Saturday, December 25, 2010

Merry Christmas!

My holiday gift to you. St. Vincent's "Jesus Saves, I Spend." Enjoy on this beautiful morning!

Friday, December 17, 2010

"Hooray for Daddy!" by Mia

"Help!" yells the figure falling from the tower.

"What's that? Look!" says the pink bear.

It's a rescuer! "I'll save you!" he says.

(click on the image to see all the delicious details)

"I'll save you."

"It's Daddy!!"


Love, Mia

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

House Theater's Nutcracker

"There are nine Nutcrackers playing in Chicago this year," the guy in the hotel lobby told us as we headed out Sunday afternoon into blizzard conditions to catch House Theater's version of E.T.A. Hoffman's timeless story. After seeing their generous and intimate, laugh-out-loud funny and very moving production, I can't imagine a plummier one in the bunch.

This is the third production I've seen from House, after a terrific Terrible Tragedy of Peter Pan and the magical Sparrow and I've always loved the inventive style and heart I see on stage. You can always count on great music, too.

In this Nutcracker, Clara's beloved older brother Fritz joins forces with her to defeat the Mouse King, work through a terrible loss and restore a grieving family back to Christmas joy. Clara and Fritz have the help of a very funny trio of toys come to life - a flirty French Sock Monkey, Hugo the nerdy Robot and Phoebe the Doll whose placid smile almost hides the wisdom in her inane pronouncements. "I'm afraid of the dark!" says Dolly and the line takes on special resonance when the red-eyed Mouse King puppets appear (just scary enough for our five and eight year olds.)

Randy and the girls and I have been to enough theater billing itself as family fare to know it often translates to kiddy dross. In this beautiful production, the laughs don't pander and the truths aren't sugarcoated. Only half the matinee audience around us had children with them - this is a show rich with ideas and pleasures for adults, too.

The script by Phillip Klapperich and Jack Minton, who also takes the stage as Clara's father, plays with the many meanings of light and darkness, with the pains of truth and protective artifice. The nutcracker no longer seems a random choice of a toy for Clara's gift from Uncle Drosselmeyer, since Minton and Klapperich explore its metaphorical possibilities. Like our plucky heroine, Clara, we're reminded that wounds never heal properly without pain and finding the mysteries within the hardest shells takes great strength.

One of those tantalizing mysteries is personified by the loving Uncle Drosselmeyer played by the mesmerizing Blake Montgomery. Did he play a part in Fritz's death? Why did he allow Clara to cut down the Christmas tree? Does he perpetuate her childhood fantasies to her detriment?

"Tell her about the magic," urges Clara's mother (an utterly watchable Carolyn Defrin.) Drosselmeyer replies, "Alright. Clara, the magic is real." It's funny how our culture has turned Christmas into a holiday constructed around secrets and deceit about magic; The Nutcracker at House creates a Christmas on stage where the hardships of inevitable reality become bearable with the comfort of others to help you through.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Eight Days To the Solstice

Dull-witted and slow. The sun breaks through the clouds, but its thin streams are not enough. Appreciated, helpful, but not enough. I need blasts of cheer, blinding light, a baking.

Saturday night I woke every hour thirsty, then floated awake among the bobbing obstructions of my pointlessly jumping brain. I had to work hard to sink back into sleep. In one of the last hours, I dreamed I was riding a rhino. His giant prehistoric head slammed against the sides of the curving hallway that barely contained us.

I keep my head low, gripping his rough skin between my thighs. The earth shakes, the walls shake, all shakes, but I am no captive. I grapple with his plunging bull neck and urge him on to destruction.

Friday, December 3, 2010

The Lion's Nephew

Last night, because Mommy just cannot leave well enough alone to imagine that the crayons and paper placemats at California Pizza Kitchen will suffice tomorrow to amuse our eighteen little lunch guests, I took the girls to Tom Thumb Hobby and Crafts in Evanston. Mia and Eleanor were entranced, of course, by the doll houses, the miniature furniture, and the poster warning patrons not to climb on the train table.

When my arm capacity and pre-dinner blood sugar tolerance were filled, I got in line with five boxes of foam Christmas trees and plastic buckets of tiny foam ornaments and candy canes. Mia was over by the button racks and Nora sat on the floor looking at a Dover sticker book.

"Mommy?" Nora asked from the floor, "When the monkeys were flying, was it scary?"

I looked down at her and her sticker book. The Wizard of Oz. I'm instantly there again, in front of the giant open window, as the woman in black screams to her minions taking to the skies.

"Do you mean when the flying monkeys took Dorothy to the Wicked Witch?"


"Oh, yeah. That was the scariest part of the whole movie."

A boy, half a head shorter than me, maybe middle school, was waiting in line next to me with a handful of floppy wooden slats.

"My uncle was actually the Cowardly Lion in that movie," he says.

I turn around to look closer at him and knock the slats out of his hands with an excess of enthusiasm.

"Your uncle is...(found it!) Bert Lehr?" I ask the top of his head as he bends down to pick up his fallen craft supplies.

"Lahr," he corrects me as he stands and I get a good look at his face. The gorgeously generous nose - I see the resemblance, or imagine I do. And such glowing skin! An open, unabashed smile. Oh beautiful youth! It's like a split second of a time machine, flinging me back to glimpse the child that a beloved character actor once was.

"Wonderful!" I say, and, without thinking, just to keep him talking, "Do you remember your uncle?"

"No, he died before I was born." Of course.

The clerk hands me the receipt. I scribble my signature as I say, "You should be very proud. It's such a great movie."

"Thank you, I am," he says.

"Girls, did you hear what the boy said?"

"Yes," says Mia, not happy that I'm herding her out the door. Nora has already gone out the first set of doors and she returns with a furious, "I was outside in the cold!"

Matt Damon is shooting Contagion in our neighborhood and Randy and I giggled last week at the inevitable lesson the starstruck villagers who signed up to be extras will be learning about the deadly boredom of most of the filming process. I must be more understanding. A little bit of Hollywood on Dempster Street and I'm absolutely thrilled.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Child

I'm taking a writing course with the excellent writer and editor Lisa Romeo and one of our assignments asked for a list of sentences. Not paragraphs, not pages of prose, just thirteen sentences.

Oh I love lists, don't you? I love crossing items off the To Do list, reading to the girls the instructions for a new game, shopping (soon!) with the children's Christmas lists in my hand. The organized nature of a neat, numbered list satisfies in our overly complicated world.

Romeo's assignment, of course, turned out to be more complex than I imagined. And for that I am so grateful. Because asking me to look at one single moment in my day, and then approach it again from twelve different angles was a lesson not only in verbs, adverbs and adjectives, but one in thinking. Thinking about writing but also thinking about attitude and perception. My one brief interaction with Mia that crazy morning could have been the best of moments or the worst of moments. Creating multiple versions of it reminded me that I have the power to determine which it will be.

A sentence about something that happened yesterday.
1. When my daughter hesitated a moment on the stairs and leaned toward me the tiniest bit, I knew the argument was over.

A sentence in a more active voice.
2. Mia froze silent on the steps, looked in my eyes and swayed toward me, offering a sweet gift of reconciliation.

Passive voice.
3. I was relieved to see my daughter was leaning toward me because I knew that meant she was finished arguing.

Another character's point of view.
4. I don't like it when I have to eat mushy cereal, but I hate it even more when Mommy is mad.

As if I was happy.
5. The sweetest moment of my day took place on the turn of our stairs where my furious and sad daughter offered me the olive branch of a hug.

As if the event was of great importance to me.
6. A year, even two months ago, Mia would have continued screaming at me in blind rage and formless frustration; today she recognized a better way and I nearly cried with relief as I took her in my arms.

As if it had no consequence.
7. This morning required interceding between my brawling daughters, corralling them to the breakfast table, gleaning from the near empty fridge a healthy packed lunch for my picky oldest, attempting and failing to hide my frustration when her Grape Nuts got "too soggy," helping her to recover from her hissy fit with a hug on the stairs, and imploring her to grab coat, shoes, lunchbox and backpack in time for the school bus, all without the assistance of husband or coffee. (This one took some imaginative work. I had to picture the moment as if it meant very little to me, which it did not, it SO did not.)

As if it was the worst thing that happened all day.
8. "When will the yelling stop?" I couldn't stop thinking as Mia, once again, recovered in my arms after a horrible fight.

Present tense.
9. Mia says nothing, but moves toward me with a slight motion that only her mother can translate as both an entreaty for cessation of battle and a desire for the comfort of a warm embrace.

Without adjectives or adverbs.
10. Mia sighed, admitting defeat, and I hugged her. (Can you believe this sentence was one of the most difficult to write? You try describing a moment without adjectives or adverbs! And yes, "a," "an," and "the" are all off-limits.)

With as many descriptive and sensory details as possible.
11. Spent, forlorn and needing, little Mia opens her tiny mouth for yet another sally, finds absolutely nothing, so instead, mournful and silent, stares at me with a lost look that I can no more resist than the crunchy-creamy bite-sized Snickers I sneak from her dwindling Halloween stash.

As if it happened a long time ago.
12. She needed her mother that morning in an utterly simple way that I miss deeply, now that the healing power of each other's touch and our once-constant bending toward forgiveness have become much more complicated things. (Can you tell this is meant to read as if I was remembering a moment from long ago?)

13. My graceful daughter doesn't run back to her room to slam the door with operatic vehemence, doesn't wail a Valkyrie's aria, doesn't collapse into a ballerina's repose on the steps, but instead, leans toward me with the slightest, shyest invitation to join me in a mother-daughter dance of forgiveness.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Cystic Fibrosis Commercial

"When you have cystic fibrosis, your lungs are damaged bit by bit, day after day. It's like drowning every so slowly."

The girl mouths, "Help me."

A PSA from the New Zealand Cystic Fibrosis Foundation. The Foundation's U.S. site can be found at

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

The Earth-Bound Cook and the People Who Grow Her Food

Our friends Brent and Serena are coming for Thanksgiving! The entire family is thrilled, although the girls are a little disappointed that their dog Trixie and the baby burro won't be able to make the flight from Mexico.

We spent our spring breaks in 2007 and last year at Brent and Serena's village of Todos Santos ("All Saints") on the west coast of the Baja Peninsula, about fifty miles north of the tourist magnets Los Cabos. If all goes well, we'll return this March. We've fallen in love with Mexico.

A natural spring makes Todos Santos a literal oasis in the middle of the sun-baked yet beautiful Sonoran desert.

In Todos, agriculture not only supports the economy, but meshes with the landscape. Orchards and farm fields pop up between houses as you take the short drive off the single paved road of "downtown" Todos toward the residential neighborhoods to the north. Pepper plants rustle in the sun across the street from the hotel where gringos take yoga lessons. On our last trip, Serena described the scout troups who camped out in the mango orchard we'd pass every day. Rows and rows of tomatoes flourish next to the gravel road that leads to the unswimmable stretch of the coastline we called Killer Beach. I ran this route nearly every day of our trip last spring.

Sometimes the fields I passed when I ran would stretch away from my view, entirely empty of any life but the lush green plants, but occasionally I'd see a worker or two, fiddling with the water lines or doing other farmery work. Once I saw a man spraying the plants from a canister on his back. And sometimes those workers brought the kids, like the two boys who messed around in the back of their dad's pickup. They stopped their play to watch me jog by.

"They have parties in the fields," said Serena, who works in a school for the children of the migrant farmworkers who travel up and down the coast picking crops. She described the relaxed gatherings at twilight, where families bring picnics and the children play in the rows.

I thought again of the fields of Todos and the children who played there when I was reading and cooking from Myra Goodman's new cookbook The Earthbound Cook.

In between her intriguing and delicious recipes, Goodman offers mini-essays on the healthy planet lifestyle. Her "Twelve Reasons to Choose Organic" included this: "Choosing organic protects farmworkers, wildlife, and nearby homes, schools and businesses." She goes on to quote a 2009 study from the Annals of Neurology finding twice as many instances of Parkinson's disease among people who lived near homes sprayed with pesticides compared with those not exposed.

Farms are not operated by robots. They are worked by real people, often parents, whose children may need to come along for the day. It's no secret that the manual labor required to produce and harvest the crops that end up in our grocery stores and on our tables is often performed by vulnerable populations, who may have limited options and resources for child care and health care. According to the Migrant Clinicians Network, pesticide exposure may be one of the highest risk environmental hazards for migrant farm workers and "children especially are at risk." Even if they do not work or play in treated fields, the children of farm workers can be exposed to pesticides from their home, the surrounding environment and even the clothes their parents wear home from work.

I cannot find a more compelling reason for choosing organic produce than to lessen the risk of pesticide poisoning for children.

The other writers for the From Left To Write website are discussing Myra Goodman's book today. You can find their posts here. Emily, from West of the Loop, had this to say: "...the cookbook is all about cooking in a mindful way that is healthy for your family and for our planet — because aren’t those two things inextricably intertwined? For example, eating more vegetarian meals is both good for our bodies – because those meals tend to be lower in fat and higher in nutrients — and good for the environment because eating lower on the food chain consumes fewer resources."

The more I learn about sustainability, the more I see its theme of connection, like the intertwined benefits that Emily describes. And the more I learn, the more I believe a greener, more sustainable lifestyle is one that tries to connect more with the world, one that tries to examine where the products we consume originate, how they are made, and who are the people who benefit or suffer because of our choices.

By the way, I used Goodman's recipes for a beautiful apple pie with sweet crust, a chocolate-pecan cake with milk chocolate ganache icing and a delicious summer squash-tomato stir fry that used up the last of our CSA vegetables and herbs. I'll be trying her cauliflower "couscous" recipe soon.

This post was inspired by Myra Goodman's cookbook, The Earthbound Cook: 250 Recipes for Delicious Food and A Healthy Planet, which I received with no obligation from the publisher.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Music Lessons

I pulled Nora out of her after-school Lego club last Friday to go to her violin lesson (oh dear, I didn't realize until I wrote it here how bad that sounds) and she cried and cried, although I'd given her a heads up that morning (that sounds pretty lame too, Mom) because she had to leave behind the Duplo "airplane" she had been running around with, and making buzzing sounds with her lips and bringing its unidentifiable chunky plastic fuselage down for a landing.

"I don't want to go to violin lessons!" she wailed in the car and I nearly started crying myself. Not just for that specific debacle, but for the once burning fire of precious interest that had ignited in her last spring when her Montessori class walked down the street to William Harris Lee and Co. luthier workshop and she got to hold her first string instrument. Maybe it was the deep mysterious tone of a plucked bass string, maybe it was the mother of pearl detail on one of their finer bows, but all summer Nora kept telling us she wanted to play the violin. Her momma, a French horn player for many years, was thrilled.

And now I feel like I stomped out that little flame. With private lessons from Isabelle, a grad student who forgoes her more unfamiliar English to grip Nora's hand and make her bow stroke more vigorous, with chaotic group lessons in a hot room crowded with family observers, and with yet another supplemental lesson so another grad student, Andrea, can get some clinical hours, and with the occasional practice session at home from parents who aren't entirely sure what the technique of "marliebow" is supposed to look and sound like.

Our Lego-aborting lesson last Friday was scheduled with Andrea, who greeted Nora's tear-streaked face with a sympathetic "Oh!" and, to my great relief, "I have a game for you!"

Oh thank God for the young, sweet and creative.

(How young? Well, at one point in the lesson, Nora asked, "How old are you?" "Twenty-three," replied Audrey and my heart just melted all over my lap - well, until it froze back up into place when Nora then asked me how old I was and when I answered nearly twice Audrey's years, my little one followed that with a wise-ass, "Sorry! that's just one year too old to get a star!")

Yes, thank God for the young, sweet, enthusiastic and creative. Because Andrea's little stars, cut from fancy patterned paper and handed out for each little song or technique exercise Nora practiced, saved the friggin' day. By the end of the lesson, Nora was charmed and warmed and I was relieved. The spark glows on for another day.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

So and So Elementary School PTA Moms' Shop 'Til You Drop Night

Disclaimer: The following is an attempt at SATIRE without harsh or hurtful intention. If the humor intended here fails to amuse, the fault is entirely that of the writer.

Listen, I know we are all here for the kids. I know. And every cent spent on the burnout velvet scarves and pecan-encrusted toffee and Bunco tonight is for the good cause of the school. God knows we love our kids and God knows all the hard-working, long-sacrificing mothers of our little elementary school who give one hundred and ten percent, day in and day out, are really here at the North Shore Women's Club dressed to the nines in sequins and spiky high heels just to show our kids how much we care.

In fact I'm wearing my high heel black boots (zipper on the outside, thank you very much, thirty bucks at Payless, thank you very much) and a skirt so short the wind is blowing (if you know what I mean) tonight just to show I care. And I schlepped these pinchy black boots all the way back to my car and all the way to the ATM just to get cash twenty minutes ago because to my great surprise you informed me, Drunk Mom At The Reception Table, when I first walked in that you did not take credit cards - but I didn't complain, did I? Did I? Did I? No, I didn't. I did not. Because I am here for the kids.

But my name tag is utterly unacceptable.

Look, Drunk Mom, my name is spelled with an "I" and a "Y" and an "E" and a "Y." Is that so hard to figure out? No, it is not. The "Y" in the first name comes after the "I" and there is no "A" in my last name, okay? I never said "A." I do not have an "A" in either one of my names. Not first, nor last. I will not say where you can put that "A" because I am thinking of my kids right now. Are you?

I am terribly, terribly sorry if I didn't register on-line ahead of time so I could get one of those pre-printed name tags that look all special and lovely and well-spelled propped up in rows like smiley pageant contestants.

But just because I'm paying at the door and just because I bravely, so very bravely, came by myself doesn't mean I should be treated like a second-class citizen.

I want a pretty name tag, not one with your messy blue ballpoint corrections inked all over my misspelled name. Is that too much to ask for, considering that I am going to be dropping, yes, double digits of cash for my lavender bath salts and an itchy wool knitted hat? Is that too much to ask?

And just so you know, I could not help but notice that you handed the last couple of pretty ladies a program and explained that it was a map of the vendors, but for some reason you neglected to do so for me. Is there a problem here?

And is there some reason that I am not aware of for which you did not say, "Have a nice time," or some other pleasantry, like you did for those other moms in front of me, that would have made my evening so much more enjoyable, and would have let me know that our transactions were finished and I could turn away instead of continuing to stand in front of you waiting, like a first time Trick-or-Treater who forgot her script? Hm? Hmmm?


Okay. Thank you. Thank you very much.

And where is the cloak room? This way? No? This way? Here? Here? Thank you. Thank you very much.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

A Writing Pep Talk

Think of rough drafts as placeholders. Keep writing, keep writing badly and just keep the faith that in place of that clunky phrase or inexact word, you are eventually going to put in jewels. Beautiful and precious stones which you'll find on your walks or in your sleep or glittering on the floor of the shower.

Problem is, as you keep trudging along, pretty soon those little stones start poking the heel in your boots while you're walking to meet your husband for date night and you brought no pen. And fly up from your bike wheel and hit you in the chest. And drop on your face at dawn when you're trying to stay asleep for a badly needed couple more hours.

Friday, October 29, 2010

Mary Scruggs on Humor at OCWW

The Off-Campus Writers' Workshop hosted comedienne and writer Mary Scruggs yesterday. Mary is currently the head of Writing and Education Programs for The Second City Training Center in Chicago. Her work has been produced in Chicago at Live Bait, the Annoyance Theater and the Circuit Court of Cook County, as well as at the New York Fringe Fest, the LA Women's Theater Festival and LA's Sherry Theater.

Some of Mary's tips:

Separate creation work from revision mode. Improvisers can't second guess themselves. Let the first draft be a mess, a discovery. If it's different than you expected, follow that path.

(At the front of the room, Mary beautifully personified these ideas and the old improvisation adage to "never say no" - every audience suggestion and question was greeted by her with delight. Her glee was absolutely infectious.)

One of the reasons we all get annoyed with our dear old friend Saturday Night Live is that often the skits fade away rather than have a punch line. Mary's take is that the SNL formula has become Premise + Gimmick, and repeat.

Her secret to a satisfyingly comic ending: Figure out what the character wants. This is the "character objective," or the engine that drives the plot. (Works in all narrative, actually, not just the comedic.) A good ending for comedy will be when the character gets what she wants or is definitively thwarted.

What makes for rich comedy is when the character goes about getting what she wants in the worst of ways. (See Steve Carrell's character in The Forty Year Old Virgin looking for love in all the wrong places.)

Our writing job as creators of these characters is Exploring and Heightening the process of their endeavors. Looking for "comic traction," as Mary put it. Exploit it. Traditionally, three times. ("Three guys walk into a bar...") During all this exploring and heightening, Mary urged us to "feel the fear and do it anyway," advice I particularly love.

A comic character has (of course these "rules" are meant to be broken):

- that necessary objective

- a skewed perspective

- flaws ("Heighten them," said Mary. "Hit them hard.")

- a redeeming feature we can relate to. Here is where Empathy is created, where the character's flaws and essential humanity collide.

The set up of a scene, or the exposition, is typically where non-comic or new comic writers spend lots of time, said Mary, to the nods of our description-loving group. (My last short story spent its first 25% just setting the scene. Yeah, I counted.) At Second City, the writer-performers will typically give the audience the least, rather than the most, amount of info that the audience needs to enjoy the scene - Who, What and Where in, at most, three lines. In a two character scene, the first line establishes who one character is, the second line who the other speaker is and what they are doing, the third line raises the stakes. Our spontaneous OCWW example:

"The take-out guy didn't give us potatoes with the order!"
"But that's our last seventy-five cents!"
"What about our hungry kids?"

Not terribly funny, but pretty efficient at setting the scene and conflict, don't you think?

A classic Second City skit has two sisters and their husbands playing a game of Pictionary. "It'll be fun! It'll bring us closer!" say the women. (Can't you already see where this is going to go? Don't you want to see the disaster?) Instead of couple vs. couple, the women and men group up. When one woman draws an X on the board, her sister yells, "Tuna salad!" - the right answer - and the two tell together a story about when they were kids, each chiming in, one hated tuna salad, the other warned her when it was in the fridge with a post-it note, etc. etc. Cute. The men get "Around the World in 80 Days" and bomb, the man drawing taking it all hilariously literally, drawing a big round circle, then starting what you realize, to big laughs, will be eighty hash-marks around it. Cute.

Here's the story point where the scene can go on too long. We've established setting, characters and their objectives, now is the time for a "transformational midpoint" to reframe the scene. The "now it's personal" moment, to borrow from cop movie trailers. In "Pictionary," the men decide they want to actually win. Game on.

"It'll bring us closer." Ha ha.

To end the scene, you need a second turning point, a break of some kind. You don't need to resolve everything - as Mary suggested, "Don't be afraid of leaving a lingering stink in the air." Just break the tension by answering the prevailing question. Using the interminable (to all but Lord of the Rings fanatics) thirty-minute denoument AFTER the famous ring's fate was determined, Mary warned us of the energy slump immediately after climax (giggle, giggle, sorry.) Second City will bring it back up with what they call a "run out" or a "blow" - it's a final punchline before the blackout that gets the comic energy up again, a version of "here we go again!"

Mary's example sounded like one of the character-driven pieces that Second City does really well but whose moderate pace and lack of hard punch would never work on sketch-based TV shows.

(Randy and I saw one of these in Spoiler Alert: Everybody Dies in July where a couple of food tent workers in Grant Park, the man recently from Senegal, the woman from Eastern Europe, take down their restaurant booths and compare notes on the Chicago institution of Taste of Chicago. Charming, lovely, funny. TV-friendly? No way.)

In Mary's example, a woman flips through an invisible rack of clothes when another enters and says, "Honey, I've been looking for you all over the mall!" (Lightening quick exposition.) The mom and teenage daughter spend the scene disagreeing over clothing choices and you come to realize it's one of the last places where they will come together - the daughter moves farther away as the mother criticizes and clings to her declining ability to exact influence over her daughter. Opportunities for funny here, of course, (the daughter's slutty clothes choices, the mom's shock) and also empathy and emotion. The "run-out" line encapsulates all these poignant themes, but also hits a comic high point.

Daughter, as they leave the store: Will you buy me some beer?

Mom: I told you, it was just that one time!


Mary Scruggs generously shared much more, but I'll cut it off with this - "K" words are funny. "Kentucky Fried Chicken" just makes us laugh, for some reason. (For my girls these days, it's all about the "P.")

Thursday, October 28, 2010

"Fireflies" by Mia, 8

It was a hot summer night when I yelled "DAD'S HOME!!!"

We rushed out the door to meet him.

We gave him a giant hug.

"Fireflies!" I said.

We ran inside to get some jars.

Then we ran out the door.

"I caught one!" I was so happy.

"I caught two!" said Nora.

I looked at Nora. She did not lie.

I wept. My dad came to me and said, "What happened?"

"Nora caught more than me!" I wept. "And she's littler." Nora: I caught three. No, four. No, five. No, six!

Nora looked at me. I looked at Nora.

"Want to twade?" Nora said. So we did.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

"Words Are Like" - They Might Be Giants

My Daughter's Memoir is Strangely Similar to Mine

It was so fun when I was getting my pets for the first time! I got frogs!

But! It was not fun when the frogs died.

The next day I went to school. But I was still sad.

When I got home I saw the pets were in the backyard.

"What did you do!!!!!!!!" I screamed to my mom.

I was furious at my mom when she said what she did.

After that I felt a bit gooder.

The next day I told my dad.

My dad came closer and said...

...why Mom put the pets in the backyard. But I was still sad.

I felt better when my dad was done.

(Ed. Who is the smiling figure on the box throwing the tadpoles into what looks like fire? Very mysterious.)

Even now I do not have a pet. I am still happy!

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Paul: "No Conventional Phrase"

This may be the oddest grief I've ever felt. Years ago I had to necessarily suspend feelings for this person, although his deeply sentimental streak was one of the traits where we had most kinship. We were not good for each other.

His early death was inevitable; I knew this not long after I first met him twenty-two years ago. But I carried a persistent denial - it made the relationship that we had possible - that his body would be as big and unique as his personality and he would beat the devil.

He died in December but I found out only this week. It's been a week of heart-filling beauty - limpid blue skies, trees on fire. A week to be grateful for life. Today I wrote for hours -- Randy took the girls costume hunting -- then biked, hard, down the Green Bay trail, trying to get out of my head. I walked the bike down the sandy slope to the Wilmette beach below Plaza de Lago, then left it to run to the water. After an icy bite, the little waves were cool and good on my legs. Kids in swimsuits, moms in beach chairs. The horizon was hazy; closer in, white sailboats and sailboards dotted the brilliant surface.

I needed to get lost in this beauty. "He's not dead," I told myself this week, because the memories that flooded in were so vivid. I could hear his voice. "I remember it like yesterday," said my friend Dianne. Yeah. But it wasn't yesterday, thank God, and yes, he is gone.

I left my shoes at the water's edge and ran to Gilson beach through the shallows. Waved to our neighbor at his sailboat. Pulled off my sweaty shirt and shorts and walked into the water. July and August had colder water than this. Kept walking, kept breathing through the chill until the water hit my chin and I turned back toward the shore. The cottonwoods have turned pale gold. I sobbed once, twice, three times, - this brilliant life, this lovely, lovely life, an abundance of riches, no more for him. I took a breath, ducked under the surface and emerged. Moved out of the heavy water back to shore.

There were tears enough when we were together. More than enough.

How do you talk about your first lover? How do you forgive him? How do you forgive yourself?

He was a charming scoundrel, a rabbit trickster, a gambler and a con man. He was a sentimental sap and a brilliant writer, an inspired teacher, a comedian, an artist tortured and capable of torture. If what sets us apart from the animals is knowledge of our own deaths, his human burden was unfairly, onerously heavy - he knew all too well the early outcome. He carried the disease not only in his genes, and in his lungs and gut, but on his very skin. Cystic fibrosis obstructs the cells' proper absorption of salt, leaving a salty rime that a mother can taste on her baby's skin, that a lover can taste.

We were together in Iowa, when I was barely earning my master's in film studies and he was a member of the Writer's Workshop. We were together, and then we weren't, then we were again. Then I left him for my friend Greg in the English program, then I cheated on Greg with him and left Greg to return to him.

He bought a dog and we drove with her to his parents' summer house in Manchester-on-the-Sea, north of Boston. He wrote; I waitressed and tried to find production work. After a year, his parents leased the house to a paying tenant and Paul and I had a terrible fight. I left him for two days. He pleaded until, exhausted, I took him back and we moved to a house in Lexington, Massachusetts with his depressed but sexy friend, with whom Paul could not believe I did not cheat. I left him. I got a job in Chicago. He came to Chicago. We were together somewhat; I left to date a man I worked with. And then cheated on the man. With Paul. I left the man I worked with, not for Paul, but because I shouldn't have been with him in the first place.

The eventual end, after four on and off years, spiraled down to dust and nothing amid the debris of quick and angry sex ("I'm a monster," he said the last time, with remorse and guilt, then got up and left), infuriating phone calls that left me pounding the phone with the receiver, revelations of betrayals so far in the past that they almost didn't hurt, and amnesia to all that had been good between us.

If at the beginning of all this lying and cheating and sex, I learned that he had a fatal and incurable disease, and yet continued the lying and cheating and sex, does that make me inhumanly cruel or could it please maybe mean that I looked beyond his disease and dared to grapple with the heart of a real and brilliant and terribly complicated man who happened to be ill and yet refused to be defined by it?


Could I have been a girl in her stupid twenties who had a huge hole in her heart and in her family and whose neediness was confirmed and partly satisfied by the intensity of his persistent desire and sometime love? Could we have been a match, even if a bad and destructive one, like magnets drawn by the other's weaknesses and absences?


Could the prescribed steroids he took to remediate his symptoms, and the self-prescribed drinking and tobacco he took to remediate the stuff in his head have exacerbated the rages, the irrational jealousy, the self-destructiveness and the search for temporary oblivion in me and all the other women? Yes, of course.

The last years, the Chicago years, he taught me the Cyrillic alphabet and the ever useful word "Schadenfruede." He introduced me to my beloved Richard Yates and Ivan Turgenev. We laughed at their black and beautiful work, and at the unrelenting sorrows of Young Werther. We recited lines from Dr. Zhivago back and forth in bad British accents: "The walls of his heart were like paper!" "I don't want to believe it if it isn't true!" "They shot the Czar! And all his family!" I called him Pavel when things were good. He wrote my boss a nasty letter about me when things were bad.

The last time we spoke, I had been content, safe, good and happy with Randy for years. I'd gone back to school, jumped with gusto into teaching full-time. He called to tell me he had to put down Lady, the chocolate lab we both loved. I took the phone into the bathroom; the former bank building where Randy and I lived had no reception in the basement and I didn't want to talk in front of Randy. I had nothing to hide from him -- I would share the entire conversation later, but this moment needed to be private. Paul and I wept together as he told me how he held her as she received the injection and as she died. We had loved her; she was funny and good and innocent. We shared this moment of remembering her. I thanked him for calling to tell me and said good-bye.

I have ten thousand regrets, but the only really important one is that I wish I could have been kinder.

He loved to recite the sixth stanza of Yeats's "Under Ben Bulben" - a poem where the poet speaks of himself and his own death in third person. He always recited the words in a rushed, joyous gallop that irked me because I couldn't understand what he said. He laughed at his own drama as he intoned the last lines.

Under bare Ben Bulben's head
In Drumcliff churchyard Yeats is laid.
An ancestor was rector there
Long years ago, a church stands near,
By the road an ancient cross.
No marble, no conventional phrase;
On limestone quarried near the spot
By his command these words are cut:

Cast a cold eye
On life, on death.
Horseman, pass by!

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Interview with Emma Donoghue

The From Left to Write website has an interview with Room author Emma Donoghue today, including questions from yours truly!

Her novel Room was stunning to read and it's very exciting to have this added insight to her process. I love her voice and her sense and her candid advice so much. Here's a great quote: I find the parent-child relationship infinitely interesting; it changes every week, it’s never stable or symmetrical, it can swing between tyranny and zen-like acceptance, passion and banality every couple of minutes.

You can read the entire interview HERE and my original post here. And here is a round-up of all the posts inspired by Room from From Left to Write contributors. Writer-Mommy's post comparing mothering as a verb to motherhood as a noun is particularly moving.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Room by Emma Donoghue

So happy to be discussing Emma Donoghue's masterful, gripping and funny novel Room with the From Left to Write book club this week. Initially, the premise of the book, told from the point of view of a five year old boy gradually coming to the understanding that he has spent his entire life imprisoned in an 11 x 11 foot bunker by his mother's kidnapper, gave me the heebie-jeebies.

Enough with the morbid fascination for extreme cases of violence towards women and children. Enough with "Click Here for photos of the house of horrors." Don't feed the dragon.

Room turned out to be something very different. Jack's mother, despite nearly nightly rape, emerges not as a victim, but a resourceful and stunningly brave heroine, whose inventive construction of a particular version of reality has not only kept her son from physical harm in their tiny world but protected his innocence and sense of well-being.

When Ma takes an enormous risk, the pages of Room became some of the most terrifying I've ever read. When I reached that point, it was after eleven at night, I was the last one awake and I stood in our cold bathroom, crying with fear, unable to take my eyes off the story.

Then things got surprising and even more interesting. The story does not end here, as a conventional thriller would have. And the pages that follow force us to see the world we live in from the point of view of a three-parts-civilized, one-part-feral child, who, despite all, appears to have escaped damage.

Both Jack's unique position to observe the oddities of our modern world (crocs shoes, predatory talk show hosts, the chaos of the mall, grandmothers hooting "yoo-hoo!" at the playground) and his undamaged quality that his mother's creativity was able to preserve allow the book's second half to become dryly funny and very much so.

Which is pretty amazing to me because here's the thing about safe. The topic of safety is pretty hard to make funny. People on safety patrol can be awfully sanctimonious. Safe is the derogatory word used to describe second-rate art.

As I write this I sit in front of window offering a high-rise view of a Chicago parking lot below. A little person in pink wanders alone in the aisle as her big people lock up their car. There are no moving cars in the entire lot, but I can feel an unpleasant tension. Parenthood heightens most parents' Spidey-sense and the added acuity can sometimes balance out with a decrease in the humor-sense. Heard any good jokes about vaccines lately?

Room resonated for me in so many ways. The memoir I'm laboring over has an ongoing theme of safety's folly - the well-intentioned hoops adults jump through to try to keep and preserve the children in their care, how physical and emotional safety can come to be at odds, the tension of safety vs. independence and self-sufficiency.

I wrote several paragraphs last night (which I intended to share with you, but left behind on the desktop of the aforementioned high-rise) about my mid-teen years when my aunt and uncle worked their darndest to construct elaborate ways to keep me physically safe and sound despite absolutely no efforts from me to be dangerous. I was the abstemious virgin in the family, whose favorite habit was reading, who hung with spiffy clean crowds and neglected to get her driver's license until she was eighteen.

My free time hours were busy with Girl Scouts, Key Club, French horn practice, writing original oratories about the importance of positive self-esteem and stuffing squares of black and white tissue paper into a chickenwire frame shaped to resemble Pepe Le Pew. (Pepe's levitating tail and the white smoke issuing from his ass ensured French club won the homecoming parade float first prize that autumn.)

The innocence of which kind of made my guardians' over-protection all the more ridiculous, but if I take even a half second to ignore my own irritation at the earliest curfew I knew and the harshest grillings when it was overreached and take another half second to look at my aunt and uncle's obvious motivations, all humor in the situation comes to a full stop.

Well, duh. If they could not control the awful recent past, if they could not take back the awful accident, if they could not even bring themselves to talk about it with the children who remained, the least they could do was try to control the already compliant girl who tried to see love in their strictures, since affection and pride came from them with more difficulty.

So you can see some of the challenges I'm facing trying to write the truth with both compassion and humor. Some days writing my story feels like constructing a jigsaw puzzle out of pieces of broken glass. And yet it's the joy in the past that I most want to convey, the joy in Jeanne and Chris's leap into the air next to the trailer, the joy that couldn't be extinguished, despite all.

You can find more posts about Room at From Left to Write.

The participants in From Left to Write Book Clubs receive from the publisher a copy of the book discussed.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Tenth Anniversary Staycation

The view from our hotel room.

To celebrate our tenth anniversary Randy and I had decided to spend a long weekend in New York without the kids, but when time came to buy tickets, I couldn't pull the trigger.

"I just wanted to go because you wanted to," confessed Randy and I sighed with relief.

"We would be rushing too much, trying to cram everything in," I said. "And I can't find any shows I really want to see." (This was before I read Chris Jones's recommendation of the David Cromer directed Our Town that closed this week. Ah, c'est la vie. Mary Zimmerman's Candide next month should help me get over it.)

So we stayed close to home, close to the girls, spent the weekend in Chicago and had a great time. A forty-eight hour date, like those long fun weekends we used to have when we had no schedule other than the Reader's movie section. Just time to be together and wander this gorgeous city, getting our wedding rings cleaned, browsing for hours at the new Barney's and the Newberry Library Book sale, getting an earful at the Bughouse Square Debates in Washington Square Park, lunching at Le Colonial and RL (places I wouldn't yet dare take the girls), waiting half an hour in line for fancy cupcakes at More.

The last of which made me beam with affection for dear sweet husband who patiently weathered the storms of giggles from the all-women crowd. Another patient kindness out of the thousands that the man has extended to me over our seventeen years together.

Dessert at Blackbird. That "cherry" was a hollow sugar construction, filled with sorbet.

Friday night we had dinner reservations at Blackbird, where I'd never been, where the parade of couples and parties through the front door was half the fun, where I saw several versions of my black patent peep-toe platforms, where we raised glasses to those who had celebrated our marriage with us ten years ago but are not longer with us: Eric, Katy, Ross's wife Mary Ellen, my aunt Theresa, Uncle Phil. It is a wonder, isn't it, when you still feel so young but your contemporaries start to leave you?

Back at the hotel Randy surprised me with our wedding video that Brent made and we laughed and gawked all over again. How beautiful and young everyone looked, how small the children were!

Saturday night we took a bike taxi to dinner at Ria and then saw Spoiler Alert: Everybody Dies at Second City (featuring a clever Shelly Gossman, who bears a passing resemblance to Tina Fey and was grabbed last month by visiting Lorne Michaels to write for SNL) and half of the later show, The Absolute Best Friggin' Time of Your Life before I called time for bed. Both shows brilliant, although Friggin' is getting the good press, since its comics are actually good singers, too. The rap "Rubenesque," a tribute to the curvy form sung by the show's three women brought down the house.

Flowers and truffles courtesy dear husband, fruit and nibblies from the nice folks at the Peninsula.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

My Favorite Moment of the Summer

The playground at Tower Road Beach in Winnetka has a modern kind of merry-go-round that is simply a circular rubber track, six feet across, supported on four posts. Two of the posts are slightly higher than the others so the angled track begins to shift under your feet when you step on its six-inch-wide black surface. The girls and I played gingerly on this playground toy, sitting on the nubby track and shuffling our feet in the sand to get a spin, or trying to stand and keep our balance as it moved.

I had retired to a bench to watch the girls and flip through a magazine when a pack of three or four tween boys came over to play on the merry-go-round too. Their legs and bare torsos were muscular and brown from the sun and they looked like they had done nothing all summer but swim and run and yell. In the unspoken deference to the older kids' size, the girls stepped out of their way.

The boys jumped on the rubber circle, took a moment or two of experimental balancing to figure out its physics and wordlessly started a game where they ran in place, spinning the entire track like a revolving conveyor belt. When one lost his balance or his nerve, he would fly off into the soft sand. Their flying legs were nimble and they unconsciously jerked their arms like tightrope walkers to keep balance. They seemed to know secrets of gravity and equilibrium that the girls have not learned and that I have forgotten, if I'd ever known.

Mia and Nora watched off to the side, but it didn't take long for my fearless five-year old to jump back into the fray. She took her place on the line between two of the boys, nearly a head shorter than any of them. The line of kids, four boys and one little girl, started to walk, then accelerate into a trot, then into a run that was thrilling to watch. They stayed in place, their legs working furiously and I was laughing and shouting, "It's a hamster wheel!"

Nora didn't last long, a few strides before she fell on purpose, but after jumping off the side, she twisted back and dropped to her belly on the wheel again, a sudden obstacle on the treadmill that the boys had to leap over as they ran, or fall off to avoid her.

I was laughing, laughing and calling out, "Nora, no!" when she leaped back on. "You're road kill!" The boys did not complain, just took the added challenge as part of the game, while Nora screamed with delight at her trouble making, spinning at their feet, my little wrecking ball, scattering boys in her wake.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

I Really Want To Tell You About My Sandwich

October 4, 2009. Copenhagen, Denmark.

Sunday we had the hotel spread (granola, yogurt, meats and cheeses, butter, butter, butter) for breakfast. Brazilian delegates were everywhere looking like the celebration was so over. How was I supposed to know Hotel Skt. Petri was the Rio de Janeiro command center when I booked? Eh.

We took the 6A bus from the front of the hotel, easy-peasy, all the way to the Copenhagen Zoo. The girls negotiate who will push the STOP button, who will hand the coins to the driver. We work out a deal where I will whisper to Nora, who will signal Mia with a high five and Mia will push the button. The sky is busy today, the wind brisk. I'm wearing my last clean dress that I packed on a 70 degree day in Wilmette, blue tights, a cardigan and my purple 3/4 sleeve cotton jacket. I have a warm beret but no gloves.

We skip the turn of the century observation tower that resembles a short black Eiffel Tower and right away get an eyeful at a hands-on display of animal skins and tusks. Even the faces of the tiger, the wolf and the leopards are intact, which I find sad, but doesn't bother the girls.

It's a great zoo, with cool new houses for the elephants and hippo (Flodhest is the cool Danish word). In the cold, the animals are frisky and what animals! Huge polar bears and brown bears barely ten feet away from us. Local musk ox, foxes and reindeer get us so excited, we hardly mind the start of the rain. Well, Mia has a pink umbrella, Nora and I wear hats and Dad has his big beer from the kiosk next to the skins display. What a country.

A huge tiger momma and her five kits! And an enormous tiger father! Fighting over a rack of bloody ribs for lunch! A big lion pack watching their wrestling kids! We oo and ah and take refuge from the cold wind in the steamy tropical house. Lunch is in a warm and dry cafeteria with beers on tap. I have four kinds of salad with bread; my plate looks like a rainbow compared to Nora's field of white. A hot chocolate after is warm and just sweet enough - totally satisfying. I swear I can taste the difference between sugar and the cloying aftertasty bittersweet of high fructose corn syrup.

The underground tunnel to the children's zoo has the Danish design touch - cool angular light boxes that shine strips of light on the walls and ceiling. (Have I mentioned that every immaculate bathroom has yet another beautiful sink and faucet and dual flush commode?)

In the children's zoo there are shaggy ponies and a rabbit hill with tunnels where the children can enter, then peek their heads out through clear plastic domes next to the bunnies on the grassy slopes above. It's beyond cute.

Nora falls in love with a black and white goat in the petting pen and pulls a little Heidi, hugging him and caressing his horns. I just want to stand next to his warm body to heat up my cold legs. I had bought some socks in the gift shop for my hands and actually eyed the largest of children's pj pants. The wind is picking up and an ominous cloud is covering the sun when we pull the girls away. Wait -- before we left the zoo Momma needed a bit more sustenance so we stopped at a sweet looking cafe next to the cafeteria where we had eaten lunch.

Warmth inside. A camel in his pen walked by the window and relaxed families around us enjoyed the same spot. The clouds had retreated and the afternoon light was spectacular through the high-angled windows. African spears and tribal standards hung on the walls next to the elaborately carved fireplace. Of course, as always, there were cool Danish lamps and a sweet waitress. Most Danes speak English with a British accent; our waitress had a broad Midwestern twang - she could have been an exchange student in Michigan.

But what I really want to tell you about is my sandwich - my cured tuna sandwich with preserved lemons, cucumbers, tomatoes, dill and mayonnaise. Open-faced and beautifully constructed. Phenomenal and unexpected. Beautiful. This place just has got the love, man.

Mia and I really want to show Dad and Nora the yellow palace in the park Frederiksberg Hav next to the zoo. Dad takes pictures of the surreal linden tree alle and the girls scoot down and climb back up the steep slopes. I feel like we've stepped into a Constable painting.

We try to do a lot on the way home - drop by the miniature model of Renaissance-era Copenhagen in front of the city museum, show Dad the Shooting Gallery Park behind. He gapes at the enormous wall, just like I did, and pushes the girls on a traveling rope swing. They bounce at the end and sail back, squealing.

From the window of the bus heading back to our hotel, I spy a tub filled with flip-flops outside a shoe store. The sign on the tub reads: SLUT SLURP KLAP KLOP.

The girls are tired so we go back to Dalle Valle next to the hotel for dinner. The hostess makes me smile when she shrugs at all the full tables. "People tend to stay here." It's the first time anyone we've met on this trip has been less than accommodating and kindly deferential. I'm amused at the change. We wait forever for someone to come once we get a table and the waiter does not speak enough English to get a girls a pizza but the couple next to us act as if we made their day when I oo over their sweet two year old. The baby has white blond hair and rolls around on her mom's jacket on the floor. The dad had a student's wild curls and a slightly better grasp of English than the shyly smiling young mom. We watch them through the front window wall after warm goodbyes, as they put the toddler in her push cart, wave once more and head out on their bikes in the dark.

You can find all our Danish and Swedish adventures here.