November 29, 2006

Cryptic VIII

H: When is the Taliban coming?
L: Huh? Slower, please.
H: When is the Taliban coming? The Tal-i-ban! The ones you bought for our Bar Mitzvah.

L: Ah. The tallit bag has been ordered and will be mailed to us soon.

November 24, 2006

A Reader's Dilemma

Set of 12 Boy Reading Personalized Heritage Bookplates

When Hart was in first grade, his school psychologist told me that he would never read for pleasure. At the time, I was quite indignant. There are picture books, easy readers, adaptations, comic books, TV tie-ins. Anyone CAN read for fun. Her pronouncement seemed like that of the Bad Fairy at Sleeping Beauty's cradle.

Now years later, her prediction seems quaintly optimistic. It appears that Hart will never learn to read at all. It certainly isn't for lack of trying. There have been efforts with well-known curricula for learning disabled kids; Wilson Reading, Explode the Code, LiPS. Tutoring, reward systems, computer games. Periodically, his team gets together to re-evaluate his program. More phonics, sight words, less phonics, high-frequency word drills, creative writing, reading for comprehension, reading for fluency, high-interest texts, pre-reading texts and on and on.

It is a mystery. Children with much greater intellectual impairment than Hart learn to read. In fact, using all the efforts and strategies that educators have used with Hart, pods of dolphins could have been taught to read by now. What is very clear is this: nothing has been written to the hard drive in Hart's brain. There is faulty wiring somewhere.

Conventional wisdom has it that learning to read English is devilishly hard. But it cannot be that difficult because almost everyone from age seven on, with a bit of phonics training, some exposure to the basic conventions, and enough practice and familiarity with frequently-used words, can do it.

What Hart has learned in the past eight or nine years are cunning strategies. He has perfected the whisper, mumble and inhalation on the first syllable. He can "read" really fast in hopes that the mistakes are less noticeable. Even one of the first preschool strategies, looking at the illustrations, does not help. "Tom flies a kitten!" I recently shrieked. "Is that a kitten up there at the end of the string?" I know that trick--the oldest in the book--looking at the first letter and guessing wildly. That's why in Hartworld, “it,” “is,” “if,” and “in” are interchangeable. So are “and,” “a,” “at,” “as” and “are.” “Three,“ “there,” “tree,” take your pick.

There is also something amiss with his short-term memory.“The star of this story is Lucy. Look at this word for a minute. We are going to read about a girl named Lucy.” It didn’t help. Hart called her Lucky or worse, Louky, whenever he saw the word.

Homework is agonizing. Hart cannot be bothered to read the short paragraph before answering the comprehension questions. He guesses, he complains about how hard the work is, or he tries to discern a pattern in the answers. Having answered the first of three multiple choice questions A, the second is sure to be B, the third C.

I have significantly scaled back my expectations, of course. I would have loved Hart to be an avid reader, as I am. I have introduced him to graphic novels, the kind with no text at all. We have discovered the joys of listening to books on CD. (Jim Dale reads the HARRY POTTER series, Tim Curry narrates A SERIES OF UNFORTUNATE EVENTS. Magnificent.) Hart enjoys hearing poetry and I like reading it to him. Still, there is something to be said for the ability to read a menu, a street sign, a headline. That’s why we are still working on it, year after year.

November 22, 2006

According to Jeff . . .

North Carolina's Ocracoke Island was the hideout of Blackboard the pirate.

In addition to piracy, maybe he moon-lighted as a teacher?

November 15, 2006

Hot Rod (art)

Jeff, November 2006


I went to see author Kenneth Oppel who spoke to an auditorium full of 4th and 5th graders today. Those who look at this blog know that Oppel's bat trilogy, SILVERWING, SUNWING and BRIGHTWING are Jeff's favorite books. So even though the boys were in school I dutifully went, introduced myself, told him about the boys and got our books signed and dedicated to Hart and Jeff. (They were thrilled.)

November 14, 2006

Post-Bar Mitzvah

After a Bar Mitzvah come the onerous and inevitable tasks, eating leftovers and writing thank-you notes. In 1971, I did the latter in the traditional way, in my own dear hand, using my best penmanship, without spelling or punctuation errors, and submitted them for parental approval.

Modern times call for modern measures. I have given Hart and Jeff a shortcut. Using their choice of computer-imprintable stationery, they dictate and I type. This way we can promptly thank the gift-givers without tears or bloodshed.

There are a few guidelines. Each gift must be acknowledged with appropriate gratitude and a mention of plans for the gift. Those who came to the event are thanked for their attendance. Those who could not attend are told they were missed. Beyond that, I do not edit or censor.

It may be unorthodox to inquire about the weather or request a play date in a thank-you note, but surely a "friendly letter" is meant to be friendly. I can only hope that Jeff’s great-aunt was tickled to read, "I really like your furry coat, because I love soft things." That's better than a scripted sentiment any day.

November 13, 2006

November 12, 2006

Top Eight

Once every year or two, I come across a remarkable book. Not neccesarily a best seller, not neccesarily a "great book," but a work of fiction so original, so new, so provocative that I savor every word and am disappointed when it ends.

I have read lots and lots of books in my adult life, but only eight titles leapt to mind as notable and memorable enough to make my list. I could be left on a desert island with these titles and still be able to take two Harry Potter books to form my Top Ten list!

RAGTIME, Doctorow. Real historical people interact with Doctorow's characters to create the 'new music' of early 20th century America.

CAT'S CRADLE, Vonnegut. The first of the Vonnegut canon that I loved. As always, Vonnegut is completely original and defies description.

A GOOD SCENT FROM A STRANGE MOUNTAIN, Owen Butler. A tapestry of Vietnamese refugee life in New Orleans, told as a series of evocative short stories.

THE LIFE OF PI, Martel. Which is more interesting, the truth or a good story?

BEE SEASON, Goldberg. How Ellie won her 4th grade spelling bee, alienated her brother, influenced her father and caused her dysfunctional family to fall completely apart.

OUR HOLOCAUST, Gutfreund. The real members of Gutfreund family survived the Holocaust only in the author's imagination in this amazing and heart-breaking novel.

THE LAST SONG AT DUSK, Shanghvi. THE NAMESAKE, Lahiri, INTERPRETER OF MALADIES, Roy. It's my blog and I'm talking all three of these books by India-born authors, now living in England or the U.S. It's been a good few years for new Asian voices. See next.

LONDONSTANI, Malkani. Imperfect, but an impressive first novel. Bend It like Beckham meets A Clockwork Orange. Really.

November 10, 2006

New Rule

I have been abiding by the "no white socks" rule for some time. Many pairs of blue jeans passed through the closets, brand-new and unworn, until I just gave up buying them. The boys will not wear jeans. Period.

Now Jeff has made his new preference clear: white underwear only. It was only a matter of time, I suppose. I have had my fun. I have purchased underwear in all manner of boy-friendly, clever patterns--cars, trains, dinosaurs, airplanes, soccer balls, baseball caps, basketballs, sneakers, snowmen, snowboards, ski equipment (winter), lobsters, palm trees (summer) and bats, ghosts (Halloween). In recent years (and larger sizes), there have been stripes and manlier solid colors; maroon, gray and navy blue. However, Jeff is a teenager now and, apparently, anything but the traditional "tighty whities" are too childish, so I have no choice but to comply.

Right now I have a three-year-old nephew and he thinks the surf board-patterned big boy underpants are just the thing. Note to self and sister-in-law: this too shall pass.

November 8, 2006

Bar Mitzvah Highlights

The whole weekend went by in a blur. A few highlights:

Best Video Moment: Three-month-old Chloe spitting up on my cousin Sharon at Friday's dinner. Hart announces to the camera, "Chloe puked on THAT girl."

Second Best Video Moment: On Sunday Julian says, "I'm tired. We're all tired."

Skating coach quip: "I am really out of my element here." "Because you are not Jewish?" "No, because this isn't a skating rink."

Awwwwwww: Julian immediately rushes the pulpit after the service, grabs both cousins by the hand, and drags them off to the food.

Most popular guest despite puking: Chloe.

Most panicky moment: Custodian meets me upon my arrival Saturday morning to tell me the caterers cannot find the paper goods I dropped off on Thursday.

Second most panicky moment: Hart, who remains immobile through the whole service.

Words to live by: Cantor's remarks about being surprised by human capabilities, in light of human limitations.

Worst bowling moment: Mom, a former recreational bowler, scores less than 80.

Best bowling party review: Sam B. declares the party to be "AWESSSSSOME!"

Leftovers from Saturday: Noodle kugel, cheese, challah, blintzes, baba ganoush, pastries and lots of cream cheese. Sadly, no lox.

Leftovers from Sunday pizza party: Seven empty cardboard pizza boxes, three brownies, one serving of salad.

November 6, 2006

Ezrah (helping)

It is an honor and privilege to read the haftarah on the occasion of your bar mitzvahs. This was the exact same haftarah portion that I read at my own bar mitzvah 34 years ago. Because our birthdays are so close, we have the same reading. As my parents and my sister will confirm, I did a much better job back then than I did today.

Back then, I had tutors, and teachers and Rabbis to help me get ready and prepare. This time, I tried to do it all by myself. As we know, we always do much better when we have helpers.

Looking out in the sanctuary this morning, I am so glad to see that we have with us so many of your helpers with us today: your social workers, teachers, and many of your babysitters for the past ten years. The babysitters are the ones with the grey hairs, even the teenagers. And to each of them, your mom and I are very grateful for their support.

And, in fact, every one of our guests, every one of you, has, in his or her own unique way, been a source of tremendous support and strength to Lydia, me, Hart and Jeff. As we were putting together our guest list, we basically were creating our list of the 100 people who have most helped us over the years. If Crain's were to publish a top-100 list of helpers to us, you would be that list. Hart and Jeff, and Lydia and I could not made it through the past ten years without you. I hope you know how very much we appreciate you all.

Hart and Jeff, I know that you have learned that when we help others, we ourselves become better people. The importance of helping others is something that both of you already understand. I hope you will always do your best to be good helpers. To try to make the world a better place. I know that you both will always will take care of each other. And that you always will be the very best of friends.
And finally but very importantly, that you will always take care of your most important helper in the world, and that's your mom, who spends every single day taking care of you.

When I was a 13-year-old boy, just like you, wearing my first suit, in a synagogue not too far from here, I could not have imagined, in my very best dreams, that someday I would be reciting the haftarah for two boys who are as wonderful as you are. Your mom and I are very proud of you.

I hope someday each of you will have the same good fortune to recite the Torah blessings on the occasions of your own children's bar and bat mitzvahs.

_______ Hart's and Jeff's father's comments, November 4, 2006

November 2, 2006

Halloween 2006 (photos)

Hart, two grasshoppers
Jeff, The Cat in the Hat