Friday, September 29, 2006

Textbook cases

I am becoming increasingly convinced that my son Gabriel is sneaking out of bed at night to read from the Child Development textbook on our bookshelf. Ever since his baby sister was born 5 months ago, he has demonstrated with suspiciously keen accuracy all the trademark signs of sibling rivalry. He was the youngest for four years until this little usurper came along, and his jealously surfaces in all the most obvious ways: he acts up in an effort to get our attention, he is less than sweet to his little sister, and he wants to compete directly with her by pretending to be a baby. I was changing Nora’s diaper the other day and Gabriel asked me if he could start wearing diapers under his underwear. See what I mean? A classic case.

In fact, forget the “reading the textbook” theory, I think he is writing his own. Someday soon, I expect to find the following manuscript under his bed, just waiting for a publisher…

How to Be a Big Brother in 7 Easy Lessons
by Gabriel

Lesson One: Tell her you love her.
Babies love it when you get right up in their face to talk to them. Don’t be afraid to let her know how you really feel. Squint your eyes and say, through gritted teeth, “I just LOVE my baby SISSSSTERRRR.”

Lesson Two: Show her affection.
Hug her. Kiss her. Pet her. Lick her nose. Never underestimate the power of the love-poke. Give her pokes often to show you care. Poke her when she’s nursing to help her concentrate. Poke her when she’s all by herself in a room so she doesn’t get lonely. Poke her when she’s sleeping to make sure she’s really sleeping and not just pretending.

Lesson Three: Expand her vocabulary.
It is good for babies to learn new words. And by new words I mean words you just invented. When your mother tells you to stop poking the baby, say “I’m not poking her, I’m schplaking her.” If mom says “Don’t spray water in her face,” tell her “It’s not water…its plemtah.” Hey it worked for that Shakespeare dude and people think he’s a genius.

Lesson Four: Sing to your baby.
When applying this lesson, don’t forget that babies are still developing their senses and are practically deaf for the first year so you have to sing very LOUDLY. Made-up songs are best. Here’s one of mine: “Oh Nora you are the cutest bahhhbeee in the world. You are cuterrrr than a rock. Whyyyyy do you fart so much?”

Lesson Five: Train her right.
No one wants a spoiled baby. It is your job to prevent this by noticing when she is getting all the attention and forcing her to share. Target whoever is holding her and insist that they hold you too. Adult laps are always made for at least 2 passengers – even if one is a fairly heavy preschooler. If the baby shifts to another adult, your life now depends upon sitting in that person’s lap. You gotta stay on your toes to make this work. Babies get passed around a lot.

Lesson Six: Teach her logic.
Practice the following dialogue. It’s especially useful in those times when you are helping your baby sister develop good reflexes by jumping back and forth over her head.

Mom: Gabriel! Do not jump over your sister’s head like that, you could have seriously hurt her!
Me: But I didn’t.
Mom: But you could have.
Me: But I didn’t.
…repeat for as long as necessary…

Lesson Seven: Become a human shadow
Never forget that your parents need extra attention in this difficult time. Be sure to get up earlier than usual to cuddle with them and stay up late into the evening just in case they need you.

I think Gabriel's book will sell well. Maybe we can use the proceeds to pay for his therapy.

For the painting of the day, I chose another example of siblings who follow the textbook – this time the part about how birth order affects personality. The girls in the portrait are actually the painter Degas’ cousins. The older one is on the left in front of her mother and the younger is seated - with one leg tucked under her - in the center. See if you think they fit the description.

First born children believe they must gain superiority over other children. They are controlling, high achievers and natural leaders. They strive to please and earn their parents’ attention through conformity. They frequently live with a sense of entitlement and superiority. As a rule, first-borns are picky, precise people - they pay attention to detail - tend to be punctual, organized, and competent.

Second born children never have their parents’ undivided attention. They are sometimes compared with the older child and feel that they are in a race to compete. Second children look for other ways to get their parents attention. If the first child is “good,” the second may become “bad.” The second child is often a rebel and tends to be more creative. They also never get as much written in their baby books.
(OK, so I added that one, but it’s true, isn’t it?)

Tags: parenting, art, birth order, sibling rivalry, Degas

Thursday, September 28, 2006

The reason why I can’t get the chorus of “Climb Every Mountain” out of my brain

Yesterday, my husband climbed Cascade Mountain – elevation 10,900 feet. I stayed home with the kids, which was a good thing since the hike turned out to be “pretty brutal.” Ken had to scale the mountain from the south end (on the far right in the picture) and hike across the ridgeline to the summit (towards the left). From the top he called on his cell phone, and the kids and I stood in the front yard facing Cascade talking to him. It was quite a surreal moment, I must say.

I’m glad we live next to Cascade Mountain because without it, I would be forever getting lost. It is my personal, million-ton compass. I know it always stands due East, and the rest is easy to figure out from there. Several years ago, when we were searching for a house to buy, “living within sight of Cascade” was seriously on my list of qualifications. Right below “not living next to a meth lab like we used to,” which is obviously the subject of another post just as soon as I can find a painting about meth labs. Anyway, I have lived in various other flatter places – Spain, California, Arizona, Central Pennsylvania – and never could find my way around. Oh sure, I tried maps and using buildings and tall people as landmarks, but there’s just no substitute for a monstrous heap of immovable granite to point you in the right direction.

I talked about sacred archetypes in one of my classes last week, so I’m still thinking about mountains in terms of their spiritual presence. The thing with mountains is that they seem closer to God and the divine realm. We assume God dwells above us – not around us, not within us – and that the mountains provide us a point of connection to him. The original “stairway to heaven,” they bridge the gap between earth and sky. In scriptural accounts, mountains are for holy conversations, sermons, transfigurations, even scenes of atonement.

My favorite painting of mountains is this one by Caspar David Friedrich. It’s a crucifixion painting, actually, but also a landscape. It would almost form a cliché – the last dying rays of the sun set behind a rocky peak topped with fir trees – if it weren’t for the miniature figure of Christ hanging on the thin spire of a cross. When Friedrich painted the scene in 1808, some criticized it because, oddly, for an altarpiece, it lacked the essential ingredients: the blood and nails, the two flanking crosses, and the mourning Marys. Defending himself against sacrilege, Friedrich wrote this interpretation of the scene:
Jesus Christ, nailed to the tree, is turned here towards the sinking sun, the image of the eternal life-giving father. With Jesus’ teaching an old world died. . . . The sun sank and the earth was no longer able to grasp the departing light. There shines forth in the gold of the evening light the purest, noblest metal of the Savior’s figure on the cross, which thus reflects on earth in a softened glow. The cross stands erected on a rock, unshakably firm like our faith in Jesus Christ. The fir trees stand around the cross, evergreen enduring through all ages, like the hopes of man in Him, the Crucified.

If you see mountains as symbolic bridges between heaven and earth, this painting extends the metaphor by perching Christ’s silhouette at the peak as a kind of final span. The beam of his cross neatly fits just below the bank of clouds whose shape echoes that of the mountain below. It strikes me suddenly that there’s another meaning for the word cross – as in the verb, to cross.

Some mountains are revered as the dwelling place of gods, others worshipped as gods themselves. My religion doesn’t allow for this kind of pantheism, but that’s fine by me since I don’t really have the desire to bow down to the East in my front yard. Someone might see me. And I’m grateful that Cascade doesn’t rumble with thunder and burning bushes when God has something to say to me. On the other hand, maybe I would do a better job of listening if it did.

Tags: mountain, art, religion, God

Saturday, September 23, 2006

life imitates art

I have to show off a picture I took this summer on our trip to Butterfly Lake. Remind you of anyone?

If you need a hint...

Tags: Monet, art, liles, photography

Friday, September 22, 2006


It used to be, when I heard the phrase “life is a balancing act,” I would picture a tightrope walker, tottering precariously on a wire with a long pole and slippered feet. In some ways, this image still fits my life, especially if you add a pile of dirty dishes, scout badge requirements, a stack of ungraded essays, and a grocery list on one side of the pole and a soccer schedule, math homework and hungry baby on the other. While you’re at it, grease the pole. There. That’s about right.

But recently I’ve decided the balancing act that is my life looks more like this Vermeer painting.

Thanks to my trusty etymological dictionary, I know that the word balance comes from bi (two) and lanx (plates). A balance consists of a central beam with two plates suspended from its ends. It began as an ancient tool for measuring weight. Somewhere along the line it also became associated with judgment.

The ancient Egyptians spoke of the weighing of the heart after death to determine one’s worthiness to enter the afterlife. If the heart – on the left side of the scale – weighed more than the feather – on the right – then it was deemed too burdened with bad deeds and cares of this life and was devoured by the croco-hippo beast crouching hungrily beneath the scale.

Another famous “life weighed in the balance” image is above the portal of the Autun cathedral in France.

Here Michael the archangel weighs a soul in one basket while demons climb on the other, trying to tip the scales in their favor.

When I say my life is more like this kind of balance, I don’t mean that demons are after me or that beasts sit at the ready to eat my heart out….although some days I do wonder….

What I really mean is that my life continually requires weighing things in the balance – not exactly JUDGMENT DAY!s but lots and lots of judgment moments. The woman in Vermeer’s painting stands in front of a traditional painting of The Judgment Day. But her expression and gestures show that she is contemplating something far more personal. She holds a balance – empty on both sides – and cocks her head slightly as she studies it. She’s thinking about something. Weighing a decision out in her mind. Nothing in the painting implies that the moment is monumental. Her face looks thoughtful but not worried; her hand gently lifts the balance with a delicate pinky extended; the light bathes her softly from the side just like every other Vermeer painting of ordinary women pouring milk or reading letters or tatting lace.

I see myself in this woman. In addition to the fact that my clothes also make me look pregnant, I do a fair amount of balancing. I don’t usually get to stop and contemplate before each one, but I make a million small, day to day, minute to minute decisions. And I believe my life and my character are defined by those decisions. Do I put in a video for my 4 year old to watch so I can take that nap I so desperately crave or do I pull up a floor and spend some quality Lego time with him? Do I let that snide remark escape my lips or do I refrain? Do I eat that butterscotch chip cookie or do I just. back. away. from. the. counter?

I’m not so sure that we’re going to need a big line ‘em all up and sort out the good from the wicked kind of Final Judgment. Maybe the weighing of the souls is already in progress.

Tags: balance, art, Vermeer, last judgment

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

in which I wax philosophical...

I intended this blog to be about art and life – thus the name. The term tesserae comes from the artform of mosaics but also makes a nice metaphor for fragments of thought that may appear random but with a little verbal grout can be made to seem cohesive, meaningful even. At least that’s the theory.

But so far the blog is about… well…itself. It’s a meta-blog.

It all started with the (mistaken) assumption that: a) I have something to say and b) someone wants to read what I have to say. Now I’ve clearly moved on to c) someone wants to hear me philosophize about saying it. I promise to get on with the art references soon because I’m starting to bore myself.

A new blog is created every 5.8 seconds. I confess this depresses the heck out of me. Who wants to be that trendy? But it also intrigues me and made me go digging for my copy of Susan Sontag's essay on photography -- one of my favorite philosophical essays ever written. Here’s what she said about photography in 1973:

Recently, photography has become almost as widely practiced an amusement as sex and dancing – which means that, like every mass art form, photography is not practiced by most people as an art. It is mainly a social rite, a defense against anxiety, and a tool of power. . .

It seems positively unnatural to travel for pleasure without taking a camera along. Photographs will offer indisputable evidence that the trip was made, that the program was carried out, that fun was had.

A way of certifying experience, taking photographs is also a way of refusing it – by limiting experience to a search for the photogenic, by converting experience into an image, a souvenir. Travel becomes a strategy for accumulating photographs…

Most tourists feel compelled to put the camera between themselves and whatever is remarkable that they encounter. Unsure of other responses, they take a picture. This gives shape to experience: stop, take a photograph, and move on.

I think of Sontag’s theories every time I get out the camera on trips or on holidays or at soccer games.

Holding a camera to my face both limits what I see and gives it value. The act of recording an event shapes it and makes it seem worthy of recording but also in the process keeps me from experiencing it fully.

I remember standing in front of the Mona Lisa in the Louvre and watching a group of tourists walk up to the painting, pose for each other in front of it, snap lots of pictures and then walk away. They hardly even glanced at the painting itself. It’s the Mona Lisa. It’s a masterpiece. Nope, it's a photo op.

Aha. So this blog is about art after all.

Thus I’m beginning to wonder if the bloggers I read – mostly mothers amused by the antics of their own children – are so busy writing blogs and reading other people’s blogs that their lives are becoming shaped by the process. Is the value of an event measured by its blogability? I must admit when my 4 year old decided yesterday that the best way to make his own batch of Krispy Kreme doughnuts involved lining up bagels on the floor and dumping sugar over them, I did not respond with the usual “Aaarrrgggghhh!” Instead I thought, “Aha! Maybe I can write about this in my blog….”

And now I have.

Tags: parenting, art, photography, blog

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

I'm a blogrrrrrrr

After thinking about it for weeks, I finally decided to start a blog today. Perhaps it's a brazen, even narcissistic undertaking, but I figured it would get me writing again, which I haven't done much of since grad school. Um, other than those threatening letters to school district administrators and those don't count because they are under subpoena.

Thus I began: I composed the world's most pithy, eloquent First Post, found a free blog hosting site, chose a clever name and lovely template, and then made the brutal discovery that I am a clueless dork.

Apparently, while I still reside in the land of "the internet is neat and I can use it for my own education and entertainment without really understanding how it all works," the rest of the world has zoomed past me on their way to "you gotta know html and the intricacies of all things web if you want to do anything, eat my dust.”

Let me recount the steps I took to learn this lesson:

1. Paste aforementioned eloquent First Blog entry into my shiny new blog’s boxy thingy.
2. Discover that the font gets progressively smaller and smaller and smaller for no explicable reason.
3. Look for way to control the font.
4. Repeat.
5. Repeat.
6. Read the “Welcome to the exciting world of blogging” page again and notice that there is a forum for troubleshooting. Apparently this is the place to go since, yes, I would like to shoot my trouble.
7. Attempt to enter forum with the username and password just created.
8. Repeat.
9. Repeat. Typing very carefully this time.
10. Repeat with caps off.
11. Repeat with caps on.
12. Curse.
13. Give up.
14. Come back with the thought that perhaps I need to create a different username and password for the forum even though logic seems to tell me that I should be able to use the same username and password as my blog and NO WHERE on ANY page has ANYONE hinted to me that Username A will be valid only for Purpose A while Username B is necessary for Purpose B.
15. Create Username B and include the word asinine in the password.
16. Spend 2 hours searching the forum for an answer to the mystery of the diminishing font. Do this while multi-tasking the usual mommy stuff: nursing baby, pulling slugs darling children out of bed, waging the Battle of the Breakfast, and driving said darlings to school (OK I didn’t take the laptop with me in the car so this was unitasking I guess).
17. Waste one more hour reading such helpful entries on the forum as…

This question’s been answered before. Try a search. [This search -- thank you very much -- was where I started. Would I still be looking if the 341 matches to my query had led me to an answer?]

Enter a style code in your stylesheet. [Oh and by the way you will be unable to find anything called a stylesheet no matter how hard you search nor how much your ego will be continually pelted with taunts of “you fool, this is so obvious a pre-teen could do this from her cell phone.”]

or my personal favorite

this code should do the trick:

p. head:
font = ez as
(u) = idiot
‘n@ nee n@
nee b00 b00'

18. Face the reality that clearly there has been a club meeting and I was not invited.

Undaunted, I have resolved to persevere despite the mounting evidence of my own incompetence. I will not quit. I will blog! [insert Don-Quixote-absurdly-tilting-at-windmills simile here].

In the end, I gave up on the first free blog hosting site I had visited (Ha! that’ll show em, I’ll take my pithy blog and my $0 investment elsewhere. So there!) and found another that seemed a bit more friendly. The true test will be if they have a button that says “Complete ninnies who may or may not have master’s degrees from prestigious eastern universities but lack the ability to download anything without losing it among the black hole that is the temporary files folder on their computer ENTER HERE.” That’s where you’ll find me. Yup. And I’ll be typing away in a tiny tiny font.

Tags: blog, writing, dork, clueless