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.

Thursday, August 9, 2007

Alinea - Buy Me Some Peanuts and Crackerjack

Who would think that a fancy thirteen course meal at one of the country’s most heralded restaurants would be so, well, fun? Or that Grant Achatz has such a great sense of humor behind that pretty face? Against a muted minimalist background, our whole experience evoked nothing so much as the pleasures of a summer night at the county fair.

Our long anticipated dinner at Alinea started with my giggling at the total lack of signage outside the building. We didn’t just miss a discreet little sign – there wasn’t one. The punch line for me was spotting the name on the valet sign sitting in the street – I immediately relaxed. When pretension is jacked up to this level of silliness, then deflated, by, of all things, a ubiquitous plastic sandwich board, I’m delighted.

We walked in the doors and were faced with what appeared to be a long hallway, actually an optical illusion worthy of a midway hall of mirrors.

A door to the side whooshed open, Star-Trek style, and we were greeted by the first of a troop of friendly staff, all in on the joke. So far every color had been muted – dark grays, white and black, cream, browns and tan. The abstract painting next to our table could have been rendered in powdered cocoa. The circus colors came on the plates.

As the courses arrive, I begin to see a pattern. From the first savory course of iced artichoke puree between parmesan cookies that brought to mind an ice cream sandwich to the final tempura caramel tidbit on a cinnamon stick that seemed a high class relative (an evolution?) of funnel cakes, fried Snickers bars and other marriages of sugar and hot grease, this was carnival food at its finest.

There was a savory sundae, a guava soda float, even a course of beer and peanuts – make that a GEL of beer, laid like a blanker over short ribs (for Randy, for me, kampachi fish), sprinkled with tiny buds of fried broccoli and fresh red coriander seeds. Aaaaaaand peanuts.

We even enjoyed a course of miniature fireworks. A small glass of celery juice (Dr. Brown’s Cel-Ray, anyone?) holds a hollow ball of horseradish, supported by cocoa butter, that breaks in your mouth with an explosion of intensely flavored apple juice. It was surprising and refreshing. One of my favorite courses.

Fun, wonder, discoveries, excess allowed by a special occasion. Daring adventures in eating – soy sauce marshmallows with chocolate. Licorice cotton candy served on a spike, to be eaten with, Look, Ma! No hands!

Wednesday, August 8, 2007

Summer Reading

On Chesil Beach by Ian McEwan

Before reading I knew this much – On Chesil Beach tells a brief story of one difficult wedding night between an inexperienced British couple in the 1950’s.

(And this: The library’s waiting list had 100 people! Who can wait that long? And who adds their name after number, say, TWENTY?)

And this: Ian McEwan is a master.

After Atonement’s hot sex scene in the library – a scene so well realized that it supports the entire surrounding story, after the patient attention to minute and telling detail of Saturday, I had great confidence in McEwan and great hope for his newest book.

Expectations confirmed.

A frightened bride and her over-eager new husband, two children really, who cannot break through their own shells of need to enter the mystery, work, sacrifice and imperfect joy of marriage. Deeply, deeply sad.

Half way into the fascinating back-stories of Florence and Edward, I had to stop and ask that age-old reader’s question: how does he do it? I started examining sentences, looking for verbs. The description is lovely, yes, but it must be the action words that propel our reading.

First, a passage about Florence’s distance:

“She turned back to him. ‘I was curious about you.’

“But it was even more than that. At the time it did not even occur to her to satisfy her curiosity. She did not think they were about to meet, or that there was anything she should do to make that possible. . . . Had it taken her this long to discover that she lacked some simple mental trick that everyone else had, a mechanism so ordinary that no one ever mentioned it, an immediate sensual connection to people and events, and to her own needs and desires? All those years she had lived in isolation within herself and, strangely, from herself, never wanting or daring to look back.”

Look, nothing spectacular by itself. The verbs, commonplace. But in context, everything. Piercing understanding.

Now Edward:

“A sudden space began to open out, not only between Edward and his mother, but also between himself and his immediate circumstances, and he felt his own being, the buried core of it he had never attended to before, come to sudden, hard-edged existence, a glowing pinpoint that he wanted no one else to know about. She was brain-damaged and he was not. He was not his mother, nor was he his family, and one day he would leave, and would return only as a visitor.”

Do you see it? Feel it? The syntax alone, only a tool, does not matter – it is the way McEwan wields it on my history, yours too? Does the passage bring you back to this moment of separation, probably in your teen years, a moment of terrifying freedom and possibility and sadness at what you were deliberately leaving behind?

The Bitch in The House: 26 Women Tell the Truth About Sex, Solitude, Work, Motherhood, and Marriage, edited by Cathi Hanauer

A collection of essays with the common denominator of anger doesn’t sound like a great read for someone seeking peace and balance. But The Bitch in the House has a lot to offer for enlightenment, especially for mothers who are battling the image (self-imposed or cultural) of the serene queen of the home with the frustrating realities of work, child care, and partner relations.

The collection opens with mostly younger voices. I didn’t relate much to these briefer essays. The women here write of expectations of marriage or relationships that seem as close to me as Venus. I did not picture myself setting up house with a man; I rarely pictured myself as a bride. Those fantasies seemed too conventional, too Barbie, too uncomfortable. (Nascent feminist stirrings? Misapprehension of the nature of marriage? Some self-esteem issue? I’ll work that out with my therapist.)

Anyboo, once I got to the second section “For Better and Worse,” about the meat and heat of permanent partnerships, I became more engaged. Catherine Newman, with her typical humor and candor, argues against marriage to the father of her two children. Finding out she identified as lesbian for years before finding her Michael feels like sharing a confidence with an old friend.

By the time we work up to mother anger and the fear of its power in the central section, “Mommy Maddest,” I felt at home. Here, in Kristin van Ogtrop’s “Attila the Honey I’m Home” and Elissa Schappel’s “Crossing the Line in the Sand: How Mad Can Mother Get?” is what I have been searching for, true and familiar stories of frustration beyond control. Here I find the fury that is missing from Hope Edelman’s Motherless Mothers, with its mild tone and maddening calm. (Edelman does let loose a little more in her contribution here.) I almost weep at finding sisters who share their struggles with nearly unbounded outrage and overwhelming guilt over the worst crime of all –collateral damage to our children.

These essays made me wonder how many of the frustrations that vex mothers today are ancient and how many emerged with our recent gains earned in the workplace and society. Do stay at home mothers today feel more isolated than ever? Do working moms feel new stresses of competition, as well as the pressure to make their house a home? Without ever wanting to return to that time, do we miss the imagined community and collectivism of another generation, when Mom at home always knew women like her were right next door?

The established and experienced voices of Ellen Gilchrist and Vivian Gornick wrap up this collection best with wisdom and lovely prose. Gilchrist, a mother and grandmother, and Vivian Gornick, single and without children, offer contrasting but hopeful portraits of women thick in the continuing fight for personal independence, maturity and balance.

Watership Down by Richard Adams

“That’s a white cabbage butterfly!” called Mia, fresh from her Creepy Critters camp at the Botanical Garden. I’m proud and pleased. My friend Christina says West Nile has destroyed many of birds that serve as the butterflies’ natural predators. Seen many crows lately? No, come to think of it.

Here in our neck of the woods it’s been a summer of animal encounters. Cicadas, butterflies, chipmunks and bunnies have all invaded our yard. The “tip-mokes”, as Nora calls them, even made it into our kitchen.

One twilight this July we watched three mature rabbits feed in our backyard. They chased each other, and one leaped startlingly high in the air. A tiny baby rabbit hopped close by, his head barely higher than the blades of shorn grass. Did this sight inspire me to pick up Watership Down AGAIN?

It must have been my fourth reading – I loved this as a kid. And once again, it delivered. A barn burner, a page turner, a great old-fashioned adventure story, whose main characters happen to be rabbits. Fiver, Bigwig and company set out to escape a vision of disaster for their old tribe and establish a safe warren of their own. The band of bunnies on the march reminded me of nothing so much as Saving Private Ryan, with its own engaging heroes, comedians, strategists and tired foot soldiers.

There are hair-raising raids and escapes, funny folk tales, fascinating passages of bunny lore and culture. The thrilling climax is written with tension-building cross-cutting worthy of Griffith. And the story brings up larger issues about the environment and our place within it.

“Bluebell had been saying that he knew the men hated us for raiding their crops and gardens, and Toadflax answered, ‘That wasn’t why they destroyed the warren. It was just because we were in their way. They killed us to suit themselves.’”

There’s a mother metaphor here. Perhaps one mother’s pest is another mother’s bunny. Perhaps there’s a story here about a tired and distracted mother who can sometimes become Farmer Magregor, thinking only of protecting her own harvest, forgetting how natural is the playfulness and mischievousness in her own backyard creatures.

Tuesday, August 7, 2007

The loveliest twenty minutes on the loveliest playground ever.

On a water lily dotted inlet of shining Pistakee Lake, shaded by a giant weeping willow, with limbs strong enough to swing from.

In the late afternoon light we played Pirate, with lots of hairbreadth escapes and chases around the treetrunk and happy screams. A gentle attempt at feather-sword-fighting with willow switches ended badly (for Mommy only, thank goodness.) Mia, then Nora, shed her shirt to escape the humidity. We found a corked bottle, got excited about a possible message, found only wet sticks. Daddy arrived with the pizza.