I finished the A to Z challenge and they gave me a badge

I finished the A to Z challenge and they gave me a badge

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Zebras in Zoos


In Curious George Learns the Alphabet, “Z is a Zebra Zipping along with Zest.”  The best part is H.A. Rey’s illustration of the letter Z in the form of a prancing, smiling zebra (zipping with zest).  Letters coming to life in the form of the word they represent are a hallmark of the entire book.

Anyone who reads alphabet books to their children knows that Z is for zoo and for zebra, just as X is for xylophone and x-ray.  American middle class children learn about zebras long before they ever see one, unless they live in a place with a first-rate zoo.  Going to the zoo is a childhood rite of passage, either on a school trip or with one’s family, but not all zoos have zebras.  And the idea of the zoo has come under scrutiny since I was a child, as the ethics of retaining animals in captivity are debated.

Still, in the world of children’s books, Z is for zebra and also for zoo.  Something about the illustrations of H.A. Rey draws the reader in, hypnotized by the happy animals and their jaunty human tenders.  I still remember the feeling of mystery reading, or having read to me, the fold-over books by H.A. Rey.  In Feed the Animals, we are presented with pictures of cramped cages or lots, with cement floors and a smattering of hay, unlike the better zoos of today where animals have larger habitats that are intended to come closer to the wilds of their origins.  The empty cage or yard transforms when the reader opens the half page for a new picture, of the animal happily eating its dinner—steak for the caged lion, fish tossed to the smiling seals, chewy greens for the hippo.

I have written a lot this month about the enchanted quality of childhood memories, whether of places, books, or experiences that retain a sense of mystery or magic in my imagination.  I wonder what I have passed on to my own children, who are now teenagers, but whose childhood memories include H.A. Rey books, back yard birthday parties, swimming in lakes and capsizing canoes whose aluminum sides reflect yellow on our faces, and other hallmarks of my own childhood.  Are all our childhoods imbued with magic and mystery, those of us lucky enough to live in relatively peaceful and properous times and places?  How do these childhood memories shape us, our thinking lives and our dreaming lives, our active lives when we bump up against something new and unaccounted for?  Do we have established imaginative frameworks to build on with new information, or at some point are the frameworks torn down and rebuilt in new forms?

What do my children think of when they think of Z?  What will they think of when they are as old as me?


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The back yard at my first house was immense, with a small woods in the back.  A path through the woods led to a small stone wall I could just swing my four-year-old legs over.  The woods were dark and not at all scary, full of happy mystery.  Our yard went on and on and on and in the summers we had a pool.  Tall oak trees shaded some of the yard, but left some of it sunny.  I can feel the slippery, long bladed grass on my bare feet.

We moved when I was four and the new back yard had different charms.  A cherry tree and two wide crabapples in the back corners, hugging our garage and the neighbor’s garage.  There was a built-in sandbox with tiny shells in the sand, smaller than my pinky nail.  My father filled in the sandbox soon after we moved in and the yard became a place to run, set up blanket tents, have doll picnics.  Daffodils and tulips dotted the edges in spring, and a rough cement bench of a regal design gave the cherry tree a sense of grandeur.  Honeysuckle thrived around the stone patio; we sucked the sweet drops out and it was never quite enough. Two pine trees, thick with sap, flanked the second floor balcony and sometimes we climbed up like the cats, getting our hands sticky.  I wrote and illustrated a book about spring, imagining the flowers and trees of this back yard.


Childhood wonder gets attached to the places where wonder occurs.  These back yards were not very big, really; I was just small.  They were contained by shrubs and garages and fences shielding us from our neighbors’gaze, and keeping us from gazing at them.  My imagination ran freely in these yards, yet it was also contained by the polite boundaries of suburbia. But my consciousness was wider than the limits of suburban mores.  The memory of these yards is rich in my dreamscape.

My children had wonderful birthday parties in their first back yard, with pools that got bigger as they got older.  I planted daffodils, tulips, and irises along the back edge, thinking of my second back yard.  A vast apple tree showered white petals in spring and tough apples in the fall.  The apples rotted and stank sweet, drawing yellowjackets if we didn’t pick them up and throw them into the untidy bushes at the back.  I have pictures of my girls at every age in that yard, up until Lena was 9, and when we moved, they reminisced about its thick grass.  Our new back yard was bigger, but shaded by dozens of pines, the sparse grass full of bouquets of orange needles.  We had a few parties in it, egg hunts for Eliza’s April birthday, but none of the parties matched the magic of their first back yard.

I used to invent bed time stories for them about flying girls soaring over our first back yard, rescuing birds that had flown too high into the clouds.  I imagined the story girls with wings like the angel wings in our costume box, hovering just above the white blossoms of our apple tree.  I don’t think I specified that the girls were flying over our own yard, but that’s how I pictured it as the story unspooled.  I hope my stories imbued their beloved yard with more of the childhood magic we all attach to the places that belong to us, in our eternal imaginations.


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X – Banned Words

Words and Phrases I am Prohibited from Using

Cray cray
Lolz                                                                                                                                                                                                          Obvy                                                                                                                                                                                                        Hella                                                                                                                                                                                                          Yolo                                                                                                                                                                                                         Swag                                                                                                                                                                                                      Rachet                                                                                                                                                                                                   Chillax                                                                                                                                                                                                      OMG                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                  Crunk
Cool beans

If I mess up and use any of these, one or both of my daughters shakes her finger and says, “That’s on the list.”  That is also how they indicate when I have used a new term that is prohibited.  The list keeps growing.

They also object when I use slang from my own generation, even when I use it ironically.  My family never got on the groovey train, but we used it as a joke all the time, but now that’s banned too.

Don’t tell my kids, but I sometimes use these words with my college students.  They indulge me and are usually amused.

One tries to maintain one’s dignity as one ages.


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When I Becomes We

Marriage, of course.  That’s a big change.  I have felt quite solitary for most of my life, and getting married at 36 certainly changed that.  On the other hand, my habits were quite established by then, and I married another solitary soul.  So we each accommodate each other’s need for solitude quite easily.

But then we had kids.  Babies are constant in their presence, taking for granted that one is there to serve them.  And that feels right; here I am, dear, with my breast or my shoulder or some food or some entertainment.  And my mind can float above it all, maintaining its solitary perspective on my suddenly crowded life.

Sometime in the last two years my younger daughter stopped having me help her go to bed.  She had taken a long time to detach herself from me, only stopping coming to sleep with me when her own light sleep made her unable to block out my snoring.  Even after that, she took a lot of my time at bedtime.  Now I don’t always even know when she goes to bed, if she doesn’t happen to catch me and say Good night.

My husband and I have produced two very different children.  Our oldest likes to be alone; our youngest is quite social and has plans with friends many days a week.  She is the outlier; she is the one who initiates family time, cooking with her dad, card games.  She may feel forced into a solitary mode that the other three of us find so natural.

We make the effort; we spend time as a family.  Recently Scott got a new truck and we all went for a ride, then stopped at a railroad bridge over a creek and walked the stiles, peering down at the turgid water below.  Eliza wanted to keep walking, extend the adventure, but Lena, Scott and I had had our fill pretty quickly.  Back home, we all retreated into our bubbles—laptop, TV, desktop.  Eliza made cookies, bouncing in and out of our bubbles, asking for help to get things from high shelves or find ingredients.  I am happy to have someone to draw me out.

I is a strong pull, but We is stronger.  As we prepare to let Lena go off to college and adulthood, I am glad to have our more social child still at home to keep us connected and connecting.


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Violence 101


Our favorite game was Junior Executive, a gentler version of Monopoly in which we could buy and sell products and build up our businesses, then get cut down by the arbitrariness of seasons and factory fires.  Landing on the factory fire spot seemed to happen a lot, but we had usually been prudent and bought fire insurance, so it didn’t matter much.  My brother Kerro almost always won, being two years older and absurdly good at everything, especially math, but I couldn’t get enough of this game.

It’s hard to believe this now, but my brother and I went through a few years of hitting each other every day, several times a day.  We were the youngest of four and got lumped together a lot.  I can’t remember at all what we fought about, but we fought all the time.  He never beat me up, and the hitting was usually an even exchange—hit—Stop it!—hit back—name call.  I don’t know who would start it; my guess is we were both prone to the first hit.  We are such good friends now and so far away from all that, it is a hard stage to remember as more than a blur of angry bursts.  I remember feeling relief when I noticed it had stopped.  Things were back to normal.

One day we were in the basement playing Junior Executive, and I complained loudly about something, probably because he had made some easy money.  Kerro hit me in the mouth, a surprising development.  I had braces and I pressed my clenched teeth into his fist and whipped my head sideways, tearing his knuckles bloody.  A very satisfying revenge.  I’m pretty sure we just kept playing our game.


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We kept the TV in the basement, a big black and white with only three channels.  There was a dusty old couch and an ugly length of carpet with unfinished edges covering half the room.  It was a good place to get away.

Because I was so young, I experienced a lot of wonder in that basement.  The place isn’t the point—it was a utilitarian, semi-furnished basement, with cheap boarding covering the wall pipes, and slick 50’s tiles on the floor.  But I watched the Beatles on Ed Sullivan there, dancing among some colorful saris we’d hung from the pipes.  I drew masterpieces on the large chalkboard there.  I created performances with my siblings, but then panicked before the invited audience of two—Mom and Dad.  When we got a new washing machine, the best game ever was getting inside the box it came in and being rolled around the room.  We had a spook house there, sending the neighborhood kids behind the wooden boards to walk through hanging strings in the dark, then putting their hands into a bowl of cold spaghetti.  Grapes became eyeballs to the touch, and a sheet became a shrouded ghost.

There were two even less finished areas down there, with gray cement floors.  The laundry room with old zinc tubs on a diagonal, and a back storage area next to the paint-flaking furnace.  Behind the furnace was an even more mysterious area, tucked under the stairs.  You’d slip sideways around the dark corner and into that slanted almost-room, feel in the dark for the string and turn on the bulb.  For so long I was too short to reach the string and see what was on those shelves—rocks for an abandoned geology project, typed labels scattered around.  Even when I got tall enough and could go back there easily, the little space retained an air of mystery.  The rarely used spaces in the house seemed to have stories to tell.

I didn’t know that the stories were being created all around me, as I passed through these spaces during hide and seek, hid special boxes of candy where no one would find them, or just went to see what the glittery rocks could tell me.  I always expected more, and I still think more is there.  These spaces haunt my dreams.

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