Tuesday, February 27, 2007

By the seat of your pants

When I was considering children but before they actually appeared in my life, when caring for children was as foreign to me as raising a sea otter, I read a passage from Annie Lamott about a long night she spent in the hospital with her young son Sam. As I remember it, Lamott is making great efforts to stay calm and light for the sake of her son, who had some anxiety-producing, but non-life-threatening malady, when he complains he’s bored.

Lamott retrieves a couple of index cards from her purse, grabs some tongue depressors and a pen and out of these materials makes two samurai warrior puppets who act out a sword fight to the amusement of her son.

I read this with a mixture of admiration and apprehension for my own dearth of creativity. Can’t bored children just read magazines like the rest of us? Lamott seemed so evolved, like she was from another species of inventive and resourceful adult. I felt like an invertebrate watching jealously from my mud puddle as the smart ape poked her clever grass blade down the mud hill and came up with a yummy kabob of ants for her little one.

Then my own kids arrived and I realized coming up with fun and amusing stuff for them isn’t an innate trait or a byproduct of reading childcare books, it’s SURVIVAL.

I realized this again this weekend when Randy was off at a funeral, LUCKY HIM! and the low and gloomy overcast sky outside promised eight or so inches more snow tonight. Lunch was over, Nora’s nap was a couple of hours away and I wanted nothing but to stretch out on the bed. The girls’ wrestling match was turning ugly, so I rallied, made a cup of strong tea and we made breadsticks.

I introduced the girls to the thrill of the flour sifter. “See, you’re making snow!” We added a little warm water to the pile of white power and lo and behold, instant dough! Is it really that easy? Nora’s hands were covered in sticky so I set her up with a bowl of warm water in the sink and a sponge. She giggled for twenty minutes, splashing and squeezing.

Breadsticks (Grissini)
Makes 10 big sticks

1 cup sifted all-purpose flour, plus extra for rolling
1 package (2 teaspoons) dry yeast
¼ cup warm water (between 120 and 130 degrees if you have a thermometer, very warm but not hot, if you do not)
1 tablespoon olive oil, plus more to grease the pan
Fine sea salt

Mix the flour, yeast and a pinch of salt. Stir in the oil and the water by tablespoons to make a soft dough. Careful! You may not need all the water!

Knead the dough for five minutes or until smooth. Place in an oiled bowl, turn once to oil the other side and cover with an oiled piece of plastic wrap or a damp towel. Leave in a warm place for one hour, or until doubled in size.

Divide the dough into ten pieces.

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Roll each batch of dough out on a lightly floured surface into a long breadstick. Sprinkle with salt.

Place the sticks on a lightly oiled baking sheet and bake until crisp and golden. Watch carefully – baking could take between 8 and 20 minutes.

From Party Food! by Lorna Wing

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Academy Awards Part 3 or Here Be Spoilers

Toni Collette’s performance as a harried mom in Little Miss Sunshine was overlooked this year by the Academy Award nominations, but in 2000, she got the nod for playing a very different kind of mother in The Sixth Sense. I love this performance. It’s heartbreaking.

We all know the movie’s big revelation. And we all know watching the film more than once opens up all sorts of revealed subtext, clues, and enhanced meaning. But for me, the most powerful second vision I had of the film was not being spooked by all the ghosts that crowd into the poor boy’s life; it was realizing how alone his mother was.

Lynn is a single mother, still mourning the loss of her own mother. Dressed in cozy sweaters, with perfect nails painted as precisely as her Philadelphia diction, Lynn appears to be holding it together, making a little family out of the two of them. In one amazing scene without dialogue, she pushes her son to their car in a shopping cart. She starts to accelerate the cart, to his delight. The sound of the rattling cart is like a roller coaster. He lifts his hands in joy. It’s a bright moment she brings into their dark lives.

Bruce Willis’s character, Dr. Malcolm Crowe, first introduces himself to Cole, the apparently disturbed boy, in the living room of the apartment he shares with his mother Lynn. You see the mother sitting silently with Crowe, waiting for the boy to come home and you think, “Good. She’s got some help. He’s a therapist for the boy.”

Harrowing scenes follow when the mother is frightened and confused for her haunted child: he is attacked at a birthday party; he blames his dead grandmother for missing jewelry. For me, the anxiety these scenes elicit was cushioned by the thought that the kid is in therapy, he has a professional working with him and his mom.


Crowe sees his bloody wound, realizes he is dead too. The audience reels and gasps. All is not as it seems. Lynn had no contact with a child psychologist. She was trying to figure out her strange and dangerous boy all by herself. Walking the tightrope all parents walk between trust and faith, between hope that their problems are fleeting and despair that we may need to learn to live with a pain that never goes away.

The scene where the boy gives his mother a message of pride from her dead mother could have been the height of pathos and icky sentimentality. The restrained acting from Haley Joel Osment and Toni Collette make it the quiet centerpiece of a film that is ultimately about peace between parents and children, living and dead.

Tuesday, February 13, 2007


Eleanor has a shiner and Mia shat her pants on purpose. How the black eye happened was a mystery for a day or so until Randy explained a door incident. The bruise looks just like dark eyeshadow, expertly applied, blended out from the crease. The first days it was smoky Devil Wears Prada black, now it’s fading to a Jessica Lange in Tootsie brown. We may get a little Christina Aguilera green in there. Painting so close to her precious blue, the door that applied this shadow used the most delicate brush with disaster. I look at it and feel a shiver of possibility, a wash of gratitude.

Mia’s poop needs no description. She was standing at the kitchen island, performing a puppet show for us using chopsticks topped with plastic animals, when she paused in her narration.
“Mommy, do you smell poo?”
“Yeah,” I say, thinking it’s one of our frequent family farts.
“I pooped my pants,” she says nonchalantly.
I check her pants and to my horror, yes, she has. She is four and half years old. This is disturbing. She laughs as I clean her, then cries and screams and flops on the ground as I try to dress her. The reassuring competent mom in my head says, “this is testing boundaries, seeing my reaction.” The I-don’t-know-what-I’m-doing prone-to-flirting-with-hopeless-thoughts mom says “she is reverting to an infant. Because of the emotion in this house.”

The next time she uses the bathroom, I give a big cheer.

Tuesday, February 6, 2007

Academy Awards Part Two or Am I That Simpson’s Character Who Always Yells, “What About the Children!?”

When it comes to popular culture, I can’t claim motherhood brought out my self-righteous over-protective mother tiger. I’ve always had a little Tipper Gore in me whenever we’re talking movie violence. I walked out of Pulp Fiction. Twice. Here’s a Pre-Kids argument between me and a teacher colleague during an English department meeting:

Me: Tony, I can’t believe you REQUIRED your American Lit juniors to see Sleepy Hollow ! It’s R-rated and some of those kids aren’t even 16 yet!

Tony: It’s an excellent example of gothic atmosphere. Besides, these kids have all seen R-rated movies, believe me.

Me: Tony, the Headless Horseman hunts down a child! And kills him! A child is killed!

Does motherhood give me a gimme, an out, an excuse to close my eyes to certain kinds of logic?

I know I’m admitting a narrow-minded view when I say I won’t go see Babel. I’m no fan of children-in-peril movies but this one has added something even worse: a responsible caregiver in agony. (I’m not giving much away here. This is no more than I’ve found in most reviews of the film.) The loving Mexican nanny who finds herself lost in the Sonora desert with her two young charges is excruciating to contemplate.

(Of course my response is complicated by my history, our devastating car accident. And the more recent memory of Jocelyn bursting into tears when I came to pick up Mia after her fender-bender. Mia was fine, the cop was polite, the other driver full of remorse, but I would not say, "It's all right, Jocelyn. It's all right." Not that I tried to make her feel any worse than she already did. I could see her torturous second guessing, the imagined alternatives she was putting herself through. So I didn't scold or blame. But I didn't comfort much either. Because everything was not all right.)

What piles even more revulsion on the Babel movie is my suspicion that the entire film is little more than the situations within it. Plot seems to be the filmmaker’s end, not his means. (Is that the definition of melodrama?) Sure, sure, the acting is supposed to be very good, but that’s window dressing. There is no heart in putting the poor nanny character and us, through the wringer. What’s the point? As far as I understand, the film’s theses are: “We all need to communicate.” Well, that’s obvious. “Failures in communication cause pain.” Blah blah blah. Babble. “We are all connected in more ways than we know.” Okay, alright, I’ll give you that one. These truths are simple, but important, universal. Perhaps universal because they are so simple. But don’t put her in the desert with the children to remind us.