Thursday, April 23, 2009

An override

The big issue in town lately is our $6 million budget shortfall. That includes $3 million from the schools, and this ain't New York City. Three million is a very big number here. In 1982 Massachusetts very foolishly voted in Proposition 2 1/2, following the lead of California's Proposition 13. It's the one that says taxes can't go up by more than 2.5 percent every year unless a municipality votes for an override. And an override is hard to get.

Of course I'm for an override, and I would be even if Lily weren't headed to public school here next fall. It will mean an average increase of about $164 per house per year. Qualifying senior citizens who can't pay are given dispensation. As my mother says, we do enough for seniors, it's about time we do something for the kids. And this hits the schools directly, severely, profoundly. The group organizing in favor is Vote Yes Northampton and has more information on its website.

I suppose Northampton isn't unique in that there's some conflict between so-called old Northampton and new. Old calls the town "Hamp." New calls it "NoHo." So I of course make a point of saying "Northampton." I try never to abbreviate it. It is a small town here, even though it's referred to as "the city" -- it's the county seat -- and the population is a healthy 34,000 or so.

I find the new versus old Northampton arguments interesting, and try not to take them personally. Of course I don't think that makes me any less of a citizen of this town, or that the opinions of old-timers matter more. I don't see that all the newcomers are rich and the old-timers poor, either. I see using someone's tenure here as a weapon to use when you disagree with them; there's no way I can change when I moved here.

New York City doesn't really have this issue, of course, since everyone is from some place else. More than 50 percent of the population was born in another country. Read that again. Not just born in another state. Born in another country. The folks I know who grew up there, especially in Brooklyn, are a bit astonished at what's happened to their city, and not entirely happy about it. But they are far outnumbered.

I did run into this issue once in Brooklyn, about the future of the community garden on our block. It hadn't been used much, and like many community gardens in the city, had become the fiefdom of one person. She held the only key and she made pronouncements about what could be grown where. It wasn't being used much. This garden was huge, three lots, and it extended all the way across the block to the next street. Two of the lots were owned by the city, but one was owned by the Fifth Avenue Committee, a fantastic local community development corporation where I later worked parttime for several years. Habitat for Humanity had offered to buy it from FAC for the cost of the taxes. The decision to sell did not have to be put up to the block, but FAC is a great, fair organization, and felt it was only right.

Here's the thing: Many people lived on that block because of FAC's help, yet many of those people were aghast that Habitat wanted to take away the garden that they weren't even using. In the early '80s FAC joined with the city's department of housing and public development to put 16 abandoned houses up for sale for $1. FAC had run the lottery and helped the new owners fix up their properties. Yet here were many of those families against doing the same thing for other needy people.

At one point in one of many loud discussions, the woman with the key said my opinion didn't matter because I hadn't lived on the block long enough. I just said simply, I've been here for three years, when does my opinion matter? She didn't respond. But I never did hear that argument again.

In the end, the block voted to allow FAC to sell the lot to Habitat, which then tried to develop it and found that the ground water was too close to the surface and to shore up the foundation would be phenomonally expensive (a big reason why there were so many empty lots in the city). Nothing was built, and a couple of years later the city sold the garden, along with about 30 others, to the Trust for Public Land. TPL invested about $50,000 in that garden alone, including putting up new fencing, building a retaining wall, and cleaning out a foot of the Habitat lot, which was a lot of construction material and cruddy dirt, and replacing it with good soil. Today that space is a great community garden.

For more about Hamp versus Noho, here's an op ed by my former Wondertime colleague, Rachel Simpson, that ran in the local paper on March 31.

City Override a Civic Responsibility

Daily Hampshire Gazette, March 31, 2009

I was watching the Northampton City Council meeting recently when a Baystate resident spoke about her opposition to a Proposition 2 1/2 override to help close Northampton's budget gap.

She called for an end to isolating "the differences between old Northampton and new Northampton, and to not just expect that those who are hurting financially to keep on hurting."

I'm pretty sure she was saying that "old Northampton" could not afford, and was not interested, in an override. I think she needs to do some more research.

I'm "old Northampton," as I understand the term. I remember downtown when it had a McCallum's store, before Thornes was even a concept. I remember when Woolworth's had a lunch counter, and Newberry's was open, and when students could smoke under the mini gym at the high school (not that I did that). I say I am from Hamp, not Noho. I own a home right across Route 9 from the street where I grew up. I married a townie, and my daughter was born at Cooley Dick (that's what we townies call the hospital).

My husband and I both recently lost our jobs, and frankly, are worried. Still, I wholeheartedly support an override. To do otherwise would be irresponsible and selfish.

And I am so tired of people presuming to speak for me - people who say they don't want to be divisive, and then talk at length about old and new Northampton, painting one group as victims and the other as some sort of annoying interlopers. That is about as divisive as it gets.

Please don't think you know what I want, or what I can or can't afford, when you haven't bothered to ask me.

When did being from Hamp start to mean that you don't want good things for Hamp, or that you shouldn't have to pay for them? It wasn't that way when I was growing up here. (Don't get me wrong - I do understand how annoying it can be when new people come in and tell me how much better it was where they lived before. Sure, some newcomers are arrogant, but some of us Hamp people are pretty arrogant too.)

I was very fortunate to grow up here, and I want others to have the same good fortune People paid taxes so that I would benefit from city services (before Proposition 2 1/2 was even passed), and I am obligated to do the same - whatever it takes. Even if I don't have a job right now. My hometown is facing what amounts to one of the biggest budget crises in its history, with a $6 million-plus shortfall expected. Now is not the time to be setting factions against each other. It's time for the community to act like a community - for disparate groups to come together and work in Northampton's best interests.

Passage of an override, in whatever form it takes, helps all of us. If it closes - or at least narrows - the school budget gap, other city departments may have to take less of a hit. You can't have a functional city where one department's success depends on other departments' failures.

I'd like to see the formation of a coalition dedicated to a united community. If the pro-override Northampton Education Action Team is that coalition, which I hear it may be, I'm joining it. I'm going to do whatever I can to ensure the passage of an override. It would be wrong not to.

Rachel Simpson, a writer and editor, attended the former Vernon Street School, the former Florence Grammar School, and the former Hawley Junior High School, and is a 1981 graduate of Northampton High.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

The anxious parents

And so here we are, at loose ends, both of us thinking about Lily all day, wondering how she's doing, worrying that she's hungry or lonely, and trying to enjoy this odd thing, time with each other without a kid around.

Tonight is Date Night -- we go to dinner at the Blue Heron, a very popular high-class restaurant in Sunderland that lots of people swear by, and we have Happy-Go-Lucky at home. I get the kid at 3 tomorrow and then we're off to Long Island and Brooklyn for the weekend. The fun never stops.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Nature's Classroom

So Lily is away for three whole days and I miss her. It's odd, almost 6pm, and I don't have to be anywhere any time. She's gone to Nature's Classroom, a 5th or 6th grade tradition here in western Massachusetts and Connecticut. She'll be back Friday afternoon.

This is a big deal because ever since we moved she hasn't wanted to do sleepovers, and this is for two nights. In retrospect I think she was turning away from sleepovers even before we moved. But once we landed here she just did not want to be away from home, not one bit. She has had friends sleep over. But she hasn't wanted to sleep at their homes, or do one of the biweekly sleepovers (one night every two weeks) at summer camp.

She started being nervous about this last fall. I got nervous too, and then in the winter, as the time drew closer, I emailed her teachers and talked to some friends. Everyone said it was an incredible experience and she would really love it. So we've been proceeding as though she was going to go. For awhile I was worried we would get to school the morning of, which was this morning, and she'd say no, I'm not going. I was fully prepared to insist that she go.

But between her teachers, who have been great in talking about all the ins and outs of the trip, all the activities, and what happens if the boys play tricks, like mess up the girls' cabin (they have to clean it up, with the girls overseeing it -- "oh, you missed a spot!"). I talked to other parents, some of whom told me their kids were nervous too, which I relayed to Lily.

We packed on the weekend and she had lots of ideas about what to take and not take. Last night I got her McDonald's, which I never do and then we went home and finished packing. She practiced her flute and took a shower and washed her hair (those shower curtains with the map of the world are great for learning geography, fyi), and in the morning she topped off her bag with two stuffed animals. I made the requested pizza quesadilla for breakfast.

Then I drove her to school, and the nicest thing happened: A parent came up to me and said that their daughter knew Lily was nervous and she was going to look out for her. She wasn't planning on bringing a stuffed animal, but because Lily was, she brought one in solidarity. As I was leaving I saw Lily showing her stuffed animals around the class.

Monday, April 06, 2009

Spring is springing!

There's nothing like a long, snowy winter to make me appreciate spring. Our daylilies along the street are poking their heads up, and there's even a few white croci. I raked for a couple of hours last week, and Dave did some more this weekend. Dave brought in some forsythia branches with buds yesterday and stuck them in a vase, which'll brighten the living room when they bloom.

Yesterday morning was quite productive. Dave turned the hose back on and Lily and I scrubbed screens and put most of them into their windows. It's great to be able to open windows again! Following Dave's example of last week, when he had spent an hour vacuuming the Prizm, I did the same yesterday with the Subaru. We keep our cars pretty clean, and the only one who eats in them is Lily, when we pick her up after school and she's ravenous. But every time we got into the car this winter we brought along a sack of sand and crud on our boots. It took awhile but it sure is more pleasant to ride in.

Aside from the usual housecleaning, we have more screens to take out and scrub down. We need to do a thorough spring cleaning of the inside of the house, including windows, and beating carpets and washing blankets and sunning comforters. We are always tweaking various rooms, especially Lily's: She has a new desk and file cabinet in the office off the kitchen (where all three of us sit now) so we're going to freecyle the desk in her bedroom, which she has outgrown. We might put a futon or something in that spot where she can read and friends can sleep over. We also have to look again at her playroom in the basement, which is cold in the winter, and doesn't quite work as is. She's also outgrowing most of her toys, although she's not ready to give up her Playmobile, Pollys, or Barbies (the Playmobile stuff hadn't had much use for a couple of years, but then I inherited a Playmobile hospital, and the stuff has a second life).

Still need to figure out how to hang things on the fireplace, such as my Amish baby quilt. I miss seeing that. I want to put up some family photos in the den. I want to sell the secretary in the family room upstairs; we just don't use it and we need the space. We have big house improvement projects that we need to prioritize and budget for: insulation; a new roof; getting the mold out of my studio (or out of the storage room it sits on); figuring out why the living room fireplace has a backdraft; installing a wood stove into that space.* And smaller ones: finish the two basement windows that were replaced 18 months ago. Paint the upstairs bathroom. Figure out how to get lots more hot water into the Japanese soaking tub.

And that's just the inside. We don't have money for anything outside, but we had a landscaper take a look and he suggested we start an oak barrel garden in the backyard this spring. We don't get a lot of sun, as anyone who's been here knows, despite the chopped-down hemlocks and Dave's tree-thining. We probably have a few more hemlocks to take down in back, but the oaks are so huge--and we're not taking them down; they're gorgeous--we'll never have much sun. But we should have enough for some tomatoes, basil, zukes, cukes, stuff like that. I'd like that.

The important thing is that spring is here, although you wouldn't know it based on the 40+ temperatures today, along with a cold rain. It's full-on mud season, but even that is better than having the front yard two feet deep in snow. Our yard is a wreck because of the piles of hemlock branches that need to be chipped up and the stumps ground out.

Other signs of spring is the smoke from the sugar houses, and the full parking lots on weekend mornings. The bears are also awake. I haven't seen them yet but I hear my neighbor has. I am told that the usual bear we see around here is a tagged female, and as it's spring, and black bears breed every two years, and she had cubs the year we moved in (two years ago in June, can you believe it?), I assume the next time we see her she won't be alone.

On a different note, the Wondertime office is now officially gone. My stuff was all gone in a week, but as of March 31 everyone had to be officially cleared out, and our id's and passes and corporate credit cards returned. Of course the day after I turned in my credit card I got another one in the mail from Disney. But even that is gone, now. I've deposited my final checks and severance and I registered for unemployment last week. I am working on my resume but there aren't many openings around here for someone with my skills. Still, I have to look.

I do miss Wondertime, but it's not an ache. I told my boss that my heart was broken when I was laid off from Life 11 years ago, and it's not that I didn't fall in love with Wondertime, but I think I always kept part of my heart in reserve. Once your heart is broken like that, it's hard to trust again. And a magazine--print media in general--is not a good place to lose your heart to any more. It's something to say that I am living during the end of nearly 600 years of the printed word.

What I miss in particular is the work. I did some volunteer freelance editing for a friend here recently, and was reminded again how much I truly love editing. This was a very well-written short book, but I was able to make what I thought were some good suggestions about word choice, along with standard copy editing. I am doing my own writing now, beyond the blog, and have an essay that I hope to submit for publication soon. If it's accepted I'll take about it more in this space.

* When we were househunting, I was the one who wanted a fireplace, despite my friend Nick's warnings that fireplaces suck 75 percent of the fire's heat out the chimney. I have learned from experience that it also sucks most of the heat out of the entire room. After two winters of that, along with a couple of power outages that meant no heat (pellet stoves need electricity to generate the auger and the fan that blows the heat from the burning pellets), I am ready to embrace wood heat. The new stoves are much more efficient than stoves even from a decade ago, and they must meet stringent emission standards and ". . . produce about 90 percent less particulate matter - smoke - than older stoves. After a fire is ignited, you should see no visible smoke from the chimney, so neighbors won't complain and the foul smell, and thick smoke won't blanket your yard either." Plus they all have glass windows now, so you can watch the fire inside.

So I hope next fall we are using a wood stove for heat as well as beauty.

On swearing

So as anyone who's ever talked to me for five minutes knows, I swear. A lot. I swear a lot, in everyday, casual conversation. Probably an f-bomb in every couple of sentences.

That is, I used to swear a lot. For the last three months I've been making a concerted effort not to swear. It was kind of an experiment, a spiritual experiment, and I am here to say I think it's working. I've pretty much stopped swearing in casual conversation, no f-bombs, no s- words, not even the little ones, the h- and d- words. I can't say I never swear, but I am so much more conscious of it when I do, and I try very hard not to cuss at all.

I come by my terrible mouth honestly. When I was a kid in the '60s my family allowed us to swear. One incident stands out as an example of this. I was eight, riding in the front seat of the car with my mother, and my sisters were in the back. They had just picked me up at my piano lesson. Innocently, I asked my mother what sexual intercourse was. All of a sudden I heard Bondi in the back say, "Fuck. Fuck. Fuck!" "Will you stop swearing," I said impatiently. And then listened while my mother explained what sexual intercourse was. Oh! Fuck! So that's why Bondi was swearing! And, ewww! I knew what "fuck" was, and I had no desire to hear my mother explain it in the car, with the added embarrassment of having subjected my older sisters to this horror, as well.

But what stands out for me today is that my sister, who must have been nearly 14, could happily say the f-word in front of my mother and no one thought it odd. My mother blames it on my father. English was his third language, and the words simply didn't have as much power for him. Besides, the '60s were an adventurous time and they were both trying hard to throw off the shackles of their old-fashioned upbringings. What's so bad about those words, anyway?

Well, really, what is? Except that I grew up using them whenever I wanted, and I wanted a lot. As a teenager I knew enough, most of the time, not to swear in front of adults, but in my twenties I had to learn that using those words on the phone to a customer service person when I was irate, wasn't nice, even if I wasn't using the words to describe her, specifically.

As I got older I kind of wore my swearing as a badge, as in, "It's what I do, it's who I am." It became automatic and I just stopped hearing it. Every now and then I would catch myself and think, huh! I just said the s-word in front of my in-laws! But they never said anything. My niece and nephew would discuss it after I visited them. "Yup, Aunt Sasha swears a lot," my sister Cate would tell them, and maybe she still does. I used to pay a quarter per swear to Lily when I was caught, and my niece would catch me too, at times. But having other people police me didn't work; I would brush them off and ignore my fine. Eventually we all kind of forgot about it. It was just too common.

Then, for various reasons, my meditation sits last winter got longer and longer. For several months I meditated for a half an hour every day. Part of it was the calming atmosphere of living in the country, as I had hoped. My friend Dee commented on how nice it was that I wasn't swearing when we met for dinner last winter in Manhattan. I was very proud.

But for more various reasons my meditation periods lessened, and probably not coincidentally, my swearing picked up. Then a couple of months ago, right after the New Year, I was speaking with a friend about some of my habits that I want to let go of. She suggested that every day I ask for help from the universe not to swear. So I tried that.

At first it didn't work so well. I would get confused about what a swear was: just the f- and s- words? What about "ass"? Or "Jesus Christ", which I use a lot. But then one day I heard a story on the radio about a teenager in California who started a website called He was asking people not to swear at all, not even the h- and d- words. I realized that what I was missing was a definition of swearing. I have learned that if I want to ask for something from the universe, it's more helpful if I'm specific. So now I ask for help "not to swear, not even the little ones." That about covers it for me.

Today it's still new enough that I still laugh to myself when I say something like "nerts!" I'm a little embarrassed about it, and still talk to my friends about it. A friend who's also trying not to swear says two things I'm going to borrow, "holy cats?" when she's amazed (she says it with that questioning inflection at the end, and her high school students crack up every time), and "Oh, Betty!" when she messes up, rather than some variation of, "you stupid jerk!" I think I'm going to say, "Oh, Gloria!"

I note with pride my successes. A couple of months ago boiling oil splattered on my wrist and forearm, and I did not swear. Not one word. Dave caught it, and he was impressed. And there are setbacks. Last week, alas, I tripped over a box of socket wrenches in the basement and fell hard all the way to the floor, smashing into a bench on my way down. I don't know what I said exactly, but I'm pretty sure it wasn't "Nerts!" I have a purple bruise on my left thigh that's bigger than two of my hands -- counting fingers! -- side by side, and looks like the map of Africa. But the success here was that I didn't swear over and over and over for a few minutes.

Who knows, maybe this is temporary too, and I'll start up again some time. I sure hope not. Today, word by word, I am relearning this lifelong habit. It's extraordinary what you can accomplish with a little help.

Next up: Stop biting my fingernails!