Saturday, June 30, 2007

BlogHers Act Update.

BlogHers Act
Here is a link to the BlogHers Act survey. What global issue is most important to you?

The results will be announced at the BlogHer conference at the end of July.

I’ll be trucking down to Navy Pier on July 28, with my little family in tow and a handful of some kind of “We All Fall Down” swag (“Sealed With A Gift,” translated one of my students. I thought it was “Shit We All Get!”)

I love this sort of thing. Lots of freebies and smart people to hear and positive energy and new friends to make. Randy and the girls will go play at the Chicago Children’s Museum and then go home for Nora’s nap.

Are you going?

Thursday, June 28, 2007

Great America

After our great day at Kiddieland, I’ve had theme parks on the brain. Now I’m starting to think I live in one. Our village has the charming details they try to replicate in an ersatz Disneyland Main Street – sidewalks that curve around the century old tree trunks, brick streets, iron lampposts straight out of C.S. Lewis.

And the theme park population of big-eyed cuddly characters who give you hugs? I live with two miniature versions.

I felt the Magical Sense of Wonder that Disney tries to bottle up and sell when Mr. Nicki came to our door the other afternoon. Around dinnertime, I heard a soft knock and some strummed chords through the screen door. Was it our ukulele-playing neighbor? A singing telegram from my extravagently thoughtful husband? No, it was a genuine traveling minstrel! The girls were wide-eyed, a little shy, but game while Mommy giggled at the funny lyrics. Nora even danced a little.

Here’s a sample:

Some people say you’re weird cause you’re covered with slime!
And you’re a boy and a girl at the very same time!

Earthworm! Earthworm!

If they cut off your head it might not grow back
So keep it in your tunnel when the birds attack!


The title “Nerds and Weirdos” didn’t sound promising to me, but the actual song had a great message and an infectious beat:

Without the nerds and weirdos we could never get along
Cause the nerds made our computers and the weirdos write our songs!

How could I ever been so blind to see
That everyone’s important in this world?
Including me!

Mr. Nicki plays Sunday, July 15, 6:30, at CJ Arthur's in Wilmette and at 1:00 on Sunday, July 22 at Centennial Pool, 2300 Old Glenview Road, Wilmette.

You could say Suburbia is an adult “Great America,” with the teen pleasure we wrung out of death-defying thrills replaced with their adult opposites: comfort, ease, community, security. And, like kids gorged on funnel cakes and Coke, we can still fall prey to a surfeit of sweetness.

Tom Perrotta writes of this discontent in paradise in his 2004 novel Little Children. A Hollywood darling, Perrotta has had his novels Election and Little Children adapted into smart moneymaker films.

The perfectly named novel Little Children introduces us to a crowd of suburban characters acting out the needy and self-centered behavior that is blameless in a child, but potentially tragedy-making in grown-ups.

Sarah, our main character, carries the sullenness of an adolescent who thinks she is alone in feeling underappreciated and misunderstood as she begins an affair with another stay-at-home parent she meets on the playground.

The pages of Little Children fly by. Perrotta writes a great football scene. I loved the killer last paragraph. A perfect ending.

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Summer Stakeout

Hi Readers!

The summer issue of Mom Writer’s Lit Magazine is out. You might want to take a peek. Oh, what’s this? Under Profiles and Reviews? Why, it’s yours truly!

Who am I kidding? I can’t be coy about it. I’ve been on a stakeout for days, hunched down in my car on the street in front of the website, waiting for the new issue. When it appeared, I emailed the world.

Here’s what my neighbor Michele wrote me: “My dearest childhood friend lived in Brooke Shields' hometown of Haworth, NJ. This was at the time when she was dating Michael Jackson! I remember riding our bikes past her house hoping to catch a glimpse of them. On Halloween, Brooke's mother would throw candy out of the window.”

How awesome is that? I feel like calling Kathy Griffin.

Sunday, June 24, 2007

Disneyland, Shmisneyland

KiddieLand rocks. Old School, Baby!

I’m not sure what won me over – was it the safety belts that resembled a piece of rope held in place by the jaws of a pair of pliers? The swinging screen door on the women’s bathroom? All the free Pepsi products you could drink?

Maybe it was the retro rides themselves: cross-eyed and lumpy Dumbos, needle nosed space ships with glittery paint. And no TV characters!

No, I know what charmed me. My own enchanted, dancing and well-rested girls, no, make that my enchanted and dancing BECAUSE well-rested girls. Nora had fallen asleep on the way down to Melrose Park. Randy and Mia went into the park and I waited with Nora.

I ate a salad (edamame at McDonalds? Who knew?) in the car while she slept on. I finished Tom Perrotta’s Little Children. (From the first line, “The young mothers were telling each other how tired they were,” Perotta creates a very familiar suburban world of the once young and rebellious. Speaking of Kate Winslet movies, is anyone else excited and a tiny bit apprehensive about the upcoming film version of Revolutionary Road? I’ve read this book at least three times and I just hope they get right the maddening characters. . . )

I read. I looked at the sleeping baby. Her hairline had grown dark with sweat. I looked at the pronounced veins on the back of my hands. I compared mine to hers – the fat back of her hand is as brown and round as a toasted bun.

Anyboo, my point is, NORA NAPPED. And she was happy as a clam when she woke at 1:30, ready for some spin-around-and-feel-some Gs fun.

It’s such a tiny window of appreciation for this place. Mia will be five in October; Eleanor is two and a half. In a couple of years the girls will want Great America thrills, drops and throws and violent swings. The gentle pleasures of the Polyp and the Roto-Whip will no longer be enough.

Our last gasp of a ride was supposed to be quickie before we hit the road but turned into a big show. On a merry-go-round with mid- 20th century replacements for the horsies -- bicycles, finned convertibles, streetcars -- some poor father kept trying to make his multiple toddlers sit down in their fire engine seats, only to walk to the sidelines and find another little one had popped up. The ride couldn’t start until everyone was settled. The other children started getting restless. Nora was pulling a Jackie Kennedy out the back of her convertible, (sorry!) and Mia, as patient and tired as a dad on a cross country trip, was turned around in her seat trying to convince the babies to sit down.

I just loved the spectacle.

Thursday, June 21, 2007

Throwback Thursday

1969. North Avenue Beach, Chicago. Summer of Love. You can see the bridge over Lake Shore Drive in the background.

From left to right, here is my cousin Jeanne from Kansas City, my brother Ron, and my little cousin Cort who was visiting from New Mexico. Cort works for Microsoft now, and has a little baby of his own named Liberty. Then there's me in front, my little sister Nancy in the matching suit and my cousin Jan, Jeanne's sister. I don't know what teenage resentment had Jan glaring at the camera; the subtle injustices inflicted on teens are invisible to young children. Behind Jan is our Aunt Susan, Cort's mom. Aunt Susan took care of the four of us (my brother Christopher is not in the picture) that summer until we moved to Kansas City to live with Jeanne and Jan and their folks.

It looks like we grabbed all the pots and tubs and teacups from the kitchen to play with.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Killer Of Sheep

When I said Killer of Sheep was one of my favorite films, this is what I was talking about.

Killer Sheep

When I said Killer of Sheep was one of my favorite films, this is not what I was talking about. But I do love this trailer.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Boys to Men

Piano Boys

Nora and Mia and I walk to Homer’s for ice cream. The seventeen-year cicadas are calling out to each other high in the trees. My neighbor Susie says they sound like thousands of elves beating tiny drums; I hear a music like an empty aerosol spray or waves of approaching benevolent aliens.

We are standing in line when the two teenage boys behind us, floppy-haired, probably a little young to drive yet, surprise me by breaking into song.

“It’s five o’clock on a Saturday, the regular crowd shuffles in,” begins one of the boys and my eyes go wide. The other kid chimes in quietly, “there’s an old man sitting next to me,” and I’m amazed. This is 2007. Kids today know who Billy Joel is?

Their song is no louder than conversation. They are singing for no one but each other, for fun. What uneasy confidence and unsure joy these two sweeties have, trying on the new clothes of adolescent identity, trying out their private selves in a public place. I think about turning around to give them a smile, but attention from an anonymous mom doesn’t usually encourage those who are not children or adults. This special animal between the ages can spook easily if the cool is tainted by adult appreciation. So I keep my smile to myself, satisfied with the rare sighting of young adult males emerging from their chrysalides.

Boymen. I taught them for eight years at a single sex high school and I left still bewildered by the unpredictability of the beast. A boy vomiting in a hall trashcan, then matter of factly shrugging off my offers of help. An occasional propensity for drama I would have found extreme in young women. Tolerance where I didn’t expect it, unmocked gentleness. Gleeful mobs celebrating OJ’s verdict. A crowd watching a fight in the hall, their arms crossed, their faces passive. The shocking stillness of six hundred boys at the memorial service for one of their own, some weeping openly.

Without a doubt, my very favorite part of the job was watching them grow over the four years I was part of their lives. Chubby puppies transformed into hirsute thin-faced adults. I witnessed slow motion waves of maturity that crested for me at graduation when they disappeared into the open sea of their lives. An occasional reappearance, at a toll booth, tableside in a restaurant, on a city street, on the masthead of a magazine, always makes me happy, leaves me feeling traces of nostalgia, pride, affection.

Date Night Double Feature

I spent last Saturday night in the good company of three men who still trail the clouds of their adolescence as their sweet heads still bear their childlike curls: my cute husband, Seth Rogan and Glen Hansard. Look at these men carefully and you may find an adolescent vulnerability, disguised as carefully as a wiseguy’s lisp.

Rogan, the lead of Judd Apatow’s Knocked Up, was only sixteen years old when he appeared on the show Freaks and Geeks but already had the resigned mien and gravel voice of a life-weary grown man. Now he’s funny and loose in this new hit movie playing Ben Stone, an adult with the lifestyle of a child.

The movie’s zillion dollar premise is how scruffy responsibility-phobe Ben will deal with a surprise pregnancy after a drunken one night stand with A-type Alison Scott (the impossibly pretty and very funny Katherine Heigl.) Ben reacts to this bomb with a combination of horror, uneasiness, and measured excitement that is both funny and moving. I loved his little “yeah!” at the end of the phone call when he agrees to support the frightened Alison any way he can.

Before his lightning quick makeover into a responsible adult (Bam! A job! Bam! A lease!), the movie revels in showing Ben’s other possible route – that of his wayward and hilariously wasted friends. My favorite bit in the whole damn film was an incomprehensible exchange between Allison and a stoner girl played by Charlyne Yi about fighting babies for food. This has to be seen to be believed.

Did any other moms wonder how the acute olfactory powers of a pregnant woman could have allowed Allison to set foot in the icky stoner house?

Glen Hansard, the lead singer of the band The Frames, wears his heart in his eyes as well as on his sleeve in John Carney’s little independent movie, Once. Playing a street busker with hopes of something a little bigger, Hansard plays guitar and sings with fearless and wild anguish, while his shyness with a new friend is that of a boy. When he watches the lovely young Czech musician, played by Marketa Irglova, sing at the piano, his mouth hangs slightly open in awe.

The two gather a rag tag group of musicians, haggle their way into some studio time and create a demo tape. That’s about it for the plot of this slip of a film, but it was as thrilling to watch them create music as to witness the beginning of their relationship.

Is it a spoiler to say that I had such a good cry at the end? Nice long satisfying sobs that faded by the end of the credits.

P.S. One of my favorite movies, Killer of Sheep, directed by Charles Burnett is coming to the Music Box August 3. Check it out!

Friday, June 15, 2007

BlogHers Act

BlogHers Act
BlogHer is taking suggestions for a year-long initiative called BlogHers Act, which will utilize the power of the 11,000 member strong organization.

Such smart women! Such worthy causes!

BlogsHers Act will
1) adopt a single cause for global change to rally behind and

2) create a “Voter Manifesto” of crucial issues to pose to our 2008 presidential candidates.

My vote for the global issue is the humanitarian crisis in Darfur.

Urgent. Specific. Imperative.

My choices for the four political issues:

-The environment
-Health insurance for all Americans
-Affordable antiretroviral drugs for the poorest AIDS patients, here and abroad.

“Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services.” From the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

If we agree with this powerful statement, adopted by the UN in 1948, then our activism will come not from a superior place of charity and sentiment, but from a stance of equality and solidarity.

The environment from a mom perspective:
Do we love our children? Of course! Do we love our grandchildren? Some of us are of the fortunate age and circumstances to be able to soften into smiles. “Yes,” you say. “Very much.” For others of us, we smile too, imagining the future years when our little ones, grown tall, will be going thru their very own thrills of potty training, the humbling hours of mindless play, the calling us for advice, the loving a child as much as we love them.

But do we love our great-grandchildren? We are not allowed to sluice off this question with “well, I don’t know if they’ll decide to have kids. . . . ” You can’t get past the fact that once you make a kid, you make a legacy.

How we live, where we live, how we move from place to place, what we eat, what we buy, what and how we discard what we no longer want, how we stay warm and clean and comfortable –all of our choices today will act on the children who are not here yet.

We need to get in nesting mode for the world.

Universal healthcare

I Tivoed Oprah last week to hear Cormac McCarthy, (my husband does the best imitation of Oprah announcing her strangest book club choice ever - he bellows joyously, "THE ROOOOOAAAAAD!!!") but Micheal Moore was on first, promoting Sicko, his new movie about America’s profit-based healthcare system.

You may find this man difficult, but he made an interesting point -- The term “socialist medicine” brings up scary images of cold and impersonal institutions, cold war-era wards, perhaps, with rows of cots. But we fail to recognize that so many American social services, which are part of our daily lives, could also be considered socialist: the police, the fire department, the libraries. Profit drives none of these, unlike the American health care industry. And the search for profit is what creates denied coverage for millions of Americans.

AIDS drugs

The Lazarus Effect from this month's Vanity Fair Africa issue. (The Red campaign is troublesome to me - "Be materialist for the poor others!" - but there's other good stuff in this article.)

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Mia, at Four and a Half.

She skips when walking isn’t happy enough, runs when the fun is not arriving fast enough.

“One, two, ready, go” and we launch a little band, Mia blowing away on her mean blues harp, Nora intently shaking the maracas with her whole body and Mommy keeping time with a kitty cat tambourine.

While Nora’s voice is Betty Boop-high in a monotone of new vocabulary, Mia’s voice travels in up and down nonsense cadences, imitating dramatic stories she’s heard. “They fell in love and THEN! Over and over they went. And then! They went to the ZOO and walked and walked UP the road.”

She’s our four year old Teenager. She yells “I NEVER want you to touch me! Don’t talk to me!” and weeping angrily, runs from the room.

She’s our Drama Queen. Reunions with misplaced toys or news of a baby sitter’s arrival are heralded with gasps. She makes vehement use of her new favorite phrase, “never-ever,” as in, “Oh! I never-ever have used this cup in a while!”

She is an Artist.

Superhero. Wearing nothing but underpants and a cape, Mia runs down the hall with her arms stretched in front of her, looking for stuffed animals in peril. Eleanor, her sidekick, follows close behind.
“Mommy, Daddy, look!” Mia directs our attention to a small plastic parrot (or is it a macaw?) on the edge of Eleanor’s crib.
“His name is Peenie. He’s a baby parrot in the top of a tree! I’ll save him!”
Eleanor, always her big sister’s cheerleader, (except when she is her nemesis) echoes, “Babee! Tree! Yay!”
Mia plucks down the toy and gives it to me. Randy and I exchange amused glances and he goes downstairs to grab the camera.

Mia: There is only room on this iceberg for ONE person. And that NUMBER is me. NO ONE who is a BABY or a grown-up is allowed. NORA is a baby and you are a GROWNUP so you are not ALLOWED.
Me: If Nora is a baby and I’m a grownup, what are you?
Mia: A movie star.

Stand-Up Comedian. At the end of a play, sometimes the costumed players break character and bring up the houselights. They brightly ask, "Do you have any questions?" Mia has her arm up in the air immediately. “What is your favorite Christmas present?” she asks. We snort.


Saturday, June 9, 2007

Nine Jewels

Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage by Alice Munro. Vintage Books USA, 2001. 336 pages. ISBN 9780375727436

A collection of nine short stories about the lives of Canadian women, memory’s power, the heart’s survival, imperfect love.

With a few strokes, Alice Munro creates specific internal worlds, familiar yet unique. Piercingly perceptive observations of the way people think and act and feel are uttered in simple language.

“Young husbands were stern, in those days. Just a short time before, they had been suitors, almost figures of fun, knock-kneed and desperate in their sexual agonies. Now, bedded down, they turned resolute and disapproving. Off to work every morning, lean-shaven, youthful necks in knotted ties, days spent in unknown labors, home again at suppertime to take a critical glance at the evening meal and to shake out the newspaper, hold it between themselves and the muddle of the kitchen, the ailments and emotions, the babies.” (from “What is Remembered”)

I read this collection shortly after it first came out in 2001 but picked up the book again this spring because the new film, Away from Her, is getting great reviews. The film, directed by young actress Sarah Polley, (have you seen her in The Sweet Hereafter? She sings, too!) is based on Munro’s short story, “The Bear Went Over the Mountain,” the final story in this book.

“Bear” describes the last chapters of Fiona, a dynamic and intelligent woman losing her sense of the past and of Grant, her loving, but casually unfaithful husband. When Grant plans and carries out an act of tremendous and arguably selfless love, I was satisfied by his comeuppance (or is it another rationalized betrayal?) but also moved by the continuing mystery of what we will do for love.

Something fascinating happens in the last few lines of the story – the proper names drop away into an anonymous “he,” mimicking the processes of Fiona’s slipping mind. The differences between the men are collapsed; the love becomes borderless.

Just as often as she creates a coincidence or an ironic conclusion worthy of O. Henry, Alice Munro will make a beautiful situation that seems without any obvious place in the narrative arc. Later, I’ll realize how the meandering path has been carefully designed, each detail telling. Each facet of the jewels in this collection has been polished for maximum brilliance.

Of the drapes her husband hangs after her cancer diagnosis, Jinny, in “Floating Bridge” reflects, “she knew now that there comes a time when ugly and beautiful serve pretty much the same purpose, when anything you look at is just a peg to hang the unruly sensations of your body on, and the bits and pieces of your mind.”

In the title story, a cruel trick played by two young girls on one girl’s simple housekeeper, is turned on itself in a gratifying way. In less deft hands, this ironic conclusion could have felt leaden and vengeful. But Munro gives one of the girls this reflection: “It was the whole twist of consequence that dismayed her—it seemed fantastical, but dull. Also insulting, like some sort of joke or inept warning, trying it get its hooks in her.” This kind of doubling back, to look at the oddness of fate and human behavior, keeps me in the faith of the story’s world. Strange twists do occur in this big old world, Munro reminds us. We believe her.

(There was one Munro story, not in this collection, so it’s not really fair of me to mention, that pushed the neatness of coincidence beyond palatable. I will mention it, though, because it shows how difficult it is to tread this tightrope of irony. And because this is my review, on my blog, goddammit. In “Tricks,” from the 2004 collection Runaway, a mentally-disabled twin makes a casual gesture that a woman misconstrues as rejection from his brother. Her entire life is changed by a device creaks like an antiquated machine. But that is another book.)

Here, in this masterful collection filled with pleasure and wonder, Munro creates stories where the past stirs the passions of the present into swirls sometimes murky, sometimes clarified.

Thursday, June 7, 2007

One World

The Crazy Hip Blog Mamas are writing about their favorite good causes this week. Yippee!

I want to share the work of an astounding person and his life-saving organization, Partners in Health. I first encountered Dr. Paul Farmer when I read Tracy Kidder’s excellent book, Mountains Beyond Mountains. Pulitzer prize-winning journalist Kidder chronicles Farmer’s life work. He paints a portrait of a doctor who is not only a miracle worker of treating infectious disease, but also a genius of innovation and organization in breaking the cycle of poverty that makes millions vulnerable to those diseases.

Dr. Paul Farmer says he has had “the great privilege of working as a physician” in what some may call the most hopeless places on earth: Haiti, ravaged by AIDS, tuberculosis and poverty; war-torn Rwanda; the ghettos of Peru; Russian prison. Farmer’s efforts and the accomplishments of Partners in Health transform these bleak corners of the world to places of hope and possibility.

With an unflashy name, and an unconventional vision, Partners in Health seeks health and care solutions in these countries by “Whatever It Takes.” This is not the kind of medical practice we are familiar with in America with our scheduled appointments, business-like office visits, prescriptions, pharmacies, insurance cards, end of story.

Partners in Health designs care solutions that address the underlying problems that create health disasters. The system is changed, or at least circumvented, not coddled. The person’s life is treated, not just her disease.

Here is Dr. Paul Farmer with a patient at the Zanmi Lasante clinic in Cange, Haiti.

Farmer and PIH’s work is undertaken not simply out of sentiment, but from a place of empathy and solidarity. “When a person in Peru, or Siberia, or rural Haiti falls ill, PIH uses all of the means at our disposal to make thm well – from pressuring drug manufacturers, to lobbying policy makers, to providing medical care and social services. Whatever it takes. Just as we would do if a member of our own family—or we ourselves—were ill.” (PIH website, 2006)

“Tout moun se moun” say the Haitians. Everyone is human. When Randy and I went to Asia pre-kids, when we took the girls to Mexico, we would look at the sky, the light and say, “It’s another world.” Look at this little girl's face - it’s not.

Tuesday, June 5, 2007

Eleanor, at Two and a Half

As a toddler Nora still hasn’t lost her infant oral fixation – we have to watch where the mouth goes. And like my old dog Lady, who despite her high-minded name adored rolling in dead seagull, Nora's tastes lack the smallest measure of discretion. We’ve caught her chewing the soles of shoes, mouthing car tires, licking the window of a Mexican one-hour photo.

Much of the time her voice has the flat affectlessness of Rainman. Except when she is warning us of bears or exclaiming she’s found another cicada. But her body acts in the drama of a cape-wearing magician, a flamboyant conductor. “Put the key in the hole in the robot,” I tell her. “Okay,” she flatly intones, then takes the key for a roller coaster ride through the air before it makes contact with the toy.

Yesterday, she held a wet sponge against her ear. The top of her blonde head was dark with wet strands. She held out the sponge-phone to me and said, “I’m talking to the monkeys!”

Sunday, June 3, 2007

California, There They Go

At the park a couple weeks back, I watched Mia break into a smile as she broke into an aimless run with Jane and I couldn’t help weeping. It had been a bleary kind of week, with the tough Mother’s Day and missed sleep, so I’d been consciously trying real hard to pull the nose up.

But that was the last day we would see Jane. Her family is moving to California. I’m sad for myself – Jane’s mom Kristen, she of the merry and continuous laugh and the good advice and the implacable good will, has been a great friend. She was one of the first friends I made when we moved here. But it was the world we imagined for our daughters together that makes me cry. We talked of Jane and Mia playing together on our high school basketball team. They have seen each other almost every week for the past three years.

At the end of playtime we walked Jane and her mom and her two little brothers to their van, hugged with promises of keeping in touch.

“I have to go to the bathroom,” said Mia so we waved and walked toward the park district building. On the steps, I told the girls to wait, so we could wave as Jane and Kristen and the boys pulled away. Their van pulled out and drove by. We called “Bye!” and Mia ran a few steps towards them, waving one last time.

Kristen called, “Bye, Mia!” out the open window. Mia laughed and ran back towards me, smiling. California means nothing to her. When I told her, “Jane and Thomas and Linus are moving to California. Jane’s going to be a Cali-girl!” I might have well have said, “Jane’s going to time travel to the 18th century!”

(Last week, in the cement cave of a Chicago underground parking lot, I asked Nora where we were and she replied, “Mexico!”)

It was Mia’s smile as she turned away from their departing car and ran back to me that got me. That is truly living in the moment. She is not anticipating the missing, the empty feeling. She doesn’t even know what loss is. She was just happy right then and there.