Monday, March 31, 2008

from behind the stacks

Among other things, here’s what I’ve been doing lately:

Man, those piles don't even look that bad from this angle. Why does it take so dang long to get through them? Sigh. Ah well, the life of a professor/wife/mother/wanna-be-writer is never dull. Exhausting sometimes maybe, but never dull.

And never, ever lonely because—with the exception of the productive six hours spent entirely by myself in my office on campus on Saturday (thanks Ken!)—I usually have lots of company when I grade papers. I have little helpers willing to reorganize my stacks and doodle on the pages and play Mr. Crocodile with the stapler. And seriously, how can I be lonely when Nora’s right next to me, carrying on a gripping conversation with grandpa on my calculator her new cell phone?

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

rhapsody in boo

“I saw a stable with four coffee-colored cows…the stable bluish-white…and a great green curtain in the doorway…I saw another very quiet and lovely thing the other day, a girl with coffee-tinted skin…ash-blonde hair, gray eyes, a print bodice of pale pink…against the emerald leaves of some fig trees”
--Vincent van Gogh

When Vincent van Gogh traveled to Paris and encountered Impressionist art for the first time, he said he felt the power of color “awaken” within him. It was as if he had never seen colors before, as if he had never truly noticed colors in the natural world until he saw the intensity with which the Parisian artists captured them on canvas. The awakening dramatically changed van Gogh’s art. It is easy to divide his paintings into those that came before the Paris summer of 1886 and those that came after. There’s a Wizard of Oz kind of threshold moment that separates the two periods. A door opened and he went from painting coal miners in dimly-lit, sepia-toned rooms to painting blossoming plum trees and powder blue skies.

Vincent van Gogh, Drawbridge with a lady with a parasol (1888)

Nora is also awakening to colors. Has she discovered them on her own or are we teaching them to her? I’m not sure. All I know is that somewhere in her wanderings, she has noticed that a thing can be a thing and simultaneously a member of a certain category of things known as blue or red or yellow or pink. We had a false start a few weeks ago when she excitedly pointed to a group of blue circles in a book and exclaimed “boo!” over and over as she pointed to each one. Only when she used the same word on red circles and purple circles did I realize she thought they were all balloons. But today, she tells me that her shoes are a “boo” and Gabie’s sweatshirt is a “boo” and the sippy cup I have handed her is a “boo” as well. These things are all blue and are not round and do not contain helium so I think she’s got the right idea.

Do the awareness of color and the language to describe it come together? Is Nora just discovering that things are “boo” or is she simply finally gaining the word to let us know what she already knows? Did Vincent appreciate vibrant colors—the coffee-colored cows and emerald-green trees that he describes in a letter to his brother—before he had the means, the new pigments and the desire to paint them?

Gabie has left his box of Crayola 64’s on the table. I pull out my favorite color in the box: periwinkle blue. Call me unoriginal; I’ve learned from Crayola’s website that periwinkle is #7 on their list of the 50 most-popular shades of crayon. It’s just a great color. I wear it whenever I can. I would dream in periwinkle if possible. In Vincent’s painting of the drawbridge, there’s a tiny patch of periwinkle in the sky over the bridge—in the right-hand corner, just above the little white building—where light blue blends for just a moment with a touch of lavender. But Vincent would never have used the term periwinkle (or even its equivalent in French whatever that is). The word was only first used to describe a color in 1949—more than 50 years after Vincent’s death. So what did he call it? Did he have a special term for the new shade as he created it, blended it on the palette or discovered it on the canvas? Or was it just a variation of blue—or boo? I suspect he noticed it. And if he didn’t give it a name, at least he saw it and he liked it and he left it there for me to find.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Goodbye Judith, hello Abra

In last night’s dream, I am preparing for some kind of formal dance. I am in the cubicle of a public bathroom, changing into my dress and trying to fix my hair and makeup (…in a 3 x 3 space with no comb, no brush, no mirror…but trying). There is a gaggle of unfamiliar young girls outside, congregating around the sinks. I see their pointy shoes under my door, smell their fruity perfumes and hairsprays, hear their voices through gaps between the cubicle walls. Then one of the girls stands next to my door and speaks directly to me. “We’re making bets,” she says. “We bet you don’t dance with anyone tonight.”

I let out a snort. I am not injured by their juvenile bet and I answer the voice with all the confidence a half-dressed lady in a bathroom cubicle can muster, “That’s where you’re wrong, missy,” I say. “I’m married! I have a built-in dance partner. Besides, I’m a grown woman with four children. What do I care?” The girls are not impressed. They laugh and begin to speak a foreign language—a foreign body language—tossing slinky skirt hems and turning slender ankles and walking out, leaving a cloud of scent and a running sink tap behind them.

I finish dressing and step out into the bathroom. I turn off the water. I look up at the mirror and see myself for the first time in my dream. I am a grown woman with four children. And I have the spotted skin, the forehead creases, and the thick neck to go with it. I am old. I am old. When did I get so old?

I am fairly experienced in armchair self-analysis. I can piece together the various recent events that have influenced my dream, the most important being yesterday's attempts to dress up and photograph myself for a “head shot” requested of me by a journal about to publish one of my essays. The interim results (as seen on the tiny LCD on the back of my camera) looked flattering. The final results (as seen for real on my computer screen) were disappointing and embarrassing. I look desperate, like a post-80s Farrah Fawcett. The truth is dawning on me: after years of looking younger than my age, the pendulum has begun to swing the other way.

Many painters prior to about the 19th century tended to polarize women into two (and only two) categories: young and old. And by young I mean impossibly beautiful, virginal goddesses. By old I mean shriveled nursemaids with one gnarled foot in the grave. There’s no room in between for pleasant, middle-aged maternal types in support hose. There’s no room for mature-but-not-ancient, for wise-but-not-wizened.

Take Caravaggio’s painting of Judith and Holofernes for example.

His Judith (who in the Apocryphal story is an intelligent, resourceful widow) looks about 16 to me. The only creases on her forehead come from her childish expression of squeamishness. She is right in the middle of slicing off the head of an Assyrian general, but to Caravaggio, she is more like a timid teenager, recoiling from the surprising sloppiness of her first kiss.

Judith’s maidservant Abra, on the other hand, is an old hag. She is withered and stooped. Her face has a complex topography. She hangs over Judith’s shoulder like a shrunken apple witch-head. She waits with her apron open to catch the head when Judith finishes her slice. But for some reason, Abra does not help in the process (unlike the Gentileschi version of the same scene I saw in Phoenix last summer). Does Caravaggio think she’s too old and weak? She looks to me as if she has a lifetime of experience behind her, a lifetime of gory unpleasant experiences to have toughened her up: the blood of a thousand cycles, the de-boning of chickens, the childbirths and the cutting of cords, the washing and wrapping of bodies for burial (her parents and maybe a few of her own children). What does Judith know of these things? Nothing. She has only her beauty and naive bravery to commend her. But this is enough for Caravaggio to cast her in the role. So we are not the first generation to lament that all the good parts go to the young actresses.

I am vain. I like being older but I don’t like looking older. Last night's dream is just another of many portents: the failing memory, the wrinkles, the chipped teeth (the teeth! why did no one warn me that my teeth would be the first to show my age?). I can tell the 40s are going to be hard on me. It’s a good thing I have one more year to get used to the idea.

Monday, March 17, 2008

a lament for what's left of my mind

I am a smart person. If I were the bragging type, I would mention that I once got a perfect score on the math portion of the ACT, but I’m not the bragging type. I can write essays and grant proposals. For Pete’s sake I’m a college professor. So can someone please tell me why I’m so scatterbrained? I think it's getting worse. I’m seriously beginning to wonder if I’m showing early signs of Alzheimer’s, which I know first affects the frontal lobe where you store short-term memories—those post-it notes of the mind. Well, my post-it notes have lost all their stickiness; everything just falls off and floats away in the cerebral wind-tunnels of my airy head.

I’m not kidding. If I felt like I had any wits left, I would say I’m at the end of them. I could give you many examples, but here are two recent ones.

I’m driving the carpool to McKay’s school. Chad (our neighbor) is not ready yet and I tell his dad that I’ll pick up the 3 other kids and come back for him. I pick up the other kids. I remember at the third house that I must now go back and get Chad. I remember at the first turn. I remember at the stop sign. And then….the next time I think of Chad, I’m half way to the school and I have to turn around and go back and get him. Do I need to staple these things to my forehead?

This morning, I sent Gabie off to school, forgetting the fact that today is March 17, as in St. Patrick’s day, as in the day no child without green is safe from sadistic taunting and pinching from kids whose mothers are not suffering from holiday repression syndrome. Never mind that just before sending him out the door, I had blithely emptied his backpack of all last week’s paper detritus, noting all the little green shamrocks and leprechauns and pots of gold, and registering none of it in my head long enough to make the connection with St. Patrick’s day. Hello?

Fortunately, before McKay got dressed, he saw that I had written a big note (in green ink, no less) on the calendar to remind us all to WEAR GREEN TODAY! I immediately grabbed a green shirt and drove it to Gabie’s school. When I snuck in and asked his teacher if I could pull him out of class for just a second, she told me that he had been crying. It broke my heart. I helped him change his shirt and then drove back home, shedding a few tears of my own. I’d like to say they were green tears, but they weren’t. Just tears. And just a few since I had things to do and no time to waste. But I’m seriously at a loss as to how I can cope better with my obvious mental deterioration.

This is my brain.

Or maybe this is my brain.

And this is how I feel about my brain. At least for today.

Domenico Feti, Melancholy (1620)

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Guest Blog: The Husband

I’m the guy who you may have read about in passing on Julie’s blog (or not). I’m the guy who fixes a lot of things that I didn’t break. Things like a clothes dryer with a sock inside it because the lint filter didn’t get replaced.

I’m the guy who wants to cut down the pine trees in the front yard, which our oldest son tries to make me feel guilty about, because I’m tired of constantly raking the pine needles that fall from them. I’m also the one who weeds the garden Julie has occasionally written about and usually the last one standing when illness strikes the household.

As promised, there’s not written much about me in Julie’s blog. I’m OK with that because that’s the way it should be.

A few things you may have known about me (or not): I broke Julie’s complementary (and therefore irreplaceable) birthing center mug. I regularly give her a hard time about her stacks of overdue library books—many of which she hasn’t had time to read--and the associated fines. I’m also the one who sometimes plays a song I really like over and over until Julie can’t take it any more.

Perhaps this will give Julie some future ideas for her blog. As long as it isn’t about me (and I don’t have to fix anything), I’m OK with that.

I often hear the clicking of computer keys, the hum--or is a whine?--of the laptop’s hard drive (that is probably slowly dying) early in the morning and late at night, during the youngest child’s naps, on holidays, Saturdays, and most days ending in a “y.”

When I hear the laptop whining, I know Julie is writing again. Often she is writing for her blog. Sometimes I’m convinced that she’s writing her escape note: Dear family, too tired to write any more I’ll be back someday . . . maybe.

In her blog, Julie tells the truth: We have an environmentally aware 12 year old junior high schooler; a 9 year old fourth grader who is the classic neglected second child; a precocious 6 year old who is destined to be a talk show host with his already famous “Gabeisms;” and we have Nora, the graham cracker whiner, who accompanies Norah Jones, the Grammy winner, while Julie labors at her blog when she’s not laboring over her children.

Julie has long had a desire to be published and finally she has. I’m proud of her and I love her. I’m the unknown husband.

And did I mention I’m OK with that?

Tuesday, March 11, 2008


For an artist whose surviving works number fewer than three dozen, Vermeer sure painted a high percentage of women with letters in their hands. There’s something about the acts of correspondence that must have fascinated him or perhaps reminded him of the artistic process (something that also involves stages of composition, delivery and “reading”). The painting on my mind today is this one by Vermeer of a woman in yellow. She is setting down her pen to look up at a maidservant who hands her a letter. The woman in yellow touches her fingertips to her chin in a gesture of astonishment…or is it embarrassment? Who knows? Vermeer always leaves more unsaid than said which is what I love most about his art. What we do know is that in this particular painting, the letter has not even left the maidservant’s hand—let alone been opened—but its delivery, the identify of the sender, and maybe even the letter’s presumed contents are enough to fill the moment with potential.

To me, the odd thing about this painting is that it revolves around an empty space: the darkness between the two women. The center of the painting is the gap between the letter itself and the hand that will reach out to take it (…in just a minute, just as soon as she gets over her surprise). The real action takes place in that gap, like a neural synapse. I wonder what new thoughts, emotions and actions the handoff will spark. The air is volatile, the story charged up for a moment of complication. Letters are mercurial things. Like the god Mercury himself—the delivery boy of mythology—they bring about shifts of fate and unforeseen consequences. If nothing else, letters can alter our moods in mercurial ways. Typically, in my mailboxes (both email and the U.S. Postal Service variety) I find good news and bad news, exciting news and more of the usual. But it’s the anticipation of the unopened, unread, or perhaps even unexpected letter that makes me put down my pen (or click the minimize button in my Word document or take Nora’s hand for a short walk out to the corner of the front yard) to see what is waiting for me.

Here’s what was waiting for me yesterday.

In my morning email:

Very bad news from my oldest brother who is suffering from a serious health problem followed by another email from my second-oldest brother comparing my brother’s serious health problem to an episode of Star Trek. I love my family.

A message informing me that my entry has won an essay contest (accompanied by the very excellent news of a financial award and publication). I’ll post a link when the time comes.

Later, in my snail mailbox:

A bill.

A copy of the Spring issue of Brain, Child with my published essay. It looked lovely and gives me such a boost of writerly confidence that I feel like starting a novel right this very second. (Sorry, my essay isn’t “clickable” on the Brain, Child website. I hear you can get it at Barnes & Noble. If you live in Utah, I'll let you read my copy, okay?)

A letter disguised as an urgent telegram informing us for the bazillionth time that a particular company will graciously extend our car warranty. I’m certainly tempted to trust my business to a company that uses telegrams.

And in a bonus afternoon package:

This book for Ethan, which sent him into orbit since he’s been saving up for this purchase for several weeks and could hardly stand the 5-7 day gap between pushing the “Add to shopping cart” button and the slicing open of the box.

Also in the box (but not nearly so fantastically Lucasfilmy) was my book group assignment for the month: Ahab’s Wife. I need to get started on it since I only have 2 weeks to make it through 666 pages (well there’s an ominous number. You’d think they’d stretch the font out somewhere to avoid coming up with that amount). I love opening new books almost as much as I love opening mail, don't you?

Wednesday, March 05, 2008

On raising a girl

Nora puts five headbands in her hair and when she looks at herself in the mirror, I want to say she is primping. But then I realize that’s a word I would never use to describe similar behavior from one of her brothers.

Sometimes Nora is moody and whiney for no good reason and I resort to placating her with fruit snacks or graham crackers. I find myself thinking—against my will—that she is bound for an eating disorder. Would I think this if she were a boy?

Nora looks great in purple. Why? Is it because we know she’s a girl and purple is the new pink?

When she refuses to wear a certain shirt and brings me a different one (more flashy, more flowery) and then spends 20 minutes trying on shoes in her closet, I call her a fashionista behind her back.

Nora turns to the old man behind us in line and bats her eyes (a gesture I would call blinking rapidly if it came from Gabie). The old man calls her a little sweetie. Then he says, “Watch out. She’s going to be a real flirt.” I find this offensive but I smile at him anyway. I’m a people pleaser. Will Nora be a people pleaser too? Do I wonder this because I see it as an intrinsically feminine trait—part of the set of nurturing genes I believe I have passed on from mother to daughter?

When I found out I was having a girl after three boys, people told me repeatedly that she would be different. They said, “Oh girls are so much more ______" (insert clich├ęd gender-specific adjective here). They said it was easier to raise a girl because girls are more docile and quiet. They said it was harder to raise a girl because girls are prone to emotional extremes. They offered what I saw as socially conditioned advice about the bringing up of girls and I felt superior with the knowledge that my daughter would be treated just like her brothers.

And then I discovered how fun it is to shop on the other side of the thrift store—the side where gingham and paisley and lace flow delicately across pastel-colored jumpers and pleated blouses. I discovered how liberating it is to watch my child’s curls grow longer and curlier around the nape of her neck and not think (for a change) that I have to trim them soon or risk someone mistaking her for a girl. I was delighted when both grandmothers bought Nora dolls for Christmas and she immediately took to rocking and feeding and changing the dolls like a natural mother would. I love having a little girl. The feminist in me is feeling somewhat conflicted, but I still love it.

I’m avoiding the whole Princess scene for now. And consider me hostile if anyone sends a Barbie our way. But I’m enjoying the shades of pink that have bloomed in our home. And I’m excited to see how different it might be to raise a girl.

That said, I have to show the photo I took 15 seconds after the above shot. Having fed her baby bunny, Nora dumped her rudely on the floor, picked up her brother’s World War II plane and took it on a bombing run around the living room. Maybe camouflage is the new purple.

Monday, March 03, 2008

Gabie Psychology 101

When Gabie came inside today because the older kids had left him in the dust and left him crying on the sidewalk by himself while they took off around the block, the first words out of his mouth were not "They hurt my feelings" or even "They won't play with me" but "They don't need me anymore." Oh, he so badly wants to be needed. He really is going to make a good doctor someday.