New Beginnings Like Crazy

On 1/21, an important person sat down at an important desk for the first time: my new intern, Caitlin "I've always wanted to be a minion" Ayers. Welcome, Caitlin! Can you schedule me a neck massage? I've got whiplash from this sports-car of a new president. He went from zero to OH MY GOD, DOUBLING THE EDUCATION BUDGET? In just seven days!


Scenes far from D.C.

It was impossible to watch the inauguration aftermath alone. I called my mother-in-law Barbara for a gush-and-elate session. It just made me miss Dave. After watching so many Daily Shows, sharing so many tears, buying our first O'Bama t-shirts and then becoming progressivly involved, impressed, and excited, how could we not share this moment? On impulse I drove down to his school with the burning desire to give him a hug.

I spotted him on the playground as I drove up. It was business as usual for a Tuesday; he was surrounded by kindergartners. He was as far away from the front office as a teacher could be, and with this world-bursting hug building up inside of me, I didn't want to make the trek. I pulled on my parking brake and clambered up the hill to the patched chain link fence. "It's Mrs. Caven," he said in disbelief, and his Simon Says game went to pieces. Twenty little heads turned in my direction; forty little feet drifted away from his sphere of control. Little warm bodies flowed across a small expanse of asphalt towards me, then lined up at the fence, like jetsam caught at a log in a river. Little faces pressed up against the fence, staring into mine, twenty shades of brown and tan. "When I get home from school," says one with bead-bangled braids, "my mama says there's going to be a new president." Dozens and dozens of wide and eyes, innocent of the day's significance behind long, babylike lashes, and open, trusting smiles. "Surprise," I smile, "he's here already." They are not as sliced open with emotion as all the adults I have seen or talked to today. They are just happy to have someone new to look at. Pretty. Shiny. New. But Dave does not seem to mind the awkward distraction.

You can't hug through a chain link fence. Dave and I had to stretch our lips through the metal to touch. Half a dozen little voices went "Eeew."

"Simon Says, back to your spots," Dave calls, a good teacher who understands the tenderness of his tinies. One lingers behind, one with the DNA of Mayan mathematicians showing in the bones of his face. He links his small, warm fingers with mine through the fence, mouth open, gawping happily. "Maybe you'll be president someday," I say, thinking how he will never know a world where color lines are drawn just below the top. His face pulls to one side as he considers what I just said. He clearly thinks I'm insane. "I can't be president! I'm just a little kid," he says. As if the thought of being a grownup had not yet occurred to him.

As I turn away, Dave (Mr. Caven) opens a parachute as colorful as the children around him. What a great metaphor. For what schools should do for kids; for what society should do for its sick, poor, frail and unfortunate; for what we all should do for each other. I wish the world a safe landing from the past eight — and eight hundred years.

(Also read: Ding, Dong, the Witch is Dead)


Ding, Dong, the Witch is Dead

At 9:01 PST, I was sitting in a crowded auditorium full of enthusiastic urban middle-schoolers. The teachers and students had managed to project live feed of the day's events onto a large screen, but all the traffic had crashed the school district's servers, so everyone had to squint to focus on the two old-fashioned (rabbit-ears) televisions that flanked the stage. A giant boom-box broadcasted the NPR feed into the room, but there was a seven-second delay so the sound never matched the pictures. The stage was piled with red, white, and blue balloons, and streamers decorated the giant screen, which showed a slideshow of the Obamas some teacher had thoughtfully created as "plan B."

A voice on the radio, interrupting the lovely musical tribute, mentioned that President Bush's term was officially over, even though inauguration proceedings were behind schedule. The adults near the TV burst into cheers, which soon took over the whole room. Moments before, Joe Biden had been sworn in, and I had naughtily cupped my hands and shouted "No More Cheney!" Moments later, Obama takes the oath of office, and the custodian is out of her chair, dancing like we all feel like dancing. When he says, "pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off..." I am thinking about Fred Astaire and Ginger Rodgers. Before the day is over I will have started a booster club to manage all the volunteers that will soon pour into this school (hopefully).

The principal (scary lady) gets up to tell the students what a significant day this is, and invites them to write a note to send to the president. She tells them about their special history-class assignment to write down all their impressions of the day, which will be collected, copied, laminated, and sent home for them to stick under their mattresses for the rest of their lives. When she announces that second period has been cancelled, the crowd really goes wild. That's even better news, for them, than a new clear-headed, idealistic, and--did anyone notice?--African American president. When she tells them they still have to go to third period, the boos and hand gestures of the mini-mob scene are even louder.

We've come a long way, America... but we've still got a long way to go.


“Change” your plans for Tuesday!

from my friend Rhonda....

My DVR has been working overtime to record the pre-inauguration celebrations and all the pomp and parties. Please come mark this historic occasion as we open our house to you, the survivors of the 2008 election! Enough with the partisan ugliness… let’s party!

Tuesday January 20th 10:00 -2:30 and again starting at 5:30-8:00

Please come any time your schedule permits.

From 11:00 am to 2:00 p.m. Early birds will enjoy the “Tree Huggers Special” — Fair trade coffee, a wide assortment of tea and steel cut oatmeal with fruit & nuts or gluten free granola with Kiefer shots. Cheers!

For lunch we will be taking a nod from the Sidwell Friends School, (Malia and Sasha Obama’s new DC school.) The “Media Frenzy Sidwell Friends Lunch” will include; Tomato basil soup with “paparazzi” sweet potato fries and vegetables, sparkling cider in champagne flutes with dark chocolate for desert.

Starting at 5:30 until 8:00 there will be a dazzling array of “elite” foods. I will put out such a spread of hors d'oeuveres! (including an exotic cheese plate, wild mushroom and black truffle flat bread, heirloom tomatoes in an elite arugula salad.) For dessert, enjoy the “Post Racial Chocolate Fountain.” That’s right, we will enrobe as many edibles in chocolate as possible! Sparkling cider and champagne will be flowing freely! (Guests driving or making lending and or investment decisions will have their champagne regulated.)

Please bring your true blue American spirit for fun, and a citizen of color (if you can find one in Thousand Oaks). This will be a cruelty free event. No caviar, no oil executives. Corporate donors not welcome. Mensa members eat free!


I'm Tired of Tires.

I've been going to Wheelworks for years, mostly for the free rotations, comfy couches and tv. I purchased some Kumon tires last spring because my old ones were worn down to the nubs (way too soon, I thought), and LOUD. I made sure to purchase a set with a good warranty this time, 50,000 miles, on sale, $312. But they were loud, too. I finally called yesterday and whined, "I haate my tiires!" The first guy I spoke to (Robbie) was friendly and told me to come on down so they could take care of me. It would only take half an hour. He seemed to agree that I should be able to trade in the tires for 90% of their value.

When I got there, Robbie seemed to have forgotten our conversation. He was eager to sell me a set of Yokohamas, but offered me only $35 on the pair I was trading in. I was confused, and repeated our conversation. He said since I hadn't purchased a road hazard warranty on the Kumons they couldn't do anything. But I hadn’t been offered one; I thought it came standard. He turned me over to his manager, Joseph, who offered an upgrade for the cost of the difference, which I thought was very fair. I went on and on about how loud the tires were. I told him I wouldn't know if something was wrong with my engine, they were so loud. From the 3 choices he suggested, I chose what I thought was the most affordable upgrade ($87). But when he rang me up I realized he had rung me up for the most expensive ($117). Basically doubled my tire investment. I protested, but he convinced me it was really a good investment on a superior Bridgestone tire. Besides, I had to get back to work and there were people in line behind me, coughing. I signed, ignoring the sinking feeling in my gut (and bank account). "So I can test them out and see if they work, right?" Joe nodded.

But they didn't. These tires were just as loud! I called Joseph when I got home and he groaned, saying I couldn't return them now I had driven them. My husband called, angry (at me AND at them), but the best Joe would do was offer a “free” inspection the next morning.

I tossed and turned all night, wondering:
  • why didn't anyone stop and ask WHY a brand-new pair of tires would be so noisy I couldn't hold a conversation?
  • why was everyone so eager to sell me tires rather than solve my problem? (Duh, says my husband, bitterly. That's what they do.)
  • do I have a leg to stand on? Do I have any rights here? I told them I didn't like my tires. They traded them in and sold me a new pair. In their eyes, they did the right thing. So why does this feel so wrong?

I gave Wheelworks a one-star review before I went in today, noticing all the other one-star reviews. When I got there, I asked Calvin, the general manager, to take a ride with me. “Just so I can figure out if I’m crazy or not.” He put everything aside to climb in. “You know,” he said, “70% of people who drive this car model buy Kumons, the ones I traded in.” Within two blocks he identified the problem: “It’s your wheel bearings! Heck, I wouldn’t drive this on the freeway!” When we got back, he had his top tech test the car on the freeway and put it up on the rack. Calvin took off the wheel to show me the problem. The axle was loose within the wheel bearings. “Take it back to your mechanic who did the axle—don’t tell them first--and see what they say,” he said, which made me feel like he really was on my side.

Then I mustered up the courage to tell him what I wanted. “I want my old tires back.” He shook his head. I asked him to put himself in my shoes. “If 70% of owners like me are satisfied with their tires, wouldn’t it have made sense for YOUR mechanics to ask why a practically new tire was causing SUCH trouble?” Yes, he said, but I did ask for new tires when I came in. We went back and forth about what the warranty actually says (please read the fine print, everyone). But he argued his side: once tires are put on a car, it’s illegal to put them on another, so he would be out $600. I thought this was ridiculous. I had put 20 miles on the tires. I offered to pay for the discount he could offer the next customer, but he said no, they had to throw them out. How stupid, corporate, and American - the old America we're trying to change...at least, Joe assured me, they recycle the rubber. Calvin explained Wheelworks’ liability. We quibbled over warranty. It just came down to him eating $300 (My guess at the wholesale price) or me eating $300. He still argued his position. “If corporate finds out I’ve let you return your tires, I might not have a job tomorrow.” We decided he should call corporate and explain the situation to them.

While he was on the phone I wandered around the tidy waiting room and read the signs. “Our mission is to be the most successful retail tire company in the world doing everything with such a high level of integrity that we break the stereotype of the automotive industry.” Would corporate actually respond with integrity? The “Our Vision” statement was cornier and sounded like a concept for the commercial. “Teams of people, having fun, working in a choreographed manner, dessed colorfully, backed by upbeat music..." Robbie came through pushing a big tire and we agreed it was a learning experience for both sides. I stressed the need for clear communication in the process. I don’t think he heard a word I said, but he’s a mechanic, not an English major. His company’s vision of him is dancing as he fixes cars.

When Calvin came out, he said, “Good news. You’re stuck with the Bridgestones. Are you going to have us fix the bearings?” “Depends if I’m stuck with the Bridgestones or not,” I said, sidestepping his game of brinksmanship. He laughed and said, “Just kidding. We’ll give you your Kumons back. We’ll eat this one.” I thanked him. And promised him a good review on Yelp.

When I swiped my credit card to put the $300 back on it, I made sure to ask for the Road Hazard warranty (which I just noticed cost $30 more than it had for the tires I’d purchased the day before.) I noticed what the swipe pad said: “We are committed to your positive customer experience. Every time.” Especially if you’re a really squeaky wheel I guess.


If I were on a desert island...

...I'd want to be stuck with Madame DeStael.

Madame de Stael Madame de Stael by Maria Fairweather

My review

rating: 5 of 5 stars
I'm rating this book (that Leah loaned me last year -- thank you!) so highly because of the subject matter: a politically influential genius of France's troubled revolutionary times, thought by all to be one of the time's most brilliant minds, but maligned by history as inconsequential. Every so often I encounter such historical women of genius and it angers me that I've never heard of them. Wikipedia quotes a 1911 encyclopedia that dismisses her ideas as unoriginal, but in reading her biography I understand this perception: when women are barred from politics, they must find other ways to influence history. This one was constantly surrounded by intellectuals and men of power; who is to say their ideas were not shaped by her? This woman was equal to Napoleon and his greatest social enemy. (A scene between them: she had prepared many arguments to counter his famous misogyny at a meeting—he short-circuits her by staring at her decolletage and asking if she'd nursed all her children.)

Girlfriends, I encourage you to find inspiration in Madame de Stael! I feel I have found a friend who shares my values and passions, and am eager to dig up her works and get to know her mind first hand.

View all my reviews.


Love and Peas in 2009

This recipe is from my pal Rhonda, who is a second generation southern belle. I didn't make it this year, but writing it down makes my mouth water!

  • Put one hamhock (left over from Christmas) in a pot with black-eyed peas (soaked overnight - or out of the can). Add a little vinegar, salt & pepper. Let stew a few hours.
  • Wash and chop a bunch of kale, a bunch of mustard greens, a bunch of collard greens. Make some cornbread.
  • Put the greens in a bowl. Put the stewed peas over it. Pour molasses over the whole mess. The more you eat on New Year's Day, the more prosperous you will be all year long! "Sop up the pot liquor" with the cornbread.