Monday, December 24, 2007

traditions

tradition: the handing down of information, beliefs, and customs from one generation to another (from tradere, to hand over).

My baby sister Anne got married this week. It was a beautiful ceremony. The whole thing was outside in the snow and we were freezing our collective buns off, but it was beautiful and I’d do it again in a second for Anne and Scotty. We were up in the mountains and everything was white and muted. The sun was out, and although it wasn’t warm enough to break through the skin, it was enough to make the air sparkle. I felt a new affinity to the Celts and their Winter Solstice rituals.

The best part of the ceremony (even better than when Anne’s dog brought out the rings around its neck) was when my father walked out holding Anne’s arm. My sister is well into her 20s. She’s an attorney now, living in another state, and by most measures a full-grown adult. (She does still jump off 3,000 foot cliffs on a regular basis, a vestige of immaturity I must say, but other than that, she is far removed from the little Annie Bananie we grew up with.) She hasn’t lived in my parents’ house for several years. But it was still fitting to see my father “give her away” to her new husband. It’s a tradition that carries a lot of symbolic messages, and—as traditions do—it passes these messages on to the next generation along with the transition of child to bride.

It is now the morning of December 24th and we are in the thick of the most tradition-laden time of the year. Since Ken and I have been married, we have collected Christmas traditions—some from our families, others of our own. We use them to mark the season and make it special. Our kids know what to expect and they look forward to certain patterns and customs. The traditions decorate our lives—the tree, the train, the nativity sets, the stockings—but they are more than décor. They are a very real transfer of beliefs and values.

Last night we started what I hope will be a new tradition: we ate dinner by candlelight. Gabie has proclaimed himself Electricity Tzar and has gone from one obsession with power cords to another with making sure we aren’t wasting electricity. He patrols the house, turning off the lights in every room whether it’s occupied or not. (I’ll spare you the holy fit he threw on Saturday when everyone kept ignoring his total ban on light usage and I told him he could not tape all the switches into the off position) Last night he wanted us to conserve by using candles at the table so we went along with his decree. It was lovely. I don’t know if it was the soft lighting or the scents or just the fact that we are all looking forward to Christmas, but it was the best family meal we’ve had in a long time. Ethan called it “utterly relaxing.”

I’ve decided that we need to do this more often. And it’s too good of a tradition to save for just Christmas. Why not do it every week? I told the kids that my mom used to get out her china on Sundays and we would treat the meal as a special occasion. It may be my tendency to romanticize my childhood, but I envision her cooking a pot roast and homemade rolls every single week. (Mom, am I imagining things?) I do remember the Spanish lace tablecloth and the china and the fact that the food was all transferred to serving dishes (something I never bother to do; I just plunk the pots and pans right on the table to limit my cleanup later). I’m seeing now that these meals helped me—more than a sermon ever could—to treat the Sabbath as a day set apart from the rest of the week. Mom was willing to sacrifice a few pieces of china over the years to pass this message on to us.

Much of the art depicting the childhood of Christ centers on religious traditions and rites of passage. We see the presentation at the temple, the circumcision, the training of young Jesus in the workshop of his earthly father, his learning to read from his mother, and another visit to the temple at the age of 12. With each episode, there’s a transfer of beliefs or information from one generation to another.


In this painting of the Presentation at the Temple by Mantegna, Mary enacts a literal rite of passage as she hands her son’s life over to God by presenting him to the High Priest. The hand off is only temporary, but it shows the principle of sacrifice and Mary’s understanding that her son’s life is dedicated for a higher purpose. There are allusions in the painting to the fact that Mary will eventually see the full, painful extent of this dedication. The swaddling bands, which I’ve written about before, are one hint. Another is the way Mary hugs her child to her chest, almost as if she’s not quite sure she wants to go through with it.

The Catholic feast celebrating Christ’s Presentation at the Temple is called Candlemas and is traditionally celebrated 40 days after the birth of Christ. Because Christmas is now set on December 25, this means Candlemas falls on February 2nd. What a happy coincidence that this religious holiday (at least in the United States) has evolved into Groundhog Day. We have strong beliefs about Groundhog Day in our home and treat it with great respect. Ken and I have made our pilgrimage to the Holy Land of Groundhogs (Punxsutawney PA) and every year, we mark the day with our own kind of liturgy, the ceremonial watching of the sacred film.

In December, we mark midwinter and celebrate the birth of light into the world. In February, we look forward to the arrival of spring. These are traditions that give deeper meaning to the passage of time and the flow of seasons. In the process of celebrating them, we bring together in a satisfying union two of the great realities of life: some things are always changing and some things will always stay the same.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

maria lactans

I began reading blogs regularly in August of 2006. Nora was only 3 months old and I was up with her often in the middle of the night. I needed something “to do” while I nursed her (no, I am not the kind of mom content to stare sweetly at her child while breastfeeding; I get bored. I must multi-task). So I began reading blogs and quickly got addicted.

I remember vividly one topic which spread like wildfire over the blogosphere that August: whether a photo of a woman nursing her baby on the cover of a certain magazine was indecent. Many mommy bloggers wrote about the topic and several even sent in photos of themselves breastfeeding to this site. I was amused and then intrigued by the discussion. Reading these posts, I realized that I had very few memories of my mother nursing her babies despite the fact that she breastfeed all 9 of us. The many, many diapers? Sure I remember those. But there are no pictures (in my mind or on film) to document all those hours she must have spent on the couch with a child to her breast.

When I decided recently that I had had enough of the human starfish and I began weaning Nora, I made Ken take a few discrete pictures of me nursing her. I’m not sure what I’ll do with them. No I don’t plan to post them to the internet. I’m just happy to have some kind of record that shows a part of who I was and what I did—what I spent many collective hours doing with (and for) each of my children. I have nursed my children on the couch, in my bed, in nursing lounges, in bathroom stalls, in hallways, on a public bus, in museums, in the house of every friend or relation I have, in the library, while watching Lord of the Rings in a crowded theater, at the zoo, in several national parks, in the car pulled over on the side of the freeway, in tents, on boats, on airplanes, and on trains…but not in the rain or in a box or with a fox (just in case you were wondering).

Anyway, my point is that I’ve spent a lot of time nursing over the years and I figured, why not get a picture of that? I hope someday at least Nora will appreciate having the documentation.


This brings me to today’s painting of Mary, Jesus and Saint Luke by Rogier van der Weyden. It isn’t unusual at all in art (especially after the 13th century) to see Mary as a nursing mother. These “Maria Lactans” images show the humanity of both the mother and child, and they carry the weight of heavier symbols as well: charity, spiritual nourishment, and salvation. Art historians make the connection between the Christian imagery and earlier pagan depictions of nursing goddesses, but that’s another story.

What I really like about this painting is the fact that Luke is kneeling there drawing a picture of the event. He is recording the life of Christ, just as he did in verbal form for his gospel (a text we read over and over, especially at this time of year). But now Luke is documenting the simple truth that babies get hungry and mothers feed them. In Christian art, Luke is traditionally shown as a painter, but here he just holds a sketch book and pen. Maybe Luke was planning on painting something more dramatic—a posed family portrait with peace gestures or something iconic—but before he could get out his paints and brushes, it was time for another feeding. And it looks like Rogier van der Weyden imagined Luke saying, “Now there’s something worthy of at least a little sketch.”

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Christmas with a budding iconoclast

This is what our Christmas tree usually looks like. Note the shiny beaded garland, the crowded assortment of ornaments, the village below, and the train track that runs around the village. (Also, not visible in this shot but a HUGE part of Christmas for the boys is the working train engine and cars).

And this is what our Christmas tree looks like this year. A bit sparse, you say? We didn’t even bother with the train or village. We skipped the garland and went easy on the ornaments. Why? The only clue you need is a good look at the two-foot swath across the bottom of the tree where all the ornaments have been picked bare. The height of this section, not surprisingly, coincides with the reach of a certain 19-month old little girl. Yes, Nora the Explorer has been here.

Nora also climbed up on the piano where this week I finally put out just a few of my 20 different international nativity scenes. Once there, Nora re-enacted the little-known Bethlehem Earthquake of O BC. She also relieved my Spanish Mary and Baby Jesus of their gold paper haloes. I had no idea they offended her that much.

I actually really like haloes. I think they’re a great example of one of those things in art that tries to express the inexpressible. How do you say that a person is divine using a language and materials that are earthly? You do your best and resort to symbolism, something even Christ used extensively in his parables.

In this Duccio painting, I like the way the halos serve as the spiritual counterpart to the gold crowns worn by the secular kings. The royal crowns are painted realistically with a bit of shading and a rudimentary form of linear perspective to give them depth. The third king has even removed his crown and placed it on his arm as he kneels, bareheaded and humbled, before the King of Kings. The haloes, on the other hand, stand out from Mary and Jesus’ heads like flat disks. It doesn’t matter that the faces of the holy mother and child are turned in 3/4 profile; the gold circles hang parallel to the picture plane and perfectly wreath the heads from our angle, for our benefit. They are not crowns or physical objects of any kind. They aren’t even really in the scene itself. The haloes represent a higher reality.

Some people see medieval art as primitive or undeveloped because it lacks the realism of later styles. But I love it for its honesty. Duccio and other artist of his era expressed the belief that there are certain things (like camels and mountains and crowns of kings) that are okay to illustrate with tricky, illusionistic techniques. And then there are other things, like the holiness of the Son of God for example, that require a symbolic language.

Then there are the artists from the Renaissance who want to have it both ways. I’ll try not to sound too smug about it, but frankly, they amuse me. Here’s Andrea del Sarto’s Holy Family as an example. Judging from the maternal appearance of Mary and the cute, head-tucking gesture of the baby Jesus, del Sarto wanted to make the scene as believable and human as possible. Then he got to the haloes and, not willing to throw them out entirely, he put them on like party hats. Jesus’ halo reminds me of those wire ones won by the kids playing angels in Christmas pageants. Del Sarto’s adept use of perspective is a testament to his talent, but not to the holiness of the Holy Family. I think del Sarto’s painting is beautiful, but it falls for the mistaken notion that man is the measure of all things.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

star light

Ever since the heart-stopping incident with the lamp of doom, I have been ultra cautious about the electrical outlets in Gabie and Nora’s room. Frustratingly, Gabie has become even more obsessed lately with extension cords and the urgent need for a genuine Christmas Village Electrical System. About a week ago, he swiped some extension cords and plugged them into his various outlets in his room. Then he built an “electricity box” out of cardboard and tied the cords together using masking tape. He strung yarn from the box up to his windowsill where he draped several strands of it across the houses in his Christmas Village like a bunch of power lines. Good grief.

I, of course, got to play the mean village fire inspector who visited the power plant and shut it down for code violations. I took his box apart, undid the tape and explained to him the dangers of playing with electricity. I let him keep the yarn in his Christmas village. The next day, there were cords all over his room again in an all new complicated power grid. At least this time he had used twist ties because, as he argued while I took them apart, “they won’t catch fire as easily.”

Sure, I could just lock up every cord in the house, but (as we all know) Gabie can be pretty persistent and I suspect if I quash his natural curiosity about electricity he might start sticking silverware into outlets or something. So I have relented part way. He can keep two cords and plug things into them as long as he follows certain rules. I’m hoping that he will soon tire of this fixation and move on to something less dangerous. The other night after watching our Blue Planet DVD, Gabie informed me he’d like a baby blue whale for Christmas. Now there’s an idea.

So now, on any given night when I go to tuck him in, Gabie has the following things operating in his “electrical system”:
  • his Christmas lights
  • the baby monitor (which we normally don’t turn on at night since we leave their door open but now Gabie insists that it must be plugged into an extension cord so he can rest it on the floor really close to Nora’s crib just in case we want to hear her eyelashes move)
  • a humidifier that Gabie says must be on since he feels like he’s “probably coming down with something”
  • Ken's old cell phone (which doesn't really work but Gabie charges every night) with the cord dangling from a hook on his wall and looping over his headboard
  • a nightlight
  • the lights in his Christmas village on the windowsill
  • his CD player
The CD player also has a double headphone jack plugged into it with one set of headphones going to Gabie’s head and the other set (the ones with only one working ear) going to the head of Georgie the Giant Panda because Georgie apparently can’t sleep without a little one-eared serenade from the Mormon Tabernacle Choir.

I wait until Gabie and Georgie are both asleep and I go back into the room and gently take off the headphones, untangle the cords, lift the giant panda off Gabie's face, turn off the CD player, get down the cell phone, and one by one, unplug everything. It has become a little ritual and I can’t sleep until it’s done.

One night, Gabie had moved the nightlight from the outlet next to Nora’s bed to the outlet next to his. His bed is already pushed right up against the wall, so he had to squeeze the light in. Before I went to bed, I moved the nightlight back where it belonged. The next night, Gabie had moved it again. I put it back. On the third night, I told Gabie that there just wasn’t room for the nightlight to be squished behind his bed and he started to cry. “It’s my star!” he said. “Whatever you do, don’t unplug the star.” I was about to force the issue and insist on moving it again when I took a good look at his wall. Sure enough, the nightlight—because of the way it was reflecting against the side of his bed—was sending groovy disco rays up the wall. It looked a lot like a star. I let him keep it. What's a genuine Christmas Village Electrical System without a star?

Since the star is a big part of the Christmas story, I thought I’d mention a painting by Giotto that includes a famous star. The star in Giotto’s painting of the Visitation of the Magi has a long bright tail, like a comet. In fact Giotto's inspiration came from a recent sighting of Halley’s Comet (in 1301). I’ve always thought this was a pretty nifty connection. The European Space Agency thought so too, and in 1985 when they launched a space probe to take pictures from inside the nucleus of Halley’s comet, they named it Giotto, of course.

Monday, December 10, 2007

white-souled

I was reading a magazine yesterday (the December Ensign if that means anything to you) and came across this quote from Channing Pollock:

"Some of us must wish. . . that we could be born old, and grow younger and cleaner and ever simpler and more innocent, until at last, with the white souls of little children, we lay us down to eternal sleep."

I'm not so crazy about the "eternal sleep" part of the quote, but I do like the rest, especially that sense of reversing the process of complication that is life and winding up more simple and pure than when we started. I do wish for this. I wish that instead of collecting clutter along the journey (see Julie's dream journal episode 12.7) I could be shedding layers like those insects that get more streamlined and beautiful each time they molt.

The quote made me think of my favorite nativity scene from Rembrandt: an etching owned by the university where I teach. As my eyes are drawn to the center of the print, they follow a path from busy and detailed to subtle and uncomplicated. Baby Jesus is in the center, of course. Rembrandt depicts him as simple and white-souled, as if he is the source of all light and innocence.

I wrote about my first experience with this etching and why I love it during last year's Christmas Art Advent. I'll leave you with a link if you'd like to read it.

Friday, December 07, 2007

Claiming baggage

Last night I dreamed that I was at the baggage claim section of the airport. I was trying to collect about a dozen suitcases and most of them had somehow split open on the flight and their contents had spilled out everywhere. So there I was, madly trying to gather up my stuff and track everything down. I was scooping shoes into suitcases and collecting stray papers and cans of food that were rolling all over the place. And all the while (and of course this made perfect sense to me at the time) I was also trying to catch a black poodle who was running wild through the airport. The most vivid part of my dream was when I saw there was a line of people still waiting for their luggage. I could tell from the frustrated looks on their faces that they were completely fed up with me and my huge mess.

Nora’s coughing woke me up. She has had a cough for over a month now and some nights she seriously sounds like she’s trying to hack up a lung. I checked on her, gave her some water to sip and went back to bed…where I pulled the covers up to my neck and proceeded to stare, wide awake, at the ceiling for over an hour. I hate that. I was clearly tired, but my stupid brain was racing: Nora, cough, $20 copay, final exam, McKay’s homework, piano recital, blog, dumb things I said at book group, no clean socks, dinner, Christmas gifts, my dad, bills, emails, Ethan’s missing gym shorts, a new idea for my book (Write it down now…No, I’m too tired to get a pencil…You’ll forget it by morning…Not if I can manage to stay awake like this for three more hours…You’re an idiot...) It went on and on.

My mind was full, cluttered, completely overloaded with imperatives and concerns. It wasn’t until the morning, after waking up groggy and slightly disoriented (what was up with that stupid poodle?) that I saw the obvious metaphorical connection. If my brain is a suitcase, clearly I have exceeded the allowable weight limit. I'm carting around too much mental baggage.

I’m a big believer in the symbolic nature of dreams. Naturally, I’m an artsy kind of gal and I see pretty much everything as symbolic, but I’ve always thought that dreams give us an uncensored, deeper view into our own psyche—as warped and messed up as that psyche may be.

In scripture, dreamers are often prophets and visionaries. Joseph of the Old Testament was always having crazy, symbolic dreams. Joseph of the New Testament had important dreams too. It was “in a dream” according to Matthew, that an angel of the Lord told him to accept Mary and take her to wife. I’m not sure why he got the dream, while other members of the Christmas story (like Mary and the shepherds) merited personal, open-eyed visitations, but when it comes to receiving guidance and clearing up confusion, I think most people will take whatever they can get.

In Georges de la Tour’s painting of Joseph’s dream, he focuses on the light as a symbol of understanding. Joseph has apparently fallen asleep while reading. Maybe he’s been brushing up on his Mosaic law and worrying about what to do with Mary. His brow is furrowed and he has nodded off with his fingers pressed to his temple like someone with a big decision to make. The angel appears and catches the light from the candle with her body and arms, reflecting a glow onto Joseph’s face. When he eventually wakes up, he will know exactly what to do.

I wish I could say that my dream has given me some kind of new clear vision of my life, granted me some kind of light-bulb moment equivalent to Joseph’s candle of truth moment. But the fact is that the whole “my dear, you are stressed and mentally overtaxed” message is old news. I can’t think of a single woman I know who doesn’t feel this way. I don’t need a dream to tell me that if I don’t lighten up, I’m likely to start splitting at the seams like a piece of old luggage. But in all honesty, I can’t simplify my life any more than I have. I’ve already relaxed my standards on housework (isn’t that a nice way to put it?). I don’t volunteer at the kids’ schools like I used to. I don’t attend parties, faculty meetings, or extra church activities of any sort unless I think they will directly benefit my family. I have let a lot of things go, including my pride since I’m even learning to ask for help and accept it whenever it’s offered.

So I'm fairly sure I'm only still lugging around the truly important things. But unfortunately, right now there are lots and lots of truly important things in my life and they also happen to be heavy and hard to handle. The only comfort I get from my dream is that maybe I can ignore the sense of judgment I feel about the other people waiting in line at the baggage claim. Because seriously, who are they to get all huffy and impatient with my mess? Did any one of them lift a finger to help me chase the poodle? No. They did not. So to them (and to the part of me they represent) I say: chill out. I might be a little overwhelmed here, but I’m doing the best I can.

Thursday, December 06, 2007

Jesus once was a little child

When I was young, we used to sing a song in church that went like this:

Jesus once was a little child
A little child like me


So far so good. It’s a sweet song. But then come the next lines:

And he was pure and meek and mild
As a little child should be.
So little children, let’s you and I
Try to be like him. Try. Try. Try.


It’s a lovely song, but let’s face it, it is also adult propaganda at its finest. Are little children always meek and mild? I don’t think so. Would we like them to be meek and mild (especially when sitting in church, thus the true motive behind the singing of this song)? Sure. But is it fair to give the little kiddies a guilt complex because they just can’t be like Jesus in this regard no matter how hard they try try try?

I love paintings that show Jesus as a real child, one with slightly impish tendencies. Yes, he was still perfect but he was also human. This painting by Rogier van der Weyden (Madonna in Red c1440) is a great example.

I love the way Jesus is pawing through the book like a real baby. He’s just plain curious, and not too concerned about bending the corners of the pages or getting in trouble with the grouchy librarian. The look on Mary’s face is priceless. She’s perfectly content to let him play with the book. Or maybe she’s just plain tired. I wonder if she’d be labeled as an overly permissive mother if she lived in my neighborhood. My word! That Mary. She lets her kid do whatever he wants. He’s always wandering off and “going about his father’s business,” whatever that means. Once she even lost him on a trip to Jerusalem and didn’t even realize he was missing until they were half-way home!

If you look at the top and bottom of this painting, you can see that Mary and Jesus are set into an architectural niche—the kind of space where you would usually see a sculpture. It’s as if van der Weyden has replaced the stone figures with ones made of real flesh and blood. He has warmed them up and given them a bit of humanity. I think that if we want to be like Jesus, it’s nice to have images of him that remind us he was once a little child, a real child.

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Been there

When I found out I was pregnant with my first child, suddenly there were pregnant women everywhere. I had never noticed them before. Now they were crawling out of the woodwork (or out of the Walmart aisles or parking lots or library bookshelves). I actually lived in the baby delivery capital of the Western World but I had just never paid that much attention to all the bulging bellies around me. Now that I was keenly aware of my own growing discomfort and this amazing baby inside me, I developed some kind of ultra-sensitive pregnancy radar that was going off every time I saw another woman in my same condition. I started keeping tabs on maternity fashions, something I had never given a second thought to. I also noticed for the first time that there were different ways to carry a baby: up high, down low, all over the place (my method of choice). I compared girth. I’d jab my husband and pester him for an opinion “Tell me the truth, honey. Am I really as big as her?”

Once I had been pregnant, I could never ignore a pregnant woman again.

Something similar happened when we were shopping for a new van. The week we narrowed down our selection to a Toyota Sienna, suddenly we noticed Siennas all over the place. I’m sure they had been on the streets all along, but it took a personal connection for them to stand out.

On an even more shallow level, when I’m debating whether to grow out my bangs or chop them off yet again, every person I meet becomes a hair model. My friends probably wonder why I never look them in the eyes when I’m talking to them. I seem to be strangely fixated with their foreheads.


In Piero di Cosimo’s painting of The Visitation (c1490), he shows us the moment where Mary and Elizabeth meet while they are both pregnant. The two women clasp hands as cousins and friends. Mary pats Elizabeth on the shoulder in a gesture of sympathy and understanding. They share more than kinship. They look into each others eyes (note that there’s no hair exposed to distract them) and I think that they see something familiar. Miraculous, surprising events have brought them to this point. I wonder if along with their sacred pregnancies, they carry thoughts and emotions that they have been hesitant to discuss with anyone else. What a relief and comfort this visit must have been to both of them.

Cosimo paints the scene as nearly symmetrical. He balances each element on the left with something of equal weight on the right. In the foreground, Saint Nicholas reads on one side and Saint Anthony writes on the other. Behind Mary is a tiny foreshadowing of the Nativity. Behind Elizabeth is a foreshadowing of the massacre of the innocents. Trees, buildings, space: all mirror each other. It’s as if the women in the center are looking at their own reflections. But Cosimo's side by side treatment also highlights the contrasts. They meet in the middle, but the women come from different places. They are separated by several decades in age. Elizabeth is more stooped, more wrinkled, and her skin is more tanned. Elizabeth raises her hand in a gesture of blessing; someday her own child, John the Baptist, will defer to his cousin Jesus and say he is unworthy to loose his sandals.

The painting makes me think about empathy and the unique insights we gain into the experiences and suffering of others when we have felt something similar ourselves. Ordinarily, we live too much inside our own heads—too separated from strangers, from our neighbors, our friends, or even our family to truly feel what they are feeling. But I’d like to think that everything I experience in life (the good, the bad, and the hairy) grants me more capacity to empathize with others. What I then do with this capacity is up to me.

One more thing that makes this paintings especially fitting for the Christmas season is the fact that Piero di Cosimo included Saint Nicholas in the lower left corner. This is the same Saint Nicholas who has since become associated with Santa Claus. The original Nicholas gave many anonymous gifts to the poor. Even after his death, people in his village continued to make anonymous donations that were often attributed to Saint Nicholas. And thus a tradition of generosity was born. Not a bad legacy for a guy who (from the looks of things) never spent much time worrying about the bangs/no bangs problem.

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Mary mystified

It’s December again, which means that mental tesserae will once again transform itself into a Christmas Art Advent Blog. To me, there is no better way to keep the spiritual side of Christmas alive than to look at the many beautiful images of Christ found in art.

Today, I’ll start with a new favorite: The Holy Family by Henry Ossawa Tanner (1910). The more I look at this scene, the more it captivates and confuses me.


All the members of the Holy Family are here in the painting, but they are strangely disconnected. Joseph stands in the shadows. This is his home, as evidenced by the wood shavings in the foreground, but this is not his moment. It is Mary who sits, pale and thoughtful, in the center of the room. Her arms are empty. Her hands, clasped together and resting on her knees, hold nothing. Instead, they point in a kind of plaintive gesture in the same direction as her gaze: outside, towards a glowing light that enters the room from a partially curtained doorway on the right. The presence of the baby Jesus is simply hinted at by a pink and white bundle resting on the rug at Mary’s feet.

It’s an odd painting, quite unlike most nativity scenes where the figures cluster together as if posing for a family portrait. I think that’s why I like it so much. The painting leaves many things undefined. Faces are hazy, as if seen through a veil. Walls and ledges are rough hewn. Corners are rounded by shadows. The scene is mysterious and puzzling, but isn’t this exactly how it should be? Mystical things cannot be (should not be) reduced to visual clichés and readily absorbed messages. We miss the point of a miracle if we try to make sense of it with logic or scientific principles.

Mary, especially, seems mystified, a word that means both “confused” and “made mysterious.” Tanner painted her as the central feature, and with his treatment of light, he focuses our attention on her expression and body language. She is caught in a moment of rapt attention and contemplation. She is serenely transfixed by an unknown source of light and perhaps by the thoughts in her own mind.

If you follow the line of Mary’s veil as it flows from behind her back and over her head, she forms an arch, a shape repeated just to her left where a pointed archway leads to another room. Mary then is equated with a passage. A corridor. In fact, now that I look at it this way, the painting is just a series of three thresholds—two of them literal on either side and one metaphorical in the center. Does Mary understand any of this? Does she know her place in time and eternity? Is she sitting there, completely at peace with what she must do, must raise, must eventually lose and regain? Or is she just in shock? Is her expression the familiar one of a mother overwhelmed by the weight of a responsibility she feels ill equipped to bear?

We are left to wonder all of these things and this is why I’m haunted by this image of Mary. Today, right this moment, I am craving clarity and definition. I wish I knew the exact contours of my future so I would know what is worthy of my time and what is not. I wish I knew why people I love are falling ill and have an uncertain path ahead of them. I struggle with the fact that I have to muddle through shadows and find my way without clear knowledge, relying instead on impressions and feelings and my own limited understanding. I could do without the mystification—both sides of it: the confusion and the mystery.

I think Mary is doing a bit of pleading herself. She prays with her hands and her eyes. Her face is leaning forward expectantly into the light. And the light responds. The curtain does not open up, but it billows softly in her direction and lets the light seep through the cracks and pour in from below. The source, whatever it is outside her doorway, spotlights Mary and the child at her feet. And even if it does not bring answers with it, at the very least it brings warmth.

Monday, December 03, 2007

Who's that kid with the Oreo cookie....?

My friend Tara is still in town and I'm going to waste the rest of the day away with her, but I do want to poke my head into the blogosphere this morning and say hi. Here are two photos from our weekend's activities. We went a little crazy with the Oreos. The whole family got into the chocolate dipping spirit. See if you can tell which tray is from the adults and which one comes from the kids.





And yes, that is real snow behind the tray. We thought we'd welcome Tara from Arizona with a little old-fashioned Utah winter storm. There's nothing like flying from 70 degree weather into an arctic freeze to make a gal feel at home.

I just have to add two more things and then I'm really out of here.

1) The title of my blog post comes from an old Oreo jingle - an annoying little tune of which I have the entire lyrics memorized. I can't remember my kids' names, but I have a whole slew of dedicated brain cells hanging on to the Oreo song. How pathetic is that?

2) When we were working on the Oreo dipping, Nora pulled up a chair, took an Oreo cookie from the bag and proceeded to break it in half and lick off the white filling first. She has never seen anyone else do this. As far as I know, she has never attended an Oreo Consumption Class. Clearly the proper way to eat an Oreo is simply an inborn trait.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Chef Tara is coming to town


This is a personal invitation to any of my Utah friends or local blog acquaintances. My good pal Tara, chef extraordinaire and gifted teacher is coming to town just to teach a cooking class in my home. She'll be demonstrating a traditional yule log cake and dipped oreos, among other yummy things. The class is this coming Saturday (Dec 1st). There are still a couple of spots left, so if you're interested, let me know right away. You can find out more information by following the "cooking class" link on Tara's Nov 11 post or by emailing me directly.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Happy Thanksgiving and pass the Cheez Whiz

I think if you really cared to do so, you could recreate my course syllabus by looking at my blog. If I neglect my blog for two weeks in a row, it’s a sign that I had a large batch of papers to grade, followed by an exam to administer and correct. I think I’ve displayed the same pattern every semester. The only way around it is to never assign papers or exams and devote my life to blogging—something which would no doubt make my students cheer and my department chair scowl.

I’m looking forward to a little Thanksgiving break.

Turkey Girl, by Camille Pissarro
It’s an “off year” for my family of origin, which means those of us who have in-laws will be eating the big feast with them. I have always been a bit of a purist when it comes to Thanksgiving. I don’t mean everyone should eat only what the pilgrims ate. I mean everyone should eat only what my family has always eaten. I expect all other families to conform to my sense of tradition, and when I attended my first Thanksgiving dinner with Ken’s family and they pulled out the bottles of soda, brownies and instant potatoes, I’m ashamed to say I snorted with derision. There are certain items that must be on the table and anything extraneous amounts to sacrilege. Turkey is a given. Ham is borderline. Stuffing, of course, but it must be of the homemade variety, not from a box. Same goes for the potatoes which must be real and must be mashed. I cringe at the thought of instant anything on my plate and funeral potatoes just seem wrong. Rolls with butter and cranberry sauce (the only time of year we see the stuff). Peas. Yams baked with butter and brown sugar (marshmallows are allowed only if they are sufficiently melted and unidentifiable as marshmallows per se). The only beverage suitable to the meal is water; anything else detracts from the significance of the food. Dessert may consist of only pie, of three varieties: pumpkin, apple, and mincemeat. I usually take a small slice of each in honor of my aunt Weezer even though I don’t like pumpkin pie and every year am reminded anew that I’m not all that crazy about mincemeat either.

It took me years to get past my snobbery and respect the fact that every family has a unique set of traditions. I think I finally got it the “off-year” that my food assignment was to bring cheez-whiz-filled celery logs to Ken’s family feast and I balked at the absurdity of such a menu item. Turns out that due to a long-standing inside family joke, the celery logs are a sacred food at Thanksgiving and by asking me to bring them, my in-laws were welcoming me into the fold. Oops. I vowed never again to whine about the missing foods or mock the apocryphal extras. I’ve learned to enjoy the fact that Ken’s cousins always make turkeys out of gumdrops for the table settings. Ken's Aunt Nikki makes banana cream pie, a tasty enough dessert that we can all suspend our disbelief for a moment and imagine that some of the pilgrims had friends shipping them exotic fruit from Costa Rica. Ken’s Grandma carries a sheet of hot rolls around the room and tells you for the 15th time that you need to take another, allowing the kids to practice their best manners by saying “no thank you Grandma” instead of rolling their eyes. There are at least ten different kinds of soda to choose from and Aunt Shauna always brings me a cup of ice water because she knows I prefer it.

A tradition of love, generosity and loads of good food, enough to feed three-times the amount of guests present. How could I not be grateful for that?

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Recycle!

I was in 5th grade when I understood for the first time that the humans on planet earth had the power to annihilate each other. This was in the late 70s, a period I like to call the freezer-burn stage of the Cold War. I remember being angry at the adults who had created the bomb and the adults who ran the countries who owned bombs and the adults who were stupid enough to stumble into excuses to launch the bombs. In my mind, and the minds of many kids of my generation, nuclear war was not so much a possibility as an inevitability. It was just a question of when.

Remembering this helps me better understand what my son Ethan is going through. He is passionate about the environment and obsessed with the issue of global warming. He is pretty much convinced that the adults will destroy the earth before he gets a chance to grow up. His passion and concern frightens me sometimes (should a 12-year old be losing sleep over the demise of polar ice caps?) but he also inspires me to conserve resources and try to leave more behind as a legacy for my children. I am by no means a model of tree-hugging ethics. But I try harder than I would if I had no sense of obligation to my offspring.

Tomorrow, Thursday November 15th is America Recycles Day. In honor of this day, here are a few things I will do.

1. Post something about it on my blog (check). Encourage people to go to the America Recycles Day website where they can do a cool "Conversionator" exercise to calculate the impact of their recycling efforts. We learned that by recycling our Sunday newspapers each week we saved 8 trees this year! (This made Ethan, the bird-lover very happy). We also learned that the Compact Florescent Lightbulbs we installed in our home this year use one-fifth the energy of a regular bulb (and I thought we were just saving money). We also learned that recycling one glass jar saves enough electricity to power a CF lightbulb for 60 hours. This year, we recycled enough glass jars to power zero lightbulbs for zero hours.

2. Call my city officials and ask why we don't recycle glass around here. We're already recycling cardboard, paper, plastic products, etc. but glass takes a phenomenal amount of energy to produce. I hate it every time I have to throw away a spaghetti sauce jar. Maybe we should just boycott spaghetti.

3. Get serious about reducing our use of plastics. I learned on this broadcast about this book that plastic is forever and there are continent-sized islands of it floating in the ocean. No wonder Ethan is losing sleep over these things. I vow to put a big wad of plastic grocery bags in my van. I will use these when I go to the grocery store instead of getting new ones. Sure we can recycle the old bags, but isn't it even smarter to keep using the same ones over and over? It still takes 17 BTUs of energy to recycle one pound of plastic bags in a process that produces greenhouse gases. (Plus the Wall Street Journal reported that only 1-3% of plastic bags actually get recycled).

I remember when we lived in Spain it was the shopper's responsibility to bring their own bags for their purchases. My mom had a great little cart on wheels that she kept stored by the front door of the apartment just for that purpose. I think I can handle keeping some bags in the van. I should look into buying some more sturdy, reusable ones too.

4. Encourage my students and everyone I know to go to this website and read everything there is to read about the No Impact Man and his amazing idea. I heard about this family and their plan to live a year with zero impact on the planet this spring in this NPR discussion. I think no other single story about the environment has impressed me more. If this family can make their own shampoo, buy only food produced locally, walk up and down 9 flights to their apartment several times a day and give up toilet paper for a year, I'm sure I can think of something.

5. I will ride my bike on at least one errand that I would normally do with the car.

6. I will support Ethan and McKay in their plans to promote America Recycles Day (I believe this may involve public spectacle in front of the grocery store, but I must be willing to sacrifice myself and my ego for the cause, right?)

Let me know if you have any plans to help save planet earth. The kids living on it will thank you.

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Mom, the human safety net

How often do you rescue your kids? I don’t mean rescuing them from physical peril, although I do a fair share of that as well. I mean saving them from their own mistakes or the harsh realities of life, shielding them, easing the blow. I’m not sure about this because rescuing my kids always seems right at the time. But then I read all the parenting experts who tell me that to raise independent, confident children, I have to let them learn a few important lessons in the school of hard knocks called Growing Up.

Today, for example, at the exact moment that the bus was pulling away from our house, I noticed Ethan’s homework assignment lying on the kitchen floor. I knew it was an assignment that was due today because he had worked on it for over an hour last night, typing it up, printing it out and setting it conscientiously on the kitchen counter where he would be sure to remember it in the morning…that is unless it managed to slip onto the floor somewhere between breakfast and his departure for the bus stop.

I felt terrible about the assignment because Ethan has been doing much better this year about remembering homework and being responsible for his own assignments. He brought home a report card last week with straight A’s and I think the sun shone a little brighter for a few moments in tribute to his accomplishment. He was so proud of himself (as we all were, of course, but I think it’s more important that he was proud of himself).

As I stared at the paper on the floor, I had one of those dreaded internal debates—the kind that, for some reason, one of me always loses.

Ack! He left the darn assignment.
There’s nothing you can do about it.
I could drive over to the school and deliver it to him.
Don’t be ridiculous. He’ll just have to turn it in late.
But he’ll be so sad about losing points.
He should have put it inside his school binder. He needs to learn from his mistakes…you can’t always be there to diminish the consequences of his actions.
(Me, imagining Ethan opening his binder, looking for the assignment, knowing that he finished it, getting more frustrated by the second as he looks through every part of it in search of something he will never find, the feeling sinking in that he has blown it again and left it home.) I just can’t let him suffer! He tries so hard. I will drop it off to him on the way home from taking McKay to school....just this once.
Pathetic enabler.
Heartless wench.
Gas waster.
Meanie.

Well, you get the idea.

I assume it’s a common problem: knowing when to sweep in for the rescue (when to push my stroller down the Junior High halls for the rescue, sneak a peak around the door of my son’s classroom, breathe a sigh of relief that he is sitting right in the corner nearest me, slip his paper onto his desk, and catch a glimpse of his surprised, glad face turning around to see me as I duck out the door) and knowing when to let them grow up and learn that life is hard and mom can’t always be there to catch them. Or then again maybe she can. You know, maybe I can keep up the human safety net act for a few more years. At least until they weigh too much for me to hold.

Thursday, November 01, 2007

All Hallow's Eve Day

I can hardly type because my hands are suffering from spray-paint-button-itis. I used a whole can of red on McKay's Lego costume. Today, my wrist-tendons are still so sore it hurts to do everything. I can't hold a pencil to grade papers (wahoo!). I made my husband trim a chipped nail because I couldn't squeeze the clippers myself. You want to know the worst part? My house is filled with candy and chocolate and it's all sealed up tightly in these annoying little wrappers!

But enough about me and my sorry disability. Let's take a look at my children and the costumes for which I sacrificed my ability to brush my own teeth.

McKay embodies his love for Lego



Doctor Gabie (of course)



Nora the Good Witch

Monday, October 29, 2007

Doctor Gabie diagnoses the Mom Complex

We own a new ladder. It seemed like a good idea after McKay's near accident, so Ken went out and bought a much sturdier one. Gabie interpreted this as a sign that he could now climb up and down it at will to "help" Dad fix the roof. Gabie did not take kindly to my insistance on Sunday morning that No, he was not allowed to climb up there again, especially in his Sunday clothes.

Gabie looked at me sternly and said, "The problem with you Mom is that you want to control me all the time. You tell me not to do stuff and you think I have to listen to you. Well the world isn't always going to be the way you want it to be."

Is it possible to have a 5 year old teenager?

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Close calls

Today I was in the room Nora and Gabie share, changing Nora’s diaper before her nap, when I smelled a strange odor (I mean something other than the contents of the diaper I was changing). It struck me as a vaguely familiar smell but I couldn’t quite place it. My first thought was: “I wonder what Gabie has been playing with in here.” He’s quite the chemist lately, mixing batches of “Super Cleaner” out of lotion, water, soap, scraps of construction paper thrown in for color, etc.

But I couldn’t quite identify the odor and it was very faint, so I mentally shelved it, assuming I’d figure it out later. I was just about to put Nora down in her crib and leave the room when I remembered what the smell made me think of: ironing clothes. This was an odd connection because (true confession) I rarely iron clothes. Maybe once a month I do a bit of emergency spot work, but that’s it. God sent me to earth during the age of the wrinkle-free garment for a reason. But the really strange thing is that I had just ironed something this morning. Ken was running late for work and he was in charge of a big training meeting today, so I had pity on him and volunteered to clear the ironing board of its perpetual 20 pound layer of draped clothing and iron his shirt. Anyway, I’m not sure if I would have recognized the smell in Gabie’s room if it weren’t for the fresh association in my head.

I sniffed my way around the room and then checked all the electrical outlets and that’s when I discovered that Gabie had plugged in a little lamp, buried it under the quilt on his bed, and LEFT IT ON. The quilt fabric was scorching hot and a new package of diapers that had been sitting at the foot of Gabie’s bed had begun to melt. When I lifted the quilt to expose the lamp, a puff of smoke rose into the air.

I unplugged the lamp and dealt with the melted diapers and quilt and then I sat down with Nora in my arms and let my heart stop pounding. I didn’t want to think about what would have happened if I had left Nora in her crib, walked out, and closed the door. No, actually I did want to think about it. In fact I’ve been stirring the scenario around in my brain ever since. Smoldering quilt. Wooden bed. Smoke-filled room. Sleeping baby. . .

Then this evening, Ken was on the roof dismantling the old swamp cooler. McKay was climbing up the ladder to join him and I was a few feet away with Nora and Gabie. Suddenly, the ladder tipped over and McKay was hanging there, holding onto the edge of the roof, his legs dangling in the air. It could have been a comic moment from a Keystone Cops film if it weren’t for the fact that it was my 9-year old son holding on for dear life. I dashed over and put the ladder under him and helped him down. He was definitely upset. But it speaks for his resilient character that he insisted on going back up once he had calmed down for a minute. I held the ladder, of course.

So now it’s 11 pm and everyone is asleep but me. I’ve checked on all the kids and they are still breathing. Sometimes at night I am hit with an overwhelming sense of relief when I can finally say that we’ve all made it through another day, safe and sound.

There’s a print by Käthe Kollwitz—a very dramatic image of death sweeping down from the sky to seize the throats of two terrified children. My favorite part of the scene? The little girl darting off to the left. I wonder how much of life is made up of narrow escapes. Some that we probably don’t even realize. And some that make us grateful for the small miracles that keep us here.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Faux pas

1. French for “false step”
2. A violation of social etiquette, a blunder.
3. What I did last year on Black Friday.
3. What my mother got this summer when her foot was reconstructed by a certain Dr. Faux (I swear, it’s true).
4. What I did today, i.e. made such a social blunder/false step that my foot is still firmly wedged in my mouth.

I’ll explain. I was out walking with Nora this afternoon when I ran into one of my neighbors, a woman whose 16-year old daughter is in my Sunday School class. My neighbor mentioned her daughter and how she has been dividing her time between her best friend and her new boyfriend. “Aha,” I said (ignoring the shut up stupid! voice in my head), “Has she delivered her friend the ice cream* that she owes her this week because of that boyfriend?”

Total silence.

From the look on this woman’s face, it was obvious that even though her daughter had casually mentioned the ice cream news to me, she had pointedly NOT told her mother anything about the ice cream news or the loss of her “Virgin Lips” that it signified. Ouch. I tried to back away from my remark, but the damage had been done. Man, I am such a turkey. This is not just a violation of good manners, it’s probably an ethical transgression as well. I mean shouldn’t the Sunday School Teacher/Student privilege be as strong as the Psychiatrist/Patient one? Can she sue me for a violation of privacy?

I’m wondering what kind of conversation is happening tonight in their home…

*Explanation: where I come from when you kiss a boy for the first time, you have to give your friends ice cream. Is this just a Utah thing? A Mormon thing? A teen girls who get silly about boys and romance thing?

Saturday, October 20, 2007

Stopping to smell a cliche part deux

I had to tell Nora today to stop putting beans in her ears. Where do kids come up with these things?

Friday, October 19, 2007

Living the Law of Chance

It was said of Louis XIV that with a calendar and timepiece, you could predict exactly where he would be and what he would be doing at any given moment of the year. His routine was legendary. Like the sun—the image he adopted as his emblem—Louis rose and set and made his way across the firmament of Versailles with absolute regularity.

Monday, for me, was a Louis XIV kind of day. I woke up at 5:45 and knew, down to the minute, what would be happening during every part of the day ahead. It was a teaching day for me, so I had exams to finish grading and a lecture to prepare. We were also hosting a birthday party for Ethan, so I knew in advance that I would never make it through the day unless I had every moment fully choreographed. By 10:00 am I had a clean house, dinner in the crock pot, and a day’s worth of bottles (for Nora) and a Coke (for me) chilling in the fridge. I had to pause for a moment to bask in my own dazzling competence. But I only took a moment since prolonged basking was not on my schedule.

In one particularly efficient swoop, I ordered the pizza for the party, dropped off Nora and Gabie at their cousins’ house, bought movie tickets in advance, picked up the pizza (paid for with a coupon that for once I did not leave behind on the kitchen counter), and arrived home with 5 minutes to spare before the first guests arrived. After pizza and games, I drove the boys to the theater and sat with them during the movie, grading exams by flashlight. By the time I got to campus to teach my class, I felt like Louis must have felt when—after a day of diplomacy, statesmanship, and politics at the French court—he spent the evening dancing a ballet (in which he played the starring role of the Apollo the sun god, of course).

So despite my frequent blog descriptions of my life as chaotic and out of control, I do have those occasional days of order. I’ve decided it’s probably a good thing that they don’t come very often because: a) I would get a big head, and b) my life would be extremely dull.

Tuesday, in contrast, was a day of surprises. I knew in advance what I thought the day would bring, but several unexpected encounters reminded me that life is often ruled by a powerful force called the Law of Chance. I learned about the Law of Chance from the Dada artists, a group of delightful subversives who following World War I, rebelled against common sense, good taste and the "whole prevailing order" of society. Jean Arp wrote in one of the Dada manifestos, "The law of chance, which comprises all other laws and surpasses our understanding. . . can only be experienced in a total surrender to the unconscious. I claim that whoever follows this law will create pure life" Arp applied this philosophy to his various “Collages Arranged According to the Law of Chance.” He created them by tearing paper into pieces, dropping them onto a background and gluing them in place wherever they landed.

The strange thing about these collages is that for “random” productions, they seem rather well organized. Not to discredit Arp’s stated intentions, but if you look at the rows in this collage, it seems quite unlikely that they were created with the arbitrary method he describes. There is too much balance. None of the squares overlap, even slightly. What are the chances of that?

In fact, this work is not meant to be random or accidental; Arp implied as much with the title, which begins with the words: “arranged according to…” The pieces are still arranged. They are composed according to a certain law. It is a law that surpasses our understanding, but it is still a law. In this, Arp said, his creative works are closer to nature and pure life, which also grants us chance arrangements—surprising things we could not possibly have predicted or created entirely by ourselves, but things that still carry meaning and purpose on their own.

For example, if I see a certain student named Gillian in my classroom every other day for three and a half months, I would not think it terribly remarkable. But if the class ends and two years later, on a Tuesday morning in October, I run into Gillian in front of the fish tank at my eye doctor’s office, we would both be surprised. And if it has been a difficult week for me, a week in which I have graded 90 exams (some at my kitchen table while my two youngest children sat in front of the TV watching back to back to back episodes of I know not what on the Discovery Channel, some in a darkened theater with the voices of animated rats in my ears) and I have been wishing I could quit teaching and wondering if my students are even learning anything, and then Gillian tells me that she loved my class, still remembers it, and “learned a ton,” and my teacher’s ego perks up like one of those puffer fish (and if there were one in the tank next to us that would be really cool, but there wasn’t), I would say that it was quite a remarkable encounter. I might even say something like “This is exactly what I needed to hear today.” What are the chances of that?

So this was how my Tuesday started. Then on my way home from the eye doctor, I stopped at the thrift store in search of a book—something well-written yet funny, something along the lines of David Sedaris, I thought to myself as I walked up to the stacks. And there he was. Well, not exactly David Sedaris himself, but one of his books. What a stroke of luck. Granted, I do live in a county with more Mormons per capita than anywhere else on the planet and David is a bit irreverent and naughty which is probably why someone gave away this pristine copy to begin with and why nobody had snatched it up before I got to it, but hey, it was still a pretty amazing find. The Law of Chance strikes again.

Tuesday evening, I took McKay to a Parent Teacher conference where we waited for over an hour because (and I’m talking from 3 years of experience here) parents with children in a “gifted program” can’t shut up about their kids. While we were waiting, I decided to stroll down to the office for a few minutes. I knew that the new Vice Principal, Mrs. Bestor, was a former English teacher of mine from High School and I hadn’t seen her in over 20 years. She was in fact my favorite English teacher ever. My entire sophomore year she wrote praise and suggestions in the margins of my juvenile attempts at poetry and told me I had talent. I wanted to thank her for that.

I was standing in the office, rehearsing what I would say to introduce myself, when she walked around the corner. Without hesitation, she said, “Julie!” and gave me a big hug. Incredible. I was shocked that she remembered me. After all these years, she still knew my name and even asked if I was still writing. As far as I’m concerned, this woman has earned a permanent spot in the pantheon of saints.

My Aunt Bonnie had called earlier in the day, out of the blue, and offered us tickets to an orchestra concert that evening. I wasn’t sure if we’d be able to go and after the long delay at Parent Teacher Conference, I had just about decided to bag it when McKay begged me to take him. I don’t get to spend much time alone with McKay (alas, the poor overlooked middle child, the un-squeakiest of my four wheels). So I decided to take him to at least the first half. I was already in a carpe diem kind of mood anyway.

Another surprise awaited us, and it wasn’t the good kind this time: the orchestra was terrible. In their defense, it was the first concert of the season and they are all unpaid performers with little time for rehearsals, and I have been spoiled by the consummate professionalism of the Utah Symphony in Salt Lake, but still, I am not exaggerating when I say that they fumbled their way through the music, often out of synch and out of key. Ouch. Their second number was “Petrouchka” by Stravinsky. I like Stravinsky, but his music is hard to play and hard to listen to, even when it’s done well, which in this case it wasn’t. So I kept looking over at McKay, trying to judge by his expression and body language if he was suffering as much as I imagined he was. For a boy who hates to sit still and on Sundays spends the hour of Sacrament Meeting flopping around on the bench like a trout on a boat deck, he was strangely calm. I wondered if he had fallen into a catatonic state out of sheer boredom. I wrote a note to him on the program: “Do you like this?” And he wrote back, “Yes! Espesialy the loud and fast parts.”

Wonders never cease. This was probably the biggest surprise of the day. My son saw something in this death-by-musical-torture that I was completely missing. I sat through the rest of the piece in awe of McKay's sweet, boyish exuberance for all things loud and fast. At the intermission, we left to go home because it was late and still a school night. We found my aunt Bonnie in the lobby and she too asked McKay if he liked the Stravinsky piece. He told her, "I liked it because it wasn’t boring. It's fun when you never know what's coming next." I had to smile. He's got a great point there.

Saturday, October 13, 2007

How to succeed in life with a 5-word vocabulary

The Tesserae family of educational services is pleased to announce an exciting new workshop. This special one-time offering entitled "How to succeed in life with a 5-word vocabulary" will be taught by the eminently qualified Baby Nora herself. With 17 months of experience and a captivating personality, Nora will teach you the best-kept secrets of the toddler trade. Her cutting-edge (and cutting-tooth) approach centers on the all-important question: why waste time with a ponderous, time-consuming vocabulary when you can count on one hand the words you truly need to influence people and get the things you want out of life (which may or may not include bottles of soy milk, time in the sandbox, or an immediate rescue from atop the kitchen table where you have once again managed to strand yourself).

Learn from Nora the fine art of verbal economy in this five-part workshop.

Session One: hi
Master the art of the simple salutation. "Hi" is always a crowd pleaser and a big hit with strangers in the grocery store, where it may be combined with a wave of the hand or batting of the eyes for an effect that will be sure to leave your fans begging for more. It is especially potent when directed in the early morning hours at those who would otherwise be very annoyed with you for waking them up with your demands for comfort and attention. A well-placed "hi" will soften the heart of even the most grouchy parent.

Session Two: da-da
When you're up for the challenge, we'll move on to this two-syllable tool for the manipulation of the paternal figure. It goes without saying that when you learn to use "da-da" correctly, you'll have your father wrapped securely around your pudgy little finger. This may lead to hard feelings on the part of the maternal figure, who can't figure out why all of her children say da-da long before they learn her name despite the fact that she carried each of them inside her body for several months, nursed them from her own bosom and wore them like an over-sized purse across one hip for the first year of their lives. For this reason, we will be sure to move to the next session as soon as possible.

Session Three: nam (pronounced "nahm" as in "Viet…")
Nora's special variation on the traditional ma/ma-ma/mommy fare is sure to be the next big thing. Again, the name of the game is simplify, simplify. Save yourself the trouble of too many syllables. "Nam" will get the point across just fine, especially since your mother, desperate for recognition, will be so delighted you have finally figured out who she is that she will probably accept anything remotely involving the "m" sound at this stage. Nam plops easily off the roof of your mouth and can double as either a joyous utterance at times of reunion or a plaintive shout when you feel your needs are being neglected. Should dire circumstances (such as boredom or need for a bottom-wiping) arise, it can be repeated over and over with accelerating speeds and an incline in pitch and intensity until it becomes a whine. All this will be forgiven. Nams are like that.

Session Four: Oof
For training purposes, you will spend the weekend at the family cabin with seven large, friendly dogs. By day three, we guarantee you will have developed a strong affection for the species and the adorable tendency to bark "oof" whenever you see one. This sound is incredibly useful as it can be applied indiscriminately to all things furry or four-legged, including horses, cows, cats, pandas in books, and 80% of the characters on Sesame Street. You may even find the opportunity to use it some evening when your Nam is singing you a song with the line “Children, children, God is near you.” It may take her a moment to understand why you are barking, but she’ll laugh heartily when she figures it out.

Session Five: oh!™
This multi-purpose word will fill in all the gaps from here on out. You will never tire of discovering amusing new ways to sneak "oh!" into every conversation. Here are a few of Nora's favorites, but this is by no means a comprehensive list.

oh! (the phone is ringing / I hear the doorbell)
oh! (I threw my shoe into the heat vent again)
oh! (I am sad because I was headed for the slightly open patio door and Gabie closed it just in the nick of time and now I’m stuck in the boring kitchen while he is out playing in paradise)
oh! (That wall popped up where I least expected it)
oh! (Thanks, I love Ramen Noodles)
oh! (I want that thing right there…no, not that one, the one with the sharp, pointy edges)

And a few variations on the theme:

oh, oh, oh (I know you're working on that bottle thing, but speed it up lady)
oh? (I don’t know where Da-da is. Do you?)
oh! (That is the coolest ______ I have ever seen!!!)

These five words will take you anywhere you want to go (provided you want to go to a place like Nora’s house where everyone loves her dearly and speaks her language).

Space is limited so reserve your spot today.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Stopping to smell a cliché

Berthe Morisot, Child in a rose garden
Gabie got home from school today and I made him put his shoes right back on so we could go for a walk. Nora was grouchy because she woke up early this morning. I was grouchy because Nora woke up early this morning. We both needed to get out of the house. Gabie did not want to go for the walk. He said he had already been out of the house and was ready to spend some time in it for a change. He also said, and I quote: “I have been dealing with so many things today. I don’t have time for a walk.” He parked his bum on the steps and refused to go and I finally had to threaten him with a timeout if he didn’t cooperate. I promised we’d take a short walk around the block.

He pouted for the first few houses and then remembered that there was a rosebush on the corner. He ran ahead because he loves the smell of roses. The bush was empty. I thought he might get upset and lose all desire to live (or continue walking), so I quickly suggested that there were probably other rosebushes around the next corner. It became a quest from then on. He raced from one house to the next, scanning for roses and sniffing any within his reach—all the while maintaining a running commentary on their particular fragrances (some were “out of nectar” already and thus scored low on the olfactory report).

He insisted we take the long, windy route through several neighborhoods in search of more roses. He announced that today was Rose Day, that we lived in Rose Country, and that one particular street (where there appeared to be a green thumb living in every house) was Rose Heaven. He even told me a great joke: “Why did the Gabie cross the road? To get to the rosebush on the other side.” (He told several others but this was the only one I understood. Five year-old humor is way over my head.)

Nora, by the way, sniffed a few flowers as well. Or I should say she projected baby snot on them since she has not yet mastered the distinction between inhaling and exhaling.

So Gabie reminded me today how important it is to stop and smell the roses, which is just about the oldest cliché in the book. But just because something is a cliché doesn’t mean it can’t still be true.

Tuesday, October 09, 2007

proxy blogger

Since I'm not going to get around to posting something of my own today, I'll give you a link to a very inspiring post by my 12-year old son Ethan the Environmentalist. He doesn't post often on his blog but he loves to get comments when he does. I promised I'd send a few readers his way if he promised to put his cereal bowl away tomorrow. So please take a look if you feel so inclined.

Monday, October 08, 2007

What I’ve learned from Cezanne and other people smarter than me

Cezanne, Vessels Basket and Fruit, 1888-90

If you look at the left front edge of Cezanne’s table in this painting and then look at the right edge, you notice that there’s something strange happening. Either Cezanne was drunk or he deliberately painted the table from two different angles. He was not drunk. Cezanne knew that all objects exist in time and space and just because our human vision only experiences one angle at once doesn’t mean our human minds aren’t simultaneously aware of all the other options. Cezanne—the most cerebral and philosophical of painters—is asking us to set aside our ingrained assumption that a painting should frame a single point of view. He wants us to admit that art and life are complex and multidimensional things.

I bring this up because I have been lamenting a post I wrote last week about an act of conspicuous Jell-O production. I am not happy with how mean-spirited I came across in that post and I wanted to delete it several times. But I also wanted to apologize first, which I’m doing here. If ever it was possible to hold two completely contrary viewpoints in one’s head at the same time, such was the case with the Jell-O. I was both offended by the salad (offense combined with equal parts jealousy, self-loathing, and general grumpiness) and impressed with the care that went into it. After all, my neighbor chose to share her talents and time. And who did she share them with? ME! (oh, and a bunch of other women, but we're talking about me here). It was an act of thoughtfulness and generosity on her part and even if there was the tiniest hope that she would get a bit of praise and a few compliments (one being from me) out of it then who am I to begrudge her that?

So I could have gone either way in my verbal painting of the evening and I chose to go with the single-minded, negative slant. Frankly, I went for the humor. I laughed as I typed the blog post (I’m still amused that I finally got a chance to tell the “Diane’s house is too clean to clean” story) and in my new spirit of posting more and editing less, I posted it without thinking it through.

I should have thought it through.

Because I know better. I have written two other snarky posts that I regretted later and deleted (one about my husband going deer hunting and another about poorly-written student papers). Whenever I try to put my tongue in my cheek I somehow manage to stick it out very rudely.

What really got me regretting the post was the thought that many of my family members and good friends share their “virtuosity” in generous ways as well. Once when she came to visit, my friend Tara (chef, artist, all-around classy person) showed us how to make dipped and ornamented Oreos. We had a blast making them and when we gave a few to our friend Gayle, she loved that we were giving her these little masterpieces.

My sister-in-law Echo makes birthday cards so intricate and personalized that we all can’t wait to see what ours will look like. Last Thanksgiving, my sister Teri spent about 2 hours helping me skewer vegetables and assemble them like a flower arrangement so that I would have something fun to contribute to my in-laws’ dinner. My mother has decorated wedding cakes Martha Stewart would drool over (does Martha drool? Does it come out in French twists? Am I getting rude again?).

I think we all have things we do well and love to share with others. I once had time to quilt (alas, in another life) and I made this I-Spy quilt for my friend Kathy’s baby. It took me so many hours to make that the baby was nearly 18 months old before I finally finished it. Did I do this to impress her and make everyone who saw it envious? No. I made it because I love my friend and I like to make quilts and I wanted to try something really challenging for a change.



Anyway, it has all been yet another learning experience. Here’s what I’ve come up with thus far:

1. Don’t write when I’m grumpy
2. Don’t write mean stuff.
3. Not even when it’s supposed to be funny.
4. Because it might be funny but it’s still mean.
5. When I’m offended, look at all the angles.
6. Look again.
7. Then look at myself in the mirror.
8. Wipe off the mirror because it’s covered in toothpaste.
9. Jello is spelled Jell-O
10. Go ask my neighbor for her Jell-O recipe because I should really make it someday for my family.
11. They’ll LOVE it.

Tuesday, October 02, 2007

get a grip, the sequel

I just had to add a funny post script to this post about pencil grips. I had assumed all this time that Gabie's kindergarten teacher must have joined the losing battle to correct his improper hold of the pencil. We had a parent teacher conference tonight and guess what? It turns out that she doesn't care. She's not worried at all. In fact, she normally holds her pencil in a totally bizarre way (although she makes it a point to hold it "the school way" when she's in the classroom to set a good example). She doesn't think her odd grip has stunted her ability to write in any way. I love her and plan to adopt her soon.

So I'm following my mommy intuition here and I'm just going to let Gabie do his own thing. Hopefully his 1st through 6th grade teachers will also be as cool about it. I figure by the time he hits High School, he'll be typing everything or using sophisticated voice-recognition software anyway, so why stress? Besides, if his penmanship is a mess, he'll be one step ahead of all those other medical students who will have to work hard to master their sloppy doctor scrawls.

Anyway, I just thought you'd like to know.

Monday, October 01, 2007

The art of Jello consumption

My neighbor brought a fifteen-layer Jello salad to the Women’s Conference dinner at the church on Saturday. Now why did she have to go and do that? I love this neighbor. She is a kind, generous person. When I broke my foot last year, she brought my family a home cooked seven-course meal in disposable containers, bless her incredibly thoughtful little heart. But seriously, fifteen layers?

I sliced a serving and set it respectfully on my plate where it shimmied in all its rainbowed glory—seven different flavors of Jello, alternating translucent and cloudy stripes, with a creamy white topping. It tasted delicious, of course, but every bite was—for me at least—a spoonful of guilt because I knew exactly how much work went into making that salad. It represented a giant undertaking of foresight and effort: a shopping trip involving an actual planned-in-advance list, fifteen washings of the mixing bowl, organization and memory skills that I could never hope to possess (just think about the math: a new layer every hour on the hour for an entire day!), and above all a clean fridge with room enough for not one but two large dishes because I can guarantee she made a double batch and left one salad home with her husband and six (6) children along with a chicken casserole and homemade rolls.

I, on the other hand, decided to attend the function only at the last minute, mostly because I needed an escape from my chaotic house, and so I deserted my family without a single thought for what they might scrounge up to eat (Ken ended up ordering pizza). I would also have arrived completely empty handed at the church except for the lucky encounter I had in the foyer with a man carrying a plate of brownies. His told me his wife had made them but she didn’t feel well, so would I be so kind as to carry them in with me because he felt uncomfortable intruding on all those women. “I’d be happy to,” I replied magnanimously. Yeah (I thought as I waltzed into the room and asked sweetly, “so where would you like these?”) I’d be happy to usurp your wife’s brownies to hide my own negligence. I felt like the scroungy dude in a t-shirt who arrives at a fancy restaurant and is rescued from the humiliation of failing the dress code by a polite manager waiting at the door with a loaner jacket.

But I want to talk about that salad. Because I really need to know if I’m crazy to think that there’s just no call for that kind of public demonstration of talent. Did anyone really enjoy eating it? Was I the only one who would have been fine with four layers, or even one of those Cool Whip and pudding jobbies thrown together at the last second—the ones that say, “Hey, I was made by a woman who walks on earth, not water. You too could have done this, if only you had thought of it.”

Fifteen layers just screams, “Yowza, look at me, I’m a fifteen-layer salad that also tastes fantastic. You wish your household ran this smoothly.”

I have another neighbor named Diane whose house is always immaculate. I don’t mean tidy and presentable. I mean white-glove-inspection-ready clean 24/7. She has seven children and is a fabulous mother to boot. I have dropped in at random times just to catch her off guard and once I found a single cup in her sink and a music stand in the middle of the living room. That was it. A few months ago, when Diane’s mother passed away and she was out of town attending to the funeral, six women from the church planned to spend the morning “cleaning her house” for her while she was gone. They had a hard time finding anything to do and left after an hour. To this day, Diane still doesn’t know that they were ever there.

Might I suggest they could have taken a different approach. You know how sometimes instead of sending yet another batch of flowers to a funeral, you might donate the money, in the name of the departed, to a charity? Perhaps those women could have gone to a house that really needed 6 woman-hours of work done on it and left Diane a note saying, “On your behalf, we cleaned so-and-so’s house today.” I’m not saying they necessarily would have had to come to my house, but I’ll tell you I would definitely have known they had been here.

My point is that I feel a bit uncomfortable in Diane’s house. Not that it’s one of those places where you’re afraid to wrinkle the furniture or spoil the white carpet, but I just can’t help but be fully aware, the whole time I am there, of how clean everything is (and by implication, how far short my home falls from her level). This is also why I can never truly enjoy listening to piano concertos. The more insanely well they are performed, the more agony they cause me. I can’t relax and enjoy the beauty of the music because I’m sitting there thinking: man, this guy is good! . . . he must practice six hours a day. . . wow that was a tricky spot. . . (and inevitably) You knew you’d regret quitting piano lessons when you were 15, you big slacker.

The word that comes to mind is virtuosity, which Websters defines simply as great technical skill. But I think the word implies more than just talent; a virtuoso draws attention to their talent by showing it off. A virtuoso pianist does not play chopsticks; he plays Liszt. A virtuoso artist pushes the envelope of his medium and lets you know, in unveiled irony, how much work was involved to make the feat seem effortless. In this 17th century still life for example, the artist (Adrien van der Spelt) used incredible skill at painting light and detail to fool the viewer into assuming that a curtain has been drawn part way across the canvas.

On closer inspection, you can see that the curtain is only painted on. The curtain serves as a fitting metaphor; that which usually parts to unveil the real view now becomes the main attraction. I imagine most viewers of this work do not leave with a strong opinion of how beautiful the flowers were but with appreciation of van der Spelt’s mastery of trompe l’oeil. So let’s just be honest about what the painting is really about. Instead of calling it Still life with flowers and curtain, they should call it Self-portrait of the artist’s talent.

Maybe I’m the one with the problem. I mean, who else gets offended by gelatin? But I think the world needs more people like me—the underachievers without whom those who aspire for excellence would have no cause to feel superior. I’m here to make everyone else feel better about themselves in comparison. I’m here to leave the door to my cluttered garage open wide for everyone driving past to see and disparage. I am here to go to my 20-year reunion looking 20-years frumpier so that the ladies who have worked their tails off to stay slim and glamorous can make a good impression. I am here to send out my Christmas letters in March (every other year) to ease the holiday burden on the postal service.

I am not, as I had imagined, merely a slacker. I am truly hard at work, making the world safe for virtuosity. I fail to accomplish even a fraction of what I hope to accomplish so that the success of others means something. I do everyone a great service and I’m happy to oblige. I have to admit that the world is a more beautiful place because my neighbor took the time to share her talents and build an elaborate Jello salad. But the world is also a more symmetrical place because there are people like me, ready to show up with a plate.