Saturday, December 29, 2007

Christmas, 2007

Alcohol Insight

After two margaritas at the kosher Mexican restaurant tonight, I'm feeling a wobbly kinship with my giggly girls. I remember the truism that living with small children is like living with perpetually drunk tiny people. "Exshcuse me, sir, can I have some banilla ice cream?" warbles Nora to the waiter and I'm laughing, laughing, understanding her like never before. Emotionally labile, uncoordinated and prone to sloppy affection? "It's like Rush Street!" I whisper to Randy.

After Anticipation

In the days leading up to Christmas I almost worried, when I had a spare moment, that all my happy anticipation would crash afterwards, but no. I feel a definite division - the slice of night between Christmas and the day after changes everything but I am fine about it. Take down the ornaments; leave up the clean cold lights. The tree boughs will make excellent mulch for our sleeping bulbs.

Does this contentment come from my satisfaction with our Christmas? Absolutely. The girls were elated and charmed that Santa ate his cookie and the reindeer left only carrot stubs. Nora carried a wrapped present over her head from the tree to her pile. Randy smoked a turkey. I never did finish that gingerbread house (two walls have been sitting on parchment paper on the kitchen counter for two weeks) and we are only just starting our Christmas cards (Happy New Year!) but cheer and memories of fun are all around.

Does it come from relief we've made it through to the winter solstice? Oh yeah! The meteorological difference between today and yesterday is merely a few more moments of sunlight, but the psychological difference is huge. We are ascending! Every day from here to June will be a little longer than the one before! More light, more light!

Am I content because Nora looks so big today? So big that I ask her, "Are you a three year old yet or are you still two?" "I'm two!" she corrects me. Her birthday is in a week but I'm not missing the tiny infant, the big-headed toddler she used to be. Today she wears an old pair of big sister's size four pants and her sister's thick black shoes and clumps around, a big girl. Her legs are long. I don't miss my baby. She's right here in front of me.

Old Acquaintance

Dan Fogelberg died! Just before Christmas! How much more pathos can you pour onto "Same Old Lang Syne"?

In high school we used to laugh at this song, at the sing-song monotony of the melody and the clumsy lyrics ("The beer was empty and our tongues were tired"? Oh bah ha ha!) but when I was alone with the radio and Fogelberg's story, I listened, rapt.

The first time I heard it this year was the second weekend in December. Randy and I were driving around Zion, under a fat snowfall, looking for a community swimming pool that was supposedly transformed into a winter wonderland. "They play this on the Christmas channel?!" I asked Randy in wonder.

The girls had fallen asleep in their carseats. We carried them, groggy and limp, into a Mexican dive (yeah, we do loves us some burritos) that apparently is going to cross that statewide smoking ban bridge when it comes to it. Mia slumped against Randy, Nora fussed on the floor, but they both cheered up after some chips and a chance to pet a little burro statue carrying plastic flowers.

Kringle's Kingdom beat all our expectations. We drove slowly through a park decorated with vignettes of blinking lights - dinosaurs, a penguin playground, bears playing catch. Six or so inches of snow had fallen the day before. The lights glowed under the mounds of fresh snow.

We walked through a maze of shadow boxes, dressed up like shop windows, with animated Santas and teddy bears acting out Christmas scenarios sympathetic to the sponsors: Teddy at the candy shop, Mrs. Claus in the poinsettia replete florist, reindeer at the dentist, Santa on the chiropractic's table. Randy and I lifted the girls to see.

Family dinner and Kringle's Kingdom in soft new snow. A million miles from the lonely saxophone and sad rain of some Old Lang Syne.

Sunday, December 23, 2007

Funny Mind, Body, Banjo

Long before his elegantly odd hosting of the Oscars, long before his penning and portraying the remote and wealthy Ray Porter in Shopgirl, long before his New Yorker essays, there was "Grandpa bought a rubber." If you are of a certain age, the memory of Steve Martin's joyful warbling of this hootenanny non sequitur can't help but reduce you to adolescent giggles again.

Martin's new memoir, Born Standing Up, offers an intimate view of the early years of what must be one of the most unusual career trajectories in show biz - from child magician to philosophy student, from San Francisco hippie comic to stadium filling superstar. Martin generously offers insight into how each of these experiences was formative for his comedy - a unique blend of absurdity, brilliant and energetic full-body mimicry, and a send up of old time show biz conventions. His act, he reveals, was "a parody of comedy. I was an entertainer playing an entertainer, a not so good one." The skilled banjo playing only added to the head-scratching strangeness of it all.

What was interesting to me was the contrast of this memoir's fine writing with the more simple quotes of familiar old bits from his routines. Martin's prose is lovely, dark and deep, but on stage, his jokes themselves needed not much more than a simple framework upon which his malleable body worked. There was a world of hilarity in his wild but practiced gestures and perfect mugging. Remember his bit about taking a drug that made him small, while he mimed driving behind a giant steering wheel, then tried to convince a cop that he was "large, man, large!"?

Monday, December 17, 2007

Well, It's Funny to Me

1. Another bumper sticker: "OH NO, NOT ANOTHER LEARNING EXPERIENCE."

2. Nora from the back seat pipes up, "I have a joke. Poo sandwich."

Followed by her version of Santa Claus is Coming to Town, "You better not poo, you better not pee!"

We stifle giggles, then tell her to leave those words in the bathroom!

She keeps singing in her sweet helium-high voice. "He sees you when you're pooping. . ."

The only threat that stops this scatological onslaught is the dreaded "Car Time Out," a punishment I don’t how to inflict but luckily have yet to enforce since she hasn't called my bluff.

3. The worst Christmas lyric ever, so horrible, I have to sing along lustily in merry disbelief and amazement:

There's a world outside your window and it's a world of dread and FEAR/
Where the only water flowing is the bitter sting of TEARS/
And the Christmas bells that ring there are the clanging chimes of DOOM/
Well tonight thank God it's them instead of YOU!

The Onion opines on this and other jaw-dropping lapses of judgment in the name of Christmas.

4. On the way to Randy's office Christmas party, he helps me cram employee spouses' names and interns' marital status. But when Randy says, "His name is Martin. He goes by Marty Marinari. Nah, I'm just kidding," I have no sense of humor.

"Don't pull my leg tonight," I snap. "I'm so brittle, it might fall off. And then I'd have to beat you with it."

(Actually, the party was wildly fun. "I'm not sure I'll drink tonight," I had tensely predicted, then quick-sipped two cranberries and vodka, followed by some toasty Chardonnay. Randy and I danced, stupid but not sloppy, making silly faces and quitting while we were ahead.

Randy's company always has a great big holiday party, with trip giveaways, a moving speech by the president about family and company milestones and a much anticipated, very long and very funny video recapping the year's work. Well, it started as a recap of the year's commercials, but the work part has been shrinking in the face of the silly skits. Oh you know. Recreations of music videos with rewritten lyrics full of inside jokes. Scenes of various mucus being distributed on the fastidious guy's desk. Shots of exaggerated assistant abuse under Donald Fagen's lovely falsetto: "I'm a fool to do your dirty work, oh yeah." Sweet grade-school photos of long time employees, followed by present day shots in the same pose. "HE'S THE SAME!" I'm screaming by this point, buzzed, moved, delighted.)

Nerdy Wordy Fun for Charity!!

Play the game and feed the hungry!

Sunday, December 9, 2007

New Tree

The closest Christmas tree farm is just over the Wisconsin border. But we choose to drive a few miles farther to the one with donuts and free hot chocolate and the spiffy website.

I'd never cut down a Christmas tree before. We always had an artificial tree when I was a kid - fun to put together, matching the yellow paint smudge on the wire branch to the yellow marked hole, but missing that sharp cut pine smell or the chance of finding an abandoned bird nest as we did last year.

"Watch out for the sap," said Sally.

On the farm's website, Randy and I had researched the needle retention and comparative scent intensity of the different pine, fir and spruce types, but all that knowledge flew away with the fast and brisk wind once we got out of the warm car. "Oof! Let's DO this!" we rallied.

While we were waiting for the tractor to come around and pick us up, we peeked into the giant white tent that held a Narnian world of already cut trees.

"Ooo," said Mia, "It's like a magical forest!"

Oh how very tempting - we wouldn't have to schlep around in the muddy fields, but no, in for a dime, in for a dollar and we are going to have this whole G.D. experience, G.D. it.

"Most with cones for seeds, most with needles for leaves,/C is for Conifers, my kind of trees!" sing They Might Be Giants.

The wagon, if you could call it that, was little more than a long wooden platform with rails for our feet but no sides. We huddled close, gripping the girls in our laps, laughing at the bumps. Randy held the snaggle-toothed saw with one hand, Mia far away with the other.

In the field, the sky was clear and dark blue, the sun restoring us with vitamin D. We had the whole sky and the whole afternoon before us. Only three o'clock and it was already the golden hour, with the light all slanty and beautiful.

Eleanor ran around and hid behind the littlest trees. Mia, wearing a Santa hat and smiling, chased her a little, followed Dad.

I'm happy with every tree I see, cause I know we're going to tart her up with a sparkly makeover. But Randy's all, "That one's too crooked, look at the big hole in the side, not enough room for ornaments, too skimpy." I teased him about the absurdity of being a perfectionist in 32 degree weather, in a field of mud.

We finally agreed on one - a scratchy pine, possibly a Scotch, not too tall. Randy lay on the muddy grass to reach the trunk with his saw.

On the way back to the barn, our tree fell off the bouncy wagon. We yelled at the driver over the engine roar.

The girls watched fascinated, as a vibrating dish shook the dead needles off our tree, then a shivering conveyor belt sucked her into a gin, closing her up like an umbrella and wrapping her in twine.

Inside the noisy warming house we drank the most delicious hot chocolate ever. "It's just Hershey's" said the lady sitting behind the counter.

On the way home, Nora slept and Mia sucked on the thumb she'd pulled out of her mitten and looked contentedly out the window. Randy and I giggled for miles after passing a restaurant called "Bacchus Nibbles." "Satan's Yummies," offered Randy. "Or is it a strip club?" I wondered.

At home, Randy cut off the bottom inch or so of the trunk and we set her up in the front window. She's been drinking gallons of water. The first night, I even woke up around three, anxious, like with a new puppy. In the dark, I found her reservoir empty and filled it, reaching through the scratchy needles.

It's hard to replicate your first experience inside something really new and beautiful. Even our second visit to this farm will be following an inscribed map of memory. "We had the best hot chocolate ever," I will say. "The tree fell off the wagon. Remember?"

Our next visit might be fun and memorable, too, but I will not be as open and receptive to sensation as this first time. I think this tender sensitivity to experiencing the world is how children live every day - it seems any old walk around the block fills their hearts and senses.

When Mia, our first baby, was only a few days old, I tried to explain to my friend Christina what it felt like to have a brand new child in the house.

"The closest feeling I can compare it to is when I was a kid and I got a new bike for Christmas," I told her, wincing because this memory seemed so inadequate compared to the momentous event we'd just gone through. I mean, we went to a hospital and everything!

I tried to go on, get at the heart of this new overwhelming, but slightly familiar feeling. "Um, remember when you were surprised on Christmas morning to get a big present that you really wanted? And you wanted to be near it all the time - like keep the bike in your room overnight?" Yes, Christina remembered.

But it's really not that bad a metaphor. A baby is not a toy, but having children can return you, if you let it, to the time when you were a child yourself. A time when just the pink and shiny surfaces, just being close to this new and wonderful thing was all you needed, was enough, to thrill you and fill you with happiness.

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Nora, Again, in the Far Reaches of Two

Since I've been feeling bad about maligning my baby girl a couple of posts ago, here are some Nora dispatches from the ether of abundance and love that fills our family universe. Mommy does fall into black holes sometimes, but really, our sky is filled with stars. Feel free to hum "These Foolish Things."

"Look at me!" she says when she's clomping around in Daddy's snow boots.

She holds her nose when she's pooping.

The way she fell asleep in my arms during the last act of Mr. Magorium's Wonder Emporium. The way that movie wasn't as really truly bad as all the negative reviews would have me believe. Yes, there is some sad product placement and a confused, wonderless ending, but I did like Dustin Hoffman's little truisms about seizing the day and such. And the creepy little boy character who did nothing child-like in the entire film only made me appreciate my own real girls more.

Her butt dance, when she just sticks it out and shakes.

Her chirping tree-frog voice and her warm sweet smell, like a tiny tropical marsupial raised on vanilla bean pods.

Her singing along with The Polyphonic Spree's: "Follow the day and reach for the sun!" as we drive to pick up sister at school. (Witness our singing butterfly with the will of iron here.)

Her insistence for her upcoming three year birthday party as a "Dora the Explorer in Space Costume Party." With elephants.

In The Car
Nora: I like cupcakes!
Mia: Me too!
Me: Me three.
Mia: Me four! Me five! Me eight!
Nora: Me twelve!
Mia: Me 43!
Me: Me a thousand!
Mia: Me a million!
Me: Wow, Mia that's a huge number!
Nora: Me apple.
Me: Me watermelon!
Mia: Me fish!
Me: Ha ha ha!
Mia: Me house. Me door. Me computer.
Nora: Me pee pee!
Mia: Me poo poo!
Nora: Me fart!
Me: Oh, I knew we were going in this direction. Girls, those are words are for the bathroom only!
Mia: Me in the bathroom!
Nora: Me in the car!
Me: Me driving.

Her taking off her shoes and socks every frickin' time she gets strapped in her car seat, no matter the temperature outside or how late we are. Oh wait, this one belongs on the Imp list.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Drunken Ephemera

1. Philosophers answer an age old question.

2. Some great rejection letter stories.

3. I haven't seen tonight's Project Runway yet so don't tell me who was Aufed, but there is a spacy puppeteer on the show who reminds me a little of Milla Jovovich and she said the most fabulous thing about her work being judged harshly. When asked what it was like to be there, standing with just one other person on the runway, she answered: "I found standing on the runway to intriguing and fun. I abhorred being the one chosen to stay and (knowing) that my staying meant someone else leaving. I surrendered constantly to fate with delight and mischievous curiosity." What a great attitude toward slings and arrows.

4. HOW TO KNOW WHEN YOU ARE READY FOR PARENTHOOD (I wish I knew who to credit for this)

Here are some helpful suggestion to prepare you for the joys of being a parent!

MESS TEST: Smear peanut butter on the sofa and curtains. Now rub your hands in the wet flowerbed and rub on the walls. Cover the stains with crayons. Place a fish stick behind the couch and leave it there all summer.

TOY TEST: Obtain a 55-gallon box of Legos. (If Legos are not available, you may substitute roofing tacks or little plastic farm animals) Have a friend spread them all over the house. Put on a blindfold. Try to walk to the bathroom or kitchen. Do not scream (this could wake a child at night).

GROCERY STORE TEST: Borrow one or two small animals (goats are best) and take them with you as you shop at the grocery store. Always keep them in sight and pay for anything they eat or damage.

DRESSING TEST: Obtain one large, unhappy, live cat. Now proceed with dressing the unhappy cat.

FEEDING TEST: Now hand feed the cat. Try to insert spoonfuls of soggy cereal into the mouth of the cat while pretending to be an airplane. Now clean the soggy cereal off you, the floor, and walls.

NIGHT TEST AND PHYSICAL TEST: Prepare by obtaining a small cloth bag and fill it with 8 to 12 pounds of sand. Soak it thoroughly in water. At 8 PM begin to waltz and hum with the bag until 9 PM. Lay down your bag and set your alarm for 10:00 PM. Get up, pick up your bag, and sing every song you have ever heard. Make up about a dozen more and sing them until 4:00 AM. Set alarm for 5:00 AM. Get up and make breakfast. Keep this up for 5 years. Look cheerful.

CRAFT TEST: Get an egg carton. Using a pair of scissors and a can of paint, turn it into an alligator. Now get a toilet paper tube. Using only scotch tape and a piece of foil, turn it into a Christmas tree. Last, take a milk container, a ping pong ball, and an empty packet of CoCo Puffs and make an exact replica of the Eiffel Tower. Congratulations, you have just qualified for a place on the play group committee.

TELEVISION TEST: Learn the names of every character from 'Barney and Friends', 'Sesame Street'. When you find yourself singing, "I love you, you love me" at work, you finally qualify as a parent.

FINAL ASSIGNMENT: Find a couple who already has a small child. Lecture them on how they can improve their child's discipline, patience, tolerance, toilet training, and table manners. Suggest many things they can improve as well.
Enjoy this experience. It will be the last time you'll have all the answers.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Happy Birthday, Aunt Ruth!

Eighty-four years young today! We love you!


I've been calling Eleanor "my moptop," as she peers out from the overgrown thicket of her blond bangs, but her behavior is rather more Ramones than Fab Four these days. We are in the thick of Terrrrrrible Twos, with "NO!" her favorite word, "I WON'T!" her favorite quip and "AAAAAAAHHHHH" her favorite song. Today I had a sweet sweet cup of the delicious irritant that cuts my patience off at the root. There was lots of yelling: "Stop ringing the doorbell and come inside!" "Pick up that chalk! "Stop Crying!" "What Do You WANT!?"

Maybe you are reading this and clucking, "Oh that's hard. Try counting to ten before you yell. Or you could just go in another room to blow off some steam and come back when are calm." If that's what you're thinking, I hate you.

Or maybe you are thinking, "Oh that's hard. Can I come over and take your little imp away for the afternoon?" In that case, I love you. Not that I could actually let you do this, but I still love you.

Friday, November 23, 2007


Yesterday's snow showers give way to today's brilliant skies. The ginko drops her leaves in the blink of an eye. In this season of contrast and change, the simplest combinations create dramatic transformations.

Sunshine and sleep turn Mistress Hyde into happy Mommy Jeckle. A little grape (Polka Dot Riesling, as sweet as the name) at the Thanksgiving table can turn a foul and harried mood into something like ebullience.

(Yet even in the middle of the festivities, no one forgets the bare dark sticks of trees just outside. The joke we roar loudest at is the debate whether the holiday commemorates a sickly band of doomed pilgrims, most of whom wouldn't survive til spring or whether the national party was established to keep us all distracted from our own seasonal depression and anxiety.) (No, come to think of it, the biggest, blackest laugh of the night was the rock star's story of reenacting his friend's stroke. On stage. During her benefit concert.)

Lately I've been having some kitchen adventures with carbohydrates, and marveling at the magical results.

Homemade tortillas require a single ingredient, a little water and ladles of technique. Ground corn is massaged into a paste with a few tablespoons of warm water, then rolled into small balls, flattened, pressed into pliable thin circles and laid on a hot dry skillet. Playdough transforms into the so-satisfying warm tortilla. A perfect base for sautéed black beans, a little cheese, halves of cherry tomato. Or chicken with green salsa, if you are my husband. The warm smell will make you start planning tomorrow's fish tacos.

For a Thanksgiving chocolate-pecan tart, I make the crazy science project that is caramel. Again, one ingredient, a little water and heat amaze. Mix a cup of sugar with a quarter cup or less of water (hard core chefs use none) and swirl over a medium high flame.

At first your tired swirling arm despairs of ever achieving candy status. The golden-hued boiling sugar looks like slow motion champagne. Then very quickly the thick liquid turns a rich gold color. That's it. You've made caramel. You can dip roasted pecans in the slightly cooled brew, if you work quickly and dexterously. Or you can add some butter and cream and end up with a phenomenal sauce. If you also throw in some chocolate, the results, Joy of Cooking says, will make a shoe taste good.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

My Husband's Mistress

The mock 1970's era rock video "Did You See (What I Just Said)?" is the kind of project that keeps my husband and his coworkers slaving away red-eyed at their terminals until all hours. How can they go home when there's just one more star filter to adjust just so, one more flying unicorn to tweak?

With voice over by Ken Nordine, preening by Bob Blonski from accounting and Doug Manley from client services.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

Crown Family Playlab at the Field Museum

Here is my sister Nancy and me at the Field Museum in the late sixties.

I don’t remember this day, but I’m pretty sure we didn’t touch those huge stuffed elephants or the other neato things we saw. The mummies, the sparkling geodes, the shiny beetles stuck on pins, all remained safe behind cool planes of glass.

The Field Museum’s new Crown Family Playlab, a permanent exhibit just for kids, offers a place for children to experience close up the endeavor and thrill of natural history. Touching the installations in this part of the museum is encouraged and welcomed.

The Playlab is the first exhibit you'll see if you enter the Field Museum via the east entrance. You and the kids will find a well-stocked art room complete with kiln, an invitingly raucous music space and a woodland scene where a child can dress up as a bat or crawl through a hollow log. For the tiny ones, there are cozy enclosed infant corners with soft walls and toys.

On the day of our visit, enthusiastic museum workers hovered nearby to engage the kids in a book and encourage the young artists.

Mia and Eleanor had the most fun picking and repicking their own ears of corn near the pueblo.

We found that a visit here was a great way to enhance the museum experience, but you might have a hard time tearing your little ones away to see the upstairs exhibits. Not that there isn't plenty for the grownups to consider in the roomy space. On the walls and inside easy-open drawers are fascinating artifacts: Musical instruments, tiny dolls, dog skeletons, an ornate cradle from India adorned with red paint and tiny bells. While the girls dug for dinosaur bones, I was engrossed in fossils of Jurassic era plants.

Once we did get upstairs, I got a new thrill out of revisiting those musty glass boxes of stuffed and posed animals in the nature exhibits. It was creepy, yes, trying to delicately explain to the girls that they were looking at corpses of once warm and breathing mammals. But how else will we be able to get face to face with the extinct dodo or the passenger pigeon? I looked at the display of birds with its typewritten descriptive cards of their last days and felt a chill. There's a necessary lesson about the delicacy of life within these stone walls, somewhere past the case with the man-eating lions of Tsavo and just beyond the huddled mummy we pass with a brief glance.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Fall Pleasures

1. Opening the shades and curtains for the morning light and warmth.

2. Planting bulbs. Actually bending over to break through the cold hardpack with my bulb planter is a bit of a pain in the ass, but the girls do help a little. Nora can drop in a handful of fertilizer; Mia tries to guess which end of the anemone bulb should face the sky. Like so much in this season of descending darkness, the pleasure lies in the hopeful anticipation. We're composing a love letter to spring, who is far away, visiting another hemisphere.

3. New Project Runway!

4. The Diana Chronicles by Tina Brown. Good reviews sent me to this book by the controversial former editor of The New Yorker and Vanity Fair. Brown's research is impressive. She writes as a former friend of the princess, yet one who is neither star struck by her celebrity nor made bitter by the famous woman's all-too human qualities. Brown analyzes with great perception the Princess's cultivated and yet real vulnerability and the complicated relationship she had with the press that helped millions to identify with and love her, but also led to her tragic death.

"Diana's desire to rescue a marmoreal (Me: That's "marble-like." I had to look it up. What a great word.) royal trudge through some comatose British institution with a more spontaneous act of human flair is the thing that made her visitations such a triumph. Plus, her understanding of the emotional dimension of Charles's commitments often made more of a difference to how the Prince was received than any amount of briefing and planning. Diana instinctively seemed to know that the only power royalty has left is the power to disappoint, and she never did, either with her physical presence or in her responsiveness to human detail."

5. Making apple head dolls. We read Elisa Kleven's book about a girl who makes a new friend from an old apple. So we peeled and carved Granny Smiths and soaked them in lemon juice. Now, they sit in a warm oven, growing older and more wrinkly and smiley by the day.

6. Watching the changes in our neighbor's ginko tree. I've heard these trees drop their leaves all at once. Does "all at once" mean in one day? On the count of three? Hopefully, we'll be there for the party.

Friday, November 9, 2007

Stephen Sondheim's Passion

"Was there a moment of silence for Robert Goulet?" asked Randy.

I laughed, but I didn't tell him that morning after non-chalantly reading Goulet's obit, I had surprised myself by shedding a few tears in the middle of my half-remembered rendition of "If Ever I Could Leave You."

I don't think it was this particular man's death that got me so much as the loss of part of a legendary moment - 1960, Julie Andrews playing Guinevere, Richard Burton as Arthur calling his cast-mate's voice that of an angel.

And of course, the musical theater recipe that always puts a lump in my throat: the pathos of the lyrics, the soar of the melody and the tragic context. "We're neither wise nor pure nor good. . . " "But now and then he'll do SOMEthing WONderful . . . " "Oh no, Maria, no! I have a love and it's all that I have. . . " Never fails to start the waterworks.

Yes, you've heard it before. I am a sucker for musicals. My dream of a weekend getaway? Spa? Ski? No - a quick flight to NY, then Clay Aiken in Spamalot and Fantasia in The Color Purple.

Randy's question was funny because he was asking about a show that couldn't be farther from the Vegas glitz of Goulet - Stephen Soundheim's Passion. This dark drama won the 1994 Tony for Best Musical (and Best Book and Best Actress and Best just about everything else possible.)

On Saturday the girls went with Daddy on their first trip to (gulp) Chuck E. Cheese while Passion held me engrossed at the intimate upstairs space of Chicago's Shakespeare Theater on Navy Pier.

The story is set in 19th century northern Italy. Ana Gasteyer stars as the sickly, fretful and unlovely Fosca, who falls obsessively in love with an army officer, who in turn, has given his heart to his beautiful mistress, Clara.

Gasteyer was fearless as the nearly unloveable Fosca and lovely in voice. Fosca is an amazing character - as Gasteyer played her, she is at turns funny, scary, strong and smart, capable of great misjudgment in the name of love and also of recognizing her own folly.

Fosca's rival, Clara, is played beautifully by Kathy Voytko who has a fearless moment of her own at the shockingly erotic opening of the play. I suppose the memory of her perfect naked body is meant to contrast with Fosca's "thin arms" that initially repel Giorgio the officer (Adam Barzier.) But it left me expecting and failing to find more heat between Giorgio and the women who love him. Brazier may have had a fine voice and a nice head of hair, but the love I was feeling by the end of the play was not Giorgio's, but that of the audience for Gasteyer and Voytko.

The beautiful score is more operatic than show-tune. Tunes weave in and out of dialogue seamlessly. The rich and complex book by James Lapine offered similar pleasures to reading a densely good novel by, say, Turgenev. There are lots of chewy ideas - about the place of altruism and selfishness in a relationship, about the difference between love and obsession, about the appeal of escape versus engaging with the world.

Here on stage before me were a few of my favorite things: sentiment, beauty, ideas, narrative. I applauded, passionately.

Post #100 - Mesmerizing

Courtesy dear funny husband.

Without special effects.

Wednesday, November 7, 2007

God's World - Edna St. Vincent Millay

O world, I cannot hold thee close enough!
Thy winds, thy wide grey skies!
Thy mists, that roll and rise!
Thy woods, this autumn day, that ache and sag
And all but cry with colour! That gaunt crag
To crush! To lift the lean of that black bluff!
World, World, I cannot get thee close enough!

Long have I known a glory in it all,
But never knew I this;
Here such a passion is
As stretcheth me apart, -- Lord, I do fear
Thou'st made the world too beautiful this year;
My soul is all but out of me, -- let fall
No burning leaf; prithee, let no bird call.

Friday, November 2, 2007

Fly, Sparrow, Fly

Randy and I saw The Sparrow fly on Saturday night. Magic is happening on the Apollo Theater stage and I'm not just talking about the cool tricks of Emily Book, the play's supernaturally empowered protagonist. The House Theater's wonderful play casts a powerful spell.

"Mysterious stranger comes to town" is one of the archetypical scenarios of drama. So Emily Book's return to Spring Farm, Illinois, just this side of Smallville, by way of dear old Shiz, feels satisfyingly familiar. The graceful Carolyn Defrin, plays this tortured outsider turned small town hero turned misunderstood villain, with confidence and vulnerability.

The play’s pleasures, and there are so many, are most often about cool stagecraft, innovative movement, good writing and flights of the imagination. A mother literally carries around her grief for a lost daughter in her arms. A basketball game is fully, thrillingly realized on a stage not much bigger than the key. There’s a nail-biting rescue from the rafters, enacted safely on the floor, that you totally believe. A momentary glimpse inside a bus accident is horrifying and tints everything that comes after it. The thrilling dances are all about character, rather than skill and you really want to join right in. And just wait until you see the flying. It takes your breath away without smoke and mirrors.

Randy and I did pick apart the story a little on the way home – we thought there was one twist too few and the last surprise didn’t do justice to the main character we had come to love.

But it was great to see Lauren Vitz again. Vitz, who reminds me of a young Jodi Foster or Martha Plimpton, was memorable as a tomboy Tinkerbell in the 2002 House production of Peter Pan -- I can still see the red ribbon unrolling from her mouth after she drinks Captain Hook's poison. Here she doubles easily, as does most of the cast, as both a small town adult trying to do right by one of their own and as one of the town's teens who inherited a tragedy they can't understand.

Cliff Chamberlain received a Jeff citation for his role as biology instructor Mr. Christopher, who “puts a lot of thought into being the cool teacher” and he really gives the role his comedic and dramatic all.

I loved seeing one of the writers, Chris Mathews, hoofing it up on stage as the coach of the Sparrows, Spring Farm's perennially losing basketball team. You will crack up at his gentle and conciliatory half time "pep talk."

Thursday, November 1, 2007

We All Fall Down - On the Air!

So yesterday I got a invitation (cough, mass mailing) to add some of my posts to Vocalo, a new radio-internet hybrid launched by Chicago Public Radio.

I went to the site and found out you can record content via your phone that immediately gets uploaded to their web site. How cool and fun is that? Check out my audio versions of Scary and Mythology for Four Year Olds.

And some of the site content is also aired, but only to northwest Indiana at this point, so Hey Hey Hammond! The plan is to build a big new tower in Chesterton this year so Chicago will get the signal too.

Tuesday, October 30, 2007


On the way back from the haunted house, Mia said, "Do you want to see a cloud that looks like a monster head?"

Nora tried to add, "In a. . . In a. . . "

We all knew what she was thinking so we waited for her to say, "sink" because that was the horrific image from the last haunted room that we scooted through before hitting the emergency exit early. Nora ended up with the word "car" so I'm hoping her memory is fading already.

"Mommy, why are you crying?" asks Mia from the backseat.

"I'm not, I'm laughing," and I was. Randy was shaking with laughter, too, at the absurdity of it all.

He whispers, "I thought when you said 1 to 4, that was the age limit!"

I say, "It was in a church!"

What were we thinking? You have to give us this credit: the haunted house was in a church, well in the church school gymnasium. The article in the paper said they covered up all the scary images with sheets during the daytime children hours. One of the organizers even said she had been taking her son since he was two.

I'm sorely tempted to picture this two year old in all his America's Testosterone Home Videos glory, naked except for his Pull-up, doing karate chops while the grownups laugh on the couch. But that would be no more fair and no more kind than trying to foist our responsibility for walking in that church onto his poor mom.

While we were walking through the dark hallways, me carrying Nora, Randy with Mia in his arms, a flashlight-carrying kid just this side of adolescence leading the way, I felt the beginnings of my own horrors - the fear of giving your own child an indelibly awful image, of not being able to comfort her fears so easily anymore, of opening her world to formerly unimagined grownup things.

So Randy and I became the jolliest of underworld guides.

"Oh look, it's train-tracks! Let's go across!"

"Oh, isn't this room beautiful?! It looks like outer space!"

"Oh how funny! We have to get out of this room through the fireplace! Isn't that funny?"

We rushed by the lumps covered with white sheets, but they did have to leave uncovered the latex head coming up out of the sink, didn't they?

The girls have been processing that image for days. Mia telling Miss Molly at school on Monday, "There was a head coming out of the sink!" Nora mixing up "sink" with "potty" when she tells the story.

"I never want to go to a haunted house ever again!" says Mia. "Well, you don't have to!" we cheer.

The kind of brave I want my girls to be now is brave enough to share. Brave enough to stay with the nice neighbor mommy and her son for two hours while I go to Montessori Observation Day. Brave enough to try a new thing, like a bit of roasted cauliflower or miso soup. Brave enough to say, "I ate the candy."

Translate the grownup concept of Sad to Scary and you have the view of the child. There are some genuinely sad things in my family history, the family I grew up in, that is. We've weathered lots of divorces, children who died, mental illness. Mothers and fathers who went away.

And like any part of the past that lies uneasy on my mind, I can say That Has Nothing To Do With Us, the Us, that is, that is my new little family. And you can say That Has Everything To Do With Us but the truth is somewhere in between and right now when the girls are spooked, all they need is our good humor and constant reassurance and a sweet pumpkin patch on the way home with a teepee to explore and three little donkeys, safe, warm and soft to the touch.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

When Childbirth Brings Sadness

PSI: Blog Day for the Mothers Act

You are handed a tiny precious thing after the most exhausting and painful experience of your life and you are expected to give it total care. You are two vulnerable animals, one big, one small, and with luck and some compassionate help, you will both emerge from the infancy period intact and in love.

But you have caught a glimpse of the unthinkable. You hear whispers of the worst - when you sweetly sing the rock-a-bye song of hatred to this helpless bundle, when the wind blows and the cradle rocks, when you are jerked awake for the fourth time in one long night with no desire left to care for her, when you stumble forward driven by nothing but some automatic maternal machine and the vague hope that this will get better, better, in a few days.

I went to see my friend and her new baby. He was beautiful, perfect. Tucked into a round bundle in her sling, his long dark lashes resting on his cheeks, he was the picture of a blissfully peaceful newborn.

But my friend looked at me with hollow eyes. She was transformed. Here before me was a woman I had always and only known as confident, talented, highly competent. She is a friend and colleague I had admired from the day I met her. An excellent educator, hostess extraordinaire, pie baker, quilt-maker, artist, confidante. And all these talents executed with love and laughter. Now she looked lost and tired.

“I think having him was a mistake,” she whispered.

I listened with a sinking heart. I felt helpless. I’ve known deep loss but I had nothing to say in the face of grief like this – how do you comfort someone whose very abundance has created her own despair?

Anna M. Georgiopoulos, MD, defines postpartum depression (PPD) as "is a serious, common, and treatable condition. The effects can be devastating for the entire family. The couple’s relationship often suffers and women afflicted with PPD are at high risk for recurrent depression. Children of depressed mothers have been reported to have impaired cognitive development and behavioral disturbances." ("Routine Screening for Postpartum Depression" in The Journal of Family Practice.)

I tried to respond to my friend with sympathy and understanding.

I tried to tell her the postpartum period is hard, but temporary. But even as I said this, I knew that words alone are sometimes not enough. Tell a depressed person that her thinking is wrong, that she has every reason to be happy and you have only added to the chorus of destructive voices in her head.

I’ve felt depression; I’ve seen mental illness strike people I love. And I’ve learned there are some spirals of despair that talk alone cannot pull us out of.

On October 15, the Melanie Blocker-Stokes Postpartum Depression Research and Care Act passed the House of Representatives by an amazingly bipartisan vote of 383-3. The bill expands PPD research and services for those women and families afflicted with the disorder.

Melanie Blocker-Stokes’s story is harrowing. The hotel where she plunged to her death looks over the Lincoln Park zoo. I think of her and her anguish every time I catch a glimpse of the Days Inn sign through the trees when we are walking through Lincoln Park. The passage of the bill in Melanie's name is a great victory for her family, and especially for her mother who became a passionate activist for PPD research and prevention after her daughter’s death and for new mothers and those close to them.

However, as Dr. Georgiopoulous continues, “despite the serious consequences and the availability of highly effective pharmacologic and nonpharmacologic therapies, PPD often remains unrecognized and untreated. Routine screening for postpartum depression is not common in the United States.”

In a recent survey conducted by researchers at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, a majority of doctors do not probe for signs of postpartum depression in new mothers. Of the 228 North Carolina physicians responding to the survey who said they had seen women for postpartum visits in the previous three months, 79 percent said they were unlikely to formally screen the patients for depression.

Here is the published study in the May/June 2007 North Caroline Medical Journal.

The Mothers Act is a bill seeking to increase screening for the disorder. In part, the bill ensures that “new mothers, during visits to a physician, certified nurse midwife, certified midwife, nurse, or licensed healthcare professional who is licensed or certified by the State, within the first year after the birth of their child, are offered screenings for postpartum conditions by using the Edinburgh Postnatal Depression Scale (EPDS), or other appropriate tests. If the results of such screening provide warning signs for postpartum conditions, the new mother shall be referred to an appropriate mental healthcare provider.”

You can find out more about the MOTHERS act and how you can support it at Postpartum Support International and Postpartum Progress.

My friend eventually sought out a prescription for an anti-depressant and took it for a time. Her brightness, humor and perception returned. She bonded tenderly with her son who grows more and more wonderful every day.

Today is Blog Day for the Mothers Act. Go to Blogher to read more posts about this important issue.

Here is a wonderful blog by a woman who not only writes eloquently about her own post partum depression, but offers help, comfort and a wealth of information to others who are looking for answers about PPD.

And here is my review of Brooke Shields book about her battle with PPD.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Brent's favorite poem

when god decided to invent
everything he took one
breath bigger than a circustent
and everything began

when man determined to destroy
himself he picked the was
of shall and finding only why
smashed it into because

e. e. cummings

Monday, October 22, 2007

Writing the book

“It is possible to move away from a vast, unbearable pain by delving into it deeper and deeper—by 'diving into the wreck,' to borrow the perfect words from Adrienne Rich. You can look at all the parts of a terrible thing until you see that they’re assemblies of smaller parts, all of which you can name, and some of which you can heal or alter, and finally the terror that seemed unbearable becomes manageable. I suppose what I am describing is the process of grief.” Barbara Kingsolver – Small Wonder

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Rest in Peace

You know how celebrity deaths seem to come in threes? After the July 30 double whammy of international director greats Michelangelo Antonioni and Ingmar Bergman, the other shoe dropped for me with the September death of classic Hollywood actress Jane Wyman. Here in these three artists was a mid-century cluster of craftsmanship and humanity, emotion and intellect.
I discovered Wyman when I watched her star with Rock Hudson in two of Douglas Sirk’s great films, Magnificent Obsession and All That Heaven Allows This was last year when I was on a Sirk kick after falling in love with Far From Heaven, a film inspired by All that Heaven Allows.
Far From Heaven pays homage to the meticulous mise en scene of Sirk, especially in regards to its emotive use of rich color, the precise movement of the actors and the architectural arrangement of figures and lines in the frame. Julianne Moore is gifted enough to follow Wyman’s lead without irony and fully live in the tightly mannered acting style . . . . But if I start talking about Far From Heaven, I need to compare Julianne Moore’s performance with her turn in Hayne’s Safe and then go on to Boogie Nights and Magnolia and we’ll be here all night . . .

A German expatriate, Sirk was a master of elaborate mise-en-scene in the service of “women’s pictures,” as these purple family melodramas were often called. Sirk made beautiful and swooningly emotional films, but in their day they didn’t receive the respect of more muscular 1950’s offerings – hard boiled noirs, war pictures, social issue films like On the Waterfront, Gentleman’s Agreement.

In both the Sirk films, the Wyman and Hudson characters fall in love, but are kept apart – in Heaven, by social strictures against their age differences, their social status. Wyman plays a widow with two grown children who oppose her relationship with her younger gardener. In Obsession, incredible plot devices separate the two – Hudson not only accidentally kills Wyman’s husband, but blinds her as well. It is only his rapid transformation from n’ere-do-well playboy to savior eye surgeon that can win her love.

In All That Heaven Allows, Sirk’s transformation of a studio backlot into rural New England through the seasons is a sight to see, especially in the sunlit winter scene when Wyman decides to return to her young lover’s home. She fails to hear Hudson call desperately to her from the cliff above! Hudson slips and falls from the cliff! He nearly dies but is nursed by the health by his love!

I suspect that viewers have one of two reactions to this level of melodrama – you either gasp at the audacity of this kind of thing or roll your eyes and turn the channel. I’m won over by Wyman’s eyes. Her bangs. Intense emotion kept at bay but revealed in those trembling lips.

Jane Wyman, 5 January 1917 – 10 September 2007

In another life, I showed Ingmar Bergman’s Wild Strawberries to seniors taking a World Lit course at a Chicago all-boys parochial school. The film worked beautifully for our thematic unit on “Young and Old,” which also included Edward Albee’s short play The Sandbox. Nostalgia visits the film’s elderly protagonist, played by Victor Sjostrom, but also surreal dread of death and meaninglessness.

Bergman’s unexpected mixing of the sweet and the harsh in Wild Strawberries is fascinating to me, and reminiscent of Maugham. The story unwinds as an elderly professor drives to accept a lifetime achievement award, revisiting his childhood home. Scenes of light loveliness alternate with pitch black - in one scene, the professor picks up some hitchhikers, including Bibi Andersson as a teenage blonde who laughs, chatters and delights in the high-pitched lilting clucks and lows of Swedish syllables. Then the car nearly collides with that of a desolate couple whose shockingly bitter argument seems to have landed like a rock through the window from another film entirely.

I came across Bergman’s The Virgin Spring on cable a while back. Within a few minutes, even before I discovered who was the director, it was clear a master storyteller was in charge. Purity and innocence destroyed, then brutally avenged. A story as old as time. Academy Award, best foreign film, 1961.

Ingmar Bergman, 14 July 1918 – 30 July 2007

Antonioni’s Red Desert? I remember the sound of it the most – a thick aural stew of anonymous industrial droning and pounding as lovely Monica Vitti wanders through a luridly colored wasteland of modernity . . .

And ah, Blow-Up. Such silly pop pleasures from a usually non-commercial artist. The mimes, the eerie silence in the park as David Hemmings shoots a love scene – or is it a murder?, Vanessa Redgrave laughing with no shirt on, The Yardbirds in concert. London at its frothiest.

Michelangelo Antonioni, 29 September 1912 – 30 July 2007

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Guiness commercial by Jonathan Glazer

Jonathan Glazer directed Sexy Beast. Look at this color!

Guinness is good for you. Like Malcolm Lowry's drunk said in Under the Volcano, beer is full of vitamins.

Jack Black- Be Kind Rewind

Gondry owes me some laughs. Just THINKING about "Endless Sunshine" makes me cry.

Monday, October 8, 2007

Around the House and In the Garden

Around the House and In the Garden is a lovely collection of essays about “heartbreak, healing and home improvement” by Dominique Browning, a divorced mother of two sons.

Lest you fear, as I did for a couple of minutes, that the writer’s day job as the editor of House and Garden magazine would have you stumbling as you read over designer names you feel like you should have heard of, or French terms for fancy furniture you’d never want in your comfy home, don’t worry.

Yes, there is a reference to a prie dieu, (hm?) but Browning reassures in each brief essay that meaning lies in the love, the comforting habits and the beauty created within a home rather than the sticks of furniture inside its walls.

The writing comforts and sustains, even as Browning takes us on her painful journey of deciding to leave her marriage, tearing a home asunder, grieving the emptiness, and working towards healing. There is agony on the way. When her son compares her to his father’s new wife, the normally gentle and equanimous author hisses, “Don’t you ever talk to me about that woman again,” and you feel the raw wounds of parent, child, family, home.

But spring returns with its crocus blooms, light enters the rooms again and Browning rediscovers joy in life and its beautiful objects. She writes, ". . . Even though, after several years of being on my own, and still taking to my bed on occasion, overwhelmed, I fell alive again. Attuned to the lives around me. I see beauty, again, and I feel the spirit pulsing in the things of everyday life."

In the spirit of how beloved things of this world can work pleasure on you, here are some of my favorite things this week:

1. Far friends who keep in touch and remind me that “Everything you need has been given to you and is inside you.”

2. The plastic parakeet on a tiny perch on our kitchen counter who chirps via motion sensor each time I walk by. He keeps me company and I don’t have to feed him or clean up his poop. What better pet?

3. Mad Men, continuing to please way past its pilot (ha! Good luck with THAT, Pushing Daisies!)

And 30 Rock, funny as ever (Tina Fey calls her ex-boyfriend and a woman answers so Tina pretends to be a survey company. “How old are you? . . . How much do you weigh? . . . When was the last time you had sex? . . . Well, who are YOU!? . . . No, who do YOU think YOU is?!” Hang up. I’m snorting with laughter.)

And one-third of Tell Me You Love Me – the couple-with-kids storyline. Forget the other whiner characters; this is the plot to follow. It’s an utterly moving portrayal of two good people who are working their butts off to be good parents but have become stymied by the mysteries of each other’s desire. The kitchen table with the kids is their safe cottage; the bedroom is the dark forest where they are lost.

4. Our Toyota hybrid. Because I don’t have to feel guilty driving Mia to school in an internal combustion engine, and waiting in carpool line I get to play with the computer map in the dash, and the CD player. The energy graph that tells me my mileage by the second is my coach in amateur hyper-mileaging as I coast to stops, and confuse other drivers by keeping within the speed limit.

5. Recently spied bumper stickers:

“Isis, Isis, Rah Rah Rah!”

“Mental Illness Runs in Every Family.” I don’t know why this last one makes me smile, but it does.

6. A Mate Latte with almond. “Mate has caffeine, but it is water soluble, so it’s not as much a shock to your system as coffee,” said the Argo Tea woman. I don’t know what she meant, but mmm, it’s good.

7. My khaki-green Free People shirtwaist dress from Crossroads Trading Company. It’s my go-to dress for almost any casual outing. Recycled! Cheap! Flattering!

Shopping at this place does make me feel a bit like the crazy old college-town lady who wears too much rouge and thinks she's still one of the kids, but I get to overhear delicious bits like this in the coed fitting room.

Guy one: Did you try on these True Religions shoes? They’re too small for me.

Guy two: I think these are women’s True Religions. (Pause) I don’t care. They look good.

Thursday, October 4, 2007

Party On

The decision to take Mia’s Saturday party away from home was a good one. The children took a walk in the woods on a beautiful cool morning, pausing to play non-competitive nature games along the way. We had sandwiches and the cake delivered to the nature center. Mr. Nicky played a great set, including a special song all about Mia’s day. The children left with pots of pansies and little mouse cookies.

Too much? Of course. But as I was driving home with the leftovers and bags of dirty plastic dishes to wash in my efforts to be a green hostess, I felt good. My freakage was kept to a minimum. It was all over in three quick hours and everyone seemed happy, even poor little Sebastian, who sobbed because he couldn’t sit next to his beloved Mia during lunch.

Feeling good is not very much what I do these days, so this ease of heart made me wonder, with what does one fill her mind when it is not topped off with worry? What replaces anxiety, regret, and guilt when we finally get rid of them – as this believer in recovery knows we can do?

Gratitude? Yes. Problem-solving? Yeah. Writing work – say, new sentence construction? Sure!

In The Snow Leopard, Peter Matthiessen describes the Buddhist belief that one’s thoughts at death will determine the state of one’s afterlife. “Therefore, every moment of life is to be lived calmly, mindfully, as if it were the last, to insure that the most is made of the precious human state—the only one in which enlightenment is possible.” (Interesting. He wrote this in October, too.)

There’s a lot to be said for the Christian idea of constant prayer, filling the mind with appreciation, kind intentions for others in need . . . It’s the requirement of praise and self-abnegation that gives me trouble.

Autumn landed with a boom for me on October 1. Overcast sky, shadows in every corner and gloom in my head.

“I’m ordering a SAD light,” I tell Randy. “You can put it next to your tinfoil hat,” he replies.

My nails are in shreds; the therapist is in Tuscany. (Does this make you laugh? It does me. It’s one of the few thoughts that broke through my funk today – that and the sight of Mia all decked out in a shiny new pink blouse for picture day.)

In last month's People magazine, Jenny McCarthy, who went to Mother McAuley High School on the Chicago southside and has always comes across as very real to me, says motherhood really kicked her ass. Her son at two was diagnosed with epilepsy, then autism and the strain tore her marriage apart.

Today everything makes me cry – the babysitter’s story of saving her best friend from an overdose, the memory of my husband describing my recycling as “militant,” Jon Brion’s soundtrack to Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. At least when I'm crying, I'm not screaming. My resilience is kaput. When Eleanor screams, “No! I won’t!” I answer dully, “I don’t care” or just pick her up, my lower back moaning with the strain, and haul her away.

Randy sends me an email with a picture of the Hang In There kitten on a branch. Thank God for patient and funny husbands, even though their eternal failings make the list of what makes Mommy cry.

Tuesday, October 2, 2007

To quote Mo Willems, “Party, PARTY, Party, PARTY!”

Yesterday was the final day of what seems like weeks of celebrating our oldest daughter’s fifth birthday.

Monday, her father and sister and I appeared at Mia’s classroom door with fruit kabobs and snapshots of our first little swaddled newborn and her subsequent birthday incarnations: as a big-eyed toddler, a chubby cheeked garden sprite, a little girl engrossed in her cupcake, a curly-haired fairy and, in a shot taken Saturday, a lovely little lady.

Mia beamed as she walked around the circle of children, carrying a tiny globe. A lit candle flickered in the middle of the group; her walk represented her five journeys around the sun. It was lovely.

“You sit back there and wahhh!” reminisced another mom who had been through the little Montessori ceremony herself.

For me, not right then. I was too distracted by the shiny faces and adorable (to me) but solemn (to them) comments of Mia’s classmates (“Does this have sugar in it? Sugar gives me a stomachache.” “I’m five!” “I’m not Mah-gret. I’m MAR-garet.”)

And I was thrilled they all (even picky Mia!) ate up the fruit kabobs. (A mango triangle, cantaloupe ball, pineapple chunk, kiwi slice, topped with a blueberry over the point.)

(I’m having a difficult time writing about this weekend linearly. Every thought sends me off on yet another essential tangent. If my brains were the Internets, this simple list of fruits would bear highlighted links. Links to, say, a site about the local/organic debate, and a Quicktime file of my local four dollar melon making squealing noises before it collapsed in a fishy orange wash of rot on the kitchen counter. Just the words “Mia” and “five” bear enough memory to crash my own internal hard drive.)

(Tangents such as . . . Most use of the links within the blogs that I encounter - including my own - seems earnestly literal. There must be some wired comedian out there using links in clever and ironic ways – a digital version of David Foster Wallace’s copious footnotes – perhaps the man himself? I wouldn't know. I read those kind of funny people in print, not on-line. Or I used to, when I had a little time.)

So, no, I didn’t tear up at Mia’s school. My reflective moment came later - family dinnertime that night. The hour was reminiscent of the holiday season, with the early darkness, comfort food on the menu (pot roast) and Dad assembling the zillion pieces of Mia’s new toy castle.

“This is the fifth anniversary of the biggest change in my life, well, my adult life.” I said to Randy. “Do you mind if I say it’s a bigger change than our wedding?” “No, I don’t mind. Of course it is,” says my husband, who I lived with contentedly for six years before marrying.

Monday, September 24, 2007

September, 2006

The clipped, yet lush Japanese islands at the botanical garden slowly disclose beautiful secrets. A perfectly proportioned island is revealed behind a gently curving turn of the path. Tiny landscapes of stone are tucked into ancient moss. Revelation and insight reside here by design. I try to concentrate on Mia’s stream of talk because the simplicity and intensity of the landscape is teaching me important lessons, if I only slow down, pay attention, pay close attention.

Mia holds a botany bingo card, placing stickers on the pictures of plants and landscape features we see, a Japanese lamp, a chipmunk, a tree.

“This is a map,” she says, holding up the bingo card for me to see. “The map says to cross the bridge before the alligator eats the bridge.”

Okay, maybe not everything she says is wise, but then I’m surprised by the next old words coming out of her little mouth: “The map says we have to cross the bridge to see something else.”

It’s like a little koan. It’s a plea to live. Don’t think about what’s below the bridge, Momma, don’t think about falling. There are still more wonderful things in this old world to see.

“The map says we have to see the treasure before something scary.”

In the Japanese tradition, bridges link worlds. The material world with the spiritual, the old world with the new. Paths control our understanding of the landscape we pass through – the rougher and more arduous the path, the more our attention is drawn to the details around us. The smoother the path, the more quickly we move through and past the beauty. Here is a wonderful gift for me, a metaphor for motherhood. If only I pay attention, pay close attention.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Mother as Constant Gardener

The September garden is beautiful.

The autumn clematis overflows the fence in nearly embarrassing abundance, bursting with hordes of delicate white flowers. One clematis explosion pulls down the flimsy wood lattice that strained all summer to support it. I jack the lattice back up against the garage wall, attach it with a rope to a hook under the roofline. The resulting off-kilter mound of plant and wire and thick rope has a butt-ugly shape but the flowers don’t care, jumping onto the rope, continuing to grow wild and fast tendrils, like slow-motion squirrels exploring, swirling toward the roof.

The sedum is a beautiful old-fashioned shade of soft pink; the Bluebeard caryopteris is a riot of bees. We are in recovery from the crispiness and fatigue of August. Freshness and energy fill the air, like spring, but wiser.

That October day four years ago when we first saw our house, when I walked up the stone path curving through the side yard’s woodland garden, I was sold. Something peaceful and expansive in the established beds of green and blossom made me dismiss as minor quirks the house’s cracked foundation, the bowing basement wall, the tilt of the upstairs floors.

“We inherited this garden,” is my reply to compliments about the Eden in our backyard. Someone unseen planned and installed and tended beds on all four sides of the house. Someone planted the roses, the lilac and dogwood and dreamed of seeing them in maturity someday. But that someone moved away and we are left with the blossoms.

I have the same feeling of windfall when I look at my girls. I have to say, “I can’t see it” when people claim to see a resemblance between them and me. Where did these two beauties come from? How did we get so lucky to have them come into our lives? How can we live our lives so to deserve them?

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

The Corrections

Last month in Michigan I was not so much reading The Corrections again as galloping through it at a pace to keep up with the anxious frenzies of the neurotic and endlessly hungry characters. I carried the book with me everywhere, read while I brushed my teeth, held the book open with a jar of Ponds while I dried my hair. But when I carried it down to the stream where the girls played, Randy offered a correction of his own. “Engage!” he called out, then went back to focusing the girls in his viewfinder.

I put the paperback down in the sand right next to me, watched the girls who were content to splash and wade without my help. I didn’t say a word.

It was a moment worthy of the passive aggressions and petty retaliations of Jonathan Franzen’s book. You know how you start to live the book you are currently reading, thinking in the patterns of the narrator, seeing the world through characters’ eyes?

I sat there in the sand, the book inches away from my hand, and stewed. I stewed at the memory of Randy sitting in the car with his Ipod earlier that day while I led the girls down the peach orchard lanes.

Then the lovely parts of the memory took over and I forgot all about the man and his technology. The girls and I picked fat and perfect peaches from ripe clusters on low trees. I was surprised by the effort needed to tug one from its tough stem on the branch. I was amazed by the luscious crunch when I bit into one - the perfectly ripe peach was as crisp as an Asian pear. “Why are the peaches at the store so soft?” I asked Randy later. And why are these magical trees that bear perfect fruit not in every backyard? Sally tells me that the pruning shape is called open center, like a goblet, with lots of space between branches. Pruning seems the skill that separates the farmer from the gardener.

Anyway, The Corrections. Great ideas on every page. Before kids, during my first read, I thought I recognized in-laws who shall remain nameless. This time around, I wince to recognize my own relationships.

I still relish with sick glee the chapter about Gary, the older Lambert son, locked in vicious battle with his wife over which one will be more sympathetically sane and which one will wear the mantle of “clinically depressed.”

Each character of the twisted Lambert family is both a neurotic cartoon and yet utterly recognizable. Contemptible and yet sympathetic! Except the daughter Denise. Her face remains blank to me. Closeted lesbian, executive chef, dutiful daughter, love adventurer? Don’t get her. Her chapter reads like mild Judith Krantz with dated pop culture references, recipes, thrilling sex, descriptions of fancy digs. Forgivable in the company of such other pages.

What did you think of the ending? Does it offer eternal hope or senselessly blind ignorance about what little is left in a wasted life?

Tuesday, September 4, 2007

The end of summer.

Red leaves tip the branches of the neighbor’s sugar maples.

Nora closes her eyes while flying back and forth on the swings. She launches into a song, “Oh no, you can’t believe it! Oh no, you can’t believe it!” Crowing at the top of her helium-high little voice, it sounds more like, “OH NOOOO, YOU CANT BEE YEEVE IT!” Mia and I join in and we chant the song for five minutes. The dusty smell of pot smoke drifts down from somewhere, probably behind that Rush beach towel hung up in the neighbor’s second floor window.

Nora’s voice is something like the buzzing of a soprano frog, something like the monotone of a tired little old lady.

In Mia’s bedtime poetry book, there’s a birthday song for a five year old. “Hey, we can sing this on your birthday coming up!” I say, then launch brightly into the poem. But when I come to the line about “Now I won’t ever be four or three or two,” my voice cracks and I have to pause. You forget sometimes, in the rush of cake planning and invitations that a tender stage is ending.

Why does their chubbiness move me so much? Eleanor has grown an inch since May. Who are those short-haired inarticulate cherubs in our Christmas video?

“Nora! What did Daddy catch in the cage?”

“Oh! A tip-moke!”

“A tip-moke?”

“No, a TIP-MOKE!”

“A chipmunk?”

“Yeah! A tip-moke!”

After a low-key summer, Mia started ice-skating, gymnastics, princess ballet and Montessori preschool all in the same week. She has taken it all in stride. What capabilities lie dormant in her, only needing the touch of the right teacher? “When the student is ready, the teacher will appear,” Grandpa reminds us.

“I don’t want to go to school!” wailed Mia in the car on the way to the first day.

“Okay,” I replied. “We can go take a look and if you don’t like it, we can go home and try another day.” This is not a false promise. I would do this. But I had that mommy-Spidey-sense that she was going to forget my promise as soon as she spied some little friends.

Sure enough, she skipped from the car to the building, took the meandering garden path instead of the sidewalk and begged for a penny to drop in the donation dragon’s mouth. When the classroom door opened to show us a real bunny residing in his cage just inside the door, there was no turning back.

“I love school!” said Mia the next day. “Am I going again today?”

“GROWUPS!” This is Eleanor’s reaction to hearing any music that doesn’t have a predictable up and down melody, steady 4/4 beat and a soprano singer with a smile in her voice.

“Grown-up music is SAD! I’m gonna be SA-AD!” (in a threatening sing-song) “I’m gonna be SA-AD!”

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

How to be a Happier Writer

1. Put the girls first. Remember, as Eleanor snuggles in your lap, that Mia used to do this too, a hundred years ago. The computer will always be there, the snuggling won't.

2. Put lots of eggs in lots of baskets. Then you won’t be so emotionally attached to that one essay that the managing editor last month said she would respond to in one week.

3. Think in chapters, not in books. Short chapters.

4. Just like you tell the girls: “Be patient! What does patient mean? That’s right. Happy while we wait.”

5. Remember Tivo keeps shows forever. Heck, it still has your show tunes episode of American Idol from the second season. Mad Men and 30 Rock will wait for you.

6. Book is book, journal is journal and blog is blog. Remember the three talk to each other, but after a lunch hour chatting, they go back to their separate jobs.

7. Write less, revise more. In Bloom’s taxonomy, synthesis is a higher order of thinking than recall. Just bring it on home.

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

How to be a Happier Mom

1. Sleep more. Go to bed when the kids do. Suddenly find enough energy and time to dive into those piles of random toys in the corners. Pack up five bags of outgrown playthings for another Freecycle family.

2. Let the babysitter go. Feel sad that you had to make a little disaster in her life. Know you made the right decision to be with Nora when she gets the impulse to bite, to be with Mia when she takes her first and her second and her eighth ice skating lesson.

3. Write less.

Sunday, August 26, 2007

Near Miss

Friday afternoon we leave the house to buy a steak at the butcher for Daddy’s dinner.

For this short walk in 75-degree weather, Eleanor has decided to wear her Minnie Mouse costume over her sundress and a jean jacket over that. She cries for me to fasten each button of the coat. She carried a stuffed dolphin and his bottle. Mia carries a decorative umbrella. I have a milk crate full of leftover bud vases, each wrapped in newspaper to drop off at the florist on Ridge that posted a flyer about wanting old vases to recycle. I also grab a continuing ed catalog to read at the park.

The streets are full of debris from last night’s storm. Mature trees lie splintered, betrayed by their top-heavy branches, their weak roots.

There is absurdity and miracle everywhere – dismal elms on their last legs stand unscathed. The downed trees often have solid cores. Why do some fall and some stay unright? A purple Rose of Sharon in full ruffled bloom seems to have lost not a leaf, not a blossom. Behind it rests a snapped giant. Through the litter left on a smashed car you can just see the cheery sign “Courtesy of Knauz BMW.”

A hundred year old willow lost a limb that cruelly sheared off half the tree house it once wore like a stiff tutu around its trunk.

Two trees on the parkway fell toward a red brick house built in the 1920’s, landing in a V on either side of the main section of the house. One lies on the one-story addition, the other on the front lawn. Alberto, the father, says with a tired smile, “We are all okay. My wife is okay. She was very frightened. She was home with the children. You see that second floor dormer? It is stucco. Through that window you can see the crib where the baby was sleeping.”

The workers on the roof stand mere feet from the window. They cut the trunk into short sections, carry each away on a wheeled cart. You suddenly feel the mass of the giants around you, realize the weight suspended above your head as you walk under this diminished canopy that last week seemed so protective and sheltering.

Eleanor must stop to rest. I take off her extra layers, add them to the milk crate. We walk in the gutter when trees block sidewalks on both sides of the street. Big grade school kids climb in the branches.

At the parochial school playground, we look at a stone sculpture of Mary standing on a wolf-headed snake and a crescent moon. Nora says, “I have to poo-poo.” Oh the dreaded words. Where are we? Do we go home? I know there is no hope of a compassionately unlocked door at this school. Across the street is a park where there is a trash container with a lid. I ask a nanny for a wipe and make a nest of leaves for Eleanor to squat over. She pees, as does Mia. That’s all, thank goodness. They clean themselves with maple leaves.

We play at the park. The colors seem brighter. Disaster can do this.

“Five minutes!”

Nora runs to me crying. She has three red bites on her thigh. It looks swollen and she is sobbing, “Boo boo bunny!” Wasps? She stops crying after a few minutes on my lap.

We leave her extra clothes, the umbrella, the stuffed animal at the park. I take up the red crate again. It has become so heavy and pointy against my hip. We go on.

On the block of the grocery store, Mia says “Ow!” and sits down on the pavement. I sit with her. She takes off her shoe to show me a blister on her heel. “Is that my skin?” she asks about the little white wrinkle. Sitting down on the cool sidewalk with her felt like a victory and I am inspired again. “Let’s bend down the back of your shoe like one of your Crocs!” It works. She is pleased.

The grocery is closed. No Power says the sign on the door. The butcher is one more block down, past the intersection where the stoplight is out, cars creeping and lunging through like guilty schoolboys. I know now there is no fresh meat for Daddy’s dinner, that the vases I have lugged half a mile are going home with us.

“The first thing to go is the sense of humor,” our Montana backpacking guide said between stories of hypothermia and heat exhaustion.

A few weeks ago, this may have been a different story, a disaster story. Today, we’ll go home and tell Dad what a big adventure we had.

Friday, August 24, 2007

Recent Inspirations

“The ocean doesn’t stop. It does not disappoint. It may surge, suck, drown, wreak havoc, but that is its nature and it is always itself, time without end.

“When we make our homes and plant our gardens we do it in defiance of endings, with a hopefulness about the future. No matter what surges and collapses in our lives, don’t we all keep looking for something that does not end?” Dominique Browning, Around the House and In the Garden: A Memoir of Heartbreak, Healing and Home Improvement

From poet William Stafford, when asked how he dealt with writer’s block: “I lower my standards.”

In a season of summertime distractions and scattered work, when I fear that by my disconnected writing schedule I am trying to scale a mountain in brief dayhikes, I take comfort here:

“What if we could be more deliberate in our collection of these little language scraps, these spices, these pieces of fabrics, and when we had a moment or two away from the kids, or the bills, or the job, we could sort through and cluster and group them, just as a quilter puts together matching pieces of cloth, or a cook, the save ingredients? It’s not something we often hear about, this way of writing, though I’ve little doubt there are other writers who’ve learned, like me, to write by doing piecework, who’ve learned to trust the unconscious mind to have a logic all its own. Writers who’ve found that after days or weeks or longer of collecting words, lines, images, we can see patterns emerging: themes, subjects, recurring thoughts, new angles on old ideas. They add up to something. For me, for us, writing as ‘an act of discovery’ is the process of discovering that sum.” Ingrid Wendt, from Mamaphonic: Balancing Motherhood and Other Creative Acts, ed. Bee Lavender

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Vacation Snapshots

The enormous white hosta blossom fills the car with sweet scent. “It smells like a lily,” says Sally on receiving it. Her surprise at our impromptu birthday celebration is genuine – the actual date is two weeks away. But the girls love a party and we all love her. So a cake and balloons and gifts and a card that Mia decorated and scrawled with a backwards “2ALLy.”

Sally made the girls a can of worms from yellow fleece stitched into socky tubes with googly eyes housed in an oatmeal can labeled “Worms.” From her new neighbors’ pile of abandoned moving detritus, she nabbed a giant mattress box and cut two horse silhouettes from the cardboard. Cut out handles, added some paint and the girls gallop around the backyard.

While Randy and I had a real grown-up dinner, she galloped with them, hid and sought, and played their favorite game of all, the most difficult of all, narrating their little animal's antics.

"And then the baby giraffe found a turtle friend!" Sally suggests. "No, no, no," corrects Mia. "Tell what's happening!" bellows Nora. "N. A. Z. I!" sings Sally sweetly and I laugh and laugh.

At the deserted twilight beach the smooth water is silver, luminous as a pearl. I strip, Britney style, down to underwear and wade in. Mia does the same and we jump up and down in the chill water that immediately warms on our skin. The water is clear to the sand below.

“Yeah! Donuts! Donuts!” calls little Eleanor, who one minute before needed as much gentle guidance out of the land of sleep as she did into it. I’m her Mommy Mercury, responding to her plaintive call, lying beside her on the trundle so she can sigh, close her eyes again, snatch a few more thumb-sucking moments of oblivion beside my enormous warmth.

We snap a photo in front of the mini-mart Mexican restaurant that brings us back to the real Mexico – lurid videotape covers, bins of dried peppers, piles of rainbow colored cookies, neat plastic packets of dusty herbs under low ceilings, between crammed tight aisles.

How is materialism destructive if you love this world? If your materialism is a closer kin to sensuality than consumerism? Today we will find pleasure where we can, in Randy’s morning coffee, hot and strong, my afternoon tea. Nora doesn’t eat her banana so much as enters it with care and attention and love, slowly pulling off the long peel, slicing the furry fruit into pieces, her fat thighs resting on the seat at the low table. Mia dances as she retrieves the ping pong ball.