Sunday, April 29, 2007

Sunday sermon

I was forced to had the glorious opportunity to speak in church today. For what it's worth, here's the text of my talk. It actually turned out to be a topic I've been wrestling with lately and I learned a lot in the process of writing it. If you're not in the mood for a sermon, I promise I won't be offended if you walk on by the chapel without listening in today.

The Parable of the Talents - with a personal twist

Bishop Lott has asked me to speak today about developing our talents. I suggested he might want to find someone else better suited to the topic, namely someone with more talents, but he thought I was joking, so here I am.

I would like to focus on what talents are, specifically in reference to the New Testament parable of the talents found in Matthew 25:15.

The word “talent” has a double meaning, one being the literal definition of talent as an ancient sum of money and the other being the more figurative definition in use today of talent as an exceptional skill or ability. What I think is interesting is that it was through this New Testament parable that one meaning of talent has led to the other. In Christ’s day, a talent was a sum of money. Over time, because of the common way this parable is interpreted, the word talent has come to mean an ability, something we are under a moral obligation to develop and use. Certainly Christ knew that the parable would mean one thing to his contemporary listeners and another to us. It’s just another sign that the Lord’s parables have many layers and far reaching significance.

For the sake of my children, who have promised to listen carefully to my talk, I’d like to start with retelling the parable of the talents.

A man preparing to take a trip calls his servants together and asks them to take care of his belongings while he is gone. You know, the usual stuff: someone to water his plants for him, feed the goats, bring in the newspaper. Most importantly, he divvies up some of his wealth and entrusts it to 3 servants to take care of while he is away. To one he gives 5 talents. To another servant he gives 2 talents. To a third he gives one.

When the master returns from his trip, first he reads all his old papers and checks on the goats, then he goes to each servant to see how things went. The servant to whom he had given 5 talents had invested them wisely while he was gone and said, “Lord, thou deliveredst unto me five talents: behold I have gained beside them five talents more.” Likewise, the servant with two had also doubled his original amount. To both of these servants, the master said, “Well done, thou good and faithful servant; thou has been faithful over a few things, I will make thee ruler over many things; enter thou into the joy of thy lord.”

The third servant turns out to not have been so faithful. In fact, he gets a bit defensive when it comes his turn to report. He says, basically, “Lord, I knew that you were a strict master and I was afraid so I buried the talent. Here,” he says dusting it off, “you can have it back now, it’s a bit dirty, but at least I didn’t lose it.”

Remember, in the story, talent is money. It is currency, a word related to the current of a stream, and just like a current, it only has value if it is moving, in circulation. Talents are worthless if buried or hoarded. The master calls this servant wicked and slothful, telling him he should have invested the talent. Because of his fear and laziness, the third servant is forced to give up his one talent to the man with 10 and then punished.

In interpreting the parable, I’d like to focus first on the value of the talents themselves. I think that the modern use of the word talent as just something you’re good at, a skill that you’re born with or learn over time, is rather narrow. If I consider “developing my talents” as improving my piano technique or taking a watercolor class, I’m missing the deeper significance of the parable. In going back to the original meaning of the term, I think it’s important to note that a talent was a huge sum of money. It was worth 3,000 shekels, equivalent to 75 pounds of silver. One account I read said that this was worth more than 15 years worth of wages for a laborer.

These servants in the story were trusted with more than just a few coins to invest; they were given something extremely valuable. Two of them doubled the amount – this must have taken a great deal of effort – and then offered all of it (the original amount and the increase) back to their master on his return. The talents were not a gift. They were a stewardship; the servants were being asked to care for the talents and use them to gain increase for their lord.

And I wonder, as I apply this to my life, what have I been given as a stewardship?

I start with the question: What are the most valuable things in my life? What do I have that is worth more than piles of silver? Here’s what comes to mind: my family (both the one I was raised in, and now my own husband and children), my early exposure to the gospel, the opportunities I have had for education, my mind, my healthy body, and the light of Christ in my life.

The next question I have to ask is WHAT HAVE I DONE with these incredibly precious things? When I return to the Lord and he asks me this question, will I be ashamed and defensive: “I didn’t lead a really bad life, per se. I never shot anyone or embezzled funds or worked for the Mafia. Uh, here’s your coin back.”

Or will I be like the servants who had faith and had something valuable to show for their labors? and I don’t doubt that they worked hard; they were servants – servants by definition have to work.

If we see the parable as applying to our mortality, then talents include the rich opportunities we have been given: the natural endowments and the abilities we are fortunate enough to acquire as we go along; the guidance of the spirit; the truths of the gospel; the advantages we are given by nature of the time in which we are born and the very TIME we have on earth itself. These are all on loan to us. What will we do with them?

This broader definition of talents helps me prioritize and find balance – something I’ve been really struggling with lately. I’ve always said, when I grow up, I want to be a famous writer. I’ve been told by my family and friends that I have talent. Well, I’m sorry to say it has gone to my head and I’ve been having all these visions of publishing something amazing. Lately, I’ve been spending more and more time absorbed in writing projects but I’ve also been consumed by a sense that I’m neglecting my family and home responsibilities in the process. It’s like I have an angel on one shoulder and a devil on the other, except they are both angels: both inherently good things. One voice says: You need to develop your talents! The other says: But your children need you and you have a sink full of dirty dishes waiting for you!!!

Last night as I studied this parable again, I suddenly realized that, in the wider sense of the word, my children are my talents. The lord has not given them to me as a gift. He has entrusted them to me as a stewardship. Every minute I spend with them is an investment in their growth and development.

Another interesting thing about the parable of the talents is that the lord of the house is gone a LONG TIME and it specifically mentions that he travels to a FAR country. Hopefully, I’ll have plenty of time to raise my kids and also develop my other, more creative talents along the way. There are different seasons in life.

There’s another thing about the parable that puzzles me. Why didn’t the servant all receive the same amount of talents to begin with?

The scripture doesn’t exactly clarify this issue. It says that the Lord “gave to every man according to his several ability.” Diversity is one of the harder truths of life. As my mother always told me: life isn’t fair. We all begin from different starting points and I don’t think the Lord has ever really explained to us why this is other than the fact that we will be held accountable for what we’ve been given. I am deeply troubled when I hear stories of children in abusive homes or people in horribly violent places like Darfur and I wonder How is it that I was blessed with so much when others seem to have been born with two strikes against them? This parable reminds me that where much is given, much is required.

I think it’s interesting that originally, the word talent comes from the process of lifting things up, as in weighing on a balance. During Old Testament times, a talent was not a unit of currency but a unit of weight used to determine the value of something else (like precious metals) by comparing them on a balance or scale. How ironic that we often are still stuck in this same definition of talents today. How many of us value our talents only as they measure up or compare to others? There are even certain very popular television shows (I’m sure I don’t have to name names) dedicated to singing and dancing competitions with panels of judges who rate and pass judgment on the talents of others.

I spend a lot of time for my job studying the lives and accomplishments of very talented people: artists, musicians, architects, writers. What if I also spent my life lamenting the fact that unlike Mozart I could not write a symphony when I was 8 years old and unlike Shakespeare, I will never write literature that will be read by millions of people and change the very shape of the English language? I think this is partly why the 3rd servant was afraid. He probably thought: I just can’t measure up to everyone else. Especially since he saw that he only had one talent. But remember, that one talent was worth a huge amount – even more than one man could carry in silver. What a waste it was for him to hide it away.

Gordon B. Hinckley shares this attitude: “My talents may not be great, but I can use them to bless the lives of others. I can be one who does his work with pride in that which comes from his hand and mind.”

Above all, we must never forget to acknowledge that all talents and opportunities and abilities come from God. The Lord has said, “And in nothing doth man offend God, or against none is his wrath kindled, save those who confess not his hand in all things” (D&C 59:21).

I think it’s meaningful that this parable falls between two other familiar parables about the Last Judgment: the parable of the 10 virgins and the separation of the sheep from the goats. The story of the talents ends with an accounting, a reporting to the Lord. This is one thing that makes the gospel of the New Testament, the new law, harder to live than the Old Law. It’s one thing to avoid breaking any commandments. It’s entirely another and more difficult thing to be accountable for all the things YOU COULD HAVE DONE and did not. James 4:17 says “Therefore to him that knoweth to do good and doeth it not, to him it is sin.”

It’s a bit daunting, actually, to think of it that way. But that’s where faith comes in, and the two servants were described as FAITHFUL servants. They did not fear because they knew the very master who had given them their talents, would be pleased with whatever efforts they had made to enlarge them. I also believe that, in my version of the story at least, the Lord is not FAR away. He is always close by and there to guide me as I try to find balance, as I make mistakes and learn from them, as I slowly learn the value of the precious opportunities on loan to me.

Thursday, April 26, 2007

Bring on the rhinestone tiara

Yesterday, I got a letter (printed on paper the color and sheen of Pepto Bismol) informing me that my daughter had been chosen to apply for the 2007 National American Miss Pageant. I am SO there…just as soon as I work through a few minor reservations:

Dear National American Miss Pageant folks:

Firstly, I only have one daughter and she is 11 months old. As of now, her English vocabulary consists of ONE word, so for the Interview Portion of the pageant, if it’s not too much to ask, could you could please arrange to have judges who speak one of Nora’s native languages: Latvian or Dolphin? Either that or prepare only questions for her that can be answered with the word “hi.” For example: “Would you like to say anything to your friends and family in the audience?” or “How is your blood pressure right now?” or “What do you think of Zimbabwe’s current inflation rate?”

Secondly, I have no doubt she’ll nail the Poise & Presentation in Formal Wear category because no baby ever looked cuter in a dress than mine. But I worry that while crawling across the stage she’ll have to stop periodically to chew on extension cords, which may hold things up a bit. Would this be a problem?

Thirdly, I have my reservations about getting involved in any program whose literature exceeds my personal exclamation-point-per-inch quota. Yeah, yeah, I know, you’re waiting to hear from us! I need to help my daughter realize the magic of Today’s Girl! so I should Apply today! but I’m kind of busy caulking my shower drain, plus I fear my heart may not be able to tolerate the excitement! Have you considered cutting back on the caffeine?

Nextly, I notice in your letter that you use the phrase “Building Esteem and Growing Confidence® for today’s world.” Tell me: is it confidence you own as a registered trademark or the process of growing it? These are things I need to know.

Thirteenthly, I’m a bit hung up on this portion of the application:

The Pageant Weekend Community Service Project! It’s incredibly fun, easy and rewarding. A full 10% of your pageant score will be awarded to you when you donate a children’s book or stuffed animal on pageant weekend! They will be presented to area organizations including libraries, literacy programs, firefighters and policemen to aid in their work with children. Together we can make a difference in the lives of others!

While I think the donation thing is a terrific idea, I expect slightly more from a Community Service Project. Like one that involves a bit more of the community. And real service. And constitutes an actual project. Call me picky. Unless my kid is giving away one of her own bears or books, I’m not sure it will mean that much to her. Hey, since it’s really going to be my money buying that bear and my gas driving it to the fire station, can you just give ME the 10% worth of points? My self-esteem could use a little boost right now.

Penultimately, by the time my daughter gets to college, I’m afraid that $25,000 in scholarship money isn’t even going to cover her books. Please up the offer to $25,000 in real estate investments and we’re on board.

Finally, of your different age categories – Teen, Jr. Teen, Pre-Teen, Jr. Pre-Teen, and Princess – I figure my daughter comes closest to the last one. My question is: do we get to pick our princess? I have issues with the whole Disney Princess scene so I’d prefer an alternative. Given enough time, I’m sure we could come up with the 20 yards of extra fabric and whale bone to reconstruct this pageant gown worn by Princess Margarita Teresa, National Spanish Miss of 1656.

1) hides/constricts all that unsightly baby fat, 2) limits mobility, thus solving the afore-mentioned extension cord problem, and 3) simply add wheels to the bottom and the whole contraption doubles as a baby walker.

1) low twirl-factor, which from observing other people’s daughters strikes me as an essential Princess activity, 2) we may need special accommodations at the pageant; are you willing to widen some door frames?, and 3) outfit makes the “tip the Princess upside down for a quick sniff to ascertain diaper status” job rather tricky.

Better yet, can my daughter please make an appearance as Princess Leia since we already have the costume? As you can see, she’s been working on pronouncing the long vowels in “Help me Obi-Wan Kenobi, you’re my only hope” (or however you say that in Dolphin).

I hope you will be willing to accept our $440 application fee despite our qualms. We can’t wait to hear from you!!!

Royally yours,
Queen Regent Julie and Princess Nora

Friday, April 20, 2007

Let him who is without sin...

Gabie came home from playing at a neighbor’s house quite upset. “Ben threw a piece of cinderblock at me!” he sobbed. I checked him over and saw that he was okay. I’m thinking: Good grief. What kind of a 3-year old brute would throw things at my child? He could have been seriously hurt. Gabie was very indignant about the grave injustice that had been done to him. “Ben should get in big trouble for what he did. I think an hour time out should do it. You’d better call his mom and tell her.”

I told Gabie that I wasn’t going to tell Ben’s mom how to discipline her son, but I did promise that I’d talk to her about it. I called and let her know what had happened. She was properly horrified that her son would do such a thing and I hung up the phone and assured Gabie that Ben was in for at least a good tongue lashing if not the hour time-out.

A few minutes later, Ben and his mother showed up at our front door. “Ben wants to apologize,” she said. I called Gabie over and he stood there looking injured while Ben said “I’m Tah-ree.” His mother added, “We just don’t do things like that Ben. Why in the world would you throw a cinderblock at Gabie?” Ben replied, “Cause he trew a rock at me first.”

Now I’m thinking: I’m a reasonably intelligent mother. Why in the name of all that is holy didn’t I take the time to ask for the WHOLE story before calling my neighbor? Mortified and grasping at straws I wonder if maybe Gabie was provoked. Perhaps it was self-defense. “Gabriel,” I ask hopefully, “Why did you throw a rock at Ben?” With no hesitation, Gabie says, “I had to do it mom. He was acting really annoying.”

Oh crap. Now I’m going to have to move.

Thursday, April 19, 2007

Take me out to the nerd fest

Ken believes strongly that he should never break a promise to any of our children. This is a good thing, but it also means that last night when we got home from Salt Lake (exhausted from an evening of dental cleanings, dinner at the Spaghetti Factory, rides back and forth through the TRAX free-fare zone and a visit to the planetarium) and Ethan reminded his dad that he had promised to buy him a baseball mitt, they went right out and bought one. Never mind that it was 10 pm. Ken loaded all three boys into the car and took them on a late-night father/sons shopping spree at Walmart. It’s fortunate that Walmart is open 24 hours for just such a sporting-goods emergency.

They took the Ford Explorer because buying baseball equipment is a manly errand and the Explorer is the manly vehicle of the family. The boys love to ride in the Explorer because even though it’s an older model, we only bought it a few weeks ago and the novelty hasn’t worn off yet. Also, it’s big and has 4-wheel drive so if you feel like taking that detour OVER THE MOUNTAIN on your way to Walmart, you totally could. Best of all, only Dad can drive the Explorer because the seat-adjuster switch is broken and I literally can’t reach the pedals. Ken insists he didn’t realize this when arranging to buy the Explorer from his friend, but I'm just saying it's interesting how conveniently it all worked out.

That’s fine with me. One of these days Nora and I are going to get even: we’ll buy a mauve VW bug convertible outfitted with bumper stickers that say “Honk if you cried during Sleepless in Seattle” and “Estrogen on board.” Then we can run late-night errands to Walmart for chocolate and tampons.

Thomas Eakins, Baseball Practice
So I wake up this morning to the sound of baseballs bouncing off their bedroom walls. Each of the boys has a new mitt and their own ball and I sense some valuable rite of passage has taken place. I send them outside, of course, and suffer a pang of guilt for not offering to join them in their All-American boys-will-be-boys session of toss and catch. But I have laundry to do and truth be told an aversion to all things athletic. I don’t know what God was thinking when he sent me 3 boys because I have not one coordinated bone in my body. I can’t stress this enough. I’m the woman who broke her foot walking into her garage, remember? There’s a reason why my only “sport” is jogging and even then I’m surprised I have the dexterity to run in a straight line without doing myself serious bodily harm. So if my boys want to learn to toss a ball or spit saliva with the proper arc or adjust their equipment as they run for home base, they will just have to talk to their dad.

To ensure Ken has the proper motivation to train his boys in the manly arts, I create the need for balance. I encourage the boys to play chess and allow them to develop insatiable book and computer addictions. I teach my boys to play the piano and read to them from The Secret Garden and Anne of Green Gables. For heaven’s sakes, we watch nature documentaries together for fun. If they turn out to be anything less than world-class nerds I’ll be surprised. And disappointed, frankly. With the exception of professional athletes, nerds make a lot more money than jocks and I’m really looking forward to a high-quality nursing home.

Monday, April 16, 2007

caught in a web

Kurt Vonnegut wrote "if I should ever die, God forbid, let this be my epitaph: 'The only proof he needed for the existence of God was music.'" Vonnegut died last week and while his epitaph seems a bit ironic coming from a notable religious skeptic, it resonates with me. I have felt a similar inclination when listening to Dvorak’s 9th Symphony. I also found some pretty remarkable proof for God’s existence this past weekend while watching Life in the Undergrowth with my boys. Who else but an omnipotent being with limitless creativity could possibly come up with 6-foot earthworms so delicate they break if you touch them, or centipedes that eat bats, or the bizarre mating ritual of the leopard slug? (strangest thing I’ve EVER seen, and the thought did cross my mind: “Should I be letting my kids watch hermaphrodite slugs get it on?”).

I was also wondering: what else but a divine plan could explain why humans even matter in a world where if our whole species were to vanish, life would continue on without us, completely undisturbed?

I love watching nature documentaries with my boys, especially the David Attenborough ones. We sit on the couch in awe together. Adult awe, child awe – there’s little difference. Nature baffles minds of all ages and the closer you get to it (this particular documentary uses unbelievably strong lenses to get right up in the face of tiny critters) the more incredible it seems. My favorite part of Life in the Undergrowth was the footage of the orb spider spinning her web. 60 yards of thread, anchor lines, hubs, radiating spokes, scaffolding, beads of glue: it sounds so utilitarian until you watch it being constructed (with a proper soundtrack of course) and then it’s spectacular. Sure a web is simply a glorified food trap made and re-made by spiders every single night of their lives, but I think it is nothing short of miraculous.

As luck would have it, the other DVD arriving this week from our Netflix queue was Charlotte’s Web so I’m surrounded by webs and their silken, symbolic messages. Also on my mind is a sculpture by Francesco Queirolo called Deception. The sculpture shares with the orb web a sense of the spectacular. How could Queirolo possibly have carved that intricate net out of marble? But he did just that and in the process created the illusion of delicacy – a lie about lies. The metaphor is an old one: deception is a net which entangles us. In this sculpture, the victim is struggling to free himself with the help of the intellect, symbolized by the angel to his side. Webs and nets are both used to snare prey and so both have become symbols of deception, even to the point of the cliché, thanks to our fondness for Sir Walter Scott’s line: Oh what a tangled web we weave when first we practice to deceive.

So the net and the web represent deception and entanglement. How strange that they share another designation: nicknames for the same vast system of communication that brings me here today. The internet. The world wide web. Coincidence? I think not. Spreader of urban legends, rumors, pseudo science, pop-up “you are a winner” ads (lies! I won nothing), and just enough facts to make it dangerous, the internet is a tangled web indeed. The arachnida blogorus, also known as the weblog, spins a particularly insidious orb. Its threads are addictive and sticky, meaning once you get one of your little legs stuck to one, you’re a goner my friend. It will wrap you up tight, numb you with venomous flattery until you are puffed up with a false sense of self-importance, and then suck you dry. You may struggle to free yourself – vow to loosen its grip on your time, your mind, your furry little 6th leg, but instead you find yourself chatting it up with the other flies dangling around you. “Hey, how’s it goin'? Seen any good movies lately?”

Saturday, April 14, 2007


This week I have been writing a grant proposal so I can buy myself an iPod with university funds. I’m worried that the proposal may land on the desk of someone inclined to see the iPod as an expensive gadget and not as a legitimate educational tool. So I’ve started a list of things I will be able to do with the iPod – things that will make me a better teacher, of course.

Here’s what I have so far. Suggestions are welcome.

1. I can use it to store my many Powerpoint presentations and slides in one place
2. I can easily access all my classical music CDs (including the songs I play in class)
3. I can organize and store all the video clips I use in class
4. (With a/v cable) I can use it to play video clips and music in the classroom
5. (with microphone) I can make digital recordings of lectures for students, record my own lecture notes and listen to them on my way to class
6. I can record memos to myself. Memos like “don’t forget to add this idea to your notes.” And “don’t forget to pick up cream of chicken soup on the way home from class.” And “don’t forget to go home.”
7. I can listen to audio books and podcasts
8. I can use the shiny reflective surface to check my lipstick before class starts
9. When department meetings get boring, I can pop in those inconspicuous earbuds and listen to Elizabethan motets. Or Queen. Whichever.
10. When I’m trying to grade papers but my kids want to climb on jungle gym Mom, I can say: “Here watch a movie” or “Here listen to some music” or “Here look at Mommy’s slides of naked Greeks”
11. I can listen to Gregorian Chants in church
12. I can load all kinds of historical documents onto my iPod. I’m not sure but I reckon eventually I’ll have an emergency need to refer to the Louisiana Purchase treaty of 1803.
13. I must have easy access to the periodic table as well. Because paint? It’s all about the chemistry.
14. I ought to have downloadable wikipedia with me at all times since it is the only “research” most of my students are capable of doing.
15. When I’m in the middle of a lecture on Impressionism and I sense I’ve used the phrase “buttery texture” one too many times, I can resort to my portable thesaurus.
16. Playing with the controls will strengthen my finger muscles which will in turn make me a more efficient paper-grading machine.
17. I can use the USB cord to tie up my hair if it’s getting in my way during a lecture.
18. I can use the iPod like a Frisbee to ping the student on the back row who always falls asleep the second I dim the lights.

I originally thought it would be nice to reach a nice round number like “101 uses for the iPod in the classroom” but now I’m thinking 60 is also roundish. So is 33. Now that you mention it, 18 is rather curvy.

Thursday, April 12, 2007


Eve tagged me a week ago with a meme about “5 current obsessions.” I’ve been thinking about it and coming up blank because, frankly, my life is rather boring and I’ve been obsessed with the same three things for the last 6 months (and two of those for the last 11 years): my family, my classes, and my blog. See? Boooooooring.

So since possession is 9/10ths of the law and this meme now belongs to me, I shall tweak it to fit my needs and focus instead on my children’s latest obsessions. Aside from the fact that I can drive to Krispy Kreme and they can’t, my kids lead far more interesting lives than I do.

Ethan is still obsessed with robins and birds in general. He has declared that March 24 (in honor of the dead robin found that day) shall be National Bird Day. Every year the country will join him in celebrating the lives of our feathered friends. We’ll build bird houses, scatter seed all around, and generally make the earth a chirpier place. He also requested that we eat French toast for dinner on National Bird Day, not that French toast has anything to do with birds but you know, any excuse for his favorite meal. I suggested chicken but Ethan didn’t think that was funny.

Like Imperial fighters around the Death Star, McKay’s life currently revolves around a certain Star Wars computer game. Last night when I insisted his computer time was over, he pouted and moped around as if I’d destroyed his one reason for living. “But there is nothing else to do!” he whined. I spouted off a perfectly reasonable list of alternatives to which McKay responded with a heavy sigh and a dramatic flop onto the couch. Apparently “writing in your journal” and “sorting socks” do not measure up to carrying out secret missions for Princess Leia and blowing up storm troopers.

I’m torn. Part of me realizes that McKay has become addicted to this game and that’s a bad thing. But the other part of me (the lazy mother part) loves the fact that he comes home from school and rushes in to practice the piano without being asked. He has even started getting up early so he can do his chores before school. Sure the game is at the center of his universe, but it’s a cleaner, more musical, highly motivated universe that his mother doesn’t have to spin. I think I can live with that.

Gabie’s obsessions are legendary, prolific and often smell of tuna. This week he has branched out into a love of caterpillars. He found one and has it living in a mason jar surrounded by leaves, sticks, wet paper towel and a homemade cardstock porta-potty (“because even caterpillars have to poop”). Last night Gabie – all teary-eyed – held his jar up for me to inspect: “Mom, I’m worried that my caterpillar’s dead. When I talk to him he doesn’t even move.”

What I wanted to say: “Maybe being plucked from his homeland, handled incessantly by a 5 year-old giant, shoved into a crowded jar and then whacked back and forth against walls of glass all day long while being carried around and shown to every child (and various adults) in the neighborhood has sent him into shock, or at the very least a little caterpillar-coma.”
What I really said: “I’m sure he’s just sleeping dear. Or maybe just scared.” Gabie thought for a minute and asked, “How do you un-scare a caterpillar?” Happy to have a reason to tell him this I said: (Please for pity’s sake!) “You LEAVE IT ALONE!”

Later, Gabie was still concerned and he asked me, “Mom, can caterpillars extinck?”
“Do you mean can they stink?”
“No, can they extinck? Like how dinosaurs extincked. Do you think caterpillars will all extinck and die out?”
“OH! I get it. No, I think they’ll be just fine, even this one.”
Call Webster’s; my son has invented a useful new verb.

Nora is obsessed with the toilet. I suppose there are worse things for a baby than a slippery, germ-infested, finger-pinching, occasionally-unmentionable-things-un-flushed-by-big-brothers-
containing drowning hazard, but I can’t think of any right now. We do our best to keep the bathroom doors closed, but she is always on the prowl and can spot an open door like a lioness can spot an injured gazelle left alone in the middle of the savanna. She sees her chance, she pauses mid-crawl, she cocks her head to verify the target, she (and this is the part that kills me) glances over her shoulder to see if she’s being watched because she knows she’s about to get in trouble, she smiles a guilty little smile, and then with lightning speed, she crawls for the bathroom as if her life depended on reaching it before being scooped up by her party-pooper parents. Or should I say anti-pooper-scooper party-pooper parents. I’m looking forward to seeing her get past this particular phase. Maybe we could train her to play McKay’s game so she’d stay out of trouble and do her chores.

Like a good virus, memes are meant to be shared. Also like a good virus, you usually infect your family first, so I tag klutzmom, tangent woman, and stay.

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

That's ma boy

I'll answer your questions from yesterday's post since I really don't have time for much else today (Sadly, I'm busy doing boring professor stuff, not entertaining mommy stuff like digging whale aquariums).

Ethan is 11. Yes, he is in a gifted program and we homeschooled him before that. But honestly, he pretty much came that way. His mind is a complete mystery to me: able to leap tall abstract thoughts in a single bound; unable to remember where he put his jacket, important school papers, or the book he was just reading 30 seconds ago. (Poor boy got the scatterbrained gene from his mother's side).

Ethan is a blessing in our home in many ways, one of which is to give me something to brag about (look at these test scores! listen to what he can play on the piano! read this amazing blog post he wrote!) and another one of which is to keep me humble because I worry that I'm failing him as a mother and clueless about what to do with all his creativity. He's my oldest child and I've always felt like he was one step ahead of me, as evidenced by this photo from 10 years ago.

Yes that's my Child Development texbook. This is my favorite picture of Ethan as a little boy, although his Hoover Dam costume runs a close second.

Anyway, thanks for making comments on Ethan's blog, which until yesterday was set to private status. I promised him if he finished writing the bird post I would let him try out the public blog scene for at least a while. I am very protective of him but willing to test the blog waters a bit for the sake of giving him a creative outlet. I also didn't want to see that particular post end up in the "save as draft" graveyard where many of his other lovely but unfinished efforts rest collecting cyber dust. He was thrilled to see your comments, especially since he reads my blog faithfully and your names have earned celebrity status with him. "Wow Mom, Radioactive Jam even read my blog. He's totally famous. He won a Blog God award and between two and four billion people visit his blog every day." Such admiration and faith in fine print is hard to come by. I wish I could keep him 11 years old forever.

Monday, April 09, 2007

Two views of the pond

In the summer of 1869, two unknown artists set up their easels next to each other beside a bistro in Paris called "La Grenouillere." The name means “frog pond” although strangely enough, the body of water next to the restaurant contained no frogs. I’ve heard that “frog” (or its French equivalent) was slang for girls of flirtable quality, although if I were a girl of flirtable quality, I’m not sure I’d be flattered by the reference to warty amphibians, but I digress. The two artists faced the pond and began to paint, each in his own style, each with a slightly different perspective. The resulting paintings now hang in New York’s Metropolitan Museum and Stockholm’s National Museum. The artists were Claude Monet and Auguste Renoir.

Monet's Frog Pond

Renoir's Frog Pond

It’s a shame that the paintings are now on two separate continents because, while they are each beautiful in their own right, the comparison of the two is the best part of the story. They look very different. Of course they look different. Even with the same basic materials and the same subject, Monet and Renoir proved that experience is subjective. We don’t always see things the same way and we certainly don’t always frame things the same way (and by frame I mean think about them or paint pictures of them or write blog posts about them).

Case in point: I wrote a few days ago about the neighborhood burial of a dead robin. My son Ethan wrote on his blog about the same incident. After much prompting (okay, nagging… intense nagging) he finished that post today. I’m not sure we even experienced the same event. Mine clearly comes from the voice of a mother (and one who loves to process things). Ethan’s, well, you need to read for yourself. It blew me away. Now you’ll be able to see who has the REAL talent in the family.

Sunday, April 08, 2007

Death be not proud

by John Donne

Death be not proud, though some have called thee
Mighty and dreadfull, for, thou art not so,
For, those, whom thou think'st, thou dost overthrow,
Die not, poore death, nor yet canst thou kill me.
From rest and sleepe, which but thy pictures bee,
Much pleasure, then from thee, much more must flow,
And soonest our best men with thee doe goe,
Rest of their bones, and soules deliverie.
Thou art slave to Fate, Chance, kings, and desperate men,
And dost with poyson, warre, and sicknesse dwell,
And poppie, or charmes can make us sleepe as well,
And better then thy stroake; why swell'st thou then;
One short sleepe past, wee wake eternally,
And death shall be no more; death, thou shalt die.

"He is not here: for he is risen."

Happy Easter!

Saturday, April 07, 2007

Toot Toot

Okay friends, it's time for a shameless bit of self-promotion. I've been nominated for another blog award and this time it's a BIG DEAL. (Yeah, I know I said that last time, but now I really mean it). It's the Best of Blogs award and I'm already a finalist, which means I made it through the jury process. Wahoo. Two cool things about the Best of Blog Awards: 1) The finalists were not chosen by voting so there's at least a bit of merit involved (rather than the usual popularity contest), and 2) Only small blogs with fewer than 100 unique hits a day are eligible. Sometimes it's okay to be a little fish in the big pond.

The only bad news is that nobody told me I was a finalist and the voting has already started. In a system where you can vote every day, this means I'm already behind. So if you feel so inclined, you can help me at least make a decent showing.

You can go here to vote. Voting is open until April 13 and you can vote once a day as many times as you'd like until then. My blog is listed under the category of Best Parenting Blog (not that there will be much confusion considering the other categories. Ahem).

Thanks in advance for any time you spend pushing little voter buttons. If I knew where each of you lived, I'd come grovel in person and scrub your floors in return or something. Or at least I'd bring you Twinkies.

Friday, April 06, 2007

Socks and sand

I killed my dryer. Or at least I thought I killed it. But my handy husband spent over an hour last night performing emergency dryer surgery and he thinks perhaps it’s not completely dead after all. What a relief. I’m not sure I could bear the responsibility of cold-blooded appliance murder. It wasn’t a premeditated act so maybe I could plead guilty to dryer-slaughter and get off easy. “But your honor I was just transferring a load of clothes and emptying the lint filter when I sensed that the baby was crawling up the stairs (up: not a problem; down: another story) and once I had rescued her, the phone rang and then, after about 15 other interruptions, I returned to the laundry and turned on the dryer and it wasn’t until much later in the day, when I went to unload the clothes, that I realized I had failed to put the lint filter back into the slot. I promise I would never deliberately make my dryer eat socks. Especially since the sock that made it the furthest down the shaft and ended up tangled in the motor was one of my favorites: a thin white anklet with little flowers embroidered around the top.”

Ken dangled the sock in front of me last night – behold exhibit A! – so severely stretched that it would now reach well above my kneecap. I’m thinking that the mangled sock is a fitting symbol for my brain. Once lovely and useful, now full of holes and stretched a bit too thin.

After he had extracted the sock but still had the dryer open, Ken called me down to take a look inside. I knew exactly what I’d see, and there it was: a layer of sand at least an inch thick. I knew it would be there because we own a sandbox and my children practically live in there during the summer months. We do our best to make them dust off their clothes and dump out their pockets before coming into the house (short of stripping them naked and hosing them down I’m not sure what more we could do), but still I have seen the sandy residue that lines the tub after their baths, I have heard how the vacuum (back when we had a vacuum) crackles and pops its way across the carpet, and I have felt the grainy texture of the lint when I pull it from the dryer’s lint filter. (Back when I used to empty the lint filter and then put it safely back in the slot where it belonged.)

Ken and I have a hate / love relationship with the sandbox. He hates it / I love it. I realize it has some drawbacks, but in my opinion, the benefits far outweigh them. The kids need a place where they can be creative and get dirty. Well, at least the kind of “dirty” that a control-freak mom who loves the idea of a contained pile of somewhat clean, dry silica within a fenced yard right outside her kitchen window will allow. One of the first things we did when we bought our old house (after installing an outlet in the bedroom so we had a place to plug in our alarm clock without stringing an extension cord all the way to the bathroom. Hello? Why had no one in the home’s 50 plus years of habitation gotten around to THAT?) was build a sandbox in the backyard. Ditto (except the part about the outlet) for our current home.

Mary Cassatt, Children Playing in the Sand

I’m not really sure I understand the bottomless appeal of the sandbox. Why do my kids love it so much? With what abrasive magic does it hold my boys’ attention for hours at a time? How does it manage to draw a small crowd of neighborhood children, even the older ones who spend the rest of their precious free time in front of television and computer screens in dark, air-conditioned rooms?

I ask Ethan: “What do you do in the sandbox?”
He says, “Build things. Towns, cities, dams, roads.”
“Does it matter that they all fall apart?” I ask.
“No,” he says. “Sometimes demolishing things is the best part.”

I want to project metaphors onto them, my children in the sand, playing with entropy. At the very least, I want to quote soap opera slogans at them: “Like sands through the hourglass, so are the days of our lives.” (Not that I ever watched this soap opera, rushing home every day from High School to get my daily fix or obsessing along with my girlfriends about the status of Hope and Bo’s ever-imperiled relationship and taking bets on whether Steve had a healthy eye under that awful patch).

I want to tell my kids that sand, formed from the weathering and decomposition of rocks, symbolizes the transient nature of time. That, as the foolish man learned the hard way, we don’t build houses on the sand because it is shifty and unstable. I want to tell them – gesturing dramatically to the garden next to their sandbox – how sand is essential to life; without it to keep the soil porous, our plants would die of thirst. I want to interpret their childish play – the building and the destruction – as a microcosm of other more universal patterns: the growth and decay of nature, the rise and fall of empires, the flourishing and death of all mortal things. I want to see the world in their grains of sand.

But I won’t. Because maybe it’s just sand. And maybe they’re just kids. And, at least for the moment, as shifty and transient as that moment seems to be, they are just playing.

“Mom, is it okay if we use the hose to flood our city? We want to see if the levies will withstand the latest tsunami.”

“Sure. But be sure to dust all the sand off your clothes when you’re finished. It’s bad for the dryer.”

Thursday, April 05, 2007

How I got my new job

Gabie was eating lunch across the table from me. Well, more accurately, he was sitting at the table but jabbering so much there was little likelihood of any food actually making it into his mouth. I confess I wasn’t listening too carefully because I was grading papers, eating lunch, and checking my email all at once. I heard a few words here and there: “wildlife….endangered…lots of water.”

“Uh-huh,” I mumbled, nodding my head at random intervals to let him know I was paying attention, which I really wasn’t.

I should have been.

Gabie hopped down from his full bowl of Ramen Noodles and headed out the back door.

“Hey, where are you going?” I asked.

“I’ve got to get started on the ponds.”

“What ponds?”

“You know the ponds we’re going to have in the Gabie Aquarium. We’ll have to make them really deep so the whales will fit.”


“The blue whales that we’re going to rescue.”

“Uh, I’m not so sure about that.”

“Oh, that’s okay ‘cause I’m sure. We need to make room for the whales and the dolphins. And probably a few penguins too. It will have a cold part and a warm part over on the other side. And there will be a layer of plastic to separate them. The warm side will be where the blue whales are. But they’re HUGE, so we’d better get lots of water. And we need some salt too because they only like salt water. I think we’ll need another pond just for all the fish to feed them. We’ll dig that one on the side of the house where there’s more room. Whales are endangered you know. But they’re really nice and they make great pets. I think I’ll need a hammer and shovel and piece of wood and signs that say “opens at 6 and closes at 9.” All the workers will be kids. But we’ll have to close it when I’m in pre-school because I’m the boss and if I’m not there the workers won’t know what to do. You can be a worker too Mom. I’ll let you catch the fish. I’ll make you a nametag that you can wear with your name on it and it will have a picture of a dolphin on it and some waves right next to the part that says The Gabie Aquarium. On Wednesdays, you can even wear a scuba suit and you can ride on the whales and dolphins. So, would you like to get to work?”

“Let me just get this straight. I get to be the head fish-catcher?”


“And I get to ride the dolphins?”

“Yeah. But only on Wednesdays.”

“Will you promise never to make me grade any more papers?”


“Alrighty then. Sign me up.”

Monday, April 02, 2007

a new blossom on the family tree

Early this morning, my sister-in-law Echo gave birth to a healthy baby boy. Smart little tyke, he waited just long enough to avoid being born on April 1st – narrowly escaping a lifetime of predictable jabs about him being an April fool. Now if we can just convince his parents not to name him Lurgash he may turn out okay.

It seemed fitting to celebrate the birth of my nephew with a painting Van Gogh made in honor of his own nephew’s birth – a scene of almond branches and emerging blossoms to signify new life. With its clusters of white set against a stunning blue background, the painting has often been interpreted as a classic symbol of hope and beauty and has become for many a Van Gogh hallmark (and thanks to Hallmark, has also been immortalized on post-cards, note cards, book bags, neckties, etc. etc. etc.)

It makes me sad to think that Vincent didn’t paint the rest of the tree because, in fact, his nephew’s birth coincided with a relapse of his own mental illness. Confined to his room at the asylum in Saint Rémy, Vincent arranged the branches on a table and painted the background from his own imagination.

Sorry, Echo, maybe this wasn’t the most appropriate painting to have chosen, (although you too are confined to a hospital room, but for much happier reasons).

But on the other hand, I do think there’s something to the “pure determination and optimism in the face of adversity” moral of Vincent’s life that always inspires me. When Theo Van Gogh wrote to his brother Vincent after his son’s birth, he told him “We shall give him your name, and my wish is that he will have the same perseverance and be just as courageous as you.” Courage, perseverance, the ability to create beautiful things: these are all gifts I too wish upon my new nephew.

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Other Blog Matters...

I have nominated Heth at From the Laundry Pile for a Perfect Post Award. I chose this post from March as my favorite. Although, to be honest, I had a hard time picking just one post because she is always witty and genuine. If I had been more on the ball last month, I would have nominated this post about why she has a million kids because we all need to hear more from people who believe children are a blessing in their lives.

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Did I mention that we have been without a vacuum for over a month? There’s a long story to tell (and a lawsuit with Hoover pending) and I don’t feel like getting into it right now, but suffice it to say the whole thing sucks and doesn’t suck at the same time.

This is why I succumbed to my own delusions of eventual good fortune and entered the contest for a free Dyson vacuum over at 5 minutes for Mom. If only it were a contest based on one’s ability to whine about one’s pathetic woes with the pitch and volume level of a vacuum in its death throes, I’d be a shoe-in. As it stands, I just have to wish for good luck. Darn.