Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Gabie-ism for the day

So I was just resting my eyes for one minute. Please. One minute is all I asked. I had to close my bedroom door and climb into bed to do this because the kids were making too much noise and I wanted to avoid mommy reality just long enough to knock the edge off my headache. But I should know better.

Exactly 49 seconds into my delusion, Gabie pops open the door and comes over to stick his face next to mine and inform me that he's invented a new musical instrument with pipes, sand and water. "It's a Gabie horn," he says.

"You know, that's fabulous," I tell him, "but Gabie, when are you going to learn that if the door is shut, I just want to be left alone for a minute?"

He doesn't even have to think about it: "I'll probably learn that in 2 more years."

Great. Well at least I have a timetable to work with.

Thursday, June 21, 2007

Black and white

So I was pretty miffed about the Convergences thing and I thought long and hard about composing a letter of protest to Lawrence Weschler, but really I have no evidence of a crime and no way to prove my essay came first other than an email I sent that he never responded to. Plus I would likely spend hours agonizing over every word in the letter and then when I got no reply (again) or a reply of denial, I would kick myself for wasting my time which is what frustrated me about the whole thing in the first place. I have better things to worry about right now. Like the fact that whenever I put her down in the backyard, my daughter won’t stop eating dirt clods.

Another thing I’m worried about right now is my 20th year reunion coming up in two months. Several months ago when I made the realization that it had been 20 years since I graduated from high school, I vowed to get in shape and look my best for the reunion. I’m not sure why this is so important to me. My friends – the people I hung out with in school and still keep in touch with – have already seen me at my best and worst and love me for who I am. But strangely, it’s not them I’m worried about. I want to look good to all the other 450 members of my graduating class whom I hardly know and have not seen in 20 years and will likely never see again. This is completely absurd, I know, but there it is. I’m a mother, a college professor, a confident, mature adult; but put me in a room with my graduating class and I am 16 again, obsessed with what other people think of me, worried that my hair will go flat before 4th period, convinced that all the keys to happiness are held by the thin, tan, well-dressed popular creatures who glide down the halls like demigods.

But then I have those rational moments where I say, “pshaw to the class of ’87! What do I care what they think of me?” and I sit in bed reading the fifth Harry Potter book for the 4th time instead of jogging and I eat chocolate chips by the handfuls, which is why my vow to get in shape isn’t going so well. I’ve always been a black and white thinker. I don’t spend much time in the gray areas of life. I am skinny. I am fat. I am dieting and training for a marathon. I am a slug.

Mark Rothko, Black on Grey
I feel this way about most things, not just dieting. Maybe I take the whole “those who are lukewarm will be spewed” warning too seriously because I tend to go for the extremes. Some days I come up with a stroke of genius idea for my class and I think I’m the worlds most brilliant teacher. Other days I stand up there struggling to remember a simple word like “superstition” and I realize I’m a total fraud. One moment I’m already mentally spending the millions I’m going to make from my best-selling novel. The next I’m utterly embarrassed by my various pathetic attempts at a first chapter. Are my kids fortunate to have me as a mom? Or will they rightfully tell their therapists someday that all their phobias, hang-ups and failings are all my fault? She was always nagging me about putting away my cereal bowl and she never shared the chocolate chips!

Maybe I need to wallow in moderation once in a while. Today, for example, there’s a lull before the storm (end of one term, beginning of another) and I don’t feel like donning my Nazi uniform for the SS Chore and Practice Patrol. My boys are playing with Lego in their pajamas and I’m okay with that. My house is not a total disaster, but it’s not clean by any stretch of the imagination either. I’m an average mother of typical dimensions with a medium-sized collection of un-recycled grocery bags wadded up in her garage. I am not Paris Hilton and I am not Rosanne Barr. I am something in between.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Execution on the 15th of May, 2007

Over a month ago (May 15th to be exact), I put my finishing touches on a little essay and sent it off to an online contest recommended by Anne Kroeker (a fellow Blogger and terrific writer). The point of the contest is to find unique “convergences” or unlikely pairing of images. And I use the term “contest” only because that’s how the McSweeney’s website identifies it; as far as I can tell, there is no prize to be won other than seeing your name in print somewhere other than your own blog and the chance to have Lawrence Weschler, an author I greatly admire(d), read your writing and post his own response to it. But being an attention junkie, I took the challenge seriously and spent several hours composing my little essay. Then I mailed it off to the contest and waited.

And waited.

And waited.

I received not so much as a “thanks for your interest but you suck” in reply (and really it’s not like they’d even have to waste a stamp on me or anything). If it weren’t for the fact that May was the Month of No Brain for me, I would have sent a few follow-up emails, but that’s hard to do without a computer so I just waited some more.

Anyway, here’s my essay. I’ll continue the story after you’ve had a chance to read it.

Ready, aim . . .
by Julie Q.

When I encountered this photo in a book about the Spanish Civil War, I immediately thought of another Spanish firing squad: the one from Goya’s Execution of the Madrilenos on May 3, 1808.

It was the soldiers’ legs that first caught my eye – the way they create a row of receding triangles in both images. Along with the synchronized legs, the obscured faces of the executioners and the perfectly horizontal line of the guns aligned together as a single weapon leave an impression of machinelike efficiency. And isn’t that the aim (pardon the pun) of a firing squad? Like other forms of execution – the guillotine, the electric chair, the lethal injection – the firing squad was meant to eliminate individual culpability and dehumanize the process. But also in both scenes, the precision of the squad merely accentuates the humanity of their target. We are bound to sympathize with the man in white as he awaits his fate.

Another striking similarity is the way both images record a torturous moment that has already occurred and at the same time has yet to occur. Both capture the pregnant pause before the execution. As witnesses after the fact we are keenly aware that the shots will be fired / have been fired, but we can do nothing to intervene.

The man in the white shirt shows up again during the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989 (seen here in the famous photo taken by Jeff Widener). The four faceless executioners have been upgraded to tanks; their absurd show of force against the lone figure strikes me as overkill in the literal sense of the word. Of course “tank man” (as he was later dubbed) walked away intact, but it’s the loaded moment here that we remember.

Okay, so maybe it’s not a Pulitzer prize winner or even a Convergence Pseudo-contest winner, but I thought it was interesting enough to waste a day composing it.

Today, thinking I should finally send a follow-up email asking if they liked it or not, I checked the Convergences Contest website and found THIS.

Holy crap. What do you think? Have I been done a serious injustice or it just the most profound coincidence in the history of the internet?

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

What I learned from the ducks

Yesterday, I went on a field trip with some of my favorite people: my kids, my husband (kidnapped from work for a few hours), my friend/neighbor Kathy and her kids and, Lara (the one and only – always great to see her again) and her kids. I arranged this trip to the Great Salt Lake Nature Center weeks ago and it turned out to be well worth waiting for. Ethan is an avid bird watcher so I was primarily thinking of him when I set up the visit, but we all had a marvelous time studying the ecology of the Farmington Bay wildlife refuge and seeing the birds. There were huge pelicans with 9-foot wing spans, avocets on their nests, blackbirds everywhere, all kinds of ducks and shore birds, and a whole telephone-pole rookery full of cranes. Wow. I think I spent the whole 2 hours with my eyes glued to the binoculars and a permanent smile stretched across my face.

After dropping Ken back off at work, Kathy and I went to Liberty Park in Salt Lake for a picnic lunch. This was the highlight of the day for Kathy’s kids who had a blast feeding the huge flock of geese who live there. Sure we had just spent the morning studying birds in their natural habitat, but there’s just something special about being able to get close enough to feed them your sandwich crusts and pick up their discarded feathers and smear the bottom of your tennis shoes with a layer of their guacamole-colored poop.

As if that weren’t enough for one day, we decided on a whim to stop at the new IKEA on the way home. Kathy and I had some silly notion of letting the kids play in the kid zone while we took a look around, but as it turned out, the store was packed (read: a two hour wait for the kid zone) so we just wandered around with our jaws hanging down for a while and then left without buying so much as a napkin. The place is utterly amazing. It’s a castle a palace a temple. A temple to Jörgen Ikea, the Swedish god of home décor. (I just made that up. Does it sound credible?) I couldn’t get over the monumentality and density of it all. And of course from the minute I began rolling my child-laden cart down the polished concrete aisles, I was overwhelmed with the feeling that I needed everything I saw. My life was incomplete until I owned that crocheted pillow, that drying rack, that potted bamboo plant. How did I ever live without a room full of toddler-sized wicker furniture? I tell you, the place casts a powerful spell.

Madame Matisse by Henri Matisse
The other almost dizzying thing about IKEA is how bright all the colors are. The place produces a sensory overload, perhaps meant to stimulate your brain into a buying frenzy but in fact a bit on the nauseating side for me after a while. I felt like I was trapped inside a giant bag of Skittles. Maybe I’m a bit over-sensitive to the question of color because it’s something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately. I’m brainstorming an idea related to color for my novel (yes, still working on it) and in my college class just last week, I taught my students about the “emancipation of color” that happens at the end of the 19th century in art. Some of my students have a hard time with the use of arbitrary color by artists like Gauguin and Matisse. The blue trees, yellow faces, and red grass seem crazy and illogical compared to everything we've seen up to that point in the class – they want art that follows the rules and imitates nature.

But since my trip to IKEA I’ve been struck by the thought that our own culture is absolutely filled with arbitrary color even more so than the culture in which these early Modernist artists lived. If anything, we should find it easier to embrace modern art than the 19th and early 20th century audiences did. Just look around. Our real sky may be blue and the trees may be green, but everything else is artificially colored. My car is gold, my walls are sage, my CapriSun is pink, the Kleenex box on my desk is bright purple with little flowers all over it, the shirt I’m wearing right now is dyed an insipid shade of Kermit-the-frog green, and the toys scattered all over my floor are every conceivable color of plastic with the brightest saturation possible. Is any of this logical? Our world is a place of flashy, fake colors produced by a marketing industry that uses textiles, packaging and media to attract our attention. The plumage is always intense because it's always mating season at IKEA.

It’s not that nature isn’t colorful. Yesterday we saw ducks with blue beaks and others with emerald green heads; the blackbirds had bright red and yellow spots on their wings. But in nature, color always serves a purpose: it attracts a mate or warns a predator or helps with pollination. And nature knows when to go easy with the paint brush. I learned yesterday that the Mallard drake sheds its characteristic green feathers and cannot fly during the late summer. This is when it grows light brown feathers to help it blend in with its surroundings. Subtlety: what a concept. The difference between humans and ducks is that we seem to have forgotten the value of camouflage.

Friday, June 08, 2007

Baby Steps (and I don't mean that in the cutesy metaphorical sense)

I’ve been saving this Van Gogh painting for months thinking it would be fun to post on the day Nora started walking. My older 3 sons all started walking when they were about 10 months old. Nora (current age: 13 months) must be on an entirely different time table. It’s not that I’ve been anxious for her to walk but I have been puzzled by her complete disinterest in the whole process. She cruises around holding onto furniture or someone’s hand, but if you gently suggest she stand on her own, she immediately plops down on her bum and launches off into a speedy crawl.

Last night I was playing the piano with Nora on my lap (who knew Mozart had such a fondness for dissonance?). Finally, when I'd had enough of her colorful "accidentals" and extra flourishes on the keys, I set her down next to the piano. I assumed she would grab onto my leg or the piano bench for balance. Instead, she steadied herself in a standing position and trotted over to Ethan who was sitting on the couch – 4 or 5 steps away. Shocked and amazed, Ethan and I got into “walk to me baby!” positions on the floor and let her march back and forth between us a few times. Then (when it was obviously not a fluke but a genuine, bona fide Milestone Moment) we ran to get her Dad and the video camera.

Apparently Nora has been holding out on us. Ethan says she must have been practicing walking in her crib in the middle of the night. Maybe she’s just a perfectionist and wanted to get it right before unveiling her talent instead of embarrassing herself, as all my other children did, with that prolonged drunken sailor phase. Maybe she’s just a cautious child and had to build up the confidence to walk even though she’s had the strength for months. Maybe she had the power all along but just didn’t realize it (ah, there’s a Dorothy and her ruby slippers metaphor in there somewhere).

I’m amused by her new trick, but I’m also more than a little sad. She’s my last baby and now she’s not a baby anymore. She’s officially a toddler. Is it weird that I don’t want her to stay in the helpless infant stage but at the same time I don’t want her to step away from it? I feel excited. I feel strangely remorseful. I feel confused. I feel old.

Tuesday, June 05, 2007

Pirates of the back yard

Last Saturday, Ken and Nora and I went to our friend Dave’s birthday party. His wife Sheri planned a big murder mystery theme – pirate style. I was First Mate of one crew, Nora was my chief lackey and deck swabber, and Ken was a marooned Spanish nobleman with an aversion to having his picture taken.

Dave and Sheri are old friends (and since both of them have now hit the big Four Oh mark before us, I can say that they are really really OLD friends) and only for Dave would Ken be willing to role play for 3 hours with a whole group of relative strangers. Ken did draw the line at wearing the costume I picked out for him at the thrift store. For some reason he objected to wearing a women’s blouse and wasn’t convinced that a Spanish nobleman would TOTALLY have worn red silk and loved every minute of it. “Back then,” I argued, “real men wore red silk and high-heeled boots and jewelry around their neck and lots and lots of eye makeup. Haven’t you ever seen Johnny Depp in drag?” Ken would have none of that. I guess I should be grateful that my husband refuses to be a cross-dresser, even for one night. But I did note (okay, so I more like rubbed it in) that when we got to the party several of the men – including Dave – were sporting conspicuously feminine blouses.

The murder mystery aspect of the evening was, in all honesty, totally frustrating and we never did figure out who killed the pirate captain. Come to think of it, aside from the chocolate cake, I never saw a bit of treasure either. And this being a Mormon party and Dave being a bishop and all, there was no rum to be found on the island, so in the end I suspect there never was a more sober, fashion-impaired, baby-toting bunch of swash-bucklers in all suburbia. But the gathering was fun just because Sheri went to great lengths to make us play along and Dave and Sheri’s friends were all incredibly nice people. And if there's something the world needs more of, it's nicer pirates.

The party made me think of the many times I’ve played card games with my siblings into the wee hours of the morning. I’ve said before that it really doesn’t matter what game we’re playing. It’s the people who matter. Games are just the catalyst for the family banter and jokes that get us laughing until our stomachs ache and we beg for mercy. I dare anyone to play a round of Spoons with my brothers and sisters without getting caught up in the humor and hysteria (and without getting claw marks on their knuckles because what fun is Spoons if you're not inflicting flesh wounds on your loved ones?).

So I’m thinking of family and treasure and naturally the old but true cliché that they are one and the same. And that’s exactly the point Angelica Kauffmann made in her painting Cornelia Pointing to her Children as her Treasures. While Cornelia’s friend (at the right) pulls jewels from her treasure box and shows them off with pride, Cornelia, a model of Roman maternal virtue, points to her children instead. In fact, she doesn’t point so much as she opens her hand in a humble gesture quite different from her friend’s materialistic pinching motions. “Here are my sons” Cornelia seems to say, “they’re not much to look at, but they mean more to me than all the jewels in the world. They’re my whole life.” Sure, it’s a didactic painting, but Kauffmann’s audience was seeking morals in their art, which looking back from our own age of Madonnas painted with elephant dung, I have to say sounds very refreshing to me. Kauffmann’s audience would also have known, without resorting to Wikipedia, that Cornelia’s sons would grow up to serve Rome faithfully and make their mother proud.

Speaking of treasures, my brain was returned to me yesterday intact and functional. I was so happy to see my UPS man arrive with a big, laptop-shaped rectangular box that I leaped from my porch to hug and kiss him. Or at least to yank the box from his arms and do a (careful) little happy dance with it. As UPS man handed me the electronic pad to sign my name, he said, “Hey, I know you.” And I’m thinking, Well duh, you’re my UPS man. But he says, “I remember you from Dave’s party.” And I look up and try to imagine him wearing something other than UPS brown from his hat to his socks, slowly remembering him as another character in the recent unsolvable pirate murder mystery. “Oh yeah,” I finally answer. “Sorry. I totally didn’t recognize you without your girly shirt.”