packages of food?

WHY DOES ANYONE NEED THIS MUCH FOOD? WHAT IS WRONG WITH THIS COUNTRY?

GIANT MAYONNAISE???

COFFEE, COFFEE, COFFEE!

Can I afford a $30 bottle of calcium even if it is a bargain?

I hate this place.

What? No bags?

Aaaaand scene.

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It’s the Little Things

Our doctors’ office is a conventional place. The daytime waiting room is filled with elderly people, the magazines are slightly out of date, and the eye chart begins with E. There’s a sign on the scale that reads “Please let us know in advance if you don’t want to know your weight”—a nice touch.

But there is a slight difference here. On their standard medical history form, under “gender,” you have the choice of three boxes to check: male, female, and transgender.

It’s one simple word. But it makes a significant statement about the practice and my community and the importance of recognition and dignity.

Plus, they have a receptionist who answers the phone exactly like a 1950s secretary cliché.

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The Writing on the Wall

We get a higher level of graffiti here in the little city.

In the women’s bathroom next to Herrell’s, you can read the following exchange:

“Blankey blank” is a HUGE C-word!

and below

Constantinople is a huge C-word, too.

I so want to be friends with the person who wrote that.

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