Sunday, December 23, 2012
Last Saturday I took the girls to the Evanston Ecology Center to make nature Christmas tree ornaments, one of the ecology center's No Child Left Inside programs. Nora's initial reluctance was blown away by the first sight to greet us as we came in the room: a tortoise, the size of an inverted punch bowl, lumbering around the room.
"Look out! He's chasing us down!" I said and feigned a cartoony slow-motion escape. The girls petted a huge black rabbit and comparison-shopped a degu's double decker cage for his cousin, our Little Prince.
Our program guide Tim took us on a walk through the Ladd Arboretum where we collected leaves and pine needles, dried flowers and pine cones. Back in the warm program room, glitter flew, paint splashed and melted wax dripped until we had an egg carton full of wet and wonderful ornaments for the tree (and our winter coats were dappled with yellow acrylic.)
On Sunday, Nora had a birthday party, Mia played hide-n-seek with our neighbor girl and both practiced their instruments and sporadically helped Mommy with my afternoon of cookie baking. Peppermint bark, Martha Stewart's pistachio-almond-apricot-dried cherry confections and sugar cookies that we decorated later in the week,
once I figure out how to make royal icing, once I figured out that melted white chocolate makes an awesome icing.
"The Year Without a Santa Claus" wrapped up our weekend, but somewhere between the innocence and the sweetness, beyond the drifts of glitter and sparkling sugar, there had to be The Talk. I picked Saturday night dinner at the new little steak house in town. We were comfy in our seats under a giant wreath, we were together, we were eating bread and butter and I asked the girls if they had heard anything at school on Friday.
Telling the girls an abbreviated version of what happened in Connecticut felt wrong enough - words that no parent should need to say. Yet rushing to tell them next that what happened was very far away from us seemed even more wrong: an imperfect way to reassure them of their safety. I would rather nurture their belief that we are one world and the children of another town, another state, another country are our neighbors and our friends. But this moment I was flying by the seat of my pants and on advice I'd found online.
"Was he drunk?" asked little Nora.
"How did he...?" asked Mia and I had to say, "He had a gun." My voice wavered. I rushed to add, "But the good thing is that now we are going to change laws so that people can't get guns to hurt kids."
Nora was ready to move back to the Dav Pilkey books she had brought along, but Mia sat limp in her chair, lost. I moved to her side and we hugged. "I'm sorry to have to tell you this, honey, but we knew people would be talking about this at school and we wanted you to know you are safe and loved."
A horrible conversation. And I had thought Columbine was the worst we would ever see.
Something happened to me two Fridays ago. I was on the phone, in the middle of a sentence when I saw the headline "28 dead" and I stopped short, my throat closed, sick, unable to speak to the oblivious woman on the other end.
Every morning since then, I wake up to the awful reality again.
My sister and brother did not die from an act of violence, only a sad, sad error, but the reports of twenty tiny coffins brings back the acute agony of the year they died and the lingering pain of every year after. They were gone and realizing this fact again every morning was a plunge down a slope of jagged rocks. The world was wrong. The world was gone wrong. The pain was many and various. The regrets of not caring for them enough in the short time we had together. The horror of imaging their last moments. The soul-sucking loneliness of their absence. The terrible ache of seeing the future holidays and normal days and special days and every day without them. My heart goes out to the Sandy Hook families. I have tasted a sip of their grief.
There was a horrific perfection to the numbers (20 children, 1st grade, 6 and 7 years old, 11 days before Christmas) and the place (the sacred ground of an elementary school) that crystallized and made absolute the gun-control necessity in my belief system. The numbers and their names and faces cut through the haze of defense mechanism ambiguity with which I had viewed previous shootings. These were the ugly lies I told myself before December 14: They were in the wrong place at the wrong time. That child should not have been in a midnight movie. A grad of Columbine once told me "something was wrong with that school," that it was a place full of bullies. Lies I told myself to make the deaths tolerable. I am sorry, I am so so sorry for my blindness, for my lack of compassion and connection.
Yesterday we took the girls to see War Horse on stage at the Cadillac Theater and what I had half expected did happen: Mia was enthralled with the show while Nora felt better out in the lobby with me during the second act. The surprise I felt was not that the older girl would appreciate the show and the younger would need a break, but rather at my revulsion to a show I had read much about and had been looking forward to for weeks.
I knew the stories of the naively honorable and foolishly brave World War One cavalries decimated by the tanks; I expected the pathos of a vulnerable animal in danger and an unlikely reunion between the boy and his horse. Still, the character of Billy, the cousin of the War Horse's young owner, convulsing in panic and fear before a charge into the machine guns shook me out of engagement with the story. I hated this play. I wanted to leave.
It was a perfect story for this moment in America: innocents destroyed by weapons beyond the control of those who unleashed them upon the world. We are engaged in a cold war all over again, only this time, the opponents are ourselves. Weapons of mass destruction are pointed at our children and our only solution to the threat is disarmament.
Please use this link to donate to the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence.
Please write the President and Vice-President to show your support for gun control, and to your Senators and Representatives at the state and federal level to urge them to vote for reasonable and rationale firearms policy. Keep writing them.
Please call your money person if you have one and tell him or her to transfer your savings to socially responsible funds that do not invest in gun manufacturers.
Please refuse to give in to cynicism and hopelessness. Our president, on the 40th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s death, told us, "Dr. King once said that the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends towards justice. It bends towards justice, but here is the thing: it does not bend on its own. It bends because each of us in our own ways put our hand on that arc and we bend it in the direction of justice...."
Thursday, December 13, 2012
Thursday, December 6, 2012
Friday, November 30, 2012
But this time round, there has been this little writing project to keep me both grounded and uplifted. A goal to remember something to be grateful for every day. Because, as the wise Interwebs tells us, Gratitude turns what we have into enough.
This month, I am grateful for the proverb of the fighting wolves. One wolf is your anger, envy, sorrow, regret, guilt, resentment. In my mind, his eyes are dreadful red. The other is joy, peace, love, hope, serenity, kindness, compassion, empathy, and truth. This wolf glows blue within you. The punchline? The winner of their battle is the one that you feed.
Actually, I'm grateful for the whole theme of wolves in general -- picturing the blue wolf curled beside me helps me sleep at night; the bumper sticker "I Was Raised by Wolves" makes me laugh out loud. Weren't we all?
I'm grateful for the darkly funny tweets of Joyce Carol Oats. "The difference between magic & politics: magic is tricking people with the intention of delighting them." "Cessation of pain is the new happiness. Abrupt cessation, the greatest high."
And for Beautiful Ruins, an immensely readable and satisfying novel by Jess Walter about Hollywood old and new, a tiny coastal village near the Cinque Terra of Italy, betrayal, hope, love, pitching bad ideas, Liz and Dick, and busking the Edinburgh Fringe Fest.
For David Guetta. I've never heard his voice, but his music stirs my blood.
For friends who are like family and for family who are also friends.
For dear friends who walk 60 miles for breast cancer research! I wish I could walk with them, but I can't. (Won't? Couldn't? Mightn't? Wouldn't? The three miles I walked the day after Thanksgiving gave me blisters and knocked me out for the afternoon.)
Rickie Lee Jones at Space in Evanston. For her continued control and command of that unforgettably expressive voice. The night was both a reunion and a meditation on the passing years; this woman has earned the right to her emotive cover of "Sympathy for the Devil." "Young Blood" was joyous and I called out with her line "in the back row! Hold on tight!" because that's where Virginia and I were standing. "A Tree on Allenford" was a relevation. Not all was as joyous as my last time seeing her live, in Boston, 1992, however, when I scalped tickets with a brand-new friend and Rickie encored with her Grammy-nominated "Autumn Leaves." Accompanied by an unobtrusive cellist and bassist/keyboard guy, many of the songs were played with so delicate a touch as to try the patience of the drunk women sitting in front of us. And tunes like "Living It Up" brought me back to some hard times when I listened in pain. But there were funny stories of Rickie going to Cubs games with her dad and a gorgeous sing-along to "Horses" and the guy who shared his table with V. and me chimed in with me on the chorus and made a pretty harmony.
Thursday, November 29, 2012
I knew our local garden center Chalet was a source of gorgeous gifts, flowers, plants and trees and also as a fun place to take the kids for their special weekend family events (scarecrow stuffing! live reindeer!), but did you know they also have an education center with lectures and workshops?!
Chalet hosted a group of bloggers yesterday for their Winter Container Garden workshop, led by the ever-knowledgeble, enthusiastic and so adorable Jennifer Brennan and I learned all sorts of tips about creating gorgeous outdoor winter arrangements to prettify our porch and welcome winter visitors.
Fresh spruce tips, like the cute baby tree in the center with tiny pinecones, can be unfolded and shaped like so many pipe cleaners.
Noble Fir (the spiky uprights on either side of the center tree) has a bright green color on one side of its branches and a silvery-green underneath. And it makes one of the best Christmas trees for its wonderful scent and high needle retention.
White Pine will drape beautifully over the edges of your container like a skirt.
And Incense Cedar has tiny yellow pollen clusters that pop on their gorgeous arching branches. Other color accents are the Blueberry Juniper berries and Winterberry stems.
You too, can make a beautiful pot like the one above, all for the costs of materials and a registration fee. Workshops this week are Thursday evening from 6:30- 8:00, Friday from 1:00 to 2:30 and Saturday from 10 - 11:30. Pre-registration is required. Follow this link for more info.
Thanks, Chalet! It's inspiring to make something so beautiful and for that, I am so grateful!
Tuesday, November 20, 2012
For the restorative powers of the Chicago Botanical Garden on a mild and sunny November afternoon with haze softening the horizon. Mia and Nora searched for prairie grasses and late season berries to fill our Nature Bingo cards, but urns and strangely, squirrels escaped our eyes until the way home when I took a quick detour off Green Bay Road to show Randy the Ravine Bluffs development. A cluster of Frank Lloyd Wright homes, a bridge designed by the master and decorated with one of his signature URNS! With a squirrel on top!
I am so grateful for my big brother Ron whose fifty-third birthday is tomorrow. Dear Brother, I'm sorry I couldn't get you that oil-rich cattle ranch you wanted, but perhaps we can come see you this Christmas season and bring you a little something-something to make up for it.
For director Steven Spielberg and screenwriter Tony Kushner (working from the source material of Doris Kearns Goodwin's book Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln) who have made the most inspiring and moving film I saw this year. A familiar figure seen anew and his world so fully realized that you understand his adoration by his contemporaries and you loathe to leave him at the end. Steven, why not reemploy your talented band of actors and your costume "agers," as the credits called them, and make us a few more hours of company with the gentle-smiling and parable-telling man?
I am grateful for the sight and sound of two little girls jiving to Harry Belafonte's "Day-O" first thing in the morning.
For recipes for Squash with Chili Lime Vinaigrette and Pineapple Cranberry Salsa to liven our Thursday table.
For playdates that entertain my children while I plan the menu and maybe, maybe, hopefully, stretch their good socializing skills.
For the sweet anticipation of Volo Bog and the little patches of prairie and oak savanna at the Grant Wood Forest Preserve in Ingleside where we'll hike after the gluttony.
I am grateful for The Mindy Project because it's really funny.
And I am grateful for each invisible circle of inhale and exhale that fuels my days and soothes my nights. When I stop to notice them, I remember each is a perfect moment that I am happy to have.
Sunday, November 11, 2012
My father, Ronald James Fey, Sr., enlisted in the United States Air Force in October of 1951, when he was twenty years old. He trained at bases in San Antonio, Denver and Tucson and served out of Okinawa, Japan as a navigator on reconnaissance flights over the Russian coastline. He achieved the rank of second lieutenant and was honorably discharged on August 2, 1956. For the next three years he served as a captain of the Air Force Active Reserve.
For his service and that of all our veterans, I am ever grateful.
Friday, November 9, 2012
For dear, dear Randy, who lets me drive him as crazy as he does me, then reaches for my hand and squeezes it before we even open our eyes in the morning to let me know we are going to be okay.
For dear Aunt Ruth, who, at eighty-eight, with macular degeneration and shifty hearing, still rallies in her red state to place her vote for good. And for her dear daughter Jeanne, who takes her to the polls, makes her laugh, keeps Ruth company and keeps Ruth independent.
For this lovely community where friends and friendly neighbors are steps away.
For our crossing guard, Tom, who takes his job of getting us across busy Lake Street as seriously as it deserves.
For dear friends gathering for the upcoming feast.
For my Kindle, a gift from Randy, which is saving me shipping and shelf space.
For our little Brownie troop, full of sass and cuteness, eager to pick up trash and do good deeds, sing silly songs and act out the Girl Scout laws of fairness and honesty, kindness and strength. And for a wise and funny partner to help me wrangle them.
For the good sense, faith and courage of this country that reelected our hardworking and sensible President. I say with great love, we deserve him.
For the patience of my friends and family as I fall apart in this dark season and try again every morning to pick up the jagged pieces and put them back together again.
Friday, October 19, 2012
It's Fall Frenzy time again so I spent most of the day creating these little darlings. Mini pumpkin Jack-O'-Lantern tarts from Martha's newest pie book and two devil's food graveyard cakes with chocolate mousse frosting from good old Joy.
The pumpkin pie recipe asked for evaporated milk and not having any on the shelf, I sat down next to stove to simmer 2 and 1/4 cups of milk down to one. Took over half an hour of constant stirring; next time I'll just go to the damn store.
I used pate sucree for the dough - it has more sugar than regular pie crust, yum, but makes the dough softer and a little more challenging to work with. Martha sez cut six inch rounds to fit in the tartlet pans - I just used muffin tins - but I discovered you need to take out big 1/4 cut of the circle to fit into the pan. Just wet the edges of the cut and press them together before you fit the little cup of dough into the tin.
The cakes were baked in the two small cake pans that I bought at the Ferry Building when we were in San Fran this summer - they makes treats that are a perfect size for a small family. Four cute pieces.
Tons of frosting recipes in The Joy of Cooking and few of them are easy - except for the quick butter and powdered sugar ones that make my teeth ache with the sweet. But I had the time so I made this crazy egg-yolk chocolate mousse that required constant stirring (again with the stove stir duty) over barely simmering water until the mixture reached 160 degrees with an instant-read thermometer. Say what again? A bit of a pain the ass, trying to stir with one hand and hold the thermometer with the other. And then during the next step (I don't read the recipes ahead of time so complications can be fun, ha ha), I was using the hand mixer with the bowl in an ice bath when the phone rang and I accidentally splashed ice water into the icing that was already too drippy by half.
F word, F word.
"Hello?" It was the vet making a follow up call to check on Little Prince. Aw, how can you stay stressed over some drips when someone cares about your rodent?
I fixed the watery icing by whipping in a big dollop of butter (Butter fixes everything! Time is flying!) and jumped on my bike to get the girls at school. They helped with the final decorations - a Peeps ghost, Milano cookie-headstones with RIP in black frosting from a tube, tiny strips of fruit roll-ups for grass and crumbled gingersnaps for the overturned earth on the graves. Spooky fun!
Thursday, October 18, 2012
Wednesday, October 17, 2012
Saturday, October 6, 2012
Planning a Brownie meeting. The Hiker patch. The Making Friends badge. The Investiture ceremony. An oval mirror on the ground surrounded by tiny ferns into which the girls will peek after spinning three times and reciting, "Twist me and turn me and show me the elf! I look in the water and see myself!"
This video is very close, spooky close to how my children sound when I eavesdrop as they play.
The campy, crazy art of Ferdinand Hodler. Thanks, Martina!
Forty things to say before you die. "Damn, I look good." "This is who I am." "Isn't this beautiful?" Thanks, Kristen! How liberating a thing "I don't care" can be!
The colors of the trees this week.
Zadie Smith's ten rules for writing.
Reading Homer Price to the girls at bedtime.
Vintage children's paperbacks. Oh the memories! Oh the nostalgia!
Jack Gilbert: "We must have the stubbornness to accept our gladness in the ruthless/ Furnace of this world. To make injustice the only measure of our attention is to praise the Devil./If the locomotive of the Lord runs us down,/We should give thanks that the end had magnitude./We must admit there will be music despite everything."
Thursday, October 4, 2012
Randy cut this. I'm so proud of him. The beautiful footage was shot in South Africa.
The piece may more aspirational than reflective of Disney's actual films and products (I mean, why is it so hard for Disney to write scenarios showing female friendship? In the 75 years since Snow White, I count ONE single princess with a non-animal friend - Tiana from The Frog Prince has flibbertigibbet Charlotte La Bouff) but the images of strong and capable young women and the inspiring narration are still very moving.
And of course the editing is brilliant.
Thursday, September 27, 2012
The screams sounded like a child had just met some terrible accident - I jerked my head up and saw two women across the parking lot with a toddler screaming on her tricycle. A pile of gear and a baby car seat on the pavement told me the story. The older one didn't want to go home, she was having too much fun. But oh those screams, like she had broken a limb, like she was being tortured.
They didn't subside and at the next look I saw one woman crouching down to rock and talk to the baby in its car seat while the other woman took the tantrumming child to the grass to chill. The child refused to stay put, ran toward the parking lot, toward the park. The mother picked her up and carried the thrashing child back to the grass and then again as her bloody screaming continued.
Next time I looked up the other woman had gone and most of the gear was packed in the car. Now the mother was texting as the wails continued. I remembered bad days I had had when my ears hurt with the piercing reminders of what a bad mother, what an awful person I was. I remembered the times strangers helped me. I jumped out of the car and ran across the parking lot. Both kids were in the car now but she remained outside, phone in hand, perhaps not ready to face the drive home yet.
"You're doing a great job," I launched without introducing myself. She didn't need my name or niceties.
"I can remember how hard it was when mine were little, I was tearing my hair out. Now they're seven and nine..."
I was babbling. She said nothing but her face started to crumble as my eyes filled and my tight throat caught on my next words.
"You're a super mom! Can I give you a hug!" Her white cardigan was soft.
"You're doing great! Hang in there!" And I dashed off to find my two, my easy girls who pushed me to the limit and beyond but forgave me (at least for today) for my own screams and tantrums that matched and surpassed their own.
"Mia! Nora!" and they came to me just like that, with beautiful smiles. I gave each one a hug and a kiss and we went to dinner.
Friday, September 21, 2012
Thursday, September 20, 2012
"When was the first time we met you?" Mia asked the kids and I cringe because I suspect the painful place this is going. We're on our way to a doll store, to have a dinner in a pretty pink room with black accents, an early birthday gift for Sweetie.
"We went camping a few years ago," I say, my eyes on the road. "Buddy, your dad made the best potatoes. And his grilled salmon! So good!"
I'm trying to bypass the pain, instead of crash into it.
"When was the next time after that?" presses on Nora, despite my attempt to keep us in the woods.
"It was at that place, after your dad died."
"Beggar's Pizza," says Buddy. He knows.
"I'm sorry your dad died," says my Nora, who is frightened by the awfulness of the possibility that such an unfathomable thing can happen. It is not the first time she has said this.
"If you stop talking about it, I won't feel sad about it," says Sweetie.
With no help from me, the conversation became something more for the benefit of my children than for this young girl, her tween brother. Words to help my children be able to walk up to the edge and peek over and turn back to me, rather than words that would comfort our friends.
Later, I would share some spontaneous memories that made the girl smile ("Did you know your mom played the theremin? It was beautiful, not just the way it sounded, but the way her hands moved over the machine..."), but the point of this visit wasn't Overt Healing and Therapeutic Talk -- I'm not qualified for that kind of thing.
I could tell them, "I lost my parents, too, when I was a kid," at that funeral luncheon at Beggar's Pizza, in sympathy, in reassurance, I hoped, that they were not alone, but I could not make myself say, "Everything is going to be alright." When I am with them, I can act like these words are true, but I don't like to say those words to these children, like a promise I cannot keep. Dear Hope Edelman asked the motherless daughters who read her blog to consider on Mother's Day a positive thing that had happened in their lives because of the deaths of their mothers; I love Hope and my life is full and happy, but I'm not to the point yet where this experiment does not feel wrong.
Here's what I can do. I can make some fun for the kids. I can do that. I can take them to the planetarium and the beaches and The Boring Store (a front for a Secret Agent store which is actually a front for a kids' writing center) where Buddy got an invisible ink kit and a clip-on bow tie for instant Secret Agent glamour! Buddy was smiling. He wore the bow tie to dinner at Ed Debevic's. We laughed a lot. Once we got the school business out of the way, that is.
Their uncle had his last court appearance to be appointed guardianship on a Thursday morning. Court was scheduled at the same time as registration for Buddy's middle school, so I took the boy and girl, while Randy (his assistant Lucy) watched (plied with candy, crayons and Photoshop) Mia and Nora at the office.
Registration for the middle school involved mostly waiting in a series of lines and filling out paperwork. This I could handle. I could do this.
Buddy's uncle had everything filled out and tucked into a clipboard, everything but the medical exam paperwork since he couldn't take the boy to a doctor until the guardianship gave him access to the kids' insurance - such is one small tangle in the knot of challenges falling down on this man who stepped up to take the children. Their uncle is a kind, hard-working guy, never married, who called on Thursday night to see how the kids were doing.
"I miss them!" he laughed. "It's so quiet here, I'm talking to the dog!"
And now he's facing the daunting prospect of raising on his own a boy on the edge of middle school dangers and a girl who asked me what a tampon was in the doll store bathroom.
Sweetie was pointing at the tampon dispenser on the wall. I flashed back to those times I had said to Randy, "What about when she gets her period!? How is her uncle going to handle it?"
In the bathroom, I told her, "It's something you need when you get a period once a month when you are a teenager and ready to have a baby."
Sweetie reached for the door.
"Okay, I want to go back to the table now."
"Do you want to see one? I have one in my purse."
"Okay, I'm going to the table now."
So I'm not great at this, at this new friendship, this partial substitute auntship, this part-time role model job. But I am trying and I am not afraid. The mountain of hurt in their lives does not scare me away and that is at least something.
Nora and Mia already know the words yoni and tampon and period and they already know how unhinged I can get the days before I get mine. They also know how to floss their teeth, something new, apparently, to the girl, who held the length of string gingerly at the ends and plucked it against her lip. That was a rough moment for me, at the end of the visit and the end of the night, when I was looking forward to everyone, including me, being asleep in bed. Realizing the endless details of girl care and comfort that this little one might need to figure out on her own, I set my jaw and flossed her teeth for her as gently as I could. This I could do for her, on this night.
That was challenging, but it wasn't the hardest moment - that was probably at registration, in the metal lined hallway of the middle school, seeing girls with their moms decorating their sixth grade lockers with wallpaper and tiny plastic chandeliers.
We had nothing to put in Buddy's locker when we found it, but we opened it anyway, me waxing all enthusiastic about how big it was and how close to his first class. I took the new combination lock out of its cardboard box and showed the boy how to turn it first to the right, then to the left all the way past the zero, then to the right again. He took it, wiggling around the digits and missing the mark. The lock refused to yield when he pulled up on the loop. He tried again, starting with a turn to the left.
"Okay, let's clear it again," I said. "And turn to the right."
I point to the right. He turned the opposite way.
"So, okay, let's clear it again, spin it a few times. And find 21 to the right."
He did it. After three failed tries, he did it. He would need more practice. His uncle would need to help him.
I have tried hating Buddy and Sweetie's parents for dying and leaving them. I tried hating Heroin, the idea of it, tried hating the addictions that killed their parents in two separate, excruciatingly separate, deaths. I have felt the beginning of a flame of rage in my gut, tried blowing on the coals, hating them and the drug the way I hate smokers who walk through crowds swinging their lit sticks at the level of my children's eyes. But I can't get the fire to catch. It's like hating a god that isn't there. Or hating an airplane, or its pilot. Or a car. Or its driver.
Nora reads out the loud the conversation starter from the little striped box on the table at the doll store restaurant. "What's the biggest surprise you ever had?" Another possible landmine of awful memory, but the children sidestep it lightly, Buddy answering with a Christmas he received a video game, Sweetie telling us a funny story about the dog. I think they have compartmentalized the deaths, put them away from their real lives, until they will be old enough to decide whether they will be defined by them. I am grateful for the lesson these children offer me.
Tuesday, September 18, 2012
Sunday, September 16, 2012
My garden looks best in spring, but perks up in September. I know that's a big ol' yaller weed in the center of this border, but I think it's kind of pretty between the purple asters and red mums. And that galaxy of Sweet Autumn Clematis above can't help but remind us that we are all made of stars.
Other seasonal beauties:
Mia and Nora doodling our table during a lunch break at the Renegade Craft Fair in Wicker Park. I wish I could describe how shiny the clouds were that day.
...And typical Wicker Park hipness. Hand cranked snowcone machine with yum flavas.
...And Mia has a new friend, Liam, and she can't get enough of him. Even after sitting next to him all day in class, even after playing football for an hour in a neighbor's front yard with him and a crowd of kids, even knowing she was going to spend half of Sunday with him at the Field Museum on a special playdate, she still was close to tears during her piano lesson Friday because she wanted more time together.
When she tried to explain her tears to her father that night, she used those most grown-up of words, "It's complicated" and I felt the shift, a tilting of the room, as she took another step toward the rocky hills of adolescence.
But it was the today at the museum, watching their easy happiness in front of the glass display cases of Extreme Mammals that brought it all home - precious, incomparable, incomprehensible, unforgettable young love.
...And anticipating new books from Ian McEwan (Sweet Tooth, coming November 13), Alice Munro (Dear Life: Stories, November 13) and Justin Cronin (The Twelve, sequel to The Passage, out October 16!)
...And my current read, Madeline Miller's The Song of Achilles, its poetically sparse observations and its elegiac mood of impending doom, heightened by our reading a child's version of the story that Nora just happened to bring home from school last week.
This is how Patroclus, Achilles' ill-fated lover, describes hope in the Trojan War: "There will be a moment after this, and another after that."
...And the success of the first field trip of our new Brownie troop! We joined a crowd of other troops at Gillson Beach for the Great Lakes Alliance Adopt-A-Beach annual cleanup on Saturday morning. The paper forecast temperatures as low as the forties, but the day dawned bright and clear. Most of the troop came, along with their parents, and they chattered happily about the strange things they had found. A pickle! The remains of a birthday party! A fragment of a painted teacup! Such excitement about picking up garbage, it just made my heart glad.
Tuesday, August 21, 2012
But really, could you design a more perfect couple of days than the first two we spent as a family in San Fran?
Like most mornings in this unfamiliar time zone, I woke Thursday before Randy and the girls and like most mornings in these beautiful and unfamiliar places, I tied on running shoes as quietly as I could and snuck out the door to go throw myself at a sprint into the newness.
One mile from Ghiradelli Square to the art deco Coit Tower wreathed in fog. Tai chi octogenarians kicking their legs up in the air to waist height made me vow to pick up their practice and be as lively in my retirement.
(Which brings up the question of the strange problem of the stay-at-home-mom's vacation. "The beach is beautiful and all," I told Randy a few Friday nights ago, "but that's where I go on a work day with the kids. You know what I find really relaxing? Meeting my friend Kerry at the gym and talking about teaching and books as fast as we can in the couple of hours we've got, rar-rar-rar-rar," my hands making chatting motions at each other, "and then rushing home and I'm all ahhh."
(And dear husband, who works with grown-ups all day, and who would be the recipient of all my rar-rar-rar Relaxation on this trip, said the equivalent of "Hm."
(Actually, he wasn't the sole recipient - we've had great visits with old friends in Cali: Jim Rodney and Greg Grubbs in LA, Scott Cotner the daredevil skier and Coachella fire-statue constructor and his fiancée Kendra last night at the Top of the Mark, along with dear Young Koo, who apparently had my husband singing "Don't Go Chasing Waterfalls" at karaoke after I took the girls home - haven't heard the whole story yet. And there was a beautiful afternoon and evening in Carmel Valley with dear old friends Nadene and Jim Dermody and their whipsmart sixth-grader Declan. Jim's mad for Steinbeck and during the five years he was my department head at Gordon Tech in Chicago, he'd spend every summer in Monterey and come back lamenting Illinois's miserable winters. We all had a bit of a crush on him, he was such a kind, funny, soft-spoken but fiercely loyal boss. I thought he was entrenched at GT after thirty-something years of dutiful service, but he fell in love with his new hire Nadene the band director and they ran off to Salinas to make their dreams come true. Now Nadene is the principal and superintendent at the Lagunita School that Steinbeck wrote of in The Red Pony. Jim's going to celebrate 45 years in teaching soon, Declan is a charmer and my heart's about to bust with happiness for them all.
(Over dinner I told Jim and Nadene I had renewed my teaching certificate and started applying for substitute jobs in our district. Nadene offered me a job on the spot. Now all I need is the eleven years before our youngest graduates New Trier and to get Randy on board and California! Here we come again! For good this time.)
Back to my walk. The path down off Telegraph Hill is down twisty and steep flights of wooden and rock and then concrete steps, past sweet and neat cottages and wild gardens. A starbursty type of purplish-blue allium is in flower right now. An impossible cliff face to my right as the steps cease near the Levi's offices.
A waterfront run past piers and the Alcatraz ferry that we will not take because two mere weeks out was insufficient planning. Giant sculptures, the Ferry building, antique restored electric streetcars from Boston and Illinois and Italy remind me of the one named Desire.
Back at the hotel, a quick shower, I cannot cannot dress myself in the warm brown cords I brought, just cannot share the tourist look, so one of my recycled dresses from Santa Monica and tights and we hop in a cab. The sun is out.
"MOMA," I tell the cab driver and he drops us off at a street corner with a line of young and pretty people waiting to get their names on the list for brunch. I'm looking around for the museum while Randy is realizing the diner is called "Momma's." So the rest of the day we're making up misheard cabbie instructions, "Sir, I said The Fairmont, not The Bare Mount!"
Cindy Sherman has a fabulous show at our realized destination. The girls are into it. Their favorite photo subject has been themselves since Dad got them the little digital cameras the day before we left. There's a collection on the theme of theatricality with odd set pieces and short films the girls like - two men dressed in a rat and a panda bear costume traipsing around Swiss landscapes and a woman with an empty laundry detergent bottle taped to her face throwing paint at herself.
"My next Halloween costume," I whisper to the girls.
"Mom, no, that's so embarrassing!" My seven year old is growing up.
Fortifying snacks at the museum cafe (what a city! vegan soup everywhere!) Another cab ride across town to the Exploritorium in the magnificent Palace of Fine Arts, whose design is from the Pan-Pacific Exposition, but whose concrete construction out of molds from the original dates only from the sixties. Inside, hundreds of hands-on exhibits on physics and chemistry and optics and astronomy and chaos systems keep the girls and Randy and me enthralled. Fantastic. My favorite? Watching a minutely calibrated scale measure the fading weight of a tiny beaker of water as evaporation occurs! Whoa!
We just scratched the surface when hunger hit so on to the Embarcadero and the Ferry Building, a mall for foodies, where Acme Bread Company, Cowgirl Creamery and lots of other yum yum vendors tempt us. We have lunch at the Market Bar, then I buy some stone fruit and at Miette, some candy, macarons and two six-inch cake pans, one with a rounded top, another with a dropout bottom, for family birthday cakes.
We take one of the antique streetcars home, crowded and less pretty inside than on the outside, but I am entertained by the kid next to me on his cell phone and his story about meeting a Spanish girl and going to prayer meeting with her, not understanding a word, but sharing "the feeling of it."
I need to get out of the squish on the streetcar so we get off at Pier 39 and do touristy stuff for a couple of hours - oogle sea lions and a sword juggler, giggle our way through a mirror maze, play antique games at the Musee Mechanique.
We have dinner at Bistro Boudin after I quiz one of the bakers about their original starter (yes, it's only water, flour and salt; the naturally occurring yeast comes from the unique wet and cold conditions of the region; no, they don't use additional yeast; and yes, the starter is from the original - that was saved in a bucket from the 1906 post-earthquake fire!)
The next day we would cross the Golden Gate Bridge, have a retro lunch at the waterfront institution The Spinnaker in Sausalito, Ooo and Aah at the neighborhoods of house boats, cavort on beautiful Muir Beach, and explore WW2 era bunkers on a cliff. Mia will spy a woodpecker. A perfect couple of days? Just about.
Tuesday, August 14, 2012
I'm nestled in the warm sand at the top of a steep bare dune at the point where a carpet of gorsey-heathery flowering succulents takes over the slope. Mia and Nora leap, run and roll down the hill below me, laughing. Above and behind me the shrubs stretch up to the bluest sky.
Pfeiffer Beach, Big Sur-Pfeiffer State Park. How did we get here? There's a geographical answer and a narrative one and they both feel like adventures. The road to the beach is a single lane through a ferny redwood valley. Randy hugged the side of the road as we squeaked past cars going out. The turnoff has no sign and we missed it and almost missed it again after three different sets of directions and a warning from a sunburned guy at the gas station, "There's a line of thirty cars waiting for spaces in the lot. You better rethink it."
I will not be denied.
"Worth it!" I called to Randy when we emerged from the shady path onto the beach. The rocky stream we'd been following empties into a brackish pond in the dunes, deep enough for boys to swim. Over the strand, thrilling waves crash. Rock island fortresses lie just off shore and we squeal at the waves breaking through the natural arches at their base. A magical place.
We follow the curvy beach around a promentory to another long stretch facing west.
Globs and tangled blobs of ropey greeny-gold seaweed huddle on the sand. Mermaid hair. Nora picks up the kind with a cylindrical tube attached to a veiny leaf and uses it to draw pictures in the wet sand. "It's a pen!" There are thin white strands like dental floss and long grassy clumps and my favorite, huge hookah pipes with a round bulb bigger than your fist on the end.
At the end of the beach, where the flat sandy floor meets a steep rock face, we find another riparian valley lined with cypress. We step out of the sun, away from the roar of the surf. It's quiet and the sand is cool and soft under my feet. I see a path up through the trees and scramble up rocks in my flipflops. A ray of light from the afternon sun lights the way. The view at the top is lovely but I most loved the journey, climbing in the path of light through the forest toward the clifftop.
What are you going to spend your life remembering? What are you going to spend your precious time and energy noticing? I want this afternoon forever.
Saturday, August 11, 2012
That's what they're supposed to say, followed by a lament about how run down it's become and these kids today, they don't care about nothin'.
But I'm finding myself saying only the good stuff, dancing a tango with Nora on the crowded dance floor, scarfing a big ol' piece of Pink Champagne cake and gaping at how nice our "Fox and Hound" suite is. Yes, there are decorative rifles in the wall and an excess of hunter green and pattern, pattern everywhere, but it's also clean and fun, like the ottoman done up in fake fur and plaid.
And there is that smell in the air, that clean smell that the air took on somewhere outside of Santa Barbara, when the plant life overcomes the dominance of the internal combustibles and each breath feels like an inhalation of something clean and scrubbed and delicious.
"This is my favorite place we've been so far," says Mia, a paper rose as big as a dinner plate over her head. "I want to come back here for my tenth birthday!"
I'll post pictures later when I figure out how to make Blogger and my iPhone talk to each other.
Wednesday, August 8, 2012
He's the second gray-haired guy we've seen walking thus around the lobby of the Lowes. Entitled studio execs? Midwestern tourists embedding themselves in LA casual? Or just lifelong Angelenos who live the easy vibe?
Then there are the barefoot girls in bikinis walking around who make me think of John Updike's "A & P" and from there I must go to "Hello (bing) there, you (gung) hap-py pee-pul (splat!)"
A trapeze course on the beach below our window gives us a show, men swinging against the afternoon sun, grabbing ring to ring to ring in wide spiraling orbits.
We rented two tandum bikes this morning, per dear friend Kate's suggestion, and wobbled our way to Venice. Found a couple of picture-perfect streets lined with bouganville, wild gardenia and sweet shingled cottages. Had lunch under the arches of the Sidewalk Cafe in the last of the Venitian-style buildings put up by Abbot Kinney at the turn of the century. Next door was Small World Books, one of those beautiful endangered species of indpendent bookstores with crowded aisles, hand-written recommendations and a sleeping tabby in the biography section. We got maps and some new Mo Willems and old Jon Muth but had to stop when my backpack reached capacity. Need to throw out some of those theme park flyers.
I've got nothing against Legoland where we spent much of yesterday, well, except for the sexist marketing and the weapons-toting characters, but what do you expect, Cindy? The "factory tour" exhibit made it clear everything there has a Plastic origin. I give them points for being Danish but after visiting three theme parks in two days, my appreciation of the Disney attention to detail is renewed yet again. The workers meticulously pruning trees at our hotel, the guy touching up the scuff marks on the teacup-shaped armchairs in the lobby, the button on our bedside table that turned on a hidden light display of fireworks in the castle scene on our headboard, the Fastpass system that takes us to the front of lines as a reward for merely planning ahead, I love it all.
Not that they have every kink worked out - at our Blue Bayou dinner, despite a lovely ersatz setting under Chinese lanterns and a faux moon occasionally hidden by light projected clouds, three different eager but confused waiters appeared at out table, including one who asked if we were ready for our check before the food arrived. I quibble.
I felt an earthquake last night. It shook the bed a moment or two, long enough to make a widow cry, remembering the way he used to crawl in next to her.
Monday, August 6, 2012
Woke early early, time change early and ran barefoot on Laguna Beach, a fleet light-breathed run, feeling very alive. Sea foam at my feet as soft as cool cream. Feeling a dear connection to another beach on the same ocean eight hundred miles south. Feeling ready to forgive a dear spouse's drunken anger last night because my desire to sleep butted up against his need to witness Curiosity. The easy forgiveness spurred by a dinner last night in a place called The Top Of The World where the view is forever and the amiable party included divorced couples and their new partners, their children, friends, hors d'oeuvres-stealing dogs and a general air of good will, grace and gratitude. Bygones were bygones and let it be so the rest of this trip via our small Camry and its annoyingly user unfriendly GPS.
Saturday, July 28, 2012
"You didn't have to," he said.
"Five years is tin, ten years is bronze and twelve is gasoline," I reminded him. Not that I couldn't have driven since I only indulged in two sips of his sweet dessert wine, but I was so giddy with the night I felt a little drunk. And it was a night for reveling in the countless gifts we have already accumulated in our years together - especially every day we have had with those two amazing children.
Not that our progression took us very far - instead of across town, we progressed from astounded at Spaggia's raw scallop with sea urchin (delicious orange goo that tastes of the sea) and finger lime (a New Zealand fruit formed in tiny crunchy bits of pulp that burst in your mouth like citrus caviar) to delighted (a perfect wild salmon sitting on a bed of mustard horseradish cream sauce and topped with pickled cucumber and a thin sliver of toasted pumpernickel that cleverly acts like the skin) to sated.
So the nightcap idea was abandoned and the trip to Mindy Segal's Hot Chocolate may have been a bit much, but it did make for the best moment of the night when we started talking to the big multi-generation birthday party next to our table and found out the birthday girl was born on the day of our wedding. Her name was Isabella and her grandmother wished us as many happy years as she and her husband of fifty had enjoyed. And boy did she look good for a woman married fifty years! Five of her nine grandchildren sat at the long table, a little one brushing the birthday girl's long hair with loving strokes.
Sometimes I feel like I'm tempting fate when I talk with Randy about my hopes for the girls and their futures. Such is the legacy of knowing loss too early and too well. But I saw two beautiful young women in short dresses and braids at the table next to ours at Spaggia and I dared to imagine our Mia and Nora for a moment, tall and capable, and the thought almost took my breath away.
Sunday, July 8, 2012
Mia said, "Look at the ducklings!" and there was a tight cluster of them, maybe five or six, paddling away from the shore, bobbing like corks on what looked like heavier waves than they could handle.
"Where's their Mama?" I wondered and my heart sank, but Mia just cooed at how cute they were and how well they were doing, sticking together.
This hot week, a crowd of family and friends joined us at the lake and the six kids in attendance, my girls and the ducklings and a fifth grade boy and his newly teen sister, are all of the ages when riddles and brain teasers are fascinating (1. "What has three faces and eight legs?") and funny (2. "What's long, brown and sticky?")
The Riddle of Sphinx got thrown out there, of course, and (3.) the victim found in a locked room lying in a puddle of water and broken glass.
(4.) "The one who makes it doesn't want it; the one who buys it doesn't need it and the one who uses it doesn't know it" fascinated the table at dinner.
"I've got one!" I shouted and my friend Kate said, "The doctor was his mother," which freaked me out because it was the right answer and made us laugh.
After a few rounds, the kids started trying out their own compositions. (5. Mia's: "What is gold and floats?") Ruthie, the teenager, wore a grin wide open with laughter as she listened to Nora try to make her nonsense work. (6. "A man is sick and he needs to take a pill and he looks down and the floor is moving. How is this happening?")
Meanwhile the grownups who haven't seen each other in weeks or months or years or even ever were catching up and Ehran (old friend and father of the two funny kids) and Elle (Floridian friend of my father-in-law) bonded over recalling the fun of the movie The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel.
"Everything works out in the end," they quoted together. "And if it doesn't work out, it's not the end!"
Elle has a pretty laugh, a musical North Carolina accent and a sweet, frequent smile. She and my father-in-law have been together for three years, happy years it seems. This is the first time the girls have met her. Nora gave her a hug before learning her name.
Randy and I had been all tense about the girls being confused by Elle's presence while Grandma stays back in Florida but when Nora accidentally referred to her once as "Grandma" and I said, "she's not your grandma," I learned once again that children adapt more quickly than adults and I am capable of making my own worries come true.
We had some quiet time together before most of the crowd arrived, just the four of us and Elle and Grandpa, and over a panini lunch on the deck, Mia told her version of the riddle we call The Two Envelopes.
"There's a tailor and he wants to marry a princess. The king is not happy and offers the tailor a choice. Tomorrow at court the king will show the tailor two envelopes. Inside one is a paper with the words You must die. Inside the other is a paper with the words You may marry my daughter. The tailor's choice will be his fate.
"The tailor did not trust the king so that night he snuck back into the castle and hid behind a curtain. He heard the king say to his advisor, 'I wrote You must die on both papers!'
"So what will the tailor do? He could run away, but he really wants to marry the princess. He could reveal the king's plot, but then he would shame him and have an enemy for a father-in-law.
"The tailor thinks of a solution. He finds a way to live and marry the princess and not make a fool or an enemy of the king. What does he do?" (7.)
I love this story so much and I love how Mia tells it, with her voice getting whispery and conspiratorial at the end. Bob and Elle, sitting next to each other, laughed at the clever solution, then I remembered another variation of her story and launched into it, thinking nothing beyond that the girls are getting smart and old enough to tolerate some solutionless ambiguity.
My story was "The Lady and the Tiger" and this time the choice is between two doors, one with a hungry tiger behind it, the other hiding a different girl who will become the suitor's bride. The princess has changed too, into a fierce Roman instead of a flimsy and silent mannequin. She is the one who discovers the secret to which door is which and she is the one who secretly gestures to her lover which door he should open. And open it he does, without hesitation.
So which door is it? Does he marry another girl, leaving the jealous princess to suffer as she watches their happiness? Or does she send him to his death, a gruesome one, but not unlike others she has watched for sport in the Coliseum?
The story never gives you an answer. The girls begged for an ending, but I told them they had to decide for themselves. I don't know how much of their pleasure is curbed by the denial of a conclusion, but I did hear Mia retelling the story to Ruthie later, with relish.
At our lunch table, with Bob and Elle, I had been halfway through the story when the connections hit me. I was sitting across from the suitor and his new love. The deadly tiger in their story was loneliness and the door chosen turned out to reveal this other woman, kind and blameless.
I used to beat myself up for the stuff that comes out of my mouth. Not this time. I knew I was telling the princess's side of the story, and that might be painful, but I just kept going. Why not learn something from that "what did I talk myself into?" feeling, that raw and stripped feeling?
What would the girls' grandmother want for her husband? She could be fierce and fiery before the Alzheimer's took away much of her memory, and most of that fire was in the name of what she called love. Is what she wants even a question I can ask? I know what she needs, her own escape from the tiger's claws. But what she might have wanted in the end I will never know, could never know, but then again, this is not really the end, is it?
1. Two men riding a horse.
2. A stick.
3. The victim is a goldfish.
4. A coffin.
5. Goldfish, again.
6. The bed is moving.
7. The tailor comes to court the next morning, selects one of the envelopes and rips it up into tiny pieces. Then he says to the king, "What does the other one say?"
Sunday, July 1, 2012
A boy in the water between the swim float and the dock says to me, "I need help." His face tilted to the sky and a sole of one foot are the only part of him breaking the surface of the water. I reach a toe down to the muddy bottom of Lake Wandawega but feel only a brush of weed and nothing. If I pull him to my neck, we'll sink, so I put my hand under his torso and push up with no more leverage than the kicking of my legs. His arms churn the water. I can feel his chest in my hand expanding with the work of his breathing as he plows toward the dock. I'm a water waiter, holding him up toward the air, paddling with my other arm, the effort too much to be able to give him any encouragement. He grabs the side of the dock, says, "thanks" and we go our separate ways toward more fun. Of all the dark-haired bare-chested boys I see running around the rest of our long summer day at camp, boys catching fish, flying on the rope swing, roasting marshmallows, sleeping on benches through The Parent Trap, I can't tell which is he.
Friday, June 22, 2012
Please mark your calendars for a celebration of Yogaview's 10th anniversary on Saturday, July 28. The studio has three convenient locations, two in the city and one in Wilmette that is near and dear to yours truly. This place has been an emotional balm to me in difficult times and I am happy to celebrate with them.
Another reason this is a Can't Miss event: all class fees will be paid by donation only and I urge you to come and to give generously - the proceeds benefit Yoga for Recovery, an organization dedicated to helping people beat their addictions with the powerful ally of yoga practice. The collection is in memory of dear friend Kate Maguire, a talented filmmaker and editor, beloved mother of two and dedicated student of yoga whose shining light was extinguished too soon, too soon.
Heather, Cassie, Diane, and Megan are some of the excellent Yogaview instructors I have had the privilege to work with; patient and kind Sarah Hillenbrand will be teaching a Level One class at 11:30 on that Saturday that I highly recommend. I hope to see you there!
Yogaview Wilmette is located at 1231 Green Bay Road. (847) 919-0533 for more information.
Monday, June 18, 2012
Let your dear husband drive the five or so hours through the Illinois farmlands, since you are going to be parenting solo this week after he takes the train back to Chicago on Sunday night.
Catch a thrilling glimpse of the arch from the east side of the river just before a landfill obscures your view. Gawk again as you cross one of the bridge spanning the Mississippi. The immensity and the perfection of the shape are best appreciated close up, but you can't beat this first look on the edge of the city.
Find the Boathouse Forest Park restaurant from suggestions online and sigh with contentment because sipping iced tea at the edge of a lagoon in the middle of acres of parkland that hosted the 1904 World's Fair where the first glass of iced tea ever was served is just what you need after hours in the car. Love the tilapia Reuben. Get your daughter a local Fitz's root beer and make her day.
Stay at the Chase Park Plaza, from dear friend Gretchen's recommendation. Know this was the place for us from the moment you spied Sammy Davis Jr. (one of dear husband's favs) on the website. Enjoy their pool and the idea of their movie theater, although we will wait to see "Polka-dot-polka-dot-polka-dot-Afro!" on a less jam-packed weekend.
Learn that the official name of the Arch and its environs is the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial, although Thomas Jefferson never set foot in St. Louis and this mouthful has about enough resonance as "The Willis Tower."
Find yourself underground in the dark bunker that houses the Western Expansion museum, staring at an ax-hewn handcart with wooden wheels and freak at the contrast of its rough form with the sleek modernity arching 630 feet overhead. Link the effort to build the marvel of this structure with the pioneers' arduous journey to the West. Feel the perfect symbolism for the soaring ambition that kept those pioneers taking one dusty step after another.
Delight in the 1960's version of cutting edge modernity: the round yellow elevator capsules with atmospheric lighting that clank and clink their way to the top.
Feel a bit claustrophobic in the narrow room at the top but gape at the 30 mile view through the tiny windows. Shiver when you learn those windows are necessarily small because over 500 pounds of pressure was needed to jack apart the two legs of the arch to fit in the final triangular piece at the top and larger windows would shatter.
Back down on the ground, stare and stare and walk and stare at the beauty from every angle, at the curves against the sky, at the surreal curved shadow on the lawn, at the amazing play of light on the stainless steel, at the beautiful angles of the triangular walls. Lay down on the pavement at the base and put your feet on the wall to feel the sensation of walking up a silver road into the sky.
Take a boat ride on the Mississippi and a bike ride along its banks.
Find the City Museum and spend, like hours, freaking out over this special and amazing place until you figure out after wandering room after bizarro room of pinball game collections and decorated turtle tanks and multi-floored slides and hidey holes that it's not really a museum after all, but an art installation built of architectural artifacts found within the city limits and repurposed for active play. Recall Gaudi and the Watts Towers and Wisconsin's freak show House on the Rock.
Kiss Daddy goodbye at the train station and luck into the City Diner just by driving around. Scarf up a really good vegetarian eggs Bennie with some of the fantastic housemade salsa. Giggle at the Barbie collection displayed in the hall (complete with Alfred Hitchcock's The Birds Barbie and Punk Rock Barbie) and wish the Matchbook slotcar racing set in the window sill had newer batteries. Vow to come back soon to this great river city.