Monday, December 22, 2008

Making Christmas...slightly morbid

Since Nora can’t read yet, I think it’s safe to write about one of her Christmas presents. We bought her a Jack Skellington plush. She loves The Nightmare Before Christmas. It’s her favorite movie (and by favorite, I mean she’s so obsessed with it that she wakes up in the morning asking to watch it, and she carries the video case around the house with her and gives us a panicky “Where’s Jack?” when she’s misplaced it somewhere, and at night she throws a fit because we’ve only let her watch the movie twice instead of the 17 times she’s begged for it). Yes, it’s an odd choice for a two-year-old’s favorite movie, but we’re all a bit macabre around here.

Nora wants me to sing “Jack songs” to her at bedtime. This has proved difficult since the lyrics are extremely tricky and even now that I have finally looked them up, I’m not sure they make the most soothing lullabies:
I am the one hiding under your bed
Teeth ground sharp and eyes glowing red
I am the one hiding under your stairs
Fingers like snakes and spiders in my hair
But Nora loves Jack. And frankly I think it’s a great movie. We try to watch it every year between Halloween and Christmas. But only once.

My sister told me this week that her daughter Juniper also loves The Nightmare before Christmas, so now I’m wondering what it is about the movie that appeals to children. You’d think it would scare the bejeebers out of them. I’d like to suggest that we all have an innate taste for the macabre, for the images of death and gore. Cases in point: the inevitable rubbernecking at freeway wrecks, the popularity of horror movies, the fact that every time I turn on a news channel lately, I’m met with photographs of Caylee Anthony’s skeletal remains. But honestly, I suspect Nora has no clue what the movie’s really about. She certainly doesn’t have a clue about death. I think she just likes the music. And Jack.

Detail from Brueghel, Triumph of Death
I’ve decided that The Nightmare Before Christmas is the modern equivalent of Pieter Brueghel’s Triumph of Death. You’ve got the dancing skeletons. The corpses. The morbid themes treated with a twisted sense of humor. It’s all there. I remember being fascinated by this painting in the Prado when I was a little girl. I also loved Bosch’s gruesome hell scene in his Garden of Earthly Delights. They were just plain cool. Of course, I had very little appreciation for the concept of death at the time. Now that I have children, I fear death in giant, parental proportions. But I also have such a respect for the reality of death that the painting amuses me more than scares me. I know that death is not likely to show up at my kitchen table with a lute in one hand, an hour glass in the other and an army of friends behind him. I also suspect that death doesn’t have a pinstriped tux, a bat-shaped bowtie and the voice of Danny Elfman.

So as Jack would say, “what the heck!” I can let Nora enjoy the movie despite its darkness because she sees only the light. I still think it’s better than the other syrupy, sparkly drivel out there marketed at preschool girls. And when requested, I will attempt to sing “Making Christmas” to my daughter without worrying about the fact that the melody comes from the Dies Irae, the medieval chant for the dead.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

my favorite email ever

deer mom I luve you thaeck you for getting this meshij luve gabriel.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Did you miss me?

Hi. It’s Gabie here. I know you haven’t heard from me in a while, but that’s just because my mom’s a total slacker. She says she’s been too busy to write and she doesn’t know how November slipped away from her. But I say she just needs to refocus on her top priorities. Like my blog.

Here’s what I’ve been up to. While my mom was busy grading papers, I came up with an Ingenious Solution to keep people from bugging her. I set up my Ingenious Solution on her door. I’m not allowed to tape anything to the door because it might ruin the paint, so I used sticky notes and then taped my mechanism to the sticky notes. This was very tricky and it took over a whole hour to make and I had to ask Mom for more tape and then some yarn and then some scissors to cut the yarn. Then the weight of the whole Ingenious Solution made it fall a few times and I got really frustrated and cried a bit and then Mom said she would help me because she wasn’t getting much grading done at that point anyway. But at least when it was all finished, it was an Ingenious Solution to the grading problem. The best part is that the message “Do not Dastrb Mom” can be blocked by another paper attached with a string that can be wound up on its spool when Mom finishes grading. This still hasn’t happened yet. I think she’s always grading.

My big problem lately is my little sister Nora. I hate sharing a room with her. Nora’s a total brat. She gets into everything. I leave “Do not Dastrb” signs all over the place but she ignores them. She climbs on my top bunk and messes up the way I arrange all my pandas and penguins to be facing each other so they can have a long talk while I’m at school. Nora wrecked my CD player. She lost my teeth that the dentist had to pull and I was saving. She scribbled on the wall. She scribbled on my dirty clothes hamper. She squeezed toothpaste all over and messed up the way I put all the toothbrushes in a criss-cross pattern when I cleaned the bathroom. She changes her clothes like 20 times a day and leaves her dresses all over the floor. I’m not allowed to say I hate my sister, but sometimes I say it anyway.


This week I put up a barrier so Nora can’t get up in my bed. It only took one roll of masking tape and half the Sunday newspaper. So far it’s working. Mom’s wants to know if she’ll be able to access the closet again anytime soon, but I say that’s the cost of a little privacy.

And finally, I have started leaving notes for myself every night on the white board above my pillow. This is so I won’t forget important things while I’m sleeping. Here’s the note I left yesterday. Mom laughed all morning when she saw it, which is a bit strange since she’s the one who wants us to eat better.

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

Halloween 2008

This year for Halloween, we had a slightly melancholy panda (clearly contemplating the recent spike in bamboo prices).


A train. (And I take very little credit for the fabulous costume. This was all Aunt Kathy's creative genius.)


A little German miss, wearing the dirndl I wore when I was her age.


And a teenager (not pictured) who has decided he's too old for the dress up scene and would rather play computer games at a friend's house than make the rounds with his family. Sigh.

I think of all the kids, Nora probably had the most fun. The Halloween concept combines two of her most favorite things in the world: dressing up


and candy.

What's not to love about that?

Thursday, October 09, 2008

Truth Patrol gone amuck

My son McKay is the sweetest, most soft-hearted kid I know. But for some reason, McKay suspends all compassion when it comes to his little brother Gabie. There are deep issues here — no doubt some sibling rivalry, some resentment for the adorable child who demands the attention of every adult in the room, some middle-child syndrome at work. Who knows? But whatever the cause, McKay and Gabie frequently argue and bicker about the stupidest things. Case in point: yesterday’s whole “you can’t be a fire chief” debate.

In the afternoon, Ken took Gabie and Nora to a safety fair where they both got fire chief sticker-badges and red fireman hats. Gabie was thrilled and even considered momentarily trading in his dream of being a doctor for the equally plausible dream of fighting fires for a living. At the table, Gabie put on his hat and told McKay he was a fire chief. McKay immediately launched into what I call his Truth Patrol mode. He just can’t stand to let even the tiniest bit of non-factual information flow from his little brother’s mouth. “That’s so stupid.” McKay said. “You can’t be a fire chief. There’s no such thing as a 6-year old fire chief. You have to go through real training and get certified...” etc. etc. etc. This went on for a while until I told McKay to knock it off and please let Gabie imagine he was a fire chief. “Gabie’s ideas are not hurting you in any way,” I told him. “Just leave him alone.”

I don’t really understand McKay’s Truth Patrol impulse. Or at least I didn’t understand it until recently. Now I think I see where he gets it. And it just might be from his mother.

A few days ago I went to see an art exhibit at the University of Utah. Or maybe I should just say that a few days ago I died and went to heaven. Anyway, I’m wandering around with my jaw hanging down and my mind whirling and my pencil madly scratching across my notebook pages and then I find myself in front of Rodin’s famous statue of “The Thinker.” Now I’m enough of a Rodin scholar to know that there are dozens of versions of this statue in various museums around the world but it was still exciting to see this casting and take a look at the details and the beautiful bronze patina of this particular copy from the Cleveland Museum of Art. And while I’m studying it and feeling the art-lover’s high that comes from being in the presence of a masterpiece, these two women step up behind me and start to talk about the sculpture. The dark-haired one begins to rant about how lucky they are to be seeing The Thinker. “I can’t believe it’s the Real Thing,” she says. “I wonder how they managed to get it here. This is so amazing.”

And what do I do? Well, I’m ashamed to admit that at this point, some other Julie — an ugly, know-it-all, pretentious, professorial, snob of a Julie — sprouts out of the top of my head and sticks her nose up in the air and speaks to this total stranger. “It’s not the original,” the ugly Julie says in an 'aren't I helpful to disabuse you of your erroneous assumptions' tone. “There are lots of copies of this all over the world.” And the woman (rightly so!) gives me the most piercing scowl I have ever received from any creature other than my 2-year old daughter. Truly withering. And then Truth Patrol Julie withdraws back into my head and I slink my way into the Picasso room. (And may I add that slinking is hard to do with one foot on the floor and the other firmly wedged in one’s mouth.)

So if I had perhaps really looked at "The Thinker" and been inspired to do a little thinking of my own, I would have just shut up and let the woman imagine whatever she wanted to imagine. It was not hurting me in the least to let her bask in the glow of what she saw as the Real Thing. It was certainly not my place to burst her bubble. The other thing I should have considered is that Rodin’s thinker is actually an illustration of Dante looking out over the gates of hell and the sufferers therein, many of whom are guilty of the deadly sin of — hello? — Pride. And how does Dante define pride but the “love of self perverted to hatred and contempt for one’s neighbor.” A little less love of self and a little less contempt for the errors of others would serve me well, I think.

Tuesday, October 07, 2008

Julie Q. in print

Here's a nifty development. My essay in Segullah is finally available online if you'd like to read it.

Monday, September 22, 2008

You know you’re addicted to canning when...

It starts innocently enough. You cook up a batch of apricot jam and are pleasantly surprised to find the process easier than you had imagined. And deeply satisfying. But what you don’t suspect is that apricot jam is not as sweet as it seems. It is, in fact, the gateway drug of food preservation. Soon you find yourself buying Mason jars and then other, more serious, paraphernalia: jar lifters, tongs, funnels, giant steamer pots and stacks of lids with rubber seals. You bottle some cherries. You do a few jars of tomatoes. Your grocery budget spikes from spending obscene amounts of cash on white powdery substances like pectin and sugar and Fruit Fresh. You put up some peaches and pears. One day you try a cocktail of peaches and pears diced together. Then, when simple fruits just aren’t giving you the same high, you move on to heavier stuff: tomato sauce and salsa and pickles. Still you deny you have a problem. “I can stop anytime,” you say. “Just let me finish this batch of plum-raspberry-pear jelly and I promise I’ll lay off.”

Let’s face it. You’re hooked.

As a public service to those who may be suffering from a compulsive food preservation, or to those genetically susceptible to a canning addiction, I’m offering my own story as a cautionary tale. Don’t let this happen to you. Be proactive. Get professional help if necessary. Be on the lookout for the following signs of a serious canning addiction...
  • Since mid-July you’ve had boxes of empty Mason jars and bushels of fruit all over your back porch.
  • You are still buying more boxes of empty Mason jars and bushels of fruit.
  • You wake up in the morning thinking about blanching peaches.
  • You believe the words blanching, de-seeding, and rolling boil have a musical quality to them.
  • You have a tell-tale track of tiny scars running up your arms from stirring spitting-hot jam.
  • One Saturday you spend the entire afternoon making spaghetti sauce—a process that begins with a truckload of tomatoes and 15 other ingredients like “one cup of dried basil” and after several hours of slicing and mixing and simmering and submersing in a boiling-water bath leaves you with a grand total of three jars—and you feel this was a half-day well spent.
  • You begin envying your neighbor’s pressure canner and consider breaking into her kitchen just to “try it out.”
  • You think of every batch of dishes as another chance to heat up some jars.
  • You hang out with friends who say things like, “there’s no sound in the world more satisfying than the pop of a hot jar of jam sucking in its lid”
  • And you totally agree.
  • In your parents’ new beautiful 4,000 square food home, the thing you covet most is the cold storage room under their porch.
  • You know that all Mason jars are not alike and you find yourself caressing the ones from the 1970s with stars on the front.
  • Your new most prized possessions—after the kids of course—are the antique Mason jars (the ones that once belonged to your grandma) that you appropriated in a late-night raid of your mother’s basement.
  • You deny the obvious reality that, given the proper case-lot sale, you could buy all of this food for less money than it’s costing you to bottle it yourself. Instead, you insist that it’s good for the environment, better tasting, and makes you really really happy. And you mean it. Because you sense—as you lift those jars out of their water bath, set them in a row on your kitchen counter, check the seals, and admire the fruits of your labor—that you are participating in some kind of age-old ritual. That you are your grandmother’s granddaughter. That you are preserving more than food.

Friday, September 19, 2008

hot letters

I heard in an interview with Doris Kearns Goodwin that Abraham Lincoln used to write what he called "hot letters" when he was particularly upset at someone. He would write a letter to the person, get his feelings out (very eloquently no doubt) and then put the letter in a drawer for a few days. By then he'd usually have time to cool down and think better of the situation. Many of these letters have survived with Lincoln's later notation on them: "Never sent. Never signed."

I'm adopting this idea. I already wrote one hot email this week, and although I'll admit I had intended to send it and only got distracted before I could polish it up and push the send button, it worked out for the best in the end that it's still sitting in my draft folder and I'll likely delete it soon. I wrote the email to the owner of a new store in town. Their name boasts they are a "farmer's market" but when their advertisement came in the mail and I looked through the pages, I could find not one single item from local growers. Instead, they import all their produce from Washington or Oregon or California, even the peaches and pears which are in season and falling off the trees in the orchards all around here. From my lofty perch up on the high horse I shall name Barbara, I found this to be offensive and misleading (not that I have anything against those states, mind you, but why use up all the fossil fuels to drive something hundreds of miles when we grow it in Utah?). In any case, you shouldn't call yourself a farmer's market if you don't support the local farmers. So I wrote a lengthy epistle to that effect. But I didn't have time to finish it.

Then I went for a walk with my friend Stacy who is actually thrilled to see this new store coming to town because she loves organic food and herbs and she thinks we need more of these kinds of markets around here and she convinced me that I really ought to actually step foot in the place before I condemn it for high crimes against humanity and the environment. Huh. Not a bad idea.

So I'm glad I had a chance to cool down and see another side of the issue. I plan to pay a visit to the farmer's market that is not a farmer's market. Maybe I'll like the place. Maybe I'll decide it's worth driving past six other grocery stores and two other health food stores to get to. Or maybe I'll eventually revise my letter and send it. But in the meantime, I'm feeling more reasonable and a little less incensed. I'm feeling more Abraham Lincoln and a little less John Wilkes Booth.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Mamma Carter

I listened to an interview yesterday between Diane Rehm and former president Jimmy Carter (originally aired in April...yes, sometimes it takes months for me to listen through my pile of podcasts). The conversation fascinated me and brought up some interesting questions....

1) How exactly did Jimmy Carter get such a bad reputation when he was in office? I remember when I was little, I bought into the negative image of Carter as a dumb peanut farmer. Now that I have seen his work in the last 20 years in international affairs and on behalf of the poorest people of our own country, I think he’s a tremendously compassionate, intelligent man. In the interview, he was articulate and funny. And frankly, everything he had to say about today’s economy and the war in Iraq and bringing peace to the Middle East made sense to me. I’d vote for him. I'm curious to see how history will remember this man.

2) President Carter talked to Diane Rehm about his recent memoir entitled, A Remarkable Mother. He described his “mamma” as a full-time nurse who in addition to her job, spent many hours a day volunteering in the local community. She worked 20-hour shifts. She was rarely home. On a black desk near the front door, Jimmy’s mamma would leave loving notes for him and his siblings, telling them what to do each day (feed the chickens, fill up the wood box, etc.). Years later, Jimmy and his sister teased their mother that they thought the black desk was their mamma. This is the woman (the real woman, not the black desk) that Carter now calls a remarkable mother, whom he describes as one of the “most extraordinary people I have ever known,” whom he credits as the inspiration for all of his life’s work.

So here’s my question. Am I seriously over-thinking this parenting job or what?

Tuesday, September 09, 2008

dissonance

A nice man with silver hair is tuning my piano. He arrived 3 hours ago and is still at it, whacking at each key over and over and making hair-width pitch adjustments and then moving on to the next note on a keyboard that seems to go on forever. The piercing, repetitive tinkering ricochets through the whole house, around every corner, through any doors I close to block it out. The noise has accompanied all my morning cleaning and eating and laundry folding, like a grating, atonal soundtrack to a really frightening movie about a housewife and her 2-year old daughter who I suspect are just about to be murdered by some kind of Hitchcockian psycho. I refuse to take a shower.

Detail from Jan van Eyck, Ghent Altarpiece
So I’m thinking about dissonance, which is why we called the piano tuner to begin with. (Ethan informed me last week: “I refuse to practice the piano anymore unless we get it tuned because it’s driving me crazy.” Like he needs another excuse not to practice.) Also I’ve been thinking about cognitive dissonance—that mental state which occurs when a new idea hammers itself against an older set of beliefs and creates acute discomfort. It’s difficult to hold two conflicting ideas in your mind simultaneously. This isn’t to say that we don’t do it all the time. For example, I truly believe sugar is bad for me. But I also believe Dreyer’s Spumoni is a gift from the gods. Somehow I manage to keep both thoughts segregated in opposite corners of my brain, properly appeased and happily oblivious to the other’s existence.

Last week, I finally set aside my personal prejudice against all things Oprah (a lovely woman but oh so very trendy) and began reading Eckhart Tolle’s A New Earth. To my surprise, I’m loving the book and experiencing one “aha moment” after another. Yes! I do allow my mental noise to drown out my true self. Yes! I’m a pain-body junkie. I live in the past. I dwell on the future. I need to embrace the NOW. I’m unhappy because I allow my ego—and all its defensive mechanisms—to define who I think I am. This is all heady stuff and I already feel my soul awakening (though it pains me to use the word) to a new, happier way of looking at the world.

The only problem is that I’m an old lady and I’ve had nearly 40 years to develop my mental habits. This new material is producing some serious dissonance in my head. Plus I’m having to reconcile Tolle’s new-age-pop-psych-mystical definitions of God and spirituality with my own religious beliefs which rise from an organized religion that is just about as organized a religion as they come. Talk about your pitch adjustments.

The other soundtrack blaring through my house today is a literal soundtrack—the one from the musical Annie. Nora is a huge fan and wakes up in the morning asking, “Watch Annie?...Watch Annie?...Watch Annie?” (continued ad nauseum until Mom relents). I won’t let her watch the DVD more than once a day so I’ve made a CD of the music and it seems to be continuously playing in her bedroom. And when the CD isn’t playing, the songs are still running through my head. This isn’t such a bad thing; it’s a great musical and I used to listen to the Broadway soundtrack myself, somewhat obsessively, when I was a little girl—long before the movie version came out. But here’s the problem. I’m trying to train my mind to live in the NOW, to be alive in the moment (a la Tolle) and at the same time I have the following lyrics stage vibrato-ing their way through my head: (feel free to sing along...)

The sun'll come out
Tomorrow
Bet your bottom dollar
That tomorrow
There'll be sun

Just thinkin' about
Tomorrow
Clears away the cobwebs,
And the sorrow
'Til there's none

When I'm stuck with a day
That's gray,
And lonely,
I just stick out my chin
And grin,
And say,
Oh

The sun'll come out
Tomorrow
So ya gotta hang on
'Til tomorrow
Come what may

Tomorrow
Tomorrow
I love ya
Tomorrow

You're always
A day away

You know what? I actually believe this with all my heart. The gray days. The sunny tomorrow. The sticking out of chins. All of it. See the dissonance? Can I love ya tomorrow and still focus entirely on the present moment? Ow. It hurts.

Saturday, September 06, 2008

sign sign everywhere a sign

Now where was I? Oh yeah, I was saying that parents are very good at reading signs. (And if I wasn’t saying this, I really meant to say it but I didn’t because my laptop has been quite sick and only recently been released from the hospital where it underwent major surgery. Thanks for all the cards and good wishes.)

Anyway, I believe one of the things we develop as parents is superhuman sign-reading powers. No, I don’t mean road signs and I don’t mean signs about long-haired freaky people or even the dawning of the age of Aquarius signs but rather the more subtle signs that tell us the future or enlighten us as to reality. For example...

My daughter is throwing her body down into her pillow and popping back up for another dive and yelling to the Olympic judges (in Mandarin Chinese I can only assume) “watch this next one” over and over and over again. This is a sign that, contrary to my first impression as she was nodding off into her chicken dinos at lunch, the child is not in fact tired enough to take a nap.

The house is peaceful and quiet and suddenly I realize I can no longer hear Nora playing contentedly in the bathroom sink with her plastic cups. This is a sign that she has found the tube of Neosporin which makes no noise when its contents are squeezed out and smeared into a map of the Great Lakes and all their tributaries across the bathroom mirror.

My kids come home from school to the smell of snickerdoodle cookies baking in the oven. They think this is a sign that Mom is in a good mood. Their Dad knows better. When he gets home and sees the cookies he asks, “So, what’s wrong? Having a depressing day?”

The edge of the bathtub is completely covered with different sets of tiny little underpants and shorts—all of them wet. This is a sign that Nora’s potty training is going well. After all, every accident is an opportunity for learning. Right?

Nora has begun playing with books as if they were every toy in the toy box. She stacks them and builds bridges with them. She pushes them around in her shopping cart. She puts a pile of books in the baby cradle and covers them with blankets. She pulls every single one of them off the shelf (and have I told you we have hundreds of books?) and speed-reads each for about 20 seconds and then chucks it over her shoulder and grabs the next one. This is a sign that she will always love books and will someday become an editor.

I sit down to write a blog post and find myself thinking only of all the crazy things Nora has been doing all week. This is a sign that school has started and the boys (including Gabie, my usual go-to guy for blog material) desert me for most of the day. This makes me sad and a little lonely sometimes, but when I so much as indulge in a passing thought of homeschooling my kids, I get a feeling of utter panic in the pit of my stomach. This is a sign that we are doing the right thing for us right now.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

time for a REAL vacation

A few weeks ago, I heard a story on this radio program about an (unfortunately bogus) new concept in luxury vacations. You go to this spa for two weeks where they put you into a medically induced coma. While you're asleep, they give you a full makeover and feed you intravenously just barely enough nutrients to keep you alive. So when you wake up, you're 10 pounds thinner and looking great. Fantastic idea, right?

Well, since I've been struck by a nasty cold this week and am suffering greatly, I'm beginning to think a similar luxury vacation for the sick might catch on. If you come down with a cold, you simply go away for a week of pampered quarantine. At the spa, they'll keep you away from your family (so you don't get your kids sick, which is one of the things I hate most about being sick). Doctors will put you into a coma and keep you under until the virus has run its course. And they may as well throw in the intravenous diet part too because it's just too tempting.

Really, it's a much better alternative than my current approach which is to whine and moan for a few more days and wash my hands so many times the skin is starting to flake off the bones. Plus I think I could pay for the spa with all the money I would save from Kleenex alone.

Saturday, August 09, 2008

in praise of band-aids

It’s band-aid season at my house. I find them everywhere. In the washer after the spin cycle. Stuck to the carpet along the edges of my hall. Inside Nora’s socks. In my bed. Clinging for dear life to the drain in the bathtub. Curled up like a baby pigs’ ears on the floor of my van. Nora is obsessed with band-aids, or baa-baas as she calls them. We’ve gone through hundreds of them this summer. I’ve taken to putting the box up on top of the fridge to make it last longer. But then I get it down to take care of a real owie and forget to return it to safety and then I’ll discover an hour later that Nora has used up half the box in a concerted effort to baa-baa every exposed inch of flesh on her body and she has run into enough trouble with unwrapping and unsticking the rest that there are now two intact bandages left in the box, holding onto each other and quivering like the final contestants in a really cruel beauty pageant.

One day, with the band-aids safely out of reach, Nora made do with what she could find. She emerged from the bathroom with a broad grin and a strange shininess to her countenance. She had squozen (it’s a word if I say so!) the entire tube of Neosporin out on her lap and spread it thickly over her arms, legs and feet, like some kind of high-gloss, anti-bacterial spa treatment.

Nora’s just really into the concept of owies lately. When she gets a bona fide injury—and any scrape, mosquito bite, scuff, or broken toenail will do—she isn’t satisfied until the world kicks itself up to DEFCON 5 and slathers her with the urgent attention and ointment and flexible fabric bandages she so desperately requires. What amuses me the most is that when I plunk her next to the bathroom sink to attend to her wounds, she turns herself towards the mirror so she can watch herself cry. She’s tragically beautiful when she cries. There’s something about having your pain and suffering reflected back at you that doubles the call for self-pity. Oh the injustice of it all! She’s thinking. I never did anything to the sidewalk. Why has it bitten me? I am an adorable creature. Everyone tells me I’m the cutest thing ever to grace the planet. There’s just no call for that kind of vindictiveness. Then she tells me she needs “two baa-baas....and more” because there’s clearly blood involved this time and big-toe wounds are notoriously prone to gangrene.

Maybe this obsession is a sign that my daughter will someday find herself in a medical profession, like her brother Gabie. Or maybe she’ll just be a professional hypochondriac. I’m just hopeful that when summer ends, we’ll see a decrease in the band-aid consumption. This is the season that has introduced Nora to the thrill of the great outdoors. She loves to ride her little bike and run around wild and free with the big boys. The world is her oyster. Or maybe it’s her spiny sea urchin, judging by the injury rate.

One of the great masterpieces to survive from the Hellenistic period of sculpture is an image of a boy with a thorn in his foot. He sits on a pile of rocks with one leg crossed over the other knee, studying the bottom of his foot and tweezing out the thorn. It’s rare in Greek art to see children depicted in sculpture. Greeks were more interested in the ideal: the perfect athlete, the goddess of beauty, grown men with washboard abs and chiseled confidence. But here’s a child with a problem. He’s oblivious to all else but this thorn in his foot. The lines of the sculpture—his shins, arms, even the angle of his nose—all point us to the center of his space and the center of his attention. There’s this crucial, all-important thing he has to take care of before he can go anywhere. Once you have a thorn in your heel, it’s going to drive you crazy until you get it out, simple as that. Kids are simply more honest about the process of pain and pain relief. Why suffer in silence when the natural thing is to get help or at least help yourself? Adults should be so smart. If band-aids make my daughter feel better, she should have them, lots of them, boxes and boxes of them as long as they continue to work their magic, as long as her wounds are this easy to heal.

Wednesday, August 06, 2008

Gabie-ism, Olympic edition

I'm explaining the Olympics to Gabie last night. I tell him about the different medals: the bronze, silver and gold. He interrupts me and says "There's no way it's solid gold. I'll bet it has a steel core....And who gets the aluminum medal? Cause aluminum would be a good thing to make one out of. It would be lighter. And you could take it camping."

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Organic cuticle treatment made with locally grown cherries

Step one in the Kingsolver plan and the reason why I discovered, while raising my hand in a university meeting yesterday, that my nails are still stained such a dark purple I may have to sit on them for the rest of the week...

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

here and there and on a train and with a cake

Update: I’ve checked the “My pictures” folder several times a day for the last three days and it’s still empty. I keep hoping maybe all the files will suddenly appear again as mysteriously as they vanished. But nope. I did back up my laptop about a year ago. I also have many of the family pictures on another computer so all is not lost. Most of the art images that I use in my classes are also embedded in Powerpoints (and thankfully those were not abducted by aliens or I wouldn’t be typing this right now because I’d be humming show tunes softly to myself in a padded cell). Anyway, life goes on and other such plucky platitudes. I’m shopping for an external hard drive so I can do more regular backups. And maybe a new laptop. Any suggestions?


In more cheerful news, McKay celebrated his 10th birthday this weekend. He’s our resident train aficionado and future engineer, so we spent the day on Saturday riding Trax up to Salt Lake and then the Front Runner commuter rail from Salt Lake to Ogden. Three full hours on trains. We also went to the train museum in Ogden and spent another hour with the trains in their side yard. The boys were all in ecstasy. Nora, after the 30 seconds it took for the novelty of riding in a train to wear off, was bored and stir crazy. Enough of this train scene, already! By the end of the day (and it was a long, long, long day) Ken and I were tired of trying to keep Nora from climbing on everything and running near the doors every time they opened at a new stop and pestering every other passenger on board as if they were her newest and dearest friends. Ken saw a t-shirt on another 2-year old that I just have to get for Nora. It said “My parents are exhausted.”


Yesterday, we had Ken’s family over for cake and ice cream. McKay wanted a train cake (of course) and since he loves to cook, I came up with a plan for a cake that he could help me with. Tahdaah!



McKay really did most of the work. He glued all the cars together with royal icing and attached the wheels and designed the tanker cars. I love how the red and white theme works with the strawberries, which were also McKay’s touch. When it came time to cut the cake, nobody had the heart to demolish the train, so we carefully removed all the cars and just ate the cake. I may have the train on top of my fridge for the next 10 years of his life.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

why my laptop is in a time out

There’s very little in life more frustrating than having a laptop—a laptop that you depend upon for all of your writing projects and teaching materials and correspondence and various family projects and blog files—develop a habit of losing power and shutting down at random intervals at least 4 or 5 times a day. You’ll be typing away, or dealing with an email when suddenly, your laptop starts beeping at you, whining that it has reached critically low battery level (even though it is plugged in and the battery stopped working years ago). This means you have about 15 seconds to save whatever you’re doing and close everything down and shut your laptop and pray for it to decide that it has reason enough to keep living at least one more day. You’ll decide you feel like you have a two-year-old child in your arms and she doesn’t want to go wherever it is you need to take her and so she’s gone limp, like a 30-pound eel, and it’s all you can do to keep her from oozing out of your grasp and running away from you, and maybe she’s clothed only in a diaper because she refuses to let you put a shirt over her head, and maybe that diaper is even saggingly wet because you’re dreading the battle it will be to change her, and maybe she’s trying to run outside again because she wants to live there—just take her pillow and hot-pink crocs and never step foot inside the house again—but you need to get something done in the kitchen and you don't have the time right now to follow her around the block on her new Little Mermaid bike so when she manages to arch her way out of your clutches onto the floor, you have to race for the door and lock the deadbolt before she gets to it so she can throw her fit on the inside rather than on the outside where she’ll make you chase her into the driveway and maybe into the road where you pray there will be no traffic if you’re too slow. Or something like that.

The only thing I can think of more frustrating than this is moving your cursor across the screen to pull up a picture for a blog post one evening and clicking on the folder that says “My pictures”—the folder that has hundreds of family photos and every single work of art you’ve ever scanned in for your classes—and having your laptop lie to you and say “Folder is empty” when you know there is no possible way on earth that the entire folder and all its sub-folders and sub-sub folders with their massive lists of jpg’s could have been wiped clean with no warning. This must be a lie. A cruel joke that your computer is playing on you to punish you for your loss of faith in its ability to compute or even turn on when you ask nicely. Yeah. This is probably worse.

Saturday, July 12, 2008

Spiral Jetty-ness

Last week we made a pilgrimage to the Spiral Jetty. I've been there before, but not for a few years and I wanted to see how it was doing. The jetty is the artist Robert Smithson's masterpiece. It's Utah's claim to fame in all the art books. It's the best-known example of a post-modern earthwork--a type of sculpture that defies museum culture and evokes the mounds and monuments of ancient civilizations. And really, it's just a darn cool piece of art, just about my favorite piece of art on the whole planet. It's a shame it takes 3 hours--the last of them on a road so bumpy you're swallowing your dental fillings by the end--to get there. But it's also a good thing it's in such a remote spot. How else could we experience a masterpiece and spend an hour looking at it, walking inside it, feeling its surface, smelling and tasting the salt of the air around it entirely by ourselves?

I'm writing an article about the trip that I hope to sell to a local journal. (Current rate of speed: one hour per paragraph. I hope this picks up.) In the meantime, I'll post some photos to give you a sense of how incredibly beautiful this place is. Ethan declared it an "ugly beauty" and I have to agree. It's a desolate, surreal, unsentimental kind of beauty.

Here's the Jetty from above, coiling out into the lake bed. As we were walking out of the spiral Ethan and I ran into a dude coming in (Ethan later nicknamed him Hippie Dave). Hippie Dave was shirtless, wore a braid of hemp around his neck, and had long straight black hair with the top tied up in a pony tail. He (seriously) bowed to us as we passed and then we struck up a conversation about the place and Smithson's philosophies. What a trip. If you look closely at this photo, at the very center of the spiral, you can see Hippie Dave as we left him, his arms raised up to heaven, communing with the forces of art and nature.



This is Ethan, walking the first coil of the spiral.



This is McKay, dancing in the shallow salt marsh around the jetty. Yes the water really is pink. Smithson described it as the color of pale blood and made references to primordial seas.



More water. I took about a million pictures. Be grateful I'm sparing you the whole slide show.



The basalt rocks on the jetty are covered in salt crystals. Smithson was obsessed with the idea of entropy, the dissolution of order in the natural universe. He died 4 years after completing the jetty. I think he would love to see the way his sculpture is gradually returning to the lake.



Me at the center of the spiral. I'm resisting the urge to crop the heck out of this photo (like maybe show it from the nose up). Trying to keep it real...



The only picture Ken would let me take of him. (You can play a little game of "Where's Waldo Ken" if you'd like).



Gabie eating a Ho Ho after we got back to the car. This is my contribution to the whole "pilgrimage to Spiral Jetty" culture. I take spiral snacks along: this time it was ho ho's and the makings for peanut butter wraps. Last time it was cinnamon rolls. Next time maybe I'll make a whole jelly roll cake.

Friday, July 11, 2008

Animal, vegetable, guilt trip

Does this ever happen to you? You read a book that makes you want to radically change your life? It happens to me all the time. Some fantastic author presents a convincing argument for a new way to raise kids, or persuades me that sugar is the worst thing I could put into my body, or tells me how I can become a thinner, happier, or more Zen me and I’m caught up in a wave of agreement. I can’t wait to get started on my new course. I’m going to change the world. Or at least my family. Or maybe just myself. But it’s going to be a change for the better. I’m sure of it.

Then the momentum wears off and reality sinks in and I usually fall back into old habits and not much changes. Except that I feel guilty on yet another level because I’m more aware of something else I should be doing differently.

I’m reading an amazing book right now: Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal, Vegetable, Miracle. There’s no doubt she’s a fantastic writer. But did you also know she and her family chose to live a year on a farm in the Appalachian mountains eating only food they could get from neighborhood farmers or grow themselves? I already lean towards the tree-hugger side of the environmental awareness scale, so I knew I’d love this book, but now I find myself wishing we could really do this—that we could give up our dependence on food that has crossed several state lines or maybe entire oceans to get to us (and used limited fuel resources and contributed to global warming on the way), that we could eat only food that is in season (not strawberries in January and synthetic tomatoes in March and imported bananas every single day of the year), that we could know where everything on our plate actually came from. Her arguments are very convincing because she’s right. I was converted by page 5. When she started talking about how food is a spiritually loaded commodity, that everything we eat (and how it gets to us) represents an ethical decision, she had me singing “Amen sister!”

The trouble is, I’m not sure I could really change my life so drastically (and the lives of my husband and children, let’s not forget them and their love of all things packaged processed and out of season). Am I prepared to deprive my family of bananas? Or artificially-large-breasted-but-darn-juicy chicken? Or canned everything? I have a hard enough time cooking meals when I can choose from every single item in the supermarket for ingredients. What makes me think I could be the home-canning queen? I looked into locally grown food this week and guess what? It’s more expensive than the stuff in the grocery store. We’re already feeling the pinch of higher food costs lately. How can we afford to spend more?

We have a healthy garden with 6 different kinds of peppers and tomatoes and squash and some zucchini plants that are already producing like there’s no tomorrow (anybody want some free zucchini? please? anyone?). But now Barbara has me thinking we should be planting heirloom seeds and starting a poultry farm. She has me feeling great pangs of guilt because my fridge and pantry cupboards are full of fossil fuel. She has simultaneously won me over and depressed the heck out of me. I’m not sure I’ll be able to finish the book. Do I really need to keep reading to find out how it ends? I assume they all survive the winter. She couldn’t have written the book if they starved to death, right?

I’m not sure what to do. Any suggestions? While I’m waiting for answers, I’m going to go numb my conscience with a really tasty—and unethical on many levels not the least of which is cinnamon that had to be flown several thousand miles to my house—batch of snickerdoodles.

Monday, July 07, 2008

life and death and mail-order caterpillars


A month ago, we sent away for caterpillars.
Three weeks ago, they arrived in the mail.
We watched them eat.
We watched them produce five times their weight in caterpillar dung.
We woke up one morning to five chrysalises.
We waited.
The butterflies emerged a few days later.
They dried their wings.
They fluttered around a bit in their net but did not fly.
They pressed their bodies together, mating in captivity.
Yesterday, we let them go.
They flew, awkwardly at first.
They stayed close, swooped around our flowers and circled back for several minutes.
Then they were gone and we took the empty net back inside.
Today, in two milk lids taped together, we buried the one who died midway to maturity.
My son is sad and I tell him that it's part of nature. We can't help it if sometimes nature is cruel, sometimes butterflies just don't make it. He seems to accept this explanation.
But I can't get over the image of the tiny interrupted thing, its sticky wings caught in the cracks of a chrysalis shell so thin it is already turning to dust.

Thursday, July 03, 2008

Hey Kool-Aid!

There are two boys on my front porch asking if Gabie can play. They live at the other end of our neighborhood and are Gabie’s same age, but they aren’t kids he usually plays with. It has been a very hot day and we’ve spent it mostly inside, and Gabie is clearly restless and delighted that Joseph and Jason have come over. “I’ll meet you on the other side of the garage,” he tells them, “I have to grab my shoes.” I can hear him jabbering to them from the garage about his new bike (“which isn’t really new, but it’s new to me since I just got it from my brother McKay who got a new one for his birthday, and mine's the blue one and look how big the tires are. . .”).

Shoes on, Gabie opens the door into the kitchen to tell me they’re all going to ride their bikes over to Jason’s house because Jason is going to give him a popsicle. “Be home in one hour,” I tell him, “and call me if you’re going anywhere else.”

Less than fifteen minutes later, Gabie is back. He has a wounded look on his face. “What’s wrong?” I ask him.
“They wanted me to pay for the popsicle. And I didn’t have a dollar and 25 cents so they told me I couldn’t play and had to go home.”

Naturally, my first impulse is to run down to Jason’s house and give those boys (and their mothers) a piece of my mind. Those little punks. Instead, I see that Gabie still just needs somebody to talk to. I ask him, “How do you feel?”
“Exhausted.” he says. “Exhausted and disappointed.”

I get him a drink of water (wish I had popsicles!) and a few minutes later he seems back to his old spunky self. Now he’s babbling on about how he wants to give something away. “What can I give away?” he asks me. “I’m not going to make anybody pay for it. It will be free. This is going to make other people really happy. I’m sweet aren’t I.”

“Yes, you’re sweet” I say. I’m laughing out loud by now and grabbing my pen. He’s used to this and lets me take a moment to document his sweetness on paper. Then we have to figure out what it is he’s going to give away. He suggests cookies but I think it’s too hot and too close to dinner to make cookies. We settle on Kool-Aid which is a rare treat around our house (because I know most kids’ drinks are full of sugar but with Kool-Aid you actually witness the whole cup of sugar going in and I just can’t handle the honesty).

Soon Gabie has mixed a batch of grape Kool-Aid and grabbed a stack of plastic cups and a table and chairs and is parked out on the front sidewalk waiting for “customers” to walk by so he can surprise them with the news that it’s all free today. Unconditional sweetness. No charge. No strings attached.

Tuesday, July 01, 2008

musings from Gabie the linguist

I love the phase Gabie’s in right now. He’s six and reading and keenly aware of language but still doesn’t appreciate how random it all really is. He thinks once you learn the basics of grammar, you can predict how it will always work. If only this were true. But being Gabie, he just charges ahead undaunted. If the English language doesn’t make sense, you just invent your own, more logical, more Gabified version.

A few recent examples...

Mom, why do they call it cider? Cause I think there’s nothing it goes on the side of.

Gabie: Is this paper terrible?
Mom: What?
Gabie: You know, is this terrible paper?
Mom: Honey, I still don’t understand what you’re talking about.
Gabie: Is this the kind of paper you can tear?
Mom: Oh! You mean is it tear-able?
Gabie: Isn’t that what I just said?

That was so funny. You laughed the heck out of me.

(After a trip to the dentist this week...) Mom, how much did it cost for him to look at my tooth? I don’t think we should pay the dentist, I think the dentist should pay us. Because he’s the one that makes the kids suffer hurtiness.

(This one’s my favorite, but it might take a minute—like it took me—to figure out Gabie’s thought process). Mom, my favorite pants are dirty. Can you please wash them? Don’t worry, it won’t waste much energy if you wash just one cloh.

Monday, June 30, 2008

the cave - an allegory entirely unlike Plato's

We're back from our jaunt to Bear Lake. Yes, I had an intense, week-long writer's conference followed immediately by a family trip and now I'm faced with the laundry and teaching-issues backlog to prove it. I have a whole list of things to write about and wish I had more time today to devote to such lovely tasks as writing, but in the meantime, here's one simple thought I had this weekend while spelunking (or rather walking up and down conveniently widened corridors and metal stairs) in the Minnetonka cave near St. Charles Idaho.

You know when you go on a tour to a commercialized cave and the guide has this memorized speech to give you about the different formations? You know how she tells you that this rock is Kermit the Frog and over here is Miss Piggy's tail and if you shine the light just right on this huge slab over here you can make out the face of Abraham Lincoln? I was thinking about how we go along with this scenario so willingly. How we wait for her to tell us exactly what we're supposed to see in the limestone because someone before us has decided what it all means and heaven forbid we decide that we don't think that looks at all like a pig's tail and in fact we're sure it is one of those curly fries you can get at Arby's only without the extra dusting of paprika?

This is the challenge I face with some of my students. They're waiting for me to be the tour guide. They're used to being told what art means by someone who's been there before and knows where to shine the flashlight. They have a hard time accepting the fact that we're looking at independent objects, things that have no absolute labels stamped on them in a secret code that only the fully trained park rangers/teachers can decode. Sure, each work of art is a reflection of the artist who produced it and the cultural values behind that artist, but it can also be about a million things more. It's my job to convince my students that I can only teach them how to study art, I can't (or at least I shouldn't) compound the myth that they have to wait for the proper interpretation before they can make their own judgments. I can (and should) let them experience that liberating feeling you get when you realize that the artist is not the only creative force in the life of an artwork. It takes creativity to decide for yourself what you see in the stalactites. Or maybe, you can even just see the stalactites for what they are: art for art's sake. They serve no real purpose, no practical function. They don't have to mean anything. They are simply beautiful--surprising twists of life and color and texture in an otherwise ordinary slice of earth.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

What the living do

Another day. Another assignment from the writers' conference. This one was sparked by a poem by Marie Howe called "What the living do."

What the living do
By Julie Q.

Each year on his birthday, for the first part of his life, Vincent Van Gogh visited the grave of his dead older brother. I picture Vincent—wild-eyed and serious, even as a young child—facing the grave stone and staring long and pointedly at the letters and dates carved into it. I picture him watching his mother cry for the stillborn baby, the baby who shared Vincent’s own first name, shared his birthday, shared his rust-colored hair. Did he see his mother’s coldness towards himself and her tortured grief for the first child as a sign of her preference for the dead over the living? Did he ask the ghost of this first Vincent to walk beside him for all of those 37 years? Did he, as some suggest, paint this dead brother numerous times? Give him what he lacked: adult form and textured presence?

Each year on the Sunday closest to my birthday (which happens to fall near Memorial day) I visit the graves of my two dead brothers. This is what the living do. I help my sisters clean off the headstones with paintbrushes and water collected in a plastic cup from the nearest spigot. My mother brings a pair of gardening shears and trims the grass away from the edges. In the months between our visits, the grass always encroaches. It covers the lips of the stone and must be trimmed and pushed back, like nail cuticles. My father stands next to the boulder, the one the cemetery agreed to roll next to my brother’s grave after a careless driver let a tire stray too far off the gravel roadway and crack the headstone.

When I was younger, I would help more with the tending of my brothers’ graves. Now I have to keep an eye on my own children, remind them to stop running in the cemetery, pull them away from the water, keep them off the road, tell them again the stories about why my brothers died, the one with the backwards heart, the other—the one I remember only as a gush of fluid on the stone entry-way floor and as a tranquil baby in an orange sleeper, resting in a coffin the size of my dollhouse—the other, I was told, who was born too perfect for this world. And I watch my mother—my beautiful mother—who was not cold and who was not crazy except maybe a little crazy to have had so many children and to have not cried every single day for the rest of her life for the loss of these two alone. I watch her. And I marvel. This is what the living do.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

This was not what I asked for

Each day of our morning workshop at the writer’s conference, our instructor (the fabulous Abigail Thomas) gives us an assignment. Yesterday, she read a poem by Brigit Pegeen Kelly that began with the line “It was not a scorpion I asked for, I asked for a fish.” Our follow-up assignment was to write something with this line for our title: “It was not a ______ I asked for. I asked for a _______.”

I fully intended to write something worthy of the task—to compose a little gem as lyrical as the original poem. But my life is not conducive to poetry. It lends itself more to prose. Silly prose at that. Oh well. They always say you have to write about what you know. Here's what I know.

It was not a swim in pool of sludge I asked for. I asked for a bath.
by Julie Q.

It is 9 pm and after a busy afternoon and evening, I finally have a few free moments to spare for writing. I pop open my laptop on the kitchen table. Gabie and Nora are a few feet away, across the hall in the bathtub. They splash and giggle. I think deep writerly thoughts and wait for inspiration to strike. It strikes with a vengeance.

A cry comes from the bathroom. Two cries. I’m in there in a split second but it takes a moment for my brain to process the scene. The bathwater is filled with floating chunks of shredded cardboard. No, it is not cardboard. “Aaaah!” Gabie wails, “Nora pooped in the tub!” Nora is equally indignant. “Poo Tub” she cries, accusingly, as if the stuff has appeared out of nowhere.

I don’t have a clue where to start. I assume I should rescue the children first. But where do I put them while I decontaminate the tub so I can load them back in it to clean them off? What tools am I going to need? I suspect my box of baby wipes—the Swiss Army knife of the American housewife—just isn’t going to cut it this time. How is it possible that a 2-year old child could even produce so much waste at once? I have been a mother for more than a decade. Over the years I have cleaned up all manner of children’s bodily fluids from every surface imaginable including my own clothing and hair. When I recently read an author’s blurb bragging that she had used more than 27 different terms for vomit in her parenting book, I found myself nodding in total understanding. But we may have reached a new low in grossness.

Just so you know, I would never make it a point to use 27 different terms for vomit in my writing. I don’t even want to write about vomit. Or toilet training. Or disasters of the pee and poo variety. I am not Erma Bombeck. I am not a 9-year old boy who thinks every sentence is better if it somehow incorporates the word “underwear.” I’m not even the type of writer who considers the use of 27 different terms for vomit praiseworthy. It’s just a frank reality that a large part of parenthood involves dealing with bodily fluids. I once calculated it at about 80%. (Of course, this was the year my oldest son had acquired the world’s most sensitive gag reflex and rarely made it through a day without incident, so the statistic may be skewed.) This is not something I knew about motherhood before I began. I did not ask to become an expert on the containment and removal of urine, vomit, diarrhea, blood, and tears. Childhood is a wet, sticky, oozy place.

One winter while I was in graduate school in Pennsylvania, we took a trip to New York to visit the Museum of Modern Art. We spent hours in the museum, but I can only specifically recall seeing two works. I remember standing in front of Vincent Van Gogh’s Starry Night. And I remember walking past—in a baffled state—a row of large metallic jugs presumably filled with liquids and labeled pus, vomit, saliva, urine, semen, blood, etc. I was a student of the arts. I had been exposed to post-modern absurdities before, but even I was mystified.


The fact that I remember this work 15 year later instead of the dozens of other masterpieces I saw that day speaks for itself. This artist (Kiki Smith) was a genius. Her ideas are transcendent and universal, not to mention memorable. It doesn’t even matter that her work expressed entirely different ideas to her than it did to me. She was likely inspired by the AIDS crisis. I find myself thinking of these jugs from a different perspective, the perspective of a woman who has learned intimately how vital and natural and common these fluids are. I have gained a whole new appreciation for why the medieval philosophers believed that we are kept in balance only by the ebb and flow of bodily humours. I have carried children in amniotic fluid. I have produced milk from my own breasts to feed them. I have tended to their wounds—their pus and blood. And yes I have cleaned up their wastes. And then I have bathed them and rinsed them clean and toweled them dry and held them against my beating heart.

Monday, June 23, 2008

on being a brave writer

My dear blog readers: (I’m hoping there’s maybe 3 or 4 of you still left after my past several weeks of neglect, but maybe I’m just talking to my mother at this point. Hi Mom.). I feel like apologizing for not writing on my blog more faithfully, but I won’t. I won’t apologize because I think I’ve been in this position before and I worry about it becoming a bad pattern (post lots, post less, post hardly at all, beg for forgiveness, promise to do better, post lots, and so forth. Sound familiar?). I also won’t apologize because it was all for a good cause. I’ve been busy with other writing projects and I’m feeling good about how things are going. I also plan to blog more, starting today. (Okay, so maybe I’ll do the “promise to do better” thing after all. I can’t help it). I will admit that I won’t have time to polish everything I want to say or even come up with snazzy connections to art every day, but my blog is my incubator for my writing and—if nothing else—I need to keep it plugged in. Gotta let those little chicks hatch.

Today was day one of my writer’s conference. I’ve been looking forward to this conference for weeks. And so far, it does not disappoint. In the morning workshop, we discussed three manuscripts and one of them was mine. Can I just say I’m eternally grateful we got mine over with on the first day? I was a nervous wreck. I felt like bursting into tears just from the sheer terror of it all. But the really amazing thing was everyone seemed to like my writing. The feedback was encouraging and I got some good ideas of things I need to work on. Mostly, I walked away with a renewed sense of confidence. I’m not a total joke of a writer. I can finish my book. I will finish it.

These are important things I need to say to myself. Writing is a natural thing. Most of us can write. It’s not that scary. But trying to write well. . . this is another thing entirely. To write well, you have to take risks. You have to dislocate language from its comfort zones—the clichés and turns of phrase that are always the first to pop into your head and that are poison to any sincere attempts at saying something truly creative and new. I’m not typically a risk taker. I’m a wimp. I go into a panic when I have to stick my neck out. There’s always the chance that I’ll say something utterly stupid or too melodramatic or over-reaching. I could just play it safe and say things that sound familiar. But the problem is, they sound familiar because they’ve been said a million times before. To write well, it takes courage and a willingness to make a total fool of myself along the way.

So tonight, I am relieved. It’s always a huge relief when it feels like my occasional bursts of bravery might get me somewhere worth going.

Friday, June 13, 2008

sadists with brushes

It's the end of the term, so I'm in the thick of a grading marathon (plus the mommython continues as always) but I just had to post my nomination for the typo of the year. My student here was writing about Impressionism, so I think the word he was going for was "paint." But at midnight, I appreciated this version so much more...

"Art during this era was particularly fond of heavy doses of pain."

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Exploiting the workers

I spent the summer after my sophomore year at BYU working at my uncle Randy’s cookie factory in California. It may sound like a dream job (and yes, the cookies were amazingly good, and no, I never got sick of eating them for every meal—and I really mean for every meal not with every meal) but I worked mostly in the business office, sorting through invoices and dealing with boring accounting paperwork. A few weeks into the summer, my little brother Steve joined me and my uncle put him to work in the factory. Steve had just graduated from high school and has always been a smart kid, but for some reason his assignment turned out to be doing menial tasks: fixing broken things, cleaning stuff, climbing up inside the drop ceiling to dust off the tiles.

A few days before it was time for Steve to head back home, Uncle Randy and the other factory owners were having trouble with their computer system. Steve suggested that he could fix if for them and they finally discovered what a brilliant little brother I have. Even though he was young, Steve had been programming computers for years and had (still does have) a real gift. My uncle was amazed. He also totally regretted not taking advantage of Steve’s skills before. For weeks, Steve had been dealing with ceiling dust when all along he could have been a great help in the office.

I’ve been thinking about this story lately because I have made a similar discovery. My kids are far more capable than I have given them credit for. They’ve always had chores—simple things like cleaning their room and unloading the dishwasher (and they have always whined about how said chores are a huge pain). But honestly, looking back, I see they’ve had it pretty easy. They worked for a few minutes a day; I did all the rest. No wonder I always felt overwhelmed.

Lately, thanks to the amazing influence of Lara (the Lazy Organizer) and a great book by Debbie Bowen, I have turned over a new dustpan. The kids make most of the messes around here. They can certainly contribute more to household maintenance. They also need to learn how to do things (for their own good and for the good of their future roommates and spouses). I just had to start delegating and firming up the resolve to exploit my built-in underage working class.

Courbet, Stonebreakers (1849)

Step one was establishing a new after-dinner policy. No one leaves the kitchen until it’s clean. No exceptions. I offered an incentive (a special excursion when we had 50 stars on the calendar, one for each night of a clean kitchen) and enlisted the help of my husband who is always willing to wash the dishes. Did you know that a 12-year old boy is fully capable of sweeping the floor, even if it’s a really nasty tile floor with deep grout joints? That a 9-year old can clear the table and wipe off all the counters and only has to be called back a few times to catch the spots he missed before he’ll learn to do it right the first time? That a 6-year old will insist that unloading the silverware is “way too hard” but is more than willing to scrub off the stovetop and clean all the knives because he got to pick these jobs himself? That as long as the kitchen is full of happy workers, a 2-year old will stay in her high chair forever? Maybe the rest of the parenting world has already figured this out years ago, but I was totally underestimating the beauty of child labor.

Step two has been to increase the daily assignments and realign Saturday chores. With the start of summer and a sudden surge in free time, this has been relatively easy. We may have to reevaluate things when school starts again, but for now, I think the workload is totally fair. The kids are cleaning the bathroom, dealing with the garbages, vacuuming, mopping the kitchen floor, and straightening the living room. On Monday of this week—and I swear this is the truth—McKay told me he wanted to be in charge of all the laundry from now on. After picking my jaw off the floor and smothering him with kisses, I said “Okay, if you twist my arm.” I supervised him a bit and gave him some instructions but he got the hang of things pretty quickly. He did 6 full batches on Monday alone. If this continues, I’m going to be out of a job soon. What on earth will I do with myself?

The next step is to follow Lara’s tutelage and get my kids cooking dinner. I may have to set out some guidelines or it will be Ramen noodles every night.

Maybe I should give my Uncle Randy a call and get a few of his cookie recipes.

Thursday, May 29, 2008

12 excuses why I’ve been averaging one sorry blog post a week

1. I’ve been busy.

2. I’ve been funneling all my creative energies into other writing projects in preparation for a writer’s conference I'm attending next month (where I get to meet with agents, editors and writers who actually know what they’re doing. Wahoo).

3. Lately, whenever I get some free time, I don’t feel like writing on my blog. I feel like reading. Or listening to a podcast. Or walking. Or watching entire seasons of West Wing in one stretch. Or pretty much anything besides writing on my blog which for some reason feels like a chore to me or maybe an old boyfriend who I used to be infatuated with but now he just gives me the creeps so I ignore his calls and walk on the other side of the hall whenever I see him coming just to avoid eye contact.

4. Sometimes I’m just too sad.

5. It’s not that I’m depressed. It’s just that my life is depressing and I’d be an idiot not to get sad about it. I like to think there’s a difference.

6. Some days, I’m sad enough that I hear things like this about how a giant new particle accelerator may have the potential to create a black hole that will eventually swallow all life on earth as we know it and you know what I think? I think: What a relief.

7. Trust me, nobody wants to read what I would write on a day like that.

8. Some days I remember I also have a wonderful life with amazing kids and a great job and a husband I can talk with about anything. I should write on days like that. But I don't because I'm too busy taking care of my kids and dealing with my job and talking to my husband.

9. I’ve been exercising an hour every day. This is good for my body but it cuts into my writing time.

10. Nora has been sick (again) and grumpy. She insists on sitting on my lap (up peese!) whenever I try to type anything.

11. I keep meaning to get back into the habit of writing every day (okay so maybe I wasn't ever actually in that habit, but I plan to start). I have the best intentions. I compose handfuls of posts in my mind over the course of a single day. I have a million things to say. Then it’s 11 pm and I say, I can write something or I can just go to bed and worry about it tomorrow.

12. I have a very comfy bed.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Why we need a national kid day

It must be spring. My kids would move their beds and all their worldly possessions outside and LIVE in the yard full-time if I let them. Also, they can't wait for school to end so they can get on with the really important stuff. All weekend long, all four of my children were seriously committed to catching every bug within a 2-mile radius and studying them like the scientists they are and then, every night, releasing them ceremoniously to live another day.

McKay has had a particularly tough school year and he's the most excited to see summer vacation right around the corner. He told me he's tired of adults who never listen to what kids really think. "Kids have great ideas if people would just pay attention," he said.
"I think so too." I said. "What's your great idea today?"
"Kids should get paid vacations."
"But you already have those. Don't you get holidays and spring break and stuff?"
"No, I mean paid vacations. You know how Dad gets days where he doesn't go to work and he still gets paid. Well, I think we should have times where we don't have to go to school but we still get straight A's."

He's right. Maybe we should just put the kids in charge from now on.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Flashback

In honor of Mother’s Day weekend, I spent from 6 am to midnight on Saturday working working working. It was one of those days where I hardly had time to eat (wish that happened a little more frequently) and my body ached all over by the time I finally crawled into bed, but it actually felt good to get so much accomplished. I tackled some projects I’d been meaning to get around to for months, the largest of which was to sort through every stitch of children’s clothing in the house (many boxes and many hours’ worth) and pack away the clothes we are saving and give away the rest. I took not one but two trips to the thrift store, where they were kind enough to tell me “thanks for your donation” and hand me coupons as I unloaded on them several garbage bags full of my purgings. Suckers. (Of course, I’ll be back next week to use those coupons and pay them real money for a pile of things they got from someone else for free. Who’s the sucker now?)

My laundry room is now clean. The drawers on my children’s dressers—the ones that used to require the thigh and back strength of linebackers to wrestle shut—now glide into place with at least a centimeter of head room to spare. My home feels a little lighter. My list of things to do is shorter. What more can a mother ask for?

In my sortings, I came across a box of old calendar pages. In our leaner years, the only way I could afford to decorate our home was to buy artsy calendars on clearance in February and cut the paintings out and frame them with whatever used frames I could find and refinish. One of the pieces of art I rediscovered on Saturday must have come from a calendar we had actually used because on one side was a gorgeous painting by Frederick Carl Frieseke and on the other side—the month of May, 1995—there were notes and scrawls about appointments and such. The fascinating part was not so much the notes themselves, but the huge empty gaps in between. In the entire month of May, there are only six days with anything written on them (and one of those things is a reminder to watch a documentary on TV so it hardly counts as a pressing engagement). The rest of the boxes are blissfully naked. How is it even possible that I once lived a life of such negative space?

I’m sure if you had asked me at the time, I would have told you I was a very busy person. I was working full time. I was teaching a class each semester. I was cooking and cleaning for two. Ken and I were hunting for a new house that summer. And I was pregnant (one of our six May appointments was the ultrasound that would tell us our first boy was on the way). But truly, in comparison to the effusive, ink-covered calendar that currently hangs on my kitchen wall, May of 1995 was a positively peaceful month. I would even dare say it felt much like the painting on its reverse side. I must have strolled through the days like the woman in pale green, taking a moment to examine a dainty stem of hollyhocks. She blends right in, another column of greenery among the rest. She is surrounded by flowers and space and time in abundance. I can’t even imagine having that kind of leisure.

Tuesday, May 06, 2008

A country fantasy

For our anniversary, Ken and I took a weekend jaunt to a historic town in central Utah called Spring City. While we were there, we looked around at the sleepy main street, rode our bikes up and down the sidewalk-less roads (past sheep and goats and pastured horses and a cemetery with gravestones dating back to the 1800s), ate in a café where the regulars chatted about water shares, and watched a man drive to church on his four-wheeler. We also got as serious as you can get in 24 hours about moving there someday. It’s a kind of mutual dream Ken and I have—to transplant ourselves to country soil, to get away from the crowded valley where we live (…and work and fight the traffic of a half-million other people’s lives and works), to trade in our tiny backyard for a few acres of weeds and some sycamores big enough to anchor a treehouse for the kids. I yearn for a coop full of chickens so badly I have already picked out names for all of them. I want to sit near an open window and not hear the sounds I hear right now: the beeping of reversing construction vehicles, the zooming of semis on the freeway a mile away, the roaring of the lifeflight helicopter landing at the hospital down the road, the incessant yelping of our neighbor’s neurotic penned-up dog.

I’m fully aware that we might hold a slightly romanticized view of country life. In my Spring City fantasy for example, we have no neighbors with trashy yards full of rusting abandoned farm equipment and discarded appliances (Mavis next door, however does keep an old cast-iron tub spilling over with wildflowers out back). The air is always fragrant—not “pastoral” in a way that had me checking the back of my shoes obsessively for the first several hours of our stay in Spring City. The regulars at the café never tire of discussing irrigation and move on to gossiping about our private lives. Our children would never get injured in falls from their four-wheelers and require a 45 minute drive to the nearest medical facility. There are no biting flies in my Spring City. The cows mill about cooperatively in a picturesque fashion and produce no cow pies.

I’m willing to take even a less-than ideal version of my fantasy if it would allow me to extricate myself (and my children) from our current nature-deprived, plugged-in, materialistic surroundings. But of course, as Ken said more than once over the weekend, if we really ever tried to move, the kids would kill us. Yes, they would love the treehouse, but they would hate leaving their friends and schools behind. They would love the wildness of it all, but they would miss the library (and, I admit, I would dearly miss the library too). They would especially hate having to mow the acre of back lawn and take care of my chickens. Oh, and Nora loves real birds but she loves our frequent “copper” flybys even more.

Boucher, Shepherd and Shepherdess reposing
And so I get to keep my fantasy intact—pristine and beatific and all loamy— because I doubt we’ll ever really take the naked leap into a country life. Like the 18th century noble Parisians who imagined the lives of peasants to be sweeter smelling than their own, we’ll have to be content with the perfect, unreal version of farm country we have managed to till in the creative soil of our own minds.

That is, unless we found a really good deal on a five-acre lot with a few sycamores . . .

Thursday, May 01, 2008

feedback

Grades were due yesterday, which means I woke up this morning with the thought that I could finally check out my course evaluations online. If I were a stronger person, I wouldn’t care so much about the evaluations, but being the validation-junkie that I am (exhibit A: my blog), I get a kick out of reading students’ comments at the end of every semester. This morning I was not disappointed. Let me first say that I had a great bunch of students this semester and I put a lot of extra time into class preparations and things just went well. Sometimes things don’t go so well. This time they did and my evaluations reflected this. In terms of ratings numbers, this is my second highest semester ever (and nothing will probably ever beat the summer I had only 25 students and they met outside of class twice a week to have extra study sessions with pizza and we all clicked in a way that made them better students and me a better teacher and at the end of the term I gave them almost all A’s and they gave me a standing ovation and an inscribed book about cathedrals, and well. . . that semester has ascended to semi-mythical heights in my mind and on my evaluation records). But anyway, this past semester came in a close second. I don’t want to brag, but it’s always gratifying to read compliments from the students I have worked hard to teach and have grown very attached to over the past four months. I’ll try to ignore the 2 or 3 negative remarks, including the one that suggested I only teach in classrooms with softer chairs and stadium seating.

My kids were up already and they read my evaluations over my shoulder. Ethan said, “I didn’t know you were such a good teacher.” And McKay said, “Way to go Mom!” This is also gratifying since it’s my kids I must desert when I teach and whom I neglect in innumerable ways when I grade papers and choose to put that aforementioned extra time into class preparations.

Then I read my email and found a rejection letter for an essay I submitted to a journal about two months ago. I interpret the confluence of events as a sign: clearly I’m a better teacher than a writer. And maybe, judging from the feedback I’m getting today, I should be focusing more on my strengths. And maybe even, despite the fact that there’s no such a thing as a Parent and Wife Evaluation form, I should be focusing more on the five people who matter most to me rather than wasting my time with dreams of writerly grandeur. Obviously, I don’t take rejection well.

But really, the Parent and Wife Evaluation form isn’t such a bad idea. For one, I’d like more regular feedback on things like: “Learning materials are effective” and “Course has strengthened my spiritual and intellectual skills” and the important “Instructor shows respect for individual students and their opinions.” I guess with mother’s day coming up, I may expect a card or two, but what if I had a quarterly review complete with scaled questions and suggestions for improvement? What if I could compare my efforts from one semester to the next and keep an eye on my approval ratings (which I suspect just might show a sickly little dip during each pregnancy just as my student evaluations have).

Then again, maybe the occasional “way to go Mom!” is feedback enough. Bear hugs are also good and then there’s Nora’s fishy-mouth kisses—neither of which, let me just make perfectly clear, I get from my students. McKay tells me almost every day “Thanks for all you do for us.” Ken says I’m a good mother. Ethan tells me my cooking is so gourmet I should open a restaurant. Gabie lets me come into his room and hang out with him even after he has attached a forbidding sign to the door that says, “no pepol at ol.” What do I need evaluations for?

Plus I think I’ve long since earned my mommy tenure.