Friday, March 30, 2007

Guest blogger

My name is Gabie and this is my blog. It has always been my blog because the funniest parts are about me, but sometimes I let my mom use it. I’m nice that way.

My mom is too busy to write anything. She is grading tests this week. I asked her “Mom, if you hate grading tests, why do you give them?” She laughed and patted my head like a puppy dog which I know means, “You’re cute Gabie but you don’t know what you’re talking about” and went back to grading her tests.

I still think it’s a good question.

I can tell that my mom is a bit stressed out. “Mom,” I said, “Why is your face angry?”
“It’s not angry, honey,” she said, “I’m just concentrating. I’m not mad, I promise.”
If you ask me, she should work on not getting a big ugly crease between her eyebrows when she’s concentrating.

The other way I know she’s busy is that she let me watch WAY more TV than usual yesterday. Did you know, counting both PBS channels, you can see Cyberchase four times in one day?! Cool.

Mom’s also popping chocolate eggs into her mouth like they’re some kind of magic pill. Does that help with the stress thing?

And worst of all, she’s drinking Diet Coke again. She won’t share any sips with me because she says “it’s got caffeine in it which isn’t good for your body.” Does that make ANY sense to you? Adults are so confusing.

Mom got a phone call telling her that my brother McKay’s first soccer game is this week. When she got off the phone, she said, “Everybody pray for snow!” Weird. My mom hates snow.

Since it’s my blog, I’m going to tell you two funny things I said this week. I know they’re funny because my mom laughed really hard when I said them. It’s a good thing she’s got me around because I think she needs to laugh more and concentrate less.

Me: I’m going to invent a new kind of microwave like no one has ever had before. It’s going to use electricity to cook your food.
Mom: Um, kiddo, that’s already what microwaves do.
Me: Well mine’s going to be different. It’s going to have a wire inside it that gets really red hot and that will be how your food gets cooked.
Mom: Sorry Gabie but that’s how our oven works.
Me: Yeah, but I’m going to make mine so it only has ONE temperature. It’s going to be set to 850 degrees ALL THE TIME.
Mom: Okay, that’s new.

(Mom says this next one belongs on a t-shirt.)

“If you really want to know what dinosaur meat tastes like, you could just ask a T-Rex…….but you should probably ask a friendly one.”

Well I gotta go. I’m in the middle of a very important project. It’s a new kind of helicopter. If you want to make one like mine, all you need is a package of index cards, an empty Pringles can and a roll of scotch tape. And I mean the whole roll.

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

March is the cruelest month

(Extra credit points to anyone who recognizes the allusion in the title without having to resort to this hint.)

Last week, spring had sprung; all was chirping birds, and budding lilac bushes, and the smells of dust and diesel fumes from new road construction projects, and WARMTH.

This morning, we awoke to this.

I hate March.

Note: said hatred did not preclude me from traipsing out through the slushy lawn in my sandals to capture this photo because nothing less than the hackneyed picture of a hyacinth emerging from the snow would do.

Monday, March 26, 2007

A rare bird

I suspect the bird had been dead for several days. Long enough, at least, for it to have attracted a steady stream of ants, staking their morbid claim to the little mound of flesh and feathers in the gutter. I’m not sure which neighborhood child found it first, but soon there was a stream of them as well, congregating around the most exciting thing to show up in the cul-de-sac for months. Ethan, my oldest and also the resident bird lover, leaned in to took a closer look. “A female robin,” he said with a note of regret.

With the kind of passion for a CAUSE that only a pack of children could produce, they began planning for the robin’s funeral. There was no question of leaving it in the gutter. The bird, who had by now acquired a name (Birdie) and the status of a fallen war hero, deserved a more dignified fate than that. Nature had thrown a child-sized tragedy into their path and only they could make it right. The grownups were too tall to have seen the bird lying there, too busy to do anything about it, and too grownup to care.

The kids formed an ad-hoc committee, made the arrangements and collected the supplies, slowed down only by periodic snack breaks and heated debates over the various earth-shatteringly important details. Ethan carefully scooped the robin up with a shovel, ceremoniously slid her body in a coffin (an empty potato salad tub) and sealed it tightly with a generous wrapping of masking tape.

Had Ethan’s older friends been around, I’m guessing he may have felt too self-conscious to participate – the need for “coolness” winning out over his genuine sense of sympathy for the bird and the excitement of the moment. But in the eyes of his younger brothers and their friends, he was the leader, the mission commander, and the holder of the answers and the shovel. He conducted the funeral ceremony where each child took turns offering a few dramatic words in honor of the dear departed. I offered to walk down with them to an open field where they could bury the coffin.

We formed a solemn procession: kids with shovels, a few on bikes, the hearse (a red Radio-Flyer edition) and one mom, with baby in stroller, pulling up the rear. Later, when I told the story to my neighbor, I had a hard time describing the scene. Was it funny? Was it sad? Were my emotions just stirred up from remembering similar missions of mercy from my own childhood? How is it that as I watched them dig the hole and put the bird to rest I was both amused by the absurd drama of it all and envious at the same time? “It’s too bad you didn’t have your camera” said my neighbor. “You could have videotaped the whole thing.”

I’m glad I didn’t have my camera. I think for good reason people don’t typically film funerals and interment ceremonies – something about reverence for the dead and respect for the living. But I also know that recording the scene would have spoiled it. It touched me because it was real, spontaneous, unaffected. Had I pulled out the camera, the kids would have been performing, whether they knew it or not. For the sake of authentication, the moment would have lost all authenticity. Did you know that in order to paint, describe and catalog, in detail, the distinguishing characteristics of the birds of North America, John James Audubon had to shoot them first? One of his biographers wrote: "The rarer the bird, the more eagerly he pursued it, never apparently worrying that by killing it he might hasten the extinction of its kind." As the only adult guest at a burial for a dead bird, I learned a lesson that Audubon never understood: sometimes you should let the rare ones fly.

Harlequin Ducks by John James Audubon

Who'd a thunk?

I’ve been double nominated by The Smiling Infidel and Em for a Thinking Blogger Award. Does this mean the next time you want to visit my blog you’ll THINK TWICE? Ba dum pum. Thank you, I’ll be here all week.

After a bit of investigation, I discovered that The Thinking Blogger is not an alien tribute to Rodin's Thinker but is in fact a meme making its way around the blogosphere at an exponential speed. And so I shall ride the wave and nominate a few blogs that make me think. And heaven knows we all need more thinkage in our diets.

I still remember the first time I visited Radioactive Jam last October. I read this post and my first response was HUH? Once I figured out what he was saying (and followed up on all his footnotes), I was hooked. RaJ has a way of twisting my mind up in satisfying little knots. He is also the only blog I routinely read to my husband. I’m not sure what that means; just thought it was significant.

A recent but welcome find, Bub and Pie is a fellow college teacher but what I really love about her writing is its philosophical slant. She’s a mother who asks deep questions while blowing bubbles onto her kitchen floor.

Allysha at Bells on their toes has mastered the art of the “short but thought-provoking” post (something I clearly have yet to learn). Where my posts are Queen-sized afghans hers are delicate lace doilies. And I mean that in a good way.

Ann Kroeker is one of those kindred spirits who loves learning as much as I do. She writes about all sorts of things; I never know what I’m going to feast upon when I stop by her place. This analogy tying writing to life and near-death-waterskiing is a good example.

Moobs is another gifted writer passing as a mild-mannered British lawyer and sometime blogger. This post in particular knocked me out.

Friday, March 23, 2007

lather and rinse

Nora took her first bubble bath today. I know it sounds cute, but I have to confess it was one of those accidentally picturesque moments. I hadn’t planned for it to be a bubble bath at all, but in the two days since Nora’s previous bath, the bottle of baby shampoo left on its side in the bottom of the tub had leaked out half its contents, forming a giant slick – something I didn’t notice until I turned on the water full blast and it foamed all over the place. Not one to waste a perfectly good half-bottle of shampoo, I tossed Nora in and figured “Well at least she’ll SMELL GREAT when she’s done.”

Nora was thrilled with the new development. She plowed through the tub on her hands and knees and then sat there in baby-ecstasy, flapping her arms up and down in the suds. Of course this is Nora we’re talking about – the child with the mantra: “everything’s better in my mouth” – so she soon began eating the bubbles. After sampling a few, she looked up at me pensively. “Mmmm…” her look seemed to say, “an opaque vintage but with a light-bodied bouquet of sodium laureth sulfate. And do I detect a hint of woodsy polyquaternium-10?”

Normally when I give Nora a bath, I enjoy watching her play, but today I felt anxious and trapped. Since I couldn’t leave her alone, I sat on the toilet lid thinking about the many things I needed to get done. I should be grading papers. I could be moving the laundry to the dryer. If only I had thought to bring my laptop into the bathroom with me so I could be productive.

Nora sucked on a soapy washcloth and when I tried to take it away, she latched on with her four pointy teeth and let out a foamy growl like a rabid dog. I let her keep it. What is sodium laureth sulfate anyway? It couldn’t possibly be worse than the used Kleenex and lint balls she eats when she’s on dry land. She splashed some more and flashed me a smile. Softening a little, I thought, “I’ve got to stop RESENTING the inconveniencies of having children.” I love my kids. I worked hard to get each one of them into this world. They are the most important part of my otherwise unremarkable life. So why do I sometimes act like they are in my way? Why do I measure my days by Nora’s nap schedule and look forward to Gabie’s hour of Sesame Street and breathe a crazed sigh of relief when they finally all drop off to sleep at night? Why do I feel like I’m wasting time watching Nora play in the tub?

I’m not going to say I love this painting by Mary Cassatt because, truthfully, it has always bothered me a little. Even given the shortage of full-sized bathtubs in the late 19th century, it seems illogical to have a mother on the floor, bathing her daughter in a tiny porcelain bowl. As if that’s really going to do much good. And I hope the mom plans to get all wet in the process because you know it’s bound to happen. Plus, I want to know if the bath is just starting up or just winding down, because either the child should be dirty or the water should. How can they both be so impossibly clean?

After Nora’s bath today, with a little more patience and a lot less cynicism, I’m looking at the painting fresh and accepting it for what it is: a mother bathing her daughter as if she had nothing more important to do. By magnifying the simple gesture – using it to fill the entire canvas – Cassatt shows us its value. There is room for nothing extraneous. The base of the jug, the rest of the furniture, the woman’s own feet: all fall outside the artist’s judicious framing. We focus only on the mother and child, who in turn focus on the water, the foot, the touch. Imbued with significance and even a sense of the sacred, the scene reminds me of other paintings I’ve seen of Christ washing the feet of his disciples. Cassatt’s use of the small basin of water and the downcast eyes take on new meaning in light of the religious parallel. Suddenly the scene – one I used to consider ordinary – is less about the bathing of a child and more about service as the ultimate expression of love.

Monday, March 19, 2007

Why I cannot write a novel

Since the 3rd grade when I won a contest with a little poem about candy fish swimming in a lemonade stream, I have wanted to be a writer. And in many ways, I have been a writer. I have written essays, letters, and through Junior High and High School no less than seven volumes of journal entries. I have written poetry when inspired. I have even, with some help from the muse of unrequited love, written lyrics to the greatest rock ballads never sung. In college, I wrote what felt like hundreds of papers on topics ranging from politics to Picasso. To finish my graduate degree, I spent two years researching and writing a 125-page thesis about the image of a black Christ in the art and literature of the Harlem Renaissance. This thesis, bound in dark blue with gold lettering, sits on my living room bookshelf and rates among the treasured items (after the children, of course) I would grab on my way out if the house ever caught fire. Recently, I’ve written grant proposals, church talks, and many documentary-style paragraphs in my kids’ baby books. Since September, I’ve picked up a sometimes invigorating, sometimes debilitating blogging addiction and pushed the sublime, orange Publish button over 100 times.

But still I do not consider myself a writer. Why not? Because in the mythology of writers, the NOVEL is the golden fleece. It represents the holy grail, the pilgrimage to Mecca, the supreme mantle of writer-hood. When someone says, “I’m going to be a writer,” does she exile herself from all polite society and pound away at her battered Underwood for weeks at a time in hopes of producing the next Great American personal essay? Of course not. She writes a Novel. She creates fictional characters. She sets scenes. She plots. Then she (after several rejections which cause her to nearly, but not quite, give up and go back to her clerical job) publishes said Novel and goes on to live with the author gods on Mount Olympus.

I, on the other hand, have failed to produce a Novel. I have started a few, mind you, but never gotten past the first chapter. Why is this, you ask? Because I suck at writing fiction. Truly. My various false starts could win prizes in those contests for the worst prose ever written. You think I’m joking. Don’t make me get out the one where it took me 200 words to describe a girl sewing a seam on a turquoise pantsuit.

My failure is all the more ironic because I love to read good fiction. I obviously just can’t produce my own. I stand in awe of those geniuses who can weave a tale believable enough to draw me in and fantastic enough to grant escape from reality. My awe increases with every crappy opening line that I produce. It’s like watching a ballet where the male dancers effortlessly pick up their partners and spin them around their heads, then going home and trying to lift another person a few feet off the ground and realizing that in reality, IT’S REALLY REALLY HARD. Sure most prima ballerinas weigh about 80 pounds, but still, lifting them, let alone lifting them gracefully, is a positively Herculean feat. Or at least it would be if Hercules wore tights.

My hang-up with writing a novel is in managing the mundane details. Case in point: my heroine awakes in a psychiatric ward and somehow I have to get her down the hall to another room where something significant will happen to her. But first she has to get out of bed, get dressed (this could take some time, let’s hope she doesn’t want to wear the turquoise pantsuit), find a reason to go to the other room, and walk all the way there. But wait, she hasn’t combed her hair this morning. She can’t encounter significance with bed-hair. And while we’re at it, let’s have her brush her teeth. That’s critical too. Oh wait, she hasn’t used the toilet yet. Hmmm, how does one write eloquently about urination? By this point, I’ve written several pages, bored myself into a coma and still have yet to get my heroine out of her room. Suddenly, she takes matters into her own hands and teleports herself out of the hospital onto a waiting spacecraft where she commands her alien crew to get the heck away from this dullest of all planets and this dullest of all pseudo-authors. They shoot off into space and I am left without a heroine.

I can’t write novels because I feel compelled to tell the truth. And the truth is: life is full of mundane details. Even if I created the world’s most fascinating character and came up with adventures galore for her to encounter, I would just have to work too hard to get her away from the bathroom.

Perhaps this is why I am so fond of Degas. After 400 years of Venuses, he painted women washing their armpits. He hired models and told them not to pose but instead had them wander around his studio, bathe, scratch their backs and comb their hair. Degas was also drawn to the ballet, but he painted the dancers stretching and schlepping around backstage and yawning from sheer boredom in the midst of tedious rehearsals. He told the truth even if the truth was insignificant. He wanted to paint exactly what he saw. And Degas saw that most of life is less than striking, new or unusual. In other words, most of life is far from novel.

Friday, March 16, 2007

The gospel according to Gabie

We were in the midst of another family laundry bee when I noticed that McKay’s space-shuttle pajamas have finally become too small for him. I told Gabie that he could have them next (behold the economy of 3 boys in a row). Gabie was delighted.

Gabie: "Great! I’ve wanted those pajamas for 18 years."
Ethan (11-year old Logic Tzar): "That’s impossible Gabie. You haven’t been alive that long - you’re only 5."
Gabie: "I saw them from up in heaven."

. . . . . . .

Ethan wouldn’t share his quesadilla with Gabie. An argument ensued.

Gabie: "You just broke a commandment."
Ethan: "Oh yeah, which one?"
Gabie: "Thou shalt share."

. . . . . . .

Gabie's religion - more of a buffet than a feast...

Gabie: "I don’t like that part on my scripture tapes where it says that people who don’t pay tithing are robbing God."
Mom: "Well, Gabie, we could let you pay a little tithing too. We’ll get you a special bank if you’d like. You could give away some of the money that you got for your birthday."
Gabie (after a long, pensive pause): "No. I think I just won’t listen that part anymore."

Thursday, March 15, 2007

What's wrong with this picture?

I’m curious to see if anyone else is bothered by this ad or if it’s just me.

Need a hint? I’ve written about photography (and blogging) before. It’s an old post (my 2nd post ever!) so if you feel like checking it out, watch out for dust. And sentence fragments.

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Catching up and catching colds

We celebrated my Dad’s 77th birthday this weekend with a family dinner and talent show. The award for best one-liner of the evening goes to my 8 year-old niece Ada. She stood up to take her turn at the piano, sweetly announced “I picked this song because it reminded me of grandpa,” and then proceeded to play “This Old Man.”

The highlight of my weekend was getting to meet Lara, of The Lazy Organizer, in person. Yes, she was every bit as funny and darling as she seems on her blog and she even gave me some of her famous organizing bags. I think I’ll add talented, generous and incredibly thoughtful to her growing list of adjectives. Her husband, who according to my train-loving children has the coolest job on the planet, was also charming. I brought along my Guard Baby because you never can be too careful when meeting up with people from the internet, especially weird ones who homeschool, don’t eat sugar, don’t watch television, are obsessed with organizing things, and read unabridged copies of Les Miserables for fun.

I really like Lara and wanted to make a good first impression. So I arranged to meet her and her husband at the mall. Because nothing says “welcome to my hometown; I’m so happy you came” like a stroll past obscenely expensive clothing, rows of tacky neckties, and the window porn at Victoria Secret. Ever the gracious hostess, I pulled up a wooden bench where we could talk for a while and I showed off my fabulous parenting skills by allowing Nora to chew on a potted plant. After that I took them to a noisy spot in the food court to sample the local ice water. I’m sure they’ll look me up again the next time they’re in town.

Ever since then, I’ve been dealing with sick kids. Ethan has some kind of mystery ailment that causes a high fever, sore muscles and a strong aversion to chores. Oh wait, that last one’s normal. On Saturday night, his fever was so high he became positively delirious and started wailing because he believed he had morphed into an atomic bomb and was about to be dropped onto the unsuspecting inhabitants of earth. He also insisted that Gabie had devised an evil plan for world domination and was using him as a weapon of mass destruction. Hmmm. We’ve got no sibling rivalry around here, nope.

Nora is the other sickie in our house. I’m beginning to doubt the whole “nursing boosts their immune system” propaganda because it seems like she’s had a cold most of her short little life (and I’m sure this has nothing to do with her belief that everything within a 5 mile radius needs to go into her mouth). This week she has another ear infection (or is it the same one, just lingering?) and her face is a snot-o-rama. Poor Nora. Poor me who has to get up with her several times a night. Have I written yet about how I feel when I’m utterly sleep-deprived? Oh yeah. Been there, posted that.

Considering the percentage of our lives we spend either suffering through our own illnesses or dealing with those of our children, there’s a shocking lack of art out there on the subject. For art to be an accurate reflection of the human condition, I figure at least 50% of the paintings in museums should include a figure with a red bulbous nose and puffy eyes. Seriously, I’d like to know: why do we see no mucus in art? No piles of used tissues? No barf bowls?

Oh sure, there’s the occasional sentimental scene like this one by Gabriel Metsu that claims to depict a sick child. But let me be the cynic who says “This child does not look that sick to me. She could TOTALLY still go to school.” Where is the layer of dried snot across her face? Why isn’t she crying and tugging at her ears? And most suspiciously, if she’s so sick, how is it that her mother looks all rested and put together? The woman is fully dressed – with jewelry – for heaven’s sake.

It’s clear that most artists tend to portray things as they should be, not as they are. Bloggers, on the other hand, tell a whole different story. We love to write about the less-than-ideal aspects of our lives. The real stuff. The vomit. Since I started blogging, I’ve read a fair share of posts about sick kids and written a few of my own. I can’t help it. Turns out mucus is a big part of parenting. If nothing else, by writing about it we’re able to commiserate with each other. We can all sympathize with watching our children feel miserable and trying to make them feel better. In the process, I've discovered that nobody has healthy children all the time.

Oh, and one other thing I’m sure of: I'm getting really good at spelling "phlegm."

Friday, March 09, 2007

I think I'm ready to be done with breastfeeding

My breasts are nearing the end of their 12-month lease. I must confess, the lease will not be renewed. I have willingly donated a year to my daughter’s immune system. I have boosted her brain cells (at the expense of my own, no doubt). I have given her the head start to a healthy life that I gave each of my other children. But I can’t wait to be finished. (I would say I’m going to wean my child, but I really hate that word. If I’m weaning her does that mean I’m a weaner? Does that make my baby a weanee?)

I have a friend who breastfeeds her children well into their two’s. My mother (as she tells the now infamous story) nursed her last baby until she was old enough to climb up onto her lap in church, pull open her blouse and say loudly: “taste pease.” (Everybody wave to my little sister Anne, who’s reading this in class instead of paying attention to her Law professor. Don’t blush Anne!). But I, selfishly, just want my body back. Sure, it’s not the body I started with. There are certain, shall we say, downsides to childbirth. But it is still my body even if I’m never again allowed to change its clothes, bathe it or sit it on the toilet with any degree of privacy.

Nora is, and will forever be, my youngest, so I feel a hint of sadness at the thought of ending this phase in her life -- in my life. My husband will also be sorry to see the breastfeeding years end, though for different reasons. But there’s one thing I will most definitely not miss about nursing Nora, and that’s the way she turns into A HUMAN STARFISH whenever I’m feeding her. Let me describe this for you. She takes her free arm, straightens it perpendicular to her body, stretches out her hand and then attaches it to my face. She pokes her fingers into any crevice she can reach, usually my eye sockets or my nostrils. While still nursing away, eyes closed, she uses her hand to feel her way around the contours of my face and then thwack it frenetically, like a Helen Keller of the baby world. Often, she cleans my teeth for me with her fingernails and then grabs onto my lower jaw and yanks it up and down. I am reduced to a Howdy Doody doll with mammary glands.

I’ve tried trapping her arm under my shirt but she just pokes it out the top. Really, my only recourse is to bend her elbow, tuck her arm against her body and hold onto her hand the whole time she’s nursing. This means I can’t read or talk on the phone or work on the computer like I did when she was a newborn. Now, a few times a day, for several minutes while I feed her, I am totally captive. I suspect Nora knows this and has simply found the perfect way to make me drop everything, cuddle with her, and give her my complete, undivided attention. I need to make sure I find time to do this even after I’ve stopped nursing her.

Mary Cassatt, Young Mother Nursing her Child

Most likely, a few months from now, I’ll look back nostalgically on the whole breastfeeding process. And even further down the line, I may imagine that nursing never hurt and never led to awkward moments in public places and never ever caused me to wake up soaked in milk. I will only remember the closeness I felt to my babies. Who knows, maybe I’ll even have forgotten Nora’s facial treatments and envision myself holding her peacefully, looking down into her eyes and enjoying the moment -- both of us satisfied we are getting all that we need.

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

If Oedipus sold Girl Scout cookies

I noticed the boxes first. Dozens of them -- bright green and orange and pink – strewn across two lanes of traffic. I watched as the cookies were further pulverized with each passing car…. crunch – there go the Samoas….thwap – another box of Tagalongs….munch – those Thin Mints never looked thinner. Then I saw the pickup truck with the remaining cases of cookies pull over to the side of the road. A girl jumped out of the passenger side and ran to the edge of the street, hoping to save a few boxes. But the traffic was too dangerous and she could only stand there and watch the road kill. Even though I was in another lane, I slowed down, thinking maybe I could help somehow. But there was nothing I could do, really. It was too late. And sometimes (you knew I couldn’t resist) that’s the way the cookies crumble.

It was just one moment in my very busy day yesterday. A moment sandwiched in between errand number 11 and errands number 12, 13 and 14. But for some reason, the image of the smashed boxes, the speeding cars, and the frantic girl has stuck with me. It was like watching a pitiful mini Greek tragedy, only without the wailing chorus and eye gouging. I wonder who first noticed the cookies were spilling out the back, the mom or the girl? Which one had stacked the boxes too high and left the back of the truck shell wide open? And what will happen now? Is there such a thing as a comprehensive Girl Scout Cookie Insurance Policy or will they have to come up with the money for replacements by themselves? For some reason I feel disproportionately bad about it all. It wasn’t my fault. Heaven knows I would never wish ill on a Girl Scout (or on a Samoa cookie for that matter. Mmmmmm).

Andy Warhol, Red Disaster
But still I’m drawn to the wreck. Aren’t we all? We rubberneck. We read the obituaries. We ogle at the ultimate ten-car pile-up that is the life/death of Anna Nicole Smith. Why are we so intrigued by disasters and tragedies? A cynic might say that we enjoy the pain of others because we sense IT COULD HAVE BEEN US and we feel relieved that it wasn’t. I disagree. Call me na├»ve, but I don’t think we’ve evolved our way out of basic human compassion . We feel pity because we should feel it. Even if we can’t do anything about it, even if we just have to watch the cookies get smashed and feel really bad about it, we still have sympathy for the victims. At least I do. And I hope I never get too busy for that.

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

My future defense attorney

Sibling rivalry is one thing, but when it comes to blows, I have a zero tolerance policy in my home. If one child hits, kicks, bites, or explodes their latest Lego spacecraft above his brother’s head, he gets an instant time out, no questions asked. Predictably, after jail time has been served, I go to release the offender and hear all kinds of “it was HIS fault” arguments -- “He looked at me funny” “He called me a Snooter” “He was born in July.” I’ve tried to explain to them that there is simply no excuse for violence, ever. But gradually, my mini-lecture has been reduced to a simple, familiar exchange (and not only do they know the routine, they know that any hint of eye-rolling will result in a revoking of their parole).

Me: When is it okay to hit your brother?
Penitent child: Never.
Me: That’s right. Now go your way and sin no more.

See how simple that is? And oh so effective because after one time, they never ever fight with their brothers again. *Ahem.*

Anyway, Gabie, (as Gabies are wont to do) felt inclined to rewrite the script. He got in a tussle with McKay and kicked him. After his time-out, I commenced the rehearsed dialogue:

Me: When it is okay to kick your brother?
Gabie: Never.
Me: That’s right.
Gabie: Unless you’re Satan.

Oh dear. I’m sure he meant it in the “just pointing out the loop-hole in your theory” way rather than the “considering joining forces with Beelzebub” way. Still, I had to pause for a moment to pick my jaw off the floor. Where in the world does he get this stuff? And how should I respond? Do I laugh? Do I feign dismay? Do I put him back in time-out while I think about it?

In the end, I said, “Yes, I suppose you’re right.” And then he ran off to listen to a tape in his room – one of the collections of Bible stories he listens to over and over and over.

Sunday, March 04, 2007

A letter to my oldest son

Dear Ethan,

When I dropped you off at the Junior High orientation on Friday, I confess I was far more nervous than you about what awaits you next year. I helped you find a seat in the auditorium and hovered for too long to make sure you were okay amid a crowd of strangers. You may have been anxious for me to leave before I embarrassed you, but I was taking my time. To be honest, I was thinking of the many times I sat in this same auditorium 25 years ago when I attended school there – noticing that they still haven’t replaced the stained burgundy curtains on the stage – remembering that behind those curtains, backstage during a production of Tom Sawyer, I held hands with a boy for the first time. He was Huck Finn. (Even then I was attracted to the rebellious type.)

I looked at your face again (the one with the “Mom, you can GO now for Pete’s sake!” expression on it) and wondered if it was too late to tuck you under my arm and race you back home with me. Would you mind if we just postponed the whole Junior High thing for a while. Maybe forever? For the hundredth time I found myself questioning our decision back at the beginning of elementary school (just yesterday!) to have you skip a grade. You were so dang smart. You still are. But now I wish we had one more year to get used to the idea of you in Junior High.

I’m still trying to figure out when you went from being an appendage of me to being an independent person. Oh, sure if you want to go all technical on me, it was probably when they cut the umbilical cord. But I still clung to you pretty tightly after that. You were the first born, you poor thing. You suffered the full brunt of my overprotective mothering before it would be tempered by experience and more children than I could overprotect at one time.

Did it happen when I weaned you and could actually leave you for more than 3 hours at a time? Was it when you decided you were a vegetarian at the ripe old age of 2 and thus fired the first shot in the Great Food War that has yet to see a truce? Was it when you began making decisions you knew I would disapprove of, like reading those insidious Animorph books? (I assumed I could just let you get them out of your system and you’d go back to reading the National Geographic. How was I to know there were 6,000 books in the series? Either that or they are just reproducing – proliferating themselves at exponential rates in your backpack, on the floor of your room, under the seats in the van…they NEVER stop.)

Was it when you proved that I could make you take piano lessons, I could even – through gentle coercion, slightly more desperate bribery and downright threats – make you practice, but I could never make you WANT to play? Was it when, after homeschooling you, we sent you off to public school for the 5th grade, where you would vanish for 6 hours into another world? A world that remains a complete mystery to me, where you hang with friends I’ve never met, eat food I did not prepare, and learn things I did not teach you. Worst of all, when asked, “how did school go today?” you do not open up this world to me and fill in the details. Instead, you drop the dreaded F word: “fine”.

I think you took another big step towards independence yesterday at the Knowledge Bowl competition. I was so proud of you Ethan. You were confident and smart and did I mention SMART? Where did you learn all of that stuff? I’m sure I did not know who Mao Zedong was when I was your age. You also impressed me with your kind heart. When you beat the first three teams (and perhaps “beat” is too gentle a word because your team crushed them so resoundingly they were lucky to answer 2 or 3 questions), your first response was to say you felt sorry for your opponents. You, my sweet boy, never cease to amaze me.

And then, in the final round, when it was your turn to rotate out and you had to sit by me in the audience and watch while your team lost, I saw your kind heart break just a little. You agonized as your team missed questions that you knew the answers to. I could tell you wanted to jump up and help them. You wanted to blurt out all the answers and come to the rescue. But there was nothing you could do. You could only watch. And then cry a few tears on the way home when your teammates wouldn’t see.

And Ethan, if you asked me what it feels like to be a parent, I think I would say that you got a small taste of it yesterday. There are moments of joy and great pride and accomplishment, and then there are moments when you feel more than a little bit helpless – when you want to jump up and blurt out all the answers and come to the rescue but you can’t. Or at least you shouldn’t.

Maybe, if I lose enough weight by next year, you can squeeze me into your locker when you go to Junior High. What do you think?


Friday, March 02, 2007

I'll just keep swimming, thank you

I pushed the big orange PUBLISH button yesterday and almost instantly regretted it. Does the world really need another “woe is me” post?

But truth be told, I really needed to write it. Those ideas have been clanking around in my cluttered brain for weeks and it did me good to air the place out a bit. Thank you for listening and taking me seriously. And thank you for giving me advice, encouragement and praise. How can I feel sorry for myself when I confess my deep dark chocolate-syrupy fridge secret and my family and friends still think I’m worth knowing?

And so, in the coming days, I will follow some of your good advice and also follow some of my own inclinations.

I will say no to anything new asked of me, unless it will bring more joy into my home.

I will sit for a few minutes and take deep breaths (and I promise not to sigh too loudly as I exhale).

I will pray.

I will go to church. Due to various sick kids, I have only gone once in the past month and that was when we were in Arizona. Actually I fully didn’t intend to go there either and I conveniently “forgot” to pack my skirt, gosh darn it. But then Ken suggested that we really should go. So on Saturday night when I had to run to the local Walmart for some milk anyway, I said, “If God wants me to attend church, he will provide the skirt. Otherwise, I’m off the hook.” Wouldn’t you know I’d find the perfect skirt. On clearance. For three bucks. Apparently, God does have a sense of humor. And he works small retail miracles in a pinch.

I will return The Journals of Sylvia Plath to the library where it belongs. Pronto. I checked it out thinking I needed it for “research” on my book. But I should know better. Sylvia’s dark cloud is very contagious. I do not need to listen to the macabre voices in her head. Just look where they got her.

I will step back and look at the big picture. I have much to be grateful for, much to embrace, much to enjoy.

I will spend some time with my Mom.

I will remember that I always get depressed at this time of year. I feel like Phil in Groundhog Day: There is NO way that this winter is EVER going to end.

I will pause for a moment and wait for my soul to catch up with me. Rabbi Harold Kushner tells this story:
I read once of a group of tourists on safari in Africa. They had hired several native porters to carry their supplies while they trekked. After three days, the porters told them that they would have to stop and rest for a day. They were not tired, they explained, but “we have walked too far too fast and now we must wait for our souls to catch up with us.”
I’ve been so busy lately that I’ve neglected my soul. I’m not even sure that a chicken with its head cut off has a soul.

I will not laugh at myself over the fact that I have essentially just written yet another To Do list.

I will go, right now, and pick up this baby who just woke up and is jabbering in her crib and I will squeeze her and kiss her and gobble her up.

I will come back to edit this post to say that when I went to get Nora, she had produced a total diaper blow-out, and despite her adorable “I’m SO happy to see you Mom cause I made you a present” expression, was a bit too, shall we say seasoned to be gobbled.

But it did make me laugh. So it’s all good.

Thursday, March 01, 2007

Round and round she goes

Nicolaes Maes, Woman Spinning

She is spinning. From the looks of it, she has been spinning for a long time. Old, bent, wrinkled, losing her eyesight, she deftly sends the yarn into the spindle, creating one long continuous thread – the thread of her life. As long as she spins, the thread cannot be cut. As long as she spins – pulling raw fiber from the distaff, turning the wheel, twisting the thread – her life has meaning. She is diligent. She is industrious. She is not useless.

I am also spinning. And I mean that in many ways except the most literal one.

I am spinning my wheels
I have lost all traction. I race from one appointment to the next, always late, out of breath, unprepared, overwhelmed. And yet at the end of the day I think “have I accomplished anything today?”

I am in a tailspin
My life seems to be caught in a steep spiral. I’m not sure when the descent began. Was it when I started spending so much time on my blog? Was it when I broke my foot? Was it when the fourth baby arrived? Was it before then? All I know is that somewhere along the line, I started letting a few things slide and some other things pile up and some more things go undone. The next thing I know, jars are sticking to the shelf in the fridge because I just can’t get around to wiping up the chocolate syrup that spilled in there 5 months ago. I don’t respond to emails. I find myself “wingin’ it” through lectures I haven’t had time to thoroughly prepare. I’m sitting last night at parent-teacher conference with my son and I notice that his fingernails haven’t been trimmed for so long they qualify as lethal weapons. Dirty ones. And worst of all, I’ve become one of those people (you’re going to hate me now and never visit my blog again) who say they will do something and then don’t do it. I’ve just lost control. It’s like one of those really bad Airplane! movies where the pilot has died and the turbulence is terrible and then lightening strikes the plane and the air-headed stewardess has to land the crippled craft. That’s me. Not the stewardess but the plane. Mayday, mayday, I’m going down fast and my rudder is in flames. (You know you’ve taken a metaphor too far when you’ve grown a rudder).

Watch me spin a hundred plates at once
I started writing down a list of the plates I have in the air – the myriad things I have to keep track of on a daily basis (kids, kids’ school, kids’ food intake, kids’ sleeping habits, kids’ extracurriculars, self, self’s diet, self’s job, self’s church responsibilities….) I gave up when I got severe writer’s cramp after the third page.

I’m caught in the spin cycle
Sisyphus and I are old pals. He pushes his rock up the hill and I carry my laundry basket. Together we share the fate of the futile laborer. The clothes never stay clean. The floors never stay swept. The food goes into the children and then it comes back out again. I struggle to learn the names of 90 students, teach them everything I know about Vermeer and Chopin, read a pile of papers and exams, and agonize over each and every score. Then I print out my final grade roll on one page followed by another for the next semester’s batch of new students. I suspect they never actually graduate. It’s really just the same ones cycling through again and again. And still I’m not sure if they’re learning anything.

Will I ever get control of my life again? Will I ever wake up with a feeling of joy at the thought of a new day instead of an ache in my jaw from grinding my teeth all night? Will I ever have a clear head and a spring in my step and clean fridge?

And don’t tell me “when the kids are grown you’ll look back at these times and cherish them.” I want to cherish them now. I want to love every minute of the ride instead of clinging to the side, mind reeling, pupils whirling, dizzy and nauseous. I’d do so much better if someone could just please get this crazy Teacup to stop spinning.