Monday, August 20, 2007


Well, I survived my much anticipated / dreaded 20th year class reunion. I feel a bit like McKay did last week when we finally had his birthday party (after two years of being out of town on his birthday and making do with be-candled angel food cake in campgrounds, he got to have a big friend party so we went all out with the Harry Potter theme). The night after McKay’s party, when found him crying in bed, I asked him: “Hey buddy, what’s wrong? Didn’t you have a good time?” And he said, “I had a great time. But now what?”

So here I am, on the other side of three reunion parties (two of which I helped plan and one of which I was in charge of) and I’m thinking now what? I had a great time catching up with old friends (the emphasis being on the OLD part – we’re a bunch of dinosaurs) and as I truly have fond memories of High School, the walk down memory lane took me past some pleasant recollections. But at the end of the lane, there is nothing looming - no big events, no destinations, just my ordinary, somewhat boring life.

I was tempted to invent myself a better life for bragging purposes at the reunion dinner. Moi? I’m a freelance writer with a 7-figure contract in the works….Oh, I just have 8 children, all of whom are Olympic hopefuls in various sports, but how about yourself?... Yes, my husband produces feature films, but lately he’s far too busy with his humanitarian missions to Bangladesh and composing those pesky Nobel Prize acceptance speeches.

At the dinner, they gave away door prizes to the alumni with the most children, the most years of post-High School education, the most visited countries under their belts, etc. I, of course, won nothing. Had they given prizes in the following categories, I would have walked away with my arms full:
  • Most recent Lasik surgery (Monday) and thus the most hideous broken blood vessels in her eyes and the fewest intact eyelashes and the blotchiest makeup and most frequent trips out into the hall for another hit of eyedrops.
  • Best impersonation of a drug addict (see above).
  • Most national parks under her belt (17).
  • Most pounds lost for the reunion (15, which was far less than I had hoped to lose, but at least I didn’t have to wear maternity clothes. Oh, wait, my skirt was actually one I bought at Motherhood. Drat. But, hey, it was really stretchy material).
  • Most likely to show up spouse-less to the reunion (Ken argued that he would be bored and he might as well stay home so we could save the $50 and the cost of a babysitter).
  • Best adult re-enactment of her teenage wallflower days. People kept telling me that I haven’t changed a bit since graduation, but while I’m clinging like a barnacle to my far more attractive and popular friend Kathy and her husband Rick as they navigated the crowd, I'm thinking: yeah, I remember feeling exactly this insecure at every gymnasium dance I ever attended. Good grief!
  • Most overdue library fines paid in the last 20 years.
  • Largest collection of mustard bottles past their expiration dates in her fridge.
Gee, talk about your exotic life. I could have put all those doctors and professional musicians in my class to shame. But instead, I chose not to hog the limelight because that’s just the kind of selfless person I am. I can’t guarantee such modesty at the 40th reunion so watch out. Which reminds me, I’d better get busy because I only have 240 months to lose a few more pounds…

Friday, August 03, 2007

creating a monster

When Victor Frankenstein was in the throes of constructing a living being from pieces of the dead, he found himself engaged “heart and soul in the pursuit.” He thought of nothing else. He neglected correspondence with his family in Geneva. His skin turned pale because he spent so little time outdoors, and several beautiful seasons passed while he toiled away at his experiments and gathered specimens from graves. He stayed up late into the evenings and later he recalled that “the moon gazed on my midnight labours” and “the stars often disappeared in the light of morning whilst I was yet engaged in my laboratory.” He was a man truly obsessed with the creative process and consumed by thoughts of its outcome. In Victor Frankenstein’s words, his attention was fixed.

The concept of one’s attention being fixed upon a particular object plays out musically in Berlioz’ famous Symphony Fantastique. Berlioz wrote the symphony at the height of his infatuation with an actress named Harriet Smithson, who would not give him the time of day. (And frankly, who could blame her since at that point he was essentially a crazed musician/fan/stalker sending her creepy love letters? Eventually, by the way, he won her over with his persistence and musical tribute – some guys write ballads; he wrote a fully-orchestrated, five movement symphony – and they did marry and within a few years, he had tired of her and moved on because what else did you expect from a musician?).

So. Berlioz’ autobiographical symphony tells the story of a young man of “ardent disposition” who becomes positively ill with love for a woman he hardly knows. (Eventually he tries to kill himself with an overdose of opium, dreams he murders her and is marched to the scaffold where they chop off his head, which is the not-so-autobiographical part). Berlioz represents the unattainable image of his beloved throughout the symphony by a single melody that shows up in various forms – enticing him here, taunting him there, howling along with an infernal dance of witches who do a line dance on his grave elsewhere. Berlioz called it (and here’s where the connection with Frankenstein comes in) an idée fixe: a fixed idea. The phrase, when used in a non-musical sense, means an obsession that dominates the mind, a fixation that you return to again and again like a true love, or a mosquito bite you can’t help but scratch or the taste of a sweet pork burrito that has you addicted.

I’ve been thinking about my various obsessions (which like Berlioz’ sadly quenchable passion for Harriet often wax and wane) and how they engage my heart and soul, and battle each other for my attention. What frustrates me most is that sometimes my obsessions complement my family, which is the most permanent (or fixed) passion of my life. But sometimes they detract from it. For example, at one point, when Ethan and McKay were much younger, I became preoccupied with, to quote the title of one of the many books I read, Raising Brighter Children. While I am growing more certain, as my children get older and I’ve acquired a couple more of them, that their intellectual strengths and weaknesses were mostly hard-wired before arrival and less shaped by my efforts than I’d like to believe, I do think that the Brighter Kids phase was a good thing for our family. Likewise with my brief Fly Lady phase (first shiny kids, now a shiny sink!), and my occasional Chef Julie phases, and my obsession with wardrobing my whole clan with nice clothes bought cheaply at the thrift store. Then there’s quilting, which on its lovely stippled surface looks and feels like a sensible domestic craft but turned out to be addictive, time-consuming and expensive. There’s something less than sensible in the process of buying 50 quarter-flat pieces of fabric that you then spend weeks cutting apart and stitching back together. Besides, of the seven quilts I have made, only one of them was intended for my own family; the rest I gave away. And I spent so much time making that one single quilt that when finally finished, it was clearly “too nice” to wrap around my son in his crib or spread on the floor where it might possibly get dirty. It now rests in all its pristine, completely useless glory, draped tastefully across a now also unusable rocking chair: a small shrine to the domestic goddess that I once aspired to be.

I have found a kind of delicate balance between my passion for teaching and my love of motherhood. But the truth of it is that were I free to obsess about one to the exclusion of the other, I would be much better at it. As it stands, I feel inadequate and over-taxed at both, and moments of pure, confident joy are rare. I walked to my car after last night’s class on a high. My lecture went very well and the class discussion was lively and thought-provoking. Some days I grasp for words to convey my meaning but last night I was articulate and witty, apparently visited by some kind of teaching muse from the gods. It doesn’t happen all that often, but when it does, I think: this is why I teach!

This morning I was struck with the question: Did I teach well last night because I happened to have spent the entire day in meetings discussing how to be a better teacher? Or did I teach well last night because I happened to have spent the entire day in meetings? (i.e. not at home reading board books and scraping petrified Corn Chex off the tile with a spatula just before grabbing my books and notes and sailing out to the car with a frantic wave to the kids). Then again, maybe it was just the incredible mint brownie I ate on my way out of the meetings, which is the option I’m kind of hoping for since that would be the easiest factor to recreate.

“As mother is in the throes of creative fervor, baby tumbles head first into the bathtub”
From the Bluestockings Series by Honoré Daumier

And then there’s my writing. Lately it is my Frankenstein’s monster, the pursuit that consumes my thoughts and keeps me up late into the evening, when the children are asleep and only the moon is out to gaze upon my labors. There is truly an obsessive quality to any creative endeavor. Ideas come to me at intervals all day long and late into the night. And if I’m lucky, sometimes I wake up with another one waiting for me at the edge of my brain, plated, garnished and ready to serve. But I can’t allow my fixation with finishing my writing project (and finding a publisher which is a whole other monster Frankenstein never had to worry about) to hurt my family. And believe me, the irony of the situation – writing about parenting while neglecting my children to do so – has not escaped me. The above caricature by Daumier pops into my mind so often it might as well be tattood there. So like a mad scientist skulking about the graveyards collecting an elbow here and a foot there, I piece together my creations at random and I proofread drafts at red traffic lights and I dream of seeing my name printed on a book with a dedication page that says: to my family with love.