Friday, August 30, 2013


When you've climbed from the sweet smells of the Shakespeare garden up the steep but short hill to the second highest point in Central Park and you top the stairs to find a fashion model in a green and leopard patterned backless dress making snarly faces and monster hands at her photographer, you may think you've had a New York moment.

And when the glory continues with the stone one-way staircase inside Belvedere Castle, shouting "Coming up!" as you go and you grin at the view from the top of Turtle Pond and the Great Lawn beyond and the Delacorte Theater where they do all that glorious free Shakespeare and the gorgeous art deco Eldorado on Central Park West, you may think you're really queen of the hill, but wait.

Because when your daughter points out there's a wedding going on in the pavilion below and you watch with delight the happy faces of the guests, one holding a baby in a purple confection of a dress and the violin sings sweetly and you say to the girls, "It's two women getting married," you really have to pump your fist because sweetheart, you have hit the New York jackpot.

P.S. A few steps minute's walk and we saw this. Can anyone tell me why this sight of the Eldorado fills me with inchoate longing? Is it the serenity of the skyline across the water? Is it the illusion that the towers are more mammoth than their 30 floors? Is it the unconscious glimpse I've caught of them in countless movies and shows without knowing what they were? Was it just the pretty angle of the sun in the late afternoon and the shining clouds behind? I don't know, but I had the sensation of being thrown back in time and it made my heart ache.

P.P.S. To dear Christina: Hummingbird and Passionflowers by Martin Johnson Meade at the Met. Thinking of you!

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

A Children's Literature Trip to New York, Updated!

A million choices for things to do when visiting The Greatest City On Earth, so why not give yourself a theme to narrow down the endless possibilities and enhance your fun? Here are some of the books that helped us plan our August family trip to the Big Apple.

Seen Art? by Jon Scieszka and Lane Smith is a charming little picture book that sends a boy on a punning treasure hunt through some of the iconic works in the Museum of Modern Art. We will be looking for the fur-lined teacup!

Stuart Little is an odd little book about a rat son born into a human family by the author of Charlotte's Web and co-author of The Elements of Style. My girls weren't entirely satisfied with the story nor its strange kind of non-ending, but you can bet we'll be checking out the Conservatory Water in Central Park looking for a little rat sailing his own boat. 

UPDATE! We LOVED this corner of Central Park - absolutely gorgeous and look! Right next door are the Hans Christian Anderson and Alice in Wonderland statues!

 Mia doing her best Mad Hatter.

Nora having a toadstool moment.

Kay Thompson wrote the Eloise books "for precocious adults," but my girls adore the little resident of the Plaza Hotel, abondoned by her jet-setting mother, roller skating down the hall, making a wreck of the place and eventually charming everyone. We'll toast Eloise with afternoon tea at the Plaza, which doesn't really celebrate the anarchic spirit of our heroine, but I can't wait for the scones and tiny sandwiches.

I LURVED The Mixed Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler when I was a kid and reloved it all over again a couple months back, loved the story of a brother and sister running away from home to have an adventure living in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Nothing seemed dangerous or scary, only ingenious and fun....  the kids bathing in the museum fountain and sleeping in sixteenth century beds on display, and the wild coincidence with Mrs. Frankweiler's lawyer just seems natural in this world both magical and realistic where the love of art saves the day ...

UPDATE! Check out this! A PDF file of a Met brochure responding to questions that kids had about the book. It includes an essay by E.L. Konigsburg about researching and writing The Mixed Up Files!

I haven't shared Harriet the Spy with the girls yet, so I'll be the one remembering Harriet's epic ride in Manhattan traffic inside her nanny's boyfriend's delivery box while we pedal our rental bikes placidly through Central Park. I just finished rereading the novel yesterday and I can't believe how great it is. YOU MUST READ THIS BOOK. A similar tough and mouthy quality to the quip-ready Manhattan kids in Basil Frankweiler, but plenty of big generous heart, too.

Roald Dahl, Matilda. We've got tickets!

UPDATE: We had read Mordicai Gerstein's The Man Who Walked Between The Towers long before our trip. Well, the 9-11 Memorial site was sobering, of course, after an uplifting morning spent on Liberty Island. It's a space of absences and emptiness, names of people who are no longer here, water falling, then falling again into an abyss whose bottom you cannot see. Mammoth buildings that can only now be imagined. Or not.

Here I am trying to tell stories of the day to Mia without being too scary.

Nora said, "I'm trying to cry, but my face won't let me." The experience was abstract for them and the numbers too large to comprehend. The survivor tree helped make the story real, but in a manageable way - it is a callery pear sapling that lived through the blast, was nursed back to health and re-transplanted on the site among a new forest of resilient swamp white oaks. Now it stands green and beautiful beneath the gaze of the almost completed Freedom Tower.

I was too busy with explaining and walking and reading to let my feelings take over at the memorial. My moment of grieving came earlier in the day, when our cab paused at a stoplight on West Street on the way to the Statue of Liberty ferry. I caught a glimpse of the iconic blue-green tops of the World Financial Center buildings and realized where we were. "This is Ground Zero," I whispered to Randy, who couldn't hear me over the sound of traffic. I turned back to the window to see a sliver of garden and everything was so bright and fresh in the August sunshine that it was a miracle.

Tar Beach is the nickname for the apartment roof where a city girl spends hot summer nights with her family; we're visiting the Tenement Museum today.

The current Disneyfied Times Square has as little in common with the quaint charm I remember of The Cricket in Times Square as today's Fifth Avenue evokes Cheever's stories but you can bet we'll be there, cameras ready.

UPDATE: Two more books that came back to us on our trip: The Curious Garden by Peter Brown, a picture book inspired by the Highline, a fabulous new park in the Meatpacking District constructed from an old abandoned freight line. It offers great second story views of the neighborhood, artwork and artful landscaping with gorgeous native plants.

M. Sasek's This Is New York is a beautiful work of illustration from 1960. A companion piece to his San Francisco book. Perfect to read to the girls before sleep on our last night in the greatest city on earth.

Thursday, August 8, 2013

Kristiana Kahakauwila's This Is Paradise

Today the From Left to Write book club is discussing Kristiana Kahakauwila's first book, This is Paradise, a collection of short stories about life on the Hawaiian islands. Kahakauwila is a native islander and she writes of a world that may be unfamiliar to readers who only know the resorts, beaches and national parks of Hawaii. The six honest and melancholy stories tell of cock fighters and office workers, cleaning ladies and ranchers, characters who are deeply invested in their families and their identities as Hawaiians.

In one fascinating story, "The Road to Hana," a man with Minnesotan parents who was born and raised on the islands takes a road trip with his girlfriend, a woman with a huge and close Hawaiian family, whose "cousin can chant back twenty-five generations," but who happened to be born in Las Vegas. Tensions rise between the two lovers over who is "local" and who is not, over what it means to be "of the islands" and how that is different than being from them.

The specific culture we see in these stories makes the title "This is Paradise" both full of truth and full of irony. Yes, the islands are incredibly beautiful, but the lives shown here don't simply contemplate the lyricism. Yes, there is ease and pleasure here, but also brutality, sadness, desire, grief and struggle.

I considered my own version of paradise as I read these stories. When we first moved to our small and quiet town, we were leaving behind the noise and grit of living without green space on a busy street in Chicago. Now we had a front and a back and a side yard! I spent the first few weeks in our new home singing the praises of the easy life of the suburbs.

"Five blocks to the kids' museum! Four blocks to the pancake house, three blocks to the grocery store, two blocks to the library and no drunks peeing on our front door!"

It wasn't exactly the Twelve Days of Christmas, but it felt like it.

Now that we've lived here for ten (lordy, lordy, how time flies!) years, (and now that the Children's Museum moved to Glenview) the beauty and convenience of our little village has shifted to the background of our busy days. I still take a deep grateful breath when I step into the backyard on a dewy morning. And every time we visit our beach, I am blown away by the gorgeous sight of Lake Michigan and her varied moods. But even paradise right in front of your eyes can disappear when you are busy or distracted or stressed. It takes a moment of conscious stillness to become again the tourist in your own backyard, to look anew at the same patch of flowers you tend every day and feel again gladness.

You can read more responses to Kristiana Kahakauwila's book here. I received a copy of the book with no obligation.

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

A Brief History of Grief Delayed

Thirty-one years before, a few minutes after eight o’clock in the morning, a four-ton bomb exploded over the city of Hiroshima, the capital of Hiroshima Prefecture, on the island of Honshu, Japan. Thousands of lives incinerated in the space of a few moments. The blast obliterated office buildings, homes, cooking bowls, contracts, goldfish, trees, bicycles, fences, temples, schools, eyeglasses, photo albums, a small pot of marigolds sitting on a brick step.

August 6, 1976. That day, early in August, Aunt Ruth is taking a bunch of us to the trailer at the lake. Me, my little sister Nancy, my brother Chris, my cousin Jeanne, and our neighbors, the Sharp boys. Aunt Ruth asks me to clean out a Styrofoam cooler so she can pack it with ice and food.  I rinse the cooler out with the hose in the back yard and I get the idea that I can empty the water out faster by spinning around in a circle. In the middle of my spin, the cooler flies out of my hands, hits the ground and splits with a crunch, a big jagged cut in the white foam.  Aunt Ruth is going to be so mad. I go inside and tell her and I am surprised and relieved when she isn’t even angry. I am eleven.

August 11, 1976. Five days after my brother Christopher and sister Nancy died, I am in the hospital with a dislocated hip so I don’t go to the funeral.

August 6, 1977. One year after Nancy and Chris died, Aunt Ruth and Uncle Phil take Jeanne and me to Disneyland. My hip is all better - I don’t even limp. We do not mention the day.

August, 1978. Two years after, I go away to Girl Scout overnight camp for the first time. 

August, 1979. Three years after, I go with my cousin Sally and her parents on vacation to Michigan. I kiss a boy in the windy dark, on the damp sand of a beach on Crystal Lake. The radio music at the beach campfire makes my heart pound with sexy daring: “My Sharona.” The Cars, “Let’s Go.”
Driving home from Michigan we listen to another song. “I can see Daniel waving goodbye.” A few days later, I get my period for the first time. I fly home with two secrets: I made out with a boy and I got my period. One secret thrills me; the other does not. I don’t tell Aunt Ruth about my period for days. I am afraid. And sure enough, when I do tell her, she is angry. I don't why. 
“What have you been using?”
“I folded some toilet paper.” 
“Oh Cindy,” she huffs with disappointment. She gives me a pad with long paper straps on the ends and a belt. It is confusing to figure out and uncomfortable to use. I throw it away. 

August, 1981. Five years after, I backpack in Colorado with Girl Scouts from other states. Two girls have come all the way from Mexico.

August, 1983. The seventh summer after, I travel to Branson, Missouri, to ride waterslides, see The Shepard of the Hills play and go horseback riding with two girlfriends. I work as a counselor at an Ozark Girl Scout camp. I go to Royals baseball games with my friends, swim at Lake Jacomo. We watch fireworks and eat Kentucky Fried chicken in a parking lot on the Fourth of July and ice cream at Winstead’s after Rocky Horror and drink rum and cokes and grape-flavored Malt Duck and I make out with Greg in his brother’s attic. We kiss while I sit on the softly vibrating dryer in his brother’s laundry room. We sneak into the cemetery and we T.P. houses and write shaving cream messages on driveways, throw deodorant in the front yard of the girl we know, laugh and laugh our asses off. Tonya, Kyla, Chuck and I get dressed up in clothes we found at a vintage store, hats and gloves and heels and we go to the Kona Kai because they don't card. We nervously order Mai Tais and laugh hysterically over our sweet and sour shrimp. 
“I will have a sweet vermouth, please,” I tell a waiter, enunciating carefully.  I’m eighteen.

August 6, 1985. Nine years after, I’m in college but I don’t write about them, not in diaries, not in essays. THIS IS A LIE – THEY SNUCK INTO STORIES I WROTE. I keep saying, “It hasn’t really seemed to affect me.” The girl across the hall from me, a psychology grad student, looks at me when I say this. She is silent, then points out how vulnerable the ages of loss were -- at four and on the cusp of adolescence. I listen but I'm not sure what else her words mean.

August 6, 1986. Ten years after, I’m in New Orleans doing service work.  I hand out cans from the small food pantry in the closet of a Catholic grade school classroom. I chat with sweet and obese African-American ladies with white-streaked hair as they work on their double-knit quilts for the parish sale and we watch The Price Is Right in the air conditioning. 
I think constantly of the boy I met in the spring, in London. He’s working in Washington D.C. all summer as a congressional aide. We write long letters back and forth. 
“This city is moody and atmospheric,” I write. “Now I know why they call it the Deep South.  Everything here is so green and slow moving, it feels like you’re underwater.” 
I’m going to see him again at school at the end of the summer. Thinking of the end of August, even a thought in the vicinity of that idea, makes my stomach buzz, a low electric thrill.

August, 1987. Eleven years after, I’ve graduated college and I don’t know how to look for a job so I’m going to film school at the end of the month.
I’m back at home again, spending nights in the blue bedroom on the rack. I think constantly of the London boy. I cry every day. I fight insomnia every night. I stay up until four in the morning, sleep until three in the afternoon. I cry, listening to “He Stopped Loving Her Today,” and “Oh the Pain of Loving You,” but I can't even laugh at the utter seriousness of the twangy voices belying their cornpone tragedy. NO - I DID LAUGH.  MY SENSE OF HUMOR HAD NOT ABANDONED ME. A few notes of Dolly Parton’s sweet high soprano and I am sobbing. 
In the springtime, I had asked the boy what he was feeling and he said “Nothing.” I knew what that meant.
Hell has three circles, the first is remembering every stupid thing I had said and done; the second is knowing that he had witnessed them; the deepest circle is imagining that he was now forgetting those stupid words and the girl who said them.

August, 1988. Twelve years after, Iowa is hot in the summer. I get a job on a movie called Zadar, Cow from Hell. I think less of the London boy. I don’t cry every day like I used to. And the thought that I think less of him, the thought that I am crying less, makes me cry anew. I wonder why I got over Nancy and Christopher but I can’t seem to shake this. I don’t want to shake this. Because even the agony is feeling something and I don’t want to stop feeling something that is caused by him, is close to him even in that way. 

August, 1989. Thirteen years after, I have a dog and an angry writer boyfriend. The boyfriend has a genetic disease, a children’s disease. The medication he takes to manage the symptoms includes steroids that later I will understand cook up his mood swings, rampant jealousies, his furies. The steroids, yes, and perhaps his own internal battles with mortality.
I love our dog passionately. Little Lady is a purebred chocolate lab, the runt of the litter, poorly behaved despite repeated obedience classes. We are all going to move to Boston at the end of the summer as soon as I retake my comprehensive exams and finish a paper on the German film Deutschland im Herbst. The movie is dark and grim. I will pass my comps this time, but I never do finish that damn paper and I fail the class. I don’t care. NO, I DID. I’m going to Boston. 
I still think of that London boy. I do.

August, 1996. Twenty years after, I live in Chicago. The man I live with has bought a company with some friends, a company that makes TV commercials. One of Randy’s partners slips the alderman and the cops a hundred bucks each and they let us close off half the street for a block party. A DJ plays on the loading dock and we dance crazy in the heat, arms over our heads.

August 6, 2000. Twenty-four years after, I am in Kyoto with Randy, my groom, my husband. After dinner Randy and I walk to our ryokan in the rain. I dodge puddles to save my green silk mules with the embroidered flowers on the toes. We laugh and laugh, talking over this adventure, high on excitement, Kirin beer and the beauty of Kyoto.

August 6, 2001. Twenty-five years after, the twin towers still stand.

August, 2005. Twenty-nine years after, I have given birth to two daughters. I am starting to understand all sister can mean. The girls giggle and hug in the tub. Their bond forms before my eyes.
I try to tell a therapist about the day Nancy and Chris died. I sob, saying, “In the emergency room, I heard someone crying, screaming in pain. I don’t know if it was Christopher.” 
It is agony to say this. The fifty minutes are up and I leave feeling horrible. I go home and ask Randy, “What was the point of that? It really hurt and nothing came of it. It’s not as if I’ve never said these things before. It’s not a breakthrough. I say the words and poof, there’s nothing there. Nothing’s changed, I haven’t done anything. It just hurts.” 
I start to write about my family. I have much work to do.

August, 2006. Thirty years after, I have put flowers on their stones. I have written everything I can remember about them, the games we played, the trip to the apple orchard, the fights we had, the quality of their voices. I will plant a tree, order a plaque. 
Jeanne and I have talked about the worst day of our lives and she tells me it was not Christopher in the emergency room. He died next to the car. We cried and talked. 
I have visited one of the the neighbor boys who was in the car with us, now married with two boys, happy in his faith, a scuba diver.
I have sent pictures of Nancy and Chris to the Kansas City paper for a memorial. In her photo, nine-year-old Nancy wears her shiny chocolate hair in braids. She leans back on her hands so her shoulders are tipped up fetchingly close to her ears. Christopher grins straight into the camera, the hood of his old worn sweatshirt covering his curls. He is fourteen in the photo and looks close enough to touch. The photos are printed on the thirtieth anniversary of their deaths with the words below, “You are always in our hearts.”  Learning how to grieve is learning to put on the traditional clothes of mourning, sinking into their richness and comfort, bearing their weight with a not unpleasurable sense of duty.

There is no right or wrong way to grieve.  THIS IS NOT TRUE.  It never stops.  THIS IS TRUE.

Shrek Flies His Freak Flag in Chicago

Looking for some late-summer family fun? Check out Shrek the Musical at Navy Pier's Chicago Shakespeare Theater.

There's big talent on display here and plenty of big laughs. Michael Aaron Lindner has the singing chops for the title role but James Earl Jones II shines as Donkey with charisma to burn.

The show is a scaled down version of the Broadway tour show that came through town a couple of years ago, but you won't miss any of the pagentry - the songs and dance numbers fill the stage and as always at Chicago Shakespeare, you can expect plenty of inventive stagecraft. Dragon is smaller but more nimble this time around. Your jaw will drop as Alexis J. Rogers wails her "And I Am Telling You"-style love song to Donkey WHILE bringing the 10 foot dragon puppet to life IN PLATFORM HEELS.

The four kids with me (who were guests of the kind folks at Chicago Shakespeare) loved Fiona and Shrek's fart and burb contest but I was laughing hardest at Travis Taylor's manic dancing on his knees as diminutive Lord Farquaad in a gloriously bad pageboy haircut.

The show runs through September 1; you won't want to miss it!