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Signs Of Life

Columns by Pamela Majteles

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Summer School

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Originally published on July 8, 2011

Reprinted with permission from Bay Area News Group — East Bay

While my kids are giving their brains a break this summer, my head is working overtime.

I’m trying to learn the latest schedules for my kids’ summer camps and activities, which change weekly, along with the logistics of driving everyone around. It requires a lot of last minute cramming.

“Morning drop-offs at 8:30, 9 and 11 and afternoon pick ups at 12, 12:30 and 2,” I recite to myself. “Swim lesson at 4, swim lesson at 4, swim lesson at 4,” I say over and over, trying to commit it to memory.

My brain gets lazy during the school year, when the routine stays pretty much the same.  For nine months, I manage the schedule and logistics by rote.  I slide by, without much thinking at all.

But during the summer, I really have to apply myself, in order to learn everything I need to know.  My kids offer tips.

“Note cards,” advises my high school daughter.  “You learn the information while writing it down, and then you can use the note cards to study.”

I give the note cards a try, writing where I have to be at what time each day.  It is useful because the schedule becomes clearer to me.  However, I still manage to miss a pick up time and leave my daughter waiting.

“I think I need to test you on the note cards,” admonishes my daughter when I arrive late.

At home, with note cards in hand, my daughter quizzes, “Where’s your first drop off tomorrow?”

I know I have to be in Alameda, Piedmont and Rockridge, but I’m a little fuzzy on the order.  Sensing my hesitation, my daughter answers, “First you go to Rockridge, next to Alameda and then back to Piedmont.”

Overhearing us, my youngest daughter pipes in, “Why don’t you use a mnemonic? It always helps me.”

In this case, it would be RAP (Rockridge, Alameda, Piedmont), which is easy to remember.  But I know there’s one day when I have to go to Berkeley first to pick up a friend’s daughter.  Not sure if BRAP would spring to mind.

My son enters the room dressed in his swim trunks and flip-flops. “Don’t I have a swim lesson now?” he asks.

My older daughter looks at the note cards and says reproachfully, “You don’t have anything written here about swim lessons.”

Oh boy, I forgot the swim lessons.  I grab my car keys and son, and we race to the door.

As I’m leaving, my youngest daughter yells out, “Do what I do.  When nothing else works, just write it on your hand.”

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Bad Neighbor

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Originally published June 24, 2011

Reprinted with permission from Bay Area News Group — East Bay

I’m loud, messy and not composting properly, which makes me a bad neighbor.

Instead of putting used coffee grounds in the compost bin, I carry them to the front of my house and spoon them onto my lawn where a mole has taken up residence.  I’m following advice from gardeners who believe the bitter taste of coffee grounds repels moles.

I haven’t found it to be true.

Watching the molehills multiply, I could even conclude the opposite:  a mole loves a good cup of coffee. When I get a look at my lawn each morning, I have no doubt it keeps the mole in my yard up all night.

When the mole first moved in, I really hoped we could be good neighbors, maybe even friends.  I wasn’t bothered by the mole pushing around dirt in the flowerbeds or kicking up dirt at the edges of the lawn.  (I was open-minded to his taste in landscaping.)

But he has gone too far.  He is tunneling constantly, digging up huge chunks of grass and leaving behind gigantic piles of dirt.  Not very neighborly of him, I’d say.

So I’m doing everything I can to persuade him to move. While the coffee is brewing (for the coffee grounds), I’m also slicing up garlic.  I sprinkle garlic in the mole holes on more advice from gardeners who claim it will send moles packing.

Some days, I take it a step further and add castor oil to the mix, which is another recommendation I’ve heard for repelling moles.  It reminds me of stories from the old days when the foul taste of castor oil was used as a punishment for naughty children.  It’s worth a try on my naughty mole.

I have to conclude this mole isn’t very sensitive to taste, because none of these efforts have any effect.

It makes me wonder if he’s sensitive to noise, as moles are reported to be.  To find out, I’ve recently planted mole sticks, which are in-ground spikes that create constant sonic vibrations, sort of like a round-the–clock dance party.  Apparently, moles are not party animals and, according to gardeners, will hit the ground running.

Seeing two new piles of dirt on my lawn today, I know the mole is still in residence.  I can’t seem to bother him, but when I think of all I’ve done, it bothers me.  I’ve always considered myself a live-and-let-live sort of person, and I like to think of myself as a good neighbor.

It’s time to stop.  No more dumping kitchen garbage on the front lawn or cranking up the sounds.  Sooner or later, the mole will move out, once he has consumed all the grubs.  At least that’s what I’ve heard gardeners say.


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Star Words

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Originally published on June 10, 2011

Reprinted with permission from Bay Area News Group — East Bay

It’s hard to put into words everything I learned in kindergarten.

But as my son finishes kindergarten, I can say that we’ve both mastered the star words taught this year.  Star words are high frequency words, such as “the”, “at”, “on”, that are prevalent in reading and writing.  Educators believe by focusing on these words, children get a jump-start when first learning to read and write.

To try and make it fun, I came up with a game of constructing sentences using only star words. My son and I would scatter cards with the star words onto a table and try making sentences out of them.  It was plenty challenging because, with words like “in”, “to”, “is” “am”, “do”, “yes” and “no”, something always seemed to be missing.

What was missing was a person, place or thing. Trying to put together a sentence without one of those is like trying to play dodge ball without a ball (or without other kids).  Luckily, as the year progressed, we started accumulating personal pronouns, so we were rolling with “I like you” and “He can do it”.

But still, something was missing.  I concluded it was interest or excitement, because these were some pretty boring sentences.  The game picked up when we got verbs with a little more action, and we were able to make “Come with me” and “Look at this” and “Go and see”.

The game really hit a peak when “play” and “love” showed up.  Those two words can spice up anything.  My son’s all-time favorite sentence using star words has got to be “I love to play.”

What I’ve learned from the game is how to be succinct. I sometimes find myself talking in star words even when I’m not playing. I’ve been amazed to discover how much I can convey with so little.  When my daughter is preparing to go out, wearing the shortest shorts I’ve ever seen, I’ve got it covered with “No can do.”

Those times I start speaking in star words can be confusing to others, because I’m known for my tendency to run on. When my husband asks me to read and comment on something he has written for a business project, I say, “I like it.”  By the way he stands waiting, I can tell he’s expecting more.

Having accomplished so much this year, my son and I can hardly wait for what comes next.  If our early reader books at home are any indication, we soon could be moving on to colors and animals.

It’s exciting to think about what we could do with a “dog” and a “cat”.  To be honest, I’d even be thrilled with a “rat”.

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Originally published March 18, 2011

Reprinted with permission from Bay Area News Group — East Bay

If you listened to what they say about girls, you’d never want one.

At almost any gathering of mothers who have daughters, I can count on the term “alpha girl” to crop up, usually to describe some other mother’s daughter.  Sometimes I hear “queen bee” or “mean girl”.  These expressions refer to a girl who calls the shots in her peer group.

People commonly use language of this kind when talking about the social dynamics among girls today, a subject well covered in articles and books, and also popularly depicted in television shows and movies.  The prevailing view is that relationships among girls are characterized by power struggles that lead to cruel and underhanded treatment of each other.

It seems to be all I hear people say about girls.  Right from the start, when my first daughter entered kindergarten ten years ago, another mother with a son, not a daughter, said to me, “I’m glad I won’t be dealing with ‘mean girls’.”  (She also happened to be a psychologist.)

Now after two daughters and lots of exposure to the world of girls, I’d say this behavior surfaces occasionally, but that’s not all I’d say about girls.

I recently observed a gathering of a dozen middle school girls at my house.  Each time a girl arrived at the door, an exuberant cheer rose from the others already assembled.  Then a tangle of arms wound around each entering girl, like a straight jacket in a suffocating group hug.

As they settled down to a game of Truth or Dare, I couldn’t help overhearing.  The answers to questions such as “What’s your most embarrassing moment”, “What’s your craziest dream” and “What’s the worst gift you ever received” were met by shrieks of laughter.  In the freedom of their company, they showed no inhibition.

Before too long, the beat of music rattled the walls, and the whole house seemed to move and shake.  I stuck my head in their room to see what was happening.  All 12 girls were on their feet, hips swaying, hands out front, bouncing together doing the “Waka Waka” dance. Their faces shone and their teeth glistened, as laughter kept rising and bursting like surf at the shore.

When it came time to go, the whole group of girls surged to the door.  With heavy sighs, they took their leave.  The last thing I heard was one of the girls calling out, “I love you guys. See you later.”

Nothing compares to the ease, exhilaration and joy that girls feel in each other’s company. When people talk about girls, they should say that too.


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Originally published February 18, 2011

Reprinted with permission from Bay Area News Group — East Bay

Nothing seems to be working any more.  I’m not referring to our government or the economy.  Right now, I’m talking about the sandwich.

The peanut butter and jelly, tuna salad, and hummus are leaking, because of holes I’m finding in bread that I buy at the supermarket. It’s a problem I haven’t encountered before.

While preparing my son’s sandwich, I’m discomfited by the sight of strawberry jelly oozing out holes in the slices of sourdough. It’s got me seriously reconsidering the expression “greatest thing since sliced bread”.

When I first noticed holes, big enough for my finger to go through, in most slices of a new sourdough loaf, I figured that I just bought bum bread.  But I continued finding holes in subsequent loaves that I brought home.  I came to the conclusion that it was strictly a sourdough problem, and then to my dismay, I discovered I was wrong. Now I’m looking at holey whole wheat.

“What the heck is happening with all these holes?” I asked myself.

It’s the subject of lots of online conversation about bread baking.  The holes are a result of the yeast used in bread that causes air bubbles in the dough.  Among artisan bakers, holes are highly desirable. “Light-as-air, hole-riddled loaf” writes one baker in lofty praise.

But among novice bakers, it can be a source of frustration.  “A ruddy big hole” curses a British baker from her home kitchen. “I have to start all over.”

Of course, none of this explains why I’m recently finding holes in commercial bread from the supermarket.  The holes could be unintended mistakes or perhaps commercial bakeries are going for a more artisan look to their breads.

I do know that it’s causing a whole mess of trouble for me.  “My hands are so sticky,” wails my son, while holding up his hands streaked with jelly, after eating his sandwich.

Standing in front of the shelves of bread at the supermarket, I deliberate over which one to choose.  I’ll grab one loaf and then decide it feels too light, a sure sign of a whole lot of holes. I’ll switch it for another and then another.

At home, I spend time rooting through the bag of bread, searching for slices without holes.  It’s like trying to grab a handful of trail mix without nuts or a section of an orange without seeds.

The bottom line is I don’t want holes in my sandwich bread, just as I don’t want holes in my socks. (While I’m at it, the same goes for my pocket, shopping bag, garden hose, and AeroBed mattress.)

What I really want right now is something that works.  I’ll settle for something small, such as the sandwich.

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Rachel Shtokfish

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Originally published February 4, 2011

Reprinted with permission from Bay Area News Group — East Bay

Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about a little girl named Rachel Shtokfish.  I never met Rachel, who died in 1942 when she was nine years old, but my daughter talks about her.

My daughter, Lily, has become acquainted with Rachel while preparing for her Bat Mitzvah, the Jewish ceremony that recognizes 13 year olds as young adults.  Lily received Rachel’s name and biography from Remember Us, an organization that invites those who are approaching their Bat Mitzvahs to remember and, in some way, honor a child who died in the Holocaust.

According to the given information, Rachel was born in 1933 to parents Lea and Yosef Shtokfish.  She lived in Lublin, Poland and she died in 1942 in the Holocaust.

It wasn’t much.  My daughter plans to honor Rachel by sharing the memory of her with gathered family and friends at her Bat Mitzvah.  If possible, she wanted to try and find out more about her life.

Remember Us suggests doing research and provides the names of websites with databases on Holocaust victims. Together, Lily and I found a record written in Hebrew by a cousin of Rachel’s who survived the war.  It offered the same scant information, although it specified that Rachel was born in Lublin and lived there for the extent of her life.

Still searching for more, Lily decided to research the life of Jewish people in Lublin before the war.  “It could give me an idea of what Rachel’s life was like,” she explains.

She learned that Lublin had been an important center of Jewish religion, education, culture, and social life, where Jewish people made up one-third of the population.  There were 12 synagogues, two Jewish newspapers, a Jewish hospital and Jewish citizens owned many businesses and participated in a wide variety of commercial and social organizations.

Then Germany invaded Poland in September 1939, and everything changed in Lublin.  The Jewish people were forced out of their homes and businesses into a Jewish ghetto, where they lived until around April 1942, when the majority was sent to the Belzec extermination camp in southeast Poland.  The remaining Jewish people were sent to the nearby Majdanek concentration camp in November 1942, and the ghetto was demolished.

My daughter doesn’t take time to dwell on the tragic end of Rachel’s life, perhaps because she saw it coming, like already knowing the ending of a book before you read it. Finding out about life in Lublin prior to the war seems to fill in some blanks, because Lily says, “I feel as if I know her a little better.”

Despite everything we don’t know about her, Rachel has become real to us.  While talking about her, she has taken shape in our thoughts.

Most of the time, it feels gratifying to bring the memory of Rachel to life, no matter how little we know.  It’s a positive act coming out of a dark event.  I sense how meaningful it is to my daughter to simply remember her.

But at times, I must admit that I find it hard to think about Rachel at all.  I’m overcome by the horror of her experience, even though it happened so long ago.  I feel a piercing sensation in my chest, physical pain over the loss of this little girl, something no mother ever wants to imagine.

It’s the same feeling I had recently when I learned of the nine-year-old girl who died in Tucson.  Another little girl lost before her time.

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New Year

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Originally published on January 7, 2011

Reprinted with permission from Bay Area News Group — East Bay

With a little luck, it’s going to be a good year.

But luck can be pretty capricious, so you have to work it, which is something well known in my family.  When it comes to working the luck, my mother-in-law, Eva, is the master.

If a circumstance calls for knocking on wood, Eva effortlessly integrates it into her conversation, like an acrobat who’s juggling while riding a unicycle. “Your cousin Carolyn finished all her college applications.” Knock, knock, knock. “Now she’s just waiting to hear.”  Knock, knock, knock.  “I hope it works out the way she wants.”  Knock, knock, knock.

Eva is an expert at both summoning good luck and banishing bad luck.  The goals are more or less the same; it’s just the tactics are different.  When my son enthuses about a trip to Florida he’ll soon be taking, Eva responds by chanting  “toi, toi, toi”, an old world custom of hers for warding off evil.

Under Eva’s influence, everyone in the family tries hard to solicit luck.  While driving in the car with my kids looking for a parking space on Piedmont Avenue, I notice my youngest daughter rubbing a pocket size Buddha that she carries in her purse, which she claims brings her luck.  “There’s a spot,” she jubilantly cries.

Another time, I find my oldest daughter frantically searching for a pair of volleyball shorts.  When I point to four identical pairs of volleyball shorts on her bed, she looks at me with dismay and replies, “No, I’m looking for the ones that helped us win at the last tournament.”

My five-year-old son finds luck in more than just stray pennies he picks up.  He believes that a white pebble, a black feather and one red Skittle candy, discovered on separate occasions, bring him luck.  (Watching him get them off the ground, I always hope he won’t pick up anything besides luck.)  He keeps his own stash of lucky items, enlisting one or another, as he deems appropriate.

Among us, my husband stands out with his unique ability to identify luck.  He finds luck in guises that most of us miss.  After I sneeze multiple times in a row, I’m always comforted when he responds, “Something good is coming your way.”

I’m definitely the weak link, when it comes to courting luck. It doesn’t come naturally to me, perhaps because I wasn’t exposed to it growing up, unlike the rest of my family.  If I’m being entirely truthful, you could also say I have my doubts.  I have a hard time believing these things are truly lucky.

But I’d like to believe.  The next time I start sneezing, I’d really like to believe it was more than just another cold.

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Originally published December 10, 2010

Reprinted with permission from Bay Area News Group – East Bay

The more the merrier at the holidays, I always say.

So when houseguests stay longer than expected, like the painters at work in my house, I try and make the best of it. The painters are completing a renovation that was supposed to be done before the holidays, but as these things go, they’re not quite finished.

Treating the painters like family, same as I do all my houseguests, makes having them around a little easier. When I hear strains of “Feliz Navidad” coming through the walls from the painters’ radio, I call out “Can you turn the music down?” (It’s what I’m always asking my kids.)

When coming for a visit, painters bring a lot of stuff, but I’m learning to work with it. Their white drop cloths, which are underfoot everywhere, have taken some of the effort out of holiday decorating. I no longer worry about dribbling pine needles all over the floor, while adorning tabletops and mantels with greens. It only takes a couple of shakes of the drop cloth out the door, instead of multiple laps with the vacuum. Also, the drop cloths simulate snow nicely, giving the house a seasonal something extra.

With painters constantly around, I don’t ever have to be alone with my thoughts. So when I’m in the kitchen debating whether I prefer the rugelach cookies I baked with apricot preserves or the ones without, I have a painter taste them and give me an opinion. (I’ll be baking more without apricot for the holidays.)

Lucky for me, there’s always an extra pair of hands. When I can’t quite manage opening the door, while balancing boxes of gifts I’m taking to the post office, a painter nearby steps in to help. As I turn to go, I say to him, “Can you lock up behind me?”

When setting up for a holiday gathering, the painters are also a big help in figuring out party flow. I note whenever they head from the living room to the dining room, they take the roundabout route through the center hall. It makes me think that’s where I should set up the drinks table.

The biggest challenge during this hectic season is getting time to myself. The painters have an uncanny ability of finding me, even when I lock myself in the bathroom to take a long winter’s bath.

But if I didn’t have so many guests in the house, it wouldn’t feel quite like the holidays. It always feels like a big let down, when things quiet down in January

This year, however, things might be different. I’m not sure the painters will be done by Christmas.

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Originally published November 26, 2010

Reprinted with permission from Bay Area News Group – East Bay

I think it’s crummy when families can’t agree.

In my family, we can’t agree on when it’s necessary to use a plate for eating. My husband, who’s cranky about crumbs, argues you should use a plate, bowl or other dishware whenever you’re eating. On the other hand, my mother-in-law is casual about crumbs, and when she eats buttered toast in the morning, she forgoes a plate asserting a napkin is enough.

Some of my family take my mother-in-law’s side, and others line up with my husband, so when we spend time together over the holidays, it’s like two opposing teams taking the field.

The team that favors the plate always plays with more polish. For example, when my oldest daughter eats an energy bar as a quick breakfast on her way out the door, she shines with her use of a large dinner plate. No crumbs off sides of the plate. When she’s done, she simply whisks the crumbs into the compost bin for extra points.

I’m definitely on the side of the plate. Out of necessity, however, I’ve come up with my own signature move, when the pressure is on. If I’m still eating and I see the clock is running out, but I need to get out the door in the morning, I carry my plate to the sink. Then with one hand, I finish eating my whole grain muffin over the sink and, using my other hand, I rinse my plate before putting it into the dishwasher. When my crumbs go directly down the drain, I’ve really scored.

The other team, by comparison, has a more relaxed style of play. When my youngest daughter eats an energy bar, she doesn’t bother with a plate. She eats the bar right out of the wrapper, not concerned whether she’s going to fumble a crumb. As far as she’s concerned, if she never has to wash another plate again, then she has won.

My son is no fan of the plate, but as a five-year-old, he has to play by others’ rules. It doesn’t stop him, however, from taking control of the game. Typically, even though he uses a plate, crumbs go everywhere but the plate. When he’s done eating, he displays exceptionally fast hands by brushing the crumbs off the table to the floor. By doing so, he figures he won’t incur any penalties.

However, there is a time when we can all see eye to eye. Sitting down for the big feast, each of us takes a plate and loads it up with food and fixings, as we give thanks for our bounty. It’s at moments like these that we’re happy to be all together on the same team.

But it only lasts so long. Near the end of the meal, my son can no longer be contained. On the buffet among the desserts, he spies snickerdoodles, his favorite cookies. He cuts loose and executes a quick grab and run. It’s one sweet play.

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Originally published November 12, 2010

Reprinted with permission from Bay Area News Group – East Bay

As long as kids have been around, parents have been waiting for them to come home.

And while waiting, sometimes parents worry. It’s a low-grade kind of worry. Like when you have a slight temperature and the thermometer reads 99 degrees. You’re not really sick, just feeling slightly off.

I get this feeling occasionally, waiting for my teenage daughter to come home at night. I don’t know exactly where it comes from, just as I can’t always figure out where I picked up a cold. When it hits, I try different remedies.

First, I try a dose of reason. I tell myself there’s no cause for worry, even though my daughter isn’t home yet, because she’s out with friends, who I know are responsible. She’s in a safe area, not far away. Another parent, someone I’ve known for years, is driving her home.

But when my daughter still hasn’t arrived, irrational thoughts start creeping in. They’re small at first, like tiny bug bites. I attempt to ignore them, but then the itching begins. I hope everything’s okay. Maybe something has happened. Nothing’s wrong, I hope.

As my worrying flares, I try soothing it with a cup of tea. The steam rises from the cup, covering my face in a veil of warm mist. The heat of the liquid in my mouth spreads through my limbs. Any minute, I anticipate, the calm will set in.

However, I can’t keep my eyes from going to the front door, solid and unmoving, waiting for my daughter to push through it. But the door stands still, and I’m feeling a little funny, like something I ate doesn’t quite agree with me.

I start doing some yoga, which always relaxes me. I sit on the floor, put the soles of my feet together and start the breathing exercises that accompany yoga. Take in a deep breath, and count one, two, three, four, five.

But instead I find myself counting the minutes on the clock on the wall. I watch closely as the second hand makes a full rotation. One minute. I continue my breathing exercises, still counting. Five minutes. More time passes, and my daughter’s not yet home. Between breathing and counting (and waiting and worrying), my head is starting to feel heavy, as if a headache is lurking.

I’m taking in another breath, when I hear a clinking of keys outside. The door swings open and my daughter steps inside. I let out a big exhale. My head is suddenly clear.

I’m struck by how good I feel, as I get ready for bed. I put my head down on the pillow, without any worry, knowing that my daughter is safe and sound at home. It’s the only cure I know.

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