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.